Category Archives: Bolivia

Highlights of Latin America

I had such an awesome time in Latin America it’s pretty hard to pick out favourite moments. But I’m going to give it a go anyway. Here are the best things I’ve seen and done over the past six and a half months, along with links to what I originally wrote about them.

Favourite City: Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso

Runner-up: Guanajuato, Mexico
Hilly cities with lots of colourful houses are clearly the way to keep me happy.

Favourite Capital City: Mexico City

Mexico City Cathedral

Runner-up: Santiago de Chile
Quite a contrast here between enormous, chaotic, slightly crazy Mexico City vs Clean, calm, orderly Santiago. But I could live in ‘em both, I reckon.

 

Favourite Food: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
Best street food in Latin America from the Mexicans, whereas the restaurants were at their finest in Peru.

Best course: Learning Spanish in Guatemala
Runner-up: Learning to Dive in Honduras
Who knew learning could be such fun? Learning Spanish enriched my whole experience in the continent, and diving was way more fun (and way easier) than I ever thought it could be.

Favourite activity: Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru
Runner-up: Cycling tour of the wineries, Mendoza, Argentina

Favourite Hike: The Huayhuash Circuit, Peru

The Cordillera Huayhuash

Runner-up: The Lost City, Colombia
Again, quite a contrast. The Huayhuash took me to the most stunning mountain scenery I’ve ever come across, and was the toughest walk I’ve ever done. The Lost City was less visually appealling and easier on the legs, but made up for it by being with the best group of people I’ve me on the whole trip.

 

Favourite Natural Wonder: The Copper Canyon, Mexico

The road to Batopilas, Copper Canyon

Runner-up: The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Sorry Colca Canyon, you may be deeper but Mexico’s is way better. It also gave me my favourite journey, along the Copper Canyon railway. Meanwhile, Uyuni was like a trip to another planet.

 

Favourite off the beaten track place: Mexcaltitan

Calle Venezia, Mexcaltitan

I feel like a bad traveller. I was pretty firmly on the gringo trail the entire time. Except in Mexcaltitan, tough to get to, not a lot to see, but one of my favourite stops so far.

 

Best Night out: Sargento Pimientas, Lima, Peru
Runner-up: Mazatlan, Mexico
My last night in Lima was a chance to say goodbye to two good friends I’d been travelling with on and off since Colombia, accompanied by the best music I’ve heard in ages. Mazatlan on the other hand was an entirely random night out with three Mexican women who I was introduced to by a clown.

Favourite Beach: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park

Runner-up: Mazunte, Mexico
Sleeping in a hammock on the beach in Colombia was pretty close to paradise. Meanwhile the waves in Mazunte kept me entertained for hours.

 

Favourite Market: San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Runner-up: Oaxaca, Mexico
A pretty small hill town in Guatemala with the biggest, most sprawling market I’ve ever seen. Oaxaca was my favourite of the Mexican markets, especially for the crammed, smokey food section.

Favourite weird religious spectacle: Semana Santa in Guanajuato, Mexico

Semana Santa in Guanajuato

Runner-up: Meeting Maximon in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Catholicism may have its heart in Europe, but the way they do it in Latin America makes our version look pretty tame.

 

Favourite Country: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
I’ve probably bored everyone I’ve met on this trip to death by going on and on about Mexico. But I don’t care. I love it.

Bolivia Round-up & Budget

I could have sworn when I was planning my trip that I’d left myself enough time for a month in Bolivia. But somehow I screwed up and that month turned into two weeks, which really isn’t enough time to get to know a place properly.

