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Published: August 25th 2011
La Paz is a sprawling mass of buildings situated in a large bowl nearly 4000m above sea level which makes for a striking first impression. The city actually surprises us in that its not nearly as rough as we expect. The hostel is more like a hotel and we enjoy a few days there eating some healthy food (avocados stuffed with chicken, fruit smoothies and cooked veg) and sightseeing while waiting for our bus/train to South Bolivia.
One particularly interesting area of the city was the Witches Market where you could pick up some local ingredients for your next “potion” including baby llama carcases, dried frogs, armadillos and dried llama foetuses, along with ceramic figures of naked couples. Initially we thought this market was merely a tourist thing, but we have since read that an estimated 99% of Bolivian families have a dried llama foetus thrown under the foundations of their house for luck. It turns out the Bolivians are a superstitious bunch and it is believed that each item on sale will bring them good fortune in life, including luck for new business ventures (llama foetus burnt on a plate with herbs), striking it rich (dried frogs smoking cigarettes),
preventing burglaries (an armadillo over your front door), getting hitched (embracing ceramic couple) and improving your sex life (naked ceramic couple).
We also discovered many shops and stalls from which we believe our good friend Simon imports his best lounging trousers, and naturally Kev couldn’t resist trying them on. As we walked through the market, all of the artefacts and handicrafts made for a colourful spectacle, however the smell from the rotting foetuses was pretty nasty! We were even serenaded by a man on a panpipe stall who was trying to convince us we should by a massive set of panpipes. Kev kindly turned them down and explained in his best “Spanglish” that we couldn’t fit them in our rucksacks. Instead, he offered the man some business advice and suggested he switch his CD to something more modern. The guy was very pleased to see people flock to his stall as soon as “Welcome to the hotel California” on the panpipes blasted out into the street.
We enjoyed walking around the city visiting the various squares and grand buildings. A particularly memorable stop on our tour was Plaza Murillo which is home to the Parliament building and a
swarming flock of pigeons. Kev’s hand was white and ingrained with Cat’s nail marks after a short walk across the square… not the best place for someone with an irrational fear of pigeons to visit! However, it was a good place to sit and watch life pass by and we were amused to watch a group of men walking round stuffing the pigeons up their tops and smuggling them out of the square. We’re no experts, but we’d say that the fate of those pigeons didn’t look good!
After three days in the city, we set off on our bus journey to Oruro where we would pick up our train to the salt flats. It wasn‘t the most comfortable of bus rides. Highlights of the journey include a wet seat, a guy constantly clearing phlegm from his throat in the seat behind us (the first of many bus journeys set to a chorus of phlegm clearing!), air con that pumped exhaust fumes into the bus, Free Willy 2 in Spanish, and many dodgy overtaking manoeuvres. We were relieved to arrive in Oruro in one piece and pick up our night train to Uyuni. The train was pretty comfortable with
Lazy-boy style reclining seats, blankets, films and gourmet catering. Ok, so maybe a cold beef burger doesn‘t class as gourmet, but it was a comfortable journey all the same.
We arrive in Uyuni at 3am and watch as puppies and chickens were scooped out of the way so the cases could be unloaded from the luggage carriage. Since we arrived in the dark we could not see what the town was like, but our first impression was that this was possibly the coldest place on earth!!! We had a twin room at our hotel (without heating), but occupied just one single bed to share body warmth and put on all our warmest clothes. We were told that it gets to -25 at night here. We’re not sure how true this is, but it certainly was the coldest we have ever been!
The following evening, the night porter kindly leant us his gas heater/flame thrower so we could heat the room enough that removing our clothes for a shower would not result in hypothermia. Then the fun of trying to get hot water from the shower began… Getting hot water from the showers in Bolivia requires a lot of
skill and patience and is a lot like code breaking a safe. The hot showers are created from a modified cold shower which requires just the right flow of water to ensure any heat at all (somewhere between a constant drip and a trickle). You also have to be careful not to touch any of the metal when the shower is on as the electric filament attached to the cold water tap can zap you! Kev seemed to master the art of this a lot quicker than me, and he puts this down to the years of experience with his parent’s dodgy “power” shower.
We spent a day waiting in Uyuni before our trip on to the salt flats and found there was very little to do in this sleepy town. We spent our time moving between internet cafes and benches in the sun to try to warm up. We also found a great pizza restaurant with the most amazing cookies. The healthy eating in La Paz was a distant memory now, but to be honest we needed the calories to fuel the shivering!
The Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometres,
and our day trip onto the flats was like nothing we have seen before. We had to pinch ourselves and remind ourselves it wasn’t snow (despite the temperature). The vast expanse of white allows for some funky pictures. We didn’t quite master the art of getting the perspective right, but had fun trying different shots with the Canadian girls we shared our Jeep with.
We also saw some of the mining activity which looked like truly back-breaking work in some pretty extreme conditions. Apparently, the Salar has over 70% of the known Lithium sources in the world, but judging by the slow process they have for mining the salt by hand, we reckon the extraction of Lithium may also take some time.
After our day on the salt flat, we caught another night train out of Uyuni and down to the border of Bolivia and Argentina, where we would catch an onward bus to Salta. Bye, bye Bolivia!
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