the world the Bolivian way

Bolivia Travel Blog

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claire, you should listen to your "big sister"

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 ...

Laguna Verde
.. welcome to Bolivia - loving it!

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 pink flamingoes, on a red lake at 5000m
 Then, driving on we stare, bewildered and in wonder at the white lagoon, red lagoon, yellow lagoon, multi coloured lagoon. Many of these lakes are dotted with flamingoes. How the flamingoes found the lakes at 5000m is an unanswered question, but it forever changes my image of these graceful birds. They strut across the surface of the water, a brilliant pink against the colourful lakes.

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.

finding the thermal baths all to myself with an amazing view across sulphur and salt plains to the colourful distant mountains
But a chance to soak in a hot spring that borders a beautiful plain and lagoon is a perfect way to warm up. Especially when no one else is around. One night we stay in a village, another by a lake and then on the third night we stay in a salt hotel. This has been constructed of hard salt blocks and the ground strewn with clean white salt.

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.

too cute! Bolivian baby in a box
 Potosi was the richest city in the world and "the envy of kings" and bankrolled the Spanish Empire for years. They say the wealth of the Spanish was not really the silver from these mines but the blood an sweat of the slaves and workers. This Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) at some point got the Quechua name meaning "the mountain that eats men", the total of mining deaths being recently estimated as 8 million since 1545!

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.

Breathing through the noxious gases in the Potosi mine
It is dark and the time to dig a hole for one stick of dynamite takes 8'10 hours, this is only 15 seconds with a machine! They leave God behind in the light and worship a devil that they believe controls their success. They leave him coca leaves and drink themselves amazingly drunk every Friday to his honour - whether it was a rich week or not. We met a few miners on the way and watched them work or hurry by, and we could hear frightening dynamite blasts echo through the inside of the mountain. But the miners are proud of their work, though the overwhelming majority of 90%+ say they only work here as there is no other work. We stop along the way and give the miners cigarettes, coca leaves and dynamite (they buy all their own supplies and only make what they find - there is no cushy set salary here)

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.

Potosi miner
It was a place i must admit i was glad to leave ' it was a beautiful light at the end of the mineshft. 

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.

Santa Cruz butterfly farm
The city is dotted with beautiful plazas and old colonial buildings.

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".

the rave in Bolivia
Many cities you visit you can forget where you are, but La Paz ia a whole knew experience.

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.

La Paz City
The guards seem to stay outside the walls and the committies of inmates run the section and punish other prisoners.

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.

one of the inmates in the "strangest Prison in the World"
Freezing cold, dark, innocent and scared as Raz is missing - not knowing he had fell off the cliff behind the tent and was lost in the ravine below. Crazy night and one I wont forget.

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.

the wares of the witches market
.... Bolivians come here to buy Pachamama idols, a god that many Bolivians call Mother Earth, to bring health, happiness, and especially prosperity. All i needed was something to cure this damn Bolivian Belly!

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.

get ready for the Worlds Most Dangerous Road - i need my head looked at....
 This was previously the main road to La Paz, first made for llamas, but later cars would need to pass each other slowly with only millimeters to spare between the tyre and the cliff. My heart is thumping, and i need concentration for every moment, for whereas it is not too technical or difficult you can understand how people die from accidents. The trip though is amazingly beautiful, from the altiplano then down to jungle, with the green valleys speading out below and snow-tipped mountains above.

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.

El Choro Trek - llama train passing by
  The path was along an old inca trail where centuries ago they had cut the path into the cliff and built up the path with boulders, rocks and retaining walls. The ancient trail was still in really good condition.  And, despite being a one of the better Bolivian trek and so accessible, there was only one other group on the trail. We camped and felt so remote - firstly in a gorgeous little village on the river of 5 homes, and secondly high on the side of a ridge, in a japanese garden (kindof) with amazing views down the valley. We awoke to see the sunrise over the snow covered peaks in the distance where the snow turned pink then the mountains turned red. It was beautiful. This hike went from 4700m to about 1000m and from the barren but stunning altiplano to the rich jungle, following valleys and rivers the whole way, crossing waterfalls, stepping on an old pre-colombian highway, greeting locals, sidestepping llamas and playing with little kids.
Hiking. all that downhill was tough.

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.

The Amazon.... amazing
Just waiting for the boat we saw 3 crocs and counted 19 in one minute during our trip. Then swam in this water! We took a boat and relaxed watching the thousands of caymans and alligators bask in the sun or disappear under the water with a sinister stare. Storks, herons, eagles, vultures and other birds were around every turn. The Capobara, a massive rodent/guinea pig hung out on the banks, monkeys - little yellow ones, cappuchinos, spider and howler monkeys - swung through the trees and looked for food near the camp. Dolphins would swim by the boat and we left the its safety and jumped in too, with crocodiles sitting on the bank and swimming around near us. Crazy! The dolphins splashed us deliberately - for a good giggle i guess. Then we saw 4 of them fighting, attacking each other and rolling through the water.
can you see that croc on the bank behind me!!!!

