We arrived in La Paz late one evening after a three hour bus ride from Copacabana. We had only booked one night at a hostel, but ended up staying in the city for four days to explore and bike down Death Road.
Although La Paz is not technically the capital of Bolivia (it’s Sucre), it is considered the highest capital in the world since the country’s executive and legislative branches moved here years ago. At 3,650 m (11,975 ft) above sea level, you could definitely feel the altitude while walking around the hilly city. The first day we explored the Witch Market, where vendors sold all sorts of remedies, tokens, and more llama fetuses (see the Arequipa post for more info). We also checked out two local beer bars, including one that had three of its own beers on tap.
Another day we rode the city’s new Teleféricos (cable cars) to get some aerial views of La Paz. It was super cool and super cheap! It was interesting to see the different parts of the city from above, and you could clearly see the differences in wealth as we passed over huge mansions and crumbling shacks. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, and it was definitely visible from our aerial view.
Besides wandering around the city, we also did a day trip to Yungas Road. Known as Death Road because of the hundreds of people who have died on it, Yungas Road is an extremely narrow gravel road that is now a popular mountain biking attraction. It is a bit expensive, so we debated about doing this until we found a cheap enough price. It was SO pretty… and terrifying. Laura ended up with blisters on both hands from a death grip on her handlebars, so it was good that Vesper had the camera and enjoyed the scenery. It is obvious why Yungas was such a dangerous road: it is super narrow at points - definitely not wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions - and has a sheer cliff on one side. We only saw three cars going up while we were coming down, and it was crazy to imagine traffic going both ways. There are memorials all along the road for people who have died, and our guide told us there are still accidents with bikers going too fast or losing control. After the ride, we enjoyed a nice lunch and relaxed poolside before taking the new Death Road home with pavement and guardrails galore!
Milk comes in bags or boxes and usually isn’t refrigerated.
Eggs are never refrigerated.
When ordering an IPA, you don’t spell out “I-P-A” but rather say “eee-pah.”
On our exploration of breweries, we’ve found out after the fact that the ones we like the best are usually run by an American or at least have an American as their brewmaster.
We don’t usually see people out for runs, unless it’s a touristy area (and then it’s usually tourists running) or if there’s a big park.
We go in exercise spurts. If we’re in an area that seems ok to run in, we might go for a few runs and then do yoga and/or body-strength exercises back at the hostel. Then we’ll forget about exercise for the next several days until we feel too lethargic and repeat the process.
Although we have not had an opportunity to weight ourselves, we both seem to have lost weight.
We have heard more car alarms in the past three months than probably the rest of our lives combined. Apparently cars still come with these? Although they prove just as ineffective as you would expect since there’s one going off every five minutes.
Yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks seems entirely optional.
Traffic laws in general also seem optional when you’re in countries that can’t/don’t enforce them since bribery is commonplace.
Clothes wear through a lot faster when you’re wearing the same things every single day.
If I had a dollar every time a man serenaded me with “Laura se fue…” from this song, I could probably fund our entire stint in South America.
Also regarding names: “Laura” in Spanish is pronounced Lao (like Lao Tsu) - ruh (with a flipped r). (The internet literally has everything.) Vesper’s name is usually “Besper” since b and v are often the same sound in Spanish.
The variety of cellphones in use here is pretty extensive, ranging from the latest iPhone or Android to the chunky “dumb” phones from back in the day when cellphones were still a new thing.
Internet cafes are pretty big in South America since a lot of people either don’t have access at home and/or connections aren’t necessarily reliable or fast.
Similarly, pay phones are very common here and are frequently in use - unlike at home where it seems like they’re basically being phased out and it’s often hard to find one.
Located on the border of Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world. This refers to navigation by commercial boats, although we mostly just saw lots of small boats to take tourists to the various islands. We only spent a few days on the lake where we visited two different cities: Puno, Peru and Copacabana, Bolivia.
Puno was nothing to write home about. Even Peruvians we met said don’t bother staying there, just use it as a layover to switch buses to get to Bolivia. We ended up doing almost exactly that: we arrived in Puno in the afternoon last Sunday to overcast skies and imminent rain. We debated visiting the Uros Islands, a series of floating islands made out of reeds, but ended up skipping those due to heavy rain and several mixed reviews (aka super kitschy and touristy). It might have been interesting to see, but we also realize that it’s ok to skip things sometimes (thanks, Ica).
We left Puno the next day and began our adventure across the Bolivian border. We knew we were going to have to pay an outrageous $160 per person for a visa, but we’re probably never coming back and we wanted to do this now. We ran into a few issues, including the customs agent not accepting some of our $20 bills since they had the teeniest tiny little tears in them, plus he tried to make us show a confirmed flight leaving the country, but we thankfully managed to get by with telling him we are taking a bus to Chile. With all the hoops we had to jump through, everyone else on our bus to Bolivia was able to go through customs in the same time it took the two of us to get our visas processed. Other travelers were surprised to learn that Americans have so many more requirements to get into Bolivia since no one else on our bus needed anything other than the normal entrance form and quick passport stamp. Well, we made it! Now we better get our money’s worth.
