I almost skipped visiting Medellin, and that would have been a major fail on my part, as it has actually been one of my favorite places! Not only is it a beautiful city, it has an incredibly rich and inspiring history.
Unfortunately, Medellin (and Colombia in general) is more commonly known internationally for parts of its tragic history when it was the home of the drug lord Pablo Escobar (romanticized by certain tv series) and was the most dangerous city in the world.
But today, part of the beauty of the city is that has transformed itself into a much safer city, visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, with beautiful public spaces enjoyed by its citizens.
Medellin has a lot going for it – it has a beautifully warm climate (akin to southern California), is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and is a perfect climate for producing the cash crops of coffee, cocoa, and of course the other stimulant for which it became infamous, coca.)
It originally became a wealthy region for its railroad and illegal smuggling routes of cheap goods INTO the country. Those same smuggling routes later were used in the opposite direction to export coca by mafia-type groups that got richer and more powerful each year, fueled by the growing demand from North America. Add into the mix the armed extreme leftists and rights, and you have the molotov coctail for creating the most dangerous city in the world.
Through a complicated history that I will oversimplify by saying that through peace accords and urban revitalization, neighborhoods became safer and a beautiful culture began to emerge into public spaces. Once dangerous squares filled with drug addicts and homeless people, many parks are now filled with statues by the famous Paisa artist Botero and people strolling along enjoying the nice weather.
Services became available for those previously occupying those public spaces and the spaces themselves were transformed to be more hospitable. Buildings were transformed into libraries – designed as cool and interesting places to hang out, and they provided access social programs. And the metro was built, not only helping people get around, but as a symbol of pride for Paisas (people from the Medellin region).
The city is divided into large communities called Comunas, and Comuna 13 was a war zone between the different factions in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Our guide through Comuna 13 lived there through the violence. Her neighbors were armed members of the guerrilla groups, who used intimidation to get what they wanted. The area was notorious for drug trafficking and it was common to hear shots and helicopters passing above. One couldn’t freely leave and enter the neighborhood.
Then there was a hugely controversial government siege in 2002 to oust the guerrilla groups. For our guide, this marked a turning point, where within 2 years, the neighborhood started to turn itself around – it started to be safe to walk in the streets, and the beginnings of a transformation could be felt. (It was controversial because it also resulted in the disappearance and death of many people’s family members.)
Now, what were provisional shack/like houses have been transformed especially by the street art decorating their walls. As Lina guided us through the streets, she explained the meaning behind each work of graffiti, most of which depict this transformation – the suffering, the death, the injustice, the pain of a few decades ago, as well as the hope, the strength of the people, and the power of love to transform.
As a resident, Lina knew each artist and she explained that the neighborhood gets together to decide what areas will be painted and to assign areas to each of the artists that would like to do a piece.
Another big impact for the revitalization was the installation of outdoors, covered escalators in the neighborhood (sorry, I don’t have a photo). It may seem strange, but since the neighborhood is built on the side of a mountain, these escalators first helped people (especially the elderly) be able to get around better, and now are an added tourist attraction too.
For me, it was unbelievable that this sweet, humble, intelligent person standing before me had lived her young adulthood in the middle of a conflict zone, with neighbors as armed guerrilla members. For her, she said, it was unbelievable that she now not only walks freely in the streets, but that tourists from all over the world come to visit her neighborhood. It is something she never could have even imagined before; it is like a dream, she said.
Standing in the street corner, waiting for the bus to leave Comuna 13, a restaurant had the music loud (nothing unusual there for Colombia), and I noticed that 2 couples got up and started dancing salsa in the tiny space between tables on the sidewalk. Along with the break dancers and rappers we had passed earlier, I was moved by this casual, appreciation for life, a celebration of self-expression and the simple joy of being able to safely be out in the streets in their communities, something they didn’t enjoy a few decades ago here.
Torotoro was an unplanned surprise adventure that I stumbled across in Bolivia and now I can’t imagine my journey without it.
I had never heard of Torotoro until I arrived in La Paz, where two different people recommend it to me within my first day there. My friend Gabriela said I HAD to see because, as a person that likes outdoors adventures, it was a must-see while in Bolivia.
I decided to do the 2-bus journey from La Paz in one day, leaving at 7am and arriving around midnight (due to some bad luck in my layover).*
Heading out of the densely-packed, busy La Paz towards Cochabamba**, the road soon turned into wide open spaces, with a mix of adobe and brick houses, often many kilometers apart. The landscapes were reminiscent of the Peruvian Andes highlands (sierra), from plains to red rock mountains, and then winding through the hills above a valley, with short little bushes dotting the yellow brown hills.
Torotoro is at an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,000 ft) with a rocky mountainous landscape, but also has a very unique look and feel. The colorful and pointy, oddly shaped hills and rock formations may remind an American of the Southwest, especially South Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and also parts of the Rocky Mountains. While the temperature is cool, the days were mostly sunny, and it is noticeably 1,000 meters lower than La Paz, giving one a relief from the cold and altitude of La Paz.
In the tiny town of Torotoro, most people wear the typical rural Bolivian dress- women in colorful skirts, and men in pants and a vest. Most people wear brimmed hats (sombreros), though there are different types between the men and women. But there are two unique things I see here that I haven’t seen in other parts of Bolivia (or Peru):
First, a good proportion of people have official work vests, signaling that many people are employed in the tourism industry, working either for the government or a tourism business.
The other, which I absolutely love, is that there are many guys (mostly older men) that wear the typical Andean “chullo” hat with ear flaps, but these chullos have a long pointy top, like an elf hat…and they wear the pointy part standing up! (Sorry, I don’t have photos of the local dress styles.)
