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Santiago Chile 2
Easter Island Chile
Santiago Chile 3
Puerto Montt Chile
Puerto Chacabuco Chile
Punta Arenas Chile
Puerto Natales Chile
Punta Arenas Chile
Puerto Williams Chile
Buenos Aires Argentina
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Ciudad Bolivar Venezuela
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Back Home in California
Greetings from La Paz Bolivia,
I left Puno Peru on 27 November expecting to make the complete journey to La Paz in a single day. Stopping first after crossing to the Bolivian side of the border in Copacabana some two hours from Puno, I would then catch an onward bus to La Paz. As we approached the Strait of Tiquina where the road ends everyone got off the bus and dashed toward the docks. The bus would be ferried across the water empty; the passengers in a separate boat. With everyone else on board the waiting passenger ferry I discovered we were expected to know a separate ferry ticket had to be purchased. Back I dashed looking for the obscure ticket booth only to discover I didn't have enough small coins and the ticket seller didn't have change for my larger bills. Finally, she grabbed what change I did have and thrust the needed ticket forward. The small launch used as a ferry could not hold everyone seated, but a young couple happily doubled up on the bench making room for one more. Half way across the ten minute crossing the outboard motor exhaust began pouring into the enclosed passenger cabin causing many of us to gasp for air. It occurred to me that carbon monoxide lowers the oxygen carrying capacity of blood and with its already altitude reduced capacity this could actually have been dangerous.
On the other side of the water we re-boarded the bus and continued on for another fifteen minutes finally stopping on the Peruvian side of the frontier where all passengers had to get off. With faulty Spanish I learned onward transport would be available on the other side of the frontier line after we had all cleared both Peruvian and Bolivian border formalities. Both immigration officers skimmed my passport and applied the necessary rubber stamp marks without so much as a comment.
I expected our bus to be waiting there to take us the additional nine kilometers into the actual Bolivian border town, but that bus had vanished by the time I reached the other side. I wandered around looking for the lost bus for ten minutes before concluding it never crossed the border into Bolivia. Actually, once I figured out what had happened, getting into Copacabana presented no problem. A series of collectivos or minivans sat waiting for passengers and thirty cents plus fifteen minutes later I found myself in the center of dusty little Copacabana.
While some people come here as a convenient place to start explorations of islands on Lake Titicaca, most are here to find onward transport either into or out of Bolivia. Though none I found could be considered exceptional, there is a wide selection of hotel accommodations ranging from $3 to $70 per night, something I discovered after being discouraged by the available transportation heading out to La Paz that afternoon. Vehicles pretending to be tourist buses with bald tires or other less abysmal transport possibilities with sick passengers convinced me to take my time before selecting a way onward. Just as well, as this provided an excuse to explore the village.
Being convinced one night would likely suffice, I decided not to be too fussy about a place to stay and quickly chose the $7 Hotel Mirador close to and overlooking the lake. After stashing the pack I continued exploring and found the Residence Paris on a street favored by the young backpacker crowd. The restaurant served a near gourmet quality lunch of Lake Trout with tasty pink flesh for about $3 including a Coca Cola. Pleased by the appearance of the hotel's sparkling kitchen I inquired about rooms: $3.10 per night and about the same quality as the $7 Hotel Mirador I had booked earlier.
Copacabana is a charming little burg, not at all what one might expect of a border town. The main street between the bus departure plaza and the town's central Plaza de Armas is dusty and crowded with holiday makers killing time before bus departures. The strangely designed Cathedral on one side of the main plaza draws pilgrims to see the sculpture of the Dark Virgin of Copacabana inside.
At dawn the next morning several shiny, clean tourist quality buses waited in line with scheduled departure times a half hour apart. Buying two tickets as has long been my habit, the four hour ride to La Paz turned out to be pleasant enough, except for the kid across the isle who continually teased his lap dog to the point of hysterical barking. The bus smelled vaguely like a combination of dog breath, popcorn and a ripe silo. When we arrived around noon I gratefully gulped the fresh air outside the bus, thin fresh air as La Paz is located at an even higher elevation than Lake Titicaca.
Arriving in La Paz at noon, the bus dislodged it's passengers a couple kilometers above the city center. Everything being downhill made that initial hike easier, but far from effortless. Hotels ranged from $35 for a couple three star houses to $135 for the five star Europa. Finally, the receptionist at one of the 3 star places recommended the Plaza Hotel up the street as being a bit better than hers. Sure enough the five star Plaza Hotel is nearly perfect. The receptionist announced the $135 room rate and then with hardly a pause noted she could give me a special rate of $70 without my even haggling. No need to affect my hang-dog look or ask for the always available promotional rate here. It is possible my scruffy look and drooping backpack convinced her I'd never go for the $135 rate anyway.
