At last, tear gas. Near noon, I was sitting quietly in my hotel room in La Paz when the TV screen started streaming live footage of a riot. The spectacle of protest and provocation is so traditional here in Bolivia that it could be the national dance. But this riot looked different from those I’d seen before. For one thing, the rioters were awfully well dressed — some were in spotless white government uniforms, and more than a few women hurled abuses while wearing high heels. Of more immediate concern, however, was the location, the Viru Viru International Airport in Santa Cruz. My flight back to America was leaving in 30 hours, and now the tarmac appeared to be in a state of war: gray clouds of gas rolled one way, waves of protesters surged forward, throwing rocks, and lines of policemen fell back under assault.
As usual in Bolivia, the riot had started as a labor dispute. The day before, the airport administrator had threatened to strike over the payment of landing fees, causing some international flights to be canceled. Then, at 3 a.m., a mysterious plane had touched down, disgorging elite Bolivian soldiers who occupied the control tower and restored the central government’s authority.
That lasted until about lunch, when, live on TV, hundreds of angry Bolivians outside the airport began attacking the police. Shirtless young men used slingshots to fire the army’s gas canisters right back at them.
The next morning, more than a little concerned, I walked up to the airline office on the Prado, the city’s principal avenue. A crowd of panicked customers was already there tossing questions at the staff. Like me, many had arrived clutching the morning papers, which showed a rock-strewn runway and warned that the country was on the verge of collapse.
“Everything is normal,” the woman insisted. She said it with a smile.
And I have to say: she was right. As we spoke, the troops fled and thousands of jubilant citizens poured into the terminal. After 15 years of traveling here, I didn’t think Bolivia could surprise me anymore, but Bolivia proceeded to surprise me. That night my flight actually did leave, on time. Punctual to the minute.
A riot, some tear gas, then back to business. Todo normal.
Bolivia is the poorest and highest country in South America, and La Paz is its lively, fermenting main city of 1.5 million, stuck into a cleft in the Andean plateau. High and low, La Paz throngs with a slightly feudal aura, where clothing trends of the 1890s and the 1980s mingle, and politics seamlessly blends the 1960s with the 1690s. The exotic is right at the end of the block, where at dawn, checking into my hotel, I encountered the end of an overnight festival, with wealthy women in bowler hats knocking back beers and dancing to a brass band. Then a man walked by carrying 10 mattresses on his back. There was a fistfight. Someone emptied a chamber pot from a second-floor window. Todo normal here means 17th-century cathedrals and 21st-century lodgings, witchcraft markets selling disenchantments, eco-tourists packing telephotos and storefront “mentalists” peddling lottery predictions to the hopeful.
The presidential palace in La Paz is known as the Palacio Quemado, or the Burned Palace, because it was sacked in a 19th-century coup. Bolivia has had an awful lot of coups, revolutions and other abrupt changes of government, at least 190 since 1825. That’s an average of about one per year — perhaps the world record for sustained, almost balletic chaos.
Yet Bolivians are lawful, even conservative people. Despite profound poverty — or, more likely, because of it — the population of nine million is deeply governed by a web of family, village, province, class and language groups. And the political process is now more or less quiescent, at least by rowdy Bolivian standards. It has been 26 years since a military government last held power, and the nation is clinging to its bumpy, imperfect democracy.
It is probably the arrival of Evo Morales in the Burned Palace that accounts for most of this. Stability helps, and high commodity prices are a boon in a nation that exports those tears of the earth silver, tin and natural gas. But it is Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, who delivered an Andean shockwave. Born to Bolivia’s large Aymara group, Morales dresses in the humble sweater of the masses, and has a portrait of Che Guevara made entirely from coca leaves hanging in the presidential palace. Elected with a strong majority, itself almost unheard of in Bolivia, he has introduced social programs and legal changes to benefit the country’s neglected Indians, who make up more than half the population. He has also alienated many, whether businessmen, defenders of civil liberty or regional officials chafing under his central government. Bolivia’s social dynamic is now curiously reversed: the Indian masses defend process and patience, while the small middle and upper classes rally against the administration. As recently as last month, Morales dealt a blow to the regionalists in a bitter referendum that married electoral democracy to street protest in a typically Bolivian way. Tear gas may come and go, but this is a unique and pivotal moment for the country, a time of improvement and optimism.
