Unboliviable

12 – 21 January 2012

From Lake Titicaca we caught a bus on to the Bolivian capital of La Paz – the world’s highest capital city. The view as we arrived was amazing as the city sprawls over a huge valley, with every inch of hillside crammed with houses. After checking into our hostel, we started exploring the city, which gives the impression of being one huge, never-ending marketplace. Along the main boulevards, stalls and street sellers lined the edges of the pavements, on the hills between our accommodation and the bus station, the streets were filled with stands selling everything you could possibly imagine and in the narrow streets of the old city, artisanal goods hung everywhere. Of particular note was the so-called “witches market”  – a small neighbourhood where you can buy everything from medicinal herbs to dried llama fetuses (in Bolivia, burying a llama under your new home brings luck, and if you aren’t rich enough to sacrifice a real llama, one of these will do the trick instead!)

The following day, we embarked on our next adrenalin inducing adventure, this time in the form of cycling “The worlds most dangerous road”. This single track road, which connects the amazon area of Bolivia to the capital, descends around 3,000m, clinging to the hillside in a series of twists and turns, with extreme drops of over 600m from the sides. Sadly, estimates suggest that in years gone by around 200 – 300 people lost their lives in accidents on this road every year. However, nowadays a new motorway has been built which carries virtually all the traffic on this route, meaning that the old route is devoted almost exclusively to mountain bikes.

Despite its fearsome reputation, the road was actually great fun to cycle. We were cautious, not getting too close to the edges, but were able to build up plenty of speed as we descended the track. The scenery was spectacular and the adrenalin rush was great – although I’m quite glad we opted for the more expensive, full suspension bikes!

Back in La Paz the following day, as we wandered aimlessly around, we stumbled across a festival taking place in the church grounds. WIth lots of music, bright costumes and fireworks going off, we were curiously observing the festivities from a distance until we were called over and invited to join in. We weren’t able to establish what the cause of the celebrations were, but we offered yummy saltenas (slightly sweet, slightly spicy meat pasties) and cold beers and we followed the carnival-like procession as it made its way from the church out into the city. We felt lucky to have chanced upon the occasion, and even more so to have been allowed to join in!

That evening, we had another authentic(?) Bolivian experience – Cholita wrestling. Seemingly, a popular local sport, the venue was filled with both Bolivians and gringos alike who’d come to see this unique take on lucha libre wrestling, featuring traditionally dressed Bolivian women in full skirts and their hair in pigtails. Neal (a WWE aficionado) was not impressed with their efforts as each fight seemed to follow the same predictable storyline: there’s a goodie and a baddie and a ref who takes the baddie’s side. While the baddie seems to be winning, through a variety of underhand tactics, the goodie always wins through in the end, with the crowd’s support. It was a spectacle to behold if not a very convincing one.

After La Paz, it was on to Potosi, another of the world’s highest cities at over 4,000m elevation and home to some of the countries largest silver mines. The mines are cooperatively worked and tourists like us are able to take tours inside the mines and actually see the men (women bring bad luck) at work in them. Our guide took us deep into the mines, along tunnels that sparkled with traces of silver and zinc, and down shafts of around 30m. We saw the workers winching the rocks out of the mine and carting ton loads of it our of the mountain. Some of the workers were as young as 15. For me, while fascinating, it was a very claustrophobic atmosphere and I was happy when we finally returned to daylight. I can’t imagine working for any length of time in such an environment.

Our next stop in Bolivia was Uyuni where we were to set off on our tour of the salt plains and across to Chile. Unfortunately, we ended up spending longer than anticipated here as we were struck down with food poisoning. If you are going to get stuck anywhere, Uyuni is about as miserable a place as you could hope to be (I wont bore you with all the reasons why), although at least it was a cheap place to get stuck! Finally, when we were sufficiently recovered, we set off on a three-day tour.

The first day of the trip took in a train cemetery, home to abandoned, rusting locomotives and railway tracks and an artisanal markets before reaching the Salar itself. The salt flats were just breath-taking – it was as though we had been transported to some other planet. As far as the eye could see was white like ice. We took the requisite silly photos but it was impossible to capture just how stunning the landscape was.

On the second day, we experienced in a number of different terrains – as we drove through the region in our 4×4 they just seemed to change constantly around us. One minute we would be driving through desert, then snow-capped mountains and rocky crags with lagoons and mirages appearing before us out of nowhere. The lagoons were all different colours, silver, pink and green and each was home to hundreds of flamingoes and some, packs of llamas. It was quite other worldly and magnificent. I must have taken hundreds of photos, but surely none of them will do the area justice.

Our final day was a short one with an early start. We stopped first at the geysers – lots of slimy clay holes, bubbling and spurting into the air (took us ages to de-gunk our flip-flops after). Then it was onto the hot springs which were wonderfully hot to relax in, despite the cold temperature and icy terrain we drove through to reach them. Finally, we passed volcanoes and a green lagoon before reaching the border post to cross into Chile. The trip was amazing – be prepared to be bored by my hundreds of photos when we next see you!!

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