Bolivia – the beggar seated on a throne of gold

Leaving Bolivia was a bitter-sweet experience, since I have had a truly amazing time traveling through this geologically diverse country over the past month (it has been, by far my favourite country in South America).

As I crossed the border into Peru (to the town of Puno) I was surprised with how little things had really changed, everything felt extremely familiar; there were the same markets in similar looking towns, with women wearing pretty much the same traditional wear.

After learning more about the Lake Titicaca area I began to understand why. It’s not that as countries, Peru and Bolivia are or ever have been similar; they have simply shared the same beginning.

Until the arrival of the Inca civilisation (surprisingly only 100 years before the arrival of the Spanish in 1531) the entire area surrounding the Andes was effectively made up of many different indigenous tribes (some of which, although small, were civilisations in their own right).

The Incas were the first of these many different tribes to actually expand and build an Empire (something the Europeans had been doing thousands of years prior). The United Kingdom of Peru actually included Bolivia (known as Alto-Peru) and spread as far south as Chile and as far north as Columbia.

Given that the Incas beliefs were very similar to that of Bolivia ( the Tiahuanaco people) in that their gods had risen from Lake Titicaca, I can understand how such a unification was possible and why I have noticed so many similarities.

However, as I traveled further into the interior of Peru, I have quickly realised that culturally they are in fact very different. My initial impression is that the Peruvians are generations ahead; dare I say it, more civilised even.

This has led me to want to attempt to understand why there is such a divergence between these two countries. Given that a country is really its people, I thought a good place to start would be to understand the Bolivian Culture.

I apologise now for such a wordy blog update (it does go on and probably doesn’t read very well) but it is my attempt to try to understand why Bolivia (the poorest country in South America) is what it is today based on what I have seen and my experiences here.

When we first entered Bolivia from the southern region of the Atacama desert , we had a very different impression of the Bolivians than we do now. Our first exchanges with the locals were by no means pleasant ones. Initially we thought they were simply a reserved and shy lot, however we soon began to feel that they were simply extremely rude. I would even go as far as saying that some were in fact racist towards us; giving us the distinct impression that they didn’t want us there and were not fussed about our business.

This type of reception, in addition to some other observations (listed below) led me to a fairly harsh initial conclusion; that Bolivia is the poorest nation on the continent for no other reason than the Bolivians themselves.

1. Generally we felt that there was no real business acumen; in spite of all of the produce and the thousands of markets around the country, everyone is selling the same products at the same prices, with no one willing to negotiate on price. It’s no wonder that the business is spread so thinly across every market trader which in turn keeps them all poor.

2. Their unwillingness to open up to the rest of the world has left them isolated. Having seen first hand how rich the country is, in terms of its natural resources, I couldn’t understand why the country was not exporting more and riding the wave with the rest of South America. After spending time here and seeing the many different protests about pretty much anything and everything, I got the distinct impression that the general public see most foreign trade as the selling of their riches that should be kept for their own people and no one else, irrespective of whether they have an internal demand for it or not.

3. With such strong protests regarding national resources, you could easily be mistaken to believe that Bolivians are really patriotic with a true respect/concern for their wonderful land.

This I can tell you is not the case at all; we have been appalled by the way we have seen locals treating their environment. Some of the most naturally beautiful places in the world are covered in litter with no attempt or desire to clean it up. Towns and cities across the country simply dispose of all their garbage at the end of town. Now before you think that this is simply bad management by the state (which of course in part it is) the people themselves piss and shit everywhere, even in their own rivers!

4. As a people they only appear to be looking out for themselves and have no sense of civic duty. Bolivians are not simply one race, the country is a complex mix of many different indigenous groups which have all had some form of infighting over the course of the country’s history. As a result there is a huge amount of prejudice internally, especially between the Cambas (lowlanders) and Kollas (highlanders).

5. A lost generation of men? The men of the country don’t seem to actually do anything. Whilst I appreciate that this is a huge generalisation, we have only really seen the women actually working (i.e in the markets, in shops etc). The men simply seem to sit around and get completely shit faced on 98% alcohol on a daily basis. What’s even more bizarre is that it seems to be totally accepted with mothers and wives somehow encouraging it! A Bolivian man is very much a mothered child. From the day he is born to about the age of 6 he is held close to his mother (using traditional cloths tied around their backs). This I believe sets the foundations for a lazy man; every child should be walking on their own from the age of 4 at the latest!

However, over the course of the month (as we moved further north), we had begun to see a very different side to the Bolivians; beginning to understand them more with every local interaction. Ironically, despite our first impressions (which are still valid) we have left Bolivia with a real appreciation of the locals and their rich, fascinating culture. I would even go as far as saying that it was the actual people who were the highlight of the time we spent here. Which when you consider the many natural wonders of the world found here, is a true testament to the people of Bolivia.

If you think this sounds like a massive contradiction; you’re right it is! The country is one big contradiction hence the reason it is known as ‘the beggar seated on a throne of gold’.

In order to even attempt to explain this further I think it’s important to understand a little more about the history of Bolivia.

Since independence in 1825 via liberator Simon Bolivar, it has shrunk to a quarter of it’s size at just over a million sq km, with only 8 million inhabitants that earn as little as $2 a day.By way of comparison, Germany fits into Bolivia three times having in excess of 80 million inhabitants earning over $80 a day.

Two major defeats have helped define Bolivia’s national identity, the loss of the access to the pacific to Chile in 1879 and the loss of the Chaco region to Paraguay half a century later.

Ironically these important loses helped to finally unify and integrate its indigenous minority to finally become a true nation-state which is still really in its infancy.

Another important consideration, is the fact that at any given time, up to one-third of the Bolivian work force has been dependent on the coca industry. With the help of a fascinating Coca Museum in La Paz, I began to understand why the country’s history and the culture of its people is so interlinked with that of the humble Coca plant.

