48hr Friendships in Torotoro

There was also a social aspect to our time here. We were joined at our hostel by a typical group of young travellers. One of them approaches me by the fruit trees, a young Swede by the name of Frederick. He bears a look of cautious optimism, like a tender child hopeful of new companionship but with some underlying, as yet unexplained, terror. Pleasantries are exchanged, and he starts earnestly asking if we’d like to join them this evening. His eyes nervously flit back to the others who are establishing themselves on the far side of the hostel. I’m unsure about our evening plans and my momentary hesitation elicits a pleading, practically begging expression. One of his companions is watching with veiled intent and shouts over “Frederick!” With subtle desperation he wordlessly implores me. I consent and he scampers hastily back to the others. This was shaping up to be a most intriguing evening.

We agree to meet at the gringo bar, every town on the trail has at least one of ‘em. They offer bland Italian food at quintuple the local meal prices along with overpriced international beers and sycophantic service. So, a place where travellers can feel comfortable and at home rather than, I don’t know, immersed in the local culture or some shit. This is the place. There’s a dinosaur up front and wicker chairs with cushions to attract said gringos. Further, in keeping with Andean tradition, a bold sign saying “WIFI” is hung prominently out front, purely for aesthetic reasons of course.

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Like many establishments in this country it has three walls and is open to the street, so on the edge of the otherwise empty bar we find them, part way through a round of ring of fire. For the uninitiated (i.e. my parents), ring of fire is my generation’s drinking game of choice. A full deck of cards is set face down in a circle around a pint glass. Each person has a turn taking a card and each card has a rule associated with it; for example, 2= drink 2 fingers, 8= pick a mate who drinks when you do etc. Amazingly it’s my first game on our travels, bearing in mind that I probably played it every other day of my two months in Australia’s East Coast.

Frederick continues to seek our protection like a wounded puppy, desperate for love. Also present are three Canadians and a Brit, we’ll call him Damien. Depressingly, I am the oldest person here. Damien demands immediate and sustained attention. He has Harry Potter glasses, a sandy traveller’s beard and the macabre, scathing wit of the English coupled with the brash, shameless confidence of an American. A fierce combination and clearly the source of Frederick’s anguish. Turns out our Brit Shanghaied Frederick at a bus station a week ago and by the Swede’s own admission he doesn’t know where the time went or how he can escape from the relentless brutalising. Such a tender young man. As we settle and order Damien doesn’t skip a beat and out pours a steady stream of sexual depravity, personalised insult and mock racism. His first engagement with me is to inform the rest, “He’s English, he gets it”. He’s not wrong. The humour I’ve shared at college and uni was the blackest of black, the foulest of foul. No topic of limits, no joke beyond the pale. On the one hand I feel like I’ve outgrown the need to rely on this goblin humour, but on the other I can still comfortably hold my own. The others in the group have a varying comprehension of black English comedy and this standard of banter is clearly an all round revelation that reveals shock, awe and disgust in equal measure. Frederick, bless him, is furthest off the pace and thus the easiest target. He’s just a little too sweet and innocent. Not that our Brit’s choice insults are particularly intellectual, mostly revolving around implied homosexual activity in Scandi saunas (apparently nudity is mandatory and it’s gender segregated so, go figure), excessive consumption of meatballs and… well that was about it. It’s quite hard thinking of insulting Swedish stereotypes; they’re kind of world beaters in everything, apart from winter daylight hours. Boom, take that Sweden! Nonetheless it was refreshing seeing someone try to unpick the Scandinavian miracle, however crassly.

With Damien, Ring of fire’s ‘make a rule’ card tends to focus on targeting one’s enemies. Frederick has to play with his chin on the table, I force the Brit to show Frederick some care for a change by saying I love you and kissing his cheek each go. He clearly resents this to my delight. In revenge he gets me to fellate my glass bottle before every drink. My skills draw adulation and question marks all round. A few rounds in I bring the bottle to my lips with a little too much enthusiasm and knock an incisor hard, chipping an edge off. This concerns me a fair amount despite unanimous insistence that it is both funny and not a problem. The rest of the evening is spent tonguing the rough edge and imagining how to restructure my limited future options after my transformation into Cletus. Surprisingly the game doesn’t reach the messy conclusions one would expect and we depart with some measure of togetherness. We retire, and all agree to join forces in getting a colectivo the following afternoon to blow this one horse town.

Against all odds we link up with the gang in the right place at the right time and by some miracle a suitably sized vehicle is waiting there, empty and available. There’s a little ticket office adjacent in another unusual measure of organisation. Damien nominates Fred to organise and I’m not one to rock the boat so we all vote him to be the go between. A price is agreed and we hop in expecting to go. After a few minutes we prod Fred to enquire on the delay and are informed they are waiting to fill the remaining four seats. Standard practice but these guys want to move so we pay a little extra to get going now. A few more minutes and we get Fred to ask again, apparently, they are now waiting for two people and will not leave for love nor money. Our friends aren’t patient. Within moments of being on the bus the complaints started and quickly built to a roar of outrage coupled with an aversion to do anything productive about it. Damien starts heckling people in the street to get on the bus so we can get out of here. He jokes about kidnapping some of the children playing near us to fill the seats. It probably takes an hour or so before two people get on. They’re now waiting for one more. We argue. One more gets on. Still waiting, more arguing. We want back the extra money we paid. More arguing. Money returns. We eventually start moving. For me, this was what I’d come to expect with buses and taxis in South America so the group’s anger and lack of comprehension for Latino timekeeping was a tad baffling. More filthy talk is had on the bus and then brief goodbyes back in Cochabamba. Frederick’s pleading look is turning into a thousand yard stare as we part. Good luck kid, you’re gonna need it. Another round of 48 hour friendships rises and falls.

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Torotoro- For the Love of Goldblum

Our bus from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba was running late. The classic gamut of a late start and numerous inexplicable stops in random places. There’s one micro a day from Cochabamba to Parque Nacional Torotoro, it’s at 6am. At 5:20 we’re still across the city in the bus waiting to arrive, but somehow these scenarios feel destined to pan out. A tough debate on price with a sheisty taxi driver and we’re at the stop minutes before leaving. After boarding I awkwardly have to demand a stop at some cash machines as we have no money. My cards don’t want to work (this happens about half the time) but on about the third try in the fourth machine we have success and off we go for a pretty uncomfortable, bumpy five-hour drive on a packed bus to the middle of nowhere.

Torotoro Village

The village reminds me a little of lovely, slow pace Samaipata although it’s smaller, quieter and more remote. There is a small selection of tourist restaurants, hostels (promising free WiFi! ha) and cheap local eats. Crucially, Torotoro probably has the best village square in South America, judge for yourselves…

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There were dinosaurs and a dog. I’ve never seen Kim so happy.

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It was immaculately maintained and we liked the sprinklers made out of 2L Coke bottles with little holes punched in them, did the trick beautifully.

You may ask, “So Jon, why the dinosaurs?”. Well, Torotoro is literally Jurassic Park. I mean we actually saw Indominus Rex and the Goldblum: the whole prehistoric shabang. The wind blows an epic John Williams soundtrack and there are legit Parasaurolophus running round up in hyah’. I saw a guy getting torn apart by biologically inaccurate representations of Velociraptors one evening. It was wild. Besides the wholesale slaughter of puny humans, the area is also famed for its abundance of fossilised footprints and, er, fossilised other fossils.

