We land in La Paz way ahead of schedule, and after filing in more forms that won't ever be read we're through to await our taxi. Chantal has arranged for a trustworthy chap to collect us and deliver us to their apartment as a "regular" taxi might not get the job done. Because we're so early our guy is nowhere to be seen, so after half an hour spent telling the same 3 drivers that are hanging around that no, we don't need there services, we manage to get in touch with Chantal.
He's right outside she says... he isn't, no one is, so there's a few calls made to figure it out, and finally after an hour or so sitting on the floor our guy appears - the only explanation is that he somehow thought that a flight from Bogota (in Colombia...) would be a domestic arrival so was waiting on the other side of the airport. But we're on our way, and he helpfully pulls over as we head down towards La Paz City to explain something about a cable car. It's 4am amigo, the city tour is not required, but we did very much appreciate the epic view over the city by lights!
Chantal and her very friendly boyfriend Danilo are waiting outside their apartment block when the taxi pulls up (it's -2C...) and welcome us in - and then some. They've set up a mattress in the lounge area which we think is very kind of them... and then they usher us into their bedroom as it is they who will be sleeping on the lounge floor. We protest, and protest again, but it's a ridiculous time of day and this discussion can wait.
The next day, or later that day, after catching up on some sleep we're up and about in time for lunch, which is a lavish spread put on by Chantal and Danilo, after which we get a full run down of the plans for the next 4 days that have been put together by a tour guide friend of Chantals. We don't normally do guided tours like this (..ever), preferring to figure things out for ourselves without time restraints or other commitments which lock you in to a pre-planned schedule. But having someone else take care of business for us for a couple of days seems like a nice plan after doing it all ourselves for so long.
With the next 4 days mapped out, we head off with Chantal to the Witches Market, a couple of streets that sell all manner of Bolivian crafts, from little amulets and alpaca fleeces to dried baby llama carcasses and magic potions, and everything in between.
With a few bits and pieces purchased, we arrange to meet our tour guide for the next 4 days, a young chap called German, although we will pronounce this wrong every time we speak to him, and even now I'm not sure.
This meeting seems fairly unnecessary, but he was in the area and it's useful for everyone to know who they're looking out for when our first day of activities begins at 7:30am tomorrow. What follows looks suspiciously like a sales pitch as we're ushered into a travel agents offices to discuss the possibility of a tour that will get us to Peru. Erm... CP is impressively muted, and in the end it's an exasperated me that has to stop the guy and point out that we've been in Bolivia for less than 12 hours, and the only thing we know about Peru is that we need to be in Cuzco in about 4 weeks time. He's still keen to map something out for us though, so we give an example of 1 week to get from La Paz to Cuzco, and see what he suggests for stop offs along the way.
By the time he's given us the weakest recommendations possible, and manages to get us into Cuzco 2 days early (we already have 2 days in Cuzco to acclimatise before setting off for Machu Picchu) on the basis that "there's lots to see", I'm thinking that maybe his knowledge of Peru is even less than mine. "So how much is that little trip?" I ask. He bashes away on his calculator for a while and then turns it around for us to see. 780. US Dollars. Each. For 5 days that he hasn't even bothered to note down. I'm not sure if he was expecting us to say "yes please!" and hand over the credit card, but we stand up to indicate that this discussion is over, and I say "well that's something to think about..." - I'm being polite, it isn't, it's insane.
2 more travel agents later and we're about ready to pull the pin. Maybe we've become those slightly weary, harder to impress travellers. I've seen rainforests, no need to travel for 3 days on a bus to go look at a monkey. Lots of birds? Yeah, and? Island in a lake, done that. There's a zipline there, omg. [CP intervening here to stem RD's rant - for someone who is usually the calm one in this duo and who always accuses me of ranting - this is proof of his ranting nature!... In my view, it was actually very useful to get an idea of what we could do and see and having our own little local tour guide entourage was kinda fun, it was just a little too much too early on for us!]
A quick supermarket shop is followed by a mysterious but delicious "meat on a stick" snack cooked up at the side of the road. Chantal won't tell us what it is so be know it must be some unusual local treat. My guess is guinea pig, CP says liver... of course it turns out to be anticucho - cow hearts grilled on a skewer and served with potatoes and a spicy corn sauce. It's surprisingly tender and tasty, we don't expect to see it in Waitrose anytime soon.
And so on to our 4 day tour:
Day 1 - Luna Valley and La Paz City tour.
