A Travellerspoint blog

April 2013

Living life on the edge

In general I’m not a big fan of big cities so I wasn’t overly looking forward to La Paz. Arriving in on the bus left me feeling a little bit more uncertain of how much time I wanted to spend there. The first site of La Paz from the bus is both impressive and daunting. La Paz is located in a valley but t the city extends all the way up the valley and on one side -where there’s no mountains- it overflows on the plateau. It spills over so much there is now an entirely new city called El Alto.

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We picked a hotel in the centre of the city and after settling in I realised that La Paz had a lot to offer. It felt like a real city unlike Sucre . We signed up for a walking tour and it was a great idea. Our guide was excellent and the tour was a lot more than just learning about history dates of buildings. He brought us up to El Alto (considered a no go area in the guidebooks) and it was really interesting. It was colourful, full of street vendors and also contained a much more authentic witches market than the one in central La Paz. The witches market is cool. Within Bolivia there are lots of Catholics but there is also the traditional beliefs from Inca time and before of worshiping mother earth or Pachamama. The ‘witches market’ sells all of the products necessary to worship pachamama. For example, if someone buys a new house they might bury a llama foetus in the garden for good luck or give someone a charm to wish them good luck etc. I don’t know all the details of this belief system too much but its v important to a lot of people and in El Alto you can see the Shamans work. The Shamans are similar to priests, they seem to provide guidance, help and perform rituals for the people who go to them. We went to one and had our coca leaves read. He was lovely man, he seemed very intelligent and seemed interested in our cultures. We will find out if his reading comes true!!!

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There is a good bit to see in La Paz, and a walking tour is s good idea to get your bearings. One of the plus sides to a big city is that there are lots food choices and its very easy to book tours from La Paz. One of the downsides is that I found the air quite polluted. It’s also worth mentioning that its at 3, 700m which is no joke if you haven’t acclimatized. I wouldn’t recommend flying into La Paz from a flat country for that reason as it really increase the risk of altitude sickness. It would be better to fly somewhere lower and gradually make your way to La Paz.

As previously mentioned it easy to book tours from the city and one of the most popular is the famous Death Road tour. Its starts not far from La Paz and continues downhill for over 3,000m to near Coroico in the jungle area. Ger decided he wanted to do it so we booked him in and I went in the van behind him. It was really lovely views although a bit heartbreaking on the way as you could see lots of crosses along he road marking all the deaths. Most of the deaths were from bus/car crashes but there were a number of cyclists. If you went too fast and lost control unfortunately there is no coming back if you went over the edge. The drops are staggeringly steep. However, the tours that go down it now are quite safe as they make about 15 stops on the way down and explain the road to the cyclists. The road itself is not really used by vehicles now either so there are very little accidents anymore. Ger loved it, he found it a bit difficult in places but overall it was fine. I had a lovely journey in the van!!! When we reached the bottom, it was time for Ger to rest and for me to test out my daredevil side by having a go on the zipine that crosses over valley at the end of the death road. I’m not sure why I thought this would be less scary than the death road but my fear of edges/heights has no rational. I was right. I wasn’t scared. Well initially I was but once I was strapped in and zooming across the valley, I loved it. There were 3 zip lines in total each one getting a bit lower until you are eventually at the bottom again. It was brilliant and what’s more is that it’s a community project so the locals earn money from it. I am now a firm believer that zip lining should be brought into every city as a means of commuting to work!!!

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After all this excitement we got to relax in the animal sanctuary of La Senda Verde. As it was my birthday, Ger thought it would be nice to spend it here as I love animals so much and he booked us into the tree house so we could watch the monkeys from our balcony. It was a really lovely weekend. The place itself is home to lots of animals that have been previously neglected and now they have a home in La Senda Verde. In Bolivian law, they cannot be re-released so they will remain in La Senda Verde for the rest of their days. As a tourist, you can help by staying in the lodges, donating money and also volunteering.