Colourful balloons in Sucre

Colourful balloons in Sucre

But, having said that, the two weeks I had were great fun. As usual for Latin America, the people everywhere were incredibly friendly. La Paz is a wonderful place to visit, one of the nicest big cities I’ve visited so far – I was expecting the capital city of one of the poorest countries in the Americas to be big, dirty and dangerous – but it turned out to be none of those. It’s relatively small size means the centre is all easily manageable on foot; it was clean and with well-preserved colonial buildings, and it had a really nice selection of shops, restaurants, museums and bars, all of which were pretty safe to wander around to. On top of that, it’s blessed with one of the finest locations of any city I’ve been to yet – La Paz is crammed into a canyon that cuts through the Bolivian Antiplano, meaning on all sides you can see colourful houses filling the slopes, and in the distance sit the snowcapped mountains of the nearby Cordilleras. Quite spectacular.

La Paz panorama

La Paz panorama

Sucre too was another fine colonial city, and one that I particularly enjoyed fot its fascinating cemetary (and its rather cool Dino-phone, presumably a reference to the nearby largest collection dinosaur footprints in the world).

Sucre cemetary

Sucre cemetary

The dinophone

The dinophone

Cholita’s wrestling, the Death Road, visiting the mines of Potosi and the Salar de Uyuni were all real trip highlights (for very different reasons), but it’s all just left me wanting more. Unlike Mexico, Colombia & Peru, where my six weeks left me enough time to feel I’d begun to get to know the country and its people, two weeks in Bolivia leaves me feeling I’ve barely scratched the surface, and all those experiences were so different I feel like I have no sense of the country as a whole. There’s still so much I want to see in the country – the jungle, the pampas, the Cordilleras, and the Jesuit Missions of the south east in particular – that I’m pretty certain I’ll be back the the near future.

So, onto money then. Bolivia is supposedly the cheapest country in South America, and yes, it did indeed beat Guatemala to become my cheapest country so far. But, as is probably becoming familiar to any regular readers, not as cheap as I’d hoped. I pretty much fell down across the board – staying in hostels that were probably a bit too nice meant I spent way more than I had in Guatemala and Honduras; I continued to splash out on nicer meals (although my food costs were still the lowest so far), and all those activities added up in cost. But overall, not a bad result, and at least it brings the overall average back down (but not as much as I’d hoped).

Transport: $2.96
Accommodation: $7.29
Activities: $12.50
Laundry & miscellaneous stuff: $2.43
Food & Drink: $16.21
Total: $41.39

And onto the other numbers…
Buses: 5
Taxis: 2
Bikes: 1
Beds: 7
Jeeps: 1
Boats: 3
Hot Springs: 1
Laundry: 2
Postcards: 2
Cash withdrawals: 5
Islands: 1
Volcanoes: 1
Geysers: several
Salt Flats: 1
Wrestling Bouts: 5

…and the people I met. New nationalities to add to the total this time were an Austrian and the Bolivians. Surprise showing by the French & Dutch this time, with usual suspects the Americans, Germans & Israelis falling way behind. Most of all were the Brits, who have finally taken the lead in my overall tally from the Americans.
UK: 18
French: 5
Dutch: 5
US: 4
Australians: 3
Bolivians: 3
Swiss: 3
Belgians: 2
Czechs : 2
Spanish: 2
Irish: 2
Austrian: 1
Canadian: 1
German: 1
Kiwis: 1

That’s it for Bolivia now – next up, a brief stop in Chile and then straight on to Argentina. You can see all my Bolivian photos here, and read all my posts about the country here. And remember, if you want to be notified of all future updates, you can click on one of the links top right to get updates via RSS or email.

Photo silliness on the Salar de Uyuni

Let’s face it, spectacular as its landscapes are, one of the main reason every backapcker wants to go to the Salar de Uyuni is to take lots of silly photos and videos. I had thought that all those trick shots would be tiresome to set up and take, but it turned out to be some of the best fun I’ve had all year.

and a quick look behind the scenes:

All this photography was but a warm up for the main event, our first video – ladies and gentlemen, let me present our crowning glory:

The Salar de Uyuni

If there was one place more than any other that I was excited about visiting in South America, it was the Salar de Uyuni. Before I traveled, I read countless blog posts and saw hundreds of amazing photos about the place, and I couldn’t wait to see it for myself.

