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South America: Bolivia

Bolivia: Not everyone’s cup of coca

by Matt Thomas

I wasn’t really in the mood for Bolivia. But it won me over, sort of. Having negotiated the mosquito infested humididy of south-east asia, and basked in the gloriously developed first world countries of South Korea and Japan, followed by watching the World Cup with passionate, beautiful Colombians, Bolivia was a throw back to the early days of the trip in India, in terms of general organization and scruples of taxi drivers at least.

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La Paz

Arriving in La Paz, the world’s highest capital city at three in the morning wasn’t ideal, and I didn’t even argue as the taxi driver charged me four times the going rate, and even tried to rinse me on the change. Having said that, given the time I thought that I may as well cut the guy some slack. It also came to light that I had calculated quite poorly as despite my meticulous planning, it turned out that I was in Bolivia during the coldest time of their year, and moreover they don’t have central heating, generally speaking, as it’s only cold for two months of the year. The facts that this is a sixth of the time and happens every year apparently irrelevances. Nonetheless La Paz is worth a few days. The main attraction is the death road bicycle tour, that while I didn’t do myself gets great reviews, the more you spend, the better (and safer) it will be. Of the main sights in the city the St Francisco Church is enormous and as impressive as any in South America in terms of decor. The Coca Musuem would make it into any list of top twenty world museums purely for it’s uniqueness. It is tiny but gives a fascinating insight into the history of the production of cocaine in Bolivia, how this links in with Bolivian tribal culture and the current global trade. Similarly it gives information on how this fits into the Bolivian mining industry and the gargantuan amounts of Coca leaves that miners chew on a daily basis, just to get through the day. An absolute must. Being in a valley the next best thing to do is find a viewpoint which gives a good panoramic of the city.

Next stop was Copacabana on Lake Titicaca (yes a real lake, I was vaguely surprised too). There is not a whole lot going on here at this highly tourist orientated beachside resort, that due to the temperature was not at its busiest. The main attraction here is the Isla del Sol, a gorgeously picturesque island, a two hour boat ride away that has a smattering of tranquil guesthouses, and beautiful hiking and walking trails that take you high up, giving magnificent views of the impeccably blue sea, shimmering in the sun. . 

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Isla del Sol

My journey to Potosi was interesting if only for witnessing a, I would guess forty year old Bolivian man throw his litter out the window from the upper deck of the bus, only for it to hit someone on the head on the way down. He was amusingly told off by the Argentinian lady sitting next to me. Similarly there was a, I assume drunk man who kept repeating that he was a teacher and generally shouting in my direction when he got on with his wife. He stopped after a while, but that was a bit weird as well.

Potosi is the world’s highest city so worth ticking off for that reason and if you really wish to, you can go down a working mine. I didn’t, but was told by several who did that they are well, very grim, and almost medieval in terms of safety and working conditions. Not for the faint hearted or remotely claustrophobic. My main abiding memory of my time here was finding not one, but two nails in a hot chocolate I was served at a café. Service in Bolivia is not the best.

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El Salar de Uyuni

My love for Bolivia, was already pretty low before my journey down to Tupiza. When Bolivians protest, they block roads. This has apparently been going on for at least a decade, evidently not to too much effect as they are still doing it. My Spanish is poor at best, although I did think I got the basics, when a bus company representative explained to us that there was a road block and that we would most likely have to sleep on the bus through the night. It turned out that he wasn’t joking. The bus driver bravely went past the queue of cars to the cordon of the road block, however as he went to drive through, the men around the campfires on the side of the mountain perked up and picked up their rocks; clearly they had every intention of throwing them. So a night on the bus in the freezing mountains it was. This was pretty unpleasant for several reasons. Firstly it was bloody freezing, secondly the bloke behind me kept kicking my chair whenever I managed to fall asleep, thirdly however I adjusted my blankets I was always cold somewhere, and fourthly hundreds of people relieving themselves by the side of the road led to quite a stench by six thirty in the morning when the riot police showed up, which was jolly good of them, could of used you last night guys.

Anyway watching riot police charge and desperse protesters was pretty entertaining, especially when they resorted to tear gas. That said they did spend a good couple of hours standing around chatting with the leaders of protest before finally clearing the road. The rest of the journey down to Tupiza was actually stunning, rolling moutains of rugged red valleys with cactae and Joshua trees dominated in the morning blue sky. On reflection it would have been a waste to go through it at night.

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Dali Desert, Uyuni

Tupiza is a pretty little town but acts as the main stop for travellers coming up from Argentina. It is also where I started my much anticiapted Salt Falts (El Salar de Uyuni) tour. The four day tour via four wheel drive vehicle was nothing short of freezing but the scenery was mind blowing. From stunning blue and turquoise lagoons populated by flamingoes to rugged red landscapes.We also took in dramatic canyons and gorges and stretches of desert with mountain backgrounds that could have been (and actually were in some cases) straight out of a Dali painting. The highlight was the Salt Flats themselves, seemingly neverending plains of moon like white plains that has an other worldly and eerie quality best experienced at sunrise. Certainly the highlight of my trip and any time spent in South America.

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El Salar Flamingoes

My final stop in Bolivia was the white washed and charming town of Sucre. This was more like it. There is a beautiful main square for lounging and reading, several excellent ( and a couple of quite poor) Musuems and just a generally educated and laid back atmosphere. The town also boasts a great viewpoint for vistas down the valley.

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Recoleta Square, Sucre

Bolivia is not without its positives. El Salar is breathtaking in its own right, La Paz is good for a day or two, Isla del Sol is beautiful and Sucre charming. All that said, although the buses are cheap and reasonably punctual, I had a bit of a strange time getting around here, so I would suggest patience is required. I got the feeling that while tourists are not unwelcome outside of the main areas, that Bolivian men in particular were content to sit around not doing a whole lot rather than something more proactive. This is at odds with somewhere like Vietnam, which while still relatively poor, has a tenacity and detemination to improve its lot. The same cannot be said of Bolivian women who often would be carrying a huge bag of potatoes, two children and be selling handicrafts at the same time. The contrast was actually quite shocking. Overall I would say give Bolivia a chance, but go at the right time of year and stick to the good bits.