So.. We left you in Tucuman about a week ago, having successfully planned a route out of Argentina despite the Easter madness, across the border and into Bolivia. A little oasis in the middle of the dreary hours on board questionably road worthy buses / cars lay ahead in the form of the Salta Design Suites hotel. We spent a special night pretending we were 5-star (ok- 4-star) hotel type people - cocktails on the roof-top terrace followed by a swim, a jet bath, room service.... Spent the next day wandering around the town, doing some research for our next few days and trying to maintain our 4-star status despite the backpacks stacked in the hotel foyer, the grubby clothes and the dog-eared Lonely Planet (South America on a SHOESTRING) tucked under our arms.
Hopped onto a bus at midnight, bound for the border town of La Quiaca - feeling very anxious (not for the journey or the border crossing) but because our treasured iPad - and means of communication - seemed to have gone on the blink....
Crossed the border at 7am and ticked off 'encounter with less-than-charming-probably-wants-a-bribe immigration officer' off our to-do list. It struck us how different people can look just a few metres across a border... Bolivians have pitch black straight hair, deep brown skin, dark deep set eyes and wide faces, very reminiscent of the pictures of the Inca people from whom they descend - women dressed in brightly coloured pleated skirts, llama/alpaca wool panchos and typical headdress - either wide brimmed hats or woolen 'beanies' - all the European traces that were obvious in Argentina disappeared and we really felt like we were in a South American country.
Spent a dusty, rather tedious day at the Bolivian border town called Villazon, waiting for our bus at 6pm - bound for Sucre via Potosi - a 10 hour trip. So - when said bus pulled into the station at 6 it looked nothing like the picture of the shiney, new, modern liner we had been promised. We shoved our 'snobby foreigner' sentiments to the back of our minds, feigned our best relaxed demeanours and jumped on board... The windows didn't open, the seats didn't recline and it was a shabby interior but that didn't bother us at all... But as soon as the driver took the first few corners at 100km/hr on the wrong side of the road, with the bus keening to the side and little evidence that the brakes were able to stop the vehicle in under 200m, we grabbed for seat belts that did not exist and re-considered this journey - when darkness fell and we made a stop for the driver to check something under the bus we realised something - there comes a time in your life when you are simply too old (wise?) for this!! We disembarked at the next stop with another terrified gringo and hailed down a taxi to drive us the rest of the way - which would take us to Potosi, a stop short of our final destination. We can't confirm that his driving was that much better, but at least the car seemed road-worthy with functional brakes and we were able to communicate that getting to our destination fast was not a priority!
Arrived at Potosi after midnight and an angel of a taxi driver delivered us to a hostel for a few hours of sleep before we undertook the last few hours of the journey in the morning. We fell asleep after a hot shower and some delicious crumbled crackers, feeling happy to be alive... The morning brought pounding headaches (was someone feeding us vast amounts of alcohol that we weren't aware of last night?) - realised that we had ascended from 1200m altitude to 4200m in about 24hours - Potosi's claim to fame is that it is the highest city in the world... Given that you should only ascend 300-500m per day, the symptoms of acute altitude sickness were to be expected. I felt like death - Adrian was a little better... But we knew our salvation would come in the form of that 3 hour bus trip that would deliver us to a comfortable altitude of 2800m in Sucre.
Experiencing and researching altitudes like this has been an interesting parts of this trip - your head feels like it may explode, your heart races and 2 stairs can make you breathless - you wonder whether you may be imagining all of this, and then you speak to others and everyone is feeling exactly the same.. Ascending to altitudes above 3000m in a short time can cause these symptoms in up to 50% of people - and locals are so accustomed to tourists experiencing this that they prepare cocoa tea and offer cocoa leaves to chew as a means of combatting the symptoms. The cure? Head back down the mountain! As the bus wound down the passes we felt the headaches lifting.. Although the shortness of breath would stick around for a while. In case anyone else believed that Adrian was an invincible athlete who required 10 sprints up the Natures Valley pass to break a sweat, I can now confirm that there are conditions where he becomes short of breath after just 5 stairs - bring him to 4000m above sea level.
Sucre brought relief from the headaches, a comfortable bed and a good nights sleep. We awoke the following morning and discovered a city with white washed walls, a fair share of cobbled streets, beautifully maintained parks and gardens, a charming hostel owner and plenty of restaurants and coffee shops. We would stick around for a few days...