We stayed at the most charming little hostel called ‘Las Hermanas’ (a little way off the plaza on the road towards the dino footprints). It was run by the world’s oldest couple, Hernan and Justina. They had all the traits of the super-elderly; bottomless generosity, rambling incoherency, almost total deafness and that pottering shuffle. They fit the prehistoric vibe perfectly. Hernan was always immaculately put together in a classic, Cuban green suit with a flat cap, however he’d managed to shave off the right half of his moustache, the pencil thin left barely hanging on and being an irresistible point of focus. On arrival he picked us some mystery fruit from the garden, it started off sweet and lovely, but he neglected to tell us not to eat the seeds which were foul beyond reason and required minutes of tongue scraping and much water to be rid of. The next morning at breakfast it took us about five minutes of standing directly in front of him and saying his name loudly before he became aware of our presence. Justina was a little more with it, but each conversation tended to be us saying one thing, her hearing another and then a roundabout journey to a mutual understanding. Lovely couple but they had the most sinister brood of cats I’ve ever encountered. There’s about five of them and when trying to pass three would block your way in front and glare with murderous intent, one would appear behind to block the escape and the last would be hidden somewhere in the vicinity ready to leap out in ambush if by some miracle I managed to get away from the others. The rest is all a blur but we somehow survived. Related aside: Kim did some research and apparently the collective noun for a group of feral cats is a “destruction” because obviously. Beyond that the bathrooms could be described as charmless at best, deadly at worst. I’d give it four stars.

The surrounding Parque Nacional Torotoro has the best setup for tours I’ve found in all of Peru and Bolivia. There is one government office that runs it rather than a myriad of operators with uncertain credentials. Unlike anywhere else I’ve been the guides seemed to be trained and regulated, many being palaeontology students from Bolivian universities (a perfect placement for them), experienced locals or cherry-picked guides from other parks. They were all knowledgeable, friendly and responsive with good English (This makes a huge difference, particularly with the palaeontological sites and complex geology here which requires a fair explanation to fully appreciate). They open the office in the morning and just after lunch (tours start around 7am and 1pm if I recall); they check who’s there and what tour they want, divide the cost between the numbers, assign a guide and you’re off with a very un-Bolivian efficiency. I really appreciated the system here and wish more places would adopt it. There are about a half-dozen tour options here including two popular ones that everyone does. We did three…

Dinosaur Footprints and El Vergel

We took our first tour the afternoon just after we arrived. About eight of us are guided around the fenced off site of dino prints just outside the village. Like the Cretacico park in Sucre there are hundreds of dino prints, however it’s easier to wander around them by virtue of them not being, well, vertical and 200ft above you. It’s very cool. There are Ankylosaurus type things and the big bad Carnotaurus (with the ridiculous tiny arms) and many are very clear. The prints were made by the beasties when they trotted through mudstone, which then hardened, preserving them, and have now been pushed uphill by tectonic action.

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It’s the three-toed hole to her right amidst the graffiti if it’s not obvious.

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The first of many, many, many group shots. Also, my shirt/ boardies/ backwards cap combo looks even sexier than I remember.

Across the road we join a couple of burros in contemplating two lines of massive Sauropod prints by the stream, a mummy and baby.  One of the coolest sets is of the Pterodactyls, you can see the footprints, handprints and the marks from their elbows all lining up together and they are BIG. It’s as evocative as muddy imprints, millions of years old, can get.

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Big and little Sauropod 🙂

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Kimmy T-rexing in a footprint that’s bigger than her. Sporting the gnarly leg injury she got in the botanic gardens.

After this we carry on down a scenic, dried up river bed (looked like a good picnic spot) past various natural rock bridges and hanging gardens to get to the canyon.

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Everytime our guide took a picture he’d get us to say “Whisky”. I’d estimate a good 70 whiskies that afternoon.

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Our guide beside yet more big footprints

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This is one of 10 photos he took on our camera at this one spot, same again for the other five cameras. Safe to say enthusiasm started to wane

It is quite an impressive canyon indeed, about 300m down, a down we must walk on a long steep staircase that tests all of our enthusiasm. Once at the bottom we follow the river bed, scrambling over boulders as we go until we reach ‘El Vergel’, a postcard perfect set of waterfalls coming down the canyon walls through rich foliage.

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We were told the microclimate here would mean warm water for swimming so we got the cossies on and had a crack. It was of course freezing, I mean teeth chattering body trembling cold. I coerced Kim into climbing through the cascades with me and having a cold shower cos nothing says fun like profound discomfort! Oh how we laughed! The others didn’t brave it, so we had the falls to ourselves and we took the opportunity to have a good ol’ play. Kim aimed to perfect her ‘Last of the Mohicans’ waterfall leap, although this was a challenge given our violent trembling and the fact that we basically had to chameleon around on all fours to prevent slipping. We don’t have pictures so you can assume she managed it and looked very cool. We had another good scramble about on our return before the walk back up which was a good test of the legs. Kim and I just about passed. From there it’s a straight shot back to the village while enjoying the sunset.

Ciudad de Itas and Cueva Humajalanta

This is the one all-day outing in the park. A fair drive up through the crazy hills that flank Torotoro valley brings us to the city of the rocks. Ancient rock paintings prove its enduring suitability as an abode and the views are great, the caves grandiose and impressive and the little canyon in the middle a delight. It’s a real playground and Kim and I embrace that aspect as best we can considering we are in a group of humans who might judge our silliness.

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Iguana rock

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This is my cave face.

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This is my cave dance…

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…part 2 of said cave dance

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This is my cave art.

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We stood here for quite a while, slightly moving our heads until all of us were caught by the light from a hole in the roof.

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Coming out of the cave it’s Kims time to be splendid.

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Classic Bolivian hilltop “Eaaaagle!!”

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Dino prints all over the damn place

Part two of the day is an exploration of one of Bolivia largest caves and what an introduction to the fine art of spelunking it is! You slide, scramble, climb and crawl through hundreds of metres of this subterranean world. As it’s Bolivia it also requires some health and safety defying, slippery abseiling and rock climbing. Oh how I love it here. Plentiful stalactites (I get told off for touching one which can apparently stop them growing), an underground river and huge halls are among the highlights. It is a home for vampire bats, who are more elusive than their guano, and blind cave fish. We find a few and Kim names one Chalky. I miss Chalky. At points it really is a squeeze, even more of a struggle as a tall person, but our awkward shimmying and fear of getting stuck is a right ol’ giggle anyways. There is a definite waist limit to get through and Kim and I muse on the awkward task the guides must face of telling people they’re too fat to make it. Hopefully with a little more tact than that. At one point our guide gets us to turn our headtorches off to make total darkness and uses the invisibility to sneak up on one of the girls to give her a fright. There ain’t no bants like Bolivian cave bants!

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Genuinely the clearest caving photo we have.

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Our final hike was just Kim and I along with another good guide (Anyone who can casually pull off a cowboy hat is a cool guy). We head out west from the village into the great, fin shaped hills that rise in awesome waves on either side of the valley. It’s great getting a closer look and seeing the different strata of rock; white and red each many millions of years apart in age and forming wonderful stripes of bold colour.

