The prize for the cutest, most beautiful, quietest-without-being-boring, small town goes to … Guatapé, a small town two hours from Medellín.
When I stepped off the bus, I was greeted by a few colorful buildings and thought “how cute”. But then I began walking through the streets in search of lodging, and I realized this was a city like no other. There weren’t just a few cute and colorful buildings, but looking down every single street my eyes were rewarded with a burst of color – and not tacky colorful houses but really cute, orderly and coordinated colors that made the atmosphere of the whole town feel pleasant.
Turns out, this Colombian lakeside town of 5,000 people is known as “la ciudad de zócalos”, because of the colorful, artistic baseboard decoration on the outside of each house.
The decorative band of designs typically depicts an aspect of daily life, history, or the homeowner’s or artist’s interests.
Though sometimes they are just colorful designs accenting the colors of the house.
The town reinvented itself in the 1980’s after the construction of a dam protected it from future flooding, and the town came together with the idea to adopt this signature style throughout the whole town. The result of their unified efforts is astounding.
This quiet town, 2 hours from Medellín is a popular weekend getaway for Paisas and a common stop for international travelers.
It is quiet most days of the year, except during the approximately 12 holidays of the year – during a holiday, the population explodes from 5 thousand to up to 15 or 20 thousand as visitors flood in from Medellín or other parts of the country. On the busiest days, there isn’t enough lodging and people have to return to Medellín for the night.*
I am not at all surprised at the popularity of Guatapé as a relaxing weekend escape.
First, it is most famous for “la piedra”, which is a tall rock rising above the landscape, offering an incredible view of this interesting lake-filled region.
The town has built stairways of 659 stairs up to the top of the rock and charges an entrance fee. While the touristy part at the entrance and the top didn’t appeal to me much, many would appreciate the opportunity to buy a cold drink or souvenirs, especially those who just do a day trip to the area. Either way, the view at the top is well worth the climb. It was really unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Back down on the ground, you could do lake activities like paddle boats, kayaking, going out in big boats, or renting jet skis.
You could walk or bike to the monasteries (one for women and one for men, though only the one for men was active).
You could rent a bike and do a loop around Guatapé, which of course is something I chose to do.
And this is where I really got a sense of how chill this town is. The bike rental place rented me a bike with zero collateral. I just wrote my name on a paper and said I’d bring the bike back before 6pm and they gave me a bike and helmet and said I could pay when I got back.
I got another feel for the small town life the day I walked around town and got my haircut. In the salon, I was greeted by a mestizo guy who informed me that the stylist was finishing lunch, and as we chatted I realized he was a neighbor just hanging out there. He was proud to be a Paisa, and enjoyed explaining to me how friendly they were.
While the woman was cutting my hair, two black teenagers came in and the woman greeted them enthusiastically. Turns out they were from Guatapé, but one was visiting from Medellin where he had gone to study. The woman had an aunt-like manner with the young neighbor boys, highlighting for me that small-town feel where everyone knows everyone and looks out for everyone.
In addition to the mix of mestizos and blacks (seen all over Colombia not just in Guatapé), the majority of people tending the restaurants (and those managing my hostel) were Venezuelan – also a common occurrence throughout Colombia right now.**
Turns out that I was in Guatapé at just the right time too … I was safely enjoying small-town life during the planned protests in Colombia this past weekend (21 Nov). While some of the bigger cities experienced cases of looting or disturbances that led to curfews, things in Guatapé were calm and quiet.
I am so lucky to have experienced this little gem in the middle of Colombia! Hopefully you will one day too!
*Oxapampa, twice as large as Guatapé with an urban population of 10,000, experiences a similar phenomenon during holidays as Limeños flee to the rural city looking for a quiet, nature-filled, relaxing holiday. Ironically, in both Oxapampa and in Guatapé, this surge of tourism turns the quiet town into a busier and noisier city – though still much quieter and relaxing than Lima or Medellín.
**As a neighbor to Venezuela, Colombia has received around 1 million Venezuelan immigrants in the last two years due to the economic crisis there.
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.
*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!
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!
*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.”
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 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).
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.
As much as I would have loved to stay longer in the paradise of Amantaní, my visa had expired and I had to flee the country (Peru charges a fee for every day you overstay your visa.)
While not unsurprising, crossing the border between Peru and Bolivia was not a smooth process for me because of my expired visa, my very flexible backpackers itinerary, and my US citizenship.
At Peruvian immigration I had to had to jump through a whole series of hoops (including taking a taxi to the bank in a nearby town to pay the fee for overstaying my visa). But they didn’t put me in a detention center or deport me back to the US, so instead of complaining about the inconveniences I’m just thankful that Peru Immigrations is more humane than the US when it comes to visas and immigration.
Bolivian immigrations also gave me a hard time, but that was kind of expected. As a fellow traveler pointed out to me, the American passport is one of the most powerful , or widely accepted, passports in the world. Almost all countries will let us visit with few problems. Meanwhile, if you happen to be born in a North African country, like my traveler friend, she was only able to travel to a handful of countries with her passport (until she moved to France and got a French passport).