After a slightly frustrating evening in the rather dull town of Uyuni (everyone told me it was only good for one thing: Minuteman Pizza, allegedly the finest pizzas in all of South America. We went quite early in the evening. It was fully booked for the entire night. Grrr.) our little group – two Brits, one Irish girl, one Belgian, one Kiwi & an Australian set off in a jeep for what would be a three day tour across one of the world’s strangest and most amazing landscapes.

First stop was the train cemetary. Uyuni is one of the main railway junctions in Bolivia, and on the edge of town sit dozens of old, rusting trains, which were great fun to clamber all over.

Uyuni Train Cemetary

Uyuni Train Cemetary

After a brief stop there, we were soon onto the star attraction, the Salar de Uyuni itself. It was once part of a giant inland sea, but over the millenia it has dried out, leaving behind the world’s largest salt flats. And they are enormous. Once you get out into the centre of the lake, all you can see for miles around is one giant expanse of endless whiteness. It’s a very weird sight, quite unlike anything else on earth I’ve ever seen.

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

If that wasn’t strange enough, sitting in the middle of the lake is the Isla de Pescados, which is completely covered in ancient, giant cacti (some are up to 1000 years old), making the place feel even more alien.

Isla de Pescados

Isla de Pescados

If the mornings attractions had been pretty awe-inspiring, it was really just a warm up for the main event – taking lots of silly pictures and videos, as the endless white expanse of the Salar offers possibilities for mucking around with perspective. The hour or two we spent doing that was one of the most fun things I’ve done on the whole trip – you can see the results in a separate post here.

After the wonders of the first day, there was nothing to do once we got to the hotel but block out the sound of the whiney French woman from another group (who was complaining about EVERYTHING in a VERY LOUD VOICE) by playing cards and drinking lots of wine (which also had the beneficial effect of helping us ignore the freezing temperartures).

Day two began with a very early start to catch the sunrise over the Salar (tip: don’t bother) before heading off into the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, home to colourful lakes, strange rock formations, and lots and lots of flamingoes. (oh, and as an aside, it was interesting to discover that the Spanish word for Flamingo is Flamenco – as in the dance & music – which in turn is also for the Flemish language and people. Any Spanish speakers know if that’s a coincidence or is there some link between the bird, the dance & the people that’s not exactly obvious to me?!

Flamingoes

Flamingoes

The day turned out to be rather an eventful one, as the Australian & the Belgian decided they’d liven up the long hours of driving by polishing off a bottle of vodka and several cans of beer between them before lunchtime. It wasn’t until we arrived at the first lake that we realised quite how drunk they were, when the Aussie decided he wanted a closer look at the Flamingoes, and waded straight into the freezing cold lake. Amusement soon turned into anger, but luckily he’d peaked a bit too soon and promptly fell asleep as soon as we’d managed to herd him back into the jeep.

Next stop was yet another lake full of flamingoes – the reserve is home to three different species of them – which was a stunning sight, with the lake being surrounded by huge mountains.

Highlight of the second day was the Arbol de Piedra (Rock Tree), so-called because the high winds of the Altiplano have eroded a rock so it balances precariously on a very narrow point, making it look a bit like a tree.

Arbol de Piedra

Arbol de Piedra

Final stop of the day was the Laguna Colorada, which gets its name from the algae that colour the lake red (which for some reason was particularly difficult to capture in photos), and yet another freezing cold night in the hostel.

Day three was pretty brief, but equally spectacular. We had yet another early start to make it to a nearby geyser field which is at its most active at sunrise, which was a truly ghostly sight, with the bubbling pools of mud and stark landscape shrouded in clouds of steam from the geezers, gradually being lit up by the rays of the emerging sun.

