Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Lake Titicaca and La Paz: Altitude-Inspired Adventures

Leaving behind Cusco and the many Incan rocks that comprise its tourist-frequenting walls, my journey continued onwards to the south, with one final stop in Peru before heading off to Bolivia: Lake Titicaca.

As the ¨highest commercially navigable lake in the world,¨ sitting at a breath-capturing 12,464 feet (NOTE - The BOTTOM of the lake is still 2 miles ABOVE the city of Austin), Lake Titicaca not only possesses this random Guiness Book of World Records feat (you can´t help but feel bad for those other 34 higher, yet ¨non-commercially navigable¨ lakes that missed the cut), it also encompasses one of the more hilarious names in the travel world for those of lesser maturity (i.e. me). With the lake spanning both countries of Peru and Bolivia, I leave you with the highlights of our time spent on both sides of this breathtaking body of water:

- Uros Flotatantes - More commonly known as the ¨Floating Islands,¨ the first stop on our 3-hour boat journey along the lake took us to one of the 44 artificial islands on Lake Titicaca that are created entirely of floating reeds. Initially developed for defensive purposes (I can´t imagine the navy that would shudder at islands made of plant bits), these floating islands, which house almost 2,000 citizens, are now primarily used to attract photo-happy tourists. With 20 minutes allowed to ¨explore¨ one of the minutely-sized islands, I spent the majority of my allocated time wandering the circumference (I´m pretty sure I made it around at least 8 times) all the while contemplating what could possibly comprise the 1/2 day tours that seem to be offered at every 2nd corner back on the mainland.

- Amantani Homestay - As one of the two main islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca (it never gets old to say), our boat took us and several other tourists to the island of Amantani for an authentic homestay with a local indigenous family (i.e. whichever family drew short straw on that given day). Being provided with suprisingly comfortable accomodation as well as 3 potato-heavy meals for all of $10, our 12 hours on the island included the following: Hike to the top of the island where a randomly-located donut shop was thriving with business, several semi-awkward conversations with our homestay mom and of course the ultimate highlight -- visiting the local ¨disco¨ whereby several dozen gringos and their respective homestay mothers were dressed in local attire, dancing to neverending pan flute music. Don´t worry, photos are below.

- Copacabana - Crossing over the Bolivian border (which had luckily just reopened after over a month of organized protests - as an FYI, Bolivian´s LOVE their organized protests), I managed to take full advantage of my South African passports ability to negate the $150 visa fee charged to US citizens, and entered into the border town of Copacabana (commonly misinterpreted as THAT Copacabana -- although definitely not the thong-thriving Brazilian beach of a many creepy guys desktop backgrounds). A small tourist-thriving village that serves primarily as the jumping off point for a visit to the other main island on the Lake, Isla Del Sol, our time spent in Copacabana included more aimless wandering (quite the popular activity while backpacking), several shock-happy showers (thanks to a ridiculously setup electrical shower head) and frequenting yet another amazingly delicious $4/4-course-meal restaurant.

- Isla Del Sol - After bout # ¨I´ve lost count¨ of ¨runny tummy¨ which momentarily caused me to reconsider a visit to Isla Del Sol, the birthplace of Incan Civiliation, I am more than elated I did not pass on the opportunity to visit the most-scenic, as well as most religiously important, island on Lake Titicaca. Arriving after a ridicilously slow boat journey, whose speed rivaled that of casual walking pace, our time on Isla del Sol was spent primarily hiking at semi-rapid pace in order to catch our 3:30PM boat back to the mainland. That and of course taking several ¨I feel like I am dying, what did I eat last night¨ breaks along the way.

Leaving behind Lake Titicaca, the paths of Laura and I officially separated as I started the final month of my journey as a solo wanderer of South America. Entering into La Paz, a city situated at 11,795 feet above sea level (officially making it the highest capital city in the world -- I´m just racking up these altitude-inspired records), my 4 days wandering along the lively and atmospheric streets of La Paz made this city by far my favorite in all of South America (the free daily local-brewed draft beers courtesy of our hostel didn´t hurt its cause either). I leave you with the highlights:

- Biking the World´s Most Dangerous Road – As once the most dangerous road in the world (killing an estimated 200-300 people per year who veered off it´s 2,000 foot sheer dropoff cliffs), the 40 mile dirt road, now closed since 2006 to public transportation (for the most part), is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Bolivia. For approximately $75 (quite expensive in relation to Bolivian standards), cyclists are kitted up in full biking gear (pants, jackets, helmets, gloves, etc) and provided with top-of-the-line mountain bikes to traverse their way down this infamous path. Despite still encompassing its dangerous ways (18 tourists have cycled off it´s cliffs since 1998), our guide led us at brake-defying speeds around ridiculous curves along the road, stopping off for various photo points along the way. While my favorite photo of the day is apparently stuck on my waterproof (unless placed in water), Olympus point-and-shoot camera (LCD=Dead, USB Connection=Dead, Memory Card=Apparently dead as well), I leave you instead with the runner-ups below.

