Bolivia ... high, higher, highest
From La Paz, the highest capital city on Earth, to the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, Bolivia was both a traveler's challenge and a delight.
Republic of Bolivia
The country's name derives from Simon Bolivar, general, political leader and its first president who led not only Bolivia, but Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia to independence from Spain in 1825.
Population: ~11 million
Area: 424,165 sq mi (about twice the size of Arizona)
Capital cities: Sucre, but the government capital is LaPaz
Official Languages: Spanish, Aymara, Quechua
Currency: Boliviano - 100 centavos = 1 Boliviano
Highest point: Nevado Sajama, 21,463 ft (6542m)
Over the years, Bolivia has lost more than half its territory. The losses resulted from war or treaties with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Peru. One of the worst losses followed Bolivia's defeat in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883). In this war, Chile seized Bolivia's nitrate-rich land along the Pacific Ocean. Bolivia has been without a coastline ever since.
We took a bus from Puno, Peru across the border to Copacabana, Bolivia on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The tiny little lake port town of Copacabana, known as Copa, is surrounded by steep hills on three sides and edges on beautiful Lake Titicaca. We found a lovely en suite hotel room with a view of Lake Titicaca and breakfast included for $5 US/night.
The Moorish-style cathedral known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, is a 16th-century Spanish colonial shrine that houses the image of the Virgen de Copacabana. Built between 1605 and 1820, it dominates the town. In the 16th century, the Virgin of Candelaria supposedly appeared in Copacabana and was responsible for several miracles. The cathedral houses a museum and also the Capilla de Velas (Candle Chapel) where thousands of candles were said to illuminate the arched sepulcher and wax graffiti caked the walls. A massive clean-up was in progress when we arrived. Few candles burned and the wax build-up and graffiti had been cleaned up. The town was neat and tidy, however, despite what Barry Manilow says ... Copacabana is NOT "the hottest spot north of Havana!"
We had visited islands in Lake Titicaca on the Peru side while in Puno. We were now interested in visiting the Bolivian lake islands as well. We arranged a tour to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, sacred islands of the Incas and ancient indigenous peoples First, a little lake lingo ...
- Highest navigable lake in the world at an altitude of
12, 507’ above sea level
- Size: Over 110 miles long and 45 miles wide with
depths of up to 900’, it is the largest lake in South
America and the largest lake in the world over
6500’ above sea level.
- Area: 3,200 sq miles
- The Desaguadera River flows out of its southern
end and empties into Lake Poopo in Bolivia. Very
much in keeping with the local joke about Peru and
Bolivia sharing the lake: Peru got the “titi” and
Bolivia got the “caca”.
Titicaca is a Quechua word meaning “stone puma”; the puma is the indigenes' symbol for man. We actually got a look at the huge rock formation that is the “stone puma” on Isla del Sol. Local legend has it that the sun was born in Titicaca and first Inca rose from the Stone Puma on Isla del Sol.
Isla Del Sol
Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) is the legendary birthplace of the Inca and the Sun in Incan mythology. It was here that the bearded white god Viracocha and the first Incas, Manco Capac and his sister-wife Mama Huaca (or Mama Ocllo) made their mystical appearances. The island remains
sacred to the Aymara and Quechua people to this day. The island is dotted with several villages which include ruins, a small museum and the sacred rock which spawned the first Inca. After a whirlwind tour of the tiny island museum, we set out to explore the northern part of the island. A panoramic view of the small town of Cha’llapampa awaited us from the trail high above.
We viewed a stone altar used by the Incan priests and still used today where ritual sacrifices are still held. The Incas believed in human sacrifice. Today, animals, usually alpacas, are the sacrificial victims. The sacred rock above, the “stone puma”, is considered the birthplace of the Sun and the first Inca. We had a hard time trying to visualize this rock as a puma. Perhaps the coca they chewed provided an aid to the imagination.
Networks of well-worn trails and paths made exploring easy, but altitude and sun took its toll and we welcomed a rest before heading back to the boat and heading on to Isla de la Luna.
