He could not breathe. Whether it was the immense altitude that choked his heart, the beauty of the horizon that stunned his senses, or a combination of the two materialized into solid air that struck his midsection, driving the breath from his body, humbling his soul, he could not breathe.
He stood at a high point on the island, around him the craggy hills sloped down at soft angles, billowing clouds of rock, dirt and bush they reached back up to the sky only to fold back on one another and roll steadily towards the water. Many of the hills had been cleaved into terraced farms, giant pyramid steps of dirt; they crawled along the sides of the hills, turning dry mounds into farmable land, a gift left behind by the ancients who witnessed creation upon the slopes of this tiny island.
The lake that surrounded the island was the same colour as the sky, devoid of clouds; water and horizon met and merged, the shining crystal blue expanding in all directions, only a line of snow tipped mountains broke the perfect unison far in the distance. The air was thin here, he could feel his heart erupting in his chest forcing what little oxygen there was throughout his body, the air was thin but it was clean, he could taste the purity in his nostrils, on his tongue, and deep within his lungs.
The climb had been hard, rising simultaneously with the sun that blanketed the lake in a soft pink hue and then ignited the water with shimmering bright light; he had wiped the sleep from his eyes, shouldered his pack and started off on the ancient stone steps. The stone steps went up, always up, sometimes they ran at straight angles, carved cleanly into the hills, sometimes they took sharp turns and curved, hacking maniacally into the ground, but they always inclined violently. Each step moved mountains and every breath consumed the atmosphere, the air was too cold and dry to sweat, and so he marched up, always up.
He would march up to see where creation had come down, he would marvel at the origin of the sun, he would gaze upon the point where Viracocha, Manco Capac and Mama Huaca first stepped foot on this world, he would witness the birthplace of the Incas, and he would be breathless.
After our last night in the Amazon, sleeping on a wooden platform of wood with mosquito nets, listening to the haunting lullaby of the jungle and the movements of large animals around our camp, we returned to Rurrenabaque to relax and wait for our flight back to La Paz that night. We decided to set up camp in one of the outdoor patios and negotiated with the owner to start serving alcohol hours before they were legally allowed. We sat around relaxing, playing chess and drinking rum and freshly squeezed juice for the entire day before jumping on the bus to the airport that was situated just outside of town.
Now when I say the Rurrenabaque airport, I am referring to the single building and dirt runway surrounded by a flimsy fence. We showed our tickets and had our baggage put in the back room while we waited for our plane, about an hour later we hear the sound of propellers and watch as a plane comes into sight over the mountains, it lands and expels its passengers. We wait for it to be refuelled and board the plane. Now I have terrible luck with fitting in the tiny seats of planes, trains and automobiles all over the world, but this took it to a whole other level. The plane seated 16 people, 8 on either side, I had to double over to walk into the plane, and my knees were so close to my face during the ride I could have sworn I was doing some sort of yoga move. Then we were off, the plane turned around and bolted down the hard packed runway and we were in the air.
I had been told that only highly-skilled pilots are allowed to fly into La Paz as the high altitude combined with the mountains encircling it make it a very difficult landing, I learned firsthand just how difficult it is. We could see La Paz through the fading daylight, I was thinking about what we would do on our way through La Paz, I was excited to get back to the city for a full day and actually experience it; all those thoughts went out the window when an alarm began to blare in the cockpit. I should mention that there was nothing separating us from the pilots, I could see the backs of their head and the controls of the plane as clearly as I could see the next song on my iPOD. So when the alarm started to go off we watched as the pilots begin to scramble at the controls, their movements looked panicked as they tried to fix whatever the problem was, that is when the plane began to shake. I have experienced turbulence before, but the small plane began to lurch back and forth, side to side, up and down, it felt like we were in a drying machine, the violent shuddering of the plane amplified the screaming of the alarms in the cockpit, that is when the nose of the plane dipped.