As you can imagine, given that there is a dedicated museum to this one plant, there is an awful amount of information to get through. In light of its importance in understanding Bolivia today, I have attempted to pullout the main points below.

Coca

The coca leaf dates back well before the conquest of the Incas some 4500 years ago.During the Incas, the coca leaf was the centre of magic-religious activities.

It was used by the Spanish to support slavery since they found that the chewing of coca leaves stimulated the starving slaves and gave them relief from their pains becoming known as ” the secret potion”. Ironically, before the Spaniards had realised it made the indigenous slaves work harder, it had been band since they considered it to be satanic and an obstacle to Catholicism.

The Spanish even went as far as making its consumption obligatory by the mine workers who were forced to work 48 hour days without adequate breaks or food, other than the coca leaves to chew.

(the chewing technique has been developed over the last 4500 allowing the consumer to extract over 90% of the leafs contents by adding an alkaline substance (llycta) to the mix)

As with most things, the Spanish conquistadors seized control of coca production, requiring the indigenous people to effectively sell their souls to the devil to obtain it.

During modern times, coca’s stimulating and anaesthetic attributes became known world-wide, becoming transformed into one of the primary pharmaceuticals employed. This paved the way for history to effectively repeat it self as Bolivia’s secret conquistadors scrammed to seize control of its production once again. Although land was given back to the indigenous once Bolivia became a republic, control of the coca remained in the hands of foreigners, as it did in colonial times.

In 1886 coca formed the main ingredient of a soft-drink launched in the U.S.A by Dr. John Pemberton called Coca-Cola. Interestingly it was Dr Sigmund Freud who was the first cocaine (in which a paste derived from coca leaves is treated with kerosene and refined into powder) user in history (1884) which helps explain a lot!

The fate of Andean villages effectively did not change – instead of coca being controlled by the Spaniards, now it was large multinational corporations who controlled it.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t big business that gave coca production back it’s “satanic” reputation. That was due to the laws of the United Nations and the “Harrison’s Law” in the U.S.A which prohibited the legal use of cocaine in 1914.

However, it was only really since the 1950s that the actual coca plant was considered harmful to society, after an American banker (Howard Fonda) declared that “…the chewing of coca is responsible for (mental slowness) and poverty in Andean countries”….which of course is a preposterous statement to make, but then again it doesn’t surprise me considering he is an American banker who probably worked for Goldmans.

What was even more ridiculous was that the United Nations decided at the Geneva conference in 1961 that coca should be eliminated based on this one bankers absurd theory! Of course they allowed the continuation of its growth by industry (for the obvious monetary benefit of their own nations).

This set the stage for the “War on Drugs” (which was fuelled further by the crack epidemic in the U.S in the 1980s ) which I feel has played a crucial role in Bolivia’s modern-day culture. If foreigners know one thing about Bolivia and its neighbouring countries, it’s their affiliation with the coca leaf and the refinement and trafficking of cocaine. It is far and away the most lucrative of Bolivia’s economic mainstays; estimated to generate more that $1B a year, of which less than half actually stays in the country!

‘The U.S represents 5% of the world’s population, yet consumes 50% of the cocaine that exists on the planet.’

It’s should then be no surprise that the U.S has given Bolivia hundreds of millions of dollars in form of credit to fund the Bolivian anti-drug policy. I find it somewhat ironic that the Bolivian police, who have already limited resources of their own, are forced to rely on international aid in order to enforce a Geneva Law! Even more ironic is that the actual problem of cocaine exists outside of Bolivia!

Interestingly the chemicals used to actually make cocaine are illegally imported into Bolivia by well-known, legal manufactures in the U.S and Europe! These companies deliver the chemicals directly to the drug manufacturing plants in the Bolivian jungle. Without them being delivered through Bolivia’s international airports, there is little the police can do to counter the import of the chemicals and so the production of the actual drug. If this war on drugs is really focused on getting to the root of the problem, why isn’t more being done to regulate the production of the actual chemicals?

It also makes me question the war on drugs in general. For the first time in history, our society has prohibited an illness ( that being drug addiction) and even declared war against it, using guns and entire armies perhaps causing more deaths than the illness itself. I can’t help but think this is really a war driven by big business that with the help of governments goes on under the disguise of the drug being enemy.

Is it any wonder that the people of Bolivia are weary of the outside world; a world that has only ever raped the indigenous community of their country. On top of this the Westernisation of the cities and towns are threatening their unique indigenous culture. The west’s growing appetite for cocaine is also one of the main reasons for the insane amount of corruption within the government. The corruption is at every level of government and the police force and is crippling this country. I honestly do believe that this is one of the major factors causing Bolivia to be behind the rest of South America.

The pics below paint an interesting take on this particular issue.

Within this context when evaluating my initial conclusion; If a society has no real democracy and foreign involvement tends to be at the root of most problems, it is easy to understand why characteristics I had previously outlined exist. Yet in spite of this I have the culture here to be a loving and welcoming one where people simply crack on with the situation at hand, making the most out of it.

They say a picture paints a thousand words so although I have probably written over a thousand, I will finish this post with a beautiful mural that I have seen in La Paz which really does help explain why Bolivia is what it is today.

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Lake Titicaca

After burning the candle at both ends in La Paz, a couple of days rest in Lake Titicaca was a welcomed change. We headed south with Helen (Oz) and Amy (Kiwi) on short bus ride which was to set the tone for the next 3 days since we seemed to laugh the entire way; usually at Amy’s uninhibited traveling style as well as her inability to start a sentence…and not just in Spanish!

I won’t even attempt to try to explain why the entire journey was so funny because you simply had to be there; the one thing I will say is that Amy’s wacky tobacco had a part to play 🙂

Funny Amy

Even without the smoke, it is hard not to find this place truly amazing. Set high in the Andes, the lake feels more like the ocean which is totally trippy considering you are at over 3800m above sea level!

Covering an area of over 8500 square meters; 170km in length and 60km in width (making it the second largest body of fresh water on the continent) you can see why it has always been seen as a somewhat of a mystical place.

