Bolivia? No-livia!

I hope ya’all are entertained with our challenges, as it’s much more interesting to laugh at our hardships, perhaps we will feel the same when we return. Our plan after Puno was to head into Bolivia, work our way down through Chile, up through Argentina and back through Bolivia to finish in Peru. The stars were not aligned for us this day.

We bought our tickets straight to La Paz and left at 2:30pm. About 3 hours later at the border, the bus driver asked who the Americans were and he announced that it woud be $100 US to enter the border. We were shocked. It was the first we had heard of such a thing, having lived in Peru since September and following the most recent Lonely Planet guidebook (which says there is NO entrance fee). We thought they were scamming us and got angry. We walked to the Bolivia side and talked to immigration, who told us if we didn’t pay the $200 total, we couldn’t enter the country. That amount of money is what we could spend in a month of living in Bolivia (more or less). A border that has NO ATM and we don’t travel with that much money in our pockets any way. Shock to anger to frustration to disappointment.

Our only option was to turn around, hop on a taxi to the next town, grab the last 2 seats in a local bus going back to Puno (facing sideways, against the driver’s seat). So around 9pm we got back to Puno, at square one. Apparently, this past December, Bolivia’s socialist president decided to charge a reciprocity fee to Americans. Thanks a lot, Georgie. But a nice thing DID happen to us, we visited the agency we bought our tickets from in Puno (ALL Ways Travel) and explained the situation and the very nice owner, Victor, reimbursed the portion of the bus we didn’t ride (border to La Paz). No one informed us of the entrance fee when we bought the ticket or got on the bus (they knew before we boarded the bus we were from the US)…maybe someone should have, we could have looked it up as well but didn’t think to. Well, Chile currently has no fees for entering on land (it’s $100US if you enter on a plane in Santiago) so we’ll head there next.

Puno: Folklore Capital of Peru

We spent a few days before and after the islands trip in Puno, a dusty city at one end of Lake Titicaca. Since it’s at such a high elevation, the sun is strong during the day and it’s cold at night. We both bought sweaters to keep ourselves warmer (as our hostal had no heat). Puno’s not a very pretty town but the view of the lake is nice. It rained hard every night (one night it actually hailed for a solid half hour).

The food’s decent enough, we ended up eating at a Hare Krishna place a lot (Govinda, sl.5 lunch) and el Buho (not the one on calle Lima, it’s just down the corner) which had an adobe wood fired oven and they made thin crust pizza, calzones and had a delicious garlic dipping sauce. We went to the Coca Museum, which was interesting to learn about how medicinal coca leaves are (i’m amazed that chewing the leaves is really GOOD for your prevents cavities, unlike tobacco).

We tried to time our trip to include Candelaria (feb.2) but it was not as exciting as we thought. Apparently the really cool parade with crazy costumes and masks is on Feb. 10. On Friday night we went and saw some random, unsafe fireworks and a parade in the streets with a Canadian/Belgian couple we met. Saturday morning we tried to go to the special mass but we missed it (the tourist office told us 9am..but it was 8am and we got to see a statue of Mary leaving the church and going for a walk). Sunday was the big folklore dance competition in the stadium and that was interesting. The groups all kinda had the same music (single drumbeats, trumpets, panpipes somehow out of tune). The danced in formations and the costumes were interesting. We didn’t really understand the meaning of the dances or costumes so we felt a bit lost…but it was interesting at least.

Lake Titicaca Islands: Uros, Amantaní & Taquile

Beavis would be proud, we have made it to Lake Titicaca. The elevation here (3830m) is intense and it took me about 2 days to feel like my head was not in a fishbowl. But, the altitude sickness was not as bad as last time…no major nausea. I rested for a few days once we arrived in Puno, then we headed to see the islands.

The Lonely Planet guidebook makes a BIG deal about how travel agencies in town don’t give the locals a fair commission (and somehow it is cheaper to go with a guide than alone) and they encourage you to do it on your own so the locals see more money. Sounds all roses and puppy dogs, eh? That was not our story.

We bought a 3 island ticket direct from the port, the first stop being touristy Uros, the floating islands. Unfortunately, we were the only tourists and the capitan decided to skip Uros and go straight to Amantaní (without informing us). I was worried but he promised the next day he would take us to Uros before returning in Puno.

Sooo, we arrived in Amantaní, blue skies, strong sun and an island that has about 4,000 inhabitants. We were put up with the capitan’s family, who were nice but spoke in Quechua to each other unless we asked questions in Spanish. It was a little awkward. We spent the day wandering around town and hiking to the 2 big ruins; Pachatata and Pachamama, which are circular stone walls with a sunken ground. The views were great.

