It´s been a while dudes, we´ve covered a lot of ground and we can´t remember dates so won´t be including them... so here goes...
After a night in Uyuni we caught the early morning bus to Potosi- the highest city of its size in the world at 4,100m altitude. The bus ride, our first in Bolivia, was interesting to say the least! The roads were unpaved and bumpy as a bumpy thing, the bus stank, it was so full that people stood up for the entirs six hour ride, Liam had a fat Bolivian woman´s backside in his face and there was a black watery-type substance dripping on to us the entire way. But for approx 3 pounds what do you expect?!
Our main reason for being in Potosi was to do the famous tour of its silver mines and as soon as we arrived we decided we´d do them and leave ASAP, it looked that bad. We reconsidered slightly when we got in to the town and decided to stay one night so that we could actually have a look around.
Potosi as a place is ok, the streets are filled with cars and women in indigenous dress. There´s nothing particularly beautiful about the city, but nothing awful either. We soon changed our minds once we had been there for three nights (four days) due to ridiculous road blocks.
Basically, the Bolivian people are protesting for six reasons, the main one being the handing over of a part of their state to Oruro. The others include wanting better roads (as we go to press they are blowing up their roads with dynamite- go figure), an airport, better preservation of the Cerro Rico (the silver mountain) and all the rest of it, Bolivians just like to protest. Read more about it here (in English) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-10962634 So, because they had decided to block all of the roads surrounding Potosi, we couldn´t leave and to add insult to injury, nothing was open (if it was open the old Bolivian women would bang on the doors and windows with sticks, demanding that they close!) The roadblocks were due to finish on the Friday night at 8pm, so at exactly that time five of us jumped in to two separate taxis and demanded to get out of the city and be taken to Sucre.But before I talk about that, I´ll hand you over to Liam to talk about the real reason we were in Potosi- the mines. I decided not to do the tour as I´d had some issues doing anything vaguely energetic at that altitude, so off he went with a few other lads...
After meeting at Koala Hostel, we walked down to the tour office in the town centre. A quick mini bus ride up to their warehouse and we were all kitted up in some lovel mining gear (hard hats with headlights, rubber boots, and over trousers and jackets. We left our things there and drove onwards and upwards to the miner´s market. Here we visited a shop where we bought gifts for the miners, to show our thanks for letting us into their workplace, although it felt more like charity. I bought them a bit bottle of juice, a bag of DIY mining essentials (dynamite, fuses and glycerone) and some water. We then walked a bit further up the road to an old lady selling coca leaves from a huge sack. I bought a bag of leaves and we got back into the bus. The others had also bought the miners cigarettes (I thought their lungs must be bad enough) and alcohol - by alcohol I mean 96% proof ethanol. Apparantly every last Friday of the month the miners gather on top of Cerro Rico or in the mines themselves and drink themselves into oblivion and also sacrifice a llama to the mountain God `Tio´ (more about him later).
The first part of the tour was a visit to one of the factories where the minerals were extracted and processed in various chemicals. The fumes that filled the small factory building were literally intoxicating and at one point the guide told us we were inhaling cynanide (thanks for that). After a quick chat to the workers and handing over some coca leaves to them we were back in the mini bus and on our way to the entrance to the mines. Five minutes later we were there and to say the group was feeling nervous was an understatement. We had all heard the stories about people dying in the mines due to the structures collapsing, runnaway mine carts and having panic attacks due to the claustrophobic and dusty conditions, but none of us actually knew what to expect inside Cerro Rico or as the locals refer to it `the entrance to hell´.
Headlights on we marched forward into the gloomy cramped mines and the daylight started to fade. After five minutes of walking we came to a stop, to check how everyone was coping. The answer, not too well. Everyone was sweating, breathing very heavily and had fear in their eyes. We took on some water and calmed our nerves, that is until we heard the trundelling of a mine cart, that sounded like it was hurtling towards us at some speed. More panic prevailed as the group clambered to get off the rails and perched on the rocks at the side. We waited about ten seconds expecting the cart to come speeding past us only to see a couple of miners slowly pushing the cart up the tracks. The whole group burst out laughing and there was a lot of pointing about who was scared the most. More water and we crawled (literally) deeper into the lower levels on the mines. The heat got more intense and the size of the gaps we scrambled through got smaller and smaller. At one point I genuinely doubted whether I would fit through or not. After descending quite a few metres and watching some of the wooden beams used to make the passages literally being thrown down through some sort of hatch we followed the cart tracks to where some more of the miners were working. They were shovelling a tonne of mined dirt onto a higher ledge, where it was to be passed up to the surface the next day via pulleys and buckets. Everyone had a go at doing this, and believe me it is hard work. Working at such altitude in such dusty and hot conditions is not fun, but these people choose to do it for a living. They didn´t even have on any sort of scarves to filter the gases and dust filling the air from flooding their lungs. It is not suprising that almost all the miners die within ten years of starting work there. We were told that the conditions here were a lot better than other parts of the mines, where the actual drilling takes places (again with no breathing equipment to help them). However we were also told that the men who work in these places make the most money, and actually have a decent wage. Pity they don´t have too long to spend their money!
