Bolivia has been the roughest country I’ve ever visited. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. My time in Bolivia just made me appreciate certain things we have back home – like toilet paper in the bathrooms and food that doesn’t regularly make you sick. Nonetheless, don’t let these things stop you from visiting Bolivia – we spent a memorable and awesome month there. With the extremely cheap prices and so many women dressed in traditional clothing, Bolivia felt very far and different from the U.S. It was pretty awesome to see the women with their long, ruffled, colorful shirts and shawls, long braids with colorful decorations, and the rainbow-colored skirts. Most of the women carried babies, potatoes, or whatever else they need to transport in colorful shawls wrapped and tied around their back. Watching many of the Bolivian people makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
After our two weeks of volunteering at the wildlife refuge (see former post), we headed to Lake Titicaca with Bob and Erik in-tow. They got to experience their first overnight South American bus (always a memorable and exhausting time). I remember hearing the name of the lake and laughing (even last year when I was helping the twins memorize South America geography). Erik especially appreciated the name. Lake Titicaca lies in both Bolivia and Peru. It’s the highest navigable freshwater lake in the world at 12,507 feet; and it’s gorgeous. I was mesmerized by the vast blue expanse as we climbed the winding mountains on our way to Copacabana. We had to stop about an hour beforehand and take a little shuttle boat (that broke down right before we got to the dock). Our big bus crossed the water on a motorized wood raft.
Even though we’d already been in higher elevations, I experienced my first bout of altitude sickness in Copacabana. I’ll spare you the details. It felt like a serious case of the flu, and being a drama queen I thought I was dying. After about 15 hours in bed, I woke up feeling much better and we headed across Lake Titicaca to Isla del Sol. Bob popped plenty of dramamine pills and faced his motion sickness and dislike of boats like a champ. It was the slowest boat we may have ever been on. I’m pretty sure the swan paddleboats for rent could have gotten us there quicker. But the long boat ride was worthwhile. Landing on Isla del Sol is like arriving in another world and time. There are no vehicles there – just donkeys for transportation (even for carrying water). The island is full of farmers and livestock. We did a 4-hour hike across the island and saw some Incan ruins sites and spectacular views of the vast emerald blue lake and jagged, snowy mountains in the distance. One of the ancient Incan sites is supposedly where the Incan Sun God was discovered. By the way, Isla del Sol means “Island of the Sun” – so don’t be a moron like me and not bring sunscreen just because it’s cloudy in the morning. Bob was pretty worn out after hiking up the hills in the sun and in the high altitude. It’s difficult to catch your breath at such high altitudes.
Back on the mainland in Copacabana, we witnessed a popular local practice called “La Benedicion de Movilidades” or “Blessing of the Vehicles.” There were two vehicles parked in front of the town’s large cathedral that were covered in flowers and decorations. The owners of the vehicle gathered around as the priest blessed the vehicle and people poured fizzy drinks (champagne and soda) and sprinkled flower petals on it. Supposedly there are sometimes fireworks, too. The ritual is done to pray for safe travels for the vehicle and its passengers.
A Ride Down Death Road
After wearing Bob out at Isla del Sol, it was time to head back to La Paz so the Waugh Men could mountain bike down the World’s Most Dangerous Road (aka Death Road). I’m a wuss and want to make it to my 30th birthday next month, so I opted out of the ride. I knew I’d be too nervous to enjoy the experience. I’m not sure Bob knew what he was getting himself into. The Death Road is a 43-mile stretch of road that was named the World’s Most Dangerous Road in 1995. The entire journey starts in snow-covered high-altitude plains at 15,400 feet, and drops almost 12,000 feet to the jungle below. The road is very narrow, rocky, with hairpin curves and 2,000 foot drops on the side. An average of 200-300 people die per year on the 43-mile stretch. An estimated 25 vehicles per year plunge off the side of the road – that’s a vehicle every two weeks and many are buses! Thankfully, after a couple decades of construction, an alternate driving route opened. There are still vehicles on the road, but now it’s become a popular endeavor for daredevil travelers. There are still deaths among bike riders. As a matter of fact, mountain bike companies will tell you that the road is more dangerous for riders now, then when cars frequented it in the past. Before, the thought of running head-on with a vehicle on one of the many turns “slowed” the riders down. Now riders tend to travel the road at much greater speeds.
Bryan and Erik of course wanted to ride as fast as possible, and Bob wanted to keep up. He hadn’t been on a bike in quite awhile, and worst of all, his glasses fogged up so he couldn’t wear them. So Bob was pretty much blind, riding his bike down the World’s Deadliest Road at 35-40mph, with the 2,000 foot cliffs a couple feet from him. I’m glad Pam and everyone else didn’t know what was happening at the time. He wiped out but it wasn’t on the side of the cliffs (or else he probably wouldn’t be with us anymore). He did have a pretty good gash on his face and arm, but thankfully he was fine. From then on he slowed down a bit and Erik said he and Bryan took turns watching out for him “so they’d know where to tell people to look for the body.” Comforting… I was relieved when the Waugh Men all arrived back to the hostel (mostly) in one piece.
