Whitlocks Round the World - Travel Diary for Bolivia

Click here to read the latest newsThe diary of our trip round the world. You can view other diary entries by clicking the highlighted months at the bottom of the page or by clicking on one of the countries visited so far. Click our logo (on the left) to see the most recent news entries. We are adding new entries from Internet Cafés as we travel, so updates may be irregular. Please check back often to see how we are getting along.

Countries visited so far: UK Latvia Lithuania Poland Slovak Republic Hungary Romania Bulgaria Greece Egypt Tanzania Malawi Mozambique South Africa Swaziland South Africa (again) Argentina Bolivia Peru Ecuador Vietnam China Mongolia Russia England

24th February Bolivia
Journey to Bolivia
Crossing the border between Argentina and Bolivia - Click to enlargeWe travelled to Bolivia by bus and on foot. The bus for La Quiaca, on the Argentinian side of the border, left Salta at 5.30am, so we all slept for the first part of the journey. The sun comes up properly between 7 and 8am, and then we woke up to look at the spectacular scenery that lies in the north of Argentina. We passed incredible rock formations, like enormous scallop shells leaning against the sides of mountains, striped in curves like greenish rainbows. We passed mountains that were coloured red and gold in stripes, some more colourful even than those we saw on the way to Cafayate. It was amazing to see. The landscape is barren and dry there, so nothing much grows or settles there, and there is no soil, so the rocks with all their colourful mineral deposits are laid bare for all to see.

At La Quiaca we felt the effects of altitude for the first time. We got off the bus feeling a but giddy and slightly drunk, not having realised that we would be at about 3000m of altitude at the border. We set off on foot for the border post with Tom not feeling well at all. He grew more and more pale and eventually had to throw up by the side of the road. We went very slowly through the Argentinian border post, me carrying Tom´s rucksack as well as mine and feeling lightheaded and breathless, and Nick groaning and complaining of a headache. Then we walked across the bridge to Bolivia, Tom looking like a ghost.

Villazón, on the Bolivian side, was in full carnaval. In the immigration office there was a pile of stones covered with streamers and confetti in the middle of the floor, and everyone had confetti plastered in their hair. It was quite bizarre as they went about the official business of stamping our passports. As we walked through the streets to the bus terminal we dodged water bombs and brightly coloured things which were being thrown in all directions. Unfortunately, we weren´t really in the mood!

26th February Bolivia
Horseriding at Tupiza - Click to enlargeThe bus ride to Tupiza was an experience in itself. 95% of Bolivia´s roads are unsurfaced, and this was no exception. After the comfort of Argentinian buses this one, one of the roughest we´ve travelled on yet, was a very uncomfortable ride. The track wound along valleys, across river beds, and balanced precariously on the sides of mountains. We were driving into the desert, and the red colour of the soil and rocks was striking, while in the valleys people lived and cultivated patches of land. At one point we rattled through a series of tunnels carved into the rock, which looked bright orange in the setting sun. It was funny to see how precisely they had been carved for the rough dirt track to pass through.

Tupiza seemed very remote when we arrived there, but Hotel Mitru was very civilised. We walked there with Lotte, a 20yr old Danish woman we met at the border, travelling alone. We took two rooms between the five of us, and Lotte shared with Esther.

Tupiza is surrounded by mountains. At the end of every street there appears to be one, and they are all different colours. The one we could see from the hotel was bright red in the morning, deep marroon in the afternoon and rust-coloured in the evening, at sunset. On the full day we spent there we went horseriding (Lotte´s suggestion). It was fantastic! We took four horses and a guide, and Esther rode with me. The ride lasted three hours and took us to the "Inca Canyon", where the Incas alledgedly brough gold downstream from the mountains. Esther and I shared a wonderful horse called Tobacco, Nick had a big strong horse which had a fair amount of energy, and Tom had a good, placid pony. The scenery was spectacular, the sun was strong and the guide was friendly. Tom did fantastically well for his first proper horse ride and Esther loved it. We all trotted a bit and Esther and I even managed a canter!

27th-30th February Bolivia
El Salar de Uyuni
On El Salar de Uyuni - Click to enlargeWe took a spectacular bus journey to Uyuni,which wound up and up into the mountains. The landscape gradually became more and more arid and the rocky desert landscape was populated mainly by cactuses. The road was unsealed and the journey very dusty and bumpy. At one point we drove for miles along a dry river bed to a small town which must be completely cut off at times,following heavy rains. The altitude at Uyuni is 3600m and we all felt some of the effects of this as we climbed.

