Ecuador and the end of the South American leg

March 28 – April 6 2015

Ten short days in Ecuador, 24 hours in Bogota, and just like that, seven solid months of travel in South America came to a close.

I took a bus ride of nearly 20 hours from Trujillo in Peru to Guayaquil in Ecuador, a trip that was mainly unremarkable despite involving crossing an international border. I’ve crossed so many borders now. My passport is starting to fill up.

I visited Guayaquil, Couchsurfing with an awesome Finnish girl who makes macrame bracelets and had moved there to be with her Ecuadoran boyfriend. I was there 48 hours or so, most of my time spent with Viia, her boyfriend, and one of his friends, driving around Guayaquil, eating a typical Ecuadoran dish called Seco de Pollo, talking with Viia about travel and about South American culture, and, strangely, watching the season finale of the Walking Dead.

I took a bus up the coast from Guayaquil to a little beach town Viia recommended, where I watched ten or fifteen other backpackers got off the bus at the big surf town Montanita, kept staring out the window as we passed rows of identical kiosks selling the same cheap souvenirs you can find all over Ecuador, waited as the bus rolled further on to Olon, where I got off and took another bus 30 minutes further up the coast, past towns and into a country of tiny villages and quiet seaside bed-and-breakfasts, to Viejamar, an enchanted garden of hibiscus flowers and palm trees that happened to also contain a hostel – a few bamboo cabins, hammocks, and couches scattered among the palms and flowers and under the shade of the second-floor cabin where Rodrigo, the Chilean owner, spent his days surfing and occasionally administrating the hostel. The pool was on the other side of the kitchen and the gate was on the other side of the pool, under the balcony where you could watch the sunset and the locals surfing after work and feel the sea breeze, and on the other side of the gate it was sand and a twenty-second stroll (or a ten-second dash at mid-day when the sand was hot) to the little palm hut with hammocks and hooks to hang up my towel and then another two second dash down the wet sand and into the formidable waves of the Pacific Ocean. I stayed at Viejamar for five days.

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There’s an island about an hour from shore called Isla de la Plata, reached from the town of Puerto Lopez (close to Viejamar, between 20 and 30 minutes driving, depending on how fast the fishermen I hitched rides with wanted to drive). This island is like a small Galapagos, they say, because some of the same species live there. A column of massive, sharp-winged Frigate birds dominates the sky above the little mass of land, the birds circling slowly and silently in mesmerizing circles, not like vultures and not at all like frantic, haphazard seagulls. On top of the island we walked with a guide along a sandy path where blue-footed boobies nest. How have these animals survived, as curious as they are? Perhaps there’s a reason they only live here, and on the Galapagos, isolated from humans and other predators. They would come out of their nests to look at us, waddling practically in between our feet and turning their heads slowly and curiously. I’ve never seen a wild animal so curious and so unafraid, and so serene.

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We took the boat out into the shallow, clear water in the shoals of the island. Sea turtles swam up to our boat. Schools of parrotfish flickered under us. Everyone got out of the boat to snorkel. I never learned to snorkel so I dove without a mask, looking through the clear water at the coral colonies under us.

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From Viejamar I took an overnight bus to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, high in the mountains at around 2800 meters in elevation. That first morning after bad vibes at the first hostel I was supposed to stay at (unluckily named “vibes”), and after I found a much prettier hostel looking out across a wide valley to the high mountains beyond, I took one of the free walking tours in the old center of Quito. A girl from Guayaquil led a group of about 20 of us through the central market (I’m crazy about markets), through several plazas and past historic buildings, telling us wild stories about some of the crazy presidents in Ecuador’s past (and unfortunately, its present), showing us monuments to the fighters who were among the first in South America to rebel against Spanish rule. Quito is a beautiful, interesting city, and I barely began to discover it.

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I went to an Easter Vigil service in a building that is home to at least three different Christian churches (one English-speaking, one Spanish-speaking, one German-speaking). The service was small and disorganized, possibly because it was held in three different languages; but the pastors and priests made the most of it. I went back the next morning for Easter, feeling a little strange as i always do when I visit a congregation just to pass through. Churches I think are not places that people generally pass through. They are places you come to find family and heal wounds and plead for forgiveness and contemplate the meaning of your life. They’re definitely not a place for tourists. But a tourist I was and they were friendly and gracious about it, as people in churches usually are.

If you’re in Quito, the city in South America that rests on the official equator, you have to go and visit the official monument that marks the official equator line. It’s touristic and Disneyworld-ish, but you can’t come all the way to the equator and not go. So I went, taking a bus 90 minutes from my hostel in Quito, walking around and taking photos, and feeling a little weird in this surreal fabricated Disneyworld village, wandering around alone in the morning on the day after Easter when everything was quiet and most of the shop keepers weren’t even awake enough to try to pressure me into buying a tacky souvenir. And it was interesting to think, wow, I’ve been in the Southern Hemisphere this whole time and now I can just hop back to the northern hemisphere, like I’m teleporting home or something. And it was disappointing to visit the equator line and find that the scientific exhibits were closed, so I wandered around looking at a photography exhibit and an exhibit dedicated to the experiments conducted by French scientists who were responsible for measuring the bulge of the earth at the equator.

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And then it was time for another 90-minute bus ride back to Quito and convincing the receptionists at my hostel to help me with directions to the airport (is it that difficult to believe I would rather pay $5 and take the bus than $35 for a taxi? Apparently so.) and taking the bus which was cheap and fast and got me to the airport for my flight to Bogota.

And then it was barely more than an hour before I landed back in Bogota, back in the city where I started my journey through South America over seven months ago.