As we've opted to use local buses instead of private taxis, our meeting point changes slightly. If you were there while this change was explained to us you'd be forgiven for thinking that we had to trek through many backstreets turning left and right as we go to meet our guide... in fact it's 50metres down the road and unmissable.
La Paz doesn't really have bus stops, just places where people congregate to flag down a passing vehicle. This particular place is very popular (maybe it really is a bus stop?) and every minivan with flouro writing in the window is slowing to a crawl on the side of a roundabout, beeping furiously at cars on the roundabout that cut them up, and beeping cheerfully at the throng of potential customers who may or may not want to hop on board. The difference between the cheerful and furious beeps is quite hard to discern, so it's mostly just a cacophony of noise.
German spots the relevant flouro placard in the window of a passing bus, and we pile in. This is more like it, travelling with the locals! A private taxi will be stuck in the same traffic as us, and there's no real danger as you can't be robbed in one of these minivans as no one can actually move, so what's the point in lording it up? Just tell the driver when you get in where you're going and they'll stop right outside.
Plus, we get our first of many glimpses of these guys. Zebra crossings are apparently not well used in La Paz, with locals preferring to step out in front of whatever traffic may be passing. Enter a government led initiative to educate people in the way of the zebra - these guys can be found around the city stopping pedestrians from crossing in the wrong places and trying to persuade then to use the crossings and obey the traffic lights! Although right now they are buying their lunch...
Luna Valley is our first destination, and I will concede that we're both a little on edge as 1) we're still reeling a little from the travel agent business yesterday, 2) we're not entirely convinced that this "favour" than German is doing for us today with the city tour is actually worth our while... or money, 3) it's early and no coffee has been consumed, and 4) we've not come close to getting enough sleep, although CP sets about fixing that one almost as soon as we're on the bus.
We arrive, and scope out the map. There will be 14 specific named rocks which apparently look like something (if you tilt your head, squint a bit, and use a hefty dose of imagination), amongst the already very impressive landscape, formed by thousands of years of erosion.
CP, still a little bleary eyed, sets up George Pig for a photo op and he promptly tumbles away down a crevice. The force of my reaction suggests that we've become rather attached to little George, and Caitlin may find that while she has a very impressive photo album of his adventures when we eventually return home, George will be taking up permanent residence chez Carly and Rich.
German suggests that George is lost, but clearly he does not know us well enough yet, and CP is putting her Suesca rock climbing skills to good use in order to retrieve George. Pig safely clipped back on, we can continue...
Slightly irritated by CPs laissez-faire attitude to George's safety, I leave her behind playing with her camera (aka moving deliberately slowly to reverse any intention German has of rushing us through the tour) and keep pace with German for a while. "This place looks like a film set, has it ever been a film set?" I ask. "Maybe, yes!" is Germans response. Maybe, Mr Tour Guide?? I guess we'll google that later.
Aside from the named rocks not really looking like anything (the George photo above shows "Nice Old Grandfather rock" sticking up in the background, which doubles up as another named rock when you get round to the other side of it), this is a truly spectacular place, and the pictures really don't do it justice.
When we're done, there's time for a quick photo with the indigenous lady hanging around to welcome tourists...
...before we bus back to the city, and then taxi to a pretty spectacular lookout point (Kili Kili) over La Paz, where we can see Bolivia's national football stadium amongst other things. German tells us that Brazil, Argentina, and the other powerhouses of South American football don't like coming here as the high altitude means that they struggle. We assume that the other nations superior skill redresses the balance on the return fixtures as Bolivia were not in this (or any other) years World Cup.
We then walk to the main plaza to sample our first salteñas (like a small, slightly sweet, Cornish Pastie) and check out the president's offices and parliament buildings. The clock has recently been changed to go anti-clockwise ("to the left") as a nod to the presidents political leanings..
Then there's a stroll up and now the only remaining colonial street in La Paz, before we spot an art gallery of Mahani Mahani work, who we have been told is a very famous artist in Bolivia. A little too famous, as our budget only stretches to a few postcards.
As we leave and head to the witches market, German explains that he has another tourist job this afternoon - this is in contrast to his original story, that he was taking time off college to show us round, so a little unexpected, but we haven't felt too rushed and are happy to have some time to wonder at our leisure. He is however deeply concerned to be abandoning us a couple of hundred metres from home:
"And you will be alright from here, please, you must be very careful" - please, it's La Paz and you're leaving us at one of the biggest landmarks in the city, we're not hanging out taking selfies in the Gaza Strip, go!
Day 2 - Tiwanaku.
