In Bolivia, todo posible, nada seguro (everything is possible, nothing is certain). This tour follows this saying and guides us to living our best experience of the country. It is by letting ourselves be carried away by the people of Lake Titicaca, by following their rites and offerings to the Pachamama (Mother Earth), by accepting the invitation to chew coca leaves from the person sat next to you on the bus, by walking alongside the muleteers of the Royal Range of the Andes (Cordillera Real), by celebrating with Jaime and his family, that we witness the best of the Altiplano people.
It is by submitting to the uncertain, that we find the best surprises, the best encounters, the best experiences and that our trip takes on a whole new meaning.
The market at La Paz
I fly over houses as far as the eye can see, blue line, silver line, yellow line, I revel in the sights of the inner courtyards, and of the terraces where traditional clothes and dance costumes hang to dry... My starting point in Bolivia inevitably begins in El Alto, the upper city of La Paz, which is a bath of disorientation, of crowds, of ambient tumult... viewed from the cable car, I realize the extent, the diversity and the magnitude of the city. I get out at Sopocachi, which will become my neighborhood, my home.
Nicolas Bouvier said: "On the road, the best thing is to get lost. When you get lost, your plans give way to surprises and it is then, but only then, that the journey begins." This is what I decided to do, to melt into the Andean culture, between Incas, Aymaras, Quechuas, by "playing the game" of its traditions and its beliefs, which are at first sight, far outside my rational frame of reference.
"Copacabana, copacabana, copacabana !"
Shouts the driver, to rally bystanders. He won't leave until his minibus is full. Paciencia is one of the first things I learned upon coming here... my very first challenge... but it changed my life! Minibuses are perhaps my second challenge. Let's just say that being 1.77 meters (5 feet, 8 inches) tall is not the national average, and I often meet new people by first apologizing a thousand times for putting my knees into the back of my neighbor seated in front of me...
The road to Lake Titicaca is an excursion in itself. After the traffic jams at the exit of La Paz and El Alto, I find myself on a bumpy road, Andean music in my ears, and the smell of chewed coca leaf in my nostrils. To my left, in clear weather, the Sajama, the highest point of Bolivia with its 6540 and some meters of altitude, is visible; to my right, the Andes Cordillera.
In Tiquina, everybody disembarks to cross the small strait by boat. On the quay, I let myself be tempted by small fried ispis from the lake, spiced with Aji (spicy sauce). I don't realize that my minibus is already on the other bank... small fright and small sprint (let's not forget that at 3 800 meters above sea level, one should not exceed a brisk walk) to catch up to it.
On the banks of Lake Titicaca
I settle down in Copacabana’s covered market of for breakfast of Api con buñuelos. Api is a smooth hot drink, typical of the Andes, made from purple corn flour and cinnamon. It is often found in markets, accompanied by buñuelos, a kind of doughnut. A very comforting (and caloric!) combination for the cool mornings in high altitude.
Then I board a lancha towards the Island of the Moon, the little sister of the Island of the Sun, more discreet, more exclusive. Doña Esperanza welcomes me at her home, in a small house with a view of Lake Titicaca, that she renovated with her family. Herself a from the shores of the lake, the "mainland", she tells me that she moved to the Island of the Moon for her husband, himself a native of this 91 hectare island. She has learned to live in harmony with the rhythm of the place, of which she now knows all the secrets, including the power of the muña, a medicinal herb, a kind of peppermint that grows between 3,000 and 4,000 meters above sea level and apparently relieves just about everything.
I stroll on the island, where you can reach the village on the other side by beach, for a nice walk. A little improvised swim on the way, yes please! and the water is not too cold. Either way, the opportunity to soak a little at such a high altitude is worth some shivers. Then I cross the island by the ridges, with a 360 degree view between the Isla del Sol and the Andes, including the Llampu summit which dominates the lake. Where the path bends, I stumble upon a group of women with their herd of llamas.
At the end of the afternoon, we prepare quinoa soup, rich in proteins, vegetables and local flavors, with our homestay family.
"At sea sailor... well, almost!"