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Huanchaco and Trujillo

Huanchaco and Trujillo
26-27 march 2015

26 March 2015
I wake up in the predawn light with my green Oltursa blanket tangled around me and my feet on the seat next to me which by some miracle remained empty all night. Around sunup I start to see the concrete and brick outskirts of a city, which grows to larger shops and warehouses by the time we reach the bus company’s office where Harmeet and I disembark. To exit the station we have to squeeze through a single door in which six taxi drivers are standing, jostling each other, blocking our way, screaming in our faces and trying to grab out bags. The further north I go, the more aggressive the taxi drivers become. We pace past them serenely and wait for the prices they’re offering for Huanchaco to go down and haggle a little further with a guy driving a rickety station wagon. He drives us through the thick morning haze, out of Trujillo, past the outskirts and the airport, past a huge clay brick Inka ruin, into a small beach town of low concrete buildings, nearly silent in the early morning.

Things are weird at the hostel where Harmeet has a reservation, so I make sure she’s checked in all right and head next door to a different hostel I had in mind, where the owner checks me in early with no fuss and leads me through a lush, shady garden hung with hammocks to a little stuffy room off the courtyard. I sling my backpack on a top bunk and sneak past a few backpackers sleeping with eye masks on to freshen up before I meet Harmeet again for breakfast.

We eat at my hostel, in the restaurant on the first floor with the door open to the ocean. While we’re waiting for coffee we see a wave come rushing in, surging over the little sandback and over the concrete planters, over the curb and halfway across the street. The rough sea seems to be washing this part of the beach away.

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Huanchaco looks a little worse for wear – the beach is rough and strewn with large, heavy rocks that clatter in the heavy undertow after each violent wave rolls back. In the morning as we walk south along the sand we see more sand banks eaten away by the waves. They say Huanchaco wasn’t always like this – I read that a few years ago someone built a breakwave – some kind of sea wall – further south and it’s been affecting the currents here, making the waves stronger and more destructive. There are banners up around town protesting the sea wall and in the evening a crowd of about 30 people stand shouting outside the municipal building and parade down the street, blocking traffic in protest.

There’s not a lot to do in Huanchaco except drink, eat ceviche, and surf. Harmeet and I aren’t here to surf, so we spend the afternoon and long beautiful ocean evening in bars and restaurants. The ceviche here is different than in Lima, the fish is denser and richer. I loved the ceviche in Lima, but this is something else, something even better. We bar hop a little, sitting first in a surf hostel with beautiful plush antique furniture, then in a little tiki-style bar. In between we stop at a street vendor for anticucho. I need water so I walk for the first time away from Huanchaco’s touristic main boulevard. One block from the fun, brightly lit and decorated beachfront bars it’s back to quiet streets with concrete buildings and little kiosks – typical residential South America, at least in my experience. It’s familiar. One block past this, things get a little rougher, more potholed, stray dogs looking a little more mangey. I stop at a kiosk planning to buy water, call to the attendant who must be in the back somewhere. I glance around idly as I’m waiting and make eye contact with a guy across the street who wanders out of the doorway to a house holding a little jar half full of liquid. He stares at me and slowly vomits into the jar, never breaking eye contact. I decide I’m not thirsty. “Couldn’t you find water?” Harmeet asks me back at the anticucho stand. “Things got weird,” I say.

27 march 2015
Harmeet and I eat breakfast at the vegetarian cafe Otra Cosa (an omelette and two coffees for me, crispy falafel for her). The owner, a friendly Dutch guy, gives us directions to a bus terminal in Trujillo. An actual bus terminal! This is what I’ve been missing since Ica, where I stopped finding big bus terminals with a bunch of companies where you can shop around for tickets to wherever you’re going. In Lima we had to pick a bus company, figure out where in that massive city their office was located, and go to buy tickets in advance. Harmeet and I pack and grab a bus to town, going to find this mythical bus terminal.

As it turns out, the terminal only hosts bus companies with routes going south, and it’s another two hours and three taxi rides back and forth across Trujillo before Harmeet has a ticket to Mancora and I have mine to Guayaquil and we’re finally sitting down to lunch in a little cafe near the historical center. Neither of us can leave until the evening, so we kill some hours walking through Trujillo’s colonial center, to a strange toy museum with dolls and antique toy cars and dollhouses and rocking horses and marionettes, back out to another cafe with divine espresso, and finally along a pedestrian street where we buy souvenirs and stroll with everyone else in the cool evening air and finally say goodbye when Harmeet squeezes into a taxi to her bus terminal and I wander around downtown Trujillo alone for a few hours before heading to my bus terminal for the midnight bus to Ecuador.

Midnight comes and goes at the bus terminal, but not my bus to Guayaquil, and at first I’m surprised and worried that the bus isn’t leaving on time. By the time one of the guys working at the terminal comes around to tell us it will be another three hours before the bus comes I’ve reminded myself that this is South America and almost nothing happens on time, and I’ve relaxed and tuned up my rusty Spanish chatting with the other two sleepy people waiting for the bus, Alan and Anna, he from Peru and she from Andalucia in Spain. We all sleep on the floor of the strange little waiting room until the bus finally arrives around 3:30.

Lima, Peru: 22-25 March 2015

22 march 2015
The taxi drivers practically mob me as I walk up to the road leading out of Huacachina with my backpack slung across my shoulders, headed for the road out of town. They’re all talking over each other, offering prices, asking me where I’m going. I’m about to get into a cab when just in time a line of the tiny, plastic-sided three-wheeled carts you see all over Peru come teetering around the corner. They’re everywhere in the cities, not much more than a little motorcycle engine attached to three skinny wheels, tiny and a little slow and brightly decorated with plastic sides, and probably not very safe in the event of an accident, but usually half the cost of a taxi and at least three times cooler to ride in. I’ve heard backpackers call them tuk-tuks, which is what they call similar cars in Thailand, but here in Peru they’re called taximotos.

