A little post from Fem here, since Ben’s been struggling to get a blog post out. Where were we? Ah, Samaipata. A quaint hippie-ish town known for the Amboro National Park. And also the first place we felt comfortable taking off our puffy jackets and sweaters. The village lies on the edge of the Bolivian Amazon. After quite the frightening bus ride, we arrived in the middle of the night. A grumpy man reluctantly showed us our room. The next morning we woke up to the same grumpy giving us advice about all sorts of trips we could take. Turns out this grump wasn’t so grumpy after all – but Polish. He had done a stint across South America, and married to a Bolivian woman (and decided to stay – why not).
We met our new friends Elena and Ruben and together we decided to explore the nearby ruins. A little taster of what was to come with Machu Picchu. This archeological site, called El Fuerte de Samaipata was carved, built and shaped by the pre-Inca Mojocoyas culture around 300 AD. The site was relatively unknown to tourists which meant we had the whole place to ourselves! The amazing views over the mountains and the interesting mix of architecture all added to the mystique the place had to offer. The Incas decided to occupy it from the 1400’s and make it a provincial capital. Quite the colonizers themselves! We managed to arrange a taxi on the way there, but found out there were no taxies on the way down. Which meant walking for 30kms. After about an hour on the long, winding and sunny road, a taxi stopped. Hesitating at first, (since his windshield was broken and most of the car was held together by duct tape) we decided we didn’t have much choice. Either walk another two hours or 15 minutes of being scared for our lives. What would you choose? As it turned out, fortune favors the bold! Our new found taxi driver friend had a nephew, who had a friend who had a son, who had a dog, who happened to know someone who was looking after the dog who could give us a great price for a guided day hike for the national park the next day!
So early the next day we met a rather eccentric and lanky dreadlocked Argentinian man who showed us the many herbs, plants and views this region had to offer. The duct taped taxi was back to take us there. The 3-hour hike took us through forests of ancient ferns and spectacular views. An interesting fact: the current president of Bolivia, Eva Morales, apparently gives out random pieces of land to people (for money, of course). As a result, coca plantations are scattered across most of the national parks all over Bolivia. His reasoning: coca is a national treasure, chewed by the locals for energy and health. The real reason? Cocaine (made from coca leaves). Today, Bolivia is one of the biggest exporters of cocaine in the world. All of these ‘business endeavours’ make sure Mr. Evo can fund his fancy lifestyle and endless runs to remain in power.
After Samaipata we decided to go straight to Lake Titicaca, a 19-hour bus ride away. During a short pitstop in Santa Cruz we got introduced to another culture. Mennonites! The white-skinned, fully clothed head to ankles and strangely similar looking faces stood out like sore thumbs between the dark complexions of the local Bolivians. Apparently they live in the countryside and come to the city every few weeks to stock up on supplies. They moved to Bolivia in the 1600s seeking religious freedom and still live in enclosed colonies – staying far away from integrating in any culture. We caught ourselves staring at their cowboy hats, full length skirts and Dutch style headdresses. Had we been caught in an episode of ‘Breaking Amish’? But we had a bus to catch and it wasn’t going to be a short one, so off we went!
The bus ride to Copacabana is located on the banks of Lake Titicaca and includes a bus, a boat and another bus. It was a funny sight to see our massive tourbus sitting on a tiny ferry with the busdriver ready to jump ship if anything went wrong. Luckily we took a smaller motorboat across, carefully keeping an eye on the ferry since our luggage was still in it! We made it safely across and we caught the first glimpses of the highest lake in the world, what a sight! We spent three days on Isla del Sol, a tiny island about an hour from Copacabana by boat. While most people spend only a day there, we decided that it would be a great place to relax for a bit. The locals on the island speak their own dialect of Aymara (an indigenous language) and mainly live off agriculture, fishing and tourism. It was believed that the sun and the moon were born from the lake in both Aymara and Inca traditions and there are many old (pre) Inca ruins to be found. Unfortunately, our three day stay was a bit on the long side for three reasons: 1. The north of the small island is closed off for tourists because of conflict between villagers, so only a small part of the island could be visited. 2. Ben had a case of altitude sickness and/or food poisoning and didn’t feel so excited to explore. 3. The island is very hilly and even getting to the main village involved around 500 stairs (which was extra exhausting in that altitude). All in all, we enjoyed the grilled trout dinners and beautiful sunsets, but it was time to go!
La Paz. Not a city you’ll expect to like on first sight. Unfinished buildings, crazy traffic, millions of people out and about, kinda dirty. But we loved it! There is something about the city that is strangely charming and we ended up staying a few days. A few facts we learned upon our stay:
- The president decided that the historical presidential palace wasn’t good enough for him and built a massive skyscraper next to it with a heli landing platform at the top (so he doesn’t have to mingle with the plebs).
- Buildings in La Paz (and most the rest of Bolivia) are built upon an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) of llama fetuses. Some urban legend tells us that larger buildings need larger offerings so sometimes homeless people (yes you read that right) are kidnapped by shamans and offered to the gods for good luck. Oh yeah, and to become a shaman you have to be struck by lightning twice. I didn’t make this up! We ended up staying near the interesting witches’ market, where dried llama fetuses, love potions and many smelly mixes of herbs make sure Bolivians stay lucky, healthy and have good sex lives.
- Most of the city’s buildings are unfinished because apparently, if your house is not completed yet, you’ll pay less taxes. Hence the roofless, paintless and doorless buildings that make the city look so rundown.
- You’ll see ‘cholitas’ everywhere, with high bowler hats and puffed skirts. Until recent decades, these indigenous Aymara and Quechua women were very much discriminated against and were seen as low class. However, a massive social change has come about with protests and the election of the first indigenous president and now these ladies are rising up to be the faces of cultural Bolivia.
One of THE things to do near La Paz is visiting ‘death road’. Death road (originally names Yungas Road) is located northeast of La Paz and is a 60KM mountain road with steep slopes, no guard rails and narrow 3m roads. When it was still open for traffic, it was not uncommon for buses, trucks and cars to try take each other over in dangerous maneuvres on the 3 meter narrow paths and hairpin turns. As many as 300 people per year lost their lives going over the edge. And we decided to mountain bike it, yay! Luckily the route is now closed for cars (except for the tourist buses) and you’ll find mostly groups of cyclists racing down the mountain. The route itself is beautiful; mountain views, waterfalls, the occasional locals passing. But there lies the danger. Since the 90s, tens of cyclists have died during their cycle adventure, because of not paying attention (admiring the views, taking selfies etc.). So you can imagine I was a bit nervous (Ben was ecstatic)! However, after a few practice runs at the top of the road, I was ready and I could finally feel why Ben loves mountain biking so much. It was thrilling to go fast and the more I did it, the faster I wanted to go (although looking back at the GoPro footage I wasn’t actually going that fast…). It was an awesome day overcoming my clumsiness and fears!
Back in La Paz, we decided to explore the public transport network. Not buses, not taxis, not trains but cable cars! One of the better things the lovely president has done for Bolivia (although there was some dispute about the costs), this awesome way of getting across the valley comes with stunning views over the surrounding mountains and bird’s eye views of life below, such as parades, cemeteries and giant markets. Another strange thing we experienced was Cholita wrestling. Remember ‘cholitas’? With their empowerment, they decided they can stand up to anything. Inspired by WWE wrestling, we saw women (and men) in colourful outfits battling each other in the ring! More for entertainment than actually hurting each other, it was an interesting spectacle to say the least.
As we had roughed it for a solid 6 months it was time to relax a bit in New Zealand. Ben’s parents lived there, and I was dying to see what the furthest place on earth had to offer.