Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 28 December 2008

La Paz. Remember to breathe.

I could take the time to list all the “world’s highests” that can be found in La Paz, but that wouldn’t paint the proper picture of the city I have come to know and love over the past few months.

It’s true that La Paz is the world’s highest capital city (followed by Quito, and then ever-so-closely by Bolivia’s judicial capital, Sucre). It’s also true that its airport (which is actually in El Alto, the closest thing to a suburb that Bolivia can muster, but don’t expect to find a Starbucks here, El Alto is one of Latin America’s fastest growing, most indigenous and frenetic cities) is the highest commercial airport in the world. The landing strip is extra long to allow for longer braking time at 4,010 meters above sea level (over 13,000 ft).

But, rather than dwell on these superlatives, I’d like to share a little bit of what La Paz has meant to me.

As I left for the bus terminal last Sunday afternoon, Don Francisco, the kind soft-spoken man who manages the day shift at the Hostal Austria (my home in La Paz) joked that I should just get married and stay in La Paz and that my parents would understand. La Paz, by Bolivian standards, is a metropolis. And, true de form, it is filled with busy city folk. But the Don Francisco’s and the chatty licuado (fresh fruit juice) ladies quickly break down the big-city stereotypes.

After my first trip to La Paz in early October, it has become somewhat of a home base for me as I have explored Bolivia in my post-Peace Corps adventures.

While it isn’t the most beautiful of cities, it is certainly dramatic. The vast altiplano abruptly gives way after El Alto and tumbles downward into the valley where La Paz is found. Buildings cling to the sides of the steep mountain valley walls as the city sprawls downward. La Paz, due to its altitude might be one of the only cities in the world that defies the standard practice of rich folk to build their homes higher in order to get “the view”.  In La Paz, the lower your altitude, the higher your status…

I spent many days over the past few months running errands in La Paz (dentist visit, applying for a Paraguayan visa at the Embassy, shopping for artesania, recharging on good food after trips into the campo, etc.).  I have come to love the chaos, the simultaneous colonial and indigenous charm, even the public transportation system.

I feel fortunate to have been able to spend time getting to know this frenetic place.  It is rarely a traveler’s favorite place if they just pass through, but, give yourself time to adjust and La Paz will not disappoint.


Mt. Illimani (well over 20,000 feet high) looms over the city of La Paz.


La Paz is a shoppers dream. Streets are lined with hundreds of stores selling locally crafted art and goods. Alpaca sweaters and silver jewelry fly off the shelves of the stores on Calles Sagarnaga and Linares.


View of La Paz from the children’s park, which also happens to host one of the best views of the city. And an alligator slide. 🙂


Plaza Murillo. Presidential Palace (read: Evo sleeps here!) and Cathedral. The hostel I stay in is about one block away from here.


Calle Yanacocha. Trufis, taxis and Micros labor their way up this steep thoroughfare all day long.


The Wiphala is the rainbow-colored flag representing Indigenous rights, culture and heritage.


Tiwanaku. These pre-Inca ruins outside of La Paz are still being excavated, but archaeologists have already revealed sophisticated treasures, art and evidence of the scientific achievements of the Tiwanaku culture which thrived around Lake Titicaca as far back as 1500 BC.


La Puerta del Sol. The Gate of the Sun.




Yours truly.


La Paz, as seen from the El Alto highway.

Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 17 December 2008

Belated Message of Thanks


Things that I found myself being grateful for as I tried desperately to prepare a turkey in a Bolivian oven, without ever having done so in a normal oven before in my life:

  • Bolivia.
  • Friends, new and old. Around the world.
  • An unconditionally supportive family.
  • This unexpected time in my life to explore this continent, myself, my thoughts on the future and what has come before.
  • Potatoes.

Thanksgiving is a fabulous holiday, and this year’s was certainly memorable.


Thanks. Gracias. Pachi.

Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 24 November 2008


The palindromic capital of the department of the same name is not often on the “must see” Bolivian itinerary, but, it is well worth a visit. While it is home to an infamous Carnaval celebration each February, the rest of the year, the streets of Oruro are nothing but tranquilo.

I had the privilege of having Diana show me around. Oruro was her regional city and she got to know it pretty well in our short 5 months as volunteers. Oruro is higher than La Paz (slightly lower than Potosi) and smack dab in the middle of the true altiplano.

