Adios South America

matt 120pxToday we’re leaving South America after four months traveling the continent. Looking back, I’d say we had five really spectacular experiences. Here they are in chronological order:


Although not like the other experiences mentioned, I enjoyed seeing the penguin colony at Punta Tombo, Argentina.



I enjoyed seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier and hiking for 4 days, both at Parque Nacional de los Glaciares in Argentine Patagonia


The drive up the Carretera Austral in Southern Chile was spectacular, especially the part than circumnavigates Lago General Carrera.

Salar de Uyuni at Sunrise

I cannot imagine a better way to spend four days in a jeep than touring Bolivia’s “Southwest Circuit” which culminates at the Salar de Uyuni.

Rainbow in the Sacred Valley

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is the most famous tourist attraction in South America for a reason.


matt 120pxBesides surviving bad food, I’d say our biggest accomplishment over the past few months is not having anything stolen. Although I haven’t witnessed any theft or violent crime while in South America, the amount of precautions that people take is witness to the fact that crime is a big problem. In the cities, there’s walls and fences everywhere. You must ring a doorbell at many places to get past locked gates and doors. I’ve been told in countless cities that its unsafe to go out at night. In Bolivia, there’s fake police with fake police cars and fake police stations! There’s fake police in Peru as well, but getting kidnapped or mugged by fake taxis is a bigger problem.The US State Department does not allow its employees to travel at night in Peru. We were wanded, searched, and video-taped while boarding buses numerous times in Peru. Now on a bus in Ecuador, we’ve already been stopped twice by police who pat down all the males and search everyone’s bags. The somewhat frequent bus-jackings in Peru and Ecuador are one of the many reasons that these two countries are considered the most dangerous in South America. But even in developed nations like Argentina and Chile, all baggage going under the bus is tagged and you’re given a baggage-claim-ticket. In Peru, you must check your bag with the bus company rather than putting it under yourself. Its great that so many precautions are taken, but its disconcerting to know the reasons that they’re taken. Tons of theft, armed robbery, and even kidnapping. Even though we’ve been extremely lucky and fortunate, I hate worrying about our belongings and not being sure of our safety. Like the food down here, I hate the prevalence of crime and am thankful that we’ve survived it.

Final Thoughts on Bolivia

Cathedral, Copacabana


matt 120pxFinal thoughts on our time in Bolivia? We spent all our time on the antiplano, so we were treated to spectacular mountain scenery our whole time in-country. The highlight was our four-day jeep tour in the southwest of Bolivia, although ordinary bus journeys between any two cities also delivers great views. Bolivian cities and towns seem invariably ramshackle and unpleasant. We definitely will not miss Bolivian food, as it definitely ranks as the worst cuisine (if it can even be called that) we’ve had in the past year and a half of travel. So I guess my overall impressions of the country are the same as those I gathered after our first day in Bolivia: ratty towns and bad food, but great scenery.


Popcorn Stalls


matt 120pxWe’ve gotten a respite from months of bad food. Fresh trout is a Lake Titicaca specialty and nearly every restaurant offers it cooked in about eight different ways. And while there is some local food here, Copacabana’s strategic location on the Gringo Trail means that almost every South American traveler going through both Bolivia and Peru passes through here, which means: tourist food! Usually I don’t like tourist food because it’s sub-par versions of international cuisines, but given the alternative of Bolivian cuisine, I’ll take it. I’ve also been snacking daily on giant bags of sweet popcorn (pictured above), which taste like the cereal “Smacks.”

At Copacabana


along the shore

joylani 130pxWe’d heard good things about the Cupola Hotel in Copacabana. On the day we arrived, I walked up the hill to check on availability and price while Matt enjoyed a cold coke by the lake (as I had done many times before in India and Thailand when he did the checking). The staff person who showed me a room quoted a very good price, so I checked a few times using various sentences just to be sure I understood correctly. I went back down the hill to get Matt and our bags so that we could check in. When we arrived back at the reception desk a new guy was there and he all but laughed at me when I told him I had just been there and the price I had been quoted. I mean he all but laughed at me AND didn’t bother apologizing for the mistaken employee. It was the second day in a row that we had been quoted an incorrect price, agreed to take a room, and had arrived only to find the price was significantly different (the first time was by email).

