Illegal Entry by Syd Blackwell
From BOLIVIA JOURNAL 2016
Sunday, July 12
At 12:30am, Tony drops us off at Carrasco International Airport in Montevideo. We leave with Amaszonas airline at 2:50am to Asunción, Paraguay. There are only 12 passengers on the plane. In Paraguay, we add passengers and soon arrive in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where we have a three hour wait and a change to BOA, a local airline. We are directed to a transit area. Later, we will discover we should have had our passports stamped as this was our first point of entry into the country. Nobody asks to see our passports.
A few days before leaving, I had contacted Fremen Tours to ensure someone would be at El Alto airport to greet us on our Sunday morning arrival in La Paz. I was assured someone would be there, but nobody awaited us. We had not slept. We had flown from sea level to the world´s fifth highest airport at 4061 meters (13,325 feet). We were tired and our heads were pounding and we wandered the airport for the next hour. We had no contact name, no hotel name, and Fremen Tours office was, of course, closed on Sunday. We had no idea what to do.
Suddenly, Oscar appeared, holding a card with our names. I was angry. He understood and asked us to tell his boss, David, our driver, who was nowhere to be found. After loading our bags, Oscar ran off in search of David, who did not apologize and did not even speak to us. David drove us to the Hotel Rosario in the center of La Paz, our home for three of the next four nights. It was 11:30am and our guide and driver would return at 2:00pm for a city tour. The room was nice and the friendly staff directed us to a nearby restaurant. We were famished, having not eaten since dinner at home.
A lunch of asparagus soup and a huge triple decker sandwich with a jug of maracuyá (passion fruit) juice did wonders for our hunger, but by the time we climbed back up two blocks to the Rosario, our heads and lungs were suffering immensely. We indulged in free coca leaf tea provided in the lobby area. Soroche (altitude sickness) is a serious business Before the trip, I had been worried about how it would affect Gundy, but having been at altitude a few times before, felt I could handle it easily. We had taken a train trip to a similar altitude in northern Argentina in 2010 and had not suffered at all. However, that train had started at 2500 meters, not sea level, and we had chewed coca leaves during most of the journey.
The ever-smiling Oscar, and the silent David, returned for our tour. First, we drove to a cable car station. Completed only recently, La Paz now has three separate cable lines that carry people over and across this city of 800,000, located in a massive bowl that falls away from the altiplano, the flat, high altitude plain where the airport and the sprawling new city of El Alto are located. The cable car is a brilliant way to see the city, but more importantly allows people to move easily across a city congested with traffic in its old and narrow streets. It is also incredibly cheap, costing only about 35 cents per person. The sun is shining down on this interesting city as we ride the cable. We are the only tourists in our car, which we share with locals.
At the end station, the van awaits and we go on downwards to Valle de la Luna, the moon valley. This is located in the lowest part of the city and the wealthiest area. We are about 5 km from the city center. The landscape in this reserved area resembles the surface of the moon and has an excellent system of trails and steps to allow visitors access to the rugged terrain which was formed over thousands of years by wind and rain erosion. Access has greatly improved since my first visit in 1982. Still, even at this low end of the city, any climbing leaves us gasping for oxygen.
Finally, we go back up to the great central plaza, in the heart of old La Paz, where the Presidential palace, government buildings and the largest cathedral are located. The plaza is alive with Bolivians, enjoying the sunshine. There are vendors everywhere selling food and more, but nobody hassles us or any other obvious foreigners. There are children laughing and chasing pigeons or feeding them corn sold by vendors. Nobody is worried about the children. There is music in the air. Nobody is smoking. There are very few cell phones in sight. It feels good to walk around this plaza.
We have quickly come to appreciate and like the ever-warm Oscar. He has learned about our lack of entry stamp to the country and tells us he will help us solve the problem tomorrow, when offices reopen. We will never see David again.
Back at the Rosario, we have more coca tea and rest and unpack. We plan to have dinner at La Casona, recommended by the staff. This restaurant is located in a five-star hotel, about six blocks below our hotel. Not bad walking down the cobblestoned streets, busy on this Sunday evening, but, of course, we will have to climb back up again after. We pass through the Witches Market, an area of shops selling all types of herbal, homeopathic, and just plain strange powders, liquids and such, as well as dried llama fetuses. We will explore these shops more later. Now we need to eat again. The menu at La Casona is extensive and makes our choices difficult. We are eagerly anticipating our meals, which both turn out to be dreadful. Everything is barely warm and we leave much of our meals on the plate. This eating experience will appear on Trip Advisor sometime in August.
