South America Day 45 – La Paz
22nd February 2019
Today, the high altitude portion of our trip begins. I’m not really looking forward to it – I’m not sure I’m designed for altitude. To make matters worse, I have a stinking cold. We reach the airport in Santiago two hours before our flight. The airline recommends a minimum of three, which seems excessive in the middle of the night. But we’ve left it very tight. After check in comes immigration. The queue is enormous and it takes 30 minutes to almost reach the front. Then the computers crash and what little action there was grinds to a halt. We finally reach our gate eight minutes before boarding commences.
We are flying to La Paz. The airport is 4080 metres above sea level. It’s crazy! I wouldn’t want to live 4080 metres from the sea horizontally, let alone vertically. My idea of an extreme deviation from sea level is the zigzag path from the beach to my house.
We land at the aptly named El Alto Airport and get a taxi into town, which is mainly down, 500 metres down, past thousands of houses clinging to the hillside. The traffic is crazy; it reminds me of Lagos, where we used to live and do constant battle with the traffic, only colder.
We reach our hotel; Rosario, which is on a street so crowded with traders that the taxi can hardly squeeze through. It’s early but we manage to check in by 10 am. While we’re waiting, we have breakfast and I manage to consume my body weight in water melon juice. Then we access our room and I go back to bed to counter the 3 am start, the altitude and the lurgy I picked up in the mould of Easter Island.
In the evening, we have arranged to meet my neighbour’s mother’s Bolivian cousin, to whom our new credit card has been forwarded. Happily reunited with the all important piece of plastic, we go for dinner with the aforementioned cousin and her Bristolian boyfriend at The Carrot Tree. I order a Cajun salad so spicy it blisters my lips. Then its’ back for an early night to make up (further) for the 3 am start.
South America Day 46 – La Paz
23rd February 2019
The combination of a cold and the altitude mean I didn’t sleep well and have a pounding headache. When we arrived in La Paz, some of my toiletries had leaked, the rest had inflated to almost bursting point. That’s pretty much how my head feels. After breakfast, the old man sets off to explore the city and I take some painkillers and return to bed to regroup.
By midday I feel ready to go exploring, the old man is recalled from his solo sightseeing and we head for historic La Paz together.
The secret is to do everything slowly, which incidentally I’m rather good at. We start at the 18th century Church of San Francisco, where we take a guided tour which includes the cloisters, the church, then up a tiny, dark staircase onto the roof. Just as I poke my head through the door at the top, someone throws themselves off the tower block opposite. It takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the light. Then I spot the rope. It was a bungee jump – phew!
Once I have calmed down, and caught my breath from climbing onto a church roof at altitude, we can enjoy the wonderful views and see how each roof tile is different because men made them by shaping clay round their thighs.
On to the Museo de Arte Nacional, another 18th century building, this time, bright red. It’s quite dark inside, with only the paintings illuminated. Even so, the old man is the only person not to successfully negotiating himself round the room. He trips over a bench and sends it and himself flying.
The art is mostly religious, and sometimes weird.
In the basement are installations made of confetti; you can enter a large confetti filled room and create your own confetti moments.
We Continue to the Plaza Murillo, which is surrounded by important buildings; the cathedral, the Palacio de Gobierno and the Palacio Legislativo. It is also surrounded by pigeons – kamikaze pigeons.
Now for my first ride in what is to become a cable car (Teleférico) extravaganza. There are several lines, each a different colour, servicing the city. First we get on the Celeste line in the old town and head south east before changing to Blanca, which runs for miles hanging above the street.
We get off briefly at Plaza Villarroel for great views across the suburbs in the hills with the higher snow capped mountains behind. Then onto Naranja heading west again.
Finally, Roja which starts dangling above the cemetery, then climbs 500 metres up to El Alto. The temperature difference at the top is substantial.
We descend on the cable car and walk back to the hotel through the market. The whole of La Paz smells of fried food and everywhere are markets where little, round Bolivian ladies in traditional dress with bowler hats perched precariously on their heads, sell all manner of goods, but mostly food. I wonder what their profit margins are like – they always seem to be eating the merchandise.
In the evening we go for dinner. The old man orders a coca beer and seems genuinely surprised when he announces that it tastes like leaves. Then back to the hotel to plan another onslaught on the cable car system tomorrow.
