27 November 2011

Bolivia day 12: I survived Death Road!!!

My itinerary said nothing about risking my life!

It simply said: ‘In less than 3 hours’ drive, and after an amazing trip full of gorgeous sights, the Yungas Valley is reached, where the most exotic and delicious fruits are grown.’

In fact, from the 8am pick-up to the 12.45pm drop-off at the hotel in Coroico for lunch, was a 4¾ hour drive, with a few short stops here and there, and I never did see any exotic and delicious fruits. But what a drive!

First, we wound up through housing perched precariously on the clay cliffs above the city, then on to a road between high hills that looked like they’d been carved by glaciers eons ago. We passed a dam whose reservoir supplies most of La Paz’s water, though its level is currently low, awaiting the onset of the rainy season to replenish it. We passed an area of small shops selling mattresses stuffed with the tufty mountain grass that grows so plentifully at these altitudes. And we passed vans stuffed full of mad young people about to risk their lives on the mountain bikes propped atop the vans by biking Bolivia’s infamous Death Road.

The highest point on our journey was soon reached – 4700 metres above sea level. It is marked by a statue of Christ, around which were scattered empty alcohol bottles and the remains of fires. If the guide hadn’t told me these were offerings to Pachamama, I would have thought it was the remnants of some drunken party! We passed two small towns, Pongo and Unduavi; the second was a breakfast stop for our driver while I wandered up and down taking photos. Up to the right you could see the reverse side of Mururata, the flat-topped snow-covered mountain that towers above La Paz.

Mountain bikers prepping for their ride

The road to Coroico

Mt Mururata

About 50kms from the city, we turned off the wide, new, tarsealed road on to a dirt and gravel road, the old road to Coroico, the aptly named Death Road! It was narrow, hair-raising and bumpy; at times stomach-churning for someone who doesn’t particularly like heights because the drop to one side was often vertical for a thousand feet or more; sometimes wet and greasy from waterfalls cascading directly on to the road from the towering cliffs above; often scary negotiating unstable narrow tracks across huge rockslides that had wiped out whole mountain sides.

My heart was in my mouth for almost the entire 20kms we stayed on the road, except for the couple of times I walked a short way so my guide could take photos of me standing above sheer drops. I was so much more comfortable with my feet on the ground and I would, in fact, have been very happy to have walked the road, as it was all down hill and the views were spectacular. One particularly wet part had been nick-named St John Baptiste, as the mischievous truck drivers who used to carry people up this road would pause there a minute or two, thoroughly wetting their passengers.

Me checking out the sheer drop
- but not too close!
The size of the truck gives a good
indication of the size of the cliffs

We saw plenty of evidence of why the road got its name – the roadside crosses are numerous! Now, the road is mostly only used by tourists and mad mountain bikers, and over-jealous bikers are the only ones who die on the road. We were passed by many adrenalin junkies, and saw one injured, luckily not badly as he’d skidded to the right side of the road, not over the edge!

We eventually emerged into the Yungas Valley, where much coca is cultivated in small plantations at the side of the road. There is supposedly a lot of wildlife in the area, though I saw only a few butterflies and, later, on the road back, some large birds of prey – Caracaras and Andean vultures – no monkeys or parrots.

Some pretty butterflies
A coca plantation

Coroico is a small town of around 10,000 people, clinging to the steep hillsides amidst lush vegetation. Its climate is semi-tropical and it was hot, about 30°C. It exists as a retirement place for the rich of La Paz and as a weekend vacation spot. I was surprised to see a few black people there, especially one older woman who looked somewhat incongruous dressed in traditional Bolivian costume, complete with small bowler hat perched on her frizzy hair. These blacks are the remnants of the African slaves who were brought to Bolivia by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries to work the silver mines at Potosi.

 In the distance, Coroico

Lunch was delicious, at a posh but empty hotel: palm hearts with tomato and lettuce salad; peanut noodle soup – a local favourite; some kind of breaded meat with chipped potatoes and coleslaw; and rich and refreshingly cold chocolate ice cream! No wonder Tony kept knodding off during the two-hour drive back to La Paz – I could’ve done with a siesta as well, but didn’t want to miss a moment.

The drive back was on the ‘new’ road – it was actually begun in 1935 by prisoners of war. They were from the last war fought by Bolivia: the bloody Chaco War with Paraguay from 1932-1935 over a disputed piece of territory. The road is an impressive piece of engineering, needing constant repair, as it winds up and over the mountains. Some sections are cantilevered out over deep precipices, and there are several tunnels, one of which is perhaps a kilometre long, directly through a mountain top.

