Sunday, May 17, 2009

Volume 23. The "Altiplano" of Bolivia and Peru

He whirls,

he twirls...

He is truly faster than a locomotive

or a speeding bullet!

Global Around Town

Senior Travel Correspondent

Doug Wingate

has just returned from another fascinating journey

with this to report!

"I arrived in Bolivia via my home in South Beach, FL, on AA's nonstop to La Paz (the capital city). To most bright young things coming of age in the 80s, Bolivia perhaps is most famous in the U.S. for its "Bolivian marching powder," celebrated in Jay McInerney's 1980s novel, BRIGHT LIGHTS BIG CITY. Because the city is so high, altitude sickness is a real problem for many visitors coming from lower altitudes. Happily, the most effective cure for this malady is a tea (mate) made from the dried leaves of the famed coca plant (FYI, the coca plant must be heavily processed to produce its famous medicinal derivative, cocaine). All of the top hotels have the tea available round the clock in their lobbies, in order to alleviate their guests' discomfort from this potential altitude malady. Another side note is that the local natives still chew the fresh leaves of the coca plant, for energy in this rarefied atmosphere, where the air is truly thin and the heights vertiginous. The current president, Evo Morales, is the first, non-European, descendent of the ancient pre-Colombian civilizations that inhabited this part of South America before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, conquering the last of those early civilizations, the Incans. For more on Bolivia's current political scene, see

La Paz is a modern city of nearly a million people, built in a spectacular bowl ringed by the majestic Andes. I stayed at one of the city's most notable 5 star hotels, the Radisson, which is a fine place that has hosted most of the political and entertainment celebrities that have come to town in the last few decades, although I would say that the place is in need of a facelift soon. I understand the Latin American luxury chain, Camino Real, has a newer all-suite, 5 star property that has recently opened, so it may be a nice alternative for those seeking top notch accomodations.

The main tourist attractions within the city may be enjoyed easily in a day. There are many spectacular and/or charming 1500s and 1600s Catholic churches to view, plus some unique markets for the folk art and products of the local campesinos (the indigenous population), who to this day wear the internationally well-known garb of ponchos, multi-petticoated skirts, and bowler hats -- the latter worn exclusively by the women, and seemingly too small and thus balanced improbably on their heads a la a Jackie Kennedy Onassis pillbox! The most famous of these campesino markets is the Witches Market, known locally as the Mercado de Hechiceria, where one can buy many an unusual thing, including the de rigeur dried llama fetus for good luck when building one's new home. It's an interestingly peculiar variaton on Harry Potter's Diagon Alley.

There is also the aptly named Valley of the Moon, a unique, wind-carved, veritable moonscape at the bottom of the city's bowl. The peaks of the Andes, ever so high, maintain their majestic snowcaps year-round.

On my second day, I set out on a 4 hour trek to Lake Titicaca, the reason for my visit. This largest lake of South America is on the border between Bolivia and Peru, and sits. The biggest town on the Bolivian side of the lake is Copacabana, which is home to the truly beautiful 1500s, spectacularly tiled, Basilica de la Virgen Morena, also home to a magnificent statue of the Virgin inspired by a local native woman, hence the name (The Black [or brown] Virgin). Her fame is countrywide, and she is considered the patron saint of all of Bolivia.

From the port of Copacabana, one can (and I did) take a boat out to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), so named by the the Incans, and attributed by them to be the birthplace of their revered Sun God. This is also home to a reputed Fountain of Youth, which -- at the very least -- is a lovely hill-fed natural spring. Thanks to my tour guides, I enjoyed a private luncheon in a charming private garden on a local cliff, overlooking the lake and the nearby Isla de la Luna (the Island of the Moon), having locally grown, organic, vegetables, as well as fresh trout from Lake Titicaca itself. Gorgeous views and fine lunch!

After returning to Copacabana, I was handed off to my Peruvian tour guides at the border just a few miles north, where we set out for another 4 hour trip to the principal tourist town in Peru -- Puno. Puno boasts a population of well over a million, however where they all are, I could not say, as what I saw looks not too different than the charming Copacabana, Bolivia, which has a population of only some 6,000! There are several deluxe properties in Puno, especially a few miles out of town. One is the 5 star Libertador, while I stayed very closey by at the also very charming, very new Casa Andina, Private Collection (not to be confused with several other Casa Andina properties in downtown Puno).

Most of the rooms at both the Libertador and Casa Andina Privada have gorgeous lake views, and private docks from which one can enjoy one of many lake excursions. I was flabbergasted to discover that my hotel, the Casa Andina had a first rate restaurant. In fact, I enjoyed a meal there my first night that I would count as one of the very finest I've had in a long time. The chef used local Kingfish, fresh from the lake, and complimented it with the freshest vegetables prepared in an ethereal tempura that was as light and crisp as any I've encountered in the world. What a delightful surpise indeed!

The next day on the lake, I went to see the unique "floating" Uros Islands, home to the Uros Indians, who some 500 years ago, allegedly for defensive reasons, moved onto the lake itself, building their own low-tech version of Venice. These artificial islands are actually woven by their inhabitants from the naturally abundant local totora reeds. There currently are some 40 reed islands loosely linked into a community, and accessible only by boat. The Indians also weave those same reeds into navigable boats, as well as homes on top of the islands. The locals even include the totora reed in their diets, supplemented by local fish and fowl. Astounding!

In the afternoon, I was off to visit the Peruvian equivalent of Egypt's pyramids, the Sillustani tombs, just off nearby Lake Umayo. These unusual, inverted cone-shaped pyramids were built by the ancient predecessors of the Incans, the Aymara people.

The next day, I was off for a long drive back to the Bolivian border, where I was again handed off to my La Paz guides, en route to the most ancient of locally discovered archeological sites, Tihuanaco or Tiwanaku, which significantly predates the more famed (and admittedly more scenic) Macchu Picchu. The pre-Colombian culture developed here is the foundation for the later-to-come Aymarans, and even later Incans. See

One of the focal points of early architecture here is the massive Gateway of the Sun, which was so perfectly constructed, situated and aligned with the heavens, that each solar equinox -- to this day even -- the rising sun shines through this gateway on that day only. "

Many thanks to our intrepid traveler,
who is holed up in a lovely palace in Jaipur,
at this very moment!

(photos courtesy of Wikipedia)


  1. Hi David,
    this looks like a terrific trip !
    just for now, i wanted to hop quickly and send you waves of good sunny vibrations from Andalucia. I've just read your comment and yes i guess, we will all agree on the fact that aging gracefully is far from an easy task ...but we must try !

  2. You my dear will have no difficulty with that whatsoever.

    Thank you for the sunny Andalucian waves!