Another early start to beat the traffic, although today it's German that's late. He explains that the people he had dashed off to collect from the airport last night had been flying out early this morning so he had accompanied them from their hotel to the airport.
The idea of a tourist having a 12 hour layover at an international airport and needing to be collected by a tour guide, dropped off at a hotel, then collected again in the morning to return them to the airport confirms (as if any further confirmation was needed) that we are not the kind of traveller that German normally encounters.
We have to get a bus to the terminal, and then a specific Tiwanaku bus from there. The first bus is taking forever, completely jammed up in rush hour traffic - we ask how long it would take to walk, and the answer is 20 minutes. 45 minutes later, the bus arrives at the terminal... Our tour guide senses are tingling, that's the kind of bad decision we could have made by ourselves (and we later do!).
All aboard the bus and off we go arriving a couple of hours later at Tiwanaku, traversing some really beautiful countryside, although the only thing worthy of note on the journey there being as we head upwards out of La Paz towards El Alto, and we spot 2 dogs going at it at the side of the road. No pics as we were too engrossed in the live show, but the driver spotted it too and we shared a little joke about it... well, he said something, and we laughed. My Spanish is getting rusty!
And so we arrive at Tiwanaku - this ancient site pre-dates Machu Picchu, and takes you back in time to an impressive city built by an extremely technologically advanced pre-Inca society. The Tiwanaku culture is believed to have lasted for 28 centuries, from 1600 B.C. to A.D. 1200. In this time, they created some of the most impressive stone monoliths in the world, developed a sophisticated irrigation system, and gained an advanced understanding of astronomy and the workings of the sun. Their territory spread from northern Argentina and Chile through Bolivia to the south of Peru - but they never came into contact with the Incas. By the time the Incas made it to Peru, a 100-year drought had ravaged the Titicaca area. The Tiwanaku people had long ago left the region in small groups and moved to different areas in the Altiplano or valleys.
There's a museum here, in which photos are banned, except for this one of a mural depicting a reconstruction of the site:
and this one taken illicitly inside of a mummified person..:
German guides us round the museum and is proving his worth in explaining what's going on.
Outside, and on to the reason that we're really here - the ruins:
At some stage there's a distinct feeling that we're being hurried along, and as at Luna Valley, CP responds to this by going as slowly as possible. There isn't any point in me keeping pace with German as he'll just do an explanation of something to me, and then repeat the same when CP catches up. After watching her take 9 photos of the same thing, I'm getting bored...
We complete our tour with a visit to the subterranean temple which has hundreds of faces carved into the interior walls. It's pretty epic to be fair. Apparently this has featured in an American documentary called Ancient Aliens, where some archaeologists have taken the apparent likeness of one of the faces to a modern day "grey" alien from the X-files to mean that aliens helped build the temples at Tiwanku. OK, so it's been added to the list of random stuff to check out when we get home, but really...?
After a bit more wandering, we're on our way back to La Paz. On the way, the bus stops in El Alto, up above La Paz, and there's some sort of crazy dance and festival procession going on, with indigenous people dancing in huge formations while wearing full traditional dress... can we just stay here German, you can leave us here, right? No, it's too dangerous. Ok, we're starting to have an adverse reaction to this... the risk of someone trying to pickpocket you in a crowd is not dangerous, nor is it specific to La Paz, or Bolivia. However, we are under German's responsibly at the moment, and it his task to get us to the Cable Car station which will then return us to La Paz City.
By now we're being frogmarched along, past what we consider to be "cool stuff" (shaman who will tell your fortune by burning fruit in a fire!) towards the cable car queue. The reason for the rush is that German has another group of tourists to collect from the airport so wants to get us back to La Paz ASAP. We manage to convince him that we can take the cable car all by ourselves, and not only that, but we persuade him to mark on the map the location of a local street market we can go to once we have ridden the cable car - no we will not be going directly home, we will almost certainly be talking to strangers, and we absolutely will be buying one of those dodgy ice creams that may or may not make us vomit for the next 3 days (it didn't, and nor did the assortment of juices, chocolate, and chewing gum that we bought from the many street vendors that we encountered)!
I can see how La Paz could be a bit daunting, but despite the many (and there were many!) warnings we're more than capable of wandering around and figuring things out for ourselves... as we have been for the last 2 months, and as we do now when we switch the phone off for an illicit 2 hours strolling through the street markets staring danger in the face all by ourselves!
Yes the market could be a "dangerous place", in the same way that the markets my parents frequent in Spain could be dangerous if you are an idiot and wave fistfuls of dollar around, or put your camera on the floor and walk off, or do anything else that would tempt the most honest of locals to take advantage of your stupidity. Ultimately the biggest danger we face is the possibility of overpaying by a few pence for whatever merch we happen to be buying.