As we neared La Paz, the weather began to close in behind us, with mist and low cloud swirling eerily around. I was so glad we had enjoyed fine clear weather earlier in the day and, though I was exhausted from the nervous tension of the journey, I was also happy to have seen such stunning landscapes, and to have travelled such a treacherous road and survived!

26 November 2011

Bolivia day 11: the ruins at Tiwanaku

An archaeological day! Along with about 20 other tourists in a small bus – including the Swiss couple I had spent the day with in Potosi, and bumped into again when back home in Cuzco – we headed out of La Paz towards Lake Titicaca, to the site of Tiwanaku, 20kms from the lake.

The countryside on the way to Tiwanaku

How the site might have been

The Incas are the best known of the ancient South American civilisations but the reality is that, though large, they were only dominant for 170-180 years, whereas the people who created Tiwanaku were active from 1580BC to 1200AD, almost 2700 years. The ruins at Tiwanaku are in the middle of the Altiplano, at 3870 metres above sea level, and consist of one large pyramid and three other temple structures on one side of the small township and another large pyramid on the other side (named Kalasasaya and Pumapunku, respectively). Nothing has been fully excavated and, in the 1970s, some attempts at reconstruction were made, badly, without piecing the stone together correctly and using concrete – so it is difficult to know what is authentic and what isn’t.

We visited the museums at the site first, one that contained ceramic and metal remains, some skulls and textiles – strangely some items looked slightly Asian. The second museum housed the monolithic sculpture for which Tiwanaku is famous, almost 70 metres tall and covered in carvings, some of which have astronomical meanings (e.g. there are 365 circular patterns on the skirt, one for each day of the year). The sculptured figure also has strangely placed hands – the right is depicted in a physically impossible position – and this arrangement is repeated on other sculptures. No one knows why.

The sun gate

Much-weathered carved heads
Interesting carved figures
Another stunning gateway
We walked the site, climbed the tiers of the pyramid (where there’s a constant repetition of seven steps), admired the sun gate (through which the first rays of the sun shine on the morning of the mid-winter solstice on to an obelisk placed directly behind), and puzzled at more astronomical symbols and strange figures carved on another gate.

Next came lunch – and a respite from the blazing sun. The meal was delicious, with quinoa soup, then trout that looked and tasted like salmon, followed by banana and the artificially coloured pink yoghurt that seems to be everyone’s favourite in Bolivia.

Pre-Inca crosses?

More precisely carved stones

After lunch we visited the second part of the site, the pyramid at Pumapunku, where very little has been excavated. However, the large stones visible on the ground have Inca cross (so it’s actually a pre-Inca design?) and other precisely cut carvings, as well as indentations where metal butterfly clips had been used to join the stones together. It was a fascinating glimpse into an ancient culture, about which so little is known, and it will be interesting to see what is revealed in the future.

One small highlight – literally – was the sudden appearance of a wild guinea pig as we walked around. It just scooted across our path and, obligingly, paused long enough for some photos. So cute! I really can’t understand anyone who wants to eat this little creature, though it is as much a favourite in Bolivia as it is in Peru.

We arrived back in La Paz late afternoon and, after dumping some of my gear, I headed out again to explore. I didn’t get to the street with the museums as I’d resolved to, but I walked streets lined with small stalls selling everything from sexy lingerie, a million and one pirated DVDs, food and toiletries, to the fancy petticoats and brightly coloured skirts the women favour in Bolivia. Eventually, my feet would carry me no further and I returned reluctantly to the hotel, weary but entranced after another day of fascinating sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

An alleyway of shops

Tourist tempters!

Bolivia day 10: A witches market and the Valley of the Moon

On Monday 7 November I flew from Sucre to La Paz. At the airport I bumped into a traveller I had talked to before – Sue from Beuly and her 4 friends had been at the same hotel as me in Uyuni and were now also going to La Paz – so I had some company while waiting for my flight. One of the highlights of travelling alone is the people you meet along the way.

The flight took just an hour and there were magnificent views of the Royal Andes mountain range and La Paz, as we headed in to land. Tony the tour guide was waiting for me and I was quickly whisked off to my hotel. I dumped my stuff, then headed down the road for a chicken burger and chips for lunch. Delish!

