Paul & Cara's Big Trip travel blog

La Paz


After three weeks, it was time to think about leaving Brazil. We had hoped to get a flight to Quito in Ecuador, but this was only possible flying via Columbia or Miami, and would have cost about a thousand pounds, so we thought we'd do it ourselves and head straight to Peru. Obviously this was going to take about four times longer and be a lot more hassle, but we were just about ready to have a go at the intrepid traveller part of the trip. Firstly, we needed to fly west, to a town close to the Bolivian border, called Cuiaba. Alright, so flying isn't that intrepid, but bear with me, it gets better. This relatively straightforward flight ended up involving four stops around Brazil and a change of planes in Sao Paulo.

We arrived in Cuiaba at 1am and got a taxi to a Poussada described in the guidebook as 'good value...with a lovely courtyard and garden'. What they had failed to mention was the bathroom that looked like it hadn't come into contact with any cleaning products in months, the tap that oozed mysterious black chunks when it was turned on and the fact that the 'garden' where breakfast was served was shared by a selection of mangy-looking poultry. Needless to say, we checked out the next day.

We were hoping to head off, but had an email from the estate agent with forms that we needed to print off, sign and fax back. Having come from Salvador where every other shop was an Internet cafe, we didn't foresee any problems, but after traipsing the streets for an hour in 34 degrees heat, it seemed that Cuiaba didn't have any computers. We were eventually directed to a shopping centre where, on the third floor, on a small mezzanine in a bookshop, a couple of computers and a printer were tucked away. We thought we'd cracked it, but noticed that our signatures required a witness. As we appeared to be the only people staying in the youth hostel we moved to, this posed a slight problem. How do you try and ask a stranger to act as a witness for a property deal, when they only speak Portuguese and your language skills are limited to asking for a kilo of oranges or a double room with sea view in Spanish? With a phrasebook, a dictionary and lots of charades-type hand movements, we eventually got the receptionist to understand (either that or he thinks he now part-owns a flat in London) and he signed for us. After spending the equivalent of an average Brazilian weekly salary faxing the forms back, we were free to go.

We had to take a bus to a smaller town a bit nearer the border, where apparently we could hop on a bus the next morning and be in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, the following day. They had obviously edited out the bit that said you got a two-hour bus, leaving at 5.30am, to a dusty road on the border. Then you had to make a dash for one of the only two cabs in the area, who drove you just across the border to a place called San Matias. Once there, you had to push your way into a shed and try and get seats on the bus to Santa Cruz. Oh, and get entry stamps in your passport from an undisclosed location. We managed to buy tickets on the 8.30am bus and waited. At 8.45am a bus arrived, so we checked if it was ours, but apparently this was the 9am bus. A stilted conversation in Spanish with the lady at the counter ensued:

Me (pointing outside): 'Our bus?'

Lady: 'No, nine o´clock bus'.

Me: 'What time our bus coming?'.

Lady (looking at our tickets and the clock): 'Eight thirty'.

Me: 'Eight forty-five now and that not our bus. It come after?'

Lady: 'Yes, next bus. Leave at eight thirty'.

Eventually our bus did arrive at about 9.30am. Now, I say bus, but I use this term very lightly indeed. This assortment of pieces of rusty metal appeared only to be held together by its ´I Love Jesus´ stickers - faith indeed! On previous journeys we'd been concerned whether the bus would be air-conditioned, but this certainly wasn't an issue this time round - whether it would actually complete the journey seemed a more pertinent question. Sincerely hoping that none of the men swigging beer near the office was our driver, we got on board while the huge amounts of luggage were loaded onto the roof and strapped down with rope. We had been warned that Bolivian buses and roads were a little on the basic side, but soon realised we'd been spared the full details. ´Dirt track´is probably the most complimentary way of describing the road from San Matias to Santa Cruz and we soon realised that sleep was unlikely on this 20-hour leg of the journey. Orange dust streamed steadily throu gh the windows and the hours dragged by, with the odd toilet and food stop breaking it up slightly. Every time we paused, local kids would get on, selling fruit and snacks, then jump off again when the bus started moving.

We eventually arrived in Santa Cruz at about three the following morning. We didn't actually know we'd arrived, as the bus stopped and then the driver and luggage man proceeded to lie down and go to sleep. Two hours later we worked out we were probably there (apparently, when buses arrive really early in the morning, they let people sleep on them until sunrise and the drivers have a break), so we woke one of the guys up and he got our bags off the roof for us.