The pre-Inca people believed that both the sun itself and their bearded, White leader, Viracocha had risen out of its mysterious depths ( FYI in parts it’s as deep as 250m), whilst the Incas believed it was the birth place of their civilisation.

The lake sits in between Peru and Bolivia; split 60/40. Our first stop was on the Bolivian side to a town called Copacabana. Whilst the beach doesn’t even compare with its namesake in Brazil, it is still a charming place that is centred around a large moorish style cathedral.

Interestingly there is a daily ritual that brings in Bolivians from all over the country known as Benedicion de Movilidades, which directly translated, means blessing of the automobiles. It is a truly colourful affair that sees a monk/priest bless the cars which have been decorated with flowers for a mere £1 donation….the locals call it their insurance policy which is quite ironic considering no one here actually has insurance!

The other main reason for the influx of Bolivian tourists is to climb to the summit of Cerro Calverio which has become somewhat of a pilgrimage since there are 12 stations on the way up (which I think represent the 12 apostles or some form of commandments…kind of got lost in translation) which they all pray to. Specifically around New Year, people pray to the household god called Ekeko by offering miniatures of items them would like to acquire during the following year. As with most things in Bolivia it involves a lot of alcohol and coca leaves supposedly as offerings to the god!

All I want for Christmas is a big house and a car!

Any excuse to have a drink!

Most travellers only treat Copacabana as a means to get to the Isla Del Sol which is about a 3 hour boat ride from there. Before I move on, I just have to mention that whilst there isn’t an awful lot to do there, it’s a must if only for the amazing trout you can eat from the little restaurants on the beach; without a doubt the best fish I have ever tasted.

We spent one night, two days on the Isle del Sol, which was absolutely beautiful and the birthplace of the funniest night I have ever had in my life as well as the best pizza I have ever tasted. Again whilst the great company had a lot to do with it, the tobacco from the Argentinian hippies helped set the foundations.

The island is also thought to be the birth place of just about every god including the sun it’s self. To this day most Aymara and Quechua people’s believe this is the place where they were all created.

You can see why from the pics below;

The journey back to the mainland was the only downside to the excursion since we were trapped on what can only be describes as an oversized paddle boat with the scummy leftovers of a hippie NYE festival that took place on the island. Despite being surrounded by clear, natural waters, these dreadlocks (French/Argentinean) folk had clearly not bothered to wash for some time, preferring to chant ridiculous songs along to the monotonous sound of their silly drums.

If this wasn’t enough to kill me, the choppy waters were! Even though it is a lake, there were parts of the journey around the northern side of the island that were as voracious as the ocean. To say I was shitting myself is an understatement; the only way I managed to get through it was to plug-in some of the calming sounds of Adele in an attempt not to scream. As you would expect, Andre wasn’t even phased by the entire situation, preferring to simply lay out on the front of the boat (outside of the safety barrier I might add!) getting sun burnt as he slept his way through the entire saga.

After that experience I was grateful to be leaving Bolivia for the Peruvian side of the lake since I had heard that their safety record for things like this is a lot more robust.

After crossing the border (which you had to do by foot) the next town along was Puno, which we had heard was no real beauty. Given that the bus was over two hours late (mostly due to the standing around at the border) we decided to spend the night and head to the first major city in Peru (Arequipa) the following day.

The only real thing to do in Puno is to see the floating islands in the middle of the lake. We had heard that they were massively touristy these days and so Andre and Helen decided to get an early bus to the next city. Given that we were already there and that I am more of a ´box ticker´ than Andre, I decided to stay on with Amy to see them and then join Andre and Helen later that evening.

The islands themselves were really interesting, although the rumours of them being a tourist trap where true. There are over 2,500 inhabitants on these floating islands made from reeds, which in addition to being the main building material are also eaten when green as their main source of calcium.

There are 40 separate islands, each of which will have between 10-15 families living on each one. They live as a commune, electing a President of each island who will represent the families. There are two primary schools on the islands with teachers travelling daily from Puno. Given that secondary school and university are on the mainland, this culture is sadly slowing dying out with every generation.

The main mode of transport as you would imagine is by boat which are also made from the reeds. These days they have modernised some what given that they also have motor engines. The government also gave each family a solar panel about 5 years ago which means that each house now has electricity.

The locals told us that they move the islands every year during high tide since they need to be in the shallower waters to ensure that they do not simply float away. The reeds are added to daily and go down as far as 10 meters with the roots of the reeds (which float) used as the foundations.

This particular island had a trout farm in the middle of the island, however due to the pollution the fish levels have fallen dramatically over the years, which in addition to the modernisation and the effects of tourism are unfortunately threatening their unique way of life.

¡Hola! 2012 – 24 hours of non stop partying!

The main reason for being in La Paz was to celebrate New Years Eve with some great friends that we have made along the way through Bolivia.

The ´Jew Crew´

We had arranged it so that we would all be in the same hostel for the week; apart from our new Israeli friends who had arrived in La Paz earlier; and of course had managed to find an even cheaper hotel!

I couldn’t possibly even attempt to document everything that happened, mainly because I drank far too much to remember! The one thing I can say is that it all seemed to begin and end in a Lebanese restaurant called Alamir.

We were introduced to the place by our Israeli friends who had become quite fond of the establishments unique take on the common shisha, which formed part of the ´La Carta Blanco´ that accompanies the amazing food served by the mother and daughter duo.


Amy (Kiwi), Jo (UK), Helen (Aus) and Yanni (Safa)

Part of the night was spent at the roof top party of our hostel, which although was literally just full of gringo’s, did prove to have a very useful purpose in the greater scheme of things. As per usual Andre decided to shun any form of festivities since he was still recovering from a slight dietary problem as well as the fact that we had already had a blow out night when we first arrived. This coupled with his usual take on ” it just being another night” meant that he was initially planning to stay in for the evening. This was of course before he realised that the hostel was in fact throwing a huge party which would have made sleeping impossible and so forced him to thankfully get involved!

