La Paz, Bolivia Thirsty Llamas and Floating Adventists

I’m telling you up front, this is not a very interesting post. I’ve committed myself to covering all the beats of this trip, no matter how little it interests me or anyone liable to read this. So let’s just resign ourselves to the understanding that no one is having any fun here.

We got back to Quito and treated ourselves to a tapas dinner after four days of boat food.

The next day we got tear-gassed.

Here’s a thing: if you’re walking down the street and all the opposing foot-traffic is squinting and covering their mouths, best to do the same.

There was a student protest going on in old town. It had something to do with transportation costs. So naturally, machinegun-mounted armored personnel carriers were in order.

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We saw many police in full riot gear, but didn’t know what to make of it until we rounded a corner and suddenly it hurt to breathe. We ran the other way, choking, tears gushing. No one bothered to warn us or anything.

Evidently, street protests are not an unusual occurrence in Quito. There’d been another the previous week over a new trade agreement with the US. Shame we missed that one.

Speaking of which, who wants to guess what the national currency of Ecuador is? Give up? It’s the US dollar. Their economy bottomed-out a while back, so in 2000 they adopted ours. Apparently you can do that!

It gives them a stable currency that’s a lot less likely to spiral into hyper-inflation. One of the big downsides is they lose out on seigniority, which I don’t entirely understand, but it has something to do with printing out a bunch of fancy paper, claiming it’s worth something, and thus creating wealth out of thin air.

Neat trick if you can pull it off, but you better be sitting on some oil reserves or have a major tourist draw to back it up. Otherwise, well…talk to Ecuador.

We entered the Spanish colonial church cluster, which is chock full of 500-year-old tributes to how whoop-dee-doo God is.

In the midst of it all, here’s a modest little shop selling CDs, DVDs…abortions.

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The neighborhood goes something like this: Catholic church, casino, Catholic church, casino, Catholic church, abortion street doctor, Catholic church.

Despite all that – or maybe because of it – I found Quito to be a charming city. But after a couple days of recuperation, it was time to move on.

We got into Lima late at night, with a connecting flight before dawn the following morning. We took a cab into the city. The experience vividly recalled Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

The city is completely unable to cope with the strain of its 8 million inhabitants. There are no rules of the road. There is no courtesy. If your car will fit in a space, you fill it.

Driving in Lima is pretty bad.

We checked into Hotel Espana. It’s a charming old establishment with mummified skulls in the lobby and a certain Kubrickian flavor.

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The price of the room is $8. But the real cost is your eternal soul.

Awake before 4, on a plane before 6. Arrived at baggage claim in Cuzco with musical accompaniment.

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Cuzco is the ancient capital of Incan civilization. Its modern existence is therefore dedicated to devouring every limb and tendon of that cash cow. Nothing goes to waste.

Cuzco is also Cusco. The names seem interchangeable. I prefer the underused ‘z’.

When the Spanish conquered it in the 16th century, they built their ubiquitous cathedrals literally on top of the Incan foundations. You can still see some of the original stone work.

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It reminded me a great deal of a town called San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Lovely place, affordable, with lots of great restaurants and an abundance of quality handcrafts. It’s a tourist’s delight. Good for a couple days, but not my favorite kind of place to hang around.

The clothing shops offer a chilling insight into what Peruvians think of us.

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Random cute kid.

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The day after arriving in Cusco, we caught the wildly overpriced train to Maccu Picchu. It’s pretty much the only way to get there, so they’ve got you by the huevos. At $68 each way for the lowest class of seat, it’s basically an adjunct to the park entrance fee.

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Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly known as Aguas Calientes, is a boomtown providing access to the nearby ruins. It sprouted out of the Sacred Valley a few years ago and is growing faster than anyone seems to be able to govern.

It is not difficult, in Machu Picchu Pueblo, to find handbags with the words “Machu Picchu” sewn into them. It is also not difficult to find restaurants serving vegetarian pizza to dreadlocked college students. What is difficult is finding anything else.

It would be very easy to make Machu Picchu accessible by day-trip from Cuzco. But by arranging the train arrival and departure times just so, they force visitors into staying overnight and paying the inflated prices for food and accomodation.

The town owes its existence to the very same principle behind the roach motel.

We droppe d our bags in a square, concrete slab with a square, concrete bed that smelled like a combination of mold and fart, then caught the next bus zig-zagging up the valley to Machu Picchu proper.

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On top of the $136 train, the bus ride costs $12, and the actual park entrance fee costs a little over $20. This is per person, mind you. By the end you feel like a walking piñata filled with money.