Tony and our driver returned at 2.30 and we started our exploration of this impressive city. First was the Witches Market, a fascinating area of stalls selling aphrodisiac formulas, a variety of the herbs used in popular remedies, soapstone figures representing the different creatures important in the local culture (like frogs for wealth and good fortune), and some of the bizarre ingredients used to manipulate the spirits that populate the Aymara world. Most revolting were the dried llama foetuses, which are buried in the foundations of new houses as an offering to the earth goddess Pachamama to bring prosperity to the inhabitants. I was told these are only used by the poor; the rich are expected to sacrifice a live llama!

A basket of offerings to Pachamama, including a dried llama foetus!
There were also statuettes of little men, hung with paper money and festooned with the various items desired by the owner, to be kept in business premises to bring good luck. Apparently, the Catholic church has decided it is better to accept rather than reject such pagan offerings, so the statuettes now get taken to church to be blessed as well. Nothing like covering your bases!

We drove on through the crazy traffic of the main street, then out through the suburbs, past security-conscious embassy buildings, the official residence of the president, and the headquarters of the Bolivian navy. I had to laugh at that one – Bolivia is a landlocked country, except for 40% of Lake Titicaca, and Chile has denied them access to the Pacific Ocean, so why have a navy?

As we descended further down the valley, the temperature rose by 2 degrees to 26°C, and it was greener and more lush, with palm trees and colourful flowering bougainvillea. Next stop was the Valley of the Moon, with its strange rock formations caused by rain eroding the clay soil. In fact, much of the land around La Paz looks similarly unstable and subject to erosion, and Tony said there are frequent landslides in the rainy season.

We drove back towards the central city through posh suburbs with grand houses that could have been anywhere in the world to the Killikilli lookout for another fabulous view over the city – it is certainly a spectacular setting. Back down in the CBD, we stopped at the main plaza, which was full of more pigeons than I’ve ever seen in one place before, and was bordered by the impressive cathedral, government offices and the legislature building, guarded by specially dressed members of the National Guard. The last stop of the day was the narrowest and prettiest street in the city, Calle Jaén, home to several museums that aren’t open on Mondays. I resolved to visit them the next day if I returned early enough from my next excursion.

Just a small part of the huge city that is La Paz
The National Guard

La Paz's main plaza

The Legislature building

Calle Jaen

20 November 2011

Bolivia day 9: Cristina and the Yampara

Sunday morning and a little sleep in, then breakfast and a quick internet check, before a 9am pickup for a half day outing to the farming and craft community at Jatun Yampara, about 45 minutes outside Sucre – a chance to see the local indigenous people and their traditional lifestyle.

Her donkey
First we visited an 85-year-old woman called Cristina. She lives alone, with only her little puppy, a pig and a donkey, and a few chickens for company, in a ramshackle collection of small mud and stone huts placed around a central yard.

One hut was the kitchen, where the fire was burning and water was boiling. There were no shelves, just small bits of mud brick jutting out to place things on. Another hut was the storeroom, for farming tools and sacks of seeds and grains, but it also doubled as a bedroom, as there was a single bed against one wall and some clothes (including one pretty pink and another lacy white petticoat) hanging over a wooden ceiling beam.

Another hut was a second bedroom and storage place – maybe for when the family come from Sucre to visit. The fourth hut seemed to be another storeroom. None of the huts had big windows so it was easier to see their interiors through photos taken with the camera flash, rather than with the naked eye.

When we arrived, Cristina was nowhere to be found. We yelled out for her and looked carefully around the property but there was no sign of her. The driver wondered if she’d died (!), the tour guide thought she might be out behind a wall, following the call of nature! We left half the bananas and bread we’d bought the previous day, as a gift for her, got into the car and started to drive away, when Cristina was spotted walking down one side of a field.
Pretty petticoats
Cristina's homestead

Cristina and her puppy
She farms two large fields, one currently planted with corn, just sprouting, the other with potatoes. She had been to fetch two plastic jerry cans full of water from the local well – not the clearest or cleanest water I’d ever seen, but it was all that was available – no piped water or electricity or sewage system out here!

The driver helped Cristina carry her heavy cans of water back to the house, then she tottered back with him, carrying some weaving she’d done to sell to the tourists. I didn’t really want the woven belt, but I did want to give her some financial assistance in a way that wouldn’t offend her, so I bought the belt. And she let me take lots of photos of her and her dog.

