Last time you heard from me, we were still in Bolivia, and had found a spot of paradise in the small mountain town of Samaipata. We definitely enjoyed our stay there, but were somewhat apprehensive about what awaited us in La Paz, world’s highest capital city…
Our route took us back to Santa Cruz by taxi, and then straight off to the airport to catch the 7 pm flight to La Paz. We arrived around 4 pm, only to be told that the flight was only due to depart at 8:30 pm, for no apparent reason other than this being Bolivia. So, we made the most of the time by stuffing our faces with cinnamon buns from Cinnabon for dinner (it was great!), and then going up to the observation deck on top of the airport building to watch the planes coming and going. These have all but disappeared in North America (for security reasons, I guess), so it was nice to see that one still survives down here.
We eventually departed on a Bombardier regional jet (which was actually a very pleasant plane to fly on), and just over an hour later, we touched down in El Alto, the dusty suburb of La Paz, high up on the plateau, some 4,100 m above sea level. It was quite a shock after the tropical climate we had just left only minutes prior. The late evening air was thin and icy, and the small airport was like a ghost town. We managed to find a cab to take us down into town (which was also oddly deserted), and were pleasantly surprised to find that our hotel room was toasty warm. We all passed out soon afterwards, due to a long day of traveling.
We were awoken at some ungodly hour by the sounds of traffic outside, buses struggling up the hill, angry drivers honking, and knew we had made a mistake in our choice of hotel location. It was a bit too close to the action, and there was a never-ending stream of buses, cars and taxis lined up along the street directly below our window, all trying to get to a sort of makeshift bus terminal around the corner. Unable to get back to sleep, we pottered around and went up for breakfast, and from the dining room of the hotel we got our first glimpse of the city in the daylight. The city is located in a bowl-like depression between the mountains, and is really quite a sight to behold.
Encouraged by what we saw, we finished eating and headed out to explore on foot. We were soon reminded of our time in India and Sri Lanka, where crossing the street was a game of chicken you played with oncoming traffic. The buses and taxis I mentioned earlier were now jostling for position on this roundabout / bus terminal, and you had to play crossy-road to get across at each spoke on the roundabout. Needless to say, the kids were not amused. Something about the altitude did not agree with them, and they seemed to resent us having brought them to this Delhi-like place with no oxygen. The going was slow as we trudged along the streets, but eventually we discovered some interesting sights, and we basked in the bright sunlight like lizards on rocks.
After a trip up and down the teleferico rojo (these are the famous cable cars that the city is known for), we had pretty much had enough, and we headed back to the hotel to relax. Upon opening our door, we were greeted with a blast of heat – the north-facing windows had been letting the sun in all day and it had heated up the room to just below boiling point. To make things worse, the room was filled with useless bulky furniture, but lacked even one chair to sit in, so all we could do was sit on our beds and sweat. This, combined with the noise from the street, was the last straw – we had to change rooms. Luckily, the hotel was not that busy, so after we managed to explain our situation in less than perfect Spanish to the manager, he agreed to move us to the rear of the hotel, which was a blessed relief, as it was much quieter and cooler. The irony is that we were really expecting to freeze our butts off in La Paz, but in fact it was the opposite.
Our second and final day in La Paz was spent exploring the surroundings. We had to walk quite a distance from the chaos surrounding our hotel in order to summon an Uber to take us out of town, to the Valle de la luna, an attraction with interesting rock formations. The site itself was not that exciting, but it was just nice to escape the madness of the city. The sun was again doing its trick and warmed us up nicely as we strolled around the park. We then headed for a part of town called Zona Sur, which is where the ex-pats and diplomats live and hang out, but not many tourist seem to know about. It is full of little boutiques, restaurants, cafes and ice-cream parlours. We had a delicious lunch in a cafe, then walked to the teleferico verde station via the mall, where we found the other half of the population of La Paz that weren’t stuck in traffic, were there eating in the food court.
We took two telefericos to get back to our part of town, and they are simply an incredible way to get around town. They are Swiss-made, modern, safe, silent, cheap and the view on your commute sure beats that of any subway system! You just glide above the city in silence, and you can choose whether to look down at the city going about its business, or towards the horizon, where the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the Cordilliera Real rise up above the edges of the valley. Either way, it’s endlessly fascinating.
The following day we had to get up early to catch the bus to Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It took about an hour just to go around and collect all the passengers from their various hotels (this was a tourist only bus called Bolivia Hop). We then had a three hour journey on the flat altoplano until we got to the shores of the lake. There, we had to cross a short span of water to get to the peninsula on which Copacabana is located. The passengers disembark, and the bus is floated across on a barge, while the passengers get to go across in a little ferry boat, along with the locals (and all their cargo!). Once on the other side, the bus continues for another 45 minutes to Copacabana. The town bears absolutely no resemblance to the seaside town in Brazil, apart from it being next to a body of water. This sleepy little haven is where pretty much every backpacker stops on the way to Peru, and I can see why: it is a very pretty place, with lots of good accommodation and good food too.
We stayed at a place called Las Olas (thanks for the tip, Annie!) and it really was quite special. Each little hut was individually made from adobe and wood, and the architecture was very whimsical, but it worked! There were also huge windows looking out over the lake. The only downside was that the huts had no insulation, and at night the temperature here drops alarmingly below zero. Luckily, our hut had a small wood burner, all ready to go. So, we lit the fire and in no time were all nice and cozy. Suffice it to say that it was hard to crawl out of bed the next morning, with no fire to heat up the room.
Our final day in Bolivia was spent relaxing in the morning, and then we went on a boat trip to Isla del Sol, which was a 3-hour return trip, with one hour on the island. There was not an awful lot to see on the island, but the views of the lake and the mountains made it a worthwhile trip nonetheless. The lake is just simply gigantic, and it shimmers deep azure in the bright high-altitude sunlight.
My preconceptions of the lake were completely wrong – I was expecting it to be cold, overcast, and a bit miserable, but it turned out to be completely the opposite. Funny how that happens. I guess the same applies to Bolivia as a whole; we did not have high expectations, but we ended up really enjoying out time there, much more so than Argentina. The people here are much more friendly, honest and helpful and we felt totally safe there, even in the chaos of central La Paz. Once again, we were forced to change our opinions. Thank you Bolivia for a wonderful stay. I’m pretty sure we will be back…
At 5 pm, we boarded the overnight bus to Cusco, Peru. This was an adventure all by itself, which I will recount in my next post on Peru. Keep an eye out!