Bolivia, land of contrasts and mysteries

By Wayne Wirtanen
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(Second of two parts)

La Paz

La Paz is best remembered for great, inexpensive hotels, shopping bargains and streets of witch doctors. I found the most colorful and largest variety of shopping at the “witches’ market” (Mercado de Hechiceria), across from San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco) in central La Paz. Vendors there were helpful and unaggressive; they readily took dollars, and they either spoke English or communicated easily with simple sign language.

The many small shops’ offerings spilled out onto the sidewalks in a tidy fashion. Among the fine alpaca products and artistic crafts were the witches’ offerings. Nothing silly or scary here; on sale were a wide variety of herbs and folk remedies along with a smattering of talismans believed to be necessary to satisfy the “good” and “bad” spirits that populate the Andes.

One street, the “bad witch doctor” street, specialized in merchandise to fend off evil spirits. A block away, the “good witch doctor street” offered items to attract benevolent spirits. The Andean Aymara culture believes that amulets and talismans from each street should be secreted at or near the front door of every house for proper balance of good luck and a happy home.

A harmonious home is also assured by the custom of burying a llama fetus under the foundation of a new house. Desiccated llama fetuses were on offer on the good witch doctor street.

Geographically speaking, the city of La Paz lies in a wide, high-walled (high-altitude) “soup bowl.” The central city and the more affluent residential areas are in the relatively flat bottom of the “bowl,” while the less affluent residential areas rise up in a continuous ring along the sides.

At dinner one night in the 16th-floor restaurant La Bella Vista (The Beautiful View) at Hotel Presidente, the view of the downtown city lights and the 360-degree panorama of residential lights rising to a horizon high above the level of the restaurant were indeed splendid.

Downtown La Paz is relatively compact, so taxi fares were modest, and a few words of Spanish worked wonders when giving instructions to the cab drivers on my visit in October of 2004.

Around Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca straddles the Peru/Bolivia border at some 12,500 feet in altitude. Although this lake is but a small part of Bolivia, it is, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the country. Regularly scheduled hydrofoil service provides speedy service to all areas of the lake. Much of the local life revolves around fishing and the raising of llamas and alpacas as has been done for centuries.

The reeds that grow in the shallows of the lake provide fodder for the domestic animals and construction materials for the classic reed boats that have been used on the lake for eons. The boats are made up of tied-together bundles of hollow reeds.

You may remember the adventures of the Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl, who wanted to demonstrate that primitive boats could cross the Atlantic from Europe. His first boat, Ra I, built along “Egyptian lines,” sunk in mid-ocean when the reed bundles came apart. Heyerdahl’s second reed boat made the crossing successfully in 1970 after he went to Lake Titicaca to get a couple of local boatbuilding experts to supervise the building of his Ra II.

Tiahuanaco (Tiwanaku)

Pre-Inca people built a city with an estimated population of 20,000 on the shores of Lake Titicaca about 1,000 years ago, and little is known about the builders and inhabitants.

The ruins of the ceremonial part of Tiahuanaco have been partially excavated, and a tour of this site is on most Bolivian travel itineraries. During early excavation (looting), the Spanish sent most of the easily found artifacts to private collections around the world. What remains are building walls, a courtyard and a few pieces of statuary that were too heavy to carry away.

Surrounding these excavated ceremonial areas are mounds of earth containing pyramid-shaped constructions that have yet to be exposed. (This type of careful archaeological excavation is expensive.)

Sun Island

Sun Island is still accepted by modern-day Quechua and Aymara peoples as the birthplace of the sun and the cradle of the Andean civilization.

Discovered just north of the island in about 25 feet of water were walls, pathways and a massive stone temple in an area called La Ciudad Submergida (Submerged City). There’s speculation along the “Lost City of Atlantis” line, but the most logical explanation is that the area got submerged due to changing lake levels. (Tiahuanaco apparently suffered an opposite result; it was reported to have been built at the lakeshore, but the ruins are now some distance away from the water.)

Ecolodge La Estancia

Near one of the small Aymara villages, Estancia, on Sun Island, Big Five Tours has built an ecologically advanced lodge, Ecolodge La Estancia, overlooking Lake Titicaca. Much design consideration was involved in order to have this lodge combine Andean architecture with modern comfort and yet include many earth-sensitive features such as the extensive use of solar energy.