There is no doubt that Bolivia is still a hard place, physically, emotionally, aromatically. Compared with the Europeanized societies of neighboring Chile and Argentina, it’s a step back in time, a rustic patchwork quilt of cultures and environments, with large swaths of the country accessible only by beaten tracks and mud roads. (Travel is what Bolivians call imprevisible, unforeseeable.) But things are getting easier, and today’s visitor is admitted to a particularly sweet spot in Bolivia’s history, a moment when the roads are new but the ways are still old. I’ve had the classic Andean destinations of Isla del Sol, in Lake Titicaca, and the mountain town of Sorata on my to-do list for a dozen years. Yet only now have Bolivia’s stars aligned to make them not just possible, but possible with the surprising ease and unexpected rewards that mark the best days of travel in a difficult place.
FOR BOLIVIANS THE LAKE is simply the lake, and needs no name or superlatives. Titicaca is a moody, quiet sheet of water, 120 miles long and watched by snow-stained peaks. Divided between Peru and Bolivia, the lake is dotted with islands, most of them inhabited, and slowly emerging only now from their antiquity. It is the highest navigable lake in the world, with a waterline at 12,500 feet, and while traditional reed boats have disappeared as a way of life, it is still common to see lonely men in small crafts setting out for points unknown. Landlocked Bolivians come here to say they have stood on a beach.
It took just two hours in a shuttle bus to reach that shore at Copacabana, a transit point for overlanders making the brilliant two-day journey to Machu Picchu and Cuzco. Whitewashed and something of a boomtown, Copacabana is famous for its religious blessings of the nation’s cars, trucks and bus fleets; it also offers pleasant hotels and ferries out onto Lake Titicaca’s communities. After a cool night sipping pisco sours with a lake view, I caught the morning ferry, a wooden cruiser, for the hourlong ride to Isla del Sol, the largest and most romantic of the lake’s inhabited isles, with several small villages, Inca ruins and a soaring trade in tourism.
We landed on a steep shore, rattling down the wooden dock with a crowd of Australian and Israeli backpackers and Latin American hippies looking for the stone ruins that mark points of ancient Incan worship. Amid some touts for the islands’ few small hotels, I joined three Americans I’d met, a family from Reno, Nev. Vicky was a biologist, Glenn a veterinarian; they’d come here to join their 27-year old daughter, Lisa, as she wrapped up an eight-month work-study tour of South America.
The altitude even at the dock had us all huffing as we took the first steps up an Incan staircase toward the island’s ridge line and the town of Yumani. “Reno’s at 5,000 feet,” Glenn said slowly. “I thought I would be prepared.” Our bags were strapped onto a couple of mules behind us by a determined lady in a bowler hat, who then pulled out her cellphone to confirm our reservations at the Ecolodge La Estancia, the island’s best hotel, which was a 30-minute walk away, almost all of it uphill. When we got to the lodge, we found adobe cabanas built with Trombe passive solar heat traps and an attention to traditional details that otherwise seemed missing on the island. The furniture was made in La Paz, and housewares like linens and dishes were mostly sourced from sustainable projects around Bolivia that support village women. Water, precious in this arid climate, is brought up from an old Inca fountain near the boat landing on pack trains. Besides mules, alpacas are used as beasts of burden on the island, and one came tottering up the hill with a trombone on its back. “We wanted to build a place where we feel the responsibility we have for nature and local people,” one of the owners, a Swiss-born Bolivian named Roswitha Grisi, told me.
