This Massive Lake

Day 87 – 28 May 2015

Lago Titicaca sits on the border between northwestern Bolivia and southeastern Peru.  It’s considered to be the highest altitude navigable lake in the world at 12,507 feet.  Copacabana, on the Bolivian side, is charming and peaceful, which bears a stark contrast to Puno, on the Peruvian side, with it’s industrial and noisy vibe.  As a backpacker crossing the border, it’s almost compulsory that you visit both, if for no other reason than Copacabana and Puno provide a solid stopping point before continuing on to Cusco or La Paz.

It takes only 3 hours to reach Copacabana from La Paz and I was looking forward to the quiet a few days at the lake would promise.  However, this was no ordinary bus ride and I was soon to learn that the travel wizards had a surprise for me before I could relax.  Final arrival in Copacabana required a ferry ride both for myself….and the bus. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, but alas, this is routine procedure in this part of the world and I could do nothing but watch.

   
 

Hard to beat, I had booked a private room in Copacabana for $10/night.  The streets were crowded with hippies from all over the world, selling everything from handmade jewelry to homemade baked goods.  I had arrived just in time for an amazing sunset.  This is why we travel.  

   
 

Two days at my leisure, I climbed Cerro Calvario for great views of the lake and the town itself and visited the Basilica our Lady of Copacabana.  While definitely possible to do both in half a day, I was glad I had more time and felt no need to rush.  

Cerro Calvario is a hill on the side of town and while not a difficult climb, the altitude definitely leaves you winded.  There are many religious monuments along the way and the summit is loaded with rubbish and graffiti. Other climbers I met on the path were very disappointed in the vandalism, but I found it to be fitting and unsurprising.  Typical of what I would expect in Bolivia, it exhibited a rare kind of beauty nevertheless. 

   
    
 

The Basilica is a gleaming white building that sets itself apart from the rest of the town, mostly because there is no graffiti and it retains a somewhat ethereal status on a hilltop.  It’s free to enter and walk around the grounds, which have a guarded presence since the Basilica was robbed of most of its gold embellishments just a few years ago.

   
    
 

Few people visit Copacabana without also visiting Isla del Sol, the island located offshore, where internet doesn’t exist and llamas are more populous than people.  For about $3, you can take a ferry to Isla del Sol for either a day trip or to spend the night.  I wanted to spend at least one night with the possibility of two.  By this time, my forward planning abilities extend to about 12 hours so I had no idea what to do when I got there, but I definitely wanted to experience this little island paradise.   Upon arrival, I met 4 girls from Switzerland, Stefanie, Laura, Simona, and Yvonne, who were negotiating accommodations with the locals.  Local innkeepers from both downhill and uphill were awaiting us and offering a room for the night.  Downhill meant that the inn would be less than a 5 minute walk from the port and also seemed more expensive.  Uphill meant that we would have to trudge up a steep incline to the “town” for about 30 minutes with our luggage and get to pay a lesser price.  Mind you, the difference was $12 for downhill or $6 for uphill.  I overheard one of the Swiss girls tell the downhill innkeeper that his accommodations were too expensive so I followed suit and said the same.  In hindsight, this seems negligible under the circumstances but the sunrise we were treated to from up on that hill was unmatched (and I am admittedly, NOT a sunrise person).

   
    
   

The following day we took another ferry to the other side of the island to check out the beach area, but it was undoubtedly too cold to actually take a dip.  Every once in awhile, I have those travel moments where I am in awe that this is actually my real life.  Sitting on this beach, the cool breeze stinging my skin, sharing the real estate with pigs, dogs, and the lady that sold us stale cookies, was one of those moments.  Doubled over in laughter after realizing how awful the cookies tasted and fighting the ferry attendant to get change for the cost of our ferry ride, it was all part of this amazing adventure I am on.

