We take a joint taxi to Sucre from Potosi and even arriving in the dark we could tell that Sucre is a pretty nice city; Jonyo notices the stark difference, commenting on how this doesn’t feel like Bolivia anymore, Toto. After a failed attempt to stay at one guesthouse, which seemed to be occupied only […]
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.
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.
A stunning and vertigo inducing Mirador is reached, complete with condor, and then a straightforward return. Good hike.
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.
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…
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…
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Just look at him with that bear, no wonder he’s a star.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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…
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like most people I came to Rurrenabaque for a Pampas Tour (The other common option is a jungle tour which goes into the rainforest proper, but these are a tad more expensive and it’s harder to see wildlife so more people, like myself go Pampas).
There are a host of agencies all offering pretty much the same thing: three days, basic lodge accommodation, food, a guide, wildlife spotting jaunts, piranha fishing and dolphin swimming. Encouragingly, there is a minimum price to ensure certain standards are met and there are efforts to enforce it, though some still get away with cheaper and worse. There has been a problem on these tours with guides harassing, catching, holding animals at the behest of ignorant tourists. Fortunately I didn’t encounter any animal interactions that seemed harmful on my trip.
So my experience? Something like this.
This is from ‘Rejected’ by Don Hertzfeld, a little surrealist cartoon classic.
Please kids, if you simply must get diarrhoea, save it for anywhere but the Amazon. It only came upon me the morning of the tour but for some idiot reason I chose to go despite. Yet while there was an ample dose of suffering, most of the time I had some bully good fun.
I was joined by three others: Ellena and Nina, two German girls, and Stuart the Dutchman. Ellena had an endearing enthusiasm for playing pool despite a, shall we say, lack of inherent proficiency and would say “Hola amigo!” in an awe filled yet coddling tone to any creature we passed. Nina liked to laugh at everything and had a skill for finding Hammocks and ceaselessly sprawling and rolling about in them like a cosy bear cub. Stuart was actually called Suart (probably spelt wrong), which I only realised after 4 days with him and was the kind of Renaissance man who can talk European politics and global history as well as dolphin sexuality and bowel movements. His tanning regime is impeccable. Finally our guide, Juan Carlos, his English was pretty good and his knowledge supreme. He would be fairly quiet most of the time, scanning the trees for movement, but would break the general stoicism with occasional booms of laughter, usually at our expense, or by jamming the canoe swiftly through tiny gaps, forcing us to keep focused lest we get a branch to the face. We liked him very much.
Three hours by jeep and we’re at the launch point for the canoes we’ll spend most of our time on. There are about forty of us gringos to maybe ten boats (but definitely 9) and we watch a frolicking mob of Pink Dolphins as they load. I attach my buff to the back of my cap to keep pace with all the wide brimmed, neck flapped hats about. We all look pretty damn sexy. When we are in the boat a local kid of about ten jumps out of the water from his swim, unties our mooring and tries to push us out to water. He struggles for about twenty seconds as we watch, awkwardly, unsure what to do. A man eventually saunters over and gives us the necessary push and we all look at each other agreeing we’ve never felt more like a shitty tourist.
Most of our time is spent on the river, we see many birds: vultures, caracao, macaws, parakeets, hoaxin (punk looking weirdos), storks, herons and much more than I can recall.
Also Caymans here and there, innumerable turtles that the girls always coo at, a python on the drive, another snake gliding over the water and a tree frog in our bathroom.
Then monkeys. The dawn chorus is the howlers with their smokers cough howl, and we are accosted by a group of ruddy adorable squirrel monkeys who bounce about the boat and come within arms reach to investigate us.
Also we saw a sloth, it took about ten minutes between Juan Carlos seeing it and us figuring out where he was pointing but it was great to watch when we did spot it.
With the breeze on the boat, sitting back and trailing a hand in the river, the days are bliss…the nights are a horror. The moment the sun slips off mosquitoes descend by the million. My DEET largely keeps them off but there are just a too many captain! Somehow the humidity seems to intensify after dark and sleep is elusive. The diarrhoea doesn’t help. The first night involves pained trips to the bathroom, which thank the high heavens has a flushing toilet. There is no seat or light though and the mossies take this opportunity to set upon every possible intimate area. But the camp was nice, food was good, it has a bar and a house Cayman which is cool.
