Copacabana/La Paz, Bolivia

At an altitude of 12,500 feet in July, the dry season is in full swing in Bolivia meaning totally cloudless days and nights. The sun is very strong at this altitude which makes standing in the sun nice and warm and standing in the shade fairly cool. We look forward to our next big thunderstorm but cool dry days makes camper living easy.

Copacabana is a fairly nice beach town right on Lake Titicaca. Our arrival into Bolivia was a Saturday so our exploration of the town began on Sunday. The beach was totally filled with families enjoying the day off. Dozens of street dogs were running all over the beach bouncing from family to family looking for an easy snack. The sun shone bright and reflected off the deep blue waters of Titicaca.

Our first stop was Cerro Cavalario which is a mountain right on the shores of Titicaca by Copacabana. The Stations of the Cross lined the hiking trail all the way to the top. Being Sunday, hundreds of people were making their way up as a religious pilgrimage of sorts and a way to enjoy the view from atop. We huffed and puffed our way to the top and admired the view greatly.

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In Copacabana, Sunday markets filled the streets as locals and tourists browsed fresh vegetables and fruits, fresh breads, artisanal goods and many other items. Entering the main streets of the town, hostels and restaurants filled the streets. We popped into a restaurant to get our first taste of Bolivian beers and relax on the patio in the sun. Copacabana was a nice, relaxing entrance into Bolivia.

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This guy kept us company for our first evening and slept outside our camper all night long. We named him “Bear” and really enjoyed his company.

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To the east of Copacabana, we travelled towards the capital city of La Paz. Lake Titicaca vanished behind us and we emerged on the relatively flat high plains as far as we could see. Everything was completely dry although medium sized mountains covered with glaciers occasionally popped up from the plains. On the outskirts of La Paz, dusty roads led into the city and people wearing knitted hats and sweaters lined the streets. For once, our preconceived notions of a country were correct. This is exactly what we expected Bolivia to look like!

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I think this ferry captain made us get out of the truck in case it began to sink:

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We drove through the mess of the city and made our way to the southeast end where, you guessed it, we would visit with a mechanic. As we have mentioned in several other posts, our axle seal repair in Mexico left us with a squeak that has progressively gotten worse. It seems that the sound comes from the brake where the repair was made, but three mechanics have looked at the brakes and couldn’t find any problems. The brakes work just fine which makes the sound even more mysterious. The mechanic said he would have time the following week to look at the truck, leaving us with a full week to explore. We stayed the night in La Paz then stocked up on groceries, water and, more importantly, beer as we made our way to Sajama National Park, right on the Chilean border. Our next blog post will cover our visit to Sajama National Park.

Over the last nine months, we almost never left a place to return again. Thinking about that is weird for us. Seeing new places every single day has also become normal to us. This is also weird to think about. That’s neither here nor there but we returned to La Paz happy to have an appointment with a mechanic as a new vibration in the front end of the truck developed just as we pulled into town. Lovely.

Urban camping is not our idea of a good time but is often necessary to visit a city. Large cities rarely have anything close to resembling an RV park and camping in nature is pretty much out of the question. With an early morning appointment for the truck, we put all our eggs in one basket and decided to try to camp in a secure parking lot, or parqueo in Spanish. The specific parqueo we found didn’t open until 6pm so we parked out front and had pizza across the street. When we returned to talk to the parqueo guy, we saw there was a bar that restricted the height of vehicles entering and there was no way we would be able to enter. We explained our height problem to the security guard in front of the parqueo. He said that we could safely park on the street for the night as there were two guards on duty to keep an eye on our camper. We laughed when he told us one of the guards was a dog, but he was totally serious. We gave him some Coca Cola and crawled into our vertically challenged camper for a cozy night’s sleep.

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In the morning, we drove to Banzai Auto Service where Jorge would take our keys and begin working on the truck. After we left the truck, we figured we wouldn’t be camping so we booked a $20/night apartment for a couple nights. With a bit of a struggle finding the place and a nice lady on the street placing a phone call for us, we arrived at the apartment complex and met our host, Maria. Almost immediately, we realized our understanding of what we booked was totally different from what we would get. Although the apartment complex was brand new, our “private, entire apartment” rental was actually a room in Maria’s three bedroom apartment. Initially, we were a little uncomfortable, but Maria turned out to be a wonderful host and she gave us plenty of information about La Paz. Additionally, her mother lived in the room next to us so we got the full Latin American family experience!

Maria had us try this fruit called tumbo which was pretty similar to a pomegranate.

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Near the center of La Paz is a curious area known as the Mercado de las Brujas which translates to Witch’s Market. Here all sorts of odd things are sold, most of which we have no idea what they are used for but interesting nonetheless. One of the strangest things sold at this market was dried llama fetuses hanging from strings tied around their necks. It was a bit gruesome. Apparently the fetuses are sold as good luck amongst an indigenous population living in the city. We entered one store out of curiosity and left less than a minute later as the smell was awful and left us on the verge of dry heaving.

