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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Isla del Sol

An early bus, La Paz staying behing and a couple of hours later, the amazing scenary of this sea of sweet water located at 4000m of altitude that is Lake Titicaca. Destination: Copacabana and La Isla del Sol.

It is definitely a nice journey, with an interesting boat crossing 1h away from Copacabana, where we leave the bus, enter a boat and the bus crosses the lake on its own boat. I had never seen that before, but it works. It just makes the journey last about 30min more!

After reaching Copacabana we decide to buy the boat tickets to Isla del Sol and have to have a nice lunch before we get to the Island. It takes another hour to reach our destination. Then it comes one of hardest things I've done on this trip. Moving 200m uphill carrying my backpack. I move step by step, following the kid whom Emma negociated a room with. He looks like a mountain goat moving from step to step as if it was easy. We are at 4000m... He's a nice kid and the room is really ok with a view over the lake and the sunrise, which is supposed to be really nice.

After a deserved rest, we decide to explore the island. It is a small Island, this island where the Incas believed their supreme god was born - the sun. There are a few ruins around the island. The biggest ones are on the northern part of the island, so we decide to walk the Inca trail tomorrow and visit those. For the rest of the afternoon we wander around some ruins located south from the setlement and just spend our time wandering between tea houses and restaurants. There's really nothing to do, specially after the sun sets!

Getting up early, around 6, to see the sun rising prooved to be a fantastic experience. The sun erupts from behind the beautifull snow picks of the Andes bringing life and movement to the Island. We start our hike around 7. It took us almost 3 hours to do the 6-8 Km trail from south to north, until the ruins of the old Inca setlement. It's not the type of ruins I'm used to, so I am a bit disappointed, but the hike was really nice, although it was extenuating and hard due to the altitude.

After finishing our hike we go to the northern harbour and immediately take a boat to the southern part of the island. Once there I rush uphill to pick up our stuff while Emma stays and tries to convince the boat drivers to wait for us. It works, I didn't faint which means that my body is getting used to the altitude. Back in Copacabana we only have time to buy the bus ticket to La Paz and buy something to eat.

I am very quiet the whole trip. I know that tomorrow I will start moving back to my normal life. I will still stop for a couple of days in Antofagasta in Chile and meet Aurelie whom I had met in Valdivia. The plan was to go back to San Pedro and do some climbing, but I had to cancel that part due to my sudden change of plans. Well, that's life. A quiet evening watching some Confederations match and a very good meal in a fancy restaurant was my way to say goodbye to La Paz, this huge city, surrounded by enormous snowie peacks where I decided to go back to Europe and to the real world...

Friday, September 25, 2009

La Paz

I'm not a fan of poluted, noisy, traffic-congested big cities, as many of you must have noticed by now. So what brings me to La Paz and makes me stay here 4 days?

Well, first the city itself is located at 3600m above sea level and I'm curious to see how is it possible to build such a big city at such a high altitude. There are a few monuments that are worth a visit, but I'm kind of tired of beautiful churches, by now... Another reason for the visit is doing the world famous Corrida de la Muerte, a downhill mountain bike circuit, via what used to be the main road between two important cities in the Andes. The name reflects the amount of people that have died over the years in this road. In our days it's mostly a touristic attraction for adrenaline adventurers that want to defye gravity and move almost 3000m in altitude in about 4 hours. There are also some 6000m mountains that can be climbed even by people with little experience and I was planning to climb Huyani Potosi, the smalest of them all. It's a 2-3 day adventure.

I asked Emma, whom i had met in Santa Cruz to book me a place at her hostel. We met in that evening for dinner. It's always nice to have someone to show us the city or at least to show us the nice places to eat! Emma is a studying to become a Medical Doctor in Oxford, but for the last few months she's been doing volunteer work both in Nicaragua and here in La Paz. She's really into it and I admire her for what she has been doing. And she is a great company.

On my first day in La Paz I woke up with some news that make me decide to end the trip earlier and go back to Portugal within a week time. On the time I have left I have time to do La corrida de la muerte, go to lake Titicaca and then go back to Chile, visit Antofagasta and finally fly to Santiago and from there back to Europe. So this first day is spent taking care of all the bureaucracies, changing ticket dates and so and so on. One thing, if you ever buy a round the world ticket from Oneworld, make sure your first flight is with British Airways. My first flight was with Finnair and that makes them responsible for any ticket changes you might need to do (at least everytime one calls British Airways that's what they tell us!) . Well, Finnair does not fly to south america so it was a crasy race against time, some telephone fights with Finland and in the end a visit to the nearest Lan office solved it all. Instead of flying to Portugal I had to fly to Vigo, which is quite close to the border, so that wasn't such a problem. And I'll arrive still in time for a friend's wedding! Which means meeting half of my friends while still jet lagged...Lets see how it goes!

La corrida de la muerte

I decided to do the death race with the agency from my hostel. I thought there wouldn't be many people doing it with them. Well, this was a mistake. A group of over 20 people with only 3 guides awaited me... At least the bike they gave me was good. The first part of the race was on a fantastic asfalt road, the perfect place to let ourselves go, but instead the stupid guides wanted to keep the group together and that made us stop every 3 or 4 minutes. I got tired of that and just passed the guide and enjoyed a nice downhill until the check point. Others that had been complayining about it followed me and in the end we were discussing with the guides that that was not what we paid for. Some people in the group actually wanted to move fast! They were three so they could split the group in 3 and everyone would still have fun. Specially on that asfalt road which was perfectly safe!
The dangerous part of the "race" comes when we reach the gravel road. This road goes around the mountains, there are no protective barriers, and stones and holes on the road make it a really adventure to combine speed with balance, always with one thing in our minds: one distraction and I end up at the end of the 1000m high cliff that's just at my left! Nevertheless it was really funny, adrenaline at its max and a terrible pain in the hands due to the strength I put in holding the bike to the road! 4h later we were done. The fastest guys all felt that we could have done it faster if they had allowed us, but, whatever, next time I'll follow the suggestions I was given by other people and pay a bit more to do it. I didn't fish around in different companies as I should have!



