Arica to La Paz

Dave at Lago Chungara.

Lago Chungara is called "the highest non-navigable lake in the world."

Parinacota, a town of 17 people, is the home of the cutest church in Chile.

Llama and alpaca fetuses bring good luck when buried under the house.

Bolivian wares for sale in La Paz.

Typical street scene in downtown La Paz.

Parque Nacional Lauca
Hola amigosss... Our second organized tour of this trip was dandy. Our guide didn’t say okey amigosss incessantly, but rather żya? at the end of every sentence. We decided to go on that bus trip tour of the Parque Nacional Lauca instead of freelancing it with fate and chance. We made a good choice, I think, even though there were places I wouldn’t have minded hanging out for more time in.

We started out the tour looking at (more) geoglyphs on the side of a mountain. They were far away and therefore not that impressive, but they were there all the same. We worked our way up a semi-fertile valley called La Llauta with giant sand dunes rising up on either side, withering to the eye just to look at. There were however some Hare Krishnas who made camp in that valley, visible by their stupa-shaped abodes made out of adobe, called trulis. Something interesting about that valley is that they breed the harmful white fly and release thousands into the wild every so often. They ruin crops and cause a huge economic loss, so what these people have decided to do is breed sterile females that they release to breed with the males and produce no offspring in place of fertile females.

We zigzagged up the desert mountains to a place where the candelabra cactus grows (about 5mm each year, due to super-dry conditions in the Atacama Desert). The ones we saw were about 2-3 meters tall, showing centuries of growth. We also passed a "magnetic zone" where it looked like we were going downhill, and the chofer cut the motor on the bus, put it into neutral, and took off the brakes. We started rolling backwards while looking downhill. I believe it is an optical illusion and that in fact we were really going uphill. When a bottle was set on the road it also rolled backwards from what it looked like it should do, but I was even less convinced when I saw the sign directed towards Seńor Turista, Usted se encuentra en una zona magnetica but the rest of the people who are not tourists must then find themselves in a tourist trap optical illusion.

While we were getting up into the Andes, our guide told us how the mountains got their name. The ubiquitous stone terraces used to hold up the dirt for farming on almost all vertical faces were called andenes. Pissaro El Bizarro came and they started calling the mountains La Cordillera de Los Andenes, but that was later lazily shortened to Los Andes. And now you know the rest of the story, żya? So as we were getting up in altitude the scenery started changing. We saw more vicuńas, and the fourth, harder to find, member of the American camelids, the guanaco. They graze on the altiplano bofedales, or little areas where water springs up and hosts all kinds of mosses, lichens, and bunch grasses.

Our guide had married an Aymaran woman, and was quite proud of sharing the culture, so we were given a little obsequio which contained coca leaves, candies, and a couple of cheat sheets for words in Aymara. We held a ceremony (tourista style) at a point in the mountains where you can hear an echo if you shout loudly enough. We watched as one chacha (guy) and one warmi (gal) placed coca leaves at the four corners of the ceremonial blanket table to Pachamama the earth goddess, later venerated was Tatainti with the advent of the Incans in their reverence for the sun. Then a 96 grade alcohol (cocoroco) was poured into the ground at the four directions and tossed into the air. Um, you know, the usual things the touristas do with the guidance of a spiritual dallier who knows nothing more than his wife may or may not have mentioned over the dinner table one night.

But it was fun to see the other people on our trip wear their obsequios around their necks (hideous cloth things with orange, ochre, neon green, monkey diarrhea pink, and a variety of other less notable poops) filled with their goodies and decorated with little panpipes hot-glued on them. Just like the Aymarans, with their ancient hot glue technology waay before the rest of the world even knew the uses of plastics. Hah.

Oh, then we stopped to feed crackers to a big fat male llama. His name was El Loli, because once he ate a lollypop out of the hand of a tourist, and then the owner was going to turn him into charki (dried llama meat) but he was reprieved, castrated, and then allowed to mooch crackers and cookies off of the tourist specifically instructed to bring said treats up to him. We were not to be excluded from le fete du llama avec petits biscuits. Oh, and THEN we FINALLY saw viscacha sitting still for a few seconds at a time on the side of the road, and were able to get a shot or two of them. Very cute animals.

