Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Dinosaurs, Dynamite and Salt - Un'Bolivia'ble

Well we banked on Bolivia being the sort of country that we could spend 3 months in as we try to conserve funds until the World Cup and so far it hasn’t let us down. In fact, it is easily our favourite country in the whole of the Americas, North, Central and South combined and it is a good job as we still have 2 months to go.
So before I update you I thought I would just give you a couple of reasons why Bolivia is a damn good country in its own right and should be much more respected in the international community than it currently is.
Firstly, after being ripped off by its previous American born president, who stole all of the funds from his newly introduced tax laws, Bolivia voted in the first ever indigenous president within the whole of South America.
The indigenous population of the continent have always been seen as second class citizens by their counterparts of Spanish descent and therefore have grown up with a lack of education and an inferiority complex. This president has put into place a number of social projects where the indigenous population now receive funding to assist them in gaining education and better jobs and in every shop there is a sign on the wall declaring ‘We are all equal before the law’.
Not only is Bolivia doing great things for equal rights, seriously the women run the show here and are wrestling stars in their own right (that will be in a later post) but in terms of its financial situation there aren’t many in a more healthier state.
Whereas most western countries are in major debt to the World Bank and the US owes something like 4 trillion dollars to China alone, Bolivia is only a few million dollars (under $10m) in debt to the World Bank meaning that in just a couple of years it will be 100% in control of its own financial destiny. How many countries can say that?
Honestly, you walk around the new part of town in the capital city of La Paz and it is all glass buildings, mansions and wealth, it is mental and not what I expected from South America’s ‘poorest’ country!

However, this is not to say that the president is without his faults, there is an air of George Bush about him.
On a recent trip to Spain he was asked who his favourite football team in Spain was and he replied Real Madrid. When asked who was his favourite team in Europe he replied Barcelona!
In a World Summit he had planned to attack Coca Cola for essentially being the worst of the worst in terms of capitalism and the friend chicken industry for pumping their chicken full of bad stuff (both Coke and friend chicken are huge here) but instead he got a little mixed up and instead said that Coke makes you bald and fried chicken makes you gay and so had to issue a grovelling apologise to both.
What a guy!!
Funnily enough, the president was actually driven by us the other day and it would have been great to meet him, but no such luck.

So as we crossed the border from Brazil we knew nothing of this about Bolivia and our first experience was of a bustling dry and dusty cowboy town which is sort of what we expected really.
We didn’t have a plan of such as to where we should go but before we knew it we were on a bus heading 8 hours inland to the south-eastern city of Santa Cruz.
The scenery during this bus ride was spectacular as we crossed through wetlands before finding ourselves surrounded by reddened earth and vast canyons. In fact the whole of Bolivia has been very dramatic and dynamic when it comes to the surrounding landscapes.
By the time we got to Santa Cruz it was late and being a little fed up of cities after Brazil we decided to stay around the bus station to move onto a more relaxing environment the following morning.
It was now that we discovered how cheap Bolivia was going to be and for the first time in a long time we could eat whatever we liked and knew that we could travel very comfortably here.

Early the next day we made our way over to the backend of town to catch a collectivo (joint taxi) up into the hills to Samaipata. The journey in itself was an adventure as for 3 hours we weaved through the mountain roads looking down the gauge at our impending doom.
Samaipata was a real eye opener and our first introduction to the fact that Bolivia is a very civilised and a glorious country.
The village was located high in the hills with the mountains all around us and was completely green and lush. With a decent amount of ex-pats immigrating here it also had a certain easy feel about it due to the fact that they were all hippies and with that came access to great cafes and organic restaurants.
We found ourselves a nice little room in a hotel 1 block away from the central plaza and the young owner Cielo was always there to ask us if we were ok, was the room ok and was everything ok? Good guy.
We only stayed in Samaipata for 3 nights but soon slipped into a very fixed foodie routine. Breakfast would be eggs, bacon, fresh bread and jam at the local cafĂ© and the evening meal would be at the organic restaurant for the best homemade soup and superb main course – honestly when you travel through countries like Paraguay and in Central America you cannot underestimate what this sort of food can do for you!
The village was a really cheerful place where everybody would say hello to each other and can you tell me of another place where the local kids have access to the Playstation Hall, a hall literally full of Playstations for them to enjoy.
Whilst here we visited the Zoological Refuge, a hippy run animal refuge where all of the rescued animals were free to roam around, such as a very angry llama who chased the only other visitor around spitting at her and some very cheeky monkeys which were the real reason we were there.
However, these animals were nothing compared to the 20-something hippy volunteer who should know better. She had a beard! I am not kidding, she introduced the refuge to us but I remember nothing of what she said, all I could do was to stare at the beard that I would have been proud of.   
The refuge was located a 2km walk away from town in the countryside along a dirt track with the odd stream to wade through but on the way back we came across an ex-pat owned restaurant with views out across the rolling hills and stopped for a snack. What a place. It had 3 swimming pools, real chips and homemade ice-cream where you could order a sundae made from 8 different flavours topped off with flaming alcohol. We resisted the temptation and left with a Mr Whippy.

