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Gone walkabout


BOLIVIA | Tuesday, 5 August 2014 | Views [717]

 This country is full to the brim with so many adventures and experiences. It is raw, honest and exciting. Probably not for the faint hearted. We saw so much celebration and dancing in every town we visited. They have a rich culture, which they are rightly proud of and are working hard to maintain. Here is just a little of what we experienced.

A night bus brings us to the Bolivian border. We say goodbye to Argentina  and prepare ourselves for the next month in this exciting country. Bolivia is steeped in history, culturally rich and maybe a bit rough around the edges. We have heard so much about this developing country. We are keen to see for ourselves. 
It's 6am. It's cold and we wait in line to get our passports stamped. Before we know it we are sharing a taxi to Tupiza, an hour or so north.  The change in socio economic differences is evident the minute we cross into Bolivia. Our taxi is a beat up old 70's Corolla in need of new tyres and suspension. The drivers original seat has long been replaced with a plastic mesh garden seat. He is happy as he bounces along and gets us to our first hostel without too much drama.
Tupiza has all the hallmarks of a cowboy town. Dusty and dry. Men on horseback chewing on coca leaves, women dressed in traditional bulky pleated skirts, legs and feet dirty under old stockings and sandals. Their long black hair is plated in pony tails under a strange looking undersized bowler hat. Over their shoulders they carry brightly coloured striped rugs fall of fruit and veges and a small child. Some smile to reveal a mouthful of gold and silver teeth, usually indicating wealth. Most people are missing several teeth, still smiling. The sight of traditional Bolivian women quickly becomes a regular occurrence and unique part of of our daily travels.
It is here in Tupiza we book our first of many adventure tours. ( Bolivia has heaps on offer) . The world famous Salar de Uyuni is a vast expanse of white salt flats. To reach this incredible sight firstly we must wind and climb our way through rugged landscape, crossing frozen rivers, passing broad dusty plains home to countless llama and indigenous communities. Our transport is an ever reliable Toyota landcruiser driven by our trusty local guide, Bernado.
Dont think they pay as well as Australia!!!!
Our companions are a young Aussie couple, Dave and Row plus our young Bolivian cook. For the next 4 days we rough it together, the six of us, traversing at 4000m above sea level through some of the harshest, yet most beautiful landscape imaginable. Our routine involves driving 6-7 hours each day until we reach an indigenous outpost. Our backpacks, along with food and supplies, are unloaded from the roof. Everything is covered in dust,
Paul helping the little Llama lady after I volunteered his services haha!
This beautiful family loved their Koalas and Kangaroos.
The sun goes down and the temperature drops dramatically. We make up our beds in the basic concrete rooms using every possible blanket available. Night temperatures drop to -15degrees. We sleep in a sleeping bag, three blankets, thermals, jeans, jumpers, gloves, beanies and 2 pairs of socks. And still we freeze! Never been so cold in our lives.
The Bolivians wanted a photo with the funny Gringa lady.
Morning sunlight can't come quick enough and we load the 4wd and venture further toward the salt flats. We pass other vehicles along the way, some needing assistance stuck in river crossings or others broken down, flat tyres etc. We stop to help another vehicle that has faulty brakes. Our driver quickly finds the problem..... low brake fluid. So he promptly takes off a small section of radiator coolant hose from our 4wd and uses it to suck out a mouthful of  brake fluid to fill up the other 4wd. He coughs and spits in the process. I have trouble explaining the risky move he just pulled off as I don't know the Spanish words for 'poison' or 'toxic'.Only in Bolivia!
Not our 4WD but our driver loved helping every truck that broke down.
We brave the freezing weather and strip off for a soak in the thermal baths. Finally we are warm until we have to get out at least.
Beautiful Laguna Verde.
Pink flamingos feed in the shallow lakes, llamas with their thick winter coats graze on the parched land as we cross the alto plane, Zorro’s are a small fox who scavenges around lunch spots and finally  we reach the never ending whiteness of the salt flats.
Leeanne loves LLamas and they love me back. xxx
Driving on it is a blessing after 3 days of bumpy off-road stuff. The obligatory stop to take funny photos is a must and a visit to the cactus covered island in the middle of the salt lake sees us finish the tour in Uyuni, exhausted and dirty.
Straight onto another overnight bus to Sucre, arriving at 3am.( supposed to be 6am). An old taxi driver finds us walking aimlessly around the streets and takes us to a local hotel occupied mainly by Bolivians, no other gringos. The room is clean, the bed is warm. We sleep for half a day. A hot shower never felt so good!
Sucre is a beautiful old city with hundreds of white colonial buildings. The climate is warm and spring like. The gardens and parks offer perfect places to soak up some sunshine and watch the locals go about their daily routine. Men sit on park benches reading newspapers, an ice cream cart is wheeled around offering fresh helados in a cone for 20 cents. Young boys shine shoes and sell a local educational magazine in an attempt to earn a few coins. New lovers embrace in a quiet corner. And then, a marching band will appear from nowhere practicing their routine for an upcoming festival. Bolivia is a great place for 'people watching'.
