So I knew I wanted a full month in Bolivia and 6 weeks later…yep I am still here. What can I say, it is an amazing country full of contrasts. While possibly the most resource rich country in South America, its people are the poorest. Just outside of its chaotic city centers, plazas, and sprawling slums, you find vast, nearly empty landscapes. On the street, there are traditional cholitas selling fruit while chatting away on their cellphones as hip Bolivian teenagers in American Eagle hoodies and trendy jeans cruise by. Here you can find jungle, mountains, desert, and some of most bizarre landscapes geology ever dreamed up.
So just nod your head, yes, Bolivia is incredible. Not that Bolivia gives a shit what you think about it because Bolivia is a badass. That’s another reason I really like this country. Yes, there are tourist centers, but it is still a real place. The nice people here are super nice and everyone else could really care less that you are here. Bolivia is the kind of place that will hand you gorgeous mountains and jungle alongside its piles of garbage, innumerous street dogs, and undecipherable market smells.
Of course, there are some downsides to traveling in the poorest country of South America. Terrible (sometimes scary) roads, crappy buses, and frequent blockades mean travel can be long and rough and sometimes people will straight up lie to you. For example, they will tell you a bus takes 10 hours when it really takes 16 or that is it direct and then you end up hanging out in a random mining town (the only white person for kilometers around) or at deserted terminal for 3 hours in the middle of the night waiting to change buses. And on night buses there is always the worry that your backpack will disappear at one of the random roadside stops along way. Overall, though, I have to say the ups outweigh all the downs.
For example, I really wanted to slow down and have some time to relax at this point in my trip and since Bolivia is so cheap, it is a good place to hang out for a bit. You can live pretty well here. Some of my favorite Bolivian “luxuries” include: sleeping in my own room much of the last month (so nice after months of dorms and camping), getting fresh squeezed juice on the street for less than 50 cents whenever I want (there is a juice man or lady on every street corner in major cities), having meals at the market for 1 or 2 dollars, and the most amazing fruit salads I have ever had for just over a buck. Sounds pretty sweet, no?
Although trekking opportunities in Bolivia are endless, it is a lot more difficult to figure out logistics and find hiking buddies here. Going it alone is also more stressful, dangerous, and just not as fun. While I didn’t do as much in the deep wilderness as I would have liked, I still got to see a good sampling of what Bolivia has to offer.
I started my trip into the country on a Jeep tour with a group I had started traveling with in Argentina. The road was a subtle track in the sandy desert against a huge, open landscape of bizarre snowcapped mountains, colorful lagunas filled with thousands of flamingos, steaming geyers, and cool rock formations perfect for climbing around on whenever we made a stop to stretch our legs. Although completely different from Patagonia, I have to say the scenery here was just as incredible. Our final stop on the trip, was at eerie Salar de Uyuni, a massive salt plain that stretches for miles and miles and is nearly 400 feet deep in some places. It is a great place to take silly photos since there is no depth perception and you can make it look like you are crushing someone or holding them in your hand. In a few places there was still water from the rainy season and the salt flat made a perfect reflection of the sky so that you couldn’t tell where the sky ended and the earth began.
Following Uyuni, I made my way to Tupiza on a local bus route along a truly crazy dirt road without any other tourists. Even the locals were crossing themselves and looking out the window with concern as we made our way over shallow rivers and muddy patches. I loved it! It felt like a real adventure and driving through the Southern Antiplano on a serpentine road through endless rolling mountains and gorges, past colorful canyons and one of the most spectacular peaks I have ever seen was totally incredible. When I finally reached Tupiza, I met up with some friends from earlier in my trip and also made friends with a super relaxed French guy, who was my hiking buddy for the next two days. It felt good to use my legs after so much time on buses in the past weeks and I absolutely loved the area. It was so different from anything we have at home or anything I had seen before in my travels. The way wind, water, and time have shaped the colorful mountains and canyons in this place is really amazing. Some have wild formations and look like elephants or doorways, and others look like, well, penises.
