Dizzying delights. La Paz, Bolivia to Lake Titicaca to Arequipa, Peru.

5 Apr

The rolling valley that is La Paz is dotted with lego shaped houses, streets smelling of freshly baked humitas and lights haphazardly draped through streets like a badly decorated karaoke bar. Even when we arrive at 5am in the drizzling rain, its already buzzing with vendors selling their wares and mini-vans tooting and carting locals to works.

The city of La Paz hits you like the waft of an Indian curry from a nearby kitchen. Its the ‘hope-you-like-chilli’ variety, choking your nostrils and sending your salivary glands into overdrive. It doesn’t look like much but its spicy, hearty, daring – an unpretentious big city, a melting pot of indigenous farmers, sleek Bolivian businessman, expat extrepreneurs, and camera-snapping tourists – all digging their spoon into the bowl wanting another lick. I can already tell this is going to be better than the average vindaloo.

After enduring yet another excucriatingly cramped overnight bus, on the back of a very fun salt flats trip, we’re dog tired. We muse the Witches market overflowing with herbal medical cures and every household good luck charm imaginable. I ponder purchasing a llama feotus to bury under the doorstep at Doubleview to enhance our wealth and prosperity, but I fear it might send the banana dogs at Perth airport into overdrive.

Day 2 and we’re on a tour out to the city ruins of Tiwanaku, once the capital of a powerful pre-Hispanic empire that dominated a large area of the southern Andes and beyond, reaching its apogee between 500 and 900 AD. Its monumental remains, near the south-eastern shore of Lake Titicaca, testify to the cultural and political significance of this civilisation, which is distinct from any of the other pre-Hispanic empires of the Americas.

We first visit the museums at the site, one that contains ceramic and metal remains, some skulls and textiles. The second museum housed the monolithic sculpture for which Tiwanaku is famous, almost 70 metres tall and covered in carvings, some of which have astronomical meanings (e.g. there are 365 circular patterns on the skirt, one for each day of the year).

A map of how the site might have looked once upon a time…

We walk the site climbing the tiers of the pyramid, admiring more stone statues on the way. The sculptured figures have strangely placed hands – the right is depicted in a physically impossible position – and this arrangement is repeated on many other sculptures. No one knows why.

Some of the pieces have Christian crosses and symbols carved into various areas. This is thought to be made by the Spanish conquerors who, when unable to tear down or break the heavy stones, deface them instead by carving their markings into it.

It was an incredibly fascinating day; from the precise stonework and use of metal links to fuse the stone together…

…To the advanced knowledge of astronomy and solstice (below is the sun gate through which the first rays of the sun, on the morning of the mid-winter solstice, shine on to an obelisk placed directly behind)…

…To the theories on why this society is no longer and some of the strange and unexplainable pieces, such as these alien-looking stone head carvings.

The following day we’re up, showered (still cold) and at Madness agency by 6am. Its time to add a bit of spice to this curry by coasting down The Worlds Most Dangerous Road. MC is like a child in line for the rollercoaster, munching on coca leaves as he hops from foot to foot. I, on the other hand, am standing very quietly – an unusual occurence I know, but I am busy nervously eyeing the tour guides as they load 7 large bikes with full suspension and brakes onto the top of the van, then shove 2 more much smaller, less robust looking, bikes on top.  I gulp, and start to regret our choice of taking the cheapest option. MC has promised me these bikes will be fine and I remind myself of our 50% saving. Perhaps yesterday, when the tour organiser told us in his Spanglish to ‘bring a change of clothes’, I should have interpreted this as ‘bring a change of undies’.

More than 30 people in the last 10 years have died on this road on bikes alone. However we’re also told there is no official registry, therefore enabling my imagination to run away from me screaming, “MILLIONS have died here, WHAAATTT are we doing!?”.

5 years ago, a new road was completed from La Paz to Corumba, so the risks have been reduced as riders no longer need to navigate as many oncoming vehicles. But danger is still imminent – too fast around a corner, brake failure or a skidding fall and you could be over the edge. The road has no safety barriers and the drops reach up to 800m.

We approach the starting position…

We kit up…

And then weeeeeeeeeeeeee, we’re off!

The first 25km of the 64km downhill drop is on the new road. The tarmac is so smooth, you can go so fast, the wind whipping your face, it is exhilirating. And the views are spectacular.

I forget my fear and we hoon down in less than an hour. Though I am soon knocked down to reality when approaching the finishing point of this first leg, I fail to notice the guy in front stopping, therefore I throw on the brakes – oops, too fast, too hard and then there I am, falling, tumbling, skidding and rolling to my destination at MC’s feet. As I sheepishly gather my pride up from the floor, observing a few eye rolls by the rest of the all-male team, I pat myself on the back that while mountain biking may not be my forte, I at least have the army roll downpat.