And we buy lots!
We leave for Lake Titikaka early in the morning and Chantal and Danilo will be in Cochabamba when we get back - so as they have refused point blank to accept any cash for their hospitality (they are still residing on the lounge floor while we occupy a very comfortable double bed!p), this is our chance to buy them some cool gifts to show our appreciation.
When we get back, an epic dinner has been prepared for us (stop, they are seriously just too good to us!), and a tour of the city in a friends car is suggested. It's 7pm, and, it being a Saturday night, we were keen for a beer, but also conscious that we have to pack up and rearrange all our stuff (e.g. shorts and singlets to the bottom of the bag, any warm clothing to the top...), and there's a crazy early start for Lake Titikaka tomorrow, but on the basis that this will only take an hour and it should be good to see different parts of La Paz at nighttime, we are grateful for the generous offer of a car tour round the city by night and of course, say yes.
The views are excellent...
...but three hours later when we return to the apartment we're both exhausted (especially as we have been up since 6am and on our feet all day) - when a DVD is suggested I feel like CP is teetering on the edge. Chantal has questions about her own upcoming trip to Colombia (of which we of course are happy to oblige with lots of information for her), so I send CP to bed and insist that the questions must be quick-fire!
The combination of Swiss organisation and Bolivian hospitality is fantastic (really out of this world, and the generosity of both Chantal and Danilo was like nothing we have experienced before) but at times overwhelming and we have to hold firm on a couple of occasions to stop them from being too nice! No, we can definitely take our own bags with us when we leave at 6:30 in the morning... there is no need to shorten your own trip away so that you can meet us at the bus terminal... no you cannot pack my bag for me... stop it!? We can honestly say that they were the most organised and generous hosts we have ever met!
Days 3 & 4 - Copacabana (not the Brazilian beach, although Bolivians claim that the one in Rio is named after this town), Lake Titikaka, Isla del Sol, Isla del Luna.
Despite a crazy early start it's somehow 8am when the bus leaves La Paz, and it's past midday by the time we roll into Copacabana.
We're feeling a bit frustrated as we had suggested doing the tour at the end of our stay in Bolivia, en route to Peru. One of the 2 routes into Peru will go via Copacabana, and allow a stop there for a couple of days if desired, a route that the Lonely Planet specifically suggests, and having just re-read the travel notes that we accumulated before leaving Guernsey, doing Lake Titikaka as a stop off on the way to Peru is suggested there too.
Instead, we'll be making this 4+ hour journey 3 times when just once would have sufficed, and taken us more than halfway to Peru in the process. This is confirmed both on our quick stroll through Copacabana which half a dozen companies offering buses from Copa to Puno (3 times a day), and finally the icing on the cake, at lunch, when German tells us that "many tourists come to Copa for the night, then sun island, and then on to Peru" - you don't say? Exactly the plan that we had suggested!
However... we are where we are, so determined to make the best of it.
Stealing back control, we suggest a new plan - which means "no" to moon island. We decide that would basically be a tick box (yes, those are some ruins... now run back to the boat) which will leave us no time to do anything other than box tick sun island before heading back to Copa.
The new plan allows us enough time (just) to walk from the north part of sun island to the south where we will be spending the night as planned. German tells us that there's a slight problem with that... sun island is split into 3 sections for fee collection purposes, and we will pass through all three. Ok, so how much are we talking? 10 bolivianos extra, each. But we're not going to moon island so we save B5 each there. So B10 total extra. Plus B50 for the extra fuel and time for the boat, we're looking at £5.50 total between us. I think we can handle that! Even so, I pay German the extra while CP is in the bathroom - easier for him, easier for me! CP here...it was the principle not the money!
Off we go on Captain Uncles boat, edging past no less than three public boats as we go. Suck on that mofos, we're going trekking! Whether it's the gentle rocking of the boat, the carb-a-licious lunch, or the seeping in of fumes slowly intoxicating us, we're both nodding off as the boat chugs across the lake.
The boat pulls in at a place other than the northern harbour, as is our prerogative on a private boat. Instead we park up at a beach, test the water (cold!) and begin the climb up a set of steps to begin our walk. With the lake sitting at about 3,800m, altitude is an issue - a simple walk up about 100 steps sends our heart rates through the roof. Where are those coca candies now?! Better just discretely pause to "take in the view"... while desperately sucking in air.
