Bolivia

Bolivia

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  • Day244

    The world's highest city.

    We're high. Really high. 4060m is higher than Mt Cook and I am really feeling it. My chest feels heavy and at disappointing frequency I am uncontrollably out of breath. Walking up stairs triggers the 'doubled-over' response and the activity of eating and walking is near on impossible...at least for me in my current state of fitness (obviously poor). Postosí claims it's title as the world's highest city but the definition of 'city' is up for debate. Potosí also marks the beginning of our acclimatization period. For the next three weeks or so we won't see much under 2800m (I think).

    Our hostel (Casa Blanca) in Potosí was grand. We had good wifi and friendly staff, a hearty free breakfast, an enormous bedroom with two spare beds, and a private ensuite with a powerful and hot shower (you have no idea how much we value this - Cat is trying to incorporate it as an individual item in hostel ratings. In fact, we've both come to value the morning shower report over the weather report - the worst no doubt being 'cold with a chance of electrocution' which is about as common as a rainy day in London). Take me back already! Also, Lennart (the Belgian from our road trip to Uyuni) is headed the same way and has joined us in our travels.

    After seeing so much llama on our trip, we were all craving a big old Llama steak. That's not true. How can you crave a llama steak if you've never had one? We were more likely curious to taste the furry friend, so we found a nice restaurant, ordered the local beer (unoriginally named Potosina) and tucked into some delicious llama. On the meat scale, I'd say it lies somewhere between beef and venison in flavour and I can't comment on toughness because it was so damn tender it might well not have been llama. Compliments to the chef.

    We occupied day one in Potosí with the usual wandering about. That of course was after a sleep in and finally finding a live stream of the America's Cup (go boys!). We passed the afternoon in the market, sampling creme de limon (similar to raw merengue), pasteles (deep fried batter with cheese), papas rellenas (deep fried mashed potato stuffed with egg and meat), api (hot corn milk) and of course empanadas. I could barely walk home. We also got some fresh veg for dinner before battling back up the steep and busy roads to the hostel. I had my highest non-commericial aircraft beer that night at 4066m (only walked about 66 of those metres but I'll claim the achievement!)

    Potosí really only exists as a product of it's mining industry. Cerro Rico (rich hill) has for hundreds of years offered Potosí wealth in the form of mineral silver, zinc and lead. Miners as young as eight years old take to these hills in search of wealth at the cost of their health or their lives (amoungst other things). Cerro Rico is not only a monstrosity but a monster - it's known locally as the 'mountain that eats men'. Visually, you can't miss it and mentally, well, we couldn't hold back our curiosity.

    So we booked a tour. Of a working mine. In Bolivia - the poorest country in South America. How dumb. (Sorry mums but we're still alive.) Big Deal Tours charged us 150 Bs ($30) for a half day tour. To be fair, we ummed and ahhed about this one for a long time and decided if we booked a reputable company it would be worth the risk (I realise that's a weak argument). But saftey aside, it was the ethical decision which was the hardest. Those who just read about the fiesta in the Altiplano will probably think that by taking this tour I'm a hypocrit for my 'monkey in a cage' comment, but hear me out.

    Mining is life here. It's work, it's friendship, it's religion and it's social structure. And anybody can do it. (Actually, ladies aren't allowed to work inside the mines for superstitious reasons (pachamama gets jealous of other ladies) but that doesn't prevent them working around the mines). It requires no prequalification save for an able body and a willing soul. I won't go into detail of the hierarchy but it's exactly that. Cooperatives own small mines and miners who stay on the job long enough (three years) can buy their own seam to work as they please until it runs dry. Then the process starts over again, more or less every six to ten years, depending on the seam. Hourly wage gradually transitions to commission as they progress up the hierarchy. Once they own a seam, they reap the benefits of their hard work directly with minimal repayment to the cooperative. Overall it's a working structure very much rewards commitment.

    Our tour guide was an ex-miner of fourty odd years and no longer working due to poor health - surprise surprise. He was happy to show off his life, his job and his numerous friends and family (seriously he knew or was related to everyone we passed). Our first stop was a market where we purchased gifts for the miners. Dynamite, fanta and coca leaves were the popular choice. The first two have obvious uses but don't be fooled by the coca leaves; they aren't for cocaine. These leaves are grown too high to be any good as a sniffable powder. Bolivians stuff their cheeks full of them and savour their medicinal properties. If you can call suppressing apetite and the effects of altitude 'medicinal'. That said, miners value them more than water and are known to have a cheek stuffed full of them for most of the day.

    After donning our safety gear, we took a brief tour of the processing plant which was absurdly toxic so we had to put emphasis on brief and get out smartly. Not that the gases troubled Cat. She had blindfolded herself with her helmet and was doing her best not to make a scene whilst falling into unguarded holes and tripping over hoses. All of the raw minerals are sent to Chile for the final phase of processing 'cause Bolivia can't get it's act together and set up a refinery. Oh, and there's that small issue of having no access to the sea and it's ships (thanks to Chile). Apparently this land ownership is under review in the UN supreme court. Although Bolivians doubt they have a chance. Poor old Bolivia.

