About Lainie Liberti
Lainie Liberti is a recovering branding expert, who’s career once focused on creating campaigns for green - eco business, non-profits and conscious business. Dazzling clients with her high-energy designs for over 18 years, Lainie lent her artistic talents to businesses that matter. But that was then.
In 2008, after the economy took a turn, Lainie decided to be the change (instead of a victim) and began the process of “lifestyle redesign,” a joint decision between both her and her 11-year-old son, Miro. They sold or gave away all of of their possessions in 2009 and began a life of travel, service, and exploration. Lainie and her son Miro began their open-ended adventure backpacking through Central and South America. They are slow traveling around the globe allowing inspiration to be their compass. The pair is most interested in exploring different cultures, contributing by serving, and connecting with humanity as ‘global citizens.’
Today Lainie considers herself a digital nomad who is living a location independent life. She and her son write and podcast their experiences from the road at Raising Miro on the Road of Life.
Latest Posts by Lainie Liberti
Let’s be honest – I absolutely love a good coffee and we travel with our small coffee press and search high and low for the best coffee available at every new place we visit. The Danish-Bolivian couple who run Café MagicK where we stayed recently, pay a lot of attention to the quality of their food and the presentation and the events they produce. Plus, we think they serve the best coffee in La Paz. After several deep conversations about the coffee standards, Stephan shared with us information about the beautiful organic coffee farm which supplied the cafe. Just then, we added another location to our “must-see” in Bolivia list.
Early Saturday morning we boarded a bus for the three hour trip from La Paz to Coroico, where the Munaipata Organic Farm is located. We traveled over the new paved Yungas Road which was built in 2006 as an alternative to the famous Death Road where thousands of bicycle tourists test their fate every year.
Our little bus passed dozens and dozens of helmeted mountain bike riders making their way to turn off to the original dirt road pass as we remained on the paved road. I looked at Miro and asked him once again, “are you sure you don’t want to do the Death Road Bike Tour?” I held my breath, hoping to every conceivable god he didn’t change his mind. Then without hesitation, he replied with, “Mom, anything with the words ‘death’ and ‘road’ in it does not appeal to me”. Whew! What a sensible kid!
The Yungas Road is one of the few routes that connects the Yungas region of northern Bolivia to La Paz. Upon leaving La Paz, the road first ascends to around 4,650 meters (15,260 ft) at La Cumbre Pass, before descending to 1,200 meters (3,900 ft) finally arriving at the town of Coroico. The three-hour bus ride offers a quick transitioning scenery starting at the cool Altiplano terrain ending in the high rainforest as it winds through very steep hillsides and atop cliffs.
The farm, located in the little town of Coroico, has long been a favorite with visitors and residents of La Paz. The town is situated in the center of steep, forested mountains surrounded by orange and banana groves, coca farms and coffee plantations. From every side, Coroico offers stupendous views, where from the distance you can see the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Real. Even though our visit to Coroico was brief, Omar and Daniela told us there are wonderful hikes and birdwatching opportunities in the countryside surrounding Coroico.
If we had more time, Miro and I would have loved to stay and explore the area leaning of the of the cultural history of the surrounding communities including Charobamba, which was established by Jews escaping Nazi Germany. Also interesting is Tocaña, which is known as the Afro-Bolivian community established by former slaves who gave Bolivia its famous “saya” dance. And finally just a short ways away is Coroico Viejo, where Coroico was originally established before indigenous attacks caused the inhabitants to move their town.
But this day was dedicated to coffee and I couldn’t be happier.
Upon our arrival at the Coroico bus station, we walked up what seemed like a mountain of stairs to reach the main square. There, I was acutely aware we were lower in altitude from La Paz. Although I was still out of breath, it did not feel like my heart was going to jump out of my chest and caught my breath rather quickly.
After asking a few locals for directions, we made our way from the center of town to a side street about six blocks away, where we boarded a small pubic van. After about twenty minutes on the dirt mountain road, we were dropped off at the front gate of Cafe Munaipata and the organic farm with the same name.
Our coffee tour began with a beautiful meal served at Cafe Munaipata. Before we arrived we made our choice between a lasagna or llama steak. Miro and I chose the cheesy option and Omar and Daniella chose the meat. (Both looked and tasted wonderful.)
Our meal started off with the most delicious quinoa salad, accompanied with a frothy jamaica (hibiscus) drink. The main course was incredible.We finished our meal with a delicious scoop of homemade coffee ice cream. Overall, our meal was complete, satisfying and divine.
After lunch the tour of the grounds began. We were joined by another two people, making our tour complete with six people. Andres was our passionate guide and shared his love for the entire coffee process, from planting to roasting. Later, we met Renee who owns the artisanal coffee production estate.
The Munaipata Organic Coffee Farm covers three hectors, which consists of hillside and flat land. Coffee plants require 50/50 shade to sun ratio so you will find a variety of other trees throughout the farm. Each coffee plant is grown using regional organic best practices and including a variety of citrus trees and other local non-fruit bearing trees which provide shade for the coffee plants as well as a natural habitat for the local bird population. Andres told us that a portion of the coffee crop is consumed by parrots, but that that is the price for opting to remain organic and not using dangerous pesticides and chemicals.
From the start, we noticed many different elevations which must represent several different microclimates. Throughout the Munaipata farm, we found several varieties of coffee plants including catimor, arabica, criollo, and caturra. The different plants produce beans of varying flavor profiles.
Andres talked about the life cycle of the coffee plants; each plant can live between 65-70 years. Each coffee plant will take about three years to produce fruit. We observed the plants with thicker stocks indicating that were older. Those plants had off shoots that were ripe for cutting and replanting to start new plants.
Alternatively, we learned that coffee plants needed to mature at least ten years to be ready to harvest fruit for seeds. We also learned that that ten year period marks the point that the plants begin to diminish both in levels of production and quality of bean.
It seemed as if Andres knew each plant personally throughout the three hectare farm and knew the age, and variety as if he was looking at his own family tree. One of the many benefits of touring a speciality trade organic farm is learning the differences between their process and the practices of most bulk producers. Growers who bulk produce coffee, often cultivate plants past their peak. Munaipata does not and the evidence can be found in the rich flavor… but more on that a little later on.