I flag one down and slide in the back as the driver guns it for Ica. “Terminal de buses!” I yell over the buzz of the little motor. “A donde vas?” He asks me. I tell him Lima and a few minutes later we’re pulling up to a little building that seems dedicated to just one bus company. It’s not what I was expecting – “terminal de buses? Aqui?” but he waves me on and I wander inside completely confused. Strangely helpful security guards shepherd me over to a counter where I buy a ticket for Lima and after a false start involving getting on the wrong bus, I’m on my way.

17:30 – the bus pulls into a parking lot in Lima that would seem to be our final stop. This isn’t a bus terminal with multiple companies all together – it’s just a building and parking lot of the company I came in with. I’m confused by this system, but at least they didn’t leave me on the side of the road like in Ica. There’s the usual screaming horde of taxi drivers outside the door. I make it through the crowd without losing my composure and screaming back at someone, and after a few vague sets of instructions I manage to hop on a collectivo to Miraflores, where I’m staying in a pretty hostel on a quiet residential street.

After the bus ride I’m too tired for anything except dinner (stir-fried eggplant, in the first hostel where I’ve been able to cook since Arequipa) and relaxing on the rooftop terrace of the hostel, enjoying the night air.

23 march 2015
After breakfast, I meet Liz, a girl from Lima who I met online through a friend of a friend, and who has time to show me around Lima today. She picks me up in her car and takes me through busy Miraflores to a stunning shoreline that nobody really talks about when they talk about Lima. Here there are beautiful brown cliffs towering above the pulsing blue waves. The city stretches out behind us on all sides. To the left there’s a towering hill speared with tall radio towers, sheltering high-rise apartments and office buildings. To the right, more cliffs and shoreline, fading into the ocean haze. Liz and I walk down to the shore and out a little pier.

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Later she takes me to her family’s house where we eat an anticucho of chicken heart and delicious fried rice and I try the ubiquitous Peruvian soda called Inka Cola for the first time (it’s yellow and sweet and reminds me of candy).

We drive with Liz’s mother and sister to Barrio Barranco. On the way Liz tells me about Peru and about her time spent living in Mexico. I exchange travel stories with her mom, who has been all over Europe and the US and who is planning to go to China next year despite speaking only Spanish. She likes hearing about my trip and wants to know, as most parents do, what my own parents think of me traveling all over the world. I give her my usual answer – I wasn’t living at home before anyway, and my parents tell me they’re happy to have raised an independent and adventurous daughter. They never tried to stop me from traveling.

Barrio Barranco is a pretty neighborhood of shady old streets and pretty buildings that I think date to around the turn of the century. We pass charming old bars and little restaurants and an old beautiful bridge overlooking a dry canal that opens onto the sea.

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Just before sunset we drive back to the shore, to a very western open-air shopping mall with fancy restaurants and American stores. We find a restaurant with a view of the ocean and a happy hour with some seriously strong drinks and we order a seafood platter and watch the sun sink into the ocean.

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24 march 2015
I wake up late and have a lazy morning. Today I have made a solemn vow to eat ceviche, so I set out for a restaurant in Miraflores called La Red (the network) that’s supposed to be famous for the quality of its fresh ceviche. I find it a quite upscale restaurant with glass table tops and fancy looking desserts on display. The ceviche costs an arm and a leg – 30 soles, three times as much as what they charge at the little restaurant down the street. I decide to go for it anyway – I’m in Lima and it’s the national dish and you only live once. The ceviche comes out fresh and tender and soaked in delicious lime juice and salt. The taste is incredible. I eat the raw fish with sweet potatoes and with big roasted corn kernels, which taste delicious and which you can find all over this part of Peru.

I rest for the heat of Lima’s scorching afternoon – the sun is baking and there’s hardly any breeze away from the shore. In the evening I’m craving something fatty after the lean ceviche, so I find chorizo in the supermarket and cook it together with melted cheese and tomatoes. I try drinking Corona, which is apparently gluten free according to the tests despite being brewed from barley. (It doesn’t give me a gluten reaction – so far so good, readers). I stay up watching movies and relaxing on the roof of the hostel.

25 march 2015
Tonight I’m taking an overnight bus to Trujillo, further north in Peru, but I’ve got all day to kill, so I buy a bus ticket for the evening (at the supermarket – I’ve given up on the idea of an actual bus terminal by now) and catch a city bus into downtown Lima.

Lima is a gigantic city – more than eight million people – and the traffic is miserable. The bus driver slams on brakes and gas with equal frequency and vigor, and the noise of people leaning on their horns (5 seconds at a time, or more) is constant. It takes us an irritable 45 minutes from Miraflores before I’m at the Plaza de Armas getting my bearings. The buildings here are old, colonial, though I learn later that most of them have been reconstructed in a colonial style and aren’t original. Hundreds of years of strong earthquakes have leveled the city year after year and hardly anything has stayed standing for more than a century. It surprises me that modern construction techniques have never tried to mimic the Inca style of building with slanted walls, which is famously resilient against earthquakes.

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From the Plaza I walk to a convent of Franciscan monks and nuns, where I go with a group on a tour of the cloister and the famous catacombs under the sanctuary. I’m surprised at how lovely the building is; there’s an elaborate wooden dome made of a sort of intricate lattice; old frescos of surprisingly good quality depicting the life of Saint Francis; a beautiful library with spiral staircases and books dating to the early 19th century. The sanctuary is huge and wooden and grand, with another impressive ceiling and an elaborate lazy-susan wooden book holder for the massive hymnals we saw earlier.