My next foray into the wilderness was in the Central Highlands. I had wanted to visit the Maragua Crater and surrounding villages outside of Sucre, but needed to find a group. By chance I started talking to a couple of French guys in a plaza in Sucre that I had seen carrying around camping equipment a day or two before. As it turned out they were hoping to do the same trip as me and even wanted to leave on the same day. So a day or two later we set out with a few other friends from their hostel in the early morning in complete rain and clouds on a local bus that dropped us off in a small village.
Just over the other side of the mountain, the sky was clear as we walked on an old Incan trail to reach the road to Maragua. The layers of minerals (red, violet, orange, and even green) in the mountains here make for some amazing scenery and passing through small towns with women herding goats (often by throwing rocks at them) was a really unique experience. I will never forget camping in Maragua’s modest, dirt football field, watching the stars at night while passing around a bottle of wine, and waking up to small children playing soccer in this incredible landscape. On our way back to Sucre we took a camion (an open bed truck) piled with people, bags of potatoes, glass bottles, you name it. I think this was one of the most memorable rides of my whole life. The road was really crazy, winding through valleys and up over mountains. The scenery outside the truck was wild and the scene inside the truck was even wilder. The truck was so packed by the end of the ride, people were sitting on the side of the gate or hanging off the back.
A few weeks later I revisited the highlands at Toro Toro National Park, which was possibly even more incredible than Maragua. Here glaciers and tectonic plates have done a real number on the valley. There is a dramatic canyon, mountains that stick up like plates buried halfway in the ground, huge caverns to explore, and even dinosaur tracks (yes, I said dinosaur tracks). I came here with a French couple I had met in Cochabamba and ended up traveling with them for almost two weeks. We had a great few days trekking through the park, swimming in pools and waterfalls at the base of the canyon, and relaxing away from the noise of the city.
From Toro Toro, we went to Villa Tunari in the Chapare region, infamous for the coca leaf, which is cultivated here for both legal and illegal purposes. The town itself wasn’t very nice since it is right on the main highway, but once away from the road the jungle landscape and cloud forest were quite lovely. Here I visited an animal rescue park where there are dozens and dozens of monkeys roaming around. They are pretty habituated to humans and a few even jumped on our backs and let us walk around with them. We also visited Carrasco National Park on mototaxis with the wind and sun on our faces. There we saw vampire bat caves and various other plants. Our guide kept pointing things out and saying, “a few bites from these ants will cure arthritis, too much will kill you,” or “see this plant, don’t touch it, it’s poisonous.” After the park, we decided to walk back to the main highway along the country road. We passed by a gorgeous stream and watched local kids playing there while we soaked our feet. The rest of the road went by small homes and many large platforms where people were drying coca leaves and seemed a bit astonished to see 3 gringos strolling along.
My last few places in nature have been just outside of La Paz. It is really strange how much the landscape can change within a matter of miles. The best example of this was my bike tour of the death road (don’t worry, it is mostly just deadly for cars, tourists sometimes get injured, but I thought it was just fun and that to get hurt you’d have to be inept on a bike or a jerk just going too fast). You start the trip at around 4,000 m above sea level where the air is chilly and you can see mountains and carved green bluffs that my British friends said reminded them of Scotland. Then you wind down the paved road at top speed and eventually veer off to a gravel road to descend into cloud forest with lush green mountainsides and waterfalls and streams spilling across the road. At the end of the day you finish in hot and humid tropical forest at a wildlife reserve with parrots flying around and monkeys in the trees. I spent two nights in this area after the ride just enjoying the views and relaxing away from the noise of La Paz.
With a location in the Andes, Bolivia also has its fair share of super high peaks and I think my favorite experience in nature here was climbing Huayna Potosi (6088 m or nearly 20,000 ft). I have never done anything like it before and was a little worried since I am not in the same shape I was in Patagonia and have never been up quite that high in altitude. I did an acclimization hike at Chacaltaya a few days before and was okay, but expected the mountain to be the hardest thing in my life and right now nothing comes immediately to mind to top it.