    Bolivian mines are made for Bolivians, not gringos, who on average are at least a foot taller, if not more. After weaving around the llama skins and dodging the blood stained walls we began our awkward half-squatted waddle into the earth. Every now and again we could relieve our backs in chambers or when climbing up or down ladders to various seams. The miners work hard. All of them were drenched in sweat from carrying enormous quantities of rock to the surface on their backs or in barrows. I'm struggling to imagine tougher work than 8-10 hours of hunched-over uphill barrowing at 4300m above sea level fuelled by nothing but coca leaves, fanta, 96% alcohol and cigarettes (that's right - no lunch)! It's a wonder these guys don't have serious health issues. Well of course they do! But none of them are willing to admit it except our guide. There's no medical compensation and most of them can't afford a doctor so what's the use in complaining? The consider themselves lucky to have to chance to work in the mine (to be fair it's good paying work in Potosí) and none of them are willing to admit it's bad for them. A different world.

    After visiting several miners and giving them our gifts, Wilson offered to set off his dynamite. I nearly shat my pants. Here we were borderline suffering from altitude sickness, battling off claustrophobia deep beneath the earth in the sketchiest mine in the poorest country in South America with not a hope in the world of a rescue and this guy wants to set off a bomb!? I was reluctant at first but with reassurance from the doctor lady who had been accompanying us and with refuge in appeared to be a safe place, Wilson set off the dynamite 200m down the shaft. Four minutes later the boom rocketed past with deafening force. It wasn't as powerful as I had expected (phew!) and we swiftly left the mine to emerge back into glorious daylight and fresh air. Never again.

    I guess the question remains, was all this ethical tourism? Are we creating a 'monkey in a cage' scenario? In my opinion, no. In fact, we're helping them out. We're creating work and income outside of the mine; buying gifts in the market, giving gifts, and more importantly, giving Wilson and his team a source of income when he is physically unfit to work in the mine. Furthermore, me writing this and your reading it is raising awareness and there's no aid like awareness. To seal my opinion, when we were headed back to town our 'safety guide' boarded with her gorgeous two kids, both dressed in private school uniforms. Perhaps change is on it's way?
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  • Day253

    The hardest night of my life.

    I got three hours sleep, which was good going given the altitude and the cold and the blustery wind which threatened to rip the lid right off the hut. I also needed to pee from all the tea and there was no way in hell I was getting out of my sleeping bag and going outside to do so.

    Eventually the light came on and we crawled out of bed and began the gear up process. We again struggled to get much fuel on board; two pieces of cake and a tea were all I could stomach at this hour and I think I was leading the charge. Not a good start.

    It felt like forever to gear up at this time in the morning and we didn't end up leaving until after 1am for the summit attempt. (The early start of course, to beat the heat of the sun to the precarious snow on the summit.) We left the hut in the snow and frosty temperatures, lashed together, two people per guide.

    The stars were incredible! As were the distant city lights of El Alto. The cold was kept at bay with three layers on the legs, four on top and two pairs of gloves and the pace was slow enough for me to actually enjoy the start. Cat however, was battling. She was already into a really heavy pant and struggling to keep her feet going.

    About two hours in, the altitude was beginning to take it's toll. I lost my enjoyment and began to feel the work. Cat was periodically stumbling out of line and the Frenchman Guilleme collapsed on the snow beside us unable to continue. He descended with the guide and we adopted Ana, who appeared to be in a similar state to Cat. Shortly after I left the girls team and lashed myself to the other two boys and Mario, our guide. Lennart was in good shape but Luiz was on struggle street, big time. The whole affair had begun to look like a disaster.

    The boys set a slightly faster pace than the girls and began to develop a small lead. 'Faster' is a misleading description in this case. A toddler could have crawled faster. Our feet weren't breaking overlap and at one point I estimated my step length to be about two inches. We had nine hundred metres to ascend before light and I physically couldn't see how this would be achieved at a pace so slow it would have made a three legged turtle walking backwards look like a blur.

    About four hours in I started feeling really bad. I had barely eaten or drank and the night had got so cold it was difficult to rest even for a moment without being uncomfortably cold. I felt like vomiting and my legs and back felt weak so I asked Mario for a stop. Then my nose started gushing blood. It was horrible. Luiz too was in a bad place, barely able to take his backpack off for water and panting so hard I was beginning to think he might blow a lung. The fufu valve was well and truely blown. It would only take one of us to quit and we would all have to follow.

    With still about two hours of the steepest climbing left, we needed to switch on. I donned my last layer (puffer jacket - thanks mum), forced down water, chocolate and nuts and as if by magic, some hot coca tea from Mario's backback. It changed all of our moods. I'm not sure if it was the magic trick, the tea or just the warmth but we were new men. My energy returned and although I still felt sick and my nose was still bleeding, we were back.

    At least temporarily. Luiz was pushing himself way beyond what he should have. We were breaking every 15 or 20 minutes for him to catch his breath which was beneficial for all of us to keep the symptoms at bay.

    The top would never come. Walking in the circle of a spotlight for six hours was beginning to drive us crazy, but then, finally, there was light. Daylight. A glorious flaming orange sky preluded the sun and gave us a glimpse of the top. It was close.

    We regrouped at the base of the summit. It was steep (read: ice climbing) and looked like a knife edge in cross section. Mario, clearly worried about our abilities in technical terrain given our physical status, busted out the coca tea one last time.

