Bolivia: Close to heaven
As far as conversation starters go, there have definitely been better.
"I'm a bit nervous about flying with Aerocon," says my Aussie travelling companion. "I googled them and they've got a really bad safety record."
It's the day before our flight with the Bolivian airline and I'm not sure I wanted to know that.
We're due to travel from El Alto, the world's highest altitude airport which apparently already makes take-off that little bit harder anyway.
So hearing that an Aerocon plane crashed in 2011, killing eight of the nine passengers on board, is not putting anyone in the mood for travel.
Luckily the neighbouring city of La Paz has plenty of distractions.
Our inbound journey is drama free as we're travelling overland with Bolivian travel operator Transturin. We leave the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca early in the morning, joining a coachload of American tourists who seem bemused by the bumpy roads and the livestock markets where you can pick up a live llama for $150 or two guinea pigs for just $6.
We arrive in Bolivia by foot, crossing the stretch of no man's land between the two countries, where a toothless old woman sells giant bags of popcorn and a scruffy dog trots back and forth over the border while we get our passports stamped by immigration officers sporting requisite handlebar moustaches and aviator Raybans.
The first town we come to is Copacabana. Whatever Barry Manilow may have you believe, this is the original town of this name and there are no feather-wearing showgirls or diamond-studded Lotharios in sight.
Copacabana is staunchly Catholic and of great importance to Bolivia - so much so that 10,000 pilgrims trek here from La Paz every Easter.
Tourists also flock to Copacabana, enamoured with its Baroque and Moorish-influenced architecture, its impressive basilica and colourful town square.
Walking the dusty streets we pass elderly women in traditional dress, known as Cholitas, bent almost in half as they carry heavy bundles on their backs; little boys in knitted hats stand open-mouthed, transfixed by cartoons blaring from a shop's TV; ragged dogs sleep in doorways and old men with heavily lined faces chat convivially on street corners.
At the harbour, we board Transturin's catamaran headed for Isla Del Sol - one of Lake Titicaca's 72 islands, and known as the cradle of the Inca Empire. Ruins on the island date back to 15th century, but archaeologists have discovered evidence of people living there as far back as the third millennium BC.
On the island, up some ancient Inca steps, we come to Transturin's private tourist attraction - the Inti Wata Cultural Complex.
We're given a guided tour of the island's agricultural terraces, the witches' room containing a plethora of unusual looking ingredients used by shaman, and the Ekako underground museum which houses a large collection of the island's archaeological finds.
While some among our group feel it's a little like an Incan-Disneyland, there's no doubt it's a unique experience in a sacred location most of us will never get a chance to return to.
Back on the other side of the lake, it's another two hours by coach to La Paz. It's evening by the time we arrive and the mountains appear to be strung with fairy lights, twinkling against the night sky.
La Paz and its metropolitan area is the most densely populated city in Bolivia, and it's growing fast. Surrounded by the Altiplano, the urban sprawl has moved higher and higher up the mountainsides. Now houses cling to the steep rocky terrain like weeds on a cliff-face.
With less than 24 hours to spend here, we have a lot to pack into our schedule. Dinner is at Gustu, a modern restaurant founded by Claus Meyer, one of the men behind Denmark's two-Michelin starred Noma - ranked as best restaurant in the world from 2010-2012, and again this year.
Gustu is his new venture and it's not only a restaurant but also a training school for disadvantaged young Bolivians who otherwise would have few opportunities in what is South America's poorest country.
The food exclusively uses Bolivian ingredients and the drinks list features only Bolivian wines - Meyer is a strong proponent for the huge biodiversity in the region. We dine on dishes featuring llama, alpaca, Titicaca trout, palm hearts, different types of plantain and Andean potatoes.
While the food isn't as mind-blowing as you'd expect from a Meyer-founded restaurant, the experience of dining in this unique establishment is worth the visit alone.
Waking early the next day, we head out on a whirlwind city tour to see as much of this fascinating destination as we can before our evening flight to Potosi, a silver mining town that is the gateway to the Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia's salt plains).
Jimena, our Transturin guide, throws out interesting facts like sweets at a lolly scramble.