I signed up for the trip with my friend, Dirk, from Holland, who went with me on the Uyuni tour. The day before we left he told me he is incredibly afraid of heights. I just laughed and told him he was crazy. Our first day we practiced ice climbing and walking on a steep glacier with the rest of our group before spending the rest of the night relaxing at the refugio and acclimatizing. That evening one of the guys had a bad reaction to his altitude medication and had to go back to the city and the next day as we started climbing to high camp we lost another guy who just didn’t think he was fit enough. It seemed like people were dropping like flies and I have to say I really struggled to make it up the steep trail to high camp. I was with a bunch of guys in their early 20’s, I was the only American, the only women, and the smallest person, yet I was still carrying the same amount of gear. That afternoon we got lucky with some clear weather and Dirk and I drank coca tea outside while enjoying the views at 5300 m, which were just beautiful: lakes, mountains, and glaciers spread around us and mammoth Huayna Potosi just behind us. We then went to bed at 6pm to get up at 1am to summit the mountain.
Of course, that night I slept horribly and the head cold I had felt coming on hit me at full force along with some stomach problems. I pushed on through the hours of steep snow and with each break practically fell to the ground to rest. The glittering lights of La Paz encouraged me on as well as the fact that all these super young guys were struggling just as much as I was. I was determined to make it, even if I had to pull back on the rope to make my guide stop and yell “Un momentito, por favor!” so I could breath for a minute. Around 6am we made it to the ridge that leads up to the summit. I can’t tell you how scary it was. You are basically spidermaning along a narrow snow ledge with thousand foot drops on both sides, digging your ice axe in wherever you can. For me it was sort of an out of body experience. I felt almost like I was dreaming, like I wasn’t really doing what I was doing because it was just too unbelieveable. I was so proud of Dirk for making it through.
Of our group of 8, only 5 made it to the top, which is actually pretty good odds. One of the younger guys had to give up 300 feet from the summit because he literally kept passing out. As we summited, the sun started to rise and the views of the city, Lake Titicaca, and the surrounding mountains were indescribable. Walking back to high camp in the light was so beautiful with snow caves, crevasses, and walls of 10 foot long icicles clinging to big snow banks. However, making it all the way back down the mountain was a real endurance test. By the time I got back to La Paz, I was completely dead between the lack of sleep, physical exhaustion, and head cold. Dirk and I got a private room at a hostel and I was in bed for the next 20 hours. It was worth all the effort, though, and I am so happy I did it. It made me want to climb more mountains back home (at a much lower altitude, of course).
I spent a lot more time in cities here than I expected, but I also liked them a lot more than had anticipated. Bolivian cities are bustling, chaotic places where traffic and public urination are common. At any moment there are people moving in all directions, weaving in between trucks and taxis. Crossing the street here is not just an art form, it is a life skill you must learn or die trying to master. For the most part, though, I love the energy in the cities and I also love that in Bolivia’s cities you can buy literally anything on the street, from toilet paper, socks, and toothpaste, to woven handicrafts, fruits and vegetables, and yes, even a llama fetus—all within a one block area. It seems that almost everyone in this country is hawking something.
In Bolivia, cities are also the best places to meet travelers, find nice places to stay, and good food (seriously I had a 4 course meal at a French restaurant for $8). The first city I visited in Bolivia was the gorgeous colonial town of Sucre, known as the white city for its endless white washed buildings and red tiled rooftops. There really isn’t that much to do here after walking through the plazas, visiting a museum or two, and seeing the city from its various miradors, but it was the perfect place to slow down and rest up for a week while I took some private Spanish classes. I loved my teacher, Tatiana, who was born and raised near Sucre. Over our five days together I got to know her pretty well and got to see the country through the eyes and opinions of a local.
