July 18th, 2008
Finally out of Santa Cruz, our flight reached La Paz at noon. Stepping out of the back of the AeroSur plane, we could already feel the lack of oxygen in the air. It got worse as we walked into the airport, and got our luggage. We noticed a Medical office right by the baggage claim, and decided to walk in. This is a free facility for anyone suffering from altitude sickness at this highest airport in the world, 4000 meters. The lady was helpful, and after a few minutes under the oxygen mask we felt better. She advised us to take it easy for the day, eat pasta, and have coca tea. What an awesome combination, and these were the doctor’s orders!!
Although still finding it hard to breathe, we could not help what little breath we had be taken away by the amazing scenery on the way to our hotel. This crazy city was built up as far as the eye could see spanning all the hills, mountains, valleys, and slopes of the Andes. We were going downhill from the airport to the actual city, our jaws dropped to the floor and feeling slightly better off for the lower altitude. The taxi turned into the main street of the tourist area, which was an experience in itself. Bustling crowds, bright-coloured little shops along the narrow, cobble-stoned streets, chaotic traffic trying to squeeze itself through all this with brakes screeching while trying to go down steep slopes at a snail’s pace.
We finally arrived at the hotel and entered what was only a set of glass doors, which led to another, which made way to a cool, cozy indoor courtyard/patio surrounded by shops, a travel agency, a cafe, a pizzeria, and a flight of stairs leading up to the rooms and the reception area. Struggling to even climb this set of stairs and carrying our baggage up, we were completely winded as we entered the reception area. This was such a total fluke-find based on a leap of faith, and completely took us by surprise. It was awesome!! We couldn’t stop repeating to ourselves how wicked this place was, how inexpensive it was, and how Santa Cruz totally sucked by comparison!
We quickly dropped off our bags, noticing the room was immaculate and smelt good, and headed down to the cafe to get some coca tea. This tea apparently is drunk by all those living at this altitude to relieve altitude sickness, get energy and strength… given it’s derived from the same plant as… well… cocaine! We drank it like medicine and decided to follow the doctor’s orders and rest the rest of the day. Before we called it a day, we dropped by the travel agency and asked for tour options. We found that there was a tour to some ancient pre-Inca ruins – apparently the most famous in Bolivia – near La Paz, as well as a couple of guided city tours. We said yes to both, and were advised to do the city tours on Sunday when there’d be less traffic… and so, tomorrow was our visit to Tihuanacu, an archeologically site a couple of hours from La Paz.
We were already feeling the headaches, fatigue, and heaviness of breath hitting us, in spite of the coca tea so we just went off to bed. In spite of how we were feeling, we were excited to explore this city.
July 19th, 2008
We woke up early to catch our guided tour to Tihuanacu, having filled up on breakfast and more coca tea! The tour bus went around La Paz, picking up tourists from various hotels/hostels and gave us a better glimpse of the city. The bus went back up towards the airport, to the higher altitude, and passed the city of El Alto – this is where the poorest of La Paz live. The traffic was crazy, and all we could see were these mini vans that acted like local buses – jam packed and swerving around. We left the city, and got to view some more amazing scenery of the Altiplano – a high plateau surrounded by the Andes chain of mountains. The scenery consisted of amazing peaks, farm land, cows, donkeys, sheep, pigs, and small villages. We finally got to our destination – Tihuanacu – pre Inca ruins. Our guide had been talking all this time, giving us tidbits of information in English and Spanish. We walked up a hill where the 7 steps of a pyramid was slowly being excavated. We were able to take photos today because the archaeologists were off for the weekend. On the whole, we were kinda bored, and not too impressed. We tried our hardest to not compare this to the Egyptian pyramids, but you know…we’re only human!! A part of the reason for our lack of enthusiasm was because it was going to be another full ten years before the ruins were fully excavated and restored to show a glimpse of what it may have been like. Since we couldn’t abandon the tour, we walked along and took pictures here and there until it was time for lunch.