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We pass through rooms of monks’ vestments and down a set of stairs to cool musty rooms with low ceilings (I’m happy again to be in a country where I’m the same height as everyone else here and I don’t have to crouch). Through a set of low doors we come to a series of tunnels lined with rectangular wells. In the wells are thousands and thousands of human bones. They say that at least 25,000 people were buried here, first when it was a public cemetery, later on by choice when deeply religious citizens wanted to be buried close to the convent. The bones have been disinterred and re-arranged over the years, and the top layer of bones in each of the wells has been arranged into a pattern, but I think it all seems rather sloppy – the bones are piled messily, caked with dust. In some corners of the catacombs there are random fragments of femurs and pelvic bones lying broken and seemingly forgotten. I can’t help but compare these catacombs mentally to the catacombs in Paris, where rows and rows of bones and skulls line the corridors for miles; but there you never feel a lack of respect – awe, perhaps, and sobriety, but everything is polished and arranged and there’s an air of macabre dignity to it. The catacombs are the last stop on our tour of the convent and everyone leaves feeling a little unsettled.

I eat ceviche for lunch again, so good it nearly brings tears to my eyes, with Api, a drink made from purple corn juice. I finish just in time to take a free walking tour from the Plaza de Armas, which I’m sorry to say is probably the most boring tour I’ve taken in South America. Our guide speaks very quietly in a monotone, going into laborious detail over insignificant architectural features of the buildings downtown. The main thing I remember learning is that there was once a rail and tram system in Lima, and that it was disassembled when it was believed that gas for cars would be much cheaper. Our guide mentions Lima’s numerous earthquakes and takes us for a Pisco tasting, which thanks to his deadpan delivery is probably my least exciting alcohol-related event to date.

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Back at the hostel I make myself a simple supper and settle down to wait for my bus to Trujillo. I’m going with Harmeet, an English girl of Indian heritage whom I met in the hostel. We take a taxi together to the parking lot of the bus company – of course there was no bus terminal to go to – and go through a check-in and quick security scan that’s almost like the security at an airport. We’re both shocked to get on the bus and find how nice it is – we have tv screens in front of our seats like you get on some airplanes, blankets, headphones, and a bus attendant who brings around snacks as we navigate the outskirts of Lima. We settle in to very comfortable seats for the ride, which is meant to take around 10 hours.

Copacabana and Lake Titicaca: 9-11 March 2015

Copacabana

9 march 2015
I’m up early for coffee with Brayan before heading to a line of buses near the cemetery in La Paz. By now it’s almost familiar – a man standing by one of the buses shouts COPACABANAAAAAA at everyone passing by and I walk up to him and buy a ticket and eat a quick snack and file onto the bus along with a few other tourists and locals and in a few minutes the bus is climbing up the valley and passing El Alto. We drive through concrete and cinder block suburbs for about an hour. Gradually the landscape opens up to green fields soggy in the rain, sheep and llamas walking next to their colorful cholita shepherds. Soon the fields rise to rolling green hills and the hills rise up to green mountains and a little later through breaks in the clouds the sun sparkles on a bright sapphire lake bounded by steep green peaks.

This is lake Titicaca, the highest lake on earth, and in the Inka philosophy, the place of creation of the Inka people, the sun, and the moon.

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Back on the pavement and past more beautiful rolling hills for an hour or so and finally we’re pulling into a large plaza dotted with kiosks, white colonial buildings with red roofs, and a white cathedral with huge graceful arches framing a stone courtyard. I step out of the bus and wander downhill, toward the edge of the lake. There are two main streets leading down to water, where charming little restaurants have signs and menus written in English on chalkboards out front, and souvenir shops overflow with little llama figurines and Peruvian blankets and macrame bracelets and knitted alpaca sweaters. There are hotels and hospedajes and cheap motels which are confusingly called hostals, but surprisingly there don’t seem to be any classic backpacker hostels here. I wander into Hostal la Libertad which has an open, bright lobby tiled in white with a tall glass entrance. The stony-faced, unsmiling receptionist offers me a private room for 30 bolivianos a night (a little less than $5) and I when I go up to settle my things I see that the room itself is finished but the floor it’s on is bare concrete, with unfinished windows open to the sky. At the end of the hall, past the rooms still under construction, the floor drops off into empty space.

I leave my hotel in the afternoon and wander Copacabana for an hour. The majority of the town is the two touristic streets running parallel to each other, down to the water where flocks of paddle boats sway with the ripples and larger speedboats lie at anchor waiting to take their next cargo of tourists to Isla del Sol. Lots of backpackers wandering around, like me. Further up the hill there’s the plaza and cathedral, and from there the town spreads out into residential streets and then into little farms. I can walk from top to bottom in 30 minutes or so. I wander inside the cathedral, looking at the enormous altar covered in gold plate. Niches along the walls of the sanctuary hold statues of Mary and Joseph, dressed in elaborate royal robes. At the front of the cathedral is a side chapel dedicated to a replica of a famous statue of Mary to which many miracles have been attributed.

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From the cathedral I walk through town toward a steep hill overlooking the water. At the entrance to the hill is an arch announcing the hill as CALVARIO, or Calvary, a name for the hill where Jesus was crucified. My breathing is shallow and I sweat up the steep steps, panting from the altitude (3800 meters, about 12,500 feet). There are stations of the cross carved along the way.

I hope for feelings of reverence as I’m sweating my way up the hill, but I’m distracted by the feeling that this is all very out of place. I can’t forget the history of Bolivia, the conquest of the advanced civilization that was once in power here, the absolute razing of their sacred spaces and their people by the European invaders who justified torture and murder by calling it evangelism. The cathedral and calvario hill feel a little like they were dropped here intact from Europe, cookie-cutter style. At the top of the hill where I rest and eat a grilled trout I bought in town, I watch the sun setting over this huge lake which for the Inkas was traditionally the birthplace of their people, and I think, this could have been such an important pilgrimage site, for the same reasons that the Inkas found it to be a sacred place, and they missed it and built a giant European-style cathedral instead, away from the water which is so important in Christianity – water which is there in the creation story even before light. How did they miss it?