She has had a tough life. Her mother had her out of wedlock and since her mother’s family was very traditional, Tatiana never knew either side of her family and only had her mother. Now she struggles to make ends meet for her and her daughter with a small language school that teaches Spanish, English, and Quechua. She has an amazing spirit and attitude, though. One day she took me around the city to show me some hidden places and with her I made my first visit to one of Bolivia’s Mercado de Brujas (witches’ markets). She pointed out good luck charms sitting right next to some bone knives and turned to me and said, “most of the things here are for helping people, but, yes, some of them are for killing people.”
From Sucre, I went to Cochabamba, mostly because I knew some friends who had lived there for a few months last year and was curious to see where they had lived. I had heard it was a big, dirty, somewhat dangerous city and to an extent that is what I found. My first introduction to the city when I arrived by bus at 5am was the taxi driver pointing out both female and trans prostitutes along the way to the hostel. Lovely. Again, Cochabamba doesn’t have tons of tourist sights and you can see this city in one day if you want. They have the biggest Jesus statue in the world (even bigger than Rio’s by 33 cm) and a huge market. Really the whole city is a market, though, with people selling clothing, animals, empanadas, and even pedicures on the sidewalk.
Here, I also got familiar with Bolivia’s ‘micro’ transit system, basically a massive fleet of old Dodge buses that will take you almost anywhere around town for about 10 cents. They are painted in wild colors and have funny sayings like “My Dodge is Fantastic” or “Jesus Loves Me” in decals on the windows. My favorite was in brilliant red and blue colors with dozens of hood ornaments and even some tassels for the antennas. Some of the buses have amazing paint jobs too, featuring icons like John Travolta a la Saturday Night Fever, the men of KISS, MJ in all his white gloved glory, and even Jesus.
I didn’t mean to stay in Cochabamba long, but was thwarted by one of Bolivia’s infamous road blocks. I literally bought a ticket to La Paz and was sitting on a bus to go there when they told everyone to get off and said all buses were cancelled for that day. I thought about going somewhere else, but eventually went back into town and found a relaxing hostel with a courtyard, vegetarian buffet (very hard to find in Bolivia), and a great vibe with everyone hanging out in the courtyard. I spent a few days just relaxing here in Cochabamba’s warm weather, catching up on my journal, doing yoga in the mornings and was happy I stayed because this is where I met the French couple I ended up traveling with for a couple weeks before all three of us headed to La Paz together.
From everything I had heard, I expected to hate La Paz. Everyone says it is polluted, unsafe, and not relaxing at all. To my pleasant surprise I have really enjoyed it. I mean where else in the world can you rappel face first down the side of a building in a Santa suit and hike around bizarre rock formations just outside of town in the same day. The city also has such a crazy blend of old and new architecture, sometimes within the same building. For example, I found an old colonial building that they just ripped off the side of to put in a modern glass elevator. You can also see both the nicest neighborhoods in Bolivia with fancy cafes, shopping areas, and huge SUV’s within 30 minutes of the poorest neighborhoods with only dirt roads and street dogs and trash everywhere. The center is a crazy hive of activity with street vendors as far as the eye can see and endless traffic, but the landscapes outside the city are maybe even crazier. There are canyons, wild rock formations, and snowcapped peaks all visible from downtown. La Paz also has a healthy party scene. Since I haven’t done much of that while I have been in South America, it was nice to take a few nights to just cut loose and dance the night away. By chance I also found out about an electronic festival a few hours outside of the city and spent the weekend there with some friends. It was a wild time with music going for 24 hours, lots of dancing, and amazing jungle scenery.
One of the things that makes Bolivia so special, is that its people have hung on to their traditions and way of life. Many of them are poor, but they are (for the most part) proud, hardworking people. Their lives are not easy, toiling away in mines, fields, or late at night selling hamburgers on busy street corners. For me, their way of life is so different from home, from how they celebrate to how they raise their children, it has been quite an experience to just be an observer at times.
