Buzzing around Bolivia

Trip Start Sep 02, 2006
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Trip End Sep 01, 2007


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Saturday, April 14, 2007

After a tip-top 5 weeks it was time to leave Peru and high tail it to Bolivia. We wanted to fly, but it's pigging expensive so we got the bus from Cusco to Bolivia's capital city - La Paz. We got told it was an 11 hour direct service. Big porky pies it took 21 hours and included 2 bus changes, one ferry ride and being deposited at 4.30am in Puno's (below freezing) bus terminal to wait for the next bus 3 hours later.

Our (in)famous happy go lucky spirits were being stretched to their limits as we entered the city limits of La Paz. Which at 3,700m above sea level is set stunningly in a crater.

I would consider it the most spectacular setting I've ever seen for a city, with colourfully painted houses stretching up the crater's sides.

Interestingly the homes up the sides house the poor with the poorest people living right at the top. They have the best views of the city however the climate is meant to get nasty the higher you go so all the rich folk live in the swanky part at the bottom of the crater. Personally I'd pick the view over the climate.

La Paz unlike Cusco is generally not an old looking city, with nearly all the buildings looking like they are from the 70s or later. The architecture is therefore not all that impressive however the setting is ridiculously spectacular. The centre is built on a series of hills which was a great work out for the thighs.

We arrived on a Saturday night and like Guatemala we had a nightmare getting money out of ATMs. Especially Emily whose card seemed to hardly work in any place. Again like Guatemala there was lots of people with guns wandering around the place. Now this time they weren't the public but riot police. Though I am not sure if that is better or worse...regardless I did feel pretty safe.

Bolivia is definitely cheaper than Peru and by far the cheapest place I have been to since leaving Asia. Presumably that's why we had so much difficult getting change for notes. It proved to be a pain in the booty to change 100 Boliviano notes, even though that is only US$12.

While in La Paz yours truly turned the ripe old age of 33 and my birthday treat was for another (travelling) partner in crime to arrive. This time it was Vicky and she arrived on a big iron bird from Chicago the night of my birthday. That day being April 15th - please note that in your diaries.

Vicky was remarkably chirpy after her long trip to get there and was raring to go. So the next day we biked down the 'Road of Death' [queue spooky ghost noises and the like].

It got its rather quaint name by being classified as the World's Most Dangerous Road a few years back. However, that particular title has since been snatched by the Chinese...

Personally after being in China I think it is more because they have the World's Most Dangerous DRIVERS as their idea of passing is to pull out at any place on the road and blast their horns as they go around a blind corner on the wrong side of the road...

Having the World's Most Dangerous Road is not really all that good a thing so the government decided to build a new road to by-pass the old one and that is much safer. Mind you we didn't take the old one we took the original (and still best) 'Road of Death'...

It is really tight and twisty so is not for the faint hearted however it's not that steep a descent. Don't get me wrong it's still a large descent. You drop 3,600m from the snow capped start at 4,800m to the tropical ending at 1,200m above sea level. However, we cycled 64km (40 miles) over 5 hours to drop that far.

The start was a tad concerning as on the new (supposedly safer road) we saw where a bus plummeted over the edge 7 months ago. 25 people died but not the driver who allegedly fell asleep at the wheel.

It's not all good news for him as he's now languishing in jail waiting for his trial.

Along the way there was other indications of some untimely endings with the odd gravestone at the side of the road or a vehicle resting at the bottom of a chasm. The fall offs are often a pretty much straight 150m down so you have no chance if you end up going over as an Israeli guy found out 3 weeks before. Our guide saw this happen and was clearly shaken by this experience.

I distinctly remember seeing a few Israeli graves along the way. Somebody told me it's maybe because they don't ride bikes at home. This is probably true however I also think they generally have a low regard for consequences and will just about do anything and not think about it.

Post bike sweatiness we had a few richly deserved beers, a swim in a hotel pool then became mosquito food. We got absolutely chomped to bits and this was just the beginning of the feastings...boy did the mosquitoes take a shine to us in the jungle. Particularly Vicky who became quite the fav of the flying locals.

We had decided to take a bus after the bike ride into the jungle rather than returning to La Paz and flying in - big mistake.

