6 August 1995
The flight to Bolivia, especially the connection between Santa Cruz and La Paz, was nothing short of spectacular in itself. Before arriving at Santa Cruz, the route took us straight across Brazil's Amazon basin, and although there was little variety and almost no individual points of interest in what I could see after dawn broke, it was an experience to see the whole area, as far as the bird's eye could see, covered with trees, broken only by the odd stretch of water. On reaching the Bolivian border, the land then started to rise in corrugated, forested ridges on the eastern slopes of the Andes, until it reached the high land of the Andean altiplano, which was way above the tree line and a drab browny-beige in color. The mountains here were truly impressive even from a plane, deeply cut by gorges and peppered with black lakes the occasional snow-capped sierra over which our little plane seemed scarcely able to climb.
This was all exciting for me, as it gave me a taster of the kind of scenery I would soon be driving through, although the extremely undeveloped road system of Bolivia meant that I would have a necessarily very limited experience of what was out there. The main expanse of the altiplano stretched away into the distance, completely flat and over 4,000m above sea level (higher than all but a handful of peaks in the Alps for instance), and I could see in the distance the blinding white of the salares, or salt flats, (all that remains of the huge lake which once covered the altiplano), and the snow-capped volcanoes towards the Chilean border.
Perched apparently on the edge of this flat plain was a huge grid of small houses and shacks, and it was there that my plane landed, although this was not at all how I was expecting to find La Paz from what I had read. But when I took the little airport mini-bus into La Paz itself, I saw why: over the rim of the flat plain and the sprawling suburbs which I had seen, La Paz itself was crowded into a huge, deep amphitheatre, surrounded by snow-capped mountains which rose dramatically from the altiplano, (dominated by 6,460m Ilimani), which made a perfect if slightly surreal back-drop to the city. It was a spectacular a setting for a city as any I had seen. The old centre of the city was way down in the bottom of the chasm (although still at 3,640m above sea level!), and shanty town clung perilously to the vertiginous slopes all the way up to the rim of the altiplano some 370m above. As we wound our way down into the bowels of La Paz, the streets were crowded with the ubiquitous fat Cholo women, with their brightly coloured shawls, wide skirts, and their impractical and improbable bowler hats perched rakishly on top of their long plaited pig-tails. The weather was glorious (as it was to continue): clear blue skies, warm sun, and a pleasant cool nip in the air.
I headed straight off to find a hotel, which as it turned out was a good idea as all the budget hotels I had planned on using work on a first-come first-served basis, and at 11am I barely managed to obtain the last single room in a vaguely recommended hostal on the edge of the old town, just around the corner from a vegetarian restaurant where I was to soon become something of a local. The hostal did not have heating nor a shower, and the walls were paper thin, but I realized that I was not in much of a position to be selective and took it for four nights (even thought I would probably only be there for two nights at first - it was dirt cheap, and a double payment more than made up for the prospects of not being able to find any room at all on my return to La Paz. But therein lies a tale…)
There were a surprising number of back-packers and foreigners (with English and French by far the most numerous among them) around the hotels, which surprised me until I remembered that La Paz was one end of the popular "Inca trail" to Machu Picchu in Peru. My first experience of back-packers in Bolivia had been a very smelly Frenchman on the plane, who insisted on trying to dry some very smelly jeans on the overhead ventilators. At the airport, I had also helped a young American, who hardly seemed to know which city he was in, to find the bus into town. Later, he alighted from the bus and merrily wandered away without his back-pack until the long-suffering driver called him back - I guessed that he had been away for a little too long (or maybe not long enough!).
I spent most of the afternoon wandering around the old town, and checking out car rental agencies - most of the rest of my trip would depend on obtaining a 4x4 Jeep, and almost all the rental companies were local and non-pre-bookable. By late afternoon, I had finally persuaded one company to find me a car by Friday, which meant that I would probably have to miss out on some of my plans (which were probably over-optimistic anyway).
The old town of La Paz, founded by the Spanish in 1548, I found absolutely enchanting. Little of substance seemed to have changed since colonial times, including several handsome old churches, and everywhere there were hundreds of street vendors selling sweets, bread-buns, pies, fresh juices and other strange-looking drinks which I never had the nerve to try. All were dressed in the bright Indian fashion, as were many of the other inhabitants of the city (over half of its 1.5m are indigenous), going about their daily business, carrying huge rainbow-striped bags of who-knows-what, or hefting massive wooden crates on their backs on the way to market.
I also spent some time ambling around the market district, where an even thicker concentration of stalls lined the cobbled streets, and I made quite a few purchases of presents (woollens, earrings, brightly coloured waistcoats), bargaining over the ridiculously low prices - I was almost tempted to bargain them up, given the prices, but some serious bargaining was obviously a required element of the sale ritual. I passed by the so-called Witches' Market, where there were many stalls selling mounds of strange herbs, and also the local speciality, llama foetuses, apparently a powerful magic ingredient, but one which I managed to resist. I bought (from a pharmacy, not from the Witches' Market!) a supposed cure for soroche, or altitude sickness, which by mid-afternoon was starting to make its presence felt, and which continued on and off for most of the rest of my stay, although the pills seemed to make next to no difference to the constant headache and nausea.
