I’m sitting in the La Paz International Airport in El Alto and it’s a good time to update the blog. I got to the airport at 9:00 for a 12:45 departure. Yes, it’s extremely early, but I had the impression the cafe at the airport was good and if it had wifi and an electrical plug, I’d be golden.
Turns out Alexander Coffee at the La Paz airport is better than expected. I have a great little table, electricity, all the coffee I care to order and strong, free wifi. Sweet!
What is La Paz like? Sadly, La Paz is a city of little charm. Bolivia is the poorest nation in all of South America and it shows. I feel for the people. La Paz is basically unwalkable. There’s nothing to see or do really, and they can barely fit one more “micro” (mini-bus) onto the gridlocked, exhaust-filled battle zones they call streets.
It’ll be good to get out of La Paz. Don’t get me wrong, the people are nice, but this city is chaos.
There is one thing nice about La Paz, their subway system, or rather their cable cars. A subway wouldn’t work here because this city is basically built, and unplanned, on the side of a mountain. You’re either walking uphill or downhill, never on a level plain. The highest part of the megalopolis is named fittingly, El Alto. The poorest of the poor live at the very top of El Alto. The richest of the rich live at the very bottom of the city. Everyone here dreams of moving downhill and thus, obtaining a higher niche in the social strata.
The streets are so packed with vehicles that transportation is a nightmare. Enter the cable cars. They’re brilliant; and cheap! They have something like seven different color-coded lines and they’re extremely nice to ride. I highly recommend a day just exploring the city via cable cars. Other than that, stay inside. That worked for me since the Airbnb I rented actually had a gym in the flat. A bedroom had been converted into a gym with a decent treadmill. How nice is that?
What an amazing day. I had no idea this part of the world was so beautiful. I saw amazing panoramic view after amazing panoramic view. I can’t remember enjoying a long drive more.
I got to Café Ricos Pan in Puno on time, had a small breakfast and coffee, bought four pastries (I like to share) and two bottles of water for the drive. My driver picked me up at 7:00.
The transport service was expensive, $260 USD, but I’m very happy I went to La Paz this way.
A little background, there are two border crossings to choose from on the Puno to La Paz route; Desaguadero and Kasani. If you go online and read about Desaguadero, it sounds like the last place you want to be in for anything let alone crossing a border. It’s a very busy, hectic place with long lines. This is the primary crossing point for all large vehicles, large buses, etc. I had originally purchased a bus ticket for this route.
Alternatively, the Kasani route is fantastic. I think we arrived there at about 9:30 on a Thursday morning – after sharing some delicious chocolate pastries. It was cloudy, chilly and there was a light rain. My driver had to park the minivan (nine seats, so I got to spread out) on the Peruvian side. He told me to go through Peruvian immigration control, then walk to the border crossing (five minute walk) and go through Bolivian immigration. I walked in and I was the only customer. Sweet!
A Peruvian immigration officer stamped my passport and that was it. I walked to Bolivia and there was a line of three people, but there were four agent windows. Sweet!
The Bolivian immigration agent took my passport. As I handed it over, I had it open to the Bolivian visa page and told him I already had a visa. In a previous blog post I wrote about getting the visa in Lima at the Bolivian embassy.
The agent handed me a paper form to fill out, top and bottom. I walked out of the building to a table that had a pen (I had one ready as this isn’t my first time at a dance) and spent about 10 minutes working on the form. I went back in, no line this time, another agent took my passport and the form, never asked me a question, never asked me for any documents (which I had ready in paper form), he stamped my passport giving me 30 days in Bolivia and that was it. It was so fast!
If I’d taken the bus through Desaguadero, there would have been long lines of trucks, buses, and I would have had to cross the border along with hundreds of other bus passengers.
Kasani was easy!
My driver met me after I got my stamp and he handed me over to my Bolivian driver. Those are the international rules. My Bolivian driver, Porfirio, was really great. He took me into a small town called Copacabana, arranged for me to meet a couple of his Aymara buddies for a photo and kept saying if I wanted anything or needed anything that he was “at my disposition”. Apparently, part of my travel package included a lunch in Copacabana, but I wasn’t hungry. I’d eaten breakfast and a pastry on the road. I told Porfirio we could certainly stop if he was hungry, but I wasn’t and as far as I was concerned, we could continue to La Paz. Porfirio wasn’t hungry.