Torotoro is such a tiny town, that even though the tourists stay in hotels around the middle of town, integrated with the houses of the locals, tourist activities feel very separate from local activities, and so it has a bit of a tourist town feel.
The locals have a kind of wary-ness towards me, surely from having had many a varying experience with tourists, and it takes a few minutes of conversation for them to relax and feel more comfortable conversing. I tried to chat with a street food vendor who was also serving some locals, and she was really hesitant to talk. Finally, remembering that I was in a Quechua-speaking region, I tried to speak with the little bit of Quechua I had learned in the northern Lake Titicaca island Amantani. “Soma pollo,” (delicious chicken), I told her. “Yosparasunki,” (thank you)! When she realized I was trying to speak Quechua she smiled (half laughing at me) and then taught me to say “Reposa” (bye).
Torotoro is also a national park, and due to the efforts to protect it, they have recently implemented a strict system for visiting the park, where you always have to go with a guide. (You pay 100 Bolivian Pesos for a park entry fee and then you pay separately for each guided tour.)
The system of contracting a guide is interesting because there is a set cost for each guide and you can have up to 6 people in a group with a guide. That means that most people come just before the office opens in the morning and afternoon to look for other people that want to do the same tour so they can form a group of six to split the cost. Sometimes it works out beautifully and sometimes no one shows up to do the tour you want to do. (But for the two most popular tours, even in low season, there were always people in the early morning looking to form a group. The afternoons had fewer people, though I did get lucky my first day and found a couple late in the afternoon to go see dinosaur tracks and the canyon.)
That’s right…dinosaur tracks! Who knew that in the middle of Bolivia, there are dinosaur tracks!???!?
The area used to be swampy area and over the millennia it dried up and turned to rock, preserving tracks of those massive herbivores and vicious carnivores that roamed the area thousands of years ago.
All in one tour (“El Vergal”), you pass dinosaur tracks and walk along an historic river with amazing geologic formations, leading to the majestic Chiflón canyon.
Just when we were about to leave the rim to begin our descent into the canyon, we caught sight of a graceful condor soaring above the canyon…and then another…and then another. They had emerged just in time to paint the already amazing landscape with their graceful flight paths.
We then climbed down into the canyon, passing a lemon-mint smell of the bodje tree, and later transversing the boulder-filled base for about a kilometer until we arrived at some beautiful waterfall cascades with green-blue pools below.
What a refreshing swim in that beautiful canyon pool!
The next day I successfully formed a group of 6 with my two French neighbors and a group of 3 other French tourists wanting to do a full day tour of the “Ciudad de Itas” and the Umajalanta Caverns.
We first took a 4×4 out to the grand rock formations of the City of Itas, and on the 40-minute drive climbing into the mountains, there were four different languages buzzing about in the vehicle – the guides speaking Quechua in the front, the three tourists in the back speaking French, my French neighbors and I speaking in Spanish in the middle, and the tourists in the back speaking to me in English.
The “Ciudad de Itas” was a hike through incredible rock formations and mountains.
Among many cool highlights were an almost completely dark cave-like space with just a tiny slot of light filtering through from above called “cueva del diablo”, and ancient drawings of llamas and the sun and earth goddess/god preserved in the rock in some cave-like spaces.
We were also led through a maze of rock to a secret hiding place that was a kind of hidden canyon between rocks where the natives would hide stolen cattle during the 18th and 19th centuries, before the land reform times. This was when the Spanish had taken over large swaths of land, and a wealthy, well-connected Spanish “patron” would run an agricultural businesses on “haciendas” (large farms), often practically enslaving the locals while making profits exporting products across the country or abroad. (Again I was grateful for having read Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits” to have a sense of the history around this time period.)
Another point of interest amidst the rocks was a large opening in a cave-live space in the rocks called the “cathedral” where the locals during Incan times held a gathering to celebrate the gods and goddesses of the earth (Pachamama) and the sun (Tatainti). They would have a type of pot-luck called “A’tapi”, and they would give an offering to Pachamama called “Tcha’lla”.
We also saw photo-luminescent bacteria that glows this green color from one angle but up close it just looks like brown slime on the rocks.
After having climbed to the highest part of the Torotoro area, we then descended below the surface of the earth, to explore the Umajalanta Caverns. While not the most beautiful cave I’ve ever seen, it was definitely the most fun!
Hiking, climbing, repelling, crawling, and scootching through this cave was a fun adventure (and led by an experienced guide and plenty of ropes, it was not as hard or scary as it sounds.) Unfortunately, many of the beautiful formations had been damaged in the decades before it became a protected part of the national park, (due mostly to people not knowing that touching the formations would damage them but also due to some vandalism).
However, there were also signs of hope where the stalagmites and stalactites had started growing again since the cave has been protected for two decades now (since 1989).
I was so happy to have found this little gem in the middle of Bolivia, to explore such a beautiful place, and to support the protection of some natural areas.***
*While I arrived smoothly from La Paz to Cochabamba (other than a hot bus), I had bad luck catching a ride to Torotoro. The buses go “colectivo” style which means they wait until enough passengers come to fill them and then they leave. I waited 3 hours and then it was getting dark and no more passengers were coming so the company passed me off to another company that was supposedly leaving soon but still didn’t actually leave for another hour. I arrived at midnight in Torotoro and needed the next morning to recover from travels.
** Many people told me to “be careful” in Cochabamba. Luckily I had nothing but good experiences with the people there. When I asked at the terminal how to get to the vans for Torotoro, the woman didn’t know so asked a coworker who not only told me which car to take, he flagged down the car and ran the half block to where it stopped to explain to the driver where I was going and to ask him to let me know when we arrived!