What a face she has! I wondered what sights those eyes had seen. And what an amazingly strong woman to be surviving – and farming – in such a harsh environment. If I had a hat, I’d take it off to her.

Next we visited the Yampara cultural centre, a little further down the road and then across country in the 4-wheel drive. Yampara is the name of the local Indian people, one of the oldest groups of indigenous people on the continent, and the centre has been built by Tourism Sucre to showcase Yampara culture. The project aims to rescue, preserve and protect the identity, and cultural and artistic values of these people.

There’s a collection of mud and stone buildings: 4 huts with bunk beds and bathrooms, where tourists can stay (I didn’t know about that option – it would have been interesting); a separate dining and living hut; another hut where the women demonstrate weaving (and I got photographed wearing a traditional hat); a bar, where we enjoyed a small sampling of non-alcoholic chicha (made from maize) (after first making an offering to Pachamama, the earth mother, by tipping a smidgen onto the dirt floor); a small museum, showcasing traditional clothing and with a display of locally grown medicinal herbs; and a small chapel – the locals are essentially pagan, but the tourism people felt religion should be introduced. Personally, I don’t approve of this, so was pleased to hear the people don’t actually attend the chapel and no priest comes to preach to them.

The Yampara headman

One of the weavers
Another weaver
Me modelling a traditional hat

There was also some livestock: llamas came to a whistle, spindly legged sheep nibbled at the sparse grass and a few goats roamed the fields, which were awaiting the onset of the rainy season to be planted with maize, potatoes and various legumes.

The headman had shown us around and we then gave him a ride to the main road so he could travel to the nearest town, Tarabuco, for some meetings with local authorities. He is trying to get electricity for his community. I gave him a donation to buy books for the small school we could see on the opposite hillside. Despite the chapel, the community centre is a good way to showcase Yampara culture and earn some income for the people, though, sadly, the young people are drawn to the bright lights of the city and the traditional way of life may well die out with the old people. I hope not.

We arrived back in Sucre around midday and, after dropping some of my things at the hotel, I strolled the city streets taking more photos. When hunger started to gnaw at my stomach lining, I headed to the Joy Ride cafe near the plaza, where I enjoyed a delicious panini and salad on their plant-filled rooftop terrace, and wrote up the details of my morning excursion. It was a very enjoyable hour or so.

A building at the university
Agate and a church

I then walked the streets some more, some streets twice as I needed to buy some water but even the street sellers were absent, presumably at home enjoying their Sunday with family. I finally got a bottle of water at the central market, which I explored a little, though the majority of the stalls there were also closed. For a while I sat under the shady trees in the plaza, people watching and enjoying the warm sunshine. Later, I spent some more time enjoying the geranium-filled courtyard at the hotel. It was a wonderfully relaxing afternoon, something I needed as my holiday had been quite full on up to this point. I could quite happily have spent several more days soaking up the delights of sunny Sucre.

The cathedral tower
The Supreme Court - the reason Sucre is
Bolivia's capital

19 November 2011

Bolivia day 8: sweet Sucre

The lovely courtyard at my hotel
By 7.15am I was on the bus to Sucre. The woman in the seat next to me wanted the curtain shut against the sun so she could snooze, so after a while I also snoozed, though I peeked out occasionally. I saw enough to know we went up hill and down dale. It got gradually greener, with real grass and a lot more trees – and that was my initial impression of Sucre – it was very green. I stayed in the old, colonial part of the city, where the government has decreed the buildings be painted every year. And the hotel, Hostal Sucre, had a beautiful courtyard, with a central fountain and lots of flowering geraniums.

After settling in at the hotel, I had a sandwich and tea at a little café next door, and a chat to a Canadian girl, who’s travelling around South America for a few months. Then, I sat in the courtyard, enjoying the sunshine and surroundings until my city tour at 2.30.

It was a great tour. Maribel, the vibrant young tour guide was full of details about Sucre, and Bolivia in general, the driver was a real gentleman, opening the door and providing extra information, and, with my permission, a young language student also came along to listen to our conversation. We were a chatty cheerful party!

A view over Sucre

First stop was La Recoleta, an area where lovers go in the evenings, for a fine view over the city. Next was an artisan’s workshop and store nearby. There are two local indigenous peoples, whose craftwork is quite distinct one from the other: one group produce textiles only in red and black, the other’s are multi-coloured. I would have liked to have bought something but it was beyond my budget – wall hangings were several thousand pesos each (at the moment, there are about 6.5 pesos to the US dollar). One of the women weavers was wearing a very ornately decorated hat, which marked her as single and available!

