Bolivia - From Blessings of Automobiles to Butch and Sundance

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South America » Bolivia
December 9th 2008
Published: December 9th 2008
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We arrived into Copacabana, a Bolivian pilgrimage town on the edge of Lake Titicaca. Twice a day, and especially at weekends, the central plaza fills up with vehicles for the Blessing of Automobiles. The cars, buses and trucks are generally new or about to undertake a long and hazardous journey (not that there's any other kind in Bolivia). The vehicles line up outside the church decked out in garlands, ribbons and bows and a priest blesses one vehicle at a time, splashing holy water on it, covering it with white rose petals and reciting blessings. Then the car owner goes nuts spraying champagne (or beer) all over the outside of the car, inside the bonnet and then inside the car all over the lovely new upholstery. As if spraying alcohol all over the innards of a brand new car is not a distressing enough sight to witness, some really eager pilgrims take it to the next level and set off a round of firecrackers underneath the car, then everyone gets really drunk. It's certainly a more interesting way to insure a vehicle.

We decided to spend a few days relaxing in Copacabana and so we made more than the usual effort to find somewhere nice to stay. We trawled around three or four places until finding the ‘Alojamiento Emperador’. It was a bit cleaner, brighter and nicer than the rest, but the main reason we chose it was because of the happy, smiling, sweet owner who seemed to be experiencing the kind of enthusiasm for life normally only seen in pro-biotic yoghurt adverts. She was dressed in the traditional indigenous style with hand-woven clothes and long plaits tied neatly behind her back. She was extremely keen to give us a blow-by-blow account of the walk we were planning to embark on the next day, almost rendering the walk unnecessary.

I'm glad we did do it though because it was a beautiful way to get to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). We walked 17km alongside the lake with the land being reasonably flat (not something we've encountered so far in South America). It was just us, the views and the farmers, with a cheery ‘buenos tardes’ and an occasional chat with someone wanting to know where we were from and where we were going and did we know we had a long walk ahead of us. We arrived after four and a half hours of steady walking to a small village where we engaged the services of a guy with a rowing boat to take us across to the island. He was extremely smiley and chatty and told us about the decline of trout in the lake, the unsuitably of the surrounding land for farming and the mass exodus of people to smelly, dirty La Paz (the capital). To leave such a beautiful area and a small community for La Paz can’t be a decision easily made. Despite being very interested in what he was saying, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the simple fact that I could actual understand what he was saying. Language learning being something of a novelty for me, my unruly brain kept interrupting by joyfully shouting ‘You’re speaking Spanish, and I understand you... la la la!’

We arrived to the island and had to scramble over boulders and up a track through farmed terraces to find the village of Yumani. It was a bit of a strange arrival, and felt very unofficial, turning up by rowing boat just as the sun was starting to go down. It was silent. No roads, no vehicles, just peaceful clusters of houses, and the occasional farmer herding an odd assortment of animals home (sheep, goats, llamas and donkeys being the most common). I almost felt like we should let someone know that we were there. We headed to the centre of the ‘village’ with friendly locals smiling and calling out greetings to us (thankfully, we were welcome!). We found somewhere to stay (without electricity or running water as it turned out) and went off to explore. The island is beautiful. At an average elevation of 3800m (peaking at around 4000m) and surrounded by the largest lake in South America, it’s an exhilarating place to be. The island juts out of the lake with deep ridges of rugged terrain, clusters of trees and spits of land stretching into the shimmering, tranquil water. We spent the next day exploring, walking along the ridges, with 360 degree views of the lake, and the long, skinny island stretching out before and behind us. As if the natural beauty wasn’t enough, the island is also culturally and historically special. There are over 180 ruins on the island, most of which are Incan. The place is steeped in mythology and intrigue, and it’s undoubtedly one of my favourite places of the trip.