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I’m not able to come up with any satisfying explanation before sunset and I’m tired from the walk, so I stumble back down the dark stone steps and back through the quiet residential streets and on to the loud touristic street and back up to my motel room where I toss and turn for most of the night.

10 march 2015
I’m up early for a humble breakfast of apples and peanut butter and cold rice from my dinner last night, and then I walk down towards the water and pay one of the myriad tour companies for a day trip to Isla del Sol by boat.

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The island has always had people living on it, I learn, maybe as far back as 3000 BC. There are sacred spots where the sun and moon and even people were meant to have been born, and a spring that was supposed to be the fountain of youth, but surrounding these are normal people carrying out their lives raising quinoa and barley and other crops on ancient terraces built into the hills.

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We dock at the north end of the island where there are a few hotels and overpriced restaurants and a map of the ruins and paths on the island. I go with a group and a guide to some of the sacred places – a rock that looks like a puma, a labyrinth in ruins, depressions in the rock that look like footprints and were supposed to be the footprints of the sun. With the tour and the commercialization of the place it’s hard to feel reverent and contemplative, to try and see what the Inkas saw here, but I watch carefully for it anyway.

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After the tour I walk along the path that crosses the island toward the south. At this point I regret not sleeping for a night on the island, because I have to walk very quickly to reach the south end of the island in time for my boat back to Copacabana. The scenery is lovely, tall green hills dotted with little ruins, grazing sheep and llamas, deep blue bays. But i have to speed walk along the path to make it to the boat in time for the hour-long slow journey back to Copacabana, and there I eat a quick dinner with friends who are leaving on an evening bus.

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I go to sleep early again, planning to get up early and take a bus to Arequipa, in Peru. Tonight is my last night in Bolivia.

La Paz: 5-8 March 2015

La Paz Blog

5 March 2015
We rise slowly and methodically over La Paz in a teleferico (a suspended cable car). I’ve read a lot about this city and it’s as impressive as they say – buildings seem to have been absolutely poured into the valley, spilling up onto the sides until the hills become too vertical to support any further construction. The buildings become shabbier and poorer as we rise. Far away in the heart of the valley I can see the tall, modern-looking skyscrapers of downtown.

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We pass the poorest of the buildings we’ve seen so far – just shacks – crest the very edge of the cliff that lines the valley, and the teleferico glides along a slow u-turn and the doors open to let us out. At the edge of the terminal we see a long street covered in market stalls extending as far as we can see. We’ve come to the 16 July market in El Alto. Roman and I stroll down the first street, where for about $10 I buy an alpaca sweater that I think would have cost $100 in the US. We keep walking and pass the vendors selling car parts – booth after booth after booth with rows of gears in all sizes and steering wheels and seatbelts and chrome floor mats and entire engines in differing states of repair.

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The car engine booths slowly give way to the furniture section, and as we’re passing a side street I smell something amazing and we turn to investigate. On a nondescript corner between two furniture shops a woman is cooking under a plastic awning, surrounded by a pans filled with soup, rice, chicken, potatoes. The amazing smell is coming from the deep-fried chicken spitting in a shallow vat of oil. I desperately want some of this chicken. Roman and I stand politely by the row of pots while the cook talks with other customers, the two of us trying to figure out the etiquette for ordering. I err on the side of being too polite when I travel – I hate to be an inconsiderate foreigner – but I think the way it works here is you go up and shout at this poor lady and eventually she brings you your food. After about ten awkward minutes waiting for her to notice me and ask what I want to order, someone in line says “let the foreigners go first” and I point to that fantastic chicken and she grins and tells us to go have a seat inside. In another ten minutes there’s an enormous pile of rice under this beautiful golden chicken breast, ringed with potatoes and a little shredded lettuce and onion and tomatoes, and I kid you not readers it is the best fried chicken I have ever eaten – and I grew up in the South.

After we have eaten the glorious fried chicken and enough rice to feed at least three grown men, we pay the bill – 26 bolivianos, about $3.50 – and stroll back out onto the market. The furniture section seems to go on nearly to the horizon, so we turn inwards to the center of the market, thinking we’ll wander for a bit. Every time we turn a corner I expect to see the end of a street where the stalls get emptier and further apart and eventually stop. But this market doesn’t stop. It’s as large as a small town. You can buy everything in this market: flowers, toilet paper, beds, carved stucco Greek columns, puppies, cocoa leaves, ducks, jewelry, shoes, bicycles, cars, toilet seats. We never find the end, and after maybe an hour of wandering in the rain we start to ask for directions back to the teleferico and people point and give us vague directions and after another twenty minutes or so we’re climbing back into a gondola and looking down on the city with the enormous market of El Alto still buzzing behind us.

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In the afternoon we find decent coffee – like me, Roman misses good espresso – and wander central La Paz. In the evening we cook in the hostel’s sad excuse for a kitchen, and investigate the bar next door, and meet new people and run into friends we’ve met in other cities on the road.

6 march 2015:
Roman takes a bus for Copacabana and I sit down for a long day of writing and catching up on plans for the next leg of my journey, through Peru and Ecuador.

In the evening, despite my repeated reminders to myself that I am not an 85-year-old woman, I fall asleep at 21:00. I wake up a few hours later when my roommate comes in – an American from Vermont. After a few minutes of conversation he brings up cocaine. I didn’t know this, but it seems La Paz is a major cocaine hub in Bolivia, and like Medellin and Cartagena in Colombia, it attracts its fair share of tourists mainly traveling there to get high. This style of traveling baffles me, readers, and I am an open minded person but I think this is a pretty pathetic reason to travel. After many attempts to get me to come with him, my roommate leaves for some kind of famous cocaine bar and I decide to do something more interesting, like drinking cocktails and playing pool at the hostel bar. I meet L—–, a German, and play a game of pool that lasts probably an hour because we’re both so bad at it. To console ourselves we decide to look for a drink at a bar downtown.