Sunrise over the Geysers

Sunrise over the Geysers

Fed up with three days of being absolutely freezing, our final stop was absolutely perfect: a natural hot spring for bathing in. Despite the brief agony of having to strip down in the baltic morning temperatures, it was all worth it for the chance to submerge ourselves in a bath-hot pool, looking out across a lake with the early morning sun scattering light across the water. Beautiful.

After our dip and a quick breakfast, it was a short ride to the border; bye bye Bolivia, hello Chile…

The rather isolated border post

The rather isolated border post

Three long days of driving in a Jeep is pretty damn uncomfortable (another tip: bring your iPod with you, most of the jeeps have connectors so you can plug into the car stereo, which helps make the drive a lot more bearable, as long as you don’t end up fighting over the music!), the temperature is mostly bloody freezing, and the accommodation is at best basic. But all the discomfort is worth it – I’ve never seen anywhere like it.

You can see all of my photos of the Salar de Uyuni & the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa here.

Going down the mines

If the Death Road turned out to be nowhere near as scary as I’d been expecting, my next big excursion turned out to far more.

Potosi was once the biggest and richest city in the whole of the Americas – and at one point even bigger than Madrid, the imperial capital, and all because of one thing: silver. The city is the highest city in the world, and owes its existence and its fortune to the hill that dominates the city’s skyline.

The Cerro Rico, Potosi

The Cerro Rico, Potosi

Legend has it that one night a local Quechua llama herder ended up spending the night on the hill, and lit a fire to keep himself warm. He was soon surprised to see a shiny molten metal trickle out of the fire – he’d accidentally stumbled on the richest seam of silver ever discovered. It’s now thought that the Inca had long known of the hill’s riches, but kept it secret from the Spaniards. Which was probably a wise thing – as soon as the colonisers found out, they soon began a massive mining operation in the newly named Cerro Rico (rich hill), that helped fund the Spanish Empire for centuries – apparently still in Spanish today, the phrase ‘valer un Potosi’ means ‘to be worth a fortune’.

Working in the Cerro Rico would have been a particularly horrible experience – for a start, with the mines being at well over 4,000m, the low oxygen makes altitude sickness a constant threat. Aside from that natural effect, the conditions in the mines themselves were pretty awful – constant dust inhalation caused silicosis, the techniques for extracting the silver caused mercury poisoning, and there was much potential for mining accidents. Some estimate that as many as 8 million indigenous people have died in the five hundred or so years of mining, a truly horrifying figure.

The silver is mostly exhausted today, but the mine continues to operate, mostly producing zinc and tin, and it’s possible to visit them as a tourist. We signed up for a tour with Koala Tours, a company owned and operated by former miners, and that provides an additional source of income for one of the mining cooperatives.

Geoff the Miner

Geoff the Miner

After an early start to get kitted up, we headed down to the miners’ market to get gifts for the miners – coca leaves (to be chewed to help cope with the low oxygen levels), 95% proof alcohol (used as an offering to ‘El Tio’ – aka the devil, who ‘owns’ the mine), dynamite, and soft drinks.

El Tio...smoking a fag and having a drink

El Tio...smoking a fag and having a drink

From the moment we entered the mine, it soon became clear it was going to be a pretty claustrophobic experience – even the main passageway was narrow, and with a low ceiling, and choked with dust. From there we travelled deeper and deeper into the mine, with the air getting thinner, the temperature warmer, and the tunnels narrower. At some points they were so small we couldn’t even crawl, instead we had to lie down and pull ourselves along with our elbows.

One of the narrower bits

One of the narrower bits

Even a couple of hours in there was pretty unbearable – and after meeting the miners and seeing the conditions that they work in, it’s quite incredible to think that these men spend years of their lives down there, all hoping to strike it rich by finding an as yet undiscovered seem of silver. Every time the guide stopped us to check everyone was OK, we all smiled and answered in the affirmative – but on the way out all admitted to each other that actually all of us had been suffering a bit.

