Days of big contrast: La Paz and Lake Titikaka (and some useful info if you ever plan to buy a sweater in South America)

Flying over La Paz gives you a good feeling of how high this city is located. You are eye to eye with the clouds and the mountain peaks surrounding the city are all covered in snow. I was not particularly looking forward to going to La Paz (yes, as I wrote before I am turning into  a country girl) but since this is the only way to get to lake Titikaka I planned to spend a day there and then move on to the lake asap. In hindsight I am glad I went there for a day because it was an interesting experience. On the drive from the airport to the city center you realize how huge and widespread the city is, lying squeezed against the mountain hills. The suburbs of La Paz are extremely poor, the streets are muddy and wet and the housing of the people who live there makes you shiver in the damp cold air. It is a rather depressing and sad atmosphere and shows you a glimpse of how tough life must be in those places. As soon as we got close to the city center which lies in a kind of valley (so that you look up to the widespread outskirts of the city) my mouth filled up with the taste of fuel and the traffic was just crazy. People drive without a system next to each other (no marked lanes) and the only and most important thing you need to use is your horn. I just couldn’t believe that we never got into an accident. Here the law of the most stubborn driver rules, you just go, otherwise you NEVER reach your target. After a nerve wrecking drive we reached the hostel where I received a warm welcome from the owners and went up to my room which had a great view over the hills of La Paz. That night I went for dinner and a walk through the old streets and the city center – the former being rather disappointing as there is was not much selection except burgers and Pizzas, the latter being really nice though because the streets were packed with locals, all selling every product you can think of at the night market stands in the middle of the streets. A really funny phenomenon you can find throughout South American cities (and in La Paz it was really obvious) is that shops selling the same stuff are all in one street next to each other. So when you look for a hairdresser, you go to the hairdresser street where literally 30-50 hairdresser shops are next to each other and everyone is offering the same products or services at the pretty much same conditions. So I had a stroll through the bread area, the sunglass area, the tourist souvenir streets, the stuffed animal area etc.. quite amusing I find, just don’t know if it is that good for the business when you are perched next to hundreds of your competitors…:). The next day Michel arrived with his motorbike after his log ride form Sucre and we headed out to the government building are, a nice green square with beautiful buildings and – of course again –churches. We then walked through the narrow, steep cobblestones streets packed with hundreds of (identical!) tourist shops selling everything from mummified Lamas to the typical clothes such as hats, gloves, shawls and legwarmers  – eeeeverything made out of 100% Alpaca wool of course. At this point I have to take you on  a short biology discourse because it is essential to understand the differences between the 4 members of the camel-related family that live in South America and WHY it is so important to know the difference (at least when you are planning to make a trip to South America so that you can join the lively discussions with the salespeople!:):

The Lama-Alpaca-Guanaco-Vicuna discourse “the bare essentials” or “the Lama family 101”:

  1. all of those 4 lovely animals are related to each other and look a bit alike (a biologist would kill me now I guess).
  2. Only 2 of them do the “oh-so-feared” spitting or sneezing into (preferably) tourists faces (nothing personal, only a defense mechanism): the Lama and the Alpaca
  3. 2 of the 4 animals are protected and cannot be hunted/killed: the Vicuna and the Guanaco
  4. Therefore you find only 2 of the 4 animals on the menu in a restaurant: the Lama and the Alpaca (both veeery yummie!)
  5. There is a big difference in the value of the wool of the animals – here in ascending order in terms of value: Lama. Alpaca. Baby Alpaca (yes, this is on every label of clothing and justifies paying double the price as a “normal” grown up Alpaca). Vicuna. To give you an idea: a shawl made out of Lama wool you can get starting at 3 Euro. 1 kilo of Vicuna wool costs about 500 USD so a nice Vicuna shawl costs on average 600-700 Euro. (which again explains why Vicunas are protected- see 3).
  6. Why they don’t seem to produce anything out of Guanaco wool is a riddle to me. But if anyone has the answer please feel free to let me know!

If you are asking yourself right now “why on earth does she go on and on about that Lama & co stuff?” – here is the answer.

