Trip Report: Bolivia and Peru
October, 2014

Two weeks in La Paz, Cochabamba, Lake Titicaca, Cuzco, Lima.

I am back from visiting Bolivia and Peru, and boy does my bum hurt! All I've been doing is plane rides, train rides, boat rides, bus rides, aerial cable-car rides ... Oww!

No photos accompany this story, because my camera was pickpocketed!

ALTITUDE SICKNESS

Bolivia and Peru are challenging to travel in because most tourist destinations are high altitude. These are the heights I scaled, in the order of my travels:
  • 11,913 - La Paz (El Alto airport = 13,300)
  • 8,300 - Cochabamba
  • 12,507 - Lake Titicaca
  • 11,200 - Cuzco
  • 7,200 - Machu Picchu
  • 505 - Lima
Despite the altitude sickness meds I came prepared with, I felt tingling in my hands, dehydration, and shortness of breath for most of the trip.

LOST MEDS

My first disaster was a comical series of events that led to my carrying all my meds in a bag for convenient access during my flight SF to Miami to La Paz. Arriving in La Paz, the high altitude made me stupid, and I had to spend 10 or 20 minutes filling out a visa application (US$135!). I left my bag, and lost my meds. Fortunately, as Iíve found in Asia, you donít need a prescription; I got replacement meds at a pharmacy quite cheaply, no problem.

Unfortunately, I also missed my connecting flight from La Paz to Cochabamba. So, I had to spend a night in high altitude without preparing medicinally beforehand. I was especially affected by dehydration and difficulty sleeping.

Even coca tea, the recommended antidote, didnít help me.

COCHABAMBA

It was very interesting to visit my college buddy, Jim, in Tiqui Paya, a village outside of Cochabamba, Boliviaís #2 city. The dollar goes far in Bolivia and his family has a lovely country home in a spacious walled compound.

While there, I attended a celebration in a local bar with Jim and his wife. Chicha is a potent corn beer. Like saki, itís customary to pour for others. But I was advised to refuse Ė to avoid ďtravelerís stomachĒ (because itís made with the local water) Ė so Iím afraid I was rude. I heard someone say that ďAfter 3 drinks of chicha, everyone speaks QuechuaĒ (the indigenous dialect).

I didnít try chicha, but I did chew coca leaves widely available in bars and restaurants Ė to help with my altitude sickness, of course. Iím sorry to say, it had no effect.

LA PAZ

La Paz is the capital of Bolivia, and pretty high altitude. I learned what that means: if youíre not in the sun, itís cold. That means shade, morning, and evening are nippy; it hailed on us a couple times. Wandering the winding streets of La Paz was wonderful.

We hit the bar atop the Presidential Hotel for a Pisco sour. Itís not far from the civic center where the presidential palace is decorated with a clock whose face is backwards Ė Iím not sure why.

A couple hours outside of La Paz, I took a tour of the Tiwanaku ruins. Here, in pre-Inca days, they worshiped Pachamama, the earth goddess. The guide told us that depictions of beheading in the ancient art symbolized the giving up of pride and envy. I can understand why they had a well-developed philosophy, living on top of the world near Lake Titicaca. Like the Nazca and Maya, the Quechua of Tiwanaku practiced skull shaping Ė we donít know why.

Our lunch included llama filet, potatoes of course (Bolivia is where the potato originated), and quinoa, the super grain.

LAKE TITICACA

I took a lovely and very comfortable (tourist couch) bus ride to Lake Titicaca along the elevated plateau they call the Altiplano. I saw llamas, and the lake is beautiful Ė which I saw in detail on two boat tours to the Isla de la Sol.

In Puno, on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, I had a regional treat Ė guinea pig (ďcuiĒ), served whole. A bit like a light pork, with tasty crispy skin. Thatís where I took a boat tour of the Uros floating islands Ė woven by the locals out of reeds and reed root balls.

ANDEAN EXPLORER TRAIN

I took the tourist train from Puno to Cuzco, a relaxed 10-hour trip. The thing I hate most these days about traveling is being wedged into tight seating on planes and boats. Besides a luxury lunch, the $161 fare bought elbow room.

Arriving after dark in Cuzco, I checked into my very well-located hotel and walked around the square to find dinner. I noticed signs that warned about camera theft in the ďsecurity zone.Ē Little did I know how significant that message would be for me.

MACHU PICCHU

A funny thing happened on the way to Machu Picchu. I had an epiphany. And I never got there. Let me tell you the story ...

In planning my trip, I checked a couple websites where you could buy the actual admission ticket to Machu Picchu. One was the Peruvian government, the other was a commercial site, with the expected markup.

I tried several times to buy my ticket from the Peruvian government website, but failed. I could successfully fill out 3 of the 4 pages (name and passport number, etc.), but it always froze before getting to the 4th page (pay by credit card). I left it for later, presuming Iíd be able to do it via Internet cafť or travel agent.

On my buddy Jimís computer, I met similar failure with the Peruvian government website. So, I checked with a travel agent in Bolivia, but was told I couldnít do that until I got to Peru. When I got to Peru, I was told I couldnít do it until I got to Cuzco. Well, I didnít plan to get to Cuzco until the evening before I wanted to go to Machu Picchu! So, I went to back to the second website to buy my ticket, only to find they had a 4 day window, which had already closed for my date.