   
    
    
 

Three hours further afield, my next stop was Puno, Peru.  A lengthy nighttime border crossing and I arrived in Puno in time to go directly to bed.  I only had one full day and my only desire was to visit the Uros floating islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca.  I had been told they were incredibly touristy, which proved to be completely true.  Islands that have to be constantly rebuilt due to corrosion, there is always someone assigned to go out and cut more reeds to add to the base of the island, rather than risking its dissolution into the lake itself.  It was a unique venture, but I got the feeling that if it wasn’t for tourists like me, the residents of these ill-fated islands would have long ago packed up and moved ashore.  They gave us a demonstration of how the islands are built and then they systematically took each of us aside for the hard sell on their handmade wares (that you can also find at any other Peruvian gift shop) or encouraged us to eat at one of their restaurants that existed only for tourists.  You could also get your passport stamped on the main island.  I didn’t have my passport with me, but this seemed like such an obvious gimmick that it left me feeling disappointed in how this culture had become so exploited.

   
    
    

  

  

Having traveled to Peru before, in 2011, I knew there was a more authentic experience out there than what Puno and the floating islands had shown me. I was on my way to Arequipa and Colca Canyon!

   

 

I Survived Death Road!

Day 83 – 23 May 2015

There is NO way I’m doing that!  NO WAY!  

I won’t readily admit to a fear of heights.  I can ride a ski chairlift no problem.  I can walk across an unstable suspension bridge high in the mountains no problem.  I can even skydive no problem.  But there was something about the thought of riding a bicycle (which, as you know by now, I’m not a particular fan of anyway) down a rocky narrow road without barriers that has earned the nickname of DEATH ROAD that made me cringe with an adamant NO THANK YOU.

  

  
So noone was more surprised than me when I found myself inquiring about Death Road tour outfitters upon my arrival in La Paz.  As I got geographically closer to La Paz, I started to meet other travelers that had “survived” and they all said the same thing – it was “the BEST” thing they had done in South America, that I couldn’t skip it.  At first, I ignored them, but their voices began to get louder in my head and I knew they were right.  If I didn’t do it, I would always wonder if I had missed the best South America had to offer.

So as I waited in line to book the tour that would end my life, I met Dave, who had already purchased his death ride and we agreed to go together.  We chose the ill-fated tour company, Barracuda, being the cheapest option at $75 for the day.  

The next morning, we congregated with the rest of our group, which included me, Dave, 5 guys from Brazil, and 2 guys from France.  Yes, that’s right, I was the only girl in a van full of guys.  No room for being scared – I had to charge ahead as if I was a testosterone-filled 25-year-old guy!

  
Before we began, our guide passed around a small bottle of something that tasted like pure rubbing alcohol.  We had “to take a shot” (but it was more like touch it to your lips and gag) and also sprinkle a little on our brakes and tires because that would protect us from certain death on the cliff.  Of course.

   
   

The first part wasn’t too bad.  It was a wide paved road with a shoulder.  It seemed there was a lot of hype about nothing – this was EASY!

   
 

But before I had a chance to get too confident, the road took a more menacing turn.  The pavement turned to gravel and the shoulder….well, there wasn’t one.  Our guide explained that if any traffic were to approach we would be expected to stop and stand on the cliff side until the vehicle passed.   After a most-important brake check and some final instructions, which included “don’t take a f-ing selfie!”, we were on our way.

   
   

  
Right out of the gate, Dave had a bit of an unsettling moment when his front brakes failed.  Fortunately he noticed right away and was in a safe place to stop where he could wait for help.   The monuments where accidents had occurred dotted the road and our guide enlightened us with stories of tragedies nearly every stop.

One adventure junkie had tried to ride his bike and base jump off one of the cliffs, but the cliff wasn’t quite high enough for a base jump and he hit the ground before he could open his parachute.  He survived with a broken arm and a cut tendon in his knee.  One guy pedaled off a ledge while he was adjusting his GoPro.  And yet another woman died while trying to film her boyfriend with her cell phone.

   
 

My mantra was slow and steady, but as the day progressed I started to relax and had to admit I was having a blast.  The views were remarkable, my bike was comfortable, and the band of guys I was with were a ton of fun.