From the top of the hill that dominates the vista to the west, you can literally see for miles and miles and miles. It is one of the more extraordinary things I have seen in Bolivia. And at this point, I feel like that is really saying something.

Oruro has a similar energy to that of Potosi, and has a long standing mining tradition as well. But a distinct lack of tourists in Oruro make it feel that much more authentic, that much more gritty, that much more raw…

I only wish I had been able to spend more time there…


Cool mural painted by local school kids depicting the diversity of cultures that come from Bolivia in the heart of South America.


The Cathedral in homage to the Virgin of Sorcaya in Oruro shows how deep rooted mining is in the Orureño culture.


There is actually an entrance to what was once a functioning mine inside the Cathedral. It is now a museum. You can smell the fumes coming up from below. Pretty unreal.


Oruro, in all her late afternoon, altiplano glory…



Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 24 November 2008

Birthplace of the Sun

According to Quechua and Aymara legend, it was here, on the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) in the southern (and Bolivian) end of Lake Titicaca, where the bearded God-King Viracocha first appeared and commanded the Sun and the Moon to be born.  The first Quechua people, Mano Capac and Mama Ocllo were also born on this island.

Legends aside, Isla del Sol is one of those rare places on Planet Earth that just commands respect, humility, and reverence.  It has a certain energy about it, rather indescribable, but extraordinarily tangible in sitio. It was (and remains) an important pilgrimage site for the Quechuas (Incas), Aymaras and travelers alike.


Lake Titicaca with the Cordillera Real in the background. Bolivia. Mind-bogglingly beautiful.


Bolivia lost its access to the sea to Chile over 100 years ago, but they still maintain a Navy that patrols the waters of Lake Titicaca.  Nevertheless, it’s funny to see young Bolivians in Sailor uniforms!


Ch’allapampa is the second largest community on the Isla del Sol.  It sits on this narrow isthmus near the north end of the island.


Where the two paths around the island converge at the north end.


The Incan ruins on Isla del Sol, also known as “The Labyrinth” are perfectly situated to watch the sun set towards Peru.



Life is just good sometimes. Our shirts (yes, we know they match) say “Jallalla”, which is the Aymara term for “Cheers!” or “Life!”


Diana, Russ, Tiffany and I taking it all in.


On the boat ride from the north to the south end of the island.


Yumani is the largest community on the Isla. Also the most touristed. We preferred the tranquility of the north end of the island, but did eat the best pizza in all of Bolivia here in Yumani! Las Velas! Go, if you find yourself on Isla del Sol. You won’t regret it!


Friends are so great. Especially the great ones! 🙂 Thanks for all the good times, D! I love you.


The cathedral in Copacabana, on the mainland shore of Lake Titicaca.


Copacabana from a distance. Lago Titicaca in the background.

Did you know?! The name, Lake Titicaca is not in fact a reference to breasts and human waste, but rather a Spanish mispronunciation of the Aymara words Thiti Kharka.  Roughly translated into English it means “Rock of the Puma”, which can be found on the Isla del Sol.  The legends associated with the Isla del Sol, and the physical places on the island that represent their incarnation are what gave the entire lake its name. Pretty cool, huh?

Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 23 November 2008

Rurrenabaque… Just as hard to get to as it is to pronounce!

After Potosi, we took an overnight flota up to La Paz. From there, we had an express taxi ready to drive us the few hundred kilometers north (and 13,000 feet down) to Rurrenabaque, up in Beni. What a road… What a road…


Leaving La Paz, the road climbs to nearly 14,000 feet, and the scenery looks like this…


…but very quickly turns into this!


The road descends into the Yungas, where it hugs a tight cliff and plummets into the river below. This is prime coca growing country.


Waterfall in the Yungas. Goodbye altiplano!


We arrived in Rurrenabaque late at night, after 13 hours on the road from La Paz. We were up early the next morning to start a three day adventure into the Pampas (grasslands, teeming with animals). We stopped at a restaurant for lunch, and this was their interpretation of “Please do not throw toilet paper into the toilet. Use the trash can.” Hilarious.


The eight of us RPCVs got in two of these old canoes and set out down river. It wasn’t long until wildlife started showing up to greet us:







This river was teeming with wildlife. All in all, we saw three kinds of monkeys, an anteater, dozens of pink river dolphins, hundreds and hundreds of alligators, thousands of birds (including an owl in the daytime!) and even a three-toed sloth! It was AWESOME. Bolivia is listed as one of the top ten most Bio-diverse countries in the world, and nothing like a trip to the Beni to make you believe it!