Potosi miners at work

Potosi miners at work

Final excitement of the day was the chance to hold a lit stick of dynamite (don’t worry, I’m not that mad, it had a pretty long fuse), before getting to see it blow up a little section of the mountain in the distance. Still, claustrophobic and scary as the whole experience was, getting a chance to see such an interesting piece of history, and to see the rather terrifying conditions the miners work in was well worth it, and I’m glad I did it.

Happy to be alive, well, and safely back out of the mine

Happy to be alive, well, and safely back out of the mine

Although now I’ve done it, wild horses wouldn’t manage to drag me back in to do it a second time.

You can see all my photos of Potosi here

Failing to die on the Death Road

There are certain things one does when traveling that it’s probably best my mum doesn’t know I’m doing them til afterwards. Cycling down the World’s Most Dangerous Road (© the Inter-American Development Bank), aka the Death Road, is one of them.

The road gets its reputation from the days when it used to be the main road from La Paz, up in the Andes, to Coroico, the gateway to the Bolivian Amazon. It’s so dangerous because it’s an unpaved, gravelly, single track road, that basically hugs the edge of a cliff as it drops over 2000m from the La Cumbre pass (4,700m) over 64km. For much of the way, the road is sandwiched between vertical rock walls on one side, and a sheer cliff on the other. Now imagine that as a busy main road with buses, cars and trucks trying to travel in both directions, with the usual insane Latin American drivers roaring round blind bends without a thought of what might be coming in the opposite direction. Conditions of course are even worse in the rainy season, and the road became the scene of many tragic accidents.

These days, things have changed a little – a new paved road bypasses the death road, meaning that the only traffic is the very occasional car heading to one of the villages along the way. Meaning the road is mostly clear for the dozens of backpackers making the descent. And I for one was very glad indeed I didn’t have local traffic to contend with on the way down.

Despite the dangers, it’s totally worth doing – the road is absolutely spectacular, and the views it offers across the mountains are stunning. The ride is great fun, especially the opening section down a paved road from the mountain pass (before the new road branches off) – this section has none of the steep drops, and is wide and safe, so you just jump on your bike and go as fast as you want, with no effort other than braking whatsoever.

The mid section is the most dangerous of all, but gives the best views of all, including the famous corner where everyone stops to take the ‘classic’ photo. After that, the road widens a bit, the drops get less dramatic, and you speed up again all the way to the bottom. Slightly scary in places, absolutely exhilarating, and worth every Boliviano.

I’m very glad I chose the company I did – Vertigo – as the bikes were excellent, the safety briefing and guide gave me total confidence, and we seemed to get much better safety gear than most of the other companies – full face helmets, protective outer gear, and elbow and knee pads. I’d recommend them to anyone thinking of doing the ride.

The road itself ends near the pretty little town of Coroico, and rather than rushing back to La Paz, we chose to stay the night, chilling out in a lovely little hotel perched on a hill overlooking the mountains. A perfect end to a brilliant day, we spent the afternoon relaxing in the pool, very relieved that we’d failed to die on the death road.

Wrestling – Bolivian Style

As I noted in my second ever post, well before my trip started, I have a strange obsession with Mexican Wrestling. And so I was gutted when swine flu put paid to my chances of getting to see some while I was there. So of course I was over the moon when I found out that a very similar style of wrestling is practiced in Bolivia.

Poster for Cholitas

Poster for Cholita's

So excited was I that I timed my arrival in La Paz to make sure I’d get to go – as it’s only on once a week, on a Sunday. So no sooner than I’d arrived in my hostel in the city, I hopped straight on a bus back out of town, all the way up the canyon to El Alto, home of the legendary Cholita’s Wrestling.

What a show it turned out to be. As tourists paying a bit of a premium, we got front show seats and the opportunity to be right next to the ever more bizarre antics going on in (and out) of the ring.