The reason tourists go to Uyuni is to visit the nearby ´salar`,the largest salt field in the world. We booked our 4-day tour on the evening we arrived, and left Uyuni at about 10.30 the following morning. Our tour group included Lotte and two men, Claus from Austria and Fabian from Germany.

As we drove towards the salt lake we could see it shimmering on the horizon. The sight was amazing. El salar de Uyuni is a vast expanse of pure whiteness stretching further than the eye could see. The heat haze rising from the surface creates a mirage of water in the distance, and the mountains and ´islands`in the distance appear to be floating just above the surface. First we stopped at a small village at the edge of the salar, where salt is gathered from the lake,dried and milled for sale. An incredibly simple process! Then we drove onto the salar itself. We got out of the vehicle to stand on the dazzling surface. It looked like ice,and the children tried to build salt snowmen, but we were standing in hot sunshine! Our driver told us that there is about 8-10cm of salt, under which there is water.

We drove for one and a half hours across the salt to Isla Pescado, so called because in the heat haze it looks like a gigantic fish floating above the surface of a shimmering white sea, as you approach from a distance. The island was populated by enormous cactuses, the largest of which is 12m tall and estimated to be over 1000 years old. We did a short circular walk to the top of the rocky island. It was hard work with the altitude making us short of breath,but the panoramic view was outstanding. It felt incredibly peaceful.

While we were walking our cook, Florencia, prepared lunch. We ate at salt picnic table looking out over the salar,along with all the other jeep tours there that day!

That evening we stayed at a hotel made of (you guessed it) salt! The building was quite beautiful,and rather surreal looking, built of blocks of salt cut from the surface of the salar. The tables, chairs and even beds were also made of salt, and there was a fine gravelof salt on the floor. Esther thought it was a proper princess castle!

The following two days were spent driving long, dusty distances through desert. It became apparent on the first day that our jeep was not in the best of condition, and had to be push-started every time we stopped for any reason,or stalled when going uphill! This was tiring and annoying for most of us, and almost unbearable for Nick, who developed serious symptoms of altutude sickness once again as soon as we passed above 4000m above sea level.(We had not researched the trip fully enough to realise that we would climb to around 5000m!)

On the second day of the tour we stopped at several small lakes, some of which are home to flamingoes, and at a view point where we could see a live volcano smoking away in the distance. The scenery was striking but the track bumpy and dusty, and by the time, in the evening, we had to push the vehicle three times to get it started, we had all had enough. Thet night was spent in a very basic and remote hostel at nearly 5000m of altitude. It was extremely cold and Nick was not well at all. Throughout the night, it seemed, there were men under our vehicle, trying to fix the problem. When, in the morning, our driver came at 5.00 to tell us that they could not start it and we would have to wait for another jeep to be sent from Uyuni (two days away), we were not impressed! We were disappointed at missing the rest of the tour (which included a visit to some geysers and some hot springs), and dreading staying another day and night there. However, one hour later, by some miracle,they had started the thing, and we left to do the third day with reassurances that we would not be stranded in the desert!

We set off at about 6.30 and drove for 45 minutes to the geysers. They were really impressive and we were glad to be there - well,all except Nick, as, at 5000m above sea level, he was barely capable of moving, let alone enjoying the wonderful power of the Earth). Tom, Esther and I wandered between huge steaming pits of bubbling grey mud and powerful jets of steam. It was like looking at the surface of another planet. Amazing to think that, in such a high place, the immense power of Mother Earth was just beneath our feet. At times it was exciting, even slightly scary, to stand so near. And the air, away from the steam, was so cold. The contrast was incredible and exhilerating.

The same could be said of the hot springs, which we reached an hour later. It was a bizarre sight. At the edge of a smallish lake, half covered with a layer of salt, was a spring from which billowed clouds of steam. A stream brought the hot water into a small shallow pool,where three or four people sat, up to their necks in hot water. Although the sun was now up, the air was still very chilly. Lotte and I and the children eased ourselves in. It was gorgeous! The water was hot and, by contrast with the air, felt hotter. Once in, you could just drift away, breathing steam - a welcome change from the dry, cold air. Lovely!

We had breakfast and then bump-started the jeep (which,for all the work done on it overnight was much the same, except that now the electric windows didn`t work!) to go on to the Laguna Verde. This lake, as its name suggests, is green. Some green algae, adapted to live in the harsh high altitude climate, lives in the lake and turns the water into a deep emerald green. Surrounded by brilliant white salt and backed by mountains strikingly coloured by minerals in the rock, it´s a beautiful sight.

