Published: April 24th 2012April 20th 2012
Salt filled salutations from Bolivia! Firslty, thank you to everyone who sent messages of support through the bag loss saga, they were much appreciated! The upshot of it all is that, having planned to leave the same afternoon for Sucre, I ended up staying in Santa Cruz until the following saturday afternoon. I spent most of Thursday at the airport whilst various gol airlines headquarters were called by my new non best friend Erica, only to be told eventually that it was 'probably somewhere'and would 'turn up eventually'. Once it had transpired that I wouldn't get it back that day, I made an executive decision to write it off, carry on with my travels, and do the only thing it is possible to do in moments of crisis - SHOP.
Armed with the knowledge that I would hopefully recoup some of the costs on the insurance (it later transpired that this was false confidence as the insurance big wigs are stingy bastards), I checked in for another night at Hotel California (where there was plenty of room, hilariously). Given that this is Bolivia's 2nd largest city, I figured I would have more luck buying a new wardrobe there than in some of the remote towns in the south.
Heading off to the market, my shopping excitement quickly turned to panic when the only items I could find were a poncho, a spiderman costume and a carpet. Luckily, I then stumbled across the commercial centre of the town, which had a number of shops selling identical american abercrombie imports, which unfortunately made them rather expensive. I know have the wardrobe of a 13 year old american high schooler, which is not helping to make me look old enough to be travelling through south america by myself. Oh dear!
Thus equipped, I headed into the centre of town for dinner with chris, an austrian guy I met on the plane. Having been warned that santa cruz was not worth a visit (hence the plan to travel straight to sucre), I actually really liked it! Much warmer than the south, the city is very untouristy, which makes it quite a relaxing place to stroll around. The main square had a lovely church, and we discovered that it was the 'day of the children' (whatever that means), and as a result there was lots of dancing and music in the square and church. Climbing up to a roof top terrace bar, I proceeded to aleviate the stress of the previous 12 hours by getting drunk on 2 pound mojitos. Fantastic!
I was also surprised by how friendly people in Santa Cruz were (having heard that bolivians are a lot less traveller friendly than their argentinian and brazilian counterparts - with 2/3 of the population below the poverty line this is hardly surprising). With the exception of an angry lady inexplicably throwing her flip flops at a passing bus, most people were only too eager to help once I told them about the loss of my belongings and derailing of my itinerary, even down to the sales assistant in one of the shops who invited me to come sit with her in the afternoon, "I be your friend". Brilliant!
Congratulating myself on the lack of tourists in Santa Cruz, I was slightly bewildered to hear loud shouting in english coming from the hotel lobby on day 2. When I pottered down to investigate, I discovered 3 18 year old gap yah tragedies kitted out head to toe in bolivian knits who, despite having been travelling in south america for 2.5 months, hadnt picked up any spanish, and were gesticulating wildy whilst shouting "DONDE CASINO? DONDE CASINO?" at the guy on reception. The poor bloke looked terrified.
The next day, I headed to the bus station for my overnight bus to Sucre. I had been told that buses in Bolivia were, ahem, somewhat below the standard of those elsewhere in South America, but nothing could have prepared me for the horror which was to follow.
Clambering on to the Bolivian version of the Devises wobbly bus, I squeezed into my dusty seat, put in my earphones and leaned back to relax for a few hours. Unfortunately, most buses in Bolivia will generally allow 3 to 4 randomers on the bus until you hit the outskirts of the town, who will then proceed to shout about whatever they are attempting to sell you for the next half an hour. After listening to a very passionate speech about the medicinal merits of coco leaves, I then had about 40 toothbrushes , 20 toilet rolls and 15 cheesy biscuits shoved under my nose.
Having managed to convince the man that I did not, in fact, want to buy 20 disposable mens razors, I was pretty relieved when they all disembarked. My relief was shortlived, however, when I realised I needed the loo. The man next to me refusing to get up to let me out, I launched myself into the isle, and staggered up towards the loo.....which was locked. Moving up to the front to ask the driver and his random 3 companions if I could have the key, I was told "No hay baño", which I think roughly translated means "hahahaha". When I asked when we would stop for a loo break, they all started shaking their hands from side to side, and laughing.
When we still hadn't stopped an hour later, I had a sense of humour failure, threw a toddler tantrum and insisted they stop the bus. This was fine, until when I got off the bus it carried on driving slowly with the door open. Unsure whether they were teasing me or whether they really were going to drive off, I stepped off the road spying what I thought was an obliging dip. The dip turned out to be an enormous ditch, which I proceeded to fall down head first. Someone on the bus screamed. Clawing my way out by grabbing hold of tree roots and rocks (I am not making this up), I dusted myself off, held my head high and marched over to the other side of the road where there was a building I had completely failed to notice. When I described this to one of the american girls I met later in Sucre, she summed it up nicely with "Ah, so you lost your friends, your bag and your dignity all in 24 hours". Great!
