As we get closer to the Bolivian capital, the landscape outside becomes colossal.
The blue wallpaper of the sky is framed by saw-toothed peaks of the 20,000-foot Cordillera Royal, floating right above us is the icy crown of Illimani, the second-highest mountain in Bolivia.
Wherever you look, you see imposing panoramas of mountains, volcanoes and glaciers.
Just like everybody else, I reach up and draw back the curtains.
Who the hell glued a sticker of a huge, galloping mustang all over the side of the bus including the windows?! I stretch my neck as far as I can, trying to find a gap in the horse’s waving mane.
Well, if that’s not ironic, I look down at the potholed, crumbly carretera full of hairpin turns; a galloping horse on Bolivian roads, I wonder how far it would run.
Glued to the windows, we move our eyes from the monumental mountainous landscape disappearing behind the trees to an incredible sight of a vast, open crater.
A sea of ochre houses, of thousands and thousands of brick buildings, stretch all the way to the horizon, filling up every bulge, nook and dip of the gigantic canyon, just to spill over its high brims and spread out into a flat, vast plateau above it.
La Paz. The unofficial capital of the country, and of course – with 12,000 feet above sea level – the highest city in the world.
“You must have seen this like a hundred times already,” Christine, a young American travelling with her fiancé, smiles at me.
If only you knew, I smile back.
If only you knew that just like you, I’ve never been to Bolivia before.
The nerves it costs me to pretend I’m “a tour leader with extensive experience of guiding tours in South America” you have no idea!
I’d make a great poker player.
Maybe I should write about it.
So far so good, though, I knock on the wood. Pablo filled me in on everything over a couple of piranha bite cocktails.
Besides, my first group is not that big. It’s about 10 people in total – a Canadian couple (the guy is a fighter pilot!), Christine and her boyfriend, two Canadian friends (one of which won’t stop talking about the condo he’s just got), a couple of Australians and New Zealanders and a Dutch family. I’m especially happy about those because the Dutch are like Czechs – super honest (some might say brutally), right down to the point and alien to the concept of sugarcoating things. My kind of people!
And they don’t like small talk.
I feel great in their company.
We haven’t left the Altiplano yet, the Andean high plateau between Peru and Bolivia with Lake Titicaca on it. Almost half of the Bolivian population lives here and since they’re the same indigenous Aymara and Quechua like in Peru, everywhere I look, I see colorful tulip skirts, black bowler hats and wide woven shawls used for carrying things on the back.
Seeing familiar faces in a familiar environment has an incredibly calming effect on me – I feel like nothing can go wrong.
Crossing the Peruvian-Bolivian border (a bunch of low, run-down buildings) went smoothly, so a 3-hour bus ride from Puno later, we reached Copacabana, the first town on the Bolivian side.
Copacabana is a small place on Lake Titicaca’s shores that has a small beach, small hotels, small stores and small tour companies. And a large church, a famous pilgrimage site known for miracles – looking like a gingerbread house, it makes me crave my mom’s cookies.
You cannot not like this town.
Especially on a day like this, when a local priest blesses newly-purchased cars with holy water in plastic buckets. The locals believe their Virgin of Copacabana extends not only the lives of mortals but also those of machines, and flock here from all over Bolivia and Peru. It’s hard to move in between the cars sprayed with beer and covered in flower garlands and rose petals for safe travels and good luck.
God’s protection for only $29 per set of wheels – well done, catholic church!
To get to La Paz takes another 3 hours from here. First, we have to cross the Tiquina Strait.
Tiquina Strait connects the larger and smaller of Lake Titicaca, and the transport across the treacherous, choppy waters is done with “ferryboats” and small passenger motorboats.
Our bus drives onto a small wooden raft, basically a bunch of planks tied up together. The “ferry” tilts over and starts taking water. I say goodbye to our bags left on the bus. Big waves are travelling off in all directions, hitting a small motorboat with people getting off; loud cries and unpublishable curses fill up the air.
A little thin man wearing a sombrero and a pair of nylon sweatpants jumps from a concrete wall onto the raft proudly decorated with a Bolivian flag on the prow. He pulls out a long, wooden pole and starts pushing the “ferry” across the rough strait, with a burning cigarette in his mouth.
We get on the small motorboat. To hide from water waves splashing 4 feet high, we hide in the inner cabin.
Only to pour out when it turns into a gas chamber filled with exhaust fumes.
We’re across in 5 minutes; the guy with the ferry takes almost an hour.
The road to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, copies in the beginning the shore of Lake Titicaca, the mythical lake of Andean civilizations. The views from along the edge of rocky promontories are uplifting – the lake is a dark infinite surface sparkling like liquid silver as far as the eye can see. Brown mountains and green bumps of islands separate the blueberry waters from baby-blue skies; snow-capped peaks, veiled in a bluish haze, are floating motionlessly above the gigantic mirror of the water surface, creating an illusion of mountains hidden in waters.
