San Agustín – Ancient History and Home Away from Home

At about the same time that the Greeks were building the Parthenon, here in hills of present-day Colombia (where all 5 of the country’s major rivers begin), the San Agustín culture emerged, evolved, developed over the centuries, and then disappeared. While we have hardly any evidence of the inner workings of their societies, hundreds of statues, some basic metal works, and tombs have been discovered and give us a tiny peek into their culture, leaving the rest up to our imagination.

Artwork in a museum in the nearby town of Obando where the oldest tombs (from 1000 BC) are found. Depicts the artists interpretation of some key elements from the San Agustin culture.

Some of the personified animals and figures depicted in their statues are similar to aspects of the cultures of many of the indigenous communities that still maintain their traditions today in Colombia. As such, many of the depictions are interpreted through the lens of the modern day indigenous communities’ beliefs and traditions.

In my opinion, these statues are signs that the Agustinians played baseball.

Many of these statues were found next to tombs, suggesting that just like we put gravestones at burial sites today, statues marked or guarded these burial sites, or maybe guided the deceased into the next life.

Some statues were painted with sap from trees, seeds, bark, and plants.

Seeing signs of creativity and human works from so long ago made me feel tiny and at the same time great – as I peeked into tombs from 1,100 BC and marveled at statues carved 2000 years ago (around 9-20 AD)., I could feel a tiny connection a with this far away past, with our American ancestors, little talked about in history class.

These archeological sites are located in and around a small, rural farming town of about 11,000 people, called San Agustin. People come from all over the world to see the statues, which are located in many different sites dispersed throughout the region. You can see many statues and archaeological sites in the archaeological park just outside the city center, but many more sites are farther from the urban center, and are more commonly accessed by rides in van, jeep, or on horseback.

When I was there, the majority of tourists were actually Colombians, (a change in the norm due to the holiday season when people have vacations). It was especially cool to hear so many different people excited to learn about the history and geography of their country. (And I was really impressed with the couple from Cúcuta,* who were there with their three year-old, doing the day tour to see the statues, tombs, and waterfalls.)

El Estrecho del Rio Magdelena is a channel where this major river of Colombia passes through a space only 2.2 meters wide between rock formations.

For me, San Agustín was a magical place. (I was even hesitant to write this blog because I don’t think I can convey in words how special of a place it was for me.) I fell in love with it, not only for its connection with its ancient past, but also because of its current vibe – the friendly and down-to-earth people and the familiar rural Latin American small-town feel.

It resembles my Peace Corps Peru home of Oxapampa in many ways. It has a temperate climate and is surrounded by beautiful green hills, rivers, and waterfalls. A town of agriculture (mostly sugar cane, coffee, bananas) and tourism, the conversations between strangers in the car ride there were about the going prices of different crops and gossip about people they knew in common. The guy who took me to my hospedaje (lodging) just happened to be cousins with the owner and helped me negotiate a price within my budget for a very nice room.

I happened to arrive just when the family was preparing to host the novena that night. And that is how I learned what a novena was.

I arrived at the same time that  extended family members were arriving and gathering on the patio outside the kitchen. While cooking my dinner, I listened as they took turns reading passages and later singing along to (religious) Christmas songs from the stereo while adding some spice with maracas and shakers. After the extended family left, they invited me to eat my dinner at the table with them, and I learned that they celebrate novenas for the nine days leading up to Christmas, alternating houses that host it each night.

Over the few days that I was there, the family became like my Colombian family. They invited me to one of the novenas, let me help milk a cow, and drove me around town to see the Christmas lights and the town’s annual nativity scene. (San Agustin boasts to have the largest pesibre, or nativity scene, in all of Colombia. (They say it used to be the biggest in the world.) It includes 20-50 different outdoor “rooms”, each with different scenes made of life-size mannequins. Some are a depiction of a part of the Christmas story from the bible, while others depict historic life in San Agustin, but most are a mixture of the two, sponsored by a local business promoting its products or services.)

This was one of those really special places where I felt a real connection with the place and the people, so much so that it was kind of hard to leave. I had similar feelings about my experience in Amantaní, the island on Lake Titicaca, and coincidentally I had a similar mystical “despedida” (farewell) with nature. My last morning in Amantaní, a hummingbird came and hovered close my face looking at me for a few seconds, while here in San Agustin, just before I left, a butterfly landed on my face and remained for nearly a minute, giving me a goodbye hug and kiss.