   
    
   

  

The 40 mile ride seemed as if it was over in the blink of an eye.  Nevermind that my rear was feeling pretty sore and my forearms were aching from gripping the brakes, but then I could finally let go of the nerves and relish in our accomplishment.  We finished at a jungle lodge near the town of Coroico where we could take a dip in the river and eat lunch.  

   
    
 

Little did I know that the adventure was not quite over.  During lunch, our guide told us that it was our assistant guide’s birthday.  They were celebrating this momentous occasion by taking shots of Cuba Libre like it was during Prohibition.  Then they asked if our driver could also have a shot.  Wait a minute…..did I just hear that correctly?  We are currently at the bottom of Death Road.  We need to DRIVE back to La Paz on this same road with our DRIVER!!  Many of the tour operators choose to drive back on the new road (a road that has since replaced Death Road as the main traffic thoroughfare), but our tour company wanted to drive back on Death Road because there is less traffic….for a REASON.  Now, in no way was it acceptable to me that our driver take a shot, but everyone else hesitantly said it was ok  (keep in mind, they are all guys and it would have been completely “uncool” for any of them to say no).  My complaint is not with my fellow riders, but purely with Barracuda and my tour guide who put us in such a dangerous situation.   The question should never have been asked  in the first place.

The guide proceeded to get so drunk that he passed out, but not before grabbing at me inappropriately and making unprofessional remarks.  Fortunately, my new biking friends recognized there was a problem and protected me from the guide’s advances like I was their sister (or princess as I think I was called a few times). Lesson One: Barracuda sucks.  Lesson Two: Brazilians are really good at protecting their women and they look good while they’re doing it. *wink

Overall, I had the time of my life and I can say with certainty that Death Road has been one of the best things I have done in South America thus far, but a word to anyone considering this epic adventure  – DO NOT USE BARRACUDA!   Your life is in their hands!

Off-Roading

Day 68 – 8 May 2015

My destination was Uyuni, Bolivia and the Salar by the same name.  To get there required 3 days in a 4×4 vehicle through crudely marked roads that zigzagged through the harsh barren landscape.  Drivers are hired to take 5-6 passengers each through this rugged terrain.  It costs roughly $185USD for transportation, 3 meals a day, and 2 nights accomodation, plus stops along the way to see some of the most dramatic and untouched scenery I had yet to see.

We left San Pedro de Atacama early in the morning, and after a quick stop at the border checkpoint, we were on our way into southern Bolivia.  There were 3 vehicles in our caravan, 5 passengers each.  My vehicle consisted of myself, Caroline and Torben from Germany, and 2 guys from Spain.  In the other vehicles, there were 3 German girls, a Colombian couple, a Brazilian couple, a Brazilian brother/sister duo, and Klaus, the only other solo traveler besides me.

   
 

On our first day off the map, we entered Reserva Nacional de Fauna andina Eduardo Avaroa, making stops at Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanca, Laguna Colorada, the geysers, and the thermal pools.  Each lagoon was more jaw-droppingly beautiful than the last and the geysers were exponentially more impressive than the ones I had witnessed at El Tatio in Chile.  Flamingos peppered the lagoons and didn’t show any signs of being aware of our presence. It was, in a word, breathtaking.

  
   
    
   

That night we slept in a basic accommodation near Laguna Colorada.  The beds were concrete slabs with a thin mattress and 3 wool blankets on top.  Even still, it was bone-chillingly cold and thankfully, Klaus had an extra sleeping bag that he was able to lend me.

