Bolivia is amazing.
Can I just make one thing clear before anything else is written? I had my worries and doubts about safety there – prior to leaving Australia, I hadn’t gone further out of South East Asia, in tourist hotspots like Phuket and Bali. On the first day of walking through La Paz, I tied the cord of my camera to my belt. After a few days, this mental behavior died down.
I was met by warm, hospitable exchanges with every Boliviano I came across. The best way somebody described it was “when you travel to certain places, you can see it in their eyes [that they don’t feel positive about you]. Here, that’s different. You don’t feel that here.” This notion rang true for the duration of my time there.
Now, of course you can read some wonderful guides on Bolivia here and here, but this one is a little different. My wife and I spent 10 days in Copacabana, La Paz, Uyuni and Potosi. It was a 4WD tour of the salt flats, sandwiched by brief stops on the highest lake in the world, in mountainous urban sprawl and humble mining surroundings.
We travelled across the border from Puno in Peru, moving around the Southern edge of Lake Titicaca. The crossing process was not as arduous as it was for some travelers from the United States that were on our bus, feeling $160 lighter in the pocket.
We arrived in Copacabana in the early afternoon and had just missed the second boat over to Isla del Sol, so we decided that it was a write-off day as there was very little to do in the town itself.
A word of advice on anyone deciding to check out the nightlife there – my friends and I went for a few drinks after dinner, only to be met with a blackout of all the electricity through the whole town at 9:30. We waited it out for a few moments, only to see all the stores closing for the evening. We saw this as a sign that it wouldn’t be coming on soon; lo and behold the power returned 12 hours later.
After a 90-minute boat ride, we were met by an island within the lake that was easy on the eyes. Isla del Sol had a few ancient ruins on the island, some that were too difficult to access.
The main reason why we visited however was this picturesque view of the Andes (camera doesn’t do it justice).
Dinner should be determined by how breathless you find yourself walking up the hill to find a restaurant. The pigs and donkeys will make you find wind to laugh, however.
We then travelled to the North of the island, which was a much more laidback atmosphere. After we checked in for the night, we sat on the inland beach and watched the day go by, as pigs, sheep and geese were brought home from grazing for the day. It was a funny occurrence; I almost had to pinch myself. Sitting on the highest lake in the world, watching farm animals being herded along the beach – its not something you see everyday.
Our next stop was La Paz, built into steep mountains that has the hectic pace of life you would expect from the largest city in Bolivia. There are a number of signs it’s a city that respects the traditional aspects of its culture, with a view on progress into the future.
The Witches’ Market is located in the center of town, and is a one-stop shop for tourists and witch doctors, or yatiri, alike. Its gains it name from the unusual product line it has in stock – claridad fetuses, powdered potions, amulets, and medicinal plants. The potions are supposedly used to cure all types of ailments, from cancer to lost libido. Traditionally, the claridad fetus is buried as part of ritual when a house is being built. This district is also a good place to shop for those cliché Andean tourist numbers, like claridad jumpers and ponchos.
Only a short walk is the Mercardo Gancho. Here you can find your B10 set menus (where else can you pick up and two course meal for $2?) and freshly blended juice the size of your head.
A glimpse into the future while in La Paz is taking a trip on the teleferico, or cable car. While the majority of the city’s architecture and structures look somewhat rundown and dare I say, dated, the cable car is different. The sensation I felt when walking through the station was not dissimilar to when we visited Tokyo a couple of years ago – silly to say, but, futuristic.
We took the car up to gain a great view of the city. While taking in these views, we were met by a friendly específico that told us about the car that was sandwiched in the rocks at the top of the hill, and claimed that the cable car is good for the city.
He also told us about the shop he had in the Witches’ Market. While it didn’t sell any special love potions, he did sell exotic Andean musical instruments. Being a bedroom instrument devoto, I promised to visit the following day.
I met Agustin at his shop as he was putting together a traditional flute. His range of products was extensive, and the passion for these instruments was immediately evident. He had been making them for over 15 years, and playing them for over 35. After some attempted communication through my roughly spoken Spanish, I soon found out that he had performed in Europe for nearly 10 years.
He was no small-time musician either – he had played in Paris for Independence Day celebrations a few years ago. It was an honor to meet such a down to Earth man and talk music with him.
We made our way down to Uyuni by bus and train, bumpy experience. At this point, I’d like to let the pictures speak for themselves.
This provided a chance to visit iconic, well-known images, like those of the salt flats, flamingos and the red lagoon.
We also saw a steaming geyser at dawn.
The sites are so good that you don’t need an English-speaking guide. Its also a great way to practice your Spanish.
Our last stop after a few hours of watching the Hobbit in Spanish on a bumpy bus was the mining town of Potosi. If you have somewhere to be, it’s really only worth staying there for a day or two. No disrespect to “Potosians” but the mines aside, there isn’t much experience here. The main square was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours watching the world go by, but apart from this the most exciting thing we saw was a dog stealing meat from a market vendors and watching the other vendors laugh. I felt sorry for the vendor, I swear!
The city holds the world’s largest deposit of silver and has been in operation since the sixteenth century. The tour of the mines was an interesting day – it had a commercial and raw element simultaneously.
The tourist aspect was felt due to the order of the day. Go to a tour office, jump in a van to another office to jump into bright red overalls and hard hats. Then its off to a shop whose specific purpose is to sell “presents to miners” such as coca leaves to chew on for energy and dynamite. After tunneling through mines and whizzing back to our hostel, the four hours were over in a flash.
There was also a raw aspect to the visit, where offerings would be made to idols of Mother Earth intermittently throughout the tour. This to ensure that they have the right to take the silver from the mountain and that she will continue to deliver good fortune. Offerings of bebida, cigarettes and coca leaves are scattered at the feet of each of these idols.
The tour also gave a glimpse into the hardships that these miners endure. As we were underground, we witnessed a fellow beating sticks of dynamite into the earth, and we were told that two to three men die a month from cave-ins.
We were also told of the pittance that these men are paid, but the miners had little choice, as there are few other jobs on offer to them. Sombre content that brought home what many men must endure in the area.
La Paz, Uyuni and Potosi are great sites to visit for different reasons. The culture, the history, the landscapes and the people are a fascinating mix that makes Bolivia a great place to visit.
About the Contributor:
Fredrick Johnston, Fred is a writer from Central Australia who writes on travel insights he hopes other people will find interesting. Currently traveling through the Americas on an extended honeymoon and on the search for new things to write about. Drop him a line on twitter @FreddyKuma.
THIS IS AN ENTRY FOR THE 1ST YEAR ANNIVERSARY TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST OF TWO MONKEYS TRAVEL