Do I complain about costs too much? Perhaps I should shut up about that.

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Entering Machu Picchu lacked the overwhelming spectacle we’d anticipated, as everything was shrouded in thick fog.

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Gradually, things cleared up…

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Until at last we got the full view.

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And one from a bit closer.

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Closer still, with the ubiquitous Japanese tour group in the foreground…

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Really really close…

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And here’s a llama’s butt.

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In visiting sites like this one, I’m often faced with the option of hiring a guide to answer questions. This is an option I decline. It’s much better to figure things out for one’s self.

It may interest you to know that Machu Picchu was actually built by llamas. Anthropologists hide this information from the public and pretend it was the built by the Incans. They do this because they hate llamas. The anthropologist is the sworn enemy of the llama.

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Llamas built Machu Picchu because it gave them access to the great chocolate milk river that runs through the valley below.

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There is nothing llamas love more than chocolate milk. They’re crazy for it. Everyone knows this.

The chocolate milk from the great chocolate milk river is incredibly tasty. This is because it moves very quickly and gets churned up in the rocks.

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No one knows how the llamas got the chocolate milk out of the river, but it probably had something to do with this.

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These days, llamas are oppressed by humans. We almost never left them drink chocolate milk. So whatever you do, don’t bring chocolate milk to Machu Picchu. This will stir the llamas up and cause what is known as a “llamapede.”

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If you get caught in a llamapede, it’s your own dumb fault. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

We left the ruins and walked along a couple of the ancient llama roads leading to other llama cities. They were narrow and treacherous and insane.

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There’s a four day hike called the Inca Trail (named by anthropologists) that leads into Machu Picchu along one of these ancient roads. We didn’t have time for it, but we wandered down the tail end. Looked like fun.

Before leaving town the next day, we paid a visit to the Aguas Calientes that once gave Machu Picchu Pueblo its name.

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The agua was fairly caliente, but not really caliente enough to be worth naming a town after.

Afternoon train back to Cuzco, settled back into the same hotel room to plan and regroup. We had a flight scheduled in a few days to our next destination of La Paz. Looking at a map, we realized the distance wasn’t too great, and directly between the two points lay Lake Titicaca, at 3900 meters “the highest navigable lake in the world.” The “navigable” part is an odd qualifier, but I’m a fully acknowledged sucker for world’s most anythings.

We bought train tickets to Puno, a sleepy town on the shores of Titicaca, close to the border with Bolivia.

The train took us across much of the Peruvian altiplano, a vast expanse of semi-fertile land that looks, for the most part, like this.

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The rails took us to a peak elevation of about 4300 meters, which is high enough to knock you off your feet if you’re not careful. We took some of my acetozolomide left over from Kilimanjaro and it helped.

We had a middle-aged, pony-tailed guy from Massachusetts sitting near us on the train. He was a professor at the University of Mexico – the result, I can’t help but speculate, of hitting on one too many students back in the states. He fancied himself an Indiana Jones-type.

He took it upon himself to give us advice on our journey. He spoke in strained, weary tones, as if the experiences we were forcing him to recall were too painful, even for one so rugged as himself: “Be very careful…on the road ahead…the altitude…it’s very dangerous…you must…prepare yourself.”

Finding an insufficient level of awe and respect in our responses, he moved on to a single German lady who was more willing to humor him.

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The train stopped halfway through the journey so we could buy handcrafts from local women.

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The women were suitably adorable and they seemed better recipients of our tourist dollars than the shop owners back in Cuzco.

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My 3-year-old niece got some alpaca slippers.

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Puno seemed dodgy at first, offering spooky, unlit streets and another assortment of concrete slabs for accommodation, but we eventually determined the town to be peacable and harmless.

It was here that we faced up to a scheduling dilemma that had been dogging us for some time: we needed to be in La Paz within 48 hours if we were going to have enough time to see our prime destination in Bolivia; the salt flats outside Uyuni. That meant we had to move quickly and would have no time to get out on the lake and visit the floating villages of the Uros people.

Melissa solved the problem with an ingenious idea: throw money at the problem. We took a boat out to the Uros villages the next morning and hired a driver to take us to the border in his car for $50.

It’s a funny thing about money. I could blow that much in my day-to-day life without thinking twice about it. But you get used to the scales of things quickly in different countries, and it can really start to seem like an unreasonable amount.

…there I go about money again.

The Uros people lived in the region around Lake Titicaca until around 500 years ago, when the encroaching Incan empire led them to the unusual decision of fleeing out onto the water. They created floating islands out of enormous piles of dead, dried reeds and tethered them by rope so they wouldn’t drift off.