After offering our gifts we ventured further into the lower levels of the mine, and after some more impossible looking passages we came to a statue of the miner´s God, Tio. Tio is basically the devil. Satan. Lucifer.
It is this `God´ the miners look to for protection and good minerals in the mines as they feel they are working in his land as he is closer than God. They offer gifts of coca leaves, cigarettes, alcohol and llama foetuses to Tio in the hope that he will watch over them. If there is a death in the mines, it is attributed to not visiting Tio and paying him respect. After visiting Tio we were on the home straight and heading into the light. Not before the temperature dropped massivelyand we had to duck between ice coated walls helping the miners push a cart full of dirt along the way. Seeing the light at the exit to the mines was a massive relief. It felt like we spent about 1-2 hours in the mines and I don´t think anyone wanted to spend a minute longer in there. Our first breaths of fresh air were heavenly. I can´t believe people work in those conditions, and for little reward most of the time. The physical appearance of the miners is hard to describe but their bodies have clearly been shaped by grafting in shocking conditions, their weathered faces making them look older than they are. It was an experience, but not a particuarly nice one. Something I will never forget though.
Before we returned to the warehouse and Potosi, we were given a demonstration of an explosion. The guide lit a stick of dynamite and handed it to us to take pictures with, assuring us the fuse lasted two minutes.... After about a minute of picture taking, he took it back of us and ran off into the middle of a field. He planted the stick of dynamite and then casually strolled back to us and said `you look´. We waited, and waited, then after about 30 seconds we heard and felt the loudest booming noise i´ve ever experienced. Cue more laughter. And that was that.
The two-hour taxi ride to Sucre cost us about six pounds each (three of us in the car) which, quite frankly, we thought was a major bargain. The ride was pretty uneventful apart from the hitting a dog part.
Sucre is a COMPLETE contrast to Potosi. It is beautiful beautiful city. It is tradition that every building is painted white, which leads to a lovely clean effect. The squares are lined with trees, the roads nowhere near as busy as Potosi and the markets as indigenous as you´d expect. We stayed in Residencial Charcas (decent hostel, very cheap for a private room), just opposite the main market and both mornings we were there we made a stop for brekkie- a chorizo, lettuce, tomato and mayo sandwich. The bread was dunked in to the sauce from the chorizo and it was quite simply amazing.
Apart from that we lazed in the sunshine, saw the Sucre version of the Arc du Triomphe and Eiffle Tower and went to Joy Ride. Joy Ride is a proper gringo hangout where we spent both of our nights indulging in Chuflay (singani- a Bolivian spirit- and 7up) and beer.
One of the main `attractions´ in Sucre are the dinosaur prints, so encouraged by everybody who has ever been to Sucre, we jumped on the DinoBus (an open-sided truck type thing with a dinosaur head at the front) and enjoyed the ride up to...a cement factory. Behind the factory was the entrance to the park, behind which there was a giant wall covered in dinosaur footprints. I went in a bit sceptical but after 20 minutes of being told how they were on flat land but it got pushed up by tectonic plates and then the cement company found them yadidadidada I started to believe. The footprints were so far away it was hard for them to make an impact but it was pretty cool. Apart from that, there were just giant dinosaur replicas making roaring noises at us, which we probably enjoyed just as much as- if not more than- the footprints. We spent less than an hour there and went back to the DinoBus...singing relevant songs all the way back to town.
When we went to book our bus tickets to La Paz we were informed that the roadblocks had started up again earlier than planned and we couldn´t actually leave. Again the Bolivians love of a good protest was standing in our way, but not to be deterred we got online and had a good Google for alternative routes. Liam came up with Sucre-Cochabamba-La Paz and according to tourist info this was doable so the next night we got on the bus to Cochabamba.
At Sucre bus station you have to 1. pay a departure tax (downstairs) and 2. check your bag in at the bus operators office (upstairs). They then pass your bags down a stairwell to put them on the bus. We wish somebody had told us this, it would have made things a lot easier!
The bus ride to Cochabamba was long, dark, windy and mountainous. I (Jaz) was preeeeeetty convinced we were going to die. But after about 10 hours we finally made it. Bleary eyed at 5:30am we made it in to a taxi and set out to find a hostel. As most travellers without pre-booked accomodation do, we headed straight for the local HI. They ripped us off something rotten, but we got our heads down until 11am, got up, had lunch and at 3pm once again returned to the bus station.
Cochabamba has one main attraction- the statue of Christ that is bigger than the one in Rio. We didn´t get to see it, but from what we saw of Cochabamba (the main square and streets), it´s probably not worth going at all. It´s an alright place but there´s nothing special and we saw why it isn´t a tourist hotspot.