The temperature which had been pleasantly warm all day, dropped sharply after sunset, and I retired early to bed after a cheap, simple veggy meal, to nurse my soroche, and to reflect on the already almost overwhelming sensations of the day - stores with sacks of many different (largely unknown to me) grains and pulses stacked outside; an excessive number of blind people, most of whom seemed to be coping better than me with the cobbled streets and uneven pavements; young lads hanging out of the mini-buses yelling out their route in a completely incomprehensible double-speed patter; shops selling nothing but small white coffins for babies; a huge preponderance of color photocopy stores (which for some reason I was to find throughout Bolivia); ghost-like glimpses of the massive, snow-capped bulk of Mount Ilimani hovering at the end of city streets; babies, wrapped up and lying on the pavement beside their mothers' stalls; a line of soldiers in full riot gear making heavy weather of a hot, steep hill, towards an unknown destination; etc, etc.
The Bolivian people, too, I had found very pleasant (in fact, I have come to the conclusion that, in South America, it only the Venezuelans who are not). All I had read prepared me for smelly, rude and ignorant Cholo women (and inexplicably non-existent men), but those I met were really quite personable. At one point while walking through the fringes of a rough-looking barrio, a disreputable sort of a guy latched onto me, and in automatically suspicious Caracas mode I expected him to mug (or at the very least bug) me, but he actually wanted nothing more than to assure me that Jesus loved me, and to try out his very few phrases of English. In a travel agency, while asking about day-trips out of La Paz, the woman behind the desk went to great pains to find out the number, color and stop of a local bus which went to Valle de la Luna, rather than booking me on an expensive guided trip there (the bus number turned out to be wrong anyway, but one cannot expect efficiency as well as affability!).
In fact the only obnoxious types I had come across had been the foreigners - it was difficult to avoid them around the budget hotels and vegetarian restaurants - and they would have been the only reason I would have been happy to leave La Paz behind. I remember shrinking into the background when a loud Cockney demanded in English how much something was, and then proceeded to fumble and dither with the coins, while everyone else waited patiently in the queue - like good wine, the English really do not travel well. For all other reasons, however, I was happy to spend another day in La Paz (not that I had much choice without a car), of which I soon became very fond.
One afternoon, I did in fact take the local bus to Valle de la Luna (one of many so named in South America), which cost me all of 20¢ for over an hour's journey. The trip took me further down into the heart of the deep valley at the head of which La Paz lies, past some quite desirable suburban properties, and then the rest of the way on a perfectly-laid and -maintained cobbled road. Valle de la Luna itself is actually quite impressive - a weird eroded background, full of rock spires, pinnacles and unexpected (and seemingly endless) holes. I wandered some way into the middle of the area by a combination of judicious scrambling and some basic mountaineering, past several families of pigs which someone was somehow rearing in that hot, dusty and inhospitable place, all the while feeling distinctly superior to the few other tourists there taking group photos from the edge - as I said, the English do not travel well, and why should I be any different? It was hot and thirsty work, and I returned gratefully to my veggy restaurant in La Paz for another in the series of strange drinks I was gradually working my way through (many were drinks made from local grains, which was rather like drinking some of my childhood breakfast cereals, although I could never quite put my finger on exactly what it was that they reminded me of).
The curfew and state of siege, which had briefly been lifted just a few days before, was re-imposed just after I arrived in Bolivia after more labour unrest, particularly in the coca-growing area of Chapare (where I no intentions of visiting), but also in Potosí, Oruro and Cochabamba (where I had), and there was talk in the papers of road-blocks, which might have made things interesting. But, nothing daunted, I stocked up on emergency rations, picked up the car (a very basic Suzuki, but at least relatively new), and headed west the next morning. A little sticker in the car warned: "The roads in Bolivia are very sinuous, and there are no traffic signals: PLEASE DRIVE SLOWLY", which proved to be pretty close to the mark.
My late start, and a road diversion which took me the long way round on a bad dirt road (as opposed to relatively directly on a relatively good dirt road), meant that I ended up doing exactly what I was supposed not to do, ie driving around an unknown rural area in the dark. Soon it was pitch black, and it became very difficult to tell what was a dusty road, what was long-abandoned construction work, and what was a precipitous drop over a cliff. At one point I took a wrong guess at an unmarked junction, and ended up on the way to Peru until I found someone to ask directions of. Just when I was starting to get a little concerned, the lights of a reasonable-sized town appeared from behind a hill, a fair way off and a long way below (I had not realized I had been climbing). The road I was on seemed to circle round and round without getting any closer to the lights, but at a small toll station apparently in the middle of nowhere I discovered that I was in fact en route to the right place, Copacabana.
Copacabana is another of those pared-down-to-basics towns in which I seem to end up staying throughout my travels in South America, and has absolutely nothing in common with a certain beach in Brazil (although it does have a lakeside beach of sorts). Having asked in a couple of establishments, I ascertained that there was no such thing as heating in Copacabana, even in the more expensive hotels, so, despite temperatures plummetting below freezing, I plumped for another $3 special. Tired after quite a strenuous journey wrestling with non-power steering at 4,000m above sea level, I stopped off at the least disreputable-looking restaurant for a cup of mate de coca in the hope of relieving the soroche a little, and was presented with a mug full of leaves rather than the tea-bag I had been used to in La Paz. Anyway, it did not seem to work, and I settled down for my fourth sleepless night. I took advantage of the bedding from a spare bed in the room, ending up with a total of thirteen heavy blankets and two sheets, which was more or less enough to keep me warm, even if they restricted my movement and breathing somewhat.