- Cholitas Wrestling – Alike to any WWF match ever watched in the States, Cholitas Wrestling in Bolivia includes it all, and more: Elaborate drama, over-exaggerated hits and reactions, a rowdy crowd constantly tossing whatever loose object they can retrieve at their least-favorite personalities and of course the one aspect which sets it apart from any other wrestling event I´ve ever seen – Gigantic Bolivian women wrestling one another in the ring. I have no other way to describe this event than to say it was one of the most incredibly entertaining events I´ve seen thus far this trip.

- Street Food – Despite several encounters with less-than-sanitary food during my travels in South America (and their unfortunate aftermaths), I was unable to avoid the amazing array of street food provided along the endlessly steep roads of La Paz. My favorites = The endless number of $0.50 hamburger stands, opening everynight around dusk, which put McDonald´s efficiency to shame as well as the $0.25 SalteƱas (imagine an empanada, but filled with delicious juiciness). Add to that our hostel´s providing of unlimited free pancakes every morning for breakfast, and I was as happy an eater as I could be.

- Markets – Alongside the endless array of food stands in La Paz are an even greater number of shops, stores as well as makeshift stalls selling every item thought imaginable. From an entire neighborhood dedicated to ¨black market¨ electronics (I was this close to buying the ¨original, no fake¨ 64GB USB drive for $10) to the neverending ¨tourist region¨ offering, as no surprise, an endless array of Llama-ordained items (hats, jackets, gloves, etc) for even less. From piles upon piles of fruits, vegetables and potatoes sold alongside smog-producing traffic to shrivilled Llama fetuses carried at the ¨Witch´s Market¨ for good luck and safe keeping. And of course the endlessly steep, 30-45 degree road, selling basically everything else -- generic hats (I found a Michigan one, but it was a bit too large), jeans, jackets and even a solid selection of soccer balls, all for a fraction of the price sold anywhere else in the world. It was more than enough to provide an anxiety-driven purchaser days upon days of endless comparison shopping.

Onto the pics:

Next week: 3-Day Bear Grylls-esque Survival Tour in the Amazon

Islas Flotantes - The gigantic fish and sun-face are still intended primarily for defensive purposes

View of Lake Titicaca from our homestay on Amantani

¨Mom¨ and the kids putting together a feast for us in the kitchen (the hole in the wall to the right is the ¨oven/stove¨)

Lunch = Several types of potatoes, giant beans and a flat cheese-like substance

Some local kids that forced me to take a picture of them, and in exchange, stole the crackers I had recently purchased

Headed up to the top of the island

Quite accurate sign

Our homestay ¨family¨ dressed in local attire ready for a night out at the disco

No matter what your ethnic origin, anyone can dance in a circle in a fairly rythmic motion

Copacabana - Just like in Rio, minus of course the beach, bikinis and pretty much everything else

¨Electric Shower¨ - Guaranteed to make every shower a ¨shocking¨ experience

Isla Del Sol - Birthplace of the Incan Religion

Trying to soak up the sacred rock from which the Incans were birthed (as well as cure whatever disease was plaguing my intestines that AM)

That´s one damn scenic lake

The ever-wobbly ferry crossing for our buses on the way to La Paz

La Paz - Favorite South American city by far

If there´s room to build it, they will live there

Plaza Murillo - A statue, some buildings, some grass and some pavement. South America has definitely gotten their central plaza creation down to an art

Shriveled Llama fetuses at the Witch´s Market - Julie´s ¨secret gift¨ that I expect to see above her fireplace a month from now

Our group ready to ride down the World´s Most Dangerous Road (aka Yungas Road, aka Death Road)

Speeding by semis on our way to the start of the WMDR (a very popular acronym in La Paz)

Geared up in style

The Death Road - ¨Keep to the right¨

The infamously dangerous Death Corner (notice my front wheel over the edge - I´m basically a badass)

When no other pose is suitable... jump!

Cholitas Wrestling - Right up their alongside the wheel & fire for best inventions by mankind

An extremely enthusiastic local crowd in the ¨non-VIP¨ section (aka one row behind the VIP/Gringo section)

These guys take this stuff seriously (Jim, notice the Keith Rickli figure playing volleyball to the left)

A large Cholita ready to partake in some girl-on-girl wrestling (just like ¨Old School,¨ minus anything sexually attractive whatsoever)

Nothing like a kick to the breasts to turn the table on your side

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