 

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Cuceta is a border town with Venezuela, located on the other side of country. This family of three (a lawyer and an engineer) had literally traveled across the country to visit San Agustin.

**Fun fact: In San Agustin, I saw many guys sporting Mohawk-like haircuts- something I haven’t seen anywhere else in my South American travels so far.

Peeking in on the Protests in Colombia

Little did I know when I arrived in Colombia, that I would be here just in time to witness a historic moment in history.

Maybe you recently read something in the news about protests in Colombia?

If you haven’t, I don’t recommend that you go looking for it because all the news sources I have read in English have presented the situation in very uninformed ways, some even comparing the protests in Colombia to those in Chile or even the mass exodus happening in Venezuela, which is just plain irresponsible journalism.* While the protests in Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador might have helped empower and mobilize Colombians, each situation is different. The scale, duration, and violence and vandalism around each one are also very different, and news sources greatly exaggerated the security situation in Colombia by comparing the situation to recent protests in other Latin American countries. But I digress.

On Thursday, the 21 of November, for the first time in decades, Colombians held a huge “paro” or strike, and masses of people came together to protest in many cities across the country, to march in the streets, peacefully voicing that they were fed up with corruption and that they wanted to see government money invested back into the people instead of filling the pockets of politicians and the wealthy.

Sign comparing the salary of a member of congress to the minimum wage, then asking if it seems fair.

Planned for a Thursday, the paro ended up going through the weekend. While the protests were peaceful, there were a few isolated incidents of casualties* and some criminals took advantage of the situation, looting and a hijacking a bus.

But it was clear that the protesters didn’t want violence, and cities put in measures to prevent looting and violence. When I arrived back in Bogotá, big shopping centers were still closing a few hours early and the public transit system was just starting to operate at full service again, and the curfew had been lifted.

The president organized meetings with the protest leaders, but they still haven’t come to any agreements and so the protests continue with one or two big marches per week – organized, peaceful, and legal, with all the necessary permits, and causing major road closures with advance notice.

Left: I march because the government doesn’t march (forward).
Right: a parody of the current president’s political slogan.

Everyone I’ve talked to (taxi drivers, random people sitting next to me on the bus) support the marches, (as long as they remain peaceful and not too disruptive). One taxi driver said, “Colombians are happy people, but dumb – we’ve just been letting the politicians rob us without doing anything about it. Finally people are speaking up.”

I asked a guy in his 50s sitting next to me on the bus if he supported the strikes and he said “Yeah, I marched in the strike on the 22nd. The politicians need to do what’s best for the people not what’s best for their pocket.” (This was a guy who did construction in rural areas a few hours outside of Bogotá and definitely didn’t strike me as someone who would have been out marching in the streets.)

The most recent march included Colombian music artists who support the strike performing concerts during the march. There were 3 stationary stages at the start, middle, and finish, and one mobile stage that moved along with the march. (I think you have to understand how integral music is to Colombian culture to not be surprised by this.)

Official protest/concert route, circulated on Instagram

It had started raining at the final stage when I went to scope it out, and there were hundreds of umbrellas and people in ponchos chanting, “Llueva o truene, el paro se mantiene!” (“Rain or thunder, the strike continues!”)

Music rose from a small stage on the street, keeping everyone singing and moving to the music in between chants.

One of my favorite chants was “A parar para avanzar!” Which is really fun to say but not as fun to translate and basically means we are stopping in order to advance (like stopping traffic and daily life in order to advance as a society, or advance the cause).

What do people hope the outcome of the strike will be? I wanted to know. So I asked.

One young man and his mother were out there in the rain without ponchos or umbrellas, getting soaked but they didn’t seem bothered by the rain. The young man told me that there was a group of corrupt leaders running the public universities, and they were striking until those corrupt leaders left. He noted that he actually attended a private university so wasn’t affected by it but that he was marching in solidarity with public university students.

His mother added that she was hoping for pension (social security) reform because there would be no funds left for her son and young people his age by the time they needed it.

Then there was a young family with two kids holding hand-written signs. The mother (maybe in her early 30s) said, “Never in my life have I seen Colombians come together to unite their voices and believe in change. Instead of being in their warm houses watching tv, for the first time people have come out into the streets to call for change, finally believing they could make a difference.”

She didn’t know if it would result in any actual policy changes, but she hoped it would advance women’s rights (she and her husband were both wearing green bandanas to support a woman’s right to choose, decriminalizing abortion), and she hoped the current tax code proposal would be denied.