Outside, there is another grand cathedral and the plaza is alive with locals and some foreigners, despite darkness and 6º C. Numerous vendors, mostly women in traditional dress, often sitting directly on the cold stone plaza, sell food, drinks and gigantic popcorn, at least three times the size of normal popcorn. There are dozens of varieties of corn in Bolivia. A street mime enthralls a large crowd. We do not linger long. We need sleep. We struggle back up the streets, breathing heavily and pausing frequently, and are in bed by 8:30pm. It has been nearly 36 hours since we were last in a bed. Our first impressions of the city of La Paz, however, have been positive.
About cars, driving and fuel in La Paz. La Paz is very old, and the narrow streets were not made for driving or parking. Except for the main road down from the altiplano, and some newer sections of the city, there are no lines, no traffic lights, no traffic signs, and no discernible rules. The traffic squeezes, budges, merges, blends, and honks through these ancient streets. Yet, it works, as we see no accidents and see few abrasions or dents on any vehicles. Women drivers are rare.
Most of the vehicles are quite new. All are imported, primarily from Brazil and the US. Toyota is the dominant brand; its rugged dependability ideal for these roads. However, there are many fancy cars too. Bolivia produces oil. Gasoline prices are subsidized by the government. Gasoline costs approximately 50 cents US per liter.
Soroche symptoms include elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, throbbing head pains, dizziness, disorientation, fatigue, loss of appetite, need for much sleep, and nose and gum bleeding. Soroche does not appear to be age related Swiftness and amount of ascent seem to be important factors. Previous soroche may also lead to a recurrence.
Coca leaves are chewed by a large percentage of the indigenous populations of the Andean region. It relieves hunger and fatigue and enhances performance. It is considered a particularly effective treatment for soroche. Nearly all labourers have a wad of coca leaves in their cheeks. It is commonly consumed as a tea, both loose leaf and in tea bags.
Traditional indigenous Bolivian women are called cholitas. In the high-altitude regions they are entirely Aymara Indians. They are easily recognizable by their dress consisting of multi-layers of long skirts and petticoats, sweaters and shawls and distinctive headwear, most often a form of bowler hat. They carry everything, personal belongings, trade goods and infants, in colorful blankets tied around their shoulders. They are also very short.
In other areas of Bolivia, such as around Cochabamba, the Quechua Indians dominate. Most of the indigenous women also still wear the traditional clothing, but the skirt length, because of the more favorable climate, rises to just below the knees.
In the lowlands, where the major indigenous group is the Guarani, such as in and around the largest city of Santa Cruz, the traditional clothing is quite uncommon.
Monday, July 13
We go to breakfast at 6:45am. The dining room is beautifully decorated, with a large textile mural dominating one wall. There is an excellent selection of food. However, I do not feel like eating anything as I am really suffering from soroche. I manage just a small bowl of fruit, granola and yogurt, and more coca tea. Gundy enjoys the food, particularly the excellent crusty bread.
We are picked up by Oscar, and a new driver, Marcelo, at 8:00am. We go straight up to the airport where Oscar tries to get the missing entry stamp for our passports. However, as the mistake was made in Santa Cruz, the airport at La Paz cannot help. We must go to the Immigration offices in La Paz. That will have to wait for another day. Then, Oscar turns us over to a new guide, Victor, and we set off for Lake Titicaca, the world´s highest navigable lake. It is also big, stretching 190 kilometers from Peru into Bolivia. It has forty-five islands, and on one we will spend the night.
Our journey takes about three hours. Less than an hour before we the reach Copacabana, we cross the lake at its narrowest point at Tiquina. I remember this crossing from 1982. Then, on a bus, all the passengers were unloaded, the bus driven onto a barge, and both bus and passengers transported separately across the lake. Today, our van simply drives onto a barge for the 10 minute crossing. The winds are quite strong and whitecaps are appearing.