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After a lovely weekend, we were nearly finished our trip in Bolivia. We headed back to La Paz for one night and then caught a but to Puno in Peru. In our 5 weeks in Bolivia, we really enjoyed it. Its very cheap and its easy to do Spanish lessons and tours etc. The culture is fascinating and is still very much alive which I think is one of the big attractions for tourists. The diversity of the landscape is spectacular from the salt flats to the mountains down to the jungle. It is worth mentioning though that the altitude can be tough at times if your in the higher regions. Also, while transport is very cheap, its not necessarily that comfortable and journeys can be arduous off the main roads. Unfortunately one of the other sides its that we found hygiene not to be great when it came to food and we both suffered a bit with stomach problems. It seems to be developing well though so I think these issues should improve in the future. In the meantime, its definitely worth visiting if your in South America.

Posted by ofenelon 05:03 Archived in Bolivia Tagged death la road paz verde senda Comments (1)

The dizzy heights of Bolivia

As the title suggests, we began our journey in the Altoplana side of Bolivia where everything is well, high up. We crossed the border from Argentina to the town of Tupiza. The border crossing was extremely painless, we walked across and it took all of 5 minutes. From here we got a shared taxi to Tupiza. The difference in the two countries was at once, very obvious. All of the local older people -some young- were wearing traditional dress. There was a lot of colour on the streets, food etc was noticeably cheaper but poverty was noticeably more too.

The town of Tupiza is very quaint and was a great first stop to get prepared for our 4 day trip across the famous salt flats or the Salar de Uyuni. This is probably the most popular tour in Bolivia and its not really hard to see why. It is unbelievably spectacular. The tour itself can be approached from different places in the region. We started our tour in Tupiza which meant we spent our last day on the salt flats and finally Uyuni. To go on the tour, it's very easy to organise. We were recommended an agency so we went to them and they organise the lot for you. You basically go in a land rover along with two other guests, a driver and a cook. Each day, you drive across various landscapes stopping at the important sights. The chef cooks everything for you and you spend the night in basic accommodation in villages along the way. What is so special about it? The landscape. It is indescribable. You travel over so many different types of landscape passing volcanoes, mountainous areas at 5, 000m, past lakes of all shapes and colours, across desert type areas (the famous Dali desert picture) and finally across miles of salt flats. Each day we were driving for 8-12 hours and I was never once bored. Aside from the landscape, there is amazing wildlife to see such as llamas, condors, vicunas, sunrise and flamencos.

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The trip itself is fantastic although one of the downsides is the altitude. For some, it is not even an issue, unfortunately for me I did suffer from Mild altitude symptoms for two of the days. Ger was fine. Altitude sickness can be mild or very serious. At very high altitude, mild sickness is quite common. I was getting very bad headaches and I also didn't feel like eating. We were a little bit worried about it because the tour was going to up even higher after I starting getting symptoms. This wouldn't be advised but we didn't really have a choice and thankfully the next night the driver brought us down lower to sleep and my symptoms eased. It is something though that you have to be aware of on that side of Bolivia, its very high. There is a medicine to help you acclimatise and also a lot of Bolivians eat coca leaves which helps the symptoms too.

Coca leaves are very interesting and important to Bolivians. Many people, especially at altitude, take them all the time. The leaves have properties which helps to relieve symptoms of altitude sickness and go back to Inca times. They are from the same plant as which cocaine is made from but are just a herb when taken as leaves and its not illegal. Just like any drug, there is a lot of chemistry involved in converting the leaves to cocaine! We had some leaves on the trip and they are just like have tea leaves in your mouth. You can also make tea with them which is very popular and I think it works well. The leaves are also given as offerings in some religious ceremonies. There was an issue with some UN countries (you can probably guess which) trying to ban Bolivians on chewing coca because they didn't want an increase in the production of the plant that might lead to cocaine production, however many of the coca plants are not grown for this but for their leaves in their natural state to be sold to Bolivian locals. It has been a tradition for centuries and at present the UN hasn't succeeded on banning it yet. I hope that Bolivia continues to fight for this right to have their coca leaf as it is a very important part of their culture.

