Sunrise over the Salar

Apologies for the delay on this post, the internet in the town where I started and ended my tour had no wi-fi, and the connection at the internet cafés was so slow my Gmail would barely load. My plan was to wait until I crossed the border to Argentina to get this post, mostly of photos and a few descriptions, live. My laptop, however, has since died, so I have no way of uploading my own photos. These words will have to do instead, with hopes that I can maybe get my computer up and running soon. 

Edited: My computer is back from the dead! At least long enough to let me get these photos up, so you’re in luck!

My tour of southwestern Bolivia consisted of days so long and so jam-packed that at the end of it all, it was hard to believe I´d only been gone for 4 days, and not 4 weeks. Despite the exhaustion from not sleeping properly at high altitudes and spending hours on end in a not-so-comfortable jeep, I had a fabulous trip, met some wonderful people who actually changed the course of my trip (more on that later), and saw some of the most incredible scenery I´ve ever laid eyes on.

There were hours where I looked out of the jeep window and the landscape looked so foreign that I swore I´d been transported to Mars, and other moments where it looked as though I was back at Arches National Park in Utah. The Salar de Uyuni, the highlight of the tour, was our last stop on the fourth day, but we spent the third night at it´s edge. Walking out onto the endless expanse of salt was more humbling than I can describe. And even though our 4 AM wakeup call on day four was just as painful as my 4 AM Machu Picchu wakeup call nearly six months ago, the sunrise I witnessed was so different, it literally took my breath away.

Most people head west from Potosi (where I did the mine tour) to Uyuni, where the majority of the 3 day/2 night tours of the Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats start. I´d been given advice, however, that starting from Tupiza, an equally small town that is directly south of Potosi, is a lesser known, but much better option. From Tupiza, the tour is four days and three nights, the landscape surrounding the town is beautiful, you drive through a completely different national park, end with the salt flats instead of begin with them, and the tour quality is supposed to be higher. All of this advice proved true, and I am incredibly thankful I started from Tupiza instead.

I could easily write 3,000 words with every detail of my trip, but I´m going to spare you and just write out the highlights, then (fingers crossed) let my ridiculous number of photos speak for themselves as soon as I can get them up.
  • On the night bus from Potosi to Tupiza, I ran into Vincent, one of the guys on the same mine tour I´d done earlier in the day. When we got off the bus at 4 AM in Tupiza, we decided to check in at the same hostel and research Salar tours together the next morning. A few hours later as we wandered through town, we ran into Anthony and David — two Australian guys also on our tour in Potosi — and it turned out all four of us were staying at the same hostel/tour agency and had booked the same 4 day tour leaving the next day. Yet another small-world South America run in! As happy as I am to be traveling on my own, I was glad to know I´d have some familiar faces on my tour.
  • The day before we left Tupiza, Vincent and I took a 3 hour horseback ride in the red-rock valley near Tupiza. Although our horses random, un-announced galloping was a little bit overwhelming, the scenery was beautiful, and I immediately fell in love with southwestern Bolivia. The naturally carved red rocks, low-growing green brush, and mountain studded horizon reminded me of a more spectacular version of the southwestern US, and I couldn´t get enough.
  • Our immediate tour group consisted of two jeeps. I spent countless hours bouncing along dirt roads with Eduardo the driver, Irena the cook, Vincent, Stephanie and Isabelle, French-speaking sisters from Switzerland. The other jeep shared our cook, and was headed by Edson the driver and Sergio, our English volunteer tour guide. Laura from Australia, Brian from Ireland, and Sophie and Daniel, a couple from Switzerland, filled the four back seats. There were three other jeeps from the same tour agency that we saw along the route and stayed at the same hostels with, including Anthony and David, my Australian buddies.
  • Toward the end of our first day on the road, we had just climbed back into the jeeps after a stop at an eerily abandoned ghost town. As we cruised away, our jeep began shaking and rattling, but not from the rocky, dirt road we were driving on. We were being pelted with huge chunks of hail. Thunder rumbled so loudly we were all slightly startled, and the lightning streaked so brightly it lit up the entire sky — at one point we even saw smoke rise as the currents hit the mountains ahead of us. Amazingly, we drove straight through the storm and into the pueblo where we´d be spending our first night, and by then all was calm. In fact, the sky was clear enough that we were able to climb up on a ridge behind the town to watch the sun set behind the grey clouds in the distance.
  • Throughout the tour, we stopped at a half-dozen alien-looking lagoons filled with bright, strangely colored water and hundreds of gorgeous pink flamingos. My favorites were Laguna Colorado, a bright red lake that gets its stunning coloring from red plankton, and Laguna Hedionda, a stunning bright turquoise lake rimmed in white minerals and surrounded by picture-perfect mountains that were reflected in the clear, still water.
  • At some point on day two, the landscape changed drastically and it was like we´d suddenly landed on Mars. Flat red, rocky expanses of nothingness stretched out before us and black volcanoes with bright yellow, white, and red tops captivated the four of us as our jeep zoomed past them. I wasn´t surprised to find out later that that specific area of the Bolivian desert is actually used by NASA to test space rovers because the wind conditions and rocky landscape mimic those of Mars.
  • On our second night, I braved the miserably cold air to stand outside and stare at the stars. I can´t remember seeing such a bright sky since my Camp Tawonga days, and watching a shooting star streak through the darkness reminded me of how much I absolutely love the night sky. I had one of those cheesy travel moments, where I couldn´t have been more thankful that I quit my job and made myself crazy for a few months so I could be standing in that spot, seeing the beauty of the world. It just solidified how worth it this has all been, despite the ups and downs of the last few weeks.
  • On day three, the landscape turned flat and the mirage on the horizon appeared. The sun reflecting off the salt, stretching out for hundreds of miles in front of us, made the salt flats look like a perfectly mirrored lake, and we were all convinced it was actually covered in water until our guide corrected us. Once we put our things down at the hostel, we walked a half hour out onto the edge of the salar. Its expansiveness was humbling, but in a completely different way than anything I´ve seen on this trip thus far. Incan ruins, mountain ranges, cloud rainforests, pelican-dotted beaches… they all seemed so far away, and so drastically different.
  • Our last stop after the salt flats and before the town of Uyuni, where our tour officially ended, was a massive train cemetery, where old, rusted British trains had been abandoned. Unfortunately, my camera battery died shortly after our arrival, but I could have easily stayed there all day with my DSLR — the rusting iron, graffiti-covered cars contrasted with the hilly background was a photographers paradise.

Overall, I had a fabulous trip. I wish there was a bit more walking and a bit less sitting in the jeep, but as everyone had told me to expect, the Salar truly was spectacular.

My original plan was to get out of the jeep in Uyuni and immediately arrange a transport out to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. But it turned out my plans for Argentina overlapped with Vincent´s and Sergio´s and I decided I wanted to have some travel company for a bit, so I ended up coming back to Tupiza to relax, wait for Sergio to finish his volunteer gig, and the two of us made our way down to Salta yesterday for a few days. After Salta, I have yet to make up my mind whether I´ll go out to San Pedro like I´d originally planned and then hightail it to Cordoba to meet Vincent, or keep heading south on my own to explore some smaller towns and then wait for Vincent.

My OCD tendancies are hating my indecision right now, but the other half of me is so thrilled that my vacation has warped and changed so beautifully just because I made instinctive decisions to do exactly what I wanted from moment to moment. Not having a solidified plan has been a wonderful thing!

