Our journey from Cusco to La Paz took us a couple of days with a couple of stops at the world’s highest lake, Lake Titicaca, in between. Did we say lake? Sorry, we meant “navigable body of water”, as it’s endlessly referred to. There’s no questioning it’s height at 3,900m, but apparently ‘lake’ isn’t quite specific enough.
Puno, on the Peruvian side of the lake, was our stopover point before crossing the border, spending an afternoon in Copacabana (no, not that one) on the Bolivian side, and continuing to La Paz. When we were first planning the South America part of our trip, Lake Titicaca was pencilled in for a 3 or 4 night stay but in the end bad weather, lack of time, and stories of exploitative tour companies conspired and we ended up just passing through via the mainland, rather than visiting the floating reed islands and their ancient Uru populations.
Puno was a nice enough Andean town where grand Spanish buildings are a contrasting backdrop to the city’s llama farming population. The only vaguely interesting thing we found in Copacabana was the trout market – the fish were introduced to the lake by the government to increase protein in the local diet – the rest was a depressing Ground Hog Day of tourist tat stalls and mediocre cafes. The rain didn’t help, though. Waiting out the downpour, the tourists sheltered in cafes watching Germany get knocked out of the European Cup, the stall vendors hurried everything undercover, and dozens of swan-shaped pedalos sat abandoned on the soaked sand at the lakeside.
The best thing about Lake Titicaca was a story we heard about a boat on the lake. In 1862 a boat was built on the Thames, then shipped as cargo in individual pieces all the way around Cape Horn. From here the pieces were transported over the Andes by llamas and horsese, a process which took six years, to the lake where it was reassembled by English engineers. Much later it was converted into a B&B, although hilariously, some of the negative reviews on Booking.com focus on the inarguable point that “the boat wasn’t actually there.”
Reaching La Paz late at night we arrived straight into a road block. They’re the standard method of public protest in Bolivia, and probably pretty effective in a country with not many paved roads outside of city centres (or possibly not that effective if people feel the need to keep doing them). Our driver was clearly used to them and hopped out and asked some other drivers for another way into the city. We eventually found our way in via various dirt tracks and at least one field.
Our main plan for La Paz was to rest before getting back on an overnight bus headed south to Uyuni and the salt flats. With a couple of days either side of the salt flats trip, though, we did have a chance to get a feeling for the city.
Ignoring the background feeling of mild altitude sickness (induced every time we did anything as strenuous as, erm, walking), the first thing we noticed was that the city looked like it was divided into two parts – one part way up on top of a hill, and the other spread around the valley. In fact, La Paz is only the name of the latter. The former is El Alto; much poorer and a with majority native Andean population. The view at night of the lights of El Alto spilling down into the valley towards La Paz was amazing, similar to the view from San Blas in Cusco but on a much, much bigger scale. The sole route, winding down the mountainside, between El Alto and La Paz had been known to take up to four hours thanks to the bad road and standstill traffic. But in 2014, a cablecar was built for commuters that cuts the journey down to 10 minutes. It was also built to try and bridge the economic gap between the two.
We stayed on Sagarnaga, an incredibly steep street running through the centre. Our hotel was about halfway up, which meant a breathless walk whichever way we went. At the bottom of the hill was the main square, Plaza Bolivar, and a big indoor market with cheap juices and snacks where we tried papas rellenas – tasty deep-fried balls of mashed potato stuffed with vegetables.
Uphill were fresh fruit and veg stalls, beyond the famous witches’ market. Here, you can buy medicinal plants, herbal potions and… dried baby llama foetuses. They’re not, in fact, bought as haunted house ornaments (our best guess), but actually to be buried under newly built houses as an offering to the goddess Pachamama. Judging by the sprawl of half-built suburbs we passed on the way into El Alto, the witches must be kept in good business.
Both times we ate out, we found places in the middle of Sagarnaga. Maybe (definitely) this was laziness to avoid the steep schlep either there or back, but we did end up finding some good places right on our doorstep. We’d have gone to Cafe del Mundo for the heating alone (it was four degrees outside, and felt the same inside at our no-heating hotel), but they also had cakes and wifi. What more do you need? Across the road, Restaurant 1700 had the one other thing we needed: local food. The menu focused specifically on Bolivian cuisine. The free taster of five local fruits was a highlight, quinoa fans would be in heaven, and Rebecca’s llama burger was cooked to perfection.
The first time we left La Paz we were on an Uyuni-bound overnight bus full of excitement for our visit to the salt flats. The second time was cool too, though, as it involved the highest international airport in the world (4,100m) and all the awesome aerial Andean views that come with that.