After the salt flats we made want to the city of Sucre. It is the actual capital of Bolivia. Well, its the administrative capital now. The working capital is La Paz. Its called the white city as in the centre of the city all of the buildings are whitewashed (legally they have to be) and the result is effective. The white colonial buildings and lovely squares make this a very pretty city albeit a little bit 'fake' as the suburbs are not white and are quite rundown in places. However, we found a really nice B&B and we stayed here for two weeks as we decided to learn Spanish again. The course was good, any new bit of Spanish learnt helps and by the time the course finished, Easter weekend was approaching so we decided to stay for that

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Being in a South American country for Easter was an interesting experience as the people are very catholic, as such, Easter and the surrounding times are great celebrations. On holy Thursday in Sucre, the locals all climb up the local hill. Well it’s more of a big hill, mini mountain. The walk can start from 8pm and continue throughout the night with thousands of people making their way up stopping at the stations on the way. Ger and I decided to head up as well. It was interesting and a good walk, especially at altitude. When we made it to the top, they were setting up for a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar presumably to be held later on. It was cool to see and on our way back down, the amount of people coming up was impressive. The proceedings continued on good Friday when there was a large procession down the street. The procession was really nice with bands and they even had people carrying a casket with a statue of Christ in it. I’m not exactly into religious ceremonies but you could tell that it was a really important to the locals.

On Easter Sunday, we decided to do a trek outside the city which was lovely as it involved a 5km walk on the Inca trail. It never fails to amaze me how the INCAs managed to create such an impressive network of trails throughout south America. Its not just Peru as I originally thought, the trails stretch though many countries and its had such a great influence on the cultures in the different countries from the Inca trails to the textiles, jewellery, customs etc. As part of the trip, we visited a weaver. Weavings are really important in boliva, especially to the indigineous people and can take months to make. I really wanted to get one but they are realatively expensive and i didnt want to trust the post in sending it home!!

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After Easter we were well rested and so it was time to continue our journey upward to the next town of Cochabamba. We had heard great about this city and when we arrived we were really surprised at how modern it was. We stayed near the centre of the city and it was really nice. Its a very stylish city full of cool cafes, bars and shops. They also have the biggest Christ statue in the world. We went up for a look and its quite impressive.

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Also out of Cochabamba you can get the bus to a national park called Toro Toro. It's not that touristy and is really worth the visit. The bus journey there is uncomfortable though- 6 hours on bumpy roads with no leg room on a squashed bus. The journey is worth it though as the park is really scenic and there are lots of things to see. Basically when you arrive, you organise a guide to take you to the different attractions. We joined up with a group of Bolivians and a few others and we spent two days seeing/doing different things. The main attraction is probably the dinosaur footprints, they have an impressive amount of them. There are also some really cool waterfalls, canyons and we went caving which was quite the experience. I didn't actually know we were going caving, I just thought that we were going to see a cave. How wrong I was!!! Two hours later, my cream shorts were now brown, I was exhausted tired and was pretty relieved to be still in one piece. It was really great fun but lets just say that the safety in parts wouldn't have been the best.

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The bus journey back was just as painful as the one down but we had a great weekend in ToroToro, it was great fun and we spent little money as its very cheap. We spent the night back in Cochabamba before catching the bus to the mad city of La Paz but that’s another blog!

Dodging Mosquito Status: Excellent! while we have acclimatised to the altitude, our little biting friends haven't. They are all nestled way below us in the jungle. It may be harder to breathe but up here but we are spared from our enemy for another week at least!

Posted by ofenelon 04:07 Archived in Bolivia Tagged de uyuni salar sucre torotoro Comments (1)

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