La Paz: Beautiful from afar, suffocating within.

I left Cusco, Peru on April 18. My next destination was Puno at about 7 hours away by bus. I arrived there in mid afternoon. My host at the guesthouse in Cusco had recommended a place to stay in Puno, so I just took a taxi and immediately went there. I was received very friendly by the owner. I was the only guest! The guesthouse was very nice, comfortable and only 4 blocks away from the town center. Puno is located on the Lake Titicaca, the last major city of Peru before the Bolivian border. It’s build on hills with steep small streets. It looks quite cute, in its own way, a small country site town in the middle of nowhere.

I was starving on this Sunday afternoon. I went down downtown and found 2 vegetarian restaurants. They were both closed. The only one I found open was awfully expensive, quite a change from my 3 soles meals in Cusco! I decided to buy some bread, avocados and a beer and returned to the hostel. I knew that it was my last chance to eat avocados for a long time, so better enjoy them now. It was getting late and cold. Nothing really called my attention in Puno, so I simply stayed in my room, watching some TV after smoking a few cigarettes on the terrace on the fourth floor with a brilliant view on Puno. This guesthouse was indeed quite good!

I left next morning by 7:30 am and went directly to the bus station. My plan was to reach Copacabana, the first Bolivian town on the Titicaca Lake, a short 3 hours journey in bus. But when I arrived at the Puno Terminal, I was told that the bus has just left and that the next one was leaving at 14:30. I was pretty disappointed. On my way out of the Terminal, an old man asked me where I was going. I told him. He looked outside and told me to follow him fast; the bus was just leaving the Terminal. He run and stopped it at the main gate. I got in and was on my way to Bolivia, feeling much better. I was in a Bolivian bus. Life was great!

After over two hours, the bus stopped in the last small Peruvian town where we could exchange Soles for Bolivianos. Then we got to the border and the Bolivian immigration service. After kindly and patiently insisting with the immigration agent, I got a 90 days permit and returned to the bus. Being older with grey hair has its advantage indeed! I had met a German woman, of Turkish origin, who was planning to reach Manaus in Brazil from north Bolivia. We became friends and continued travelling together until La Paz. Our first stop was Capacabana which I found quite horrible, full of tourists and more expensive than expected. We even got strongly verbally aggressed at the market place by two women who did not like me touching their veggies, and by another old woman at a little shop next to the market where we entered while she was not there. She screamed so loud and with such an angry expression on her face, I thought that she would hit me with something. At first, I thought that she was joking and when I realized that she was serious, I left running! I had being told that people in Bolivia could be rude, but that was really too much. I found out later that one should not enter in a shop if there is nobody in! I also found out in the following weeks that people were not in fact so rude and never got another similar bad experience.

We spent a night in Copacabana in a cheap guesthouse without any water and left next day with the first boat to the Sun Island – Isla del Sol -, at 8 am, a 2 hours boat ride on the Titicaca Lake for 15 Bolivianos to reach the north part of the island. The journey was beautiful, sunny and warm. A traveler that I met in Brazil had recommended a guesthouse with decent rates and we reached it before noon. There, we met a couple from Barcelona and spend 3 days relaxing, eating well, drinking, smoking and walking around. In fact, I met quite a few interesting people in this place. The island is really charming, and the days were sunny and warm, but the nights were extremely cold. We were at 3,500 meters over sea level and the wind was just hard to handle!

Isla del solIsla del sol

The Island is like a tourist trap. Hey, quite understandable! Everything is expensive there, so be ready for it. We had brought a full bag of food but quickly run out of fresh veggies and had to face the fact that very little was available at the local stores, and at a price. The inhabitants of the Island also have set their own rules and control the fees of the boat to return to Copacabana as well as the walking trails. We were often stopped and ask to pay fees to walk from one place to the other. My new German friend got really upset about it. I personally took it as a new kind of game, trying to hide from the guards and walking out of the trails to avoid as much as possible the controls. At the end of the day, converted in Euros, the charges were minimum. It was just a bit annoying to constantly have to get a few coins out of the pocket just to walk around! The island is very small; one can cross it from north to south in a 3 hours walk. They are no roads, only trails, and therefore no cars, no motorbikes. In fact, I did not see any powered engine vehicle on the island. Even the fishermen are using small rowing boats.