***While I would definitely call this an “eco-tourism” experience, the jury is still out on whether it counts as “community-based tourism”. While on the surface it seems to bring some income to many locals, there were rumors that the government actually gets most of the proceeds and that there was a wealthy and foreign family somehow making most of the profits. I wasn’t there long enough to find out to what extent these were true, but even if the government was making profit, they were also employing quite a few people (remember all the vests?)
Side note: There were a few other short tours that I didn’t make it to (like a huge fossilized turtle), so while you can see the biggest attractions in 2 days, it is definitely a place one could stay 3-4 days, especially just to relax in a calm and quiet little village in a beautiful place with a great climate, (though there aren’t tourist attractions outside of the guided tours).
After a ridiculously cold and uncomfortable night (the first night camping is always the hardest), I was happy for day break so we could start hiking to go find the glacier lake.
If the first day was pure climbing, the second day was pure rock scramble – my favorite way to hike (and I’m not being sarcastic).
Add the fact that there was snow on the ground, and I was in heaven! Actually, it was more like hail or frozen rain because it was tiny little white ice balls, like I’d never seen before. But whatever it was, it was white and beautiful and made that wonderful crunching sound beneath our feet.
We climbed up and down (mostly up), over about 4 ridges on the side of a mountain, crossing a few landslides, literally climbing on the face of the mountain much of the time, and it was exhilarating. I fell once but I caught myself and didn’t die! Win!
We didn’t talk much because we needed all the air for breathing, as the air was getting thinner and thinner as we gained altitude. We both were chewing coca leaf to keep from getting altitude sickness.
As we crossed over the side of the great peak Illampu, the view suddenly opened up to reveal the beautiful glacier lake.
The grand Illampu rises over the left of the lake, while Ancouma rose over the right side (though Ancouma was hiding in clouds).
At the far end of the lake, the snowy side of a mountain seemed to be constantly feeding the lake with a glacier and avalanches.
The lake created an optical illusion such that it was actually much larger than it seemed; after 20 minutes of hiking I still hadn’t arrived to the far side where the snow and ice was falling into the lake, so I headed back since my guide was a little anxious to get back.
Every few minutes I would hear the distant sound of avalanches, but I could never find them when I looked up into the mountains.
The next day, we headed across the mountain pass to see some ruins, a couple of overlook points, and the Spanish Gold trail. We were walking in the clouds the whole way down, so unfortunately I didn’t get to see some of the amazing views. Despite the fog, I still loved it!
We normally would have hiked about 5-6 hours and camped one more night, with a campfire at a mirador, but with all the fog and my stomach acting up, I convinced Eduardo to to do an 8-hour hike that would bring us all the way back to Sorata in one day. Turns out we would have gotten rained on in the night if we had camped, and I didn’t have the most waterproof tent. Win #2!
The day was long and challenged my glutes again, but I enjoyed it just the same.
We hiked along the Spanish trail or the Gold trail, which is the trail that was used by the Spanish colonial rule to deliver gold from a mine in the mountains down to Sorata, carried by the locals who were used as slaves in the gold mining business. (My first night in Sorata I had stayed in a hostel that seemed like a really old house, and I later learned that it used to be the place where the slaves (indigenous people) delivered the gold to the Spanish.)
Walking along the Gold Trail, glutes screaming, sore shoulders, I thought about how this would be torture if someone was forcing me to do it, (especially for their own profit and not for me). But since I had chosen to do it, and I could go at my own pace and enjoy the scenery, and I was not doing it every day, it was something I actually paid to do. Privilege.
Eduardo continued to tell me the history of Sorata while walking this trail. He explained how the Spanish enslaved the locals not only for mining but they also set up the big haciendas, where the Spanish “patron” treated the locals like slaves to work the land and produce crops as efficiently as possible while the patron then got rich from selling the products, sometimes on the international markets that he had access to. The conversation invoked memories or reading Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits”.
Eduardo went on to say that there came a time when the young rebelled and received a few more rights so they weren’t so much like slaves, but it wasn’t until later with the big land reform policies that the patrons left and locals could own their own land and reap the benefits from it.
Since then, he said, the community has organized itself so that each person owns their land where they live, and then the land in the hills above the community is common land so that anyone in the community can farm it. They meet once a month to resolve community issues and they rotate the leader of the community every year. Anyone with land in the community is registered on the “roster” and therefore has rights to farm the community land and also has the responsibility to serve their rotation as leader of the community for one year.
As I arrived back to Sorata, I could not believe that we had walked that entire distance. I had left behind the busy world of getting everywhere fast, and I had reunited with the age-old tradition of walking. I was just stunned at how two legs, two feet, could take me across massive hills and high up into the mountains, across distances and through terrain that seemed impossible, or difficult at best, to cross. It was a reminder how much I appreciate my feet and also the power of the human spirit and body.
Bonus Content: What do the kids do in the evenings in Sorata? As I made my way back to my hostel, all along the way, kids were playing with the same top-like toy in the streets, so I stopped at one group of kids and asked an older kid to show me what they were playing. He was super shy at first but I finally got him to show me on camera, and he let me try a few times too.
(Unfortunately I am having technical difficulties uploading videos here, but you can find the video on Facebook).
As I was walking on Isla de la Luna in Lake Titicaca, I caught my breath as I looked across the lake and saw grand white peaks rising out of the horizon.
If you know me, you know that I have a love affair with mountains, and especially those majestic white, snow-covered mountains (“nevadas”). The mountains seductively said to me “You’ve hiked in the Peruvian Andes, are you up for the Bolivian Andes?”