The individual cabins are built of adobe brick with thatch roofs. Pre-Inca terraces still in use are all around, and I saw a small group of local women preparing a nearby terrace for the planting of a new crop.

The hike to the lodge

After arrival at Sun Island we hiked a short distance up above the ruins of Pilkokaina (a small group of mostly complete stone buildings). We were treated to an aptapi, a communal Andean lunch featuring local food prepared in the local manner (chicken, fresh grilled lake fish and locally grown vegetables).

There are no vehicles on Sun Island. The advertised additional “about one-hour hike” up to the lodge took me and a few others in the group a decent bit longer. Some of the hike was on dirt pathways gently sloping up and down and more than a little bit of it was on steep rocky trails. In my (age-75-year-old) book, this was strenuous high-altitude climbing requiring quite a few rest stops. I was tired and puffing upon reaching the lodge, but a cold beer and a good rest brought me back to comfortable life.

Big Five is aware that this can be a strenuous hike and so provided a couple of small horses for those who chose to ride. A local “paramedic” accompanied us with a large first-aid kit and an oxygen bottle. A couple of the group chose horseback, but none needed first-aid or oxygen.

A Big Five representative told me that in the six or seven years since the lodge was built, only one hiker did not make the full climb — and there was plenty of assistance available for that climber’s safe descent.

Inca Utama Hotel

Inca Utama Hotel, at lake’s edge in the town of Huatajata, is a good bit more than a hotel with a fine restaurant and spa. On the premises is the Andean Roots Cultural Center, which features an indoor/outdoor audiovisual museum of the high altiplano culture combined with a planetarium. This should not be missed. (For more info and photos, punch in “Inca Utama Hotel” on Google.)

In the segment of the center devoted to Kallawaya medicine men, there are displays of early and still-used herbal healing methods. The Kallawaya doctors are authorized by law to practice medicine as any other M.D.’s.

One humorous diorama in the center’s cultural section displays a traditional, still-common aspect of Andean courtship rituals. “Trial marriages” are still customary in much of Bolivia. If a couple has “tried it out” and wants to make their marriage permanent, their parents bless the wedding by throwing handfuls of small pebbles at the couple as they run off (rice is less common and more expensive than gravel in the Andes).

If one of the couple finds that the “trial” is not satisfactory, the arrangement is called off with no further consequences, with a few exceptions. If one or the other of the couple is unfaithful or abusive, the guilty party is ostracized by the community and often has to move from the area in shame. In those cases where a child results, the baby generally goes to the woman’s parents for care until the woman can bring it into a new and successful marriage.

Kallawaya fortune teller

Also traditional in the Andes is the locals’ reliance on the skill of the Kallawaya medicine men in foretelling the future by interpreting the pattern of tossed coca leaves.

One evening, Tata Lorenzo, the local Kallawaya medicine man at the Andean Roots Cultural Center, predicted the futures of a few members of our group. He laid out two short rows of coca leaves and then individually tossed additional leaves at the grouping. The closeness of the tossed leaves to the original rows and whether or not the leaves landed “shiny” or “dull” side up indicated the response to specific questions.

One young woman asked if the new man in her life would turn out to be a good prospect for a permanent relationship. The answer pleased her. “This will work out very well for both of you,” the Kallawaya medicine man predicted.

A good read

For a humorous insight into Bolivia, its colorful historical personalities and its convoluted history, look up Eric Lawlor’s “In Bolivia — An Adventurous Odyssey through the Americas’ Least Known Nation” (1989, Vintage Departures, a division of Random House, New York, NY. ISBN 0-394-75836-6 — 226 pages, originally $7.95 in paperback).

Big Five Tours

I was a guest of Big Five Tours on this trip, which included a visit to Sucre, Bolivia’s co-capital. Sucre is known as the “White City of the Americas.” Around the large, shady central plaza are white government buildings and churches, and around the rest of the city all buildings are either whitewashed or painted white.

