Tiwanaku is an ancient site located about 70 km from La Paz. It is considered the most important archeological monument in Bolivia. In the first millennium of our era Tiwanaku was the centre of a mighty empire, built not by conquest, but by religious conversion. Its original name is unknown, as there is no fully clarity neither to which language its inhabitants spoke nor where they went after Tiwanaku was abandoned following a catastrophic change in climate. Aymara, quechua and even uros all pretend to be Tiwanaku’s descendants and have quite elaborate theories to prove it. Whatever is the truth, Tiwanaku is a legendary centre for them all.
The most famous object in Tiwanaku – the Sun Gate:
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The Death Road is a famous La Paz landmark, connecting the capital, located on the Altiplano, with Coroico, which marks the start of the jungle. The main part of the road, from the mountain pass above La Paz to the town of Coroico, descends from 4650 to 1200 metres in about 60 km. The Death Road was built by the Paraguayan war prisoners in 1930s. It is extremely narrow, about 3 metres wide on average, which means it essentially only has space for one motor vehicle – when two of them meet, they have trouble passing each other. The road has no side fences or railings and the cliff on the roadside is sometimes 600 metres deep. To force the downhill traffic to lower the speed, the road is driven on the left (as opposed to the rest of Bolivia), so that the downhill vehicle is always on the side of the abyss. When the road was actively used, about 200-300 people died there annually. So the roadsides today are filled with crosses marking the places of the accidents. About 20 years ago a new asphalted road was built, and nowadays the Death Road is no longer used by motor traffic. It is now predominantly the domain of bicyclists, those with a need for speed. As you realise, I joined that group.
Endless number of companies in La Paz offer the Death Road tour, which includes transportation until the highest point on the mountain pass, as well as back to La Paz from Coroico, a mountain bike, a guide to explain all the details, as well as a microbus which follows the group carrying the personal stuff and in case of accident.
The pictures in this post are not made by me, but rather by a Bolivian member of staff.
I had never before driven a mountain bike so it was a nice debut for me. To be honest I only felt scared in the beginning of the ride, when for around 12 kilometres you almost glide on the asphalted road over the abyss. During this downhill slide it was particularly clear that a slightest error would lead to potentially terrible consequences. This is how the first asphalted part looks:
Continue reading I am a Death Road survivor →
I like capitals. They have a special energy that makes me feel good. In La Paz too I felt this energy. The formal (“constitutional”) capital is Sucre, but La Paz is the real capital of Bolivia. At the end of 19th century the silver mines of Potosí got exhausted and so the centre of economic strength moved from the centre of Bolivia back to North East. As a consequence, the seat of the government was moved to La Paz. As of today, the situation changed again: the economy is now strongest in the East, Santa Cruz (where I write this) is the largest city. However as the political control is still associated with the Altiplano to the West, the East is unhappy and wants autonomy or even independence. Evo Morales in that sense is squarely on the Altiplano side and is quite unpopular in the East.
La Paz means “peace”, the full name of the city is Nuestra Señora de La Paz, i.e. Our Lady of Peace. This name was elected by the founding Spaniards to commemorate the victory over the Indians and the supposed peace that was thus found. In truth though peace was sorely lacking in the history of La Paz – an endless procession of juntas, putsches and executions characterises it.
The geography of La Paz is ridiculous, grotesque. Of all the world cities, I can only think of Rio as equally striking in its geography – but where Rio is almost kitsch in its beauty, La Paz is gothic. It occupies a long valley sloping downwards, and so the difference of altitude between its different barrios ranges from 3900 to 3100. The poor live where it’s more tough to breathe, whereas the rich areas are further down.
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Lake Titicaca is divided roughly in half between Peru and Bolivia. Although the fishermen of both countries cross the border without hesitation many times a day, there is no regular connection on water between the two shores. Therefore I arrived in Bolivia by bus, and my first Bolivian town was Copacabana, which gave its name to a famous beach in Rio. To be honest Copa did not impress me much – it seemed rather like a pile of rubbish inhabited by lots of ants-locals. My days there coincided with a local religious festival, which meant that Copa was full of Bolivian visitors, music, noise, homemade fireworks and food scraps all over the ground. But my goal there was different. Early next morning a boat took me to the North of Isla del Sol – the Island of the Sun.
Tripadvisor and the rest of internet suggested that Isla del Sol is way more touristic than the Peruvian Titicaca islands. I reached a completely opposite conclusion. Isla del Sol rises above Lake Titicaca, silent and calm, and offers commanding views in every direction. The trek along the mountain ridge takes a few hours and lets you observe all the beauty in zen-like peace. Walking this path, I was full of wonder for the amazing landscapes put in front of me and for the journey that took me to this wonderful corner of the globe.
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The universal need to feel special presupposes that the attention we receive was somehow earned by us. Such is the effect of the Western individualism on travel. A tourist affected by this individualism looks for the experiences that would appear to be linked to the tourist in an intimate, personal, authentic way.
