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The following is a description of a twelve-day journey through Bolivia in July 1998. My travelling companion was a guy called Paul from New Zealand who up until earlier in the year had been working as a tour group guide in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. Thanks to him I was able to see more of Bolivia than the regular tourist and he was able to get discounts at some of the hotels and tour agencies.
We flew from Lima to our first stop at Santa Cruz; during the flight there were incredible views of the Andes, Lake Titicaca and the city of La Paz as we flew over. Santa Cruz is a city of about one million people in the eastern lowlands where the climate is hot and humid and the main industry is agriculture (maize, wheat, and cotton). We stayed here for five days as Paul had lived in Santa Cruz for a few months after he finished his guide duties so he had several people to catch up with. The main event while we were there was a huge carnival on the Sunday with around twenty folk-dance schools participating. The various costumes were remarkable in both design and colour and the whole parade lasted five hours. On another day we took a microbus to Samaipata, a village in the Andes foothills to the west. From there we hired a taxi to take us to an archaeological site called El Fuerte which is on a hilltop with many rock carvings; it is pre-Inca and is thought to have been a ceremonial site. (Che Guevara spent some days in Samaipata around forty years ago.) Other days we spent out by the Rio Piraí which is about five kilometres to the west of the city. There are many snack-bars serving food and drink, it is a very popular picnic spot at weekends and Paul knew many of the families living there.
We would have liked to travel further south to near the Argentina border where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and also Che Guevara met their respective destinies but had to miss that out or lack of time, so from Santa Cruz we flew to the city of Sucre. (We would have gone by bus but the main highway was closed due to a collapsed bridge. I should also explain that there are very few paved highways in Bolivia; most roads are just graded and compacted dirt.) We had just a couple of nights in Sucre, which is an attractive city with many old Spanish colonial buildings. It is on the eastern slopes of the Andes at an altitude of 2790m . (It is in theory the administrative capital of Bolivia although La Paz is the commercial capital of course). While there we took a taxi to a cement works on the edge of the city where (after tipping the guard at the entrance to allow us in) we were shown the many dinosaur footprints that have been discovered in the quarry nearby.
From Sucre we took a bus journey of over three hours climbing steadily west up into the mountains to arrive at Potosí (altitude 4000m) where we stayed two nights. The climate at this altitude is very dry and fairly warm in the sun during the day but once the sun goes down the temperature drops to well below freezing. Most new arrivals at this altitude suffer from symptoms of altitude sickness to some degree; my main problem was a splitting headache, which fortunately wore off after 24 hours but I also slept badly as I kept waking up gasping from lack of breath. Also, walking up the steep streets of the town has to be taken very slowly! Potosi is dominated by the 4800m high mountain called Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) with some justification since it had probably the worlds richest mineral deposits including silver, zinc, tin and lead. The Spanish colonialists looted most of the silver with an estimated loss of 8 million lives of local Indian and imported black slaves due to the appalling conditions in the mines. These days self-employed miners working in co-operatives extract the remaining mineral deposits and a tour of a mine is a must for any visitor to Potosi. A local guide took us first of all to a market where it is customary for visitors to the mine to buy supplies as gifts for the miners. The gifts we bought were around ten sticks of dynamite, several 3m lengths of fuse, a bag of ammonium nitrate, some bottles of soft drink and a couple of bags of coca leaves, all for around five dollars. We then drove in a jeep up to the mine entrance, put on overalls, rubber boots and helmet and were each given a simple acetylene lamp fuelled by calcium carbide and water. There is no mineshaft; you just walk straight into a hole in the hill. The temperature when first entering the mine was near freezing but once we had walked 1800 metres into the mine the temperature was nearer to 30 degC. We spent around two hours inside the mine watching the miners at work in awful conditions. The average life expectancy for a miner is around 40; most of them die from silicosis.
The next morning we did a tour of the old Casa Real de la Moneda (Royal Mint) where, for a couple of centuries all the coinage for Spain and other countries in South America was minted. A lot of the old machinery is exhibited together with a huge collection of coins.
In the afternoon we took a bus west to Uyuni (five hours over dirt roads across the altiplano). The town of Uyuni (altitude 3665m) has absolutely nothing to recommend it but it is on the edge of the largest salt lake in the world and next day we took a tour on to the lake. At this time of the year the surface of the lake is solid salt so it is possible to just drive straight across. We headed for a curious island (over 2 hours away) in the centre of the lake which is partly old volcanic rock and partly old coral reef and with spiny cactus up to 6 metres tall growing all over it. The view from the island is amazing, pure brilliant white salt in every direction and in the far distance (about 100 km away) one can see mountains and volcanoes. There is a curious "hotel" half way to the island that is built nearly entirely of blocks of salt including walls, tables, chairs, and beds. The exceptions are the wooden doors and the thatched roof. We didn't stay there! (As a little side story, the jeep that took us on the tour had a wrecked gearbox and the driver was useless - we found out he didn't have a licence - so after Paul complained we got all our tour money returned.)
That same night we took an overnight but to La Paz which became a memorable experience for all the wrong reasons. The temperature when we left Uyuni at 8pm was already well below freezing and we thought we had put on enough clothes to stay warm (long distance buses in Bolivia are not draught-proof and don't have either heating or toilets). Despite wearing two pairs of socks, five layers on the top part of my body, a pair of gloves and two woolly hats, I still froze (my mistake was I should have worn two pairs of trousers.) The roads were in a dreadful state, either deep ruts where the bus rocked and rolled about, or corrugations where the bus vibrated like crazy. The bus stopped twice during the night so that people could relieve their bladders (the men just peed in the road, I have no idea where the female passengers went). We changed buses in Oruru at 7:30am (another quick trip to the toilet) and by the time we arrived in La Paz after the 15 hour journey at 11am I was frozen stiff although at least by this time the sun was up so the temperature had got above zero. When we got to our hotel at mid-day I sat in the warm sun for half an hour, had a hot shower and got in to bed for three hours under every blanket I could find and finally thawed out.
La Paz (altitude 3577m) is a curious city in that it is in the middle of a steep sided bowl so the further away from the centre you are the steeper the streets get. Also the city seems to be just one huge street market with vendors selling just about everything imaginable all over the pavements. We just had one night in La Paz and in the early evening decided to investigate a pub in the city centre called the Pig and Whistle. We got there just before opening time and also waiting was an English guy and after he and I got talking we realised that we had been at the same college together nearly forty years ago! Small World! The next day we flew back to Lima (at the altitude of La Paz the plane needed nearly the whole runway to take off!)
My overall impression of Bolivia is that it has got difficult economic problems due to its' geographic location and many of the people are some of the poorest as any I've seen in this part of
the world. Nevertheless the people generally are very friendly and were very kind and hospitable to us.
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