For information on this itinerary or their complete portfolio of exciting and innovative programs, contact Big Five Tours & Expeditions, 1551 SE Palm Court, Stuart, FL 34995; phone 800/445-7002, e-mail info@bigfive.com or visit www.bigfive.com.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

(Second of two parts)

La Paz

La Paz is best remembered for great, inexpensive hotels, shopping bargains and streets of witch doctors. I found the most colorful and largest variety of shopping at the “witches’ market” (Mercado de Hechiceria), across from San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco) in central La Paz. Vendors there were helpful and unaggressive; they readily took dollars, and they either spoke English or communicated easily with simple sign language.

The many small shops’ offerings spilled out onto the sidewalks in a tidy fashion. Among the fine alpaca products and artistic crafts were the witches’ offerings. Nothing silly or scary here; on sale were a wide variety of herbs and folk remedies along with a smattering of talismans believed to be necessary to satisfy the “good” and “bad” spirits that populate the Andes.

One street, the “bad witch doctor” street, specialized in merchandise to fend off evil spirits. A block away, the “good witch doctor street” offered items to attract benevolent spirits. The Andean Aymara culture believes that amulets and talismans from each street should be secreted at or near the front door of every house for proper balance of good luck and a happy home.

A harmonious home is also assured by the custom of burying a llama fetus under the foundation of a new house. Desiccated llama fetuses were on offer on the good witch doctor street.

Geographically speaking, the city of La Paz lies in a wide, high-walled (high-altitude) “soup bowl.” The central city and the more affluent residential areas are in the relatively flat bottom of the “bowl,” while the less affluent residential areas rise up in a continuous ring along the sides.

At dinner one night in the 16th-floor restaurant La Bella Vista (The Beautiful View) at Hotel Presidente, the view of the downtown city lights and the 360-degree panorama of residential lights rising to a horizon high above the level of the restaurant were indeed splendid.

Downtown La Paz is relatively compact, so taxi fares were modest, and a few words of Spanish worked wonders when giving instructions to the cab drivers on my visit in October of 2004.

Around Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca straddles the Peru/Bolivia border at some 12,500 feet in altitude. Although this lake is but a small part of Bolivia, it is, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the country. Regularly scheduled hydrofoil service provides speedy service to all areas of the lake. Much of the local life revolves around fishing and the raising of llamas and alpacas as has been done for centuries.

The reeds that grow in the shallows of the lake provide fodder for the domestic animals and construction materials for the classic reed boats that have been used on the lake for eons. The boats are made up of tied-together bundles of hollow reeds.

You may remember the adventures of the Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl, who wanted to demonstrate that primitive boats could cross the Atlantic from Europe. His first boat, Ra I, built along “Egyptian lines,” sunk in mid-ocean when the reed bundles came apart. Heyerdahl’s second reed boat made the crossing successfully in 1970 after he went to Lake Titicaca to get a couple of local boatbuilding experts to supervise the building of his Ra II.

Tiahuanaco (Tiwanaku)

Pre-Inca people built a city with an estimated population of 20,000 on the shores of Lake Titicaca about 1,000 years ago, and little is known about the builders and inhabitants.

The ruins of the ceremonial part of Tiahuanaco have been partially excavated, and a tour of this site is on most Bolivian travel itineraries. During early excavation (looting), the Spanish sent most of the easily found artifacts to private collections around the world. What remains are building walls, a courtyard and a few pieces of statuary that were too heavy to carry away.

Surrounding these excavated ceremonial areas are mounds of earth containing pyramid-shaped constructions that have yet to be exposed. (This type of careful archaeological excavation is expensive.)

Sun Island

Sun Island is still accepted by modern-day Quechua and Aymara peoples as the birthplace of the sun and the cradle of the Andean civilization.

Discovered just north of the island in about 25 feet of water were walls, pathways and a massive stone temple in an area called La Ciudad Submergida (Submerged City). There’s speculation along the “Lost City of Atlantis” line, but the most logical explanation is that the area got submerged due to changing lake levels. (Tiahuanaco apparently suffered an opposite result; it was reported to have been built at the lakeshore, but the ruins are now some distance away from the water.)

Ecolodge La Estancia

Near one of the small Aymara villages, Estancia, on Sun Island, Big Five Tours has built an ecologically advanced lodge, Ecolodge La Estancia, overlooking Lake Titicaca. Much design consideration was involved in order to have this lodge combine Andean architecture with modern comfort and yet include many earth-sensitive features such as the extensive use of solar energy.