(As I would later find out, neither Bolivian nor Peruvian hotel staff who make mistakes know how to apologize. I have tried to figure out why, some of my conclusions include: they really just don’t care (I will give an example of this later in this post), they are embarrassed and won’t admit they made an error, and/or they just haven’t learned this skill/manner. Needless to say, I have been sorely underwhelmed with staff in Peru and Bolivia on multiple occasions, and it’s not because I was expecting amazing service to start off with. Just that I expected enough intelligence to know how much rooms cost, and to have the ability to keep a reservation, at the very least for the second day in a row they promised it…)

At the actual price, the small room wasn’t worth the cost, but then laughing boss man told us the price for another room, the “honeymoon suite,” and, being swayed by the grassy lawns and multitude of hammocks, despite my annoyance with the staff, I was tired of lugging the old La Fuma around and decided to stay anyways. We agreed to take the room, for a night. We couldn’t figure out what was honeymoon about the room, but it was a suite with a vaulted dome ceiling and adjoining room with big windows, chairs, a small forest of plants, view of the lake, and even a hammock. Even though it ended up raining a good part of the day, we were still able to enjoy the outdoors, and a hammock, from our own personal enclosed balcony, staying dry the whole time.

copacabana (5)

it was hard to say no…

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to this.

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The next morning we switched to another hotel down the hill, but closer to the lake itself. Despite the many stairs, we opted to take a room on the fifth floor for an uninterrupted view. Seeing as the area around the lake smells like sewage, and it rained for a little bit each day, “experiencing” the outdoors from our room was preferable to actually being there. (This may be hard to understand, but it you saw the waterlogged dirty diapers, et al. you would.) I put together a make-shift lounger utilizing the bed, pillows, and a nightstand and had an instant front row seat to enjoy the view. We got a lot of writing done this way, and it has been nice to catch up on the blog…though I think it will take a while before we get them all published since the internet has been about as fast as I can run…Anyways…

We have eaten our breakfast (semi-stale bread, fruit, and tea) at the same table for the last couple days. Since the first day there has been a huge gob of strawberry jelly on the tablecloth. The SAME gob. Every day. Maybe it is hard for others to see? There are usually about 3-4 staff guys hanging around the tv at reception every day. Someone forgot to put pillowcases and towels in our room when it was redone, there is a ton of dust on the floors, unkempt sitting areas, and that jelly on the table every day. What is the point of having four staff at the hotel if they aren’t even going to take care of it? But then again, I have been traveling for so long, I should really stop asking questions like this. It’s just like that and it doesn’t make sense and if I decide to be here it shouldn’t bother me. And for the most part, it doesn’t (it’s not like the jelly stopped me from sitting at the same table when there were a dozen others to pick from). It is just that I would like to know why it is the way it is for once.

There is not a whole lot to do in Copacabana itself, unless you like paddling yourself around in kayaks or paddleboats with names like “Titanic” or “Donald.” But that’s ok with me. I don’t feel like doing much except for soaking up the warm sun through our hotel window or along the lake shore when it’s not sprinkling rain. Other things to do from Copacabana include making a day trip or overnighter to Isla del Sol, or in town there’s an interesting looking church and a poncho museum to see, plus a couple walks. The food is ok here. We’ve had some tasty fried trucha (trout), and one thing that Bolivia produces is a decent panqueque and we had a pizza that was not the greatest, but a nice change from the other Bolivian wonders. But like I said, I don’t feel like doing anything, and so I sit in the stream of sun pouring through our window, look out at the shimmering lake, and write.