    It worked. Or it was adrenaline. But we hauled ourselves and Luiz (who looked like he was about to die - "estoy muriendo" he kept saying) up the ice face and onto the knife edge. All that remained was a hundred or so metres along a precarious ice edge. But Luiz was spent. We needed 15 minutes to reach to summit and we had 15 minutes before the sun. Mario fixed us to the ice and we broke. We watched the sun rise from the ridge just metres from the summit. It didn't matter. It was glorious. So good that Luiz got back up and proceeded to stagger along the ridge at everybody's concern. It was barely a foot wide with a sheer drop each side.

    Finally we cleared the danger, staggered up the last slope to the summit and all collapsed. Mario fixed us to the snow and we celebrated with a half arsed high five and lie down. At that time, it was undoubtedly the hardest six hours of my life. I still felt sick, my energy was drained, I couldn't stop puffing and my digits were well and truely numb but my blood nose had finally stopped so I focused on that. We'd done it.

    Meanwhile, Cat and Ana were still some 200-300m in altitude behind. Their pace had slowed to the point their guide had said he couldn't physically go any slower and they were similarly absolutely spent. Both girls taking turns to collapse in a puffing fit, to give the other a break. The 200m was about two hours climbing which would have put them in danger of unstable snow, even if they could summon the energy to ascend it. Their sunrise was equally as brilliant from the less precarious slopes just below the summit. Both of them were equally as gutted and relieved to be heading down as each other - at long last. Given the state I left Cat in, I was amazed at the effort she put in and especially that she never gave up. Well done!

    Our stop at the top was brief. The view was spectacular and the sun was warm so spirits were lifted. Our photos are an absolute hash because we were tied to the snow, had frozen fingers and had the mental awareness of a rag. Plus Mario was keen to get us down quick smart to avoid any unnecessary risk. We axed our way back to the base of the summit with some pretty awful coordination. Luiz collapsed, he'd been running on empty for a while and the thought of the descent (which we could now see disappearing into the gullies) was too much. We got about as close as you get to dragging him down, breaking all the time despite the apparent infinite ease of descending. There was one reverse climb remaining and I honestly thought he would give up when he got into a tricky situation on that section. Lennart (who never really showed any sign of struggle) and I were doing our best to help him but as you can imagine by now it was all too much.

    We finally made high camp some three hours later (I think) and collapsed on the rocks at the front door. We'd been the worst off of the five or so groups who made the summit and it showed. A smidge more experience, fitness and acclimatisation might have made that an enjoyable experience but we were just satisfied with the result. Glad too, to see the rest of the group and hear their stories. All that remained now was the hour and a half descent to base camp. We had soup, packed our backs and quietly descended - all under pack except Luiz who paid the guide to carry his bag. Lennart and I are both indebted to him for unselfishly continuing way beyond his ability to avoid letting us down. Thanks mate.

    A large quantity of Coke (cola) at base camp was enough sustenance to fuel the pack up and see a weary group leave the mountain in the same van in which we ascended. Our levels of satisfaction and fatigue varied but that was one hell of a challenge we won't be forgetting anytime soon. Upon returning to La Paz we were practically all asleep before the door to our room closed. I did however take a shower because the stench from my three day old clothes was borderline toxic and that would be a sad end to this story. We woke only for beer and an excessive quantity of pizza before returning straight back to bed. Job done.
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  • Day249

    The world's most dangerous road.

    It's steep, it's ugly and it kills. Death road is probably the world's most famous road and rightly so. The 64km stretch of gravelly danger takes on average two lives per year and technically, it's not even open to traffic.

    Hundreds of cyclists take to this road everyday to witness the sheer cliffs, buenas vistas and thrilling downhills. It's a must do from La Paz so we locked in a guided tour as you'd be mad to do it alone. RideOn was our company of choice (there were hundreds to choose from) and Marcelo was our guide. The price? A wallet wringing 470 Bs ($95) per head. Ouch.

    The three of us (Lennart's still on the scene) got picked up from our hostel in our own private van and got a mini tour of La Paz on our way up to La Cumbre, the starting point of the ride. Marcelo and his team had planned the ride to ensure there would be no uphill on our route - what legends. A quick breakfast and a lengthy gear up (seriously, I was so kitted up that a blow from Superman himself wouldn't even have tickled a nerve) had us ready to rumble. Our descent would take us from 4800m to 1100m, a whopping 3700m of brake burning biking (roughly equivalent to a descent from the summit of Mt Cook to the Tasman Sea).

    The first stretch was on asphalt, where we tested out the bikes amid some awesome scenery. It didn't take long before we were tucking in and bombing the windy road at eye watering speed. It was so much fun and knowing that we got the uphill for free was all the more enjoyable. In no time we had made the narcotics checkpoint (of course there's a narcotic checkpoint) where we stopped for a snack. Yes, an actual snack - I know what you're thinking.

    From here the guides loaded our bikes back on the roof of the van and drove us to the start of the real death road, more accurately known as Yungas Road. Opened in 1920 (as a widening of a track to a single lane road), Yungas road connects La Paz (Bolivia's largest city) to the jungle - it's source of food. Now however, it is unofficially closed to traffic as a new road had been built to replace it. However, the road is not physically 'closed' so tour buses, tour vans and drug traffickers (amoungst other traffickers) still use the route for a small fee. This fee goes towards making the road safer and surprisingly, crash barriers had been installed on many of the corners.

    We barely passed a car on our entire journey down, but you wouldn't need a car to have an accident. Slippery gravel, big rocks, landslides, hairpin bends, puddles, waterfalls, other cyclists and of course the fantastic view are all hazards which present themselves with relentless regularity. Marcelo was the best guide we've had all trip, pointing out all the hazards, the history and the points of interest.

