Bob & Lynne Douglas's Great
Chapter 7 - The Hard Way to Bolivia
By Lynne Douglas
|Our original plans were not to venture
into Bolivia. Reports of corrupt policemen, third world problems, difficulties in getting
a car into the country were some of the reasons not to go there. However, after studying
our options with Lake Titicaca, we decided to take the risk and enter Bolivia, stick to
the tar sealed roads (which doesnt amount to many), and visit the Isla del Sol on
Lake Titicaca which is only practical from Bolivia.
So, instead of taking the easy route into Peru, we took the hard way via Bolivia. This meant climbing back up the western slopes of the Andes from Arica on the coast in the far north of Chile, traveling through Putre in Chile and crossing the border with Bolivia and heading for La Paz. Our map didnt tell us that Putre is at 3300m altitude.
The climb to Putre starts straight away in Arica, firstly through more desert and canyons so that you actually climb much more than 3300m if you add up all the ups and downs. Finally all you do is gain height, the desert very slowly starts to show signs of green, then more tundra vegetation with surprisingly vividly coloured flowers, then the occasional llama; more climbing and the temperature drops significantly until all is green, cold, and cloudy.
Putre will never be one of the "must see" places. It is a convenient spot to break the long journey to La Paz. It has one decent hotel and several so-so hostals. By the time we got there it had started to rain, it was freezing cold, the hotel was painted dark grey which really cheered us up, we were both struggling again with altitude sickness, this time because we had come straight from sea level to 3300m in a few hours, and the room heating was virtually non-existent.
It rained hard all night long, and was still raining when we struggled out of bed with headaches, nausea etc. At this altitude, it doesnt just rain. The surrounding volcanoes were covered in snow. We thought that a bit more altitude would see us on the descent to the border. We climbed from rain into sleet, then into snow, then into cloud, all the time driving on rough roads covered in slush and snow up steep hairpin bends. We were not alone this time; we had lorry after lorry for company interspersed with car transporters, all slogging up the steep gradients, so we felt more comfortable about breakdowns.
Then we popped out into glorious sunshine and what a spectacle. Snow clad mountains all around us, volcanoes totally covered in snow, vicunas and llamas dotted all over the Altiplana, a magnificent lake with flamingoes. This altitude sickness really screws around with your brain so we took photos of the flamingoes just in case we were hallucinating. It is the sort of landscape that reduces you to tears. Altitude sickness also makes you emotional. This was to turn out to be another drive of a lifetime.
The Chilean border control was freezing cold and somewhat disorganized, lorries askew all over the place, slush everywhere, police and army and a plethora of officials, Little Richard singing "Lucille" blared out on the office stereo system. We must get something for this altitude thingey, we are hallucinating. More than the usual form filling and shuffling of papers for some reason confused us even more.
No mans land lasted for ever a winter wonderland of crisp fresh snow; we finally broached the high point at over 4500m. Bolivian border control was total chaos with two queues of lorries at least half a kilometer long, a string of buses and us. There were sheds, buildings, compounds, slush and mud, heavy goods vehicles being inspected, people of South American Indian race queuing for luggage inspection, police, army, other uniformed and armed officials in one big jumble.
It is not just a border crossing, it is also a place where the bowler-hatted entrepreneurial women trade. You could buy "fast" food from women carrying chiller boxes (a nod towards food hygiene), change currency from the pair of women toting bundles of currency and a pocket calculator or nick-nacks from the young woman carrying a baby on her back swaddled in a brightly coloured blanket. No-one seemed to know what anyone else was doing or supposed to do, all at the top of the Andes in freezing cold, windy, muddy-slushy conditions.
We had a carnet for the car, a sort of car passport, from the RAC in the UK. We had no need of it so far, but we decided to use it for the first time to try to expedite what could be a protracted bureaucratic business. It cut no ice with Bolivian authorities. After filling in more forms than you can shake a stick at and wading from this building to that building through acres of mud, two hours later we emerged into Bolivia stamped, authorized, legalized, vetted, agriculturally certified and rightfully there. It was a very strange feeling.
On the descent into La Paz, snow gave way to slush to nothing, showing the sparse tundra vegetation. This is the territory of the llama and vicuna. This is also the territory of the rural poor of Bolivia. They practice the most basic and primitive form of agriculture animal husbandry without fencing or cultivated feedstuffs. They are shepherds, totally occupied with following or restricting the natural inclination of animals to wander at will. A handful of llamas would occupy one person all day, every day. These shepherds would also occupy their time by cutting clumps of feedstuff and carrying it to their animals. You can spot people just sitting in the middle of nowhere, watching a handful of animals.
Llama herding gave way to sheep, goats and cattle herding as we slowly lost altitude. These people live in hovels, mud brick single storey houses no bigger than a single garage, with tin sheet or thatch roof, all held in place with anything heavy enough to stop roofing material from blowing away. There were no chimneys, smoke seeped out from the plentiful cracks. Gathering firewood while tending animals also kept them busy, as did herding the animals back to their homes. Running water was the stuff that seeped down walls when it rained. This was not living or farming, this was existence.
Parched tundra gave way to greener landscape with more settlements until it became a sparse sprawl of houses. All manner of animals wandered at will; pigs were truly free range, as was rubbish. The road was tar sealed (in a fashion), everywhere else was dirt or mud; most of the latter looked like a mine field had been cleared the easy way. Urban poverty replaced rural poverty.
