Monday, October 26, 2009

Bring on Bolivia

The Floating Islands

On October 18th, a sunny but brisk day on Lake Titicaca (Peru-side), I woke up in a tiny hut made of reeds. The wake up call was brought on by a warm and sweet old lady (I call her my Island Abuela), who lived with her husband on the Uros islands a.k.a the Floating Islands. This string of tiny islands have been constructed entirely out of the reeds that grow in the lake. Everything on the islands is made of reeds, even the tiny hut for the reed-fed cuy.

Our Island Abuelos (grandparents) were gracious enough to let Yuval and I stay with them for the night. It was 7:00 in the morning when Abuela swung the reed door open with a smile and a bright, "Buenos dias!". She disappeared briefly and re-appeared with breakfast: sweetened tea, homemade bread and two dishes piled high with rice, fries and a large fried egg. I shook the sleep out of my eyes and said to Yuval, "you know, I don't think I've ever actually been brought breakfast in bed before." He replied, "well I doubt you've ever slept on an island made of reeds, in a hut made of reeds either." Touche.

We caught the dilapidated wooden boat that sputters its way from the Islands back to Puno, the small city on the shores of Lake Titicaca, after spending a sunny morning relaxing on the spongy, tiny island. It feels like walking on a slightly crunchy trampoline, but the reeds are incredibly comfortable to lay down on - I sat for a minute and almost fell asleep.

By nightfall that same day, we arrived in Copacabana, Bolivia. That's one of my favorite parts of traveling: one day can take you to all kinds of places. I wasn't actually planning on visiting Bolivia at all. Not for any particular reason, but it just wasn't on the original roster. However, after returning from Machu Picchu and deciding what the next step would be, it felt like a good choice.

In Which We Are Stranded in the Bolivian Altiplano:

Yuval had heard great things about a small town cradled in the mountains a few hours north of La Paz, called Sorata. It was purported to be a cute little oasis of a town that sucked travelers in, Cusco-style. So, we caught the bus that was going to La Paz and had the driver drop us off in a town called Huarina to catch a connecting bus to Sorata.

A few words on Huarina. It's a barren, windswept town placed as if by accident in the middle of the desolate altiplano, boasting only a smattering of lonely looking brick buildings. The only visible life was a handful of Aymari ladies running small snack shops, rough looking dogs and people waiting for buses. The buses - the ubiquitous collectivos - rumbled through the dirt road in quick succession but most were full. None were going to Sorata. For hours we stood on the street corner, shivering in the biting wind; waiting...

Finally an Aymari lady instructed us to get into a collectivo, promising "Sorata, Sorata!" She expressed a great surprise that we could not speak Aymari, but spoke to us in Spanish anyway, if a little begrudingly. The driver took us to another, less desolate town and instructed us to wait for the Sorata bus there. Patience and optimism were wearing thin, and we consoled ourselves with the tiny happy fact that if we should get stuck here, at least this town had a hostel.

Luckily the Sorata bus did come and rescue us from the frigid altiplano. The only downside was that it was already full so we had to squish ourselves into the space between the front seats and the first bench, balancing precariously between knees and large bags. It was a long drive to Sorata.

All that effort - erm, I mean, adventure - wasn't entirely for naught. Sorata was cute. Small, with palm trees waving cheerfully in the central plaza and streets lined with Italian pizzerias. But not exactly the oasis that was promised. The only activities available were hikes up to dizzying altitudes (not appealing to me as the high alitude still makes my heart whir like a blender on high) and kamikaze bike rides from the tops of the surrounding mountains.

The hostel we stayed in was an old Colonial number that looked and felt like something out of Pan's Labrynth. It was beautiful once, with high ceilings, alabaster white walls and courtyards teeming with plants and bright flowers, giant bees and hummingbirds. Time had crumbled the walls and imbued the rooms with a draughty, creepy atmosphere as though the ghosts of the Conquistadors were sitting beside you in your room, drinking coca tea and discussing strategies against the Incas. It was commandeered by an intimidating old lady who seemed to disappear into the walls after she was finished talking to you. I had the strangest dreams that night.

Side Note: Lonely Planet has strange recommendations. All of the hostels we've chosen via the Lonely Planet guide have either been a complete dump as the one in Puno (I don't even want to discuss it) or ancient, creepy and haunted. Sometimes I feel like the writers enjoy 'surprising' travelers with these odd and crumbling places. Har har, joke's on us!

Now we are in a much cuter, much friendlier hostel in La Paz (took the recommendations of one of Yuval's Israeli websites...).

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