I might be exaggerating but at the time I could have sworn we were going straight down, I felt myself get pushed back into my seat as we swooped forward towards the ground. I turned to my travel companion to my left and laughed, turned around to the one sitting behind me who had gone silent and a pale shade of green, I gave him a smile and a thumb up and turned around. I had lived a great life, I had experienced more things in less than a year than some people would experience in a life time, and I was happy, if the death road couldn’t take me, if alligators and piranhas couldn’t get me, if a hallucinogenic night in the jungle couldn’t finish me, then this was a pretty great way to go. So I found one of my favourite tunes, it was “Start Wearing Purple” by Gogol Bordello (I encourage you to check it out and imagine doing a nosedive to your death listening to such a ridiculous song) cranked it up in my headphones and leaned back and shut my eyes.
Now I’m convinced it was my sweet tunes that saved our lives, but whatever the reason, our ticket didn’t come up that day, the pilots were able to stifle the screeching alarm and levelled the plane out, we landed 10 minutes later, freezing cold and on an adrenaline rush we headed into the city to find the hostel we had stayed at on our first journey through La Paz.
We arrived to La Paz to find that most of the hostels were completely full and were forced to pay for a 6 person room in a hotel, between the 4 of us it worked out to be less than a single bed in a Chilean hostel per person. The hotel we were at was directly across the street from the Wild Rover hostel, a hostel chain famous in Bolivia and Peru for being a party hub, complete with its own pub. The English guys we had met in the Amazon were staying there so we headed over to enjoy the nightlight of La Paz.
The pub was pretty awesome, filled with tons of travellers and cheap beer and after a few hours the party spilled out onto the streets and to an ‘after-party’ at a local club. Now La Paz is a place where it is pretty easy to get anything you want, for example our cab driver offering to sell us cocaine on our journey over to the bar, or the bouncers within the club taking bribes and selling cocaine within the club. In my opinion, do whatever, consenting adults should be able to consume whatever they want, however it was a big shock for me when the taxi-man is pushing ‘cocaina’, nonetheless it was an amazing night with some awesome friends, both new and old, we finished it off asking our cab driver to drive to a good spot for food and then retiring to the hotel.
The next morning we had a few options on the table, I had wanted to return to the Death Road to mountain bike down it, however my hangover made me second guess testing my luck on the road a second time, and I decided to tag along with my friends to explore La Paz. What an unreal city, it was so different from Santiago, it was louder and more vibrant, the streets were narrower, the sun was brighter, the food better. I had lost my charger for my camera so we ventured around until we found the Bolivian equivalent of a RadioShack, we then continued deeper into the centre of the city, where the buildings open up to a wide boulevard, a main artery that cuts the city in half and screams with the stereotypical symphony of South American drivers. We made our way to “La Mercada Bruja” (the witch’s market), a pretty touristy street lined with Bolivians selling souvenirs to travelers. For the most part they were the usual tees, post cards and a plethora of other junk, but I had fallen in love with the art of bartering, and had got pretty good at it. Shop owners always seemed to get a kick out of a tall, lanky, blonde haired gringo bartering in Spanish and I think they appreciated the effort, I was able to get my friend and I good deals on some random things to bring back to our families and some pretty awesome Bolivian style packs. The most interesting thing I saw in the market were the displays of mummified llama fetuses, in the Aymara culture it is customary to bury a llama fetus under a new house or building to bring it good luck, I asked if I could take some picture of the women and their llamas for sale.
From there we went to buy our bus tickets out of La Paz to the Isla del Sol, an island on Lake Titicaca, a lake that straddles the Bolivian-Peruvian border, and a holy place for the Aymara and Inca indigenous peoples, as it is the creation site in Inca religion and the point where the Inca god Viracocha landed on earth. We spent our last night in La Paz drinking at the Wild Rover and early the next morning we collected our packs and headed to the bus station.