I should mention, of course, all the time we’re speaking, we’re speaking in Spanish. I’ve studied the language since high school and kept with it for many years using private tutors, but for the 8.5 years I was in Asia, I didn’t use Spanish at all. So, I’m very rusty. But, due to trips like this one, I get to practice for many hours talking about everything under the sun.
One topic that came up early during my time with Porfirio was, “Oye Porfirio, no hay cinturones de seguridad aquí?” (Hey Porfirio, are there not any seatbelts here?)
Bolivians don’t use seat belts.
He came back to my seat and spent about 15 minutes trying to wrangle the seat belt strap out of the deep abyss it had disappeared into. When he finally got it out, it was pristine. A seatbelt that had never been used. Nice.
The views on the road after Kasani were brilliant. I was in awe of how beautiful this part of the world is. When we arrived at the lazy little village of San Pedro de Tiquina (population 694) wanting to cross to the other side of the Tiquina Strait to San Pablo de Tiquina (population 981), I understood why this crossing is so lightly attended. The only way to get across is by ferry, and by ferry I mean small wood boats that barely hold two minivans each. These boats are called, barcazas. As we drove up to the barcaza ramp one barcaza was about to depart and it only had one minivan on board. Score! No line, no waiting.
We drove on to the barcaza and we were off! The crossing was quite windy and the barcaza rocked a lot on the waves. I made contingency plans in my head as to what I’d do and how I’d do it if we started to go under. Of course, we were extremely high in the mountains and I knew the water in Lake Titicaca must be just barely above freezing. So, you might have just a few minutes in the water before you enter deep hypothermia. Swimming for it would probably not work. I prayed to the Lake Titicaca gods 😉
We made it to the other side and I asked Porfirio about the leaves on the lady’s back. “I assume those are coca leaves?” Coca is of course notorious for its final product – cocaine.
He said sure, coca leaves are everywhere here. He reached into the glovebox and pulled out a bag of the leaves. He handed it to me and said I was free to chew on some. I didn’t take any, but it was nice of him to offer.
When I handed it back, he said it was actually a good time to have some himself, so he started chewing a few. From what I understand the leaves themselves are simply a mild stimulant. Porfirio told me to never chew on them if you want to sleep. They do a great job of keeping you awake.
I asked at what age he started chewing. He said he was about 30. I asked if children in Bolivia are allowed to have any and he said they were not.
The drive from Arequipa was awesome. I could have taken a bus, but I decided to call an Uber. It was much more expensive, sure, but it’s so nice being able to leave on your own schedule. The driver picks you up where you want to be picked up and he/she drops you off where you want to be dropped off.
Plus, the drive was over five hours long and if you want to stop for a photo or a toilet break, no problem. A private car is the only way to go.
We drove into the Andes Mountains and it was AMAZING! I highly recommend a drive through the Altiplano (Spanish for high-plain). You climb and climb through spectacular scenery and then you enter an open plain devoid of trees and the views are just something else. There are dozens of signs warning of the presence of llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos (as a group; camelids).
No, I can’t tell the difference between the different camelids. But, I saw thousands of them as we drove to Puno. Sometimes they crowd the road and you have to slow way down. It was brilliant.
We stopped once so I could try to get close to them for a photo. They were having none of it. They won’t let you get close at all.
As you get higher into the Andes you also notice the people have a very distinct look to them. These are the descendants of the Inca and other native nations of the region. During the three days I’ve been in Puno I’ve asked if I could take someone’s photo and they have always said no. Rats! Sure, I could walk around town photographing the Aymara people without their permission, but that’s not right. I’ll just keep asking and maybe I’ll get lucky.
I really like Puno. It’s a great change of pace after hectic, crowded, polluted Lima and Arequipa. Puno is chill. The population is only about 140,000 people living on Lake Titicaca. The air here is super-thin. Puno sits at 12,556 feet or 3,827 meters. High altitudes don’t normally bother me, but this city is built on some very steep and tall hills. Just walking from my Airbnb into town (15 minutes) and back (another 15) really kicks my butt. You have to stop once or twice to get your wind back.
As a matter of fact, today I walked down hill all the way to the city center to my favorite coffee shop. I got to my table and realized I had left my laptop in the flat. Nooooooo!!!! I’ve never done that before.