Up an old brick set of stairs in a narrow alley we almost miss a little low wooden doorway, but a woman just outside hears us speaking English and gets our attention and invites us in. She’s Bolivian but speaks almost perfect English after having lived in Bermuda for many years. She introduces us to the tiny bar, called Bocaysapito (mouth of the toad), so named for a black road statue enshrined in a little alcove in the back of the bar. We learn later that you’re supposed to buy the toad a drink and stick a lit cigarette in its mouth, and the toad will grant you a wish. The superstitious residents of the bar crowd together around old wooden tables and along benches, everyone sharing space and talking together around candles and pitchers of very strong Fernet and coke. Someone is playing folklore on an acoustic guitar. We find ourselves at a table of bohemian-looking Bolivians who fill little two-ounce glasses for us from the pitcher. The woman who invited us in talks to us about Bolivia, about the president Evo Morales, about the future of the country. She introduces us to the owner of the bar, a man with a dark sun-stained face and long hair. This is about the time we stop paying for drinks and stop looking at the time on our phones and dive into the conversations around us. Sometime around 2:30 the music stops and sometime around 3:30 everyone else gets kicked out of the bar, but we’re still talking and we’re at the owner’s table and we light another candle and keep talking and pouring Fernet.

Around 5:00 suddenly everyone is starving. “Let’s go to las velas!” . We’re in a taxi for ten minutes then and out into a little concrete market with a sign outside that says LAS VELAS and inside the concrete stalls are sleepy women with their long braids tucked behind their shoulders to keep them out of the little fires under their grills, and on the grills are the late night comfort foods of La Paz: golden chicken and grilled sausages and near the entrance, two ladies selling anticucho, which is meat from the heart of a cow. They cut it into thin ribbons and grill it and serve it with spicy peanut sauce and a little tennis-ball-sized boiled potato, for 10 bolivianos a plate (about $1.50). It tastes smoky and rich like most grilled meat and we each eat several little plates with the healthy appetites of people who’ve been up all night drinking.

The sky is getting light as L—– and I climb out of the taxi in front of our hostel. There’s a little terrace on the top floor of the hostel where we look out at the city as the dawn grows and brings to light what little color there is to see in this grey city.

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7 march 2015
L—– and I spend the day wandering from coffee shop to coffee shop. Neither of us slept much after being up all night, but we enjoy the sleepy day, watching the rain from under the eaves of dark cafes selling drinks that always seem to come in tall clear glasses with the milk and coffee layered like a parfait.

Late in the afternoon I meet Brayan, my Couchsurfing host in La Paz. We take a public bus to his family’s home near the stadium and he opens the door to a guest bedroom where I’m staying for a couple of nights. I eat with the family around the dining room table, talking shyly with Brayan’s parents and brother.

8 march 2015
Brayan and I go again to the El Alto market where he buys a slew of house plants and I buy a pair of the sturdy flat shoes the indigenous women wear. I figure if those shoes stand up to working and walking and carrying sacks of potatoes, they should work just as well for traveling.

In the evening I eat another helping of anticucho from a street vendor near Brayan’s house. It’s my last cold night in La Paz. From the view at Brayan’s house I look out across the valley sparkling with the lights of the city, houses draped like a blanket into the crannies of the hills.

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Bus blog: Torotoro to La Paz, Bolivia

Torotoro to La Paz

4 march 2015:

6:45 – We’re up early to pack and buy breakfast. Eggs this morning, peach juice, coffee, and the fruit salad Frances makes so well. While we’re eating, Macedonio swings by to tell us the minibus is ready and we can leave as soon as we’re finished eating. We hurry with the bill and our bags and head out the door.

8:40 – The minibus is not ready. Macedonio is nowhere in sight and the ticket agents at the little minibus kiosk tell us they’re waiting on four more people before the van will leave. The minibus system is faster than the bus and only a little more expensive, plus you have more control over departure times and stops, but the downside is that the minibus does not leave until it’s full, which can sometimes take a few hours.

9:40 – Macedonio has come and gone and we’re still missing two or three passengers. I chat with a Bolivian man waiting for the same bus (he cans and exports palm hearts for a living), pet the friendly stray dogs, and catch up on writing.

10:20 – we collectively decide to buy the empty minivan seats so the van can leave. I take one last bathroom break.

10:45 – After a few more frustrating moments of waiting, the van rumbles slowly over the cobbled streets, across the river, and out of town. Including the driver, there are 13 of us stuffed in a car only a little bigger than the average American family van. The scenery out of Torotoro is stunning. It was dark when we first arrived, so this is my first time seeing this landscape. We leave the jagged-edged bowl with its striped layers of earth behind and begin weaving in and out of green hills. Occasionally our driver brakes hard for a herd of goats or a stray cow. We pick up two more passengers along the way (I’m still not sure where we managed to fit them).

The curves in the road make me dizzy, so I close my eyes and listen to music. I would sleep, but the bus driver honks every time we round a curve, which makes sense – the road is not quite wide enough for two cars to pass and most of the curves are blind turns. What I don’t quite understand is why he also seems to be honking at water crossings, trees, and large rocks. The peculiarities of Bolivian road etiquette are still a mystery to me.