This is what Tibet must look like.
Halfway between Lake Titicaca and La Paz, we make a stop at Tiahuanaco, Bolivia’s largest archaeological site and one of the world’s oldest cities ever built.
Tihuanaco is no less mysterious than anything else in this part of the world – practically nothing is known about who built it, when, why and how. As usual.
We spend 2 hours checking out this thousands of years old place with its monumental structures of megalithic stone blocks, semi-subterranean temples, carved giant gates and walls with images of human heads. Spread out over a large, dry plain with a blinding killer sun above, the site is almost empty.
Before leaving, we stop at the enigmatic Ponce monolith, a gigantic stone figure facing eastward. One last time, our local guide deeply inhales to outshout the gusts of the Andean wind, when the teen daughter of the Dutch couple slips to the ground like a rag doll. Her body is jerking and twitching as if there was an electric storm going on in her brain.
In confusion, we run over to help, to hold her down so that she doesn’t hurt herself (which is exactly what you shouldn’t do). Her parents, calm and cool like the surface of Titicaca, just stand there looking down at her.
“It’s ok, she’ll be fine. Id will be over in a minute,” is all they say.
So, we just stand around, too, until a minute or so later the seizure ends and the girl’s arms and legs stop jerking uncontrollably. And like her parents said – as soon as the girl regains consciousness and her glassy eyes clear up, she gets up and dusts her pants as if nothing happened.
We try not to gawk, unlike the stone giant who won’t stop staring.
Feeling that I should do something, show some initiative, I offer to the mother that I could take her daughter to the hospital in La Paz (are there any, actually?). The Dutchwoman waves it off – “dere’s no neet for dat, everysing is taken care of” – and asks if we’ll also visit the famous Witches Market in La Paz.
Like I said, straight down to the point. And tough, too (Dutch homes have only one water temperature in their sinks – ice cold!).
What does it mean for me, as a tour leader? That people like that rarely complain.
When we finally drive down all the switchbacks of the canyon road and check into our hotel located in the middle of a steep slope, a new problem arises – how do you give a walking tour of a city you’ve never been to before?! The detailed map Pablo drew for me turns out absolutely worthless in a place where the core of the city sits at the bottom of a crater, surrounded by a labyrinth of chaotic streets. Even Lassie would get lost here!
When I finish my fifth cup of coca tea hoping it’ll blur my brain and make me not care, I notice a young guy arranging tourist brochures in the reception area.
A quick idea and a grab later, and Carlos is given the opportunity to practice his English with English-native speakers. All that in exchange for a leisure stroll around the old city!
Walking down the narrow, steep streets and their smooth stony surfaces polished after hundreds of years to perfection is like skating on the ice. Luckily, it doesn’t rain.
The intersections, located on top of steeply-inclined slopes, are reigned by noise and lack of order. Although not a rush hour, crowds are everywhere, hurried along by horns blowing like on military maneuvers. Carts, drawn by motorcycles, and wildly-honking cars are blocking the traffic, hanging from the doors of brightly colored Dodge and Renault buses launched at about the same time as Sputnik, are clusters of passengers. A truck drives by, and its exhaust pipe, brought vertically up along the front window to the roof, gives off such a cloud of smoke, it’d give an instant heart attack to any environmentalist. Suddenly, a loud, roaring sound pierces the air; I jump up as dozens of scooters shoot forth from the lights like a pack of wild animals .
Following Carlos’s advice of “holding on to locals whenever crossing the street,” we zigzag to the other sides tailing the paceños like FBI agents.
“Šu šajn, madam, šu šajn!” A black mask with narrow slits for eyes jumps right in front of me. My heart stops – blocking my field of vision is a terrible, expressionless mask. Still not breathing, I move my eyes down to the assassin’s hands. They’re covered in black gloves and holding a polish and a brush.
“Šu šajn, madam, only van dolar.”
Jesus, he doesn’t want to kidnap me, he wants to clean my shoes!
My near-coronary is quickly forgotten when in one of the streets off the wide, modern shopping zone I discover a place that sells brand cosmetics and sports clothes at sensational prices. Long live contraband!
Squeezing through sidewalks packed with fruit and street food stalls, we get down to the bottom of the canyon, and the unfinished houses with barred windows and rebars sticking out of their roofs give way to more modern-looking buildings with large, glass facades.
Rising up across the street from them is the massive tower of the basilica of San Francisco, one of the city’s few historical landmarks. Apart from its tower’s magnificent views, the colonial monument is especially known for the Witches Market located in its vicinity.
