This was my first trip back to my home country Bolivia since I left in Jul.84, ten and half years ago. I was expecting many things to have changed, which they did, but was surprised that many other things had remained just the same.
My travel partner Mary missed her flight from Chicago to Miami (I almost missed mine from the west coast to Miami), so we both ended up traveling this part alone. What a way to start a trip! I landed in Santa Cruz's Viru-Viru airport at around 8am, a 9 hours flight? The customs people at the airport had not changed all these years: they were still trying to get extra pocket money for things that could legally be brought into the country. But who's to argue with them when at this place their word is final? Fortunately they don't ask for too much.
Santa Cruz has changed considerably these couple of years. I could see it as we were driving back from the airport; it nearly doubled its size from 3 'rings' (loops) around the city to 6. But it had still remained a city with a small town atmosphere. What are the chances of bumping into someone you know at the airport?
Very high, as it turns out. Claudia, a high-school classmate of mine was there waiting to pick up her child, and I was easily recognized, despite being away all these years. And later in the day as I was walking around downtown, I bumped into Franklin, another old high school friend who currently lives in Colorado but who was at the time visiting relatives in Santa Cruz. And a couple of hours later, while walking in another section of downtown, Franklin and I bumped into Marion, yet another high school friend. This was turning out into something close to a school reunion, all in my first day in the city!
After Mary arrived the next day, we made arrangements to fly to the capital La Paz to get her a U.S. visa (all visas are issued there) and to drop her parent's forms at the British Embassy. Once there and our duties performed, we checked into the Hotel Copacabana, which is very near El Prado avenue. The avenue runs along a very central area that is close to everything else: the Universidad Mayor de San Andres, most of the embassies, movie theaters, restaurants, travel agencies, government offices, and of course, hotels.
It was there in La Paz that I got the chance to taste some of the local Bolivian dishes I had been craving for so long: Sajta de Pollo, Salteñas, Pacumuto, Pique Macho, Lomo Montado, Milanesa a la Plancha, etc., and of course drink the famous Mate de Coca. There is usually not much of fruits in La Paz; it would have to wait until we returned to Santa Cruz.
We decided to take a tour to Copacabana. There is a number of agencies that specialize in tours around the city and the historic ruins, but the quality of the tour definitely depends on the tour guide. Ours was named Nemecio and our group had some folks from New Zeland, Australia, and California. We started first thing in the morning and rode a Turisbus through the streets of La Paz, El Alto airport, and westbound through the Estrecho de Tiquina, the mountains, along the Lago Titikaka, and finally reaching Copacabana at 1pm.
Copacabana is a small but historical city along the Lago Titikaka. La Virgen de Copacabana attracts many people who come to this holy place for pilgrimages, or just to take part in a religious ceremony (weddings, baptisms, blessings, etc).
After checking into our hotel Playa Azul and having lunch, we were ready to hire a small boat to take us to La Isla Del Sol. This island was said to be the vacation resort of the Inca during the height of the Incan Empire. Our boat ride was 1 and half hours, and after docking at the island, we started a 2 hours hike on a small trail that led us back to the Pilkokaina Ruins where our boat was waiting. The trail took us through some beautiful land overseeing the nearby Isla de la Luna, the majestic Illampu, and the distant Huaina Potosi. This was quite a sight, folks!
The next day we went for a mild hike on the outskirts of Capacabana. From this hill we could see the entire city and the surrounding areas. But we had to cut this hike short since we still had the town itself to explore before returning to La Paz.
Our next tour was to the ruins of Tiawanaku, home of a civilization that pre-dates the Incas. This trip was less enjoyable since our tour group was larger and our guide was not half as good as Nemecio. But the ruins were worth the visit, even though at lot more needs to be done to preserve them. Our tour took us through the open subterranean temple, the catacombs next to the central plaza with walls that are believed to contain certain acoustic properties (for gatherings and rituals), and the monoliths that seem to be guarding them. And finally, to the most recognizable structure in Tiawanaku: La Puerta del Sol.
We returned to the city the same day, but not soon enough for another tour to visit El Valle de la Luna. Oh well, maybe next time.
The rest of my stay in Bolivia was spent back in Santa Cruz. I mainly visited friends from high-school (we had an 'unofficial' 10 year reunion) and childhood friends, went out grocery shopping at the open market like I used to do, shopped around downtown (which hasn't changed much since the city's chamber of commerce is trying to keep the colonial look and all modern buildings are constructed outside the Primer Anillo), and ate as much of the food as possible. It was amazing that despite all that food I consumed, I ended up losing weight ... must've been the hot weather!
I did take a couple of days to escape to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to visit my parents, lil' brother, and older sister. Needless to say, the city of Sao Paulo was still as crowded, congested, and polluted as I remember. But I was lucky to be there for the 441st anniversary of the city, so downtown was one big block party with local artists performing every other hour. I also took a couple of days to ride a bus and slip into the border city of Foz de Iguazu (Brazilian side) and Ciudad del Este (Paraguay side) to visit more relatives. It was my first trip to Paraguay, so I went sightseeing to the Iguazu Falls and around both border cities.
On my way back from Sao Paulo, a very odd thing happened: A young woman mistook me for my younger brother at the airport. She was a college friends of his and had not seen or been in touch with him for over 4 years. And the funny thing was that it him who took me to the airport that day; they've missed each other at the airport by just a couple of minutes! My flight back to Bolivia was very enjoyable because I got to hear some college stories about my little brother that he had never told me before.
Once again back in Santa Cruz, I heard that Fernando, a very old friend of mine who currently resides in Argentina, is back in town for a while. Boy has this trip turned out to be the mother of all reunions or what?! I was more than happy to skip sightseeing for all the time spent catching up with old friends I hadn't seen for over 11 years.
I guess the rest of the trip I spent it doing just that. I visited more friends from high-school, even visited my high-school, but of course three weeks trying to catch up with 11 years is certainly not enough time ... I'll be sure to come back for a longer visit the next time!