I had to walk back up the hill to get it – without coffee. Ouch.
The place in Puno I love is called, Ricos Pan. It’s a great little coffee shop, bakery, and eatery. They open at 6:30 in the morning which is perfect for me. I love to get up very early to have my coffee. At the top of the stairs, the first table on your immediate right is perfect for one person and it has an electrical outlet and wifi. Sublime. You should visit Puno.
I like Ricos Pan so much, I go back for lunch.
Early tomorrow morning I’ll get up, pack and go to Ricos Pan. I’ll scarf down some coffee (actually a latte), get some food to go and my driver will meet me at 7:00 out front. Yep, time for the next leg of my trip; a seven-hour drive to La Paz, Bolivia.
La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. As a matter of fact, here are the three highest capital cities on the planet:
1 – La Paz, Bolivia (2.7 million) 3,640 meters or 11,942 ft.
2 – Quito, Ecuador (1.6 million) 2,850 meters or 9,350 ft.
3 – Bogotá, Colombia (8 million) 2,625 meters or 8,612 ft.
Yep, I’ve been to each one on this trip.
My home city of Denver, Colorado comes in at only 1,609 meters or 5,280 ft.
Like I said, here in Puno we’re at 3,827 meters or 12,556 ft., so it’s all down hill from here 🙂
You can’t take an Uber across a national border. My driver will take me to the border, say goodbye, and a buddy of his will be waiting on the other side to take me to La Paz. One other nice thing about having a private car is that I avoid the pandemonium of border crossings on a bus. It’s particularly bad at the normal bus crossing here called, Desaguadero. Everything I’ve read makes this place out to be a real armpit of a town.
Having a private car allows me to go to another crossing near Copacabana. It’s a nice, lazy, quiet border town that the buses can’t use. The reason (I think) is because on this route you have to take a ferry across a part of Lake Titicaca. You mean I get to avoid the crowds, long lines AND I get a ferry trip on Lake Titicaca? Sold!
Arequipa is pretty nice – in the old city center. Outside the center, not so much.
Overall the city isn’t bad, but like Lima, it suffers from drivers who don’t give a crap about pedestrians. At least in Lima drivers roughly obeyed traffic lights and the crosswalks were clearly defined with walk signals. Arequipa has none of that. The vast majority of intersections have no traffic lights and pedestrians have to wait for a rare opening to cross a street. Even if there happens to be a painted crosswalk, drivers approaching the crosswalk speed towards it and honk their horns letting people on foot know the car isn’t going to stop. Pedestrians scuttle briskly out of the painted crosswalk so they don’t end up in a hospital, or worse.
So, even though Arequipa is much, much smaller than Lima, the traffic makes it feel just as hectic and uncomfortable.
In the end I’d say the city is worth a short visit, but I think three or four days is plenty and make sure you stay in the very heart of the historic center so you can avoid crossing too many streets to see the sights.
A woman in Lima came up to me as I was sitting in a Lima café. She offered to give me Spanish lessons, I was about to say, thank you no, when she said if I didn’t want Spanish lessons, maybe I was looking for sex?
Umm, no thank you. That’s not really what I’m here for 🙂 🙂 🙂
I wanted to use a line from a great song, “I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine.” But, I didn’t think she’d understand what I was getting at.
Could I live in Lima?
Lima isn’t bad, it’s just too crowded. 10 million people is overkill. Miraflores is the nicest neighborhood in Lima and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t that great either. Mostly I just didn’t like the feeling that I couldn’t go for a walk without facing throngs of people on the sidewalk. Plus, trying to cross streets is not easy. Drivers here have no respect for pedestrians. Crosswalks mean nothing to them.
I go for walks early in the morning before most people are awake. It’s nice not to have to battle the masses. Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings are the most interesting. There’s no shortage of people who’ve been out all night. They’re staggering along trying to make their way…I’m not sure they know where. There are lots of empty beer bottles, public urination, people asking you for a cigarette or spare change, people using other people in order to keep standing upright, crying on each other’s shoulders, you know, the normal stuff you’ll find in any city. One morning I saw a motorcycle with two guys on it go right through a red light and continue straight ahead. Unfortunately, straight ahead wasn’t a good option since the road made a sharp turn to the left. The driver hit the brakes which made a horrible noise, “Screeeeeech…BAM!” Lucky for them they only crashed into a street curb and flipped over into a grassy park.