La Estancia opened in 2001, just before the government announced it was skipping high-tension power lines to Yumani over a series of stepping-stone islets. Now everyone in the town has lighting and power off the national grid. Streetlights and cellphones have suddenly become common in a place that still, in dress, agriculture and language, reflects the oldest origins of Bolivia.
Could Isla del Sol be ruined by visitors? “It could be,” Grisi told me. “It’s always the double role of tourism.” Fifteen years before, there hadn’t been one place on the island “that was warm, clean and comfortable, with a view of nature.” Now development allows many local men, who used to leave for La Paz if they wanted work, to get jobs at home. It has raised incomes but also the amount of trash, which local people often throw on the ground. La Estancia trained its staff in recycling and conservation, and helped maintain the Inca terracing on the island. But the message is barely sinking in; traditional people are colliding with modern problems. “Every time we come we find more trash thrown down the ravines,” Grisi said. “You have to raise the consciousness of people, but it’s very hard.” She saw a paradox in the goal of using tourism to preserve tradition. “If Bolivia wants to exist as Bolivia,” she said, “it still has to offer what the customer wants.”
Tourism is big business, worth the equivalent of up to 8 percent of the country’s exports. In 2006, Ricardo Cox, the vice minister of tourism, announced a $200 million investment in “indigenous community tourism” under the slogan “Authenticity Still Exists,” intended to make rural Indian communities not simply objects of observation for tourists. In places like Isla del Sol, this has meant blocking development by “outsiders,” even from La Paz, and a free-for-all of shameless development by locals: I saw a dozen new two- and three-story guesthouses sprouting from the crowded ridgeline at Yumani. One such monstrosity was done in breeze-block, with wet mortar and a disco ball. An islander told me, “It doesn’t have a name yet,” then offered me a room for $3.
The next morning I shared a water taxi with the American family. It dropped us at the island’s northernmost tip, and we climbed steeply to a ridge scattered with Incan ruins. Mythology says this exact spot was the birthplace of the sun and of the Inca empire. A rock-wall labyrinth here may have been a temple; a massive stone table is thought to have served for sacrifices; a big concave boulder is said to resemble a crouching puma. (“Titicaca” is believed to mean “rock puma.”)
The road back to Yumani carried us south over nearly barren slopes furrowed with lines of potato, corn and tobacco. From high points we had water in a 360-degree panorama. “A lake where you can’t see the other side,” Glenn said at one point, shaking his head. He’d thought Lake Tahoe was large until now. Here, the waters fell over the curve of the earth. Tiny sailboats glided out of the island’s emerald bays, heading toward Peru.
The Nevadans were eager to see village life, and we left the ridge trail to descend to the beachside town of Challapampa, where the spartan conditions of life and a meager lunch were sufficiently authentic. Then we wound our way up again, through oily eucalyptus trees planted to hold the island’s eroding slopes in place. Marching into Yumani as the sun set, we shared the path with village boys in homespun hats tending alpacas. Women wearing the traditional layered petticoats under bright aprons went trundling past on their daily commutes, clutching radios tuned to the larger worlds of Peru and Bolivia. They cracked up laughing whenever I said “Kamisaki?”— “How are you?” in Aymara.
SORATA is a popular weekend retreat from La Paz and a center of alpine trekking, just across the lake in the foothills of the Cordillera Real, where the high Andes plunge abruptly to low jungle. Once famously isolated — during a rubber and minerals boom in the 1890s, it could take a week to get here — it is now four hours from La Paz on a fresh ribbon of asphalt. Since I was traveling from the lake, it required a gut-wrenching ride on two buses and a lengthy wait by the side of the road to reach Sorata, but at last I saw the town, compact and white, perched on a steep hill at an oxygen-rich altitude of nearly 9,000 feet. The headache that had been bothering me up at Titicaca vanished the moment I downed a mango smoothie in the classic plaza, surrounded by a church, government buildings, markets and cafes.