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Copacabana: A World Away

Lake Titicaca


matt 120pxWe’ve only been in Copacabana for an afternoon so far, but it’s a world away from dismal La Paz. Although only a few hours bus ride from La Paz, we’re now on the beautiful shore of Lake Titicaca. I’ve heard numerous conflicting stats about different lakes in South America from different people, so I don’t know what to report. I do know that the lake is big enough to look like the ocean; that is, it is deep blue and the other side lies beyond the horizon. We are, however, 3800 meters above sea level. In fact, except for Sucre (2800 meters) our entire time in Bolivia has been spent at or above 3500 meters. For our first night here, we decided to treat ourselves to the Honeymoon Suite at “La Cupula.” It’s white-washed cubic compound with domes and blue trim, that looks like it could be from the Cyclades. Up on a hill next to town, we can see all of town, the lake, some islands, and Peru. We spent our night watching a spectacular electrical storm play itself out over the lake. Our two meals (trout for lunch and steak for dinner…Joylani ordered a breakfast) have also been considerably better than the typical Bolivian fare we’ve been eating. I haven’t even seen fried chicken or a 2L Coke yet…and we’re in a Bolivia…like I said, a world away.

Bolivian Economics

matt 120pxI’m afraid that Bolivia is headed down painful paths, both politically and economically. I’ll begin with what I believe is the simpler of the two issues: the economy. To begin with, Bolivia is one of Latin America’s poorest nations , with average earnings around $900 and GDP per capita only $2900. We heard that mining is the most lucrative industry, as miners can earn around $10/day (although most die within 10-15 years of their first entry into a mine). In contrast, doctors earn around $250/month, or $8.50/day. Thus, there’s not a real incentive to educate oneself (except to emigrate). Foreign aid is a huge part of the economy. Besides the politics of aid that get reported in the papers, foreign aid is evident everyday in Bolivia: the donated vans and buses with Korean and Japanese characters still on them, the road signs indicating a road is being funded by the EU or Denmark or someone else, and the used clothes that people wear. Like its neighbors, Bolivia is fully reliant on commodity exports, especially mining. Although its relied on everything from silver to tin, today its main exports are natural gas and zinc. Again, like its neighbors (some of whom I’ve written about already), the commodities crash that began in July 2008 will have devastating consequences for Bolivia. Bolivia has practically no domestic industry and its entire economy is hostage to world commodity prices. The bottom line is that Bolivia’s economy is FULLY dependent on commodity prices and things are getting worse. There’s not much Bolivia can do about either; corruption siphons off money even in good times, the currency is pegged by the government so the central banks hands are tied, and Bolivia has massive debt which precludes it from doing anything proactive. Bolivia’s economic situation is simple and bleak: its poor, getting poorer, and not much can be done.

            Its on this wave of bad economics that Juan “Evo” Morales has swept into power. An Aymara (Bolivian indigenous ethnicity) coca picker, Evo rose to power as a labor leader. After a long struggle that included beatings, prison time, and eventually politics, Evo became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2005. He has been incredibly controversial both domestically and abroad. He’s sparred with the US over American drug policies concerning coca. On this issue, I actually take the side of Evo and Bolivia. The US is withholding trade and economic benefits because Bolivia does not ban farmers from growing coca. The US position is that Bolivia is supplying the cocaine drug trade. The Bolivian position is that coca leaves are grown and used widely within Bolivia. Traveling around the country, its evident that everybody chews it- even we’ve tried it. Some people believe it combats altitude sickness, while some just like it for its stimulative properties (like cigarettes). Evo asserts that the US’s domestic drug problem is not a valid reason to assert power of Bolivian affairs. This issue actually got quite hot and the US even withdrew its ambassador and all Peace Corps staff a few months ago (although I believe they’ve returned since). Since Bolivians use and have used coca for generations and it’s a part of their culture, I don’t think the US should belittle Bolivia as it has. Secondly, I don’t believe Bolivia has a cocaine problem and most coca is processed into cocaine in Colombia and Peru.