We even ate pretty well because the island is all about agriculture and sheep for wool. Meat’s expensive so their diet is for the most part, vegetarian. Muña tea was a favorite (a local herb kind of like mint). In the evening, Matt and I got dressed up in the local garb (the women’s clothing is complicated and very tight around the ribcage) and went to a peña, with local music and more tourists from the island. We learned their local dance (holding hands and violently shaking them back and forth while dancing forwards or backwards) and tried a local Puno beer (which tasted like Coors).

The next day we took a boat to Taquile, after much fighting with the boat capitans (the guys from yesterday were nowhere to be seen) who refused to take us to Uros and at one point in the discussion told us we weren’t welcome on their boat. Long, frustrating story short, we got to visit Taquile but were screwed out of Uros. I don’t know if it’s a fact or not about the travel agencies taking advantage of the islanders, but I would recommend going with the agencies because at least you go to all the islands and don’t have to deal with the boat capitans…better than being angry that the locals are taking more advantage of you….it left a bad taste for us. (Inka Tours, ask for Neo…he was with another group on the island and was really nice.)

So, Taquile is a 7km island with 2,000 inhabitants that rarely marry outside their island. They are known for fine weaving skills (men used to weave with their own hair) and unique clothing, where you can identify if someone is single and looking or not or married just by the style of their hat or color of their skirt. We only spent about 3 hours on the island, but it was pretty and the hike was nice. The men knit their own hats as well, and we saw boys knitting all over the place. The deal is that the marriage-ability test is for a woman to pour water into the man’s hat and it the weave isn’t tight enough to keep the water in, he’s not going to make a good husband.

They also have a ritual before marriage where they live together for 2 years and after that time they can choose to get married or not. If not, a new guy can move in with the girl and see how it goes. They also have to have a child before they can get married. Their culture is really interesting and detailed.

After Taquile, we had to go back to the mainland then buy another ticket to Uros, which is VERY touristy and I’m curious how many people actually live on the reed islands in their reed houses on their beds of reeds. It looks like something out of Disney, people living on islands made of reeds. It’s a little squishy and our boat took us to one island, where we learned how they make the islands (and if a family fights and wants to move, they cut part of the island off and push it away) and looked at the wares for sale.

We took a reed boat taxi to another island and looked at their stuff for sale and then left. I think it was the most touristy thing we’ve done so far but it was still neat to see the islands. You can even spend a night in one of the reed houses but it looked pretty cold….at this elevation it’s really cold at night!

Overall it was an interesting trip and pretty islands but it was frustrating having to fight along the way for fairness. I would have rather gone with a tour group, but oh well.

Interactive map of our travels through Peru-Ecuador-Bolivia

Matt created this cool map and I wanted it on my blog as well.  It has our route and if you click on a town where we have been, our blog posts pop up as links.  Now you can visualize where we are in the world with our blogs.  Neat, eh?

View Larger Map

Canyon de Colca

We decided against the rip-off tourist agencies and spent 3 beautiful and physically exhausting days in the 2nd deepest canyon in the world.  We thought about going to the deepest, but it was 12 hours by bus from Arequipa and the road is not the best…nor is the trail knowledge.  The Colca Canyon sounded like an adventure enough, and it was. 

We had a frustrating start, as usual.  In Arequipa there are multiple travel agencies and we have only heard horror stories about using them and even hiring guides independently (one girl’s guide was 3 hours late and they had to do part of their hike in the dark—which is NOT safe.  He also had his ipod on and ran ahead of the group….and this guy’s getting paid to keep them safe…).  Our guidebook says it’s possible to do it yourself, but there are NO good maps of the canyon.  We bought a topo from Colca Trek and realized too late it only had half the canyon and there were errors on the map.  We met an couple who gave us a cartoon map from a hostal that was the best map we saw (and it was free).  We also had problems with travel agencies telling us it wasn’t safe and we should hire a guide, while all other sources (travellers, guidebooks, locals) said it was fine to hike independently. 

There’s also a pushy annoying guy that tries to make you buy a boleto turistico for sl. 35 (about $12) just to visit the canyon.  Our LP book says the boleto is NOT for the canyon, just the viewpoints along the highways (and NONE of the money goes to trail maintenance, social services or to the villages in the canyon.  It all goes to the town of Chivay, hours from where we were).  I got upset and started a little verbal fight with the guy and we had to walk away for me to cool off.  I’m just at the end of my rope of people lying to us and trying to take advantage of us just because we’re tourists.  White skin doesn’t mean I’m rich or that I don’t care how much things cost.  We talked to other travellers who hadn’t paid for the ticket, so we decided to blow him off and just head into the canyon.  (Rumor has it there is a troll inspecting tickets on the bridge to San Juan de Chuccho…but no one asked us about the ticket while we were in the canyon).