So after leaving Copacabana, instead of taking the usual route to La Paz, I got off the bus early and caught a few cars to get to Sorata, a small mining town of about 4,000 people about 3 hours from La Paz and a starting and ending point for a few different treks through the Bolivian Andes.
I had heard that Sorata was a mining town, but I was still blown away when I saw a sign in a store off the main plaza that said “I buy gold. I sell mercury.”
I had laughed when my uncle heard I was going to Bolivia and told me to take a metal detector and to look for gold…but turns out he knew what he was talking about!
Other than the sign about gold, the town reminded me of any small mountain town in Peru. With a nice plaza in the center,* the main church and municipality building off the plaza, and shops filling the streets around the plaza. And because the town is on the side of a mountain, the streets off of one side of the plaza were an incredibly steep climb up, while the streets off the other side were a steep descent.
I arrived on Sunday when they had their “feria”, or market day, when people from the surrounding areas bring their products to sell – potatoes, acacha (a long, skinny, knobby potato), habas (a big, protein-filled bean), snap peas, herbs, carrots, green beans. Similar to Peru, they would bring their big colorful “manta”, spread it out on the ground and neatly arrange their products to sell. Common to all markets I’ve ever seen in Peru and Bolivia, there were many different vendors, all selling the same things.
I had sought out a local, Sorata-based guide association and “Eduardo”, a local guide met me in the plaza when I arrived and introduced me to his wife and daughter who were enjoying a Sunday walking in the plaza.
I was fascinated with the option of doing an 11-day trek through the Andes that included climbing a snow-capped peak and ending in the “Yungus” (the lower altitude, warm climate of the jungle on the other side (east) of the Andes, but I wasn’t able to pull together a group to do it with. Since it would be just me and the guide, I decided to do a 3-4-day trek to a glacier lake between two snow-capped peaks, “Illampu” (Aymará for “fat of the llama”) and “Ancouma” (Aymará for “white snow”).
That evening we bought food and supplies and the next morning we started off from the town’s center, which is located low in the hills at 2,600 meters above sea level (8,500 ft). Eduardo pointed to the mountains in the far distance. I could not believe that we were going to arrive all the way there walking, (and with 15-20 kilos in my backpack) within a day. But he confirmed that we would do it. So I just put one foot in front of the other and waited to see what would happen.
It happened to be “Día del peatón”, or “Pedestrian Day”, the one day of the year in Bolivia where cars weren’t permitted to drive, which was lucky for us because our hike started along a dirt road, and when cars (illegally driving that day) did pass by, they kicked up a ton of dust which didn’t help breathing through the uphill climb.
Finally we got off the road and the smell of eucalyptus (one of my favorite smells of all time) filled the air and I realized we were walking through a eucalyptus forest.
Fun fact: Eucalyptus is an invasive from Australia that sucks the water and nutrients out of the soil…. But it produces wood quickly so people keep it around.
Later, the climb got steeper and the smell changed to muña. Another smell that I love, and this time there’s no worry about it being an invasive species. Muña is native here, it’s used in tea and is helpful preventing and alleviating the effects of altitude.
The first day was pure steep, uphill climb, like climbing stairs for 6 hours, without any flat parts to rest, so we took breaks every 30 minutes or so. It reminded me of the constant climb up Volcán Misti in Arequipa, including the burning glutes with every step (yep, for 6 hours).
My guide is a really nice guy who’s been a guide since 1993. He started as the front desk staff at a hostel that did tours. Trekking tourism started to boom in Sorata and one day they needed a guide so he went out with a group, and he loved it, and they loved him. He knew his way through the mountains because as a kid he used to take sheep out to graze through the mountains to make cash and as a curious spirit, he would go exploring new parts every time.
As more and more tourists flooded to Sorata to do treks, he formed the Association of Guides in Sorata, which ultimately had 30 guides and 20 arrieros (donkey handlers), all professionally trained. He loved meeting people from all over the world, learning from them, and exploring with them. He especially loved learning about new foods and ways to cook in the mountains. He picked up English and even a little French and Hebrew.
Everything was great until 2003. That’s when the Bolivian gas conflict exploded, with the country divided between plans to build a gas pipeline to export gas to the US and Mexico and a growing movement calling for Bolivia to build a local processing plant to get more value from their product and to meet internal gas needs before exporting. Between internal protests and international relationship problems, the booming tourism suddenly halted.
Since then, tourism in Sorata is starting to pick back up, but now most of the tours are dominated by agencies out of La Paz that charge double or more and often contract local guides anyway. When Eduardo goes out with big groups, his wife sometimes comes along to help, and his sons had come along a few times too, (but they didn’t enjoy it as much).
We ate lunch at 3,800 meters (12,500 ft), (the same altura as lago Titicaca), and then after about 3 more hours of climbing, we arrived at our campsite at at 4,200 meters (13,800 ft), a mountain lake “Lago Chillata”.
“Chillata” is Aymará for “the sacred lake where people go to pray, sobbing for help from the divine”). Or, to the Incas before Catholicism, the lake was called “Kotaato” – Aymará for “the lake in the middle of the rocks”.
Here, the clouds roll in thick around 4pm every afternoon and the fog hangs around until the middle of the night, where it clears up and the temperature drops below freezing.
As the clouds are rolling past, visibility sometimes would clear for just a few seconds, leaving an incredible view of the sun setting on the great white peaks of Illampu and Ancouma. (Many times I ran to a high point to get a photo, and within 10 seconds it was already covered in fog again by the time I got there.)
Tomorrow we’ll be able to leave the heavy stuff at the campsite as we head towards the great peaks to find the glacier lake that is tucked between them.
