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Published: August 24th 2014
We drove around the shores of Lake Titicaca to enter Bolivia. At 3800m, the world's highest navigable lake is blue and serene.
The tourist bus drops the influx at the first significant town of Copacabana. The streets closest to the waters edge are dedicated to hotels, hostels, restaurants and woolly jumpers.
'It's nothing but a tourist trap' said some travellers, unaware that they would find a Cathedral dating back to 1619 just a few blocks further North.
The first hotel we tried offered a nice room with bathroom, cable TV and a panoramic view of the lake for £8 per night.
'This is great' we thought. Bolivia is known as the cheapest country in South America and at these prices our budget would not be stretched. Sadly it was an anomaly, we never found such a deal again.
The Inca's believed that both the sun and the moon were born from Lake Titicaca and there is both an Isla Del Sol and an Isla De La Luna handily located at the Copacabana end of the lake.
We joined the crowd on the boat heading to the main
settlement of Yumani on the Isla Del Sol. Whilst many of the youngsters were off hiking around the island, we found that the limit of our capabilities was climbing the steep path from the shoreline to the top of the cliffs. It was worth it for the views across the waters to the high Andes, snowcapped in the distance.
Then on to La Paz, the world's highest capital (such are the sobriquets which define this country).
The journey to La Paz is very scenic until you reach the outskirts, when it isn't. Actually, the outskirts of La Paz have become a city in their own right, El Alto - the heights. The reason for this name becomes apparent as you approach La Paz proper. The centre is situated in the base of an immense natural cauldron. Unadorned brick buildings cascade down the sides to converge on the centre in a chaotic free for all.
Our trepidation built as we crawled through the grimy mess of El Alto, then suddenly we hit the rim and the stunning vista of the cauldron was laid out before us. As an introduction to a city
it is truly unparalleled.
The two best things about La Paz are the view when you arrive and the view when you leave. Both should be done during daylight.
Since the centre is in the base of the cauldron, looking around inevitably requires ascents and descents, which we found to be a chore in the thin air. On the return journey to our hostel at the end of the day we needed to stop for a rest at regular intervals - Darby and Joan on tour.
It didn't help that we picked up a bug somewhere so we didn't feel like moving on for a week longer than we might otherwise have done.
I don't want to sound too negative though. There was enough to see to fill an afternoon and plenty of places were showing the World Cup, which was just starting. We got to see the majority of the first round matches, much to Linda's delight. I was especially pleased because this was the first time for many years that I had been in the same time zone as the tournament.
were feeling better we went to the city hospital where Linda got a yellow fever vaccination for FREE (that's the travel tip of the piece).
There were still quite a few things left to do in the La Paz region, but as we were planning on doing a circular tour we hoped that we might feel more up to it next time we were in town.
Bolivian value was in evidence again when we paid only £2.70 for the 8 hour journey to Cochabamba.That's incredibly cheap, and it was a luxury bus to boot!
We stayed in a highly rated hostel in a suburb (or the next town, depending who you asked). The online comments all said how pleasant the hostel is, but what a pain it is to have to get a bus into Cochabamba each time. We found the bus journey to be the best bit. The bus stop was a couple of blocks away down a dusty track. An ancient bus would trundle along every 5 minutes and there was always a seat. It was always interesting watching a slice of life as local people got on and
off with their kids and their shopping.
Most people whip through Cochabamba without finding much of interest, but we found it most accommodating. For a start, it is reliably warm and sunny during the day, the Prado end of town is quite pleasant and we found a nice cafe doing a 3 course lunch for £1.50. No wonder we stayed for a month.
The main plaza contains a few tall trees which provide perches for the noisy parrots that spend their days flying between the city's green areas.
In terms of things to see, the town boasts the world's second biggest Jesus statue on a hill 1km from the centre.
Question: where is the biggest Jesus statue in the world?
Correct, it's in Świebodzin, Poland. That one in Rio de Janiero comes in 3rd, or 5th if you don't include its pedestal.
(Won't people be cross if Jesus is not put on a pedestal?)
Cochabamba's Jesus can be reached by cable car. Having built the cable infrastructure
it seems they decided that only 3 cars travelling in either direction would be sufficient. The long queues at busy times are a boon for the ice cream salesmen.
The Jesus can be seen from around the town. From the top of his hill you get an idea of the size of Cochabamba, it's vast. There are stairs inside Jesus and windows at the end of his sleeves.
