Buzzing around Bolivia
Trip Start Sep 02, 2006
35Trip End Sep 01, 2007
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
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.
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.
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.
It's not all good news for him as he's now languishing in jail waiting for his trial.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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...
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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...
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 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...
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.
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 -
(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.
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...
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.
(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.
(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!
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.
(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.