Gringos in Bolivia: Salt, silver and selfies

La Paz is like no city I have ever seen before and I knew this from the moment our bus hit its outskirts. Chaotic, dangerous and incredibly scenic, its valleys brim with red-bricked houses which spill out over its hills and up its mountains and glaciers, while tiny tin slums – their residents sitting outside cooking on fires – line the hilltops overlooking the city. It is an overwhelming place, both in terms of sheer sprawl, and in how manic it can be. And this was our introduction to Bolivia.

View of La Paz from a Cable Car

Unsurprisingly, the shock of La Paz elicited some varied reactions from our tour group. Some people found it to be just a bit too much, but I for one was glad to be back in a busy city after several agoraphobic weeks in the highlands of Peru. There’s only so many agricultural landscapes a city girl can take, and by this point I was around one more mountain away from an existential crisis. Give me potential muggers and conmen over livestock any day: that’s my (new) motto.

La Paz is famous for a number of things, perhaps the most startling being its witches market. Nowadays this market is clearly aimed at tourists, with most of the goods being things you’ll find in the other (less magical) souvenir shops: luminous cloths, alpaca knitwear and jewellery incorporating feathers and dreamcatchers for those backpackers determined to look like complete cliches.

However, these stalls do still offer herbs and potions, and one thing on offer that you won’t find in most shops: dried llama foetuses. These are typically buried in the foundations of Bolivian houses as an offering to the God Pachamama, who is worshipped by the people of the Andes. You’ll often see locals throwing a bit of their drink on the floor before supping it themselves, with the idea being to give back to Pachamama, who is a kind of Mother Earth figure. Basically she’s a really big deal.

The Andean penchant for animal sacrifice means that tourists can get a bit of a shock when wandering the streets of La Paz, but it also means you get to play a fun game of ‘spot the dried llama foetus’ in my next picture…

While in La Paz we also visited Valle de la Luna – a breathtaking valley in the city that is said to have been named by Neil Armstrong after he visited and said the terrain looked similar to that of the moon. And he’s (allegedly) been to the moon so he knows what he’s talking about. This hike was a demonstration of just how varied and beautiful Bolivia’s landscape can be – and this is something we were about to receive a serious education on as we headed up to the Uyuni Salt Flats.

Visiting Bolivia's Valley of the Moon in La Paz

Visiting La Paz's Valley of the Moon in Bolivia's capital city

Uyuni Salt Flats

We had a three-day tour lined up for the salt flats, and I had very high hopes as seeing the salt flats has been top of my travel bucket list for a really long time. This incredible landscape came about when the tectonic plates were pushing against each other to form the Andes and a bit of the sea got trapped and pushed up to high altitude. Over time it evaporated in the strong sunlight, leaving layer upon layer of salt and clay, and – essentially – incredible white open spaces as far as the eye can see for visitors to take selfies in. There are a number of salt flats in Bolivia, but Salar de Uyuni – at 4086 square miles – is the biggest in the world, and that is where we were headed.

We set off from Uyuni – a quiet town that is home to a bar dubiously named ‘Extreme Fun Pub’ – in three 4x4s, which is the preferred transport for the landscape due to its rocky desert terrain. The first stop was a train graveyard, where the last train was abandoned around a century ago. This doesn’t sound like the most high octane activity ever, but the contrast of the antique trains against the dry landscape looks like a film set – and you get to play on them!

The Uyuni train graveyard, near to the salt flats

Bolivia's train graveyard, in Uyuni near the salt flats

It will probably come as a shock to some that the salt flats are not just a place where gringos go to take pictures of themselves doing jumps to post on Facebook, but they actually have industrious uses – one of which is, unsurprisingly, salt mining. We stopped by a complex to watch a lady bag up some salt flat salt, at which point many of us felt obliged to buy medium-sized bags of salt that we then had to lug around for the next few days, because shockingly you literally cannot give salt away on the salt flats – it’s a bit like that whole snow and eskimos conundrum.

From there it was straight onto the salt flats, the beginning of which is marked by an old hotel made out of salt (spoiler: from here on out basically everything was made of salt), and a bunch of international flags blowing in the wind. This was nothing to write home about, until we noticed that some enterprising individual had somehow hoisted a Huddersfield Town football shirt up one of the flagpoles. WHAT A LAD. 

The flags at Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia

Anyway, we were on the salt flats, everything was white and it was time for our DAY OF NARCISSISM to begin. And that it did! There were jumps, there were acrobatics, there were perspective shots. There were props, you guys…

While we didn’t get to see the salt flats during wet season, when they are reflective, they were still ridiculously breathtaking, and my wordswon’t suffice, so I’ll let some pictures of me doing jumps and things do the talking:

 Bolivia's salt flats Bolivia's uyuni salt flats The uyuni salt flats in boliviasunset on the salt flats of uyuni, Bolivia

That night we stayed on an ‘island’ in the salt, in salt beds in a salt cabin. The island was stunning in itself.

Day two meant hours of motoring around the desert, visiting lagoons, active volcanos, geysers and many, many, MANY rocks. Rocks are kind of a big deal in Bolivia, it turns out. The desert scenery was absolutely stunning with its spectacular brown mountains, cracked, dry earth, llama and cacti, which was a severe departure from Peru’s lush highlands. It looked like the South America you would expect to see in an olden day film.