But before we could "enjoy" our jungle bus we had to stay overnight in a village called 'Corioco'.

The only thing going for it is that it overlooks the beautiful Yunga Valley and we ended up having a glorious view from our hotel room across the Valley.

Probably the best view I have ever had from a hotel room.

Mind you we nearly never had this experience as they initially wanted to charge us the ridiculous amount of $30 per night. Not much I know...especially considering it was $30 BETWEEN us...but it was the principal of it! I have always been a man of principles...low morals but high principles...Anyhoo we got them down to $27 and all were happy.

The bus from Corioco to the jungle town of Rurrenabaque proved to be quite the experience and more dangerous than 'Road of Death'.

On this stretch of road vehicles have to drive on the opposite side of the road so that the driver can see that their wheels don't go over the edge. There was so little room that I am amazed he managed to achieve this all the time. Our nerves weren't helped by a Canadian guy (who we subsequently dubbed 'Dr Death') saying over and over again 'we are going to go over the edge, we are going to go over the edge'! A lot of the time I was prone to agree with him, but I sure as heck did not need to hear it from him on a permanent loop.

We hadn't been particularly looking forward to the scheduled 16 hour bus trip so were ecstatic when 21 hours later we rolled into Rurre after breaking down numerous times. Twice after damaging an axle on ruts in the road and goodness knows how many flat tyres.

Rurre is small, dusty, hot and pretty much now exists to tend to the needs of tourists coming to see the nearby Madidi National Park jungle or take a pampas tours.

Remember Madidi National Park? Yip that's the one that claims to be the most bio-diverse area on the planet. Well we didn't go there as I'd already been on a jungle trip in Manu and the pampas tour sounded like you would get to see a lot more wildlife and get closer to them too.

The Pampas is an area of wetland which floods heavily during the rainy season so you can navigate through it by boat and recedes back during the dry season to enable the wildlife to feed more easily.

Well we just about got there at the perfect time as the rainy season had just finished so the waters were high but we weren't getting peed on from high. We wanted to choose an eco-friendly tour as the others didn't seem to be at all - they encouraged activities like swimming with freshwater dolphins, hand feeding alligators...Not wanting to encourage that kind of behaviour we ended up paying a lot more than average for our tour.

However, it was no big deal as we still only paid US$105 for 3 days. The standard price is a stupidly cheap US$55 for a 3 days. They really need to charge more.

Well I did get to see a lot more wildlife and birds than I did in Manu. Probably not as much variety in wildlife but definitely more quantity and we got closer to them too.

The waterways we went through in small narrow boats were often only 10-15m wide. So we got really close to lots of bird life - owls, herons, storks, hawks....plus there were lots of monkeys and turtles.

I flippin' love monkeys and we saw mucho monos (many monkeys in Spanish), apparently much more than was normal. It seemed like every few hundred yards there would be a bunch of monkeys (often skinny little yellow monkeys) swinging around like maniacs in the waterside trees. At one time a pack of them even jumped on our boat. Our guides fed them bananas as they jumped around us. I know...I'm a hypocrite as that's not exactly very eco-friendly but don't worry I gave myself a good hard flogging afterwards...

Pretty shortly after the yellow monkey mania we were coming around a river bend and in front of us in a tree was a massive red howler monkey bellowing at us. Scared the bejesus us out of me.

Oh yeah I forgot, before this we had stopped at one of the riverside lodges and came face to face with Diego the alligator. Big beggar so he is and came across to us as he thought we were going to feed him. He was out of luck there.

It definitely turned out to be worthwhile to spend a few extra scheckles on the more expensive tour as we cruised through the pampas with only 3 of us perched primly on comfy lawn chairs, while other tours seemed to cram 6 or so people into the boats with their bums welded to hard benches - plebs! More importantly we got to see more wildlife once we had passed the sections where the vast majority of the tourists stopped. Presumably because they weren't as used to being disturbed.

Seeing all this wildlife was great but my 2 highlights were definitely getting to see a sloth and a plethora of pink freshwater dolphins.

The sloth was surprisingly quick...I had been dying to see one in Manu but no cigar so was well chuffed when at the end of the day our keen eyed guide spied one in a tree.

