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Tegan & Ingrid's world adventure

We heart Bolivia

BOLIVIA | Tuesday, 10 April 2012 | Views [3109] | Comments [3]

Can I just firstly say that surprisingly that overnight bus we took from La Paz to Sucre was the best overnight bus we had in all of South America. Not only did it only cost us $20pp for a 12 hour bus ride but it was also the only bus we had which had completely flat bed seats including a leg rest which you could move into position as a full length bed and a lovely warm alpaca blanket to combat the air-conditioning. So good! For anyone reading this that may still be considering buses in Bolivia we highly recommend the full cama bus seats on the El Dorado buses. The actual driving is a whole other matter and we’ll get into that more a little later…

Sucre, also known as the white city, has a reputation as the most beautiful city in Bolivia and for us it definitely lived up to that expectation. Most Bolivian cities have the pretty standard red brick façade and are not entirely attractive but Sucre has some beautiful old colonial style buildings and most of the city is white, hence the nickname.

We really loved our time in this city and actually decided to extend our stay as we were enjoying it so much. It is actually a really popular place to learn Spanish and if we had more time I think we would have loved to do that as well. But unfortunately we didn’t quite have that much time up our sleeves as there were still a few more things left we wanted to do with our time in Bolivia. So we had to settle for just enjoying the sites of the city of which there are many.

We stayed at a lovely guesthouse called La Dolce Vita, right near the centre of town. It is run by a French/Swiss couple who moved to Bolivia a few years ago and they provide some wonderful rooms with a great guest kitchen and patio on the rooftop. To make the fact that we had such a great kitchen even better is that Sucre has one of the best fresh food markets we have seen on our travels. It was brilliant! We had fresh fruit with yoghurt for breakfast each morning and could then go and buy fresh juices or fruit salads during the day and fresh vegetables for cooking in the evening. It was a nice healthy change for having to eat out all the time and trying to pick a dish on the menu that at least gave you a small handful of greens on your plate. Unfortunately South American food is not really known for its vegetables and salads. It is mainly just a lot of meat, rice and potatoes.

Our time in Sucre was spent very relaxingly. After breakfast we would go sightseeing and in the late afternoons a traditional South American siesta before preparing for the evening meal. We visited numerous museums including a free folklore museum with some amazing masks used for traditional dances and ceremonies across the country, a beautiful old colonial building which now houses a history of Bolivia’s wars within South America and our favourite, a gorgeous textile museum. The textile museum held traditional weavings done by the different indigenous people of Bolivia. It is an art form which is sadly dying out but there is now a trust set up to help men and women to continue their work. It is sold through fair trade shops throughout Bolivia as well as the museum itself and they even had a woman working on a weaving in the museum shop. It is such intricate work and each piece tells a traditional story and takes the artist between 2-3 months to complete. Traditionally the pieces were used as clothing but nowadays in order to sell the pieces they are also made into beautiful wall hangings.

As well as some great museums Sucre offers a great social scene. We found some great local bars which offered live music, drinks and also local films. On our final evening we visited the Amsterdam bar where for a small donation we watched a showing of a documentary on the Potosi silver mines called ‘The Devils Miner’. It was an amazing documentary showing the life of the miners, filmed just 7 years ago and we thought extremely worthwhile as our next destination was Potosi.

Potosi is a silver mining town and also apparently is the highest city in the world. Its main square sits at an altitude of over 4000 metres above sea level. The main mountain they mine the silver from looms above the town so you can imagine just how high that would be and additionally how difficult it would be to work in there. Our main reason for visiting Potosi was to experience the mines in action. I couldn’t bring myself to visit them, I feel a little claustrophobic in mines at the best of times, let alone ones where you have to crawl through on your belly and are in total darkness. I decided to give this tour a miss and let Tegan go on his own.

