Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Chulumani ... another hidden gem.

On the road to Chulumani.
The road to Chulumani was bumpy, very bumpy!  But we were excited; a place I had not been to before and we had heard so many good things about it ... primarily that it was not touristy.  Let's go! The four hour ride presented us with some spectacular views and scenery and although not the Death Road, there were still some bits where it was quite narrow and the sheer drops, quite literally, took our breath away.

Out and about in Chulumani.
Alex and Javier ... "nos prestamos plata".
Upon our arrival, we could see that it was a quaint little place.  Mostly indigenous folk, not that big, a Chulumani.  Apart from the fact that the rooms were gorgeous and comfortable, the place surrounded by foliage and birds, and that it had a swimming pool and felt like a retreat ... the owner absolutely made it!  Javier, originally from La Paz, was beyond knowledgeable about the area and with his effervescent personality and desire to show and tell us what to do and see we had an absolute blast and ended up staying there for over a week.  I loved the fact that until the last day we were the only gringos in the 'hood!  Days were spent exploring, yeh and sometimes even just relaxing by the poolside, and nights were spent deep in conversation with  Javier who has since become a great friend ... as he likes to say "nos prestamos plata" ("we now lend each other money", which he says only happens between really good friends).  Having lived in the States, he also has excellent English.  Javier lives in this gorgeous place with his equally gorgeous daughter, Lupita, who besides going to high school, also helped out around the hostel. Lupita ... bright, excellent English, smart and a conversationalist ... we loved you! If only 1% of the worldwide teenage population could be like you.  And to boot and excellent violinist!
central plaza and lots of unpaved dusty roads.  Had we just hit the Wild West?  It instantly had that homely, 'welcome home' vibe about it.  We asked around for accommodation (the places to stay can be counted on half a hand and struggling) and ended up at Country House.

The way to chill out at Countryhouse Chulumani.

A house with a (breathtaking!) view.

Chill out time.

Rural town life.
We went on some great walks and saw some amazing things.  The only foreigners around, the spotlight was often on us, but the people were really helpful and chatty.  We chatted to lots of locals who were more than willing to tell their stories as well as invite us into their humble homes.  There is no price one can place on this. We visited many little towns and one of my favourites was Chicaloma. This tiny place is home to many of Bolivia's Afro-Bolivian population. The thing that really blew me away was to see some of the women dressed up in indigenous garb.  I was used to seeing indigenous people in these clothes, not black people! Ocobaya was another tiny but pleasant spot as was Irupana, where we found organic coffee and people drying their coca leaves on the road.

This is the way you dry your coca leaves.

Being invited into the home of some locals.
Alex showing Lupita how to make patacones.
The real beauty and intrigue of the entire area was to simply 'be' ... to walk, to breathe in the country air, to take in the spectacular scenery, to talk to the locals, to absorb the culture, and to spend some truly amazing time with Javier and Lupita.

Lupita is a truly talented young lady and is part of the Chulumani Symphonic Orchestra, a group of young and talented musicians who gather weekly and practice.  Despite the fact that the teacher comes all the way from La Paz weekly and that the local council has tried to make their existence difficult (I will not get into the politics here) they all continue to get together and play their instruments. Alex and I went to visit the group and chatted to them about the importance of believing in themselves and following their dreams.  Dreams only come true when you believe in them! There is nothing quite like inspiring young people to be positive, to try and achieve their best and most of all push forward with vigour in the face of adversity. It was great to spend a couple of hours with them.  This culminated in a 'performance' for us that simply blew us away!  We were touched to tears! I hope that in years to come these kids will look back and think ... we met two people who believed in us!

Some kids from the orchestra.

With the Chulumani Symphonic Orchestra.

With the Chulumani Symphonic Orchestra; Lupita far left.

With Lupita and Javier.
And as so happens on our travels, it was time to leave and move on.  This time, however, with a somewhat heavy heart.  Javier, Lupita and Country House Chulumani had made an enormous impact on us.  Would we see these people again?  Yes, I think we will!  Lots of hugs all around, tears in my eyes, and with a heart full of gratitude and joy we were off on our next adventure!

As we walked away from the hostel, I looked back at the waving Javier and Lupita and, with teras in my eyes, blew them kisses.  This is why I travel ... THIS is why I travel!


With Javier, Lupita and Vaughn (the only other tourist we saw in the week).

Goodbye Countryhouse.

I will miss you Javier!

"Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom." – Marcel Proust

Dedication: To our 'charming gardeners'. Javier and Lupita' you are the charming gardeners who allowed our souls to blossom. You made us happy and you became our friends! We will never forget you both and this spectacular part of our journey.  Friends forever!  You are always welcome to visit us and stay with us in Australia.  When our journey is done and dusted, it is people like you that leave a footprint on our hearts.  Those footprints will always remain! We thank you profoundly!

