Friday, March 4, 2016

January 2016 Trip: Bolivia Recap

(You can read my recap of the first part of our trip, in Peru, here.)

After not nearly enough sleep and a 4:30 a.m. pick-up, we headed to the airport to fly from Cusco to La Paz. Unfortunately, for some reason the flight route went from Cusco west to Lima east to Santa Cruz, in the tropical lowlands of Bolivia, then back west to La Paz in the Andes. By the time we arrived in La Paz, it was 4 p.m.

Quick note for anyone interested in traveling to Bolivia (which should be everyone) -- official websites will encourage you to get a visa before you travel to Bolivia, but it was no trouble to get the visa at the airport. Just be sure to have $160 in American dollars for each person, fill out the visa forms available online and bring any documents listed (typically an itinerary, hotel reservation, etc.).

We got incredibly lucky with the weather while in South America. Summer is the rainy season where we were, but the only day it really rained was the day we spent most of our time in the air. I can't say that everyone would be that lucky, but avoiding crowds and spending a bit less on accommodations was nice.

A quick, scenic stop on our drive down into La Paz -- see the rain?
Since it was raining and we were exhausted, we didn't really venture out of our hotel that night, instead enjoying a long dinner together and then trying to catch up on some sleep before we met our Bolivian guide, Grace, the next morning.

Thursday we drove west of La Paz to Tiwanaku to see a museum and explore ancient ruins of temples, which predate the Inca civilization.

The Andean cross, or Chakana. Each corner has meaning, and the cross represents facets of Inca culture, including the three worlds: the underworld, represented by the snake, the middle world of the humans, represented by the puma, and the upper world of the gods, represented by the condor.

This sunken temple had many different face carvings from the rocks that formed the walls.
The Gateway of the Sun

After a delicious lunch in a local restaurant, we headed back toward La Paz and then west to Huatajata to spend the night.

Looking out over the Altiplano from the drive back -- you can just see Lake Titicaca in the distance
Sunset from the dock at our hotel
Friday morning, we were driven to Copacabana, a beautiful city on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The drive was just gorgeous, as the highway wound its way around lush green hills with views of the lake and, when the clouds cleared, the Andes.

Lake Titicaca is almost split in half by a peninsula -- this is the smaller part of the lake.

The ferry at Tiquina -- cars go by barge and people go by speedboat

Copacabana and Lake Titicaca
From Copacabana, we took a boat to the Isla del Sol. When we were booking our trip, this place was brought up to me by the travel agent. We only had time for Lake Titicaca (and Isla del Sol), or the Salt Flats south of La Paz. While the Salt Flats seem like an incredible place, the travel agent mentioned that she had been to Isla del Sol, and that the place had a magic to it. Sourabh didn't have a preference, so I decided we'd spend two nights on Isla del Sol.

You guys. I am so grateful to the travel agent that she nudged me toward that decision. This was by far the highlight of our trip. Maybe it's because the island is so ancient (it's believed to have been inhabited since before 2,000 B.C.), or maybe it's because there are no cars on the island and it's predominantly farmers, but the calm that I felt on this Island was truly incredible. I'm not a very spiritual person, but this place felt spiritual. The quiet, the natural beauty surrounding you, the vastness of the huge lake. It just came together to create such a wonderful place. I cannot recommend a trip here highly enough.

So, a bit of history. Isla del Sol means Island of the Sun. Viracocha, the ultimate creator in both pre-Inca and Inca religion, was said to have come out of Lake Titicaca. Inca means "king"; the indigenous people from the area that the Inca civilization contained are not "Incan", but rather are from one of the groups of Indigenous people that the Inca empire encompassed (two of the major groups are the Quecha and Aymara). The first Inca, or king, was believed to have come out of a massive sandstone rock here. The entire area -- Lake Titicaca and its islands -- were and remain sacred to the indigenous peoples of Bolivia and Peru.

