Sucre, Potosi, Tupiza, La Paz and lake Titicaca
We had just got to Sucre in Bolivia after being stuck for 13 hours at
a road block the last time I wrote. The blockades were all over the
country for a while, surrounding Sucre so we had to spend a bit more
time than we wanted there..
Road blocks are pretty common in Bolivia, anyone unhappy about
anything can start one to protest by rolling out some rocks, usually
it's the Aymara indigenous people that are behind them - this time it
was because they wanted to raise the tax on foreign companies drilling
for natural gas from 18 to 50 % and the president even offered his
resignation a couple weeks ago because the country was "increasingly
ungovernable" (wasn't accepted though so he's still there...I'm not
really sure what happened with the protest since).
Bolivia's not exactly known for political stability like that..they
have actually had democratic shifts between presidents since 1982,
although the 188 military coups before that won it a place in the
Sucre's said to be the most beautiful city in Bolivia, lots of old
colonial buildings and so (it's also the official capital although all
government stuff is in La Paz..). I found it a bit bigger and rougher
than I expected though, with the most beggars of any place we've been
so far. Some of the beggars are very persistent, grabbing you or
cursing after you if you don't give... There's lots of little boys
polishing shoes as well, we were wearing sandals but still had at
least a dozen offers to polish them.. One of the little kids was very
funny, with a big "you-know-I'm-bluffing-but-please-be-nice" kind of
smile he pulled in his stomach as much as he could, pointed at it and
said "but it's for food" - we gave him and his friend money for a
We were stuck in Sucre for 6 days but didn't do too much, took a trip
one day to look at Bolivia's most ridiculous building, a 1890's palace
built by someone with a lot more money than taste..very wild mix of
different styles. Unfortunately it was closed though so we could only
see it from the outside (and missed out on the cigar smoking angels
painted in the smoking room ceiling inside..).
We also went to see the world's largest collection of dinosaur
footprints that are in a cement quarry just outside Sucre. They're on
a 100m high near vertical rock surface, prints from about 150
different species according to the guidebook. The guiding on the site
wasn't very advanced though, they only pointed out 4 different ones,
one of which was the brontosaurus - found this a bit brilliant as it
actually didn't exist - brontosaurus was a fossil mixup, body from one
and head from another and it's gone from most books printed after the
50's or so. I didn't point it out anyway - I'm all for the survival of
From Sucre we got to Potosi by a collectivo taxi, it did run into some
road blockers but the driver went off the road and drove on a dried up
stony riverbed to pass by them, was lots of angry protesters gesturing
that we should turn around. Again there was no police getting involved
to do something about the road block, but the driver did get a
speeding ticket a while later....
== Potosi ==
Potosi is at 4100 meters above sea level, and the only reason a city
was built in this place was that the world's richest silver source was
found there. The city was as big as London back in the 1600's, and
back then 1/7 of all men from Cusco to Argentina were forced to go
there to work the mines each year. About 70% of them never returned,
and in total maybe 9 million people have died working the mines since
the silver was discovered, from the extremely hard work or from the
mercury used to process the ore.
Almost all of the silver was gone before Bolivia got independence so
it's still the poorest country in South America, but the mines are
still worked for tin that was also discovered here. There's about 7000
miners working there today (1000 of which children..) and the major
tourist attraction in Potosi is to go down in the mines and look at
them working in the still terrible conditions.....
We didn't really feel that this would be a nice thing to do so we only
strolled the city center a bit, and only stayed one night in the town.
Strolling the city center at 4100m took a lot of energy so we didn't
do too much of that either actually, switched to sightseeing in a
restaurant - lama meat and coca tea (supposed to help with the
altitude but I still felt very lazy..). We got an extra day there
thanks to the helpful but clueless woman at the hostel who told us the
completely wrong time for the bus south so we checked out the royal
mint where they used to make coins from the silver, and then got the
bus out in the evening.
There's never a bus ride in Bolivia without a story to it, and this
time it was a guy on the bus trying to sell some magical
"if you have no energy and people think you're lazy you probably have
a dirty stomach"...."if you sleep with your mouth open you have a
dirty stomach" ...
