Discovering Bolivia Elevating experience: An American traveler is pleased to learn that the South American country offers much more than he expected.

March 10, 1996|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Dust and dirt is all you see, then you see nothing. And then the nothing fades and a stagecoach roars into the distance, and three fugitives stand there, taking the measure of a dismal high-plains landscape. This is about halfway through "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and the fugitives are Butch, Sundance and Etta, the schoolteacher, who have decided to once and for all lose that persistent posse.

They have gone far south. To give the director a sense of how this new place should look, screenwriter William Goldman offered this shorthand description: "Horrid little low adobe huts stretch out and an occasional pig grunts by."

"All Bolivia can't look this way," Butch says, trying to head off trouble.

"How do you know?" snaps Sundance. "This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People might travel hundreds of miles just to stand where we're standing now. This might be the Atlantic City of all Bolivia, for all you know."

From 1970 until recently, Robert Redford, Paul Newman and William Goldman were my primary sources of information about Bolivia. They came, they saw, they learned a little Spanish, robbed a bank or two, got off a few more quips. Then, of course, things went further south than Butch and Sundance had planned.

Flash forward to 1995. I'm planning a trip to Chile and Peru, but a gap yawns in its middle. There are five free days. And there is Bolivia, north of Chile, south of Peru, about the size of Texas and California together. One thing leads to another.

And soon, here I was staggering down a ramp onto the tarmac of the La Paz airport on a gray afternoon, my head caught in a rapidly tightening altitude-sickness vise, my hand being shaken by a tour guide named Juan Carlos Nunez, whose other hand held a sign that said "MR. CHRISTOPHER."

I'm not quite ready to recommend Bolivia as a honeymoon destination, nor will I be building a summer house here. But I can say that Butch and Sundance's introduction was not wholly representative of the Bolivian tourism experience.

They never skimmed across the surface of Lake Titicaca, highest major lake on the planet, and never strolled the island of Thor Heyerdahl's boat builders. And when it was over, neither Butch nor Sundance got to swagger into his homestead, hand his wife a brightly colored good-luck gewgaw and say, "Oh, by the way, I got this for you from a Bolivian witch." Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

After Juan Carlos and I connected, we headed straight for the banks of Lake Titicaca. From the airport, it was a 90-minute drive to the water, beginning with the crowded streets of El Alto, a densely populated, working-poor city at the airport that has boomed in the last 10 years. We rumbled on past empty brown plains, adobe houses and scattered green shoots risen to greet the rainy season.

Juan Carlos helped with local history. Near the south end of Lake Titicaca, about 45 miles west of La Paz, lay the ruins of Tiwanacu, a sprawling complex (heavily restored) that may date back 3,500 years.

Beneath our wheels, meanwhile, lay an area known as Batallas, where farmers are still said to be finding bones and uniforms from the 1809-1825 war of independence against the Spanish.

Now those neighboring fields sustain all manner of potatoes sweet varieties in hues of red, orange and yellow, sour varieties in white and purple. The corn crop is nearly as varied, with kernels of red, white, yellow and black.

The lake, when it appeared at last, was a vast reed-fringed, bird-stippled mirror, tiny boats dotting its surface, land barely visible across the water amid mist and clouds. (Most travelers come around July, during the drier, clearer South American winter.)

Gulping coca tea, popping aspirin and finally resorting to mysterious red-and-white capsules endorsed by Bolivians, I wrestled with a thin-air headache while we spent the next day bouncing across the water from one lakeside spot to the next. On the mountain slopes lay 1,000-year-old terraces, some still in use by farmers cultivating potatoes, corn, barley and onions.

On the Island of the Sun (Isla del Sol), we heard of operations

Base of operations

In these explorations, Juan Carlos and I used the Inca Utama Hotel and Cultural Complex as our base.

Built in the Huatajata area of the lake's southeast shore, the place proved to be a marvel in itself. Its 54 rooms, restaurant and lounge were plain by American standards, but other amenities were strangely elaborate.

Hotel owner Darius Morgan (a French-Romanian who arrived in 1948 and now spends most of his time in Miami) clearly has his eyes fixed somewhere beyond the immediate horizon.

He estimates that he has spent $10 million on the hotel complex, and he also runs a sibling company, Crillon Tours, which offers day trips by hydrofoil to nearby islands and waterfront towns. At the hotel boat landing, a llama herder is paid to hang around with a dozen animals, thereby providing a little local color for arriving tour groups.

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