In England it is fair to say that ” safety never takes a holiday”; this was not the case during the firework session at midnight where anyone and everyone seemed to be letting off fireworks directly from the packed roof top terrace, often simply using their bare hands!

Given that fireworks are illegal in Israel, the group of Israeli friends we had smuggled into the party (which some how managed to grow to over 10 people!) were having way too much fun with them; nearly causing some serious harm by holding one the wrong way round! You would have thought that with all that military training they would be better equiped to deal with explosives! Obviously not 🙂

During one of the many drunken conversations, I was told by my new Kiwi friend that fireworks are the only ‘free good’ in the world; given my economics background this has managed to stick and so I thought worthy of inclusion in this post. With this in mind, there must have been a lot of happy people in La Paz that night since the entire city was quite literally set alight by the hundreds of fireworks that seemed to last for hours.

In an attempt to have more of a traditional Bolivian night, I had dragged the entire group across town to a night club I was told by a local would be good, called Traffic. This proved to be one of a catalog of errors in my judgement that evening, since it was completely empty and hugely overpriced, resulting in us all returning back to the party we just left which was still in full swing!

Thankfully we all eventually left the hostel to a local club called Luna y Sol, which although was again, full gringos (who all seemed to be below the age of 20) did mean that we could all have a boogie until 8am.

Hunger pains split the group leaving Andre and me spending the rest of the evening (by this point early morning) with a really cool couple we had met that night (Libby and Bren).

The hunt for ´food´ took us stupidly back to the Lebanese a couple of times in the hope that it would eventually open for breakfast, which of course it didn´t. Eventually after scowering the city, we were able to get some snacks from a bar called Route 36 to finish off what was an awesome night.

New Years Day was as you could imagine simply written off as a hang over day. Unlike the usual painful days in London spent attempting to get some sleep, we had a great day with the 8 other people in our dorm joking around and reminissing of the night gone by.

We eventually got ourselves out of bed for a farewell dinner with Libby and Bren; this is where I had my second huge error in misjudgement. I suggested we should go back to the lebanese to chill out (with one of thoses shisha´s) before eating some food. Before we could even finish the first bottle of wine our dear ´light weight´ friend (Bren) decided to pull the biggest whitey I have ever seen. It scared us so much that we decided to cancel the order and head back to their hostel room for him to lay down.

The one thing I did do right was to trek down to Burgur King for some desperately needed salts!

“Death Road”

Apart from partying (usually with narcotics), the only other real main attraction on the backpacker trail in La Paz is to cycle down what is known as the most dangerous road in the world! Before you think it, this isn’t simply another marketing scam, since an IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) report made it official given that an average of 26 vehicles per year disappear over the edge into the great abyss.

We heard that even as recently as last week a driver of a bus died from driving off the gravel track which is just 3.2m wide! If you don’t believe me we found this stocking clip of the fatal incident.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2082292/Caught-camera-horrifying-moment-bus-plunges-ravine-worlds-dangerous-road.html

In spite of hearing of some horror stories about dodgy tour agencies supplying faulty bikes that have no breaks! We decided to go for the cheapest agency we could find.

Thankfully all of the equipment was good enough with professional tour guides that treated our safety as their main priority. Unfortunately Andre had yet another bout of ‘the squirts’ which put him completely out of action for 2 days meaning that we lost 50% of our money due to cancelling the tour at the last-minute.

After plying Andre with antibiotics and rehydration salts we were able to do the tour which takes you from the highest point in La Paz (4000m) to Coroico which is deep in the jungle where many of the rich coca plantations are.

The decent of about 3000m, takes over 3 hours of actual riding, requiring you to first cycle down the motor way of the ‘new road’; high in the snow-capped peaks. This is by far the fastest part of the trip and usually the coldest since it is often raining; making the whole thing even more exhilarating.

The second leg is the actual ‘Death Road’ which these days isn’t really used by anyone other than tour groups since they have built a new, safer road with actual tarmac about 7 years ago.

The ‘old road’ is however still in use by some locals who prefer to use it as it is a quicker route. This meant that we had to drive down ‘the English way’ as our tour guide put it; basically on the left given that anyone going up the road has the right of way. You would have thought this would have been better for me being English…..the only problem is that the cliff edge is also on the left!

The good news was that the risks of traveling down the road are balanced by the reward of seeing some of South America’s most amazing ‘vertical’ scenery….. Aswell as being alot of fun!

We did get a CD with all the pics from the tour guide but I cant seem to find a computer with a CD drive! I will just have to wait to see the crazy pics and videos of us going down the death road!

….only in Bolivia!

” …people will travel 10000 miles to observe wonderful people that they ignore back home…” Helen War

While this quote may be true for most places around the world, it is definitely not the case for La Paz!

The seven days spent between Christmas and New Years will, without doubt, forever be ingrained into my mind, since this truly bizarre city has been the birthplace of some of the most insane situations I have ever experienced.

It’s for this very reason that I am finding this particular leg of our adventure the hardest to capture in words, fearing that my limited writing ability will simply not do the time spent here justice.

I suppose a good place to start would be the most spectacular setting of Bolivia’s de facto capital. Arriving via the El Alto suburb, I could see why some would argue that the city is simply a poverty plagued sprawl of muddy streets and unfinished buildings designed by what must be ‘Micky Mouse’ architects trapped in 80’s – Which to be fair, wasn’t a groundbreaking decade for the human race in terms of producing architecture of any real beauty.

However, once you get past the sea of migrants (from the countryside) setting up market stalls along the street side (which I am sure also double up as their primary residence) and the unkempt children playing in potholes, you can truly appreciate the unique geological position of the city.