But hey, I have not yet met the business end of a sharp knife, so it ain’t all bad, right? 😉
No, I could not live here. I’ll keep moving on.
Arequipa, Peru is next up. It’s a city of 800,000. I think maybe something smaller is more appealing? We’ll see…
Before arriving in Perú, I did research on the airport, where to find a taxi, how much it should be, etcetera. The articles I read said the area around the airport is dangerous.
After I flew into the Lima airport, I knew exactly where to go. I found a driver, we got in the taxi and off we went en route to my Airbnb. It was about 10:00 p.m. and well after sunset. Less than five minutes into my taxi ride, we stopped at a red light. I was in the right-side passenger seat and I looked to my right. There was a dead man right in front of my eyes. I was stunned. There were about 5-6 people standing around him looking mournful. They covered him in a brown tarp. The police arrived just as we were sitting there waiting for the green light. It was a sad first impression of Lima.
Despite that first impression, I like Lima more than Quito. In Lima they don’t spit so much on the sidewalks. They smoke much less here as well. Quito is one big spitting, smoking party. Yuck.
But, Lima isn’t perfect. Vehicular traffic is very heavy here. It’s a city of 10 million. There are policemen at the busiest intersections trying to get drivers to obey traffic lights. Once, I was waiting at a crosswalk for my green signal. The police officer waved his baton trying to get the traffic to stop. A car whizzed by him ignoring his shouts. The cop aggressively blew his whistle and pointed his baton at the next car; no effect, the car also blew past him. The cop was getting angry and started pounding his baton at the third car. No effect, the car went right through the red light. Finally, the fourth car stopped and pedestrians were permitted to cross. FFS.
This displays a, “me first, I don’t care about anyone but myself” attitude. I hate cars.
Another day in Lima I was waiting at a zebra-style crossing with about 30 other people. Once we had our green walk signal and all the cars cleared the crosswalk, people gushed from both sides of the street towards each other in order to cross. I was in the group. Suddenly, a motorcycle came out of nowhere charging us and blaring his horn. I was the first pedestrian he would have crashed into and I was inside the crosswalk and had a green walk signal. He just kept coming as if it was his right to plow through a bunch of pedestrians. Finally, he saw I wasn’t going to yield to his rude behavior and he slammed on his brakes, but it was too late to avoid a collision. We collided head on and it was powerful. My anger was boiling over and I was pissed off. My right hand ended up slamming against one of his side view mirrors in my effort to keep from falling. It went askew, but didn’t fall off.
As I walked away I thought, “Go fix your mirror, idiot.” Don’t charge me on your motorcycle. I won’t yield if I have right-of-way. Grrrrrrr.
But, the driving here is not as bad as Panama. Panama was the worst. Well, actually the absolute worst was in Cairo, Egypt. Go ahead and try to cross a street there. Good luck and have your will in order.
The people in Lima are nice, if they’re not behind a steering wheel. Twice in a week people have chatted me up on the street. I thought at first maybe they were going to try to sell me something, but no, they were just curious about the gringo. “Where are you from? How do you like, Peru?” That kind of stuff. A few times people have greeted me in English. They’re relieved when I reply in Spanish 😉
I’m so accustomed to visiting countries without needing a visa that I forgot to check Bolivia’s policy. I had already made bus ticket and Airbnb reservations when I thought, “I should check Bolivia’s entry requirements.”
Damn! U.S. citizens need a visa! Damn, damn, damn! It’s not a “visa on arrival” either. You need to pre-apply through a Bolivian embassy, provide a financial statement (bank records), copy of your passport, Airbnb reservation, bus ticket entering Bolivia, plane ticket exiting, a signed sworn statement, and a brief itinerary – plus $160.00 in cash.
If I had known that, I probably would have skipped Bolivia. I abhor red tape.
So, two days ago I uploaded everything they need onto the website. I waited two days so they could digest the info and today I went to the embassy.
Anytime you deal with a government agency, it’s best to assume your first two attempts will get you absolutely nothing. That way you aren’t disappointed and irritable after wasting your precious time.
I resigned myself to blowing my entire day spinning my wheels going nowhere. I started walking to the embassy. It’s 13 kilometers from my flat, but I don’t mind walking. Traffic was horrible. I almost got hit three times by cars who thought I was in their way.