La Paz

The rest of my time in La Paz was spent walking around, climbing up and down (not easy at this altitude) taking some pictures of the amazing scenary in which this city was built. Remove all the cars and garbage from the city and I would love living here! I just love mountains!

Next stop in Lake Titicaca and La Isla del Sol. Emma decided to join me. This is great because I haven't been in the mood to talk to strangers lately. I guess I am getting the "almost over" mood...

The Missions Circuit

I didn't have enough time to visit all the missions. That's a 5 day thing, or shorter if you go with a travel agency, but i prefered to take the local transports and do it on my own.

My first stop was in Concepcion. Since this was the first mission that I visited I was really impressed with the wood-works. I wandered around it for 1 hour taking pictured until I decided it was time to figer out how to get out of there. I soon realised that the next bus to San Ignacio, my next stop is, whether within an hour or tomorrow at 5 pm. I forgot to mention, that the settlements around the missions are small and there's not much to do or see here. So I just decided to pick up (after a small discussion with the hostel guy which wanted to keep all my money when I stayed there only for an hour and didn't even use the bed) my stuff and hop on the bus the was heading to San Ignacio that day. This could have been a really bad decision...

I started feeling sick about half way between Concepcion and San Ignacio. Flu sypmtoms appeared quite fast and I couldn't wait to get off that bus and find a hotel to relax... It was after midnight when I arrived in San Ignacio. I asked a British couple whether I could follow them in the look for a hostel and just moved on with one thing in my mind: the nearest hospital is 12h away so lets hope this is a normal flu! I stayed in the first hotel we found. I bargained the price and ended up staying there for a couple of nights. The room was a bit noisy, but clean, confortable and breakfast was included which given the circunstances was perfect. A bit pricy for Bolivia, but whatever. I needed a place like that.

A few paracetamols later I adventured out of the hotel and tried to find a place to eat. It was Sunday and most places were closed, opening only in the evening. I also inquired about the buses to San Rafael. By now I had decided to skip one of the missions and try to get back to Santa Cruz as fast as possible... There were only buses at midday, the next day. So I had a full day to rest and try to recover a bit more. The mission in San Ignacio didn't impress me that much. There's a lake quite close and the square has some really nice statues.

In San Rafael, another adventure. Finding a place for the night. There are two, but...none is highly recommended! I end up staying in a room with a really dirty toilet, a bed where it's impossible to find a confortable place to lay down and with a very strange lady as my host! This is the simplest of all the missions I have visited. It's nice but a bit neglected, and it's possible to see that not many tourists stop here... Only a stupid, sick guy like me ends up here, I moan...

Finally I arrive in San José de Chiquititos, the place where the train stops and from where I'll go back to Santa Cruz. Instead of waiting 4 more hours for the train I decide to take the bus which departs at 20.30. I still have 6 hours to see one mission!!! It is actually really nice the one in San José, the only built from stone and that is still being rebuilt. I wandered around the square reading and writing. If I had known the kind of road that the bus was going to go on, I would have probably rented a room for resting during the afternoon. But I had seen some asfalt when my bus reached San José and concluded that the road to Santa Cruz was all paved... Once again wrong conclusions that resulted in a dusty sandy road and a bus having to stop twice with a broken engine...

Santa Cruz

Potosi stayed behind and the road to Sucre was taken once again. A connection to Santa Cruz, the wealthiest state in the country awaits me. After a small discussion with one of the tickets agencies I got a ticket in the last seat of the bus. I don't know if this was the worst bus ride of my life, but the asfalt ended like an hour after our departure. Then I lost count of the rivers we crossed (and by crossing I don't mean going over it using a bridge!). A tire exploded, fortunately when the bus was fighting to climb up a mountain. People around me kept coughing and sneezing and throwing garbage to the floor of the bus and through the windows. Well, this is the real Bolivia, that people kept talking about...

Why coming to Santa Cruz. The guide doesn't mention much about it, not many touristic atractions. Well, I'm going to meet Dario's brother (me and Dario used to live in the same corridor in Utrecht when we were exchange students) and hang out with his friends for a couple of days. Meeting locals and talking about their lives is one of the things I appreciate the most. I decided to stay in a cheap hotel very close to the city center. Not the cosiest place in the world, but I've stayed in worse places...

And Santa Cruz was only partying and meeting Diego's friends. It was really nice and funny, but after two days in the city I was ready to keep moving.

From Santa Cruz there are 3 or 4 options, tourist wise I mean. One is to go back to real Bolivia and head on to La Paz. Another is to take the "death train" to Brasil and visit the pantanal. Another is to move north and visit an National Park in the Amazonia. The last one and probably the one least people choose is to make the Missions circuit. The Jesuits once created a Theocratic state in this part of South America. They had the support of the local Indian (Guaranis) and since they were located in a very remote area, Portugal and Spain had no control over them for many years. Today the missions are no longer a missionary place. They were abandoned shortly after the Jesuits were expeled around the end of the 18th century, but the Indian settlements continued and today they are small cities that grew up around the missions. Left abandoned the missions almost disappeared, until UNESCU decided to make them a world heritage site. Today they have all been recovered. Appart from going to La Paz all the other options were quite expensive so, I decided to leave La Paz for when I returned to Santa Cruz after visiting the missions.