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Travel in Small-Town Bolivia

From the city of Cochabamba, there are two ways to reach the ruins of Incallajta, the Macchu Picchu of Bolivia: the first is to hire a taxi in the city to take you directly to the archaeological site, three hours by paved road ($20); the other is to crunch in with passengers who are going to surrounding towns, get off six miles from Incallajta, and walk ($2).

The common complaint with the Incan ruins of Macchu Picchu is that you "feel like a tourist." In Incallajta you feel like you are the only foreigner for miles—and you most likely will be. A tourist information center, run by local community members, has recently been opened at the base of the ruins. Here you can leave backpacks and see a video about the ruins and the surrounding areas.

The guide charges each visitor about $1 to enter and takes you up a wooded winding path to the plateau on which the ruins stand. The large fortification, the former military fortress and ceremonial center of the Incas that stretches over the plateau, includes what was believed to be a large ceremonial hall and an astronomical tower. The hidden treasure of the site is the narrow stone staircase that leads down to a moss-enshrouded waterfall.

If you don’t already feel a sense of antiquity and connection with a lost culture, the next leg of your journey to Pocona will doubtless leave you with that sensation.

Pocona lies 15 miles from Incallajta, a hike via a cobblestone road through the rural countryside. If this is too much, you can use the taxi you have contracted or catch a taxi at the crossroads where you got off the bus. Regardless of how you arrive, the 200-person town of Pocona gives you the sense of a place and time not very far removed from the Incas.

On the main plaza, with its 200-year old trees, is Doña Rosa’s restaurant, the local hospital, and the Catholic church. On a road running from the plaza is the newly constructed archaeological museum. Here you are able to see and hear about the town’s intimate connection with the past. You can also venture with a local tour guide up a surrounding mountain to unexcavated Incan ruins to see where the Incans buried their dead.

You can stay with Doña María in her sparsely furnished rooms right off the plaza for $1.50 a night. For an extra $2 you can have all your meals on her tree-shaded patio. The other option is to stay in the nun’s hostel—the rooms are clean and cost $1.50 a night.

If you want to stay and volunteer, the town’s boarding school, run by Catholic nuns, takes in 50 teenage students from disadvantaged homes in surrounding communities who come to attend school from February to the end of November. If you wish to teach English, you can coordinate with the nuns to teach the children according to your schedule. Or you can become a mentor, help with homework, or be a "big sister" or "big brother." The only condition is that you must speak Spanish fluently.

No matter how limited your budget, you can stay as long you wish—your wallet will barely feel a dent—as you become more and more immersed in Bolivian small-town life, where time slows down and sometimes even stops.

For More Info

The Tourism Office of Cochabamba will provide all the necessary information on where to go and how to get there. Call 011-591-4-4221793 or visit Calle 25 de Mayo and Calle Colombia.

The The Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook has useful information on Incallajta.

To speak with one of the Catholic nuns from Pocona or the Peace Corps volunteer in charge of local tourism, call the local telephone in Pocona at 011-591-4-413-4976.

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