Just for fun, we got shown around the old nunnery. These days there are only a handful of old nuns. They live a cloistered life, so we didn't get to meet them. In times past it was extremely popular. Families would pay a small fortune to get their daughters into the order. Once in, there was a rigid class system depending on how much you had paid to be there. The rich ones made all the decisions and the poor ones got all the naff jobs. No change there then.
The town also boasts a healthy population of opticians. One day I happened upon a set of frames with magnetic shades. When I first came across this innovation about 8 years ago I
thought that it was such an Obviously Good Idea that it would take the spectacle world by storm. Much to my surprise the opposite happened and they flopped, disappearing from sight. This exemplifies one of my core tenets of investing - don't back your opinions.
Another tenet of investing is that you must take opportunities when they arise. As I write, my new glasses are sliding down my nose (there wasn't a choice of sizes).
On another occasion we were walking down a side street when we came upon a 1981 Suzuki GSX750E with the original headlamp assembly. That bought back a few memories. I crashed mine in Kennington, South London, in 1986.
Actually, Cochabamba was great for bike watching. There was a wide variety of models through the ages. One Sunday we were passed by about 40 Harley Davidsons as the local chapter cruised around the town.
We kept thinking that we ought to leave but then it was easier to wait for the completion of the next round of the football. By that process we ended up watching the World Cup Final on the telly in
the hostel common room.
We went to the Toro Toro National Park for a couple of days. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.
Back in Jurassic times this area was at sea level, as evidenced by sections of fossilized beach. Dinosaurs roamed the land and lots of their footprints were preserved over the eons. It is amazing how much information can be gleaned about the animal, just from its prints.
Somehow over geological time, this land ended up at 2700m above sea level. A spectacular canyon was created by the parting of the land in much more recent history. Some of the action was even caught on film from a helicopter.
It is necessary to join a guided group to venture into the park. This was at a fixed rate of 100 Bolivianos, which is divided amongst the members of the group. So I did one guided tour for £2 per person and another for £3 pp. Excellent value IMO. Of course, the guides only spoke Spanish, but there were enough multilingual members of the group to help me out if I
couldn't keep up.
(The currency in Bolivia is called the Boliviano. I like the idea of linking the names of the country and the currency. We should rebrand the UK as Poundland to more accurately reflect the realities of the modern era.)
Leaving Toro Toro we had our fist experience of a bloqueo
. This is the major form of public protest in Bolivia. When a community is upset about something they simply block the road and stand around until they decide that they have done enough. There are so few roads that everything grinds to a halt until the bloqueros
feel that they have made their point.
One this occasion they blocked the only bridge out of town because the bus company had put up the fares. As their argument was not with the tourists, they let us through after a couple of hours, but the buses were trapped all day.
Strangely, a few days later in Cochabamba there was a bloqueo
staged by the bus drivers because they thought the fares were too low!
Fortunately, that was the full extent of our bloqueo
Cristo de la Concordia
On occasion, travelers have been trapped in the town of Uyuni for days on end because the people there are so aggrieved.
After a 10 hour bus journey (for £3.60) we arrived in Bolivia's second city, Santa Cruz. This is supposed to have a tropical climate and some people had shown us a wealth of mosquito bites. As we arrived the weather changed to arctic winds and violent thunderstorms.
'We get a week like this every year' aid the locals, 'too bad'.
Fortunately, there was nothing to detain us in Santa Cruz. We were just passing through on the way to the travelers hangout of Samaipata.
The cold weather followed us down there though. We were still wearing our big coats and didn't feel like doing much hanging out.
The town is convenient for a pre-Inca heritage site centred around a large bare rock on the top of a mountain. Being bare, this 100m long rock was carved into by ancient people so that modern people can go and gawp at it. There were some nice views.
Cristo de la Concordia
rotten and horrible overnight bus trip on rough roads brought us to Sucre, the most historic town in the country.
This was where Simon Bolivar (and others) signed the Declaration of Independence, and gave his name to the country.
Bolivar was a dedicated revolutionary and, as a General, had directed many of the battles that brought independence from Spain for Panama, Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. This newly independent Peru was much larger than the present day, and included the land known as Alto Peru - High Peru. It as from Greater Peru that Alto Peru claimed its Independence in 1825, and renamed itself Bolivia.
After attaining such heights, Bolivar died broke and ignored in Columbia in 1830. Such are the tides of history.