We quickly find the cheap meals at the local market. Sitting side by side on long tables with locals we have our regular almuerza which is usually a vege/ chicken soup followed by a plate of meat or chicken with rice and potato. All for just $2.
Sucre offers plenty of hiking trips through the surrounding mountain ranges. We book a 3 day hike up to Managua crater with Condor Trekkers (a local not for profit agency who also run a great vegetarian restaurant). Our guide, plus our two new Slovakian friends share this next adventure together.
The boys from Slovakia such fun!!!
The track follows ancient Inca paths through spectacular mountainside. We have a lunchtime swim in a waterfall before tackling the uphill slog.  We pass many indigenous homesteads along the way. No running water, no electricity. The people in this part of the world live at such a basic level, they are extremely shy until we offer them coca leaves.... everyone's favourite.
A lunch time cool of in the waterfall.
We reach the huge crater measuring 8 km in circumference. Today, a small town exists within its walls. Our small hostel is cosy and we quickly find a local lady selling beers from her 3m X 3m shop. The Slovak boys like a beer, so does our guide. So we have a bit of fun this night exchanging stories and learning a little about each other's country. Once again, the people we meet along our travels make the experiences priceless.
The last day hiking we get to see real dinosaur footprints. Discovered and uncovered in 1993, to me this was one of the most impressive thing I've ever seen. The tracks in the hardened lava rock are perfectly shaped formed by a huge 3 toed  carnivorous dinosaur escaping a volcanic eruption. To try an imagine this moment in time millions of years ago is surreal.
Cant be bothered to shoo them away from nibbling my toes, I'm stuffed.
We finish the trek with a hair-raising bus trip back  to Sucre and say farewell to everyone as we board a bus to Potosi. It's only 3 hours uphill, but the bus blows a radiator hose and we are stranded for an extra couple of hours on the side of a really steep road. Potosi is a cold place due to its high altitude (4000m). Why do we keep venturing to these freezing places? We grin and bear a few days in Potosi to check out the infamous silver mines in the nearby hill. From 1545 onwards lots of silver has been extracted from this rich mountain, making Potosi one of the richest cities in all of South America. The boom years have finished but still hundreds of mine shafts are still in operation. The mining techniques used, as we find out first hand, are still very primitive, dangerous and labour intensive. The conditions and the wages the miners receive are very poor. They get through each day chewing mouthfuls of coca leaves and drinking high % alcohol. Not exactly a safe place. We buy gifts of juice, coca leaves and alcohol for the miners and count our blessings that no one has to work under these conditions any more.  We were happy to see the light of the tiny mine entrance after 2 hours underground!
Like the outfits?  Thats dynamite available for $2 in the miners market.
2 nights in Potosi is enough and we make our way to La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia. We don't have a hostel booked as we plan on staying just the one night before heading off on our next adventure, namely a 6 day raft trip down river to the edges of the Amazon.
Right so let me get this straight there are 7 of us plus our packs and food on here for 6 days???
This turns out to be one hell of a trip, not knowing what we were in for. Day one we jump on a bus taking us from La Paz climbing higher across the snow covered Andes and slowly down along notoriously dangerous gravel roads with sheer drops to our doom if the driver makes a small error in judgement. 10 hours later we arrive at a small riverside town, meet our guide and he escorts us to our hostel for the night. A quick beer to introduce ourselves with our fellow 'rafters' and off to bed in preparation  for our days ahead.
We wake to see our guide putting the final touches to our raft. He has used 6 truck inner tubes, cut lengths of branches with his trusty machete and lashed it all together with old rope to build a floating contraption to transport us 5 days through the Bolivian jungle to our destination, Rurrenabaque.
7 of us make up the travel party. Leeanne, myself, our guide Rueben, a mum and daughter from the US, and a two funny blokes from Belgium. Wym, with his binoculars strapped around his neck is a keen bird watcher, and finally Arnie, is happy to smoke pot, chill and solve all the worlds problems. We all learn a lot from each other, and become good friends along the way, laughing lots. While Wym is spotting rare birds, Arnie and I are practicing our bird calls. The sounds echo through the canyons scaring all the birds away! The river is home to caiman crocodile, piranha, catfish, numerous exotic birds and millions of blood sucking sandflies. We simply cannot escape these pesty insects. Every part of our bodies are covered to avoid the bites, but it doesn't help much.  Make sure you are really quick when going to the toilet! 
Its never too early for warm beer hey crew???
Our guide, Rueben, has lived in the jungle most of his life, and shares his knowledge of the region as he navigates our flimsy vessel through small rapids, canyons and open expanses of river. Our backpacks double as seats, all tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and food is crudely tied down on the raft. We always get wet as we speed and bump our way through the rapids.
So do our packs and much of our bedding. This is no 'pleasure cruise'.