And then I remembered the story of Rodinís hands. Seems he carved a life-sized sculpture of a man and everyone he showed it to praised the hands. But his goal was to celebrate the man. He realized that all the elements did not support a unified theme. So, he hacked off the hands, and started again.

So, I decided to jettison the trip to Machu Picchu, instead of risking the purchase of a ticket at the site, and spending all my time on a 6-hour train round trip. I always like to say, itís important to leave some things for the future.

What I really wanted to do, was wander around taking pictures of Cuzco. So, thatís what I did, and thatís how I got robbed!

ROBBED IN CUZCO!

I figured out later that a travel agent charged me a 50% commission on my flight, Cuzco to Lima. Ouch!

In every foreign city I vacation in, my favorite thing to do is take pictures at a market. The array of goods, the riot of colors, the exotic foods, the people ... all very visual and makes for great pix. So, in the morning, I hopped in a cab to Cuzcoís main market. And thatís where I lost my camera to a team of pickpockets, either 2 or 4 people, I'm not sure:

Amidst the chaos of Cuzco's Mercado San Pedro, I chose from a dozen fruit juice booths (all lined up) and had banana and pineapple juiced for me. I examined the many soups on offer but decided on a more mobile picnic; I loaded up on figs, cheese, cookies, and my new favorite South American fruit, the pina — yellow skinned with brown stripes, something like an apple (sweet juicy cantaloupe taste with the crisp mouthfeel of pear).

Outside, I started up a side street, where I think I remember two women coming from up the block, and maybe two people from behind me. As we converged beside a parked panel truck, I felt a handful of sand hit my head from above. I looked up, startled. What I took to be the crowd's reaction to the sand sent several bodies crowding me against the truck ... And then everyone dispersed.

I continued on my way up the street, oblivious, wondering at the randomness that had brought everyone on the block together at the same time as a gust of wind. Then a storekeeper gestured to me. There was my handkerchief on the ground; I had used it to cover my camera in my pocket Ė which suddenly felt light.

I recall that twenty minutes previously, a block closer to the market, I had also felt sand blow onto my head and neck, and a fellow pedestrian amongst a throng had called out. At that time I had swatted my hat against my leg, out of annoyance and to clean off my hat.

I realize that they touched me twice. The first time I felt the sand, either they were training me (not to be annoyed if fellow pedestrians bumped me when construction dust hit the street), or maybe I swatted away a hand at my pocket Ė attempt #1. They distracted me with the sand, channeled me against the truck, and maybe trained me to be more vulnerable. What lessons!

By now, Iíve replaced the camera Ė the new version is cheaper and better. What I'll miss most is a collection of pix of richly colorful, beautiful wedding cakes in the window displays of the bakeries of La Paz. But I will always have Cuzco!

LIMA

Lima is huge. The taxi ride from the airport to my hotel took an hour. Drivers here Ė and really all of Bolivia and Peru Ė are wild compared to the U.S. I think itís true of most under-developed countries: They share lanes, ride the car ahead, cut off other drivers, and use small safety margins.

I stayed in the Miraflores district Ė the rich part of town it turns out. Medium-sized high rises with views of the Pacific, surrounded by guards, cameras, barred windows, and electrified fences (ďPeligroso!Ē).

I walked the beautiful malecon and stumbled across an expensive shopping mall; cliffside shopping overlooking the Pacific complete with Starbucks, Tony Romas, TGI Fridays, etc. I noticed two security guards in wheel chairs; we donít seem to do that in the U.S.

I saw an amazing sport at a park overlooking the ocean in Miraflores. Skilled athletes bouncing on horizontal ropes, like trampolines!

I loved the Mercado Central in Lima, a huge indoor/outdoor market (maybe 10 blocks x 10 blocks). I bought a camera memory card reader (plugs into the USB port) for 75 cents. I bought clip-on sunglasses for $2.00.

All of Lima was wild about Halloween. Costumes on sale everywhere. Stores decorated with spider webs, skeletons, and black balloons. Who knew?

FOOD

I love street food. My new favorite is the Bolivian saltena, like a baked empanada. Juicy and yummy inside. Best was a dulce de leche saltena, in very modern La Paz, after riding the Teleferico, their expanding aerial cable car commute system.

In Cuzco, I found a favorite street snack, tiny hard-boiled quail eggs, peeled, pinch of salt provided with a toothpick in a little plastic bag.

I finally found sopa de mani. Peanut soup Ė a traditional favorite. Very tasty, with potato noodles. I had many soups since I was dehydrated; not many salads since I couldnít risk the tap water bacteria.

I had chicharrones one Sunday, at a parade in the square of traditional Puno Ė sinfully fat pork + crispy skin. Where did I find this treat? At a chicharroneria, of course.

Fresa was an important food word. And Fresa con leche was a favorite drink, widely available Ė fresh strawberries blended into milk.

Quinoa (kin-WA) was much evident: Quinoa + vegetable soup, or creamed (under a plate of carne), yam.

I tried anticuchos, Jimís daughterís favorite street snack. They are slices of beef heart grilled on a skewer. Very tender and juicy, but I didnít like the background flavor of what might have been iron, reminding me of the source.

MISC NOTES:

  • Wi-Fi, ATMs, and taxis are everywhere.
  • I commonly spotted pampas grass, nasturtiums, and eucalyptus trees.
  • No sales tax in Bolivia or Peru.
  • If you go, prepare with altitude sickness meds!

Via con dios!

Happy travels,
Kendall

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