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Published: November 3rd 2015
I never thought anywhere could overtake the Pacific Northwest as containing the most beautiful landscapes I have laid my eyes on but I think Bolivia has done it. The Andean region of western Bolivia is a mix of plunging valleys, enormous mountains, and dusty plains that ultimately spread toward Lake Titicaca. During our mere 2 weeks in the country, and after leaving Salay de Uyuni, we took the opportunity to visit three small towns that wrapped us in some of this beauty. We also stayed in La Paz, where we met up and stayed with traveller extraordinaire and all-round good guy Alfredo, whom we stayed with in the house of Pratik in Lalitput, Nepal, all the way back at the start of the year.
After leaving Uyuni we took an overnight train to Oruro then hopped on a bus heading toward La Paz. We didn't complete the route though: instead, we jumped off half way at a highway-side town called Konani, had a quick quinoa soup (Bolivia is home to quinoa and is the world's largest exporter, though the quinoa industry is an increasingly hot topic), then jumped on a minivan to the little-known town of Quime. It took two
hours to wind through the mountains, first heading up into the cloud-fogged peaks before descending into the lush green valleys along a road comprised entirely of dust and warning signs for potential landslides. Arriving into the central square it became immediately obvious that this was a very local place - one main road running along the side of a mountain; no gift shops, no hostals.
We stayed in this town for 3 nights. Lucking upon the rarely open tourist information office, we were told about the many hikes and trails in the mountains surrounding Quime that included destinations such as waterfalls and "enchanted" pools, aguas termales, working tin and silver mines, and general mountainside forest walks. Our initial intention was to visit the Narajani waterfall, a 4km walk into the mountain from the nearby village of Pongo, so we set out mid-morning of the next day in order to reach it by midday as advised by the lady in the office. Apparently it gets very cloudy and dangerous during the afternoon. E and I headed out past the cemetary, along the same road that we came in on, though this time winding upward toward Pongo.
It took bloody
ages. The 5.4km (3 miles) between settlements took 2.5 hours. Expecting a half hour walk, this 2.5 hours of steady climbing along both paved and unpaved road exhausted us. About half way we stopped by the bank of the river that runs through the mountain -it was blue, cold, clean, and very fast - but even this wasn't enough to regenerate us. By the time we reached Pongo we decided to go no further and instead wandered around the village and its adjoining village, Villa El Carmen, for about an hour. An old woman, resident in Pongo, stopped to chat with us for a few minutes and explained that the recently installed electricity had brought a lot of noise to the area (though it was very quiet to our ears) and that the local mines remain as dangerous today as they ever were. At least one ambulance came screaming through Pongo per week, she said, carrying a miner to the local hospital. Soon after this we, tired, took a passing minivan back to Quime and spent the evening watching funnies or films or something, I can't remember exactly. We never did make it to the Najanjani falls and enchanted pool.
The next day we decided to spend on less grand but no less beautiful adventures. We headed northward out of town and followed a road that eventually took us through a plantation and untended pastures before emerging onto a ridge that overlooked what I think was the entrance to one of the many mines in the area. Seperated from this entrance by a vast valley, E and I nonetheless spent time idling on this mountaintop ridge to admire and absorb the warmingly beautiful landscape. What became obvious here, and repeated itself as we visited other parts of Bolivia, is that the mountains look somehow larger than even the Himalayas we saw in Nepal. Obviously this is an illusion, perhaps brought about by the compactness of the Andean mountains and our being completely within the range, but nonetheless one that leaves a lasting impression. It was the first time I have felt truly surrounded by the giganticness of the Earth.
We left Quime the following morning for La Paz and decided to spend one night in the city - at the Inti Wasi Hostel, just behind the main cathedral Inglesia San Francisco - before heading off to another mountain
town: Chulumani. Originally we were going to head straight to Caranavi but after a gruelling but beautiful hour-long walk down an epic flight of stairs from El Alto (La Paz's adjoining sister city, set in the mountains around La Paz) and arriving at the terminal to discover it was the wrong one we decided to let it go for the day and select elsewhere for the following morning. Chulumani town itself is a fairly straightforward place. Like Quime it lacked tourists but unlike Quime it was far busier and grittier: though its location was far more remote, it was a larger and busier place filled with all sorts of businessmen and locals passing through. We later found out that after the Second World War, Chulumani was a retreat for top-ranking Nazi officers and had we taken a stroll to the local cemetary then we would have discovered numerous gravestones marked with German surnames.
The most impressive thing about Chulumani is the route in and out of the town. Leaving La Paz, the bus heads northwest until a turning at Unduavi whereupon it enters onto a dirt track that clings to the mountainside for the next four hours. Sometimes this
road is narrow enough to disappear beneath the side of the bus, revealing only a several hundred metre drop into the valleys below, and at other times it passes through small villages and even a small castle type building that I later discovered is a disused hotel. Everything about this journey after climbing out of La Paz is spectacular. First it heads right up into the peaks of the Andes where the clouds are so thick only occasional road signs emerge like ghosts out of the near distance, and once it begins descending through the valleys towards Chulumani the mountains become everything we saw in Quime and more. Huge, cragged, cloudwrapped, desolate, and eternal. Peaks that rise and fall with heroic strength. Valleys that always dropped further no matter how far down the bus drove.