(Edel translating and us both laughing)
"Senores passageros, I present to you a mix of seven plants, the cure
for dirty stomach and lots of other things including cancer"...
Probably not too uncommon to feel a little low on energy or sleep with
open mouth in a polluted mining town at 4100 meters....
The bus was 8 hours on unpaved road until we reached Tupiza at 3 in
the morning, took a taxi a distance that turned out to be about 2
minutes by foot, and got ourselves a hotel.
== Tupiza + south west Bolivia ==
Tupiza is a nice little town in the south Bolivia desert, it's famous
for being the location for the last robbery and shootout of Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
It's also worth visiting for the strange desert landscape, lots of
canyons and rock formations, and we went out horse riding there the
first day. The horses were a good bit more lively than the half-dead
half-donkey ones we had back in Pantanal, Edel's one even set off by
itself at good speed in the completely wrong direction a coupe times
From Tupiza we booked ourselves on a 4 days jeep safari of the south
west of Bolivia, was low season so we couldn't get a group together -
ended up paying a bit more but it was just me, Edel, our mighty driver
Cubenar and excellent cook Nelly on the trip so it was really great.
The first day was lots of near-the-edge driving and very scenic as we
went up from Tupiza at 2900m to a small lama herding settlement at
4200m where we spent the first night. There were no lights in the
little village at night and the sky had more stars than I have ever
seen before in my life.
We met another group that were doing the same tour with a different
company there as well, they arrived a bit later cause they had some
trouble with the car, steering and brakes - the two things you don't
want problems with on these roads... Met them again after the 4 days
were over - by then they had actually gone off the road a couple times
when the steering locked! - nothing major luckily..
Second day we had lunch in a field of lamas, passed a lake with a few
flamingos and had a dip in some thermal pools...felt strange having a
hot bath outside while looking up at the snow capped mountains..
The landscape for most of the drive was rocky desert with just little
bits of dry grass here and there, saw lots of lamas, some vicunas and
at most of the lakes flamingos..except at one strange green lake that
we stopped by; the color was because it was full of arsenic!
Highest point we were up at was about 5000m by some geysers and
boiling mud pools, then down to 4300m to spend the night at laguna
colorada, it's a lake colored red from micro organisms and there were
thousands of flamingos.
One more day of driving through the desert, stopped by some very
strange rock formations and then on to Bolivia's only active volcano
Ollague...it's not that active really - just a thin line of smoke but
anyway.. In the evening around sunset we went to a place they called
necropolis, an old Inca grave site just outside the village we were
staying in. It was sort of open air graves, little clay cottages with
a skeleton sitting in each..very well preserved in the dry desert,
some even had skin left.
The last day the landscape was getting flatter as we were getting
nearer the salt lakes and we were starting to see mirages, looking
like lakes by the horizon, even reflecting the sky and mountains. We
used this to play a different fake-or-real guessing game than on the
Rio beaches, and Edel won 2-0. We were also discussing if you can take
a photo of a mirage and I took one to try to prove it...the one I
picked turned out to be a real lake though... Edel 3-0!
After a while we got to Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt lake in the
world. It's flooding season now so most of it was covered in 10-30cm
water..many of the tour groups don't go out on the surface during this
time because nothing eats a car like salt water (actually, I think my
brother Staffan might..). The water didn't stop Cubenar though, he
stuck some bushes in the grill of the Toyota Landcruiser to protect it
and there were a couple plastic sheets strapped under the engine.
It's a very strange place the salt lakes, just flat white as far as
you can see in every direction apart from a few snow capped mountains
by the horizon. With a thin layer of water on top it was almost like a
There's a small island in the middle, Isla de Pescado, it's also a
very strange place - it all used to be seabed long long ago and most
of the rocks on the island are covered in fossil coral. Felt very
unusual to walk around in a coral reef full of cactus..
Another hour or two driving on the flats and we passed a salt hotel
(the whole thing is built from salt..) before reaching the land again
where lots of people we working on taking up salt..most of them
barefoot (considering how my feet looked just after a bit of walking
around on the salt flats in sandals that can't be good..).