Let’s talk about the hike and no more about the corrupt bureaucracy.  This canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, but the walls of the canyon are not as steep.  It still felt pretty steep hiking it, though.  We took a bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde (sl.15, 5 hrs) and found the trail to the Oasis/Sangalle from town.  It took us about 2.5 hours to hike the trail, which was pleasant at first, going through farms, then it was just straight switchbacks downhill in a dusty, dry canyon, until we came to the Oasis…which was just that.  Palm trees, spring waters filling swimming pools, bungalows made of bamboo and grassy areas for camping right near the Rio Colca (the bottom of the canyon).  We finally got to use our tent and set up next to the swimming pool, had a swim, talked with the owners and passed out.  It rained during the night, but we had clear skies the next day.

Day 2 we hiked across a bridge, straight up the other side of the canyon (bleh! uphill AND elevation..but the top of the canyon wasn’t much more than 9,000 feet) for about an hour, where we hit a crossroads with a big cross.  We took the right to visit a local village (people live IN the canyon, way up there and have pigs and dogs and chickens) called Malata.  It wasn’t anything exciting: dirt houses, sheet metal roofs, a church and a nice view. 

The cool thing about the villages is that the women wear the most intricately embroidered hats and matching jackets and at least 3 skirts at a time.  The outer skirt is heavier and they tuck it up halfway in front to reveal the other layers, which are each embroidered at the hems. 

After our sidetrack to Malata and talking to a local, we turned around and took the upper trail towards Llahuar, where there is a HOT SPRING (our other option was a shorter trail towards San Juan de Chuccho with no hot spring).  This part of the trail was great…it was mostly a ridgeline with great views of the canyon and the Oasis, where the pools looked like little specks.  We were on that trail for about 1.5 hrs and we came to another crossroads and met a cool couple travelling solo like us from Austrailia (who gave us that map and we swapped stories and commiserated about corruption). 

From there we took the trail to the left and went down a steep grade (my calves felt like iron) for at least another hour and we came upon a cute town called Paclla that had date palms, cacti gardens and trees (and shade).  We had a little picnic lunch and then continued on to Llahuar (1 hour more), which was easy since someone had painted arrows on rocks.  We had another steep downhill to cross another river, then a quick uphill and we were there!

The day was clear, the views were great and we even saw a few condors playing in the thermals.  We saw some cute birds, tiny grasshopper type insects and beetles (I think they were cochinillas, which is a natural red dye found in yoplait yogurt and makeup and such) and that was it for wildlife.  Llahuar was pretty cool, too.  No swimming pools but the hot springs was right next to the raging river.  The springs looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in a while (algae on the bottom) but the water was great and we were there for about 3 hours, rubbing each other’s feet and trying to work out the day’s hike.  It wasn’t all day of hiking but it was hot, exposed and STEEP.

The next day we woke up around dawn, soaked in the springs again and took the trail out via another bridge (which is kind of downhill from Paclla, but there’s another trail that’s a ridgeline above the river and it’s more direct).  The day out was tough.  We heard the hike was about 4, maybe 5 hours (It took us 7).  After the river crossing, it was straight uphill for most of the way back. 

I got into a zone, felt great and just kept hiking like a mule.  Up, up, up.  After a few hours of steep straight uphill, Matt started feeling bad.  It could have been anything from heat exhaustion, altitude sickness to dehydration (although we were drinking a lot of water, we were sweating most of it out).  We took our time, had breaks but Matt wasn’t doing better.  The trail just kept climbing and there seemed to be no end.  Luckily, a local came by and told us we were close (perhaps in his terms, without any weight) so we plodded on and eventually reached town, me with throbbing feet and Matt feeling ill. 

We got into town and had some soup and juice and coca tea and he felt better.  I think everyone should carry some Tang or EmergenC powder to spice up the water because that’s all Matt was craving at the end of the hike, some sugery juice solution.  I had some superfood powder in my bag and he said that made him feel better for a bit.

So my legs have recovered and Matt is back to normal and the canyon was an adventure.  If Matt was worse, we always had the option of hiring a donkey to ride out of the canyon (we saw a handful of travellers doing the uphill portion of the canyon on donkeys).  So no worries, it was fun and beautiful and challenging and I’m glad we didn’t waste our money on an incompetent guide…but there should be a better map out there (even though all the trails are visible from most places in the canyon, which is helpful).