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The path passes an unassuming, dried stream bed which is absolutely brimming with 400million+ year old marine fossils. This area, like the Salar de Uyuni, was once on the sea floor. Trilobites, shells, corals and a myriad of miniature mystery creatures are embedded in the rocks and we are free to take our time inspecting them closely. It is quite fascinating. Despite being firmly told not too, I slyly rescue/ steal a tiny and attractive little ammonite style shell under the logic that it would probably just have been washed away to obscurity in the next rains without my intervention. Just don’t tell the fuzz.

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My shameful souvenir.

Afterwards we ask if we can detour up the top of the hill which was very well worth doing. The terrain here is utterly unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else; the valley looks like a thirty-mile-tall giant flopped down in a muddy bathtub and the waves splashing out froze into these mesmerising formations. Being on one is the best way to appreciate the mad shapes.

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The canyon from our first walk.

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Our guide and the village in the background

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On returning we passed the towns little arena and even that’s awesome.

There are several other hikes in descending order of interest but I’m sure worthwhile if they have even half the attraction of the walks we took. The park has had me constantly spellbound with its beauty and complex natural history. Such a wonderful, unique place and still in that quiet, in between phase where it has some travellers’ facilities but is well off the main gringo rut.

If somehow all this hasn’t sold you on it then there’s still one more attraction…

Image result for the goldblum

 

You’re welcome.

 

 

 

Samaipata- Bolivia’s place to rest and get stinky pig legs

When I read that this town in the south of Bolivia had become a haven for European expats I was both intrigued and a little dubious. Does it come with a Starbucks and white, dreadlocked jugglers kind of dubious. Thankfully not and I absolutely get the appeal. If I chose to live somewhere in Bolivia it would be here, hands down.
It’s a small, super sleepy town but it has the necessary​ facilities; a small selection of good restaurants and a couple decent bars. The weather is pretty idyllic, hot but not oppressive, the altitude’s not bad either. There is a modest gringo population passing through to keep things fresh, some stay. That said you mostly see locals and they seem content relative to other places in Bolivia. The setting is utterly picturesque and, most appealingly, is located beside Parque Nacional Amboro, a diverse and fascinating region.

We arrive at the convenient hour of 3:30am. The bus driver removes our bags from the hold along with a sleeping man who gets out, throws up and shuffles inside the part of the bus where the humans are normally kept, the driver barely responds. After a failed, shouted window exchange with the place we wanted to stay we ended up at Aventuras Hostal. They have a VW camper in the yard surrounded by tent rooms. More importantly it has probably the most chill business owner I’ve ever seen and he let us in with a friendliness totally unmatched to being woken by strangers at 4am.

We slept in of course, got our bearings in the town and then took a walk to a charming little animal shelter just outside town. On the way we pass Italian style villas with gorgeous views, donkeys and horses, and a man selling French bread from a wheelbarrow. This place does not feel like the rest of Bolivia. The shelter has monkeys, parrots, coatis, a rhea, a deer and some kind of small jungle cat (not a jaguar kitten like one of our new friends thought, nor was it Baboo unfortunately. Cute though). As we chatted about tours with a couple of peeps from the hostel a big stinking peccary (furry pig thing) came over and spent about ten minutes roughly licking the sunscreen from my knees. There was much stench and Kim teased me for having stinky pig legs. Nice place, but don’t go on the slide, I have a sore bum and permanent rust marks on my shorts to show for that.


The format for tours here is that there is a set overall price, so the name of the game is to find as many people to join you as possible so you can split the cost into smaller chunks. With a group of 5-6+ it is real cheap but even as a pair it’s loosely affordable by western standards. Annoyingly you need a guide anytime you go into a national park in Bolivia or we’d do it without a tour. Generally fine but there are straightforward hikes on good paths that could be better enjoyed at your own pace in solitude. That being said they still have so much good nature here that it’s worth every measure to protect it.

Anyways, we organise a group for a spectacular looking walk along mountain ridges to the ‘Codo de Los Andes’ (elbow of the Andes, they turn south here) then hit the town. There is a festival on for the town’s founding and the square is full of stalls, drinks, food and people. On the big stage the compère does a long speech, he mostly seems to repeat that it’s the birth of the town today and then expects an applause, there is none. Afterwards a jam band takes over as we have some delicious choripan (chorizo roll). Unfortunately we were misinformed, thinking this was the preamble for the main event tomorrow which didn’t happen. So we missed out on hogging an awesome looking collection of Foosball tables, damnit!

Our tour the next day is with Tierra Madre, the owner is a really animated Italian man in a turtleneck. And I mean animated by Italian standards so…insane. We drove to a perfect little mountain lodge and had fresh lemon juice and a wander while we waited for the clouds to clear. The property, and lush valley at large, is full of fruit. Federico, the owner and our guide, shows us round the orchard stopping at the coca tree to give the leaves a sniff and say “This one is the most important!”.

We stroll around, it’s idyllic, but after two hours waiting the clouds haven’t moved so we decide to cut our losses and return. On the drive back Federico’s mood turns and he argues with a high velocity Spanish and confusing repetition that leaves us stunned and bewildered. Oh well, we get our refunds. Apparently he spent the rest of the day sulking and bitching to other clients. And if it wasn’t clear already, he was on all the coke. Deary me.

After that debacle we decide to carry on up to the local ruins, piling onto each other in the back of a tiny taxi. The dials say we’re going 180km/h and that the engine’s on fire, yet it feels suspiciously like we’re crawling up the steep mountainside. The fuel gauge, indicating empty, seems more accurate. We judder to a halt halfway but not to fear! The driver pops out, has a five minute tinker and by some magic we’re off again.

This is a suitable junction to have a little chat about Bolivian driving culture. Basically the roads are generally (though not exclusively) pretty bad and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of driving education. The traffic is highly aggressive, battling for every possible space, often against logic. For example there was a roadworks blocking one lane and our taxi approached at the same time as a lorry from the other side. Rather than waiting for the other vehicle to pass, the obvious quickest action, both drive through to the middle find themselves stuck and spend a while arguing about who should back out. There is no patience, aside from in the clogged cities you are never stuck behind a car for more than a few moments before the driver overtakes on the blind corner of a mountain bend. Seems like death is preferable to a minor delay here. Near Samaipata on one of these precarious mountain roads with barrierless, eroding drops to oblivion we have the rare treat of a driver waiting for us to pass. As we get close we see he’s about ten. I’m sure he’ll unlearn his driving courtesies by the time he hits puberty. Between Potosi and Sucre our conductor’s technique for dealing with these roads and saving his brakes is to take every hairpin bend at moderate speed and handbrake turn em. It feels a little rock n roll and works quite well to be fair, don’t think it’s the safest solution though. In short, Bolivia’s reputation for dangerous driving is deserved.

Despite this we get to the ruins and lunch at a viewpoint by the entrance which clearly gives good winds for the condors, as we see two fly close by and they are awesomely huge. The views from the hill are great and the ruins themselves are interesting if not mind-blowingly evocative.

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El Fuerte, that circly thing in the foreground is a curled up Jaguar, blatantly.

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Found this fella and debated whether or not he’s a tarantula. I think he is. Thoughts are welcome.