And now, cross your fingers that my nearly seven-year old macbook wakes up from her deep sleep long enough to let me post pictures!

The devil’s work

Potosi is the highest city in the world, at nearly 13,500 feet above sea level, and you feel the altitude the second you step off the bus. It’s hard to breathe, and you huff and puff just walking down the block… even if it’s a level street. The city is based completely around the mining community, which has been extracting silver and a variety of other minerals from the Cerro Rico mountain for over 500 years.

I’ve hemmed and hawed over the last few weeks, trying to decide if I was going to stop in Potosi and do a tour of the mines, a popular, and really, the only, tourist attraction in the city. Despite it’s popularity, it seemed unethical to pay to take a glimpse at the miserably horrific working conditions that these poor Bolivians are forced to work in.

Despite my initial hesitations, a few people told me positive things about both Potosi and the mine tour, so I decided to breeze through the city, spending less than 24 hours there. I’m really glad I did.

Potosi is a tiny, but charming, city. It’s streets are narrow and lined with cobblestones, the buildings are painted in beautiful bright colors with wrought iron balconies and nice wood detailing. Several churches with gorgeous steeples dot the skyline, and the main plaza is quaint, but beautiful.

We met for our mine tour at 8:30 AM, starting with a pit stop at the office to change into full gear: plasticy pants that looked like a set of scrubs, minus the elastic at the ankle, a long sleeve jacket that velcroed down the front, thick plastic boots, a hard helmet, a waist belt that held the battery for our headlamp, which was attached to our hat by a thick black cord, and finally, a bandana, tied around our neck so that we could semi-protect our lungs  from the harsh chemicals we’d be exposed to.

All geared up and posing with Potosi

After we were all geared up, we stopped at the miners market — a series of small shops selling bottles of water and soda, face masks, hard helmets, bottles of 96% pure alcohol (yes, for consumption), coca leaves, and, most importantly: dynamite. Dynamite is widely available, and anyone can simply walk into a shop, lay down 20 Bolivianos ($3) and get their hands on a stick, complete with a detonating rope and a bag of aluminum nitrate, which magnifies the explosion. The miners work for themselves, usually in small groups, and are therefore responsible for purchasing and maintaing all their equipment. They are often in the mines for ten or twelve hours at a time, and appreciate any small gifts from tourists.

The other thing that compelled me to take a tour was that most of the tour agencies give back: 15% of the proceeds of our tour went directly to the miners. For this reason, they are happy to see you down in the mines, and answer your questions or exchange a quick “hola.”

Once we’d purchased our gifts and some essential coca leaves for chewing ourselves, we piled back in the van toward the mountain. We stopped at the refinery plant to see the machines that extracted the minerals from the chunks of stone, and our guide even stuck a clump of pure silver on my hand.

Our tour started off on a silly note: our tour guide came out of the office in nothing but his hard hat and boxers, pulled up high enough that we could see most of his butt cheeks, to explain how hot it is in the mines, and our tour guides named the 3 groups horrifically offensive things, like Llama Fuckers.  However, the mood quickly sombered once we’d climbed the first 400 meters down into the first level of the mine and crawled our way to the statue of Tios, the Bolivian miners representation of the Devil.

Tios has the body of a man and the horns of a devil, and his statue is covered in confetti, coca leaves, cans of beer, and cigars. The miners offer these things to him in prayer — leaving with them hopes of rich mineral findings, longer life, protection in the tunnels, and even more tourists.

The tunnels are dark, narrow, and very low. One of the poor 6’4 Australian guys in our group could barely walk — I’m an entire 13 inches shorter and I still struggled. Steel tracks for mining cars line the path, and loose stones and rock fragments line the walls, coated in green clumps of sulfur, red iodine and other harsh chemicals brought into the tunnels as the miners work. Clumps of thick black tube carrying compressed oxygen, not for the workers to breathe, but to help run any tools brought down into the mines, run along the tunnel, often times sagging into your vision. Random pieces of wood, possibly placed for reinforcement hundreds of years ago, jut out and threaten to attack your hard hat if you aren’t careful.

One of the many narrow caverns we had to crawl through

You walk through the tunnels hunched over as best you can, at times army crawling on all fours, other times scooting along on your ass. In order to access the different levels of the mines, you have to maneuver your body through thin crevasses, down shaky ladders, and up giant sections of rock with barely any footholds.

On top of the struggle just to maneuver through the dark, the air is dense with chemicals, which hit you like a ton of bricks. As you enter the different levels and areas of the mountain, the air can change instantly, suddenly becoming 5 or 10 degrees hotter than where it was just fifteen feet behind you. With your bandana pulled around your mouth, it was hard to breathe in the thick, limited oxygen. But without it, your lungs and throat stung with the unfamiliar air, laced with chemicals I couldn’t even name.

As we traversed through the mines, our boots six inches deep in a sludge-like concoction of mud, chemicals and minerals, our guide introduced us to a myriad of miners. One man we met was 65 and had been working in the mines for 41 years. Another was 17, and had already spent 4 years underground. Another was just 24 — exactly my age — and had been working in the mines for 7 years. Hearing his age, I let out a gasp. The entire time I’d been living on the east coast, gaining my independence, a college degree, and all of my work experience, this young man had been breathing in toxic chemicals for 10 hours a day, rarely seeing daylight.

After meeting 5 or 6 groups of miners and getting ourselves down all the way to the fourth level of the mine, we made our way back up. All I could think for the last 20 minutes was get me out of here. My legs shook from the physical stress I’d put on them climbing amongst the various levels, my arms (now exposed because it was too hot to wear our jackets) were caked in mud, and my face was slick with sweat.

When we finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel (sorry, I couldn’t help it) and climbed out into the light, our guide offered us each a high five.

“You made it!” he exclaimed with a grin.

Yes, I survived 2 hours in a mine shaft, and by the end I had to restrain myself from running to the exit. But these people work for dozens of years in these conditions. Granted they aren’t climbing and walking through all the paths, across all the levels, but they are sitting in that toxic air, not seeing light for days at a time. On top of that, the miners starve themselves because bringing food into the mines would be unproductive: it would get coated in dust or mud, and give the miners indigestion. Instead, they only chew coca leaves, which build up to look like a small egg inside their cheek, and help with the hunger, altitude and the rough air.

It certainly puts your life — and your commute — in perspective to go down there. I’m glad I took the time to stop and see it with my own eyes. And if anything, maybe it will teach me to think twice about my very painless subway commute.

‘You speak Spanish like Obi-wan-kanobe’

I think he probably meant Yoda, but I let the reference slide. In any event, I had a great opportunity to practice my Spanish when I went out with An (my friend from Montreal who I met in Cochabamba when we were stuck inside for Census Day) for happy hour in Sucre on Tuesday night.

An has been working for nearly six months in Sucre, and knows lots of co-workers and locals from her time there. She graciously invited me out to happy hour, where drinks are two for one. We ordered 4 mojitos, which I thought meant well, 4 mojitos, but apparently that means each person gets the two for one special. So the four of us ended up with 8 mojitos, which cost us a grand total of 72 Bolivianos — approximately $10. No, not each. Total. 

I laughed, thinking about what I would have been able to write in BostoNite for drinks that price. They weren’t weak either! We had a great time, and even though my new friend told me I speak like a Star Wars character (the flaw of thinking in English and speaking in Spanish) I was happy to have the opportunity to go out and socialize in a different language.