From Beans to Seedlings
We learned about the process of harvesting seeds. The beans are germinated in compost, some in larger bags, some in smaller boxes depending on the season, variety and current needs of the farm. Munaipata farm retains many of the seedlings for planting on their property, but they also sell a portion to nearby farmers.
After a few weeks, the seedlings are wrapped into little planter bags and transferred over to the nursery which is an open air greenhouse. Depending on the time of year, the seedlings remain in the nursery area for a period of seven weeks up to ten months, after which they are planted or sold.
Optimally each coffee plant should be planted one to two meters from one another, however through natural germination and growth, there are several plants that do not retain that distance.
Picking the Right Bean
It takes an experienced eye to know when the fruit is ripe for picking. Not too early, not too late. Each bean needs to be analyzed visually and picked when ready. A single branch, may have 20 beans at different stages of maturity. Andres showed us the color and size of the optimal bean, but even to the naked eye not every bean passes the final test. In fact, each coffee bean must pass through our or five tests that indicate the quality of the bean necessary to reach final product.
I asked Andres how many kilos of fruit (coffee bean) does it take produce one kilo of Munaipata coffee? He estimated it took 46 kilos (just over 100 pounds) to produce 7-8 kilos (roughly 15 – 18 pounds) of coffee. WOW!!!
Nothing is wasted. During each stage of production, the beans are sorted and the lesser ones are removed from the batch. The unused beans are either turned into mulch or fertilizer or, depending on the state, sold into the bulk market.
But nothing is ever wasted.
The Water Test
After picking, the beans are placed in a bucket of water to pass the float test. A fruit with a rotted interior, or an under formed bean will float to the surface.
After the lesser beans are separated, the remainder are then run through the device which hulls the beans, meaning he coffee bean is separated out from the skin simply leaving fruit.
Next comes the fermentation process.
After the coffee beans have been separated from the husk, a sort of gooey-like membrane is left surrounding the bean. The purpose behind fermentation is two-fold. First, to dissolve the membrane around the bean and second, to contribute the flavor of the final coffee.
Cafe Munaipata uses a fermentation tank, basically a large water container that can be covered. (For the purposes of our demonstration, the beans were pre-fermented in a smaller plastic container, seen above.) The beans are soaked in water sourced from the natural spring, which is chemical and chlorine-free. The beans are left to ferment for 15-20 hours during the warmer months and several hours more during the winter, but each batch is unique and not brought out of the fermentation process until it is “done”.
“Andres, how do you know when the fermentation process is done,” I ask?
“Experience,” he replies.
Once it is determined the fermentation process is final, the water that used is funneled to an onsite “distillery” that separates the toxins from the water so it does not contaminate the natural spring. The distilled water is drained back into nature and the toxins are stored. Miro and I were so impressed with the attention to preserving the natural balance of the ecosystem.
After the fermentation process is complete, time for one more test; washing the beans and removing the beans that are not of top quality. Beans that have defects, discoloration or cracked do not make it to the drying phase.
Just as the Incas dried many of their crops with the dry air of the Andes, the wind and sun, the coffee at Munaipata is treated in much the same way. The farm built a special drying room called a “secador”, on the edge of the hill, allowing the moving air to circulate through the “secador” and dry the beans. The “secador” utilizes passive solar drying methods with stacks of racks each containing five kilos of beans.
The beans dry for a period of seven to ten days depending on the moisture content of the bean and climatic conditions. After their time in the solar drier, the beans are measured sorted once again, the bad ones removed from the batch, based on weight and moisture content and any hints of mold contamination.
Bagging and Storage
After the beans are dried, they are placed into ten kilo bags for storage. Munaipata has created a special arid storage room. We toured this room and witnessed rows of bags stacked from floor to ceiling, each marked with dates. Each bag must be stored from three months to a year before roasting.
Rich Rich Roasting
After a three month (to a year) slumber, the beans are ready for the roasting process.
We warmed up the roasting machine, to 150C.
But before the beans can be placed into the roasting machine, their out outer encasement must first be removed. Beans with the outer husk still in tact are refereed to as “cafe pergamino”.
After the outer case is removed, the beans are called “cafe oro verde” or green gold because of the golden green color that is revealed. To a coffee lover, the richness of placing beans into the roaster and experiencing the aromas is a little slice of heaven.
Eight kilos of cafe oro verde can be roasted at a time. A standard roast required thirty and for the slightly darker European roast, thirty one to thirty two minutes are required.
And with that, we are just about a half hour away from finally tasting.
The Best Deserved Cup of Coffee. Ever.
Our tour ended and our group convened back at the restaurant. I was ready to sit down and enjoy a nice cup of coffee. And after three hours of walking around the farm, learning about coffee, I deserved it.
But we had to wait just a little longer.
First, our group gathered around the table and as we watched Andres take ground coffee from six bags, marked with nothing but numbers. Then after a spoonful of coffee was added to each of the cups, boiling water was added.
One by one we passed the coffee around, stirred the coffee with our individual spoons, and smelled the aroma. Each of of the cups smelled and tasted slightly different, from strength, richness, flavor intensity and bitterness. After we shared which was our individual preference and which clearly was not, Andres revealed the results.
Unanimously the fresh European blend was the group’s favorite.
Unanimously the coffee that had been ground months before and had been sitting getting old was the group’s least favorite.
Apparently we all had a good nose and taste for quality coffee.
I know I did.
And quality coffee is what we experienced at Munaipata Organic Farm.
A week later, as I am sitting down to write this and I mourn the half empty bag and am faced with the grim reality that my Munaipata Organic Coffee will be gone soon.
But the experience and knowledge will stay with me a lifetime.
Munaipata Cafe – Organic Coffee Farm
Road to Carmen Pampa km. 4
Coroico – Bolivia
Cel. 720 42824
renebrugger (at) cafemunaipata.com
The majority of our six week stay, Miro and I dug in deep into La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital, located high on the Andes range near snow covered peaks. One of the most popular stops for the backpacker crowd is the cultural circus called Cholita Wrestling. In fact, your Bolivian tour is incomplete unless you see the Cholita Wresting in La Paz.
Cholita Wrestling – three hours of pure fun
Cholita wrestling is a staged wrestling event along the lines of the WWF bouts. Shows are held on Sunday nights at El Alto’s Multifunctional Center. The main participants are indigenous Bolivian women in colorful traditional costumes. They put up an entertaining show as they tackle their opponents and try to get the upper hand in this mock fight.