The old road is much, much scarier. But MC rides just a little in front of me providing a safe line for my inexperienced self to follow, though I know he would like to zoom ahead and give those other British louts a show. They are silly. One guy comes off 3 times, into bushes and close to the edge. However, we finally all arrive safely, covered in dust to enjoy a cold bevvy in the sun. It has been one of the most fun experiences of the travels so far, and I struggle to wipe the smile from my face.

From La Paz, we are heading to Copacabana, the major town on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. At 3811m, it is the highest lake in the world. The bus ride is one of the nicest with our faces pressed up to the windows, taking in the painted landscape. As we climb higher, we spot snow on the ground…

At one point, we need to cross over water, where even the bus needs to be ferried…

Before finally, we’re boarding the final boat to Isla Del Sol where there are no cars, no internet and where we will spend the next 2 nights. We arrive and follow the hostel’s instructions to their whereabouts – “just at the top of the Inca stairs”, they say. That word “just” inappropriately used when thou stairs thus never end, requiring a few pit stops to ‘take in the view’ (read: catch breath and remove layers), before arriving at the donkey-filled front yard of our hostel.

We spend all the daylight hours walking around the island, from north to south, admiring the view and investigating Inca ruins. The tracks are not well marked and we often end up lost in farm paddocks with a local dog as our guide, but after a fairly dormant few weeks, the exercise, fresh air and amazing views soothes the soul and brings colour back into our cheeks.

And sometimes there is nothing that beats watching a beautiful sunset with a cold bevvy and your beau…

In the chilling night air, we are not quite able to face the stone-cold shower on offer and embark (a little stinky) to Puno – the major town on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, a required stop over and not a town we’d choose – only to arrive at our hostel to find that not only is the water not hot, there is no water at all. A burst main in the area means the whole block is out. This about sums up the feeling…

I’m now dirty and exhausted, the grime and grit covering me like wall paper, and downright irritated that every arrival at a hostel feels like a shot at the lottery. We get locked in the ATM cube, can’t find a cheap joint for dinner and it’s pouring with rain. Thus, I drop the bottom lip, throw all my toys out of the cot, “I want my mum!” may have been mentioned, before another bottle of vino is ordered. Intravenously if you could be so kind.

We finally get our just desserts when we arrive in Arequipa, the white city, famous for its stunning architecture built from white volcanic stone. Its the second largest city in Peru and I easily fall in love with its leafy green plaza, grand colonial buildings and stoic churches. I have to remind myself, this is also the city notorious for its ‘Express Kidnappings’, where fake taxi drivers hire real taxis to take their passengers out to far-flung neighborhoods, travelling between ATM and ATM, forcing them to empty their bank accounts. Ahem, I’ll just use my feet, thanks.

We spend the next few days doing very little. Balming in hot showers, drinking many coffees, mooching over long lunches and pottering through the city’s sites. Needing a bit of R&R, we indulge in a posh dinner out, feasting on beef and tuna carpaccio and delicious stone grills of beef and alpaca.

We decide to visit The Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a Dominican convent with high walls – it is essentially a city within a city.  The convent, founded in the late sixteenth century by a rich Spanish widow, was perhaps the religious equivalent of an expensive private school: only the daughters of the richest Arequipenos were able to enter as it required a hefty donation, or “dowry” to secure a place. Once ensconced inside, the nuns lived an isolated life, albeit one of luxury – fine china, furniture and fabrics adorn many of the houses you can visit. And houses they are, each one with a bedroom, garden and small kitchen. We wander through the convent, lead by a guide, admiring the vividly-painted walls, twisting passageways and flower-adorned streets. The convent is still home to a religious community, albeit one much smaller than in centuries past, though this is too cordoned from the public and hidden within high walls. I do, however, deem it vital to try (twice) the nuns’ home-made chocolates.

On our final day we take a tour of La Catedral, which adorns one entire edge of the Plaza de Armas. We walk right up to the bell tower at the top, admiring the heavy metalwork, and the pretty views.

Later, over dinner, we notice a crowd adorning the grand church steps. Its nearly Easter and the church is alive with celebration, a stunning sight at night.

After a few scaldingly hot final showers, it is too soon time to move on and take on another long bus ride to Cusco…

x kel

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2 Responses to “Dizzying delights. La Paz, Bolivia to Lake Titicaca to Arequipa, Peru.”

  1. Father Bear April 26, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    Kelly, were you not just a little bit tempted to try out the sacrificial altar while Matt was sitting on it?

  2. Google September 29, 2014 at 5:13 am #

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