I just spent 6 days in a leaking Raft!!!
We pass many indigenous Bolivians living on the banks of the river panning for gold living under makeshift plastic lean-tos. 
After many hours each day we pull up at a suitable camp spot for the night. I quickly get a fire started which helps keep the sandflies at bay, and is our communal area for dinner and beers. More stories are told and more laughs with the boys.
You'll have to do better than that if we're to survive!
On day 5 we have an unexpected highlight. Rueben spots a three toed sloth clinging to rocks and clinging to life on the river bank. We paddle vigorously against the current to reach the stricken animal. He must have fallen out of his tree kilometres up river and struggled to get out of the cold fast moving water. He is waterlogged and cold, unable to move. We pick him up and wrap him in an old piece of plastic, lay him on the raft as we head further down river to our nights campsite. We lay him near the fire, next morning he was gone. Hopefully he has found a new tree with lots of juicy leaves. There are jaguars and king eagles lurking nearby. We gave a cheer for "Orio" (his pet name) and wished him luck in his new home.
Oreo the hypothermic Sloth we saved.
As we approach the small town of Rurrenabaque a large storm cloud approaches. We stop to walk up to the jungle zip-line (included in our tour). The rain starts pouring down and the strong wind makes the trees sway as we stand high above the forest floor on small flimsy platforms harnessed up ready to zip from tree to tree. The local guide doesn't care much for safety ( zip-lining in the rain should be a no-no). He hurries us through the process. Leeanne does really well on her own for the first few runs until nerves took hold and she wisely opted to double up with the guide to reach the end. Using our hand brakes was difficult in the wet. Controlling our speed as we approached each platform was almost impossible. Our young American friend, Sunny, crashed on the final platform, hitting her legs so hard throwing her almost upside down. We got her back down to the river and finally to town to recover. She put on a brave face but I knew she was in pain. Luckily, nothing broken, but some heavy bruising to tell the tale.
Our stay in Rurrenabaque is brief. The weather here is usually warm and often hot but this Amazonian town at the moment is unusually cold. We didn't expect this, so we say our goodbyes to our 'raft team' and catch a cheap flight back to La Paz. We opt for the short 45 minute flight rather than the arduous 24 hour bus trip on dangerous roads.
The flight is spectacular as we follow the Andes and land at 4000m at La Paz airport, the highest international airport in the world, We spend the next few days exploring the city, checking out museums, cafés, and people watching. The free walking tour is recommended. Shopping is good at the 'witches markets'. After wearing the same clothes for the past 2 months, we decide to buy a new alpaca jumper each.
Llama fetus' from the La Paz Witch"s Market, we are assured they all die of natural causes and are used in offerings when building a new property.
Not sure if they will get much use back in Australia, but they are useful in the cold weather in this part of the world. A short bus trip takes us to Lake Titicaca, were we spend our final days in Bolivia. A perfect ending to this stage of our journey. Isla del Sol ( the north end) is so chilled and relaxing.
Beautiful Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca.
Our basic hostel is so cheap, food here is good value so we scoff ourselves on fresh trout (truncha) 5 days in a row.  The Incans believed this was the birthplace of the sun and the island has some powerfully sites that ooze energy and spirituality. Hikes across the island are easy and a must to take in the beautiful views over the vast expanses of this large inland lake. No cars, motorbikes. Indigenous locals are relaxed and go about their lives at a nice slow pace. The cows, pigs, burrows and chickens are chilled like I've never seen before.
A night in Copacabana, on the mainland, prepares us for our exit from Bolivia into Peru. The town of 'Copa' is bustling with festivities, as tourists from Peru come over to party at this lakeside resort town. A type of pilgrimage is taking place combined with an obvious religious undertone sees hundreds of cars lined up, colourfully decorated, and then blessed by young priests. A strange ritual we find really amusing. One of the many weird rituals we have witnessed during our travels. We watch, scratch our heads in wonder, but always show the respect it deserves.
Going across the border into Peru should be easy ....wrong! The Bolivian immigration official refuses to stamp our passports because the green form we were given on entry a month ago wasn't stamped. The police took us aside, accusing us of falsely hiding the original stamped form. We stood our ground, avoided the fine they tried to pull on us, and tried to explain it was not our fault, but the fault of a lazy official at our original entry point. We finally get our passport exit stamp and hightail it out of Bolivia as quick as we could. Our only drama the whole time in this fascinating country. We wish we had more time to explore other parts we missed out on. One month just not enough. Our memories of Bolivia will be wonderful. The sights are unforgettable. The people are unique, so humble and shy, yet so generous and friendly. Bolivia, we say "ciao" , hopefully to return to your beautiful country one day.

Tags: bolivia, isla del sol., la paz, potosi, rafting, rurrenabaque, sucre, turpiza, uyuni


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