The one bright element to all this were the women. There are two kinds of beast of burden in economically poor South American countries donkeys and women. Donkey are dull donkey brown, women are wonderfully colourful. They are diminutive in stature, with weathered, leather brown skin. They wear layer upon layer of petticoats of many colours down almost to the ankles. Skinny legs sticking out of the bottom of volumes of fabric are usually clad in woolen stockings; shoes are surprisingly insubstantial.
They use brightly coloured folded blankets tied in a knot across their chests to carry anything in usually babies but also the weeks shopping, huge masses of animal feed, electrical goods, anything. By the time they reach older age, they are usually badly stooped and shuffle along with walking sticks. They look old and worn out way before their time.
They are, of course by now, mostly of South American Indian race. The Indian influence became obvious by San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. There are many tribes or races of Indian, the dominant being the Aymara. Spanish is their second language which they choose, or not, to learn. Most speak the Aymara language.
They also wear, as most people know by now, bowler hats or some sort of headgear. "Wear" is not exactly accurate; bowler hats are more parked up on top of the head, as thought the family silver is stashed underneath. They are not practical they do not keep off any of the fierce high altitude sun or rain. The majority opt for more practical wider headgear.
La Paz has an auto pista; that is what the sign said. About 5 kms out of La Paz, something happens. Six lanes of intense traffic, three either direction, travels through a bazaar. Traffic comes to a standstill. Three lanes become five lanes spontaneously; most of the problems are caused by combi-vans that are used as buses/taxis. They saunter along, stop in any lane, drivers are determined to pick up as many fares as possible, the "conductor" hangs out of the sliding doors yelling out destinations, people wander in and out of lanes of traffic finding the appropriate transport home.
Street hawkers ply their wares between standing traffic, policemen and army blow whistles constantly, horns blare, small shops along the roadside put merchandise on what passes for pavements, stalls block corners and centre aisles. The smell is incredible, the frustration of the police tangible. We were mesmerized. I had to jump out of the TC to use an ATM 100m back down this road. Just walking down the street was an experience, but at no time did I feel threatened. The bank had three armed guards on the door, one carrying a shotgun across his chest ready to fire. It felt like another day at the office by now. We just had to laugh and take it in our stride.
We used the "follow a taxi to the hotel" routine again. We can recommend this to anyone lost in a city with no direction signs, where one way roads are not signed, with noisy, dirty turmoil for traffic and stuck in the rush hour. La Paz occupies a natural amphitheatre, right up to the brim. It is a seething mass of humanity, but that humanity is so cheerful, and smiley and polite it comes as a surprise. The hotel staff treated us like royalty. The police and army are helpful, also smiley wonderful people. Bolivians are very easy to like.
Our plans were for an early start to head for Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. What sounded like explosions turned out to be firecrackers set off by people in a political demonstration. No-one knew what it was about but the whole thing went off with good humour. We couldnt work out why some of the younger demonstrators were dressed in zebra costumes. Did most Bolivians know what a zebra looked like? Or where they come from?
Unfortunately, the only way to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca meant tackling the auto pista/bazaar obstacle. It took nearly two hours to get through the mayhem. A total lack of signage means a lot of interaction with locals asking the way. Bolivia does not have a shop front to show the tourist; it only has back alleys and dustbins, smelly rubbish, poverty, decrepit housing and urban decay. Anyone landing at La Paz airport sees Bolivia in all its glory.
The road to Lake Titicaca is dull. There are actually two lakes separated by a very narrow strip of water. The high spot of the day was the raft service across this piece of water. Lorries, tourist coaches, cars, everything with four or more wheels reaches Copacabana by raft. The charging system is a fluid thing, depending on whether you are a local or a gringo.
Land drops steeply into Lake Titicaca from the northern Bolivian side, with patches of reed beds on the shallower stretches of lakeside. It is here that Thor Heyerdal adopted the reed boat technology to build his Kontiki reed raft. There are a few "tourist" reed boats, but the fishermen have moved on to wooden boats, retaining the characteristic reed boat shape and single sail.
Copacabana is a small, scruffy little town that survives on tourists visiting Isla del Sol and Isla de Luna. Accommodation is basic but clean; the locals amazingly friendly. Isla del Sol is the first stronghold of the Inca race, who shifted several hundred kilometers NW to what is now Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Pichu after the levels of Lake Titicaca raised 8 meters, probably because of some climatic event that caused glaciers to melt. Jacques Cousteau and his team discovered the "Lost City of the Incas" 8 meters below the surface of Lake Titicaca in the 1980s just off Isla del Sol.
Tour guides tell of Inca beliefs, explain sacrificial stones, religious ceremonies etc etc. Locals still practice animal sacrifice to ensure good crops. The inhabitants of this island do not like having their photographs taken, do not particularly like tourists coming to see the Inca remains and do not baulk at demanding money to allow you to pass along a footpath that you have already paid the Bolivian government for permission to walk. It is just about worth the 4 hour, uncomfortable, falling-apart, smelly diesel-engined boat trip there and the same to return to Copacabana. The walk is the best bit, if truth be told.
If you play a word association game and say "South America" most people would respond with "Incas" or "Machu Pichu". Heading backwards in history, the republicans kicked out the Spanish, who had previously defeated the Incas, who had previously defeated the Tijuanacans who had previously defeated the .. And so on. The Incas occupied Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia for a relatively short period from about 1500 AD to the early 1600s. Previous societies go back to 1500 BC.
On Isla del Sol, many of the relics are Tijuanacan. Most of the terracing is pre-Inca; many of the relics are pre-Inca. A great deal is made of the Incas, but there are many more equally interesting societies that have left their mark on this area of the world. We would hear an awful lot more about the Incas before South America had finished with us.
© 2008 Lynne Douglas