From Uyuni we headed by bus to Potosí. Our first impressions were that it was cold…really cold (we were at 4,090m above sea level after all), but also that it was a pretty town full of colonial buildings.
We received a warm welcome at our hostel “Koala Den“. The great hospitality continued the following morning when we were treated to a breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs, avocado, fresh bread, spreads and the most delicious hot chocolate. Not to forget the glass of fresh orange juice, which the owner served to us humorously calling it “whisky”!
The town of Potosi has the spectacular “Cerro Rico” as its backdrop – a hill rich with minerals and silver. This meant that the town was of strategic importance to the Spanish during the colonial period. The abundance of silver inevitably led to the creation of the town’s first mint in the 16th century, later replaced by a larger mint in the 18th century. During Potosi’s boom years it was responsible for producing the coins for countless countries worldwide and one theory is that the mint’s stamp (consisting of the letters PTSI superimposed on top of one another) led to the creation of the dollar sign.
It is said that enough silver was exported from Potosi during colonial times to be able to build a bridge from Potosi to Spain and back. Tragically the same bridge could be built out of the bones of the eight million indigenous people and African slaves who died either in the mines or at the mint from being used as human mules to turn the presses or from breathing in toxic mercury gas which was emitted during the melting process.
In the early afternoon we explored more of the town, including its main square and a number of churches. Our highlight was climbing to the top of “Torre de la compañia de Jesus” from which we had great views of the city and out to the hills. Unfortunately we then both started to feel unwell and we spent the next 15 hours in our hostel room. I was violently sick and Paul didn’t get any sleep due to suffering bouts of hot and cold. We’re not sure if it was the altitude taking its toll or something we had eaten, but either way it was less than fun!
We had planned to go on a tour of the mines the next morning, but we decided to give it a miss and to jump straight on a bus to Sucre which is at lower altitude. We had been torn as to whether to visit the mines anyway and in hindsight I’m quite glad we didn’t. I’m not sure it’s right to watch the miners working in what are still abysmal conditions, as though it were some form of entertainment, to then just walk away.
Our hostel in Sucre was lovely. We paid just £12 per night for a double room in a colonial house with two courtyards, one of which had a fountain. Included in the price we also got use of this amazing towel and stroking rights to four adorbale dogs (I only managed to get a photo of two of them).
By this point we were ravenous, so we headed to Cafe Condor – a not for profit vegetarian cafe recommended to us by a French girl at the Koala Den, by Lonely Planet and by TripAdvisor where it is ranked as the number one restaurant in the whole of Sucre. Needless to say we weren’t disappointed. For just 25 Bolivianos (£2.50) each, we enjoyed a soup, a traditional bolivian pastry stuffed with vegetables, a fresh fruit juice and a dessert. It was so good in fact that we returned the next day. Although I’d started to feel better I could tell Paul wasn’t right as he didn’t have bread with his soup or finish his main course – lack of eating is one of the two main signs there’s a problem (the other being something stopping him from watching the football…).
Post lunch we wandered through the town and visited the pretty Parque Bolivar complete with Bolivia’s answer to the Eiffel Tower and the Arque du Triomph. We then headed back to the hostel for the night, as Paul was still suffering from an upset stomach – to use a euphemism…
The next day we went to visit the Casa de la Unidad – a beautiful building where we learnt about the Spanish rule over most of South America and how liberalist sentiments eventually led to the outbreak of the wars of independence. Despite the revolutions having started in Bolivia, this was the last country to gain independence due to the strong Spanish presence there. Eventually an independence document was signed in the Unity House in Sucre. We also learned of how Bolivia has not only lost out to the Spanish who took their land and their silver, but also to Paraguay (to whom they conceded an area rich in oil in the Chalco War), Brazil (to whom they conceded an area rich in rubber and gold in the Are War) and Chile (to whom they lost their coastline). Much of this has led to Bolivia going from being a country full of natural resources and potential for growth to being the poorest country in South America.
We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting numerous churches around the town, with a particular highlight being the view of the town from La Recoleta monastery.
Our final day in Sucre was a bit of a comedy of errors (I’m not sure if my usual organisational skills are slipping after more than three months of travelling). We had planned to first visit Castillo Gloria, but we spent at least an hour trying to locate where the bus departed from (although Paul was happy as we stumbled across a shop selling a Sucre football shirt to tick Bolivia off his list…)
Frustrated by the lack of progress, we decided instead to walk to the cemetery which turned out to be closed until 2pm (by this point it was midday). The one good thing that came out of having walked to the ceremony is that we finally spotted the elusive number four bus which we subsequently hopped on to go to the castle. It’s fair to say that the castle was rather unimpressive, though the story behind it was quite interesting – originally a house built for Bolivia’s first (and last!) prince and princess who were bestowed these titles by the Pope for their charitable work in the community.