South America Day 47 – La Paz
24th February 2019
It’s our last day in La Paz, so we start with some culture; the Calle Jaen museums; one ticket gives you access to three museums on an old colonial street. Google Maps says that it’s an 11 minute ‘mostly flat’ walk from the hotel. Google Maps doesn’t mention the flights of stairs. I’d challenge anyone from Google Maps to walk 0.6 miles, including 100 stairs, at 4000m altitude in 11 minutes.
Somewhat more than 11 lung-bursting minutes later, we reach our first museum and they ask for ID. Someone is going to have to walk back to the hotel and get our passports. I’m not sure who. Neither of us can breathe. With a little bit of pleading, we convince the receptionist to accept a photo of our passports from my phone, which is a great relief.
We visit the Museo Costumbrista, which tells the history of La Paz in costumes and dioramas. It’s actually really interesting although only in Spanish, so even getting a basic understanding involves plenty of referring to my handy dictionary App.
Next comes the Museo de Metales Preciosos. This contains many gold and other items from Bolivia’s past. Inside it’ is very dark; black from floor to ceiling and has plenty of steps. That we both make it round without incident is an achievement.
Lastly, Casa de Murillo (Pedro Murillo is a local hero, who led an uprising against Spanish rule). Murillo’s former home is filled with interesting artefacts about his life. We accidentally stray into a room that isn’t open to the public and are thrown out of the museum by a guard. It’s a long time since I got removed by security from anywhere.
We decide that’s enough culture for one day’ depart Calle Jaen and make for the cable cars again. It’s a great system; nine lines covering a total of 28 km criss- crossing the city. Very clean, modern and efficient and 30p a ride.
Today we start on the Naranja line, which heads west from the centre of town, then on to Blanca, which dangles above the high street. Next Celeste.
Then Amarilla, to the end of the line high up in the hills at a station called Parque Mirador. It’s a disappointment as there’s neither a park nor a viewpoint, just slums. But it’s an interesting journey hovering first above a Military Academy with recruits doing drills, then a football stadium mid match.
Back along Amarilla, and up Verde, which passes over very fancy houses to the suburb of Irpavi. We had hoped to visit the military museum, but it’s shut for 2 ½ hours for lunch.
Back along Verde, Celeste and Blanca to visit the Botanical Garden. It costs 10p each to get in. It’s overpriced.
So it’s back to Mi Teleferico and Blanca back into town, then Naranja to the hotel.
I’m hoping a dozen journeys has satisfied the old man’s need to aimlessly wander the urban transport system.
We have a quiet evening with dinner at the hotel (the old man chooses the llama!?) then an early night as we have a long bus ride to Copacabana in the morning.
South America Day 48 – Copacabana
25th February 2019
Today we are taking a minibus to Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It’s only 90 miles but takes four hours. Partly because it takes ages to fight our way out through the crazy La Paz traffic to get out of town and partly because it involves a ferry crossing.
First, breakfast. It’s not as easy as it seems as we are behind a Chinese tour group. The buffet looks like it’s been hit by a plague of locusts. There’s no fruit left at all, meanwhile a Chinese woman is attempting to force an entire watermelon into her handbag.
Once we have left the city, the driver seriously puts his foot down and our white knuckle ride begins. Soon, the highway runs out and we continue on what look like abandoned road works.
Eventually, the quinoa covered plains give way to water and we have reached Lake Titicaca. We stop at Huatajata. Here the papyrus ship used by Thor Heyerdal on his Kon-Tiki expedition was built and you can buy a replica if that sort of thing floats your boat, as it were.
We drive on to Tiquina to catch a ferry across the lake. It’s not how I imagine a ferry – basically it’s a raft. Loaded with two buses. It’s another Top Gear moment.
On the other side, we have 40 more kilometres to drive through the winding hillside high above the lake. All driven on the racing line. The view (when I can brave opening my eyes) is amazing. We stop at Mirador de Usijata for our first glimpse of Copacabana nestled by the side of the lake.
Luckily, we survive the journey and check into our hostel; Las Olas. Each ‘room’ is separate and unique, in a beautifully landscaped garden on a hill overlooking the lake and town. We have La Tortuga; a turtle shape apartment complete with round bed and a second floor with hammocks and view of the lake.
There are llamas roaming free in the gardens. I think this is cool until I try and take a selfie and get spat at. It takes ages to remove the regurgitated grass from my cleavage!
After we’ve finished admiring our accommodation, we take a walk into town, along the lakeside.