Copacabana (the hottest spot south of Havana?) was much cuter than Puno. It was definitely a touristy city, but it was low season so it wasn’t overly crowded and the prices were pretty cheap. We found a small beer bar that night and had some pizza and our first Bolivian cervezas of the trip.
The next morning we took a boat out to Isla del Sol, where the Incas believed the sun was born. The island itself is fairly small, without any cars or paved roads. Many people hike the length of the island in one day, starting in the north and spending the night on the south end. We only did a three hour trip, which was plenty of time for us to take in some beautiful sights and see the Chincana Ruins. We did a tour with a guide who only spoke Spanish, but he was surprisingly easy to understand. At the site of the Incan ruins, we saw the creation rock, where we all gave small offerings to pachamama and touched the rock to feel her energy. We also visited a well with sacred water from which we took a small sip to receive its powers.
After our trip to the island, we had a couple of hours to wander around the city before getting on our bus to La Paz. It was a relaxing and beautiful day, and it felt like the perfect amount of time for what we needed to take in the rest of Copacabana.
Overall, we loved Peru. The food was delicious, the people were super friendly, and the scenery was amazing. With the Peruvian Nuevo Sol about 3:1 USD, it wasn’t the cheapest country (so far it’s still Mexico), but it was still very budget-friendly. After 34 days in Peru, here are some final random observations we had:
We saw a ton of amazing ruins here - and not just Incan! Most people only think of Machu Picchu, but it was cool to learn about all the pre-Incan cultures as well.
Chinese food restaurants are everywhere in Peru. They are called “chifas,” which we learned from the locals in Trujillo means “come eat” in Chinese. Supposedly when Chinese immigrants moved here and opened restaurants, they would stand outside and yell, “Chifa! Chifa!” which the locals thought was the name of the restaurant - thus all of these establishments now are called chifas. They serve both Chinese-Peruvian fusion dishes and what we would consider American-style Chinese food.
From the cooking class in Lima, we learned that we should only buy fish and not any other meat at markets. Our chef does not trust the sanitation of the pork, chicken, or beef vendors. We also observed that it’s almost always cheaper to buy fruits and veggies from the market rather than the grocery store.
Surprisingly, it was often cheaper for us to eat our meals at restaurants with “economy menus,” where from $1-4 per person you could get a set meal of a soup, an entree, and sometimes a dessert. We think it was cheaper to eat out because 70% of the meal was rice, plus when we shop for our meals we go crazy on fruits, veggies, and quality meat to make up for the less nutritious food served at restaurants. Gotta get all those vitamins!
While we wouldn’t consider ourselves coffee connoisseurs, we do appreciate a cup or two of coffee in the morning. Unfortunately, as we mentioned before, almost all the places we stayed either had really bad instant coffee or none at all. We spoiled ourselves in Lima where we could brew our own coffee and drink as many cups as we wanted every day for over a week. We jumped for joy when both our hostels in Copacabana and La Paz served delicious real coffee. Bolivia is off to a good start!
Arequipa’s trash trucks play music like in Baños, with their favorite song being “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid.
We took eight buses in Peru, and for the most part all of our experiences have been great. They were all coach buses with movies, meals, and bathrooms - although attempting to pee while the bus rocks back and forth is not always so easy. We hear the quality of buses is definitely not the same in Bolivia. Our first two trips from Puno to Copacabana and Copacabana to La Paz weren’t bad, but the quality of bus is definitely not as good.
The only negative bus experience we had was that our waterproof camera and Vesper’s Nintendo DS went missing after the bus ride from Lima to Ica. At least it’s less weight to carry now?
We arrived in Arequipa in southern Peru late last Sunday after a twelve hour bus ride from Ica. Arequipa is a Spanish colonial town and popular tourist destination for its architecture, museums, and gateway to the Colca Canyon. The Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and one of the deepest canyons in the world. We spent a few days exploring the city before embarking on a “trek” to visit this natural wonder.
Our first day in Arequipa we did a free walking tour, which turned out to be fairly informative and highly entertaining. Free tours are often hit or miss, but we were definitely glad we did this one! We learned that Arequipa is known as “the White City” because of the white volcanic stone used in many of its building, including the picturesque main square. (Interestingly, the guide on our Colca trek said historically this name also comes from the fact that only white Spaniards lived in the city.) We toured the central market, which had a huge selection of meats, fruits, llama fetuses, and blended frog juice. Yup, you read that correctly. It’s common practice for shaman to buy the llama fetuses and bury them under new homes as a sacrifice to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to ask for her blessing. As for the blended frog juice? We didn’t see this - nor did we have any desire to try it - but according to our guide, it’s good for the memory (or at least you will never forget drinking it!). We googled this more when we got home, and it seems like a panacea, curing anything from anemia to bronchitis as well as being an Andean viagra.
