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    Friday, 4 June 2010

    A Series of Mislaid Plans

    Bus to Cochabamba, Bolivia [Enlarge]

    Our overnight bus journeys were behind us. Our trip from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba consisted of a ten hour bus journey, which we could either do during the day or at night – we opted for the day journey! I find it’s always great to see the scenery as you drive across a country, and it’s also quite pleasant to not have to spend a night in a cramped seat. The bus journey to Cochabamba was okay – the first half was pretty uneventful, across flat plains, until we got back to the mountains of Bolivia, from where we climbed the 2500m to the city. The – I won’t say interesting – slightly unusual aspect of the trip was that for the ten hours we were on the bus, we had salesmen walking up and down selling some crazy products. There were herbal remedies, compact mugs and face cream. I’m not talking about the usual people who walk up and down buses in Bolivia selling water and empanadas – these people stood at the front of the bus and gave twenty minute spiels about how wonderful what they were selling was, before handing out free samples and finally collecting their cash. I’ve never seen this happen before, but I think it must be something to do with the bus company we went with. It was very strange.

    Mandarins in season, Cochabamba[Enlarge]

    Cochabamba was a nice enough city to spend a few nights in. We spent a day wandering around the massive market in the city. It was definitely a “market experience” – it was absolutely rammed with people! The fruit market was my favourite part – fruit is amazingly cheap in Bolivia. Six mandarins cost us 2Bs – about 20p! It really shows you the value of money when you can see how cheap food is here.

    Drums in the plaza,Cochabamba[Enlarge]

    The central square of Cochabamba was a good place to people watch. While we were there we saw a group of young people drumming, which was pleasant to watch for a while and added to the general buzz of the city. We were staying one block from the plaza, but one thing I found surprising was that there were no restaurants in the immediate area. We found that we had to walk a few blocks from the plaza to eat at night. It struck me as odd – most of the other central plazas we’ve visited in Bolivia have had a string of restaurants lining them!

    One or two chicks, Cochabamba[Enlarge]

    We’d originally planned to do a bit of hiking in the national park near Cochabamba, but this never eventuated. We spent a full day there checking out tour companies and wandering around the city. One thing we were looking to do was take a tour to the ruins of Incalljta, about 100km from the city. These ruins are really remote, and very expensive to visit by Bolivian standards. As a result, we decided not to visit. What we did do was book a flight to Rurrenabaque, a town in the Amazon north of La Paz, from where you can do a number of tours in the jungle and the swampy pampas areas nearby. The tickets cost us around £50 each with the local airline, Amazonas, and were booked for two days time from La Paz’s airport, seven hours away.

    Heading to La Paz[Enlarge]

    So, the following day we took a bus to La Paz – the capital of Bolivia. We were pretty excited – this was to be our last long (i.e. over 4 hours) bus journey of our entire trip! The bus journey seemed to go more slowly than normal, and we climbed to 4000m, before descending to about 3500m to the central city. The views were spectacular as we drove down the valley to the city – a backdrop of beautiful mountains and stunning cliffs made for a dramatic entrance to Bolivia’s capital. We only stayed one night in La Paz on our first visit, with the intention of flying to Rurrenabaque the following day. We stayed in the lovely Hotel Rosario (a splurge!), which we liked so much we booked for three more nights on our return.

    Ferry Crossing, Lake Titicaca[Enlarge]

    The following day, upon checkout we asked the hotel staff to check our flights with the agent we’d booked with. They did so, and it turned out that all flights to Rurrenabaque for that day had been cancelled! The reason was rain – Rurrenabaque’s airstrip is apparently a grass one, and when it rains a lot it gets boggy – and flights get cancelled. We checked the weather forecast and it turned out that rain was forecast for the next five days. After agonising over what to do for a couple of hours, we decided to cancel our flights. We had just two weeks left in the country, and couldn’t justify waiting in La Paz in case the flights opened back up. Nor could we justify the 20 hour bus journey each was to Rurrenabaque – two full days in total! We taxied across town to the Amazonas office where we obtained a full refund on our flights, with no fuss! It must have been the easiest flight refund in history.

    After this, to make our day more hectic, we boarded an afternoon bus to the town of Copacabana, on the shore of Lake Titicaca. This had originally been our planned destination for after Rurrenabaque. We were quite happy to bring this one forward, and decided to spend a couple more nights there, as now we weren’t going the jungle we had a bit of extra time. The idea was to stay two nights in Copacabana, then take a boat into the lake and stay on the mystical Isla del Sol – in Inca legend, the birthplace of the sun and dotted with ruins. The drive to Copacabana from La Paz was pretty as it ran along the lake. At one point we had to take a ferry. The bus got on one ferry and we got on another – it was so cold! We really had to wrap up warm, but it was a cool experience.

