The End of an Era

Death’s Forty Kilometres

As soon as the airstrip in the rainforest town of Rurrenabaque allowed, we boarded the mini, sellotaped plane, for a short, but very turbulent flight through a snowcapped mountain range and into the sprawling, crowded city of La Paz.

Our visit began with an excellent free walking tour of La Paz, starting next to San Pedro, the minimum security prison in the centre of La Paz. Seeing as Bolivian justice is governed by ‘preventative captivity’, 85% of the inmates are awaiting trial, though it doesn’t seem a tough life. The prison is manned by very few guards because the inmates run it based on their own code of conduct, the woman and children can go in and out as they please, Coca-Cola has paid for exclusivity inside, and cells are sold like real estate, ranging up to apartment blocks which the guards allow the inmates to fully furnish with their possessions from outside.

We wandered through various squares, past the Presidential Palace and through the large markets which La Paz is so famous for, from the fruit and veg section, dominated by potatoes (400 varieties grow in the La Paz area alone), to the stalls piled high with stacks of multi-coloured llama and alpaca wool clothing. Most were manned by local indigenous woman, wearing shawls and skirts, and balancing bowler hats on their carefully plaited hair, and we were informed of how flirtation works in the Aymara community: when a woman really likes a man, she plays with her plaits to attract his attention, then if successful, lifts up her long skirt a miniscule amount, just enough to reveal her ‘big juicy calf’, as our tour guides phrased it; everything depends on the sturdiness of an Aymaran woman’s calf.

The tour ended on the seventeenth floor of a five-star hotel, which offered fantastic views across the city and facilitated our next adventure: Urban Rush, abseiling face first partway down the building then freefalling the remaining height. It is one of the only activities which has ever made me feel slightly nervous, as we had to feed the rope through our hands ourselves as we slowly walked vertically down the wall of the skyscraper, though there was, of course, a back-up line (before you start worrying, mum!).

The highlight of our La Paz visit was, without a doubt, our day spent cycling Death Road. We were driven out of the city until we were at 4700m and short of breath from the altitude, and once shown our bikes and their uber sensitive brakes, we had 25km of tarmacked road, looping and snaking down the mountainside, to practise and get used to the bikes, accompanied by utterly stunning views.

Once our practice was over, we began in earnest on Death Road, 40km of rough, bumpy road, sometimes as narrow as three metres, and with sharp drops up to six hundred and fifty metres, all the while downhill at such an incline that braking without skidding was near impossible. It was a challenge but an exhiliarating and exciting one. The comic entertainment of the day was provided by Nae’s very slow pace, which made for excellent footage and many laughs as our group sat watching in the restaurant at the bottom of the road with beers in our hands. The highlight was a fall (minimal injuries, I promise) in a shallow river only five minutes from the end when she gave up cycling midway across the water.


The Retreat

After a messy night out with new friends made from Death Road and the locals who were our guides, Nae and I moved on to Copacabana, a small town on the shores of Lake Titicaca, from which we took a ferry out to Isla del Sol. We climbed a long set of Inca steps which led to a small village and spent the day sat on a terrace writing our diaries, and looking over the stunning view of the terraced island and vast lake. We were surrounded by such a quietness that, as Nae put it, the only sound was our coke fizzing.

We found a hostel recommended by friends, and booked into a beautiful room with light-coloured wooden floorboards and large windows looking out across the lake, and felt like we were on some sort of retreat, a feeling which was heightened when we realised we had the run of the entire building. So that night, we slept peacefully, the only two inhabitants in a beautiful lofty room, in a huge hostel, on the top of a hill, on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca.

The Other Side

The next day was momentous: after close to two months in Bolivia, we crossed the border into Peru. We made straight for Puno, a large town on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca.

The next couple of days were spent on a tour of some of the Peruvian islands in Lake Titicaca. We began with a boat ride out to the Uros Islands, a group of fifty floating, manmade islands, made by the indigenous people using reeds grown in the lake, a tradition which began when they moved from the mainland to avoid having to work in the mines for the Spanish conquerors. On each reed island, six or seven families live in houses made from reeds, sleeping on reed mattresses, eating the white end of the reeds, using the reeds for fuel for their cooking. The president of the small island we visited demonstrated how they build the islands, mooring huge sections of roots then piling up layers of reeds. She also showed us the variety of incredibly beautiful textiles they make in order to earn money, depicting their way of life, the animals they rever, and Mother Earth, Father Earth and Mother Lake.

In the afternoon we headed to Amantani island, the land all terraced, much like Isla del Sol as the primary income is agricultural produce. There are ten indigenous communities on the island, and not a single restaurant, hostel or souvenir shop. We hiked up to the ruins of a temple to Pacha Tata, Father Earth, to watch the sunset. That night we stayed with Mama Sebastiana and her family, who are part of Comunidad Occopampa, as marked out by the green colour of the skirts which the woman wear. She fed us multiple varieties of potato, then in the evening dressed us in the colourful finery of the local women and took us out to a fiesta the community held in honour of the homestay guests, where we danced and danced, whirling around in large circles to the music of a panpipe band.

The next day, after a slightly teary farewell on the part of Mama Sebastiana, we moved on to another large natural island called Taquile, and hiked up to the main square and a restaurant there. Our guide and a local explained the traditional clothes worn by the 2500 inhabitants of the island; each man is marked out as single, engaged, married or part of the authorities of the island by the colour and style of the hat and woven belt he wears; each woman is marked out as single or married by the way in which she wears her black shawl and positions the colourful pompoms, affixed to each corner of the shawl, about her body. The local, and evidently married man from the red of his hat and belt, demonstrated grinding up the leaves of a plant which creates a natural shampoo and detergent so excellent and strong that not a single inhabitant is bald or loses the black colour of their hair.

After lunch, we headed back across the lake to the mainland, and overnight took a bus to Cusco, the town which serves as the basecamp for Machu Picchu. We have so far spent two relaxing days touring the local restaurants, getting massages, wandering the cobbled streets and recuperating a bit, enjoying another mini holiday from our holiday. It’s a tough life we lead.

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