    In more than one occasion he would point out corners where people (many his friends, more tourists) had taken a turn for the worse. If there was ever a debate for ethical tourism, I'd say listening to a guide explain several of his friends' demises is right up there - emotional insight which gave us all heightened respect for the road and it's danger (and Marcelo himself). Corner after corner the crosses, flowers and memorabilia appeared. Empty shells of cars and buses lay barely visible at the bottom of the valley. Numerous corners were named for the nationality of the unfortunate person to have erred there at the ultimate price. Many of these lives were claimed by a lack of precaution; from taking selfies whilst riding, to going too fast or by simply getting too close to the edge. The worst though were the corners where crossed clustered - those were vehicles, often buses with children and families who had no control over their fate.

    Morbidity aside, the ride was full of adrenaline and suberb scenery and in fact, we barely passed a car or bus on the way down - phew! After many stops and photos we arrived at the bottom of the road hot, dusty and tired some six hours later - and greeted by a ten year old selling cold beer. It was an oddly short taste of jungle heat and low elevation. I was thoroughly impressed with Cat for an injury and crash free descent despite some sketchy sections. Well guided one might say (that's Marcelo, not me to be clear). We finished up with a hot shower and a buffet dinner at a nearby hotel before driving two and a half hours bsck to La Paz, via the new road of course!

    Definitely a highlight of the trip and a must do if you're in La Paz - despite the cost!
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  • Day248

    For a name that directly translates to "the peace", La Paz is anything but peaceful.

    It's hectic. The streets are obnoxiously steep, windy and almost always rammed full of bumper to bumper traffic. Cholitas and other vendors line the footpath with their goods spilling out onto the road, creating confusion between pedestrians and traffic. Men, women and children vie for position at intersections or shop fronts to shine shoes for coins. Industry and shop owners struggle to contain their work in their shops, often resulting in welding and auto repairs on the road, where moving buses narrowly miss their equipment. Locals push carts full of nuts, popcorn, orange juice, pasteles (or just about anything you can imagine) through hoards of pedestrians. But if you can diffuse the stress it's a fascinating and lively scene at almost every turn.

    Then there's the noise. If it can't be heard it can't be sold; no doubt you'll hear it before you see it. Noisy engines, squeaky brakes and incessant honking are all part of the medley which tires the senses at astonishing rates.

    All that is on top of the 4000m altitude which continues to affect our eating, drinking, walking and even sleeping performance by way of limiting oxygen. So when I say we're averaging 10 hours sleep per night, hopefully you won't think we're holiday sloths - we need our slumber!

    On the subject of slumber, we arrived in La Paz on an overnight bus from Sucre which was our first full cama (bed) bus we've taken this entire trip. I was super excited about a good sleep (you should know how much I love sleep by now) and almost immediately adopted the full recline position. Unfortunately an hour or so into the journey, the icy chill from Bolivia's highlands seeped through the window and enveloped my body. Having foolishly left the majority of my warm clothes in my luggage, I spent the rest of the night attempting to contain my body heat whilst enviously watching the eskimo (covered in her entire wardrobe) sleeping deeply beside me. Lucky her.

    Wandering the streets of La Paz is great fun in short bursts. To ensure our wandering had a little understanding, we signed up to a walking tour immediately after arriving. We ended up walking for over four hours, embracing markets, witchery, the San Francisco Church, and the infamous San Pedro prison for those of you who've read Marching Powder. After this tour we continued walking for another fourty minutes before catching the gondola for a view of the city and a $1 lunch of fried rice, eggs and plantain. The afternoon saw more walking much to my protest as I was well and truely ready to throw in the towel. Thanks to Cat, we had another great hostel to retire to (York BnB), with a room right above the street in the downtown area.

    We biked Death Road the next day (see other footprint) but spent the day after back in La Paz. My morning was spent watching the All Blacks and then the America's Cup (finally found a good sports bar right beside our hostel). A friend from high school, Kieran and his girlfriend joined as well as Cat and Lennart which made for quite the crowd at midday in a dingy English pub. In the afternoon we spent even more time wandering the city and it's markets, you really have to see this one for yourself. Of course, delicious treats are an important part of any city wander and you'd be foolish to say no to the lady with the ice creams or the man with the chocolate.

    That day we signed up for a tour we would all (at discreet points over the next three days) wish we hadn't. As we ate our tikki masala curry that night (not the smartest choice, I know), the snowy peak of Huayna Potosi loomed at 6088m, just a stone's throw from our indian restaurant in La Paz. Hold your breath - that's next.

    Although we didn't do much of note in La Paz, I really enjoyed this stop (altitude aside). It's like a giant Medellín with more character and cheaper food. Plus, if you come with a slightly higher budget, there are more tours and day trips than you can poke a stick at. Put it on the list.
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  • Day255

    Last stop Bolivia.

    Let me start by saying I'm loving Bolivia. It's been an absolute blast: deserts, salt flats, mines, high altitude, downhill biking, mountaineering, lovely people (both locals and other tourists), reasonable food (despite what people say) and on top of all that - it's cheap. Throw it on top of the podium with Colombia as my favourite South American country (and with Guatemala for my favourite overall).