*Famous Footnote/Bonus content:
While wandering around the plaza the night before the trek, I saw a group of people speaking English in the plaza. I approached them and learned they were a chapter of Engineers Without Borders doing an Eco-bathroom project in a nearby rural town! I find my people all over the world!
La Isla del Sol is the biggest Lake Titicaca island, and it is also the most visited by tourists, due to its convenient location just a 2-hour boat ride from Copacabana, the popular tourist stop between Bolivia and Peru.
It is apparent that the island has developed around tourism – there is an abundance of lodging (hospedajes) and restaurant options, and even signs pointing the way to tourist points of interest like overlook points.
You know international tourists come through a place in Bolivia if you find a pizza restaurant, and there are a ton of pizza restaurants on Isla del Sol.
I was really struck by the beautiful architecture and especially the facades of many of the hospedajes, most of which incorporated rock or pebble to adorn traditional adobe construction.
It is also close enough to the mainland peninsula (with a tiny tree-covered island in between), that it is connected to the electric grid of the mainland, unlike Isla de la Luna, which relies on solar panels.
Isla del Sol has three different communities and is less densely populated than Amantaní, with approximately the same population but spread throughout the 14-square-kilometer island (compared to Amantaní’s 9-square-km). (But both much larger than the tiny 1-square kilometer Isla de la Luna with just one community of 27 families).
Just like the other two islands I visited, the geography is that of a mountain rising out of the sea…er, lake. (It is very easy to forget that I am on a lake and not the sea!)
The point is that everything is uphill from the shore. And even walking around from place to place on the island is like hiking in the mountains – a lot of up and down (which always feels like there’s more up than down) at 3,800 meters of altitude.
The boat I came in arrived at the port Pilko Kaina with Incan ruins to explore.
From there to the rest of the island was a surprisingly long climb up.
I really wondered if I was going the right way and if all this climbing was going to be worth it in the end. But I persevered, meeting some friends and some awesome views along the way.
I eventually wandered upon two other lost tourists and soon we came to a house which turned out to also be a fancy restaurant on the edge of Yumani, the community most frequented in Isla del Sol and full of restaurants and hospedajes.
They stayed to enjoy some gourmet food while I continued along in search of a place to stay the night and a cheaper lunch since I was on a really tight budget, and running low on cash at this point.
The site where I did eat lunch was indescribably beautiful. The view of the lake was breathtaking (literally and figuratively at 4000 meters above sea level)… so blue, and so immense, stretching as far as the eye could see. The only sounds were a few birds and a distant conversation in Aymará, with the light sea, er, lake breeze whispering past my ears. Ultimate peace.
And it was the best meal I’d had since Amantaní – fresh trout from the lake with some fresh veggies.
Later, heading to the lookout point to catch the sunset I met and chatted with a local woman selling souvenirs who appeared slightly younger than me and who had curious and rowdy 2- and 4-year-olds. She had lived in São Paulo, Brazil and so not only spoke Aymará (the local language on the island) and Spanish, but also Portugués from her time in Brazil. She had returned to Bolivia because she said they had been treated like second class citizens, her husband robbed at gunpoint a few times, and other Bolivian migrant friends injured or killed…she said her experience was that there was no justice as the government didn’t really value their lives, safety, and rights as immigrant workers. (USA, can we please not be like that???? Pretty please.)
After doing yoga and watching the sunset with her and her kids, I headed to another overlook point.
There I met a super sweet couple – a Spanish woman and an Argentine who ended up staying two extra nights and exploring the whole island (even the northern part which we had been told could be dangerous because of an inter-community conflict that started two years ago), and they said it was incredibly beautiful!
Unfortunately I was running low on cash and had to return to Copacabana the next morning to change money and continue my journey. So, after a delicious dinner of trout from the lake (yes, again!) I headed to my hospedaje and had my last peaceful, Lake Titicaca island sleep.
The next morning, after watching the sunrise and eating breakfast, I headed down to the dock, past the Fuente del Inca and saw the grand island entrance to the Yumani community.
I had the pleasure of chatting with a few local women while waiting for my boat. This might have been one of the highlights of my stay here. Using my handy language chart, I practiced my Aymará with them, and we were all highly entertained (even if they were laughing AT me not WITH me at times!) Similar to Isla de la Luna, most people have their farms where they grow the typical sierra (highland) crops- quinoa, wheat, corn, and a variety of potatoes, and animals (mostly sheep), while the income from tourism helps provide something extra.
With a farewell photo, I said “juspara” (thank you) “jakisiñkama” (goodbye)! and boarded the boat for my last ride across the majestic Lake Titicaca.
Every morning at 8:30am, boats full of tourists leave Copacabana heading to Isla del Sol, with an option of stopping for an hour at Isla de la Luna. Planning just to go to Isla del Sol and stay the night, I boarded a boat and met up with the two traveler friends from London and Italy that I had met in my hostel.
It was a beautiful 2 hour boat ride and I even saw some little fish swimming along side of the boat. Instead of getting off at the first stop at the Isla del Sol, I stayed on with my new friends to go to the Isla de la Luna.
The boat only stops for an hour at Isla de la Luna and the guide on the boat says there’s not much to see there and you can do it in an hour…and they only give you an hour before the boat leaves to go to the Isla del Sol. And if the boat leaves without you, you’re stuck in the island until the next day because the boats only come once a day for an hour.*
Entering the island the smell of muña caught me by surprise and reminded me of my stay in Amantaní, the island in the north part of the lake. As I was walking up the stairs to enter the island with the other tourists, I passed a little 4-year-old boy who, without prompting, greeted me saying “Hi, my name is Miguel Ángel”! It was so adorable!