            From the second we saw Evo posters on every wall of the Bolivian Consulate to the graffiti of “EVO, SÍ” on every rock along the highways, its immediately apparent that he has quite a following. About 60% of Bolivia’s population is indigenous, which matches up well with the 54% of the national vote that Evo won. Unfortunately, Evo has stirred up racial bitterness and is fanning the flames of hatred against the nation’s white minority. One of his first moves was to suggest a new constitution, which supposedly will be better for the indigenous population. It met fierce resistance and violent protests erupted across the country in early 2008. Eventually, the white politicians agreed to hold a referendum on the new constitution if Evo agrees to step down as president after two terms. The referendum is scheduled for January 2009 and I am glad we won’t be here as I think it will get very dangerous. The constitution introduces (among many many other things) land-reform, which is of course just a euphemism for land-redistribution. The majority-white province of Santa Cruz is threatening to secede, because it’s basically a ploy to give white land to indigenous. Our white hotel-owner in La Paz seemed concerned of what the future holds. Although land-reform seems like a page out of Mugabe’s book, Evo is borrowing ideas from dictators of other failed states too. One of his first moves was to nationalize (steal private company assets) the energy industry, just as Chavez did in Venezuela. It seemed silly to me to see the posters of Evo with the Castro bros and Chavez, the leaders of broken and failing nations. He disagrees with capitalism and wants to be identified as a revolutionary who can change Bolivia. Guess what? Bolivia’s had dozens of revolutions and over 70 presidents. Evo is pursuing the policies of other men who have bankrupted their nations and I don’t think Evo can bring about any positive change. Yea, it’s great that an indigenous can become president and its good that he wants to help his nation. But he’s just the latest of a new wave of Latin American neo-liberals that is going to drive his country into the ground. Fidel? Look at his country over the past 50 years. Chavez? Watch what happens now that oil has dropped and you kicked out all private oil companies. Correa? Want to default on your foreign debt because debt is “humiliating,” look what happened to Argentina. Land reform? Look what Mugabe’s done to Zimbabwe in only five years! Not only is Evo pursuing populist policies that are both bankrupt and downright communist, he is a racist preying on Bolivia’s minority. Bolivia is already headed down a painful path, but Evo will only exacerbate the pain.

La Ciudad Blanca



matt 120pxSucre is the so-called Ciudad Blanca, since it appears that nearly every building in town is whitewashed. Looking at the city from afar, it’s actually somewhat attractive with all the white walls and red tile roofs. Up close, the city is not very attractive. Its like the other Bolivian towns and cities we’ve visited so far. Crumbling adobe and brick walls, litter and garbage all around, streets full of taxis and exhaust, and rumors of dangerous areas. We’ve visited a lot of towns around the world that we’ve liked that could be described the same way, but Sucre lacks good food and anything interesting to see. The food in Bolivia has not been getting any better. Despite the fact that Bolivian food is dirt cheap, Joylani and I have started cooking ourselves- the food is that bad. Most restaurants are closed except for mealtimes and standard fare is cold fried chicken, fries literally dripping in oil, dry rice, lukewarm soup, and nasty looking salads. Not only is it rarely ever appetizing, but it’s mostly unsanitary too. In fact, the only reason we stayed her for three days is because we got sick. Although Joylani enjoyed the native textiles museum, the Casa de Libertad, the historical heart of the nation, was nothing more than a boring gallery of portraits. Perhaps, being at the heart of Bolivian independence, Sucre holds a special place in Bolivians’ hearts, like Boston or Philadelphia do for Americans. I, however, only found the town somewhat appealing when we ate a meal above town (photo above).

Matt´s birthday lunch

Plaza de San Francisco, Sucre

joylani 130pxWandering up one of the hills in town today in search of a good view, we found what we were looking for and it included a stop at this hotel/restaurant we stumbled upon.  The food was good, the view was nice, and, besides me getting sunburned on my face and the half of my forehead not covered by bangs, we had a sunny little meal to celebrate Matt’s birthday a day early.  Happy Birthday Matt!

Bolivia, Sucre