Bolivia: Sucre, Potosi and La Paz

So we arrived in the high altitude town of Uyuni after the salt flats tour.  This is a fairly nondescript town whose main economy is the hoards of tourists coming through for the tours of the Altiplano.  As such after booking myself into a single room for £3 a night in a local hotel we booked our tickets for Sucre, Bolivia’s judicial capital, the next day.

Sucre is an attractive ex-colonial town with lots of bright white buildings that shine in the sun.  After being at high altitude for the last week it was relief to be back below 3,000m where your nose doesn’t get clogged up with bogies every 5 minutes and you don’t wake up feeling like someone had been vacuuming your mouth all night.  Also the temperature in the shade and at night was more comfortable and it was back to t-shirt, shorts and flippy floppies.

After the exertion of the last week I was also keen to just chill out for several days and I really didn’t achieve much for the 4 days I was there except immersing myself in the Bolivian culture (i.e. I did nothing but be lazy :)).  I really liked Sucre though, especially the people who seemed friendlier than in the highlands.

The one excursion I did do was back the way I came into the mountains up to Potosi.  There is a lot of dark history in Potosi due to the area surrounding the town being rich in metals and minerals, one in particular being: Silver.  To quote a tour guide I had: “The Spanish came to South America and didn’t care about anything except Gold and Silver, including people and culture”.  To bring this quote to life some 8 million people are believed to have died in the Potosi silver mines due to the brutal working conditions and lack of safety precautions.  Crag and I took a tour of the mines, Paola choosing not to.  It wasn’t one of the most pleasant tours as you spend three hours in a hot (45 degs) dusty mine at an altitude of 4,300m, where you have to crawl through tight spaces at an angle of 45 degrees down into the mountain.  But it was very eye-opening as I think I’ve witnessed the worst job in the world.  The miners work for 8-10 hour shifts, 5-6 days a week (depending on how much of a family they have to support).  They don’t have food or drink down there electing to just chew coca leaves and the work is brutal.  I attempted to do the shovelling these guys do all day and after 2 minutes I was a sweating, panting mess, and my lungs and muscles were burning and completely exhausted of energy.   Needless to say life expectancy is less than half a century.  One of the highlights was when Crag had a bit of a turn due to the heat and lack of oxygen, and after turning a white/green colour, for some reason said he had a huge urge to poo himself.  Luckily the moment passed and he was able to exit the mine, pants in-tact.

Hard at work in the mine.  Lasted a minute or two and then I was done-in:

Crag gives the thumbs-up to some passing miners pushing a few tonnes of rocks up a train track:

Crag a few moments before he started feeling ropey:

Crag and I with the devil of the underworld: Tio (Uncle).  The miners are very suspicious and will only drink almost 100 percent alcohol to get drunk as anything less pure would make Tio mad. 

Out of the mine and we treated ourselves to some Llama steak – kind of like beef but more tender, yum:

After missing the last bus Crag and I booked a taxi.  Ever the gent I offered Crag the front seat for obvious reasons, not fully aware I was getting in the back with three other Bolivians. Oh well…only 2 hours back to Sucre and exhausted from the mine I managed to get some sleep in a kind of spoon position with my Bolivian neighbour.

Back in Sucre we went to make our reservations for an overnight bus to La Paz but because of a blockage due to a demonstration in relation to upcoming elections we had to book the first leg to a nearby city of Oruro (which will always remind me of the sales techniques of the bus operator agents, which involves wailing the name in a monotone voice, but in the case of Oruro, adding a bit of spice: “Oru-oru-oru-roooooooooooo!”) where we hoped to get a connecting bus to La Paz.  We booked ourselves in Cama (full bed) but as we had come to expect and would further find, the buses in Bolivia are nothing to rave about.  After telling us to arrive 30 minutes early (which we did) the bus showed up 50 minutes late and then when Paola located her seat she found some sort of vomit-like liquid (extensive tests were not performed) on her seat.  After cleaning the seat and setting off I realised my fully reclining seat would gradually always find itself back in the 90 deg upright position after 20 minutes meaning I would wake up in a weird uncomfortable foetus-like position with pins and needles somewhere at regular intervals.  No matter, they put the 1990 classic Van Damme flick on: Lionheart, to keep me pre-occupied.  It was in Spanish for the first 45 minutes then English for a short while and then they decided to turn it off with 20 minutes remaining.

Arriving tired and grumpy in Oruro at 6am I was soon cheered up by one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen:  A group of women selling black-market shots of freshly-squeezed-warm-donkey-milk to thirsty commuters. How did I know it was black market?  Every time the security guard came near the milk-maids would whack the herd of donkeys on their asses, and they would all scuttle across the road and out of sight.

Shady warm donkey milk sellers.  This was just after they scarpered from the security guard.  Was all a bit Monty Python:

Arriving in the capital, La Paz, is quite a sight.  You come in across a plain which suddenly drops down into the valley of La Paz.  Buildings seem to impossibly hang off both sides and the city drops from 4,100m at the top of the valley, where the poor live, to 3,000m at the bottom, where the richer live in relative comfort.  The centre being found in the valley bottom somewhere around the middle.  When we arrived there was a demonstration by the miners and they would fire loud fireworks into the sky every few seconds.  In addition to the noise of peddlers selling everything from minibus journeys to ice cream to street-side-type-writing services it was quite an introduction on the senses.

This was the demonstration.  I’ve managed to capture the traditional dress here of the indigenous Bolivian women.  My personal name for them was fun-puddings.  They wear brightly covered garments that fan out to make them look like some sort of cup-cake or pudding and the bowler hat on top is the little candy or chocolate. Lovely:

Another fun-pudding.  The hat originates from Britain.  Apparently in the 1920s some European merchant looking to cater for the European immigrants ordered a batch of Bowler’s but found they were too small and sold them to the indigenous women instead. Now all the women wear ’em and the angle and how it’s worn can signify marital status and aspirations:

The craziest prison in the world: San Pedro.  After reading the book ‘Marching Powder’ it was quite a thrill to walk around the outside knowing what was going on inside:

After a night and a day to settle in/nurse the hangover we booked onto the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’ as is de rigueur amongst the travelling population.

Unfortunately Crag was struck down by Bolivia-gut after having a suspect bit of fried chicken which meant he couldn’t make it but I set off with new travelling buddies, Ozzie Mark and Virginian Will. The cycling is a great day out especially for the lazy cyclists as you basically get taken to the top of the hill at 4,850m and then cycle downhill continuously for 69km; a vertical decent of 3 km, covering immense scenery. The road goes from super-fast asphalt to ridiculously rocky tracks and you go through rivers and navigate corners with heart-stopping cliff-drops into the valley. The track finishes in the tropical jungle where you cool off in a swimming pool and get a feed, followed by stocking up on booze before the 4 hour “party-bus” journey back up the mountain.  Stops on the way back were infrequent which meant that the boys had to use their imagination when reliving themselves!

Near the top, ready to roll, overlooking the valley:

The world’s most dangerous road contouring the mountainside:

Halfway down, getting warm.  Time to shed some layers:

The infamous shot:

Once back in La Paz I had another “rest” day and then booked, along with Mark and Will onto a two day trip to scale the nearby 6,088m mountain: Huayni Potosi.

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