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Following the Witch’s Market, we ventured to the Coca Museum for a short history of the coca plant. Ever since entering very high altitudes in Ecuador, coca has been marketed as a remedy for altitude sickness and is quite common. Coca tea was available for hotel guests at a hotel we stayed at in Peru. Many locals, especially indigenous people, are constantly chewing the leaves. We aren’t quite sure if their dental problems are due to the coca leaves or not, but it probably doesn’t help. The museum explained the history from use as a sacred plant by indigenous people, to its conversion to cocaine and associated problems, legality issues and common uses in products such as Coca Cola. The museum itself was a bit hokey but the information was quite interesting. At the end of the tour, we tried a Coca Cola from the original recipe (minus the cocaine) and a coca beer. Both were interesting but we like today’s version of Coca Cola better and we think coca has no business as an ingredient in beer!

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Over the last few years, improving public transportation has become a major issue in the city of La Paz. The geography of the capital city has had major influences on its public transportation as well. During our five days in La Paz, we were never successful in finding one part of the city that wasn’t dangling off the side of a hill or on some sort of incline. The steep hills surrounding the city mean that there are no straight roads taking plenty of time to get anywhere. With this sort of geography, a subway system would probably be impossible. Instead, the city has installed a teleferico, or ski lift to make the city more accessible for its residents. We used the teleferico to return to our apartment after our visit to the city center and really enjoyed the views provided by the cheap ride home.

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Three days after dropping off our truck, Jorge said our truck had been repaired and that we could pick it up. He replaced our front brake pads and said that was the cause of our squeaking sound and front end vibration. Upon inspection, the brakes looked like they had been pounded with a hammer as they were cracked everywhere. Jorge said that he believes the damage was due to poor quality material vs. damage from heat. Whatever the cause, it is nice to know our brakes are in good working order.

Before we left the shop, we asked Jorge for a recommendation to buy a new hydraulic line for the camper. When we arrived in Sajama National Park, we found that a screw had punctured a hole in our hydraulic line to lift the roof of our camper, spilling red hydraulic fluid everywhere. Jorge told us to get in his personal car and drove us to a hardware store a few blocks away. He ordered the hydraulic line and had his employee grab a flaring tool to flare the ends of the copper line. The repair was in the back of our minds while the truck was at the shop, as we dreaded the struggle to fix the camper, but, in less than an hour, we had the new line installed and were on our way. The guys at Banzai in La Paz are great people and we appreciated their going above and beyond what we asked.

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Our final stop in La Paz was at the Valley of the Moon. This area has been protected for many years and is home to one of the most unusual landscapes we have ever seen. The soil in this area is loose sand with rocks making it susceptible to erosion. Oddly enough, the land here is also susceptible to a phenomenon known as internal erosion. Internal erosion essentially means that erosion occurs underneath the visible layers of ground. When rain falls on the top layers, it runs off and instead of forming puddles on the surface, the runoff disappears. This leaves behind some very odd looking spires of sand often twenty or thirty feet high. In between some of these spires, holes in the ground descend thirty or forty feet.

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We wrapped up our visit to the Valley of the Moon about an hour after arriving to find that our security detail we hired (a six year old girl babysitting a two year old boy) had wiped clean our entire truck. WE LEFT THEM A NICE TIP ? With this final stop complete, our route would take us to the east side of Bolivia where our exploration of the jungle region of Bolivia would begin. Before that post, we will have two more posts; Sajama National Park and our summary of driving the notorious “Bolivian Death Road.”

11 comments

  1. I really enjoyed this post. It’s interesting to me as to how you have learned to make your way in an environment which is totally new to you. Very proud of you two.

  2. I just love the stories you tell. I’m amazed a six year old with her 2 year old brother could get a truck wiped down. Such fun pictures in my head with this story.

    1. We thought they were just going to wipe down the windows and mirror and were shocked when they wiped down the whole truck! Pretty funny.

  3. Adorable story about your truck babysitters, hilarious story about the “private apartment”, astoundingly creepy story about the llama fetuses. All of it is so interesting! Your mother (Beth) and I had an adventure in Rome with housing that was not what we expected. The hard as nails woman who owned the place made it clear that she charged extra for showers. The rest of us decided to skip it, but your mom really wanted a shower so she “bought” one. Now, traveling in youth hostels we were used to showering really fast and your mom was fast, but this woman turned off the water really quickly, and before Beth was done. I can still see your mom chasing after the woman, with soapy wet hair and a towel, yelling for her to turn the water back on. The woman was loudly yelling back in Italian. It was like the battle of the titans. Your mom won. 🙂

    1. Such memories! ? where there is a will, there is a way. Sometimes a person communicates very easily without knowing the language!

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