The French are coming out in increasing force as our trip marches on, they are probably the most numerous nation we’ve met. We get drinks with two of them, two good ones. Conversation meets that ideal mix of veering between low and highbrow and we learn some fun card games that are promptly forgotten.

Next day we hike in Amboro’s cloud forest with Rolando, a much better guide from Tierra Madre. He looks like Michael Peña. It is gentle but really slippery with the mud, there are a few undamaging falls in the group. Michael explains the uses of various plants, including the ones that will give a wild high or aid an abortion. Crazy country, interesting to see how many of the myriad leaves have a use though. The best part walks up through a stream over slickrock lending a touch of adventure to the Jurassic Park backdrop.

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Kimmy is a fun-guy!

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You walk up that stream, it’s fun and slippy.

A stunning and vertigo inducing Mirador is reached, complete with condor, and then a straightforward return. Good hike.

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Kim and I watch a pirated copy of Sleeping with Other People (starring Annie’s Boobs) that night, our first homely evening together. We expected average and it modestly exceeded that.

Final day and hike was with Mr. Peña to Amboro’s volcanoes region. This one was a real stunner which started at a beautiful, lagoon side resort. (The first, and one of the only, top end places we see in Bolivia and it’s dead. The country is too rough, the roads too bumpy and the infrastructure too lacking for luxury travel, it hasn’t taken off yet. Backpackers rule here). The hike is varied; first the lagoon, a short climb, a vista laden ridge walk, forested descent and then wading through the river to a swimming hole. Amazing scenery, absolute bliss.

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El condor

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One of I think seven crossings of the river. It’s never above the knees but it gets a tad awkward getting shoes on or off or walking barefoot in between.

Samaipata has been a definite highlight, opportunities for adventure and relaxation abound. There is a lot I’d still like to do here so it becomes the first reason to return to Bolivia one day. To get to the Andean elbow without the rants of an angry cokehead…

Santa Cruz- A quest for sloths and a strange bus ride

A brief overnight stop to hunt for sloths.

Our hostel, Jodanga Backpackers,  was really quite nice but it had an odd vibe. There were a few people stood alone in different areas, nursing bottles of beer and sheepishly looking between their phones and any passers by. It was like everybody was desperate for a friend and a banging night out but had forgotten how to make it happen. One guy tried to get something started as I looked around the hall…

“Lost something?”

“Yeah, my girlfriend”

He chuckles and moves towards me like the adventure’s about to begin but then Kim comes out of her room and I talk to her instead so he sidles back to his solitude. Sorry man, it’s not a ‘night out’ kind of night for me today.

So we go to the botanic gardens with the knowledge that there are sloths within. The gardens are formal at the front, and then there is a large forest that makes up most of the area and considering its proximity to the city, it’s actually quite wild. There is a pond with caiman and turtles, a cool viewing tower above the canopy and we see monkeys and birds aplenty. Really cheap too.

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We’re here for sloths though and the place quite magically delivers with two nice viewings. As we watch I come to terms with the fact that I’ll never make Kim as happy as a sloth can.

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Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature

I’d advise against going to the bottom of the park. Unexpectedly it provided the most awkward and unpleasant walking of my whole time in Bolivia. The paths were a flooded quagmire and skirting them was dense, spiny foliage. So it’s mud to your knees or covered in scratches. Avoid.

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Kimmy did not enjoy this part… She was attacked by raptors and barely lived to tell the tale. But she was very brave, didn’t even cry and impressed everyone in Santa Cruz (including the sloths) with her survival abilities. I wish I was more like Kim. [This paragraph may or may not have been written by Kim].

We aimed to go to what is apparently the worlds biggest butterfly place but ran out of time, got our bus and so ended our time here. The bus trip was weird, it was a comfy vehicle with fully reclining chairs where strange things happen. Firstly about six different vendors come on selling different foods, but the ticket lady said there’ll be a dinner stop so we leave it. There is no dinner stop. About fifty minutes after we’re supposed to leave, we’re hungry and under time pressure to get another bus early in the morning. There is a chorus of “Vamos jefe!!” from the other irate passengers and a man comes on with a guitar, a late arrival? Wait, no, he’s unzipping the case, oh please no. He’s stood by our seat and sure enough, bursts into loud song, a passionate Spanish piece. While this is happening there is also background music playing and the film Airplane vs Volcano* in dubbed Spanish. I could write for hours about the wonders of that cinematic masterpiece, from the way 1000 volcanoes burst out of the ocean in an instant to the daredevil attempt to fix a broken engine mid flight with a hammer by dangling a man outside on a chain of seatbelts.  Suffice to say it was hard to take anything seriously with that on in the background. Kim and I try to keep a straight face. Appearing suddenly from the rift, peering over our chair, a little girl with a loud, piercing voice emphatically bursts into song, making a chaotic duet. Kim and I burst into laughter, trying to be discrete as they carry on beside us and the blandly handsome hunk piloting the plane grapples with a terrorist.

Bolivian buses man, something else.

 

*Starring Dean Cain of The Dog Who Saved Christmas , The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation , The Dog Who Saved Halloween , The Dog Who Saved the Holidays , The Dog Who Saved Summer , A Dog for Christmas , A Horse For Summer , Horse Camp , The Three Dogateers , Defending Santa , The Case for Christmas , A Nanny for Christmas , A Christmas Wedding , Firedog , I Do (But I Don’t) , Gentle Ben and Gentle Ben 2—Danger on the Mountain fame.

Dean

Just look at him with that bear, no wonder he’s a star.

San Pedro de Atacama- The Infinite Frontier

Smuggling drugs between Bolivia and Chile would be easy. The border control is in town about twenty miles into the country, hopping out before then would be quite doable. Even that’s unnecessary though as the people who check the bags do little more than probe a disinterested hand around the top of your pack. Minor efforts like putting it inside a smaller pocket or an item of clothing or just on you (we didn’t get a pat down) would do the trick. Not that I’m encouraging drug trafficking of course, just observing how half assed the crackdown on what is one of the area’s major trades. Intentionally half assed or not I couldn’t say.

We hadn’t planned on coming to Chile but many travellers had recommended a stay in little San Pedro and seeing as it’s only a half hour over the border after the Uyuni tour we thought we’d see if it’s worth the fuss. Quick conclusion: worth a trip, enjoyed it but don’t fully understand the hype.

The appeal lies in it’s laid back hippie vibe, cute Adobe streets and the myriad tour options that explore the stark and varied landscape that surrounds. Furthermore the climate, being that the altitude is lower, is far more agreeable than the frozen, wind battered Altiplano that offers similar scenery. We had just come through the Salar though so had already seen the big volcanoes, flamingo populated lagoons and high altitude geysers that people​ flock to San Pedro for. There’s plenty on offer though so for something different we aimed to visit Valle de La Luna and do a stargazing tour.

On arriving at its pleasant, leafy plaza we come across dreadlocked jugglers, expensive cafés and a level of order and organisation that feels quite alien after my time in Bolivia. It seems relaxed so we follow suite and have a good lie in, the all important internet catch up and a wash. A sign asks us to limit our showers to three minutes as this is the Atacama: The driest place on earth (a point of pride in these parts). But having four day’s worth of desert sand caked into our scalps requires some tender love and care so like the self interested, energy glugging westerners that we are we indulge in double digit shower time. Cue: X gon give it to ya.