Last stop was the train cemetery in Uyuni. Uyuni used to be an
important transport hub, but now there's really nothing except 500
tour agencies selling the 4day jeep tour there (glad we did it from
Tupiza instead..) and there's dozens of old steam trains rusting away
in the sun just outside town, a brilliant place to spend half a roll
From Uyuni we got a train to Oruro at midnight (lucky since they only
go every 2-3 days..), and from there got the first bus to La Paz. Got
to La Paz around noon the next day and I finally had a chance to
shower the salt off my poor feet!
Most of the areas we visited on the 4-day trip are nature reserves.
Actually, more than 15% of Bolivia is national parks or nature
reserves, a few of the rainforest ones were created in a
"carbon-trading" scheme that's part of the Kyoto global-warming treaty
- it basically means companies in rich countries that can't or doesn't
want to get their emissions down to legal limits can finance
protection for threatend forests elsewhere and claim credit for the
carbon dioxide the rescued trees absorb. A handy system I suppose, it
gives poor countries a chance to afford saving their environment,
while us in rich countries can continue the way we so badly want.
Sadly this all stopped when, as the guidebook put it "George W. Bush
somehow managed to get himself installed as president of the US" -
support for Kyoto sinking to the bottom of the ocean...which
coincidentally is where the Maldives and other little paradise islands
probably will end up as the sea levels rise over the next 50-100
I was checking the news a couple weeks ago (trying to figure out if
the road blocks were still surrounding us) and happend to read that he
also just opened up some massive nature reserves in Alaska for oil
== La Paz ==
I found La Paz sort of nice and nasty at the same time...I like the
chaos with people selling everything out on the streets (got myself a
new camera lens and Edel got half a dozen hats :-), and there's a
special "witches market" where the Aymara women sell all kinds of
crazy stuff (including nasty dried lama fetus..) - fun to stroll
around. The air is pretty bad though, very polluted from the traffic
(the city is in a valley so I guess all the fumes stay where they
are.., plus the city is at 3800m), and sometimes the chaos on the
streets get a bit too much with everyone yelling out their wares; the
guy selling a dozen wristwatches, an electric shaver plus a pocket
calculator trying to be louder than the guy selling a plastic set of
spongebob squarepants and friends.. Also, on the witches market I saw
skins of some jungle cat - Ozelot I think - for sale...really bad
since there's not many left.. Edel asked one of the women selling what
it's for, expecting some elaborate story of magic powers, but she said
it's just for decorating your house...how nice...
We took a daytrip out of La Paz to the Tiwanaku ruins, it's about two
hours away by very crowded minibus (these minibuses are another place
with a lot of yelling, there's a driver and then there's a guy
constantly yelling out the destination...one might think writing the
destination on a piece of paper at the front would do but no..).
Tiwanaku was the biggest civiliation in South America before the
Inkas. It was founded around 1000 BC, and by 400 AD the empire really
started growing - when it was at it's biggest it included much of
Bolivia and Chile and parts of Peru and Argentina and the city itself
home to about 50000 people. Sometime around 1000 AD the empire
disappeared though, not fully known why..
The ruins were still there when the Spanish arrived in the 1500's, but
most of it got blown to pieces looking for gold or to get material to
build churches (and later railway foundation)... The little that's
left is still impressive though and there's a few nice really massive
What was almost as impressive was the use of the english language in
the museum at the site though.. I've seen "Do not accept drinks of any
specie from a strange, only if it's sealed" in Rio, seen sauce spelled
four different ways on the same page of a chinese menu in La Paz
(their food was as good as their english by the way and gave me my
second brief round of traveller belly for this trip..), and "We spoken
english" is written outside more than one tour agency but the english
in this museum was really something else..
Their geometric-mathematic designs are notables, reflecting a vast
knowledge of exacting sciences that binds their cosmology together"
The great works of Tiwanaku were conceived and planned by a small
group of elite, as occured in other great cultures of humanity. This
shows us that social organisation must have reflected a highly
differentiated stratification that interacted in a complimentary and
harmonic way, just as threads in a textile"
After taking a moment to let these wise words sink in we headed out
from La Paz to the little town of Sorata.
