Like a tempestuous relationship, at times I was madly in love with Bolivia whilst at others I could happily have throttled it.
My entry point was an easy frontier crossing from Peru along the shore of Lake Titicaca. The change was immediately evident and it vaguely felt like I was back in Indonesia with poorly surfaced (if at all) roads, shabby buses and hawkers jumping on at every opportunity to sell wooly hats, food, drinks and their life story.
I headed straight to the ferry in Copacabana (apparently Rio caged the name) to spend a couple of days walking across Isla del Sol, famed for its sunsets and the Inca ruins of Chincana on a clifftop overlooking the lake. The ruins are an unique labyrinth structure with arches and alcoves affording framed views across the lake and for once sunset didn’t disappoint, offering gorgeous hues of yellows, oranges and pinks.
The north of Isla del Sol is extremely poor. The islanders, whose lives have changed little in 300 years, live in crumbling, thatch-roofed homes with no electricity or water, typically with sheep and pigs in an adobe pen and a donkey to carry heavy loads. It was interesting to see the villagers in traditional dress, shepherding their flock across the beach, but it was evident that life is tough, especially for the women who looked overworked and downtrodden in what remains a very macho society. I popped into the village school to watch the student brass band (shared enthusiasm with Peru) and cheer leaders practising for a big competition in Copacabana. As usual there was incredulity that I am a solo female traveller but also a lot of respect, which was nice.
I ate with 4 male medics from Brazil who gave me lots of advice about where to go when I finally make it there and one of them donated me a pair of his socks for my freezing feet. The charity of fellow travellers!
The following morning the walk along the coast from north to south was beautiful and, best of all, deserted. However, the town of Yamani with its bijou hostels and cafes didn’t do it for me. Give me the beaten-up shack on the beach with a choice of trout, trout or trout any day!
Hopping on the boat back to the mainland I was greeted by “hello mum” by three girls who I had shared the chocolate-making class with a few weeks ago. Naturally, we were all wearing the requisite Alpaca jumper.
I’ve been enjoying big cities less and less, however I warmed to La Paz (Bolivia’s de facto capital) where one in five Bolivians live. The centre is reasonably compact, and whilst there is the usual problem of too many cars, the system of traffic lights seems to work well, keeping traffic moving.
What made it enjoyable was the plethora of excellent museums; the archeological museum with fascinating facts and artefacts of the powerful Tiwanaku culture that dominated the area south of Titicaca from 1500BC to 1200AD before its mysterious decline; the museum of folklore and ethnology housing a wonderful collections of masks, feather head dresses, hats and ponchos; the museum of coca – too much reading and not enough displays but a good overall explanation of the importance of coca throughout the northern countries of South America; the fascinating museum of musical instruments with examples dating from 1500BC to present day.
Place de Sucre was the icing on the cake. It’s not a famous square but I thought I’d swing by anyway and I’m so glad I did because there was a ‘schools food fare’ with stalls promoting different foods (llama, soya, quinoa, squash, kiwi, watermelon, peppers), prepared by the students and judged by the mayor and food experts. I had great fun sampling various dishes e.g. Llama byriani, pumpkin cake, kiwi ice cream and I loved talking to the super-enthusiastic students all keen to practice their English. What a great day.
Driving to the airport – the highest in the world, you pass by the suburb of El Alto, the capital of the Aymara culture which accounts for approximately 25% of the population. Quechua accounts for a further 30%, mainly located in the highlands close to the border with Peru but the majority of Bolivians are mestizos descended from the Spanish who piled in to take advantage of the huge reserves of gold in the mines around La Paz and the silver mines of Potosi. Even after independence in 1825 (Bolivia being the last country to be freed by General Simon Bolivar, he of the most aquiline nose in history), Chile and Peru fought to successfully seize sizeable chunks of Bolivia. It still grates that Chile took Bolivia’s access to the Pacific Ocean.
Due to the vast distances between A and B, travelling round S America by land is hard. The downside is that there are no low cost airlines which means flying is expensive and not really in my traveller budget. However, I’m increasingly finding myself compromised into handing my money over to LATAM airlines. The upside is that many of the flights are awesome. At just 37,000 the 35 minute flight from La Paz to Sucre (13 hours by bus!) afforded stunning views of mountains, glacial lakes and canyons.
Sucre remains Bolivia’s constitutional capital. It’s a sparkling white city with lots of lovely buildings BUT all the places if interest shut down from Saturday midday until Monday – the exact timing of my sojourn. This left me little to do but window shop and eat. And that, my friends, resulted in my subsequent “lost day”, a dodgy piece of tuna dealing the vicious 24 hour blow.