Forty-five minutes later, we arrive in Copacabana, where we are supposed to visit the magnificent cathedral. Instead, we race to the docks and embark on a speed boat because the winds are still strong and we may not be able to get to our destination, Isla del Sol, Island of the Sun, if we delay. In fact, we are the last boat allowed to depart. Others will have to wait for the winds to subside. It is a very rough journey that takes an hour and three quarters, instead of the usual one hour.
We are happy to finally stop at a sheltered spot on the island, where there is a small restaurant, our lunch stop. Our boat and our bags depart. We will be walking after lunch. It is beautifully sunny; the lake is an incredible blue, as is the sky above. In the distance the snow-capped Andes shine. We are the only diners. The resident Indian family has prepared an excellent traditional lunch of fish, chicken, varieties of potatoes, rice, quinoa, corn, beans, eggs, and vegetable patties, all covered with a clean cloth. It looks wonderful, but I cannot eat. Gundy and Victor enjoy the lunch while I sip more coca tea.
Before we finish eating we are treated by the appearance of a large traditional reed boat, in full sail. From another direction a big speed boat also approaches the dock below the restaurant. They meet and the tourist passengers from the reed boat transfer to the motor launch. The reed boat, sails now down, heads back using an unseen, non-traditional motor. The tourists also leave.
Immediately behind the restaurant are the ruins of a small, square temple. The original temple is pre-Inca, but was modified by the Inca. Victor explains that the stone walls were once surfaced with a mud covering and painted, each of the four walls a different colour - blue, red, white and green. Also, the Incan trapezoidal niches in the wall were lined with gold. It must have been an awesome sight. We explore the interior rooms, now cold and uninviting, before beginning our walk.
Our walk takes us from lake level at approximately 3800 meters (12, 500 feet) upwards towards the ridge of the island at 4100 meters. The first part of the climb is steep and at this elevation, extremely difficult. We move slowly, huffing and puffing all the time. Eventually, the trail becomes a gentler rising walk along the length of the lee side of the island, towards the village where we will spend the night. We pause for frequent rest stops while enjoying the awesome views. I am amazed that Gundy, with high blood pressure, two artificial hips, a sore neck and a sore knee, is faring so well. She also still has an appetite.
The little village near the island´s crest is filled with hostels, small hotels, little eateries, and a conglomeration of visitors. Many languages can be heard. Our accommodation is charming and nice, but we are quite concerned as there is no heat in the rooms. Night temperatures are below freezing. Llamas, chickens, and sheep are in the yards of the resident Aymaras. The rocky pathways and steps are busy with tourists, dogs and donkeys, which transport food, water, fuel, building supplies, and luggage, everything except people, from dockside to the village and back again. We spend the afternoon taking photos, resting and trying short walks. Everything is on a steep slope.
Dinner at our hostelaria is again traditional, featuring trout from the now darkened lake waters below. It looks delicious, but all I can manage to eat is the fish and a few vegetables. Gundy and Victor enjoy the whole meal. We retire by 8:30pm. The room is cold, but we are, surprisingly, comfortably warm beneath thick llama wool blankets. It has been an awesome day.
Tuesday, July 14
Breakfast at 7:00 am. Gundy and Victor have eggs, bread and jams. I manage a small yogurt and, of course, more coca leaf tea. Victor secures the services of a passing donkey. A young woman and her daughter secure our bags on the animal with blankets and ropes. We descend the stony trail and numerous sets of stone steps. This downward journey is particularly hard on Gundy´s knee and hips. Her back is also sore. We pass the “sacred spring”, the source of all drinking water for the island. Women load 5-liter plastic jugs which will be carried by donkey up the steep paths.
At the dock, our speedboat captain from yesterday waits. The wind is gusting and the decision is made to go straight across the lake, past the Island of the Moon, and smaller islands, to the closest shore, where a taxi will meet us for the trip to Copacabana. The boat ride is not as rough as yesterday, but we are mostly sheltered by islands. The taxi ride takes nearly an hour through a surprisingly dense forest of eucalyptus trees along that side of the lake. We pass little farms and always people walking. The road is very rugged.
We tour the cathedral in Copacabana. It is huge and impressive in this small town. We think of the cost in human suffering and lives this grand structure exacted. However, at Easter every year, around 70,000 devout Catholics from near and far will pack the small town and the cathedral.