Isla de la Luna
Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon) is smaller and less touristy. It was the site of convent housing for the virgins of the sun. Some ruins may be viewed, but there was no guide and all areas are enclosed by a barbed wire fence which we thought spoiled the ambiance quite a bit.
We took a bus from Copacabana to LaPaz and opted for one that crossed the Straits of Tiquina. This narrow part of the lake is crossed via ferry. Everyone got off the bus and took a small boat across (2 B’s each - 16¢) while we waited for the bus to come across on a barge.
La Paz - the world's highest capital city
On to LaPaz, Bolivia, the highest capital city in the world. At about 12,000' above sea level, LaPaz is also one of Bolivia’s capital cities (it has two) and
its largest city with a population of ~2.3 million. The city is located in a bowl about 1300 feet below the highway and as the bus slowly wended its way down, we managed to get a shot with the snowy triple peak of Illimani (~21,340’) in the background.
LaPaz is all “up”. Our hotel was "up" and the places we wanted to visit were "down" steep hills. We huffed and puffed our way around, up and down the hills and cobbled-stoned streets. We took a self-guided tour of the city, stopping frequently to catch our breaths. The enormous, ornate 1835 Catedral Basilica Menor de Nuestra Senora de la Paz (Our Lady of Peace) dominates the Plaza Murillo next to the Palacio de Congresso.
Ever on the lookout for neat crafts and souvenirs, we spotted lots of opportunities to buy, but with limited space in our backpacks, we looked and photographed more than purchased. We did end up buying flutes from a friendly, industrious flute maker though and some alpaca scarves and sweaters ... and another carry bag to put it all in.
El Mercado de las Brujas and La Hechiceria
The highlight of the city for us was visiting the bizarre Mercado de las Brujas (the Witches' Market): two cobble stoned streets lined with potions,
powders, charms, totems and talismans which included llama fetuses, ocelot skins, armadillo bones and desiccated frogs, guaranteed to bring luck,
love, money or ward off evil spirits. For instance, many Bolivian families bury a llama fetus under their house for good luck. Every animal is symbolic and has significance. We'd never seen anything quite like it before. Stall after stall after stall ... all seemingly doing a brisk business. And, yes, it's one of those 1,000 Places To See Before You Die!
Marcie has attended Winter Solstice with sister, Lin's Earth-Centered group, several times over the years. Being in the Witches’ Market, afforded a chance to search for something very different to bring back for members of the Solstice Circle. From one vendor, she learned about Pachamama and her family. Pachamama is the Earth mother to the Quechuans and the Aymarans. The three-headed figure depicts Mama in the middle, Pachapapa to her right and Pachabebe to her left, symbolizing the family unit. Mama’s heart shows clearly, signifying love. The serpent at her feet represents protection and the turtle signifies health. The frog on her back represents wealth. Health, wealth and love…some things don’t change. We picked out 20 small pachamamas from a basket. She wrapped each in a strand of alpaca wool for luck then wrapped each of those in a separate piece of paper. They were presented with the “Pachamama story” at Solstice and most lovingly received.
At the Zoo
Our edition of “Lonely Planet South America” describes the LaPaz zoo as “kick-ass” ... I kid you not. So, it was a “must-see” for us. Quite honestly, it must have gone downhill considerably since the LP people were there because many cages and displays were empty and animals did not appear very well cared for. The sun and the altitude were almost overwhelming. The zoo offered no refreshments nor respite other than a few shade trees. After 3 hours and two bottles of water we had brought in with us, we were wiped out and headed back to the city.
Our time is Bolivia was very limited. After nearly a week, our thoughts on Bolivia:
- Out of breath and up, up, up
- The Witches' Market was unique and outstanding
- The people were warm and friendly
- Souvenirs were inexpensive and reasonably good quality
- Bolivia’s side of Titicaca was superb (even if it was the “caca” side)
- It was cheap for tourists to live, eat and travel here
A little reading and research for the trip ...