Other Sucre highlights?

I went to visit the Cal Orck’o, a ‘museum’ built around the longest sets of dinosaur tracks found on earth. Tourists have relatively visceral reactions to these prints when they find out the ‘wall’ with the sets of tracks (because of tectonic plate shifting millions of years ago, the prints appear on a wall which was once the floor of the earth) is quite far from the museum and they can’t actually go touch the prints, sit in them, or do other terrible tourist-like things. Regardless, I decided to fork over the very pricey $4 admission (hah) and check ’em out myself. Included in my $4 was a free guided tour, and I was the only person at that hour who needed an English tour. So, Juan Carlos met me and showed me around, explaining tons of interesting facts about dinosaurs and Bolivia and geology. I learned more in 20 minutes with him than I did in 2 days in ToroToroShocker. Anyways, Juan Carlos was clearly infatuated with me a little bit, and in between learning about dino prints, making me pose for many awkward photos, and practicing my Spanish, he managed to slip an awkward “want to go get a drink and talk about Bolivia?” question into our conversation. Earlier, we’d talked about where in the city I was staying, and since he was harmless enough, and when he offered to stop by the next night, I shrugged and said sure, I’d be happy to grab a beer.

Chillin’ with some (fake) tyrannosaurus rex bones.

Fast forward to 30 hours later, I’d finished making dinner and left the hostel to meet An and her friend at her apartment from some girl time with a bottle of wine. When I got back to my hostel around 10 PM, Mike, the owner, had a message for me. “Juan Carlos stopped by for you…” he said with a smirk on his face and a questioning sparkle in his eye. Shoot. I feel totally guilty and like a complete jerk. Even though I wasn’t interested in him romantically whatsoever, I would have loved to practice my Spanish with a local guy, and feel so badly for accidentally standing him up. Yikes! Even worse, I had no way of apologizing or being in touch.

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting on a bench in the main plaza with my eReader when two little boys came trotting up to me, shoe-shining kits in hand. When I tried, in Spanish, to explain that my cloth mocassins cannot be shined, they showed me the magazine they were selling instead. Similar to the Spare Change newspaper made by and for the homeless population in Boston, the publication costs 3 Bolivianos, 1.50 of which goes directly to the child, and 1.50 of which goes to the non-profit helping the poverty-stricken children. I gladly bought a copy, especially when one of the boys proudly grinned and pointed to his picture in the magazine. After some more nagging, I let them use their brushes to ‘clean’ my moccasins, which, admittedly, were getting to be more brown than black. They each took a foot, working meticulously, and though most shoe shiners only charge about 3 Bolivianos, with wax, I handed each boy a 10 Boliviano note. Just seeing their little eyes light up and the grins spread across their faces was worth the $2.50 I’d just forked over. That money means so little to me and so much to them, and it was a very humbling reminder of what a poor country I’m traveling through.

Sure, Bolivian cities are hectic, disorganized and relatively dirty. But when you’re staying in a hostel with hot showers, full kitchen facilities and tons of other English-speaking tourists, it’s easy to forget the poverty around you. Bolivia is an incredibly poor country — as Westerners, we marvel at how cheap the produce and food are, but many families can barely afford those prices, as is. When you’re traveling from hostel to hostel, city to city, on the gringo trail it’s easy to forget the poor people in the countryside, the ones you aren’t interacting with, and the ones who have to shower once a week in the public shower facilities scattered through the city.

Mostly, I just spent the last 3 days doing lots of wandering, reading in the sun, drinking real-sugar Coca Cola’s, and cooking using a million fresh veggies I bought for just a few cents at the nearby mercado.

I was going to stay in Sucre through the end of the week and go on an all day hike to the siete cascadas today, but, to no surprise, the tour I was depending on to take me got cancelled. Surprisingly, not because of Bolivians — the couple I’d met who committed to go with me (and knew I couldn’t go without them because the agency needed 3 people for a tour) bailed on me last minute when we were supposed to go pay. So instead, I took an afternoon bus to Potosi, and tomorrow I’m seeing the two highlights of the town: the mines and the Casa de Moneda, before hopping on a night bus down to Tupiza.

The La Paz jinx?

I think there’s just something this city has against me. It’s hard to believe it was only 8 days ago that I limped, in tears, through the La Paz bus station, frantic to find a cab and get myself to a hospital or clinic, worrying that my foot was broken and my travels are over. But here I am, another huge hitch in my travel plans, and back in La Paz, where I don’t want to be.

My overnight bus from Cochabamba arrived in La Paz around 7 AM this morning and I was at the airport by 7:30 AM. The ticket agent told me to check back at the counter at 9 AM, that’s when she would know if my flight to Rurrenabaque was cancelled.

So, with my typical luck, and the travel gods clearly against me this week, every single flight for the day was cancelled. And, most likely, there will be no flights for the next several days because of weather conditions and a bad runway at the airport in Rurrenabaque.

I met a nice Australian couple also on my cancelled flight, so we shared a cab back down to La Paz and began brainstorming. The options?

* A 20+ hour bus ride on a non-tourist bus (not a “cama” or “semi-cama” — bed or half bed — bust with reclining, comfy seats like the ones I usually take overnight). No thank you.

* A private jeep, which would cost about 550 Bolivianos per person (I paid 650 Bolivianos, or $90, for the 40 minute flight I was supposed to take) and take between 16 and 18 hours, getting us into Rurrenabaque at 7 AM to start 9 AM tours into the jungle that same morning. Again, no thank you.

* Wait it out in La Paz and see if weather conditions improve/flights by chance don’t get cancelled over the next several days. Feasible, technically, since I’m not completely crunched for time, but I’m not exactly enthralled with La Paz and I feel like all I’ve been doing lately is sitting around and waiting.

I was able to get a full refund for the tour I’d booked and can go to any Amaszonas Airlines office in Bolivia to get a full refund for my cancelled flight, so with those things in mind, I went back to the bus station (for what felt like the thousandth time in 8 days) and bought a bus ticket to Sucre for tonight.

My purchases for the day!

It was bright and sunny this afternoon (it’s currently absolutely down pouring with thunder and lightening sneaking its way in every few minutes — luckily I’m tucked in a cafe with wifi and a coca tea) so I did some retail therapy shopping, which I’d been itching to do since I first arrived in Cochabamba. I bought myself a gorgeous Incan calendar ring, some Chakana cross silver earrings, an awesome South America patch with the flags on every country, and two pieces of beautiful embroidered artwork – one for me, and one for Mom!

I’m officially giving up on northern Bolivia, and hoping that the southern half of the country treats me a little bit better. I smell, I haven’t showered in nearly 3 days, and am totally exhausted from half-sleeping on the bus last night, but hopefully I can just pass out for the 12 hour ride and start a fresh new week in Sucre.

Lies, dinosaurs and chocolate milk

Well, I’ve officially had my first vacation meltdown.

I’m surprised how easy that is for me to admit, but I suppose these sorts of moments happen to everyone, and in an honest attempt to document my trip — the breathtaking moments, the hysterical stories, and the sad, frustrating days, I have to report that Thursday was one of the later.

While most Americans were sleeping in, preparing to stuff their faces with turkey and for a day filled with family, football, and lots of booze, I got myself up at 5 AM and directed my cab driver to an intersection where there was supposedly a bus leaving at 6 AM for ToroToro, a small town at the edge of a national park six hours south of Cochabamba.