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There are hundreds of these islands, easily visited by boat from Puno. The residents have deals with the tour companies, earning what are no doubt very small cuts of our ticket fees, augmented by whatever handcrafts they can sell during each visit.

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We were cheerfully welcomed on each island we stopped at. They fed us their food and showed us their huts. It’s an interesting lifestyle, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to it. It takes about five minutes to inspect every inch of an island, and they’re all pretty much the same.

The Uros have been infected with an interesting splinter of Christianity, which they call Floating Adventist.

"Say Jim, what’s your denomination?"
"I’m a Floating Adventist, Tom. How ’bout yourself?"
"Well I was raised Crouching Methodist, but I’ve recently converted to Hovering Mormon."

We inspected the Floating Adventist school, which had a map of France, a picture of a human skeleton, and little else. It struck me how difficult it must be to teach without any real resources at hand.

In the corner, a symbolically arranged diorama defines the dilemma Peruvians have faced for hundreds of years: if you wanna learn anything, you’ve gotta go through Jesus.

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For a little bit extra, a couple Uros guys will take you out on one of their ornate boats, made from the same dried reeds as the islands.

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Having failed to sell any of his drawings, a little boy hopped on and serenaded us with his rough approximations of English and Japanese children’s songs.

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This proved far more lucrative.

…I’m not made of stone, ya know.

In the afternoon, we caught our ride to the border. Napping happened.

We got to the Bolivian border town of Copacabana just in time for the last bus to La Paz. The bus took us up and up and up along the narrow peninsula, then back down to the shore for a short but incredibly frigid ferry crossing to the eastern side of Titicaca.

A few hours more by bus and here we are in La Paz.

It would be nice to take a break, but we’ve got less than four days to get to Uyuni and back, which doesn’t seem like it’s going to be enough time.

41 Responses to La Paz, Bolivia Thirsty Llamas and Floating Adventists

  1. Meg

    Matt you and ur girls pics are amazing !
    I dont know if you would ever even get this but between myself, 13 yr old daughter and 9 yr old son; we adore your dancing vid,,,I have come to rely on it as a source of upbeat happiness and live vicariously thru ur travels and zest. Often the kids ask” Mum plz play Matt’s dancing vid” It is PLAYED OFTEN as I watch my children smile widely and try and duplicate ur dance style and sing’ what they beleive are the words to the song. Thank You.
    Meg,Madison & Donavan~~~~

  2. Steve

    Wow. I love those boats.

    Hey, sometime when you get around to it, are you gonna extend the Dancing thing with your more recent travels?

  3. Aimee Fuller

    I love your sense of humor, and appreciate the perspective you have on your travels. The way you convey each new experience is funny and insightful at the same time. Your comments kept me laughing out loud! You rekindle my desire to travel. Thank you!!!

    Keep up the updates! Oh,and the dancing!!!

  4. Dan

    Hey Matt!

    Cool – floating adventists. I wonder if they’re related to the pre-millenialists – they seem to believe in some sort of floating in the air called “rapture”..

  5. Rich

    Yeah, who needs tour guides?!?! I bet they would have lied to you about the llamas and the chocolate milk anyway. Thank you for exposing the conspiracy!

  6. Andre (Lima, Peru)

    i’m glad u liked our country matt, we really liked your dance too.

    but u got “punk’d” by villagers, they looked your foreign aspect and ask 5x times the real cost of almost everything. if u ever come to Peru again please let me know to guide you, you need a tour guide my man ,i’m not the best but i would help lol.

    u really made one of my dreams, to dance all over the countries lol, if u ever dance around let us know!

  7. Kyal

    As a certified member of the official Llama fanclub i would like to thank you for breaking the silence about the incan lies
    LLAMA’S have sufferd for too long under ther lies and that chocolate river, well ….. WELL IT’S CHOCOLATE lol well just thought id share that

    lovin it

  8. Kyal

    As a certified member of the official Llama fanclub i would like to thank you for breaking the silence about the incan lies
    LLAMA’S have sufferd for too long under ther lies and that chocolate river, well ….. WELL IT’S CHOCOLATE lol well just thought id share that

    lovin it

  9. Jenifer

    Me parecio muy graciosa la historia de las Llamas y su insaciable sed por el Río de Chocolate.Acabo de aprender mas sobre la historia peruana.

  10. Esto de las llamas es mentira, lo que pasa es que te dejaste llevar por los guias que te vieron la cara de gringo.

    La proxima vez contacta con alguna persona que este interesada en tu proyecto de viajar por el mundo y veras que todo sera diferente.

