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zest&bare Most of the shadows of this life are caused by our standing in our own sunshine. Ralph Waldo Emerson

heading south...

BOLIVIA | Wednesday, 13 January 2010 | Views [819] | Comments [2]

It seems a lifetime since I left South America and since the adventures that took me from La Paz, through Argentina, Chile and Brazil, to Toronto. But rather than stuff you full with it all at once, I’ll recount my final weeks in Bolivia first.

Following my visit to Lake Titicaca in November, I took myself to Coroico for the weekend. This is apparently where the richer La Paz folk come to relax and vacation. Whilst the setting is pretty, I had a bit of difficulty understanding the popularity of the place. Two and a bit hours from La Paz, taking some of the Death Road to get there, the journey was odd, travelling up over the Cordillera on the La Paz side where it was cold and barren, high up into the clouds then coming out on the Coroico side where the heat and humidity suddenly slapped me in the face amongst the tropical rainforest. Bolivia has apparently 60 of the worlds’ 120 eco-systems and to experience the changes so dramatically in such short distances is mind boggling. The town of Coroico itself was itchy and dirty and most shop owners, sitting in the usual economical darkness of their grocery stores, appeared asleep or perhaps dead, flies circling their heads. The first hostel I found made my skin crawl and the owner with her nose hair hanging almost to her lip put me off a little, especially as she was also the cook. I ended up in a relatively nice place with a pool and hammock that I didn’t move too far from over the next few days. Curious TV programming saw me catching up on Antiques Roadshow in German and on the top 20 Korean songs! My usual walk to the Cerro (hill) was less than a delight – evidently the Stations of the Cross are not terribly respected in these parts with the area seeming more valued for drinking, sex and children’s parties, in no particular order.

I returned ‘home’ for my last week in La Paz and spent most of it with my head in a bucket, a less-than-glamorous end to my four month stint in Peru and Bolivia. Being sick meant a bit of trauma to get my speech program completed before I left and in addition (and unsurprisingly) my volunteer coordinator left it until the last minute to meet with me for a handover. I pondered leaving without bothering but then considered the work I had put in to the 42 page document, which I had translated by my Spanish teacher. More importantly I thought it might contribute even a little to helping those deaf kids. So I buried my frustration and got it over with. Who knows if what I did in the end will be of any consequence to these children. I can only hope so.

I felt a weight lifted after the handover and finally on my last day the sun came out. Rainy season had started and you would think it’s not a yearly occurrence. The city is thrown into chaos and while no one respects the road rules usually – requiring a random whistle-blowing policeman to intervene daily despite perfectly functioning traffic lights, the rain caused another level of ridiculous, providing me with much amusement watching from the safety of my balcony.

Leaving La Paz, my overnight bus to Sucre was a 12 hour, direct affair. Half an hour into the journey I asked where the bathroom was. “It’s broken”… my brain hoped I misunderstood. Surely the toilet works? No, it didn’t. I held on for another two hours but as I had not prepared mentally or physically for this, I just had to go. So, apologies for what you are about to read… I peed into a bag. Sitting right there on my seat. Work out the details for yourself but it was a logistical nightmare and somewhere on some dark stretch of road a few hours from La Paz is a burst bag of my urine, tossed from the window of a bus.

Otherwise I made it to Sucre drama free. It felt amazing to be out of the chill and thin air of the Altiplano. Walking up to the mirador I noticed other tourists out of breath while I felt like I was walking on a flat road. It would be great if my lung capacity and metabolism stayed at the same levels as at altitude. Not likely. Sucre, the judicial capital of Bolivia, is Tuscan-like and pretty. The people are stylish and can follow road rules. And they make good chicken.

Next stop was Potosí, three hours away and at 4 000m the highest town in the world. This is the site of Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), that was pillaged for centuries for silver to make coins and silver goods for the Old World. It continues to be raked for minerals with the miners lasting about 10 years before they die an awful respiratory failure death. So much for occupational health and safety. The very idea of doing a mine tour makes my chest tighten so I didn’t put myself through that. I did go to one of the first mints in the world which was fascinating. Hard to believe such a shit hole, ugly mining town was once more economically important than London in its day. Some child mummies, skin and hair in tact, were found in the walls of the town’s cathedral and are now, oddly, housed at the old Mint. They are still dressed in their rich, white people’s clothing reminding you that the locals weren’t the ones benefiting from these riches.

A seven hour, bumpy ride through the night to Uyuni was next. The robust man oozing onto my seat thankfully only travelled half the way. There were some tourists on the bus who I had met in Sucre and then ran into again in Salta and Iguazú (Argentina). Running into the same people in various towns happens a lot on the gringo trail.