After that we had a long drive to our final night´s accommodation. For the whole afternoon we were followed by another jeep, so that there was someone to rescue us when we stalled on a hill and needed a push start. It took ages to get to the hostel, but by the time we arrived Nick was feeling better, as we had finally dropped below the 4000m mark.

On the final morning it was apparent that the vehicle, once again, would not start. There was some talk of phoning the agency to get them to send another, but nothing came of this, so, with a team effort, we got the vehicle going, and jumped in. Stops on the last day included some tiny villages full of curious children, and the ´Train Cemetary`, a surreal place where dozens of old, rusty and decaying steam engines stood end to end, strangely majestic against the background of desert and distant mountains. We all enjoyed climbing on them!

Back in Uyuni we complained about the jeep. The manager had a very ´don´t care` kind of attitude, but didn´t like us hanging around his office putting off other customers, so he eventually acknowledged our complaint and paid for our night`s accommodation in our hostel. It was not much. One night at Hostal Avenida cost about four pounds for all of us, but at least it was recognition.

Despite the problems, the salt lake tour was a great experience and we saw some excellent scenery. Nick´s reaction to altitude seems fairly rare. We have not met anyone else who has suffered so severely, but it was sad for him not to be able to enjoy the trip.

3rd March Bolivia
The Devil in Potosí - Click to enlargePotosí is a mining town. We had heard that a visit to the mines could be pretty grim, but felt that it would be interesting, as mining is carried out here now in a similar way to in Britain centuries ago. In fact, in many ways conditions down the Potosí mines have not changed much since their foundation in the 16th century. The town is built at the foot of Cerro Rico, a mountain that was once rich in silver and other minerals. Although silver was first discovered there by an Indian, Diego Huallapa, the mines being established by indigenous people were quickly taken over by the Spanish, in 1572. The silver mined at Potosí was exported to Europe and made Spain very wealthy, while Potosí Indians worked as slaves in the mines, often not seeing the light of day for months at a time. When the Indians refused to work in the mines they were imprisoned (which was not such a bad thing by comparison) and black slaves brought in from Africa. It was even worse in the mines for them, as they were not used to the 4000m altitude there. In all, some 8,000,000 people died in the mines between 1545 and 1825.

Now, the silver has mostly gone, but 4500 men and boys still work in the mines, bringing out cartloads of stone with veins of zinc, tin and lead to try and scrape a living. Tom, Nick and I went on a tour of the mines, while Esther stayed at the hostel to play with Natalie, the three-year-old daughter of a receptionist there. We wore overalls and helmets with miners´ lights. First we went to the miners´ market, a couple of tiny shops selling coca leaves, biscuits and dynamite. We were shown how these things were used down the mines. We bought a bag containing dynamite, detonator, ammonium nitrate and a fuse, as a gift for the miners, as well as coca leaves and some biscuits. Then we were taken in a minibus to the entrance to the mine.

There are hundreds of tunnels zig-zagging around the inside of Cerro Rico. Because of the tunnels caving in, it is estimated that the mountain is currently losing at least a metre in height every year. The tunnel we went into seemed relatively stable, though it wasn´t pleasant. It was dark and damp, and forks led off in all directions, as well as passages leading up to the tunnel above, down to the one below, sometimes even diagonally up or down into the mountain. We saw miners working. They all had a huge bulge in the cheek, where they were chewing a mass of coca leaves. When they worked with a drill the compressed air which powered it made a loud hissing sound which frightened Tom, who was thinking of miners killed by poisonous gases. Others were chipping away at the rock by hand in order to create a cavity into which they could put dynamite to blow a lump of rock from the wall. Our guide told us that sometimes they chip away for up to ten hours to prepare for one explosion. We met ´Johnny´ who is 18 and has been working in the mines since the age of 12. The day we visited he was working as an assistant in a small group. It was a twelve hour shift with no breaks (ie: no lunch, no snacks or drinks and no trips to the toilet) for which he said he would be paid 30 Bolivianos (about 2 pounds 30). He had, as all the miners had, a large bulge in one cheek, where he was chewing coca leaves. Our guide explained that this helps the miners not to feel cold, tired and hungry. Basically, it numbs the senses. Johnny, as a miner, can expect to live to about 45 years of age.