  1. I find this whole topic very interesting and therefore I am delighting you with this more or less useful information
  2. You will get a better understanding of my situation when you imagine yourself travelling through towns and cities for 4 weeks where pretty much 30-50% of all buildings you walk by are shops and most of those shops are tourist shops and most of those tourist shops sell clothes made out of the wool of the above mentioned animals and most of the people selling those clothes yell at you/chase you/invite you to buy some of their stuff and most of the people who sell the stuff and who want you to buy their stuff you will end up bargaining – then it is good to have an idea if you are holding Lama, Alpaca or Vicuna stuff in your hand (or maybe even synthetic or wool or a mixture of the above which might often be the case although of course ALL of them pretend to sell only Baby Alpaca. Pffff, if that was the case then there wouldn’t be any baby Alpacas living on this continent anymore, going by the number of shops and products they sell!)

So the next day I went on a nice 4-hour bus ride  to the town of Copacabana. Not the one in Brazil but in Bolivia. A small, hippy-ish town right on Lake Titikaka, sitting at 3.800 meters, making it the highest commercially navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America. One part of the lake is bordering with Bolivia and the other part of it is located in Peru. The major reason for people to visit this lake though is to do an excursion to the close-by Isla del Sol, a 1,5 hour boat ride (but only because of the extremely slow speed of the boats) from Copacabana.  In the religion of the Incas it was believed that the sun god was born here, therefore the name “island of the sun”. There are many (mostly tiny) Inca ruins on the island, dating from the 15th century, no paved roads and therefore no cars which sounded very appealing to us after all the smog of La Paz. But when we arrived in Copacabana we got to Copacabana we realized that we had hit the jackpot: we arrived there on February 2, the day of the Fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria (one of the most important festivals in Hispanic catholic countries, including Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Venezuela and Uruguay). Pilgrims and dancers come to Copacabana from Peru and across Bolivia. There are traditional Aymara dances, music, drinking and feasting. We saw hundreds of people all dressed in their prettiest traditional costumes, dancing to the music of many bands and getting reeeeally drunk! As we passed through the crowds of people we had to zig-zag to avoid getting spilled with beer as they all tipped 1/3 of their drinks on the ground. I later learned that this is a ritual for Pachamama, the “mother earth” –so you share your drink with her and tip the last bits of your drinks on the ground in honor of mother earth. I was overwhelmed by the sounds, the colors, the dancing and the authentic atmosphere of this festival – this was exactly what I had wished for to experience in a South American country. I think some of the photos which I post give you at least an idea of how beautiful this festival was! The only downside of it was that the superloud bands continued playing until 4.30 am and it was quite hard to get some sleep that night. The next day we headed off to Isla del Sol where we had planned to stay for 1 night to relax and enjoy the views. While walking up a steep the hill on Isla de Sol to find a nice little hostel we saw a few Alpacas grazing on the meadows. Michel walked up to one of the big animals to get a closer look and within a split second the Alpaca SNEEZED at his face twice, and I am talking BIG sneezes! I thought that only Lamas spit at people but I then learned that Lamas AND Alpacas Spit AND sneeze at people as a kind of defense mechanism  (see biology excurse above). I couldn’t hold back and bursted out laughing because it was a really funny sight (sorry, Michel!):) We found a simple but clean hostel for 4 Euro/p.P/night (!) which had lovely views onto the lake (which really seems more like the ocean because of its size and because you can’t always see shores). No noises but the sounds of donkeys, Lamas or birds, sunshine and hardly any people – the time on this island seems to stand still and we loved it! So we decided to stay 2 nights and spent the time there sipping coca tea in little empty restaurants lying high above pretty bays, green hills and offering lovely sunsets, watching old ladies sitting on benches in front of their houses and weaving or knitting clothes, walking from the South tip of the island to the North tip to see some of the ruins and then back along the beaches and coastline (making it a 6 hour and 20 km walk), walking through deserted tiny villages with steep cobblestone paths and saying “hola” every now and then when farmers came our way with theirs donkeys or cattle. This island is a really nice place for 2 days if you want to chill and enjoy the beautiful views. I got a good flavor of the country life in Bolivia while staying on the island of the sun.

P.S: Ann, this post is dedicated to you – because you would have had a blast seeing the festivities in Copacabana and hiking along ISLA DEL SOL would have been really fun together – just like in Patagonia!:)

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