In the morning I had a better idea of why Copacabana is on the tourist trail at all: although the town itself is rather ordinary (the usual cobbled streets and run-down houses), its setting is quite stunning. From the hills above town, it can be seen nestling between two conical hills with the deep blue of Lago Titicaca directly behind it. If Lago Titicaca has an important place in the hearts of the Quechua people, Copacabana itself has a more recent spiritual significance, and the main square is dominated by the huge, Moorish-style Santuario dedicated to the Virgen de la Candelaria who is reputed to have produced miracles there. It is a garish, over-the-top affair, although more impressive than many, especially with its background of brown, rugged hills.
By 7.30am, most of the cobbled streets, still icy from yesterday's slops water, were filled with the stolid Quechua women, displaying their goods before them, and chatting excitedly in their own Eastern European-sounding language. I thought about what a grim life they must lead: sleeping in cold, unheated houses, and then sitting on the cold ground all day, and I could see that the prospect of a feria would probably be the only thing they had to look forward to on a day to day basis (although even then the seldom-seen men apparently run the fiestas and ferias, play the music and drink the booze). I had my breakfast coffee in the market hall, which is where everyone but everyone breakfasts in the average Bolivian town, and then set about retracing my tracks to the ferry. Even in daylight, I had to ask for directions at every junction, and on the way out of town I also asked if I could take a picture of an old man with his llama (the first llama I had seen on the trip). The old man asked for a contribution, which seemed reasonable enough, although it did occur to me that he might have imported his llama to make a good living from tourists' photos.
Further along a couple of Quechua women asked me for a lift, and as they had just given me directions it seemed churlish to refuse. They were off to market at La Paz (over 200 rough kilometres away), and I could at least take them halfway, as I had planned another detour before returning to La Paz. The women were pleasant and spoke good Spanish (apparently many Quechuas in rural areas do not), although they did not seem particularly interested in this strange gringo, or in life outside Bolivia. I was amused that despite the early morning nip still in the air, they insisted on having the windows wide open (I suppose that a comfortable ambient temperature for me would feel positively stuffy to them). When I dropped them off at Huarina, they asked how much they owed me, although I imagine it was mainly a matter of principle or pride to ask.
I then cut off north away from La Paz and civilisation, following the line of the snow-capped Cordillera Real. I passed through villages constructed almost entirely of mud (mud houses with black reed-thatched roofs, surrounded by low mud walls), which seemed to grow almost organically out of the dirt of the ground, and which were certainly well-camouflaged. I gave a lift to an old man with three crooked rotten teeth, and one of the Day-Glo striped bonnets with ear-muffs I had seen in the markets - definitely the stuff of coffee-table book photographic portraits, but it seemed somehow rude to ask. It was on this section that the dust really started getting to me, as in places the road was 20cm thick with a fine grey dust which blew everywhere - through the window (by now it was too hot to keep the window closed all the time), through a mysterious hole somewhere in the back of the car, and presumably also into the engine as at one point the car stalled, clogged up with dust, and would not start again for some time. The whole of the interior of the car, driver included, was covered in a layer of dust, and the outside with several layers.
I passed a village where the local men were parading in a desultory sort of a way around the village square, playing Andean folk music on drums and flutes, most carrying a bottle in their spare hand - a local fiesta of sorts. Having reached the penultimate village on my planned detour, the road (such as it was) had grown closer and closer to the Cordillera Real, particularly to 6,380m Ilampu, one of the highest points on the whole Cordillera, and a handsome massif studded with glaciers, rising majestically from the altiplano. As it turned out, I realised just in time that I did not have enough petrol to make Sorata (which apparently nestles in the folds of Ilampu itself). By the time I had gone round in circles following vague and usually incorrect to a petrol station in the last village, I had neither the time nor the stamina to go the additional rough 50km out of my way, and decided to cut my losses and head back to La Paz.
I had a suspicion that things were starting to go wrong when I encountered a huge traffic jam on the main autopista into La Paz, although it turned out that the road had been taken over by a huge feria, with bands and dance groups dressed in matching sparkly outfits (decidedly non-traditional), and I was happy to take the opportunity to wander round it for a while. Already I felt more at ease in La Paz than in any other South American city of it size I had ever visited, where security is always a potential problem. Despite their poverty the Bolivians seemed so happy-go-lucky and laid-back, I somehow could not imagine it would even occur to them to resort to crime.
However, I had long since come to the conclusion that in South America a perfect day is just not possible, and it was when I arrived back at my La Paz hotel that I found out exactly what was to sour this particular otherwise fascinating day. Apparently, the note I had left in my hotel room before I left had been misinterpreted, and they had thought I had absconded and had rented out "my" room. Worse, Julie had phoned the hotel the previous evening, and had been told that I had disappeared under unusual circumstances. But worse still, the car rental agency had apparently phoned my parents in England (of all people - their address was a part of the rental contract form) to check on the disparity between the name "Lawrence" on my passport and "Luke" on my credit card, and as whoever phoned obviously did not speak English too well, my parents had completely misunderstood and obtained the impression that a strange note from me had been found in an abandoned car. So my parents had phoned Julie's parents, they had phoned Julie, and (completely unbeknown to me) everyone had had a sleepless night thinking that I was lost somewhere in deepest Bolivia, and were just waiting for the ransom demand. So just by trying to save myself the trouble of finding a new hotel room, I had triggered a series of panicky phone calls across the world (and lost the room anyway!). As it happened I quite easily found another room, just down the road, no worse and half the price, and I made placatory phone calls to Venezuela and England from the ultra-efficient offices of the national phone company. But already the day had a sour taste to it, especially when I found out that Julie had been having a particularly bad time with Elena, which made me feel very guilty for even being out there at all.