We walkwed through a few more tunnels, stepping aside occasionally to allow a wagon load of stones to pass, and then we came to a little cavern wherein sat the devil! We were told that, in an odd blend of ancient Indian superstition and introduced Catholicism, the miners worship the devil as the god of the underworld. This was one of Tom´s more bizarre RE lessons! The strange god-idol sat in a dark room with one of the miners´ herby cigarettes in its mouth, some coca leaves in his hand, and was draped with streamers from the recent Carnaval celebrations. He had a large penis moulded, as he was, from clay, symbolising his fertile relationship with the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and therefore the production of a good yield of minerals from the mountain.

We were glad to see the light of day when we stepped out of the mine and back into the sunlight. Being stuck down there for hours on end as the miners are must be one of the grimmest ways to make a living that there is.

7th March Bolivia
La Paz
A busy street in La Paz - Click to enlargeOur friend Sarah and her 2-year-old daughter Beth were due to fly out to meet us in La Paz on the 6th of March, so we made our way there and arrived in plenty of time on the 4th. We took an overnight bus from Potosí and arrived at 5am, still travelling with Lotte. We found a friendly taxi driver and bought him a cup of coffee while we had breakfast in a cafe which he knew would be open. Then he took us to an assortment of hotels and hostels until we found one which suited us. There we arranged ourselves in one room and booked one next door for Sarah and Beth.

Their flight arrived early in the morning and we took a taxi to the airport to meet them. It was so wonderful to see a familiar face after so long away from home!

On Sarah´s first day she and Beth rested, and then we did some shopping, which is excellent and very cheap in La Paz. During the following few days we did a couple of excursions from the city, including a city tour (see below) and Tiwanaku (see next entry).

La Paz City Tour

The city tour was nice and the guide was friendly, although not incredibly knoledgeable. We went to the Valle de la Luna (valley of the moon), where we saw some pretty rock formations. We visited an old colonial part of town, where we saw the house where the revolution against the Spanish began in 1809. It was a pretty, narrow, cobbled street. We went for a walk around the markets, which were good to see. A lady peeled some cactus fruits for us to try and we saw some fresh fish from Lake Titicaca being cooked and sold. We also bought lots of fruit. Delicious small peaches, plums, figs and avocados.

8th March Bolivia
Sun Gate, Tiwanaku - Click to enlargeTiwanaku, or Tiahuanaco in Spanish, is the name given to an advanced pre-Incan civilisation that existed from 1500BC-1100AD. The centre of the Tiwanaku civilisation was in Bolivia, where they built their most important temple complex at the mid-point between the two cordilleras of the Andes. They worshipped a sun-god, as well as animorphic gods; the llama-god, which was the good, useful god of the earth, the puma-god, which was the bad god, as it ate the llama, although it had powers to protect, and the fish-god, representing the power and energy in water. The Tiwanakus were a farming society which domesticated the llama and created an advanced system of irrigation of crops, using the natural salinity of the soil to leech water from a system of canals. They planted potatoes (300 varieties!), quinua, a local staple, and corn.

We visited the most important site of Tiwanaku ruins from La Paz. Our guide, Freddie, was excellent. First he took us around the ceramics museum, where we saw the different types of ceramics used by the Tiwanakus for eating and drinking, and for ceremonies, and how the decoration of these became more advanced as time went on. Freddie made it really interesting and we got more from the experience than we would have done if we had been on our own. Next we walked around the ancient site itself. The remains which can be seen are the site of a group of temples. The most important structure is a raised pyramid-like temple, which had a pool on top designed to reflect the stars and thought to have been used to predict rainy and dry seasons. Another temple, at ground level, was carefully designed to be used at solstices and equinoxes. A huge sun gate was in its centre, through which the sun shone at these times. Our guide showed us by building a model out of stones and using a mirror to reflect sunlight through the gate. It was very clever! Another impressive temple was the semi-subterranean one, set about 2m into the earth. This temple is square and has carved stone heads, thought to represtent the many different ethnic groups which came together over time to form the Tiwanaku society.

We went for lunch at a restaurant near the site, and then went to see the museum of monoliths. The largest monolithic statue, the Bennett monolith, is 7m high and is thought to represent the Pachamama, Mother Earth.

In some ways the Tiwanaku site bore ressemblance to Ancient Egyptian temples, with its animal gods, huge monoliths of gods (rather than kings, as in Egypt), advanced astronomy, and its central pyramid structure (although this was a temple, not a tomb). We thought it remarkable that Tiwanaku isn´t talked about more. Although smaller in area the Tiwanaku culture existed for longer than the Inca empire and attained a high degree of advancement in agriculture and stone-masonry.

The children were all good, and although Beth cried a few times, she coped well with the day. We really enjoyed the tour and concluded that it was one of the best that we´ve done.

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