Finally, I spoke to a group of three older women, maybe in their 60s-70s, who were super fired up and in detail, explained all the issues they were hoping would be addressed, which included not approving the proposed tax reform and could maybe be summarized as addressing the gap between the wealthy and the poor, especially improving living conditions for those with lower incomes.**

The local news reported (accurately, according to what I saw), a festive and peaceful air of music and chanting, especially for these most recent rallies. My heart goes out to Colombians and I hope they are able to make some strides against corruption and take steps to close the wealth gap (as I hope the same for my own country.)

Famous Footnotes:

*In the first weekend of protests, there were many injured, with one death in Bogotá and two in Cali.

**Specifically, she stated that there was a tax code reform proposal that she hoped would not be approved because it would only benefit the wealthy. She also wanted the minimum wage raised since so many people struggled to meet ends meet. And she wanted the government to recognize that unemployment, which was reported at 10%, was actually around 40% because such a large percent of employment was in the informal sector. Additionally, she saw the need for recognizing and legalizing indigenous people’s rights and improving the lives of people who live and work in the rural areas (farmers, indigenous people).

Sites of Sucre

Sucre is a colorful city, full of signs of its colonial history and teeming with life. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the capital of Bolivia, and the seat of the judicial power*, to me it felt strangely like a big city with a small town feel.

People from Sucre call themselves Chuquisaqueños because Sucre used to be called Chuquisaca and is the capital of the department Chuquisaca. During colonial times, the Spanish called the city “la plata” and it was the center of the region of Spanish rule called Los Charcas.

It bears the nickname “ciudad blanca” because of the traditional Spanish style white houses (not to be confused with Arequipa, Peru which has the same nickname but for the white stone of the region used in construction there.)

I only barely scratched the surface of this little gem (multiple other tourists had told me they had planned to stay only 2 days and had ended up staying a week or more), but I was just there a couple of days.

The best way to bring the city to life is to visit the “casa de la libertad” in the main plaza de armas, which is one of the best museums I’ve been to, and where you can see the original Declaration of Independence and get an excellent primer on the colonial history of the city…actually of all of Bolivia – and most of South America!

The guided tour of the museum explained the history of Spanish colonial rule, from the robbery of precious metals and the brutal treatment of the natives and African slaves, to the fight for freedom from Spanish rule – a history that is shared by the majority of South American countries, with heroes such as Sucre, Simon Bolivar, and Juana Azurduy.

Later I wandered into an art museum that gave a modern history lesson, told through alasitas – miniatures of everything. One day every year in Bolivia, vendors in the street sell everything in miniature, and this miniature version of things are called alasitas. I know, I didn’t get it either. But it’s a real thing. One day a year you can buy a doll-house sized version of just about every normal thing you might buy (toilet paper, detergent, clothes, everything!)

This little exhibit in the museum had collected alasitas throughout the years and told the history of the 70s, 80s, and 90s in Bolivia (mostly La Paz) through alasitas.

To my surprise, everyone I talked to told me I had to visit the cemetery. Finally, a French friend I made convinced me, and I have to say it was quite an experience. Not a Halloween-type experience. More like visiting a huge, beautiful, sacred park.

The entrance was as grand as the entrance to a palace, and it opened up to a huge manicured park with walkways lined with trees. It was so expansive it would have literally taken hours to walk all the different walkways to see all the different graves and mausoleums.

The walkways were lined with trees, and the air was filled with the sound of birds chirping on top of a very peaceful silence, the smell of flowers and cypress, and a mix of warmth from the sun and cool air in the shade. Workers were tending the grounds and planting flowers, and a few visitors were trending to their loved ones’ graves. At one point, in the distance I heard a woman sobbing loudly (wailing, really), and I felt the sadness of her loss, reminding me of the solemnity of the place.

The main walkway was lined with massive family mausoleums, and the other paths led to walls and walls of graves with locker-sized boxes decorated with memorabilia.

Interspersed were a few grave plots, and a few more large family mausoleums. There were large buildings dedicated to specific groups like rural teachers, union workers or people who had constructed certain roads.

The differences between the family mausoleums and the walls of hundreds of graves was both artistically interesting and also a distinct reminder of the huge class, power, and wealth divisions put in place by Spanish colonialism. (Not to say that previous societies didn’t have class divisions, just saying that in this particular place those divisions created by colonial rule are what are evident.)

