Introduction to Bolivia, 101

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The finale of the salt flat tour was a great disappointment, especially when compared to what had just preceded it. The salt flat’s namesake is the town of Uyuni, and a more flyblown dirty place you’d be hard to come across, even in Bolivia and after the glory of the desert south of town, this place is a hell of a let down. The sole central street is awash with crappy pizza places selling something resembling the stuff, but not quite closely enough. The only thing worth doing in Uyuni is getting out of it. Its one saving grace is that it’s in Bolivia, so a private hotel room is likely to set you back less than a fiver.

Being in Bolivia, you have to contend with uniquely Bolivian things, such as drunk driving as a matter of pride (discussed in the previous entry), and the ubiquitous road blocks. It’s a generally accepted thing in Bolivia that if a group is a little bit annoyed by something the government is doing, then that group will endeavour to shut down the road infrastructure as much as humanely possible, across as much of the country as they can. Pensions being cut? Roadblock. Fuel duty going up? Roadblock. You may think it would be unlucky indeed to be caught in one of these blockades, but no. These things go on as frequently as twice a week. Sometimes blocks are erected just in case the government decides to enact a particular sin. They have been known to go on for several weeks at a time meaning that what goes on in La Paz, stays in La Paz. You’ve no choice. So it was that buying a bus ticket from Uyuni to Sucre was only a half simple procedure, the office only allowing us to buy tickets half way, to the town of Potosi (the highest town of its size in the world – at one point it was the wealthiest place on the planet on account of the local mine that produced an unimaginably vast amount of silver at the cost of countless lives, mostly indigenous Bolivians. The mines are still operational). What would we do in Potosi? We wouldn’t know until we arrived. I’d been told that there were minibuses that would defy the blockade but these didn’t exist when we got there. We were also informed that we could get a taxi to the blockade, walk across and then get another taxi when we did that. Two things wrong with that: a) how much would the other taxis charge for the very necessary voyage from the blockade to the town (answer: probably a hell of a lot)? b) are the protesters armed? This was a serious concern. We chose option c), to take the back roads.

The taxi (for which we paid a sizeable premium for) diverted from the road just prior to the blockade, and veered in the back country in a big way. Driving up river, we eventually bumped along on to what would probably be called a dirt track of some sort. Barely. The Toyota Corollas were ill suited to this kind of punishment, but they held up, and this was almost certainly not the first time the cars had endured this journey, so maybe this should be a ringing endorsement for the car. After two hours of this, and with bruised bums, we emerged in Sucre, Bolivia’s original capital city (and according to the passionate local sucrenses, the current capital). Sucre is beatiful. It’s a surprise to find such a well tended and obviously wealthy colonial city in Bolivia, and even more of a surprise to find that it is almost as cheap as the rest of the country. Filet Mignon with a Roquefort stuffing? £6 please, and that would certainly be considered ostentatious spending by the locals. It was a nice way to live in luxury on the cheap for a short while, and partake in the local outdoor activities: downhill (mostly) mountain biking and rock climbing. Sucre is at altitude however, so these were tough pursuits!

One has to be on the move however, so it was off to La Paz on the night bus (excruciatingly cold). La Paz is the most Bolivian of cities one might imagine. It is a crazy, cramped and dirty place ruled by gold toothed cholitas in thick skirts and bowler hats who take over the streets to sell whatever it is they are selling, from plantains to coca leaves; from fake North Face jackets to the latest in bowler hat technology. There is some fantastic trekking to be done near La Paz, so we sought out the trekking agencies (all pretty ropey) but settled with a place run by the most eccentric man on the planet, Doctor Hugo. He proudly displays his certificates he earned from the DEA (yes, that one) in a country that is most assuredly anti-DEA at the best of times. It was a Sunday when we visited, so he was on the rum. After an interesting consultation (which did involve medical procedures), we decided on a little known trek in the mountains and went off to see the city.