At the top of the climb is an archeological site, and whether it's genuinely impressive, or we're just excited to be slightly off the standard tourist track again, we're both a lot happier - and I'm certain that's a smile on Germans face...
There's also the giants footprints, where legend says that the Sun God landed when creating this fantastic place.
By the time we reach the southern part of the island, the sun is starting to set behind us, which leads to any number of fantastic photo ops - both for us, and German, who finally admits that yes, this was a good plan! The three of us have had a great time walking along, chasing down people way ahead of us, stopping to photograph native birds, playing with a family of dogs, and really just being out there doing something different. We suggest that he offers this as an alternative option when selling his Lake Titikaka tours - he can use this photos that we took as an easy selling point!
German stops to show us his pride and joy - he's building a small hotel on sun island, with an aim to running his own complete tour to the moon and sun islands. It's a slow process, as he's using pretty much everything he can save from his current tour guide job to finance the building work, and all of the materials have to be shipped from Copacabana or beyond, but as he explains this to us, you can see the pride that he has in this project.
Before the remaining daylight completely fades, German shows us to the place where we will sleep tonight - his uncle runs a small guest house (a different uncle) and it easily surpasses expectations. We're then referred to one of the nearby restaurants (again, another uncles place, although we suspect that everyone on sun island is an uncle or a cousin or some other relation!), before heading back to our room, where CP delights in being in bed before 8pm!
In the morning, and after a pretty awesome sunrise that we viewed from our bed through the windows...
...German joins us for breakfast (expertly prepared by his sister), and before we get the boat back to Copacabana there's a surprise in store... as part of Germans thesis for his degree (in tourism, of course) he created a "community tourism" project. In basic terms this involves inviting tourists into his home, for an explanation of the way people live on sun island. This is very special, and as we're introduced to his family you can see that they are all excited by the idea of meeting us too (although I'm not sure why!), and another of his sisters has a small room dedicated to selling various alpaca clothing and other traditional wares that she has handmade.
Finally, the real surprise - after German displays and explains the various traditional garments at the Aymara tribe wears... we are now obliged to dress up in this kit. Yes, we look ridiculous, but I feel like in the last couple of days we've finally seen German at ease, he's genuinely enjoyed the trip to sun island, rather than just being a tour guide as in the first couple of days, and we've genuinely enjoyed it too!
The walk down to the harbour is the reverse of the way we would have come if we'd stuck to the original itinerary and gone to moon island first, and the Inca steps that we walk down make for a grand entrance/exit.
There's time for the boat back to Copa, and lunch, before we get on the bus to take us back to La Paz. When we arrive back in the city, German says he is walking to the San Fransisco Church anyway so can lead us there - I recognise that this is his final effort to deposit us safely at the city's biggest landmark, but I spot a pharmacy and declare that I need to go inside. I do, my sinuses are exploding, but I'm sure that he also recognises that we could visit any of the thousands (really!) of pharmacies in La Paz, and that it's our final effort not to be led to "safety"! We say our goodbyes and head off unsupervised again!
So how was our 4 day guided tour? The luna valley and the city tour - we definitely didn't need a guide, and we've since discovered that there is a free walking tour (of course you tip whatever you think is appropriate) of the city which is probably closer to what we would normally do. Tiwanaku, yes the information given in the museum was very good but we could probably have got most of that from Wikipedia, and maybe we would have spent longer wondering around the ruins before heading back to La Paz... but the Lake Titikaka bit was awesome, and we couldn't have done it that way without German's services so for that we are very grateful!
Tonight Chantal and Danilo are out of town, but they have arranged with a friend of theirs that we can stay in his empty apartment as a favour... and in return we will pay him the same, or a little bit more, as we would at a hostel. Interesting situation, and it occurs to us that maybe it's us doing him a favour, paying (albeit a token amount) to stay in an apartment which has been empty and available for rent for about 5 months (because of a messy divorce), yet still contains a large amount of his personal effects (i.e. there is shit everywhere), but the advantage is that we can leave our stuff out and not have to worry about it being safe.
Which is all well and good, except we miss out on the things that a hostel would have... like a kitchen with anything useful still connected, people, wifi, and somewhat alarmingly, hot water. La Paz at night time runs at about -2C, and an apartment which has been empty for an unknown period of time doesn't feel much warmer than that. Thus, an ice cold shower is probably the thing that finally cracked me, and we head to bed (credit where credit is due, it was very comfortable!) to watch a movie and rest up ahead of tomorrow's adventure - cycling the Worlds Most Dangerous Road!