I took a room just outside town, in a quiet lodge, Altai Oasis, where I could reflect on the trend of traveling around Bolivia without any problems. It was disconcerting. On my first visit here, in 1991, the Pan-American Highway from Peru was blockaded by protesters, and on my second, in 1996, I’d caught a stiff hit of pepper gas at a demonstration in La Paz. And in September 2003, a trip with my wife was canceled when the La Paz airport — does this sound familiar? — was shut by demonstrations.
Sorata had played an unfortunate role in that last event. Some foreign travelers were “trapped” in the town by a protest that blocked the road, and an exchange of gunfire with Bolivian police left one demonstrator dead.
The town lost tourist business for years. But the smooth new road instantly restored Sorata’s popularity, and hotels are now often booked solid by La Paz weekenders. On a Friday night, I found Land Rover fanatics and groups of motorcyclists crowding into town, along with a German jazz orchestra.
I spent the mornings shopping and reading around the plaza, grabbing lunch somewhere and then returning to the plaza again in the evening, long after dark, for dinner. The prices left me scratching numbers onto napkins.
Could it really be just $5.50 for an evening of cocktails and beef skewers? Were simple but clean hotel rooms in the center of town actually going for $4?
After dinner one night, I walked downhill to the Laguna Room, a tiny expat bar that hangs off the steepest cliff in Sorata and serves as the headquarters of the Andean Epics Ride Company. Amid reggae music, the bartender/D.J./tour guide Travis was pouring drinks for six foreigners, mostly Canadians, as they signed releases for Sorata’s signature mountain biking event, a five-day descent that included three days on a riverboat in the Beni jungles. It sounded nice, but if you don’t climb, you aren’t truly experiencing Bolivia. So the next day I found the Sorata Guides and Porters Association, just off the plaza, where I pored over some topographic maps with Eusebio Jallurana, the chief guide. Sorata’s main attractions are the folds of the Cordillera Real. There are weeklong excursions across glaciers, but I chose Laguna Chillata, a small green lake caught in the side of Mount Illampu, a 20,892-foot peak covered in snow. The lake can take four hours, so most visitors spend the night. But I hoped to get there and back in one long day. At 8 the next morning, Eusebio’s 25-year-old son, Benito, took me outside of town in a taxi, and we started hiking up a shepherd’s trail.
Thus began the most oxygen-challenged day of my life. Sorata had been foggy, with optimism-inducing patches of sun, but the higher Benito and I climbed, the more the clouds enveloped us. We gained almost 4,000 feet during the course of the morning, a challenge made worse by a starting point at 9,000 feet. Soon I was gasping, unable to speak or, eventually, to think. At 10,000 feet I felt bad; at 11,000, very bad; at 12,000, worse.
The Andes are young, and the ridges here are flat slabs of topsoil pushed up and broken by tectonic shifts, nothing yet eroded, as if the mountains were made yesterday. The few small, grassy meadows were left for animals; tiny plots of corn and potatoes were contoured into the slopes at 30 or even 45 degrees. During a rest break, Benito pointed to white dots schooling below us: sheep were being led up to these higher pastures. As a boy, he’d brought his family’s flocks up these slopes “hundreds and hundreds of times, almost seven days a week,” he told me.
We started climbing again. Breathing easily, he recalled soccer games among the shepherds at 14,000 feet, when they would abandon their flocks to chase the ball madly, with the severest penalty — you get it! — for whoever launched it into a canyon. At 13,000 feet we startled a lonely lady singing to herself as she watched a few llamas. Even though Benito knew her by name, she looked away, refusing to speak while a stranger was present. Bolivia’s indigenous people have learned from history to mourn the appearance of outsiders.
I was tortured by one false summit after another. A glacier peeked briefly from between clouds — Illampu’s castoff snow and ice — but then disappeared behind fog. We crossed a final steep meadow and reached the emerald-colored Laguna Chillata, just as it began to rain. The famous views, taking in Illampu, the distant Lake Titicaca and dozens of rippling peaks, were lost: within minutes of arriving, I couldn’t even see across the lagoon. A fierce wind kicked in.