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.

anaconda. only 2m or so
We had actually given up on animal spotting and were fishing for piranhas when down the river 2 taipirs wander back then forth then back across the river then come towards us. This was the 2nd time in about 40years in the jungle and 16years guiding that our bolivian guide had seen 2 at once - definitely a taipir moment.... until i quietly pulled in my line and on the other end was a turtle!!!! I had no idea what to do, the guide is telling me to stay still and the turtle is on the other end fighting to get away but stuck on the hook! It was so funny, the taipir or the turtle?

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.

amarillo monkeys
Amazing to see the ancient medicine and knowledge in effect. Watch out, i also learnt which tree sap to use to kill someone.

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.

the stunning view of the Cordillera Real from Isla del Sol
I hike the island alone, feeling rejuvenated after the frenzy of La Paz (means The Peace by the way). Past stone homes with the thatch roofs, old incan terraces still used for agriculture, ladies in top hats and big skirts following their sheep of llama, past braying donkeys (i prefer the rooster crow to wake up to) and crystal blue bays stratching across the lake. Staying in little guesthouses and playing with local kids on the beach. Then exploring incan ruins that are like a labrynth with lots of tiny doors and deadends. Its a lovely place to visit before leaving Bolivia.

 

skimonty83 says:
Sounds like a great trip, and possibly a death wish, swimming with crocodiles. I could never imagine doing that. I love the wilderness, but I generally try to avoid things that could eat me. Well Done!!!
Posted on: Jul 15, 2008
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claire, you should listen to your …
claire, you should listen to your…
Laguna Verde
Laguna Verde
The pink flamingoes, on a red lake…
The pink flamingoes, on a red lak…
finding the thermal baths all to m…
finding the thermal baths all to …
too cute! Bolivian baby in a box
too cute! Bolivian baby in a box
Breathing through the noxious gase…
Breathing through the noxious gas…
Potosi miner
Potosi miner
Santa Cruz butterfly farm
Santa Cruz butterfly farm
the rave in Bolivia
the rave in Bolivia
La Paz City
La Paz City
one of the inmates in the strange…
one of the inmates in the "strang…
the wares of the witches market
the wares of the witches market
get ready for the Worlds Most Dang…
get ready for the Worlds Most Dan…
El Choro Trek - llama train passin…
El Choro Trek - llama train passi…
Hiking. all that downhill was toug…
Hiking. all that downhill was tou…
The Amazon.... amazing
The Amazon.... amazing
can you see that croc on the bank …
can you see that croc on the bank…
anaconda. only 2m or so
anaconda. only 2m or so
amarillo monkeys
amarillo monkeys
the stunning view of the Cordiller…
the stunning view of the Cordille…
beautiful blue bays and old homes,…
beautiful blue bays and old homes…
you have to embrace the cold....
you have to embrace the cold....
the caravan of 4wd at sunrise
the caravan of 4wd at sunrise
sunrise on the Uyuni Saltflats
sunrise on the Uyuni Saltflats
the group from the $wd tour. clair…
the group from the $wd tour. clai…
the fresh fruit ladies in the merc…
the fresh fruit ladies in the mer…
Semaipata hike and picnic
Semaipata hike and picnic
An alien spacship landing strip or…
An alien spacship landing strip o…
a plaza in LaPaz with a cholita (t…
a plaza in LaPaz with a cholita (…
Homes one the El Choro trek
Homes one the El Choro trek
sunset over the pampas
sunset over the pampas
little caiman
little caiman
searching for the anaconda... they…
searching for the anaconda... the…
piranha fishing
piranha fishing
spider monkey hanging out
spider monkey hanging out
the funny big guinea pigs / rat th…
the funny big guinea pigs / rat t…
the 2 tapirs
the 2 tapirs
playing in the jungle
playing in the jungle
welcome to the jungle!!!!
welcome to the jungle!!!!
raz, me, marissa in the amazon
raz, me, marissa in the amazon
the poor struggling turtle (yes it…
the poor struggling turtle (yes i…
not quite sleeping on the jungle f…
not quite sleeping on the jungle …
the group braving the bar after th…
the group braving the bar after t…
moorish style church in Copacabana…
moorish style church in Copacaban…
The onbly modern building on Isla …
The onbly modern building on Isla…
spending time with the locals. She…
spending time with the locals. Sh…