    We needed Copacabana. It's quiet and small and relaxing; the last few weeks have been a whirlwind and it's nice just to relax for a minute. I know what you're thinking: 'spoilt holiday maker needs a holiday from his holiday' - well so be it.

    The family and their dog at Hostel Florencia were great hosts and we had a spacious room with snippets of an excellent view. Little did we know, good views would be the theme of this stop.

    We bussed from La Paz to Copacabana - the six hours for a lousy 20 Bs ($4) which included one narrow lake crossing by dodgy barge. What else would you expect? It was a really scenic bus, almost as good as the one from Mendoza and I thoroughly enjoyed the scenery by sleeping through it, at least for the moments I wasn't thrown off my seat by some excessively violent driving. We were also quietly hoping for a break from the altitude but it was not to be. Copacabana lies at the edge Lake Titicaca at about 3800m asl. You'd think we'd have acclimatized by now...and no, I'm not willing to admit it's my fitness letting me down.

    One thing that has amazed me in Bolivia is the quality and quantity of their football pitches. It's more of a priority than running water or flush toilets and that's not an exaggeration. At our first stop at the border in the middle of the desert there was a full sized field (and only about four buildings). There's been a pitch in every village we've passed through (including base camp at Huayna Potosi) all the way to Copacabana which hosts two full sized artificial turfs with some stadium seating as well two more smaller pitches in immaculate condition. Impressive for a town not much bigger than the suburb of Epsom. It's a wonder Bolivia isn't better at football.

    Copa has two great lookout points either side of the city and miss energy legs insisted it was a good idea to climb both in the three hour slot we had between arriving on the bus and dark. The climbing hurt, if not by real pain but by memories of the monstrous effort from just the day before. The views were superb and we were up the second hill in time for yet another fantastic sunset, this time accompanied by Ana from Huayna as her boyfriend was suffering from a classic case of Bolivian food poisoning (a compulsory souvenir).

    That night we enjoyed another $4, three course dinner and were later accompanied by Cat's friend Tamsin and her boyfriend Lawrence for Pisco sours. We both parted ways with good travel tips (we are retracing each other's paths) and a few good laughs at the expense of Lawrence and his fear of heights.

    Isla del Sol is the main attraction in Lake Titicaca and despite us being sick of hiking, we made the most of a full day out there. The boat ride was slow and squished but at least we found humour in our skippers approach (half asleep and hiding from the sun under an umbrella).

    Isla del Sol is much too steep for my liking, particularly at that altitude. Our hiking was more like walking and resting with plenty of stops for relaxing, eating and drinking - perhaps not dissimilar to one of Grant's weekend rides. The views were impressive as we discovered when we did eventually reach the summit. Animals were abound all over the island - pigs, sheep, llamas, dogs, donkeys and cats all cause for pause. By far the most amusing were the donkeys who could be heard from any location and would wind each other up with their comical eeh-orring. The island lived up to it's name and delivered wonderfully hot sunshine which we treasured all the way back to our hostel for an arvo nap and a horrible late dinner (thanks to some truely awful service).

    Just as we were about to celebrate escaping Bolivia's compulsory food poisoning, Cat ran one in. On our last night. So close. She's couped up on a seat in a bus beside me having a hell of a time, following a hell of a night and a not much more enjoyable border crossing. I don't think she'll be touching trout for a while. I'd guess I've saved mine for Peru, maybe a dodgy chicken leg or some cold rice can even the scores...I hope not. At the end of the day (or maybe tomorrow), Bolivia's parting gift will be but a scratch on the surface of what's been an epic few weeks. Hasta luego!
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  • Day36

    Today we had a real adventure and crossed the border into Blovia (where we sadly had to say goodbye to our intrepid leader). We headed straight to the city and checked into our lovely Hotel, which had a great location and beautiful view of the square ..... and San Pedro prison next door.
    Soon after check in we headed out for a walk through the city were we checked out the local witches market. They had lots of lovely things to see here, including dead or dried llamas at varying ages of infantcy. Lucky our guide knew one of the stall holders so we could take a picture for you all to see the the beauty of this.
    We discovered the best thing about Bolivia is how cheap everything is.
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  • Day243

    The world's largest salt flat.

    The spanish word 'salar' literally translates to salt flat. I'm sure you're all acquainted with the Bonneville salt flats in the US, where Bert Munroe's Indian motorcycle became the fastest on earth. Well Bonneville ain't got nothing on Uyuni - at least in terms of size. It's over 100 times bigger by area and up to 120m deep (of salt!) At an elevation of around 3600m, this time of year the Salar de Uyuni is freezing. Literally. And at six o'clock in the morning on this given Saturday it was minus six degrees. Who said salt flats were always hot?

    Salt flats are also not always dry. In fact, they rely on frequent wetting and drying to become salt flats in the first place. To become a salt flat, an area of land needs a mineral-rich water inlet with no outlet, or an outlet which expels water at a slower rate than evaporation. This means that the primary way out for the water is evaporation, which leaves behind the minerals which said water had been carrying in suspension. The drying process also forms impressive salt crystals which become even more spectacular under pressure from the layers on top. Our unfortunate seasonal timing meant that the flats were bone dry on our visit - which was extremely disappointing as the salt flats become the world's biggest mirror in flood. A magical experience, I'm told. Nonetheless, witnessing the sun rise over this glistening white desert was definitely one we'll remember, if not for the beauty then the numbing pain I was feeling in my ears, fingers and toes.