Standing at the edge of the canyon on one of the many miradores (view points) the earth simply drops away revealing the sprawling city, which fills the bowl and climbs the walls of the gapping canyon – which at night is even more spectacular. To add to the intensity of the landscape, on a clear day the snowcapped triple peak of Illimani towers over 6402m in the background giving the hustle and bustle a strange sense of tranquility.

Now that I have set the scene, I am simply going to list out the many weird and wacky things often forcing you to use the phrase, “only in Bolivia”

1. Bolivians interesting take on Zebra crossings

2. Counterfeit money being sold in the open, often ending up in circulation. It’s typical for gringos to receive fake money back as change; this of course happened to us but we were lucky enough to get rid of it in a taxi.

This is allowed because they use the counterfeit money as offerings to the earth god which is particularly important on New Years Eve.

3. San Pedro Prison

For those of you who have read or heard of the book ‘Marching Powder’ by Rusty Young, you will understand why Andre and I attempted to get into the prison for the so called ‘tours’ that the inmates are allowed to run by paying off corrupt police.

In order not to ruin it for those that have not read the book, all I will say is that this prison is probably the best representation of the many contradictions that make Bolivia what it is today.

We had heard that you simply had to sit in front of the prison and wait for someone to approach you. It would then be possible to negotiate a deal to get you on the visitors list for the day.

Inside San Pedro prison there are no guards. Inmates don’t wear uniforms. They hold the keys to their own cells (that they would have had to buy). Their wives, children and pets can stay with them. Infact it is more like a city within a city that is also home to some of the biggest drug lords in Bolivia!

After waiting for over two hours, there were what we felt to be two real moments when it looked as if we were going to be able to get in. There were a number of shifty looking characters lingering around the gate speaking with the police guards, two of which, on separate occasions appeared to be talking about us and looking round before walking past our bench. Given that we had heard that we would be approached we decided to simply stay put thinking that one would eventually approach us.

Unfortunately this didn’t happen for us and we left feeling some what disillusioned by the whole experience, although upon reflection it was quite amusing staking the place out and attempting to find someone to cut us a deal.

4. Witches Market (Mercado de Hechiceria)

As with every city/town there are many markets selling everything from fruit and veg to cheap electronics (often stolen!). However, there was one particular market that is definitely worthy of the ‘…only found in Bolivia’status; this is the witches market.

The majority of the merchandise is simply herbs and folk remedies, however there is one particular item that lives up to the image depicted in horror films; llama foetus!

We were told that they are used by most as a sign of good luck, requiring the buyer to bury the foetus as an offering to Pachamama (Earth God); this is often done when opening a new business or building a new home. For more wealthier Bolivians they would be expected to sacrifice a fully functioning llama!

As you can imagine a baby llama was not something we were interested in buying, however we did manage to spend a little fortune (by Bolivian standards) on loads of gifts, consisting mainly of llama wool.

Whilst we may not have spent much in sterling terms, we are without question paying the price given that we are now schlepping all this around for the next 4 months!

Mercado Lanza and Camacho are the main fruit and veg markets which unlike other places we have been to in Bolivia are actually outside making for some great shots.

It’s also where we tried a banana that has been crossed with a red apple, making the strangest taste.

5. Dirty shoes?

Shoe shine boys are common across the whole of South America, used by all of the locals…even if they are wearing trainers! The difference with the ones in La Paz is that they look like masked bandits!

We later found out that they wear the balaclavas to avoid social stigma, as many are working hard to support families or pay their way through school.

6. Fighting Cholitas

Unfortunately we were too hung over from NYE to make the weekly wrestling match between the local women dressed in traditional wear.

As you can see from the clip below it puts any preconceived notion of the women being reserved and guarded completely out of the window, making me reassess my impression of the women here and their role in Bolivian society.

Although I have focused on the weird and wonderful parts of La Paz, it does offer the same things as another capital city. We were pleasantly surprised by the Museo Nacional del Arte, which houses some great (and some not so great) pieces from Bolivian artists.

We had attempted to buy a copy of this picture for our new place back in Berlin but it was too expensive. Andre has decided that copying it, is going to be one of my many projects when in Berlin! Well I have started writing so why not painting as well…my my what is to become of me!

This particular image jumped out at me since I didn{t quite understand why a picture of Che Guevara was in the national musem. After some research I found out that he was actaully assainated her in La Paz with the help of the Americans. He had smuggled his way into Bolivia under the disguise as Uruguayan businessman to start a revolt against the US backed regime. Supposedly the Americans wanted him alive, however the Bolivia guard who killed him had lost many friends in the fighting as so shot him from the neck down to have a slow and painful death. He died on October 9th 1967.

The best Christmas EVER!

After spending three days in unfamiliar territory this ‘city boy’ was in definite need of some pampering, especially on Christmas Eve! Thankfully the little frontier town of Rurrenabaque is a charming place with everything a modern-day traveler would possibly need. Superb sunsets and dense night fog that nestles within the dramatic mountains that surround the town.

The highlight was without doubt, Oscars bar, which our new Israeli friends took us to. It wasn’t actually in our Lonely Planet, since most Israeli hangouts actually aren’t and given that they only usually talk to other Israelis they tend to stay that way!

This place was a real gem, with its owner, Oscar- an eccentric business man with a certain fondness for young Israeli girls, thinking of absolutely everything one would need to have an amazing relaxing day by the pool.

We spent the day drinking tequila, swimming in the pool, playing pool, table tennis, volleyball and eating amazing food which was definitely required after the special tobacco!

All of this was complimented by the most breathtaking views given that it’s at the top of a hill overlooking the town below.

Even the journey to and from the place was amazing since you had to take a motor bike taxi, for a pound, up and down the steep off-road track which was a lot of fun, especially drunk!

Since I could be mistaken for an Israeli myself, we actually got talking to some of the other groups there which provided a really interesting insight into the complicated and delicate lifestyle that these young people have. I would still agree with the Lonely Planet’s description of their uninhibited travelling style. Although they all seem to feel that every other country and society in the world is beneath that of their own (of course I am generalising here a little) I do have a new-found respect for Israelis and understand their position a little better now.

