When we were told at the beginning of our travels to expect the unexpected because we were in South America, we certainly did not dream of what we encountered in Bolivia.
Bolivia was indeed a bit of a culture shock, even after having happily settled into South America via the very safe-to-explore Chile for a fortnight before moving across borders. Crossing the borders were surprisingly easy, given the horror stories we’d heard from travellers back home. No bribes, no obscene length of waiting time and no non-issue of immigration cards were encountered on our attempt. We spent three glorious days in a 4×4 driven by our beloved driver, Moses, and fed by our traditional Bolivian cook, Catalina; crossing the Atacama Desert to the Uyuni Salt Flats. In less than eigh hours, we went from 2500m above sea level to 5000m. Only Niall coped relatively unscathed. On the otherhand, I was bedbound as soon as we arrived at our first night’s accommodation with a migraine, nausea, and threw up everything I had consumed during the day (including dehydration medication). Thankfully I slept so much that my body managed to acclimatise in record timing, and I woke up the next day feeling much better than everyone else! During our desert crossing we saw many beautiful lagoons of many different colours with flamingoes, geysers, hot springs and volcanoes, in amongst the arid landscape of the desert. Our world is truly an incredible place. We arrived to spend our second night in a salt hotel, which was a bit of a novelty, especially being the only ones staying there! We didn’t cope too well with the hotel-enforced lights-out at 10pm, but apart from that, the stay was pleasant enough. The Uyuni Salt Flats are exactly as the photographs on the web promise – vast, blinding, and completely out of the world. We took the obligatory touristy photographs that mess around with perspective, but didn’t think too hard about it and sadly forgot to bring props. Next time, bring props. Christmas Eve was celebrated by dining in the famous Minuteman Pizza Restaurant, which was absolutely amazing. I’d forgotten how greedy and selfish Niall can get with his dessert, when yummy food presents itself in front of him.
We spent the majority of Christmas Day on a bus travelling from Uyuni to Potosi, a town that was established upon the silver and mineral mining in its mountains. It is also supposedly the highest city in the world at over 4000m above sea level. Our first experience of a proper Bolivian town was not a pleasant one… It was dirty, polluted, hilly, and the people kept giving us strange looks. Never mind that they were also a lot shyer than Chileans, as well. Christmas Day was spent mostly looking for open restaurants to eat at, eventually finding a very substandard sandwich place for Christmas dinner. Niall got eight chips as a side to his hamburger… Eight. We made up for it on Boxing Day, however; splurging on delicious meals throughout the day. Niall had his first taste of llama. Apparently it was okay. There’s not much to do in Potosi otherwise. We took a tour of the National Mint and a working silver mine in Cerro Rico (“Rich Mountain”), in which the working conditions have not changed much since the colonial times and there is still very much the risk of asbestos and silcone poisoning in these mines. It was particularly interesting to learn that the miners, though mostly of Catholic religion above ground, worship the demon underground as the main deity to ensure richness of minerals and safety of the miners. Women are traditionally not allowed in the mines, as the demon would mate with them instead of Pachamama (Mother Nature), which would result in a lack of minerals in the mines.
During our stay in Potosi, we learnt that the Bolivian government were planning to raise petrol prices by 82%, causing many announcements of strikes and protests by all transport operators. Not wanting to be stuck in a mining town for New Years as a result of the strikes, we quickly escaped Potosi by getting up at 5am on the day of the first unofficial strikes and paying taxi drivers 2.5 times the usual fare for the 2.5 hour journey to Sucre. Lucky for us there were still taxi drivers wanting to drive us (although I suspect the earning of more than a normal day’s pay with one trip has something to do with it). Even so, we still had to walk 12 blocks to the hotel with our backpacks because there were roadblocks into the Sucre as a result of the strikes.