I started exploring late because I chatted for about 10 minutes with the guy who was charging for bathroom use, geeking out about the water and electricity access on the island. (Islands have always fascinated me because they present unique infrastructure challenges ripe for alternative energies and exploring the idea of sustainability.)
Geek out about the island’s infrastructure:
They used to not have power but now they use solar panels (“because the kids want their cell phones. And also tv.”) He said the panels are great but the batteries only last a couple of years and they have to be careful not to let them drain to zero or they stop working well. They use what look like basic car batteries that charge during the day.
They also have solar hot water heaters in most of the houses.
They use water from the lake but have to buy gas to power the pumps that pump the water up from the lake. (They charge for the bathroom in part to cover costs of the gas).
Finally, I headed up the hill to the ruins of the “temple of the virgins”, which was supposedly a type of boarding school for young women to learn to do womenly things in the Incan times.
There, I met an older woman from the island who explained that life living on Isla de la Luna is really calm and peaceful, and she liked it much better than the city (La Paz) where she lived for a few years. Here they grow their food, have a few animals- (llamas, pigs, chickens, sheep), they have fish farms within the lake, they and buy what they don’t have on the island from Copacabana. There’s a primary school and a church and a football field – everything they need, she said.
As I started to hike the hill from the temple to see what was on the other side of the island, I passed a woman knitting in the shade who asked if I was going to stay the night in the island.
“That’s an option?” I asked her.
Part of my travel purpose is to go off the beaten path and get to know some places and the people that live there… so when she said that her mother owned a hospedaje, I negotiated a price to include my meals, and I decided to stay the night instead of going back with the boat to Isla del Sol.
The boat companies from copacabana don’t promote the fact that there are hospedajes on the island, (maybe because it’s a tiny island and most tourists want more entertainment and conveniences? I don’t know.)
But if you are looking for a quiet and incredibly beautiful place to pass 24 hours (or more), where you can chat with one (or a few) of the 27 families that live on the island, learn about their daily lives, and walk along the perimeter of the 1-square-km island in the afternoon sun…then it’s worth the stay.
The tourists only come one hour per day, at the same time every day, and the community rotates selling things, collecting the entrance fee, collecting bathroom fees, and helping/keeping an eye on the tourists.
On the other side of the hill, and down the length of the island are the houses where the community (called Coati) lives…So the tourists only see the ruins and a view of both sides of the island from the top of the hill, but don’t see or go into the community, unless they stay the night.
The hospedaje where I stayed overlooks the lake, with a little pier extending into the lake. In the patio between the rooms are beautiful plants with flowers and the constant buzz of bees that I even hear from inside he room.
The quiet lapping of the waves on the shore can also be heard from inside if you listen closely.
This half of the island, the opposite side from where the tourists land, smells of muña for parts and eucalyptus for other parts.
I loved chatting with the woman who owned the hospedaje. It challenged my conversation skills a little because she wasn’t super talkative, but every time I asked her a question I saw her face light up a little and I felt her open up a little more, like she viewed me with a little less skepticism each time.
She commented that the president/government built part of the hospedaje last year (or at least convinced them that he did so they’ll vote for him at the end of this year), and the alcalde bought the water pump. The entrance fee to the island goes towards paying the locals to do restoration of the ruins or other community-based things.
The woman has 5 kids, one still living here on the island, a few in Copacabana and a few in other cities, but she’s content because they talk on the phone. When she first moved here with her husband (who is from here), there wasn’t running water or electricity so it was a rough adjustment for her, but she adapted, and now it is much easier with the solar power and pumped water. She feels at home now and likes that it’s quieter with less people than where she grew up, (in a community on the peninsula).
We chatted as the sun set over the pier, and she told me that tomorrow would be her turn to sell her artesanías in the temple so I would see her there when I leave.
In the morning, heading back over the hill to the other side of the island, I saw the little boy from the previous day, Miguel Ángel, walking with his mother, taking their sheep out to graze. She had a few of them on a leash, and the similarity to people walking their dogs in the morning made me smile. A few loose sheep stopped to eat and wouldn’t follow her so she sent Miguel Ángel to collect them, and I went to help herd sheep, while the talkative, friendly boy told me stories of his sheep.
This visit had a different feel than my stays on Ccotos and Amantaní, mostly because the business arrangement is different. Here, they are following a more traditional hotel-type tourism model, where the host is simply providing a space to stay, and doesn’t even live in the same area where the guest rooms are. Whereas in Amantaní and Ccotos they are following a homestay model where the tourist is a little more integrated into the daily life with the host – through sharing meals and sometimes community events, in addition to the guest rooms being more physically close to where the family lives and considered part of the family’s house.
While I personally preferred the homestay model and the culture-sharing atmosphere it fosters, I still greatly enjoyed my stay here. There aren’t many words to describe the peacefulness and beauty of this place, but hopefully you can catch a glimpse of it through the photos!
As I left the island in the morning for Isla del Sol, I saw the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Real in the distance, a reminder that I was on a lake in the middle of the Andes, not the ocean, and a foreshadowing of my future travels through Bolivia.
*If you really needed to leave the island, you could pay a local a very high price to take you in a private boat to Isla del Sol or the mainland.
Sometimes we travel long and hard to arrive at our destination. And then sometimes the journey itself is so beautiful and interesting that it is part of the destination.
Getting to Amantaní is one of the latter. The hour-long motorboat ride through the lake was was both fascinating and relaxing at the same time. A vast expanse like the ocean, but calm, with only minuscule waves, passing islands along the way that I had seen from the shore just a day before…and passing the shore that I had been on just the day before, staring out to where I now was in a boat!
