About three and a half hours from La Paz, along a newly-paved road, there’s a valley. In that valley, about a thousand meters lower than La Paz, there’s a town. In that town there are several hotels, residenciales and hostals (as well as at least three Mexican-Pizzeria “Casa-del-Tourista” gringo restaurants).
We stayed in a quiet hotel down the hill from the main square, with pink walls, gold curtains and a checked blue duvet. Two big windows gave us lovely views of the surrounding greenery and farmers’ fields. We chose this place because it was the only one that answered the telephone when we rang (we thought we’d better book ahead even though it wasn’t high season, but we could have just rocked up and found a place straight off the bus from La Paz).
We wandered along the market street which sold a bit of everything you might need; shoelaces, cakes, fake sports clothes, electric cables, coca leaves, toilet rolls, fried pork. We zig-zagged around the plaza, avoiding open man-holes, dug-up paving slabs and dogs. We ate in one of the gringo restaurants and had beer and a nice pizza with real slices of chorizo. Then we went to bed early.
The next day we went walking. We joined a dirt road and followed it along the side of the valley. We saw cloud shadows dappling the bumpy landscape. We heard the river gushing below and the breeze rustling the leaves around us.
We passed villages and were hailed by small boys. We watched little pigs snuffling the grass and a fuzzy donkey tied up next to a shiny red land rover. We were overtaken by taxis, cars and a big tour bus of Bolivians who waved to us out the window. We walked on and on and then we reached the caves.
We climbed the steps to the entrance and the girl asked us if we wanted to go by foot or boat. We chose boat. We almost had to run to keep up with her as she descended quickly down the damp steps. Fluorescent lights dimly illuminated the path and we saw the cave open up and a dim shape down below. We stood at the water’s edge while she waded out and pulled the dim shape towards us. We climbed in and I felt pedals in front of me.
We pedaled forward on the plastic, toy-like boat and suddenly the water was much deeper. Even in the dark I could just make out the lake floor far beneath and I imagined bumping into the rocky sides and gushing water and sinking. I tried to take photos but the boat shook too much, or I shook too much. We turned around at the end of the long, thin lake because there was no where else to go. We got out and the bus load of Bolivians were all there watching us. They asked us to pose for a photo with them.
Outside we bought meat sandwiches from the little shop and ate them with sugary sweet coka quina to restore our strength. We watched a man create a make-shift wrench to hold up his car while he changed a tyre. We tried to entice a family of skinny cats to play with us but they couldn’t be bought with anything but food and we didn’t want to give up our sandwiches for them.
We threw our rubbish in a bin because the wind kept blowing it off our table and said bye to the shop lady. We walked back and saw the pigs again, snoring quietly in the grass. In our hotel we washed the dust and sun lotion off our bodies and out of our hair with orange soap and luke-warm water. We went to eat at a different gringo restaurant, figuring that we were on holiday and we could afford the extra money for a nice meal. The pizza was even better than at the first place.
Stay: Hotel Santa Lucia, 50Bs pp per night, tel:02-213 206686
Transport: La Paz-Sorata bus 17-20Bs one way, leaving hourly from Cementerio area in La Paz
Extra Costs: large pizza 60-70Bs, American breakfast (toast, jam, eggs, tea, juice) 17Bs