We take a couple walks, the first during the horrid night and we see a possum and a mouse. The second on a little island where we get a good look at some Capybara.
Next we try our hand at Piranha fishing and our boat manages to catch 10! I mean they were all Juan Carlos but we willed him on to greatness. It isn’t easy for a fishing noob, they bite plenty but tend to nom the bait away before we can yank em in. I am the one other person who lands a catch, a mighty 3 inch something or other that I hook through the temple. The sorry specimen bleeds everywhere so we kill it for bait, much to the vegetarian girls dismay. One of the piranhas is big enough to keep and gives us a forkful each of pleasant, non-descript white fish.
On the final morning we find some Pink River Dolphins to swim with. We jump in and attempt to follow them but they repeatedly disappear and pop up in the distance, we swim over to where they were and they appear where we started. This goes on for about 45 minutes and our enthusiasm and energy is flagging.
Now this isn’t Orlando or some pristine beach. The water is a browny, black and visibility is inches. When my arms are down I can’t see my elbows. As a result everything underwater is entirely invisible and mysterious. Juan Carlos assures us it’s safe, the innumerable piranhas and Caymans aren’t interested in people but, disconcertingly, he later adds that we shouldn’t follow the dolphins into the reeds: “Cayman”. There are reeds everywhere and every time your leg touches one there’s a moment of panic where you think it’s a croc who would draw the line at being stepped on and snap. So it’s fear of the dark but excitement of the dolphins.
Eventually as we’re giving up hope a new group arrive, three babies and a few adults and these are much less shy. They swim around us, disappearing into the murk and then popping up with a puff of breath that makes me jump everytime. They are often just beyond arms reach and it’s an awesome feeling, much more than I expected (I’ve never had ‘swimming with dolphins’ on my bucket list). All a little scary though. One takes to splashing me and Suart for a while, it’s hard to fight back, stealthy fiends.
I start to notice my feet periodically rubbing on something big, soft and slimy and realise the dolphins are swimming beneath me. The softness turns into something harder, at first I thought a branch but as I keep paddling and kicking it the branch slowly clamps it’s teeth around my big toe. So what to do now? Juan Carlos hadn’t mentioned this possibility. It’s probably fine…but maybe the dolphins’ annoyed with me for kicking it in the face. Maybe he thinks chomping is a game. Maybe he’s got a hunger that only human toes can satisfy. Maybe he’s actually a soft, tiny mouth Cayman. I ponder this for a couple of seconds as the creature and I are locked together, mouth to foot.
And then I do the natural reaction; yanking my foot away, scrapping against his teeth and screaming a little scream. I’m a bit more scared now, he might want more, or piranhas might sense the blood and swarm me so I hurriedly paddle back to the safety of Juan Carlos and the canoe. He laughs and tells me that they latch on gently as play and it’s a sign that you can give them a stroke. A little late for that Juan. It’s also a sign of good luck apparently soooo…good. Bitten by a dolphin, off the bucket list.
Of all the things in the bloody Amazon: a dolphin.
I don’t have dolphin photos because I was, well, swimming with them. I might be able to get some from the girls down the line, they got one the moment I was bitten.
It’s about 30°, blue skies, mid-afternoon. I’m lying on a hammock in the shade by a swimming pool, no one is here. A row of palm trees partially obscure the wide, brown jungle river just beyond. The occasional motorised canoe and strange songs from various colourful passerines are all that break the silence. I’ve not long woken from a siesta and am now absorbed in a good book, Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’s.
But all is not well in paradise. I farted about 20 minutes ago and the air is so thick and still that the odour lingers about me unchanged, noxious as the moment of inception. There is nowhere for it to go, dissipation es imposiblé. Problem is, I’m so drained of energy from the heat and my nap that the thought of moving away is a heinous proposition in perfect equilibrium with the detestability of staying in this fetid cloud. Fortunately after another ten minutes my lungs have adjusted to this atmosphere, forgetting what clean air tastes like and accepting the new state as a permanent reality. When I eventually get up I trip over the hammock and crack my phone.