So we finally stopped dillydallying and made it up to the Lago Chungara, the largest highest non-navigable lake In The World, as all the attractions are touted. It was fairly high up, and the puno (altitude sickness) was setting in for more than one unhappy camper, but Dave and I chewed our magic coca leaves and felt fine. The lake was shallowish, not more than 30 meters in its deepest part, and about 26 square km of surface area. There were all kinds of birds including flamingoes, these flightless big black birds, Andean ducks, egrets, whatnots, buzzards, maybe a condor, and this sweet yellow bird that hopped around us getting closer and closer. It is called a cometocino, because, um, like, this one time, a tourist came up with bacon, and the little yellow bird hopped right up and ate some bacon, and, um, hence the name, bacon-eater, cometocino, um, yeah, because I guess that is how things get their names. History in action, wow.

And there were also these tiny little black frogs with yellow markings called rene, except I think I will name them “falleroutofguideshands” because this one time, um, when I was a tourist, our guide kept picking up this poor little frog and it kept falling out of his hands. I wonder if the name will catch on as easily as El Loli with his vast cracker quantities or the friendly little cometocino.

On our way back down, we stopped off at a little town called Parinacota, with about 17 inhabitants, but who are home to a 17th century church, apparently the sweetest little church of all of Chile. There are all kinds of original fresco art and the legendary dread black table. It was said to fly about the town announcing people’s deaths, and was hard to catch. It now rests on the floor of the church in front of the altar, tied to the rafters with a strong rope, but locals still see signs of wear on the legs, meaning the table still probably marauds during the night or something.

And the outside of the church is decorated in the original style with the bell tower showing the masculine half of life, with the church’s opening showing the feminine side of things. The Aymara are all about their duality. The flag the Aymara nation flies is of seven colours divided into 49 squares, each colour with its respective meanings. The red, for example, represents fertility, luck, and preventing of mal de ojo (casting of bad luck, esp. in connection with crops or children). We discovered polulo, here in Bolivia called pasamcalle, which is choclo (huge corn) puffed and dried and dusted with sugar, each kernel about the size of both your thumbs side to side, from the tip to the first joint. Huge!

We then continued down to Putre, a much larger village where we ate lunch (more yummy alpaca steaks) and walked around the main plaza area. Then headed down the hill to Arica, back to sea level from having been at 4,530 meters above it. The ride took all day, but it was nice that we got to stop off everywhere and see stuff. Then it was "back to the ratcave, ratman!" to sleep with our little cockroach friends in the bottom of the barrel establishment in town, but cheap.

We set off for Bolivia yesterday err-lie in the mornin’, and finally pulled into La Paz at around 9:30 at night. Our bus kept breaking down, and we had to stop for egress from Chile and ingress into Bolivia (no charges, surprisingly) and so that took a while. We found a nice little hostel even though were are travelling Chile and Bolivia without benefit of any guidebook, and then got dinner at an upscale place we thought we couldn’t afford. We got an Orureńo dish with re-hydrated dried string meat, alpine-frozen dried black potatoes, and dried giant corn. 25 bolivianos seemed like a lot of cash, but it turned out to only be like three dollars, with beer and all.

We were surprised at the cost of things in Chile; a bottle of water was 450 pesos, for example (um, about 70 cents) whereas it was 2.5 soles in Peru (80 cents) and here in Bolivia it is 4 bolivianos (50 cents). So even though prices were in the psychological "through the roof!,” they were actually a little bit cheaper than in Peru. It just seemed like a lot because we were used to DR pesos, which are 30 to the dollar instead of the Chilean 575 to the dollar. So our nice hostel has hot water and with breakfast we got our room for 30 Bs per person (less than four dollars). And best of all to happen to us in Bolivia so far was hooking up with one of our fellow returned PCVs from the DR currently travelling in South America, namely, Tom Wildman. We found his hostel and surprised him in the shower this morning, and he took us a bit around town.

We have seen little of La Paz so far, but what we have seen is pretty typical. Same little ladies with long braids in bowler hats and pollera skirts that we see everywhere, with brightly-coloured blankets on their backs carrying kids or products. Some dried llama fetuses, which I found startlingly interesting, used for good luck. And some dried armadillos, lots of textiles, leather and fur goods, and little ceramic doodads, street vendors with prepared or raw foods, a church plaza, and some colourful candies that are for religious purposes and are not to be eaten. We had lunch in a hole in the wall, and will meet up with Tom later this afternoon. It is so great to find familiarity here in the middle of the unknown, and we have been expecting this day for some weeks as we have been two or three days behind them this whole trip. Much Love, Molly