Dedicatoria: A nuestros 'jardineros encantadores'. Javier y Lupita ustedes son los jardineros encantadores que permitieron que nuestras almas florezcan. Nos hiciste feliz y se convirtieron en nuestros amigos! Nunca olvidaremos a los dos y esta parte espectacular de nuestro viaje. Amigos para siempre! Siempre estarĂ¡n bienvenidos visitarnos y quedarse con nosotros en Australia. Cuando el viaje  esta terminado es la gente como usted que dejan una huella en nuestros corazones. Estas huellas permaneceran siempre!  Te agradecemos profundamente!

Next:  Copacabana and Lake Titicaca.

A local on her walk.


Amazing scenery.

Walks in off-the-beaten-track places.

Out and about.

Everyone deserves some rest time.

Ahhh, the tranquility.

Beauty ... and no beast in sight!

"Long live the holy leaf". (Coca)

Local life.

Yin and Yang ... cultivation coca leaf style.

Farmers cultivating coca leaves.

The colours of Mother Nature.

Beauty and the Beast!

The Countryhouse dogs saying goodbye as we leave.

Chulumani ... butterfly wonderland.

Drying coca leaves.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Up and down in La Paz!

Hello La Paz!
Oh La Paz ... you're high, you're cold, you make walking around difficult, you have witches' markets, good coffee, indigenous women wrestling, amazing museums, spectacular scenery and amazing markets! I could finish the blog here really!  Oh you do do delight, and the best part about you is really that you are just you and that simply walking around you is a delight!

Nuestra Senora de la Paz (Our Lady of Peace), or La Paz, as it's more commonly known sits in a bowl surrounded by the high mountains of the altiplano and sits in elevations of between 3200 and 4100 metres above sea level. Although very cold at night, it's not uncommon to be walking around in a t-shirt and pants during the day whilst looking out to the triple-peaked Illamani in the distance; always snow-covered and it can be seen from many parts of the city.

Illimani, La Paz's guardian!

I was back!  I felt like I had found my long-lost sister. First things first ... finding a place to stay. We arrived nice and early and it was indeed nice and cold.  I had forgotten how frenetic and full-on La Paz was, but I will confess to quite liking that vibe.  Although we headed for the centre and checked a few places out, we ended up at
Arthy's Guesthouse.  Despite being on a very busy road, what lay behind the bright orange door which was its entrance was a veritable clean, cosy and tranquil oasis.  The owners were helpful and treated us like their family.  The kitchen was a winner.  I am not going to lie, I have not been overly impressed with Bolivia's mostly fried-fare but the markets have some of the greatest variety I have seen anywhere in the world.

La Paz street art.
La Paz has grown and expanded over the years, and most certainly since I was here in 1999.  El Alto used to be the 'slum-city' that sat five kilometres away on the outskirts of La Paz.  The urban sprawl has grown so much that this once suburb of La Paz is now really just part of it.  It's one of Bolivia's largest and fastest-growing urban centres. It's also the highest point of La Paz at a little over 4100 metres above sea level. The views from El Alto are breathtaking, needless to say! It has a very interesting history and past; populated largely by Aymara (Bolivia's two biggest indigenous groups are the Aymara and Quechua) migrants from the surrounding Altiplano it was officially recognised as a separate municipality from La Paz in 1986.  It instantly became the fourth biggest, poorest and fastest growing city in Bolivia.  Along with this were included all the problems of a poor city that grows that fast! It actually has a bigger population than La Paz!

El Alto Sunday market.

Aerial transport, La Paz style.
La Paz has done something brilliantly.  It has created Mi Teleferico (My Cable Car), not as a tourist attraction but as an aerial cable car urban transit system.  It was actually planned in order to address a number of problems, the most prominent being a precarious public transport system that simply could not cope with user demands.  Built by an Austrian company, and opened only last year in 2014, there are currently three lines in operation and six more are in the planning stage. The first two lines, the Red and Yellow, connect La Paz with El Alto and blow-your-socks-off views are afforded.  As it's not a tourist attraction (yet!) and a means of public transport, we had lots of fun using the various lines several times.  It was not just the views that blew our socks off but also the sheer size of La Paz which continues to grow like it's on top-end baby formula!

El Alto Market ... something for everyone!
Needless to say the cable car is how we got to El Alto's famous Sunday market. Market?  It was a 'suburb' of street to street vendors selling everything from llama  foetuses to top-end Bose sound systems. You name it, they have it!   It was absolutely chockers and it just went on and on and on and on.  These once-poor-people have carved themselves out a decent income and good on them. It reached a point where it was just too hard to take it all in.  Without a doubt one of the biggest markets I have ever seen ... and with a brilliant view of la Paz to boot! With its dusty streets and sweeping views, it looks like something out of a wild, wild west movie! Keep in mind that it's the world's most active 'rebel' city and the scene of frequent protests and crippling  strikes!