10kms from Samaipata were the pre-inca ruins of El Fuerte, a set of ruins located around a huge monolith (rock) which itself was completely covered in carvings of pumas, jaguars etc. It was all quite interesting but the ride up the dirt roads in the dilapidated taxi which was steaming when it got to the top was more fun as we slipped all over the roads.


Leaving Samaipata we first had to get back down to Santa Cruz before then finding a bus to take us onto the administrative capital city of Sucre. (All the decisions happen here and all of the problems and protests arise in the main capital, La Paz)
Trying to find the right bus to Sucre was a hassle. We spent 1hr 45mins visiting all twenty bus companies making the overnight trip to Sucre trying to sift through all of the bullsh*t on offer; who had toilets, who had cama seats (beds) etc.
In the end we had to accept the sorry fact that they were all the same – crap.
The company we did choose told us he could give us the great ‘panoramic’ seats at the front (obviously you need a view as you travel 14 hours through the night) and when we boarded we immediately saw that we had the ‘Gringo’ seats ie. the ones that no local would ever choose. Situated right at the front of the top floor, up on a step, these seats had no leg room (even for us), a metal bar could be seen and felt poking through the back of the seat and there was no air at all.
Having traveled for too long this was not happening so I quickly ran inside and made the guy change our ticket to some seats further back and we left the fresh backpackers next to us to deal with it on their own.
The overnight trip was not pretty and we are talking about 2 hours sleep max.
We traveled via rickety and bumpy mountain roads, the seats were too small, we stopped 4 times through the night for bathroom breaks where we would all stand/squat in a line (men and women) to have a wee in the teeming rain, and some fool spilt their drink so it ran down the bus and soaked my bag (it could also quite conceivably have been p*ss).
If that wasn’t enough it then turned into a comedy of errors.  
At 4am my seat broke. The metal actually snapped and the seat fell flat on its back. I opened my eyes with a start to find myself lying in a rudely awoken man’s lap looking up into his shocked face. There was nothing I could do, it was completely broken but fortunately he had a space next to him to move into.
At 4:20am my wet bag which had been moved to the overhead compartment came lose and fell down onto Arancha’s head. The women behind screamed at this for some unknown reason and woke everybody up.   
At 6am we got a puncture. Admittedly it was fixed very quickly but it was amazing how many people needed a poo at that time and you could see dozens of heads behind the bushes by the roadside.

Finally in Sucre we disembarked from the bus and were approached by an English girl to share cab into town and as we had no hostel we just decided to go to hers.
We ended up hanging out with Davina over the next few days (a top girl) and as random as ever it turns out that she went to college with a lad I played footy with in London.
Sucre was a very nice city characterised by its white buildings and terracotta tiled rooftops and a really pretty place.
It was here that we got to witness our first and not last Bolivian strike (very common and quite the norm) but luckily for us they haven’t directly affected us to date. I don’t know what it was about but for 24 hours there was a lorry parked across the road at every junction.
One mini excursion that we did do in Sucre was to take the local bus out of town to Parque Cretacious and it was awesome dude!
In the 1970’s the concrete factory next door was quarrying away land when it noticed some strange markings in the dirt and what it turned out to be was a vertical stretch of rock face covering 600 metres by 150 metres covered in over 4,000 dinosaur footprints from 5 different species that criss-cross over each other all the way along. (Obviously it used to be flat ground but was shifted to a vertical position via plate tectonics over millions of years)
It was extraordinary.
So with that discovery the park was established and now you get to watch a funny dinosaur film, walk around the life size dinosaur models, observe fossils and bones and of course use the telescopes on offer to just stare at the tracks with bewilderment. It was easily one of the best things I have done on this trip; I mean how often can you see real dinosaur footprints, and so many?

That night it was hostel salsa night and we could enjoy free lessons with 2 for 1 Mojitos. Quite simply, myself, AJ and Davina got very drunk, they went to bed early and I went to a sweaty Bolivian nightclub where the fattest and ugliest girl in there tried to pull me and I got to bed at 5am.
Good night but is that all I can attract these days?