== Sorata ==
The bus ride to Sorata was crowded.. It's a 4,5 hour drive, and the
first hour there was a woman sitting in the aile next to our seat
smelling so bad that my teth hurt! At the stop she got off a lot of
other people got on (a Bolivian bus is never full..) - the whole aile
was packed + about a dozen people in the driver area. I was sharing my
seat first with a bag of bananas and then with an Aymara woman. Didn't
mind too bad as long as the odour issue person was gone. The last hour
was a bit less crowded, but with a lot of scary next to the edge
driving as the bus was climbing down into the valley to Sorata,
..especially bad each time the bus goes over a bump in the road so
that you're leaning out over the drop..
Sorata's a good bit greener and warmer than La Paz - the town is at
2700m. The guidebook describes it as having a real Shangri-La feel,
surrounded by green mountains and often hidden under the clouds. The
air was also a nice change from La Paz - even the trees in the plaza
had 1/2m lichens hanging from them (they die quickly if the air is
The hotel we stayed in was an old 1800's mansion built for a rich
german family. On a wall by the courtyard there were some really old
giant anaconda skins hanging, the largest must have been 7 or 8
meters.. Our room was also massive, 5-6 meters to the ceiling and
costed about 5 euro per night. That's the cheapest place we stayed in
so far but everything's generally very cheap in Bolivia - a decent
double room with bathroom for about 6-8euro/night. Restaurant bill
usually 4-7 euro for two, but lots of places have set menus for about
50cent (the money you save by eating in these might have to be spent
on belly medicine though..). The 4,5 hour bus to Sorata was 1.3 euro.
First day in Sorata we did a walk to a large cave 12km away. The cave
itself wasn't all that impressive - no stalactites or funky formations
- but the walk there was very scenic. It followed a small road by the
mountain side with great views of the valleys and mountains around. On
the way back we saw a truck full of garbage by one particularly scenic
stop - we had seen some rubbish lying around there when passing
earlier and in my blissful ignorance I thought "they must be cleaning
it up". Sadly I still have a lot to learn about Bolivia.. - it's the
local government busy with dumping a whole truckload of garbage out
over the mountainside! The overalls said "gobierno municipal de
Sorata" and when we pointed out it was perhaps not the right place
they were just laughing at us. Littering is very bad everywhere in
Bolivia, whatever fits through a car/bus window is ok to thow out on
the road, but this was really the worst we've seen. Seriously, they
could hardly have picked a more beautiful spot to dump it at and it
was realy sad to see.. - Shangri-La suddenly seemed very far away.
Seemed sort of pointless that we were carrying our empty water bottles
back to town when they would probably find their way back to the
mountainside again anyway..
Stayed another one or two days in Sorata before heading back to La Paz
to bike the La Paz - Coroico road.
== La Paz - Coroico ==
The road between La Paz and Coroico owns the title the worlds most
dangerous road - it descends more than 3500m over just 64km and most
of it is narrow, unpaved and with massive drops on the side - the
deepest over a thousand meters. It's the main link between the Amazon
and La Paz or Brazil and the Pacific so fairly heavy trafficed - the
guidebook says dozens of vehicles go over the edge each year with
fatalities often in the hundereds, but this is probably a bit
It's also one of the worlds most beautiful roads, it starts high up in
the icy mountains above La Paz and you then go down through the cloud
forest (that's been left alone because the mountainsides are way too
steep for machinery) with spectacular views the whole way down.
There's even a number of smaller waterfalls that crash straight down
on the road surface!
Mountainbiking down this road is not quite as insane as it sounds,
it's actually one of Bolivia's most popular tourist attractions and
can be very safe if you go with a good agency.
Finding a serious tourist agency in La Paz is not the easiest though,
it seemed almost every little cafe had signs for "survive the death
road" and they all try to outdo eachother with the pictures they show
in the windows. Even more so for trips to the rainforest around
Rurrenabaque in the north it seemed..one even had a picture of a
Chimpanse up there..don't think they walk this far from central
africa.. Lots of the agencies also have photos of people being macho
and posing in their underwear holding up some poor snake or cayman
that the guide has caught, we even saw one holding up a river dolphin
out of the water. I don't really want to go with one that do
We found one that specialized in this bike trip and was advertising
with safety (one guide per 5 bikers and radio contact between guides
so you're aware of traffic beforehand) instead of just with how
dangerous the road is..
