We have commented before that just about every village, town & city we have been to in South America so far seems to be a building site – with works either ongoing, or perhaps left half-finished. Here are a couple of the crazier ones we have seen…
Thursday 6 March saw us travel to Bolivia, and the city of La Paz, something we have been excited about for a while. From Puno in Peru, we had decided to take a coach that would get us straight to La Paz after crossing the border at Desaguadero, with no need to change coaches. We were set to pick up a coach at Puno at 11.15am, run by the reasonably well known and well regarded firm Ormeno S.A. That should ensure we could be in La Paz by around 5pm, and we were looking forwards to watching Bolivia pass by through the window, and in particular the drive into La Paz via El Alto.
ORMENO coaches are SHITE!!! So we are at the coach station nice and early, only to be told the coach (from elsewhere in Peru) is running 30minutes late. Hmmm. 30minutes later we are told it now won’t be in Puno until around 1.30-2pm! It shows up at 1.40pm but hangs around until 2.00pm before leaving. We get on, the seats & floor are filthy, the toilet is a stinking disgrace, the people on it (only half full) look shattered. The air-conditioning has a mind of its own, the video screen speakers emit an irritating buzz, and the 2 small windows rattle incessantly and cannot be fixed open or closed. Yuk!
We settle down and allow the stunning scenery of the Altiplano to distract us, with Lake Titicaca on our left, mountains to the right. Around 5pm we reach the Peru/Bolivia border at Desaguadero, and all get of the coach to clear Peruvian immigration. It is dirty, dusty and now cloudy & cold, there are many people moving back & forth across what must be the border, or just hanging around. It is a bit edgy here!
We gather we have to cross into Bolivia and our coach will join us there…so we walk the 100m into Bolivia, where there seems to be little or no ‘control’, nor order, nobody asks to see our ID? In fact we miss the immigration area/office completely and are wondering WTF we are supposed to do? Luckily we suss it out and join some fellow passengers in filling out a form and getting our passports stamped. Phew! The coach crosses over too amidst the border crossing chaos, we are all ready to get on, and off we go. Then someone tells us Bolivia is 1 hour ahead of Peru, so its now 6.30pm, and we will be lucky to make La Paz before 8.30pm.
By 7pm it is dark and raining and we can’t see a thing outside. After an hour we see a mass of city lights ahead in the distance, and soon we are passing through what we know is El Alto – a mass of poorly lit, bumpy, crowded streets, loads of rubbish everywhere some on fire, shadowy figures by there thousands moving about. It feels like some sort of post-apocalypse setting. Then we se another mass of city lights bellow us and we are driving down into La Paz at last!
The streets are rammed with vehicles, and people, but the coach gets to the Terminal Terrestre and we aren’t in the mood to hang around. Quick fag outside, then into a cab and through the chaotic streets to our hostel. Dump our bags, go eat, have a quick walk about the centre, and off to bed. Hello La Paz!
Over lunch on Taquile island, our guide explained numerous of his peoples’ customs. One of the customs was related to the type of hat the men wore, especially at fiestas. There were different hats/ways of wearing them for boys up to about 17yrs old, single male adults over 17yrs old, married men, and also elders. Our guide ruefully revealed he was the wearer of a ‘single man’s’ hat!
Note – our tour was organised via our hostal and was with Lagos Tours, it cost us 80 sols each (about £17), and included: transport to/from port, boat trip that lasted from 8am to 6pm, tri-lingual guide, lunch, visits to the 2 islands, fee for visiting Taquile island.
Our hostal in Puno was the Pumabackpacker. We paid $20 (£14) a night for a double room, shared bathroom, breakfast, free Wi-Fi. Not brilliant, but OK for the price.
On Wednesday, 5 March, we took a trip onto Lake Titicaca. We had an excellent tour guide from Taquile island, a native Quechua speaker, who also spoke perfect Spanish and good English, and you could tell he really cared about the Lake.
Our first stop was one of the Uros peoples’ reed islands, a floating island made from reeds, on which some of them live – the pic above shows the island we visited, it measured approx 60m in diameter, had 13 homes housing 50+ people. Now only a few of the Uros are prepared to allow tourists onto their islands, and in fact we think this is their way of capitalising on ‘tourist interest’ whilst maintaining privacy, which is pretty smart of them, but can leave the tourist feeling a bit ‘set up’. Hence on landing, after a talk on their history and how they make the floating islands, it was clear we were expected to buy goods. In fact we opted to pay for a 20minute trip on one of their reed boats (pic below) instead. These days of course they use rowing or motor boats, and keep the reed ones for us.
The Uros are believed to have reached the area of the Lake approx 2000 years ago, probably having originally come up from the Amazon jungle on a hunting trip. They based themselves around the Lake, but being hunters not farmers they focused on what they could catch on land and water. As a result they began living on both the Lake shore and the reed beds that are prominent in this shallower part of the Lake, and are so dense you can indeed walk on them.
When the Spanish invaders arrived in the mid-16th century there were believed to be 20000 Uros in the area, but they were persecuted, forced to work in the mines etc, and numbers dwindled. Today there are about 2500 Uros people living in the area, some on islands, some on the reed beds, and some on the shore, with many remaining very isolated. They are the only people officially allowed to hunt on the Lake in modern times. There language is Aymara, and very few speak much Spanish.
The reed islands are relatively new, invented in the mid-1980’s after heavy rains caused the Lake waters to rise and flooded many of their homes on the reed beds. The islands take up to 2 years to make, and are eventually 2 to 3m thick. They are held in position by being tied to long poles driven into the bottom of the Lake, which here was only 4-8m deep (it is 275m deep at its deepest). Reeds are also used to make their homes, and the white bottom part of each reed is a source of food – looks but doesn’t taste like a leek! Of course other aspects of their lives are more modern – solar power gives them electricity, TV’s, mobile phones etc. So satellite TV whilst living on a floating reed island – makes for an intriguing mix!