That supposedly is emphasized because despite the fact that I had my hostel receptionist call the office to triple check they were indeed running buses on a normal schedule, this is Bolivia after all, and I knew nothing could be that simple.

Unfortunately, I was right.

Around 5:40 AM, a gigantic 6-wheel Volvo truck, painted yellow and red with a front cab at least four feet off the ground, rolled up in front of the bus “office”: a storefront hidden by a locked metal grate and marked only by a single sign saying “Torotoro Autobuses”. As the driver got out and opened the small puerta above the 5 rung ladder leading to the back bed of the truck, I ran through the possibilities in my head.

My lovely ride.

Maybe he’s delivering things for the bus to bring to ToroToro? Maybe this is the cheaper form of transit I’d read about in my guidebook and the real bus will be here soon? Maybe he knows one of the señors y señoritas he’s shaking hands with and pulled over to say hello? Maybe it’s so early in the morning I’m hallucinating?

Despite my subconscious’s inner protests, twenty minutes later I’d forked over 20 Bolivianos (approximately $2.85) and was climbing into the front cab of that truck, trying to mentally and physically prepare myself for a six hour drive down a windy, dirt road. To my right was the only other tourist of the bunch — a Japanese man named Hiro who I could only communicate with in Spanish since he didn’t speak any English. We gawked, laughed and shrugged our shoulders together at this ridiculous adventure we were about to embark on. He had his point-and-shoot digital camera out and was taking dozens of pictures every chance he got. Meanwhile, I was too sleepy and shocked to even process what was happening.

Apparently, there weren’t enough people, so they didn’t bother booking a bus. If we wanted to get there that day, we were stuck in the camiones.

The dozen or so indigenous men and women, waiting on the sidewalk with huge parcels, hopped in the bed of the truck — protected by 4 foot ‘walls’ — with their bags and our backpacks, which I could only pray wouldn’t roll off the elevated platform above the truck’s cab where they’d been precariously placed.

My first observation upon hopping in the truck? The speedometer was rotated 90 degrees to the left, with the 60 where the 0 should be, and, not surprisingly, the needle stayed at 0 no matter how hard our driver pushed on the gas. Which was relatively hard, but to no avail, as I’m not sure we drove faster than 40 miles an hour the entire morning.

One cannot make things like this up.

Several holes in the dashboard revealed handfuls of tangled wires, the glove compartment was held shut with a piece of string, and a pine tree-shaped air freshener that looked as old as I am hung from a skull pin tacked to the felt, zebra-striped dashboard cover. If I looked down at the driver’s feet, I could see a hole revealing more wires and the ground, whizzing by below. The cab had no windows, let alone seatbelts, and there were no windshield wipers, just a singular black knob at the end of a two inch plastic stick. Whenever we stopped and the driver needed to get out of the truck, he placed a brick-like metal block on the brake pedal.

I wish I were making this up.

Only half of the six hours of road we covered was paved. In this case, however, paved meant cobblestone, which explains why when I finally got out of the cab for good at 12:30 PM, I felt like my kidneys and stomach had involuntarily traded places.

Both Hiro and the driver were smokers, and between the windy roads, strong diesel smell and the cigarette fumes, I’m shocked I didn’t lose my roadside breakfast of a coca cola, banana and 1 boliviano bread roll. Although I was convinced at one point my legs were going to fall off because my ass was so numb from the thin, unpadded bench we were sitting on, we somehow arrived in ToroToro in one piece.

I walked to the one hostel I’d seen on the main plaza, and enticed by the ridiculously low price of 25 Bolivianos — or $3.75 — for a night in a single room, I said yes, grabbed my key and set down my backpack.

I quickly discovered this very small pueblo has no restaurants, only a big room that looks like a university mess hall, with several cashiers and long tables set up with plastic chairs. It was empty by the time I arrived, and although there were several señoras eating in the back corner of the room, when I asked if they had any almuerzo, they simply scoffed, said ‘no hay‘ and went back to their conversation. I asked a half dozen people for directions to markets, restaurants or other hostels. Nobody had the slightest interest in helping me, nor did they acknowledge how bizarre it was that their town — at the foot of a national park frequented by tourists — didn’t have any other places to eat.

Instead, I made do with fruit and snacks from a tiny tienda, grabbed my reader and sat in the sun in the main plaza waiting for the tourist office to open. In Torotoro, it’s explicitly stated that you may not walk on any of the trails in the park without a guide, who needs to be hired through the tourist office. You cannot enter the park without paying your entrance fee, which also must be done at the tourist office. At just past 1:30 PM, I was told the tourist office would re-open after almuerzo at 2 PM. By 3:45 there was still nobody there. I went back to the my hostel to ask, and the owner pointed me toward a man sitting outside. “El es a guia,” was all he said. So I began pestering the poor man with questions, discovering that he too had no idea when the office would open again for the day, if at all. He confirmed I needed a guide, but also informed me that even if I could hire a guide (which I couldn’t) it was too late in the day to do anything in the park. So that was it, my day had officially been deemed useless.

Exhausted, not quite satiated from my pathetic snack lunch, the pain in my foot returning from my painkillers wearing off, and beyond frustrated at the crappy town I’d chosen to drag myself 6 hours down a windy dirt road to stay in, the tears began to pour down my cheeks. I was totally alone (Hiro booked it from the truck when we arrived and I had no idea where the hostel he’d found was), there wasn’t a single person who spoke English, and I couldn’t find a real meal to save my life. And you can imagine exactly how thrilled I was to spend a second day in a row doing absolutely nothing.

Then, it started to pour. Thunder and lightening shook the trees around my hostel, and the rain came down so hard it leaked through my window and into a huge puddle in my room. Fed up, exhausted and lacking motivation to interact with more Bolivians, I had another pathetic snack meal, curled up with some Newsroom episodes and tried to ignore the storm.

Thankfully, Friday was a slight improvement, and I managed to find a group of 6 other tourists, including Hiro, who had hired a guide for the 5 km circuit to the canyon outlook, waterfalls, and dinosaur footprints. Of course I’d gotten myself up at 8 AM and in the four hours between my wakeup call and then time our group actually left for the trail, I’d been given so much contradicting and plain wrong information, I was ready to hurdle an ancient stone at somebody’s head. One guide told me it was possible to do the main circuit in 2 hours and then the caves in the afternoon. Another told me the main circuit was actually 5 hours. Another told me my group had left without me when they clearly had not. Yet another man told me my ticket would cost 15 bolivianos when it really cost 30. It’s unbelievable what people will tell you when they simply don’t know. It’s the same with directions — they don’t know where you’re trying to go, so they point in a random direction. It’s truly unbelievable. 

The circuit we took was a beautiful walk — along an old rock riverbed, out to the canyon outlook, down into the canyon to the river at it’s very bottom, then back up a massive number of stairs to several other outlooks, then a loop back around to a fenced in area with dinosaur footprints sh erred in sandstone. Because it had rained so hard the night before, the dirt had runoff everywhere, and all the rivers were a disgusting yellow-brown color, which our group joked around looked exactly like chocolate milk. Chocolate milkshake waterfall, anybody?

From the very bottom of the canyon!

Not quite Colca, but a stunning canyon nonetheless

Being in ToroToro, I felt like I’d stepped into the Land Before Time. It sounds sort of bizarre, but the world here just feels old — the canyons and mountains all reveal layers upon layers of various sediments, lizards scurry along the ground, and age old rocks smoothed by millions of years of weathering lay in every direction. The landscape is breathtaking, and though I’m still trying to decide whether the 12 hours of transport on a dirt road was actually worth it, I can’t deny the beauty of the national park.

