My first impressions of Bolivia were initially fantastic. Our bus swung into Copacabana still on the coast of Lake Titicaca; the sun was shining, there were restaurants everywhere and Abba music was playing in the street, what more could you want?! Impressions then went downhill as we hit a roadblock on the outskirts of La Paz. Protesters had strategically placed huge rocks all over the main road into the city and our coach had to turn off-road. Our coach was definitely not designed for going cross-country and there were so many points where the bus lurched to the side or seemed to be stuck in a pothole or trench. If that wasn't nerve-wracking enough, at one point our stricken bus was spotted by a few of the protesters who ran towards us swinging slingshots with rocks to throw at us! It was a bit of a heart-in-mouth moment but luckily the bus got moving again in time! Phew! 2 different sides of Bolivia to see in the same afternoon!
After one night in a hostel, it was time for me to meet up with my tour group, some of whom I would be travelling with for the rest of South America. I moved to the meeting point hostel and there met the Dragoman guides for the trip Kim and Steve, and my fellow travellers Jeannie, Al and Amanda. The next day I would meet the rest of the group through to Buenos Aires; Amanda, Charlotte, Sharon and Wayne. Everyone seems great and it's nice having a slightly smaller group to be able to go to dinner together and spread out over our overlanding truck called Gus!
La Paz was a bustling busy city and there was lots to see, from the notorious San Pedro prison with all its stories, to the witches´ market where you can see shrivelled llama foetuses still regularly used in rituals by the indigenous shamans, to the food markets presided over by the `Cholitas´ Bolivian women still in traditional Aymaran dress. Luckily we had a great guide from the Red Cap free walking tour to show us it all, including an amazing view over La Paz and the mountains surrounding it at the end.
From La Paz our group moved on to a complete contrast, a small isolated Andean village up in the mountains. We stayed there for a day and a night, were shown the llamas the people there farm, the traditional weaving process they still use, played with the kids, and took part in a traditional ritual to Pachamama, `Mother Earth´, round a campfire! The food we were given was delicious; the llama meat was actually really tasty! We ended our visit there with a trek up a mountain to see the valley below which was stunning.
Next was Potosi, another contrast. A mining city which was at one time funding the Spanish empire almost single-handedly through the silver being mined out of its mountain. A few people visited the mines here which are still in use today, and the rest of us visited the mint where the silver coins and `pieces of eight´ were all made for the Spanish. Really fascinating.
Our last stop in Bolivia was at Uyuni, a town right on the edge of the salt flats. We spent an amazing day there out on the salt flats, which is one of the most surreal and otherworldly landscapes you could imagine, miles and miles of dazzling white flat salt crystals stretching to the mountains in the distance. We took funny perspective photos with beer bottles and shoes, and then visited `fish island´ an oasis covered in cacti in the middle of the solid salt lake. Really stunning.
The stunning scenery only continued on our drive out of Bolivia, from giant rock formations, the high altiplano at 5200m altitude with snow and ice drifts, the red lake covered in hundreds of flamingos, and the turquoise lake and hot springs where we picnicked. They provided the backdrop for some real pinch me, am I really here moments!
Bolivia was other-worldly and surreal but so much fun. Next up is Chile and then on to Argentina! To be continued....