I couldn’t have visited Sucre without some kind of outdoors adventure, so I went looking for the “7 cascadas” that the military guy in the taxi had told me about. It was an hour bus ride leaving the city, and from there I asked the locals to point me in the right direction. “It’s straight ahead, just follow the path”, they all said. And that’s when I realized I’m not as outdoors-expert as I thought I was, even after living in a rural place for three years, because I kept losing what they claimed was a clear path. Some young teenage girls trending a flock of sheep helped me find my way (after first laughing at me).

But I did eventually find all 7 of the waterfalls and was rewarded with a delightful swim in a pool beneath a waterfall.

On the way back (after getting lost one or twice), I ran into a group of Spanish, Germans, and Argentines also coming back from the falls, and we made our way back together, just catching the last bus back to the city and then exploring one of the markets together. This is why traveling alone never really feels like traveling alone.

Famous Footnotes

*La Paz holds the seat of the executive and legislative powers, which is why many call La Paz the capital, though Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia

**The hostel I stayed in, Villa Oropeza, had a lovely garden area, good WiFi, and a super friendly staff, definitely one of my favorites so far!

Sucre, Bolivia

Today I woke up in Torotoro (the rural, mountainous, Jurassic Park of Bolivia) and I am going to sleep in Sucre – the bustling capital city of Bolivia that somehow also has a kind of small town feel.

By direct travel, Sucre would be just 3-4 hours from Torotoro, but there is not a developed direct route, so I had 10 hours of travel – going north to Cochabamba and then south again, to Sucre, passing Torotoro on the other side of the mountains.

On the way from Cochabamba to Sucre, the guy in the seat next to me kept falling asleep half on top of me (I’m used to that now after 3 years of colectivo rides in Peru), but he very kindly happened to wake up just when we passed a key landmark and he told me, “hey we’re about to pass the bridge and the famous road that Simon Bolivar took in the fight for independence for Bolivia!” Then he went back to sleep. (Unfortunately we passed it so quick I couldn’t snap a photo.)

Later, he woke up and we chatted and I found out he was in the military, from La Paz but living in Sucre, which he said he fell in love with because it is much “nicer, smaller, quieter, and safer than La Paz”*. In the military he travels most of the time, so only has short bouts of time with his family. He commented that his daughter likes to dress like “people like you” (I was in dry-fit, outdoorsy clothes), and that she loves learning English and wants to study in the US or England.

Since elections were coming up, we talked a while about it but I noticed he was trying to be very neutral, so I finally asked him directly if he wanted Evo Morales to win again. He said he hoped not because under Evo’s isolationist policies his daughter would likely not have the opportunities to study abroad and travel.

Evo Morales was re-elected in October and there were a lot of demonstrations in the country, many people claiming corruption in the election process and calling for a change of government. My super simplistic understanding based on the conversations I’ve had traveling through Bolivia is that Evo has done some good things for the country, including promoting recognition and rights of indigenous people and trying to keep benefits and profits from natural resources in the country, but his government is also know for corruption, and he changed the constitution to allow himself to be re-elected indefinitely.

I paid extra to arrive in Sucre in one day and not have to sleep on a bus, and I was rewarded with the biggest fiesta of the city – the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe – which happened to be closing that night with a huge parade through the town – They said it had been going since 11am!

The best way to describe it would be “it’s not done till it’s overdone”.

Just when I thought I’d seen the craziest costumes and best music, something crazier came next.

By 10:30pm many of the people marching were so tired and/or drunk they could barely walk and hold their eyes open.

I found anticuchos and, for the first time in South America, street pizza made in a portable oven.

The bands played and as they came closer and got louder it became impossible to not dance and join the fun.

People from the crowd hopped into the middle of the parade to take selfies with the marchers. The marching band played a pop song and the crowd went wild. If the US marching band kids got to lead the town’s parties like this, they would be more popular than the football players.

(Shout out to Megan Eileen-this reminded me of your wedding, proof that you really did it right!)

The partying here is insane. It goes into the night and once you are tired the band just plays louder and they drink more and it just keeps going. Work hard play hard.

The best way to see a city is to do a run or bike ride through it, so in the morning I put on my running shoes (the only pair of shoes I brought this trip) to do a run through Sucre. The predominant style was houses with tiny balconies and hanging plants.

