Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Economics, Bolivian style

So, I arrived in Copacabana, Bolivia, on the Southern shores of Lake Titicaca on Friday, May 1st. My Bolivian finances at the moment consisted of 2.50 Bolivianos - I was off looking for an ATM. I found one in short order (the only one in town) and soon learned that this particular ATM in this particular town, frequented by lots of tourists, only worked for customers of its bank - Bolivia's Prodem Bank. My Bank of America? Not so much. Ok, on to plan B, I suppose I'll have to change some money - $46 USD and my remaining 40 Peruvian soles yielded a little more than 380 Bolivianos. I could have changed more, but I really hate having to change money - the rates are never all that good, and I like having my hard currency backup... Without devoting too much time to the subject, I went off figuring out whether or not I could actually survive four nights in Copacabana on my fortune of slightly less than 400 Bolivianos. My next stop, La Paz, did have ATM's.

The first day was encouraging - my (private) hotel room cost a grand total of 25 Bs ($1 USD = 7 Bs, so... cheap), and my lunch of fried, freshly caught trout came out to about the same. Unfortunately, my private room smelled and the shower offered two choices of water temperature: freezing cold and uncomfortably lukewarm. So, I headed of to La Cupula, undoubtedly the nicest place to stay in Copacabana (which is a low bar, I know), where I promptly reserved a perfectly comfortable, smell-free room, with an ensuite bathroom, which featured such commodities as hot water (I figured this was probably the nicest room I'd stayed in since Quark put us all up in a fancy hotel in Ushaia prior to the Antarctic cruise) for Sunday and Monday nights. For Saturday night, I was heading off to nearby Isla del Sol.

To get to Isla del Sol, you can either take a 45 minute boat ride, or hike 18km, then get a quick boat trip aacross the channel to the island itself. I, obviously, went with the hiking option, avoided a few Bolivian enterpreneurs who tried offering me a ride to the island for 70 Bs, eventually arrived at the end of the road in Yampupata, where a very sturdy-looking old man rowed me across the channel for 20 Bs. I felt kinda bad because he was, you know, old, but my fears of him having a heart attack were apparently unjustified, and we even chatted amiably a bit (in Spanish!)

As I said, the old man was quite sturdy! I still felt kinda guilty for being rowed around... but it was an admittedly relaxing 40 minutes out on the water

The 18km hike took some 3.5 hours (it occurs to me that 18km is more than we hiked on any given day on the Inca trail, but then again they did baby us quite a bit, and the Inca trail went uphill a whole lot more), this gave me plenty of time to reconsider my financial situation. I had some 300 Bs left at that point, I had just agreed to stay at La Cupula for two nights at the nearly astronomical price of $12 USD a night (168 Bs total), I had researched the bus ticket on to La Paz - 25 Bs, the night on Isla del Sol was going to cost another 25 Bs or so, and I didn't yet know how much the transportation to the island and back to Copacabana the next day was going to cost (I was estimating about 50 Bs - turned out to be 40). And I was probably going to have to eat a few meals in the next three days too... I eventually reached the unfortunate conclusion that upon my return to Copacabana I was going to have to cash a traveler's check for $50, as othewise my finances stretched just far enough to cover my lodgings and transportation, but I do tend to enjoy an occasional mean as well. Especially on days when I hike 18kms...

We now pause for a brief intermission for pictures from Isla del Sol:

They say a lot of the views on Isla del Sol look a lot like the Mediterranean - can't argue with this shot

The clear blue water and the boats calmly floating in the distance made me think of Fiji though

And this barren slope was actually most reminiscent of Lake Baikal - I suppose being up at almost 4,000m above sea level will make the nature a little similar to being way up North in Siberia

Admittedly, neither the Mediterranean, nor Fiji, nor Baikal feature any pre-Inca ruins...