El Alto is also home to La Paz's Lucha Libre or 'Cholitas Wrestling' as it's more commonly known and I can highly recommend it. Much more than entertainment and profits however, Cholita wrestling is a way for Bolivian women to prove their worth in a 'man's world'.  Having been abused, humiliated and discriminated against throughout history, the ring is one place where indigenous women can hold their head high, do their job with pride and be on equal footing with men!  You go girrrrrrls!!!!!!!

That's the way gals!
This is both an absolutely hysterical as well as bizarre event where women in their indigenous attire go out and wrestle.  Locals and foreigners alike love it!  I don't normally like to do 'tacky' things on the tourist trail, but I succumbed and we went.  Inspired by the USA's World Wide Wrestling and Mexico's lucha libre, this is really more about entertainment than skill.  Nobody gets hurt and I must say, good laughs are provided all around! There are a couple of different places that you can go to; we went to

La Paz, you were so much more than spectacular scenery, markets and dizzying heights!  Every nook and cranny was packed with culture, information and protests! The Mercado de Hecheria, or Witches' Market, sells everything from herbal and folk remedies to toucan beaks! Interesting to walk around and watch the vendors doing rituals for everything from the purchase of a new house to getting rid of unwanted negative energy.

Llama foetuses anyime?

Or perhaps a potion of some description?

Plazas, churches, museums ... La Paz abounds in all.  One of my absolute favourites, however, was the Museum of Musical Instruments.  This place has an exhaustive hands-on collection of unique musical instruments, including those that are specifically Andean.  It's a must see for musicians and we lay-people alike. A private museum, it was founded in 1962 by famous Bolivian 'charanguista' and the inventor of many musical instruments, Ernesto Cavour. Every Saturday night the museum holds a concert, showcasing some of La Paz's and often Bolivia's most seasoned musicians.  The concert room is very small and the entry fee is around USD$3.50.  Anywhere else in the world this type of talent would cost a fortune! Underrated, understated!

What a collection of instruments.

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We were fortunate in that the night we visited, we saw the master himself!  What a truly talented man. His speciality, clearly, is the charango, a small Andean stringed instrument. Along with a couple of other artists, including Franz Valverde who played the muyu-muyu (like a guitar with strings on both sides!) and Rolando Encinas on the pan pipes, we were totally entertained over a couple of hours. The museum also happens to be on Calle Jaen, La Paz's finest colonial street; cobblestoned and free of traffic, it's like an oasis of tranquility in a chaotic city!

Of course we visited many markets and parks, but we also took some time to hang out and simply take in the La Paz life.  I have seen lots of changes in the 15 years since I was here last.  Without a doubt there is still a lot of poverty, bit this seems a world away from suburbs like Sopocachi which abounds in lovely restaurants and funky cafes.

Central Park .. a view 'above' the rest ... La Paz.

La Paz by night.
La Paz has been described as chaotic, frenetic, dirty and dangerous, but we loved it!  It charged our batteries and with a renewed zest, we were ready to move on. Coroico is usually the next stop on the tourist trail, which is what I did in 1999, but I had heard that it had become super-touristy.  La Carretera de las Yungas, the road between La Paz and Coroico, is known as the most dangerous road in the world.  I know!  I did it! "It's estimated that 200 to 300 people travelling on it die each year.  the thin road climbs jungle-clad mountains to a height of 4650 metres, winding and turning all the while with nauseatingly deep canyons below. Dozens of vehicles went off the road each year, and with vertical drops of up to 1000 metres over the edge , annual fatalities reached into the 100s". No thanks, been there done that.  These days, it's mostly used by cyclists on Death Road cycle tours. Fortunately, there is an alternative road to Coroico ... some use it, some don't.  I played Russian roulette on this road once and I was not going to do it again!  Some things in life are to be repeated and some just are not!

Rooftop view, La Paz

Soooooooo,  we looked at the map ... and chose Chulumani close by ... it would prove to be one of the best choices we made, and a South American highlight!


"I have found that if you love life, life will love you back". – Arthur Rubinstein

Next: Chulumani and Lake Titicaca.

Street art.

Around La Paz.


Cars, buildings and protests, La Paz.

Out and about in La Paz.

A night of entertainment.

Jaen Street.

Bolivia's sad past.

Artists draw it as it is! Or was!
Expanding La Paz.

Precarious living?

It's a hot air balloon?  No, it's a cable car!

La Paz ... houses everywhere!

Cable cars run over the top of the entire city.

Evo ... patria o ratria?

Cable cars, La Paz.

La Paz just keeps growing!

Women looking for justice.

Everything's up for grabs at the El Alto market.

With our Swedish friends Sara and  Mark at Arthy's Guesthouse.

Lucha Libre.

The La Paz shoe shine ninjas!

More street art.

Saying goodbye to Reuben at Arthy's.

View of La Paz at the top of the cable car line.

Shopping at El Alto.

Fruit juice anyone?