Outside the cathedral we are reunited with our great driver, Marcelo.
The drive to our next destination, the pre-Incan ruins at Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco), takes four and a half hours, including again crossing the lake by barge. We enjoy the excellent scenery of the altiplano, (high plains) which averages 3750 meters (12,300 feet), just slightly less than Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. Of course, the surrounding Andes, soar much higher.
Upon arrival at the archeological site, we go immediately to the restaurant Taypiuta, whose entrance is guarded by replica figures from the ruins we will soon visit. The restaurant is nearly filled with a group of French tourists. How appropriate today, Bastille Day, the French national holiday. The restaurant is clean and efficient and the owner greets us warmly and seats the four of us away from the large group.
The set menu begins with a delicious corn and vegetable soup, which is the first food that has appealed to me since the first day in La Paz. The main course choices are trout, chicken, or llama. Gundy and I both choose the delicious Lake Titicaca trout and the guys choose llama. The fish and meat are accompanied by rice and quinoa, and a medley of vegetables. We drink unfiltered natural apple juice. It is delicious and even I manage to eat all my lunch. Dessert is a thick, creamy yogurt, made in the restaurant, topped with toasted quinoa grains and a slice of banana. Delightful! Of course, I have more coca tea. The French have left and the owner chats amiably before we leave.
The ruins at Tiwanaku were first recorded by the Spanish in the mid-16thcentury. In the following centuries, much destruction occurred as the Spanish used site materials for other construction projects. Many objects, including the famous Sun Gate, were moved from their original locations. When I first visited in 1982, a modern, and more learned approach to archeological diggings and restorations was in process, but much more has happened since. At that time I was able to walk in all areas. Now, the access is restricted by roped paths.
However, our first stop is at two museums, one featuring ceramics and the other, stone monoliths. These museums did not exist in 1982 but show well the history and findings of the site. Victor is very knowledgeable about this site. He is not the best guide as he speaks quite softly, with spittle often coming between his poor teeth, and his English is limited, but today he is at his best. We spend quite a bit of time walking around the actual ruins with Victor explaining the things we are seeing. I see much change since my last visit. Unfortunately, this is a bad day for Gundy. The climb and descent of Isla del Sol, the rough boat and taxi rides, and the jarring of stone steps have left her with an extremely sore lower back. Only some pain pills provided by Marcelo make her day bearable. She is happy when we leave Tiwanaku and begin the long journey to La Paz.
Back at the friendly Rosario Hotel, we have hot showers and life seems better. We head out to search for dinner and find a sign pointing up a darkened side street for the Marrakesh Restaurant. I leave Gundy and hasten to check it out before she has to walk any further. I find a hole-in-the-wall spot with just three tables and eclectic, mostly Moroccan décor. The owner encourages me to enter, so I return for Gundy.
The restaurant seems fine. The owner, of mixed Moroccan and Bolivian descent (how does that happen?), suggests items and we accept his guidance. We start with a tasty bowl of hummus served with warm pita breads. We also have a large pitcher of mint and lime juice which is very good. Our main course is a stew served over couscous; Gundy´s is vegetarian, and mine contains chicken. However, several ingredients promised on the menu, including raisins and almonds, do not appear in the stews. In retrospect, we should have seen this as a sign. We follow our meal with hot mint tea. The meal was just $23 including tip. We are in bed, Gundy reading emails, and I writing this journal, by 9:00pm. It has been another very long, but immensely interesting day.
Wednesday, July 15
My day begins with diarrhea at dawn. The revenge of the Marrakesh Restaurant has begun. Gundy caught a glimpse into the kitchen as we were leaving and said it was little more than a closet with a woman ladling ingredients from plastic containers over couscous and then microwaving. Seems there was a problem with the chicken.
At breakfast, Gundy`s stomach is okay, but I eat only granola with fruit and yogurt. This morning we are scheduled to go by van up a local mountain called Chacaltaya. We have no idea what to expect. When Oscar and Marcelo arrive, they both ask about Gundy`s back, which is very bad. Before we go anywhere, Marcelo pulls in to a pharmacy for more pain pills. He finds a doctor on duty at this early hour and Gundy goes in for a cortisone shot. In a few minutes she returns, with almost no pain, and a supply of pills for later. The cost is just $20. This is a good start.
