So after two internal flights in Brazil, three local buses, an 8 hour bus ride, an overnight stay in Corumba and another bus to the border, I finally made it into Bolivia. Then it was straight onto 'The Death Train' for the overnight journey from the border to Santa Cruz. Thankfully it gets the nickname from when it was used to transport yellow fever victims many years ago, and not for it's current safety record! In fact, it was quite luxurious with wide reclining seats and a steak served up for dinner - however, it was a very bumpy ride and proved quite difficult to eat without throwing rice all over the place!
First thoughts of Bolivia - it is a lot cheaper than Brazil which is obviously a massive advantage and it's nice to be able to speak the language and be understood. It is much more rural and traditional compared to Brazil. Bolivian people have very distinct faces and it is great to see them wearing their traditional clothing - the women in heavy velvet, knee length skirts with aprons and pretty tops, most with two longs plaits down their backs and the men in their colourful ponchos and old-fashioned hats. It is very hilly and mountainous with most of the roads being extremely windy. The landscape can be beautiful although there are also vast barren areas (with cactus trees!) which may become a sea of green once the rainy season starts any moment now.
So first stop was Santa Cruz. It was a lovely city with a nice park and lots of life around the main plaza. I met an English guy called Andy previously in Corumba and we travelled together to Santa Cruz so we spent the first day exploring it together. We stumbled upon an amazing food market with many bars and stools to choose from. Lunch consisted of a soup with rice at the bottom, meat and rice for mains with yuca as a side dish and a delicious glass of tamarind juice. We then headed to the zoo where we saw lots of birds, monkeys and native animals although I feel pretty spoilt after seeing a lot of those animals in the wild in Brazil. We had dinner in a great local restaurant called 'Casa de Camba' (Bolivian people from that region are known as cambas). There was live music and traditional dancing as we ate and our waiter was very enthusiastic about explaining our buffet selection of local dishes to us. We had some plantain (fried banana - one of my favourites!) and tried some very tasty rice dishes including one with some spices and sundried meat in it. I even tried my first glass of Bolivian wine from the Tarija region which was surprisingly good! There was so much food, we even got a doggy-bag to take home!
The next day we headed a couple of hours south to Samaipata in a collective taxi where we met fellow backpacker Simon and shared our journey with a Bolivian family as well as random men hopping in and out of the front seat along the way! I was in the very back seat and had the mother and baby practically in my lap for the whole journey because she had the seat so far back. Something I've come to realise about Bolivians on the few journeys I've done so far, is that they really don't mind leaning on you, sleeping on you or sitting on you! We arrived in Samaipata which was a quaint little town in the hills where lots of Dutch and French people have come to settle over the years. So as you can imagine, it has a very European feel to it with lots of cosy cafes and bars around the main plaza. Andy (who has his own tent) convinced me to camp in a local 'finca' which was surrounded by stunning landscape and where the owners grow all their own produce. Thankfully there was already a spare tent up when I got there so I didn't have to put one up (which I'm sure would have been funny to watch)! So for two nights I camped in the Bolivian countryside and Andy (who is a chef) cooked up and (spiced up!) our left overs from the restaurant in Santa Cruz over his gas fire! We also tried the local made 'leche de tigre' (tiger milk) which tasted rather like Baileys! The next day, we visited El Fuerte which is a a big rock formation and the remains of a fort with lots of strange Inca carvings. It is of great spiritual significance to the local people who still don't know how it got there as the type rock is like no other in the region. We also went to Las Cuevas which is an area with some refreshing waterfalls - I didn't waste any time in getting straight under them and relaxing in the pools below! I also climbed up and stood at the top on the edge of one of them too. Our last night was spent drinking in the main plaza and making friends with the local drunk lady, Betty, who kept trying to sell us shampoo and a silver shoe from a plastic bag!
From Samaipata, Simon and I decided to go a little out of the way to Vallegrande and La Higuera where you can do La Ruta del Che (the Che Guevara route). I have to say I didn't know much about Che before, but I learnt so much over those couple of days. In Vallegrande, we went to the local hospital and saw the laundry room where Che Guevara's dead body was laid out for the world to see. As you can imagine, it is now like a shrine with lots of messages all over the walls and flowers everywhere. We visited the museum with lots of interesting photos and testimonies from local people who were alive at the time his body was flown to Vallegrande. We walked over an airfield to the cemetery where his body was for a brief time after being discovered buried under the airstrip in 1997. His body now however is in Cuba. I bought his diary of the final year of his life, the time he spent in Bolivia which I'm reading now and is really ineresting as it mentions lots of places I have been to.
