The Long and Windy Road

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The city at the edge

 

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Rodrigo’s minivan is winding its way through the rainy streets of El Alto, Bolivia’s newest city incorporated twenty years ago. Up to that point it had been part of the ever expanding La Paz. Now it expands itself, our guide, Ximena, says it’s different every week. 

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There is an air of chaos to El Alto. A constant noise and the beeping of horns. The smell of fuel pervades everywhere. People line the streets in long lines or step out into the road in front of the vehicles.

The buildings of El Alto are built of red block, mostly left as they are though some have been rendered and painted. Others have been clad in garish coloured plastic or metal panels with equally garishly coloured tinted glass windows.  Ximena tells us that the materials come from China. 

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She mentions that some of the buildings are called Cholets, a play on the words ‘Chola’ (the typically Bolivian people) and the French word ‘Chalet’. The Bolivian ladies wear brightly coloured dresses with many petticoats at the base to give their lower halves a fuller rounder appearance. On top of their head is perched a small round bowler hat- supposedly originally a gift from a British developer who bought mini-bowlers for his helper’s children only to find that their mothers liked them too much. 

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The ‘Cholet’ constructions  of El Alto match the same appearance as the Chola Ladies. The buildings are brightly coloured and Cemenia tells us that the  lower floors are commercial with a party floor above them. Then it’s the children’s floor and the parents floor and atop it all is a chalet house- like a French Chalet building perched on top of a five storey office block.

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There is no planning policy in El Alto, if you own the land you can build on it. The city is something you see in a sci-fi movie. It’s grown rapidly and madly. For mile after mile the buildings line the highway. Then we’re diverted off the highway as it’s under construction. For mile after mile we weave our way back and forth through half built houses and roads. We cross two rivers through half built fords and eventually arrive back in the highway. A very short distance down the road to the right I think I can see where we originally departed from it. 

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The Virgin’s Clothes

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The van leaves the city and travels across the Bolivian flat-lands. The Royal Mountain range is still to the north east, but the land flattens out and will eventually reach Lake Titikaka in the west. 

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By the time We arrive at Copacabana, a small town on the coast of the lake, it’s stopped raining but still grey overhead. It’s calmer here, a much steadier less frenetic pace. We get out of the van and go straight into the church where a mass is taking place. We creep down the side aisle and stand at the front, metres from the priest saying mass. Suddenly it’s ‘peace be with you time’ and everyone is turning to each other to say ‘pace’ and hug and kiss each other. I turn to the two locals I’m standing next to in the side aisle and we greet each other with a handshake.

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Ximena whispers in Spanish and Mark whisper translates as the mass continues. It’s communion time so there’s a lot of tooing and frowing so we can get away with it. The backdrop to the alter is made of gold and silver, some plated and some solid. It’s impressive in its vastness. In the middle is a statue of the Virgin Mary, the Virgen Morena, who is dressed like a doll in a wedding dress. Ximena tells us that they change the Virgin’s clothes each day, she is the best dressed woman in Bolivia!

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High on a hill stood a lonely llamaherd

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After a wander through the streets and markets of Copacabana we bid farewell to Rodrigo who takes his van back to La Paz and say hello to Boris and his boat.

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The boat makes the hour long journey to the Island of the Sun. The sun indeed comes out to welcome us and we arrive in a small inlet and have lunch on the terrace of a small family restaurant overlooking the lake. The food is all grown by the family who own the restaurant. Maize sweet corn, white and black potatoes, broad beans and fish caught in the lake with chicken. It’s delicious and accompanied by a 5 year old girl who takes a shine to Ximena and wants to talk to her all the time.

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After lunch we make our way up the hill into the centre of the island. Cars aren’t allowed on the island, nor are bicycles. The only means of transport is to walk. Thankfully donkeys are allowed too and they carry our two heavy bags from the boat to the hotel. We rise up a couple of hundred metres and walk for about a mile through farmland that still occupies the original Inca terraces that are on all the slopes of the island. Small stone walls retain the earth and paths run along side them. Most areas are planted with vegetables but occasionally we see llamas or donkeys. 

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As we near the hotel one young llama, tied up with a rope has got itself completely entangled amidst the plants around it and can now only eat the vegetation in about a metre square from where it’s stood. Ximena takes pity on him and says we should help. I tentatively walk down to him and start to disentangle him. He bleets something at me but otherwise seems unconcerned. I leave him untangled but then realise that he might now have enough free rope to wander off the edge of the terrace wall next to him.

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The trek up the hill makes us both breathless. We really struggle with the thin air at altitude. We finally arrive at Eco Lodge Estancia which is located at 3990m above sea level- the highest place on our trip where we will sleep. Selina, the owner, greets us and welcomes us in. It’s a simple place with a lovely reception and dining room and little cabin rooms, each with their own view. It’s silent, no noise at all, only a tremendous long-distance view over the lake, the Islands and the distant snow capped mountains. It’s made of the earth from the island and the water is heated by the sun overhead.  It turns out however that the air isn’t heated at all and as night falls it gets very very chilly here. I go to sleep with a hood on.

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Liam, Isla de la Sol, Lake Titikaka, Bolivia, 18 January 2017

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