the world the Bolivian way
Bolivia Travel Blog› entry 7 of 9 › view all entries
When Tom, Claire and I arrived in Bolivia I thought the world was backwards - the women wear bowler hats, the flamingoes flock to 5000m, the lakes are red, yellow, green, white, rainbow-coloured and fluro blue, and the mountains have seven colours, salt is not in the ocean but in the mountains and there is a "fishermans island" in the middle of the salt flat with no water to be seen anywhere, and I could make my big sister Claire only 1 foot tall. tehehe. Then later I pay to go to the strangest prison and pay to go on the "worlds most dangerous road" i enter a rainforest and feel as i have stepped back in time and catch a turtle instead of fish, the women wrestle in traditional dress, this landlocked country has a navy ...
We crossed from Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia on a 4 day 4wd tour, going from 2200m and sleeping at 4400m. (let me take this moment to say I love you Claire and Tom for nursing me through that altitude sickness). The border is a lonley customs post in the middle of nowhere - welcome to Bolivia. People had told us we had to see it - go and suffer through Uyuni, it is worth it. And it most definitely was: almost straight away our breath was taken away (and not just from the altitude). Laguna Verde was stunning. A bright green lake covered with frothy whitecaps that the unceasing cold wind whips up, its at the bottom of a volcano and the lake does not freeze til -50degrees because of the sulphur and weird minerals in the water.
The tour takes us past Desierto del Dali, the sand littered with strange shaped rocks. Past Arbol de Piedra (tree of rock), past a mountain of 7 colours, past volcanoes and mountains covered in snow that appear amazingly close. The landscape is strange and beautiful, unique, diverse and stunning.
It is a freezing tour, we rug up as much as we can but find it hard in the biting -15degrees at night.
The highlight of the Uyuni tour is the saltflats. As far as you can see the ground is shiny hardpacked white earth. It looks like a lake of white as flat as it is with cactus dotted green mountins rising out of the white expanse, one called Fishermans Island. The sun rises slowly above the distant white horizon and we race across in our 4wd towards the rest of Bolivia.
Unbelievable. The silver mine in Potosi is a horror story we felt we needed to feel and explore to know Bolivia better.
Claire Tom and I took a deep breath - the last clean air for the next 3 hours. We entered the dark mine shaft, only our head torches providing light for the rest of the time. It is impossible to imagine how the workers are here 5 days a week, all day. It is hot, 30degrees, and the gases are a killer - literally. Most miners only work 7-10 years til they only have 50% of their lung capacity and an average life expectancy of 45yrs.
We crawled through muddy mine shafts, ducked under sagging shaft roofs, hurried down side passages to avoid the fast mine carts, keeping our faces covered from the noxious gases, we climbed up splintering ladders, backtracked when there was no oxygen down that shaft, and wedged our way through narrow passageways, sweating in the heat and breathing heavily in the lack of oxygen, plentitude of noxious gases and at the altitude of 4300m.
And this was how I celebrated my birthday. My decisions must be affected by the altitude Well actually i had bought along some extra dynamite for me, put the green stick and fuse into the massive pink floral cake..... then gave most of it to the miners. I could not let them watch me blow up perfectly good cake when they lived like this. And blew up the rest of the cake with dynamite - who needs candles in Bolivia. I am hoping my wish still counts.
The next stop is the beautiful town of Sucre. City of white, city of lawyers. City of thiefs - damn them, but luckily they stole my backpack instead of Toms who had his video camera, camera, passport, wallet, etc and grabbed mine with coffee, chips and vegemite - hopefully they try a big dollop of vegemite - karma! But Sucre was perfect for a little bit of well-deserved spoiling, gringo-tastic restaurants and fresh fruit from the little laldies in big skirts and bowler hats in the mercado.
A big group of about 12 gringos headed to the Santa Cruz for a rave. The bus to get there was an expereince in itself with the smell of chewing coca leaves throughout the bus, smoking onboard, and a little puppy that came down our end of the bus to pee and poop with 8hours of travel to go. Bolivia trance party.... was actually a lot of fun. At a 4 star resort, good djs, met lots of bolivians, camped and skinny dipped in the freezing pool. Felt like a completely different country/world after Uyuni.
Then La Paz. I really liked La Paz. And it is a beautiful city looks clean and old from a distance and then is bustling and smelly, with polluting old cars, cholita women in traditional dress everywhere, llama foetuses in the market, and many "only in Boliva experiences".