    Our tour continued once the sun had broken day. At 120km/h travel felt incredibly slow given the vast distances to any distinguishable landmark. Our driver (Ever) was periodically falling asleep at the wheel which was cause for great panic until we realised that there were literally no obstacles to hit if he tried. Even still, our persistent poking kept him conscious enough to get us to our breakfast destination - a small 'island' in the middle of the flat. Bolivian drivers working this tour are notorious for driving drunk and/or tired. Despite our best efforts to get a good driver (we paid extra and were assured 'our drivers don't drive drunk'), ultimately the onus was on us to read the situation. I would hate to have seen the state of the 'bad drivers' - a short read of tour reviews is enough to put you off. Poor form from Bolivia but what can you expect?

    Aside from that, Even was indeed a very good driver and tour guide. He gave us all a stint at the wheel through the salt flats (which was actually the most boring driving I have ever done) and did a fine job of treating us like real humans despite the number of times he forced us to listen to his favourite song: 'Despacito' (hourly).

    We climbed the island and admired a fantastic view of the eternal white from between giant cactii. The rising sun provided pockets of warmth which we were sure to linger in as an attempt to thaw our digits. Breakfast on the flats and a drawn out photo shoot was a great way to take it all in before piling back into the car.

    We only spent a few hours driving across the salt flats (thankfully) and barely chopped a wee corner off it. We passed through Dakar before arriving in a very ugly Uyuni. Dusty, rubbish-strewn streets with piles of rubble and unfinished buildings triggered much disgust in all of us who clearly had higher expectations. Unfinished houses are exempt from taxes in this country which obviously creates little incentive to finish them. Hence, perhaps why we felt Uyuni was such an eye sore. We had a quick visit to a fairly underwhelming train graveyard before our last supper: quinoa fritters. The 'superfood' (which is actually a staple here) had a lot of potential but a lack of flavour really let them down in a meal which I'm sure has set the mood for Bolivian dining. The red meat diets of Argentina and Chile, I doubt, will be seen for a long time.

    Even dropped us at the 'bus terminal' (just a regular street) where we said our farewells and searched desperately for the next bus out of town. Next stop Postosi.
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  • Day252

    The one to rule them all.

    We've climbed a lot of mountains this trip. Every country in South America has provided some kind of peak to challenge us and let's not forget the might of Acatenango and Ometepe in Central America. Huayna Potosi was not one of these. This my friends, is another kettle of fish. A 6088m summit attempt. Attempt being the operative word; Lonely Planet boasts a 60% failure rate for gringos on this peak.

    To emphasise my point, base camp for Huayna Potosi is at 4800m. That's quite high. In fact, that's some eight/nine hundred metres above our previous highest peak. Peak! Huayna Potosi (appropriately pronounced 'whiner' Potosi) wasn't a challenge of time or distance. It was a challenge of altitude. And given that we were already under strain in La Paz (at 4000m) this was never going to be enjoyable. Yet apparently, it's one of the easiest 6000m summits there is. (I later understood this to mean 'least technical' - the word 'easy' is very misleading).

    We booked in the three day climb wih Base Camp Lodge for a cool 1000 Bs each ($200) - all included (except chocolate and batteries if we're being pedantic). This time of year the weather is unusually reliable; sun for two weeks was the forecast - much to our relief. Despite the heat of the sun we would be enduring temperatures from 12°C highs to early morning lows of -14°C. I couldn't tell concern from panic on Cat's face as she calculated the possibility of fitting into all of her clothes at once.

    We were a group of six: Cat and me, Lennart, Luiz from Brazil and a French couple Guilleme and Ana. For the six of us, we had two/three guides depending on the relative danger of the activities for that day/night. We ascended by van to base camp (cheats!) through La Paz, El Alto and the plateau at the base of the mountain, admiring the beast from a distance.

    We had lunch at base camp and afterward we geared up. This was an ordeal. On top of any base layers we had overalls, jackets, harness, snow boots, garters, crampons, gloves, beanies, helmets, head torches/glasses, ice axes and a day pack filled with the rest of our crap. It took a full hour for everyone to kit up before we headed out onto the track. Our guides were pretty blazé during this process but they did a predeparture check of everyone which gave me some faith.

    We trekked for less than an hour before arriving at the base of the glacier. Today was acclimatisation and practice day. We donned our crampons, lashed ourselves together in groups of three (plus guide) and began working our way over the glacier. All instructions were in Spanish and much to my surprise I understood everything as did Cat who even translated for the group. Maybe we have been learning something after all!

    Despite a snails pace, it was hard work. Our lungs flapped about in the thin air, struggling for efficiency. There was no muscle burn, just hefty puffing. The previously silent glacier now alive with the noise of what could've been a hundred panting dogs on a hot day. After testing ourselves in all the various techniques, we descended the glacier and relocated to an ice wall for climbing practice.

    Under a belay, we all had to ice climb a 10-12m vertical face. It looked intimidating at first, even for me but we all managed to reach the top, Cat included and elated at the accomplishment. It was great fun hacking away at the ice with axes and crampons but the physicality was intense and a worring sign for days to come.

    We returned back to base camp later that afternoon for tea. Coca tea and coca leaves were by far the drink of choice although their health benefits remain unproven to me. Even with an early bed time, the evening dragged on in the refugio as everyone opted for their own ways to maximise rest and acclimatisation. We spent that night in a very spacious and rather chilly Maori bunk in the roof of the refugio.