At one point I was walking down a street. I needed to eventually cross to the other side, but traffic was heavy and I didn’t need to cross over immediately, so I just kept walking straight ahead. Then I noticed directly in front of me a woman with a baby stroller waiting to cross the same street. She was at a clearly well-painted crosswalk, but four lanes of traffic one way and four lanes of traffic the other way refused to stop to let her cross. I just sighed. I didn’t want to cross here, it was too busy. I’d rather continue straight ahead, but she needed help. So, there was nothing for it. I just looked at her and gave her a look and a nod indicating I was crossing now, come what may, and she could follow or not. She followed. I just walked right into the traffic daring anyone to hit me in the crosswalk. I wasn’t going to yield to anyone. The lady and stroller were hot on my heels. Cars hate to stop, but when an apparent small family is crossing, they have no real option. Everybody stopped; no complaints. ha ha 🙂
I got to the embassy at 9:30 this morning (I think they open at 8:30, but I wasn’t in a hurry to waste my day). I timed the length of my visit. I walked up to the guard shack. The guard took my passport and logged my details in. He buzzed me into the embassy and I proceeded to a small reception area. A lady came out. I handed over copies of everything I had already handed over online (why it’s necessary to hand them hard copies of everything they already have on their portal is beyond my understanding). They asked for $160.00, I paid them, handed over my passport and they said come back in two hours and the Bolivian visa would be in my passport.
I was in and out of the embassy in a grand total of seven minutes!
Is this the Twilight Zone? How is this possible?
I went to a local Starbucks, killed a couple of hours, went back to the embassy and they handed me my passport complete with a new Bolivian visa good for ten years.
I had just read a blog from a U.S. couple who did this in 2018. They spent hours over six days of visits before they got visas. I did it in a total of two hours, most of which was spent in a coffee shop. I was resigned to making many visits for a week to get this done. I’m gobsmacked. Happy day! 🙂
Now that I’ve been in Quito for a week, I have a pretty good feel for the place. Overall, it’s very nice. The people are friendly. The food is excellent, but I don’t think I could live in Quito.
Trying to walk in this town is difficult. Cars are everywhere and it’s a very car-centric society. Pedestrian crosswalks are not always respected by drivers and if they are, it’s a grudging respect. Most pedestrians have to wait until the coast is clear to cross the street and I’ve seen many run. I don’t do that. If I have the green pedestrian signal, I walk at a normal pace. If a car approaches with the intent to get me to move faster, I slow down. Go ahead, I dare you to hit me 🙂
Also, there’s far too much smoking here. It’s gross. Don’t people realize they’re killing themselves? Whatever.
Cafés and restaurants are smoke-free, but often there’s an outdoor seating area where smoking is permitted and the smoke goes directly into the restaurant. To me, that’s not a smoke-free environment. Breathing in cigarette smoke while trying to eat is not my idea of a pleasant experience.
Did you know Uber is outlawed in most of the countries I’ve been to on this trip? Despite that, you can easily get an Uber in most of these countries. The drivers have to be very careful. As a customer, it’s best to walk to a more secluded street to schedule a pick up. Always get in the passenger side door, never the back door and always make it look like the driver is your buddy, not a paid driver. As Uber drivers approach airports or anywhere police might be watching, the drivers hide their phones so it doesn’t look like they’re following routing directions.
The city center of Quito is brilliant. It’s very much worthy of a visit. It’s got everything; beautiful old buildings, pedestrian-only streets, great old architecture, shopping, and food. This was where I discovered a great Ecuadoran national dish – locro. It’s a potato soup with cheese and guacamole on the side. Delicious!
In Ecuador, the days and nights are split exactly into 12 hours each – and it’s like this all year round. Ecuadorans check the times for sunrise and sunset – never in their lives. It never changes 🙂
And yes, Ecuador is Spanish for “equator”.
So far, I like it here. The Spanish spoken on the streets is really quite good and understandable.
This traveling gig is great!
Just in case you aren’t following the news, today Venezuela broke diplomatic relations with the United States. Venezuelan President Maduro has given members of the U.S. Embassy 72 hours to get out of Venezuela. Protests against Maduro are growing and inflation is approaching 1,000,000 percent. I can’t see how Maduro stays in power much longer. If he gets kicked out (hopefully), then I might be able to get into Venezuela for a visit. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.