The tour starts by taking you to get suited up; long sleeve top, mining pants, Gum boots, Helmet and a battery pack with head torch. Once you’re looking the part it’s off to the refinery to see how the local people produce the Silver and Zinc that they mine. The operation looked really primitive and we were always warned not to touch anything due to the high levels of arsenic in the place (reassuring).  Next it’s onto the Miners Market – a market where one can buy anything a Miner could require (including Dynamite). Here we bought ‘gifts’ for the miners; Juice, Gloves and yes, even Dynamite. Then it was onto the mines. Driving up the mountain it is quite clear that this hill has been heavily mined for centuries. The entire face, on all sides, is scattered with roads, shacks and Dump trucks. Plus the amount of mines on the mountain give a certain ‘honeycomb’ look about it. Our guide explained that over the last 500 or so years the mountain has claimed up to 8 million lives. Hence why it is known to the locals as ‘the mountain that eats people’. Before we knew it we were entering the mine, but no disused mine, this was a fully functional and very live mine as we were to quickly discover. As we walked along the mine cart tracks, after no more than 3mins it became increasingly difficult to breath. The dust was already grating at my throat and I found myself gasping for breath after every 20 steps. First stop in the mine is to pay homage to the mine’s ‘Tio’. The Tio is an idol that is present in every mine on the mountain. While most Potosians are Catholic on the Earths surface, underground however they believe the Devil is in charge and therefore they must honour the Tio, a demon idol. (The history of the Tio is quite interesting. Back in the 1500’s when the Spanish discovered the existence of silver in Potosi, they enslaved the indigenous people to work in the mines. Twenty hour shifts and only four hours sleep most of the time. Eventually the locals had had enough and they rose up against the Spanish. However, the Spanish knew how superstitious the indigenous people were and so created a giant statue of a demon and proclaimed that if the people did not work the Demon would kill them. So they all went back to work. The name Tio was derived because the word for demon was Dio but the local people had no ‘D’ in their language so it became the Tio.) Anyway, after offering a few Coca leaves to the Tio for safe passage, we continued into the belly of the mine. We continued around 600m more into the mountain and descended down three levels before we arrived at the working end of the mine. By this time the temperature was soaring at around 40 degrees and the air was so thin and dusty even sitting still was a chore. Then it happened. We heard a loud crack and thud, then all of a sudden we felt the air in the tunnel slam against our chests. Small rocks were starting to fall from the ceiling as our guide explained that the miners had just let off some dynamite. It was of the single most spine tingling moments of my life. Made worse by the fact that our guide had just finished telling us a story of how a miner and two tourists had been crushed after a dynamite explosion. When we met the miners, they were all in surprisingly high spirits (perhaps they had just found another Silver vein, who knows). But they spent some time with us, explaining what they do, etc. It really struck a nerve with me realising how humble these men were. Knowing full well that their life expectancy was not a day over 42 or so, this was their life, this is what they have to do to feed their families. It was quite moving. In all, we were in the mine for just over 2 hours, and it was tough, really tough. But these guys do it for up to 16 hours a day, 6 days a week until they either die or make enough cash so that they do not need to work there anymore. It made me realise that I could never again validly complain that my job sucks. The whole experience was one of my most memorable from the last 9 months and a lesson I will never forget.

After our brief stay in Potosi it was time to travel to Uyuni for a tour of the famous Bolivian salt flats. As we were leaving the hostel we were paired up with Clare and Judy from Wales who also needed a taxi to the bus station to Uyuni at the same time as us. We decided that we should all go looking for a tour together when we arrived in Uyuni. We had heard that it was better to form your own group before arrival in Uyuni if possible. That bus ride from Uyuni was magnificent. Probably my favourite for scenery whilst we have been in South America. The bus wound around the mountains on these tiny roads which switched between dirt and asphalt constantly. We went through some tiny villages with indigenous people working away on their land and the snow capped mountains soaring above them. It was 6 hours of pure beauty.

Uyuni on the other hand, a complete and total wasteland! What a contrast. As we wound around and came out of those mountains we spotted the town immediately just sitting in the middle of nothing. Considering this town is built purely on tourists arriving and leaving for tours they haven’t put in a whole lot of effort. Buildings were falling down everywhere, rubbish piled up and plenty of buildings just boarded up altogether. To make matters worse there is a constant dust storm blowing through the streets which makes it very unpleasant to walk around in as well. I felt really sorry for the locals who had to live in such a desolate place. The one thing Uyuni had going for it was that it has quite a nice main square with some greenery and a couple of bars which were serving drinks in the centre of it.

After visiting five different travel agencies and speaking with a few travellers who had just returned from Salt flats trips we made our decision and paid for our trip to depart the following morning. That night we took the opportunity to visit Minuteman pizza which is possibly the only thing in Uyuni which is regularly raved about by visitors. The pizza restaurant is in the back of a local hotel on the outskirts of town. In fact it looks like nothing special when you first walk in. It’s also pretty pricey by Bolivian standards but we were well rewarded when the pizzas we received were absolutely delicious and well worth every cent.

It was time for some well needed rest before our departure to the Salt Flats the next morning.

 

Comments

1

Hi tk_inks,

We really liked your post and decided to feature it on the WorldNomads Adventures homepage so that other travellers can enjoy it too.

Happy Travels!
Alicia
WorldNomads.com

  Alicia May 7, 2012 10:16 AM

2

Hi, I'm the webmaster of BoliviaBella.com and I absolutely loved reading your story. Sucre is my favorite city in Bolivia for many of the reasons you mentioned. It was really nice to see a story about Bolivia, especially its capital city, featured on the Adventures home page finally :) It's great that you shared it. Sorry Uyuni didn't live up to your expectations. It's true there's nothing much there. It's really all about the salt LOL. Anyway, just wanted to congratulate you for writing such a nice travel story. I really enjoyed it.

  Charis May 20, 2012 4:29 PM

3

Wow, I haven't been to Bolivia and didn't realise there was so much to see and do there. Nice post! Thanks for that!

  jennyoc Sep 21, 2012 6:38 PM

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