Next we set off to visit Parque cretatico which is home to the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world. Unfortunately for us, we had missed the tours of the dinosaur footprints which take place at 12pm and 1pm and would have only been able to see the museum, which we opted against (and we also realised we didn’t have enough cash!).
So we ended our day of sightseeing full-cirlce with a visit to the impressive cemetery – the resting place of some of Bolivia’s most important figures.
Before taking our 12 hour night bus to La Paz, we filled up on some delicious Venezuelan food (arepas) at Bienmesabe. The energy served us well on arrival to the bus station where we were sent on a wild goose chase for tags to put on our luggage (without them we were not allowed to put our luggage in the stow).
First of all the wrong company took our luggage and almost loaded it onto the wrong bus. Then having finally located the correct office to obtain the tags from, there was noone there. Once someone finally turned up, the bus should have already gone, but luckily a mad rush through the terminal meant that we managed to hop on the bus just in time.
The bus journey was long and the last few hours were uncomfortable due to the only toilet on board having been closed for hygiene reasons… The last part of the journey took longer than expected as well, as about 25,000 people gathered to make a flag that stretched from Oruru to La Paz (approximately 100 miles!). The flag was made up of lots of smaller maritime flags in support of Bolivia’s dispute with Chile over their borders.
Bolivia lost 260 miles of coastline to Chile in the war of the Pacific and wishes to start diplomatic relations with Chile to discuss an eventual redrawing of the borders. The case is being heard by the International Court of Justice, but is likely to take many years until it gets solved.
As the bus neared the city, you begin to get a sense of its scale – the centre of which is located in a valley and surrounded on all sides by highlands, accessible by the city’s cablecar system, and with Mount Illimani as its backdrop (over 6,000m).
By the time we got to our accommodation it was already midday, so we dumped our stuff and headed for a quick lunch of saltenas (Bolivian empanadas) before joining the 2pm free walking tour. We started in Plaza San Pedro where we learned about the prison there. People who have committed petty crimes live there with their families and run small businesses there, the profits of which are used to pay rent for their accommodation. It may sound like a good idea, but the prison is also a front for drug dealing, and fortunately is soon to be closed down.
Our guide then took us to see three different markets – Mercado Rodriguez, the Witches Market and Mercado Lanza. At the first market we learned about the traditional Cholita dress – consisting of a multi-layered skirt (to stress childbearing hips and for warmth), plaited hair with pom-poms attached to the end to make their hair look even longer and a hat which when worn facing the front signifies that the woman is married and when worn to the side that the woman is looking for love.
The Witches Market is a strange place where people go to buy love potions, punishment potions (for inobedient husbands or wives) and also various objects (including dried llama fetuses and dead baby llamas) which are used as offerings to pachamamma (mother earth) to bring good luck, such as when building a new house. Folklore says that for larger buildings, a larger offering must be made in the form of a human life. In fact human bones have been found under some of the city’s buildings.
From Mercado Lanza, we made a brief stop at San Francisco church, an example of the syncretism between indigenous religion and Catholicism which was brought over by the Spanish. We then crossed a bridge over to the colonial part of the town which had pretty cobbled streets and an impressive main square home to the cathedral, presidential palace and government building.
For our second day in La Paz we joined Barracuda Biking to cycle the world’s most dangerous road “La ruta de la muerte”. It is 55km long, the first 20km are on tarmac whilst the remainder is on a dirt and gravel track with an average width of just 3.2m and drops of up to 600m off the side. The road sees you descend from a very cold 4,200m to 1,500m amidst the warm and humid jungle. It’s fair to say that we were both quite apprehensive pre-ride, but we managed to make it down in one piece. Paul had one fall before we got to the dirt section, but for once came off lightly with a grazed elbow and a bruised bum!
The one downside of going down the road by bike is that you are too busy focusing on not falling to your death, that you are unable to fully take in the scenery, apart from during the various rest stops along the way. But the landscape really is spectacular! The other downside of the day was that we were paired with some fairly obnoxious Canadians who just wanted to show off. But to compensate we were in a group with three lovely Australians on their way back to Oz after having lived in London for a couple of years. Our guides, Andres and Jorge, were also great!
After 3.5 hours of cycling we made it to a restaurant in the jungle where we enjoyed a swim in the pool before tucking into the buffet. I think it would be unfair not to mention that although Paul was one of the slowest (second only to an Italian girl) all the way down death road, describing the whole experience as traumatic, he in fact arrived first at the final destination despite the last 500m being a steep uphill climb which had most people getting off their bikes to push instead. Slow and steady wins the race 🙂
We got back to our B&B pretty late following a long and windy three hour bus trip back up the death road replacement road. With another early start on the cards, we went straight to bed, ready for another bus journey first thing.
Next stop Lake Titicaca.