A sunset over the island

on the way to the North part of Isla del Sol

The following morning, as I started my walk around the island, I learned that the islanders prefer to charge the tourists admission fees for walking around their island, which led to the following exchange at a Boleteria (ticket office):
- have you got a pass?
- no, how much is it?
- 15 Bolivianos
- Sure, unfortunately, I only have this 200 Boliviano bill, however. Or 7.20 Bs in change [displaying my finances]
- oh... we don't have change for the 200. Blah-blah-blah in Spanish, Ok, just give us the 7 and go, they'll have change for you later.
- Great... wait, shouldn't I get some sort of a receipt?
- Oh yeah... [At this point I become aware of the two stacks of tickets he has, one says 5 Bs, the other 10 Bs. 5 is effectively the trail permit, the 10 is the admission to the museum and some ruins farther on the island. I'm handed the 5 Bs ticket]
- Uhm, that says 5, not 7.20 I just gave you?
- Oh yeah, here you go... [returns my change]

Yes, I just wasted 30 seconds of your life explaining how I got my 2.20 Bs (about 30 cents US) from an Isla del Sol park ranger, consider yourself fortunate it wasn't longer!

With Isla del Sol finished, I was back to Copacabana, and back to figuring out my finances. The answer remained: cash a traveler's check (but I don't wanna...), unless... (a thought dared creep into the back of my mind) unless, the fancy La Cupula accepts credit cards! I'd seen some Visa and Mastercard signs around town, but I sort of suspected that most of the machines would be 'temporarily' unable to process credit card payments if asked. So with this on my mind, I showed up at La Cupula, checked into my fancy room, and inquired about credit cards (La Cupula, by the way, does not sport a Visa or Mastercard sign) - lo and behold, they take credit cards! With a 5% commission fee, but that's the same you have to pay on traveler's checks. That evening I went out to celebrate my new-found wealth with a 45 Bs dinner at La Cupula's restaurant.

Tuesday morning rolled around. The bus ticket to La Paz was already paid for, I had breakfast saved from leftovers of my Isla del Sol snack food, and the room was being charged to my credit card. My finances stood at a relatively healthy 34.20 Bs! I felt justified in splurging for lunch: a grand expenditure of almost five dollars - 32.50 Bs. I left 33, considered asking for change, but couldn't quite bring myself to do it. So, it was off to my direct bus to La Paz, with a ticket in hand and 1.20 Bs in my pocket. La Paz has ATM's, so what's their to worry about? Well, apparently... bridge building isn't a particularly advanced science in Bolivia, as after an hour and a half the bus stopped, everyone started filing out and the bus headed for a barge to cross a river that lay in front of us. I briefly wondered why we couldn't just stay on the bus, but looking at the barge the bus was on, I figured there was every chance of it sinking if we burdened it with the weight of both the bus and the passengers.

Oh, and also, the passengers get a to take a separate dinky little boat across, a privilege which costs 1.50 Bs. A thoroughly trivial sum, which just happened to be in excess of the 1.20 Bs I had with me. (Guess, I should have asked for that 50 Centavos change at lunch...). I weighed the chances of success of my offering a US quarter to the ticket office, decided the chances weren't that great and headed straight for the boat, with the high-browed knowledge that I had paid for a bus ticket all the way to La Paz!

Of course, this is Bolivia, so all costs and prices are subject to negotiation and debate, so the 'captain' asked everyone for tickets. I calmly displayed my 1.20 Bs and stated that that was all the money I had. He, just as calmly, took my 1.20 and off we went. To be entirely honest, I'm not even sure that he paid all that much attention to the sum - I think he may have thought that this particular idiot gringo tourist couldn't have figured out how to buy a ticket back on land and was giving him the money for it... Considering that the money went straight into his pocket, I can understand that he didn't particular care about the missing 30 centavos...

Two hours later, we arrived in La Paz, which greeted me with an ATM; I greeted the ATM with a request for 2,000 Bs, it complied, and I had my most expensive meal in Bolivia yet - a 70+ Bs dinner at an Indian restaurant, the Star of India!

And now, for a few shots of Copacabana:

Every morning at 10AM, there's a totally serious ceremony of blessing the cars. The priest is spraying holy water on the vehicle here. Seems like they need to start this for the Mongol Rally launch as well!

The people here are rather festive. And there was some sort of a festival going on this weekend, so there were processions playing music and featuring women dancing in the streets. The music, which was always the same, got a little tiring after a while.

There's a pretty impressive cathedral in Copacabana. The many curved surfaces make it look surprisingly Arabic however?

There are supposedly some Inca ruins at a top of a nearby hill. This is as close it came to a man-made structure. Mostly just a mountain.

On another hill facing the city, there's a rather impressive looking collection of crosses, standing vigil against the setting sun

Speaking of the setting sun - sunset over Lake Titicaca

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