    Cathedral Entrance, Copacabana [Enlarge]

    Copacabana was a nice place, if rather touristy, and on our first full day we explored the town. The cathedral on the central plaza was unusual, and we had a look around. The white domes and expansive courtyard reminded us of mosques we’d seen in India, which made for an interesting comparison.

    Tortora, Reed Boat, Lake Titicaca [Enlarge]

    The lakefront in Copacabana hosts Bolivia’s only beach. Not that it’s much of a beach! It’s stony and smelly and covered in boats and lake weed, but it’s also beautiful. Especially at sunset! There are lines of lakefront stores selling food and drinks, and on our first night in town we enjoyed sitting there watching the sun go down. At the waterfront, it doesn’t feel much like you’re at 3800m above sea level – it feels like you’re right there on the sea!

    Copacabana,Bolivia [Enlarge]

    At the end of our first full day in town, we climbed Cerro Calvario on the outskirts – a steep 100m climb which is famed for good sunsets from the top. Sadly, when we got to the top, it had become cloudy! Mahmoud was also feeling the altitude quite heavily, and was really tired by the time we got to the top. We had a wander around and then headed back down.

    Sail boat and mountains,Lake Tittcaca [Enlarge]

    The following morning – the day we’d been planning to take the boat to Isla del Sol – Mahmoud felt ill and didn’t want to get out of bed. He had man-flu! We decided to put our trip to Isla del Sol off by a day, and see if he felt well enough to take the boat. If not, I would go alone for a day trip. We spent that day chilling out – Mahmoud stayed in bed and I wandered about town a bit. It became clear that Mahmoud was feeling worse as the day went on, so I booked us in at our hotel for two more nights, meaning we’d be spending five nights in total in Copacabana.

    The next day Mahmoud was still feeling a bit rough, but slightly better, and we decided to go to Isla del Sol the following day just for a day trip. However, later that day I started to feel rough, and the following day it was my turn to contract man-flu! I was in bed all day, and Mahmoud was not feeling well enough to want to head to the island on his own. Our plans to go to Isla del Sol were dashed! It was obviously fate that we weren’t meant to visit.

    After our fifth night in Copacabana, and even though I was at my lowest point of my flu (with fevers and everything!), neither of us could bear to spend another night in the same place. Even though we were staying in a pretty nice hotel, we were just completely sick to death of the place. We decided to charter a private taxi to take us to the small town of Sorata, three hours away from the lake, and in a valley at the base of the mountain, Illampu.

    Mountain Range, The Yungas [Enlarge ]

    We were so glad we hired a taxi. Although it was expensive, it saved us from having to get off a bus at the junction between Copacabana, La Paz, and Sorata, and waiting for a new bus on the side of the road – something I really didn’t fancy as I was feeling pretty rough. It also meant that we were able to appreciate the absolutely spectacular scenery along the way. The first half of our trip ran along Lake Titicaca – following the curves of the lake. The road then turned away from the lake, and began to climb the slopes of Cerro Illampu. We then came to the cusp of the valley, and began to descend towards Sorata. It was a truly beautiful drive, and contained perhaps some of the best scenery we’d seen on our entire twelve month trip. Mahmoud was able to take plenty of pictures, courtesy of our gracious taxi driver who offered to stop at just about every viewpoint!

    Carrying a bright load, Sarata [Enlarge]

    Sorata itself was a nice little town. Not much to do, but nice. We decided to stay three nights there – two full days. We’d spend one day looking around town and the following doing a bit of hiking. Our hotel was horrible. In truth, there isn’t a lot of choice in Sorata, and I think the best choices may be out of town. We stayed in a little place just off the main plaza, with saggy beds and a sloping bathroom which formed a lake at one end of it after we had our first showers. It did the job, but owing to the bathroom-lake it was a bit damp!

    Sorata had some quaint little streets which were good for a day’s wandering. The plaza was, as always, a good place to people watch. The market was also pretty interesting to wander around. I think the people in Sorata don’t see quite so many tourists as most of the other places we’ve visited, as they like to stare a bit. Sorata is a very photogenic town, but there’s not a lot else to do. Walking around for a day was perfect!

    Enjoying the View, Sarata [Enlarge]

    The following day we had been planning to do a bit of walking out of town. However, we awoke to fog, drizzle and cold. After a week of things going wrong, we had had enough! We couldn’t bear to sit in our hotel room for the day, and there was nothing else to do around town. We walked to the plaza, hired a taxi, packed up our things and left for La Paz two days early.

    We’ve been really lucky in our year long trip. Things have usually gone our way, generally speaking. We’ve never had to cancel our plans due to the weather, or sickness, or anything like that really. And yet, the past week has not gone so well. Even so, at this stage of the trip, neither of us are too worried about it. We’ve seen so much at this point, that we’re pretty much happy to go with the flow of things. And based on our experience of our sole night in La Paz, five nights in the big city should actually be pretty cool.

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