    The next morning was also quite relaxed, we breakfasted at 8am and prior to that I took great joy in unfreezing the toilet water with my urine. We spent most of the morning packing our climbing gear into packs (as well as our personal gear) and doing the usual faffing that can be expected from a tour group of noobs. After lunch (by the way, all our meals were rice, potatoes or quinoa) we hit the track in the midday 'heat' with laden packs. We had a meagre two hour ascent to Campo Alto (high camp) where we would complete our acclimatisation. Two hours isn't much, but with a full pack in thin air with a 400m altitude gain - it was more than enough.

    It was a walkable ascent and we reached high camp at 5130m in the mid-afternoon. We immediately got stuck into the coca tea and spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering about, taking pictures, relaxing, playing dice (of course) and nervously thinking out loud about the day to come. The altitude (or maybe in fact the vast quantities of coca tea) appeared to suppress everybody's appetites, as we picked at our food during our 5pm dinner. Not one to waste food, and with an engine with a high reliance on it, I managed to finish my meal. After another Spanish briefing, we hit the hay at 6pm in a fairly cold refugio bunk doing our best to get some kip before our midnight alarm...
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  • Day232

    A lot of people I met didn't really like La Paz and called it a "fucking shithole" so I was prepared for the worst. But when I started exploring the city I was actually pleasantly surprised. The center could easily walked by foot and I liked the fact that a lot of the streets were crowded with people sitting on the street selling all different kinds of goods.
    My first day I went out to find an agency for my tour in the amazon basin. Phil (who I had met month ago in Guatemala and then again in Nicaragua) had done a tour to the jungle and recommended a company that was also mentioned in the Lonely Planet. I went there first and a nice lady told me everything about the different tours and showed me pictures of the accommodation and even the food. There were 2 kinds of tours. To the jungle or to the pampas. Jungle meant hiking and a lot of flora and fauna. Pampas meant going on a little boat along the river and seeing more animals. That sounded a lot more appealing to me.
    When it came to the price she told me that there is a law in Rurrenabaque (a small town in the Amazon basin where the tour starts) that forbids you to sell the 3-day-tour for less than 1,200 Bolivianos. She showed me her calculator and said: "So this is what you pay: 1,200 Bs!" She smiled at me and winked as her calculator was showing 750,- Bs.
    The price was pretty convincing but I still wanted to ask around before making my final decision. I went to 3 other places but they all wanted around 1,000,- - 1,300,- Bs. I double checked with Phil that I had the right agency and after he told me again that the tour was amazing (even though he did the hike into the jungle) I made my decision.
    For lunch that day I met with an old colleague from germany! Sven and I had been working together over 5 years ago but I had met him on a birthday party just before my trip and told him about my plans to travel. So a few weeks before he left for Bolivia he wrote me on Facebook to ask if I would be anywhere around that area at that time. And I was. His mother is originally from La Paz so he came here with his wife and 2 kids to visit the family in La Paz and a few places close by.
    It was fun meeting a familiar face and also talking to someone who knows more about the city and the country. I also found it really interesting to learn about the difference when traveling a country like Bolivia with little kids. Obviously it's not as easy and it might be a little scary if a little blond boy tries to venture of exploring his surroundings in a city like La Paz. But I think it also makes you see stuff with different eyes as kids might find other things remarkable than you.
    After a nice lunch and coffee Sven and his family headed one way and I another to visit a place that had caught my attention earlier on my trip. The San Pedro Prison in the center of La Paz. It was just a short walk from where I was.
    A girl had recommended a book to me in Colombia and I actually started reading it without knowing anything about the story. It was the real story of Thomas Mc Fadden, an English guy who had been caught drug trafficking in La Paz and was send to this exact prison. What he revealed with this book is hard to believe. The prison is run by its own rules basically made by the prisoners themselves. To enter the prison as a evicted fellow you have to pay an entrance fee. Once inside you have to buy or rent your cell. Depending on how much money you have you gonna share a basic cell with other prisoners or you gonna live in your own apartment with proper furniture, TV, ensuite bathroom and kitchen. There are a lot more absurd details about life in prison like that whole families live there with their evicted husbands and fathers. Or that you make money inside the prison with running a restaurant or small shop inside the prison. Also the purest cocain in Bolivia is being produced inside the prison and then smuggled out by the kids going to school or thrown over the prison wall in what looks like used nappies. The police is obviously in on most of what's happening in there but they are also in on the money so they keep their mouths shout.
    During the time Thomas Mc Fadden was still in San Pedro he started getting foreign travelers in to show them around and have them spend a night with him partying in prison. This "prison tours" were even mentioned in an earlier version of the Lonely Planet.
    So with all this in my mind I arrived to Plaza San Pedro, a lively plaza with the typical little street stalls selling food and souvenirs, and looked at a big building without any windows and a watchtower at every corner. This was the only feature that gave the building away as a prison. But the factor that they were all empty suggested that something was different here.
    When reading the book it still felt like fiction. Standing outside the walls made it pretty real.
    I highly recommend the book called "Marching Powder" to everyone who comes to Bolivia or wants to learn more about corruption in South America.
    From here it was only 10 minutes more to get to one of the stations of the cable car that connects the rich area of La Paz "El Sur" (which lays pretty low) with the poorer area "El Alto" (which is the highest point of La Paz). The cable cars were the perfect way to get an idea of the size and the differences within the city of La Paz. You could see the city stretch into the surrounding mountains and see the architecture change below you in the different areas.
    When I came back to the hostel afterwards I ran into Pepijn who I had met on the party in Sucre. He had just arrived and was staying in my room. We went out to get dinner together. Originally we wanted to go to a nice vegetarian place that Pepijn had heard about but when we finally got there it was closed. So we went to a basic pizzeria with cheap but good pizza and wine.
    On our way back to the hostel we explored a bit more of the surrounding streets. It was even busier now that the sun was down with lots of people on the streets having dinner at street stalls or just hanging out together in the many squares.
    We found an arcade that was also crowded with locals playing computer games and something like guitar hero where you had to step on specifically colored fields on the ground according to what was shown on the screen. One girl was ridiculously fast.
    We played a round of air hockey which I lost by far.
    Back at our hostel we had our nightly free beer (the hostel was called "Adventure Brew" and had its own Craft Beer).
    Jeanine and Dianne arrived the next morning and we all went to the walking tour of La Paz together. The tour was pretty good. We went to the witch market where you can buy all kind of potions and lama fetuses. These fetuses were pretty creepy. But apparently people believe that burning one of these with other ingredients in the place you want to build a new house keeps it save. Our guide told us a story about people putting living humans in the fundaments of big buildings where lama fetuses are not enough.
    The story says that rich people would go to find a homeless person and invite them for a drink. When the homeless is to drunk to save himself they throw him in the excavation and poor fresh concrete over him. According to our guide a book exists about this story from someone who survived called "I was drunk but I remember!" - unfortunately just in Spanish.
    After the tour I tried to convince the 3 others to join me for a crazy activity I had discovered on TripAdvisor: Urban Rush. It's like rappelling down a building but face first. First everybody was skeptical but in the end Dianne and Pepijn decided to join me. We went up to the 17th floor of a fancy hotel (walking through their restaurant to get there) and got a short introduction on how to get down. The scariest part was to lean face forward out of the window and bring yourself in a 90 degree angle facing the ground 50m away. Once here you could start jumping off the wall while constantly releasing the rope that holds you. About halfway down you let go of the rope and a guy standing on the ground takes over. Now you jump into a 20m free fall and the guy on the ground breaks for you just a few meters above ground. A pretty crazy experience!
    The next day I mainly organized stuff regarding my tour to the Pampas. I had met Natascha from Germany in my hostel and she decided to join me for the same tour. It was nice to already know someone on my tour.
    After getting everything ready for the tour Natascha and me went to Dinner with Pepijn who was leaving for Holland the next morning. Of course I miss my friends and family sometimes but in this moment I was really happy it wasn't me who had to say goodbye to traveling.
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  • Day246