For instance, she tells us that Bolivians have approximately 1 million more red blood cells than those who live at sea level, as well as bigger thorax, lungs and heart, which makes breathing at high altitude easy.
"It also makes us the greatest lovers," she says with a giggle.
Driving into the central city, we pass the bus station designed by Gustav Eiffel, the Metropolitan cathedral and San Francisco church.
The city is abuzz with noise and energy - there's a constant beeping of car horns and dogs barking; ramshackle buildings stand next to grand colonial embassies, cobbled streets back on to gridlocked freeways; telegraph poles have tangles of wires that would give any electrician a hernia.
Outside the presidential palace, the officials keeping guard look like baddies from a Bolivian-set James Bond film - more dark glasses, handlebar moustaches and swarthy skin.
Providing endless fascination are the Cholitas. They wear plush-looking bowler hats on top of their glossy black braids, with layer upon layer of petticoats under their skirts.
"In this country we must dress like an onion," says Jimena. "Many layers."
Hats made from angora wool were traditionally imported from Italy and could cost up to US$700. They are now made in Bolivia as well, but the more expensive Italian hats are seen as a sign of status and wealth.
Every year La Paz plays host to Cholita fashion parades; every day you can see the women for yourself, walking down the main streets or chatting conspiratorially.
If you really want a unique Cholita experience, head to a soccer pitch on the weekend - as the country's most popular sport everyone seems to play, including Cholitas in their traditional clothing.
Or to top it all off, how about heading to El Alto on a Sunday to watch a bout of Cholita wrestling? (Yes, this really is a thing - go to YouTube for clips of Cholitas wrestling both women and men).
One thing you won't find in La Paz, or Bolivia for that matter, is McDonald's. Seven franchises have opened over the years but they have all failed.
Bolivians are proud of their traditional foods and they're also generally averse to anything American. President Evo Morales, in power since 2006, has made it his mission to distance Bolivia from American influence.
There are no Golden Arches, no Starbucks, and not even an American embassy. US visitors are made to pay a US$135 visa waiver (New Zealanders can enter for free).
Before a quick lunch on our way to the airport, we make time to visit the famed Witches Market - an unmissable part of any visit to La Paz.
Down a cobbled street near the San Francisco church, shop after shop sells jewellery, colourful textiles and souvenir T-shirts. But you'll also find "jungle Viagra", desiccated frogs and grotesque dried llama foetuses - an offering to Pachamama, or Earth Mother, which traditionally would be burnt to bring benevolence or good luck.
Rushing to catch our flight, perhaps we should have made an offering of our own before departing. Boarding our Aerocon flight, we're all feeling a little nervous after the Aussie's cautionary tale the night before.
It's not helped when we get on a tiny, old-fashioned plane where you can see over the pilot's shoulder in to the cockpit.
We get up to speed on the runway but, just as quickly as we started, we slow down without taking off and some red lights make an angry appearance on the flight deck.
The pilot makes an announcement - the only Spanish speaker in our group translates for us. "We're having some technical difficulties. We're just going to turn around and try again."
These words do not instil confidence but we are now at the pilot's mercy. As promised, he turns the plane around and even the atheists among us begin to say prayers for a safe take-off.
He gets up to speed along the runway again . . . and once more slows down to a stop. This time he tells us we're going to have to get off the plane while engineers take a look at the problem. I have never been gladder of a flight delay.
After a couple of hours waiting in the terminal it's decided we're better off spending another night in La Paz before leaving early the next day on a different airline.
It's an apt end to what has been an eye-opening stay in this frenetic city - completely unexpected, a little confronting, but without doubt unfailingly memorable.
Sadly, the story becomes even more significant four months after our return - in November 2013 an Aerocon plane crashes on landing at the northern Bolivian airport of Riberalta. Eight of the 10 passengers die.
The writer travelled courtesy of LAN Airlines and Transturin
Getting there: LAN Airlines operates six non-stop flights per week from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to La Paz, the gateway to Bolivia. For more information or to make a booking contact travel agents, call LAN reservations on 0800 451 373, or visit lan.com. For more information on overland journeys and guided tours with Transturin, visit transturin.com.
Sunday Star Times