Whole US citizens enjoy this travel freedom, the US is one of the countries that restricts entry simply for a person’s country of origin.
Bolivia is one of the countries in the world that has a reciprocity policy for US citizens – since the US makes Bolivians (and most South Americans) pay a high visa application fee and puts strict (and sometimes arbitrarily interpreted) requirements that many people don’t meet so they end up not getting the visa and losing the application fee, without obtaining a visa to travel to the US…Bolivia puts a high fee for US citizens wanting to enter Bolivia. (Unfortunate because many US travelers disagree with the US immigration policy and they are the ones that bear the cost, but I would do the same if I was Bolivia.)
So after paying my fee, changing money, and finally passing Peruvian immigration, I walked down the road to Bolivian immigration, thinking I had my paperwork in order but finding out I was wrong. They hassled me about my itinerary and made me retype it, mostly because I didn’t have hotels reserved in advance since I was on a backpackers plan where I would find a hostal in each place I went. Actually, the real real reason was that they were just following policy…the US hassles Bolivians about entering the US, looking for any reason not to let them in, so they were doing the same.
Interestingly, their attitude towards me changed when I heard them speaking Aymará so I tried to joke with them and throw in some words in Aymará from the cheat sheet that Romulo (my host from Amantaní) had given me.
Maybe it’s that when I tried to connect with them and their culture they realized I wasn’t a stuck up and racist American. Or, maybe an American trying to pronounce words in Aymará was more entertaining than a frustrated and tired American being hassled about being let into the country. Either way, they loosened up, joked with me, accepted my paperwork without further hassle, and let me in the country.
This was a perfect example of how my travels have been like a video game – something I picked up along the way helped me pass to the next level.
When I was staying in the island Amantaní, I enjoyed great conversations with the couple with whom I stayed, including conversations about politics. From Romulo (the husband), I learned about the divide in culture and language between the different sides of the lake Titicaca – the part north of Puno is Quechua-speaking, and south of Puno and into Bolivia is Aymará-speaking.
The day that I had planned to leave the island Amantaní, we got word from a teacher who lives in Puno and travels to the island for the weekdays to teach, that there was going to be a huge protest that would block the main roads between Puno and Bolivia.
The regional governor for the whole region of Puno had just been charged and put in jail for leading protests that destroyed state property a few years back. As the region of Puno is culturally divided between people who speak Quechua and those who speak Aymará, this was the first regional governor that was from the Aymará culture (almost always a Quechua-speaking governor had been elected).
Because of this, many Aymará people were upset with the ruling, believing that it was a political move to oust their leader, and so they would be protesting by blocking the roads hoping to release the governor. (This type of protest, in which the roads are blocked is somewhat common in Peru, and the good thing is that it is usually planned a few days in advance so that people get word and know not to travel those days.)
So along with this history and culture lesson about the Puno region, Romulo showed me a chart that translated a few basic words between Quechua, Aymará, Spanish, and even English, and he told me me take a photo of it.
Little did I know, he was the wizard giving me the magic wand that I would later need to open the door to taking me to the next level of my video game Odyssey – from Peru to Bolivia.
Bonus Round: After finally arriving to the plaza in Copacabana, I was struggling with google maps trying to find my airbnb because there were no street signs. Suddenly, someone calls my name, and it’s one of the guys who worked in the immigration office. A little creepy, yes. I asked myself if he was following me, and I was kind of cautious answering him. But it turned out that he happened to live nearby (it’s a really small town), and he was just being nice and helpful. When we found the place, he wished me a safe journey and left me feeling like that magic wand of connecting with people through their own language had turned obstacles into friends helping me along the way.
Bienvenida a Bolivia! The Bolivian adventure begins! 🇧🇴
I hadn’t stepped foot in the US for almost three years, and I was not sure what to expect. A lot had changed since I left. I felt very lucky to even be entering the US; as I stood in the customs line at 3am with my US passport, I couldn’t help thinking about the unfortunate situation for refugees seeking asylum, those people trying to escape dangerous living situations in their homeland or inflation where they can’t even buy the basics to live.
I was also incredibly thirsty but annoyed at the thought that I would need to buy overpriced (and Earth un-friendly) bottled water to quench my thirst. And then I saw something magical…
A public water fountain with potable water! Something I hadn’t seen in 3 years!!!
“Welcome to the US! Let me satisfy your thirst! Don’t you miss the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and well-monitored public water systems?” The public water fountain said to me. (Don’t judge, I had just gotten off a red-eye flight; I might have been a little delirious).
“Oh yes I do! You have no idea!!” I responded, as a WASH volunteer that has spent the last 3 years living in a place where I have to boil water before drinking it and where I spend all my days trying so hard to figure out how to make rural water systems just come close to providing potable water.
My honeymoon phase of being back in the US was soon brought down to Earth when I learned that the bus from the Baltimore airport to the city (DC) had actually decreased its frequency of service, (a real disappointment after having experienced such great public transportation in Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador).