    Colonial architecture and a cooking class.

    I've got a lot to write and this stop just happened to be in between several highlights so I'll keep it brief.

    The bus to Sucre was horrible but cheap. We've left behind the luxury of Argentinian and Chilean buses along with their crippling prices.

    We did a short walking tour which involved tasting all the local delicacies including Tumba (passionfruit), chocolate, sausages and some other disgusting meat. Wandering the town held it's interest for a while but we ultimately gave in to rooftop beers in the sun.

    That night we had a private cooking class. Of all the places we could have done a cooking class we chose Bolivia - the country with the worst food. On our menu was tumba juice and papas rellenas (stuffed and fried potatoes) as well as salsa and sauce. We chased it all with lemon pie which we didn't make but thoroughly enjoyed. We did also learn that Bolivia has over 1550 different types of potato - watch out Ireland!

    We stuffed up big time and missed the winter solstice party that the locals were having near Sucre. By the time we found out about it, it was too late; the city was empty and everything was closed. Too bad. Our great hostel Casa Isabella made up for it and that was where we spent a lot of time.

    We got the freezing overnight bus to La Paz (12 hours or so) and arrived in the morning just in time for breakfast.
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You might also know this place by the following names:

Plurinational State of Bolivia, Bolivien, Bolivia, Bolivië, ቦሊቪያ, Bolibia, بوليفيا, Wuliwya, Boliviya, Балівія, Боливия, Bolivi, বোলিভিয়া, བོ་ལི་ཝིཡ།, Bolivija, Bolívia, Bolívie, Bolifia, Bolivia nutome, Βολιβία, Bolivio, Boliivia, بولیویا, Boliwii, Bolivie, An Bholaiv, Boilibhia, બોલિવિયા, Bolibiya, בוליביה, बोलीविया, Բոլիվիա, Bólivía, ボリビア共和国, ბოლივია, បូលីវី, ಬಲ್ಗೇರಿಯಾ, 볼리비아, बोलिविया, بۆلیڤیا, ໂບລິເວຍ, Mbolivi, Bolīvija, Боливија, ബൊളീവിയ, बोलिव्हिया, Bolivja, ဘိုလီးဘီးယား, Boribiya, Bolivtlān, Bholiviya, बोलिभिया, ବୋଲଭିଆ, Boliwia, Puliwya, Bolivïi, බොලීවියාව, Boliifiya, பொலிவியா, బొలీవియా, โบลิเวีย, Polīvia, Bolivya, بولىۋىيە, Болівія, Bô-li-vi-a (Bolivia), Bolivän, Orílẹ́ède Bọ̀lífíyà, 玻利維亞, i-Bolivia

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