Like the WWF, it’s a crazy, but fun filled show that will keep you at the edge of your seats for the entire event. The bouts are very professional with participants grappling with one another, jumping on each other, grabbing each other’s necks, slapping their opponents, defending themselves and performing many other antics in hilarious fashion.
Cholita wrestling evokes a lot of interest and the events are very popular with both tourists and residents. The three to four hour shows are attended by hundreds of people every week. Although the event is centered on the bouts, the attire of the participants is no less interesting. Women with long braided hair wear traditional costumes with colorful multi-layered skirts and fancy hats. The dresses may look unsuitable for a wrestling bout, but the participants seem to be very comfortable with them.
Although the contests are wild, absurd and comical, the artists are well trained and the show does not result in any real injury. However, the audience may die of laughter. The show begins in a relaxed, carnival setting with bands playing and people enjoying street food from the stalls outside the venue. It starts off with a male wrestling bout, but before long, the star performers enter the ring, the crowds come alive and the real fun starts. The audience joins in by throwing stuff like empty bottles, popcorn and potatoes at the participants to stoke up the fights. The Cholitas love the crowd attention and it’s an essential part of the show.
History of Cholita wrestling
Wrestling became a popular sport in Bolivia somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, but Cholita wrestling came into existence only in the last decade or so. At first, it was just a stress release outlet for women who were struggling with domestic violence and abuse.
The immense commercial possibilities of the sport became apparent only when a wrestler named Juan Mamani decided to create a new publicity event involving Cholita wrestling. Initially, the women wrestlers were part of a group called the Mamani’s Titans Of The Ring, which had participants from both sexes. In 2011, most of the women members decided to move out of the Titans and create their own wrestling association.
Originally, Cholita was a racist term used to refer to women of indigenous or mixed decent. Over time, the racist label has worn off and the term is now seen as a positive way to refer to strong, proud and resourceful women of local origins who believe in themselves.
For centuries, the Bolivian women have been considered inferior to men in a society that discriminated against them. Cholita wrestling is seen as an outlet for such women to prove themselves in a sport dominated by men. The wrestlers take great pride in their job and their abilities. In fact, some women wrestlers formed a group called The Flying Cholitas where men and women performed together in a variation of wrestling called Lucha Libre.
Although racism and discrimination against women are not completely rooted out, the society is changing for the better and the Cholita wrestlers are spearheading that reform. Now, the indigenous women of Bolivia have begun to command the respect that they always deserved. Besides the social benefits of Cholita wrestling, it also gives an opportunity for these women to earn money and become independent. This is important considering that many of them come from poor social backgrounds of poverty and exploitation.
Going to the event
Although you can go to the event yourself, you can join one of the tours organized by local tourism outlets if you are not familiar with the city. Most of these tours start after 3 p.m. and you will be back in your hotel by about 9 p.m. It is very affordable and the package includes transportation, a translator, VIP seats, drinks and a souvenir. You can check with your hotel or contact the local tour companies directly for reservations.
If you prefer to do it on your own, go to the El Alto’s Multifunctional Center. Tickets are available at the gate. Buses ply between San Francisco church and the venue and you can reach the place in about half an hour.
If you are going to Bolivia for the first time, don’t miss the Cholita Wrestling in La Paz. It is a tourist attraction that is fun to watch and it will provide an entertaining Sunday evening for the entire family.
According to UNESCO, Tiwanaku city is located in Bolivia, in the Ingavi Province, Department if La Paz. It sits on a valley on the Altiplano, near the southern shores of Lake Titicaca. Tiwanaku rises to an altitude of 3,850m. It is famous for being one of the highest urban centers ever built.
The original city, mainly built from adobe, has today, been blanketed by the modern town. The city’s only surviving structures are the monumental stone buildings that marked the ceremonial center. They are currently under protection in the archeological zones.
Tiwanaku – a place of cultural and political significance- started as a small settlement. It’s unclear as to exactly when the settlement began, but people started settling in the Lake Titicaca around 4,000 years ago, according to Denver Art Museum curator Margaret Young-Sánchez, in her 2004 book, “Tiwanaku: Ancestors of the Inca”. This could have been the same time the Tiwanaku settlement began. By this time, people had already domesticated the llamas (pack animals), camelids and alpacas (for their fur).
The original settler farmers perfected the growing of hardy, pest-resistant crops such as tubers and quinoa. Water for farming came from natural rainfall and from the mountain slopes through artificial channels. 1000 years later, the adaptations had advanced further to “raised-field agriculture”. The technique involved the creation of elevated planting mounds, which were separated by canals.
It is from these adaptations that larger and more sophisticated settlements emerged. One of them was Tiwanaku, which would later become the dominant force in the region. Vanderbilt University professor John Wayne Janusek, in his 2008 book, “Ancient Tiwanaku”, argues that Tiwanaku rose to dominance because it had competitive political practices, dynamic trade routes, environmental shifts, and an energetic ritual cult. After Tiwanaku’s collapse in the 12th century, the only remaining monuments include the Akapana and Semi-Underground Temples, and the Kalasasaya astronomic observatory.
Religious and social culture
Ancient Tiwanaku had a dense urban population. People lived in spatially segregated neighborhood that were perfectly-defined. . The segregations were bounded by gigantic compound walls made of adobe. Residential neighborhoods consisted of domestic structures, including sleeping quarters, storage facilities and kitchens.
In Tiwanaku, the religious atmosphere of the city is characterized by a set of architectural structures corresponding to the different cultural accession periods. These are the Sunken Temple, Temple Semi-underground, Pumapumku’s Pyramid, Kalasasaya’s Temple, and the Akapana’s Pyramid. The Palace of Putuni and Kantatallita are representative of the administrative officer, who is also the city’s politician.
These architectural structures are symbolic of a period when the city’s political structure was sophisticated and the religious culture was firm. The Pyramid of Alapana is, arguably, Tiwanaku’s most commanding monument. Originally, the pyramid had seven platforms placed over one another, with stone retaining walls that stood over 18m high. Today, only the lowest of the platforms stands.
Kalasasaya Temple is to the north of Akapana. It is a large, open, rectangular structure believed to have served as an observatory. To access the temple, one uses a flight of seven steps located at the center of the eastern wall. The temple’s interior is characterized by two curved monoliths, and the epic Gate of the Sun. The gate is one of Tiwanaku’s most important artifacts.
