Monday, February 21, 2011

City in the Clouds (15-19 February 2011, Days 67-71 of 127)

Our journey from Puno in Peru to Copacabana in Bolivia, both on Lake Titicaca, took a total of 5.5hrs, 3 of those on the bus and the rest at the border posts of the two countries.

The border posts were as inefficient as the ones I experienced in Peru, Chile and Agentina with only one person on duty!

Copacabana (Pop 54,300, Elev 3,809) is a very relaxing small town on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

It is quite grubby with bad roads but its main plaza and size make it easy to walk. There are tourists everwhere since this is the base for visiting the Isla Del Sol (birthplace of the Incan Sun God) and Isla Del Luna, another key Inca site.

On arrival at 12:30pm, I went for another record breaking run (my third around Lake Titicaca at 3,809m) since the weather was gorgeous with full sun, deep blue skies and crystal clear waters. I then set off to discover this little town with the famous name.

My first stop was to climb the hundreds of steps to the summit of Cerro Calvario (Calvary Mountain), Elev 3,966m which overlooks the city and bay with spectacular mouth-dropping views of Copacabana town and across Lake Titicaca to Isla Del Sol.

It is so-called after the place where Christ was crucified and features 14 stations of the cross on the way up. The experience at the top was superb. A cool breeze with shimmering lake waters, warm sun and deep blue sky with wispy clouds. The birds were out in force and after snapping a few photos I just sat there and soaked in the atmosphere (at almost 4,000m)! It was one of the most relaxing and inspiring moments of my journey to date.

After my descent I headed to the main plaza to see the Cathedral which is famous for its size and style and the icon of the "Black Virgin" which is supposed to be miraculous. This one of the most colourful churches I have seen - refer photo. It is huge and the style inside is like the Portuguese churches - deep blues and oranges on the arches with blue porcelain tiles.

I then walked down the main street connecting the main plaza (and church) with the beach. This street has small grocery stores every 100m catering mostly to tourists. The beach itself is very nice but the road around it is gravel and unkept. There are many large hotels here but the best are the restaurant "stalls" serving up fresh Rainbow Trout and Kingfish caught daily in Lake Titicaca! This is exactly where we dined that evening, sitting only 50m from the water's edge, awash with little fishing boats. We watched the sun go down as we tucked into our $3.50AUD whole fresh Rainbow Trout with lots of tomato and chips. What a bargain. Easily the best fish and dining experience after my New Year's feast in Brazil. I also drank plenty of local Bolivian Dry White blend with my fish which was a blend with overtones of a young Gewurtz! I loved it and it was only $4AUD a bottle. This place definately reminds me of the Greek islands.

My first impressions of Bolivia is that it is definately much cheaper than Peru and poorer, more disorganised and less developed. The people are of similiar size and colour with the same jet black hair as Peru. Clothing is different. Women were uni-coloured skirts and tall thin bowler hats. Like Peru they still plait their hair. Prices are generally 30-50% cheaper than Peru for comparable items. Everything in Bolivia is fried instead of baked, especially the Emparadas (cheese triangles or "tiropites" for the Greeks out there).

16FEB began with a morning run around Lake Titicaca, my fourth and final one around this "lake in the clouds" at my personal record of 3,809m (12,497ft). The girls and I then hit the beach for another fresh Rainbow Trout for brunch given how good it was the night before. We literally "breathed" this lovely light fish down as we watched boats go back and forth in the deep blue of Lake Titicaca. Given how warm it was we went for a stroll and ice-block before heading back to the hotel to depart for La Paz.

The journey from Copacabana to La Paz took a total of 5hrs with 3hrs on the bus because of the ferry crossing at San Pablo De Tiquina on Lake Titicaca. It is here that we farewelled the "Lake in the Clouds" to travel a further 112km inland to the "City in the Clouds", La Paz, officially the highest city in the world at 3,660m in the centre rising to 4,100m in the suburbs. La Paz is the largest city in Bolivia with 1.5m people and is the "Governement Capital" with Sucre as the official and "Judicial Capital". Go figure. Couldn't the Bolivians decide on one capital? Maybe the ozzies should have done the same with Sydney and Melbourne before Canberra came along! La Paz was founded by Alonso De Mendoza in 1548.