While I was in Sucre, I made a weekend trip to the small mountain town of Tarabuco for the spring Pujllay festival with some British friends I have met several times along the road. It was a really strange, but really fun experience. The first night there we went to a big Andean pop concert with traditional dancers in massive headdresses that looked almost Chinese to me. They set off firecrackers constantly (fire hazards be damned) and you could tell how popular the groups were from the dancing, cheering, and the way everyone sang along and knew all the words. After the concert there were house parties all over town and we were up until 5am drinking canela, a warm alcoholic drink with a cinnamon flavor, and listening to a mixture of live panpipe music and old school dance music on the sound system.
The next day, while nursing our hangovers, we visited the town’s Sunday market and watched as indigenous groups from all over the area paraded into the main plaza. The day culminated with a big gathering around the Pukara, a huge tower loaded with offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth), which included huge animal carcasses, fruit, coca leaves, soda, and bottles of beer. All the groups that had come to town were here dancing in unorganized circles in a crowded field and they were completely drunk. Each group was well supplied with huge buckets of chicha, a fermented corn beer that pre-dates the Incas, and they continued to drink throughout the afternoon while playing their instruments, singing, and dancing. At one point an old man approached me and my friend, Bryony, with his huge traditional horn and proceeded to blow it directly into my vagina, then hers, then into the ass of her boyfriend. I wish I had it on tape because it was the most random thing. I just couldn’t stop laughing afterwards.
Another, “cultural” experience I had was just outside of La Paz in El Alto. Here every Sunday they have Lucha Libre performances, which might just rival those of the WWF (World Wrestling Federation). The fighting is all highly choreographed and definitely lower budget in terms of costumes, props, and venue, but I have to say this is all made up for by the attitudes and showmanship of the wrestlers. They are seriously crazy. They will cheat and spit on spectators and even throw their opponents into the crowd. The women get in on the action too. In my opinion, the cholita wrestlers are the best and probably the craziest. There is an “anything goes” mentality here that truly has to be seen to be believed. Watching the jeers of the Bolivian spectators as they threw tomatoes and spoiled food at the wrestlers they didn’t like or flipped off the referees was almost as entertaining as what was going on in the ring.
Along with these experiences there are the numerous characters I have met along the way: people scraping out a life in adobe towns of five homes, women spinning llama wool as they stop to give me directions, children standing shyly in the doorway of remote mountain huts with their haunting eyes staring right back at me, and drunk (generally harmless) men joking with their friends or passed out on the street. I have to say Bolivia has been the experience of a lifetime and it is not quite over yet.
I have one last stop here and it is a big one, Lake Titicaca. I have been a bit delayed in getting there by another one of Bolivia’s road blocks, which has kept the road to Copacabana closed for the past couple weeks. It has been okay though because I have needed a day or two to recover from the mountain and my cold. The road is supposed to open tomorrow to bus traffic, fingers crossed. After I visit the lake, I will be hightailing it through Peru as quickly as possible (probably in the form of a hellish 48 hour journey with multiple bus changes) to see Ecuador and Colombia in the next 6 weeks before returning home on May 21st.
I had only planned on 6 months of travel, but when work gave me the go ahead to extent my trip by a month I jumped at the opportunity. Now I will be finishing my trip in gorgeous Cartagena, Colombia. That means, in the end, I will have traveled the entire length of the continent all the way from the southern tip in Ushuaia, Argentina to the Caribbean coast.
With a pretty aggressive travel plan, I am guessing this is my last blog post until I return home. Since I will be on the move a lot, I just don’t think I will have another day to sit down at an internet cafe to write and fight with slow internet again. Also I really want to take as much time as possible to relax and enjoy the last few weeks of my trip since I may never do something like this again.
While I haven’t really been homesick or been sad about being away for the holidays, I am, of course, excited to see my family and friends again. After that the things I really miss are having my own bedroom (for more than a few nights) and being able to wear something beyond the 5 shirts I’ve had in constant rolation for a half year. I also look forward to understanding what’s going on around me (since it will all be in English) and not walking through the world like an idiot who sounds like a 5 year old when she opens her mouth to speak. Yes, those are the things I miss most, plus some funny little things like my bike, my hula hoops, and Asian food. Those things will have to wait a few more weeks, though. Right now, I just want to savor every last moment that I have.