Although funnily enough Andre decided to omit certain information pertaining to his German passport, preferring to lead with his Polish one seeing as he was in ‘their den’ so to speak!

The day was topped off with a tasty BBQ Christmas dinner from ou favourite restaurant in town.

With the morning hangover cure being the most tasty breakfasts from the best French baker I have ever been too!

The Amazon Basin- the Pampas Tour

After hearing some horror stories of getting to the Amazon by bus we decided to take what was a surprisingly comfortable overnight bus to La Paz to fly into Rurrenabaque to start a 3 day tour of the Pampas (wetlands) along the Rio Beni.

The flight in itself was a worthwhile experience, requiring us to board one of the smallest planes I had ever seen, crossing some of the most amazing scenery as you pass the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Real which surround La Paz before entering the lush rainforest of the National Park Madidi.

Having met our group at the office of Fluvial Tours before embarking on a 3 hour jeep ride to neighbouring town of Santa Rosa, we made a real effort to get to know some of the people we thought were worth while speaking too; in an attempt to ensure we were in the best group ( of which there were two). Given our usual luck we ended up in what we thought would be the worst possible group, the Israeli car!

Sorry Jonny (for those not in the know, that’s my Jew friend in London), but I have to say, our experiences of the big groups of Israeli Jews traveling around South America (of which there are hundreds that take a year off after finishing the compulsory army service) haven’t been great. Before you start thinking I am being antisemitic, it is a well know fact that they even beat the Australians as being the most disliked traveler…the Lonely Planet best describes it within the dangers and annoyances section in Chile, where there has been trouble between the Israelis and the locals due to their ‘uninhibited traveling style’, basically a nice way of explaining how rude they can be in their isolated groups.

Given that I am not one to judge a book by its cover (well not all the time) I got over my disappointment and played nice with my fellow travellers at the back of the jeep. This particular group, of which there were only 3, a young couple (Sophia and Muni) and a friend of theirs D… were in fact one of the highlights of the tour, becoming some of the best friends we have made, whom we will, without question, keep in touch with when back in Europe. Whilst this initially had a lot to do with the huge bag of ‘local tobacco’ that they had brought with them into the jungle, it was more their ability to laugh at themselves and appreciate why they sometimes get the reputation that they have which made for such a strong friendship and many many laughs along the way.

Madidi National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the world and recognised by National Geographic as one of the planets most biologically diverse and beautiful regions. After spending 3 days in the heart of it and in spite of the torrential downpour of the first day, not withstanding the millions of vicious mosquitos that at times made the whole experience unbearable, I can definitely see why it deserves such an accolade.

The area is home to over 6000 species of flora and supports more than 40% of the total number of bird species found in South America. I will resist unleashing the bird watcher in me and simply let the pictures speak for themselves.

I will however, spend some time explaining some of the other amazing animals we had the privilege of seeing.

Caimans – more specifically the rare black Caiman which is one of the largest predators in the Amazon basin and possibly the largest member of the Alligatoridae family.

The main predator of these beautiful animals are sadly humans who hunt them for their leather or meat. We did in fact go through the Pampas by night to see them (given that their eyes shine red when using a flash torch). That was a particularly good excursion which was a lot of fun. It wasn’t so much fun when our shitty guide disturbed the natural flow of things by catching a baby Caiman for a photo opportunity. Whilst I could get all Eco Warrior at this juncture I would really be kidding myself if I was to believe that I could have resisted the great photo opp! Although as you can see from my expression it wasn’t as much fun as I had expected.

My favourite, by a large margin, were the hundreds of monkeys we saw that ranged from little cute yellow things to the larger Howler monkeys who as their name suggest, use vocal communication which forms a large part of their social behaviour.

My least favourite had to be the Mamba snake which we saw when hunting for Anaconda! Yes believe it people, they had me fucking hunting for snakes…something that Andre conveniently forgot to tell me about.

This little thing is in fact one of the most venomous snakes in the world, who with one little bite can kill a human! Thankfully we didn’t manage to actually find any Anaconda since they have become really rare in the part of the Pampas we were in.

The guide informed us that as little as five years ago he would see over 40 in one day and would even catch them for the tourists to take a picture with them. Ironically it’s precisely this type of unethical behaviour that has killed them off, since the tourist are always laced with DEET (found in mosquito repellant) which they realised actually kills the Anaconda. This coupled with their complex reproduction process has nearly wiped out the entire species in this particular area.

The effects of tourism and more generally pollution in this area, which is full of delicate Eco-systems, did in addition to the taste of DEET, leave us with somewhat of a bitter taste.

Ironically the DEET didn’t even seem to actually work for me, since I got absolutely mulled by the little fuckers and haven’t stopped scratching since; making the nights sleeping in these wooden huts on stilts along with some of the loudest and biggest bugs in the world something I would rather not experience ever again in my life!

Another highlight was swimming with Pink River Dolphins. The Amazon river dolphin is one of a handful of fresh water Dolphins in the world and whilst they look like the usual grey dolphin, they are infact bigger and instead of a dorsal fin, have a hump. They are listed as an endangered species which made the sighting of them from the boat even more special.

To be honest the actual swimming part left a lot to be desired. I had dreamed of swimming with Dolphins from a very young age and just when I thought I was going to have my ‘Jimmal Fix It’ moment I realised I had to actually jump into the jet black, smelly waters of the Rio…with all that lives within its waters! The guide assured me that the Dolphins are in fact very territorial and actually eat everything living inside the water making it safe to swim. I was never quite able to trust our guide who had been useless for most of the expedition; if they ate everything in there how would they still be alive? Surely there would always be snakes and things passing through for them to continue eating?

Unfortunately there aren’t any pictures of me playing with Dolphins because I never really managed to get close to one 😦 although Andre claims that he touched one.

