Friday, 28 October 2011

Bolivia

Plaza Murillo, La Paz
I have to admit I didn’t know much about Bolivia before coming here. I’m pleased to say I found it to be the most intriguing South American country I’ve visited so far. Intriguing both because of the people (mostly indigenous), and the landscape – a land of salt flats, jungles, ancient cities and, needless to say, mountains.

Entering the country turned out to be more difficult than it should have been. Rather than take the usual three day tour from San Pedro, Chile, we decided to take a jeep to the border and then try to find transport across the Eduardo Avaroa National Park on the other side. The first part went smoothly, as did the border formalities. I then asked the customs officials whether there were any cars going to Uyuni. They told me to wait. A man appeared and told his could take us. The price was a little more than expected, but still cheap. After I made sure that he would be driving us, he ushered us into a jeep. The jeep sped off without the man, but we thought nothing of it until we reached the gates of the park. Here, the driver, whom we hadn’t yet met, asked us for the money.

It’s amazing how much one’s Spanish improves when one is angry. Much arguing and shouting ensued, but it became plainly obvious from the way he was ready to drive off and leave us that this driver had not been given any money. I haggled and pleaded, and we ended up paying again, but far less than we had already. Damn it, I thought my scam radar was highly tuned and that cons were far behind me. Chalk that one up and learn from it.

Despite the setback, the rest of the six hour ride was beautiful, speeding along the bumpy, dusty, winding tracks, past hot springs and vast lagoons hiding in between dry, rolling hills. One of these lakes, at an altitude of around 5000m, was a deep shade of red, as if it stored the blood of all the bad jeep drivers (and there are many.) Despite almost ten minutes of research I have been unable to determine the reason for its colour. Nevertheless, it’s a bizarre, almost dreamlike sight to behold.

Laguna Colorada, Eduardo Avaroa National Park
We arrived safely in Uyuni, a small town built on the edge of the salar, the huge salt flats to which tourists flock. The town itself is not particularly interesting, but I became fascinated with the local women. Not in the same way as I was in Argentina; no, here it was their clothes that held my attention. All women over a certain age wear what appears to be a plump Victorian style dress, layered with cardigans and shawls on the top half. On their legs they wear heavy stockings, rounded off by leather shoes. As if this wasn’t enough, they all sport a kind of top hat. I was later to discover that the women of different cities wear similar clothes but a different hat. The women of Cochabamba, for instance, wear pale, wide brimmed hats, whereas in La Paz the enduring fashion is a bowler hat. The men on the other hand wear regular European clothes such as suits.

Traditional clothing of Bolivian women.
We did as we had to and took a jeep out on to the salar. It has to be one of the most unworldly scenes I’ve set eyes upon. Just a few miles out all you can see is the white of the salt and the blue of the sky, like standing upside down on the clouds looking at the sea. The plain is perfectly flat, cracked in hexalateral shapes, and is covered in a fine layer of loose salt. In the middle of the salar are various ‘islands’, hills poking up stealing all the moisture for their cacti. On one side is a volcano surrounded by a shallow moat, promoting astonishing reflexions of the few clouds. It was here that, after eating a llama lunch, I met a group of cyclists. Shocked to see anyone braving the sun for any period of time other than that needed to take the obligatory perspective photos, I spoke to them. Amongst them were several Canadians and Americans on a bicycle trip from Alaska to Ushuaia. Mad, but cool.

Driving across the dazzling salar of Uyuni.
Moving on by bumpy, local bus we rattled our way to Potosí, the highest city in the world at 4090m. It was once one of the most important cities in the Spanish empire, even in the world, since silver had been discovered there in 1546. The narrow cobbled streets are full of stalls selling everything you could desire, though apparently not jeans for lanky Europeans. It’s a shadow of its former self, though the mines are still full of people forced to endure tremendous danger in the search for tin and the last few remaining grams of silver.

The ancient streets of Potosí, the world's highest city.
Potosí’s new bus station is an eerily empty metal dome, like a deserted alien spacecraft. It’s entirely unfitting with the surrounding mud houses and bleak hills. You hear the ticket sellers before you see them: cries of “Suuuuucrehhhh” echoed around the curved walls. We obeyed the voices and took a bus to Sucre. It was like stepping into another country. Suddenly everything appeared to be very modern and European. The streets are lined with pristine white colonial buildings, standing proudly around leafy plazas as if the Spanish were still running the show. Now Bolivia is run from La Paz, but Sucre is officially the constitutional capital of the country. In the very middle is the colourful and noisy Mercado Central, inside which sit myriad fruit sellers, cheese sellers, book sellers and anything-else-you-can-imagine sellers plying their trade by chanting their wares as you pass. The top floor is dedicated to feeding the hungry masses with cheap but delicious steaming bowls of meat and rice.

El Mercado Central, Sucre
Food is indeed an important aspect of life in Sucre, as evidenced by the thousand or so restaurants selling top quality grub at tasty prices. My favourite by far was a particular steak house: less than three British pounds for a massive lump of rare beef decorated with chips. This particular evening was ended in a bar in which I vaguely remember a Mariachi band trying to get down the stairs wearing their sombreros, while I attempted George Michael on the karaoke, and a girl dancing next to me with a cat. I slept in the following morning.