I had no idea there would be freshwater dolphins. Let alone pretty pink ones. They weren't advertised well at all, unlike in Kratie, Cambodia where they made a big deal of them and were not half as impressive. We got to within 3 or 4m of them and I will always remember waking up on the second day and watching them frolic around a pool next to our huts jumping around and generally having a whale of a time.

It was Emily's birthday and she celebrated it deep in the pampas at the cattle ranch tucked away which was to be our home for our night. We had expected to stay a couple of nights but the bugs and mosquitoes were absolutely ferocious in their desire for such sweet white meat that we decided to go back a little early.

After enjoying the boat trip back the road trip was mental. The road was blocked by mud in a couple of places. The first one we used our noggin and skirted by pretty easily. The second wasn't such a doddle. A bus had got caught out and nearly tipped over. We spent half an hour deliberating which way to go then went for it and of course got stuck so yours truly and the guide got out to push while Emily and Vicky aimed their cameras on me hoping that I would either get sprayed by mud or even better fall into it.

Unfortunately I disappointed them by proving myself to be both as strong as an ox and as agile as a mountain goat as after an almighty shove our Landcruiser shot out of the mud sliding like a maniac to safe ground...

The driver must have had a hot date he was in danger of missing so hammered it down the road regardless of the road conditions. At one point there was dust everywhere then suddenly there is a guy walking along the middle of the road so we had to throw the anchors on and swerve around the guy. This put 5 years onto me and 10 years onto the driver but we finally got into Rurre and about 100m before we were to get dropped off the jeep ran out of petrol...

Not wanting to repeat a 20+ hour bus journey back to La Paz we decided to fly back there. Normally you would expect this to be pretty easy, however the local airfield is made of grass so even after a few drops of rain the place gets waterlogged and flights are cancelled. Rurre is notorious for this and we heard tales of people being stuck there for 4 or 5 days waiting on a plane. So clearly ours was delayed...however only by 4 or so hours and in the meantime I did get entertained by some guy breaking the hammock he was in and clattering his head off the ground.

I was particularly excited about the flight as we were flying with TAM - the Bolivian military airline. I had been hoping for a green camouflage plane and having to skydive into La Paz so was a little disappointed by an old white Russian Fokker plane and landing normally in La Paz. However, it was a lot better than the bus would have been.

Eager to move onto the South of Bolivia and the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni we took a bus overnight to the highest city in the world - Potosi. It is a mining centre and back in the 1700s (when I was a young pup) it was bigger than all of NY, Paris and London.

This was because it is surrounded by hills which were chock a block with silver and other precious metals. 'Was' being the operative word as the hills have now been ravaged of most of its mineral wealth. Initially the Spanish wanted a lot of the silver so at to mint coins for back home. This was done in the mint in the centre of Potosi which houses one of the most interesting museums I have been to and definitely the best I had been to in South America. Again the guidebooks don't mention it much, but in my opinion they should.

We got our own private tour, showing us all the old minting equipment plus a number of beautiful paintings, fine furniture and religious artefacts. Presumably these were housed there as the mint was probably the most secure place in the city.

Now Bolivian coins are no longer minted there. Instead this is now done in Canada and somewhat perversely Spain...what goes around comes around.

Even though Potosi is a mining city it has remarkably attractive architecture and presumably this is because back in the day it was one of the richest cities in the world. And as we all know rich people like nice things around them especially when they have to endure such a harsh climate. Takes the edge off of it...

Now they still mine silver here amongst other things and it's not a wee operation either.

There are about 15,000 miners and boy do they work hard. They work between 10 and 24 hours at a time. Chewing coca leaves nearly constantly. The beauty of coca leaves is that by chewing them they will trick your body into working for 24 hours without water, food or rest.

The Spanish soon worked that out and offered the miners as much of it as they could chomp on - as long as they stayed down the mines working that is...

Down there it's narrow, hot, hard work and difficult to breathe. Nasty, nasty conditions and there are no working regulations to talk of. Kids as young as 13 start work down there. It's not good paying work by Western standards but by Bolivian standards it's really well paid so there are no shortage of people wanting the work. Now I personally won't be signing up to join them especially after helping them fill one basket and after a couple of minutes I was blowing out my bum. I hate to imagine doing that for 10 or more hours at a time, 6 days a week.