We got the eight or nine hour bus to La Paz with a company called Bolivar. Don´t do it. The actual bus was as decent as you get in Bolivia (despite the awful smell) but the running of the bus was something else. To start with, we set off about half an hour late as they tried to fill the bus up. Then, approximately every half hour, the driver let beggars, vendors, singing children etc on the bus. This isn´t ideal when you´re trying to sleep and guard all your belongings. At one point we stopped for a toilet and food break and random people just kept getting on and off the bus. It was a bit threatening and I don´t think we´d ever go with that company again.
We arrived in La Paz at about midnight, hoping that our booking for the Wild Rover Hostel had been confirmed after us having to change dates three times due to road blocks. It hadn´t so we went to Hostal Republica just across the road. Once again we got ripped off, but the room was decent enough and it was only for a night as the next day we were welcomed in to Wild Rover with open arms.
When we got to Wild Rover we were gutted to see that six people we had met previously were just leaving (stoopid roadblocks), but the hostel being one of the most popular party hostels in La Paz meant that we soon bumped in to more people we knew and met many more.
The first day we were in La Paz we had to try and get my camera fixed, which was a nightmare and took longer than expected. That night we decided a few drinks and a night out would be a good call, so alongside our four room mates we went to the bar and indulged in the offer on Caiprinhas and 2 for 1 vodka or rum. It got to the point where Rachel (a girl we had met in Buenos Aires who was now working at Wild Rover) was pouring shots in to everybody´s mouths. It was at about this point that Jaz decided sitting on her bed would be a good idea. Needless to say, it wasn´t and she didn´t appear again for the rest of the night, but demanded that Liam go.
Liam and the remaining room mates plus new additions headed out to a club called Mongos, followed by another legendary La Paz club and made it back at 7:30am (well, two of the room mates got in at 4pm but that´s a different story all togeher!)
The next day was spent entirely nursing hangovers and sleeping. So we had been in La Paz for two days and not seen a thing. That night it was all about the takeaway pizza and films in the TV room. We got an hour and a half in to City of Men and the DVD started skipping...does anybody know how it ends?!!! Three Manc lads then joined us with Old School so the room full of Mancs and Choco the cat were sat in the biggest party hostel in La Paz watching films, but it was just what we needed.
It was our third day in La Paz when we decided it was time to see what the city had to offer. But first we needed to book flights to Rurrenabaque for the start of our jungle trip. The tickets were 525Bs (about 52 pounds) each, one way, but it was either that or an 18-hour bus along the new death road... we know what we preferred! We booked them for the next morning and went off in search of the Witches Market.
The market was surreal. We had read about the potions and llama foetuses but seeing them was all together diffferent. Apparently Bolivians bury llama foetuses underneath their homes to bring them luck; the foetuses literally look like smalled, dried-up llamas. We decided AGAINST buying one of these but instead got some souvenirs for some of you lucky people and two good luck charms for us- according to the woman selling them one was for safe travels and the other for general luck in life. There were dozens of these charms, all meaning something different, but the most famous and reknowned of them all was a cheeky little chappy called Ekeko. He has a fat, smiley face and is laden down with all sorts of gifts and everyday items. He brings luck if given as a gift apparently...
After the witches market we walked down past San Pedro prison- made famous in the book Marching Powder for the inmates giving unofficial tours to the public. In front of the prison were two guards, but they were stood so far forward that we walked behind them and peered in. What we saw was a courtyard full of prisoners lining the front gate apparently waiting for visitors. The guards were stood casually at the side, wielding their guns but not really taking much notice of what must be a regular occurence to them. We would have loved to have arranged a tour, but they became very heavily clamped down on after riots in the prison a few months ago.
La Paz is, obviously, a big city with a lot going on. Unfortunately we missed the Cholitas wrestling (old traditional Bolivian women knocking ten bells out of each other every Sunday) and the football (Wednesday and Sunday nights) but they are probably pretty amazing scenes.
The city itself is a mixture of modern and traditional- there are women everywhere in the traditional dress, skimask clad shoeshine boys (who look threatening but are harmless enough), street vendors, beggars and what seems like a million collectivo vans everywhere but there are also men in suits and the traditional aspects you´d put in a big city.
Just a quick paragraph here to big up our hostel, The Wild Rover. It has everything you need, does ace food (have the chicken and bacon salad if you ever go- even the boys were eating it out of choice) and has the cutest cat ever (apart from Tiggy, Sooty, Gem and Mini!) The staff are really nice, the water is hot and the beds are massive and comfy. The only down side is that if you get a room near the bar you have no chance of sleep and people are allowed to smoke everywhere except the rooms- which leads to very stinky clothes and hair!
Anyway, the next day we were off to the jungle. What an experiene that would be...
Jaz and Liam xxx