A few kilos lighter I moved on to the mining city of Potosi. Along the way my travelling companion explained to me about military service which is for one year and runs alongside the final year at school, it being from Friday evening to Monday morning. We also talked a bit about President Evo Morales. Naturally he is popular for increasing the minimum wage from $65pc to $260 but, in his determination to give the Aymara equal rights, he has tipped the balance too much in their favour, which has made him unpopular with other struggling Bolivians.
My visit to Potosi mine was a real eye-opener. From the mid 1500s -late 1800s Potosi was the most prolific silver mine in the world and the city, with more than 200,000 inhabitants, was the most populated in the world. Legend has it that there was enough silver to build a bridge to Spain and still have enough left to fund the counter reformation! Mind you this came at the expense of 8million deaths, many African slaves. Hard to believe really when most of us have never heard of the place.
My guide Antonio’s father and his ancestors had all worked in the mines and either died from falling rocks or from mercury poisoning before reaching 50 years old. Antonio had worked in the mine for 5 years before leaving to study tourism and start his own company taking tourists down the mines as a way of supporting fellow workers.
Bent double crawling through the tunnels I got a sense of how hard conditions are. You can become a miner from the age of 16. You work a statutory 8-hour shift and are paid according to what you extract – ranging from 50 Bolivianos a day to around 500 (£6-60). It is becoming increasingly hard to earn a living because the mine is all but exhausted and dynamiting to go further down is too dangerous because of the fragile honeycomb structure.
In the Museo de Mondera I learnt about Potosi being the world’s central mint, minting coins for the colonies – initially soft silver coins which could be broken (or bitten) in pieces for payment, then hard silver mixed with lead and with official stamps/crests. I wandered round town trying to buy silver jewellery for family Christmas presents but ironically it proved impossible. Someone is definitely missing a trick!
I was still in Potosi for All Soul’s Day. Interestingly, much as it is frowned upon by the Catholic church, Hallowe’en has crept into popular culture, the streets being thronged with witches and ghouls the night before this important day.
On All Souls Day any family who has had a bereavement in the past 12 months makes a shrine in their home with a photo of the deceased surrounded by candles, flowers and their cakes. A black ribbon is tied to the front door indicating that anyone passing by is welcome to enter to pay their respects and, in exchange for a small donation, the family give them sweet wine and cakes.
I was lucky to be invited by a young guide to her grandmother’s shrine and, on my way through the village, was beckoned into another home. Everyone was so welcoming and hospitable, I felt very privileged to be part of these poignant gatherings. The following day everyone trooped to the cemetery to tend their loved ones graves, bringing flowers and cakes. It was a wonderful community occasion complete with funfair and food stalls in the park.
So, about this tempestuous relationship. Well, as I mentioned, it’s a very macho society and I’d had a few altercations with rude taxi drivers and shop keepers but nothing compared to the experience I was about to have…..
I jumped in a minivan heading to Tupiza down south – a journey of about 5 hours. We were 8 adults and 8 small children all piled on top of each other. Our driver was aggressive (I think he’d been drinking), chewed coca leaves and drove like a lunatic round hairpin bends slamming the brakes on, throwing us all around and making the children vomit. We asked him to drive more cautiously, which clearly affronted his male pride. He stopped the car and asked us all to get out. We gently pointed out that we were the clients and he needed to calm down.
In the pitch dark, in the middle of nowhere, you guessed it, we broke down. Not surprisingly he said nothing, least of all apologising. Being so many people it was important that the people with children got lifts first. This didn’t seem to appeal to two of the men who went running back down the road to hitch lifts before the rest of us. Very unchivalrous behaviour! Being a deserted tract of road cars only came past every 5 minutes or so but slowly kindly drivers stopped and took us in. I was the last one to get a lift, from another minivan driver heading to Tupiza. He naturally needed paying to take me on but do you think my driver refunded me the portion to pay the other driver? No chance. He simply said he didn’t have my money because he’d spent it on petrol. At least I had the final word, telling him in my best Spanish that he wasn’t a nice man and that he got his just desserts.
From desserts to deserts, my reason for going to Tupiza was to ride in genuine cowboy country and specifically where Robert Leroy Parker aka Butch Cassidy, met his end. I spent a wonderful day with my sturdy steed Domino riding along dried up river beds with cactus, desert grasses and a surprising number of green trees somehow finding water in the hot, dry canyons. The magical multi-coloured rocks (red, orange, yellow, blue, green/grey) forming dramatic shapes through volcanic eruptions millennia ago took my breath away. I fully expected to spot Butch and Sundance on the horizon but no such luck.