The next morning we started at 8, 13 of us + guides in a minibus with
the bikes on the roof, to go up to the starting point above La Paz at
4900m. The first hour is on paved road, downhill all the way. Edel
didn't feel that great biking, particularly as it turned out that we
had picked a pretty bad day to do this - it was easter friday and one
of the busiest days of the year traffic wise. After we got to a police
checkpoint (where they check trucks for chemicals used for processing
coca into cocaine..) we got a lift with the minibus the only major
uphill part of the road - Edel decided to stay in the minibus the rest
of the way down to be able to enjoy the scenery better than on the
bike. From this point the road was unpaved and a good bit narrower -
traffic was slower as well luckily. We got stuck in traffic jams a few
times, with dozens of cars and buses on the way down waiting for one
or two trucks going uphill - traffic going uphill has right of way and
drives on the mountain side of the road...this unfortunately meant
that we, going downhill, had to be on the steep side any time we met
or were bypassed by a bus or truck.
The government actually tried to make the road one way alternate days
once a couple years ago, but that just led to higher speed and more
accidents...particularly as lots of truckers were ignoring the rule..
By one really bad hidden corner there was a person with a flag
signalling if it's safe to pass - his story is really tragic. One day
in 1988 a bus went over the edge at this corner, with this mans entire
family on board. From that day on he decided to live where they died
and to warn other traffic passing by, living on tips people give. Now
there's flag people at most of the bad corners, the later ones are
employed by the government though.
After we passed down through the clouds it got a lot warmer and was
raining for a while. We passed by a place where a bus had gone over
the edge a week or so ago, luckily it got stuck in the trees only
20-30m down and everyone survived. The bus was still hanging there,
upside down tanning it's belly in the sun. When we finally got down it
was around 4, a few hours later than the groups usually get down
because of the traffic. This meant that by the time we had food and
could start to go back up in the minibus it was dark...might be good
as you at least can't see the drops by the side.. It was still scarier
in the minibus than on a bike though...don't know if that's because on
a bike you're in control yourself, or if it's because you're too busy
biking to entertain the usual thoughts of tumbling down the mountain
side..you definitely have more time for this in a bus.
We weren't long on the road before we had the first flat tire...they
had one (and only one..) spare tire though and didn't take long until
it was sorted. Another couple of hours driving and we were back on the
paved road then we had the second flat tire.. The last time they had
one was 4 months ago so they weren't prepared for two in a day...the
guides tried to flag down cars passing by but now it was around 9-10
at night and not much traffic.
Funnily, when you're out travelling like this your mood only seem to
get better when things like this happen (usually, I remember being
pretty cranky at the 13 hour road block in Sucre..). We were swapping
stories and joking with the others, a nice Israeli guy had some good
tips on bying/renting cars once we get to New Zealand, and tips on how
to avoid taking mushrooms by mistake in Laos ("happy" means drugs
there and the "happy happy pizza" he ordered turned out to have some
ingrediences he didn't expected). He had also been offered to buy a
kalashnikov for 10$ in Cambodia...asking "Why the hell would I want
one of those?" immidiately changed the price to 9$.. The american guy
running the biking company also had some interesting stories. He was
sort of a nice combination of crazy and serious, serious about
everything security-wise on the biking (nobody ever told us to speed
up when we were slowing down the group for example, and there were no
"this could have gone wrong" moments), and crazy enough to have gone
deep into the jungle with a friend and a guide on a 30 days expedition
where they had all the food eaten by racoons after a week, and had to
eat the insects you find crawling around under rocks.. He also talked
about the tradition of sacrifice among the indidgenous (you see most
of the truckers pour out some alcohol through the window before going
down this road for example) - when building a large building the
workers wont start before a human sacrifice is made! Nobody gets
killed for the occation these days but they usually nick a body from a
morge.. We were joking that future archeologists digging at La Paz,
with one body under each massive building, will think it's a hughe
graveyard for important people.. Perhaps this is the real story behind
the pyramids in Egypt as well..