And right in line with the ridiculousness of the last two days, the 5 AM bus I had a ticket for didn’t actually leave until 6:15. Of course. I love setting 4:30 AM alarms for no reason. And then, halfway through our ride, the bus broke down in the middle of the cobblestone, windy road. Don’t ask me how, why, or what even happened because despite my many questions nobody quite had an answer, but an hour and 15 minutes later the bus cooperated and miraculously started again. Seven hours later, I am finally in Cochabamba… again.

Thankfully, the entire two day shlep was dirt cheap — 3 bucks for the bus, er.. truck, each way, and less than $4 per night for my room. It was 100 bolivianos, or $14, for a guide for the day, but split 7 ways, we each ended up paying less than $3. And food didn’t cost much… not that I had any restaurants to choose from.  In two days, I managed to spent less than $30. 

And now I’m holed up in Cafe Paris on the Plaza 14 de Septiembre, avoiding the rain and catching up on my internet life. I’ve got 6 more hours to kill until my overnight bus to La Paz, and once I arrive there I’m going to pray I can find myself some breakfast and then head right to the airport. I can’t wait to finally be in Rurrenabaque and heading off into the jungle on an organized tour for three days.. a welcome change!

2,271 miles down – 2,159 miles to go

In my infinite census day boredom (I’m relatively terrible at doing nothing, its sort of pathetic) I added all of my South America destination cities to a public google map.

According to Google maps, I’m traveling a total of 4,430 miles through 4 different countries. So far, I’ve gone 2,271 miles, and I have another 2,159 to go.

Of course that doesn’t include the flight I’m taking up north to Rurrenabaque, a starting point to see the Bolivian Amazon in the Madidi National Park, or take into account that I’m going down to ToroToro National Park (a six hour bus ride from Cochabamba) and then backtracking all the way back to La Paz (I know, insanity) to catch my flight. This seems relatively insane (especially when you look at the map) but you can only access ToroToro via Cochabamba (and you can’t return to Sucre how I’d originally anticipated) and you can only fly to Rurrenabaque via La Paz. I hadn’t anticipated either of these bizarre Bolivian realities when I’d made my original plans, so now I’m facing the consequences in having to retrace my steps back to La Paz.

Thankfully, that squiggly line headed north is actually a 40 minute flight. Flying is recommended since the roads to Rurrenabaque are windy, not to mention often flooded and dangerous, so I’m paying the $90 each way to fly instead.

It’s crazy to look at a map and see all the distance I’ve covered and all the places I still have to go — it really puts my trip, and how much I’m seeing, into perspective. Aside from playing on google maps, Ann and I also made delicious homemade guacamole. No kitchen required!

Now I’m off to repack and watch some Newsroom!

La dia de la census

Today is Census Day in Bolivia — a day that hasn’t come in 10 years, and one that plays out much differently than one might expect.

For the next twenty four hours, the entire country shuts down. Between midnight on November 21 and midnight on November 22 nobody is allowed to leave their houses, let alone go to work — you can be fined up to 3000 Bolivianos ($430!) if you are caught on the streets without a special permit. Even worse: drinking alcohol is prohibited, which I discovered while trying to buy a bottle of Malbec at the grocery store yesterday, as alcohol sales are banned for the day prior as well. It appears that even foreigners and travelers will be talking to the hundreds of thousands of census workers going door to door interviewing people, so I’ll be sure to report on my experience later this week.

It seems the world is trying to tell me that this week wasn’t exactly the worst week to tear a ligament in my foot.

I met a sweet girl named An, (also from Montreal!) who is working in Sucre and was supposed to be in Cochabamba for a conference, which got canceled two hours before it was supposed to start. Welcome to Bolivia. The two of us went to the grocery store yesterday to stock up on food — the kitchen at our hostel is close to non-existant, but we’ve got cold cuts for sandwiches and avocado, tomato and onion to make a homemade batch of guacamole.

I’ve spent the last two days hobbling pathetically around the city — mostly depending on cabs (thank goodness they’re so cheap down here) to get me far distances. I’ve seen a few of the plazas, read several books in a myriad of cafes throughout the city, and even tried Bolivia “mexicano” food — not too bad! Thanks to the very convenient telefericos — cable cars — I was also able to get up to the El Cristo de la Concordia outlook and get a great panoramic view of the city.

The very strong prescription of ibuprofen I’ve been given does wonders for getting rid of the pain in my foot, but there’s no doubt the sprain is still there. I’m trying very hard to have self control and not overextend myself by hurting it even more. So with that in mind, here’s to a serious vacation day of absolute nothingness!

Plaza 14 de Septiembre in Cochabamba, Bolivia

View of Cochabamba from the teleferico station

Clearly, Stella was enjoying the view as well.

The necessary selfie on the cable car

Colca Canyon and a torn ligament

I would hike down, and through, one of the deepest canyons in the world but manage to tear a ligament in my foot just several hours afterwards… from tripping trying to get on a bus. All I can think right now is “typical Rachel.”  That, and a huge sigh of relief that I didn’t break a bone or seriously hurt myself to the point where I’d need to go home. I just have to be off my foot for a few days, and then I should be good to go. Even after one nights rest and some painkillers/anti-inflamatories, I’m feeling much, much better, and can put some weight on my foot.

It was nearly 4 AM, and I’d been waiting at the bus station in Arequipa for close to 4 hours. The woman I bought my bus ticket from specifically told me (and even wrote on my ticket) to be at the station by 12 AM. Although the bus schedule indicated the bus arrived at 1:30 AM, I decided I’d better listen to the woman instead. Two hours passed, and no bus. I paced, asked the attendant, who said it’d be another hour. After an hour, he said it would be another 20 minutes. Finally, around 3:45 AM, I was sleeping on and off against Dora when he woke me with a start, saying the bus was here. I grabbed my backpacks and my plastic bag of snacks and dashed for the door. Exhausted from being up for nearly 23 hours straight, and out of it from sitting at a bus station for 4 hours, I missed the curb and tripped, slamming my left knee onto the pavement and twisting my right foot inward, landing on top of it, my gigantic backpack slamming me further into the ground.

Everyone around me rushed to help, but when I tried to stand I nearly blacked out from the shock and pain. In complete disbelief, I let the driver stick my bag in the back of the bus, wiped my tears and hobbled up the steps to my seat on the second floor.

I managed to sleep a few hours, but I was so worried about the pain in my foot, and how little weight I could put on it, that I was mostly just freaking out.

Was I going to have to give up six weeks of travel and go home? Was I going to have to fork over a thousand bucks for x-rays? Were my parents going to flip out and try and force me to come home? Could I even walk on crutches with my enormous backback?

When I got to La Paz, I originally had every intention of getting right on a bus to Cochabamba. Instead, I grabbed a cab to the only place I knew: Loki Hostal, the party hostel where I’d stayed almost three months ago. I mostly hated the place for its atmosphere, but I knew they’d keep my bags safe and have a good doctor to send me to, and they did. Fifteen minutes after my arrival, my bags were locked up and I was in another cab, off to a clinic. After I explained what happened in my exhausted form of Span-glish (thank god for my hospital vocabulary lesson in Montanita!), the doctor assessed the pain and explained that because there wasn’t much swelling and I had a wide range of movement, there was no way I could have broken a bone.