Uyuni is an unfortunate looking town but as the gateway to the incredible Salar de Uyuni they cater to the tourists. My Salt Flat tour was meant to start at 10am. We left at 11.30am. My fun group of four others helped make the day.  First stop was a train cemetery. Kill me. Next was the town where most of the salt workers live and where they refine the salt. Then there were some geyser-like bubbles caused by oxygen in the ground. My chemical vocabulary in Spanish is limited so I might be making this up. I do know though that under the salt is more than 50% of the world’s lithium, not yet extracted as the Bolivian’s refused to let foreign companies mine it and potentially exploit them. There was a man working nearby in the blinding glare of the white flats and the clear blue sky – using nothing but his hands to break and shovel the perpetually hard salt. It hasn’t rained properly there for years and if they buy machinery to help, it will price them out of the market. It’s a grim scene.

We drove across the flats for about 40 minutes, anxious whenever our driver veered slightly off the track. Most tourist drivers are riddled with alcohol. Luckily ours was just drunk on the boredom of driving across those flats every single day. Naturally when we stopped, everyone (including me) took those ridiculous perspective photos, possible due to the area being 10 000 square kms of flatness. Lunch was grilled llama – actually really tasty, like pork but not as dry nor fatty. Then came the best part of the day. Driving to Isla Incahuasi – an island full of cactuses, there were sun showers creating the most spectacular reflections on the flats. The photos are amazing but in reality it was so much more magical. The Isla was awesome too and who knew cactuses can live to 1200 years? Heading back we stopped at the old, illegal Salt Hotel. It would have been nice to fit in a three day tour of the whole area but I was more than satisfied with my one day.

I tried to get a train to my next stop Tupiza, however tickets were sold out for the twice a week service. So it was another 6am bus trip for me. I got breakfast from a street vendor, sitting and chatting with three old local guys as I ate the fried donut things and drank black coffee scooped out of a huge drum. At 48 cents, it was one of my favourite experiences in South America. The bus on the other hand, was hell, seven hours on an unmade track with dust flying around so thick I could draw patterns on my jeans.

In sleepy Tupiza I went for a horse ride with a young equestrian champion through the Valle de los Machos, AKA valley of penises (yes, you read correctly) and up to another Incan ruin. Clearly, based on my attitude toward ruins, I didn’t bother to walk further into the bushes to actually see it. I undercalculated by about $20 how much I needed to get me through my last day in Bolivia and to my horror discovered there are no ATMs in Tupiza or anywhere in the vicinity. Thank God for travellers’ cheques, giving me enough money to get to the border and then to Salta, Argentina as there were no ATMs at the border either!

The train came through Tupiza at 4.10am. The elderly night watchman from the hostel insisted on walking me the three blocks to the station, followed with a good luck hug, giving me a really lovely end to my stay in Bolivia. Once in the border town of Villazón, I attempted to buy food and for the first time in months could not find a street vendor anywhere. So, starving, I gave up, changed what was left of my money for no-doubt an extortionist rate, and walked across the bridge to Argentina. Of course, after lining up at customs for an hour, I had forgotten to get my exit stamp from Bolivia and had to go back across the bridge for the stamp, and back again, lining up for another 30 minutes. I eventually sorted myself out and left Bolivia, content as I reflected on the experiences I had in such a financially poor but incredibly rich country. Coming out of reflective mode I remembered I was poor at this point too and starving. Surely there would be an ATM at the terminal in La Quiaca? Nope. So with my coins, I did get some exciting bread rolls. Thankfully I made some friends on the bus who helped me out until I finally made it to Salta, Argentina (and finally an ATM), with no more than $1 in my pocket.

It didn’t take long to feel the stark differences between Bolivia and Argentina, close only in geography. But more about Argentina and the rest in the next installment…

Until next time!





Hi Danielle ... love the latest installment.
I have to say when you told me earlier on about peeing in the bag on the bus I thought Eeeww!! ... but I guess when you've gotta go - you've gotta go!! I only hope there wasn't anyone walking along the roadside when you threw the plastic bag out the window!! Yuk! Lol!!
Love having you here in Canada. Hugs & Kisses - Mum xxx

  Cheryl Ryan Jan 23, 2010 6:28 AM


Impressed (and grinning from ear to ear) after reading your latest installment, for so many reasons, but mostly because the thought of my gorgeous, intelligent, non-trackydack wearing friend pissing in a bag on a cruddy bus and throwing it out the window is such a pisser - pardon the pun! LOL! Missing you xoxo

  Amy Jan 29, 2010 8:00 PM

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