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.

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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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Torotoro National Park, Bolivia

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia
2 march 2015

We wake up to a quiet morning in Torotoro, the tiny village that’s grown up in an ancient valley full of dinosaur bones and old mysterious caverns.

This day our hired guide takes us out a long Torotoro street paved with pebbles, toward the national park. A herd of sheep passes us, driven by a woman in traditional dress, and we stop by a riverbank where our guide points out nondescript-looking depressions in the stone. They are the tracks of dinosaurs, apparently – apatosaurus and velociraptor – though I still can’t figure out how you tell the tracks apart from random holes in the stone.

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Our Spanish-speaking guide’s name is Macedonio (many times this week Roman and I forget his name and say “I know it’s almost the name of a country…”). He walks quickly over the tumbled stones of a dry riverbed where he tells us he’s been running since he was right. We hike along the boulders to a small natural bridge, and further on to a huge canyon where we see red-fronted macaws circling the thermals in pairs.

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Macedonio hops confidently down steep steps that lead to the bottom of the canyon. He doesn’t look back or walk at our slower pace. This begins to bother me after a while, as I step carefully and slowly to keep from slipping down the steep incline. I think I recognize his attitude from the days when I first began hiking. When you’re in shape the temptation is to show off. For a wilderness guide, this temptation is both stupid and dangerous (I believe), since it doesn’t matter how in shape you are if someone in your group isn’t able to keep up – and furthermore it sets a terrible example for people who aren’t familiar with the terrain or acclimatized to the altitude. I try to stay patient with him and focus on enjoying the scenery.

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At the bottom of the canyon we begin to follow a creek (Macedonio jumps over slick boulders and disappears around blind curves, leaving us to guess at the best route across the stream). I forgive him a little when we come to a wide, brown pool where the stream pans out and mixes with water spilling down the canyon wall in a series of cascades tens of meters high. We change into bathing suits and swim in the cold pool and laugh as we shiver under the cold spray of the waterfall.

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Later as I’m lying in the sun after lunch, the stream starts to rise rapidly. “It’s raining hard in the valley,” Macedonio tells us. In a few minutes it’s gone from a stream to a torrent and the water is at least a meter higher than when we came into the canyon. For some reason Macedonio is ecstatic about this really quite dangerous situation. Roman and I shake our heads and wait an hour for the water to go down while Macedonio walks around giggling and taking photos. We navigate out the canyon over high water (sometimes through it, holding hands to keep from falling). Macedonio decides to climb a random boulder, about 5 meters high, while we wait for another group to pass. Later we drip up the steep steps we came down earlier and Macedonio lags behind us, exhausted from climbing, stopping to splash water on his face and rest.

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In the afternoon we meet him for a visit to a tiny, shabby building displaying fossils and bones they’ve found near torotoro. It’s an interesting exhibit but Macedonio rushes us through it. On the roof of the building he talks to us about the land his family owns, the area surrounding the building where they’ve found fossils and turtle skeletons. We walk through a corner of a fenced-off acre of red dirt and he shows us how to see where the white half-moon skeletons of turtles lie buried in the brown hills.

Macedonio leaves us for the day a few hours before sunset. I want to explore the town so we walk up smooth, worn pebble streets towards the hills. Old ladies walking past with their long braids swaying and old men sitting in benches in the shade of mud walls greet us with buenas tardes as we walk past. It’s only a few blocks of white-painted adobe buildings with their red-tiled roofs, and then the houses are concrete or brick again and in a couple more blocks there aren’t blocks anymore and the countryside opens up into rolling fields.

But we’re not going to the rolling fields, we’re exploring town, and our exploration takes us to a little cafe run by a talkative old Bolivian man with a Swiss espresso machine (Roman is excited about this). The man calls me muñeca (doll) like it’s 1950 and brings me an aperitif of gin and sweet grapefruit soda.

We’re tired from the hike and the simple, delicious dinner we eat in the restaurant of the hotel where we stay. I go to bed early.

3 march 2015
We’re up early for breakfast and our meeting with Macedonio. He takes us out of town in a sturdy white jeep, up green hills laced with granite shelves tilted into a bowl. Torotoro huddles at the base of one of these shelves.

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The red road flattens out at the top of the ridge with deep valleys opening out on either side. To the south I can see a pale road tracing the contours of deep, green hills and leading away into the mountains. Soon we turn west and enter a kind of promenade of boulders bigger than houses. Macedonio stops at one of these to show us a protected space where pre-inca indigenous people likely took shelter. There are faint red paintings on the walls – just lines – of mountains, people, rivers.

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Further along the boulder field we take another rapid walk, Macdonio skipping along the path. He’s so far ahead that we don’t see him half the time and have to guess at his route. Once I sink to my shins in mud, not having seen him flit over a subtle stone pathway through the bog.

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Macedonio’s carelessness is irritating me and making it hard for me to appreciate our next stop, a complex of giant stones worn into weird shapes by erosion. They call this the little city – there are rocks that look like cathedrals, palaces, an open square of grass like a central plaza. It’s a little strange to be taken on a tour of something that has only imaginary significance. The ancient people didn’t actually use this network of stones like a city, and neither are they geologically significant. I wish we had been allowed to explore the rocks on our own and create our own story.