Economic and political culture
Evidence of the city’s economic foundation is seen in about 50,000 agricultural fields known as Sukakollos, locally. The fields capitalized on irrigation technology that made it easy for different cultures to adapt to the area’s climatic conditions. One of the greatest contributions to agriculture in Tiwanaku were the artificial terraces. Not only did they sustain farming, but they also contributed to the cultural evolution of the Tiwanaku Empire.
Politics in Tiwanaku was closely linked to religion. Under Tiwanaku rule, many towns and colonies were creates. Tiwanaku was the capital of a powerful empire, which lasted for centuries. The empire utilized new technologies in pottery, textiles, metals, architecture, and basket-making. Tiwanaku’s political ideology had a religious bearing, which was deeply etched into the ethnic groups occupying different regions in empire.
Tiwanaku’s decline and reincarnation
Tiwanaku city declines and fell at around 1000 A.D. Following the decline, its inhabitants abandoned it. The Wari culture of Peru also fell around the same time. Scientists have considered environmental changes in the Andes as being instrumental in collapsing both civilizations.
Even after its collapse, Tiwanaku persevered in become an important religious site to the locals. Later, Tiwanaku was integrated into the Inca mythology as being man’s birthplace. The Inca also built additional structures alongside the Tiwanaku ruins.
As the sun rose over Lake Titicaca light poured into our room from our balcony window. I nudged Miro to wake up as we knew we needed to start out early. We met Daniella and Omar for breakfast in the hotel and began to prep for the day. The boat taking us to Isla del Sol departs from the dock across from our hotel at 8:30.
Isla del Sol is an island in the southern part of Lake Titicaca and is part of the modern State of Bolivia. Its terrain is rocky and hilly with many eucalyptus trees. The night before I had been absorbed in a book written by a Bolivian investigator who is seeking the opening to the caves leading into the pre-Colombian underground cities. In addition to his archaeological investigations, he also experienced extraordinary metaphysical visions involving time portals, meetings with the spirits of the ancient ones who originally came from the star system Sirius and founded a civilization here on earth which was part of the mysterious continent of Mu and Lemuria over 20 thousand years ago.
The book is called In Contact with the Grand Masters by G. Antonio Portugal Alvizuri. It’s an interesting tale and coincides with much of myarchaeological research into the elongated skulls in Paracas, Peru, our encounter with the alien hybrid mummy in Andahuaylillas and other investigations throughout our travels.
I have always been fascinated by this line of investigation and I neither claim its validity or deny it, rather have discovered I am excited to explore deeper, learn everything I can from all angles and go as deep as I possibly can. Exploring ancient sites such as Isla del Sol have such meaning to us as Miro and I discuss and explore all the possibilities and mysteries found within history.
According to G. Antonio Portugal Alvizuri one of the many things I learned about the ancient Aymara culture who settled around the lake ages before, was that it is customary to ask the spirit of the lake permission to cross. Daniella, Omar, Miro and I boarded the boat along with 20 other passengers, a mix of tourists and locals. We found a seat on on the wooden benches and according to tradition, I mentally asked the spirits of the lake for permission to cross. I am confident that my silent prayer was granted as we had calm waters and a clear passage for our two hour voyage.
Our plan for the day was to explore both sides of Isla del Sol and head over to Isla de Luna for the later part of the afternoon.
Isla del Sol
Isla del Sol is the largest of all the lake islands measuring 5.5 miles by 3.75. Isla del Sol is revered as the most important site within Inca mythology.
Isla del Sol is thought to have been the birthplace of the bearded Sun God, Viracocaha which is at the center of the Inca culture of beliefs. But all tour guides I’ve read simplify history by saying first Viracocaha was born and then he created the sun followed by the first two Incas. But to put some perspective on the table, the Incas culture existed from the early 13th century to 1572, when the Inca Empire were conquered by the Spanish.
The nearby site of Tiwanku has the sun gate which features a carving of Viracocha ( future post) was thought by conventional archaeologists to have been built as early as 1500 BC (and some alternative investigators such as Arthur Posnansky estimated that Tiwanaku dates back to 15,000 BC, based on his archaeoastronomical techniques.) which is much earlier than the birth of the Inca culture.
Regardless, this place is certainly special to the inhabitants of the distant past and the immediate present. According to the Inca belief, there from the depths of Lake Titicaca, Viracocha rose up from the lake (perhaps like a UFO) to create the Sun in the sky above, the universe surrounding, then subsequently he breathed life into the first two Incas who are known as Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo (the Adam and Eve of the Andes).
Archaeologists have found evidence of existence of people on this island dating back to the 3rd millennium BC, which predates the Inca by two thousand years. Upon Isla del Sol, there more than 80 ruins scattered about on the tiny island. This is truly an energetic place filled with history and mystery.
Isla del Sol has four or five small villages that are home to the island’s permanent population and tremendous views wherever you look. Today, there are around 800 families and their main mode of survival is tourism, fishing and farming. There are no vehicles on the island and the only mode of transportation is walking. There is a 20km walk that cuts over the spine of the island to the Chincana ruins, the island’s biggest Incan ruin, and returns along the coast passing through a few villages. Tour guides swear it only takes a few hours to complete the entire circuit.
We disembarked on the north side of the island in a small pueblo called Challapampa. From there, we made our way to the northern starting point, stopping first to explore a rustic makeshift museum called the Museum of Gold, displaying artifacts found around the island and underwater surrounding the island. We spent much time there as I examined each artifact from side to side, top to bottom.
After a longer than usual visit, Omar and Daniella knew we were in trouble with the amount of time we had allotted to explore the entire island. We set out with best intentions to explore the entire island, see each of the main archeological sites and take in the spectacular views. However Omar and Daniella soon discovered that Miro and I were not your typical tourists, highly engaged in the history surrounding us and transformed into an investigative state. Readers of our blog know that I personally love all archaeological ruins (sometimes to Miro’s annoyance) and I tend to move very slowly, looking at rocks, construction, layout in search for uncovered mysteries.
So be it. We are worldschoolers and life learners, after all.
Rock of the Puma & Footsteps of the Sun
After the museum, we started our journey up the rocky hillside incline away from Challapampa. On the path, we passed two anomalous sites, first the sacred rock carved in the shape of a puma. Then, we observed two very large footprints. These are said to have been created when the sun dropped down to earth to give birth to Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo.