The hot springs were lush until I tried to get out and Altitude Sickness struck

We drove to that night’s accommodation listening to the same nine songs blasting out we’d been listening to the day before, and would be forced by the driver to listen to the whole of the following day. In among the Bolivian chart hits and the salsa tunes were what I assume he thought was the best of the West: a Creed b-side and some Calvin Harris chart topper, which made speeding across the salt flats at 180mph a more surreal experience than it already was. While this playlist was a nice departure from the Donna Summer we’d been hearing in the rest of Bolivia (she is huge here, apparently), I never want to hear any of those songs again. Even the Creed one.

Hyped up on our road trip snacks (Pringles and Twixes) and driven mad by the repetitive playlist and our driver’s erratic motoring, when we arrived at that night’s “basic” accommodation, we grabbed some beers and hung around in the car park, happy to stretch our legs. Another of the drivers started blasting his own playlist from his car, which consisted purely of Backstreet Boys hits (although one of the group noted that this could be a playlist designed to “get rid of the gringos”), and so we hung our head torches on a washing line, and, ignoring the severed llama leg in the corner, raved into the night. And by “raved into the night” I mean by eight o clock, after two solid hours of raving, we were all wrapped up warm and eating quinoa soup in silence, not quite able to look the hostel’s staff in the eye.

The next day of the trip is what I like to refer to as “what it will be like if I go to hell”. This was because we were still listening to the SAME NINE SONGS at a VERY HIGH VOLUME, our driver’s motoring skills had worsened to the point where the engine overheated several times and he was making people car sick, the hot springs and sulphurous geysers triggered my altitude sickness, and when the driver pulled over to go to the toilet, he left the handbrake off and we were consequentially involved in a minor car crash with another 4×4. I think it was mainly the songs that did it though.

After one night’s sleep – and one terrifying experience where I was cornered by four stray dogs and a little Bolivian boy had to save me by throwing rocks at them – we were off to Potosi. By this point on our trip we had learned the important questions to ask in the Andes: “How high is it?” “What’s the WiFi like?” and “Are the showers hot?” In the case of Potosi, the answeres turned out to be “insanely high”, “awful” and “unlikely”.

Potosi

This was the town where – at almost 5,000 metres – my altitude sickness really struck and I had to have a lot of lie downs and the suchlike, which is a shame because Potosi turned out to be an extremely fascinating – if depressing – place. It is home to Cerro Rico, which is also known as “The mountain that eats men” due to the alarming number of people who have died as a result of working in its silver mines. That number is thought to stand around a staggering eight million.

Bolivians have an interesting relationship with this incredibly rich mountain: on one hand, without it Bolivia would not exist today, and it once made Potosi a centre of commerce and the most populated city in the world, however when the Spanish invaded the area, they forced the locals to work to their deaths both in the mines and at the mint – and conditions are still very hard today. These days, silver miners typically live to the age of 35 or 40, sacrificing their lives for their families, but those who worked with mercury in the mint directly after the Spanish conquest could only expect to live around three months from their work start date.

While most miners are staunch Catholics, when they go underground they believe in a sort of devil-God they call Tio, who was invented by the Spanish to scare the locals into working in the mine. However, the Bolivians couldn’t pronounce the word ‘Dio’ and thus ‘Tio’ was born. He is still a very real entity in the mines to this day, with workers making sacrifices of coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to him in return for their safety. Every so often, if they’re down on their luck they’ll also sacrifice a llama to their underground God. 

After an intense time in Potosi, we were all pretty glad to leave for Bolivia’s constitutional capital Sucre – not least because it marked a serious step down from the high altitude.

Sucre

Sucre – or “La Ciudad Blanca” due to all its white houses – has been my favourite city in South America so far, with Cuzco in Peru coming a close second. The architecture is incredibly pretty, there’s plenty to do (my activity of choice was a day of quad biking), the history is incredible, and there’s all the oxygen you can breathe. 

We visited a museum with our guide, who explained that Bolivia used to be much bigger than it currently is, but it is “bad at war” (as well as sports), with the last one it really won being its early-19th century battle for independence. This means it keeps losing bits and pieces of its land to its neighbours, although the last war was in the 1930s, and was a draw, which according to our guide was a “great result” for Bolivia.

We also learned a little about the country’s presidential history – the country was named for its first president Simon Bolivar, but since then we noted there had been a LOT of presidents for just over two centuries of independence. Our guide explained that when the Bolivian people don’t like a president they just “bang bang” (shoot them), meaning the presidential life expectancy isn’t very long. The current president, Evo Morales, is stunningly the country’s first indigenous president, and he also seems to be pretty popular, not to mention an inspiration for many people in Bolivia.

Sucre also has a great nightlife and we spent a night partying at a great happy hour bar, where the DJ was mixing it up, playing classic artists like the Spice Girls and even more Backstreet Boys, but mainly sticking to salsa. It was interesting to see how the younger generation of locals loves salsa: the pop tunes were clearly just for the tourists. As a comparison you’d never go out in England and stumble upon a bunch of teenagers absolutely loving Morris Dancing, although salsa is obviously much, MUCH cooler – no-one has to wear any bells to start with.

I think that’s what sums up Bolivia: the people of the country are incredibly proud of their history and so they’re passionate about their country and their culture, and about preserving it and telling their story.

So that was Bolivia! A diverse country with incredible scenery, a rich history, plenty of soul, more mountains of course, and a really interesting taste in Western music.

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