A few cars passed by us without stopping and we were considering a
road block (when in Bolivia do as the Bolivians..). Eventually a large
truckstopped though and had space among the sacks of bananas for us
for a lift back to La Paz. There was already a woman with a child
sleeping up there, and a few other people as well. We were over an
hour from La Paz still, and by now it was pretty cold..was nice in a
way as well though, sitting at the back of the truck looking at the
stars and the mountains - it was fullmoon so we could see a bit of the
view again now that we were above the clouds. It was actually light
enough for the truck driver to decide to drive without the lights on
most of the way...seemed to be the standard - we had another dark
shadow truck chasing behind us most of the way..
It was around midnight when we finally got back to the hotel in La Paz
for a looong hot shower.
The next day we got a bus to Copacabana by lake Titicaca.
== Titicaca ==
We spent 4 nights in Copacabana in a slightly expensive (by Bolivian
standards..just 10euro) hotel room, was very nice though - balcony
with sunset view over lake Titicaca and funky decor with a large reed
boat sofa in the room. The balcony door wouldn't lock, or close,
though so we had to lean a chair against it every time we went
out...and there was no water early in the mornings...ah well - there's
We could really feel that we were back on the well beaten track here,
with menus in english everywhere and more tourists than Bolivians
whereever you looked..
One of the days we went to check out a couple Inca sites close to town
- the first was Inticala, a collection of carved rocks. Once we found
the place it seemed to be in a sealed off cow-field though..was noone
around to charge entrance and let us in. As we had a look around a
group of little kids came running over, all saying they would be our
guide and all talking at the same time about the Incas and the stones.
They led us to a hole in the net around the site and started guiding
us around..there were a few large rocks (and a horse) in there but the
carvings were very eroded and mossy. The kids stories were very lively
however...some perhaps believable and some less so (particularly the
ones involving dinosaurs..). We gave them some cookies and coins for
the interesting "guiding" :-)
After this we headed to Horca del Inca, another site on top of a
mountain next to town. When we got to the top, after a lot of walking,
there was another kid wanting to be our guide. He was a bit older than
the kids at the first site, about 10, and really knew his stuff. He
had seen us from up there when we went to the first site and even
corrected some of the first kids stories (no human sacrifice at those
rocks after all..). It was his uncle that had taught him everything
about the site and he pointed out a hole in a cliff that the sun
shines through on the winter solistice every year among other things.
The next day we took the boat to Isla del Sol, the biggest island in
lake Titicaca and the place where the sun and the moon were created
according to Inca. You can even visit the sacred rock Titikala where
the creator god Viracocha called them into being - the rock doesn't
look like much now but during Inca times when pilgrims travelled here
from everywhere in the empire it was entirely covered in gold and
silver. After looking at the rock we did a long walk across the island
before taking the very slow boat back in the afternoon.
We had one last day in Copacabana before heading to Cusco to meet up
with my brother Mikael who's over for two weeks now - closing in to
inca site overdose we decided to spend it with pedal boat on lake
Titicaca - lots of fun :-).
Crossing the border to Peru wasn't too complicated, and there were no
major events on the long bus ride to Cusco to talk about...Peruvian
buses aren't as interesting as Bolivian... Since we got to Cusco
pretty late Edel had booked a hostel in advance - first time we were
this organized for the trip so far. Unfortunately when the taxi driver
stopped at the correct address there was no hostel - just an apartment
block and no signs of a hostal - a guy that opened the door confirmed
we were at the address we had written down, but knew nothing about a
The taxi driver took us to another more central hostel that was ok
luckily.. Moral of the story - don't plan ahead :-)
We're in Iquitos in the Amazon now, flew in after a few days in Cusco
with Mikael...taking an 18 hour boat into the jungle to stay with the
Cocama indians tomorrow - I'll write about it in the next one..
Thanks for reading this far :-) Now write a couple lines back, I'd
love to hear from all of you :-)