When I arrived at the dock, I was greeted by a smiley and warm, short and round woman who introduced herself as Silveria, the wife of Romulo, with whom I had organized the stay. She led me up a steep sidewalk with many stairs along the way, and after just 5 minutes I was huffing and puffing with my 15 kilos of backpacks and just my second day in the altitude. But luckily, we had already arrived!
Their house is located close to the dock, and my room had big windows with an incredible view of the lake!
Just like in Ccotos, in the shade it’s cold and I need my 2-3 layers, but sitting in the sun for a few minutes I could wear just a long-sleeve or sometimes short sleeve t-shirt, so I sat in the sun while Silveria prepared lunch.
Chatting over a delicious lunch of local varieties of potatoes, an assortment of vegetables, and local bread, I learned that Silveria had run from one side of the island to the other in the morning, first helping her step-mom on her farm, then working on her own farm on the other side of the island, and then running to the dock to meet me. She said it took her about 30-45 minutes to run from each side of the island to the other.
Over lunch, we shared stories, getting along so well that we even began sharing about our childhoods and a summary version of our life stories! After a rough childhood, she was very happy to have a peaceful life with a nice house and a nice husband, living a good life without want. She reminded me of a sweet and hospitable southern woman, someone who had grown up in a machista culture and had a rough childhood but had made a better adult life for herself and lived constantly thankful for what she has now, moving and speaking in a manner that was both self conscious and humble, yet confident in its own way.
In Amantaní, similar to Ccotos and the surrounding areas, people’s first language is Quechua because that is what is spoken in the home. I asked if Quechua was taught in school, and the response I got was, “No, everyone knows Quechua so they don’t need to study it in school.” I was told that typically children speak only Quechua until age 5 when they begin going to school, where they start learning Spanish and school is pure Spanish.
It was interesting to me that, while speaking to Silveria, she was quite self conscious of her Spanish, even commenting that my Spanish was better than hers (though as we talked more and became more comfortable talking, her Spanish flowed more and more fluidly.)
In the late afternoon, Silveria walked me up to the path that led to the highest points on the island-two hills close together, each with a sanctuary to Pachamama* and Pachatata, respectively.
She left me and I continued to climb, slowly, step by step…up to 4,200 meters, my lungs wondering where all the oxygen went, and the temperature dropping rapidly. I was surprised as the land and hills began to give way to water on either side (apparently I had forgotten I was on an island).
My plan was to watch the sunset from there, but the clouds rolled in cutting it short. What I did find as I got closer to the sanctuaries was a ton of tourists! (And a ton of local women selling chullos* and sweaters and crafts and souvenirs all along the paths)! The tourists had all come out from hiding wherever they were staying on the island, and everyone had come to watch the sunset up here.
I got a little confused getting back to the house, and as I asked an older man who was walking with a child, he sent the little girl to walk me to the corner where I needed to turn. I found this simple reaction to be so strange and so kind – but very different from most places where everyone is in a hurry and busy with their own things and also worried about sending kids off alone, even for a few blocks.
That night over dinner, speaking with Romulo, I learned that the island is actually quite organized around the home-stay tourism and they usually partner with tour companies who bring in large groups of tourists at a time. The community is divided into 10 communities, and each community rotates being the host of a group of tourists, with each family in the community offering space in their house and meals to the visitors. Each community also has a community center where they perform traditional dances and have a party with the group of tourists. (I had bypassed this system, contacting Romulo directly, and he said this was a much better deal because he directly receives the payment, and they even have a problem with one tour company that never paid the island for hosting a group.)
I was really impressed by how organized the island of 500 families was. They meet every Sunday, first the whole island, and then they break into meetings just for each community. Romulo explained that it was their only way to get news since there wasn’t a radio station on the island just for news about the island (though they do get regional radio stations from Puno and Juliaca).
They also coordinate which communities plant which crops when, and they rotate, making sure the land has time to rest. Because of the population and limited amount of land, the island is not self-sustainable and the crops produced are not enough to feed everyone so they do have to buy food from the mainland in addition to what they produce. Because of this, the money brought by tourism is crucial for the residents.
The night was so quiet and peaceful and the stars so incredible!! And it was cold. I didn’t dare shower and I slept under about 6 heavy blankets. Before going to bed, they told me if I had to use the restroom to use the “pee bucket” under my bed instead of trying to brave the cold and go to the bathroom. I had heard of these “pee buckets” from other Peace Corps volunteers that lived in the mountains, but I had never seen them for myself. (Turns out it was just a plastic tub.)
The next morning I took a stroll along the shore…
And then we all had a crepe-like “pancake” breakfast, learning about each other’s families.
Later, Silveria walked me to another spot on the island that the tourists often like to visit, the Inca’s chair. To walk there, I noticed that she took time to put on a nice shawl, and she also brought along her knitting…and continued to knit as we walked there! (I was highly impressed.)
Everything on the island is somewhat of a climb…at this point I realized that as an island, it’s really just a big hill or mountain jutting out of the middle of the lake, with the middle of the island being the high points and the shore the low points, so you really have to climb to get anywhere unless you are literally just walking along the water.
I really fell in love with the island, with its stone paths connecting the 10 different communities. I saw the island to be filled with with trees, houses and farm plots. There are no vehicles – everyone walks. (Though I did see one motorcycle in the two days I was there.)
The Inca’s chair was a beautiful spot on the beach and I camped out there until lunch, writing, and then returned after lunch to watch the sunset.
Dinner was delicious and a really great conversation, including Romulo showing me a photo of Silveria and complimenting her to me (with her sitting there in the kitchen) saying what a beautiful wife he had and what a great cook she was. I practiced a few of the Quechua words they had taught me, commenting that the food was delicious and thanking them for it:
(My Quechua spelling is surely not correct, but that’s how I remembered to pronounce it.)
