Villazon - Tupiza
Stepped off the bus, early on the morning of 22nd March, into the biting cold of the typically dusty border town of La Quica, from where we crossed the border to Villazon. We weren't used to this temperature and immediately donned as many layers as possible. As the sun rose the day warmed up though and after a few hours it was shorts and vest weather. The differences between Bolivia and where we'd come from were immediate - the people looked and dressed very different, the area was more run down and everything was a lot cheaper. Took a quick liking to the saltenas, similar to a small cornish pastie - for 10p - bargain! From Villazon took my first train ride in South America to Tupiza, the three-hour train ride costing a similarly wallet-friendly 13 bolivianos (1.30 GBP). The train was rickety, hot and stuffy but very sociable and with awesome views of the countryside. Arrived in Tupiza in the early evening, found a room for the night and booked a 4 day / 3 night tour of the Salar De Uyuni region, departing the following day.
Salar De Uyuni Tour
Jamie, Sam and I climbed into the jeep on the morning of Tues 23rd to be joined randomly by a familiar face from our hostel in Salta, Pete, an funny Kiwi guy who used to row for NZ. Our group was completed by Larry, an eccentric older Canadian guy who provided endless amusement, and our Bolivian driver, Edwin. The tour was pretty epic all in all, some of the scenery we went traveled through was incredible and it was ever changing. Vast canyons, lagoons, geysers, areas of desert, volcanoes, cactuses, snowcapped mountains, old abandoned gold mining villages etc etc. The tour culminated in the visit to the massive salt lake after an overnight stay at a guesthouse made almost entirely of salt. Driving out in the white vastness was a bit surreal, unless you'd known, you could have been driving on snow and the vast white landscape stretched out in every direction. As well as the amazing the landscapes, the tour was characterised by great banter and some dubious tunes from our driver Edwin.
After finishing our tour, suburnt but content, in Uyuni we caught a local bus around 6pm to Potosi, arriving around 1am. The local bus journeys remind me of those in India - bumpy and uncomfortable but full of interesting locals, great scenery and actually quite good fun. As well as being the highest city in the world, Potosi has probably the most dangerous mine in the world - the mine having claimed around 8 million workers' lives since it opened. Working conditions are appalling with little or no concession to health and safety. The 96% proof alcohol they consume down there while they work probably doesn't help matters! Our tour guide took us through the narrow shafts, I constantly had to stoop and in some places crawl, it wasn't pleasant and I was glad to get out.
Arrived in the Unesco World Heritage city of Sucre on the evening of Sat 27th March, still traveling with the boys from the Salar de Uyuni tour. Found a sprawling hostel, then started drinking in earnest in preparation for a big Saturday night on the town. Stumbled into a random bar / club where we were the only gringos. The local girls seemed pleased to see us, the local guys less so… My night was alas blighted by the discovery that I'd lost my camera, and some pretty special pictures from the Salar trip. Reporting the loss to the Bolivian police, for insurance purposes, was a lengthy and testing experience!
Local laws dictate that all the city buildings have to be freshly whitewashed once a year so it's a pretty place. It's small enough to make your way around on foot yet big enough to keep you interested. It doesn't feature on every gringo's itinerary, some preferring to go directly to/from La Paz and Potosi, and all these factures contribute to Sucre being a pleasant, relaxed place to spend a few days. I signed up for two more days of Spanish lessons, which at 6 USD an hour were a lot cheaper than my lessons in Buenos Aires, whilst the tutoring I received was better.
I stayed in Sucre a day or two longer than expected, deciding to miss Santa Cruz and Samaipata out of my trip. With my timescale tight, and getting tired of constantly unpacking then packing my bag and moving on, I decided to spend longer in Sucre and La Paz instead. Kiwi Pete and I traveled up to La Paz on the overnight bus on Weds 31st.
La Paz - Rurrenabaque - La Paz
Awoke about 6am as the bus made it's way through the suburbs of La Paz into the city centre. The massive city looked spectacular in the early morning light that was reflecting off the houses sprawling up the steep streets on the city edges, and illuminating the rugged snowcapped mountains in the distance. Made our way to Loki Hostel to meet Jamie and Sam - from the Salar tour - and since there was a drinking ban in La Paz that weekend (due to it being Easter weekend or due to the forthcoming elections no one was really sure), I decided to join those boys on a Pampas tour in Rurrenabaque, in the Amazon Basin, leaving the following day. Visited Alto Mercado later that day, a giant market in a high city suburb with awesome views out over the city, and some crazy bargains to be had. Then back for a big night out in La Paz,
The next day we met Kieran and Gus, two friends of Jamie and Sam from Brazil, and the five of us set off on a sixteen-hour bus ride to Rurrenabaque. Much of the journey was on precarious, narrow, mountain hugging roads, where you'd look up from your book or a snooze and swear the bus was about to drive straight off the edge. Beautiful scenery though. Spent much of the next three days in a boat, driving around the waters of the Pampas, swollen after the recent rainy season. Saw loads of wildlife - alligators, caiman (I held a young one), capibaras, freshwater dolphins, piranhas, giant frogs, toucans, macaws, fireflies etc. Spent the two nights quietly in a riverside lodge, getting feasted on by mosquitoes.
Took the, pretty horrific, sixteen-hour bus back to La Paz on Mon 5th April, arriving the following day. Saw Lionel Messi put four past Arsenal as Barcelona dumped them out of the Champions League, then had a chilled evening after our jungle exploits. The following day it was United's turn to get knocked out after going three goals up against Bayern. k*** s. Had a wander round La Paz's bustling, ever-interesting streets and markets, before a big night out that ended in infamous bar 'Route 36', which we left sometime the next day. Also of note was the £1 bottles of rum we found, a local rum that tastes deliciously like Sailor Jerrys.
Thurs 8th was a day of recovery that finished in a trip to the cinema to watch 'The Book of Eli', wanting a relaxed night in order to be fresh to take on Death Road the next day! Death Road is billed as the most dangerous road in the world…hype to get tourists in we thought perhaps, until we discovered an Israeli girl went off the edge to her death the previous day. People die doing this, and regularly. The three hour, fast paced 3000 metre descent on a mountain bike though was the biggest buzz of my trip, better than the bungy, f**king amazing, excuse my French. Flying down the narrow, gravel road in a range of different weather conditions was such a rush.
Copacabana / Lake Titicaca
Took a rickety local bus to Copacabana on Sat 10th April. Situated in the very north of Bolivia, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and my last stop in the country. Another scenic bus ride in the afternoon sun, orange light illuminating grassy plains either side of the road, with snowcapped mountain vistas on the horizon. For much of the trip I was chatting (or trying!) to a friendly old Bolivian guy sitting next to me, the locals have been helpful and welcoming almost everywhere I go. All the bus' passengers had to disembark as the coach was loaded onto a small boat to cross a dangerous strait of water, whilst we had to jump on small passenger boats to cross as the sunset's pinks and reds streaked across the sky. It was a unique and memorable crossing.
Spent a few days in Copacabana, where I hooked back up with Gus and Kieran from La Paz for a bit. It's a peaceful, charming lakeside town, great place to unwind after the chaos and debauchery of La Paz. Enjoyed some nice sunsets, had some nice food, bought some wicked travel pants, and visited Isla del Sol - home to a number of Inca ruins and where legend says the first Inca ruler appeared on Earth.
And on Tuesday 13th, refreshed and recharged, I was on my way to Peru…