Fourteen hours later, I could finally breathe again. I had, however, torn or significantly sprained a ligament on the top of my foot. He gave me a prescription for 800 mg of ibuprofen, cleaned my scraped-up and bruised left knee, wrapped my foot/ankle in an ace bandage and sent me on my way.

Because of the convenience, I asked for a night at the Loki hostel, stumbled pathetically up the stairs, and settled myself into my bunk bed, where I’d been instructed to stay, immobile, for at least 24 hours.

The damage…

After a much needed 12 hours of sleep, I am feeling a lot better, and I can now put a significant amount of weight on my foot. Since I’ve already spent several days in La Paz and don’t particularly want to be here, especially in this cigarette-smelling hostel filled with party travelers who never leave the building, I’m spending the day relaxing with my foot elevated, then heading to Cochabamba on an overnight bus. I don’t plan to do much walking there, but at least I’ll be in a new city.

And since I’ve got nothing else better to do than write, I’ll make this blog post ridiculously long by including my four days in Arequipa and at Colca Canyon. 

I’d anticipated that Arequipa would be a city I’d like, and I was definitely right. Smaller and more quaint, with beautiful architecture and lots of people out and around at all hours of the day, I really enjoyed my two days in the city.

Filiz and I spent our time relaxing, wandering, doing a bit of shopping, seeking out good coffee (a task which proved relatively costly), cooking our own dinners for ridiculously cheap, and taking an interesting walking adventure to the bus station, which wasn’t quite on the city map we had.

Arequipa’s pigeon-infested main plaza

The main square of Arequipa all lit up at night

After talking with several tour agencies and the woman at our hostel, we finally committed to a two day, one night tour of Colca Canyon — one of the deepest canyons in the world, and one of the most popular trips on Peru’s gringo trail. We’d been told the first day would involve 8 hours of walking, after which we’d spend the night at the bottom of the canyon, and the next day would be a 3 hour hike straight back up the canyon. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, persay, but everyone we talked to who’d done it hadn’t had major problems, and really enjoyed it. We figured if everyone did it, we could too.

And we could — we did — but it certainly wasn’t a cake walk, that’s for sure.

After our 3 AM wake-up call and 3:20 AM hostel pick up, we drove 3 hours in a packed, 12-person van to Chivay, the small town that serves as the gateway to volcano row and Peru’s stunning canyon country. After paying our steep 70 soles ($26 bucks!) entry fee, we got to a restaurant for the typical South American breakfast: bread, jam, and tea. We had another 3 hours or so of driving, broken up by a stop at the Condor lookout, where we were lucky enough to see several condors gliding gracefully above our heads and into the valley below.

View of the mountains from the Condor Lookout

Gorgeous condor (with a 15 foot wingspan) gliding over the outlook + lots of tourists

Just past 9:30 AM, we began the first half of our walk: 3 hours straight down the canyon. As a total klutz (oh, the irony), the steep, and very dusty, path made of rocks and lose gravel wasn’t exactly my favorite, and I quickly fell behind the group – slowly taking my time getting down the mountain, stopping plenty to take photos and steady my feet. We all met at the bridge crossing the river at the bottom of the canyon, and spent the next half hour walking uphill on the other side of the canyon, finally making it to our lunch spot.

After lunch, we had another hour of uphill walking (yes, up the other side of the canyon, after we’d just climbed all the way down the opposite side), then an hour of relatively flat paths through small villages, and then an hour of downhill walking. Yep, you read that right. We climbed all the way down, then up, just to go back down to the very same river. When we crossed the river for the final time, we’d made it to the ‘oasis’ — a set of bungalows with swimming pools where we’d be spending the night.

It had been ridiculously hot all day, and though I’d specifically purchased a horrifically touristy hat for the hike, the two liters of water I’d drunk throughout the day were clearly not enough. I immediately got a pounding headache and intense nausea and yes, you’ve guessed it: puked for the second time in southern Peru. Sun stroke, dehydration, who knows. My poor body, I just can’t stop abusing it.

Thankfully I managed to keep some coca tea down, and somehow fell asleep around 8 PM, which gave me a solid 10 hours of sleep before we had to be up to catch our mules back up to the top of the canyon.

Yes, you read that right. I copped out. There were four of us in our hiking group: Filiz, myself, Tom and Chloe – a couple from London. Though we felt a tad guilty, Chloe and I both opted for the mules. After being sick, not to mention challenging and exhausting myself the day before, I decided I deserved a ride up, instead of killing myself walking straight up hill for 4 hours. I know my resistance was mental: if I wanted to get up the side of that canyon, I absolutely could have, but I simply didn’t want to. After all, this is my vacation, hah!

The mule ride was slightly terrifying — steep, narrow paths aren’t exactly easily traversed when you’re sitting on top of an animal — but after adjusting to the bouncing and learning to trust our new four-legged friends, we ended up having a great time. I took a slightly nausea-inducing video as we climbed, but the internet here is too weak to let me upload it.

We walked 30 minutes from the entrance to the canyon to our breakfast restaurant, where were all shocked to be served eggs instead of bread — a welcome change. We hopped back in the van and made our way slowly back to Arequipa, with several stops for photo pops, bathroom breaks and an amazing vicuna (another high altitude animal similar to the alpaca and llama) spotting.

So there you have it — how Rachel Kossman traversed a canyon, but managed to tear a ligament in her foot getting on a bus. Like I said, typical Rachel. Moments like this make traveling alone a little bit lonely and a little more scary, but the clinic was wonderfully helpful and in the scheme of life, I’m completely fine, and everything could be much, much worse. After another few days of rest, I’ll be ready for more adventure!


Everyone hears Copacabana and automatically things Brazil, but the Copacabana I was in is actually a tiny tourist city on the shore of Lake Titicaca, right on the border of Peru and Bolivia.

On my full day in this beach town, I decided to take a day trip out to Isla de Sol. Though I’d seen the floating islands in Puno, I’d heard and read about Isla de Sol as a completely different experience — its scenery makes you feel as though you’re on a greek island, until you see the view of the snow capped mountains over the ocean. Boats leave Copacabana at 8:30 AM and take 2 1/2 hours to arrive at the northern tip of the Isla de Sol so I was up at 6:45 to shower (with hot water and good water pressure, totally worth the splurge on my fancy hotel!) and grab breakfast as soon as my hotel restaurant opened at 7:30 AM. For 59 Bolivianos, about $8.50, I got a cafe con leech, an egg scramble with cheese, olives, onions and tomatoes, wheat bread, and a “boxed lunch” which included a sandwich, drinkable yogurt, apple, chips, chocolate bar and water bottle. Bolivia is so damn cheap!

I walked the five minutes down to the beach to catch the boat, which cost me 30 bolivianos (just over $4) for a round trip ticket. The ride to the northern part of the Island was long and cold, and there was a group of a few very loud portuguese-speaking folks who were way too loud for 9 AM in the middle of a lake. I sat next to a nice German guy named Martin, and in between attempting to sleep, we had some good conversation. He, like most people making the trip, was going to spend the night on the island at one of the many basic, but cheap, hostels. Unfortunately, since I had already booked my hotel and didn’t have more than a day and a half in Copacabana, I didn’t have time to take more than a day trip. When you go for the day, most tourists walk the 8 km from the northern tip to the southern port, where you can catch the last boat back to Copacabana at 3:30 PM.

