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Published: March 16th 2018
We have to admit, we were a little unsure about visiting Bolivia...
It isn't a country known for its luxuries (carrying ones own toilet paper everywhere is a must!) and having heard horror stories of friends being robbed there, we were definitely more than a little apprehensive. We didn't get off to a great start - with a 5 hour delay at the border crossing from Chile. But once we got going, Bolivia completely blew us away!
We spent our first few days in Bolivia on a salt flats tour. Starting in San Pedro in Chile, we drove up through south Bolivia over 3 days stopping regularly to marvel at the various volcanoes, lagoons and beautiful landscapes we were passing en route. Our tour finished at Salar de Uyuni - the world's largest salt flat (the legacy of a lake that went dry leaving almost 11,000 sq. km. of a salt like desert). At the time we visited, the salt flat was under a foot of water! But that didn't stop our driver from going straight out into it to our astonishment (and despite Mau's protests).
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries we have visited to date; quite
ironic considering it was once a country incredibly rich in natural resources such as silver and gold. The city of Potosi, home to the Cerro Rico silver mine, was one of the most interesting places we have visited. It provided the silver to the Spanish which in turn launched world trade. Potosi was the backbone to the Spanish Empire and Cerro Rico was its heartbeat.
As was the norm for colonised countries, it wasn't the locals who benefitted from the mining. The local people were enslaved and many African slaves were brought to Potosi by the Spanish to mine the minerals from Cerro Rico. It came at a huge cost and whilst it is said a solid bridge could have been built from Potosi to Spain with the amount of silver they extracted, it is also said that another bridge of bones could also have been built, as about 8 million people have lost their lives in the mountain. "We eat the mountain and the mountain eats us".
Today, despite the health risks, mining is still critical to the town of Potosi. Donal took the unique opportunity of exploring the active mine. With 15,000 miners working in 180
Our first stop over the Chilean border gave a stunning view of Volcán Licancabur
At a height of 5920m, this can only be climbed from Bolivian side. Due to the tense relations between Bolivia and Chile, bombs were placed on the Chilean side and many have not been located until this day.
active mines within the mountain and associated employment in refineries, this town would cease to thrive without it. However, it's minerals are dwindling and it is unknown how long more these mines can sustain the town.
Our five days in the beautiful colonial city of Sucre were all about the Spanish lessons (or should we say the lecciones de español). Having being in South America for 2 and half months we had started to become a little embarrassed by our lack of Spanish so we decided to make a real effort to pick up some of the basics! At the very least we were hoping it might stop some of the bewildered looks on our faces when a local says something to us (it didn't).
One of our favourite things to do in Bolivia was to shop at the local markets. The women manning the colourful fruit and vegetable stalls were a force to be reckoned with when it came to negotiating prices! These markets are not for the faint hearted with the butchering of animals taking place in open sight.
As we arrived into the city of La Paz, it reminded us of an amphitheatre with
the city sprawling uphill from its centre to the surrounding hillside. Built with the wealthiest families at its lower centre, because of the altitude of 3,100m, the surrounding hillside houses the poorer shanty towns which rise to 4,000m. The city is home to the world's highest and longest urban cable car system (picture London's underground system but in the sky!). The cable cars are popular with tourists and locals alike; providing amazing views but also critical transport links in a city that has heavy traffic congestion.
Mountain biking down a road with 900m cliffs drops, poor visibility, hairpin bends, no guardrails, rockfalls.......sign us up!!! "El Camino de la Muerte" (Death Road) is a 56 km stretch of road that connects Coroico in the Amazonian Rainforest to La Paz. There is a new, wider and safer road used to connect these destinations today but thanks to a national strike in Bolivia against the current president, the main roads were blocked the day we cycled it. This meant that we had to contend with much more local traffic than is normal!!!
Geared up and with numerous checks of the brakes we were ready to take it on! Thankfully, due to
the altitude, we only had to concern ourselves with the downhill but going from 4650m to 1200m meant we had to keep a high concentration level throughout! A skid from Donal out front resulted in Mau falling but luckily not over the edge and while confidence was shaken a little, we were still alive! This danger was made all the more real as we passed many crosses that mark the spots where locals and tourists alike have fallen over its edges. When we finally made it to Coroico, we had the added benefit of having to drive back up along Death Road on the bus due to the National strike......lucky us eh!!!! Thankfully, this blog post is testament to our driver!!!
On our last day in La Paz, two became four as we were joined by our good friends Damien and Anna! Together, we travelled to the nearby town of Copacabana by Lake Titicaca where we spent a few days catching up and relaxing ahead of a jam packed itinerary for our next destination - PERU!
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