Ciudad del Altiplano - La Paz and Copacabana, Bolivia

May 17-26, 2007

 

 

 

 

The sun was just rising as we awoke in a daze to the sound of horns blaring, stuck in a pack of buses, trucks, and cars making their way down into the teeming metropolis of La Paz. Out the bus window, was an amazing sight -- an immense canyon filled with narrow streets, adobe houses, and high rise buildings, with the snowcapped peak of Illimani hovering in the distance.

La Paz turned out to a really interesting city, vaguely reminiscent of Valparaiso or San Francisco, built in a deep canyon with its colorful and grimy urban sprawl creeping up the sides of the circle of hills that surround the city center. At 12,000' the air is thin, and we breathe deeply walking up the steep streets. It's surprisingly cool in the shade but warm in the glaring midday sun, much more pleasant than the windy cold streets of the altiplano outpost of Uyuni.

We spent several days wandering the neighborhoods, visiting the colorful street markets, eating out at some great restaurants, and absorbing the rich cultural melting pot of urban Bolivia. Beneath the surface though, it feels like there is a simmering unrest. We saw policia on every street corner, often heavily armed with guns, tear gas, and riot shields. There were demonstrations in the city center, and we were surprised to see the symbolic face of Che Guevara on bright red banners and spray painted on buildings.

One day the central artery of the city was totally blocked by abandoned vehicles, and our departure was delayed a couple days by a city-wide bus strike. We heard stories of buses having their tires slashed and windows pelted by rocks. "Not safe to leave the city now," the bus representative told us. And the stories from other travelers about being robbed in broad daylight on the streets outside our hotel were a tad unsettling. Still, this is one of the more culturally rich cities we've visited, and we're delighted to have had the opportunity to experience it.

 
 
 

 

 

 

 

The chollas of La Paz proudly wear bowler hats, brightly colored layer-cake skirts, silky shawls, and checked aprons, their glossy black hair plaited in long braids joined way down their backs by a tuft of alpaca wool, and slung across their backs, a hand woven cloth filled with goods, food, and babies, precariously hanging sideways. The hats tipped us off: this characteristic dress of the Aymara Indian women is a colonial outfit, imposed on them in the 18th century by the Spanish king. Chollas wear these outfits in the city, while harvesting quinoa, and at the marketplace. But there is a definite generation gap -- the young, hip women of La Paz wear the same jeans, tee shirts, and styled hair we've seen everywhere around the world, so this tradition may soon disappear.
 

 

And just around the corner from our hotel, the Mercado de Hechiceria (Witches' Market) bustles from morning until night, with Aymara women selling herbs and folk remedies, and offerings to Pachamama, the protective and sometimes vengeful earth mother. We watch in amazement as Bolivian women -- poor and wealthy alike -- line up to purchase carefully arranged colored sweets and trinkets, dried frogs and starfish and, most bizarre, llama fetuses that will be buried beneath newly constructed buildings, ensuring good luck in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

At the Museo de Instrumentos Musicales, we discovered a wonderful collection of strange and unusual instruments including this five-necked guitar. It's hard to imagine how one would manage to play it though...
 

Great collection of Andean hats!

 

 

 

 
Three hours by bus from La Paz is the town of Copacabana, near the Peruvian border. This laid back village is a required stop on the gringo trail for its access to the beautiful blue jewel of Lake Titicaca and the nearby Isla del Sol and Isla del Luna.
 
 
Copacabana's cathedral and the intricately carved panels on its massive wooden door bear testament to the adoption of Christian religion by the indigenous Aymara culture. In the 1580's, a direct descendent of the Incan Emperor carved a wooden image of La Virgen Morena del Lago, placed it on the alter of the new Christian church, and shortly thereafter miracles began to happen. After innumerable healings occurred, Copacabana became an important pilgrimage site. Noting its power, the Augustinian priesthood advised the community to build a church commensurate with the power of the image, and for the next 200 years, the incredibly beautiful, moorish style cathedral that now dominates the town, was lovingly constructed.

 

 

The Island of the Sun was known to early inhabitants as Titi Khar'ka (Rock of the Puma) from which the lake was named, and was believed to be the birthplace of the first Incas and the sun itself.

Twice we took the slow two-hour ferry ride with all the backpackers to Isla del Sol, and hiked the amazing trails that cross the island on a high ridge (13,000') that overlooks the sparkling blue waters and beyond to the snowy Andean mountain chain of the Cordillera Real. There are no motorized vehicles on the island, so it is a peaceful haven despite all the tourists. The island is covered with pre-Inca terraces, which are still very much in use for local agriculture. There are also numerous Inca ruins scattered around the island.

 

 

 

The Inca ruins of Cha'llapampa.

 

 

 

Shrine Alert!

In Bolivia, we discover a new shrine: Ekeko, the Andean God of Abundance. A cute little character, he is a favorite in every household, bedecked with miniature objects, each representing a dream. Want a new house? Give Ekeko a miniature cement bag and shovel. Travel abroad? Give Ekeko a tiny passport and you'll be lounging on the beach in no time. Need a new musical instrument? Load him up with charango's (ukeleles, sorta), zamponas (pan flutes), quenas (reed flutes), huankaras (huge drums) and caja's (tambourines). And to cover all your desires, purchase a 20 x 10 cm attache case containing one million dollars!

 

 

Uyuni (bus)La Paz (bus) ► Copacabana