Our first stop on the island was lunch at a woman's home. We ate a traditional Bolivian style lunch, sitting outside with a view of the lake and mountains. It was by far the best meal of our trip, despite having fancier meals elsewhere. The food tasted incredibly fresh, and it was such a neat experience.

Note -- that is a bird and not a helicopter. 

SO  MUCH GOOD FOOD. All different kinds of potatoes, giant corn, fried patties (like latkes), fried fish, chicken, hot sauce, giant fava beans, baked bananas, and coca tea.

After lunch, we took the boat to see the ruins of a temple on the south side of the island, before we hiked about a mile to our hotel, the Ecolodge Estancia. The Ecolodge provided all of our food for the rest of our time on the island, and it was all delicious.

The Ecolodge -- each room was a cabin.
We took a nap at the hotel before hiking up to the highest point on the island, a lighthouse that was about a mile away from the Ecolodge, to watch the sun set.

Just 18,000 ft tall mountains. NBD.

That night, I woke up around 3 a.m. to check out the stars. I wish I had been able to capture it with pictures because it was just incredible. I've never seen the Milky Way in person, I've only seen pictures, and seeing it with my own eyes quite literally took my breath away (like, I gasped out loud at how beautiful it was). Being able to see a blanket of stars had been one of the things I was looking forward to most, and it absolutely did not disappoint.

The next morning, we had breakfast then hiked down to the nearby port where our boat took us to the northern end of the island. From there, we hiked a couple miles to see the sacred rock from which the first Inca is believed to have come, as well as an ancient labyrinth.

Lazy baby burro.

Pigs! One thing that was nice was that every animal we saw looked really healthy. (Like, healthier than farm animals in the U.S. look...)

Here you can see the terraces that cover pretty much the entire island.

Sourabh, me, and the Sacred Rock

Sheep on the walls of the labyrinth, with quite the quizzical expression

We spent the rest of the day hiking back to the Ecolodge, with a break for lunch midway. There is a well maintained path that traverses the island, but you have to pay a "toll" at a few parts along the way, so it's important to have Bolivianos with you if you're hiking it.

We made a puppy friend at lunch!

Our picnic lunch view
Back to the Ecolodge

After another nap (hiking at altitude really wears you out!), I hiked back to the lighthouse with Grace to watch the sunset. Sourabh had a nasty altitude headache, so he sat out the second sunset hike and waited for the Advil to kick in.

This short sunset hike also yielded my absolute most favorite picture of the trip:

Our guide, Grace, has two grandsons, and wherever she goes, she brings clothes they've outgrown to give to children. Bolivia is a very poor country, and while people are certainly not starving, and in fact the country's economy has improved a lot in the past decade and people are much better off, the clothing was very much appreciated. I snapped this picture as Grace gave a little boy a jacket. He was bringing his family's llama home at the end of the day. People generally seemed like they had enough, even if they were poor, and seemed healthy. The government has quite a few programs that are meant to improve the lives of those living in these rural areas, and while I am obviously very uneducated on Bolivia, Grace said she believed they were working.

Oh, and on the altitude point... While I was okay during the day, I also had an altitude headache starting around 8 p.m. Lake Titicaca sits at about 13,500 ft, and at the highest point of our hike that day we were at around 14,000 ft, so we felt the effects much more than we had in Peru where we just had some shortness of breath.

On Saturday morning, I woke up to the sunrise, which we could see from our cabin window.

We had breakfast at the Ecolodge before saying goodbye to the mother and daughter who cooked all our tasty meals and hiked down to the port.

We also had to say goodbye to the resident cat, who is quite spoiled (and very sweet).

Bowler hats are quite popular among Bolivian women, and they originally came over in the early 1900s with British people. I want to bring this trend to the U.S. -- want to join me?

On our way, we passed an ancient Inca fountain, which is still used today. One thing that really stood out to me on this trip was how much of the Incan infrastructure is still used by Peruvian and Bolivian people today. Lake Titicaca is a saline lake, meaning it has salt in it. Yet the fountain -- a couple hundred feet up the side of the island -- has fresh water!