Heading south of Oruro (with the southern sun behind as I realized), the terrain continued flat, even if it was about 4,000m above sea level, as I followed the old shore of Lago Poópo, now almost dried up completely into a salt flat like those further south (which I would unfortunately not have time to visit). Soon, long ridges of pink, brown and beige hills lined the road, some studded with outcrops of rocks, often in the form of eye-brows or tiaras, which gave the landscape something of a comical, happy aspect. The poor, scrubby land was dotted with small settlements, and the carcasses of abandoned mud dwellings (even in the villages, the only way to tell a used from an abandoned house was the existence or not of a thatched roof, which were obviously recycled from one house to another). After Oruro, the road had deteriorated to a gravelled surface, not bad in places, but often with that ripple effect which tends to jolt and jumble every bone and internal organ in the body. However, I took heart that at least the dust was not on a scale to match that of the previous day.
At Challapata, I turned east away from the altiplano proper, and climbed further into the multi-coloured hills and mountains which flank it. It was here that I encountered the first clouds I had seen in Bolivia - white, wispy things, but clouds nevertheless - I had begun to think that they did not exist, having become so used to perfectly clear, sunny skies of an extraordinary blueness. Weaving between the mountains, I passed mud villages, which somehow looked like unreal, model villages, and there were more and more llama herds here, rather than the cattle and sheep which predominated on the altiplano. Soon, I reached a series of ever-higher plains, where the vegetation was sparser still, often just a sort of pale yellow brittle ground cover, something between grass and lichen, sometimes scattered with darker green but equally brittle bushes. The landscape started to broaden, and the mountains which flanked the plains became more sweeping and majestic (although still not snow-capped like the Cordillera Real), painted in a whole range of colours from black to beige to green to purple to red.
When I stopped to photograph llamas, or to speak to the locals who flagged me down to "chat", I saw a little of life on the high plains at closer quarters. The Spanish the local Quechua people spoke was almost indecipherable, although many had what seemed to me to be speech defects and deformed cheeks from years of chewing wads of coca leaves. Their faces were much darker than those of the townies, with red cheeks with what at times looked almost like third-degree burns from the strong sun at this altitude. They were usually caked with several weeks worth of grime, covered with unhealed sores, besmeared with snot, and with runny eyes - altogether a pretty unappealing bunch, however quaint they may appear from a distance. There seemed to be several instances of hare-lips and other deformities, which may or may not have been the result of centuries of inbreeding within their isolated valleys - certainly they led as isolated a life as any people I have ever seen.
As I headed yet deeper into the mountains, past valley after valley and over pass after pass, the scenery became if anything even grander, with views which at times must have stretched for hundreds of kilometres (especially given the clarity of the air) into distant mountain ranges, with just my solitary road winding its way through the middle. After a while I stopped taking photographs, as there seemed to be a new, and better, vista around every corner. Indeed, so long did my road continue through this pristine wilderness, that once again I realized it was getting dark and I still had no idea whether I was 50 or 200km away from my destination for the night, Potosí (the various maps I had looked at gave varying opinions on the distances, and most even showed a completely different set of roads, with absolutely no consensus on which roads were paved, gravelled, dirt, or just plain impassable). For at least an hour I was driving through stunning scenery which I could not even see in the darkness, and when some village lights did come into view I had the bizarre experience that the stars were so bright that I literally could not tell where a village ended and the constellations began.
Soon the more substantial lights of Potosí came into view, and I climbed the long steep main street of town past a thriving market scene (at 8pm on a Sunday!), and I had no trouble booking into a hotel with a dash of luxury - heating, a carpet on the floor, my own shower, even a television. I basked in these trappings of civilisation for a while, although even the heating did not seem to help me sleep much.
In the morning, I explored the town a little. At 4,070m, Potosí is apparently the highest city of its size in the world, set on a steep hill surrounded by mountains, and it is appropriately cold. It was founded by the Spanish in 1545 after they discovered silver in the pink beehive-shaped mountain called Cerro Rico which still towers over the town. The mountain now looks somewhat scarred and desultory, but large parts of Potosí remain unchanged since its colonial heyday, with a disproportionate number of churches and several old houses with splendid carved doorways, hence its designation as a World Cultural Heritage Site.
But there is no rest for the serious tourist, so on I pushed towards the White City of Sucre. The paved road seemed an unaccustomed luxury, and it took me through gentler and more cultivated countryside than on the previous day. Several signs along the way recognized the investment of the Dutch government in appropriate technology for local agriculture. I politely asked an old lady who was spinning llama wool by hand on the roadside if I could take her photo, and she concurred, although with some bemused embarrassment, I thought. The road climbed and then abruptly turned to gravel as it crept precipitously along a cliff face several hundred metres above a huge deep valley. There was definitely only room for one car at a time, so I would have been interested to see what would have happened had there been any traffic in the other direction. The road then wound its way right down into the bottom of the valley, and up the other side, before resuming its paved aspect as though nothing had happened in between. It brought home to me the logistics and the costs of building good roads in that inhospitable land, and I forgave them the lack of asphalt, and thereafter was grateful for the existence even of dirt roads.