Next was the Museo del Convento de la Recoleta, once a cloistered convent, now partly a Franciscan monastery, partly museum. It is a beautiful building, with three separate cloistered courtyards each containing beautiful gardens – you could smell the roses and jasmine as you walked in. It was a quiet peaceful place and easy to imagine living there a life of prayer and contemplation – plus, I do like the Latino way of inside-out living, of high solid walls facing outward to the world, with, inside, rooms opening on to a cloister and courtyard for private enjoyment.

The museum housed memorabilia of the monks, many religious paintings, and much silver – gifts from the parents of sons and daughters who joined the religious orders. Apparently, the family tradition in the past was for the first-born daughter to become a nun and the first-born son a monk, at the age of 15, and neither could ever leave. Now, though most Bolivians would say they were Catholic if asked, few actively practice their religion. Many of the paintings were in desperate need of restoration, but the Franciscans are self-supporting, though tickets sales to the museum and some donations, so the restoration has to wait till sufficient funds are accumulated. Outside, there was an orangery, which used to the stable area when the monks used to ride around the countryside spreading the word of God, and terraced gardens, still in use, with the excess produce being donated to the school next door. In the chapel, a first communion was in progress, which we observed from the upstairs area, which now houses beautifully carved choir stalls. Most of the wood in the old buildings is cedar. The trees used to cover the hills around Sucre, until the Spaniards cut it all down for building purposes.

Next was the city cemetery, a busy place just days after Todos Santos. Over the entrance is a large ornate gateway, with the Latin inscription HODIE MIHI CRAS TIBI: ‘It is my lot today, yours tomorrow’ or, more simply, ‘Today me, tomorrow you’. A sobering thought! It was a beautifully landscaped and maintained cemetery, but it is subdivided by class. Near the entrance are the tombs of the rich families, those with enough money to buy a relatively large plot of land and build on it an ornate mausoleum to house all family members. Next are the multi-storey graves of the middle class, not grouped together by family but rather in random order. They are also well maintained, with glass fronts like windows, with flower arrangements inside. Some even have mini awnings to protect them from the sun! Some were decorated with coloured streamers from the 1 November commemoration, blue and white for boys, pink and white for girls, and purple and black for older people. At the rear of the cemetery were the graves of the poor; the sort of burials we have in Western countries, but huddled much closer together. Nearby were new buildings where members of the same profession can choose to be buried together; for example, there was one building for truck drivers, another for teachers.

Tombs of the rich
Graves of the middle class

As we were leaving, a funeral procession was entering: a hearse, with a group of people walking slowly behind. There is a small chapel near the entrance gate where Mass is held, then the body is buried – no cremations in this country – then close family and friends return to the house of the deceased for food and drink. Another mass is held one month later, then a further Mass – with food and rather a lot of drink and sometimes music – one year later, at which time the women also stop wearing the black clothes of mourning.

Graves of the poor

Next on the tour was a walk through the main city park, Parque Simón Bolivar, where locals walk, play, sit and study. On Saturdays and Sundays, it has lots of things to entertain children – mini roundabouts and bouncy castles. In the centre the park has a mini Eiffel Tower – quite a bizarre construction – and, at one end, a pool which has a fountain light display on weekend evenings – equally bizarre, but apparently a favourite with lovers.

Next was a quick walk through the central market, just one block from the main plaza and the place to buy anything. We bought bananas and bread, gifts for the indigenous people we would visit the next day. There were fruit and vegetable stalls, toiletries and electrical goods, nuts and spices and flowers, as well as a whole floor of food stalls and juice makers. I learnt there are two local food specialties: one is a pork dish which sounds similar to Peru’s chicharon, and the other, various versions of spicy pork sausage. Sadly, I didn’t get to try either.

Last stop of the day was the Convent of San Felipe Nery, now a religious school for girls, and another beautiful old building. From the rooftop, there was a glorious view both of the courtyards below and the city skyline. Afterwards, I walked along to the main plaza to have tacos and a coke for an early dinner. On the way back to the hotel, I took photos of more lovely buildings. It had been a wonderful day. Sucre had a good feeling to it – I liked it there.
Convent of San Felipe Nery
View from the rooftop