While researching Lake Titicaca online, I compared two routes: the islands Uros – Amantaní – Taquile on the Peruvian side versus the islands of the Sun and the Moon in Bolivia. Internet seemed to suggest that the Bolivian side is way more “touristic”, while the Peruvian side offers an “authentic” experience, in particular if one stays with the local indigenous family on the Amantaní island. So I decided to experience this. On a night bus I came from Cusco to Puno and immediately in the morning took a boat towards the floating islands of Uros.
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Visiting Machu Picchu is an absurd experience.
Two reasons for it.
Reason nr 1
It is absurdly difficult to organise a visit there. You cannot buy an entrance ticket via the website – you can only see how many tickets are left for a particular date and as you refresh the page, how they disappear. There are 2500 tickets allocated for each date and they sell several days in advance in peak season. You can buy a ticket from Europe, but then you are obliged to take the whole package, including also the train tickets, possibly an hotel in Aguas Calientes and certainly a sizeable intermediary fee. I decided to organise it all on the spot. So on a sunny morning I went to the Department of Culture in Cusco and bought an entrance ticket there – for a date 4 days ahead; then bought a train ticket – at 100 dollars very expensive for South America. You cannot reach Aguas Calientes, which is a start off point for Machu Picchu, in any other reasonable way except by train. True, I saw a helicopter pad in Aguas Calientes, if you’re feeling splashy. Therefore the two rail companies serving the line have a nice oligopolistic situation which allows them to charge nice oligopolistic prices. Admittedly when you ride the train on a narrow one line track sandwiched between the steep mountainside and the Urubamba river down below, you have trouble imagining how a road could fit in there.
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Sacsaywaman, Satisfied Falcon, in the times of the Incas was the most important temple which crowned their sacred universe.
We see today only a small part of the complex, maybe 20%, as all of the smaller stones were plundered to build other buildings in Cusco. Only the three massive walls remain. These were not taken part simply because the Spaniards had no idea how to transport the gigantic stones of which they are made. In Inca times the complex rose many more levels up and featured several giant rounded towers.
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What do we normally associate with Peru?
The Inca civilisation and its apotheosis, Machu Picchu.
Nazca lines for archeology lovers.
Politics aficionados may remember the communist rebels of Sendero Luminoso and the President Alberto Fujimori who crushed it.
There is also Lake Titicaca (although half of it is in fact in Bolivia.)
That is probably about it in the popular consciousness.
And yet probably the most bright experience of today’s Peru is altogether different. Peru is the gastronomic eldorado of South America. Its kitchen is considered the best in the continent. In Peru the gastronomic traditions of all kinds of immigrants – from Asia, Europe, Africa – have mixed democratically with the traditions and knowledge of the locals. All of these traditions together with the availability of ingedients from every thinkable climate zone – as Peru possesses jungles, mountains, deserts, ocean, rivers and everything in between – gives rise to unusual, creative dishes.
I promised myself to take a pic of every dish I eat, but have to admit the defeat of this undertaking. Seriously, every time the food came in front of me, the need to picture it got completely forgotten! I tried even to apply some NLP tricks to remember about it, but to no avail.
Still in a couple of cases I managed to make the following pics.
Perhaps the most impressive Peruvian dish is cuy, which is roasted guinea pig. I must say I felt some pangs of consciousness before eating it at first. The waiter even asked me if I wanted to get it together with the head on the plate or without. I decided that if I commit the crime already, should go full at it – please bring the head!
Guinea pigs are very quick to reproduce and are easy to prepare, so cuy has become the national dish of the Andes. It is so popular that on the many paintings of the Last Supper by the painters of the Cuscan school cuy regularly appears in front of Jesus, along with corn and yucca. Cuy turned out to be really tasty – very tender pink meat, something between rabbit and quail. The meat also has no cholesterol, so apparently is quite healthy too. I am surprised it is not eaten more widely in other parts of the world.
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I came to Cusco early in the morning from Arequipa. Immediately I was struck by Cusco’s magnificent natural setting and its unusual streets.
Cusco lies in a narrow valley surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountain slopes. It was conceived and implemented in the form of a lying puma. The head of puma corresponded to the Sacsaywaman temple on a hill. The puma even had teeth – the walls of Sacsaywaman – and an eye – a circular main tower of that temple.
The view over Cusco from a church on the hill:
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Arequipa is the White City of the colonial Spanish administration. After the bloody Indian uprising in the 18th century, which almost took Cusco, the Spaniards no longer felt safe there. The fact that Arequipa is 1000 metres lower than Cusco didn’t hurt.
I chose Arequipa as a base for some unusual trips, which were still to be determined at that point, and also simply because its name sounded exotic and exciting to me. At that time I didn’t yet know that my trip out of Arequipa would be to the Colca Canyon. I was also considering the ascent of the Misti volcano, which is considered technically easy, but the weather conditions at the time were not favourable (although the local tour agencies would be ready to go in any weather). Also I realised that while the basic mountaineering equipment could be lent by the agency, the ascent would also require some seriously warm clothes, as it snows on the top and the temperature can easily go below zero, which is not fun when you have to spend a night in the camp on the volcano. I didn’t have such clothes and didn’t feel like buying them thus increasing my luggage. I must admit that the clothes would come in handy on the cold Lake Titicaca.
From any point in Arequipa one can see the two neighbouring volcanos – Misti
Continue reading (A light) earthquake in Arequipa →