I gradually dropped down to tree level, many trees in their autumn colours of yellow, orange and red, and still closer to Sucre the valleys became lush and green (it was only then that I realized how much I had missed the colour green, and just to what extent brown, grey and beige dominate Bolivia). By Sucre, I had dropped down to 2,790m and was basking in warm sunshine. Partly because of it splendid isolation, Sucre, founded in 1538 as a silver mining centre, has retained much of its former glory, and if it seemed that it had many buildings which appear much too grand for a medium-sized provincial town, I only had to remind myself that Sucre always was, and still is, the official capital city of Bolivia. If Potosí had a lot of churches, then Sucre had a positive surfeit, all painted white like most of the rest of the city, which like Potosí is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It even boasted supermarkets and a clean and well-organized market hall, both things I had not encountered elsewhere in Bolivia. Possibly its only drawback was a number of (English) Bible-thumpers, who had taken over the hostel I had booked into, and who insisted on carrying on long deep conversations and sing-songs in the courtyard outside my room.
Braced for another long haul the next day (towards Cochabamba), I made an early start (when I eventually found the road out of town - always a problem), and stopped en route for my breakfast coffee, served, like everything else, with the ubiquitous flat bread buns, at a little restaurant a few kilometres down the road, in the middle of nowhere. Like almost all Bolivian restaurants (and many other stores too for that matter), it was plastered with poster-sized calendars from the local drinks companies featuring some very American-looking women in varying states of undress. But what this one had which others did not was the local orchestra practicing for a fiesta just next door. It featured pan-pipes making apparently random squeaks like a rusty hinge in the wind, to the accompaniment of irregular bangs on the big bass drum. I thought at first that this was some obscure local musical tradition, but I soon realized that they actually did not have a clue how to play, but were game to have a go anyway, presumably on the grounds that during the fiesta most people would be too drunk to notice.
This section of the journey was on a passable gravel surface, and, as on the previous day, followed great, wide, stony rivers, at heights varying from zero to several hundred metres above the valley floor. There was usually no water at all in these rivers, or at best a trickle, nor could I imagine them ever being much fuller, even in the wetter southern summer. The river-beds provided the only possible flat ground for agriculture, and there were green cultivated areas in the bends, protected by low earth dykes. When finally I did start to follow a valley which contained a real river, the water was an unexpected milky turquoise colour.
Just when I was beginning to think that part of the trip was becoming tedious (relatively speaking of course), I started to climb again, and the views opened up once more. Rounding yet another hairpin bend I came face to face with a stupendous vista over a cliff of I-do-not-care-to-think-how-many metres, and there circling overhead were six condors. I knew they were condors instantly as I could not believe that any other bird could be so large, especially when they would swoop down to within twenty metres of my head. I quickly decided on a lunch-stop, and spent quite some time admiring the aerial giants, and even took a couple of photos of myself to prove that I had been in the same place as those majestic birds.
On continuing, the spectacular views just kept coming, and I was now really in my element, chattering away to myself (in Spanish of course), and relishing being able to see the next 10km or so of my road stretched out before me, winding its way down the next valley, and up the next mountain. In the 250km from Sucre to Epizana, I passed possibly ten or twelve vehicles, and all of those were trucks with not a single private car to be seen (I saw very few private vehicles anywhere in Bolivia outside the main cities). There had been a few foreign tourists in all the main towns I had visited, but apparently none in between, so I came to wondering how those tourists I had seen managed to get from A to B to C. I was aware of being in a very privileged position being able to rent a car for the week, but maybe many tourists would anyway not relish the prospect of twelve hours tough driving on gravel tracks, in which case, I thought to myself, they were probably missing out on a lot that South America had to offer (being able to stop at will, and spend an hour just watching condors, for example).
Just before I reached the main Santa Cruz - Cochabamba road at Epizana, I dropped on another unexpected delight. With all due respect to Potosí and Sucre, it seemed to me that if any Bolivian town deserved to be a World Heritage Site, Totora was it. True, it did not have Sucre's churches and monuments, nor Potosí's illustrious colonial history, but neither did it have a single modern building, and it must have looked almost identical under Spanish rule in the Sixteenth Century. I walked a crooked mile (and some!) through Totora's crooked cobbled streets, past its crooked houses with its crooked red-tiled roofs. I got quite lost, but I really did not care, as the sun was warm, the birds were singing, and I had been transported into a whole different world: it was quite a disappointment when I eventually found my way back to the car, and felt obliged to push on to Cochabamba before dark.
Past Epizana, a few more clouds made their appearance, and these ones even had the audacity to spit some rain at me for a couple of minutes, but as far as I was concerned they only succeeded in producing some interesting shadows and a glorious rainbow. Soon, a fertile plain opened up, the country's largest produce-growing area, around the city of Cochabamba, which lies at a sultry 2,550m on the edge of the plain and in the shadow of a towering ridge of mountains. Once I had safely ensconced myself in a little hotel room, showered, phoned Julie, found an unhoped-for vegetarian restaurant (albeit sporting some rather unfortunate holier-than-thou posters exhorting one, among other things, to avoid argument and violence while eating as it is bad for the digestion), I felt that I had finally proved that it is after all possible to have a perfect day in South America.