We continued our way up the rocky path towards the site of “Chinkana”. Chinkana is known to the locals as the labyrinth. The Chinkana is a huge stone complex filled with mazes, built in the typical Inca construction we’ve seen throughout Peru. According to the guide books, this site is thought be a training center for Inca priests. Some archaeologists theorize because of the “sloppy construction” as compared to the expert building found at the “Inca sites” of Saksaywaman, Ollantaytambo to name a few, the builders must have been in a rush to build it.
Throughout our explorations among hundreds of archeological sites from Mexico to Bolivia, we’ve heard many such stories, and we’ve began to discern some of these stories, which seem to be told as a way to create a cohesive story to weave meaning into site we were visiting. But in reality, no one really knows….
Within the center of Chinkana site, a beautiful fountain can be accessed. Daniella and Omar told us this was known among the locals as the fountain of youth. The source of the fountain is a natural spring that runs under the island and appears again in a sacred stone fountain in Yumanion the south side of the island.
The Inca Table
There, we also saw what the guides called “the Inca table”, a place where sacrifices were made. Again, another assumption to make sense of the artifacts left behind, but in reality one does not really know. From our perspective, Miro and I remarked it looked like those stones were originally a part of a much larger (perhaps sunken) structure and the stones were moved. There were no stones of that type anywhere else in the northern part of the island and to us, it looked like a later culture re-used some of the older artifacts for a functional purpose.
But who knows, we are are only amateur archaeologists.
However, if the research of the author G. Antonio Portugal Alvizuri whom I mentioned in the beginning of this article, is true, there are massive underground cities which can be found deep within the depths of Lake Titicaca. Perhaps there, we will find large carved stones, like the one that creates the table top at the site known as the Inca Table.
Temple of Pilcocaina
Up on the hill above the Inca Table is a site overlooking the lake called Temple of Pilcocaina, which is a surprisingly well preserved Inca settlement.
We managed to explore the norths side of the island for hours and hours and decided we did not have time to make our way to the south side of the island and to our disappointment, nor did we have time to explore Isla del la Luna. Here is some of the research I found based on what others have written about those two areas for your reference.
On the south end of the Isla del Sol is Yumani, the largest town on the island and the site of the Inca steps. Here, 206 steps built by the Incas lead up into the town and to a sacred fountain. Made of stone and having three separate springs, it is said to be a fountain of youth.
Isla del la Luna
An hour’s boat ride from Isla del Sol will take you to Isla de Moon on the eastern side. Isla de Moon is comparatively smaller than Isla del Sol and should take about an hour or hour and a half to explore the entire island. Maybe double that for Miro and myself.
Known for its mythological significance to the Incas, legend says that Viracocha commanded the moon to rise here. The Island of the Moon is the legendary home of the Inca goddess Mama Quila. The structures on this island were originally built by the pre-Incan Aymara culture, but the Incas left their mark on the architecture as well such as the typical trapezoidal doors. (Darn!! I wished we had time to see it! We’ve seen doors of the same construction at the site of Ollantaytambo in Peru and know there are similar ones at at Tiwanku which we have yet to explore) During Inca times, the Isla de la Luna housed chosen women known as the “Virgins of the Sun,” who lived a nun-like lifestyle. They wove garments from alpaca wool and performed ceremonies dedicated to the sun.
Did someone say fresh trout?
Since we were missed the opportunity to hike both sides of the island, we boarded the boat at the north side of the island in hopes of being able to visit Isla de la Luna. We were told the boats were not going there that day and we were given two choices. One, take the boat to the south side of the island, and wait one hour for the next boat back to Copacabana. Or, take the boat to a man made floating island to eat some fresh trout. Well, we were kinda hungry…
We landed on an “isla flotante”, a floating reed island where the fisherman and chefs who are one in the same, gathered to serve fresh fried trout to their customers. Lake Titicaca is famous for farming “trucha criolla”, which is one of the largest species of trout in the world. We ordered our dishes (mine, “sin cabeza”), then he went off to catch it. We each had a plate of fresh fried trout, french fries, rice and salad for 30 bolivianos, which is around $5.
Getting to Isla del Sol from Copacabana
A standard tour of Isla del Sol begins around 8:00-8:30am. You can get a standard tour by just going down to the waterfront – there will be many people trying to sell you a ticket. It costs 40 Bolivianos for the day of transportation. The boat ride takes about an hour and a half to two hours. You can sit in the cabin or on the top level which is great for those that get motion sick. The boat takes you to the north end of the island, where you can choose to spend a few hours seeing the sites there and then returning to take a boat to the south end at 1:30pm, or you can see the sites at the north end and then take the 3 hour hike to the south end of the island. At the high altitude in Copacabana, which makes hiking more difficult, if you’re not great at hiking you may want to stick with taking the boat to the south end.
It costs 10 Bolivianos to see the north end of the island, and an additional 20 Bolivianos to walk from the north to south end. The boat gets to the south end of the island around 2:30pm, providing about an hour to grab lunch and walk around but not enough time to head into the ruins. It costs 5 Bolivianos to enter the south end of the island. The boat leaves from the south end of the island at 3:30pm and at 4pm, and arrives back in Copacabana around 5:00/5:30pm.
Our three day excursion to visit Bolivia and particularly the Salar de Uyuni (Spanish for Salt enclosure) also known as the Bolivian Salt Flats, or simply salt flats, was filled with so many emotions: awe, equanimity and more. This alienesque landscape is truly unfathomable as a geographic wonder, making this trip one of the most remarkable expeditions of our lifetime.
Many travelers and people often describe a bucket list of places they wish to visit, whether African safaris, hot pools in Sweden, or Alaskan cruises. For Miro and I, it had been the Bolivian salt flats for quite a while as one of our top worldschooling destinations. We choose the salt flats after researching geologic formations of the places located in South America, entrenched by years of Spanish and indigenous culture, it seemed the perfect fit. Our planned mini-excursion to visit the Salar de Uyuni was definitely on our to-do list!
We set off on our three-day excursion after an overnight bus ride from La Paz, delivering us directly to the town of Uyuni, where our guide was to meet us for the three day trip.
