As I type, I am sitting in an internet cafe in Oruro, Bolivia. It is cold as hell, and the altitude is around 3700m, but I think coming here was definitely a great idea.
Backing up a bit, I spent most of the last week at Lago de Atitlan in Guatemala. My flight to La Paz, Bolivia was to leave on Monday, February 13, so I couldn’t stray too far from Guatemala City. Lago de Atitlan is a gorgeous 83000 year old caldera, created by a huge volcanic explosion that basically collapsed into itself. The lake (lago) is rimmed by steep slopes, cliffs and two extinct volcanoes. With all the geologic beauty of the area, the sad thing about the Atitlan region is that the lake is basically being poisoned. The amount of runoff and trash that has accumulated has meant that the biological state of the lake is pretty dire. The huge algal bloom in 2009 has since dissipated, but the lake is far from healthy. Sigh.
I took a shuttle from Antigua and arrived in San Pedro, where I met an American gal named Whitney who was learning Spanish so she could do a midwifery internship in a couple weeks. Very interesting chick. From San Pedro I caught a small boat to another village along the lake, San Marcos, where my friend Kia was hanging out. We traveled together a bit in Mexico and it was nice to see her again. We made a plan, along with her friend Mattea to go to San Pedro for happy hour and then catch a tuk-tuk back to San Marcos for the night. Kia did’t make it but Mattea and I along with Whitney tucked in at a couple of pubs, eventually ending up at the Alegra which had 5 Queztal screwdrivers (that is less than a dollar, by the way). As we were drinking, a huge thunderstorm rolled in, adding a nice bit of drama to the evening. Suddenly, all the power went out and we were sitting in the bar in the dark. The bartender brought over a candle and we finished our drinks, before heading out to find some transportation home. Whitney was staying in town so she was fine, but Mattea and I had to get back to San Marcos. Our original plan was out once we discovered that the tuk-tuks would’t do the drive on a stormy night in case of being robbed. Hmmm. Finally, one of the tuk-tuk drivers flagged down a proper taxi for us, but he wanted Q150, which was twice what I paid for my shuttle from Antigua. Double hmmm. Luckily Mattea spoke great Spanish and was able to get another proper taxi for Q80. Our tuk-tuk driver also got in for a ride and along the way we picked up a little old lady walking in the rain by the road. We made it back to San Marcos, no worse for wear, nary a robber to be seen.
Mattea joined me when I went back to Antigua on the 10th and with her great negotiation skills were able to snag a relatively affordable private room in the pricey town. Antigua is like Copan on steroids, with cobblestone streets and colonial buildings everywhere. Surrounded by highlands and volcanoes, it is beautiful but a bit of a tourist trap; the coffee was amazing at least. I splurged and bought my first souvenir, a gorgeous silver jade necklace made with local stone. At Q350 ($45), it was the most expensive thing I bought so far, but I have a feeling it would be three times the price back in Canada.
On Monday I said goodbye to Mattea, took a shuttle from Antigua and flew out of the surprisingly modern airport in Guatemala City. Two connections later (San Salvador and Lima), I arrived in La Paz at about 12:30 am. I met a musician couple, Joe and Pam from Edmonton at customs and we shared a cab into the city. The MEC backpack gave them away as Canadian, but it was rather cool to meet some northern Albertans in such a random, far-flung place. The elevation of the airport in La Paz is 4000 m with the city itself situated a little lower at 3600-3800 m. I was pretty worried about the effects of the altitude, but so far the only symptoms I have had are a mild headache and a lack of appetite. Last year when I drove up Mauna Kea in Hawaii, I got quite nauseated and a bit dizzy, but I think it was because I was driving up from sea level (… in a red Mustang convertible).
Yesterday I took a bus from La Paz to Oruro, across the famous Altiplano, a huge mountain plateau that is only 400 m lower than the Tibetan Plateau. Rolling barren hills as far as the eye can see, there is very little vegetation other than some small scrub and grass. Oruro is smack in the middle of all this emptiness, which may explain why they go all out for their Carnaval. Normally a small mining city, the place completely transforms for the festival. I´ll let you know how it goes in my next post.
Currently I am staying in the basement at the house of a local named Juan. When I first looked up accommodation for Carnaval, prices were triple the norm, running upward of $80 per night for a crappy hotel room. I decided to check out Couchsurfing.org, which connects travelers with people willing to let them crash for free at their place. Juan has been taking in couch-surfers for over 3 years and says that he absolutely loves meeting so many people from around the world. I thought that was pretty cool. Since there would not be near enough placements for everyone during the actual Carnaval, Juan and some other locals have set up a cheap place to stay at a nearby school (couch-surfers only). So instead of $80 I will be paying $2. I will be moving over to the school tomorrow night. Juan even took me out for brunch this morning – I had a llama sausage sandwich and a grain-based sweet drink that I can´t recall the name of. Who knew llama would be so yummy?
The only downside of Bolivia so far has been the cold. At this elevation it usually sits around 12 degrees all year and can drop down to -15 in the winter at night. Right now is technically summer, but that just means it rains more only gets to -2 at night. I had to make an emergency stop in La Paz to pick up a small sleeping bag and a pretty alpaca scarf. At least it´s not snowing!