I set off early next morning to find Tunari National Park. While most Bolivian National Parks are prohibitively inaccessible, Tunari begins within the city of Cochabamba itself (although you have to work hard at finding the entrance). From there a dirt track switches back for 20km or so, gaining probably 1,500m in altitude in the process, passing from eucalyptus forest, through pines, and up to rough tundra grass and a pretty rocky lake at the top. Some campesinos there assured me that there was another road which led back to Cochabamba, although they did not tell me what state it was in, so I spent most of the next hour in first gear. The views over the plain to the distant mountains beyond, and over Cochabamba itself almost directly below were predictably stunning, but for me a major part of Tunari's charm was being able to walk on a marked path within a protected National Park, through an aromatic pine forest to a pretty little waterfall, something which brought back find memories of Canada.
I had a bit of a walk around the centre of Cochabamba which, although largely a modern industrial city without the cultural treasures of Sucre or Potosí, is a pleasant place to roam, with a glorious climate to boot (I had not expected to be eating ice cream in Bolivia). But soon it was time I was making my way back to La Paz. The paved road was excellent until I had climbed up to about 4,000m again, where a soldier informed me that the next section was only passable between 12 noon and 1pm and between 6pm and 7pm. It was then 1.25pm. He told me that there was a detour I could take, although he was rather vague about how long it might be. However, with nothing to lose, I took it, and it in fact proved to be much more interesting than the main road would have been. It took me up into very high barren country at around 4,300m, and as I had no way of telling where it might come out (the road was not on any of the maps I had), I was trusting that the soldier did not have a warped sense of humour.
So I gamely continued, and, as I had come to expect, the scenery was magnificent. The villages were very primitive, and the llama herders of the region obviously did not see too many tourists (or anyone for that matter!), although the children had caught on to the idea of cupping their hands together for donations (their prouder parents quickly pulled them away). About an hour into my "short" detour I happened on a village where a feria was in progress. Everyone had on their brightest-coloured clothes and ceremonial knitted hats, and an Andean pipe band (a tuneful one this time) was leading the parade down the main street to the focal point of the village (as in all the villages), the football field. I did not like to impose myself too much, so I left them to it. However, the next three or four villages I passed also had ferias going on, some with several bands in the procession, and all spilling over with a riot of colour. I never did find out exactly what they were celebrating (no-one in La Paz seemed to know either), but I was glad I had witnessed at least some of it.
I was soon (an elastic concept, after all) back onto the main La Paz road and climbing to what was perhaps the grandest view yet: the 4,496m La Cumbre pass. Mountain ranges seemed to stretch away to infinity, and it was only an icy wind that, despite the sunshine, drove me back to my car and back to La Paz. With my various unplanned stops, I ended up arriving in the dark yet again, although this time it felt very much like returning home - the streets of La Paz felt quite familiar, and my veggy restaurant welcomed me in, (despite having just closed for the night). I realized with some surprise that I had managed to eat in vegetarian restaurants every day throughout the whole trip, apart from on days where I was just too tired to leave the hotel room, and resorted to my lunch staples of cheese and avocado sandwiches with fruit and mineral water.
But Huayna Potosí was not actually my destination, and I skirted round the huge glaciers until, behind the mountain and displayed in all it glory hundreds of metres below, the Zongo valley came into view, a deep narrow valley with a small milky glacial stream winding along the bottom, and with jagged mountains towering above on both sides. The Zongo continues down into the (relatively) lowland coca-growing area known as the Yungas, and several hydro-electricity projects along its length provide much of La Paz's electricity. I was only going a short way down to find a good place for a walk, where I could be sure of not meeting any keen, over-friendly, serous hikers from Manchester (misanthropic? me?).
In yet more perfect weather - warm sunshine with a cooling breeze blowing off the glaciers - I decided to eschew paths and set off walking directly up the valley side, zig-zagging my way and following the sensible llama paths wherever possible. On reaching a dried up corrie at the top of the first ridge, I was still feeling reasonably fresh, and the glaciers at the back of Huayna Potosí looked tantalizingly close, so I decided to continue. Of course, I should have known better, as two hours later I was still scrambling upwards, hauling myself up on rocks and the coarse, prickly mountain grass. The air was getting thinner, my breathing hoarser, my legs turning to rubber, and the mountain becoming if anything even steeper and rockier.
I was aware of wondering how I would ever get down, if going up was so difficult, but the feeling was wonderful, and on my exhausted rest stops I could gaze down onto a huge rocky cirque with two small lakes in the bottom, and a red-backed hawk spiralling below me emitting its piercing shrieks. Eventually I reached the top of a ridge of jagged black rocks, at near 5,000m I would guess, still nowhere near the glaciers of Huayna Potosí, but still commanding a handsome view both ways down the glacial valley. The feeling of achievement was very real, and the pioneering thought occurred to me that in all probability no-one had ever taken quite my route before, and likely never would. My descent was a little fraught to say the least, and for much of it I resorted to the ungainly gait of hands, feet and bum (not that there was anyone around to see me). On reaching the car, with legs now completely jellified, I drank the best litre of water I had ever had, and demolished my sandwiches in short order, basking in the warm sunshine by the riverside.
