Published: September 25th 2012September 25th 2012
Day 1 in Bolivia was an eye-opener and also quite entertaining in a strange sort of way.
We crossed the border from Peru into Bolivia on foot, passing through about five different offices with different stamps in the process. On the Bolivian side I put my hand out to receive my passport and the cheeky guard pulled it back about four times before handing it over with a big grin. Not what I had expected from Bolivian border patrol!
We hopped back on our bus to drive the 8 kilometres into Copacabana on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. This drive should have taken about 10 minutes but we were warned there was some roadworks going on which could lead to a couple of delays...
The first small incident involved our bus driving into a low hanging wire. Our bus steward jumped out of the bus, found an extremely long pole from somewhere and proceeded to lift the wire so the bus could drive under it. This happened a few more times so he ran alongside the bus lifting the wires as we came to them. Hilarious.
The next problem we encountered was a large rock in the middle of a dirt road that the bus couldn't get over without taking out the underneath of the bus. After a few attempts at putting rocks and bits of wood under the tyres to try to lift the bus high enough, we were all ordered off the bus to lighten the load. After 10 minutes of trying various methods to lift the bus over the rock, it finally got round and onto the sealed road, to a round of applause from those of us waiting.
Finally we arrived into Copacabana where we had a quick lunch and look around before boarding a smaller local bus for another five hour (on a good day) drive into La Paz, our destination for the next few days.
After an uneventful first hour of so of the journey, the driver veered off the highway and onto a dirt road running parallel to the highway for no apparent reason. A little while later we tried to get back onto the highway but there was a big group of striking miners and their supporters blocking the road (quite common according to reports). A few people tried to take photos but were threatened with rocks so our cameras were put away quick smart!
Unfortunately our first detour was unsuccessful as we didn't have quite enough road to get past them so we crossed over the main road and onto another dirt road detour to try again to get past them. This second detour was a very narrow dirt road with ditches on either side making it very difficult for two buses heading in opposite directions to pass each other. We came upon a bus heading towards us and our bus moved over as far as he could, ending up on quite a terrifying angle. Thankfully we were ordered off the bus once again so the buses could try to pass each other without rolling with all their passengers aboard. We walked along side the bus for a bit as the bus came across a truck and had another interesting passing episode. Finally we were back on the bus, all slightly amused at this stage.
Our amusement didn't last. This dusty detour went on for an hour or so with several attempts at getting back onto the main road. The first attempt ended in a dead-end so we had to do an interesting three-point turn and backtrack along some very bumpy and dusty sections of road (trying all the while not to get bogged). When our driver made his second attempt to get back on the sealed road, the miners were sitting on the road behind a chain barrier so we couldn't pass. When our bus sat there for a minute, probably while the driver tried to work out his next move, they threw some small explosives to warn us off. It was starting to get a bit more serious at this point, the sun was setting fast and we were wondering if we would make it into La Paz at all.
After another hour or so we finally managed to get back onto the main road ahead of the miners, to hearty applause from us in the back - different driver and bus but the second occasion that day that warranted applause. The miners certainly make an impact blocking all the roads into and out of La Paz, Bolivia's largest city. Not that the Government seems to do anything about it. Our guide told us we were very lucky to get through. An interesting first day - Welcome to Bolivia!
La Paz is a large city nestled in a valley with suburbs climbing the surrounding hills. At 3600m above sea level it is quite difficult climbing its steep cobbled streets, but parts of it are very quaint. At night all lit up it is quite spectacular. I had several days in La Paz to explore the old town, multitudes of markets, including the Witches Market with its stores full of potions and llama foetuses, amongst other things. I also ventured past San Pedro Prison which is right in the centre of town and adjacent to a beautiful square...not at all what I imagined. (If you haven't already read Marching Powder by Rusty Young, I highly recommend it). La Paz also surprised with its great restaurants and bars.
Next stop was Sucre, Bolivia's official capital city (although La Paz would beg to differ). Apparently the Executive and Legislative branches of government have moved to La Paz but Sucre is still the Judicial centre and officially still the capital city. Sucre is a lovely small white-washed town with wider streets in a grid...much neater and cleaner than La Paz, with a substantially smaller population. We had a couple of days here to explore and relax after the hectic pace of La Paz.