We had arrived at the lodge in the afternoon which left a good amount of free time to kill.  Caroline, Torben, Klaus, and I parked ourselves at the long communal table, but seeing as there wasn’t a bar, we sat drinking tea and swapping travel stories for hours.  Because of the altitude, none of us had much of an appetite but when it came time for dinner, we shared quinoa soup, spaghetti, and canned peaches family-style.   After dinner, everyone cleared out but the 4 of us remained.  We were determined to stay awake until at least 9:00 and kept checking the clock, willing the time to go faster.  Soon, the Brazilians reappeared (you didn’t really think the Brazilians went to bed before 9:00, now did you??).  They asked if we minded if they played some music.  Um, of course not!!  Sounded like better entertainment than what we were already doing!  And then they did what they do best – they danced!  There was even an impromptu samba lesson for Caroline and I (although trying to dance the sexy samba in hiking shoes is not recommended).  However, it was one of those moments where I stepped outside of myself and realized how remarkable it was that we were a bunch of people from different cultures, dancing our hearts out, completely sober, in the middle of the Bolivian wilderness.

The next day our stops included Arbol de Piedra (a rock that resembles a tree), a few more lagoons, and a surprise sighting of a fox.  

   
 

 

Caroline, Torben, and Klaus
  
 

   
   
But this was also the day the trouble started.  One of the vehicles in our caravan started breaking down and then we were separated.  My vehicle was running fine so we continued on ahead of the rest, leaving the other two to handle repairs.  We reconnected at lunch, but it became all too apparent that the drivers of the other two 4x4s resented our driver for leaving them on their own.  The passengers in their vehicles shared a table in a nice sheltered corner overlooking the lake.  The passengers in our vehicle shared a table in the middle of the parking lot that was so windy we had to hold our plates and glasses from blowing away.

  

This was mostly a shame for Klaus and I.  Because we were the only solo travelers in our group, we were becoming quite close and I missed having him at the various photo stops.  Without the modern distractions of texting and Facebook and wifi, you can get to know someone pretty well in a short amount of time using that old-fashioned method of talking.

That evening, the entire group was reunited at the Salt Hotel, a building constructed entirely out of salt.  It was supposed to be a much nicer place than where we stayed the first night, but the main differences were that the beds were made out of salt instead of concrete, there was a bar, and that the temperature was marginally warmer.  Again, Caroline, Torben, Klaus and I got comfortable at one of the salt tables and ordered up a half dozen beers and a couple bottles of wine from the salt bar.  Bolivian wine tends to be really sweet and none of us liked it all that much.  Jefferson, one of the Brazilians, was the only one who seemed to like the wine so he finished off whatever the rest of us didn’t drink.  The important thing was that we kept our empty beer bottle to use as a prop the following day (see below).

   
 

On our final day to the salt flats, our vehicle left before the other two and we didn’t see them again the rest of the day.  I think we were all disappointed because taking goofy perspective photos at the salar is definitely more fun with more people, but we came up with a few ideas on our own.  Salar de Uyuni is approximately 11,000 square miles of uninterrupted salt.  It sits at an elevation of 12,000 ft and is more than 20 meters deep in some places.  In the middle of the salt flat is a cactus island where we could climb to the top for some stunning views.

   
    
   

   
  

   
   
We arrived in the small town of Uyuni in the afternoon of Mother’s Day, where I was thankful the internet gave me just enough juice to have a static-filled conversation with Mom.  Caroline and Torben were planning to take an overnight bus to La Paz that same day.  I was going to spend the night and take a morning bus to Sucre.  As we were deciding where we should go for a farewell drink, the other 2 jeeps finally arrived, everyone looking a little exhausted after all the car trouble.  The 3 of us, plus the 3 German girls and Klaus, all settled in for some pizza and beer before we would all have to say goodbye.  The girls were headed to Coroico for some warmer weather and Klaus was going to La Paz as well, but not until the following day.

It was over a slice of mushroom and olive pizza that Klaus mentioned he was thinking about going to Sucre.  He had never heard of it before I talked about it, but now he was considering changing his plans because I said I thought it was supposed to be nice.  That’s the beauty of backpacker travel.  Plans can change on a dime.  And in this case, a quite literal dime.  He pulled out a coin – heads, La Paz; tails, Sucre.  As fate would have it, it landed on tails.