Lunch was an interesting affair, sitting around a table like a cafeteria with our tour group in a large hall. We got to talking to a few Brazilian guys who were travelling together – all friends from Sao Paolo with various professional backgrounds. The best English/Portuguese we could muster got us sharing some of our Brazilian stories and also shared an interesting episode around the really, really, spicy hot Salsa they were serving at lunch. They were intrigued by the amount of this salsa Karthik was gulping down. The palates instructor and the mechanical engineer bet the flight attendant 50 Bolivianos to have an entire spoonful of it. When Karthik offered to do it, they all laughed and said that such a bet would be useless. Anyway, the flight attendant did it…and we all had a great time watching him breathe fire out. Karthik was even able to get a 1-Real coin, the one item missing from his coin/currency collection! He’s a geek and he knows it!! So, the main interesting item at lunch was the Quinua soup, a hot vegetable and lentil soup made from quinua, a local lentil quite high in protein and being marketed around the world more and more. It was delicious!!! It was the highlight of our lunch.
So, after lunch, we headed off to visit the museums cataloguing the history and culture of the Tihuanacu civilization – these ruins were of the civilization’s capital. Some interesting ceramics, a somewhat preserved Mummy, and a bunch of other things they were able to excavate out of the ruins. Other than that, nothing to write home about!! And so, was our day at the ruins – expected more, but the drive there was interesting; met some cool people; and got to walk in the sun for a while! On the way back, these American and British tourists started talking about their ‘incredibly long and varied’ travel experiences that spanned months and months and many, many, many stories. While initially OK, it was incessant and lasted the full 2 hours drive back to our hotel. It was jarring to hear some bad stories and other aspects of their travels that was bordering on a ‘who’s got the better set of experiences?’ debate. Ah well… guess that’s to be expected from going on tours… tourists!
July 20th, 2008
So, today we were going on a couple of tours around the city – one would explore downtown La Paz, while the other went to the southern part of the city and also to a place mysteriously named the Moon Valley. We took a taxi to the Plaza where we were going to be picked up by the Sightseeing Bus… or we hoped. By the way, taxis (among many things) are incredibly cheap here and we found out from the cabbie that gas costs half of what it does back home. Our bus departed on the tour, and we were listening to the commentary on the headphones attached to the seat. Interesting facts! Bolivia has had over 175 heads of state in as many years, with over a 100 of them being dictators and one of them actually being in office for 6 hours!! There was even a time when there were 3 Presidents serving at the same time. Volatile country for sure! The economy is mostly based on minerals, gas, and oil, which of course all the neighbouring countries wanted and so ensued all these wars with Bolivia steadily losing more and more territory. Actually, one of the presidents traded a substantical piece of Bolivian land for a horse that he really liked!
Our tour wandered around the southern half of La Paz, part of the city that wasn’t too evident in the skyline since it was lower in altitude. This meant that there were a lot of wealthy residents who lived here in their huge mansions atop hills, by hills, and at the foot of the hills. There were hills everywhere – crazy, strange landscape of brown and red hills with jagged edges and sharp edges and boulders. It was surreal and quite the treat for the eyes – never expected this sort of stuff here! But this city had more surprises in store. As we descended in altitude, our guide told us that the climate actually improves quite a bit with a 10 degree difference between the lowest point in the valley and the highest, where the airport was! This is why the rich prefer living here – not a surprise!
Our crazy scenic ride ended at the Moon Valley, which seemed to be the culmination of all the bizarre landscape we were seeing till then. This was a large area covered in jagged hills and valleys, made of a grainy, sandy, and porous material – somehow makes you feel like you’re in an alien world (no need to explain why we loved it!). It was sad that we could only spend 20 minutes here, but we made the best of it, climbing up and down the man-made trails and feeling like we were truly on the moon. The landscape had some amazing cacti and other exotic desert plants, and we went crazy taking macro shots.
Eventually, we were made to get out of the there and made our way back into the city taking a slightly different route. This route showed us the many urban parks, rivers, bridges, and neighbourhoods that made up this insanely diverse city – we absolutely loved it! At the end of the tour, we had some time to kill before the next city tour was to begin, so decided to head off to one of the main squares.