Our introduction to La Paz was spectacular. The bus travels on the flat, wide, "Altiplano" valley at 4,100m and then all of sudden, there it is! An entire city built in a narrow canyon, roughly 30km length by 12km width at a average height of 3,660m. The reason everyone fits is because every dwelling is at least a 3-storey block of units, built everywhere, even up absolute cliff-side faces! It is amazing! It is a smaller, compact, crazier version of Quito, only higher! La Paz, for this reason, is "geograhically" spectacular but is too crowded, too many vehicles, people everwhere, cars and vans all-over-the-place and very run-down and grubby! La Paz is not for the faint-hearted or elderly, it is full of very steep hills, choked with traffic and toxic diesel fumes!

We arrived at our La Paz hotel above Plaza San Francisco at 5pm, so decided to book optional tours for the next 2 days rather than crash or see the city. That night we did something out-of-the-ordinary for dinner - we went Indian, run by a Brit! Poonan and Jess could not help themselves. It was OK since there were no Papadums and very slow service!

The next day (16FEB), I set out on my first tour at 8:30am to trek and climb to the summit of Chacaltaya, a mountain in the so-called Andean "Royal Chain". After 2hrs we ascended past the 5,000m snow line and stopped at 5,317m. I am amazed that they drive these rickety mini-buses to such great heights over shity, muddy, rocky roads with streams in the middle and hugging cliff-top edges.

It is here that we all got out and trekked to my highest ever on-foot elevation of 5,482ft from 5,317m at the bus over 35min. At the top the view was spectacular and La Paz was obscured by cloud. It was at the summit, of all places, that I met Susan from Coogee in Sydney, who just a few weeks earlier had scaled the heights of Mt Aconagua Elev 6,962m, the highest mountain in Argentina, South America and in the world outside of the Himaylayas!

I couldn't believe it! There I was standing, breathing and beholding my own two feet on a snow-capped summit at 5,482m (17,986ft), almost 4,000ft above the oxygen line! I was in the heavens... as much as anyone could be! My previous record was 4,910m. Mt Chatalcaya is also the home of the highest ski run, from 5,320m to 4,900m. This was discontinued in 2005 because of insufficient snow. The locals blame global warming.

Our descent was very quick and before we knew it we were in the mini-bus and on our way back to visit the Moon Valley, 10km south-east of La Paz. The Moon Valley is actually a physical valley of very tall, erosion sculpted, pillars of beige coloured clay and dirt formed some 20-60 million years ago when Lake Titicaca was a vast inland sea. We spent an hour walking between pillars and climbing various pillars. These pillars are everwhere and in the outer suburbs of La Paz, giving it a spectacular appearance. These pillars resemble certain cliffs on the moon, hence the name.

That night I met Susan for dinner at a restaurant across the road from our hotel that she recommended for Llama. It was better than Alpaca - had a big slab of it, done on a hot plate. It was tender, salty and tasted like venison.

The next day 17FEB, Johnny Cloudrunner, turned into "Johnny Cloudrider" by completing a 55km mountain bike ride down a gravel road that is rated as the "World's Most Dangerous Road (WMDR)".

I did this as part of an optional tour organised by a company called "Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking" with Poonan and 9 other people from USA, Netherlands and NZ. This gravel road was built over 4yrs starting in 1937 between the towns of Unduavi and Yolosa, some 60km from La Paz to enable farmers to pick-up supplies. This road killed an average of 250 people per year, making it the most dangerous based on deaths per km per period.

What makes it particularly dangerous is the very narrow cliff-side twists and turns with no barriers, as it descends from 4,500m to 1,200m in just 48km. Huge trucks used this road making it worse. For this reason, a new road was started in 1997 and opened in 2007. The WMDR is now just used by bikers like us. Our biking started 15km further back from the start of the WMDR at an elevation of 4,700m. We cycled the first 7km in 20min in snow and freezing conditions. Unfortunately we got cold and wet so it was back into the bus for the next uphill 8km to the start of the WMDR.
We put on more dry layers of clothing and started the WMDR. It was spectacular, winding and twisting its way down cloud covered valleys and waterfalls. There was light rain the whole way and temp went from 10C to 15C. There were countless tricky bits and the bike rumbled over the gravel. The bikes were equipped with fluid driven disk brakes so slowing and stopping was a breeze. I nearly stacked it twice - once on a bend running close to the cliff wall and the other time when someone stacked it in mud right in front of me and I had to swerve suddenly to avoid them. It took me 90min to do the 48km over 3.5hrs of stopping and starting over "stages" to enable slower riders to catch-up. Once at the bottom we visited a UK run animal sanctuary (for injured wildlife) which offered us hot showers and a buffet lunch of vegies and pasta! After a few beers to celebrate we climbed aboard our van for the 3hr, 80km trip back to La Paz. Well worth the $110AUD we paid for this experience.

