Welcome to the Jungle!
After leaving the safe haven that was Argentina we stepped of the bus in Tarija, Bolivia, almost expecting a neighbouring country to share some similarities but this couldn't have been further from the truth. They are polar opposites. Tarija, the bus station in particular which can only be described as a war zone. Instead of just having ticket offices to buy tickets (because that would be far too organised for them) it has people roaring place names at you. We almost felt we had to go to places that we never intended on going to just to stop them shouting. Bolivia is crazily chaotic with no system, where nothing functions the way it should. Organisation and planning are two words they are definitely not familiar with. We finally decided on the city of Potosi as it seemed to be the only bus that didn't look like it was falling apart. Oh and there are no set prices in Bolivia. We quickly learned that you can bargain for anything even our bus tickets, no price is too low in Bolivia. We payed 50 Bolivianos for an 8 hour bus journey (about €5). Dublin bus nearly charges you that just to get into the city.
After trying out some local street food at 1 boliviano a pop, we decided to go explore the city of Tarija. The surprising thing was that Tarija is meant to be the most developed of the Bolivian cities but in my opinion, the words 'developed' and 'Bolivia' should not be used in the same sentence. It might sound like a hated the place but in fact I I loved the madness that was Bolivia, I loved that their people are crazy which definitely has something to do with the altitude, I loved the fact that strikes, protests and dynamite are more common there than pubs in Ireland and most of all I loved that the people run the country, the way it should be! We could probably learn something from them. If the people aren't happy about something, the solution was to block the main roads so no mode of transport could get in or out... If that isn't a genius solution, I don't know what is.
So back to Tarija itself, it is actually a nice city. There are definitely hints of style and charm in their colonial buildings and monuments. The most exciting part of the city for me though was the endless rows of street traders and markets that sell absolutely everything you don't need but end up buying anyway because its so cheap. For the first time on our trip, I wanted to spend money. It was just so cheap. Example 1 - I bought 80 Dioxycylone Malaria tablets and 20 altitude tablets for... 80 bolivianos (less then €9). Now anyone who had to buy Malaria tablets in Ireland will know that you can barley buy 3 tablets for that price. And yes that were fine, I have no strange illnesses or diseases to report yet. Example 2 - and one of our best purchases yet were the softest fleece blankets ever, available in a wide variety of patterns that we called our 'Diva Blankets' after Jonny's famous 'Diva Mask'. Our one little bit of luxury. Me, Andrew, Idan and Roey all went for a different animal print. I choose a lovely cow pattern which Andrew told me suited me (for other reasons of course). These beautiful things cost us 40 bolivianos each (€4) but for the comfort they brought us they were priceless.
After nearly a full day in Tarija, it was time to get our bus to Potosi and of course another unforgettable bus journey it was too. I should firstly explain the Potosi is the highest city in the world at nearly 4500m above sea level. This meant we had to drive up over 3000m in a couple of hours. Health experts recommend that you do this gradually. We had no time unfortunately to be gradual and I sometimes think I'm invisible so I wasn't to bothered by this at that stage. The bus was 8 hours of hell on earth. I can't remember the name of these but you know those exercise machines that basically shake all your fat really intensely?? Well it felt like one of them. There wasn't one part of our bodies that didn't move. This doesn't help when you need to go to the toilet made worse by the fact that there was no toilet on the bus. I had to sit through 4 hours of crossed legged agony before I could get off the bus and go in some very public ditch on the side of the road. So that was me and for girls it has always been more difficult but for boys there is always a solution. In Andrew's case we had a bottle and another use for our 'Diva Blankets'. As I held up the blanket as a guard and passed the empty bottle, Andrew managed to relieve himself a total of 3 times on the whole bus journey while I acted as look-out. If that's not love, I don't know what is. Another 2 hours left of our journey and a Bolivian woman a few seats up from us started screaming in agony. At first, we though candid camera but once people started hovering to her we soon realise it was all very true. It turns out this poor woman and somehow managed to break her hand during the during. There was obviously no medical attention close by so nothing could be done except sitting there for over an hour and a half before getting her to the nearest witch doctor (I'm not messing, it was literally a shack with a man dressed up in colourful clothes).
After what seemed like a week on a bus, we arrive in Potosi, all feeling pretty decent for 4500m. We went straight to out hostel La Casona which was only ok. Cold showers, crap breakfast and cold hostel is much to write home about but this is all quite standard in Bolivia so don't expect great things. After all we were only paying 35 Bolivianos a night (€3). After getting some cheap but very good pizza we all agreed on an early night after the traumatic events of the day.
The following day we went to the hot springs about 15mins outside the city. You have to get one of the local microbuses from the square to get there and these are an adventure in itself. The hot springs were amazing and just what we needed. After that we went back in to the city and ate a late lunch for about 10 bolivianos (€1) and walked around exploring the local street markets buying more crap we didn't need. We went out for delicious pizza and local beer that night where there happened to be a local festival on which was all very exciting. The Bolivians love celebrating and drinking. I can definitely see some similarities between them and us Irish.
Early rise the next morning for our unconventional tour of Potosi mines. Unconventional in that you go at your own risk. There are no experienced tour guides running these tours, they are mine workers and there is absolutely no safety precautions or measures in place. If you have even the slightest fear of small spaces, don't do this. If you have any sort of trouble with altitude sickness, don't do this, if you are even slightly asthmatic or sick at the time, don't do this. Oh and I should mention that the mine was predicted to have collapsed by experts back in 2003. So if I haven't scared you yet into not doing this then great because it is a brilliantly terrifying experience. Andrew unfortunately is terrified of everything including small spaces so this wasn't for him. Me, Roey and Idan were ready for the challenge though. We first got kitted out in our stylish mine gear including necessary hard helmets and head lights. We then left for the markets where we bought the essentials like coca leaves, 97% local alcohol and dynamite all of which we ended up giving to the mine workers as presents which is recommend. In truth I kept one of the bags of coca leaves for myself which really helps with the altitude and the dynamite ended up being for our enjoyment anyway. Make sure you go with a tour that blows up dynamite, this is not to be missed. We spent 3 hours inside the mines in total and I have to admit they were probably the 3 scariest hours of my life. Breathing is difficult, the spaces are small with a lot of climbing and there are huge gaping holes everywhere waiting for people to easily fall in. I will repeat, it is not safe! After two hours of navigating though the Mines we stopped to drink some local alchohol which tasted like poison and where by the miners drink it by the bottle. We also made our dynamite bombs here, by we I mean the miners. We had four bombs in total, each one bigger then the last. One of the miners goes off to light them much further down the cave as once blown they release a powerful carbon monoxide gas which we were told was poisonous and deathly. The sound of them going off was deafening! I think I screamed every profanity I knew which was a lot. I remember the first thing we were told before going into the mine and that was 'you are here at your own risk, no one else knows you are here'. This all made a lot more sense after the tour. If you asked me would I do it again, my answer would be no but that I'm glad I did and will never forget this experience. 3 people for our total group had to go back as they weren't able to finish the tour. Fainted, asthma and panic attacks are all too regular. The tour costs us 80 bolivianos each and we booked through the hostel where we were staying.
After our tour we were all very happy to be out of there and alive. We packed our bags for our next bus trip to Salar De Uyuni, know to you and me and the salt flats or where everyone takes those cool pictures.
I'll keep you posted!!!