Potosi, the highest city in the world sitting at 4,090 metres was next. I was here for one reason and one reason only: to enter the Mines of Moria, fight the Balrog like Gandalf and rescue the Arkenstone from the heart of the mountain.
Potosi is famous for its absolutely massive extinct volcano, dominating every view from town, that now serves as a huge mine producing all manner of minerals and ore such as silver. Being South America the mine is also open to any tourist who wishes to take their life into their own hands and enter into the black abyss for a tour.
We really liked the town itself and vistas of the land stretching away into the high altitude distance were inspiring; but only for a couple of days as there wasn’t really much else to do.
So to the mines. As much as I tried I could not convince Arancha to join me on the tour; she was not having any of it.
Before heading off to the mines we were kitted out with our overhauls, wellies, helmets and lights before heading to the miner’s market to buy gifts for the miners; ranging from coca leaves to chew for energy, orange pop for the sugar and dynamite!
Yep, for less than £1.50 you could buy a stick of dynamite and carry it around with you. Our group of 5 consisted of me, another Brit girl, a Dutch girl and 2 lads from Isfael (not a mis-type). Of course the destructive Isfaelis (still not mis-typing) bought some dynamite and whilst I didn’t agree with the idea of lighting it when surrounded by rock on all sides there was a ‘man’ part of me that wanted to hear the BOOM!
There is no beating around the bush, mining in these conditions has to be the worst job in the world. People cannot moan about their jobs if they have been here.
We entered one of the 247 entrances around the mountain and immediately the primitive conditions hit home. Everything was manual but at first I must admit that it was really cool because there were blokes pushing the trolleys along the wooden railway lines like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and I was expecting some sort of joyride.
However, it then got real as our guide slipped off to the right and climbed up through a little whole in the rock face to enter a small tunnel. For the next 1 hr 45mins we walked, ducked, climbed, slid and scrambled our way over 1 kilometre deep into the mountain and at times we were faced with drops on either side into the darkness, rockslides from the workers shifting dirt from above, clambering over slippery rock faces and squeezing through tunnels where we had crawl on our stomachs with the roof touching an arched back, and all of this with ever increasing heat and reduction in air.
Fortunately when I was a teenager I had a horrible Sunday job where I was treated like a Victorian chimney sweep and had to crawl through industrial tubing and clean them out in 70 degree temperatures – seriously, it was archaic and completely illegal but the money was good for a 16 year old.
Well whereas the others were getting a little panicky at this point I was actually ok even though I was craving some fresh air.
At our deepest point we met 2 miners and one of them was completely drunk, which you could sort of understand but what a place to sober up in! Here we had to help them shift 5 bags full of rocks containing silver ore and the weight was ridiculous. I ended up doing the most work as they were too heavy for the girls and the 2 Israelis declared that they were here on a tour and not here to work. Pr*cks.
It was whilst we were in this small tube in a dead end that it was decided that the dynamite would be lit!! Sensible decision.
We all stood in what us 3 Europeans thought was the most ridiculous spot (in a dead end) and waited with baited breath as the sober miner headed to a different section to light the fuse.
With morbid anticipation we waited for a couple of minutes for the explosion and potential ordeal of being trapped below the earth until we slowly died from thirst or asphyxiation; but to no avail. The fuse went out, or more realistically the miners weren’t about to waste perfectly good dynamite on a bunch of tourists.
With that we headed back towards the daylight but before we were able to take in that sweet fresh air we first stopped by the miniature temple where the miners pray to the idol of the underworld, the devil. There was a grotesque statue of the devil with a massive penis where the miners come to pray for good fortune and do this by offering fags, booze and a little splattering of llama blood.
After this we all made a beeline for that little pinprick of sunlight in the distance and as it grew larger the air around us got cooler and fresher and you cannot underestimate how glorious the daylight felt upon our sweaty faces after only 2 hours in the mines.
Wow, what a place and what an experience.
A truly crazy location and one of those things never to be forgotten or unappreciated.

Having completed one death wish we next made our way to Tupiza, cowboy country and an all-together different entrance into the Salt Flats of Bolivia.
The Salar De Uyuni (Salt Flats) are probably Bolivia’s most famous tourist attraction and most tourists opt to take a 2 or 3 day excursion in a circle from the town of Uyuni. We decided to do it a little differently and take a 4 day tour from Tupiza to Uyuni and by doing this not only wouldn’t we need to backtrack we would also get to experience some completely different landscapes from the rest.
Our plan was to only stay in Tupiza for a couple of days but we had to stay for one extra day as Arancha had eaten something that didn’t agree with her and spent an entire night in the bathroom. Obviously being the great boyfriend I am I awoke once to hear Arancha tell me she was ill to which I replied “Oh” and then slept through the rest and woke up as fresh as a daisy at 8am the next day!

