Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Country Famous for Having the Highest Everything

AKA Bolivia. That´s right -- the world´s highest navigable lake, city, and capital all lie right here, in this unpretentious country. I´ll begin where I left off: on our way to La isla del sol.

So we arrived in the Bolivian port/border town of Copacabana (no, not related to the one in Brasil) from the Peruvian border. Being a relatively small touristy town, the main feature of Copacabana is it´s location to explore the islands of Lake Titicaca from the Bolivian side. We spent one night in the cheapest, creakiest, most run-down hostel in history (for about $2.50 each), and set of the next morning to get to the island of the sun. We began our journey by meeting up with a couple of Argentineans we had met on our Machu Picchu trek. We decided to do the first leg of the journey by foot, walking some 13 kilometers until we met up with a village man who wanted to take us to the island on his boat. Only later did we discover that his boat was a row boat! We paid him his asking price, 10 bolivianos each (about $1.25) and we set off.

After about one and a half hours enjoying the beautiful day on the lake, we arrived to La isla del sol. By now it was lunch time, so we hiked up to the south side of the island, booked ourselves a hostel, and ate a decent menú of quinua soup (quinua being a small grain similar to rice with a little tail attached -- sounds weird, but is really nutritious. Just ask the Incas, as it has been a staple in their diet for thousands of years), trout, and chicken.

Soon we were off, exploring the trail to the northern end of the island. I should explain at this point that according to ancient Inca legend, the sun island is where the sun was born. It would not be hard to imagine this -- while hiking around the island, the sky, clouds, and sun seem extremely close. Later, we found out that the sun island had left us both a little present: a fairly intense sunburn on our face and neck.

Along the way, we stopped with the Argentineans to enjoy some maté, the strong tea mixture drunk from a gourd that all Argentineans are addicted to.

Continuing our walk, we passed various ruins and small snack huts, and eventually reached the highest peak of the island to enjoy the sunset. At first we were a little disappointed because during our hike a set of clouds had appeared over the western horizon. Little by little, however, we saw the sun drop, and right before it disappeared completely a small gateway appeared in the clouds, allowing for a few moments of intense pink and orange color to escape. Gorgeous!

Our walk back to the hostel was a good 2 hours away, so we took off soon to take advantage of the last few minutes of light. During the last hour of the journey we were in complete darkness, but luckily we had the headlamp I bought Gaizka for Christmas with us. To our amazement, the clouds that had formed earlier were actually the beginning of a big rainstorm coming in from the distance, and about every minute the sky was ablaze with lightening.

After this very long day, we rested well in our hostel.

The next morning we awoke early to catch the boat back to Copacabana. The flurry of clouds had by this time developed into a full-blown rainstorm in the distance, and all the passengers on the boat were transfixed by a small tornado we saw forming a few kilometers off over the middle of the lake.

From Copacabana we made our way to the highest capital in the world: La Paz.

La Paz is truly a unique experience. As traditional as it is modern, this city has markets selling everything from witches potions to deodorant, miniature congressmen figurines to cereals. Women are as likely to be wearing long braids, traditional skirts, and bowler hats as they are to be dressed in a fashionable business suits. Needless to say, we were transfixed.

Here we decided to splurge a little and treat ourselves to a nice double room with cable TV and our own private bathroom with hot water...what a traveller´s paradise! And all for the low price of $7 each. Fantastic.

One interesting feature of La Paz is its shoeshine boys. There are literally hundreds of them, all wearing scary-looking black masks. No, the masks aren´t intended to scare you into a shoeshine, but are rather worn to prevent social stigmatization the boys and men could face if their identity was made known. Due to extreme poverty in La Paz many boys make ends meet by shining, and thus donning the dreary masks.

Sticking with our buddies from Argentina, we went to the movies and saw 007 Casino Royale. It cost $3 to get in -- we were happy to pay 1/3 of the price of a movie ticket in Sonora or San Francisco! Clearly Bolivia has been a relief on our tight budget. The next day we met up again with the Argentineans and went to the ¨mirador,¨ or lookout over the city, giving way to beautiful views. Guess what? It boasts the world´s highest funicular (which we decided to skip). From here we played on the kids swings and went down a toboggan slide several times.

After a few days relaxing and touring the colonial city, we decided to move on. Next stop on the list: Potosi (officially considered the world´s highest city).

Potosi, having seen it´s better days during the mining boom, is not only the highest city of South America, but was also once the richest. Tourists can still visit the old mines, but we opted out and decided to go to the natural hot laguna, just outside the city, instead. To get there, we took a combi bus that dropped us off about a kilometer away from the spring. We hiked up a dusty mountain, rounded some corners, and found the Eye of the Inca, or the main thermal spring. After a thoroughly relaxing dip, we retraced our steps and went back to Potosi.

Our idea was then to visit the city´s museum, but due to extreme torrential downpours (it should be fairly obvious by now that we are travelling in the ¨wet season¨), the place was closed. We didn´t care much, because we were thinking about how wet we were and how the streets now better resembled rivers.

The following morning (this morning in fact!), we took the most hellish 6 hour bus ride to arrive in Uyuni. The road, if it can be called that, is all dirt and high altitude desert. The scenery actually reminded me of the Mojave desert.

Uyuni is the starting point for our 3 day journey to the (yep you guessed it!!) world´s highest (and also biggest) salt flats. The next time I write it will be from Chile.

Over and out!

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