We went with another lady, Leyda, we had met on the city tour since she too was going to do the other city tour. Interesting lady – an electoral judge back in the Dominican Republic and has travelled a large part of the world, including India. We were having a good time at the square, eating some local snacks and chatting with Leyda. Then we decided to split up, so we could spend some time together watching local life around the square – vendors selling ice cream and balloons, couples and families with kids feeding the hardcore number of pigeons there (that intermittently flew up in a swarm making a huge racket and making for a cool sight!), and some cool architecture around us. There was this most adorable little girl – maybe 2 years old, chasing the pigeons all around the square and being absolutely happy. After watching her and exchanging smiles with her mother, we simply could not resist going up to her mother and offering to buy her a balloon. So her mother asked her to pick one, and she continued on chasing the pigeons, now with a balloon in her hand. Watching her made us happy. The main government buildings were there, where the president lived as well as the main Congress, next to the main Cathedral.
We were having too good of a time to leave, but had to head back to catch the next city tour. We headed off into the downtown of La Paz, past wide squares with statues and parks, as well as the narrowest of streets. Everywhere we drove past, there was a crazy maze of communication and power lines (literally, hundreds of wires) everywhere above the street level – also making for some ‘close calls’ as our double-decker bus winded through these streets. Karthik bravely stood up whenever he could to take some pictures, nonetheless!
So, while this tour was less-scenery heavy, we truly got to see this grand city in all its diversity and richness of culture. One of the last stops was a lookout point from where we could see the entire city, which again to our disappointment, we were only allowed 15 minutes or so. We made the most of it again, taking pictures of this vast sprawling city covering all the hills and valleys everywhere we could look – we thought to ourselves this definitely had to be one of the prettiest cities in the world, possibly more so than San Francisco or Rio de Janeiro!
Finally, our tour ended and we headed off to our hotel, and decided to do some shopping at the markets around our hotel, built on the steep, cobble-stoned streets that the local traffic somehow seems to navigate through.
Upon returning to the hotel, Karthik wasn’t feeling too good – shivers, nausea, headaches – from the altitude adjustment. So as he took a nap, Penny went to do some work in the courtyard of the hotel since there was Wi-Fi everywhere. She bumped into Dan and Brian, an optometrist and a teacher from LA who were doing their Bolivia vacation (we had talked to them briefly earlier in the day) and they were going to the terrace to catch the sunset and asked Penny to come along. Being on the terrace was cool as it provided a good view of La Paz and the main ice-capped peak of Illumani (over 6500m high), part of the Eastern chain of Andes mountains. As the sun set, and mingled with the clouds, the sky was a vibrant mix of pink, orange and red, while the snow on the mountain glowed… and was really spectacular! Penny insisted we had to check it out again tomorrow.
We weren’t too impressed with the stuff the merchants were selling, as we were really looking for a doll/representation of the local Aymara women – who in their many layered frocks, sweaters, and topped off with an English bowler hat, made for quite the sight. This was the local dress, and about as universal as perhaps Saris are in India. Interesting that the hats were being worn because some Englishman ‘tricked’ the high-society ladies of La Paz to believing this was really fashionable a century or so ago! That was really hilarious to know, given all these local women were wearing these English hats too small for their heads and offering no practical value!
Anyhow, we ended up buying an ‘Andean flute,’ an instrument with many pipes put together to create the typical sound of the Andes. Karthik did his best to learn how to play it and got it for a few brief seconds, but overall, was a good addition to our musical instrument collection. We were getting tired and wanted to go back to our hotel, so we went to our favourite courtyard cafe at the hotel and ordered some wicked chicken sandwiches and coca tea and headed back to our room. We decided to update our blog and while we were in the process of doing so, the “blue screen of death” came on. Basically, our computer crashed, and it was a major one! It wouldn’t even boot up for us to back up our data. The worst thing was, this was the main laptop we were using – for email, skype, websites, admin work, and travel itinerary details. We panicked. Really, we panicked. After considering all the options we had at that time, in that place, we decided to breathe and let it go. Some packing to do and tomorrow we head off to Puno, Peru!