cholitas2Truthfully, there’s less to see but plenty to experience. More than anywhere else I’ve been in South America, La Paz makes no allowances for tourists. Coming from Sucre, this was quite jarring. Upon enquiring where the centre of town was, as the street we were on was surely some dirty suburb, I was informed this was the centre of town. An interesting titbit was the story of the main city jail where an Englishman by the name of Thomas McFadden was incarcerated during the 90s for attempting to smuggle cocaine out of the country. After ensuring his life was safe by making sure everyone knew he wasn’t an American, he set about making a name for himself in prison. In this jail, everything is paid for, including the cells themselves. Wealthy drug barons have expansive apartments in one wing, whereas petty thieves and paupers are packed in to smaller cells in the other side. You can get anything you want in this place provided you have the cash, and for a number of years, this included cocaine manufacturing equipment. Under the eyes, and indeed the protection of the guards, vast amounts of marching powder were produced in the jail by people who were there for producing cocaine in the first place. Madness. McFadden wasn’t involved (apparently) but instead took entrepreneurship in to a new direction by offering tours of the jail to curious gringos. For several years, these tours took place and you could be given guided walks of the jail, and finally if you so desired, take a sample of the product that the population had become so successful at producing. After a number of successful years, a disgruntled tourist took it to the international press, and the authorities were forced to shut it down. McFadden got a successful book deal out of it however, so if you find this and similar stories of interest, give it a go.

La Paz is set in a deep canyon (and driving in is a very impressive experience), so getting out brings you to a very different world. The mountains nearby are as remote and barren as anywhere else I’ve been, so the trek we set out to do was a massive contrast to the city we left barely an hour beforehand. Three days were spent traversing 5000 metre passes, and vast mountain meadows; camping next to lakes and below glaciers and sleeping in minus fifteen degrees of cold. Okay, that wasn’t so pleasant, but it certainly made one appreciate the values of a warm bed and a toilet that wasn’t just a hole in the ground (at best). Most people wouldn’t think of this area as a particularly great trekking destination but it truly is, and being Bolivian, it is cheap as all hell to do anything. The mountain Huayna Potosi is a 6089 metre peak that is said to be one of the easiest to climb in South America (and probably the world), and anywhere else would be flooded by eager but unable climbers, each paying an arm and a leg for the privilege. Here? Less than £150 and you get three nights accommodation (including one on the mountain at 5000m+), all your food, ice climbing lessons and a guided trip up and down the mountain. Did I do it? Hell no: you still need to be extremely fit and strong to do something like this, and I am not quite there. Plenty of people try and fail as they don’t quite realise how much you need to bring to this party. It’s a lot.

DSCF0714_1920x1440The next stop on our “hectic” schedule was the great and mysterious lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world (it’s actually not). Despite being a descent from La Paz, at 3800 metres the air is markedly thinner here, and sleeping more of a challenge. It is a beautiful location that is very Mediterranean in appearance, with rolling hills around the coast and a number of attractive islands in the water. The Inca creation myth starts here, with the Gods springing forth from the waters to found the ancient cities of Cuzco and Quito. The centre point of this spring is the Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna. A common trip is to the former by boat, and for those inclined, you can stay on the islands also. We opted for a luxurious place on the shoreline, just by the town of Copacabana (the area in Rio is named after this one). Due to a strange booking quirk, I had a room to myself: a huge double bed with a very nice en-suite included. No roughing it for me, thanks!

DSCF0736_1920x1440People who have visited may take umbrage with my thoughts on the Island, so let it be noted that this is only my opinion due to my tastes and personal experiences. Isla del Sol is a toy island that seems to exist to allow foreigners to take pictures of what feels like a model village. There are ruins… but these aren’t very impressive. You can walk from one end of the island to the other, but we were in agreement, coming from our trek near La Paz just a day or so before, and Patagonia before that, this was not much of a walk for us. We were spoiled, its true: it was very pretty indeed. Maybe the old gods heard us, as it was from here it all went a bit wrong. We got to the embarkation point a scant two minutes after the departure time, and you’d think we were in Switzerland because the damned boat had already left. In a panic, we had to ask around for an alternative to get to the next point on the boat’s itinerary as if we missed that, the boat back to the mainland would have to wait until the next day. Given we had little money, this would have been a challenge. Finally, after several broken spanish conversations with other boat captains (all of whom refused to give us a lift, even with the offer of extra payments… bastards) we had to settle with a woman who said her husband would take us on his piddly little boat, for a chunk of cash (three times the amount of the original boat ride). He wasn’t pleased to be doing this service, the ungrateful sod, and was still half in and out of his siesta (falling asleep on the tiller at a few points). We made the connection fortunately, but the whole thing left a very sour taste in my mouth: there is no charm here, and everything exists to part gringos from their money with no smile and no friendliness. I hope the whole sacred mess sinks in to the lake, and given how commercial the whole thing has become, I think the old gods may agree with me.DSCF0730_1920x1440

That was Bolivia. Ups and downs, and not a lot of money spent, the next destination was to be Peru, but at two thousand words (sorry, I know these entries are wordy), I’ll close this post down now. Go to Bolivia!

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