Visitors are encouraged to buy the miners pressies of drinks, coca leaves and dynamite. The soft drinks we were told to buy from Bolivian companies and not foreign ones i.e. Coca-Cola.

I admire them for encouraging such loyalty to home brands as most of the rest of South America seem to be addicted to Western brands like Coca Cola, Pringles and Kraft.

Buying dynamite was cool. I thought it would just be a stick of dynamite but you also bought some loose granule materials to go around it and a plastic bag to keep it packed in. What was even more cool was BLOWING it up...BOOM...Or rather we got to put it together and then our guides scarpered off to blow them up.

After an...explosive...day we headed to the bus station for another overnight bus. This time to Uyuni and the salt flats. There was a student protest which nearly caused us to miss our bus, however we just made it and there we met Joao who was to be our token Portuguese travel partner for the next week. He had been scheduled to go to Uyuni with other friends however when they were in the bus company's office one of them had put down one of their bags for a second to get out their bus tickets and someone had followed them in and stolen it.

If that was not bad enough this particular bag contained their passport, camera and other valuables so they weren't going anywhere that night...except to the local police station. So he tagged along with us.

South America is (in)famous for thefts in bus stations and this was further proof to always be vigilant in and around bus stations.

We had booked our Salar de Uyuni trip in advance in La Paz as it's quite rightly one of the most popular trips in South America so we didn't want to turn up and be disappointed.

Joao hadn't however was lucky enough to get a space in our jeep. Or rather they ripped his arm off for his money and squeezed another body into the jeep...

The trip was 3 days in a jeep with 7 of us. 2 Dutch guys (Paul and Joris), 1 Portuguese (Joao), 2 Yanks (Emily and Sam) and 2 Brits (moi and Vicky). It sounds terribly cramped however it wasn't too bad. Unless you got stuck in the front seat with the driver and the prop forward cum cook. So the boys took turns in the front.

The trip is definitely a 'must do' in Bolivia if not a 'must do' for the whole of South America. The whole trip covers not just the salt flats near Uyuni but unbeknown to me the lagoons further south and the weirdly coloured landscape in the desert near Chile.

Before we could even get to the Salt Flats we visited a train graveyard on the outskirts of the town of Uyuni. There is only one rail track to and from Chile and this is definitely not an actively expanding railway.




Next stop was the Salt Flats - my personal favourite - and are just amazing with the crazy photos you are able to take there and the stunning vast scenery.

As it is so starkly white there is no depth perspective so it seems to go on forever and you just can produce some loony photos which mess with your mind. We could have spent many more hours taking photos and had to be dragged away back into the Landcruiser.

It was great watching other people trying more and more wacky ideas to get that perfect photo.

The Salt Flats are massive - they stretch something like 80 miles (120km) - and on the south edge of it we stayed in a 'Salt Hotel' that was actually made of blocks of salt. I can confirm this as I licked one and it was really salty though not entirely unpleasant.

Next morning we started way too early so we could get to the lagoons. There were a number of these and at a few of them there were flocks of flamingos.

I don't know why but I thought you got flamingos in Africa and not South America - again shows how little I know.

At the largest one - Laguna Colorada - there used to be 70,000 of them. Sadly there are much less now but still more than enough to impress a poor country boy like myself with their big beaks, pink plumage and tendency to sift through dirt for food...

After the highs of the flamingos we went even higher - to about 4,700m to stay in a hut of sorts. We were warned it was going to be flipping cold and they weren't lying. We ended up going to bed early to try and get cosy in our sleeping bags and for Vicky and Emily to spoon. Also we had to rise at 4.30am - boo.

The reason for getting up so early was to go and see some geysers that were conveniently situated at the highest and coldest part of my South American trip so far. They were at 5,000m above sea level and we reached them at 5.30am so it was still dark and a tad parky. Mind you it was spectacular watching them appear as the sun gradually rose. It reminded me of the moon, not that I've been to the moon - next trip maybe...

As the day continued it became more and more apparent that Bolivia is extremely mineral rich with the landscape's variety of colours.

There is even one mountain which contains seven distinctly different colours and Salvador Dali loved it so much he based one (or possibly more) of his paintings on an area near the Chilean border - which was to be our next stop and where we said adios to Sam who was heading south towards Santiago then Easter Island. We even took a wee wander across the border so that Vicky and Emily could say they'd been to Chile. I'll be going later on so I'll see a lot more of it then.