The remarkable town sits in a giant bowl at an altitude of over 12000 feet. I now have no doubt about the symptoms of Mountain Altitude sickness. I feel it everyday, even with one or two cups of tea made from the leaves of the Coca plant... the same one used to make cocaine. Growing the coca plant is legal in about half of the departments of Bolivia and the dried leaves are openly sold in the markets and by individual vendors on the streets. In the other half of the country, eradication programs funded by the United States government have all but destroyed the local economies.
This part of the city with all the upscale hotels is as modern as any I've visited anywhere in the world. There is even a Burger King a few doors up the street from the Plaza Hotel. After four nights of tolerating the cantankerous Internet service in the lobby I shifted to the even better Ritz Apart Hotel a few blocks away with its $60 suites and impeccably trained staff. Aside from more spacious rooms, the Ritz has dramatically faster and more reliable broadband Internet service and the breakfast buffet is better. This morning the dining music included Morning Has Broken, one of my favorite folk songs.
Bolivia has always been an enigma. The film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid still sticks in my mind as a principle source of information about the country. The movie tells the story of two real American adventurers who turned to crime and fled to South America when the law finally got too close north of the border. The real story is as interesting as the fictional one. Only the endless series of revolutions and military coups suggested in the film reflect today's reality, though. With 175 years of independence the country has had 175 presidents according to our guide on the city bus tour!
The history of Bolivia is pocked with wars. Bolivia has suffered from the effects of more wars than just about any other nation in South America. In the process its borders have changed drastically, usually contracting as the the spoils of war dictated. Rich natural resources found within the original boundaries of Bolivia soon attracted the greed of her neighbors. The dry climate of the area had permitted the accumulation and preservation of huge quantities of high-quality nitrate deposits – guano and saltpeter – over thousands of years. The discovery during the 1840s of their use as fertilizer and in the production of Sodium Nitrate as a key ingredient in explosives made the area strategically valuable.
Bolivia remains one of the poorest countries in South America. Life expectancy is 63 years for men and 68 for women. The gap between the rich and the poor is a national disgrace. The disparity in wealth between the richest and poorest still remains shameful to this day. 97 percent of the rural population of Bolivia (the poorest Latin American country) are below the UN poverty line. Protests erupt regularly, often over the issue of low wages for the majority while the well connected rake in salaries comparable to their First World counterparts. The average ANNUAL wages for ordinary people is $1200 while politicians pay themselves three times that amount in a MONTH! No wonder so many people are outraged.
Still, it is a vibrant city, full of happy kids: more than a third of the country's population is under 14 years of age. Most of the male youngsters must be shoeshine boys because every busy city block has nearly as many of them as beggars. They all wear ski masks pulled down so only their eyes are visible. Explanations include shame and anonymity should they decide to augment their honest wages with a little thievery.
One entire section of the city is occupied by indigenous people and it is easy to imagine the ancient city five hundred years ago. About half of the country's citizens are indigenous and half of them have missing front teeth which they seem to enjoy showing off with their toothy grins. I have never seen so many beggars in any city I've visited. The ladies often carry two hats, one on their head and one in their hands for collecting donations. Many have babies and little kids helping to harass pedestrians, especially foreigners. Quite a few of the beggars are very old ladies who look like they really do need a helping hand. I saw local people regularly giving them small coins.
Today I took the double decker city bus tour and learned a good deal more about this fascinating city. At one point we stopped on a high hill overlooking the city, Mirador Killi-Killi where I took pictures of the mind boggling vast interior of the bowl-like city layout. The four hour tour also took us to the southern zone where most of the upscale neighborhoods are located. San Miguel could be any expensive residential area in Southern California. Further south we stopped for a brief tour of the of the Moon, a uniquely eroded canyon that reminds me of a colorless Bryce Canyon. On a return visit to San Miguel I found Roky's, a fabulous restaurant serving "carbon," char-broiled meats. For a bit under $10 I discovered my half-order sampler selection contained SIX full portions of different meats plus Coca Cola, salad and vegetable dishes. Gorging myself only made a minor dent in the feast fit for a family of four.
On December first the entire city goes Christmas crazy. It is as if the act of tearing off the November page from the wall calendar is the signal to haul out all the holiday promotional materials and decorations. It is so abrupt I must wonder if the law prohibits displays of Papa Noel (Santa Claus) or the playing of Christmas music until that first day of December each year.
I briefly considered the possibility of heading inland to the city of Coroico, but several people warned me against taking one of the inter-city buses over what is called locally the Highway of Death. So, my next destination will be Chile. Buses going to Arica at the country's extreme northern boundary take four hours and leave at an obscene hour in the morning... later hour departures guarantee arriving after dark. I'm still trying to figure out how to awaken early enough to catch a 06:00 bus quite some distance from my current hotel. A possibility is to switch to one of the flea trap hotels across the street from the bus terminal the night before. Time will tell; serendipity will decide.