A detour on my return took me to new heights. I visited Chacaltaya, technically the world's highest ski resort, although in fact "resort" is something of an exaggeration: the approach road was in abysmal condition; there was one lift so far as I could see which looked as though it had not been used for some time (it was the off-season to be fair, despite being the Bolivian "winter"); and the skiing was presumably restricted to a very steep run directly down a glacier. Certainly there was no welcoming mug of hot chocolate, so I mustered my dwindling energy reserves for the breathless walk up a ridge to the top of the peak at 5,220m (about 17,000 feet), the highest I had ever been. The icy wind at the top hurt my ears, so I quickly took four photos: north towards the cloud-filled Yungas, west to Ilimani and the great hole of La Paz, south across the flat barren altiplano, and east over Huayna Potosí and the snowy spine of the Cordillera Real - stirring stuff, but much too cold to linger for long. The precipitous road back took me past small lakes of the most vivid blue, green and purple, but by now I was just too tired to care, and was concentrating on getting back to La Paz on the little petrol I still had left. That night I covered most of the untried rest of the menu in my veggy restaurant, left a huge tip and flopped into bed.
For my last day I had considered joining a half-day trip to the pre-Inca ruins at Tihuanacu, but in retrospect I was glad that I did not. I spent the day relaxing, cleaning the car (which was of course covered in dust yet again), re-packing my gear, and making substantial additions to the presents I had already accumulated - they were such good value it seemed crazy not to. As it turned out, unbeknown to me, it was also Bolivian Independence Day, and although all the stores were open as normal, every school-girl and -boy in La Paz joined in the huge parade through the streets. Being part of a marching band was obviously mandatory in Bolivia, although what surprised me most was the incredibly smart turn-out of the participants, the lads wearing classy-looking suits and ties or more military-looking uniforms, the girls in colourful majorette uniforms complete with short skirts, and tottering around on long, high-heeled boots. Their usual somewhat dowdy appearance was transformed into a creditable advertisement for Bolivian supremacy.
It had been one of my most memorable trips ever, and everything, from the scenery to the cities to the people to the cheap, cheap food and clothing, left a very favourable impression. To return there with Julie and Elena would necessarily be more restricting, and I am not sure how either of them would react to the dust and the altitude, but even so I would be more than happy to do so for the opportunity to return (of course, we would also have to decide whether it would be preferable to new, unexplored territory in Peru, Chile or Argentina). Even the rather stressful chaos of the return flight did not sour my memories.
|16 August 1995||Back to top|
During my phone calls from Bolivia, Julie had assured me that Elena was a new reformed person, and much better behaved than before I went away, but there did not seem to be much evidence of this on my return. I was beginning to think that maybe it was I who was the disruptive influence, but she did gradually settle down again, and even I noticed a marked improvement over two weeks previously. Which was just as well, as a week after my return we were off for our first long weekend away with Elena, for which honour we chose Villa Mangrovia at Morrocoy, being somewhere comfortable but informal, where we would not feel awkward asking for bath-water, or for yet another postponement of dinner. As it turned out, we were even luckier, in that we were the only guests there, and so receive undivided attention and special treatment.
As usual the food at Villa Mangrovia was wonderful, and there was something rather special about lingering over a gourmet candle-lit dinner al fresco, with Elena safely (or so we thought!) in bed - in Caracas our normal routine was to put Elena down for the night, and wolf down a hastily-prepared meal, before sinking exhausted into bed as early as possible. And, wonder of wonders, Elena slept through the night for the first time ever. The next morning, however, we were chagrinned and embarrassed to discover that a mosquito had found its way through Elena's net, and that she was absolutely covered in small bites. The bites did not seem to bother her too much, and had not swelled up like ours, but she did look like she had measles, (and of course we had to explain it all to everyone we met for the next two weeks).
As Elena seemed none the worse for her night shared with a mosquito, we went off to another beach the next day, toting our huge amount of gear along to the less busy end of lovely Cayo Sombrero, probably the most popular and well-known of Morrocoy's beaches, of which we had heard many good things and wanted to see for ourselves. The problem was that we were there on a long weekend during the summer holidays, so both of the island's beaches were packed with holiday -makers and their tents, although even so we had a lovely time swimming, sunbathing, and snorkelling (albeit taking turns) and working our way through the huge packed lunch Irina had prepared for us.
Back at Villa Mangrovia, the mosquitos were still out in force, as were they always, although we did manage to protect Elena from any further punctures. During some spare time in the afternoon, I just walked around the property, looking at the orchids, iguanas and parrots, and listening to the hundreds of other birds who frequent the area. Another wonderful meal and another full night's sleep found us raring to go to another beach the next morning, although Elena was in less than high spirits - I think the excitement and the heat (and probably the mosquito bites) were all starting to catch up on her, and she was somewhat out of sorts for the rest of the day. I opened my birthday presents on the beach for the first time ever, which was a pleasant experience. After another huge lunch and fond farewells, we hit the road for the return journey, through most of which Elena mercifully slept. We were feeling quite pleased with ourselves that we had managed to go away for the weekend without any major disasters, and were hoping that it meant that "real life" had not left us behind completely. We could report back relatively positively to Maritza, although the mosquito bites took quite some explaining...
|20 August 1995||Back to top|
Elena is now completely weaned off Julie's breast and onto bottled milk formula (just in time for Julie's business trip to Colombia, which will leave me alone on the night shift), over which Julie has mixed feelings: it is a practical necessity, but I think she will miss those special times they shared together, and I am sure that she sees her own role shrinking. Julie has been working full-time for well over a month now, and Elena goes into the office for two or three hours each afternoon to see her, and to be paraded around all her "uncles and aunts" in the office, all of which seems to be working reasonably well.