Between the paved main roads were cobblestone streets and lots of public green spaces. Having heard that Sucre was small, I found it much bigger than I had imagined, with many major thoroughfares throughout the city.

I ate lunch in the “Mercado Central” where there were about 20 food stations all serving the same options and each yelling the popular dishes they served trying to convince visitors to come to their restaurant (despite the fact they all were serving the same thing.)

I randomly chose one and say at a table with a young couple with a baby. We chatted and I asked if they attended the parade fiesta the previous night. Being from Sucre, they had attended the fiestas when they were younger but now they tried to avoid the crowds. They explained that students from different organizations in the universities from different parts of the country typically were the ones that dressed up and marched. Before leaving, they asked the server/cook/owner for an extra cup and then poured me a drink of their soda, generously leaving me with a parting gift.

The next day for lunch, I chose a different restaurant and sat at the table with an older, expressionless man that didn’t smile. I wondered if I should even try to talk to him… but of course I did. And after chatting a while he opened up and I learned that he has a daughter and a son in the US. In the end, he gave me a really sweet and very warm smile wishing me well as I left.

Next up, sight-seeing around Sucre…stay tuned!

Famous Footnote:

*As my friend from the taxi said… “Sucre is incredibly safe. With the fiesta you have to be careful – it is less safe because of pick pockets taking advantage of crowds, like in any place, and also drunk people can do stupid things. But Sucre is generally a safe place, and while there is the possibility of pick-pocketing, you won’t be robbed, you won’t crime of force.”

Travelers

One of the cool things about traveling is meeting other travelers. I have met people from so many different countries, each with their own itinerary, their own purpose of traveling, their own way of traveling, and their unique perspective on the people and places they are seeing.

Many people have some artistic and/or social goal as their vessel carrying them through their travels and guiding them along the way, like me and my blog-writing project.

Like Lucas, the photographer from Denver who was trying to capture photos of people who still maintain some practices from their indigenous ancestors and who hopes to be able to portray their culture in cool ways so that it is enticing to youth to learn and preserve their culture. (He was just the second other American I have met so far traveling!)

And like Noel from Switzerland who is traveling volunteering. She hasn’t seen all the tourist sites in Peru but rather has spent more than a month in two sites, volunteering and getting to know the place and the people on a deeper level. First she did a volunteer program in Trujillo that she paid quite a bit for but didn’t actually receive much help from the organization she paid, and finally towards the end of her 5-week stay she started to get a feel for how she could actually be of service to the community. Here in Iquitos she did a 19-day boat ride with 9th wave along the Napo river border with Ecuador where they stopped at communities along the way. There she connected with one community and decided to stay for about 5 weeks to teach English, now that she would be able to use what she learned from her first experience to make this one more impactful.

Then there are the parapenters. This couple from France worked on a farm in California to raise money to be able to travel and with that money has been traveling for about 8 months. They are traveling with an extra backpack that has their parapenting gear because everywhere they go, they look for spots to go paragliding. Since there’s a whole community of people who paraglide, It’s also a great way that they are able to meet locals in each place they go as well as meeting other travelers from around the world who paraglide.

And recently I met a 26-year-old Swiss woman who looked suspiciously Latina… and it turns out that she was born in Colombia and adopted by a Swiss family when she was 6 years old. She doesn’t remember her life before adoption, including didn’t remember any Spanish, so she had come to Colombia to attend a Spanish school in Cartegena. Having finished classes, I met her when she was speaking Spanish quite well! She is a nurse and had taken a month off to volunteer at a clinic in Peru and then travel a little around Colombia to know her homeland a little more.

These are only a few snapshots of some of the different people I have met along the way and the motives that drive them in their journeys.

Torotoro – Ecotourism Adventure in the Middle of Bolivia

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!???!?

Many businesses use the dinosaur tracks for their marketing strategy

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.

Do you see the llama?

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).

This image is on the 10-boliviano bill

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.***

 

Famous Footnotes

*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).

Bolivian Andes (Part II)- Glacier Lake and Spanish Gold Trail, Sorata

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).

Isla del Sol

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.

Isla de la Luna

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).

End Geek-out.

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 community of Coati, Isla de la Luna

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.

Famous Footnotes

*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.

Viajera Mochilera – Join my South American Odyssey

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:

  • Community-based Tourism
  • Eco-tourism, visiting National Parks and Reserves
  • Multi-day treks to immerse myself in the different geographies of a place
  • Voluntourism*

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!