When I can open my eyes again I watch closely as we pass small groups of buildings – not towns or even villages, just clusters of houses every now and again along the road. They’re all dirt and adobe, some with corrugated metal roofs held in place with bricks or stones. Sometimes there’s no glass in the windows. Sometimes there are no doors. I see a lot of political slogans painted along the walls, all of them pro-Evo Morales, the current president who is running for his fourth term. In the doors of the occasional kiosk plastered with coca-cola slogans sit indigenous women dressed in the traditional Bolivian outfit: black sandals, a knee-length skirt and petticoat in a sold blue or green, long-sleeve knitted sweater, and wide-brimmed hat sitting atop two long, shiny braids hanging down to her waist. She sits with her neon striped blankets tied around her shoulders, a tiny son or daughter peeking over her shoulder from within the shelter of the blanket; or with the blanket spread in front of her, various sweet snacks tucked inside for sale.

14:40 – we climb out of the van on a busy street in Cochabamba, stretch, shake hands with Macedonio, and grab a taxi into town for a hurried coffee and a menu del dia.

16:32 – we’ve just missed a bus departure to La Paz, but the noise in the terminal tells us we won’t have trouble finding another. The terminal at peak hour is a madhouse. Women and men shout destinations like they’re selling food at a county fair: “La Paaaaaaz! ” “Oru-ru-ru-ru-ro-O-ruuuuuuu-ro!” “PotosiPotosiPotosiiiiiiii!” It’s surreal. The noise is deafening. We weave through vendors all but screaming in our faces, like soldiers running through enemy fire, to a company advertising cama and semi cama seats for La Paz. Our taxi driver advised asking for a company with a semi cama option as a security measure (buses in Bolivia have something of a reputation). The El Dorado booth looks clean and professional. The woman selling tickets signs us up promptly for seats at the very front of the bus – seats with a panoramic view – and assures us that the bus leaves “al punto” 18:00 – exactly at 18:00.

18:15 – the bus does not leave exactly at 18:00. The bus driver is sound asleep in the front seat. We check with the woman who registered our bags and she assures us the bus will leave in “just a little bit”.

19:02 – having a seat at the very front of the bus gives me an excellent look at how close the bus driver pulls to other buses and cars as we crawl out of the terminal, an hour late. I am genuinely surprised that the bus is leaving so late; the microbus this morning was one thing, but this is a major bus company and generally they leave punctually. The bus weaves rapidly in and out of traffic as we navigate the suburbs of Cochabama. The driver honks at everything. I lose count of the number of obstacles and other vehicles we nearly hit.

19:30 – the other passengers on the bus complain loudly and bang on the windows and floor. “Vamooooos!” We’ve stopped to pick up passengers in Quillacollo and everyone is more than anxious to be on the way.

20:30 the bathroom that was advertised in the el dorado ticket office is apparently “closed for the duration of the trip”. We stop next to a line of about 15 identical restaurants serving chicken prepared in various quantities of oil, and several men and one or two women get out. The men turn their backs to the road. The women squat in the shadow of tractor-trailers parked in a long line. I find a deserted concrete corner behind the line of restaurants. When I come back, the bus is already pulling back on to the highway. I yell and bang on the door and they slam on the brakes so I can jump in.

22:08 I’ve decided that the best strategy for surviving the journey with nerves intact is to close my eyes. We’ve already passed long lines of trucks on mountain roads with short blind curves. A few times the bus driver has begun passing a few cars on a hill, only to slam on the brakes when another car comes flying at us in the opposing lane. Now I think I know what they’re talking about when they say going by bus in Bolivia is rough on the nerves.

0:43 we make a stop to let off a few passengers. I eat an apple with peanut butter – an excellent gluten-free travel snack, readers, if you all are curious how I stay alive on long bus trips. The lights in the upstairs level of the bus come on and stay on. According to the information our taxi driver gave us, we’re still three hours from La Paz.

2:35 and it seems we made good time to La Paz, and we’re groggily shouldering our backpacks and deciding whether or not to take a taxi to our hostel, which turns out to be just a few minutes’ walk downhill, and then we’re falling into our bunks and trying not to wake the other guy already asleep in our room, and then we’re out.

Cochabamba, Bolivia

27 February 2015

18:30 – Roman and I arrive exactly on time and find our bus parked behind Sucre’s terminal, looking far shabbier and worn than in the picture the man at the ticket office showed me. My armrest is fraying and the seat squeaks as I sit down, but it is actually pretty comfortable. As I get up for one last bathroom run – there’s no bathroom on the bus – a man in an aisle seat grumbles about the supposed “semi-camas” (reclining seats) that the bus company advertised. The seats aren’t terribly uncomfortable, but the guy at the ticket office was definitely exaggerating when he said the bus was a “luxury”. Truthfully, I think I prefer the cheap local bus to a luxury bus anyway, at least for short trips.

18:49 – puffs of black smoke drift by my window as the engine rumbles to a gentle start. The sun sets before long and I’m asleep soon after.

3:00 – Roman and I drag ourselves groggily off the bus and into the terminal. It’s big and echoes like a gymnasium – even at this hour – with the shouts of bus company operators screaming out destinations. We’re both a little dazed. We don’t have a hostel to go to – there don’t seem to be many traditional backpacker hostels in Cochabamba – but we can’t stay in the cacophonous terminal, either. After sitting and blinking sleepily for a few minutes we decide to try one of the hostels listed in Lonely Planet. We take a taxi downtown to the first place the book suggests – depressing and barren-looking as a jail. We walk through deserted streets to another potential hostel – no room. Finally we find a cheap hotel with clean rooms and soft beds and pass out for a few hours.

28 February 2015

Roman and I switch hostels – we try a hostel listed on hostelworld in the hopes of finding a backpacker crowd, a few other travelers we can exchange tips with. But the hostel – rather a beautiful guesthouse – is completely empty. We pay 100 bolivianos each for beds in a dormitory that’s empty except for us.