Our main reason for visiting Tupiza was to ‘Giddy up’ and get back into the saddle and tackle a little more horse riding.
Tupiza itself was surrounded by real western style rock formations but it was only when we set off on horseback that we truly got to appreciate this area, and what a beauty it was.
Whereas as it was nothing compared to our mountain climb in Patagonia in Chile, this ride was still a challenge because the horse had no respect for me and began to trot and then canter as I bumped up and down with no rhythm whatsoever and nearly fell out of the saddle.
I can’t say that I enjoyed it all that much but for a split second when we broke into a canter I can honestly say that I felt like I was gliding and that is the feeling I will hold onto and remember the next time Arancha makes me do it.
As I said the country around us was very special and over 3 hours we trotted amongst the cacti and bizarre formations visiting the Devil’s Door and the Canyon of the Inca before heading back into town via a run-in with a goat herd and a very nasty dog who tried to bite the horses.

So now it was time for the 4 day excursion into the absolute wilderness to live for 4 days at altitude amongst the elements, the volcanos and the rainbow coloured lakes before it all culminated into a farce of ‘loco fotos’ (crazy photo) on the largest salt flats in the world; we saw so much in our brief time and it was one of those truly great backpacker excursions.

Day 1:
It all began first thing in the morning by us clambering into the back of the Jeep with our 2 other companions – Julian and Tiffany from France. Unfortunately we didn’t exactly all get on as you would expect on a trip like this and the blame had to be laid at the feet of the petite princess; but it was what it was so we will not going into that because it isn’t worth the words.
What began as a convoy soon turned into just our solitary Jeep racing along in the wide open spaces of the Bolivian altiplano.
Leaving Tupiza we began our rapid ascent up through the red canyons before levelling out at 4,500+ metres with a view out across the bizarrely eroded valley below where the rocks had been shaped by rain, wind and time into massive jagged spires akin to the La Sagrada Familiar cathedral in Barcelona.
The remarkable thing about this trip was how the environment around us changed so rapidly and before we knew it we were now driving amongst vast green plains full of llamas and vacunas. Did you know that llamas are very clean animals? They actually have designated toilet areas so that the rest of their habitat remains clean and edible. I thought I would follow the status quo and so had my wee amongst the black piles of droppings scattered amongst the meadows.

For lunch we stopped in a local village that makes it living by mining for copper from the surrounding hills, when it is not hosting the passing the tourists.
A couple of the local toddlers had a baby llama as their pet (there aren’t many puppies up here) and when we stopped to take in the scene it made an immediate beeline for my crotch for a sniff. I have no idea what it was looking for but I’m pretty sure I didn’t possess it and I had showered that morning!
After lunch we visited the long abandoned ghost village of San Antonio, a substantial settlement founded by the Spanish in the 1700’s when they discovered gold in the neighbouring mountain. For 100 years they enslaved the local population to mine out the ore until the devil rose up and scared everyone away. Apparently it is now forbidden to enter the mountain and if you do the devil WILL get you.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in the Jeep making our way to the first hostel and the scenery just got better and better as we wound our way through the valleys with the snow-capped mountains and volcanoes rising up to meet us as we approached and it all culminated with a stop to look down from an altitude of 4,855 metres upon the dark blue Lake Morejon with its twin volcanoes in the background.

The nights in the hostels were pretty average because whereas every other group sat around their table talking or playing cards, our French buddies, when they weren’t scoffing all of the food chose to sit in their room where amongst other things the princess would make her jester brush her hair for her because even though she had just spent 1 year in Ecuador brushing it herself he was now here so he could do it. The odd thing was that he wasn’t even her boyfriend and has a girlfriend back home.

The saving grace was the fact that up here there is no light pollution meaning that the night sky is immaculate. You can never tire of lying back and staring up at the Milky Way, the planets and the shooting stars even if the temperatures are below freezing.

Day 2:
In the morning we drove to a number of lakes that were being farmed for the chemicals that come together to form thick white layers of crust used to make soap.
We also visited a llama farm and what must be one of the world’s highest natural hot springs and 35 degree medicinal waters were a treat to our aging bodies as we once again contentedly took in our surroundings which now included 4 species of flamingo.
With the combination of the altitude and the steaming bath there was only so much I could take before I began to feel dizzy and little sick and needed to get out into the fresh cold air.
The Dali Desert, named after the surrealist artist Salvador Dali (my grandparents actually saw him once on a train) because of the strange rock formations standing alone amongst the nothingness of the desert and appearing to be reminiscent of some of his paintings was a bit of a let-down and there were many other areas during the trip that were much more deserving of the Dali name but it was still a sight to be appreciated..