Women were collecting water from the fountain -- not every home on the island has running water.
We took the boat to Isla de la Luna, an island close to Isla del Sol, where we walked around more ruins. Hundreds of years ago, this small island was home to an Inca nunnery and "finishing school" for women, and it was believed to be the place from which Viracocha would command the moon to rise (hence the name, Island of the Moon).

The Andes in the background as a woman descends to the ruins to sell souvenirs.

Our boat and boat driver
After exploring the ruins a bit, we headed back to Copacabana, where Grace led us through the beautiful church, the market, and explained the blessing (or "ch'alla") of cars to us. Bolivians drive from all over to bring their new cars to Copacabana to be blessed by the priests of the Catholic church here. This is one way in which you can see how Catholicism and indigenous religions have merged. Lake Titicaca is a sacred place to indigenous people in Bolivia and Peru, so the Catholic church on the lake's shores holds a special place.

All these cars are lined up to be blessed


The church

We ate lunch at a lakeside hotel before making the long drive back to La Paz. 

Another trip on the ferry
More gorgeous views from the road

Our driver dropped us off in El Alto, which is the sprawling city on the high plains above La Paz. The city is expanding quickly as Bolivians move to the urban center instead of living in the country, and many of the streets we traveled on to get to and from Lake Titicaca were not even paved as we drove through El Alto.

But one thing El Alto does have is a pretty sweet tram system. We walked a bit through El Alto before stopping at a tram station and hopping onboard. There are different colored tram lines that take you from the top of the altiplano (the high plain) down into the heart of La Paz. The clouds had cleared up enough that we could see the beautiful mountains surrounding the valley in which La Paz is nestled as our tram descended.

From the tram station, we walked to our hotel in La Paz (the same one we’d stayed in three nights before), but not before seeing a bit of the city and having dinner with Grace at a local cafĂ©.

La Paz is known for its distinctive architectural style, and you could see that as we descended on the tram

We both really enjoyed having guides that we could get to know, who could tell us about Peruvian and Bolivian life beyond just the tourist sites we would see. On such a short trip, it’s tough to do more than see the “highlights”, but having guides that we stayed with for multiple days meant we could learn about the politics of the countries and get a glimpse of day-to-day life. 

On the shores of Lake Titicaca with Grace

Both Holber in Peru and Grace in Bolivia were so knowledgeable and were absolutely lovely people. If you ever want to find a guide for trips in either country, please reach out and I will send you their email addresses!

After a sleepless night, since our hotel was right by a busy intersection and the drivers of La Paz appear to be very attached to their car horns, we were picked up dark and early for our flight from La Paz to Miami (with a stopover in Santa Cruz – apparently all flights to Bolivia go through there or something?). We had an overnight layover in Miami, which was fun, before another early morning flight that got us back to LAX on the morning of MLK Day. We were picked up by my sister and brother-in-law, who’d been house/pet-sitting and vacationing in sunny SoCal, and got to spend some time catching up with them before they flew out that night.

Don't worry, as you can see, Mason was well cared for.
It was certainly a whirlwind of a trip, but it was incredible, and we cannot wait to go back to South America and explore more of it. It’s such a huge continent, and there is so much to see!


  1. Holy wow! South America is officially on my must-visit list. I've said this before, but I love the idea of an active vacation to another country that's filled with plenty of hiking and exploring and adventuring ... and eating too, of course!

    1. It's an active person's dream! So many gorgeous locations (and so much good food).

  2. Thank you for sharing, Bolivia looks amazing as well. And I love how you vacation, being active, exploring and taking in the local culture. Must go to South America!

    1. I think Isla del Sol was probably partially my favorite place because of just that -- feeling more embedded in a place, seeing the culture, hiking around and eating Bolivian food :)

  3. This was such an amazing recap - your trip sounds like it was incredible! I'm so glad you had a wonderful time... and I may need to get some of those names from you at some point, because you've really made me want to visit Bolivia :)