If you have read "marching powder" you will have some idea of what i am talking about. We visited San Pedro Prison which is located right in the midle of La Paz city opposite a beautiful plaza. It is a strange prison, having been set up when a lot of very rich druglords were incarcerated, and made more for them. It is the prison from there where cellmates buy their own cell, meals, etc. the most expensive 3 story apartment "cell" costs $14000. and foreigners, not bolivians, take you on the tour. The gringoes inside have an easier-than-most sentence, and have playstation, private bathrooms, comforatble beds, and telephones that they purchased to make their stay more comfortable.
My first night there i bump into an old friend from Colombia and BA and later my friend from Guatemala and head out into the nightlife. And many nights to follow the entire hostel head to clubs til 6am in the morning or most of the following day. Who would think it of La Paz... but it is cheap and fun and the music is pretty good. To a rave again as well. This time no as fun, but definitely a Bolivian Experience. When at 4am in the freezing cold we are oprdered from our warmer tent where we are chatting and onto the dirt of the dancefloor with the other gringoes and Bolivians and kneeling with hands behind their heads, as 25-30 narcotics police shine torches around and thoroughly search us all.
La Paz is modern in many ways, but as soon as you step into the cobblestone sidesteets with shops toppling into the street and start exploring the witches market, you sunddenly feel very third world again. In the market you can buy llama foetuses (to protect the house, about 99% of bolivian families have llama foetuses under the house for good luck), dried frogs (for money - stick a cigarette in their mouth and you may strike it rich!), armadillo carcases (this protects from robberies when put above the front door), naked ceramic couples (for improved sex life and fix impotency) and every different herb/potion to increase wealth love happiness.
From La Paz I also went with a few friends on the Death Road... Worlds Most Dangerous Road... only 2 tourists have died this year... average of 40 people die per year... the edge is dotted with crosses in memory... now there is a new road... so we pay and cycle this road... the gringo thrill. We get good bikes (kinda) and have safety cars behind us, but told not to fall off the road as Peru only has 2 helicopters - one they do not know where it is and the other is in Peru so help will take a while (Bolivia for you). We ride the paved road first, starting at 4300m then turn onto THE ROAD where the turns are sharp, the road is steep, unpaved, cut into the edge of a cliff with a straight drop into the valley below.
The El Choro Trek - claire, my israeli friend Raz, and i packed our tents and stove and headed out of La Paz on the 3 day El Choro - Inca Trek. it was amazing! and mainly downhill except some exhausting uphills on day 2.
Finally left La Paz to head to the jungle. The flight to the Amazon was amazing in itself. The plane struggles to take off in the thin air and only sits 16 people. you can feel every dip and every turbulence. First flying past snow covered mountains with the peaks in the sky above the plane, then the steamy jungle rising in sharp hills below. Rurrenabaque is a cool town, with great cocktails, a crazy bananabread man, fresh juice on every corner, half priced cocktails, swimming pools with great views, little Bolivian sailors wandering the street (the navy of the landlocked country) and the mountains of the amazon jungle rising straight up from the edge of town.
The pampas is the swamp land within the amazon and it is full of life.
We donned leaky gumboots and entered the swamp. almost knee deep in mud and water, hip deep in plants, searching for an anaconda. Thoughts of the movie and talk about who would get eaten first. But we did finally find the elusive anaconda and wrapped him around us.
Then back to the jungle with Raz and Marissa. Completely different experience and still wonderful. We stayed in the rustic cabins and hiked through the jungle learning about survival, amazon medicinal plants and the animals. We crept (noisily, no matter how hard we tried) and stalked and waited and were rewarded - "tenemos suerte". We watched monkeys play and eat in the trees above, wild pigs forage in the ground and make a huge noise, heard a puma close by as we walked (very vulnerable) in the night, squirrels, small jaguar-like animal - jaguarundi, red macaws, an anteater, and 2 taipirs.
The amazon jungle proved the stories when my friend Marissa got stung by an insect and broke out in hives that swelled her skin. Modern drugs didnt do the trick but a gooey paste made from a nut that our guide collected from the amazon forest calmed the inflammation down immediately.
From here I headed to Lake Titicaca - Copacabana and Isla del Sol. The island is stunning. Largely barren, except for the gumtrees and gives a stunning view across to the snowcovered Andes, the lake is on the altiplano at about 3200m. When you arrive by boat you ascend a beautiful incan staircase with a stream running beside it that is fed by 3 springs that the incans believed represented their code of "dont lie, dont steal and dont be lazy" and the spaniards thought were a fountain of youth. I watch the sunset and then the sunrise lighting up the snow covered mountins and sparkling off the blue lake.