However, the lunch spot easily superseded the Dali Desert and we sat, ate and marvelled at Laguna Verde / Lake Green, obviously named because its waters were green and like a lot of lakes here it to  had a couple of guardian volcanoes for company, just to add that little bit of extra ‘wow’ to the view.
Because the morning was clearly an average one we had to step it up in the afternoon and first up it was a visit to the Geyser fields. Here we got to stand a little too close to the steaming vents and red hot bubbling mud as we tried not to gag on the sulphurous odours arising from the earth below our feet.

If you have been reading my blog you will recall that all of this sounds a little familiar from our time in Chile (November 2013) when we were in San Pedro De Atacama; well it would do because we were literally in the same part of the world except that we were now on the other side of the spine of volcanoes that separates the 2 countries and this piece of land and it was quite strange to look up at certain volcanoes and know that we were looking at the opposite side of that very same rock 5 months before.
Our final sight of the day was clearly a case of saving the best till last. Have you ever seen red and orange water? Nor had we until we spent 2 hours taking in Laguna Colorada, now on the list to be considered as one of the New Seven Wonders of the Natural World.
If the vibrant colours of the lake’s waters weren’t enough to put it into contention then the added feature of the llamas, alpacas and flamingos going about their own business surely should.

Day 3:
We began this day super early so that we could be the first car at every stop and we were more than happy with the lack of sleep so that we could sit alone and enjoy a few solitary moments in what could well be some of the world’s most perfect locations.
First was the stone tree, definitely more fitting of the name Dali.
Next up were 2 lakes, the likes of which I would like to build a small wooden hut, set up a hammock and just spend days looking out at my new front garden. Lakes, volcanoes, mountains, flowers and wildlife all reflected back in perfect clarity in the clear waters so that the view is above and below you – what else do you need?

From here we then got to run around until we were breathless as we climbed up and over an endless lava field and were able to stand upon the highest peak and count 10 volcanoes in a circle around us with one of them smoking away as we stood there.
Lunch was equally as impressive as we sat out on a much smaller but our first salt flat next to a railway that stretched off into the distance for as far as the eye could see in each direction. We obviously had to take stupid photos of us allegedly tied to the tracks but maybe we should’ve waited to do it when the train came past, which it later did on its way from the town of Uyuni to Chile.

Who's having a sneaky wee?

After a quick pit-stop to buy beer made from Coca Leaves we entered into a 2 Jeep rally race through the desert to see who could make it first to the final hostel stop; we won and the bumpy race was a lot of fun, if not a little dangerous.
Our final night was a bit of a treat. To celebrate the fact that we would finally be visiting the salt flats that following morning we spent the night in a salt hotel. Everything was made of salt, the walls, the floors, the tables, the seats, the bed bases, even the chandeliers!  I licked walls just to make sure and it was reminiscent to some sort of nightmare scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Day 4:

Once again we were up early to get onto the flats to watch the sun rise. The salt flats are vast, they cover an area of 10,582 square kilometres and in places are up to 500 metres thick!
Unbelievably, dead centre in the flats is a tiny cactus island utopia that rises 100 hundred metres above the flats to give views out across the endless white expanse.
To commemorate our final breakfast along the base of the island our little chef, Rose-Marie served up a heart shaped cake to us on yet more salt made tables and chairs.

It was now time for ‘foto locos’, a chance to drive out for kilometres into the nothingness and for our driver Nicholas to take funny perspective based photos of us all.
We spent 2 hours here just mucking about and below are some of our finest shots:


Just before the trip was finished we had one last thing to see, a surreal trip to a railway graveyard, a place where trains from England and France of all places came to die in the 1950’s once their time for moving the salt and other earthly extractions came to an end.

There was literally no other reason for us to remain in Uyuni, a dry, dusty and windy sh*thole of the place in the middle of the desert so luckily we had already booked ahead and had reservations for the overnight bus to La Paz that evening.

So that was that. What a buzz and what a fab 4 days we had consisting of multiple ‘whoas’, ‘whoos’ and ‘phwoars’, each one improving upon the next, and some of which will be forever immortalised not only in our mind’s eye but also on the walls of our home when we finally do settle down for a bit.  

Bolivia; it just keeps throwing up new and exciting experiences for us to savour and La Paz followed by finally making it to the fabled Amazon Rainforest would be no different.
What an Un-Bolivia-ble country!!