The next day we made the three hour journey to La Higuera and the surrounding area. It was so foggy though, you couldn't see more than a couple of feet in front of you - slightly worrying when you're driving along windy cliff edges! We finally made it to our first stop and thankfully the fog had cleared by then because we did a 3 hour trek through the hills that Che and his men walked through. Our guide was a 62 year old woman called Florencia who put me to shame as she basically skipped along while I was slipping and sliding down the rocks! In the end, she had to give me her stick just so I could stay on my feet. She was alive at the time when Che was in the area and she even saw him in the forest - she said he had a very long beard and a serious face. She took us to a huge rock where Che had been and that is now painted with images of him with messages on the surrounding rocks too. After that, we had lunch with a woman and her brother who was just 14 at the time and told us how they had hid in their houses because they were too scared to come out. He showed us a pair of heavy black framed glasses which he found in the forest and believes them to be Che Guevara's. Then we went into the centre of La Higuera where we visited the school where Che Guevara was shot. There we met another woman called Irma who told us her interesting version of the story and showed us photos and newspaper articles from the time. The experience was eye-opening and it was incredible to meet these people who could give us first hand accounts of what happened.
On the way back, our driver stopped a 'flota' in the middle of the road for me to get on to go to Ville Serrano because I needed to move on to Sucre. So I said goodbye to Simon, our driver (and the comfort of our minibus) and got on the bus so packed there were people hanging out the windows. I was told to sit in the seat up front next to the driver, along with a young guy sitting on the step and the assistant who then had to stand up. There was a door seperating us from the rest of the bus. I'm not too sure how I made it through the following 7 hours. The driver was stuffing his face with cocoa leaves for the entire journey to keep himself awake (apparently the bus had left Santa Cruz that morning and they had been driving since 7am). In between that, he was talking on his phone or dropping it and bending down to pick it up - at one point the young guy went to take the wheel because he could see how nervous I was. All this was going on while driving along roads with no barriers and sheer drops down below. Many times I thought we were going to go over the edge! In the end, I joined them in chewing the cocoa leaves as I thought it might calm my nerves! We got to one small town called Pucara where the driver went down the wrong road which was an extremely narrow, steep cobbled street, not ideal for a big bus! So the guys and I had to get out and clear the way of rocks. At the main plaza, the bus couldn't get through because of a piece of pavement jutting out so about five guys were hammering away at it to break it off. We eventually made it through and carried on with the journey although by this point it was pitch black as well! At one point we hit a dog but once the driver saw how traumatised I was, he slowed right down for every other dog, cow or rabbit that got in the way. After turning my legs round to let someone off, the automatic door closed and crushed my leg inbetween my seat and the metal bar so I'm now sporting a nice bruise and a massive lump on my leg! Just when I thought it couldn't get much worse, we went through some little villages and picked up more and more people. When the door to the compartment was opened, the smell was awful and there were people sitting on the floor right up to the door but still they let more people on. In the end, one old man was in the doorway treading on a woman and her child while the assistant was shouting at him to move and slamming the door into his legs. They then kicked an old lady off because there was no space. It was horrendous. From that point on, we had to drive past old people and families with young children who had probably been waiting at the side of the road for hours for this bus that only passes once a day. It was absolutely heartbreaking to see their desperate faces lit up by the headlights and their hands held out hoping the bus would stop. A side to Bolivia that was not nice to witness.
We finally arrived in Ville Serrano at about 10.30pm and I had no idea where I was as it wasn't even on my map in my guide book. The driver, who had affectionately named me Chiquatita, waved his hand in the direction of a small street and told me I would find somewhere to stay there. Thankfully, I very quickly came to a plaza and after knocking on a couple of doors with no answer, I was rescued by a young couple who showed me to a guesthouse where two woman came to greet me. I was so grateful I told them I was so happy to see some friendly faces!
The next morning, I got a 4 hour bus to Sucre. Sucre, known as the white city, had lots of pretty churches and beautiful square in the centre, good for people watching. I went to the Casa de la Libertad where the Bolivian act of Independence was signed in 1825. I wandered round all the markets and stocked up on alpaca woollen goods! I also went to a show called Origenes Bolivianos which was two hours of traditional dancing and music. The costumes were amazing too, so colourful and elaborate.
Now I'm in Potosi which is the highest city in the world at about 4,100 metres above sea level - my head is definitely feeling the altitude! More about Potosi in the next blog...
Lots of love, Vicky xx