After returning to Copacabana by boat (it took three hours, the boats on Lake Titicaca are really slow) we spent the night and went the next evening to La Paz (‘peace’ in Spanish). Don’t let the name mislead you. It was horrible. It never helps when you arrive somewhere and the accommodation is either full or too expensive and you are panting because of the steepness of the streets and the altitude and the whacking great pack on your back and you're getting suffocated by all the fumes and deafened by music blasting from stalls and shoved by locals sick of moronic tourists. Fun it was not. La Paz had been romanticised in my head; I had read that it's the highest capital in the world and the city 'spirals skywards' (according to the Lonely Planet) to the snow-capped mountains. Sounds nice huh? Yeah well it's not, unless you try very, very hard. We did actually try pretty hard and ended up having a surprisingly ok time there. We discovered which streets to avoid, so we didn't have to breathe in the kind of fumes that make Asian cities seem clean. We found a kind of fiesta on the Prado (main street) and we hung around watching the live acts, we enjoyed 'super lunes' at the ice-cream parlour (dos por uno!) and we decided to watch James Bond at the cinema. Little did we know that a large part of it is actually set in Bolivia. The street scenes in La Paz were pretty accurate although predictably there were far more traditionally-dressed people than there actually are (it’s the capital - there are plenty of people in business dress!). The scene in a local village featuring Bolivians with speaking parts was great because the whole cinema came alive with 'ohhhs' and giggling and whispered comments. The scene with the policemen (despite being a serious scene) attracted much hilarity, maybe because the Police with their familiar padded green uniforms and high lace-up boots were on-screen with Bond. For the locals it was pretty funny to see the mundane sight of an overweight Bolivian policeman acting alongside the suave Bond.

As much as we managed to sweeten La Paz we still found the crowds and pollution oppressive. Once, when we were out walking Paul turned to speak to me and found a guy with his hand on the zip of the SLR compartment of my bag. The guy got quite a shock to be caught in the act (maybe he'd been on a roll that day). If he hadn’t been busted he still wouldn't have been able to get in to the bag or get anything out of the bag without a considerable amount of tugging and pulling because of all the camera padding (it drives me crazy fairly regularly). He disappeared into the crowds and when we saw him again a little later he had changed his cap and taken a plaster off his cheek. Paul knew it was him instantly and stared him out causing him to start jittering. Paul has the kind of facial recognition that should be employed by the CIA for fugitive hunting or at least ‘heat’ magazine for celebrity hunting (probably get more money for that), whereas I would be a bit more like 'ummm I think he had a plaster on his cheek'. Anyway, it was good to at least be able to shake his confidence a bit.

Travel in Bolivia has been the toughest so far in South America. That's understandable seeing as it's the poorest country in South America. Unsealed roads are the norm; journeys are long and uncomfortable. No one ever has any change (you don’t realise how much of a problem this is until you are unable to get on buses, buy food or get a room for the night because you don’t have the exact money. Sometimes, if you stand firm, someone will call someone else who will eventually turn up with a key for a special, secret box, which contains ‘emergency change’ which will be begrudgingly handed over). Heating is non-existent except in the top-end hotels (and the altitude means that it’s very cold at night). Hot water is a luxury (where it exists it’s heated by an electric attachment to the showerhead, which is adorned by exposed wires and swerves the dual function of heating water to a tepid temperature and electrocuting you. The tap is covered in tape to try and lessen the shocks but this is not foolproof. Sometimes the heater half works so some of the spray is burning hot and some is icy cold, making for a rather confusing showering experience). The food is filling but basic with both potatoes and rice making up the bulk of almost every meal (Dr. Atkins will not be getting many subscribers here). We saw a return to Laos-style restaurant service, which is fine as long as you remember to order your food at least an hour before you actually want to eat. We went into one place which had a sign saying it had 'rapido' sandwiches to take away. We were interested to know just how 'rapido' things can get in a Bolivian kitchen. We selected two of the three options on the menu and ordered them 'para llevar' (to takeaway). The Señora disappeared into the kitchen only to reappear a couple of minutes later 'para llevar, sí?' Wow, we thought, they must be wrapping them already. Ten minutes later she stuck her head around the kitchen door and with a full mouth and straight face asked us what we wanted.

Luckily you can always depend on speedy service in the set menu places where the soup is heading your way the moment you sit down and order 'dos almuerzos' (two lunches). You get a choice for the second course and some fruit for dessert or a ‘mate de coca’ (coca tea) and it's as cheap as 9 Bolivianos for the lot (90p). Paul has gained something of an addiction to mate de coca, which is perhaps not surprising seeing as cocaine comes from the leaves - makes my morning cup of coffee look saintly. Although, at around 0.2% cocaine I don’t think I’m going to lose him to the leaves just yet.