Once we got off the boat I quickly discovered there was nobody at the tourist office who spoke a word of English. Thankfully, a super sweet French-Canadian guy who spoke some Spanish helped me translate, and pointed me in the right direction of the boleto (ticket) office and the walk I wanted to do. He was traveling with a friend and his older sister, and the four of us ended up doing the majority of the 3-4 hour walk from the north of the island to the south together.

When I read on trip advisor that some of the walk would take your breath away, I had no idea that actually meant that the walk was full of steep paths up multiple hills. There were (many) moments where I was cursing my decision to do the walk, at the same time barely able to catch my breath. Even though the altitude in Cusco is similar to the altitude in Copacabana, it seems to be affecting me a lot more down here — I’m out of breath so much more than I was on my trek, and I did ten times the amount of walking in Peru!

The first forty five minutes of the walk was uphill to a section of runs which, to say the least, were quite unimpressive. Maybe because I just saw such spectacular Inca buildings up north in Peru, but the measly wall we had walked to was definitely not worth the extra time. Oh well!

The rest of the walk was beautiful, but because the four of us were a bit concerned about making it across the island before 3:30, we did it quite quickly. It was nice to have people to push me along, since there were certainly points where I would have stopped, or simply collapsed! It was also nice to have company and conversation, even if I did have a hard time understanding their Québécois English!

Along the way, there were several checkpoints where you had to pay 10 or 15 bolivianos to pass. I’d read about this in my guidebook and was warned at my hotel, but most people doing the walk didn’t realize and were relatively unhappy about having to fork over the extra cash. It seemed silly to be upset about forking over a dollar or two, I was happy to support the locals, and in the scheme of this trip, a few dollars seemed like nothing. It was disappointing to hear so many grumbles, instead of willingness to support the locals and such a beautiful island.

Once we reached the southern part of the island, I was relatively close to wanting to pass out. I hadn’t eaten in several hours but luckily had my very cheap boxed lunch, so while the group of Canadians continued walking to a section of restaurants, I took a seat on a shaded concrete staircase with a beautiful view of the lake and ate my sandwich (which, unfortunately, turned out to consist mostly of a disgusting mystery cheese, so I mostly ate the bread, tomato and cucumber). While I was sitting, another group of English-speakers (two English guys and a girl from Iceland) passed and started talking to me about the unimpressive ruins we’d seen on the beginning of the walk. I gave up my seat and walked the rest of the way to the harbor with them, a good distraction since we had to make our way down some seriously steep, rocky stairs. One thing is for sure: I’ve had enough with the narrow, steep stairs!

My new friends didn’t bring lunch with them, so I sat with them at a restaurant and shared some of my trail mix (Trader Joe’s cran-almond-cashew mix shlepped all the way from Boston — so worth it in that moment) while they ate their over-priced and unimpressive pollo sandwiches.

Then came the boat ride from hell. Okay, I exaggerate. But between the harsh rocking of the very small boat, the loud talking of everyone around me, and the very harsh, hot sun beating down intensely on the back of my head and neck, I was not a happy camper. The ride back to Copacabana was only an hour and a half, but by the end I was seriously convinced I was going to hurl out of the side of the boat. Luckily I didn’t, and was able to (somehow) stumble up the stairs from the beach and back to my hostel to sleep off the nausea.  My plan was to nap for an hour and a half and then sit in the TV room of my hotel with my laptop and catch up on blogging, eat some dinner and relax. Instead, I woke up at 10:30 PM completely confused, and soon realized the restaurant was closed and I couldn’t get dinner. So instead, I changed into sweats and passed back out. I woke up in a cold sweat at 5 AM from a dream that I’d somehow misunderstood the time of my bus down to La Paz and therefore missed my only chance out of Copacabana. So unrealistic, but definitely not a fun way to wake up!

I slept on and off for the next two hours, then woke myself up to triple check the time of my bus (13:00 PM, just as I had thought, but I’m consistently paranoid about misreading 24 hour time). I also realized that on my paperwork, the company I had booked with said I should have a voucher ticket in my email, which I of course never received. So I spent the first hour and a half of my day emailing/chatting them, trying to get the voucher and figure out if I needed to print it. I also made a friend while I sat in the kitchen eating my leftover breakfast from yesterday: an orange cat who decided her new favorite spot was my lap, and absolutely refused to move from her spot on my thighs no matter what I did. She kept me warm though, so I didn’t complain, at least not until she started crawling all over my keyboard in an attempt to snag some of my breakfast.

After I got my voucher situation sorted out, I checked out of my room, stuck my stuff in storage and made my way “downtown.” Copacabana itself is a relatively unimpressive town — it’s on the lake and nestled between two mountains so the scenery is great, but the actual town leaves something to be desired. Similar to Puno, it’s very hilly and mostly filled with hostels, hotels, and tourist “pizzeria” restaurants everywhere you turn. It was, however, a perfect picturesque place to do some relaxing (or in my case, lots of sleeping) without feeling like you’re missing anything. I did some wandering and considered making my way up one of the very steep mountains to some ruins, but the combination of feeling short of breath from the altitude, realizing how sore my legs were from the walk yesterday, and simply looking up the path, I decided to just appreciate them from the base of the hill. During my wandering, I happened upon a concrete plaza with a small church, which actually had some really beautiful views of the lake and town, so sat in the shade and talked to a guy from Rhode Island whose wife, from Boston, was making her way to the top of the lookout.

From there I went to a small, ex-Pat run cafe and got a deliciously sweet banana milkshake and some eggs, then walked back to my hotel to grab my bags and get a taxi to the bus station.

Turns out the “bus station” I thought I was going to was actually just a small storefront, where Vicuna Tours has their office. I was told specifically to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the departure of my 1 PM bus, but I sat in an empty office between 12:25 and 12:45 until someone finally showed up to check my ticket. Naturally, since I was there so early, our bus didn’t actually leave Copacabana until closer to 1:30. I’m learning this is very typical — South American time is something else!

About an hour into our bus ride, the driver’s assistant came into the back of the bus (the bus has a separate front section for the driver and front passenger with a door to the main cabin of the bus) and made an announcement in Spanish. My paranoid self decided he was saying that the bus wasn’t working properly (I’d seen them fiddling with the engine while I was patiently waiting to board at the office in Copacabana) and that we needed to buy a ticket for another bus. Thankfully, the nice American man sitting next to me translated and explained that we had to get off the bus to buy a ferry ticket across the lake. Uhm, what?

Turns out there is no bridge across the lake, and the only way to cross is by tiny motor boat. Meanwhile, the busses are boated across on wide, wooden platform boats that look like they’re going to spring a leak and sink into the lake at any moment.

Silly me, I had sworn to myself that I wouldn’t get on another boat this trip. Little did I know…

This boat ride was also rather rocky and nausea-inducing, luckily it was only a 7 minute trip to the other side. From the shore, I watched our bus teeter its way across on its own ship, convinced at any minute it was going to topple into the lake. Once our bus (miraculously) made it across 15 minutes later, we hopped back on and were on our way. I didn’t ask the obvious question to anyone I interacted with during that half an hour excursion, but all I can think, to this day, is “Why don’t they build a damn bridge?”

The bus dropped us off in La Paz on a random street corner, handed us our luggage and disappeared. I, along with many of the other passengers, were totally confused and had read lots of things about the dangers of taking unofficial taxis in Bolivia, so a couple from London and I finally flagged down a Radio taxi that we shared to the other side of town where we were all staying.

