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A short spell in Bolivia

Altitude, bowler hats, crafts......and panpipes

sunny 15 °C

  • **I am amazed that I forgot to mention the panpipes in the last blog. Since Salta, the sounds of panpipes have filled the air, the radio, every cafe and bar we have been into. Whether the original recordings of South American super groups or covers of everything from 'My Way' to 'Every Breath You Take'....we have officially had enough of panpipes!***

Our rerouted path meant that we would only have one week in Bolivia and we would be mainly flying from place to place. This is all well and good – avoiding the infamous Bolivian buses could only be a good thing – but flying in small(ish) aircrafts above a country that averages 3500m above sea level makes for a bumpy ride. Thankfully the fact that Noush has had flying lessons and therefore understands far more than I do about planes meant that I would only need to panic if she was the one gripping the armrest and that never happened.

Our first stop in Bolivia was Sucre (well actually it was Santa Cruz but only for a very hairy, comedy transit 20 minutes....transito transito.....). I think if we are honest, Noush and I weren't all that excited about Bolivia; expecting crazy food and crazier culture (or lack thereof). Well Sucre proved how little we know – it is a sprawling city – the 'real' capital of Bolivia (I don't really understand but Sucre and La Paz are both claiming this title) with a beautiful centre of colonial buildings, more churches and cathedrals of course and French restaurants...who knew! It's a university city which meant that there was a real buzz on the streets after dark and it felt totally safe to just wander amongst it. Our B&B was very sweet although we did have a TV which is always a bad thing as somehow the only English thing we ever find to watch is the Kardashians on E!

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We had a mind-numbing/blowing excursion to Parque Cretacico in the hills (depends who you ask). To quote Lonely Planet "It seems that 65 million years ago the site of Sucre's Fancesa cement quarry, six kilometers from the centre, was the place to be for large, scaly types. When the grounds were being cleared in 1994, plant employees uncovered a nearly vertical mudstone face bearing over 6000 tracks - some of which measure up to 80cm in diameter - from over 150 different species of dinosaur." So let's get this straight - we went to a cement factory.
Due to tectonic plate movement these tracks now appear to go uphill and when asked what we could learn about dinosaur behaviour from the tracks one English girl in our group said that they could climb....ahhh! So these tracks have been uncovered and used as a place for paleontologists to study and it's all very fascinating. Except, what they have created is a theme park of dino-models complete with weird Disney/geology guides – 'hey guys...what do we know about erosion dudes?' and you actually only get within about 200m of the bloody things!

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However it only took an hour and we got to ride in the dino-bus which miraculously didn't fall apart en route and the journey took us through what I guess is real Sucre; a much poorer, more hectic, dirtier place than it's pretty centre would have you believe. Broken down buses, more stray dogs than you can imagine, gorgeous children playing with whatever they can get their hands on and the general comings and goings of day to day life in a Bolivian city. It's not pretty, some of it is quite shocking but it needs to be seen if you are going to have any real idea of where you are.

Our next stop in Bolivia was the de-facto capital La Paz. The first thing you need to know about La Paz is that it is situated at between 3600 and 4000m above sea level. I've looked it up and Ben Nevis only reaches 1344m. I don't really know if cities were supposed to be situated this high. It's a bit tricky to breathe, the whole place is on a hill and it has some of the worst pollution I can remember experiencing....we're not even convinced they have unleaded petrol here. It is all presided over by 6500m of Mount Illamani.

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However it is a fascinating city, absolutely massive and just alive with activity at all times of the day and night. The central square in the old town is of course pretty but other than that it's chaos. Plaza Murillo (we love a plaza!) is a mixture of cathedral and bullet-riddled presidential buildings, beauty and disintegration and also has a Mary Poppins 'feed the birds' obsession not seen in Trafalgar Square for twenty years or more.

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From a 'traveller' (how I hate that word) point of view the most famous things are 'Death Road' – the most dangerous biking experience in the world, didn't rush to take part in that; and the Mercado de las Brujas. These 'witches' markets are mainly situated along one road in the city and the stalls contain a repetition of the same things – herbs, pulses, teas, shawls, beads and most upsettingly dried llama foetuses. These are literally dried baby llamas, flat as pancakes and bought by locals to bury under their porches for luck and good fortune. I may have found these more shocking than the mummified Inca child. I didn't take any photos as I felt it too voyeuristic.

What we did love about La Paz though was the marriage of traditional and modern culture. The famous Bolivian woman with her long black plaits, brightly coloured clothes and bowler hat – always with a shawl tied around her carrying either her child or her wares on her back. Seeing these women selling food outside of a shop filled with North Face clothing makes for an interesting juxtaposition. And they seem ageless....the climate is harsh; being that much closer to the sun but with temperatures reaching below zero in the winter means that their skin takes on a leathery quality – I found the easiest way to guess their age was by how few teeth they had. We both found them completely charming. (This photo may also be a bit voyeuristic - I hope she doesn't mind.)

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Our last stop in Bolivia was Copacabana – on the banks of Lake Titicaca. Not the Copacabana of Barry Manilow fame – not sure if that is in Mexico or Brazil....hang on 'the hottest spot north of Havana'....Mexico then? No! Just looked that up too and it's about a club in NYC - what do I know? To reach Copa we had to cross the Tiquina Strait by boat...and so did our bus! The first views of Lake Titicaca were stunning to boot.

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Anyway....a quick note about the aforementioned climate....when I called the blog 'Heading South for the Winter', I really didn't consider that in one way we were heading south for it's winter, I was purely talking about avoiding the northern hemisphere version. So here we are in the southern hemisphere winter and by golly, are we unprepared! Temperatures are averaging a very sunny 14 degrees during the day but dropping to freezing at night and our llama jumpers have their work cut out for them. That aside, we had booked into a hostel called Las Olas for our three nights by the lake and we had been placed in a cabana called La Tortuga – the turtle. Without doubt, one of the best places we have stayed (number 72 to be exact), our little two storey house looked like this.....

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We had an amazing view of the lake and the boats, were 5 (slightly panting) minutes from the centre of Copa, with our own garden complete with a female shepherd who brings her herd by every afternoon for a munch on our grass and a huge circular bed to match all the other curvy features. It would be perfect if it weren't for the fact that it had no heating and for one night also had no electricity! We spent that evening in a local restaurant that wasn't totally affected by the power cuts although the power did cut out about every ten minutes. Hats off to the chefs!

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Lake Titicaca and Copa were gorgeous. It felt like a little holiday in the middle of our travels. (Later that same day: Having just sat and had our dinner to the sound of a live Simply Red concert, I say bring back the panpipes.)

We had one night back in La Paz before flying to Cuzco in Peru. Another unforeseen flight – this time due to the protests and border problems in Puno in Peru. The whole situation seemed a little too unstable to approach by bus when we have a definite date to be in Cuzco, so AeroSur here we come (again!). However our bus journey, despite some stunning views took a strange turn. Transpires the Bolivians were protesting too - although no one could tell us why and they were blocking all the roads into La Paz with huge mounds of earth and stone. Our bus driver was not deterred though - have to say, driving cross country in a bus in Bolivia after dark is an experience and a half!

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To finish, two totally gratuitous cute shots.

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Posted by Dani Parry 14:41 Archived in Bolivia

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