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At lunch I rinse the mud off my chucks. We take the jeep back down into the valley and along a little dirt path to the entrance to a cave that Torotoro is famous for. It’s a wide, tall mouth full of large broken stones in a huge arch set into a stony hill. In the far corner the cave narrows and becomes tinier and soon we’re crouching and squatting and shuffling along on our hands and knees and squeezing through a tunnel into a stone chamber under the earth. After a few meters we can stand up again. In the beams of our headlamps we can see elegant, strange stalactites in improbable formations that look like trees or blood vessels or somebody’s brain. I’ve never been in a proper cave before and I find it fascinating. Sometimes we can walk, sometimes Macedonio has us slide down smooth rock slopes, holding on to anchored ropes for support, sometimes we have to squeeze through more tunnels. Halfway through the cave we switch off our headlamps and sit in silence and darkness under the earth for a minute, listening to the distant rush of an underground river.

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Up and out the exit to the cave and Macedonio is practically running. We squeeze through tunnels barely big enough to fit through, climb up and down ropes, and slide down rock chutes at a breakneck pace. Later Macedonio tells us he decided to rush us through the cave because he was afraid of a flash flood that would swell the underground river where we follow its course; but in the cave he says nothing about this (perhaps wisely).

In the afternoon after Macedonio leaves us for the day, Roman and I walk the course of the river that flows through Torotoro, building stone cairns and skipping rocks in the river. We climb a hill overlooking the tiny colonial town to watch the sun set.

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I sleep early again. I’m exhausted from keeping up with Macedonio today. Our tour is technically over, and tomorrow we take buses from Torotoro all the way out to Cochabamba and up to La Paz.

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.

Travel update: Villa de Leyva

The small colonial town Villa de Leyva was the last place I visited before I left Colombia.

The first thing I remember is having trouble walking over the uneven streets. I’ve been places with cobbled streets before, but none that were so difficult to navigate, and I wondered what it must be like to live there and to walk everywhere on those slick stones, or to run over them. In fact I did have to run at one point that weekend, when I realized I had left my passport in our hostel and we had only half an hour before the bus to Bogota, but that was later – when we came into town it was hard enough to walk without tripping and also pay attention to the lovely old colonial buildings. I read that the streets now are actually reconstructions, and not the original roads, and that really made me wonder why they didn’t make them a bit steadier, but perhaps they came out more historically accurate this way. In any case it’s like walking on marbles and took some adjusting to.

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I came to Villa de Leyva for a weekend, but it was still very quiet. You can walk along the cobbled streets and look at the beautiful white buildings with green doors and shutters, with flowers from the courtyard gardens climbing over the walls. You can find little parks (I’m crazy about parks) and eat at little charming cafes and restaurants. There was a cafe I particularly liked that was part of a sort of complex of shops and restaurants, all set back from the street and all connected by series of small airy courtyards and passageways of cool shade opening onto more charming little courtyards and cafes. In some ways it reminded me of Tuscany, with the warm color of the paint and the way the colonnades glowed with reflected light, but Villa de Leyva has its own particular style that couldn’t truly be mistaken for anywhere in Italy.

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One morning I climbed a steep hill above the city. Near the start I met three stray dogs hanging around the park. Normally dogs unsettle me a bit, but these were friendly and didn’t seem to want anything other than to keep me company on my way up the hillside, racing each other ahead and stopping occasionally to wag their tails enthusiastically while they waited for me to catch up.

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Villa de Leyva is apparently famous for fossils, including a huge kronosaur that has its own museum. People go to the hills around the town to hunt for fossils but I didn’t really know about that when we went, so I had to be content with seeing them embedded as decoration in walls and stones on the streets.

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On Saturday the peasants and farmers in the surrounding countryside bring harvests in to a market in town. We walked there for breakfast, eating sweet arepas with chocolate. We strolled past huge piles of exotic fruits that after a month in Colombia were starting to become familiar to me – pitayas, lulos, papayas, and huge quantities of oranges, limes, and bananas. We bought juice made from a few of these blended together. I also bought a molinillo, which is the special blending tool Colombians use to whisk hot chocolate into a froth. Everywhere in Colombia people I met drank hot chocolate, usually instead of coffee in the morning, and often with little bits of mozzarella cheese dropped in to melt and give the chocolate a savory edge. The best coffee in Colombia being exported, it’s hard to find in the country and many people drink instant coffee if they drink it at all.

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My friend Javier and I had just had lunch and were on our way to the bus terminal when I remembered that my passport was still locked in a cubby at the hostel where we had stayed. It was only 30 minutes until the bus was meant to depart and the hostel was about a 20 minute walk, so I had to make a run for it. Sometimes when you travel you end up running to catch your plane or train or bus and making it at the last second, and it’s embarrassing to be running through some quiet town, especially with a huge backpack, but it’s something I think most travelers have done at least once.

I seldom forget something as important as a passport, though, so I made myself a little checklist with PASSPORT at the top for the next time I leave a hostel, just in case.