The individual cabins are built of adobe brick with thatch roofs. Pre-Inca terraces still in use are all around, and I saw a small group of local women preparing a nearby terrace for the planting of a new crop.

The hike to the lodge

After arrival at Sun Island we hiked a short distance up above the ruins of Pilkokaina (a small group of mostly complete stone buildings). We were treated to an aptapi, a communal Andean lunch featuring local food prepared in the local manner (chicken, fresh grilled lake fish and locally grown vegetables).

There are no vehicles on Sun Island. The advertised additional “about one-hour hike” up to the lodge took me and a few others in the group a decent bit longer. Some of the hike was on dirt pathways gently sloping up and down and more than a little bit of it was on steep rocky trails. In my (age-75-year-old) book, this was strenuous high-altitude climbing requiring quite a few rest stops. I was tired and puffing upon reaching the lodge, but a cold beer and a good rest brought me back to comfortable life.

Big Five is aware that this can be a strenuous hike and so provided a couple of small horses for those who chose to ride. A local “paramedic” accompanied us with a large first-aid kit and an oxygen bottle. A couple of the group chose horseback, but none needed first-aid or oxygen.

A Big Five representative told me that in the six or seven years since the lodge was built, only one hiker did not make the full climb — and there was plenty of assistance available for that climber’s safe descent.

Inca Utama Hotel

Inca Utama Hotel, at lake’s edge in the town of Huatajata, is a good bit more than a hotel with a fine restaurant and spa. On the premises is the Andean Roots Cultural Center, which features an indoor/outdoor audiovisual museum of the high altiplano culture combined with a planetarium. This should not be missed. (For more info and photos, punch in “Inca Utama Hotel” on Google.)

In the segment of the center devoted to Kallawaya medicine men, there are displays of early and still-used herbal healing methods. The Kallawaya doctors are authorized by law to practice medicine as any other M.D.’s.

One humorous diorama in the center’s cultural section displays a traditional, still-common aspect of Andean courtship rituals. “Trial marriages” are still customary in much of Bolivia. If a couple has “tried it out” and wants to make their marriage permanent, their parents bless the wedding by throwing handfuls of small pebbles at the couple as they run off (rice is less common and more expensive than gravel in the Andes).

If one of the couple finds that the “trial” is not satisfactory, the arrangement is called off with no further consequences, with a few exceptions. If one or the other of the couple is unfaithful or abusive, the guilty party is ostracized by the community and often has to move from the area in shame. In those cases where a child results, the baby generally goes to the woman’s parents for care until the woman can bring it into a new and successful marriage.

Kallawaya fortune teller

Also traditional in the Andes is the locals’ reliance on the skill of the Kallawaya medicine men in foretelling the future by interpreting the pattern of tossed coca leaves.

One evening, Tata Lorenzo, the local Kallawaya medicine man at the Andean Roots Cultural Center, predicted the futures of a few members of our group. He laid out two short rows of coca leaves and then individually tossed additional leaves at the grouping. The closeness of the tossed leaves to the original rows and whether or not the leaves landed “shiny” or “dull” side up indicated the response to specific questions.

One young woman asked if the new man in her life would turn out to be a good prospect for a permanent relationship. The answer pleased her. “This will work out very well for both of you,” the Kallawaya medicine man predicted.

A good read

For a humorous insight into Bolivia, its colorful historical personalities and its convoluted history, look up Eric Lawlor’s “In Bolivia — An Adventurous Odyssey through the Americas’ Least Known Nation” (1989, Vintage Departures, a division of Random House, New York, NY. ISBN 0-394-75836-6 — 226 pages, originally $7.95 in paperback).

Big Five Tours

I was a guest of Big Five Tours on this trip, which included a visit to Sucre, Bolivia’s co-capital. Sucre is known as the “White City of the Americas.” Around the large, shady central plaza are white government buildings and churches, and around the rest of the city all buildings are either whitewashed or painted white.

For information on this itinerary or their complete portfolio of exciting and innovative programs, contact Big Five Tours & Expeditions, 1551 SE Palm Court, Stuart, FL 34995; phone 800/445-7002, e-mail info@bigfive.com or visit www.bigfive.com.