On a hike one morning, we stopped to show off our new “Obama Cumple” t-shirts. We had these printed in Sucre just after the election. “Evo Cumple” is presidential slogan used on billboards and signs all over Bolivia to show support for the Morales government initiatives. We thought we were pretty clever. (“Cumple” means, “fulfills” or “comes through”)


Is this not the best album cover shot you have ever seen? Now all we need is an actual band…


Then a really great storm rolled in and we got soaked. And it was awesome.


Think this photo will get published in the Chaco catalog?? 🙂


You absolutely can NOT go to the Beni without getting a vehicle stuck in the mud…


Rurre, as it is coloquially referred to, is quite a pretty little town.


This is the cute little spider monkey that lived at our Rurre hostel.


And this is the fabulous, refreshing swimming hole we discovered and cooled off in on the long trip back up to La Paz.

This country is so full of wonderful secrets. And it has taken a very strong hold of my heart.

Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 23 November 2008

The job from hell and the highest city in the world…

After a few days of relaxing and showing my friends around Sucre, we headed up to Potosi, which just so happens to be the highest city in the world (at least of any real size). It sits at a cool 4070 meters above sea level (13,300 feet, give or take), and is home to the Cerro Rico, or “Rich Mountain”.

The Spaniards pulled enough silver out of this mountain during colonial times to (so the story goes) build a bridge from Potosi to Spain and back again. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but the bottom line is that this mine (and others in the region) have been exploited for nearly 500 years.

Potosino miners eek out a living still to this day, enduring long hours, grueling conditions and a host of illnesses associated with the trade. After spending just a few hours in the mine, and as a tourist, not having to lift a thing, I can say with the utmost certainty: This has got to be one of the hardest jobs on planet earth.

The city was once the richest city in the world, and now is one of Bolivia’s poorest. However, there is still a very vibrant energy there. It is a charged place, and it is impossible not to be affected by Potosi–by her altitude, but her enduring spirit, but her gorgeous people, or by her haunting past and present…


Demonstrating the effects of altitude on beer. Pour with caution!


Looks like wasabi, right? Nope. DYNAMITE. That’s right. Any old Joe can walk into the Miner’s market and purchase this explosive substance. Thank goodness most people don’t. Miners stock up on dynamite, other explosives, coca, soda and 96% alcohol in order to get themselves through the workday underground.


This is 70% refined silver ore. The final 30% of the process is shipped out to Chile and Peru…


At the entrance to the mine.


The Tio of the mine. This is a figure that is revered by miners and offering of coca and alcohol are made to it each time they enter to work. The Tio character has evolved from a mix of Andean and Catholic traditions.


The Sumaj Orcko, or Cerro Rico viewed at sunset from downtown Potosi.

The following day, Potosi was celebrating it’s anniversary, and people came from all over the campo to see Evo Morales speak and deliver brand new ambulances to each district in the department. We were pretty far away from Evo himself, but it was very cool to see him and be in the crowd. We are pretty sure we were the only gringos there. All of the people who came in from the campo communities were wearing their traditional dress. There was lots of music, dancing and people watching to be done while waiting in the afternoon heat for “El Evo” to arrive.





Bolivia is so unique. There really is no place like it. And Potosi is one of the many, many unique places tucked within her borders.

Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 5 November 2008

A Whole New World.


It is with great pride for my country that I announce to my dear blog readers that I have officially accepted an invitation to serve again as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I will be joining the Environmental Education program in Ecuador, which begins (probably in Washington, DC) on February 24th.

I am in Bolivia for now.  I am healing, I am experiencing so much.  I am with great friends.  And I get more and more excited about the future each day.  Last night was big.  I plan to travel until Barack Obama has moved into the White House and Sasha and Malia Obama get their much deserved puppy.

I should be home for about 3 weeks before starting this wild journey all over again.

I am proud to be an American, a Virginian, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a Peace Corps Invitee.

Love from Bolivia.

Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 5 November 2008

Andean Mountain High

I haven’t the words to describe Southwestern Bolivia, so I will allow the following photos to speak thousands of their words in place of my own.  I will say that it is absolutely one of the most impressionable and awesome (in the true sense of the word) landscapes I have ever had the privilege of witnessing, and the company with which I experienced this truly unique environment could not have been better.