We didn't do a whole lot in Chulumani except walk around a bit. We did find a restaurant selling chips on the street; we asked for a plate of just chips and the man serving found the idea very funny. Funny enough to tell his friend that was passing by at the time, who also found it funny. Being at the receiving end of
the laughter was totally worth it, though, as his chips were the delicious and the closest thing to "British" chip shop chips I have had outside of the UK or Australia. We had arranged to meet Alfredo after leaving Chulumani but even after arriving back in the city hadn't heard from him and so booked back into Inti Wasi Hostel one more time.
But! By a stroke of luck we received an email from Alfredo on our second day in the hostal, quickly arranged a meet up with him, and that night sat in Murillo Plaza waiting for a face we hadn't seen in nearly a year. He took us to a quiet backstreet bar, Bocaisapo, as well as a second bar that I forget the name of, and we chatted the next few hours away. A lot had happened to him in that time. He had finished his hitchiking and adventures back in May after meeting a girl in China and, since being back in Bolivia, has had his music career go from strength to strength. He was interviewed about his travels for a national magazine and had just recently returned from Argentina where he played guitar in
a band with one of his favourite Argentine conductors. We talked about what it means to travel, what it means to stop travelling, and what it means to be travellers. Eventually he invited us to stay with him at his mum's house. Of course we accepted.
Alfredo's family house is at the top of a very big hill near Plaza Avaroa and, after straining our way up there, we got to meet his mum Gladys as well as the numerous lodgers that have stayed in the house for anywhere between 6 months and 5 years. The house is also home to two dogs - Croosky and Kelly - as well as a cat called Mimi, with the two former creatures keeping me up that night by laying on top of me as I tried to sleep on the sofa. Rascals. We took the opportunity to have an early night as we'd decided, following a recommendation by Alfredo, to head to the lakeside town of Carabuco. As we planned to spend just a night there it was imperative we got there as early as possible. With two dogs atop me, and E tucked snugly into the facing sofa, we slept.
Carabuco is really small. A square, six or seven streets, and a bloody beautiful lake front. Apparently fairly unknown - so much so that the only public accomodation wasn't even listed as such, but was discovered in the back of a restaurant - the town boasts two major draws. First is Lake Titcaca, upon which it sits; the second is its church. The church is an odd building, unlike any other that I have seen, and apparently contains beautiful paintings of Heaven and Hell on the inside. Sadly the building was closed our entire time there so we didn't get to see the murals. We did visit Carabuco's "international port" on Lake Titicaca though, where we met a fisherman named Luciano and his three beautiful dogs. We also spent the evenning walking up a small hill that overlooks the town, the church at the top apparently still in use for occasional fiestas.
It would have been easy enough to leave Bolivia from Carabuco but Alfredo was playing two gigs in La Paz on the Friday and Saturday night and there is no way we were going to miss out on that chance. So from Carabuco we headed back
to La Paz and that evening went with his mum Gladys as well as one of the lodgers, Tina, to Nuna theatre and spent three hours watching Alfredo amongst a very talented band of other jazz muscians playing both conventional and more experimental jazz orchestra music. I was feeling pretty ill from altitude sickness by this point but that didn't hinder my enjoyment of the evening; E enjoyed it immensely too. The last night of music we'd been to was in San Francisco - a black metal gig above a bar - so not only was this a welcome entertainment but a drastically different one too.
The next day we left for Desaguadero and crossed from Bolivia into Perú. From the Peruvian side of Desaguadero we planned to start a multiday hitchike across the 1000 miles to Lima but, after spending a few hours on the side of the road of that border town, realised it was a fool's errand to expect a ride out of here and decided to head to nearby Puno instead. As you will notice from the location we have been here since, taking our first opportunity in a month to be still, to not
see things or visit places, and to drink some all right coffee. We are bussing it back to Lima during Thursday and Friday.
So that is that. As we walked down the hill toward Plaza Avaroa, the leaving of Alfredo's place felt like a circle completing itself. Having visited Salar de Uyuni following Azif's tip, and once again meeting Alfredo nearly 1 year later and more than 10,000 miles away, it now feels that our journey has ended one stage and begun another. The past 11 months have been lifechanging in a way that I could attempt to qualify now but know that the full extent of which will reveal itself over the next months and years. This isn't the end of journey but it feels like, to use a bloody trite phrase, the end of an era.
Ciao y gracias a los todas gentes, animales, países, y ideas nos hemos encontrado. De ustedes, nos aprenderemos.
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