ISLA DEL SOL
The bus ride out of La Paz was as awe-inspiring as the ride in, again we witness the city erupting out of the centre of the valley and smothering the sides of the mountains around it. Quickly the landscape changed from the dry dustiness of the region into fertile green expanses, deep blue lakes dotted the land and terraced farms chopped the hills into stepped pyramids. We were forced to disembark so that it could cross the ferry, we took the opportunity to grab some food and try the famous Inca Cola, the best way to describe it is a mix of cotton candy and bubble gum flavoured pop, creating pure flavour awesomeness. So enthralled with relaxing and drinking the neon yellow goodness we nearly missed our bus and were given some icy stares by those waiting for us.
We arrived on the shores of Lake Titicaca and immediately purchased our bus tickets to Cusco, Peru two days later. We headed down to the water and grabbed tickets for the next ferry, in the meantime we enjoyed a beer and some food along the shore, the town was touristy but the landscape was incredible. Crystal blue water shimmered in every direction and looming mountains outlined the horizon. As our ferry departed the town a musician jumped aboard and serenaded the boat with traditional songs on his guitar. Once we pulled ashore we were immediately swarmed by gangs of young children trying to advertise a hostel, one boy grabbed us and pulled us up the stone steps to a hostel that looked over the lake and the docks. We negotiated a price with the proprietress and stashed our packs in our rooms to go explore some of the island before the sun went down.
Isla del Sol is dotted with ancient temples and structures commemorating the Sun and the Moon, as in Inca mythology Lake Titicaca was the birth place of both those celestial giants. We trekked across rocky hills to the Temple of the Sun, a square structure constructed with stones, symbols were etched into some of the surface and inside there were special altars that would allow light in at certain times of the day. With the retreating of the sun we left the temple and headed back to the hostel for a dinner made by the owner, she offered to make the five of us a plate of fish, rice, and vegetables for a good price, however when she brought it out, cold, she told us it took her longer than expected and that the price had gone up, we argued for awhile but fearing getting kicked out we accepted it and drowned our annoyance in a few cold beers. This seemed to become a trend among the island however, the locals would say one price and then charge another, demand money to walk through their villages, or just rip you off any way they can.
The next morning one of the guys who had tagged along with us from La Paz and I woke up at sunrise to make the trek across the island to the sacred point where the Inca believe creation began. The going was rough; the altitude of the lake makes walking difficult, and makes marching up the “Incan steps”, stone steps built by the original inhabitants that lead from the lake to the top of the island, nearly impossible. We stopped at a shop and made a breakfast out of cookies and pop and carried on. We quickly wandered off the path and became lost in the terrace farms that cover the island, navigating through them we found ourselves in a small village and after asking a local realized we were still on the right path. Groups of children would come up to us, some would smile and ask our names, some would demand money or candy, we would relinquish our cookies and they would sprint away laughing. A few times we were approached by locals saying we had to buy a pass to walk through the beach, or the valley, or whatever piece of land we were standing on, instead of causing trouble we shelled out the few pesos it cost to keep moving.
After a few hours of hard trekking we made it across the island and met up with the rest of the guys who had taken a boat over later in the day, together we entered the point where Inca creation began. It was pretty incredible, from the vantage point you could see the entire island and the crystal lake around us, we partnered up with a group of Irish girls and trekked around the area, admiring the Incan structures, as well as the ‘Piedra de Sangre’ (the blood rock) a large oblong boulder that sat in a flat cleared aread, as well as the Incan table, a large stone slab surrounded by stone stools in the ground. For the few pesos left clinking in my pocket a local shaman performed a ceremony on me, spraying me with rosewater and chattered in his native tongue, it was pretty touristy but it was a cool experience, it sent chills down me and he explained it was meant to bring good fortune and a happy life.
Seeing the time we rushed back to the docks to catch a boat back to where our hostel was, grabbing our gear we waited for the next boat off of the island in time to make our overnight trip across the border to Peru, which came with the same hiccups as our first border experience, and into the ancient Incan capital of Cusco.