Heading northwest again, we continued to Cochabamba. The bus took far longer than it should have, stopping in every village to squeeze on more passengers, then letting them all of in the next to have lunch. By the time we arrived it was almost 2am and we were facing the prospect of negotiating the notoriously dangerous bus station area of town and finding somewhere to sleep. Fortunately we were rescued by an Australian couple on the bus, the man being originally from Bolivia. He works with orphans and had taken his wife over to see them. Giving us warnings about fighting off muggers, he marched us off to his cousin’s hotel.

The next day they had kindly prepared breakfast for us, after which they took me around the city, showing me the sights as told from his childhood perspective. The streets were totally devoid of traffic, not because it was a Sunday, but because there was an election taking place. According to the law, the sale of alcohol is severely limited for 48 hours before voting day, and on the day everyone has to be in their registered town, and they must vote. This resulted in a desolate city where the only noise was that of kids playing football in the road and the chatter of people enjoying ice cream in the parks. (For some reason, the only shops that seemed to be allowed to operate were ice cream parlours.)

Cochabamba is presided over by an unbelievably big statue of Jesus, bigger even than the one in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, it’s the biggest in the world. The reason it’s not famous, of course, is because the city itself is not very famous; but believe me, the statue is huge. The hill upon which it stands is also very big, and it took me and my host a good while to climb it. The time was shortened by his tales of his childhood, how he’d effectively been sent to Australia because of how naughty he was. It’s inspiring to see someone channel that experience for good, as he does now with his orphans. The view from up there as the sun set was almost mystical. The last rays lit up the city in blues and reds and I caught a glimpse of how it has spread over the hills like a colony of ants. Everywhere there was flat land, or even not-too-steep land, a house had been planted. Life looked very simple from up there.

Cristo de la Concordia, Cochabamba
When we returned to earth life had resumed in full force. Cars were clogging up the avenues and people rushing about trying to catch up on their business they had been unable to attend to. I was extremely hungry so our hosts took us out to a couple of local eateries where the meals of beef and rice were just 50p each. We finished off the evening with deep fried pastries and a very filling glass of api, a hearty, warm drink of corn flour.

Finally it was time to head to the highest ‘de-facto’ capital in the world, La Paz. Although I had read about it a hundred times before, I was still not prepared for the sight of La Paz appearing in the valley as we rounded the crux of the alto plano. It occupies the bottom and the sides of a large basin, like someone had thrown a handful of beings into a hole and let them multiply. The roads wind steeply up the sides and the light-brown buildings spill over the sides like lentil soup. In the centre the soup teems with life as women in cumbersome dresses, men in suits and children in jeans and t-shirts jostle for space on the pavements, weaving in and out of the ladies selling freshly squeezed orange juice. Wafts of nuts, popcorn and gigantic quantities of fruit hang in the air.

First glimpse of La Paz.
I spent a couple of days immersing myself in the tasty sights and bright sounds of La Paz, just as things were about to get even more sense-blowing. A two-month march of an indigenous community arrived in La Paz from their Amazonian homeland, protesting over the planned construction of a road through the Tipnis area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people squashed into such a small area. They proceeded in good nature around the centre of the city, singing their way past the Presidential Palace and dancing to one end of the main boulevard, where speeches were made. It was inspiring to see not only the perseverance of the marchers, but also the way in which they were welcomed, with the city’s residents throwing confetti out their windows and draping ‘Bienvenido’ banners over buildings. The president, Evo Morales, must now listen to them. The central plaza is still blocked off by the army as talks are ongoing.

The Tipnis marchers arrive in La Paz.
Nearby to La Paz is a typically stunning Andean mountain, named Huayna Potosí. It stands at 6088m. With much effort, I climbed it. But I shall write about this in my next entry.

My final taste of Bolivia was on Lake Titicaca, which has the rather ambiguous title of being the ‘largest high-altitude lake in the world’, whatever that means. No matter the specifics, it is large (58 000km2) and high (3811m). In it is the Isla del Sol, or Island of the Sun, the legendary home of the Incan sun god, Inti. Although only a few rocky remnants of the mighty empire remain, the island is still a wonderful place to spend a night. There are no cars and hardly any electricity, meaning after the sun falls into the lake and the few homes perched on the ridge fade into silhouettes, the stars and moon are the only source of light, and the lapping of the waves against the tiny port the only sound. I woke up to a llama popping its curious head over the garden wall and the sight of donkeys carrying barrels of water up the steep, dusty lanes.

View from Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca.
Last night was spent in Copacabana, the mainland port on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Its large pointy hill topped with a Basilica waved us goodbye as we took a bus towards Cusco. I write this now as we traverse the high plains through Peru. I wonder if it will be as surprising and as welcoming as Bolivia has been.

Copacabana, looking towards Lake Titicaca.

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