Bolivia

Reason #2 to visit Bolivia: La Paz

With the benefit of hindsight, I never should have included Bolivia on our itinerary at all. It's among the two or three least developed countries in South America and is really a backpacker destination and not a place you would rationally choose to take a seven year old child. It's not that it's overly unsafe from a crime perspective, but there is little infrastructure either for locals or for tourists, and much of the tourist infrastructure is aimed at the backpacker/thrillseeker audience and not the family crowd. Further, they charge $160 to get a visa to enter the country (and no discount for children). So why include it? Two reasons: to see Lake Titicaca and Isla Del Sol, the island where the Incas believe the world was created, and to visit La Paz, one of the highest cities in the world at almost 12,000 feet above sea level (or several hundred feet higher than the summit at Vail).

Bolivia is beautiful from a distance

On landing at El Alto airport outside La Paz (elevation: 13,323 ft), we were picked up by our nice but non-English speaking driver who drove us the ~3.5 hours out to Copacabana, the major town on the Bolivia side of Lake Titicaca. The drive out was mesmerizing, first for the urban chaos as we left El Alto and then for the incredible scenery, primarily of the Andes Mountains. Bolivia is an incredibly beautiful country with harsh, rugged terrain, and the drive to Copacabana showed it off. Unfortunately, in many cases viewed up close Bolivia was not so nice. Poverty and litter are everywhere, both in the countryside and the cities. While we'd read that the road from La Paz to Copacabana was paved the entire way, this was a bit of a stretch as there were several unpaved sections as they improve the roads and drainage ahead of the upcoming rainy season.

Copacabana was billed in several tour guides as a resort town, but that was pretty hard to reconcile with the run-down, dirty waterfront and the general disrepair of the town as a whole. As proved to be true in our stay in Bolivia in general, we had a really hard time finding good food. In fact, our best meal in Bolivia was also our least expensive: fresh trout prepared three ways, cooked by a really nice young lady at a "kiosco" right in front of Lake Titicaca. Each plate of trout was about $4 and was delicious. Even better, none of us got food poisoning, which is more than I can say about some of our meals in La Paz.

According to the Incas, this is where it all began

Isla del Sol was the main attraction, and we caught a boat out to the island at 8:30 in the morning. The ride was rough, enough that Walter got sick out the back of the boat on the two hour trip out. On arrival, we immediately set off on the hiking trail to see the sites and traverse the Willka Thaki, or Sacred Route of the Eternal Sun. This stretches from the north side of the island at the Sacred Rock where the sun emerged from and created the world all the way to the town in the south of the island. At the start of the hike there are several notable sights, including the Sacred Rock, a stone table straight out of Narnia, and Incan ruins that form a sort of labyrinth (they were actually dormitories for the women who tended to the Sacred Rock). After that, though, it's a hard slog up and down hills almost 5 miles to the south end of the island. All told, we walked for almost 4.5 hours non-stop and gained and lost about 1000 feet of elevation. Walter was a real trooper throughout, though like on our Santorini hike there were a few times when he went piggy-back up the steepest parts. Unlike in Santorini, though, at the end of those sections I usually had to kneel for fear of passing out in the altitude. After our day of hiking we were fortunate that the return ride was very smooth and Walter slept almost the entire way. When we got back to Copacabana we went straight to the kioscos and had our trout dinner, as we were all starving from having skipped lunch (if we had stopped for lunch we wouldn't have made the 3p return boat).

Ominous clouds...but they didn't quite extend to touch Isla Del Sol

As an aside, one of the neatest parts of that experience was getting a certain measure of appreciation for why the Incas might have names this the Isle of the Sun. It was a generally stormy day, and while you could look in every direction and see clouds and rain and occasional lightning, if you looked directly overhead it was clear blue sky. Not sure how the interplay of enormous lake + surrounding mountains creates that effect, but it was pretty cool to observe. I'm sure it rains on the island sometimes, as there was some stunted vegetation, it's clear that it often stays sunny and dry even when the surrounding area is stormy.

Scenery in El Alto

The next morning our driver returned to take us to our hotel in La Paz for two more nights in Bolivia before we moved on. The drive back was far more exciting, as when we approached El Alto the highway was closed by a massive protest. I could never quite understand from our driver exactly what the protest was about, but I think it had something to do with widening the road. In any event, instead we wound our way through a massive neighborhood, at times avoiding spots where the street was blocked with stones or rubble to inhibit people like us from reaching the city. At one point there were even a couple of kids who were burning bicycle tires in the street, I guess to emulate their elders. Even better were the frequent notices spray painted on the walls of most, if not all, of the houses: "Ladron pillado sera quemado vivo," or, "Thieves caught will be burned alive." To add to the cheerful mood, there were also occasional effigies hanging from streetlights. Regardless, we made it through the detour and on to our hotel in La Paz safely.

The building on the right is the Bolivian Congress. The building on the left...well...you can see what it is

I completely overestimated the amount of time we would need in La Paz, as we could have spent one night and flown out to Santiago the following afternoon. As it was, we spent two nights in the city and struggled a bit to stay entertained and fed. We spent some time walking through the Witches Market on our own, which like most markets has largely made the transformation from a place locals go to shop to something oriented much more to tourists. We also did a half day tour that took us to several other sights around the city, including a place called Valley of the Moon, where we walked through a section of an eroded landscape that really did look as if we could be on the moon. On the food front, there seemed to be either restaurants of questionable quality priced for locals or backpackers, or restaurants aimed at the international business/foreign consulate crowd with high prices and mixed quality. We tried a noodle shop across from the Japanese consulate and an Indian joint, both with great reviews on TripAdvisor, and both times came away pretty disappointed. Then on our last night we had a pretty lazy evening and ate dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was supposed to be very nice. Our plan was to get up and spend our last morning exploring the new gondola system that connects different parts of La Paz, but that went out the window when Jie got up in the middle of the night with food poisoning. Fortunately we came prepared with Cipro from the travel clinic and she seems well on the way to recovery.