The Salar is the world’s largest salt flat, geographically it is found in the Oruro/Potosi region of Bolivia, not far from the Andes. The ancient origins of the salt flats themselves span over 10,500 square kilometers and are located 3,600 meters above sea level, and are a short 45-minute drive from the town of Uyuni.
Our guide picked us up in front of the agency at 10.30am and our first port-of-call was the abandoned trains named the ‘train cemetery’. This now touristic area was once a thriving mining and locomotive hub that connected the area to the Pacific Ocean until political instability led them to flee and leave behind their 19th-century locomotives. All that is left is a dusty barren landscape with a surreal feel to it, some opportunistic graffiti and tourists from all around the world.
We took plenty of pictures of the abandoned trains and after a period of time headed out towards the salt fields passing through a small town named Colchani, where we were able to purchase souvenirs and mingle a bit with other tourists and chat with our tour guide.
The Great Uyuni Salar
Our next stop was the actual salt plains themselves. Let me explain: coming here is like tracking off to an unexplored world, where reality surpasses the imagination. If you have the travel gene and are looking for new experiences you will certainly find them here. You can see the Andes mountains on the horizon, and the ultra-clear blue sky we experienced was further amplified by the thin layer of water on the salt beds, that created a blindingly mirrored effect of the sky. It really is an awe-inspiring and otherworldly experience that is difficult to succinctly put into words.
The tour guide was expertly knowledgeable on both the geographic and historical facts of the Salar. I learned many things from him. This vast salt desert was formed thousands of years ago and was once part of a prehistoric salt lake named Lago Minchín, which covered most of southwest Bolivia. After the lake invariably dried up it left behind the planet’s largest salt pan in the Salar de Uyuni. The white encrusted salts of the Uyuni are mineral rich, the main minerals are halite, table salt and gypsum (a common component of drywall), which explains how the hotel that was previously mentioned was built.
I think I took over 100 pictures just in this location alone, partly due to my amazement of this natural spectacle and partly because, well, I just had to.
The tour continued across the salt pans to Isla del Pescado (Island of fish). An ‘island’ area that appears to magically come into sight out of the desert. Here you get to see llamas sitting in relaxed fashion among huge cacti that stretch over 9ft tall appearing almost monolithic in stature. We were also able to have lunch here while taking in the vastness of the Salar.
The next stop on our incredible journey is the Thunupa Volcano a now dormant volcano in the northwestern part of the Salar topographically it sits at over 5000 meters above sea level and over 1600 meters high. At the foot of this dormant natural wonder lies ‘the cave of mummies’. These caves are a local sacred spot and house over 1000 perfectly preserved mummies due in part to the arid climate. This stop is was one of my favorites, as enchanting and mysterious as it sounds.
As the dusk starts to set on the Salar, we head to our final stop, a small town and peaceful town in the furthest western point of the salt flats named Tahua where we stayed at the Tayka de Sal Hotel. This is hotel made entirely from salt bricks with locally sourced cactus wood and other things that furnished it. Here we enjoyed dinner and woke up the next day well rested.
After breakfast we headed out to the many lagoons that are dotted around the Salar, which included Laguna Cañapa, Laguna Chiarkhota and Laguna Colorada where we saw wildlife indigenous to the area such as flamingos, chinchillas, Andean foxes, and Andean goose. It really is an amalgamation of the native fauna of the region including various species of wildlife and is sure to please avid wildlife fans. The lakes are as rich in color as they are wildlife, deep reds, purples and vibrant greens, caused by red pigment sediments and algae…
Travelers to the region will also enjoy visiting the Siloli Desert. Our first stop in this desert landscape is at the El Arbol de Piedra (stone tree). This wind-shaped tree created from stone has been shaped naturally over years, by the winds and salt that blow over the desert plains and is known to have inspired artists such as Salvador Dali in his paintings.
The day comes to a close staying at the world’s most uniquely amazing hotel: a hotel made entirely from salt. Everything in the hotel is made from salt: the tables, the walls, the chairs the ceilings and more, we tried, probably like others have before us have, licking the walls, and yes they tasted like salt!
We woke early on our third and final day in order to see the Sol de Mañana (morning sun) in this geothermally active area of the southwestern portion of Bolivia. Here you will get to see steam pools, mud lakes and volcanic sinkholes, the best of which randomly emit steam over 50m in the air.
Depending on what time of the year you go the morning air can be quite chilly so it’s good to know you can get to relax in the Termas de Polques (hot springs) which produce natural occurring sulfurs and other minerals that locals pronounce to be very beneficial to those with joint problems such as arthritis. We were glad to be able to experience the healing benefits of these waters after a couple of days of traveling across this landscape.
The highlights of the last day of the tour include visiting the Laguna Verde (green lagoon) which has a green-blue hue and really looks like an optical illusion in the desert. This marvelous spectacle inherits its color from the high levels of minerals such as copper and arsenic in the lake. The color is out of this world, it almost has a fluorescent tinge to it, just behind the lagoon sits the inactive volcano Licancabur Volcano. This could very well be the cherry on top for a wonderful three-day journey across the Bolivian salt pans. It really is a mind-blowing landscape and is impossible to not be mesmerized by it and forms the perfect photo opportunity!
The evening will see you head back to Uyuni – back across probably one of the most inexplicably surreal and beautiful landscapes on earth, and one I will surely return to see again.
On our third and final day of our Lake Titicaca trip in Bolivia, Daniella, Omar, Miro and I set out to visit a very special pueblo, not commonly found on the tourist track. Because Daniella and Omar knew that Miro and I value authentic cultural experiences on our travels, they wanted to share Sampaya, a very special place with us.
Sampaya is an Aymara community that retains its customs and traditions from ancient times. It is located 18 km. from Copacabana on the peninsula, reached 45 minutes by car or 4 hours on foot. We arranged for a taxi to take us to Sampaya and wait for us while we explored the town for a few hours.
The dusty road took us through a rural landscape up and over several mountains and into a place where time stood still.
We reached Sampaya and immediately became aware we at a place filled with magic, a place where time stood still. Sampaya was a living history, a testimony of a culture that had deep roots to an ancient world. Miro and I looked around with awe as we both felt as we were transported back in time.