I suprised myself at 6:30am the next day, by completing my 10km run in the hilly streets of La Paz over 55 minutes at 3,660m, my second highest run. At 9am I set off to see the city sights. The central "Plaza Murillo" (the city's founder) has an impressive cathedral. The Presidential Palace (home and office) is next door andd the plaza is completely covered in pidgeons! I then visited the "Folklore Musuem" to get a feel for the indigenous peoples that lived and still live aorund La Paz, their textiles, cooking utensils and even dancing masks!

I then walked to famous "Witches Market" where you can buy indigenous medicines and the prized specialty of dried Llama fetus! Now that was one thing I was NOT game to eat!

From there I went to regular markets that sell so many things over such a tight space that you can hardly walk through the crowd. It is here I got "squirted", a scam were thieves squirt detergent in your face, expecting you to stop and wipe, whilst they pick-pocket you. I had read about this in my Lonely Planet so I did not stop and ran forward instead and got away with everything in-tact!

My final stop was the "Coca Musuem" that chronicals in absolute detail, everthing you ever wanted to know about the famous Coca Plant (Leaf) and what is Bolivia's major export crop. Refer some interesting facts below. I met Susan again for a second Llama dinner before leaving our La Paz hotel at 6:30pm for our 12hr overnight bus to Sucre, the capital of Bolivia.

NEXT BLOG: to cover visits to Sucre (Capital of Bolivia) and Potosi (Highest City in the World) on our way to the Uyuni Salt Flats due 25FEB.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: 1) Thanks to Susan from Coogee in Sydney who took the marvelous shots on Mt Chacaltaya Bolivia and climbed the tallest mountain in South America, Argentina and outside of the Himalayas, Mt Aconagua Elev 6,962m. 2) Thanks to Phil and his team for guiding us down the world's most dangerous road without a single stack! Great guides and great bikes since 1998, "Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking" is the best way to go at

PERU FACTS: 1) Fifth largest country of 12 in South America covering 1,098,580sq km (size of France and Spain combined). 2) Has the most peaks over 6,000m making it the highest overall country. Characterised by the "Altiplano" a high wide treeless valley-like plain with volcanic mountains on either side. 3) Pop of 9.8m, 95% Catholic, 60% indigenous Quechua or Aymara with infant mortality of 45 per 1000 (both the highest in South America). 4) Ironically the poorest and cheapest country in South America but is the richest in mineral deposits (mostly Lithium and Silver, then Gas, then Oil). Bolivia does not have the money or expertise to exploit minerals. Every time they try they are ripped-off, mainly by Chile. 5) First signs of humans in 1,500BC, then Aymara peoples from AD500 to AD900, then Tiwanaku peoples from AD900 to 9th Century, then Inca invasions to 15th Century, then Spanish from 1532, then independence on 6AUG1825 after 15yrs of bloodshed under General Antonio Jose De Sucre and Simon Bolivar. 6) Since indpenedence Bolivia lost 350km of Pacific coastline to Chile in the "War of the Pacific (1879-83), lost a huge chunk of rubber-rich Amazon land to Brazil and lost inland forest land and 80,000 lives to Paraguay in the "Chaco War (1932-1935)". 7) There have been 200 changes of Government between 1825 and 2010 including countless military coups during the 1980's. 8) World's biggest producer of Coca leaves and by-products but at one stage USA tried to shut it down since one by-product is cocaine. Bolivia battled this out and won! Current President Evo Morales has done much to preserve this industry and put it in the control of the indigenous peoples.9) Some prices: 625ml local Pilsener beer ranges from $1-2AUD, bread is $0.50AUD, restaurant main is $2-4AUD, sandwich is $1-2AUD.

COCA FACTS: 1) Bolivians, Peruvians, Equadorians (mainly farmers living above 2,700m) all chew the Coca Leaf to prevent altitude sickness, give them extra strength for work, reduce hunger, reduce pain and provide high source of protein and fibre similar to legumes and grains. 2) First chewed in 2,500-1,800BC since found with mummies. 3) Incas used it as anesthetic to remove brain tumors. 4) Huge source of cocaine, first extracted in 1885. Does not affect you when yoou chew leaves. 5) First used in Coca Cola in 1886. Still used now bbut with cocaine alkaline removed. 6) Catholic Church band it in 15th Century as a drug. 7) Henry Kissinger band it from import to the USA in 1971 but Bolivia fought to re-introduce in 1983 with cocaine alkaline removed. 8) Has twice the fibre of legumes.

STOP PRESS: Correction: the last post "Lake in the Clouds" covered "11-14 February 2011, Days 64-66 of 127", instead of 11-16 February as posted.