Southern Bolivia – Life on Mars

Arriving back into La Paz, we bundled out of the bus with all our bags in the middle of rush hour traffic and legged it to the bus station.

The time was now 20:20, we had clearly missed our planned 8pm bus to Sucre and the last. Well so we thought , thankfully there was a bus at 20:30 with Trans Copacabana.

We bought our tickets , left our bags and were escorted round the back to the bus. Boarding a little worried our bags might not make it, we sat down in our seats close to the back.

Having been on quite a few busses over the last three months, I am becoming quite an expert on the pros and cons of bus travelling. Trans Copacabana was a real surprise. 30B cheaper than the others, the bus looked older than me, but the seats were by far the most comfortable yet. It was more like being on an old BA 747 business, without the miserable service.

However there was no toilet.

Perfect for the next 8 hours of sleeping. Except for the five kids that were asleep around my feet. A family had seemingly turned the back of the bus into their mobile home.

Sucre is a town full of beautiful colonial buildings and was once the capital city of Bolivia after independence due to its close proximity to the booming silver mines. It lost its importance after the civil war when La Paz became the capital.

Sucre is also known by another name, the ‘White City’ of the Americas, due to the buildings being white washed once a year. Classified as a UNESCO world heritage site, Sucre has maintained its original beauty.

A Walk up to the Recoleta view point is well worth it to get a good view of the whole city and see how far it sprawls.

Hostel CasArte Takubamba was a great little find.

Five blocks from the main square, through a little front door into a whitewashed courtyard with bright coloured art work on the walls. Breakfast was served in the garden daily and the dorm was a large size with two ensuite bathrooms.

Two days was enough to see Sucre, and visit some of the best museums Bolivia has to offer. Six hours further South was Potosí – the highest city in the world at 4100masl and once the great rich silver city.

Mining is still the biggest form of employment, but all the silver has long since gone, sold or taken by the Spanish. Now they many 1000’s of men nine for tin, copper and other minerals.

For 100b you can experience the conditions in a working mine, and spend a few hours with a guide taking you around.

As we wait to enter, we can hear the rumble of wagon full of rocks and minerals. Out of the black hole comes two young men pushing a good few tonnes to the pit.

Decked out in our hard hats, lamps, welly’s and overalls we walk into the mine entrance in the side of the mountain. Laden with our gifts – fizzy pop, coca leafs and 90% proof alcohol – that we bought from the miners market.

The tunnels are dark, damp and really dusty and get worse the further you go. With several levels above and below, there are many access points used to move the rocks, dirt and mineral through the levels.

Bits of wood are jammed into the holes to stop the roof falling into the tunnels below.

Being over 6ft, I am definitely not the height for a miner. Banging my head on a beam or the roof as we descend  further into the mine.

Keno on the other hand was the perfect height and build for pushing the wagons – which to prove his massiveness he tries to push along the tracks. Much to our amusement – his massiveness fails and he requires some help to push the heavy wagon along the tracks.

We are led down a series of ladders that take us 4 levels lower and navigate some tight and small passageways, sometimes on our hands and knees.

Our guide seeks out his mate that is leading a small group of miners. Through the metal gate and through a small hole one level above we find 4 miners at work. We are invited to sit down with the leader and discuss what life is like for the miners while being passed the bottle of 90% alcohol to sip.

Not surprisingly the conditions are not great , I find out the miner is my age and has been doing it for over 15 years, leads a small team of 5 men and is married with one child. Life expectancy is very low at up to 50 for men who work the mine all their life.

It is experiences like this that make me realise how lucky I am and how much I take for granted with what hand I have been dealt in life.

An hour flies by and we say our goodbyes. A lot less steady on my feet than before I follow the group out of the mine back to the clean and fresh air.

The following morning it was time to take another bus towards the Atacama desert and the town of Uyuni. A six hour drive through some of the most incredible landscape, of luscious greens against the reds of the deserts and mountains below the piercing blue sky. Definitely a journey to be carried out in the day.

Following the black tarmac road the bus turns the last corner out of the mountains and we are met with just an expanse of flat plains that carry on for as far as the eye can see. In the middle is a dark grey square, that forms into the town of a Uyuni as we get closer.

There isn’t much to see in Uyuni itself, it’s just a dropping off point for tourists to head out to the Salta de Uyuni – Salt Flats.

The three day excursion in a jeep is the best way to see all that this part of Bolivia has to offer. We paid 740B/ £77 for our guide with Blue line tours.

It’s a 10am start and we are in our land cruiser with 3 additional tourists, a couple from France and a German girl. I quickly realise that our guide doesn’t speak English – thanks god for my Spanish lessons.

The first stop is the train graveyard less than a ten minutes drive away. Along what use to be old train tracks are rusty old steam trains, once used to deliver goods across Bolivia.

Now it looks more like a playground for train lovers; with adults climbing into and on top of of the trains to get that perfect Instagram picture. It’s quite sad to see these once great machines just abandoned, sinking ever more into the sand as each year passes.

