I`ve been to lots of places around the world but I have to say one of the loveliest is Bolivia. I don`t know what it is about the place but in spite of its chequered and often violent past, Bolivia now has an ambience which is so laid back it chills you out from the moment you arrive, I loved it.
The El Alto airport sits up above Bolivia`s capital city of La Paz. La Paz is the second highest city in the world and after you have landed, a coach takes you winding down the mountainside where the views of the buildings stretching up from it`s base are truly breathtaking, in fact the coach stops to allow everyone to take pictures, it`s absolutely stunning it`s like a gigantic pudding basin filled with all kinds of life.
One of the things that struck me while I was travelling across south America is that wherever you go, there are thousands of buildings that have unfinished stories or no roof and it gave me an odd feeling which I can only describe as like being on the set of a movie which hasn`t quite been completed. I later discovered that the reason for this unfinished state is that when you put a roof on your building you have to pay taxes, so many people don`t bother. Some towns look almost derelict as a result. La Paz ofcourse is a beautiful, vibrant, bustling and impressive city with some wonderful architecture and some pretty far out places to eat but you have to remember not to rush as the high altitude will make you giddy.
Lake Titicaca runs alongside one of Bolivia`s borders and is a huge tourist attraction. I visited the lake to meet the people of the floating Uros islands who have made a living out of their squelchy homes. The islands are made of totora reeds which lie about three feet deep in the water and people originally began to live in this way to avoid paying any taxes, but also because they were a defense as the islands could be moved. It is remarkable to walk about and discover families of ten or more living in reed houses on the islands, with domesticated animals, making a living from tourism. The reed from which they are made also makes boats for fishing, provides food and tea and has lots of healing properties. Unfortunately, the lake suffers from pollution and part of the problem is that up in the shanty towns there are no lavatories. During the winter time families dispose of their waste as best they can and much of it freezes, only to thaw out in the spring and run down the mountainsides and into the lake.
Evo Morales who is a marvellous person, a political activist and the first indigenous man to be elected president in 2005, made a pledge to the people that he would ensure every house would have an inside toilet with a flush and to his credit he is keeping his word. No doubt it will eventually make a tremendous difference to the quality of the water in the lake and it is currently a work in progress.
We stayed at a lovely town called Copcabana which sits on the shores of the lake. The town is renowned for being quaint and has an air of peace and love about it. It was full of hippies practicing aromatherapy and other types of healing massage and it suited me down to the ground, if I had lots of money I would buy a house in Copacabana. A white house on a hill, overlooking the lake. The Bolivian people are warm and friendly and often extremely beautiful and I honestly could have just stayed there forever.
One of the places we also visited has such a strange landscape, it felt like we had landed on another planet. The place is called The Valley of the Moon I can`t really describe it here, it is exactly like visiting how you imagine the moon would be like and made all the more special for me because while I was clambering around the weird landscape I looked up to see and hear a man way up above me standing on a peak, playing panpipes, it was great. We also took a boat to the beautiful island of Isla de la Luna. The boat drops its passengers at the base of the island and then you have to climb up hundreds of steps carved into the rock, to reach the town at the top where you can sit down in the pretty square and have a delicious Bolivian feast.
When you drive around the mountainsides of south America, you cannot fail to notice the many mansions which are scattered across the country, very high up so there is good all round surveillance, heavily guarded and with massive electronic gates to stall any of the more curious visitors. It`s a pity that many of the poorest people in the world are exploited by drug barons but there`s no getting away from the fact that cocaine is a major industry in Bolivia, supplying around forty percent of the drug worldwide and putting food on the table for many families who would otherwise starve. Unfortunately the recent huge increase in the production of the coca leaf is having a massive impact on the environment which is pretty bad news for this incredibly beautiful country but obviously the billions of pounds in profit avaialable from cocaine is corrupting governments worldwide so I don`t see an end to the production of the coca leaf any time soon. In spite of this, Bolivia remains my favourite destination and I would go back there again in a heartbeat.