Our first day we wander round town, ominous clouds limiting our options. There isn’t much to see, a small church and countless hostels, tour companies and overpriced tourist shops. It’s pretty though and has a friendly atmosphere. There is an old fort out of town, ‘the fort of 300 heads’ if I recall (it was a couple weeks ago now) so called because, well, when the Spanish finally overcame the stubborn natives here they stuck 300 heads on spikes as a warning to other resistors. Ahh, isn’t colonial history fun! Europe was such a good influence on the world. The ruins themselves are of modest interest and are scenically set but it’s quite hard to envisage what once was amidst the crumbling stones. It had some spanglish par excellence though.

 

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We became quite endeared to our friend Slippery ‘The Path’.

 

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We (/I because I am a child) of course took this as a challenge. We’d already been throwing all the ‘Throw Stones’ anyway

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The fort, sans heads

While we’re there the rain starts and slowly builds. It rains enough that the streets turn into a quagmire. It rains enough that, paradoxically, the water stops working in the town (the flooding cut a pipe I think). In the higher areas it snowed, enough that the pass we came over the night before became impassable and many people’s Uyuni tours were cancelled. I had the impression of the Atacama as a dead place of cracked earth, parts of which hadn’t seen a drop of water fall since records began. And here we were, rained in, for the first time this trip I might add, in the driest place on earth.

It abates by the next morning. The town’s response seems comparable to when we have two inches of snow in England. It seems minor enough but the services just can’t​ handle it. So no showers because the waters off, and obviously no water so need to buy. We wanted to rent a bike and cycle to the Valle de La Luna​ but were told that when there’s a bit of mud about, bikes can’t function apparently. Mountain bikes. We had straight rejection from five rental agencies saying the roads were unstable, it cannae be done! And then we went to a sixth and final one and they were like “Yeah, sure”. Huzzah! Persistence pays off. (The resistance became utterly confounding as we did the ride, the roads were well drained tarmac, gravel or dust and had baked dry in the desert heat already)

Kim and I aren’t much for bikes, she hadn’t been on one since she was fourteen, and our bike fitness was clearly minimal. The ride is, I imagine, easy for a cycle-y kind of person. For us not so much. It didn’t help that the seats were hard, high and unadjustable so as we spent hours on the bumpy roads the bike seat areas of our bodies (I don’t know the medical term for that part, we called it the Gooch bone) took a continual pounding. Each time you saw someone getting off or on the bike you could see the tell-tale wince. On the plus side the views made it absolutely worth it, the name was utterly appropriate, it felt pretty cool riding a bike on the moon (even if we didn’t look it).

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One rolled up trouser leg is a fashion statement I’ve taken to.

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The cycling option beats a tour because it’s fun in itself, can be done at your own pace and avoids the selfie snapping crowds.

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Dog without trousers but still enjoying the sunset.

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Sunset Crowds

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The ride back in the dark… Kimmy did not enjoy this part… She was literally inches from death when a car started passing and she hit thick sand, nearly falling to her doom. It’s quite incredible that she lives to tell the tale. But she was very brave, only cried once and impressed everyone in San Pedro with her ability to not fall off the bike and under the wheels of the car. I wish I was more like Kim. [This paragraph may or may not have been written by Kim].

The clouds had been threatening all day so so it was a pleasant surprise when it cleared for stargazing. It’s just about the best place on earth to stare upwards. The predictable weather patterns, high altitude and unpolluted, dark, cloudless skies (most of the time) combine for exceptional visibility. The world’s most powerful telescope, a 10km array of radio dishes and antenna called ALMA is nearby. It’s worth looking up, very interesting.

Our tour involves a short drive out to an Observatory, a presentation on the cosmos by some enthusiastic Spanish speaking guides that largely goes over my head, and then we look at the sky. The guide has the most impressive laser pointer we’ve ever seen and points out various stars and constellations; Cruz del Sur, Scorpio, the derpy space Llama etc. Annoyingly these are all southern hemisphere things so when I’m back home I’ll still be totally ignorant. I want that laser. Also hot chocolate, they promised hot chocolate and for some strange reason I don’t have hot chocolate. Next we use the telescopes which is great, looking into dense clusters of stars, invisible to the naked eye and close ups of the butterfly constellation. Still no hot chocolate, I’m having a delightful time but there is a big hot chocolate shaped hole in my life right now. Most arresting are the close up views of Jupiter and Saturn; their patterns and rings quite clear. Through the little telescope hole it looks like an ol’ timey stop motion film, I expect the planets to turn around and have a monocled, mustachioed face. As the tour time draws to a close we’re ushered into a room. My mounting rage subsides; it’s hot chocolate time. I’d been fearing it was a sham and that there were no hot drinks or snacks but after two hours of toying with me they gave me my satisfaction. I stuff myself with the communal Doritos and call it a day. A great day.

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They pointed a camera at us for about five minutes and didn’t tell us when they were starting the long exposure shot. On the plus side- evidence that I did get my hot chocolate.

And that was about it. Next day we had the long drive back to Uyuni (the Chilean border point had füsbol, the Bolivians had no games) and then on to the tragic city of Potosi.

Also dog with the trousers was good.

Uyuni- Mars, volcanoes and stars

It feels like quite a while since I was last with Kim, it was only three weeks but they were really busy and long. The anticipation builds on my train ride to Uyuni and meeting up in the hostel late that evening is quite a big moment. We don’t have much chance to catch up though as a young American girl sits with us and chats about her everything for a while. She offered us to stay at her parents cabin in Montana after about five minutes.

Uyuni is another cold, ugly, dusty, but unusually​ expensive (relative to Bolivian standards) town on the Altiplano. It came into existence as a train depot for the region’s mineral exports and a military base. Yet there are more tourists here than anywhere else in Bolivia because it’s the launch point of ‘the big one’, tours to the Salar de Uyuni. So what’s that? You’ve probably seen one of your gap yah friends post a perspective shot from it. Roughly speaking it’s Mars, I’ll let the many pictures (Mostly Kims, apart from the cycling and volcano walk) do the talking.

This guy convinced us to go with Quechua Connections. Genuinely, we were in the agency playing with him for so long we felt obliged.

A train graveyard is the first stop

We acted out an Indiana Jones style chase and fight scene, it was pretty epic.

After an unnecessary stop at a market, we’re on salt!

The bike ride was good fun, the brakes were shot from the salt but it didn’t matter as there’s nothing but space to run into.

Buff up, trousers into socks. Yippee-ki-yay!!

All the flags at the salt hotel

Representing #escocia

Stretches to each horizon

The Paris-Dakar rally was relocated to South America since 2009 amid security concerns in Mauritania. It seems to have become quite a source of pride in Bolivia, the logo is everywhere. The rough and varied terrain seems ideal for the country but our guide Enrique has mixed feelings. On the plus it’s good entertainment for the community and brings in money but on the other hand the presence of unruly crowds is damaging to the fragile environment. All I know is it made me nostalgic for my old PS2 game of it, driving buses over sand dunes is good fun.

I was pretty unenthused about spending my brief time in one of the most stark and stunning environments I’ve been too posing for other people’s jump shots, but having spent good time appreciating the salt on the bikes and in the car, I was ready to oblige and it was largely good fun. The driver’s are experts in the various illusions and make it their mission to get you in as many as possible. Good to a point, the results are fun though.