Sucre is Bolivia’s white city… It is the former capital, and the colonial legacy is obvious in much of the city’s architecture and history. In Sucre, we were unable to do all the cool things we had planned (hiking, biking, rafting) because all roads to and from the city had been blocked by the strikes. Instead, we spent our time in the city trying local cuisine (including a disgusting cheesecake wrapped in a leaf and tumbo juice), being disgusted by the state of the food sold at the central market, wandering around several museums and hanging out at the plaza with the locals. Needless to say that after having been forced to stay in the city for several days and not do our planned daytrips, we got bored by the end of our stay in Sucre. I guess you could say it only really got somewhat exciting thanks to me throwing up for no apparent reason one night, Niall getting a huge hangover after a massive night of drinking with other travellers, and my right eye swelling up massively one morning and having a consultation with a doctor who gave me random pills for something he couldn’t diagnose… (He was however, able to diagnose Niall’s hangover with good humour, though!).
During our stay in Sucre, the Bolivian president finally announced the reasons why the petrol prices had been risen so dramatically in the space of the previous couple of days. An official strike was then announced by everyone affected (not just transport operators) for the day before we were to leave for La Paz. Not wanting to stay any longer in Sucre, we weighed up the options: try our luck with overnight buses, hire our own private transportation and risk having our drivers turn back at road blocks, or fly. Lucky for us, we managed to get overnight bus tickets to La Paz in time for New Years. Our only hurdle was a road block in the middle of the night, where we bribed the protesters to let us through. Other travellers we had met along our journey and bumped into again in La Paz were not so lucky: some waited two days for flights, whilst others had luggage stolen out of their private transportation (mini vans). The strikes did get violent in some places, where cars were torched and flares were lit, but I managed to stay away. Niall, however, was drawn to every sort of demonstration that we encountered like a moth to a flame. Boys.
La Paz is just a more chaotic and polluted version of the previous Bolivian cities that we have visited (but not AS pretty as Sucre). At almost 4000m above sea level and with extremely steep streets, it is not the easiest city to move around on foot. I guess it’s good training for the Inca Trail. We spent our first day wandering the streets and visiting the markets and some sites (as much as we could after an overnight bus!). Again, the altitude affected me – this time I threw up everything I’d eaten for a day, had no appetite for a second day (and felt sick every time I did try to eat), and could only eat small portions for the third and fourth day… In stark contrast to our Christmas, our New Years was pretty good, even though we spent it with other travellers. We went to a restaurant full of travellers, saw fireworks lit by travellers and ended up at a nightclub full of travellers. Can’t complain with 2-for-1 drinks, though… Unfortunately I was throwing up everything and couldn’t partake in drinking celebrations as the night progressed, though. But in my tired and somewhat sober state, I somehow managed to drag Niall out to the dancefloor for a few hours (he must have been quite drunk to comply!). Success!! One uniquely South American thing that we did do for New Years was eat 12 grapes for good luck after midnight. Here’s hoping 2011 is a better year for all!
We kicked off the year at the Tiwanauku Incan ruins, which would have been an excellent daytrip had we not gone out for New Years the night before!! Our second daytrip from La Paz involved cycling down the Death Road. We both survived… though I only just did. I do not recommend doing it after having not eaten for the two days beforehand, nor in the rainy season – you lose concentration way too much, freak out, nearly black out from exhaustion, and it’s very very slippery! Today Niall was crazy enough to also climb the Chacaltaya mountain, at an elevation of 5400m above sea level (I opted out because of altitude sickness), which is also home to one of the highest ski resorts in the world. I then joined him for a tour of yet another Valle de la Luna, which was very different from the one we had visited in Chile, and somewhat disappointing. However, it was very interesting to pass through the richer suburbs of La Paz in the surrounds of the Valley and see a different side of the city. Only 5% of Bolivians are rich, and 20% belong to the middle class. The average weekly salary is supposedly 70 Bolivianos ($10USD)… (I’ve learnt not to trust everything guides tell you).
Happy to report that the Bolivian government have decided not to raise petrol prices so dramatically, and the strikes have now been called off… Which hopefully means no more travel stresses! Tomorrow we leave for the Peruvian border. Hopefully life will be somewhat easier outside of Bolivia! Adios!