From La Paz to Lake Titicaca

La Paz is a jumble of different things; fog hanging thick around the rim of the valley, a crush of people and sounds of the city, surrounded by dazzling views.

The city is somehow bigger and more modern than I thought, and I don´t love it, although I thought I might.

My highlights include:

  • The Red Cap Walking Tour – a genuine mine of information about the city.
  • The cementary – sounds like a weird tourist attraction, and it is, but incredibly interesting. People´s ashes are kept in sort of lockers in a huge graveyard which looks more like street upon street of apartments. There are ladders to reach the highest lockers, and relatives tend the shrines with flowers, coke, and toys. It would also work really well as the set of a horror movie about American youths abroad.

  • The Witches market – or really anything on the indigenous side, much nicer than the Spanish part of La Paz. Plenty of strange potions and charms to the Pachamama.

  • Mountain biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road (WMDR) aka. Death Road. Absolutely terrifying, but makes you feel alive like nothing else. No-one in our group got injured, which is wonderful.

More photos on Facebook.

A few strange facts from La Paz:

  • They have people dressed up as zebras to help pedestrains cross busy roads.
  • The green man on traffic lights actually moves, and when the time for crossing counts down to the last few seconds, he runs faster! This is perhaps my favourite thing about La Paz. Not sure what that says about me.
  • They celebrate the day they lost their coast every year, even though they´ve been trying to get it back ever since.

From La Paz, I took the bus to Copacabana – which was lovely – to see Lake Titicaca. ‘Titi’ in Quecha (sp!) means puma, because the lake supposedly looks like a puma. Apparently you have to have tried a few Pisco Sours first, and then squint!

Isn’t it gorgeous? This was the view opposite the restaurant where I ate an entire hawaiian pizza to myself. In Copacabana, Hawaiian means peaches as well – delicious.

  And one shot of the Islas Flotante from the Peru side…

Llamas, salt, and 5,000 metres above sea level

From Uyuni, I took a three-day tour of the salt flats – Salar de Uyuni. We saw deserts and volcanoes, lagoons and geysers; flamingoes and frolicking llamas; thermal springs, fields of quinoa, and salt.

The flats themselves were breathtaking. Whiter than snow, if you can believe it, and so bright you had to wear sunglasses constantly. The sky seems bigger out here, the land flat and wide, uninterrupted by signs of civilisation.

Desierto Dali was aptly named, the strange rock formations enough to make you think you´d lost your mind. The mountains were a rush of different colours, so beautiful they begged to be paitned.

I´ve never seen expanses so vast – it made me feel completely insignificant and full of possibility at the same time. I don´t think I could stay for long though – too much emptiness.

The guide was very helpful and spoke Spanish clearly, making it much easier to understand. The food was also surprisingly good.

But the trip was tough. The weather ranged from very hot, to very windy, to very, very cold. All our group suffered altitude sickness to some degree – one girl´s lips turned blue from the lack of oxygen!

Early starts and busy days, plus a complete lack of decent toilets, and our German-speaking group were also a bit exhausting and isolating.

The trip was incredibly interesting, with awe-inspiring views, if not exactly fun. It certainly made me wish for home comforts even more! Now just to wash all the salt from my clothes…

Elephant ears and butterflies

I almost skipped Santa Cruz completely, having heard from three different people that it wasn´t worth bothering with. But I´m so glad I decided to stay (not really a decision, actually, the bus from Brazil was really late).

Because I had a few of the best days I´ve had out here, and got to see some amazing stuff. Marcello showed us around, and staying in the centre of a city again was fantastic. Shops! That are actually open!

And you could see all the quirks of the city….at night, Santa Cruzians go out to eat ice cream, as a social event. It was delicious, although slightly surreal to be eating some at midnight.

The first night I stayed in the cheapest (and scuzziest) hostel I´ve ever seen. But it was late, and it was a place to stay. The second night was far nicer, and still for just over a tenner in sterling.

Anyway, the thing to do in Santa Cruz is to see the butterfly park, or Mariposaria. I expected this to be a small room full of butterflies, but it was so much better. Imagine a tropical Centre Parcs, where you can actually learn things, with wild animals.

We saw housands of beautiful butterflies, exotic birds up so close you could reach out and touch them, a toucan which looked completely fake (anyone else seen a toucan? They honestly look like they are plastic robots. Or a plain old crow wearing a disguise), tortoises and orchids. There were lakes where you could kayak – here the difference in health & safety really becomes clear, in Bolivia you just pick a kayak and get in, no forms or queues or anything! – and the guide spoke excellent English.

There was information everywhere about the lifecycle of butterflies, evolution, the universe and how humans can live more in sync with nature.

I really, really loved it.

PS. the name of the park was Guembe, which is the Spanish name for a leaf which looks like an elephant´s ear.

The kindness of strangers

I´d read about this before, and heard stories about it as well, but I wasn´t prepared for how quickly and readily I would be helped by random people I meet. And I´ve been out here for two weeks.

It started on my flight to Rio, when the French gentleman I was sat next to helped me to fill out my entry card to Brazil.

Then my couchsurfing host Henrique, who gave me a room, food, tours of the city, as well as numerous stories about the history and politics of Brazil. Miguel, his Portuguese friend, who invited me to visit Morocco with them within moments of meeting me. Who helped me translate and told me I was the bravest girl he´d ever met.

The Colombian brothers I shared a taxi with to the airport, without whom I probably couldn´t have found the right terminal, let alone my flight. They listened patiently through my first shaky Spanish conversation and told me all the things I could do and see in their country.

They lady at tourist information, Cuiaba airport, who despite not speaking a single word of English, found me the address of a youth hostel and wished me on my way.

The elderly Slovenian couple I met in the Pantanal, who knew less Portuguese than me, but were cheerfully travelling around Brazil anyway. They told me about the places they´d been to – all over the world – and how home was still their favourite place of all.

The hostel driver who drove five hours non-stop because I wanted to get back quickly. Who taught me how to spot caiman´s glowing eyes in the dark and helped me get a photo.

A mechanic who actually drove me to the bus station when I wasn´t sure I was going the right way.

The Russian diamond dealer at the station who helped me plan my journey and bought me a coke while I tried to collect myself.

And my new friend Marcelo, who I met on the bus from Campo Grande, who walked up and down different banks along the frontier with me to try and find one that worked, and who helped me get to Santa Cruz.

Dangerous creatures

 

I went to the jungle hoping to see a number of wild animals, particularly those only found in South America.

I wasn´t disappointed.

On a farm in the Pantanal I stayed for three days with a non-English speaking guide and got to see caiman (alligators), capybara (so noble, yet funny-looking), armadillo, a cobra, frgos, lizards, a crab, red-striped mammals that I don´t know the English name for, and strange dog-like foxes. As well as about a million mosquitoes.

The trip was really fun; we went on a boat tour, night walks to see the wildlife, attempted to learn to milk a cow, actually learnt to ride a motorbike (!), went horseriding and lazed around in hammocks.