That’s Rurrenabaque in a nutshell. Well maybe there’s a few other things going on I guess…
Flights leave from La Paz in a rusty little 20 seater, going from the cool mountains to the stifling rainforest in less than an hour. The airport is cute, about the size of a McDonald’s.
I had the impression this was a sleepy village mostly full of tourists but wrong I was. It certainly isn’t very big but is very lively. My first two nights I walk along the river and the shore is full of locals eating at stalls and restaurants, hocking various wares or just sitting on the benches chatting. Everyone here seems to have a 50cc motorbike and the most obvious hobby seems to be whizzing round town in a cyclical procession. Per Bolivian fashion the riders wear shorts and flip flops, maybe a t-shirt if you’re a bit of a wet blanket, and crowd on 3 to a bike. Not a helmet to be seen of course. A large crowd is gathered in the attractive little square, it looks like a cross between a protest and a motorbike rally. Who knows here. Another evening school kids play a game where they link arms and block an intersection, letting some of the bikes through and making it difficult for others. I can’t quite figure out the system but curiously the motorists seem more amused than annoyed. Who knows here.
Both nights I have some absolutely delicious spicy empañadas, fresh tropical juice, watermelon and Popcorn (£1.50 all up) and watch the deep, red sunset swiftly fall. While I’m cosied up on the bench with some friends of hers, the cook tells me it’s B$8 for the food. The friend starts talking to me and I figure out that she’s saying I should pay B$10 by virtue of being a rich gringo. It’s a difference of about 30p that I’m happy to pay, the cook seems a little embarrassed by her friends demands. They talk more to me and I have no idea what’s being said, eventually just raising my arms in confusion and they laugh as I depart.
I stayed at El Lobo Hostel for a couple days before my Pampas Tour (the reason I’m here). It looks pretty nice, muy tranquillo, right by the lovely river but it is dead quiet. The pool table is almost unusably bad. There seem to be three house dogs, including a nice Golden Retriever, who earn their keep by enthusiastically barking at any new arrivals for 5-15 seconds and then returning to their perpetual nap. There is also a house child. I mean, like everywhere in Bolivia people bring their kids to work. The kid, at a guess he’s between 2 and 13 (I’m not very good at guessing), likes attention. At breakfast he points at everything on the buffet saying
and feigning upset whenever I eat something. Without my consent he trades his half eaten sandwich for my juice, giggling, tauntingly at me. He makes up for it by helping me stuff my charger into my mug where I neatly, and with much satisfaction, store my wires.
There is an inevitable night out. I have the most interesting conversation with an electrician from Hull and an Essex cook who looks like a young, ginger Dumbledore. They work on our research station in Antarctica and hearing the handyman’s and chef’s perspective on that world is fascinating. I own the pub quiz then two dutch lads have the pantless walk of shame at the tourist bar for getting seven balled at pool. We slap them on the back as they pass, Game of Thrones styles, “Shame. Shame. Shame.” I end up “chatting” with some locals; an eager business man and the local drunk who tries his English and shows me pictures of the daughter he’s not allowed to see, then speak with two girls using Google translate and they give me a fun ride on their bike, passing my hostel about five times before they understand I’m staying there.
The last night I talk with a 6″7′ pale, moustachioed, kiwi with a basketball vest and a backwards cap. He volunteers at the hostel and does a mean BBQ. He tells me a 17 year old died in a bike accident this morning. No surprise, unfortunately. He goes on that a few days ago two cops were drunk driving and ran someone over, killing them. A crowd got together and dragged one of them to the square for some mob justice, details are unknown but he assumes they couldn’t get away with killing him, anything else is probable. We figure out that this was probably the commotion I saw in the square on my first day. Who knows here.*
*- Who knows here? Local people obviously. It’s just me who doesn’t.