The final excursion was to go Piranha fishing, which if successful, would have made a unique Christmas lunch! Yet again the disastrous effects of pollution in the region made this somewhat problematic in that there weren’t any Piranhas to be found. The guides explained that because of the pollution from the boats, the Piranhas could no longer smell the blood of their prey and so moved on further upstream into the deepest parts of the Amazon basin.

Since I can´t show you any picture of Piranhas, here is a pic of a nother interesting animal, The capybara which is the largest living rodent in the world!

Sucre

After a couple of days constantly feeling cold, we went on a hunt for the warmer weather of the lowlands to Bolivia’s judicial capital, Sucre. Apart from being described as Bolivia’s most beautiful city, it was also where our friend from Igazu ( Carla) had been based for a while learning Spanish (something quite common on the backpacker trial since its so much cheaper than anywhere else in South America). Given that we had been trying to track her down across the whole of Patagonia, we were quite excited to finally be in the same place again, especially being so close to Christmas.

The scenery down from Potosi was pretty spectacular, however when first entering the suburbs of the city, we were surprised to discover what a shit hole of a metropolis it was. Every other building seemed to be a building site that hasn’t seen a builder for a couple of years; reminiscent of the property boom and bust recently experienced in Spain.

Thankfully the historic centre of town did live up to it’s Unesco cultural heritage status, with an area about the size of the ‘square mile’ at the base of the valley surrounded by countless rolling hill tops jam-packed with beautiful white wash colonial buildings and meticulously manicured palm tree-lined squares, feeling more like Florence than the poorest country in South America. The European feeling also transcended into the local people with some of the first interracial couples we had seen in Bolivia and many women adopting a more European fashion sense.

Our idyllic hostel ( Wasi Masi) with it’s tranquil inner courtyard and afternoon BBQ simply added to the whole experience.

Given that the majority of the travellers at the hostel had been there for some time learning Spanish, there was a lovely homely feeling to the hostel with people having forged stronger friendships with each other than the usual superficial day friendships that are so common when travelling; where you wouldn’t quite remember their name and wouldn’t ever communicate anything beyond each others travel plans.

This particular weekend was also a local election weekend which meant that no alcohol is allowed to be sold or consumed! Particularly on election day which is a public holiday. Voting is compulsory for every Bolivian with a strict custodial sentence for anyone who doesn’t ( although like most things I’m Bolivia, I am sure you could pay your way out of it).

Thankfully it was ok for Gringos to drink provided it was in private which made for a very boozy couple of days at the hostel playing countless games of card game, ‘shit-head’, with Andre managing to be the shit-head every time 🙂

This was definitely one of theses places you could get stuck in for a very long time, and we so very nearly did given that Christmas was only a week away. After spending the entire weekend painfully constantly changing our minds and trying to agree on the next leg of the trip; made even harder now that we had somehow become a threesome. We eventually decided to stick with our original plan and move on up North to spend Christmas in the Jungle…sadly Carla decided to work in an animal refuge instead which was a little sad but after 4 days in the same place we were quite looking forward to be on the move again actually travelling.

Every day is dark- A Devil in the mist

” A visit to the cooperative mines will almost surely be one of the most memorable experiences you’ll have in Bolivia, providing an opportunity to witness working conditions that should have gone out with the Middle ages. You may be left stunned and/or ill. “. Lonely Planet

With a write-up like this and the constant tales from other travellers that seemed to get more scary and change like a game of Chinese whispers as we got closer to Potosi, I had a real panic attack the night before doing this tour,even going as far as sending ‘I love you’ messages to close friends incase I never came out alive….and yes if you didn’t get a message, we’re not really that close 🙂

Reading and learning about the mines before hand didn’t really help much with the fear given that over 8 million miners have died in the mines since the 1600’s. The majority of them were initially indigenous Indians ( later imported black slaves) who once over 18 years old, were forced to work 12 hour shifts in the mines via the law known as the Lay de la Mita.

Naturally these miners, who became known as mitayos, didn’t last long with life expectancy of 10-15 years once entering the mines, usually caused by silicosis pneumonia. Before you think it, that’s doesn’t really mean much to me either, but the list of the toxins inhaled down there should make things a little more clearer; silica dust, arsenic gas, acetylene and asbestos gases for starters!

After 1800, the silver mines were depleted, making tin the main product. This eventually led to a slow economic decline. Nevertheless, the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions (lack of protective equipment from the constant inhalation of dust), the miners still have a short life expectancy dying around 40 years of age.

Before starting the tour we had to sign a declaration form explaining that we were aware of the dangers and that Koala Tours were not liable should anything go wrong, which considering we are in Bolivia (the country with the worst health and safety record in the world) actually made me think it wasn’t worth the risk. The fear of being known as the pussy who bailed out was obviously stronger than the fear of something awful happening since i went ahead with it anyway.

Thankfully the tour guides were extremely professional and made the whole experience fun and informative since they are all ex miners with a wicked, dirty sense of humour constantly taking the piss out of each other.

As soon as I saw the guide introduce himself below whilst getting changed I began to relax and actually found the whole experience an amazing, eye-opening experience that made me really appreciate the job I actually do for a living.

Before actually entering the mines we were split into groups, ours being ‘the Llama Fuckers’ and taken to a miners market first to buy gifts for the miners which consisted of 98% alcohol, water, coca leaves and dynamite! Yes this is the only market in the world where anyone can openly buy dynamite!

The miners work is some of the most horrendous conditions, with small narrow passageways ( at times crawling on your belly!) temperatures that can reach up to 45 degrees which at that altitude made the 3 hours we spent crawling around in there at times a little challenging for me, let alone 6’5 Andre!

The mines like most things in South America were owned by the Americans although were nationalised over 100 years ago and now form part of a cooperative were groups of miners work for themselves with the hope that they will hit the jack pot and find a part of the mountain that is rich in silver or tin ore.