Deep into the flats is Isla Incahuasi, a conspicuous hill covered in cacti.

They grow up to 12m

Even out here we could find a dog friend.

Fascinatingly, and quite visibly, the island is covered with clumps of fossilized coral. These are remnants of a distant past where the Altiplano was at the bottom of the sea, rather than hundreds of miles from it and 4000m above it. This arch is coral.

A stunning sunset that our cameras couldn’t quite capture.

Day two, the Coral Army

Into Sud Lipez, red martian deserts and huge volcanoes. The only giveaways that we’re still on earth is the snow at the top and the occasional clump of dried grass.

Never not sexy

Volcan Ollague (5868m), it’s​ active and smokes visibly. You can drive about 400m from the summit apparently if you want an easy peak.

Our first of three beautiful lagoons.

Andean Fox

Laguna number two, the stinky lake (sulphur, so rotten egg smell), looked nice though!

One gangster flamingo in contravention of the ‘no fly’ sign.

Laguna Colorado, it turns red when the wind whips up it’s algae. It was real windy.

The flamingos seemed to like it.

Bubbling sulphur springs at 5000m.

Our second night was at a natural hot pool (agua caliente, I’m learning!), which was quite divine, especially after my experience in Sajama. Kim and I shared a bottle of red while we enjoyed the warmth and quite possibly the most stunning starry sky I’ve ever witnessed. The cloudless, lightless, high altitude vantage point is perfect for it. We saw multiple shooting stars, bright and thrilling and an Aussie acquaintance gave me rum. Perfect. Until the next tour group joined us… They were somehow already smashed and shouting, shrieking and jumping about in our calm waters. They left a light on shining over the water which reduces the visibility of the stars and despite sustained heckling they wouldn’t/ couldn’t turn it off. Worse, one of them dropped and smashed a wine bottle by the girls changing room so the girls had a barefoot gauntlet over broken glass to get dry. Sigh, bloody gringos. Another issue was the below freezing temperatures outside, exacerbated by a strong wind that blew handfuls of dust into the back of our hair which would instantly freeze into horrid clumps wherever the water had splashed. It would be another three days before we could wash that mess out. Yet even this and the lightning fast, frozen run to get changed wasn’t quite enough to ruin the magical atmosphere.

One of the rocks looks like a sitting woman. They call these the Dalí rocks.

Our operator (Quechua Connections) were great. The food was really nice, particularly that first lunch of fresh tomato, avocado, quinoa (best I’ve had yet) and llamma steaks.* The English speaking guide was good, making sincere efforts to ensure our enjoyment, although he had an irritating habit of starting his explanations when the first person got out of the car so if you were last crawling out you’d have missed half. The 4x4s were nice and the driver’s safe and friendly, at our second lunch they convinced us we were eating flamingo which got us excited until we realised the windup. The places you stay are pretty darn cold (almost as much as Sajama) and didn’t have the promised warm shower but were nice enough otherwise.

After the tour we get dropped at a hostel by the Chilean border for a couple of nights. Really the middle of nowhere, higher and colder. We’re here to climb Licancabur (5960m), an imposing stratavolcano flanked by Bolivian lagoons on one side and the Atacama in Chile on the other.  Start climbing at 4am with freezing fingers and slowly slog up in the dark. Our guide (always required in a national park) is a quiet young fellow called Will.I.Am, we have good banter such as.

William: Es freo, tienes freo? (It’s cold, are you cold?)

Me: Sí, et tu? (Yeah, you?)

William: No (No)

Classic William!

By the time the sun peers over we’re almost halfway. Unfortunately the altitude hits Kim hard and it becomes clear quickly we need to turn back as she’s feeling physically sick. This abates thankfully by the time we’re back down.

I force Kim to pose before we return like a good concerned boyfriend.

Back at the hostel we decide to try and get over to sunny San Pedro in Chile rather  than have another freezing night with nothing to do. This proves quite the challenge. About sixty jeeps pass through taking tours between 8:30-9:30am and we’ve just missed these. Apart from this the border point has basically no traffic, we try to hitch on the occasional jeep that does come but have the added problem that Bolivian vehicles can’t generally go into Chile.* So a transfer on the other side is required and it’s pretty much a lottery when you get to the actual border if there’ll be one or any space in it. It’s about 6-7 hours of back and forth and heckling vehicles when the last two jeeps of the day pull up and we manage to sneak on their transfer. Bolivian transport is tricky but for a few days, a thing of the past. It’s Chile time!

*Fun fact: Llamma steaks taste good, pretty much like beef but are infinitely more environmentally friendly as they can survive off meager resources and don’t fart ozone shrivelling methane into the atmosphere on a grand scale.

*Fun fact: Bolivia and Chile do not get on. There was a war in the late 19th century where Bolivia lost it’s coastal territories to Chile. This is locally considered to be a major cause of the countries economic struggles and subsequent treaties to mediate seem to have been unsatisfactory to both sides.

Potosi- Silver and slaughter, a mine tour

Entering Potosi I see a dead dog and a hollowed out car crushed under some girders. A bad omen.

The city, claimed to be the world’s highest at 4100m+, is intrinsically linked to the mountain it flanks. Cerro Rico. Now, there are many mountains which could lay claim to being the finest on our bumpy globe, but Cerro Rico mounts a sterling claim to being the absolute worst. More than one in three die on Annapurna, Mont Blanc has claimed thousands of lives, but an estimated eight million people have died in Cerro Rico, and it has caused untold suffering to countless more.

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Why? Silver, it could only be the product of greed, something shiny and useless. The Spanish started excavating in 1545 using indigenous (and later African) slave labour. The quantities of the metal were such that it was the major source of wealth for the empire and the shipments of Potosi silver were utterly essential to its success. The city that sprung up to support the industry became one of the biggest and wealthiest in the world. I haven’t had to read much into it to get an impression of how appalling (wordpress tried to correct that to ‘appealing’, no wordpress. No) the conditions were for the slaves. The principle here seems to have been throw them down the mine, if they last a couple years, result. Accidents and silicosis poisoning were the main causes of death, and still are. The lonely planet guide gives an impression:

In order to increase productivity, in 1572 the Viceroy of Toledo instituted the Ley de la Mita, which required all indigenous and African slaves over the age of 18 to work shifts of 12 hours. They would remain underground without seeing daylight for four months at a time, eating, sleeping and working in the mines…naturally these miners… didn’t last long.

And this is just the tip of a horrendous iceberg. At any rate during the 19th century the silver largely dried up, the town fell into decline but now limps on thanks to modest tin, zinc and lead deposits found in the mountain. And the odd bit of silver.

After much debate and introspection we decide to have a look in for ourselves.

Firstly, the city itself has some nice old buildings in the centre courtesy of its historic wealth but largely it is a very poor and quite sad place.

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A particularly ornate church front with some Indigenous imagery.

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A particularly flamboyant heron with some colonial imagery.

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Ok this image needs some thorough unpacking. Firstly the tigers… When Kim and I made plans for coming to Bolivia one of the things we were quite excited for were the dancing traffic zebras in La Paz (The traffic being so out of control that a bunch of young people in animal costumes have taken to the street, putting themselves at no small risk, to make them safer). Well, in Potosi it seems they have tigers doing the job. Here’s one being interviewed. Secondly the dogs… These were just confusing. They’re wearing police vests and wandered over the road into the police station where they mingled with all the other coppers. Sooo…dog police? Public relations? Why the fancy hat? Why dogs? Dog police.

