After haring about almost ceaselessly for a couple of weeks, I have come out of orbit and crash-landed in Cochabamba in central Bolivia. I have taken a day off the road to do some much-needed sorting out of emails, plans, washing, brain… STUFF. And as luck would have it, I’ve happened upon a cute little hostel with vaguely reliable wifi (by Bolivian standards anyway) in which to do so. It’s all very gap yahhh: a group of French girls are sitting opposite me in the garden, chain-smoking and discussing the best onward routes, a pair of excitable Brazilians are hanging over the balcony chatting up the receptionist, a guitar is being inexpertly strummed somewhere out back and there is a dread-headed, tattoo-covered Eastern European sitting in the corner reading Marx. Doesn’t get much more stereotypical than that.
I’ll leave the clichés of hostel-ville for a second and train my mind’s eye on the days and steps that have led me here, beginning with the world’s highest navigable lake…
Puno and Lake Titicaca. After grabbing a few final zzzs in Cusco post-Inca Trail, I jumped on an early-morning bus out towards Puno, a not unpleasant little town on the lakeside which I will remember primarily as the place in which I found the cheapest meal of my journey thus far: quinoa soup followed by a main course of rice, salad and cheese (or chicken stew for the meat-eaters I was with) and finished with a sweet tea… all for 3 soles (60p). My reason for stopping in Puno was not its affordable cuisine, however, but its access to Lake Titicaca, a stunning body of high-altitude water featuring a series of intrguing islands which I felt deserved some exploration.
The first stop on the 2-day boat tour was on one of the bizarre floating Uros islands, which are made out of reeds roots and which continue to be inhabited by descendants of the pre-Incan Uros people. We were given a demonstration of how the islands are built, and were introduced to a group of one island’s smiling, colourfully-clothed residents – all very lovely indeed.
From Uros it was on to Amantaní and Taquile. On the first of these, we were divided into small groups and assigned a ‘mama’ to take us home. We dumped our stuff at our assigned house and made our way up the hill to take in the glorious sunset over the lake, to which my photos again do no justice. We all trooped home and were greeted by our ‘papa’ Benigno and a veritable carb-fest (potato soup followed by rice with pasta), which we chomped our way through before being presented with traditional clothing (brightly and intricately embroidered sashes, skirts, ponchos and bobble hats) and marched down the hill to attend a local dance. The moves I was throwing in my oh-so-flattering cow-hide poncho and stripy hat were terribly impressive I’m sure… We wandered home an hour or so later, guided by the light of our torches and by the utterly spectacular light show provided by the stars above – almost fell over several times as I was staring upwards rather than looking for the path!
The second day saw us back on the boat and heading towards Taquile, where we stopped long enough for a short hike up to the main square, a delicious lunch of freshly-caught trout and a knitting demonstration by a couple of the island’s menfolk. In a wonderful reversal of European gender expectations, men on Taquile are taught to sew and knit from an early age (six or seven), and must impress potential spouses by the quality of their stitching. The hat a man wears must also reflect his marital status: red with white is for singletons whilst red with black hats mark those who are hitched. Makes courting much more straightforward, I should imagine.
The trip was all too short, but a wonderful way of bidding farewell to Peru. It also allowed me to meet another fab group of people from all over: Canada, Spain, Germany and even good old Blighty (thanks for the wee dose of home, Katie!) Beautiful place, beautiful people.
La Paz. I arrived in the world’s highest capital (in the altitude sense, not the other one) after a day-long bus journey which included crossing the border into Bolivia and stopping briefly in the tourist hot-spot of Copacobana. Back in Puno, I had hit it off immediately with my room-mate Louisa from Germany (aka my German doppelganger – seriously spooky how much we have in common…). She was also heading towards La Paz, so we teamed up and found an excellent deal on a B&B in the heart of the city. Our first full day was taken up by walking tours through the INSANE traffic (asthmatics beware: certain areas are totally toxic), during which we learnt about Bolivia’s chequered presidential past, its bowler hat-donning, wrestling matriarchs known as cholitas and the city’s obsession with witchcraft. Most disturbing in relation to the last of these were the dead baby llamas and foetuses dangling from many shops in the Witches Market, which are used in ceremonial offerings and buried beneath new buildings to bring luck. Supposedly they die of natural causes, but I remain unconvinced.
Later in the day, I had a slightly uncomfortable encounter with a fortune-teller, whom I had agreed to pay a visit as part of the tour. She eyed me beadily from within her dimly-lit shed, and then proceeded to scatter some coca leaves about whilst muttering indistinctly. Once she’d studied the leaves that had fallen in her lap, she informed me that I have bad headaches (I don’t), and that for her to whip up a potion to cure said ailment would cost me a mere 300 bolivianos (I don’t think so!). She also told me that I was my own worst enemy, that my apparently poor health would only worsen and that the only way forward in my life was to “make a choice” of some kind. I mean I’ve heard more convincing statements coming out of the Tory party conference. I suspected a quack. I thanked her, declined her kind offer, and stepped smartly back onto the street. PSHHH.
Condiriri. Louisa and I escaped the fume-choked city the following day and ventured out into Bolivia’s stunning countryside. There is something quite brutal about it; the land is untamed and scrubbier than what I had seen in Peru, but was entirely bewitching and featured a backdrop of towering mountains, reaching up jaggedly as though attempting to rip through the deep blue sky. We spent the fairly straight-forward 4-hour hike chatting about pretty much everything, stopping to marvel at the sheer beauty all around us, from the placid lagoons we passed to the snow-capped peaks above. Easily one of my favourite hikes of the journey, both in terms of company and scenery.
That’ll do for now I think. Tomorrow I am off to Quillacollo just outside of Cochabamba to get down to some volunteering work for a week or so. The last few weeks’ adventures have been brilliant in so many ways, although I’ll be grateful for a little time in the same place! This travel lark can be a tad disorientating… news from the volunteer ranch whenever an internet connection is available.
All my love, as ever.
K 🙂 x x x