Elena has even made a tentative start on fruit juices (mango seems to be a favourite) and a few vegetable purees - carrot, auyama, (a kind of local squash, rather like pumpkin), and apio, (a kind of local root vegetable), with spinach next on the list to try for allergic reactions. She has also managed to turn over from her tummy onto her back on a couple of occasions - I had not thought that this was a particularly important milestone in her life, but Julie was extremely jealous that Maritza and I had seen it and that she still had not, so maybe it is more important than I had given it credit for. Elena is wearing double nappies for a couple of months in the hope of rectifying a slight abnormality in her hip joints without having to resort to more drastic measures like a brace or even an operation (we took her for x-rays just after I got back from Bolivia to check all this with a specialist after the pediatrician pointed out a slight asymmetry).
Other than that, life continues without major excitement or upset. We still go out at least one night a week (usually to the cinema or to a dinner party), and quite often have friends round to the apartment at the weekend, so some sort of social life remains, although obviously any spontaneity is quite out of the question now.
Fifteen months on, and I am still gradually discovering some of the pleasanter parts of Caracas, by a process of trial and error. While driving round some of the back-streets of Prados del Este and Baruta, I discovered almost by accident an overgrown track which I thought may lead up to some of the paths I had seen from a distance on the grassy and wooded hills in the southern suburbs of Caracas. By luck, I was right and I followed an old track up a very steep hillside until superb views over the whole of Caracas and the Avila Range opened up. I saw at least three different types of orchids in the open grass, and several more flowers I had never seen before. I continued up towards a radio mast on top of the hill, which we can see from our apartment, and cut off through a cool and silent pine plantation, with only lizards, butterflies and cicadas for company, and after a few false starts eventually found my way back to where I had entered. Whilst up there I noticed that there were several more tracks leading to who-knows-where, which could provide me with good local explorations for months to come.
Another day, I finally managed to find the trail up to the top of the highest of Caracas' southern hills, El Volcán (1,364m), also clearly visible from our apartment and from many other places in Caracas, and instantly recognizable by the bristle of radio masts which crown it. I actually found a road which led round the back of the hill and almost to the summit (off the edge of most maps of the city), affording possibly the widest possible views of Caracas and the Avila, and from there I walked down the clear paths to find out where they originated. One trial ended behind barbed wire fences in a high security area, and the other in a smart residential suburb (where a gap had been made in the fence), also behind two sets of security barriers. I managed to find the main entrance to the suburb, and when I told them I just wanted to climb up the mountain, they waved me through with no more ado, so I am still not sure what the security was for. It was, however, not surprising that it had taken me so long to find the way into the trail system, hidden and protected as it was.
As an aside, a recent worldwide survey put Venezuela as the fourth most corrupt country in the world, with only Indonesia, China and Pakistan able to compete, and with even known corruption hot-spots like Colombia and Brazil higher up the list. The Venezuelan authorities pooh-poohed the survey, claiming that it was conducted on outdated information, although it occurs to me that that level of corruption does not change overnight, if at all.
|30 August 1995||Back to top|
We seem to have been quite busy socially of late, which is something of a shock to the system. As well as a Sunday picnic for bank employees and families at a sports club in town, we have hosted dinners for recently arrived ex-pats (especially a very pleasant Argentinian couple), and for old friends who are leaving for pastures new in Panama. Nowadays, Elena is reasonably reliably asleep by 7.30pm or 8pm, and so we can usually start a dinner party at 8pm with a certain amount of confidence. On one occasion she refused point blank to go to sleep, but merrily gurgled away to herself until 9pm, looking entranced from speaker to speaker until she was just too tired to put up any further resistance, fed and was soon asleep. We were quite proud of her, and not a little thankful, especially as normally she still has the wearing habit of arching her back and screaming full pelt when presented with the bottle, even if she is desperately hungry, and often four or five attempts, with intervals of walking around and soothing, are needed before she will deign to take it. We are probably spoiling her rotten, there seems to be little alternative to going along with her little games.
Likewise, she is still only sleeping about two hours between 6.30am and 7.30pm, usually in the morning, completely confounding any statistics we have read in the books. But she seems to be quite healthy on it, considering, and is certainly not short of energy. At the last visit to the pediatrician, at four months of age, she weighed in at 6.5kg (top 25percetile) and stretched out to 65cm (again top 25%), and performed well in all the tests, although we still have a wait another couple of weeks to see whether the double-nappy treatment is having any effect on her clicking hip joints (friends have told us horror stories of when their child had to wear a metal brace at one year of age for the same problem, so we are desperately hoping we do not have to go through all that). Am I starting to sound like a concerned father yet? I have to admit that there is a large selfish element in there too.
With two sets of visitors due in September and more in October, I have been merrily booking and organizing expeditions (my real job here, after all!), some with Elena and some where we admitted that it just would not be practical. The weather has been somewhat unsettled, worse than we remember last year's rainy season, while North America and Britain have been enjoying (or suffering, depending on your point of view) record-breaking heat-waves.