It’s back into the jeep and off to what we have all been looking forward to, and what I have seen so many pictures of – Salar de Uyuni – the worlds largest salt lake at 9000 square kilometres. The lower levels are saturated by water, but covered by a thick crust of salt compacted together, strong enough to support a vehicle.

After lunch we head out further onto the salt lake and the pure white is blinding, the suns reflection makes it look like there is water all along the horizon. It’s such a magnificent sight.

With our guides help we all take a series of funny pictures, where one of you looks like an ant by walking far away in the distance. I manage to capture me gobbling Esteban, while the boys insist on making it about how strong they wish they were.

Next it’s onto the random rock formation that sprouts out of the lake and has thousands of cacti growing. Mother Nature is just incredible.

As we progress further towards the Chilean border over the next few days the landscape and scenery drastically changes. The colours of the mountains are made of a bright red colour, mixed with blues and greens.

I can only describe it as like being on a set of Star Wars or what it could be like when man first steps on Mars. I can’t quite believe this is on earth.

The sulphar lakes, with thousands of flamingos flying away every time you get to close. The multitude of colours reflecting against the days sun. All quite frankly mind blowing and by far the most beautiful sights I have ever seen and will be remembered for ever.

Running through hot steam gushing out through holes in the ground, at Sol de Manana like Mother Nature is giving off some steam. Larger holes that have boiling hot mud, that looks like grey molten lava bubbling away at over 1000 degrees centigrade on the surface.

The only negative part about this 3 days tour, is the amount of tourists that follow each other to every stop and just ruin every picture opportunity. Oh, and I would recommend ending at the border with Chile. As the 7 hour drive back to Uyuni is quite painful.

Titicaca to La Paz

After four fantastic weeks it was time to leave Peru and head further South to Puno and cross the border into Bolivia.

Bolivia was always the country that I would use to get to Argentina, but it in fact it surprisingly turned out to be one of the most beautiful I would visit on this trip.

Arriving into Copacabana after a quick change of buses at Puno and crossing the border. Mid morning and we needed some bolivianos and a local SIM card before the boat left for Isla de Sol at 1pm. The currency here, was easy to translate back to pounds. Just had to remove some zeros.

Isla de Sol is positioned in the middle of Lake Titicaca and only has two boats a day, one at 8am and the second at 1pm. Boy oh boy do they pack us in. Determined on only sending one boat, more of us than the boat should really take were ushered on board.. 20B/£2 one way.

Welcome to Bolivia…

Arriving safe and sound, all be it tired from the long journey we walk up the jetty to find that our hostel was at the top of the steep hill. We were told it would take forty minutes to walk. We got very weird looks, a smirk, even a laugh when we asked for a donkey to take our bags.

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With the sun beating down and nothing but my weary tired body to carry all my 17kg, it was up the steep steps and the long winding walk to our hostel. Did I mention that this is the highest navigable mass of water in the world at 3812m. Well my lungs and legs knew it was.

It was all worth it to be greeted by the lovely owner of Hostal Wara Uta.

It is said that Isla de Sol was the birth place of the Inca’s and is now a beautifully preserved slice of old Bolivia. Once the most important religious place for the Andeans in the Sixteenth Century, it was believed that the sun and moon were created here many hundreds of years ago. The island has some important Inca ruins and you can visit Isla de Luna, known by the Incas as the Queen Island.

Although visiting the ruins may prove difficult due to an on going ten month fued between two tribes. The Ch’allampa in the North and the Ch’alla in the middle. A dispute over land and the rights to the Inca ruins, means that only the Southern part of the island, where the Yumani tribe live is accessible currently.

The North part of the island where the larger ruins are located are out of bounds, thanks to a group of men waiting at a check point, complete with red flag at full mast and a road block.

Not to worry there are still a few things to see in the South, like the little Inca house, and the walk to the highest point that gives you a breath taking panoramic view of the Lake and beyond.

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Also not forgetting the little gem that is Las Velas, a cute little restaurant snuggled amongst the eucalyptus trees at the top of the village, a great place to take a load off with a glass of wine and watch the sunset. Las Velas is a one man band owned by Pablo, a gourmet chef who use to work in posh restaurant in Lima.

Las Velas translates into ‘the candles’ runs without electricity, meaning each wooden table is lit by candle light and is draped with colourful table cloths. There is such a homely feel about the place. The kitchen is to the rear where Pablo cooks and prepares delicious dishes like steamed fresh trout in white wine or homemade lasagne, with his head torch as the only form of light.

Because everything is made fresh to order, be prepared to wait a while. We get comfortable in the cosy restaurant with some playing cards and bottle of good Bolivian red wine. The food is well worth the wait and its the perfect setting to spend an evening out of the cold.

The boat back to the mainland only leaves twice daily, at 10am and 4pm. We take the 4pm boat and manage to catch the bus to La Paz at 6pm. Advertised to take three hours and only costing 30B/£3.10. However what we are not told is the time it takes to cross the lake. Add on at least another hour for this.