I join Santiago de Okola and its families of fishermen and farmers, on the other side of the lake. We embark on one of the catamarans manufactured by the community. Sailing on Lake Titicaca is like being in another space, in another time. It is so quiet, peaceful, and at the same time so impressive, not only because of the symbolism but also because of the majesty of the surrounding Andes.
For lunch, I debate between lake-caught trout with butter, garlic, tomato, and llajwa - a spicy sauce not to be missed in the Andes... or a fresh fish ceviche with tiger milk and sautéed corn... coming from a landlocked place, the occasion to eat fresh fish is rare, so I take advantage of it.
I spend the evening in the village. I share a few drinks, and sample the festive Andean evenings. The golden rule, before bringing a glass of alcohol to your mouth, is to pour a few drops on the ground. This custom is directly linked to the cult of the Pachamama, for whom this first sip is reserved as a sign of respect and reverence. Very well, dear Mother Earth, cheers! (my rational mind becomes less rigid as the days go by and perhaps also as the drinks go down).
For the record (it's important!), the Pachamama is the central deity of the Andean cosmogony. In the pre-Columbian religions of South America, she is "Mother Earth" who governs the human world in its totality (on both the material, as well as the spiritual level). She is a deity without a temple or any kind of place of worship, and can be paid homage to at any time and in any place.
The Pachamama, queen of the Cordillera Real
I continue my journey towards the Royal Mountain Range. Jaime and Marisol welcome me into their home in Tuni, an Aymara hamlet at an altitude of 4,400 meters, in the heart of the Cordillera, at the foot of the glaciers and snow-covered summits, inhabited by about ten families.
The unique Aymara culture, attaches great importance to solidarity and community life. It is based on four fundamental pillars: the community, festivals, rites and the Pachamama (as I said, this is important). The ancestral Aymara traditions are still very much alive and the Tuni community is committed to perpetuating and sharing them.
No staging, no costume, the Quispe family opens their doors and lets me live with them for a few days, in all simplicity, with the Pachamama at the center of beliefs and offerings.
Here we let ourselves live in harmony with the rhythm of the Cordillera, and before us lays our choice of discoveries. This is why I never tire of this space and why I have adopted it as my second home.
A life at the foot of the glaciers
Do we feel like climbing to high snowy summits today?
Jaime, who is a mountain guide trained by instructors from Chamonix, takes me on a trek around the lagoons and the Condoriri. Together we prepare the itinerary, supplies and food and hit the road at the side of the muleteers. They will accompany us on our journey at the foot of the glaciers with our caravan of mules. I try my hand at being a muleteer, but I am not as poised in the maneuvers. It is a real skill to guide the mules and the men in the scree slopes and in the steep passages.
No? Would you rather settle down in the village and discover the life of a local?
Vicky takes me to the village, to her school. I try an Aymara language course. My ambition is to secretly learn their language, to be able to understand what they are saying... I still have much work to do!
Then I offer my help to Denys and Marisol as kitchen aid. The specialty here is the Huatia that is cooking in an oven dug into the ground. One of the main dishes here is the chuño, a dehydrated potato.
The taste is... interesting. I have to admit I struggle to finish the generous portions I'm served, but it's an ingenious method of preservation and I realize we could benefit from learning some of these techniques. Like using llama dung as fuel (I imagine it also works with the dung of animals more common in our countries), is a perfect recycling technique!
"Gathering coca leaves in the heat of the Yungas"
I descend towards the pre-tropical region of the Yungas. A taste of the Amazon in Coroico, here we find a little heat as well as green and luxuriant vegetation. I go to meet the coffee and coca growers, considered like a religion here. Yawar, Tania's father, my roommate in La Paz, welcomes me at his place in Suapi, nestled between citrus orchards.
An air of happy sobriety
By taking public transportation, by living with locals, by taking the time to exchange and respect the rhythm of life and the seasons, I realize that we are opening ourselves to a more sober journey, to a simpler life, centered about the Earth and the need to rethink our environment. The Andeans seem to be masters of resilience. Could they be modern without knowing it?