Sucre is considered the most charming of colonial cities and its large central plaza is a delight. Statues, fountains, a variety of trees and plenty of seats make it the most welcoming city centre I can think of.
Period buildings surround the square. Some, like the Casa de la Liberdad, which houses the Declaration, are now museums.
Cristo de la Concordia
us, the most interesting museum was the Museum of Human Anatomy, showing antique representations of the human body used by medical students through the years. Another museum exhibited a fascinating collection of traditional masks used in fiestas around the country and a whole room dedicated to the architecture of Berlin (don't know why).
The city cemetery was as thoughtfully designed and maintained as the city itself. If you only ever visit one cemetery, make this the one.
The city centre is designed on a grid system emanating from the central plaza. Most of the streets are filled with dentists. I wondered how they could make a living with their numbers so out of proportion to the population. The people here either have the best or the worst teeth on the planet. (BTW, the collective noun for dentists is 'an amalgam').
I figured that the competition must keep the prices keen, so I made an appointment to visit one.
It was a bit comical at first because my Spanish does not stretch to dental terminology. The lady dentist quickly gave up trying to explain and called her partner who
City view from the Cristo de la Concordia
had a grasp of English.
'She said that one of your fillings is broken and you need to have a new one'.
'Durr, why do you think I'm here. Isn't it obvious', I replied, translated in Spanish to 'Si'.
After an hour of rummaging in my buccal cavity she handed me a mirror to reveal one of those new-fangled white fillings. It looked a bit lonely next to its metallic mouth mates but at least it will reduce my floss bill back to normal levels.
We stayed in a pleasant guest house in Sucre, very quiet as it was at the end of a long drive. One evening we noticed a Bolivian couple move in to the nicest room (out of our budget at £20). When we went down for breakfast the next morning the wife was sitting at the table accompanied by our landlady.
'This is the Bolivian minister of anti-corruption', declared the landlady, 'The second most important person in the country.'
The lady smiled and nodded and I suddenly felt inappropriately greasy haired and unshaven. Surely I should say something
Inside the J bus
intelligent. (By pure coincidence I had just been reading about the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality). She and the landlady were chatting away, obviously old friends. There was no expectation of any contribution from me. I let her finish her breakfast in piece.
Back upstairs I did some quick Googling and soon confirmed that she was Nardi Suxo, the Minister For Transparancy and Against Corruption. She was there to support the President, Evo Morales, who was in town for a political rally that weekend. We saw quite a lot of Nardi and her husband over the next few days, but Evo never dropped in.
This is she: http://www.mingobierno.gob.bo/mintransparencia.html
See, you never know what's going to happen next with this travel lark.
Onwards and upwards (literally) to Potosi, home of the Cerro Rico, a mountain endowed with so much silver that it became critical to the financing of the Spanish empire.
There has been a mint on the site of La Casa Nacional de la Moneda since 1572. The current, huge building that took 20 years
to build until 1773 now serves as a fascinating museum detailing the history of coin minting from the 1500's onwards. Working in the mint was as tough as working in the mines and the Spaniards bought in African slave labour on a grand scale to toil in both. Life expectancy for both men and mules was about 4 months once they had been put to work.
Potosi sits at an elevation of 4100m and we just had time for some lunch before Linda's constitution realised that it was being overstressed by lack of oxygen. She spent the afternoon and evening in bed with a throbbing headache while I investigated the byways. A mildly interesting colonial town, at the height of the mining it was among the biggest towns in South America. For the moment it is a bit disappointing as the centre is fenced off with corrugated iron sheet for renovation.
We stayed in possibly the cheapest hostel in town, but it is known for having functioning central heating, which makes the difference at this height, where the temperatures at night drop into the minuses.
Our final stop in Bolivia was
the small town of Tupiza. (Whoops, should have mentioned that we changed our minds about going back to La Paz).
Tupiza is set in an area that our American friends would call Canyon Country.
It was very handy that there were a number of canyons within walking distance of the town. The sun was out, we were fully functioning at 2700 metres and we did some real, genuine hiking through the countryside and canyons. Where there is some water you may find some trees, but mostly the land is populated by cacti of the type you see in cartoons. I have never spent so much time trudging along dry river beds.
As a final gift, one of the local eateries gave Linda an unpleasant dose of Campylobacter (my diagnosis). This added an extra week to our Bolivian experience.
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