Too tired to be disappointed, too flushed with endorphins to care, I was in a receptive state for what happened next. We were halfway through our guacamole sandwiches when a dark colossus drifted out of the cloud, coming right for us.
“Cóndor,” Benito said.
It dropped over the lagoon, low, then soared over our heads, slowing and pausing to watch us. “Hembra,” Benito declared. Female. The bird had a five-foot wingspan, as wide as Benito was tall. It hovered 30 feet overhead, only the tips of its trailing feathers vibrating in the wind.
There might have been time to throw open my backpack, wrestle with zippers, dig out the camera and engage in a frantic effort for electronic mastery. I sat still. No blurry photo of a silhouette was worth it. I simply absorbed the lifelong sound of the bird, lordly, slicing those feathers through the air with an off-key whistle.
Limping back into Sorata that night, seven and a half hours after setting out, all I had were bragging rights, a pile of wet clothes, sore knees and the sound of condor feathers in the wind. I sat alone on the plaza, drinking cheap daiquiris. A Catholic parade went past, full of fireworks, confetti and slow drumming. When the bill came, I had to laugh.
Four thousand feet up, four thousand feet down, about six miles to the right and left, and five different centuries all at once. It must be Bolivia.
LA PAZ Hotel Rosario A favorite of European climbers and anthropologists in a charming colonial building. Staff can arrange travel and lodging on Lake Titicaca. Avenida Illampu 704; 011-591-2-245-6634; hotelrosario.com; doubles from about $61. Café Banaís A good smoothiesand- sandwich spot popular with travelers. At the bottom of Sagárnaga, by the San Francisco church. 011-591-2- 231-1214. Gitana A stylish new restaurant serving haute cuisine in the upscale Plaza Humboldt neighborhood. Avenida Sánchez Bustamante 36; 011-591-2-215-4545; entrees $7 to $15. La Comédie One of the city’s quirkiest restaurants, with European owners and a great bar, up a tiny alley in the Sopocachi neighborhood. Pasaje Medinacelli 2234; 011-591-2-242-3561; lacomedie-lapaz.com; entrees $5 to $7. Pronto Dalicatessen A Sopocachi hangout with an excellent menu. Pasaje Jáuregui 2248; 011-591-2- 244-1369; entrees $6 to $9. Vienna Captures the faded elegance of the old La Paz downtown (there’s a pianist most nights). Calle Federico Zuazo 1905; 011-591-2-244-1660; restaurantvienna.com; entrees $4 to $14. Wagamama Serves the best Lake Titicaca trout sushi in La Paz. Pasaje Pinilla 2557; 011-591-2-243-4911; entrees $7 to $9.
TITICACA Hotel Rosario del Lago Sister to the La Paz institution, in Copacabana. At Paredes and Costanera; 011-591-2-862-2141; hotelrosario.com/lago; doubles from $58. Hotel La Cúpula Copacabana hotel with the town’s best restaurant and rooms overlooking the lake. Calle Michel Pérez 1-3; 011-591-2-862-2029; hotelcupula.com; doubles from $22. Ecolodge La Estancia Comfortable rooms in Yumani, carefully done in traditional Andean style. 011-591- 2-244-2727; ecolodge-laketiticaca.com; doubles from $50.
SORATA Altai Oasis Cabins, campground and a worthwhile restaurant just outside town. 011-591-7-151-9856; altaioasis .lobopages.com; doubles from $23. Hostal Las Piedras Cozy accommodations in town. Villa Elisa Calle 2; 011-591- 7-191-6341; doubles from $7. Laguna Room Expat hangout and Andean Epics Ride Company headquarters. Downhill from the Sorata plaza, opposite Casa Reggae and the Hostal Mirador; 011-591-7-127-6685; andeanepics.com. Sorata Guides and Porters Association Calle Sucre 302; 011-591-2-213-6698; guiasorata.com.