Horseback riding in Tupiza, the day before we began the Southwest Circuit tour.  I have discovered that I am not much of a horse person…


Tupiza. A Geologist’s dream.




First pyramid shot.


Llama head.


The Band. Album Cover #1.


Rock cairns by the aptly named Laguna Verde.


The crew in front of our trusty steed, cafecito. Sunrise on the Salar. Not too shabby.


Altiplano Superheros. Flamingos, Coca Leaves, Sunrise, Wind. Halloween is a great holiday, no matter where you find yourself.


4,855m is over 16,000 feet. Just so you know.


There is actually water in the altiplano. Who knew?!


It’s windy up here.



Alpacas are so cute.




Salt Hotel. They weren’t lying.


Sunrise on the Salar.


Hilarious moment. Captured.


Shadow play.


Well balanced.

So, these are officially too many photos. More can be found on facebook if you are interested.

Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 26 October 2008

¡Bueno, che!

I have been lost and found in Argentina these past few weeks.  (With the exception of our two day sojourn to Uruguay.)  Our Argentine time has been filled (to the brim) with sun and rain, with wine and cheese, with friends new and old, with sea breeze and the world’s highest peak outside of the Himalayas.

Our three weeks here have been every bit as diverse as the country itself.  My bank statement tells me it is time to go home to Bolivia, but my heart (and stomach) will forever remember my first foray into the land of fire and wine.

I am back in Salta (from where I previously posted) and find it and appropriate occasion to add another chapter to this South American tale.  We are a mere 7 hour bus journey to the Bolivian border.  Already I can smell the salteñas and the ubiquitous urine-in-public-places.  My nose is drawing me home.  Already I can see the alpacas and the brightly colored aguayos that Bolivian women wrap around their shoulders to carry their babies, their llamas, their produce…  My eyes are drawing me home.  Already I can hear the sound of the zampoñas and the charango playing a traditional Andean melody and the lady on the street corner in Sucre announcing the sale of the “Corrrrrrrrrrrrreo”, the local daily newspaper.  My ears are drawing me home.

Side note for all those who are interested in reading more about ex-Peace Corps Bolivia volunteers returning to Bolivia, check out this article recently published in the Washington Post.

Also, the Democracy Center, an NGO based in Cochabamba has been following and reporting on events in Bolivia recently. Their most recent blog post gives me a lot of hope that positive dialog is actually happening and that Bolivia will once again retreat from the precarious edge it’s been looking over.

But for now, I will leave you all with a photographic journey of my Argentine and Uruguayan adventures.  Enjoy.  Peace be with you all.

Former Bolivia 47 PCVs Diana, Matt and me in front of the Casa Rosada (the White House of Argentina).  This house has been inhabited by at least two prominent Argentine women: Eva Peron, and the current Presidenta Kristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Tomb of Eva Duarte Peron. Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The beach in La Colonia, Uruguay.  Tranquilo doesn’t adequately describe this town… It’s such a great respite after the chaos and wonder of Buenos Aires.

Taking it in. La Colonia, Uruguay.

I love this lady. My first friend in PC Bolivia. And dearest. Diana and I are happy to be traveling together. Here we are on a dock in La Colonia, Uruguay.

Mendoza. Wine country. All those Argentinian wines you buy back home–they come from right here.  And it is delicious. Cheap.  A part of daily life.

Vineyards outside of Mendoza. Snowcapped Andes in the background.  The snowmelt makes it way down into the fertile Mendoza Valley to irrigate the land…

Ryan, Diana, Amanda and me after our full day bicycle tour of local vineyards, bodegas, olive oil factories and an artesanal chocolate shop! Mmmm…

Uspallata. A few hours west, towards the Chilean border, from Mendoza, and up into the mountains. This was the backyard of our hostel.  Glorious.

Two hours further west. 14km from the 4,000m pass over the Andes into Chile. We helped a poor park ranger who had gotten his truck stuck in the mud caused by the spring snowmelt. (That’s right, it’s spring down here!)

Big D and me. What more can I say?

Aconcagua, still covered by clouds, looms in the center.  The ice cover on the Laguna Espejo (Mirror Lagoon) had just begin to melt and reveal her reflective glory.