The rest of the day we spent high tailing it back to Uyuni, however we did get to; have a scrumptious lunch of Spam - or rather I thought it was scummy everyone else thought it tasted like dead cat; see part of an airplane which had crashed at an unusual spot and watch a herd of llama being brought in to...do whatever you do with herds of llamas...

The Salar de Uyuni trip did involve very early starts, questionable food and lots of driving however we all made good friends and the scenery was out of this world. It is easily my Number 2 recommendation for South America (after the Inca trail to Machu Picchu).

Go there you'll not be disappointed.

So two weeks had nearly come and gone and it was time for Vicky and the rest of us to head out of Bolivia. However, we still had a couple of days to enjoy in La Paz. So what did you do I hear you cry? Settle petal - here you are...

Vicky and Emily wanted to visit the witches market, presumably to get new brooms...so we ended up there. Vicky had also been looking forward to seeing the llama foetuses they sell there but looked decidedly disappointed or disgusted by them. Is that a look of disappointment or disgust? I can't decide.

I wanted to visit the Coca museum as everywhere I had been in South America coca leaves was a big part of the locals life as they invariably wandered around chewing them.

The museum was really well done and utterly fascinating. Did you know that; one of the first cocaine users was Sigmund Freud who ended up getting nasal cancer? Or that a lot of pain killers have a cocaine base and most oddly that legally some countries can produce a limited amount of cocaine annually. The UK can produce 360kg while the US can produce 500kg. With the only company in the US allowed to do this being owned by Coca-Cola...Why?

Most of the information I am sure is correct though there were some dubious statistics. Like - apparently the US has 5% of the world's population but snorts 50% of the cocaine produced each year globally...mmm not so sure about that.

Last we did a bit of wandering around the posh part of La Paz - Zona Sur - which is where the financial district is and lots of plush high storey flats where the rich and famous live. Pretty dull really and not a patch on the bus tour around La Paz which leaves from there.

I highly recommend it as it's got some interesting commentary and they take you to a great lookout point which displays how beautiful the crater setting of La Paz really is.

We had now been in Bolivia for a bit more than 2 weeks and admittedly we'd seen plenty but we'd had to skip a lot of the country and you could easily spend another couple of weeks exploring the rest of it.

So many people I've met travelling say that Bolivia is the highlight of South America and it was fun.

Well sadly it was time for us to leave the country and after Vicky got back on the big iron bird to the land of the free, Emily, Joao and I headed towards Cusco. This time the trip was much better than the 20 odd hours coming from there...

My other memories of Bolivia were -

(1) On the ferry crossing we had to make on our way to La Paz we all cramped into small boat while the bus took another boat. The Norwegian woman next to me gave me a bit of a fright as she leant back against the window and obliterated it. The boatman was not best pleased.

(2) Sir Francis Drake is regarded as being a pirate in South America rather than that fine maritime captain we all know him to be in Britain.

(3) Bolivia is one of the poorest (if not the poorest) country in South America. The average wage is about $4 (2 GBP) per day. It's also really young with 40% of the population being younger than whipper snappers younger than 14 year olds. Ah the days...

(4) The mighty Chicago Bulls sweeping the (crappy defending NBA Chumpions) Miami Heat.

(5) Bolivia is full of Israelis and English. I didn't meet any Scots but I never seem to meet many of them anyway. It's rather disappointingly the number that seem to travel. Ireland has an even smaller population than us however there's tons of them wandering the planet.

(6) My second birthday treat was to go and see a footy game. It was quieter than I had expected but fun and lots of riot police to amuse Emily. At the end of the game the police all crowded around the referee to escort him off the pitch. Seemed a little over-kill to me. Emily also bought me a Bolivar sweat band and I was well chuffed with that.

I am going to try and go to another game in Argentina also which should be crazy menthol.

(7) In La Paz, watching local rappers and break dancers performing an impromptu show outside a post office in the city centre. Those Bolivians truly have mad skillz.