Before daylight broke the next morning, I left the warmth of the 6 heavy blankets and headed out to run/walk up to the highest point of the island, the sanctuaries to Pachamama and Pachatata, to watch the sun rise and start the day with some yoga and meditation at 4,000 meters (13,000 feet).
Starting at 3,800m, and climbing to 4,200m (13,000 feet) was not a walk in the park and I had to stop to breathe a few times and also take off some layers, but in about 45 minutes I reached the sanctuary and did a few sun salutations because, well, for obvious reasons.
While I was meditating I heard what sounded like a fan motor off to my left. Then I suddenly heard it in my my right ear, I opened my eyes and was amazed to see a hummingbird (“luli”) floating just one foot from my face, checking me out and whispering (quite loudly) in my ear, with its thousands-of-beats-per-minute wing-flapping motor. After 3 seconds it flew away, but left me feeling like I had just received a message from Pachamama delivered by a Chaski* in the form of a hummingbird.
After breakfast, I had to say goodbye, and I mentioned that I was sad to be leaving because I really felt at home with them and was so thankful for their hospitality, and as I saw their faces light up with genuine happiness, I was really touched to have met such kind people that opened their homes and lives to me for a couple of days!
When I had arrived, I had greeted them with the handshake, hug and air kiss that I was used to in Peru, but awkwardly found that they were expecting only the handshake. Out of habit I accidentally made that mistake twice! But upon leaving, they each reached out for a hug, and I felt a special connection to this family and this beautiful island in the middle of the highest navigable lake in the world.
*Pachamama – the Incan word for mother earth, which is revered with a god-like respect and reverence
*Chaskis were the Incan messengers that traveled the Incan roads delivering messages throughout the Incan Empire
*Luli – what Silveria called the hummingbird – maybe the Quechua or a local word for the hummingbird. She said it was a sign of good luck for my journey
*Chullo – the warm hat with ear flaps commonly used in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia. I learned from Romulo that if your ear flaps have dangly balls like mine, you can tie the earflaps back when you are eating so they don’t get in the way!
On August 21st I officially completed my Peace Corps service, and with my visa expiring within two days, I had to quickly head to the border.
(Which border? Stay tuned in future posts to find out!)
I love traveling, meeting new people, discovering new places, volunteering, (and apparently not making any money) so much that I decided to take this opportunity to make traveling and sharing my experiences with you my job for a few months. You’re welcome.
(Yes, this goes against every workaholic and opportunistic grain in my soul due to my American upbringing, but I hope that it will bring us all joy and be well worth it.)
What do you know about South America? From my experience growing up in the US, the majority of what I knew was from the show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” (read singing the song). Now there’s what we hear in the news… The Amazon Rainforest is being threatened every day…(and now it’s being burned to a crisp!) Then there’s the FARC and drug trafficking in Colombia. The inflation and mass exodus in Venezuela. Maybe you have heard stories of high poverty rates or places where people barely have enough to eat, high levels of malnutrition, no clean drinking water. Or maybe you think of Machu Picchu, Carnival, or Patagonia.
While these are things that make the headlines or call attention to the tourist passing through for a week, they are not what define the people or the place, and they certainly don’t tell even half the story of what life is like living here.
So, in the next few months, I’ll be exploring a few corners of South America, meeting people, getting a taste of the lifestyles, the culture, the landscapes, politics, and the general vibe of the places where I land in my journey. While I’ll certainly be landing in some common tourist spots simply because they tend to be more accessible and able to receive an outsider, I will definitely see what I can do to go off the beaten path or at least explore places less commonly explored.
I have often thought that travel after Peace Corps would be pretty unfulfilling because I will never be able to really get to know a place, the people, the culture, like I did in my service. I went through a whole process of trying to fit in, trying to be more of a local and trying really, really hard to NOT be anything like a tourist. I didn’t want to be looking in from the outside, I wanted to be part of the place, experiencing it from the inside, understanding the reality of the people who live there and how they define the place. And after three years, I really felt like I became a part of my site Oxapampa, as it became a part of me.
So the idea of traveling to a place for just a few days or traveling to places geared for tourists seems kind of superficial. Window shopping. Peeking in from the outside and only seeing a tiny part of a reflection of reality and not getting a chance to see the human part of a place. I certainly don’t like the idea of being seen as a tourist…the foreign, often white person that doesn’t (often can’t) connect with the people because of a language barrier or because they are rushing through a packed schedule to see a bunch of places in a short amount of time. This creates the archetype of the tourist that the locals see – a kind of alien that comes to visit and has money, brings a stimulus to the economy, and will often pay more than the going price for things. Just like the locals rarely see tourists as individuals, the tourists rarely see the locals as individuals but rather as interestingly-dressed humans that are part of another world.
I know that through my travels I will not have the opportunity to get to know a place like I did Oxapampa and parts of Peru, but because I can now speak Spanish and have some experience living in Latin America, I have a few more tools to help me connect on a deeper level with people. I’m going to try to stay in places longer and take more time to get to know people and learn about their lives. I’ll be focusing on finding places where I can do:
Eco-tourism, visiting National Parks and Reserves
Multi-day treks to immerse myself in the different geographies of a place
I know I’m still just scratching the surface, but with a few months, a flexible schedule, and the right mindset, I hope to experience the people and places of South America on a deeper level, and share that odyssey with you – and you won’t have to leave the comfort of your home!
Always the Famous Footnote…
*Voluntourism can be controversial for many because there are many accounts of how trying to volunteer for short periods of time in a place have actually created more negative impacts than positive impacts. Conscious of this, I will be choosing the way in which I volunteer very carefully, and I’ll tell you about it!