Bolivia was never part of our itinerary - I don´t know why, but when we were deciding on our route around South America we hadn´t planned to include Bolivia.However, when we went to book our bus tickets to Puno,Lake Titicaca after completing the Inca Trail and discovered that it was not possible to access the area by road due to protests and roadblocks, we had to change our plans.
Looking at a map of South America, Liam suggested we catch a flight to Bolivia, take a look around La Paz for a few days, then head to Lake Titicaca from the Bolivian side instead. After a bit of research it turned out we could fly to La Paz in under an hour for US$100 each, not much more than the long-distance bus. As there were only 2 seats left on the flight leaving at 8.45am the next morning, and there were only 2 flights to La Paz from Cusco each week, we took it as an omen and snapped them up.
"How exhilarating to be able to just fly to another country on a whim with just a few hours´ notice, " said Liam. "Yeah, it´s amazing what you can do with one of these badboys,eh?" I replied, flexing the Barclaycard.(Not quite so exhilarating slaving in a stuffy office for the next 4 years to pay it all off, but hey, we´ll worry about that later.)
The next morning we were up bright and early (no mean feat after drinking in the Irish Bar in Cusco for most of the afternoon and evening) for our flight, only to find it had been delayed for several hours due to poor weather conditions. Apparantly this is common as there have been several accidents and near-misses on this route, as the altitude means that both airports are often foggy and the runways require accuracy as they are short and there are mountains surrounding them.
Luckily the flight was uneventful and we arrived in La Paz in the afternoon and located our hostel.
La Paz is ther highest city in the world at around 3700m, which takes some getting used to as even the slightest exertion leaves you gasping. Our room at the hostel was on the 4th floor,which meant that getting upstairs left us doubled over in an effort to catch our breath, something I think the receptionist anticipated and so gave us gringos the highest room in the block just for a laugh.
It was worth the effort though, as this hostel was one of the best we´ve stayed in on the entire trip so far, despite Bolivia being the poorest country on the continent. (We think that booking the hostels through Hostelworld.com may influence the quality of the room you get, as they ask you to review the hostel by email afterwards..I don´t know, but the mention of Hostelworld seems to have some of the proprieters quaking in their flip-flops to give you good service, just in case you slate the place on the website or something afterwards.)
We dumped our bags and set off to explore the city, which is surrounded by picturesque mountain ranges and is built on a series of very steep hills, so much so that taxis even charge you extra if your journey includes several inclines. On the way downhill, they simply turn their engines off.
We had heard several stories about how dangerous Bolivia was, and some of the many scams that are in operation at the moment, so set off with caution.
Some of the scams include a local chatting to you whilst a "policeman" in uniform comes over and asks to check both your ID´s. They hand over theirs and encourage you to do the same, then when you take our your passport they grab it and anything else they can get their hands on and leg it.
Another involves someone spitting on you without your knowledge, then hurrying over to "help" you clean it up with a tissue, then again relieving you of your belongings whilst you are distracted by the green gunk dripping from your top. Gross!
However, after walking around for a few hours, feeling like giants surrounded by oompah-loompahs (sorry if that´s a little coarse, but the average height is around 5 foot nothing in Peru and Bolivia) our fears began to disspate and we allowed ourselves to relax.
Bolivia is perhaps the biggest culture-shock city we have been to so far..we both agreed that had we come here first we may have been a little freaked out by it, but as we are now seasoned travellers (yeah, right) we allowed ourselves to be swallowed up by the crowds and just soak it all up.
For a start, it´s cheap. And I mean, REALLY cheap. A meal for the two of us including drinks is around a fiver,as there are about 12 Bolivianos to the pound. Brazil has been the most expensive country, with around 2.5 Reals to the pound, then argentina with 5 Pesos to the pound, then Peru with around 6 Soles to the pound.
To get 12 Bolivianos for one pound was a novelty that we never tired of - every time we looked at a menu, phone tariff etc we couldn´t help exclaiming how cheap it all was, a bit like when you go into Primark and get an entire winter wardrobe for 20 quid.
The city of La Paz was buzzing - hundreds of micros (little buses which people hop on and off of) and tiny cars (remember the people here are tiny too) honking their horns and driving in all directions, smog filling your lungs, and most of the locals running everywhere dressed in full traditional garb, such as full frilly skirts and bowler hats (and that´s just the women).
Street markets are everywhere - we were told that as Bolivia is so poor the government doesn´t have the money (or is too corrupt to distibute it), for social security handouts, so everyone does whatever they can to raise to funds to live.
All kinds of weird and wonderful things can be bought at market, such as dried llama foetuses (honestly, I have photographic evidence), dried frogs, armadilloes and even dried cats (sorry Karen, I know how much you love animals - this stuff would´ve had you balling your eyes out in the street).
The next morning we met two couples who we then arranged to meet for drinks that night.Unfortunately, one of the girls got really sick and cancelled the drinks, then Liam felt rough, so didn´t end up going out at all, but arranged to meet Lynsey and Mike, a cool couple from Manchester for breakfast the following morning, where a terrible plan was hatched....