Monday, November 15, 2010

Livin' la vida loca in Bolivia

My first stop in Bolivia was at a little town called Copacabana, a laid back place perched on the edge of Lake Titicaca, the highest elevated lake in the world. I made friends with two German guys and we found some accommodation then settled in for a delicious lunch of rainbow trout, fresh from the lake. The next day we did a tour of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), supposedly the birthplace of the Incas. But I have to say, the Inca ruins were disappointing and the fact that we had to pay each village a fee just to hike through their towns was not cool. But we hiked from the north end of the island to the south regardless. On the ferry back to land, we also stopped at a "floating island" which was basically a floating wooden barge covered in straw with some huts and nets for catching trout.

That night I caught an overnight bus to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia and a city at the lofty altitude of 3000m. The place was surrounded by mountains and all the terracotta roofed houses were perched on the edge of steep hills. That night I initiated myself at the hostel with a little game of "shot pool" followed by "very tipsy Jenga". My loud claims that I was a champion Jenga player and had won tournaments all over the world were quickly quieted when I felled the tower. I blame the shot pool.

The next day I did a tour of a jail. It wasn't something that was advertised in the Lonely Planet or something I had really planned on doing, but a couple of Aussie girls from the hostel were going and they convinced me to come along. I am really glad I did, because it's not every day you see the inside of a jail, especially one in South America and it was a truly eye opening experience.

So here's what happens; tours through the jail are obviously highly illegal, but there are certain people within the jail who like to seize the opportunity to earn a bit of cash. So we loiter outside the jail and within one minute a lady approaches us and asks "You're here to see San Pedro?" We affirm that we are and she asks us to follow her into the jail. It's a weekend so there are visitors queued up outside the door and many prisoners staring through the bars of the gate. We get ushered into a little back room where we hand over some cash and get our cameras taken. Then the lady fetches our tour guide, one of the prisoners who speaks English and we go to another room where we have to sign in. Our guide is Mauricio, a Bolivian guy who seems to be in his 30s and is in for armed robbery. He has two months left of his 19 month sentence and this is his second time in San Pedro. He introduces us to our "body guard" who is going to protect us as we walk through the jail. He shows us the different cells where the prisoners sleep, and we notice there is a hierarchy of which prisoners get the better beds. Apparently the government doesn't put any money into the prison, so prisoners have to make their own income through various means, and how much money they make determines what kind of cell they can afford. I am surprised to see little kids and many women hanging out in the prison; apparently they value family very highly in Bolivia, and the families of the prisoners are allowed to live in there with them. They can come and go as they please and this is often how they are able to make their income, by getting their wives to bring in goods to sell from the outside. Mauricio turns out to be a very informative guide, and I am glad for the body guard, as the prisoners are giving the three of us girls a little unwanted attention. I am also grateful for the body guard when we go into the kitchen where the meals are prepared and Mauricio tells us that the guys who get delegated to the kitchen duties are the lowest scum in the prison, murderers and rapists. I look at the young guys cleaning out the giant pots and shudder a little at the thought. Mauricio tells us prisoners have been killed in the kitchen before by other prisoners. I am pretty glad to get out of the kitchen.

The tour ends in the prison "bar" where we are offered anything from coke (the liquid kind) to the other kind of coke. We politely decline the offer and pay our tips to the guide and body guard before being escorted back into the real world. We get our cameras back and the ladies are looking a little nervous and frantic about us being seen exiting the prison, as there must have been some police around or something. So we are discretely ushered out and all the way back to the hostel we are just thinking "Did we really just do that?" It was certainly a surreal experience.

Another surreal experience in Bolivia were the Salt plains, the largest salt lake in the world situated in the south of the country. I booked a three day tour and hopped in a Jeep with Edgar, our driver, who also ended up being our cook and tour guide. We had a group of six of us as we hurtled across the seemingly endless plains in the Jeep. It was so hot and dry, I felt like the sunscreen was burning right off my skin. We got to see a fuzzy cactus plantation, take some odd perspective photos and see a hotel made completely from salt. That night we stayed at very basic accommodation on the edge of the salt flats with no running water, but we did have a table tennis table to keep us entertained and the beds were pretty comfy.

The next day we got to see some beautiful lagoons, some weird rock formations that looked like they came from a Salvador Dali painting and some vibrantly pink flamingoes. Photos really speak louder than words to describe the landscape, so you should check them out on my Facebook. We stayed in some even more basic accommodation the next night and it was rather cold, but we warmed ourselves up with a nice bottle of red that Edgar surprised us with. The next day was a looooong day of driving in the Jeep back to Uyuni, only to hop straight back on an overnight bus to La Paz. Needless to say, I was exhausted. I spent some time in La Paz shopping and recovering before heading to Cuzco, back to Peru where I was booked in for the Inca Trail. And what an experience that turned out to be!

Til next time,

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