But I was quickly enamored again with my homeland after being able to get around the city (Washington, DC) on a bike share, (and later learning about the car-share service Turo).
My amazement escalated as I was introduced to tide pods (dissolvable and non-toxic polyvinyl alcohol film was really intriguing for this chemical engineer), but then my fascination was interrupted as I learned of the trend of eating tide pods. (Facepalm.)
Eating delicious vegetarian plates of locally-grown food at my favorite restaurants and seeing wonderful friends and family made me feel right at home, and again very pleased by and proud of my homeland…
Until… I realized that people were actually buying and eating jellybeans that taste like vomit and rotten eggs.
Between tide pods and rotten fish, I was thinking I might have avoided great disaster by staying out of the country for the last three years…(Or maybe my country really needed me these last three years?)
I was surprised that in my short stay in the suburbs of Denver, I found two different opportunities to keep my language skills sharp, talking with native Mexican-speakers. (Yes, that is a reference to the misleadingly-named entertainment channel Fox “News”.)
Tongue-in-cheek aside, I really surprised at how cheap I felt during my visit. Having lived on a tight budget, pinching my centavos for the last three years, I suddenly felt that while visiting friends and family, they (and me, prior to Peace Corps service) lived very comfortable lives of abundance, spending relatively freely, compared to how I (and those around me) have been living for the last three years.
This ability to pay for certain things is something I think we don’t even notice, especially if all the people around us have a similar ability to pay for certain things. It also really stood out to me how this then leads to certain expectations of neighbors and others around us to also pay for certain things, almost as an obligation. An obvious example is the HOA where everyone has to make sure their house and yard look a certain way (which implies a certain investment).
When I went out to eat, I had serious sticker shock with prices of food, and really had to make an effort to change my penny-pinching mindset, and it made me realize why it would be hard for people of different economic situations to be friends – it’s a real social barrier and cause of anxiety if you can’t afford the same social activities of your friends or family.
While I was in the US, busy being amazed by how things had changed since I had been gone, and how things felt different since I had been living in a different context for a few years, meanwhile, back in Oxapampa, the region was experiencing rains like never before – and landslides and floods like never before.
I received photos of entire roads and bridges completely wiped out. A friend returning to Oxapampa from Lima had to walk a total of seven hours to cross the places where roads had been wiped out to be able to arrive home. I wondered if I would be able to get back and was thankful that I still had a few weeks before I was due home.
The government of Peru has always been amazingly good at cleaning up the road after a landslide within the same day, so that traffic can pass. But they had not had a disaster of this scale before. However, they impressed me and had it the bridge repaired and the road to a passable state within a few weeks, and I was able to arrive home without any problems, and in record time.
I also learned that in my district alone, 4 different water capture points were destroyed because of landslides, leaving communities without water for a few days. Luckily, the government has policies and plans in place for emergencies and are often good at improvising. The local government (the team that I work with) was able to locate new, temporary water sources for the communities to have running water, in the interim. And upon my return, I learned they are able to access emergency funds to rebuild those affected sites.
While I was in Colorado, I had hoped to hike a 14-er to complement my hiking adventures in the Andes mountains of Peru (which I’ll be sharing in blog post coming soon), but ironically, Colorado was having an unusually high incidence of avalanches, with their own stories of blocked roads. Turns out both of my “homes”, the US and Peru, are being affected by climate change, (which isn’t a real thing if you have a lot of money and investments in petroleum and think that having a lot of money can save you from anything.)
It’s not easy living in two different cultures, two different worlds, two different languages, having a home and also not having a home in two different countries. But it is an incredible and enriching experience, and I feel wealthier than I ever have, (despite what my bank account may say), thanks to the amazing people I have in my life, the beauty that surrounds me, memories I carry, and the wonderful experiences and opportunities that have shaped who I am. And despite vomit jelly beans and non-potable water, I love both of these places and I am inspired by and thankful for of all the people in both cultures that have taught me so much and made me who I am today.
*** Geek-out reflection on the scale of the disasters in the region where I live in Peru…
There are usually a complex variety of forces that come together that make disasters worse or not as bad as they could have been. In this case, deforestation is the biggest human controlled factor that led to the extreme scale of landslides in our region. Unfortunately, the ecosystem service provided by forests of holding the soil together does not have monetary value for the landowners in this global economy, but planting food for our growing population does bring income to someone trying to feed their family.
There is a clear need for an economic incentive sufficient to make it worth it to land owners to preserve key areas. The good news is that there are organizations working on reforestation and forest protection in the area. A local non-profit that I work with, Instituto del Bien Común, is working to provide small incentives and free native trees to property owners who sign agreements with the local government to preserve the forests on their land or to reforest on their land. Additionally, the national forest agency recently awarded a grant to the local government to do reforestation efforts in the zone. Unfortunately, the efforts are not enough to make a significant enough impact to prevent the escalating rates of deforestation, but we can only hope that the funding and programs grow and become more effective so they can make it more economically viable to conserve the forests.