    :)

    >

    Ja Ja Ja

  11. Cecilia

    as a Bolivian girl i must say that you’ve lost lots of fun there!!!
    well, today i was feeling depressed and then i saw the picture of you dancing in the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and it made me smile! you’ve brightened up my day and i MUST say that you are right, i live in Belgium right now and they are unbearable!!!

  12. Raul (lima - peru)

    I have to admit the the story about the llamas building machu picchu and the chocolate milk river made me laugh.

    It’s a shame that you got “punk’d” by the villagers, as Rich said. It’s true that when they see a tourist they rise the price of the stuff that they sell.
    It would had been better if you went accompanied by a peruvian. I would be glad to help you if you want, of course this help woul be free of any charge.

    I hope that you return to Peru and that you can dance in some other places of our country.

    I love your videos because they show parts of other countries and their important places and foment the tourism. Also you’re living the dream of a lot of people by traveling all around the world.

    Keep up the good work and keep on dancing!

  13. Flávia Garcia

    I knew the Salar Uyuni in 2006, with my boyfriend. In the passage the driver it didn’t see our knapsacks to fall. We stay three days without our things until finding the knapsacks. In next “Pueblo” was found, but many things were lacking. Despite this event, he was all wonderful!

    MATT, I’m your admirer!

  14. Anonymous

    Ok… Willy Wonka. =D You’re talking about Llama’s as though they’re Oompa Loompas. It was well played. ^_^

  15. Dear Matt, I love your videos!!!! I love your sense of humor and perspective! I REALLY mean it when I say you are a talented writer. Your dancing and video of world places and people is inspiring and uplifting. You should be the editor for a humerous collection of travel tales- with lots of yours included. Suggestion: Stay in one place long enough to connect with the people and the place – I only met people when I returned to the same restaurants or locations, or paused somewhere. It was really cool to dance with you in San Francisco in September! Now we have to wait for June to see it! Also, my motive for traveling is to connect with the spiritual healers – the REAL ones – besides really loving the buildings,sacred sites, my indigenous brothers and sisters, history,culture, nifty affordable fair traded crafts, etc. Sakanta Running Wolf, Global Peace Global Healing, Dance Move Dance.

  16. david

    hmm. my mothers lived in peru and she’s always telling stories about peru. like the fact that cuzco has tried to secede from peru beofre and for a while they were putting out their own currency until the military came in and crushed their hope for independence. beautiful country but horribly corrupt government.

  17. Romina

    Omg Matt U ARE THE BEST! I would give all I have to travel as often as you do ! Wow ! You are my Hero lol! I admire you I waant to be like you when I grow up lol, i want to be like you nnow ! I’m in a canadian college and i find the time so looong… i could be swimming with the dolphins right now :( Anyways ! The Llamas story was hillarious ! My parents are from PEru, and I wish to return one day to visit that beautiful country… did you enjoy the food ??!! If not you should go to my aunts house cuz she makes the beeeeeeeeest meals EVEEEEEEEERRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!! (im hungry now ! )

  18. lina

    Matt,

    Its too bad you didn’t get to other parts of Peru that are actually way cooler than Cusco (while cusco is an amazing place, its hyped up too much and overpriced). If you ever go back to try more videos, check out the Huaraz area which is unfortunately/fortunately becoming a tourist destination for hikers.

  19. Alex G.

    Matt
    you are such a jerk. You don’t know anything about Peru and wrote bulls**t
    It is a shame people who are supposed to be so cosmopolitan (if you go dancing in a goofy way all around the world)speak, write or make such stupid ideas.
    Hate to read all the crappy things you said about Peru.
    Good luck in your non-sense journeys.

  20. Derek B

    Matt,

    Everything you do is amazing. Someday I could only hope to visit 1/10th of all the places you have visited in my life. I have to admit the one place I would really love to visit is Salar de Uyuni. The video/pictures you have posted from the salt flats are amazing. And I think it would be awesome to buy a salt shaker made out of salt.
    By the way when I go to La Paz I’ll remember not to feed the Llamas chocolate milk. I do not want to take part in any Llamapedes.

    Thanks for your all stories
    Derek

    P.S. like everyone else says all your work is an inspiration.

  21. Giuliana, Lima Peru

    Hello Matt.

