A Month in Beautiful Bolivia
This last month was all about experiencing Bolivia, in all its beautiful, festive, frustrating, and colorful glory. For students of Spanish, this is one of the best, and most affordable places to study. For backpackers, the land in Bolivia offers an incomparable and challenging array of adventures. For party goers, there are endless festivals full of eating, drinking, and lots of "bailando". And for those who love culture and history, there seems to be a story or lesson around every corner. While we were still taking classes in Sucre, we got confirmation that we would be working at an eco-camp outside of La Paz for a month beginning February 15th. Despite being incredibly excited that we would have a month to settle somewhere, make new friends, cook food for ourselves in a kitchen, and of course, get down and dirty with some manual labor, we knew we had a lot to see and do before we started. After our Spanish classes ended, we would have approximately 2 weeks to hit up a few key Bolivian destinations. There was some backpacking around Sucre that we wanted to check out, then we planned on visiting the jungle town of Sorata a few hours outside of La Paz, where we would have the choice to either do a 3 or 7 day backpacking trip, and finally we wanted to visit touristy Copacabana and the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca. Of course we couldn't have known that a quick stopover at our future worksite would end in a wonderful weekend of dancing and picture taking, or that we'd get lost in Sorata, or that we'd actually really like the big city of La Paz...but that's why we try to stay flexible, and take it all as it comes.
We finished up our two weeks of Spanish classes in a state of exhaustion and pride. We were spending nearly 6 hours a day studying Spanish, and when it came time to leave Sucre, we were anxious to get out of the city and back into nature. My Spanish teacher had told us about the Managua Crater, which she said was a must-see if we "liked hiking". We did a bit of research, and despite everyone's insistence on using a guide service, determined that we could make the trek on our own with enough patience and the right set of directions. The trek began on an ancient Inca path, wound it's way through a series of mountains, dropped into and climbed out of a massive crater with a small town in the center, and ended in the small pueblo of Potolo where buses made the drive back to Sucre. The trek had its challenges, but overall it was a spectacular experience and one we would recommend to anyone traveling through Bolivia. We had plenty of rain (as promised...they aren't kidding around when they say December through February is rainy season) and trudged through A LOT of mud, but we also saw a unique side of Bolivia hidden by the mountains and made best friends with a stray dog that camped and hiked with us the whole second half of our trip. (For more details about this backpacking trip, click here). When we got back in town we booked an evening bus to La Paz and spent one last day exploring Sucre.
Our bus ride was supposed to take 11 hours, getting us into La Paz at around 6am. However, about 2 hours outside of Sucre, the bus came to a gradual stop on the side of the road, and to make a long story short, didn't start up again for 8 hours. Apparently our bus had died, but about two hours in, when I went outside to go to the bathroom and have a talk with the bus driver, I was told that another bus was coming to pick us up in about 15 minutes. Obviously this was far from the truth, since no other bus ever came, and instead our bus miraculously started up at around 5 in the morning. We still had a 9 hour ride ahead of us, and to our dismay, even after switching to a less comfortable bus at the next town, we still stalled a few more times before finally reaching our destination. It was the sort of story that everyone tells about bus travel, and yet, somehow, it still feels remarkable when it happens to you. We did make it into the extraordinary city of La Paz by afternoon, and (after getting a bit of a refund on our bus tickets) proceeded to explore the city. La Paz has approximately 1.5 million residents and is built in a huge valley surrounded by steep mountains. On the way in, before dropping into the city proper, you can see the entire sprawl climbing up the sides of the valley, with the gorgeous Illimani mountain (21,122 ft) serving as a picturesque backdrop. The city is easy to navigate and full of churches, museums, restaurants and markets, and it certainly got our attention. We had been in contact with the woman who runs the eco-camp where we'd be working, and she had offered for us to come stay a night in order to meet the volunteers we were replacing and get to know more about the work we'd be doing. We figured we could spend a night there before heading off to Sorata, especially since she mentioned something about a town festival that we'd be able to catch.
When we arrived at Emma and Rolando's home, we were greeted by a loving, kind, energetic, and fun family. Not only did they live on a beautiful piece of land near Valley of the Moon outside of southern La Paz, but they had on their property 3 dogs, 2 hens, an awesome cat, 2 sweet kids, a collection of about 10 volunteers that were working with their non-profit "Up Close Bolivia", and of course, the impressive campground that we would be working on. They put us up in the charming a-frame cabin that was on the campground, and made us feel right at home. That first night we went with everyone to the final "dance rehearsal" where they practiced the dance that they'd be doing in the next day's parade. The weekend was a celebration of the Virgin de la Candelera, and it included a long parade with about 10 different dance groups and their accompanying marching bands, lots of free food and drink, and dancing into the wee hours of the morning. We really couldn't have come at a better time. The following morning, as we helped everyone dress in their ornate traditional costumes, we realized that there was no way we'd be leaving that afternoon. We were invited to join in all the festivities, and had a wonderful day taking hundreds of photos, celebrating like the locals, and of course, dancing. When we left the next morning Emma and Rolando kept assuring us that not every weekend was like that one, but festival or not, we could not wait to get back and settle in for a whole month of work and play.