(8) In Rurre, Vicky being a sugar mama to 3 young guys we'd met on the bus trip there. I got mullered that night so left her and Emily to it and went back to the room, promptly passing out. Shame for the girls that, as they didn't have a key and it took them over an hour of banging on the door before I woke from my slumber.

(9) Kicking a grate in Rurre and splitting open my big toe. Flipping hurt and I spent the next couple of days hobbling around the dusty streets trying my best not to get the wound infected. Fortunately (?) I got sunstroke and this took my mind off of it as this made me feel like real poo.

Probably the highlight of that illness was puking down an open sewer on my way back to our hotel. One of the local kids took too much interest in the gringo chucking up and nearly got covered in the second wave...

(10) Most Israeli guys seem to resemble 'Sideshow Bob' from the Simpsons. So this was our code word for them when we wanted to bitch about them.

I expected to see a kibbutz in Rurre as the place was over run by Israelis. No joke, more than half of the tourists there were from Israel with most of them walking around with the same t-shirts they got from one tour company. That particular company - Anaconda Tours - must make an absolute killing.

(11) A cab in Potosi was well weird. It was a right hand drive car which was changed to left hand drive by only moving the wheel and pedals across to the left hand side. The dials were all left on the right hand side...

(12) Down the Potosi mines watching the miners lifting a 1 ton carriage around a corner as the rails weren't built correctly for it. Those miners are sturdy citizens every one of them.

(13) The Condor is the National Bird of Bolivia and I got to see a few swooping about. This proved to be an unexpected pleasure as I thought I'd blown my chance of seeing one when I decided not to go to Colca Canyon in Peru.

(14) Joao telling me about Couchsurfing.com and hospitality.net. For the uninitiated these are community-like websites where you can offer people places to stay when they are in your town and when you are travelling elsewhere you can stay with someone else within the 'community'. Sounds like a blinding idea and when I get to Amsterdam I might try it.

(15) It takes about 40kg of coca leaves to make 1kg of cocaine and chewing coca leaves suppresses your appetite and redirects the body to take energy from your body fat. Sounds great for dieting but apparently it takes fat from your stomach lining too - so Andean people are renowned for having stomach issues.

(16) Being fascinated by the solitary pink tree growing on the cattle ranch we stayed at during our pampas tour. The rest of the landscape was lush green which made the colour of the tree stand out even more.

(17) In La Paz there are lots of guys walking around in ski masks. Looks at first kind of scary, however apparently they wear them as they are embarrassed as they are so poor they work by shining shoes. Also I heard that it also hides the fact that a lot of them sniff glue under the masks to get themselves high.

(18) Sam we met on the Salar de Uyuni trip is taking a gap year off before starting Harvard. Sounds pretty daunting to me however he should be okay considering he'll be the 11th family member to go there!

(5) On the front of my guidebook there is a really large Bolivian lady and when I saw it first I was like yeah right they are never that big. Boy was I wrong they are seriously sturdy and in no immediate danger of being blown over by the wind.

Must be all the starches and carbs they eat to keep out the cold. They also wear bowler hats at a jaunty angle. The men are short too but not so cube-like in shape.

(20) 3 years ago I saw a photo of the Bolivian Salt Flats on a website [http://blogs.bootsnall.com/theglobaltrip/] and thought I have to go there...and I did.

(21) For you Johnny Depp fans, Pirates of Caribbean 3 was partly filmed at Salar de Uyuni. Remember the bit with the stone crabs? There.

(22) Emily was missing telly and got all excited when she saw a sign she thought said Rent a TV. However, she read it a little wrong as it actually said Rent ATV as in All-Terrain Vehicle!

(23) Bolivians are protective over there minerals (fair enough) and are trying to protect them from being exploited by foreign companies. So as of now, they only let a few foreign companies in to mine so that the country can get enough money to afford to extract the minerals themselves rather than be pillaged by foreigners. Must pee off a lot of Western companies however that's just tough.

(24) San Cristobal is a small village which lay on the side of a minerally rich mountain. To get their hands on the good stuff inside the mountain a US mining company agreed to move the whole village a few miles down the road. This included taking apart and exactly rebuilding the local church.

(25) There is a poster at La Paz airport showing Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Bolivian president - Evo Morales - displaying their unity together against Western countries. I admire them for protecting their own country's values and resources. More countries should do the same.
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