Needless to say this wasn´t the best night sleep I have had in a while, and having intended to stay in sucre one night before heading down to potosi, I scrapped this plan and spent a few days chilling out in the v tranquil colonial setting. Having met 3 amerians and and aussie in the hostel, I proceeded to eat and drink my way around sucre, and managed to pick up a lot of woolly clothing in preparation for the salt flats! I also made friends with the slightly excentric lady who ran the hostel (who happened to be still drunk when I arrived at 7am), who invited me to a bolivian birthday party, and tried to marry me off to her nephew. When I told her and her female friends that I wasn´t married, they all started clapping excitedly, and one even mumbled drunkenly 'girl power', before falling asleep. Er....right.
Thus rested I embarked on another night bus (hooray!) to Tupiza (the rumoured last resting place of butch cassidy and the sundance kid), where I´d decided to start my salt flats tour. Having read in just about every guide book, and been warned by all travellers I'd met that I should turn up the night before, scout out the companies (there are a lot of horror stories of drunk drivers and random surcharges), and assess my co travellers, I promptly ignored all of this advice, went with the first tour my hostel recommended without meeting any of my car companions. Thankfully, the company (tupiza tours) were unbelievably amazing (although our driver did have a penchant for listing every single mineral to be found in every lagoon - this got boring after about 30 minutes), and my co travellers were brilliant. In our jeep we had 2 english girls (lara and kat), a german guy (keno) and a norwegian (trygve - nobody could pronounce this name so unfortunately he was known by the in no way xenophobic name 'norway´), and we drove in tandem with jeep 2, with mark and vic (australia) and mike and thiago (germany).
Having bombarded everyone I know with the photos so far, I'll be brief and say that the scenery was unbelievable. We discovered our driver had a borderline obsession with bon jovi, which made for an interesting sound track! I did manage to slip one direction on at one point, which was relatively surreal, although I think I scared norway when he said he´d never heard it before and I declared with a little bit too much force that it was a 'musical masterpiece´.
Despite my conviction that skiing would somehow make me ok with the altitude, I was no different to everyone else in having a horrendous headache by day 2, but have decided that altitude sickness pills are an invention of the gods. I also discovered what I´ve affectionately termed ´catch twenty loo´ - the best way to cope with altitude is to drink lots of water, however there are relatively few locations to have a loo break in the completely flat and barren salar de uyuni. Nightmare.
We finished up the tour in uyuni tired, cold, but very happy. This happiness lasted about 30 seconds when we went for a walk around the town. Uyuni is roughly what I´d imagined Iraq to look like. The outskirts resemble a desert shanty town, the main attraction is a train graveyard which is littered with the entirety of the towns rubbish, and I will never again trust somewhere whose hostels are not called hostels but ´refuges´. Quickly realising that the only way to pass the 8 hours before the nightbus to la paz would be to get hammered, we trotted off to the ´extreme fun pub´, which was neither extreme nor fun, to while away the time, and then got the hell out of there.
La Paz, comparatively, was pretty awesome. I only had two days there, so was determined to see the sights. Unfortunately, we decided to have a post salt flats reunion on the first night in loki, the party hostel, which involved numerous jaegerbombs, a pint of gin and tonic, half a bottle of wine, and a vodka shot all at altitude and having averaged about 5 hours sleep for the last week and a half. The result was one of our party sleeping in the lobby, another being put to bed by 11, one realising he had food poisining relatively early on, leaving myself and thiago practicing german rap loudly to anyone who would listen at about 2am. So much for growing old gracefully.
I did manage to drag myself out the next day (although hangovers at altitude are another level of pain), and see the moon valley, football stadium (the main team in la paz is brilliantly named ´the strongest´), the witches market (where you can buy you llama foetus to burry under your new house for good luck) and take in some pretty amazing views of the city which almost looks like its been thrown up the mountain. I then hurried off to the highest part of the city for a female wrestling match. This has to be seen to be believed! The highlight was when one of the wrestlers ran to the hot dog stand, grabbed a load of food, started throwing it at the crowd, and when the crowd threw back she proceeded to chase about 20 of us around the ring screaming loudly. I´ve never been so terrified in my life.
I´m now in Copacabana, on the coast of lake titicaca, having left the salt flat crew in La Paz (all of them now have food poisoning so I felt it was best to flee), to be reunited in cusco post inca trail. Having not slept in about a week and a half I thought it would be a brilliant idea to sign up for a 5 hour hike tomorrow. That makes this a good place to stop (i´m pretty sure everyone has fallen asleep by this point). Next stop, Perah!!!