Cochabamba by daylight is much lovelier than at night. Like Sucre, there are colonial buildings, but the city has a decidedly modern feel, and a far busier pace. It seems to me to be a wealthy city. We eat more mysterious Bolivian food in a pretty restaurant, then go in search of a tour operator to take us to the nearby national park Torotoro. We ask for directions to tourist information centers, which we never find, and eventually end up stumbling on a tour agency that seems about to close for the siesta. A friendly Bolivian man inside gives us some options for a tour of the national park. The prices are good – about $150 each for a three day tour – and we arrange to leave the following day.

In the afternoon we walk up to a huge hill dominating Cochabamba, on top of which stands the largest Jesus statue in the world – taller even than the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. We ride the cable cars up – signs at the bottom of the hill bluntly state that people who walk up are likely to get robbed – and come out on top of the hill to a view of a huge city sprawling through two adjoining valleys. High-rise office and apartment buildings dominate downtown Cochabamba, while the city spreads out away from them, big and urban and busy.

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In the evening we go to a restaurant called Casablanca where I try ceviche – actually a specialty of Peru – that must have the juice of 20 limes in it. On the way back to the hostel we stop by an Irish pub where Roman orders a quinoa beer, which we’ve started seeing more of in the Andes. It turns out to have been made from barley with quinoa added in for laughs I guess, meaning it’s not gluten free. I think this seems like a cruel joke and if makes me glad I haven’t ordered one.

1 march 2015

A new day, a new month, the beginning of my sixth month of travel. I check my calendar and see it’s actually been six months plus one week since I left the US. It doesn’t feel like that long. I thought by now I would feel tired, lonely, worn out, ready to go home. Instead I feel relaxed. The more I travel, the more I get used to living out of a backpack, the more Spanish I learn and the more people I talk to, the more I come to know myself well and really understand what I want to see and do when I travel. I travel better the longer I’m at it. And the trip doesn’t feel long. In fact it feels more like two or three different trips than one: there was the time before I could really speak Spanish, when I was more of an outsider; there was my long stay in Buenos Aires and my depression there; and there was the day I left Buenos Aires and really started moving and the road trip began. And now in some ways it feels like another trip is just beginning.

A new month, a new day. Today Roman and I decide to visit the nearby town of Quillacollo where there’s meant to be a large Sunday market. We take a “trufi”; not quite a taxi and not quite a bus, it’s a minivan that I would normally say seats about 8 people plus the driver, but I think we squeeze in 12. As in most countries outside the US, personal space is much much smaller than what Americans assume is the norm – so sometimes you’re pressed in between two strangers. Four people squeeze together on a bench seat, and special folding seats built into the aisles spring out to make use of every available spot. When someone in the back wants to get out, the people in the folding seats have to get out too to make way.

We grab a trufi in Cochabamba and take the 45 minute trip to Quillacollo. We keep thinking we’re going to miss the market – it’s always a gamble when you take public transit somewhere you’ve never been – but finally we’re in downtown Quillacollo and there’s no mistaking it. It’s a madhouse, throngs of people everywhere and the trufi inching through the crowd of people crossing the street. At first all we can see is the crowd, locals bustling back and forth and around the street, indigenous women with brightly colored striped blankets tied on their backs (sometimes there’s a baby tucked back there, or a load of potatoes or rice), and here the style of hat they wear is a simple wide-brimmed hat in white or tan, a sort of lacy texture with flowers tucked in somewhere.

Once we’re off the trufi and slipping into the moving tide of people, there are the stalls selling fried fish, batteries, razors, heads of pick axes, secondhand clothing, toothpaste, underwear; ragged plastic tarps swaying loosely as the ladies running the stalls slap their towels languidly at clouds of flies. We wander the aisles. Each street has its sellers: a street for shoes piled neatly in stacks, a street for fresh-squeezed fruit juices, a street for bouquets, a street for restaurants. The food market takes place under a pavilion in the center of the block of stalls, divided into alleys. There are pyramids of bananas, oranges, cactus fruit, huge papayas and avocados, piles of peaches, apples, and mangos. In the butcher stalls we see piles of chicken heads and feet.

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We stop to drink fresh-squeezed peach juice with cinnamon and a sweet peeled peach at the bottom of the cup. While we sit with our cups an old woman approaches Roman and tries to negotiate the sale of his backpack in Quechua (an indigenous language). She’s at it for about five minutes before we finally make her understand that we don’t speak Quechua.

Later we rest in a plaza and eat chantilly, a cup of red jello with a quivering tower of soft meringue on top. Four teenage boys have a small speaker hooked up to someone’s iPod and are practicing breakdancing in the center of a gazebo. Old couples, young children, and teenaged girls in indigenous clothing eat chantilly under the tall graceful arches of the gazebo and look on as the teenagers slide their sneakers over the polished stones and make flips and headstands one after another.

In Cochabamba we meet Eddy, the travel agent who takes us by taxi to the bus for Torotoro. At the stop we’re waiting in our squeaky seats for a few minutes when it becomes apparent that the bus company made a mistake and all the seats on the bus have been sold to two different people. After an hour of scrambling, every seat is full and people are sitting on benches squeezed in the aisle. Two skinny kids share the seat next to me. I offer my seat to the older boy when I see his head start to droop and he nearly slides onto the floor. He falls asleep right away with his head on Roman’s shoulder while I stand in the aisle.

Roman and I take turns standing for the rest of the winding, bumpy road to Torotoro. Sometimes the bus leans a little going around a curve and I look down and see a cliff half a meter from the bus tires. Just after midnight we’re in town, a few adobe buildings fading into darkness, and our park guide greets us yawning and points us to a cheap hotel where we bang on the door and stumble into our room for the night.