Once I got to my hostel in La Paz it was already 7 PM and I was unmotivated to wander the city past dark on my own. I was relatively exhausted and happy to have a regular, working wifi connection, so I stayed in, caught up on blogging and sorting through my photos, ordered a caprese sandwich from the bar and called it a night!

Floating islands tour and crossing the Bolivian border

After my conversation with both the receptionist at my hotel and the tourist office on the main square the night prior, I got the impression that Puno isn’t exactly a safe, happy tourist town the way Cusco is. It certainly isn’t beautiful or picturesque either, and I’m glad I only had 24 hours there, I definitely wasn’t upset upset to be leaving so soon. My floating islands tour was a bit frustrating — I was with a group of 5 Argentinians speaking in very loud, fast spanish, a Russian couple who shoved their way to the front of everything to get a ridiculous number of photos, and a Japanese woman who got on the boat and immediately took her socks and shoes off and began scratching her scab-covered feet. So bizarre.

Our “tour” was supposed to be bilingual but it wasn’t much of a tour at all. Our guide didn’t speak a word the entire 30 minute boat ride to the islands, and once we got off onto one of the floating islands he explained a few things for less than 10 minutes, almost entirely in Spanish. When I got frustrated and tried to tell him I couldn’t understand the Spanish explanations, he said “Oh, sorry” and then continued speaking in Spanish. And on top of that, the Argentine girls kept yelling and shouting things over everyone else, asking questions and getting answers that I also couldn’t understand. Regardless of the weird group, the floating islands and our boat ride were really interesting, and I’m glad I got to see them, even if I didn’t really enjoy them. It was a strange reality to observe these families living on individual islands, meant just for them and their close family members. It was hard in many ways to tell what was authentic about their lifestyle and what was a sort of show for the hundreds of tourists that come to their island each month.

I will admit it was a very unique experience to be standing on an island made entirely of reeds, suspended above an enormous lake. Lake Titicaca from the Peruvian side is beautiful in its expansiveness, and very calm, in comparison to Bolivia’s side. If I were to do it again, I’d probably skip Puno entirely and spend more time in Copacabana instead, but I’m glad I had the chance to do them both, and I know for next time!

One of the family members of the island we visited spoke relatively good English, so he took me inside his home and showed me around. He explained that he goes to Puno once a week to get groceries and anything else the family needs, but that high school children go to the city every day. Elementary school children are educated in the island community on the “main island,” another floating island just a few minutes away by boat. Once we paid an additional 5 soles, the family took us on an extra boat ride around the islands on their personal boat. Though I was happy to give them the $2, I felt sort of obliged to go on the boat ride. I also felt a lot of pressure to buy the unimpressive souvenirs they were selling. Saying “no, gracias” just didn’t seem good enough, and it was frustrating that I’d pay to go on a tour to feel pressured to spend more money. The whole experience felt very touristy and very routine, which I didn’t enjoy.

When I got back to Puno after the tour I had an hour or so at the hotel before I had to be at the bus station, so I asked the guy at my hostel for a good local restaurant recommendation. His answer? He couldn’t suggest anything good in the area aside from the restaurant I’d already eaten at last night. Not so impressive, and also made me glad I was leaving! I ended up walking down to the main square and getting a cheap chicken sandwich at a local heladeria. Not great, but for 4 soles, it did the trick!

A few minutes after I got back to the hotel from lunch, a woman rushed into the lobby, calling my name frantically. For some reason I still can’t figure out, she had my bus ticket for the bus to Bolivia I was getting on in an hour and a half in her hand. I was under the impression I needed to pick up the ticket with my passport at the actual bus station, which is why I was planning to get there an hour early, and was super confused as to who she was and what was going on. I kept trying to ask questions, but she and the hotel clerk spoke to each other in Spanish and didn’t really explain anything to me, all I know is that she somehow was connected to GTB, and she had my name on the bus ticket, spelled “Racel Cusman.”

In the end she just handed me my ticket, called me a cab, and warned as it pulled away that I shouldn’t pay more than 4 soles for the ride. When I finally got to the bus station, I had to ask 3 people questions before I figured out I needed to pay a 1 soles tax on my ticket out of the city. Sweaty and frustrated, I finally found my bus.

The guys in charge made sure I had all my paper work, a photocopy of my passport, a photo for my visa, and my paperwork from entering Peru. Their diligence in checking my paperwork made me feel a bit reassured, but not much. I was very anxious for the entire 2 1/2 hour bus ride — crossing the border to Bolivia was something I had read a ton about and was the most nervous for during the entire 10 days of my time alone. I had heard such crazy things, including my friend Sarah getting left at the visa office, of people being scammed, etc. As we were driving, I kept thinking we were finally at the border but it turned out we weren’t even close.

The actual border crossing wasn’t as horrific as I had imagined, but it was quite bizarre. When the bus pulled up, the driver made the 3 Americans get off first, in anticipation of us taking the longest. First, I had to get my passport stamped out on the Peruvian side twice, in two separate offices, one right next to the other. Then I had to walk up the hill to Bolivia and into the visa office, a tiny whole-in-the-wall building that looked far from official. There, I had fill out a visa application form. Once I handed the officer my application, all of my customs forms, the copy of my passport and my passport photo, I then had to watch him deeply inspect my $20 bills (Americans have to pay $135 as an entrance/visa fee) for any possible tiny rip or flaw. He could have cared less what was actually written on my forms, what I was doing in the country, where I was going or who I was, but because one of my $20’s had a slight line at the top, middle part of the bill where it had been folded, he simply crossed his arms and said he wouldn’t accept it. Luckily, another guy in line from my bus, also from California, had extra $20’s on him, so he was willing to trade one of his bills with me. Not sure what I would have done otherwise — seriously ridiculous!

After the officer finally accepted my money, he put a visa sticker in my passport saying my entrance fee gave me until 2017 to come back to visit the country, then sent me across the room to another border control officer who took my immigration paperwork, very slowly stamped my forms and my passport, then wrote a “90” next to my stamp, which apparently means I can be in the country for 90 days on this visit.

My heart racing, I left the building and was more than relieved to see my bus was sitting outside, my luggage intact. It was a very short drive from the border into Copacabana, but I got to see an absolutely beautiful sunset over the lake, which was very calming!

When I got off the bus in town and tried to ask a handful of people if they could help me get a taxi, no one would help or even give me a map. Finally, one guy told me I couldn’t get a taxi, that my hotel was just 2 blocks “up” and that I had to walk. So with my purse, backpack and very heavy duffel bag, I shlepped myself up the relatively steep hill, thankful to see signs with my hotel name, pointing me in the right direction. Even though I’ve been up in Cusco since Saturday evening, the altitude in Copacabana immediately started getting to me — I had a major headache from sitting on the bus, and I was huffing and puffing by the time I got the three blocks, uphill, to Hotel Cupula. So much for being in shape after my trek!

After I checked in I spent an hour or so in the TV room, watching Rain Man with a couple from Sweden (I’m telling you, there are SO many couples traveling around South America — who knew?!) and reading about Isla de Sol and Copacabana online. I had a quinoa salad for dinner at the hotel restaurant that would have been good had it not been absolutely drenched in balsamic vinegar. It was wonderful to have a private room at my hotel, even though I was paying $20 a night instead of the $10 average at most hostels in the city, I was in desperate need of a room to myself — well worth the extra $20 splurge!