Then back into town to the cathedral; Basilica Virgen de Copacabana. It’s a beautiful 16th century building with white walls and domed bronze roofs.
We stop for dinner on the way back. The restaurant is so dirty I decide not to order. The old man has a tantrum. He heads off up a hill to look at crosses and I walk to the hostel to Google the restaurant. It scores 1.8 out of 5, with reviewers torn between ‘worst meal in South America’ and ‘worst meal ever’.
Our second attempt at dinner is more successful. We go to the restaurant next to the hostel; La Cupula and have a trout fondue with quinoa salad. It means frying our own trout over a pan of boiling oil at the table. It tastes great and we manage not to set anything on fire.
We return to our room and the old man decides to light the log burner. Again he manages not to set anything on fire – particularly not the logs.
South America Day 49 – Copacabana
26th February 2019
All the travelling, a bout of food poisoning and then a cold have taken their toll so I’m taking a ‘duvet day’. So while the old man sets off on a boat ride to an island full of steps, I take a stroll along the lake, then return via reception, borrow a Judy Finnigan from the library and settle in my deckchair overlooking the lake.
I have a pleasant day reading and watching the many hummingbirds in action.
In the evening we go to dinner. As we pass the llama which spat at me, I point and say “and you can f*** off too” not realising that I’m actually pointing at a lady in a hammock. Luckily, she sees the funny side and when we bump into her in the restaurant two hours later, she’s still laughing at me.
We return to our room to watch a huge storm roll in off Lake Titicaca, which is an incredible sight.
South America Day 50 – Copacabana to La Paz
27th February 2019
We have a bus back to La Paz this afternoon. First we are going to visit Horca del Inca; an ancient astronomical site on a hill just outside town. We try to check out but reception is empty. We soon discover why – spitty llama is giving birth. It’s an exciting and unexpected start to the morning.
We walk through town where there is a festival taking place; people in their Sunday Best, cars decorated with flowers, bands playing.
On to Horca del Inca, described by Google Maps as a 14 minute ‘mostly flat’ walk. 45 minutes and 389 steep stone steps later, we finally reach our destination. Quite a tough ascent at 3800m altitude.
We return to the hotel via the quaint Capilla del Señor de la Cruz de Colquepata; a name which just rolls off the tongue! We have just enough time to get some brunch and see baby llama one more time then it’s time to retrace our steps to La Paz – different driver, same white knuckle ride.
It takes two hours to reach the outskirts of La Paz and a further two hours to fight our way through the city traffic. This is where having a bonkers driver comes in handy. He fights his way through gaps that aren’t there and we finally reach the hotel having only hit one pedestrian. If I’d been driving, the same journey would have taken about a week!
Outside the hotel it’s gone crazy. It’s a 2 way street but traders have set up market stalls in the road so it’s a huge mix of cars and stalls and pedestrians all fighting for the same piece of road. We venture to a nearby café for tea then retreat to our room and leave the Paceñans to their own strange shopping-in-the-middle-of-the-highway thing.
South America Day 51 – La Paz
28th February 2019
One last day in La Paz. Primarily because of a long journey yesterday and a long journey tomorrow, so I left a day in between. We planned to have a lie-in but the police put paid to that idea when they arrive at our door at 8 am to check our passports.
This morning we start at the Coca Museum which charts the history of the coca leaf, its role in Bolivian culture and uses as a drug, both legal and illegal. It’s more interesting that I’d anticipated. They even have a café where you can buy coca cocktails and original recipe Coca Cola.
We continue to St Francis church with its beautifully carved façade and ornate interior (lots of mannequins – it’s a bit like a religious Madame Tussaud’s) and to the cathedral (less ornate inside but does boast Jesus on a neon cross).
Next, we attempt to visit the Urban Park but we can’t find the entrance. After walking around the edge past locked gates for some considerable time, we give up and catch a cable car back to the hotel.
In the evening, one last outing to get dinner and souvenirs. The street is still crazy – it’s nearly carnival and there’s a never ending row of fat ladies in petticoats and bowler hats flogging steamers, fancy dress outfits and an array of gaudy plastic tat.
Once at the restaurant, some Japanese students with pan pipes sit at the next table. Luckily for everyone, I manage to finish dinner whilst suppressing the urge to shove those pan pipes somewhere. And that completes our time in Bolivia. Back to the hotel to pack for tomorrow’s flight to Peru.