We also visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos, a museum that hosts the remains of Incan “mummies” found on nearby volcanoes. The most famous is Juanita, who isn’t actually a mummy but rather a very well preserved frozen corpse. Juanita and the other frozen bodies were human sacrifices whose skin, hair, and clothing have been kept in tact because of the freezing temperatures at the top of the volcanoes. Juanita is famous because she is so well preserved, including her internal organs! Juanita wasn’t actually on display when we were at the museum - she’s kept in a preservation tank for half of the year to prevent decomposure - but the other frozen “mummy” was still really interesting to see. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the museum, but you can look through some here.
After getting our culture on, we of course explored the beer scene! In fact, I think we found the best beer bar of the trip. We spent the next few nights at Chelawasi Public House sampling the many Peruvian beers they had in bottles and on tap. Our experience was particularly awesome because of Colin, the bartender who provided us with some of the best beer recommendations, including two amazing IPAs. Let me repeat that: two AMAZING, hoppy, delicious IPAs from Peru! They were both from Magdalena brewery; the best one was Mala Suerte, an imperial black IPA, followed closely by Muertecita, an imperial IPA. It’s a good thing we found this place before the weekend: Sunday, April 10 is election day in Peru, and no alcohol can be sold starting 8 am Saturday morning through 8 am Monday morning. All Peruvians aged 18-70 are required to vote or pay a fine, and this dry law helps “to ensure security and order” during this time.
The other highlight of our stay in Arequipa was doing a Colca Canyon “trek.” I say “trek” because it was basically glamping, and it was awesome. After a few recent crappy albeit ultra cheap tours, we splurged and did a more expensive but highly recommended two day hiking/biking/bus tour. The best part of our tour was our amazing (English-speaking!) guide. Vesper even started taking notes so we could share some of the more interesting things we learned:
Vicuñas are an undomesticated animal similar to llamas and alpacas, and we saw several when we visited the national preserve. Their wool is very expensive (something like $500/kg or $3,000 for a jacket), and every two years there is a Chaccu festival to catch and shear them. Hundreds of locals will help to round up the animals. Once one is caught, three people will hold the animal while another shears it. They use special shears to do the job quickly as they only have two minutes to complete the task, otherwise the stress can kill the animal. Check out the amazing pictures on this website for more detail.
Llamas were domesticated by the Incas, can hold up to 70 kg, and can walk all day for three months straight even in high altitudes.
Viscacha is an animal that looks like a rabbit with a long tail and is related to the chinchilla family.
Yareta looks like a green rock, but is actually a plant that only grows at high altitudes. It grows very slowly and can live for thousands of years, but it is now endangered because the locals use it for firewood. The plant stays warm at night by trapping heat from the sun, and so some animals like vicuñas will sleep on it.
Cochineal is a parasite that can be found on the “tuna” or “prickly pear” cactus (Opuntia). When squished, the insect’s guts/blood produce a red dye called carmine, which has been used for hundreds of years to dye textiles and in more recent years for makeup.
Andean Condors are related to vultures. They are super ugly scavengers and one of the biggest birds alive! They have about a three meter wingspan and live up to 100 years in captivity. It’s unknown how long they live in the wild, but ask a local and they will tell you these birds live forever. Unlike most other birds, the Andean Condor can fly above 8,000 meters.
Some tribes used to perform cranial deformation to show respect for their regional mountain god. They would do this with infants while the skull was still soft. They would deform their head to look similar to the shape of the mountain; for example, if the mountain was pointy on top they would bind wood around the sides of the head, and if it was flat on top they would bind wood on top of the head and under the chin.
Wititi means love dance or sex dance. According to our guide, small towns in the Colca Valley have festivals where a boy will ask a girl to dance, and if she accepts they are supposed to dance for five days and get married two weeks later - which supposedly resulted in some 2,000 people getting married after the last festival. You can read more about the tradition on UNESCO’s website.
In addition to the fun facts we learned, we also saw some amazing scenery. One of our mini hikes was to a place that basically looked like the Peruvian version of the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon. Throughout our journey into the Colca Valley, we saw numerous Andinas (agricultural terraces in Peru), beautiful green landscapes, and snow-topped peaks. We spent the night in a tiny town at a picturesque lodge, with huge windows overlooking the valley. On the second day of the trek, we did a beautiful bike ride into the canyon, stopping along the way to look for condors, and wrapped up with a quick stop to some local hot springs. It ended up being far less physically demanding than we had expected, but it was a nice side trip to wrap up our time in Arequipa.