By the way, for those that plan to bike Death Road, it’s not a time to go cheap. We heard many stories of other bike companies that have crummy bikes and do makeshift repairs (even on brakes). When the guys were stopped, they saw one rider go by and his pedal fell off. The bike rider deaths that have occurred have mostly been from unprofessional companies that give riders cheap, faulty bikes. The most highly recommended company is Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. Bryan was very pleased with them. They have $2,000 USD Kona bikes that they replace every 2 years. During their ride, the owner of the company was actually their guide. He rode with the group and represented the company, while a documentary of Death Road mountain biking was being filmed throughout their ride. This bike ride was actually one of Bryan’s top favorite experiences on our trip. He relished that the company didn’t put any limits on their riders. They were allowed to ride as fast as they wanted. Definitely not something you usually find in the safety-obsessed/sue-happy USA.
The Deadliest Road bike ride was the finale to Bob and Erik’s three-week trip to Bolivia. Bob was absolutely thrilled with the 3 weeks he spent with us, and here’s what he had to say:
“I wanted to let you all know how much the trip to Bolivia meant to me. This was the best experience of my life. All of the planning and decision-making made the trip what it was. I’m so proud to have such great sons and daughter to share this with and look after me. I could never have made it without you all being there for me. I’m really sorry for not being able to keep up with you all at times. I’m still on cloud 9 sitting here thinking about all that happened and my family being there with me and for me.
I’m ready for the next trip if you’ll have me. I think I’m hooked on this type of travel and seeing what else is out there. Thanks again for this once in a lifetime experience and I’m so proud of you all.”
Bryan and I were thrilled to have Bob and Erik meet us abroad. The memories we created will last a lifetime. We hope that more family and friends decide to meet us on our travels. We promise an unforgettable time!
The Floating Islands of Puno
Erik and Bob boarded their plane home to Virginia, and Bryan and I headed to Peru. After traveling with Ashley, Justin and Eric (Richardson) for three weeks in Argentina and Bolivia and then traveling with Bob and Erik for three weeks in Bolivia, it was sad to be without our family and friends. Bryan and I continued on to Puno, Peru – a town on the other side of Lake Titicaca that’s home to the infamous floating islands. I was looking forward to our day tour of the islands but I woke up at 4 a.m. on the morning of the tour throwing up violently. Altitude sickness struck AGAIN! Bryan went without me and I enjoyed a day in bed recovering and watching some English TV. Since I wasn’t there, I really can’t tell you much about the floating islands of Lake Titicaca so I’ll let Bryan take over. . .
I’ve seen photos of Los Uros islands throughout our travels in South America, and have been intrigued ever since. They are a series of floating islands constructed of totora reeds by the Uru people. These hand-made islands were constructed as a defensive measure against the Spanish conquest during Incan times, and they could be detached and moved to other areas throughout Lake Titicaca as threats would arise. It’s pretty amazing to see entire villages constructed from thousands of tortora reeds. The “ground” was nearly 5 feet thick. As the reeds age, the islanders just add another layer on top to keep their islands afloat. As nearby boats drove by, you could actually see the entire islands flexing with the motions of the waves. Tortora reeds are the lifelines of the entire Uru society. Not only do they build their islands, houses, and boats from this plant, but they actually eat the white stalk as well. The white portion of the reed, called chullo, has a high concentration of iodine that helps fight thyroid inflammation within children from their consumption of the untreated lake water. During my tour of the island, I was able to taste this chullo. I would almost describe it as a “salty” celery taste. In addition to the totora reed, fish play a vital roll in Uru civilization. The locals catch fish for consumption, as well as trade for potatoes, rice, and other foods back on the mainland. The tour also consisted of visits to several homes within the islands. The largest of the islands can hold up to 10 houses, all owned by different families. In total there are over 40 different islands, with over 200 full-time inhabitants (Approx 2000 Uru people in total). The islands are also home to livestock such as pigs.
I left Los Uros islands with mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s pretty amazing to see how this culture goes about their everyday lives on the water, and to think about how it must have been hundreds of years ago. On the other hand, the islands have become quite touristy. Dozens of tour boats enter the islands each day, and the locals try to entice the boats to land on their island so they can sell handmade tapestries and knickknacks made from totora reeds. It has become so touristy, I wondered if the islanders “truly” lived on the islands anymore, or if it was all for show. The occupants of the homes that I visited insisted that the house was their permanent residence, but I’m not so sure.
Following our stops at Los Uros islands, our tour boat continued to Isla Taquile. 3 hours later we finally arrived at the island. Isla Taquile was much like Isla del Sol near Copacabana. There are no vehicles, and it felt like stepping back in time. Taquileños, as the locals are called, were dressed in some pretty eccentric outfits, which were nearly all handmade. Actually, Taquileños are known to make some of the highest quality clothing and handwoven textiles in all of Peru. The weird thing about this culture is that ONLY men do the knitting. Throughout the island you would see men knitting some sort of article of clothing (gloves, hats, etc). Women could be found walking around the island twirling pushkins to prepare yarn for weaving. Our time on the island itself was only about an hour and a half. Again, this island was quite touristy, so I’m not sure that it was worth spending an additional 6 hours aboard our incredibly slow boat to see it.
Kristin is back to life after her second bout with Altitude Sickness. From here it’s time to head north to Cusco, Peru to prepare and acclimate before the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu!