Lake Titicaca to La Paz

Wednesday 10 to Friday 12 January

We crossed border at Copacabana on Lake Titicaca and took a mini bus to La Paz. The scenery around the lake was stunning. I just sat by the window and watched as we twisted around mountains, with the lake constantly moving into the distance but from so many angles.

The balance of the 3½ hour drive was through small villages. I got the feeling that Bolivia has a more advanced economy than Peru, but further travelling may confirm this.

We stopped at the airport at El Alto to drop some of the passengers off. El Alto is a shanty town above the valley where La Paz sits.

Our guide explained that it had grown organically since the 1980s when miners and farmers moved to city living. The government has been reluctant to enforce regulations re building and commerce, in the hope that the residents will be self sufficient. They even turn a blind eye to contraband.

The international airport is in El Alto, as there is enough flat land there. The airport is one of highest, and in fact the highest international airport in the world. Due to the high elevation, at 4062m, and thin air, the runway is 4000m, much longer than usual. Even so, Boeing 747 and Airbus A330 cannot operate out of the airport.

I was struck by the sight on reaching the edge of the valley that is La Paz. Unlike Quito that sits on a high plain, surrounded by higher mountains, La Paz sit in a crater-like valley at 3,640m elevation. It was a windy road dropping 400m to the city and traffic jams.

After most of the passenger were dropped off, we were asked to wait while the minibus was filled with bits and pieces from an earlier event at a nearby hotel. Our guide said thank you, but we never really understood what all the bits were for.

When we finally reached our hotel, they didn’t seem to know about the booking and we were forced to relocate to the nearby Hotel Presidente. It was more modern and without the atmosphere of the Casa de Piedra, but at least there was an elevator.

It had been a long day, so we stayed at the hotel for dinner. The restaurant was on the top floor which had a nice outlook over the city. La Paz is an administrative capital and is considered the highest city of note in the world. It is not the capital – that is Sucre some 700 km away to south east by road.

We had a 9am start for our half day city tour, which was wonderful after so many early starts that were between 5am and 7am.

Our tour guide Jimena was a very friendly and informative.

The tour was somewhat interrupted by the Dakar Rally which was in progress through Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia. The rally was due to arrive in La Paz on day 6 and followed by a rest day. Unfortunately, the day’s race was cancelled due to bad weather.

It was also Coca Day. Plaza Murillo, where the president has his office, was preparing for an event. Coca leaves were being packed into bags for the distinguished guests.

From there we walked to Calle Apolinar Jaén which has a number of colonial buildings, mostly used as museums.

We drove to the lookout at Killi Killi for a broad view of the valley that La Paz occupies. From there we drove down to the lowest point of the valley at 3,200m and then to Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). The valley is much like Cappadochia in Turkey, the soft clay has been eroded by the rains that fall between November and April and then the winds that blow in August. Erosion continues, however the area has been designated a place for the people to enjoy, but some conservation is in place, as they are restricted to walk ways.

La Paz has the highest golf course, the highest tennis courts and the highest soccer stadium. Our guide Jimena told us that in the high altitude the ball travels more slowly but for a longer distance. This confuses the visitors, so the home team enjoy much success here.

From the Valley of the Moon we caught two of the five cable cars that have been built in the city. Mi Teleférico is an answer to moving people over the difficult terrain, where train lines above and under the ground would be difficult to construct, and is part of the public transport system. They are low cost at 3 Boliviano (approximately 60 Australian cents) per ride. The carriages carry ten people and they run very close together with efficiently run stations. There are plans for another 4 or 5 systems, with at least three to be completed this year.

Our last stop was the Witches Market, so called because it is an area where many herbs and medicines are sold, as well as tokens for good luck. Most bizzare are the llama foetuses, that are collected when extremely cold weather occurs and the mother llama is unable to carry her baby.

These are sold to be burned for good luck.

We returned to the hotel just as the rain started – we had had a lucky morning.

But that gave us the perfect opportunity to watch the the competitors of the Dakar Rally come into town. The first motor bike passed through about 3pm and the parade continued through rain and demonstrations all through the night. As each team arrived into Plaza San Francisco (St Francis Square), they announced themselves with horns. I heard the last one at 6am.

We subsequently discovered that the stage was cancelled for the day due to bad weather and the next day was a rest day.

Bolivia and in particular La Paz is famous for its demonstrations and at the beginning of the Dakar Rally parade there was a small group trying to upset the parade, they shouted, jeered and threw objects at the competitors. After a lengthy game of cat and mouse with the police they finally dispersed.

Finding dinner on a holiday night was quite difficult. The restaurants we had earmarked were closed so we ended up at the Lion’s Pub – an English pub. It was OK.

We had allocated the next day as a rest day and we enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in and having a leisurely breakfast, followed by a lot of forward planning.

Our only tourist outing was to visit the Museo de la Coca (Coca Museum) with its interesting story of the use of coca, particularly the leaves, by the Andeans, and then the development of the cocaine drug with its insidious outcomes.

There were some controversial claims to its benefits, and I was fascinated by what I learnt.

The earliest evidence of using the coca plant was in the Tiwanacy culture (1500BC – 1200AD). Ruins in the southern Lake Titicaca basin demonstrate architectural characteristics that indicated an awareness of the cosmos. It is believed that the coca leaf was a religious symbol and central to their magic.

Cocaine was recognised for its anaesthetic qualities by Andeans throughout ancient times. They chewed coca leaves to manage a number of ailments.

The Spaniards first banned coca leaf chewing amongst their slaves, until they found that the slaves were more effective with it, it hid the aches and pains caused by their hard work and increased their motivation.

In 1860 Germans started using coca for topical use, and in 1884 Karl Koller was the first to use a refined version as a local anaesthetic in eye operations.

In the mid-1880s Freud became an enthusiastic early adopter of cocaine, and in its use he formed his theories on psychoanalysis.

The first drink to use cocaine was Vin Mariani, made in Corsica, France in 1863. It was a tonic and patent medicine made from Bordeaux wine and coca leaves and claimed to increase energy, appetite and mood.

In 1885 in the USA John S Pemberton created a version of Vin Mariani, but added the Africa Kola nut for caffeine. When prohibition was passed in Georgia, Pemberton developed a non-alcoholic, carbonated form which he called Coca-Cola.

In 1914 Coca Cola removed cocaine from its product and now the company uses an extract from the coca leaf as part of its secret ingredients.

Cocaine was used in various forms between 1905 and 1950 for strength, in products such as Zellafirte-N, KH3 and Lipogeron.

In 1977 a study by IBBA, CIBE & ORSTROM (France) found that ‘Coca helps in adapting to life in high altitudes’.

The coca leaf is still chewed legally in Peru, Bolivia and parts of Chile and Argentina. But it can only be grown in Peru and Bolivia.

Although tiny in size, it was definitely one of the more interesting museums I have visited.