The streets are alive with markets. Piles of fruits and vegetables, stands with chicken, beef, and fish, and all manners of goods and textiles, line most roads. The vendors are mainly women who often sit, wrapped in their shawls, directly on the cold sidewalks, seemingly impervious to the climate. Gundy thinks of the Hunza peoples of Pakistan who thrive in extreme conditions on an organic diet.
We head up the main road towards the airport, but turn off on a side street and continue climbing until we have left the city. The road narrows as we drive through barren brown lands. We see some people running along the side of the road, even though we are over 4000 meters. Oscar says they are in training and that local people have big hearts. We agree. We would barely be able to walk uphill.
Soon we stop for a view. It is cold and windy. La Paz is now far below us. We pass the last runner at 4700 meters (15,420 feet) and still we drive on. The road has narrowed to a single track and snow is encroaching along one side. The drop off on the other side of the road would be deadly. We negotiate switchbacks, continually climbing. We are confident in Marcelo`s driving skills and Oscar used to take tours here nearly every day. We are glad no other vehicles seem to be using the road.
At 5100 meters is a large mining operation, now abandoned because of low ore prices. The huts formerly occupied by mine workers were primitive, unheated, stone structures. The miners were certainly exploited.
At 5300 meters (17,400 feet), we reach a building, formerly “the world`s highest ski resort”. It has been abandoned. The building and the road were built in the 1930s. A rope tow was installed in 1939. In 1940, there was .22 km of ski area, on the Chalcataya glacier. By the 1980s, this glacier had shrunk by half, and by 2005, there was just 100 meters left. The glacier melted completely in 2009.
It is difficult to breathe just standing outside in the freezing wind. This is the highest elevation either of us has ever experienced. We are nearly as high as Mt. Everest base camp. We are above all but the highest local peaks. Illimani, the massive peak that overlooks La Paz, is still another 1100 meters higher, but, it is the second highest peak in Bolivia. Diarrhea hits me again and I find a filthy toilet in the abandoned building. I have no options.
On the return journey we spot two other vans climbing towards us. We let them pass at a wider part of the road. Incredibly, they are followed by a bus! The road, half covered in icy snow, seem barely wide enough in most places for the vans. We would never consider coming up this road by bus. However, the bus reaches us and passes with a few centimeters to spare. It is lightly snowing as we descend to La Paz.
Back at the hotel, I go to bed. Gundy is not ailing and goes out for a little shopping.
At 2:30pm, Oscar returns to take us to immigration in search of our missing entry stamps. Eventually, we get a back-dated stamp and a 30-day visitor´s visa. We are legally in Bolivia - three days after arriving! There are no charges for this service. One big problem solved. Oscar is wonderful and helping us at immigration is not in his job description.
Next, we go to Fremen Tours office and meet Maria Rosa, who booked our tour. Our tour ends in Santa Cruz, but our airline tickets are Montevideo to La Paz return. We do not want to return to altitude after the tour, but have to wait two extra days because the airline does not fly our route daily. Maria Rosa contacts Amaszonas, and explains the problem. The airline will cancel the La Paz to Santa Cruz portion of our return ticket and allow us to board the flight in Santa Cruz for a $120 penalty charge. We will do this, but it is too late today as it is the afternoon before a major day of celebration in La Paz. Few offices remain open. We hope to visit an Amaszonas office in Cochabamba, our next city, (And only 2500m in elevation.)
Before dinner, we go back to the Witches Market and buy some teas for stomach, liver and kidney ailments. We also find a wool store hidden on a second floor and Gundy buys three kilograms of alpaca wool. She is a happy knitter as we head for dinner. We go to a little pasta/pizza place on our street. I have soup. Gundy has soup and pasta. She says the food is delicious, but I have no appetite.
The streets are alive. The celebrations have just begun. Back in our room, we know we must try to get some sleep as tomorrow starts early. The street noises are quite audible from our back room. Sporadic outbursts of firecrackers will reach a cacophony around midnight. But La Paz is happy tonight.
Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca
On Chacaltaya at 4000+ meters