Bungled into a little boat to cross the water, while the bus makes it over on a what looks like a floating piece of wood with gates. The bus slowly float across to meet us one the other side.

Arriving into La Paz at 10pm, we were lucky that our hostel was a five minute walk from the bus station. The Adventure Brew Hostel in La Paz is advertised as a party hostel where you get a free beer everyday after 7pm.

What could be better than that. It certainly made the Germans very happy.

While in La Paz there are two things I really want to do. Ride the Death Road and watch a Cholita Wrestling match. The Germans aren’t so keen on the Death Road, and need some coercion to book. They would never admit it, but they are chicken. We book for a few days time so they can get come courage.

Cholita Wrestling “what is that I hear you say..” Well it is one of the most ridiculous but funny sights I have witnessed and a must see for anyone visiting La Paz.

A Cholita is a woman native to Bolivia that predominantly lives in the countryside. She wears the custom dress, of brightly coloured knee length skirt, with several under skirts for volume. Tights, a blouse and a bright coloured shawl finished off with a hat . Depending on what part of Bolivia will depend on the size and shape of the hat.

And the position of the hat tells the men whether the Cholita is single or married. We are told on our walking tour, that the best asset a Cholita can have is big calfs. The men look for this when courting, as it indicates she can carry many items and children up the Bolivian hills. A pebble thrown at the feet of a Cholita shows that a man wants to court her.

No apps used here, just a simple sign with a pebble.

Now you have picture of a Cholita, the wrestling part is easy. Its two women in the ring pretending to wrestle. One always being younger than the other. Some of them really do take a battering and go down with some force. The knee protection an indication on how painful it can be.

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It is basically Bolivias version of WWF. The one from the 90’s where men dressed in lycra, had big hair and fake tan and rolled around a boxing rink. 90B/£9 is well worth witnessing this spectacle, the ticket includes a drink, popcorn and a gift. My gift proudly hangs on my rucksack.

La Paz itself is not what you would call a beautiful city, set in the valley high in the mountains. In fact the highest capital city in the world. It can easily be covered in one or two days. By taking the free city walking tour and taking a trip on the Teleferico that travels above the city as a key transport link. At night it is pretty spectacular to see all the lights twinkling for miles around.

The day had finally come, for us to follow on so many a travellers path and cycle down the ‘Death Road’. Only an hour from La Paz, there are plenty of companies that offer a full day. Prices can vary from the most expensive 900B/£92 to the cheapest 350B/£35. The more you pay the better the bikes. We opted for somewhere in the middle and paid 470B/£48 at Barro Bikes.

It was an 8am pick up from the hostel to get to the start of the road and meet our bikes and put on our incredibly fetching outfit, complete with knee and elbow guards. I have to admit the bikes had seen better days and I was jealous of the brand spanking new ones the group next door had.

Fully fitted out and with our working bikes we followed the guide out on to the road. The first thirty minutes are all down hill on a winding highway through the valley. It was head down for full aerodynamics and full speed ahead.

Some poor girl had hit a massive pot hole in the road and must have gone over her handle bars, as she was being attended to by the side of the road. This is definitely not for the faint hearted.

We make it to the start of the Yungus Road aka the ‘Death Road,’ and the road turns from tarmac to gravel, with bumps and holes all over the place. Looking out across the valley I can see the sandy coloured road bend around the edge of the mountain, far into the distance.

The guide takes off again and I’m the first to follow, zipping down the hill I follow his tracks as he knows the best route. Navigating the tight corners, with just a few bushes between me and the cliff edge and the hundreds of metres down to my death.

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With more than 20 cyclists, a bus and few lorries, this road has taken many lives. Thankfully the last was back in 2011, and in the last 6 years safety has improved. But one wrong turn or boulder at the wrong corner I could quite easily be a gonna.

The guide stops so we can wait for the rest of the group. Who I realise are miles behind. Poor Esteban has his second puncture of the morning and meets Keno and me and ask ‘how do you go round the corners so quick”.

I actually surprise myself at how little concern I have and just go as quick as I can for the remaining 2 hours of cycling.

The adrenaline and thrill of it all is incredible. I have never been this fearless before. As we descend further and further I de-layer more and more clothes as the heat gets too much under the days sun. We were lucky with the weather, only a few days before the route was covered in snow.

The guide stops at the most prolific corner for taking lives. I sit down and dangle my legs over the edge of the cliff edge, knowing that a bus and few lorries have gone over; pretty scary.

At the end some much needed beers are in order. A short drive and we arrive at the lunch destination with a swimming pool. Best chips in South America so far. Undercooked chips are very common in South America – so two helpings are required here.

After an hour of playing about in the pool with some of the group, it was time to load back into the mini bus and make the two hour journey back to La Paz. Fingers crossed we would make our 8pm bus to Sucre.