Me, Ryan and Diana in Parque Provincial Aconcagua.  Its namesake mountain (Quechua for Stone Guardian) is the tallest mountain in the world, outside of the Himalayas. 6959m. 22,831ft. Not too shabby.

Me and Ryan. Happy to be here.

Abandoned bus on the walk back to the highway from the Park. Pretty rad in all its Into The Wildness.

Diand and me at the Puente del Inca.  This was a natural bridge that spaned over the river and is also home to a sulfuric hotspring.

Quite possibly the weirdest souveniers I have ever seen. Old tennis shoes and bike gears dipped in the sulfuric water beneath the bridge.  I mean, I thought bronzing things was werid, but sulfuring? Seriously!?

Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 10 October 2008

Bolivian Homecoming

Rushed.  Unfinished.  Unsettled.

That is how I generally feel these days.

But at the same time: excited, energized, curious.

Tomorrow is my one month anniversary of leaving my site (unknowingly for the last time as a Peace Corps Volunteer).  Tuesday is the one month anniversary of our evacuation to Peru.

It’s really hard to believe that:

a) a whole month has gone by already, and

b) it’s only been a month since all this went down…

Rather than comment on the relativity of time for the umpteenth time in the 3 year history of this blog, I will simply refer to the E.B. White quote that can be found on the “About Me” page of my blog. (And below)

“I arise each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savour the world.”

I feel, at this moment, uniquely balanced between these two desires.  I fall asleep each night hoping that the light of the new day will bring more dialogue, more tolerance, more understanding to the people governing Bolivia.  Each night, I think of the beautiful, loving children of La Palma who have given me far more than I was able to give to them and I hope that they will be able to grow up in a Bolivia free of racism, free of radicalism, free of discrimination…

Simultaneously, I feel compelled to absorb as much of these present moments as is humanly possible.  After traveling through Southern Peru on our way home, my face literally hurt from smiling when I reached La Paz. I realized that, after crossing the border back into Bolivia, I had a wide grin splattered across my face for the entire 2 hour drive from the border to La Paz.  I had never been to this part of Bolivia before, but somehow, I knew I was home.  Hearing Quechua on the radio, seeing 6,000 meter Huayna Potosi, and of course, seeing the old red, yellow and green flying proudly from car antennas and rooftops was a most welcome homecoming.

Having spent the past week or so in the Peruvian highlands, the 12,000 feet at which La Paz is found didn’t bother me too much.  This city is so vibrant and frenetic.  I absolutely loved it and cannot wait to return to explore it more thoroughly.  Also, for anyone who has ever spent extended periods of time drinking nothing but watery pilseners, let it be known that La Paz has its very own microbrewery that produces STOUT beer. I can think of no better way to ring in my 27th year on Planet Earth than by sharing this delicious chocolaty beverage with dear friends who are also caught in this unexpected period of mourning and celebration.

After La Paz, we hightailed it back to Sucre.  My first stop Sunday morning was to grab salteñas (the best in Bolivia) from The Patio. Home never tasted so good.  It was really wonderful to be reunited with friends I was worried (at one point) I might never see again.

I spent my actual birthday in La Palma, saying hello and goodbye, and packing.  I gave away most of my stuff and have put my counterpart in charge of selling my bed and a few other items of some value.  I ensured everyone there that I would be back in November to spend more time with them and say a proper farewell, but that I had to run back to Sucre that evening to make sure I got my bags to Peace Corps to be shipped home to the States.  I can say with the utmost certainty that it was the strangest, but likely most memorable birthday I have ever had.

I am writing now from Salta, Argentina. I arrived here a few hours ago and am awaiting the arrival of my dear friend (and former B-47) Diana.  I spent the last few days in Tarija (Bolivian wine country), but opted out of the winery tours there in anticipation of Mendoza, Argentina. 🙂

I am truly happy right now. Being in Sucre and La Palma this week reinforced in me the rightness of my decision to close my service and start fresh once I have my head and heart back in place. I still have my moments of uncertainly, but it wouldn’t be life without those. I sent my re-enrollment papers (along with my absentee ballot!) by DHL back to America, and should hopefully be starting the process of getting another assignment for the new year pretty soon.

I plan to travel in northern Argentina for about 3 weeks and then head back to Oblivia. Sending my love to all from the land of wine and fire…

And, of course, love to my adopted patria, Bolivia. Que se encuentre la paz verdadera que merece…

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