3 September: Day 1
In the wise words of Miss Julie Andrews:
Let's start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with A-B-C
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi
But when you go to Bolivia, you begin with a d-r-i-n-k!
Hoorah! We're on holiday!
Obviously one eats Japanese food in Peru between planes. We knew they'd had a Japanese president, but it seems there's quite a long Japanese history in Peru.
4 September: Day 2
We arrive in La Paz not that long after midnight, but although we consider it to be night-time and go to bed, technically the hotel considers it an early check-in, not a night's stay.
Next day, or later the same day depending on perspective, we have a city tour. This is the tomb of Andrés de Santa Cruz, president at various times of Peru, Bolivia and the Peru-Bolivia Confederation. He managed ten years as President of Bolivia, when some of his predecessors struggled to hang on for more than a couple of months!
But enough of the history lesson, I'm really just taking a picture of men in shiny red uniforms.
So to another world, the "Witches' Market". Note the toy animals hanging down from the awnings. They're not toy animals at all, they're stillborn llama foetuses. As I'm sure you know, when you build a house, you need to give Pachamama - Mother Earth - a little present, and it seems she's fond of llama foetuses (as well as strong drink, cigarettes, etc). Actually, my own mother was fond of strong drink and cigarettes, but I'm pretty sure a llama foetus would have been declined as politely as she could manage.
5 September: Day 3
This is "Moon Valley" just outside La Paz, an otherworldly landscape of rocks that look almost like mud stalagmites. It's caused by rain erosion, but it looks like a decent shower would wash the whole thing away! Allegedly, the name was bestowed by Neil Armstrong when he visited the area, but this is almost certainly made up to fool tourists.
Back in town, we ride the cable car. The streets of La Paz are completely choked with traffic for most of the day, and this is the quickest way to get around by far if your journey suits the available lines. By contrast with the buses and taxis - old, overcrowded and polluting - this network would do any Green-minded first world city proud. Oh, and this stop has a kiosk where they sell the best cheese empanadas in town! Yummy
6 September: Day 4
We're off to the Amazon basin now, starting in the town of Rurrenabaque on the Beni river. There are not that many roads here, and certainly no bridges!
And Bolivian wine! It may not go on to win any international awards, but it turns out a lot better than we'd feared. We're not sure what grape it is, but it strongly resembles a dry Muscat.
7 September: Day 5
Happy Birthday to Me!
We're off upriver to the Lake Chalalán ecolodge, run by members of a forest community which goes under the unlikely name of San José de Uchupiamonas.
The water is so shallow in places that the propellor has to be lifted out of the water and the crew jump over the side and start pushing! We can see that it's hard work and the river is flowing strongly against them. We are sharing the boat with another couple, and at one point the bloke grabs a pole and starts pushing, punt-style, but we decide it's best not to interfere with people who clearly know what they are doing. That's our story and we're sticking to it.
Later at the lodge, we go for a little boat ride on the lake and spot Yellow Squirrel Monkeys amongst other wildlife.
8 September: Day 6
In the Amazonian rain forest...
Walking near the lodge, we see this fine tortoise.
And at night on the lake, a Cayman, perfectly reflected in the water.
9 September: Day 7
Back on the river to Rurrenabaque and our return flight to La Paz. We've had the flight changed twice from our original itinerary, but hopefully the local guys know what they're doing!
"You looking at me?" It's a capybara, the world's largest rodent, and allegedly declared to be a fish by the Pope so that early Catholic settlers could eat it on Fridays. Sadly, though, this too appears to be apocryphal.
With the current, the return trip takes half the time of the outward journey. The plane does indeed leave at the most recently stated time, although the second change hasn't been passed on to the guide meeting us at La Paz, so we have to call him when we arrive. It only takes him ten minutes to get to the airport though, barely enough time for us to have a coffee.
From the cable car, you get a really good view of La Paz inside the bowl formed by the mountains.
10 September: Day 8
Today we will ride bicycles down the quaintly named "El Camino de la Muerte", which sounds so much nicer than its English translation, "The Road of Death". Once it was the only way to get from A to B, and trucks and buses would drive it at lethal speeds, making the name entirely appropriate as they used to have 200-300 fatalities a year! Now a new and much safer road has taken virtually all of the traffic, so it's become a major tourist attraction to ride down.
Oh look, we're passing a little monument where some people have died...
It's perfectly safe if you don't do anything stupid and your bike is in good condition. While there are no official figures, estimates suggest around one death a year on average over the last couple of decades.
But it's ok, we've got helmets!
Amanda splashes through a small river that just flows straight across the road, while guide Jorge waits taking pictures of everyone.
11 September: Day 9
Right, we've done rivers, we've done roads, let's do something different...
Yep, that's a good idea, an Airstream camper in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats. 12,000 square km of, well, salt!
"It's camping, Jim, but not as we know it."
Actually, we're not totally in the middle of nowhere, as a picture from a different angle would show. As well as the support crew's tents and vehicles, there are villages and other points of interest not too many miles away. It's still a fabulous environment though, definitely worthy of that much abused word, "unique". In many ways, this is what we've come to Bolivia for, because just about everything else on our trip has equivalents in other countries.
It's tempting to break the two-a-day rule here, but I shall be strong. Artistic integrity is everything. I mean, Shakespeare never said, "Damn, fourteen lines just isn't enough for this sonnet", now did he?
At the edge of the salar, flamingoes wade in shallow lakes.
12 September: Day 10
Our second day on the salar.