Our last morning in Sucre we headed off to the local campesino markets and stocked up on baby formula, nappies and loads of fresh fruits and went to visit the kids at a local orphanage. I think we were all expecting to see a scene out of a Dickens novel, but it was so clean and organised. The kids had lots of toys to play with and were well-dressed and well-fed, it was lovely to see, considering their sad circumstances.
The mining town of Potosi was next on the itinerary. Potosi is a cute little town at the base of Cerro Rico - it is one of the highest cities in the world at 4060m. Cerro Rico is the mountain where Spain got most of its silver since its arrival on the South American continent in the 1500s. The Spanish Mint was in Potosi. The mountain has been mined so intensely since the Spanish arrived that there is now very little of worth coming out of the mines. It is dirty, dangerous work for not much reward.
We watched a documentary called "The Devil's Miner". It was a fascinating look at indigenous miners' lives through the eyes of a 14 year old boy and his 12 years old brother. Their father died when they were very young so Brasilio has been the breadwinner in the family since he was 10 and first started working down the mines. It is very dangerous work and they still use the most basic, old-fashioned methods. Most miners don't live past 40-50 because of the dust in their lungs, or explosions or the like. It is hard, dirty work which no child should have to do. Apparently there are around 800 children still working in the mines. Seven years on since the documentary, Brasilio is still apparently working in the mines, even though he was determined to get out. It is very sad.
From Potosi to Uyuni we took a "chicken" bus with locals packed in the aisles with their big, colourful bags full of who-knows-what. Every time they moved I got hit on the head with another bag. We were very happy when we finally arrived in Uyuni five hours later. Uyuni is a very strange town which feels like it is on the edge of another planet. It is perched at the base of a hill with endless plains spilling out in front of it. After five hours of driving through mountainous terrain, we finally wiggled our way down the side of the hill and beyond we could see plains as far as the eye could see. The town is all dust and dirt, built with wide "avenues" but there are no trees, just little adobe huts and now a bunch of hotels as the town has grown due to the Salar de Uyuni tours.
The next morning we folded ourselves into a Toyota Landcruiser (I was in the back back, meant only for children, with my knees up around my ears) and set off to see some of the most incredible landscapes imaginable.
We drove for miles and miles over the blinding white Salt Flats, a lake with a salt crust several metres deep. Completely flat and lots of fun for taking fun perspective photos. We stopped at Fish Island for lunch (llama steaks), served on salt tables, with some llamas hanging about in the distance. We climbed to the top of the island through cactus-covered paths for terrific views over the salt flats. After lunch and a serious photo session we left the salt flats and did some intense 4WDing over sand and dirt tracks to get to our accommodation at a salt hotel. Dinner was served on salt tables, we sat on salt stools and slept on beds with salt bases.
The next morning we were up early and set off to see some completely different landscapes. Today's landscape was more sandy and/or rocky desert with many different rock formations, views of puffing volcanoes and several lakes dotted with flamingos. Our penultimate stop was at the Laguna Colorada, a lake coloured red by algae - quite spectacular. Our final stop for the day was our accommodation in the middle of nowhere and it was FREEZING...down to -15.
Our last day in Bolivia was possibly the most beautiful. We were on the road by 5.30am, driving through the desert as the sun came up over the mountains. Our first stop was to see the geysers, which, with the sun behind the steam and the gusts of wind looked like something from the Twilight Zone. After almost losing some fingers to frostbite we jumped back in the trucks and headed for the Hot Springs where we stopped for breakfast (and those brave enough to strip down went for a dip). Our final stop before heading for the Chilean border was the Laguna Verde, another lake, this time coloured by green algae.
The drive to the border was through more desert with mountains of varying hues, strange rock formations dotted in random places, past lakes - green, white, salt...The border post itself must be one of the smallest in the world. Just one tiny hut in the middle of nowhere. We transferred from our 4WDs to a small bus and exited Bolivia, bound for San Pedro de Atacama in Chile for one night before heading into Argentina the following day.
From the picturesque farmland surrounding Lake Titicaca, through the dusty, dirty, polluted cities to the out-of-this-world landscapes of Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia is a land of contrasts and so different to anything I've ever seen - it has left a big impression!
Next stop Argentina...stay tuned...
(It seems that you can't upload photos to this blog site from a MacBook so until further notice if you want some visuals, check out my Bolivia album on facebook - https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151216428307629.500633.538562628&type=1).