Isla del solIsla del sol

We left the Island on the fourth day at mid morning, after having to wait almost 3 hours for enough passengers. The return journey cost 20 Bolivianos and we arrived at Copacabana at noon. We took a bus to Sorata, a small town in a tropical valley, which we reached after driving for 4 hours on the dry Bolivian altiplano. The place was remarkably beautiful and rich of tropical food, a real contrast from the dry high lands. Within a short 30 minutes drive down the hills we found ourselves in the tropics, in an enormous green valley with pleasant temperature and trees full of fruits! A huge snowy mountain was filling our horizon, overlooking the valley. We bought some cheap avocados, tomatoes, onions and very good bread and made ourselves a superb guacamole for lunch and breakfast!

SorataSorata

On the following morning, we left for La Paz, a 4 hours journey in a mini van for 15 Bolivianos. Sorata was nice though and there are a few trails that one can take around the valley to visit caves and waterfalls. We were just anxious to reach the capital city and continue our journey. (In fact, I learned that the capital of Bolivia is not La Paz, but Sucre!)

My new friends from Barcelona had given me a few tips for La Paz and had recommended 3 hostels. We took a taxi to reach the first two in a very touristic area, the Witches Market area. They were all full. After an hour walking in the area and not finding anything within our budget, I phoned the third guesthouse. They had plenty of rooms and the price was right, so we took another taxi and reached it before dark. I found out later that we were just 3 blocks from the Government palace, a very secure place with lots of police stations and security guards in the streets. Although La Paz has a very bad reputation and many have been robbed and aggressed, I stayed in this area and the Witches Market area most of the time and never got any problem. I also avoided staying out late in the night!

La PazLa Paz

La Paz is beautiful from afar, but suffocating within. We are at almost 4,000 meters over sea level with steep streets and a lot of traffic. The place is very noisy. The city resonates in this valley covered by houses and businesses. Here and there you can see a spot where some green areas prevail. For how long? The site is magnificent viewed from the highs of the city. Most buses get from there, if not, just take a local transport to the highs and enjoy the view! At night, the valley illuminates in various shades of colors that gives it a feeling of peace and rest. But as soon as you get on the street, the traffic noise is just too much!

Walking in La Paz gets very heavy and the gases from cars, vans, motorbikes and buses are real killers. You end up coughing hanging on a side wall or a house looking for some air and oxygen. The noise is intense and constant. Only its intensity changes. At times, I felt dizzy because of it and the amount of people and things to sell. Although some must feel free to experiment new things in this Bolivian capital, I felt locked into a box, a room inside this city of walls and stones, like so many others. I agree that I did not see all the amazing things that La Paz offers to the tourists. So you will not find any information on this subject here.

La Paz

I wanted to leave the high plans, los altiplanos. I was tired of the altitude, the cold and the effect of it all on my body and mind. I wanted to go to the jungle, or at least a tropical area, a few thousand meters down in a warm area. I had initially planned to go to a small Quechua village near the town of Apolo, at the border of the Madidi Park, 12 hour of bus northeast of La Paz. There was a farming community member of the Independent Woofers of Bolivia. But I received a few negative feedbacks from people who had visited the place and I decided to go instead to Cochabamba, 10 or 12 hours south of La Paz and find another farm that I had contacted a few months earlier while preparing my trip. I had not being able to reach the owner via the Internet and had no phone number to call. I did not have either any specific information on how to reach the farm. I only knew that Cochabamba was the nearest large city. So I left La Paz in the morning in a very comfortable two-level bus with large reclining seats.

Check the Photos area for more photos of these areas…

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