Witches Market is a famous, traditional market in which yatiris, indigenous Aymara healers, sell all kinds of amulets and talismans, herbal medicines, potions and spells that bring success, love, good health, happiness and money.
Unlike the spacious stores located inside the neighboring colonial mansions whose facades are covered with colorful ponchos, embroidered blankets and tapestries, the market’s little stalls are located out on the street. Stacked on tables and wooden pallets are piles of goods; still more of them hang from poles, falling to the ground and creating hiding places for children to play and sleep.
Trying hard to appear casual (I’ve been here before, haven’t I?), I don’t know what to look at first.
Laid out on the tables in open baskets and sacks are bizarre, unusual-looking objects.
We step closer to check out little statues of Inti, the Inca Sun God, that bring positive energy, the condors that bring safe journeys, the frogs that bring money, the turtles that bring longevity and the pumas that bring new jobs.
Further down the street, our attention is caught by giant black candles shaped like penises, statues of copulating grinning couples and smiling men with mustaches and gigantic phalluses sticking out from under their folded arms.
“Petra, can you ask what they’re for?”
Sure. Sex sells, so striking up a conversation with an older indigenous woman sitting on a stool next to the stall, I learn that the candles are used as a revenge against a cheating wife’s lover, the copulating couples make men irresistible to women and the colorful little boxes contain tea to increase sexual potency.
“And these?” The group points to colorful soap boxes stacked in tall piles.
“Follow me, darling,” I read the writings on them, “the cologne of 7 studs,” “hot nights, come to me” and “will you throw yourself at my feet?”
A small bottle holds a white substance, a snake oil that cures back pain and strengthens muscle. Dried green snail eggs are a miraculous cure for acne, dolphin sperm from the rainforest attracts love.
And have I mentioned the jungle Viagra labeled Levanta Lázaro, Raising of Lazarus?
In the middle of giggling, joking and shopping, Christine lets out a shriek, pointing to the corner of one of the stalls. Staring back at us with empty eye sockets are large bird skulls on long thin necks and dried deformed bodies covered in purplish skin.
Finally something I have a clue about!
With confidence, I explain that the little pajaritos, tied together by a wire around their necks, are dried-up llama fetuses!
I add that the greyish embryos, still covered with soft, white fur, are all naturally – naturalmente! – miscarried bodies of unborn llamas, mummified by the dry air of the Altiplano. I can see the group’s respect for my knowledge grow.
In future, I have to use more Spanish words in my explanations!
After answering some more questions, I end the walking tour promising everybody to arrange for them some nice, full-day activities for the next day.
Too late – Carlos has already taken care of that, selling them everything including the popular Death Road biking tour and the Moon Valley trip. Turns out, he works as an agent for a local tour agency.
Damn, this is the last time I allowed someone to work on their English!
Commissions made by selling trips to groups are the only extra money I can make.
Time to check out some of those fancy eye shadows and elastic cycling tights! I turn to head back to the shopping street and bump into the Dutch family.
“We’re waiting for you,” they say, “we neet your help.”
“Ok. With what?”
“We neet life bats.”
“Where can we get bats in Bolifia?”
“Hmmm, I can ask if there’s any caves around La Paz with bat colonies in them, I guess.”
“No, no cafes, we neet capturet life animals. A Bolifian frient told us they’re usually solt at traditional medicine markets, in shoe boxes. That all we hafe to do is to ask arount.”
Surprisingly, their English with the heavy Dutch accent is pretty easy for me to understand. Much less so the meaning of their words.
“What do you need live bats for?”
“To drink their bloot,” comes back as matter-of-factly as if we were discussing the recipe for a Dutch pea soup.
“To drink their blood?!” I laugh. Doesn’t it work the other way around?
“Yes, it has healing properties,” they say. “Fruit bats or insect-eating bats will do, dough we prefer fampire bats.”
For a fleeting moment I look for irony in their eyes but then I realize that irony and sarcasm are usually lost on the Dutch.
With their serious faces in front of me, I try to interrupt the awkward silence with a joke.
“You wanna be careful with that, or you’ll turn into vampires yourselves.”
“Whenefer somesing is out of balance in the human body, it is demonstratet srough convulsions and seizures. Like epilepsy, for example.”
The truth starts slowly downing on me.
“Nature peoples hafe a much deeper connection to nature dan us, and hafe been practicing deir ways for sousands of years, long before western medicine was efen establishet”.
I’m scared to ask any more questions, given their awful directness.
I can’t it help, though. “What will you do with them?”
“We chop off de heat and drink de bloot fresh.”
Why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut!
“Why don’t you catch bats in Holland”?
“Because they’re protectet dere!”
With the Dutch, you’ll always know what you’re in for!
As we get closer to the Bolivian capital, the landscape outside becomes colossal.