When I left you last time out I was gasping for breath in La Paz, the world's highest capital city, at over 4,000 metres above sea level in parts. The sad thing is, I wasn't even joking about being constantly out of breath: just sitting down makes you pant like a dog in a hot car after a particularly strenuous walk (I exercised considerable restraint with that analogy). The locals advise getting through this by drinking vast amounts of Maté de coca (Spot test: which country was especially keen on Maté? The answer will be at the bottom of the page.), which I gleefully took part in and soon developed an alarming coca habit.
The second thing to hit me (well the third if you count that Bolivian woman with the enormous hand luggage that bashed me in the face) was just how comparatively poor La Paz is. Having previously been to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, all countries in the top 5 richest of South America, Bolivia was a shock to the system: houses were half-built yet still lived in; the public buses had had their heyday in the US... in the 50s; children apparently paying homage to Oliver Twist swarmed on the pavements in abundance and everywhere I went there was someone trying to sell me something, be it an Incan charm, a pickled llama foetus or even bits of chewing gum. One thing I found particularly cruel and unnecessary was the ubiquitous Samsung billboards advertising products most of these people would never get close to owning through legal avenues: what the hell is a homeless Bolivian street child selling chewing gum to tourists going to do with a 3D television? The guy didn't even have any shoes on, let alone a reliable source of electricity or the means to subscribe to a very generous and good value satellite service, offering all the sports, movies and documentaries one could wish for, all available in stunning 3D and high definition.
Yet all this poverty is a blessing in an horrendous disguise for idiot tourists like me: Bolivia is ridiculously cheap. A typical lunch from a set menu comes in at less than a Pound. A Pound. For 3 courses and a drink. Sure, the food was average at best and I considered myself lucky every time I woke up the next day with my vision relatively intact, but Bolivian food does represent excellent value.
The food wasn't the only health risk I encountered. La Paz is extremely polluted. The ancient buses and similarly aged cars made Chinese heavy industry look like a Greenpeace oxygen, environment and happiness factory. If each cigarette takes 8 minutes off your life, then 8 minutes in La Paz must take at least a week off your lifespan.
Now call me a speculator (if that's the worst I get called by the readers of this blog I'd be very surprised), but I suspect all of this pollution may contribute a tiny bit to one of Bolivia's most remarkable aspects: Bolivians are ugly. Seriously, I didn't see one attractive Bolivian (male or female) during my entire time there. Maybe I was just unlucky, or maybe I have a very bizarre taste in women, but I can safely say I did not glance twice at any one Bolivian female.
Bolivia's not all bad though. Far from it in fact. La Paz now has the great honour of being home to my third favourite museum in the world: El Museo de Instrumentos Musicales in La Paz. I felt like I was 5 again, as I was surrounded by all these weird and whacky instruments, a lot of which I was allowed to have a go on! If I felt like this aged 23, how would I have felt aged 5... I can't remember the last time I had so much fun bashing, plucking and tinkling...
Having offended the hearing of everyone within 2 miles of the museum with my overenthusiastic musical efforts, I decided to escape town for a while lest I be lynched by angry La Pazians. My destination of choice was the hilariously-named Lake Titicaca. Now to say it was pretty would be plain wrong. Beautiful would still undersell it substantially. I can honestly say that Lake Titicaca is in the top 10 most stunning Bolivian bodies of water I have ever been to. But seriously, it was incredible. Just amazing. The scenery was breathtaking, the sapphire-coloured water complementing the dramatic surrounding mountains perfectly, all fittingly wrapped in an envelope of sunshine. If you only have time to visit one place in Bolivia, this should be it. This wondrous place was only made better by my accommodation, which was an enormous room with 4 beds, 2 hammocks and a kitchenette. This may sound quite good in itself, but the icing on the cake was the view from my window. Just outstanding.
Titicaca (giggle) is only 1 of the 2 recommendations I have for anyone headed to the La Paz area. The other is to go for a bike ride on the so-called 'World's Most Dangerous Road' (about 300 people died on it every year until a safer replacement road was built). This takes you along a 40 mile route along a narrow, rocky road with some fantastic scenery. If I wasn't concentrating so hard on staying on the road I could describe it far better to you. 40 miles may sound like a lot, but the whole route is basically downhill, meaning the only thing that gets tired is your fingers from all the braking.
Bolivia is truly eye-opening then, both in a bad and a good way. Poverty and daily struggles are happening in front of one of the most glorious backdrops in the world. The landscape and the prices (but not the women) have left me wanting to return to Bolivia one day, although next time I'll have to pack my thesaurus to help me adequately describe Bolivia's natural beauty.
Until next time, when I'll be discussing the delights of my current location, Peru. And please, don't have nightmares.