Each bout started with a fair bit of grandstanding and audience baiting by each participant (sadly even with my ever-improving Spanish, they still spoke far too quickly for me to get most of it, but whatever they were saying got lots of cheers and boos from the mostly Bolivian crowd). Each fight followed a pretty predictable narrative, with the ‘goodie’ getting the upper hand early on, before swinging the other way; normally the referee would join in at some point too, and the action would normally spill out of the ring.

As the evening went on, the wrestlers got ever more bizarre and fantastic. We started out with a Ninja Turtle (seen here battering the ref):

…quickly moved on to a skeleton, and then best of all, two women dressed in full traditional indigenous costume, who were at least as athletic as their male counterparts.

The penultimate round included one of the indigenous women returning a second time (she seemed to be a bit of a crowd favourite), partnered with a large cat, against an army general, and, because this was supposed to be a mixed sex bout, one of the male wrestlers in drag. All pretty chaotic and absolutely hilarious.

The final bout was the strangest yet – the oldest wrestler we’d had so far, fighting against ‘the black mummy’. The action in this round very quickly left the ring, and had the two fighters smashing all manner of things across each other’s heads and backs – a flourescent light tube, planks of wood, plastic chairs and so on – before it finally got completely out of control when the black mummy started ripping up the chairs and chasing the crowd round the gym, all to much screaming and laughter.

Mummy on the loose

Mummy on the loose

Certainly the most bizarre night out I’ve had so far on this trip, and definitely not something to be missed if ever you’re in La Paz.

You can see all of my photos of La Paz and my night out at Cholita’s here.

The Hottest Spot North of La Paz

Arriving in Bolivia turned out to be the easiest border crossing I’ve ever done. No queues, no border guards asking for unofficial ‘fees’, no aggressive money changers, no stringent customs checks, no chaos whatsoever. In and out in a couple of minutes, we arrived in Copacabana five minutes later, and checked into the lovely Hotel La Cupula, a wonderfully tranquil place overlooking the enormous Lake Titicaca.

Our main reason for stopping in the town was to visit the nearby Isla del Sol, so we were up bright and early the next day to get the boat across the lake for the short journey to the island. Or so we thought. It turned out to be possibly the slowest boat I have ever been on, packed with passengers and chugging along so slowly it would probably have been quicker to swim (if the water hadn’t been so bloody freezing).

Two long hours later, and we finally arrived on the island, and set out for the walk via some Inca Ruins down the ridge in the middle of the island to the village at the other end. The ruins themselves weren’t all that special after all the ones we’d seen in Peru, but it didn’t matter a bit – the island is an amazingly tranquil place. The Lake itself is enormous – 15 times the size of Lake Geneva in Europe – and on the day we visited the water was an absolutely gorgeous deep blue colour, perfectly reflecting the similarly coloured, cloudless sky. As we hiked along the ridge, we were rewarded with fantastic views across the lake to the towering, snowcapped mountains of the Andes just to the east.

After an easy three or fours of walking, we were soon at the far end of the island, in plenty of time for the boat, giving us an hour or so to sit in a cafe at the top of the ridge, relaxing in the warm afternoon sunshine and chilling out.

Sadly it wasn’t until we’d got half way across the lake on the way back that I realised that I’d been so relaxed that I hadn’t even noticed that I’d left my fleece back on the island – particularly annoying as I knew I’d be heading to some of the coldest places I’d yet visited in the next few days.

Final stop on the way back made us incredibly glad we’d visited the floating islands in Puno – if I’d thought they were touristy, nothing could quite have prepared me for the fake floating island we stopped at on the way back. This one wasn’t even really made of reeds – it was a wooden platform, moored to the shore, and just covered in reeds and a couple of reed houses. There weren’t even any islanders there. It was a pretty depressing sight, so we stayed on the boat and waited for people to snap some photos before heading back to port.

You can see all of my photos of Copacabana & the Isla del Sol here