There was the grand church marking the entrance to the village and an ancient cemetery just before the entrance to the pueblo. The stone houses dotted the slopes of Sampaya along both sides of the valley, following invisible topographical lines that reminded us of Inca crop terraces. The houses boast cold stone walls and joints fitted with mud mortar masonry. Some roofs were comprised of gabled structures formed by tree trunks, dry straw and leather cords. Other rooves have replaced the natural materials with a more modern corrugated tin.
The winding streets tiled with flat stones were only large enough for pedestrian traffic. Everywhere you looked, you could see small Kantutas trees which bloomed Bolivia’s national flower. The breeze from the lake swept through town, shaking the trees as if to offer a sense of presence in this otherwise empty town. Sampaya was beautiful and Sampaya was eerily quiet.
We started down a foot path on the south side of the town Omar knew well. The four of us walked in silence, Miro and I were in awe of the visions around us, Daniella and Omar seemingly deep in thought. After a fifteen minute incline we reached the merging of two paths forming a fork in the road. This was the corner where Omar’s grandmother had lived her life. She had died within the last decade and the house had since remained vacant. Locked with small padlocks, Omar said a variety of family members periodically visit the house and spend one or two nights at the Lake. Besides those time, the house remains vacant.
Omar shared stories from his childhood, visiting his grandmother house along with his cousins. Each time the boys arrived, Omar and his cousins knew they would be required to transport water in from the town’s well into colorful buckets in order to provide water for washing and bathing during their stay. Omar told stories of the group running down to the shore, picking samples of the farmer’s yield and snacking on fresh fruit and vegetables down by the shore. Through these stories, Miro and I experienced a part of Omar’s history, and knew immediately that Sampaya was a special place to our guide.
Sampaya rests in a small valley on the shore of Lake Titicaca and is surrounded by the populated islands Isla del Sol in the distance and and directly ahead Isla de Luna, known as “Koati” by the Aymara locals. From the vista, you can see a magical spectacle of Andean glaciers across the horizon.
In pre-Colombian times, the highlands surrounding Lake Titicaca were divided into Aymara communities, forming such towns as Sampaya, Lupacas, Collas, Omasuyos, Pacajes, among others. The Aymara communities formed around the lake were considered sacred within their religious beliefs.
From Sampaya stopped at the time of the Inca
“In the 19th century, the famous Explorer and German archaeologist Friedrich Uhle reached Sampaya in search of a quipus, but instead bought a resalipichis from Serapio Chuquimira, Aymara chronicler of the town. The resalipichis were some leathers painted with simple sepia color figurines that conformed a hieroglyphic writing to display Christian prayers. That object is now preserved in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.”
Daniela, Omar, Miro and I wandered around the village for the next several hours. We crossed over a small, almost dry river running through the center of the valley. Omar said when he was a child he remembers that river rich with flowing water, running from a natural spring below. Now, he fears within 10 year the river will be dry.
During our visit, we encountered four other people. Three were farmers heading to the fields. The two women in their full skirts and traditional hats looked like they were in their early fifties. They were carrying heavy pouches on their backs, as they scurried past us on the trail. The man that accompanied them appeared to be a few years younger, but it was difficult to be sure.
About fifteen minutes later, we met another man on the footpath. He seemed surprised to see us and smiled at us which felt welcoming. We all stopped on the path to chat for a few minutes. He asked if we were visiting and what we thought of his pueblo. We all said we were enjoying our visit. I asked him how many residents lived in this beautiful settlement. He replied that only 42 families were left and said the average age was between 45 and 50 years, which included the 15 children that went to school in Sampaya’s small schoolhouse. Then, he wished us a lovely visit and continued on his way.
Miro and I were stunned. There were at least 200 or more houses we observed throughout our walk through Sampaya. With only forty two families living in the pueblo, most of the village was left vacant. Omar explained, that although the town had major upgrades and within the last ten as plumbing brought fresh water into the houses, and electricity was finally installed, still most of the younger families left to live in the larger cities for work, education and the idea of progress as an adaption to a more modern world.
It is difficult to accurately describe the experience of visiting Sampaya. Miro and I felt the magic of the place, a direct contact into the roots of a people with ancient roots, a place where the ancient codes were still practiced, living in harmony with their surroundings. A place time forgot. Sampaya is a place where ancestral traditions thrive and mystical and spiritual practices are honored as part of daily life. This is also a place whose last generation is currently living in the town, and is at risk of fading like memories of a time past…
Upon arriving in La Paz, Miro and I created a list of places we wanted to explore. The Valley of the Moon was one of them, our only regret, we didn’t have our Star Fleet uniforms packed for our visit.
The Valley of the Moon or Valle de la Luna isn’t actually a valley, rather a spectacular maze within mountain-like formation. Situated about 10 km from La Paz, the Valley of the Moon is a very popular among tourists, for its lunar landscape and weird geological formations.
The Valley of the Moon: A geological wonder
The Valley of the Moon has formed over thousands of years as a resulting in a surreal landscape formed through erosion caused by wind and rain. The magnificent canyons and playful spires have been named for the benefit of the tourists, with names like the Happy Grandfather, Devil’s Point and Viscacha’s Jump. The mountains are composed of clay and sandstone, which are highly prone to erosion. Because of this erosion over the years, the mountains present a breathtaking hue and color ranging from clear beige to dark yellows and oranges. This natural phenomenon is due to a large variance in mineral content, creating colorful compositions and impressive optical illusions on the eroded hillsides as they catch light and shadows.
Local guides explain that the place acquired its name “Valle de la Luna” not very long ago. After a visit by one famous astronaut, none other than Neil Armstrong, he remarked how closely it resembled the landscape of the moon. Tour guides assure us that’s how the name was adapted. It’s possible, I suppose but I haven’t been able to authenticate this story anywhere online. Nevertheless it’s a fabulous tale,.
Getting to the Valley of the Moon from La Paz
Most travel agencies throughout La Paz offer organized tours to Valle de la Luna, with private transportation, bilingual guide (Spanish-English) and park entrance fees are usually bundled in the price. We didn’t do that. But if you don’t want to worry about details you should take that option, especially during the week when the traffic is heavy and public transpiration confusing and crowded. Alternatively, we were told taxi’s could be hired from the center of La Paz for about 100 Bolivianos ($15.00 US) to drive you there, wait and bring you back. But Miro and I, being the more adventurous type, we jumped on a local bus headed towards Mallasa for a mere 3 bolivianos ($0.40 US) each. We told the driver where we wanted to go and he left us out in front of the site. Easy-breezy.