Mining tours are the main reason travellers stop here. I’d ummed and ahhed about whether it was ethical or not but on reading up on it figured it could be done sensitively and be beneficial. To this end we went with Greengo Tours run by Julio, a larger than life character to be sure. We are joined on this mission by Shay, a young Israeli guy fresh off his military service which meant that he was Julio’s chosen one on the basis that he could take orders and handle the hardcore stuff we’d be dealing with (He made us a nice veggie noodles, the first self cooked meal I’d had in Bolivia thanks to an abundance of cheap restaurants and a lack of kitchens in hostels). After working in the mines for a few years as a young man Julio saw an interest from friends and travellers in seeing the famously abysmal working conditions there and started taking tours. He’s been doing it for thirty years now and has seen dozens of others follow his, taking tourists into the mine. He’s not impressed, to quote him “they should kiss my ****ing hands”. He rants about the other providers regularly, about how they do a circus show that’s an insult to the workers.

Captions aren’t working right now on my phone. At any rate these mine pics are courtesy of Shay. 

First off we visit the miner’s market where we stock up on gifts of juice, cigarettes and dynamite for the miners. Next we’re off to the cursed mountain itself. Today the mines are run by a number of cooperatives, so the miners are proudly self-employed. They work in small teams (up to about six people) who each have a section of their cooperative’s area. There is a loose and basic system of pension, sickness, injury and death cover but it doesn’t really meet the need. Julio has a relationship with one cooperative and the bawdy banter he has with them is identical to what you’d find on a British building site. The miners, given their tough lot, are friendly and largely quite chipper. There is a lot of pride here, pride in good hard work and of course a hyper-masculine culture. That being said the exhaustion and strain is palpable on those coming off shift; it is brutal work in conditions that haven’t much changed since the 16th century. Tools are basic and safety standards low. Nonetheless we are given insight into the many workings of the mine and it is an impressive undertaking in such oppressive conditions.

It’s worth having a little explanation about coca leaves here, and yes that is coca of cocaine fame. Chewing coca leaves is something of a national occupation; it’s sold at many street stores and is ruminated in the side of ones cheek, you absorb the properties through the gums. Furthermore it’s a Bolivian cultural institution: Evo Morales, the first indigenous president, expelled the DEA from the country as they destroy the plants for its use in the drug trade and then prioritised coca farming. Julio thinks this was at the expense of other crops and has been a problem. He has opinions on everything. So everyone in the mine has a puffed, hamster cheek full of the stuff and its popularity here and elsewhere is an indication of the hardiness of this country. It is a mild painkiller, suppressing both tiredness and hunger. That is why the harder the work, or the less food there is the more you see coca. For our purposes it helps with altitude sickness so we’ve used it a few times to this end, it doesn’t taste great and makes your cheek numb but it’s not the worst habit. It’s also good in tea. Here the younger guys mix it with Ayahuasca (an hallucinogenic cactus) to give it a stronger, more cocaine like effect. Julio said they gave it to him once and then mimed stroking his numb face for a while before saying it wasn’t for him.

After chatting to the miners near the entrance we venture inside. It’s cold, wet and tight but we largely stick to the main tunnels and steer fairly clear of the currently operational areas, so as not to disturb, thus avoiding the worst parts. The pace Julio sets, standard miner pace, is high and tough to keep up with when you’re a foot higher than the average miner and having to bend double while jogging. Also we are very high and air is lacking down here. He explains many aspects of the work and the lifestyle such as the cocky youngsters coming in and the old guys letting them learn the hard way, or miners going home after fruitless days and having domestic dramas (abuse isn’t uncommon). That no miner wants their child to do the same work so they try to get them educated, but then the kid gets a girl pregnant, needs to provide and has to mine anyway (Teenage pregnancy is shockingly high here). He does this all with strange, extended little dramas where he’ll play both characters, I’ll give him this, he commits to his acting. He is a hard man, rude, abrupt and egotistical but honest and sincerely concerned about the miners; he’s set up a foundation to help the miners’ kids with their education. He’s also quite racist; the French, Israelis, Argentinians and Aymara all incurring his scorn. But he had a Scottish drinking buddy so we’re cool. Complex character.

Each of the mines contains a statue of Tio, the devil, who holds dominion underground. The miners feed him with two swigs of the 98% alcohol they drink, then two for themselves. If he’s full of booze he’ll be less hungry, a hungry Tio collapses tunnels to eat miners. Deadly mine collapses aren’t uncommon. This is firmly in our minds as we hear the distant thuds of dynamite explosions. Predictably mine deaths are too commonplace to be a story, but if a gringo on a mine tour died down there, well that would be huge.

Tio himself

After a couple hours down it we’ve had our fill and make our way back. It’s been a hugely insightful experience and as expected, quite disheartening. I ask Julio if there’s any other future; the miners are scraping the bottom of the barrel here as it is and that won’t last forever. He says no, the mine is the city, no matter how desperate it becomes it’s the only past, present and future it has. Good luck Potosi, you need it….

A train ride where nothing happens

I sit next to a weathered old man in a flat cap. He’s drinking from a big bottle of Fanta and talking vaguely to the room, indifferent to if anyone’s listening in that manner typical of the elderly. My Spanish doesn’t stretch to this so, just smile and say “Sí”. He spends most of his time staring intently out the window, muttering. It’s like he’s inspecting the land to make sure everything’s just where he left it, but anticipating some young hoodlums building something vulgar without his permission. 

The train rumbles over Lago Poopo (heehee), there must be a good 10,000 flamingos here. They go on forever… Two German girls a few rows behind seem to giggle each time I look back for spare seats. Assumably this is because everything I do is really weird and embarrassing or because I’m so ruggedly attractive in my unshowered state that they are reduced to flustered schoolgirls at the site of me. Definitely one of those two.

The woman across the aisle demands my attention, asking me turn down the TV. It’s Bolivian pop which seems to have frighteningly specific rules for music videos. All are of groups of average looking, slightly chubby men between about 28-65. They wear black shirts with the top three buttons undone, black trousers and aviators. The song starts with an extended intro from the Andean flautist who is invariably the cool/ sexy one of the group. They stand on a mountain or by a church or in a bull ring and close their eyes and bite their lips in expressions of pure passion while a group of young cholitas do a traditional dance behind them. Cut along side this a beautiful woman in peasant garb collects hay as a bumbling young man vies for her attention, mostly by picking up the same bit of hay, stroking her arm and looking at her intensely. Three shots of the bassist walking up a mountain, an elderly man yelling at the couple for no reason, a sexy tractor ride and the singer punching the air and pulling back his fist with a pained expression and we’re done. That covers all forty or so videos I saw. 

The woman across the aisle doesn’t need my analysis. She needs the TV down. Unfortunately for her she picked a British person for the task. How could I possibly be so bold as to decide the music level for the whole carriage? If I do it the people who want it loud will scorn me, heckle and probably throw me off the train. War will break out between the ‘quieters’ and the ‘louders’. Blood will be shed. I mean can I even do it? Will it just not work and I’ll look like an idiot in front of all my new train friends? Is it even legal? 