But first, we wanted to visit Sorata, where we hoped to get in another epic backpacking trip. It was a long 3 hour drive out of La Paz, but we had views of Lake Titicaca on one side and the Cordillera Real mountain range on the other, so we weren't complaining. When we crested the top of a mountain and began a steep spiral down into the jungle, our hearts began to race. We could see the little town of Sorata off in the distance, built in a small, steep valley and watched over by the mighty Illampu mountain (20,892 ft.). There was green everywhere and we couldn't wait to be out hiking in it. We checked in with the local guiding service (the closest alternative to a tourism office), where we were practically begged to use a guide. We were warned of the tricky, unsigned routes, the sometimes dangerous locals who would steal from tourists, and our bad timing since they were right in the middle of rainy season. We talked prices a bit, but later that afternoon, when we learned that the town had no ATM and we had practically no money, we realized it was either go it alone (the shorter 3 day route of course) or don't go at all. We bought all the necessary groceries (breaking our own record for cheap) and started out the next morning. We actually did alright for most the day, making it all the way to the small indigenous village of Quilambaya before getting caught in a terrible rainstorm and simultaneously losing our trail. We followed a couple promising options out into nothingness, constantly backtracking, sometimes up steep rocky walls, before finding shelter under the church's overhang in Quilambaya. We decided to just camp there for the night, possibly trying again the next day. Unfortunately, the next day was no more promising, and seeing as we still didn't have money to even hire a local kid to guide us, we turned back, a little defeated. It had still been a beautiful trek, but we were meant to see some glacial lakes, and it was discouraging that we just hadn't been able. We got back while it was still morning, but the day didn't really improve. Fully loaded with all our gear, we attempted to find a campground to stay in, only to find ourselves bushwhacking along a raging river, climbing across a clearly marked unsuable bridge, and then hopping over a fence to get out of the locked, and closed, private campground that we ended up in. After another long walk in the rain we headed for the "bus terminal", ready to leave wild Sorata behind, and try our luck in Copacabana.
In some ways, our time at Lake Titicaca was everything Sorata was not. It was ultra touristy, full of sunshine (except at night when raging thunderstorms kept us up), and quite easy to navigate as a backpacker. We really liked the little lakeside town of Copacabana. It reminded us a bit of our homes since Don on I both grew up lakeside, I in Lake Tahoe and Don at Lake Michigan. In addition to enjoying the town (especially the food and coffee shops), we completed a great 3 day trek out on the nearby Isla del Sol. Our trek began with a long road walk along the lake and out toward the end of the peninsula. We didn't see any other tourists on our first day (which was fine by us) and when we got to the tiny town at the end, we were just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the island. We took a rowboat (!) across the small straight and landed on the very southern tip of Isla del Sol. After a little hunting around, we found a trail that led up the spine of the island, and quickly located a large flat patch of land where we could lay our tent. With 360 degree views of Lake Titicaca and a marvelous sunset, we went to sleep smiling. The next day, once we joined up with the popular, maintained trail, we did begin to cross paths with others from all over the world. We checked out the pre-Incan ruins at the north end of the island, and camped that night on the beach in the little port town of Chalambaya, along with about 100 other people. Our last day we headed back down the Eastern edge of the island, through the town of Yumani, and out to the southern port, Escalaera del Inca, where we waited for a boat back to the mainland. The trip had gone smoothly and we felt content to leave Copacabana the next mroning and head back to La Paz. We were still a bit early, which meant we'd spend about 4 days in La Paz, but after finding ourselves a nice cheap hostel near the center of town, we felt fine accepting the downtime and utilizing the city's cheap internet and food.
Our time in La Paz was cut short by one day when Emma invited us to come back to their home earlier than expected. The volunteers who were leaving were having a going away party and we were invited. We enjoyed another festive evening with all of our new friends, and settled in for a few nights in the a-frame before moving into the house we'd be staying in for a whole month. Emma and Rolando and truly wonderful people. Emma is from England and Rolando is from La Paz, and their two kids were born here in Bolvia and are bilengual. In addition to having their own important jobs, they run a successful non-profit, Up Close Bolivia, which does everything from working with kids, to teaching English, to volunteering at the zoo and more. They also have been building an eco-campground on their land and plan to open "Calibri Camping" on April 1st. This is where we come in! They have used people like us (whom they find through websites such as workaway.org or helpx.net) to design, construct, and prepare the land for camping, and they are very close to being ready. We work for them 5 days a week in the mornings, and in exchange they feed us a delicious lunch and let us live in a home on their land for free. Everyone wins. The work is everything from gardening to construction to cleaning to marketing to painting, and anything else you can think of that might go into opening up a campground. We are thrilled to be a part of their dream and are in heaven in our little home away from home. This next month is all about relationships, hard work, and of course lots of Spanish!
For more on our journey, please visit our personal blog at life-well-traveled.com!