Exploring the Moon’s surface
The tourist information center is located at entrance to the Valley of the Moon. There you can you can pick up maps of the trail, use the facilities or visit the gift shop. Then you are off…
Do you need a guide? It’s up to you. We didn’t opt for one, rather listened in to another groups guide for a few moments. Because Miro and I read about the site before, we were confident about the geological information. The site is enclosed, there are marked paths and hand rails in many of the areas. There were two path options, the short route which was supposed to take 15 minutes, but Miro and I wandered through it in 5 minutes. We ended back at the entrance and headed back through the 45 minute loop, which did indeed take us that long, as we stopped, sat pondered the landscape and Miro wrote some beautifully inspired poetry.
Although the trails are clearly marked, I’d caution everyone to be careful while navigating the narrow paths. My shoes had no tread and I regretted my fashion choice that day. I do recommend wearing shoes with firm grip.
Note that the visiting hours are between 9 am and 4 pm Monday through Friday and the entry fee is 15 Bolivianos per person (around $3.50 per person).
If you are looking for an overnight stay at the Valley of the Moon, there are several camping options that we looked into. But in the end, we decided to make our visit a day trip from La Paz. We found Colibri Camping and Eco Lodge, recommended highly on trip advisor and it seems also have a local children’s services non-profit attached to it. If you decide to go and stay there, write us back and let us know what you think!
Happy lunar landings.
While a cemetery visit may appear to be a surprising “tourist” suggestion, we found the site fascinating, full of history, tradition and a great understanding of the Bolivian culture. Our visit to the cemetery was accidental as we stumbled upon the site without prior knowledge.
One afternoon, Miro and I set out to explore the sprawling city of La Paz from above, riding the modern teleferico transportation system, built with precision by a Swiss company. Miro and I both were engaged in the the incredible birds-eye view of the grand city, peeking into the neighborhoods below. We sat speechless most of the time, drinking in the sites below, rooftop laundry lines, unfinished brick homes, dogs and children playing on the surrounding streets. We noticed the imaginary lines dividing the neighborhoods by class, illustrated by collections of structures and their state of completion.
Miro and I rode the yellow and green lines, and the last line we set out to explore was the red line. As we approached the “cementerio” station, we saw below us the enormous sprawling grounds filled with rows and rows of concrete tombs.
“Wow, look at that!” I said pointing below us.
Miro replied, “let’s go!”
We exited the teleferica and crossed the street to the main cemetery entrance.
This is no ordinary cemetery, and we’ve stumbled across dozens on our travels from Mexico to Peru. But the sheer size of the grounds of La Paz’s cemetery is incomprehensible.
The following information we found based on our research after the fact, but like all normal worldschooling adventures, we were inspired to learn more, research and really go deeper.
The cemetery had been a burial place for at least a hundred years in the city of La Paz. It was thought to have been built sometime around the turn of the century. The Bolivian government took control of the informal grounds in the 1930s or 40s as a public facility. The purpose was to provide a decent burial ground for the poor who did not have the land or resources to bury their loved ones.
The cemetery is located within the heart of city center, covering an area of about 3km. There are no ground burials or grave sites with the exception of two that we saw, who belonged to a famous Bolivian writer and a famous Bolivian musician.
Instead of grave sites, all bodies are stored in concrete structures with about 6 tombs stacked high and about 30 across. There are endless rows of the buildings as far as the eye can see. The unique design of the cemetery makes it look like a 3-acre apartment complex.
For the dead.
According to my research, initially the grounds seemed sufficient to contain the number of tombs for La Paz’s population. But after several decades it became over populated. To ensure that there was enough space, the administration decided that the deceased remains from the grand tombs would be stored for 10 years. After which, the remains would be removed from their resting place and cremated. Then their ashes would need to be collected by the family and transferred to another building containing smaller compartments with glass door tombs.
(Unfortunately I did not find information answering this question “what happens to the ashes of the deceased if the family does not claim them?”)
Taxes. As above, so below.
As Miro and I strolled through the grounds, we noticed receipts of rental agreements on the face of the tombs. Some indicated the rent was overdue, others indicated the debt was canceled. And as the lower income families worry about their livelihoods, they must too worry about the monthly rent for their deceased loved ones… After all, the final resting place is not actually final, in La Paz. On a normal day visitors will find a few people coming to the cemetery to bring flowers, updating the offerings and taking care of the space of their loved ones. There is a deep tradition within the Andean culture to care of the soul of the passed on family member and most grave fronts within the cemetery display this dedication.
According to research, the most interesting time to visit the La Paz Cemetery is in November when they celebrate the day of the dead. The Bolivians have a strong belief in the power of the dead and on 2nd November they have an entire celebration dedicated to the dead. The colorful ceremony takes place at the La Paz Cemetery where locals carry actual human skulls, either of a loved one or for a favorite dead person but the majority do not even know the owner of the skull, it was just passed on to them.
This celebration involved dressing up the skull in headgear, decorating them with flowers and making offering to them. It is a time to worship the dead and ask for protection and favor. This celebration has its roots in the indigenous population, but it has been embraced even by the Catholics. On the day of the dead, you may find a few skulls carried into the nearby local church for the cemetery.
Towards the night, you may witness a real party being thrown at the cemetery as some people like to carry on the celebration in a more modern fashion.
Visiting the Cemetery
As we mentioned, to get there, take the teleferico red line and get off at the cemetery station. I have read, there are also walking tours throughout La Paz where you can see a number of landmarks including churches, Plaza Murillo (with the backwards clock Miro writes about in this post) museums and of course, the cemetery.
Some facts about the cemetery include:
- The locals believe there is supernatural power that guards the burial ground
- It is the biggest cemetery in Bolivia
- Deceased people are buried in storied walls over 4 stories tall
- It is mainly the poor who bury their loved ones at La Paz Cemetery
- The skull of Captain Victor is one of the most popular skulls at the November 2nd celebration of the skulls
- After 10 years of normal burial, the dead are cremated
- It is common to find foods and popular drinks like coke and Pepsi left behind as an offering to the dead
- Many native visitors to the cemetery pray to their dead for guidance and protection
Finally, I leave you with a short poem Miro wrote inspired by our visit:
a chapter for the mourning,
book’s final pages.
An extension of
sagacity from beyond
the earthen decay.