Feared as I am I know that somehow saying no to her will be even worse so I get up and put it down from 26 to 21 inquiring to her if it’s enough. I don’t understand her response so sit down quickly resigning myself to at least having made the effort. The music doesn’t sound any quieter. 

Through the window Rhea’s do that crazy ostrich dance and Vicunas watch us with bemusement. The sunset would be amongst the most vibrant and glorious I’ve seen but the woman across the aisle shuts her blind as it starts and I only get glimpses. 

Next up Kim and Uyuni…
 

Parque Nacional Sajama

I’m advised that the bus back from Rurrenabaque to La Paz isn’t that bad. It isn’t to be fair. It’s late, bumpy, takes four hours longer than the twelve I was suggested but it’s fine. I’m covered in mosquito bites and still not entirely past my diarrhoea. My skin and nails are a rusty green after the Amazon swim and some mystery nasty has stung my ear which​ is swollen and throbbing. All my clothes are filthy with the humid sweat. So bring on the cool, lifeless Altiplano climate I think as I’m borderline spooning with the stout cholita sat next to me. Bring it on.

16 hour bus from Rurrenabaque to La Paz.

90 minutes stuck in a taxi in La Paz (some protest has bought the streets to a standstill).

2 hours bus to Patacamaya.

And I’m 40 minutes late for the one micro a day that goes to Sajama. Sigh

There are micros going to a village halfway between​ so I figure that must be better than the ugly, dusty pit stop that is Patacamaya. I make eye contact with a driver which is a pretty serious commitment around here so I’m obliged to him and knowing micros can take a while to fill I ask if I can get lunch, ‘si’ and I’m ushered into a café. Two minutes after getting my soup, he’s back, ‘Listo?’. No, I’m not ready funnily enough. This happens about three more times before I decide to abandon my meal. At least I’m not left behind.

Carahuara de Carangas

‘Toto, I don’t think I’m on the gringo trail anymore’. Kids stare at me like I’m an exotic creature, an alien. This pale giant, hermit cangrejo with his home on his back. Wrapped in bright green straps, wicking t-shirt and ginger tinted beard (yes I admit it). All alien. The hostal I’d read of does exist! They have a penchant for bad taxidermy and I think they put Gokku on my bath mat.

It’s high time I have my first hike so I head for the nearest hill.

Monterani I’m later told, it’s of local religious significance

Scrambling through the rippling fronds of hillside on the way over is a mess of crumbling dirt and cactus. Every plant here clearly relies on having a ‘stabby’ quality. I startle a hare and keep low to avoid curiosity from the local youths. Sometimes when you travel every stranger is a saviour and sometimes every stranger is a danger. It’s not really up to them, more down to how tired I am and what’s in my pockets.

The walk is hard for the unadjusted but not so far and the views are vast. It’s also my first real moment of solitude so I sing and dance to Big Star amongst the broken glass, crisp packets and stones that mark the sacred sight.

Next day I take in the sights.

Chullpas, ancient funerary mounds that dot the land. Packed with the mummified dead and their valuables, all looted now of course.

The Sistine chapel of the Altiplano, it was closed unfortunately. The inside is conspicuously opulent for a small, poor mountain village, it apparently has such quirks as depictions of the three wise men riding in on Llamas.

The golden Llama reigns supreme

The hostel owner says my bus comes to the village but the ice cream vendor says I have to go to the crossroads 5km away. Always trust ice cream, I wait at the cruces, watching the lorries and llamma hearders for two hours then, onwards!

Parque Nacional Sajama

(Sa-hha-ma)

The national park is a broad Altiplano valley at about 4250m, full of llama and hardy plants. Flanking this are rows of snow capped 6000m+ volcanoes. The views are open and impressive from just about anywhere.

Kim says I’ve found a push me- pull you

I link up with two Swiss (Lukas and Claudia) and two French (Laetitia and Joffrey, yes that Joffrey. There’s never enough pigeon pie…) and we check out the hostels. They’re all pretty much the same so we settle on the one that has a nicer breakfast area with a heater prominently placed in the centre (It doesn’t work and there is clearly no intention for it to work; it’s a spiderweb to draw us in). There is no heating anywhere making Sajama the coldest place I’ve ever been indoors. It’s very cold, bearable when fully wrapped, but very cold. We negotiate a price with the twelve year old boy who is on duty; it’s clearly beyond his station so he goes upstairs for the boss. A fourteen year old girl emerges and becomes our main port of call while there. I sympathise, it’s a bloody remote and tiny place to be a teenager, she does her schoolwork when she gets a minute between working.

I develop a strained relationship with my shower who in a moment of tourettes madness I call Terrence. He takes three minutes to heat, during which time you’re being faintly sprayed and blasted with cold air in the tiny room. Then about 45 seconds heat, then cold. Then repeat. It’s cold enough when not naked and wet, my body shakes quite violently as I bargain with him in the interim. But when he’s on hot; pure bliss and all is briefly forgiven.

The French couple have big mountain ambitions so we all go on a couple of acclimatising hikes.

First, up a spur on the massif of Nevado Sajama (6,542m), Bolivia’s highest mountain. We go just over 5000m, and it’s a real struggle for breath when we hit the steep volcanic dust and subsequent scramble. I have moments of empathy for the mountaineers who sack in the struggle, lay on the mountainside and let it be. But I do make it and with no real altitude sickness. The views are stupendous.

Lovely Parañicota (6300m+) on the left with a tornado

At the top with Sajama

The highest forest in the world, little trees

Apparantly the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, played a game of football on Sajamas glaciated summit. It was a stunt to prove that the country’s altitude wasn’t too great for a kickabout in their failed bid to host a major tournament. Legend/ propoganda says he scored the deciding goal. Hard to imagine Dave Cameron or Theresa May going to the same lengths…

Second, we go on perhaps the parks premier hike (as opposed to climb) past three high altitude lagoons.

And suddenly…geysers!!!

Pretty frigid

The hike pops over to Chile for a couple hours

Laguna No. 2

Loads of Viscachas about, we could get quite close and watch them frolic

And oh how they pose

Laguna No.3

Muchos Llamma

Rhea

We had much excitement over the prospect of the hot springs at the end, it had spurred us on during the days harder moments. They weren’t quite the wonderland we’d hoped for. There are two pools, one’s not warm enough to combat the frigid air. The other was about five/ six inches deep, dirty and full of beetles that had some disconcerting motivation to crawl all over us. In the right spot, without breathing deeply you could just about submerge, which was necessary as it was below freezing out. In this state of stasis it was almost pleasant. The promised hot showers were cold so drying and dressing was done at record pace; I awaited the pas de deux with Terrence to remove all the grit. It was about a five minute walk to our pickup and our swimming costumes froze solid on the way.

So Sajama is quiet and well off the main track, few other travellers I’d talked to have heard of it. That being said we all had this feeling that it was just a few years away from becoming a prominent notch in the gringo rut. It’s absolutely gorgeous, the road out is good and it offers highly rewarding high altitude climbing/ hiking that is accessible to beginners. We could picture a big party hostel (‘Get drunk at the world’s highest bar!’), quad bikes charging towards the hot springs and jet skis on the Lagunas. Hopefully it remains a quiet haven, but if development means heating, that would be pretty nice.