Part of the tour was to also visit a refinery where you see them actually separating out what they have mined which was really interesting to see the process in its entirety, making me realise just how little actual saleable material it produced from all that hard work!

The best time to visit Potosi is during one of their festivals, the main one being in June and August known as the ‘Fiesta del espiritu’. It’s sounds like the most bizarre event which is all in aid of honouring Pachamama, directly translated as earth mother whom the superstitious miners regard as the mother of all Bolivians.

The entire ritual which included the sacrifice of a llama is conducted according to a meticulous schedule;

10am – one miner from each mine buys a llama and the families gather for the celebrations.
11am- everyone goes to the entrance of the mines and chew coca leaves and drink the 98% alcohol until 11.45
At precisely 11:45 they prepare the llama, tying it’s feet and offering it coca and alcohol.
At high noon it’s throat is slit and the miners pray to Pachamama for luck, protection and the abundance of minerals. The blood of the llama is caught in glasses and splashed around the mouth of the mine to bless it.
For the next three hours the men chew coca and drink while the women prepare the llama parrillada ( bar-b-q).
The stomach, feet and head of the llama are buried and then the music and dancing begins with everyone getting complete hammered!

The miners superstition can also be seen by the shrines all over the mines which are of the Devil ( believed to live in the mines) where they make offerings of cigarettes, alcohol and coca to keep him happy.

Potosi – the highest city in the world!

After our last horrific experience on the Bolivian buses we definitely didn’t want to leave the mountainous region of Tupiza to our next destination; Potosi, by night. Particularly since it is the highest city in the world at 4,090 meters and so would be without doubt a scary ascent along some pretty dangerous mountain roads. Of course given our luck we could only get an overnight bus, although as per usual we were assured that it was a modern bus with a semi cama (lay down) seat with loads of space.

Although we came as prepared as we could have, nothing could have made this 12 hour journey bearable! As usual we were trapped in some of the smallest seats with even less room in the aisles since Bolivians seem to carry their entire life contents with them in boxes, refusing to actually put their cargo in the bottom of the bus like normal people do. We later found out that people actually break into the bottom of the busses with the cargo to get a free ride, usually stealing as much as they can from unlocked cases! We also heard of livestock being transported in bags…one traveller told us that he saw a bag moving along the aisle one night thinking it must have been a figment if his imagination, but of course being in Bolivia, it was in fact live chickens!

I think I could have handled the live chickens, but the one thing I couldn’t was the freezing cold temperature which at night feels sub zero, only getting
colder the higher you go; the breezy widows that might as well be open not helping matters. We arrived in the main new bus terminal of Potosi two hours ahead of schedule which meant it was still dark with nothing open. Since we hadn’t pre booked anywhere we made the executive decision to set up camp on a bench inside and try to finally catch some zee’s until daylight….this is without question the closest I have ever felt to being homeless and not a memory I would ever like to recall ever again

Despite the pain endured to actually get there, Potosi proved to be one of our favourite cities in Bolivia thus far. The city lies beneath the Cerro de Potosi: a mountain popularly thought to be made of silver ore which not only dominates the city but has without question shaped its history and the people of Potosi.

The Cerro Rico is the reason for Potosí’s historical importance, since it was the major supply of silver for Spain during the period of the New World Spanish Empire. This silver was taken by llama and mule train to the port which is now part of Chile to Spain on the Spanish treasure fleets.

Founded in 1546 as a mining town, it soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming one of the largest cities in the Americas and the world, with a population exceeding 200,000 people. In Spanish there is still a saying, valer un potosí, “to be worth a potosí” (that is, “a fortune”).

According to the travellers bible; the Lonely Planet, 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico from 1556 to 1783, helping to underwrite the Spanish economy for over 200 years. Due to such extensive mining, the mountain itself has diminished in height; before the mining started it was a few hundred metres higher than it is today and is effectively now like a Swiss cheese that experts think only has around 5 years worth of mining left in it.

The main reason for travellers coming to the city is to do the infamous working mine tour which as with most things in Bolivia is supposed to be one of the most dangerous tours to do. I won’t go into on this post since it definitely deserves an entirely separate post of its own.

In 1672, a mint was established to coin silver and water reservoirs were built to fulfill the growing population’s needs. At that time more than eighty-six churches were built which makes the city one of the prettiest architecture in Bolivia, although, it has fallen into decline following the economic slow down after the 1800’s

We spent a lot longer than we expected in Potosi since we had a great time wandering around the various markets, particularly at night since it’s the first time we felt like it was actually the Christmas season. At night the beautiful colonial squares are transformed into a neon jungle that would even give tacky Russians a run for their money.

The city was also the first time we actually were able to speak to some locals since we had found them extremely rude and a little racist up until that point; with most simply seeing you as an ATM machine. Everyone in Potosi was really welcoming and were interested in sharing knowledge about our very different cultures. We got a load of good food tips from young couple we met as well as our new friend, the ‘pastel lady’, who we would go to twice a day for a hot drink and pastry.

Eating in the local markets is by far the cheapest way to eat here, with meals costing as little as a pound. Given the altitude of the city the locals tend to eat their heaviest meal at breakfast and lunch, only eating a snack at night since it’s harder for your body to digest the food. There is a whole host of weird and wonderful creations served up in little stalls with nothing more than a bench and a gas hob.

Given my unsuccessful ordering in Spanglish, one particular morning I decided to simply point at something a local was eating whilst Andre stuck with a trusty soup which ironically ended up being Andres worst nightmare! What I had infact ordered was some form of trotter (as with most meats in Bolivia you’re never too sure what the actual animal is!) and after trying the slimy, rubbery meat I soon realised it wasn’t for me. As usual Andre decided to pick on me for being so rude and offending them for not eating what is clearly a delicacy in their culture given the £1.50 price tag. To prove a point he decided to scoff down my plate too, insisting that he was enjoying it and it was the tastiest thing he had ever eaten. I got the last laugh since he spent the next 4 days pissing from his arse!