The journeys can be testing. Our hardest was from La Paz to Uyuni. A 12 hour overnight 'semi-cama´ (seats that recline more than usual) journey. 'Semi-cama' is a matter of opinion but the bus was spacious enough and we've completed more than a few overnight journeys sitting upright to know that it's unpleasant but do-able. Unfortunately, the bus didn't appear to be in the best of health and the driver stopped twice in the first hour to crawl below it and hit it with spanners. We continued to stop regularly for the driver to perform noisy repairs. At midnight (four hours in) we stopped, and because there had been no toilet breaks everyone was fairly disgruntled and found themselves having to pee behind mounds of gravel on the street of a small town. The driver was still hitting things with spanners and had acquired a gaggle of hecklers by the time I returned from powdering my nose behind the gravel mound. People were fully aware that the bus was already half-dead when we set out and were voicing their feelings that attempting a 12-hour journey on unsealed, potholed roads was perhaps a tad ambitious under the circumstances. The bus was declared dead an hour later and the driver flagged down another bus for us to pile on to. Not an empty bus, oh no, an almost full bus. We experienced the sinking realisation that we were seatless for the rest of the night along with almost 20 other people... on an unsealed road... on a Bolivian bus. We quickly realised that if we didn't sit down in the aisle immediately, we would be standing for the next seven hours. Everyone plummeted to the ground and attempted to secure some territory. Some were more successful (selfish) than others and managed to stretch out a bit, whilst others were left standing. The bus driver attempted to even us out and asked the people without their knees hugged into their chests to please do so. They refused and set the precedent for how the situation was to be handled by the seatless - with sharpened teeth and much snarling.

Normally there's a bright side to bad travelling situations: the camaraderie and bonds that develop between people in the same situation. In this situation however it was all elbows and discreet kicks, shoving and pushing. Every man for himself. Had there been a different crowd of people on the bus I could imagine at least a little bit of joking about the situation, or at the very least an acknowledgement that we were all in the same horrible, smelly boat. Alas, the bus was full of complete *morons* and there was more strategy than empathy when it came to handling the situation.

The guy behind me was a classic example. He spent the whole time trying to get more room for himself. He assigned a higher importance to the comfort of his bag than he did to another human and would gleefully employ it as weapon whenever I seemed to be gaining any room. It was too dark to see anyone but I had a sneaking suspicion that he had a great deal more room than me. A while later I used Paul's torch to investigate and found him with at least three times as much room as me. I woke him up (enough room to sleep! The cheek!) shining the torch in his eyes and demanding he backed up. He growled at me, and I realised I was having my very own 'Life of Pi' / ‘Lord of the Flies’ experience.

As the seatless descended into animalistic behaviour, the seated were in grave danger. A stray leg in our aisle, a posterior in our faces whilst trying to retrieve something from the overhead storage, shoeless feet, snoring....any of these crimes against the seatless and it was all the baying mob could do not to launch a mass attack. I had to stand occasionally when the blood supply to my limbs was cut off, but was forced back to the ground by the bumping, bucking bus. To regain my meagre space I had to brandish the torch at the hyena behind me, as if it was a gun.

In Uyuni we recovered for a day, crawling into bed and sleeping almost immediately. We spent the next day wandering around the cool little town. It's not particularly picturesque but it has a middle-of-nowhere feel with mini-whirlwinds sweeping through the dusty streets. On market days the central streets are full of stalls and people, especially 'cholitas', the indigenous women with their long, plaited hair, improbably round skirts and bowler hats. It’s the kind of crazy fashion you would expect a Japanese 20-something to dream up, not a 40-something, overweight Andean farmer. It’s pretty cool.

We headed out on a jeep tour to see the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. About ten billion tons of the stuff... which is a lot (just in case you don’t know how much ten billion tons is). It actually looks like a massive frozen lake; white and sparkly and very flat. You occasionally pass odd little 'islands' with overgrown cacti but for the most part it is just endless salt. It’s impossible not to try some despite good sense advising against it (I can confirm it was indeed salty). We even spent the night in a salt hotel (made entirely of salt right down to the bed, tables and chairs). With nothing for miles around, the stars were incredible. Paul and another guy played guitar and sang whilst we sat around our salt table with some dodgy Bolivian Rum and a big group of fun, interesting travellers - it made for a pretty perfect night.