Now, at this point it would have been nice to check into a hostel, have a shower and sleep, but whether due to sleep deprivation or sheer madness, we decided instead to get a taxi straight to the airport and see if we could get a flight to La Paz (the other option was a 16-hour bus journey, but we'd had enough of buses for a while). We did manage to find a cheap flight leaving a couple of hours later, which gave us time to wash the grime off our faces and get some food. When going through customs, Paul seemed to be taking a long time and I waited the other side wondering where he'd gone. It turned out that he'd been taken into a room where a dodgy policeman had made him take his trainers off (a brave man obviously!) so they could be scanned separately. Then he'd hassled Paul for a bribe, the trainers being a excuse to get him on his own. Paul played the Johnny foreigner role with textbook prowess, feigning complete ignorance and was eventually allowed to go. This made us feel particularly secure, whilst sitting alone in the departure lounge and we couldn't wait to get on the flight in case they tried something else.

We arrived in La Paz dazed and confused. At over 4,000m above sea level, it's the highest capital city in the world and altitude sickness affects loads of people who go there. On the journey from the airport, there was a great view of the city stretching across a valley and up into the surrounding mountains. It's a pretty impressive sight. We picked a hostel at random, dumped our bags and headed off for a wander around and to book a flight up to Cusco the following morning.

La Paz is quite a mad place. Women in traditional dress (which includes bowler hats) line the streets selling everything from fruit to dried baby llamas (!) and hundreds of narrow streets zig zag the city centre. It was bitterly cold so we invested in some fleece tops and explored the market for a while. Now altitude sickness is a very funny thing. It has numerous symptoms, not everyone suffers from it and some people even believe that it's all psycho-symatic. However, we both felt a bit light-headed when we were wandering around and our lungs felt like they were being crushed every time we walked up a hill. We had to keep stopping to catch our breath, like a couple of old dears on a day trip to Blackpool. We went out for a really nice meal that cost the pricely sum of five pounds for three courses (for both of us), then headed back to the hostel as Paul was looking a bit peaky. It was freezing cold and we wrapped ourselves up in every sheet and blanket we could find and looked like a couple of woolly caterpillars, but sleep wasn't forthcoming. A group of Bolivian students decided to have an impromptu rock ballad concert with their guitar, just outside our room. When this went past the really annoying stage and veered dangerously close to the 'you´re driving us insane' stage, Paul went out and shouted at them. About an hour later, there was some serious screaming coming from the room upstairs, followed by the sound of furniture being thrown around. It sounded like someone was being murdered, so obviously we didn't sleep much after that then then had to get up at 5am anyway to head off to the airport.

By now we were suffering from sleep deprivation as it had been a few nights since we'd slept anywhere near properly. Being illegally charged forty dollars to pass through customs and therefore leave the country was the last straw. Immigration officers were charging everyone, the excuse being that we didn't have the correct entrance stamp on our passports. Surely, the official who stamped our passports in San Matias should have done it properly, we argued, but they weren't having any of it. Strangely, when I asked for a receipt, I was told they didn't issue them. The most annoying thing was, we knew we were being ripped off and they knew that we knew they were ripping us off. But there's absolutely nothing you can do about it, especially as the office is conveniently located just before you get your bags checked, where a plethora of thuggish-looking armed guards wait, no doubt eager to drag off anyone who kicks up a fuss. We'd only been in Bolivia a day and a night, but we were ready to leave.

By the time we arrived in Cusco I don't think we really had much of an idea where we were any more, having been on so many planes and buses and in so many different cities in the last couple of days. We had a bit of a rest before going out to reccy our latest home and were pleasantly surprised. It's a really picturesque city, with mountains curving up from every direction out of the centre. We agreed that it would be a nice place to hang out for a few days and get ourselves sorted. However, just as were relaxing into it, getting the laundry done etc, I proceeded to get violently sick from altitude sickness (Cusco is slightly lower than La Paz, but still pretty high). I was caught off-guard near the main plaza, which must have been pleasant for anyone walking close by and, after heading back to the hostel, spent the next eight hours making very close friends with the toilet bowl. We had been thinking about doing a trip out to the jungle from Cusco and this seemed like the best time to book it, as the jungle is back down at sea level. So, while I moaned and groaned and clutched my stomach, Paul made inquiries and we booked ourselves onto a trip leaving the following day - I had twelve hours to recover, as we were being picked up at 4.30am...

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