My lovely companion Gregorio (one of eight children, his eldest brother working in the zinc mine of which his father is the manager) was studying to become a vet. Vet school costs £600pa and Greg can expect a starting salary of £320pcm if he moves to Santa Cruz where there are more livestock than in Tupiza.
After such a great day in the saddle I was back in love with Bolivia and excited at the prospect of a 4-day road trip to reach the country’s star attraction – Salar de Uyuni. The 4WD jeep was made up of me, a guy from the US, two girls from France, a cook and our driver/guide Roberto. It was a bit cramped for the hours and hours of desert driving but with ever changing colours, mirages, twisters, geysers, llamas, vicunas, rhea (indigenous ostrich) and birds aplenty there was lots to enjoy. The occasional village comprising a few adobe homes plus the ruins of a mining town of 1500 people, abandoned when the mine dried up were interesting and I liked the cute chinchilla hiding in the rubble.
What I really loved were the lakes, each named according to its colour (purple, blue, green, white, red) which results from the minerals within. Most of the lakes have a small percentage of salt but are largely borax crystals which are used for making ceramics and are present in strong washing powder. Several of the lakes are home to three species of flamingo – Andino, Chileno and rareset of all, James each identifiable by their plumage.
I spent hours watching these beautiful birds going about their business. They are social creatures, enjoying hanging out in groups but shy of humans. Their flight and landing is graceful and their chatter is amusing. We were lucky to have clear sunny skies all 4 days with beautiful sunrises and sunsets which meant seeing the flamingos in different lights reflected in the lakes – photo paradise.
The inky black nights overflowing with stars were cold as was the water in the shower, but there was always a good hot meal, hot tea and heavy blankets in the simple accommodation, so no complaints.
The climax to the journey was the salt lake itself.. Our final night was spent in Chuvica, a small village with a church, town square and museum all made of salt. The people living here are very poor, relying on small groups of tourists to survive. Some of the children looked quite undernourished (just 18 of them) and there were lots of feral dogs that I’ve learned to keep at bay by having a large rock in my hand with which to threaten them!
The hostel was also made of salt: walls, floor, beds, tables, chairs but not the showers which thankfully provided much-needed hot water.
So, up at 4am again (the Uyuni trip is no picnic) to witness dawn. Unfortunately Roberto, who was a very mediocre guide, misjudged sunrise and we had to rush up the mirador to catch the sun just as it rose above the volcano. This was really irritating and unnecessary because the whole experience is about watching the changing light reflected on the salt as far as the eye can see in a calm, peaceful atmosphere, not out of breath and flustered. Other groups had arrived a good 30 mins before us which compounded our frustration. Hey ho – minimal tip for Roberto.
The day got better as we walked and then drove across the lake which is made up of eleven lays of salt, water and earth each 2-10 metres thick. The lake is 10,000 km sq and harvests 25 million tonnes of salt a year. Phenomenal statistics to get your head round. We spent a while taking silly photos (see below) and checking out the Dakar Rally museum – also made of salt.
We had travelled over 1,000km in four days and I can’t honestly say I sorry to say goodbye to my companions. Sometimes groups gel and sometimes they don’t, sometimes guides are excellent and sometimes they aren’t. You pays your money and takes your chance.
However, what doesn’t rely on chance is the incredible scenery, wildlife, lakes and the salt flats which all get 5 star rating.
And so to the last stop before moving on to Chile, involving another long journey in a truck with no acceleration, dodgy lights and yet another macho man at the wheel. At least we didn’t have to suffer incessant music because the radio was broken – thank god for small mercies. We arrived at the hostel very late and from my understanding all the beds were taken so I think I was sleeping in the drivers accommodation. The owner was pretty unpleasant – that makes a fist full of macho males and dinner was less than average but the stars were epic and when I finally laid my weary head to rest I went out like a light.
Up again at 4am to drive to the border. So, goodbye to Bolivia. I had some amazing experiences, some average ones and some pretty unpleasant ones but on balance I would recommend it to anyone. Had I not already done my Andean trekking in Peru or my Amazon trip in Ecuador I would probably have done them in Bolivia, which would undoubtedly have been cheaper and would have been equally rewarding. Perhaps I’ll return to find out…..