The area isn't just made up of salt; it also has geysers, thermal pools, a number of stunning lakes -home to pink flamingos - and a surrounding desertscape dotted with vicuñas, llamas and alpacas. The landscape became more surreal as we neared the Chilean border: marble-cake mountains and smoking volcanoes, 'coral gardens' from ancient seas and windswept Dali rock formations. Bolivia might be poor but it’s blessed with some of the most incredible scenery I’ve ever since.
All it lacks is a coastline, which was nicked by Chile (sorry Chile, but I’m definitely on Bolivia’s side on this one!) In fact Bolivia has shrunk considerably with bullying, thieving neighbours slicing off what clearly isn’t theirs to take. Over the years it’s lost resource-rich land to Chile, Peru, Brazil and Paraguay. Only Argentina seems to have behaved itself. Being made landlocked was the biggest insult and loss to Bolivians. Hope remains for regaining what was once theirs, and the Bolivian navy is still optimistically functioning, basing itself on Lake Titicaca for now.

Our next area of stunning Bolivian scenery was no other than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s old stomping ground. The only way to see it is on horseback so we based ourselves in the tranquilo town of Tupiza and set out on a couple of horses. I was fairly disappointed when I first saw mine, an underweight-looking grey called Rosa but the joven (young lad), Oscar, assured me she was hardy and could move. Paul's horse was beautiful looking but had the name of 'burro' (donkey), which was pretty much right. We set off with Rosa in the lead, striding forward, ears pricked, interested in everything without being skittish. She seemed extremely healthy, after a bit of riding through jaw-dropping landscape (a lot of it looks like dropped jaws, with the rocks forming jagged teeth in crevices) Oscar told me I could have a gallop, so with minimal encouragement off Rosa went at the speed of a goddamn rocket. It was undoubtedly the fastest I have ever been on a horse (having ridden quite a few speedy horses whilst working on a cattle station in West Australia). I thought we were in danger of taking off. When I coaxed her to a stop I had a bit of wait for Oscar to appear and with a big grin he asked me what I thought of the fastest horse in Tupiza. I think I’d fallen in love. The rest of the ride was just as good with more galloping (rocketing) and even a bit of jumping over low scrubs and a small stream. If Butch and Sundance had had that horse I swear they would have escaped the entire Bolivian army. If you're heading to Tupiza and like to fly, just ask for Rosa.

We bounced and bumped our way east to the city of Potosí. It's the highest city in the world (4090m), not that you would notice after a while at altitude, when you've become accustomed to losing your breath whilst walking up the slightest of inclines. It's also a city of silver, or at least it was - during its peak it was the richest city in South America. We were set up to dislike Potosí after a guy we met in Tupiza spent quite some time telling us how bad it was, but we ended up really liking it, so anyone who reads this and goes will probably end up really hating it and so the cycle continues. There are lots of plazas and colonial architecture from a time when the city was a Big Deal. It's very photogenic and despite being a big city it feels fairly calm and even has a pedestrianised street - a rarity in these parts for sure.

With not much to actually do in Potosí we rolled on to Sucre just three hours north. Sucre's a colonial town with dazzling white buildings, intricate architecture and elaborately designed cathedrals. It's also got some great restaurants and bars to hang out in. We were happy to stay for a few days so I arranged some Spanish lessons with a woman called Aida Rojas (Her email address is She was an excellent teacher and despite only having eight hours in total with her (two hours a day for four days) I felt like I improved and learned quite a bit. At US$5 per hour it's an unbelievably cheap way to study (the schools tend to charge $7.50 an hour). It was nice to have a purpose in the town and to lose the tourist feeling for a few hours. Her house was in the university area of the city so I took the bus along with the uni students and paid a student fare. I walked slowly back to the city after the class, through the residential area, with the friendly local shopkeepers calling out 'buenos dias' as I passed. I'd definitely recommend it over studying in the city centre.

With visas running out and a plan to be in Buenos Aires by Christmas we headed towards the Brazilian border with our last stop in Bolivia being Santa Cruz. We were pretty amazed when we arrived by the heat, the humidity, the people... Santa Cruz is only about 400m above sea-level (I don't think we've been below 2000m for the past month), so the change in climate really hit us. The people look different with golden skin and scanty clothes (in comparison to all the layers necessary in the highlands). It is the start of what is to come in Brazil and I can't wait! I've loved the Andes and the alti-plano but now it's time for some heat, jungles and beaches.

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9th December 2008

Fantastic blog, great pictures
Takes me back to our time in Bolivia last March, can't say I miss those Bolivian buses though!

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