Another astonishing sight. This looks like a mixture of cobwebs and bat wings, but it's stone formations in a cave. It must be some kind of fossilised organic structures, but our guide can't tell us much and we understand that the place has never been investigated by scientists. It was only discovered a few years ago by some children playing in the hills, and although the local villagers have installed some lights (powered by a slightly temperamental portable generator) and charge a small admission fee, it can't have seen many tourists. In all honesty, it feels too fragile to sustain serious visitor numbers, so we really hope it's looked after properly.
We've seen a lot of caves over the years but never anything like this.
And so we say goodnight to the salar.
13 September: Day 11
From a salt lake to a more conventional water lake - but not that conventional. Yes, it's Lake Titicaca, nearly four kilometres above sea level.
The hotel by the lake has a small model village attached. It's a bit artificial looking, but the alpacas are friendly, at least if you feed them. Fortunately, alpacas seem happy to eat any old bits of stalk picked up off the ground just out of their reach, so their friendship is easily attained.
Bolivia, you may know, has a Navy despite being landlocked. I am under the vague impression that they do actually have some boats on Lake Titicaca, so at dinner I ask our guide, Gustavo, if we might see any evidence of the Navy on the lake. The waiter who is already halfway out of the dining room almost collapses in laughter on the spot! Oh dear, seems the Armada Boliviana don't get no respect. Gustavo's brother is in the Navy as it happens, and it sounds like he spends a lot of time making jokes about it.
Clouds are gathering. Later, there will be a substantial electrical storm and we are not too sure what tomorrow will bring weatherwise. They tell us that it often rains at night, but rarely during the day in the summer... except that the rainy season appears to be starting early this year. It may be global warming, but we can't entirely avoid the thought that it's actually us, because we have lost count of the number of times we've been told all around the world, "It's never normally like this!"
14 September: Day 12
Our second night on Lake Titicaca will be spent on Sun Island, which involves a drive to Copacabana (no, not that one) and a hydrofoil ride.
Just outside the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, people bring their newly bought cars to be blessed. And just to be safe, after the priest has given them God's stamp of approval, they'll check in with Pachamama and a local shaman. Lonely Planet reckons this is cheaper than insurance, but we're not convinced you'll get to keep your no-claims bonus.
Sun Island - La Isla del Sol - is according to legend the birthplace of the first Inca and home of the sun god. If somebody showed you a picture and said it was a Greek island, though, you'd be hard pressed to prove them wrong. But for the fact that it's 4000m up, so oxygen is short and the air is cold even when the sun is burning, it really could be a Mediterranean scene.
15 September: Day 13
The whole island is completely unsuited to motor vehicles, so villagers can only use animals. Llamas, of course, do spoil the Greek lookalike effect. The sun appears to have left home too.
This is not a high tech marina - pushing the hydrofoil away with a stick!
16 September: Day 14
We return to La Paz for the last time today, before flying home. The roads are constantly being disrupted by protests, so as with virtually every other trip, we will have to take some extra time for detours. In principle, we could have gone direct from Sun Island without last night's hotel stay, but it would have been a very long journey even if nothing went wrong, and Bolivia is not the place to assume nothing will go wrong!
A detour takes us past a market in one of the poorer areas. The indigenous people still mostly draw the short straws, although we understand that things are changing now. Evo Morales, the president, is of indigenous background himself although there seems to be some dispute over just how close he is to his roots. Everyone we speak to seems at the very least ambivalent over his presidency, recognising that he did many good things in the early years, but worried that power may be corrupting him now. Yet there doesn't seem to be any better-favoured candidate, so everyone seems a bit stuck.
Ah, that old Third World street wiring! And this is in a good neighbourhood.
On the one hand, it's a bit of a pity that we've had to go back and forth through La Paz so many times, but looking on the bright side, in five nights' accommodation we've received three free welcome drinks at the bar :-)
17 September: Day 15
Another early departure - 5:30 am - for the flight from La Paz to Lima, after which we will have something like twelve hours to kill before our flight back to Britain. Talking to our guide Erich yesterday, he recommended that we get a taxi into the Miraflores district of Lima for the day, and visit the Larco Museum and Larcomar shopping mall. The latter is apparently right by the sea and has great views as well as good food and upmarket shops.
Pre-Columbian flower-pot men! They are ceremonial vessels, for what it doesn't say, and if I remember the caption correctly, they are made of gold, copper/silver alloy and silver from left to right. This is the Larco museum, a guide-book highlight definitely worth visiting. Mind, you might want to take ear plugs if you actually want to be able to concentrate on the exhibits. It's better a few galleries away from the entrance, perhaps for the same reason that many natural beauty spots are all but deserted fifty yards from the car park.
The museum cafe is highly recommended by the book too, and again we have to agree. Lunch is definitely the best food we've had all holiday! A Michelin-starred place called "Gustu" was near our hotel in La Paz and was recommended to us more than once, but we never managed to find the time and the energy simultaneously. One of our Death Road group had eaten there and raved about the tasting menu for about Bs 600, or under £70, which sounded a bargain by London standards!
Ah well, a pity, but ultimately we came to Bolivia for things we can't find so easily in the Home Counties.
Afterwards, we take a short walk to the Anthropological Museum, which is not quite so posh but still interesting, and then decide we are too tired to check out the Larcomar mall. Back to the airport, then, a little earlier than planned, but honour has been satisfied.
(Now technically, the next day is also part of the trip, but you all know what the inside of an aeroplane looks like, and Gatwick South Terminal isn't going to leave anybody feeling uplifted or envious of our good fortune, so we'll just quietly ignore it.)
So that's Bolivia on Two Pictures a Day.
It's only scratching the surface, of course, and there's loads more to show and tell, but thirty thousand-word pictures and a good few actual words will have to be enough for now.