    My name is Giuliana, I am from Lima Peru, but I live in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
    I have to say, like a lot of people, that I loved your video. I don’t know why it made me cry, happy cry…well not cry cry…I mean, my eyes produced a few tears….it moved me a lot. The song is good too.
    BUT when I read your website I felt so disappointed, all the nice feelings I had watching the video vanished. I’d prefer haven’t entered your website and keep all the nice feelings. Now I really don’t feel like watching it again :(
    All the mistery disappeared and I didn’t like the way you described things. Anyway that is my point of view and it doesn’t have anything to do with the matter Macchu Picchu and the “crazy about chocolate milk” llamas doesn’t appear in the video :)
    Just wanna share that with you.
    Good luck and lots of positive energies for you
    Giuliana

  22. lince2002

    wow you travel for everywhere and you don’t know what is tour guide??????

    You should be contract one of this guys before you spend a dollar in Cuzco, I am from Peru, I really know you know what is a tour guide, but if you are in Machu Pichu you must to rent a tour guide for know much more about our culture. Also Bolivia is not part of Peru, we share the same lake, which is the Titicaca lake, but we are not part of Bolivia.

  23. Carmen

    Hello Matt

    I like your site and videos, but really need to do a clarification of your comment (that i am guessing its because of your ignorance on Spanish):

    ” The neighborhood goes something like this: Catholic church, casino, Catholic church, casino, Catholic church, abortion street doctor, Catholic church”

    “Ginecologia Obstetricia” refers to a clinic (or small room, because we are pretty poor) where you get a pap screen, or just a general exam to check on your gynecological health or get your pregnancy controls is not a “abortion street doctor”

    USE google tranlations tools man, verify what you write, you have lots of people checking your website have some respect for them.

  24. Alyssa Wong

    I’m glad to see you are lucky enough to go around traveling the world, then make fun of it and dance like a monkey. you think your clever, maybe your just dumb. Oh and how typical, your visit to Peru is means an hour long visit in Lima and a flight to Cuzco. Maybe you should of looked out of your window during that flight and you would of seen more of Peru then your dumb chocolate-milk drinking Llamas.

  25. Edwin

    I like your videos all over the world so much. It makes me feel happy but I didn’t know how ignorance you are. Well what can expect of an average American bummer. Piece of advice for you, before going to a new place you have to read,read,read. So you will apreciate more the places that your visiting if you don’t like to read then go back to US. and find a blue collar job.
    Shame on you!

  26. Melissa

    i have lived in Peru for a long time now, and I think it would be better if you didn’t make such fun of it in such an outlandish fashion. It just furthers an American tradition of traveling on the mere surface of the cultures they visit instead of garnering a deeper appreciation of them. Your llama story was not that funny…at all. I mean, I’m a BIG fan of your videos, especially the one that tracks some of your favorite destinations through Google Earth and informs us of some interesting insights from each stop, but here, you have done a great disservice to Peru.

  27. George

    @Sakanta wolf: I’m Peruvian, ur mom is just lyeing to you, the only place that tried that and actually has its own currency is Arequipa, and the army never crashed anyone. Maybe what ur thinking is when the shining path (terrorist group) pretty much took control of cuzco, and the army, althou some corrupt, stopped it under the Fujimori government (not the best government we had, but took us out of being a 3rd world country with terrorist)

    Back to teh video and your comments on peru: The video was great, specially the 2008 one. And your Llama story made me laugh a lot. But about the money, the locals saw your foreign face and said, lets take some meoney. It’s common as a lot of htem might be quite poor, so they just try to squeeze tourists.

    If you ever come to Lima, I would go out and dance 😉

  28. hello matt
    hey you must be a new video qith your dance and friends dancing because we need more amazing places like peru because this amazing culture I like a lot
    saluods de españa
    almudena

  29. Maria

    uhmmm for the way you write about Perú I can tell you haven’t seen anything…seems like you don’t enjoy traveling…so you should quit because you are not doing any good for anybody.

    Like Edwin says you have done a great disservice to Peru.

  30. Talia

    Matt, you should write the title as Peru not bolivia, and there are thousands of places here you haven’t seen so come back!

  31. Lia

    I am living in Canada for 3 years. I really miss Peru with all my heart. I CAN´T BELIEVE THAT YOU ARE DOING THIS KIND OF COMMENTS. I traveled around the world and I think that South America is the best place. I am planning to return and live in my country. I wish know where are you from and decribe like you are doing your country. You are such an asshole… I am sorry, but is the true. I whish you saw the good thinks of South America and don´t lie about everything.
    Anyways.. I hope you regret one day and stop running like stupid. Thanks

  32. Lia

    STOP RUNNING LIKE STUPID!!! STOP CRITICIZING/LYING OTHER COUNTRIES THAT YOU ARE VISITING!!!

    SOUTH AMERICA IS AMAZING!!!!

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