As part of our G Adventures tour, we were lucky enough to spend time in 3 fab cities in Bolivia – Potosi, Sucre and La Paz. All very different but all worth a visit for various reasons. Just a short post today, as v tired and prepping for another night bus – this time across Peru from Cusco to Nasca, but here are our final Bolivia highlights:
Update – this post is actually going live several weeks late from the Galapagos of all places as we have had such amazingly bad internet!
Potosi is a city in the Southern area of Bolivia and famous for 2 main reasons – being one of the highest cities in the world, and hosting the world’s largest silver deposits in Cerro Rico (‘Rich Mountain’). Whilst it’s not necessarily one of the most attractive city we’ve visited, it’s certainly a pretty interesting place to spend a couple of days – particularly as you try desperately to breathe effectively whilst wandering round at an altitude in excess of 4000 metres. As Rob so hilariously described in his last post, everything is a challenge when you’re that high up – eating, sleeping, breathing especially. Our group enjoyed a pizza takeout at our hotel on night one, and the sounds of 13 hungry people trying desperately to eat pizza and breathe at the same time was pretty amusing.
We kicked off our trip with a visit to the silver mines, which are still operating, and are notorious for the terrible conditions in which the miners work. It’s traditional to buy gifts before meeting the miners – including dynamite (!), coca leaves and 95% proof alcohol… clearly just what you need to get you through a day in the mines. So we duly purchased some bits from the miners’ market, donned our protective clothing and made our way to the entrance of the mine, ready to find out more.
Interestingly, since our visit we’ve met a lot of people who had the opportunity to tour the mines but passed due to the risks of inhaling toxic substances (including asbestos – more of which later), the ongoing explosions that lead to tunnel collapses, and just the fact that it’s probably not the most sustainable tourist activity to spend your time and money on. With hindsight, would we have visited the mines? I’m not sure, possibly not, but it was certainly an eye opening experience to see how people are living and working in this area even today.
Our guide, a former miner himself, took us on an interesting journey through one of the shallower mines where we saw the ‘Tio’ – the Lord of the Underworld who is considered to be present in the mines, who the miners revere and honour with gifts etc, tried some of the aforementioned 95% alcohol (basically like how I imagine drinking meths to be), and spent time sitting in the Catholic shrine area listening to mining stories and adventures. On our way back out, Rob and a couple of others in our group noticed a shiny / glass like substance glittering in the walls of the mine – reaching out to touch it, they asked our guide what it was…. only to be informed that it was asbestos. Realising again just how dodgy the mines were, we made a speedy exit – never been happier to get back into daylight!
Whilst we were lucky enough to be wearing protective clothing and masks, most of the miners don’t use this type of equipment, and the conditions are so dreadful that an average life expectancy of 40 years is typical. It’s estimated by some that up to 8 million have died since the mine has been in operation, and yet over 15000 people are still employed in the industry in Potosi. So, like I said, an interesting experience, but not necessarily one I’d repeat.
Happily, we then descended to a slightly lower point in the city for a more cheerful tour – that of the highest brewery in the world where they make the local favourite Potosina beer! I think this only cost around £1 for a full guided tour and plenty of free beer, and is definitely worth checking out.
Moving on from Potosi, we visited Sucre – a city located at a much more acceptable altitude of 2,800m, located in a peaceful sunny valley. This was one of my favourite places in Bolivia – famous for its stunning white colonial architecture where all buildings are repainted annually before May 25th, and for being the location of many discoveries of dinosaur footprints in recent years. It was also the city where I was lucky enough to celebrate my birthday – and where our G group put on a fantastic evening of cake, traditional music and far too much alcohol for us all to enjoy. If you ever happen to celebrate a birthday in Bolivia, and are told that it’s traditional to close your eyes and make a wish make sure you ignore this – it’s literally just an excuse for your ‘friends’ to ensure you get a full face full of cake… took a while to clean off after this mistake.
It’s one of those cities where you can imagine planning to stay for a couple of nights but ending up spending a couple of weeks there – a great laid back atmosphere, pretty architecture and impressive historic buildings throughout the city and lots to do. We were only there for a couple of days but could definitely have stayed longer.
In terms of what to visit, we had a quick introductory tour where we visited the cemetery which is famous for its tombs and mausoleums – similar to La Recoleta in Buenos Aires on a much smaller scale, wandered through a park with a very wobbly miniature version of the Eiffel Tower that you can climb, and checked out some of the more famous buildings in the main square. These include Liberty House – famously where the Bolivian republic was founded by Simón Bolívar, and where the Declaration of Independence remains – the first Palace of Government of Bolivia and the Metropolitan Cathedral. For about 10-15 Bolivianos you can get a full guided tour in English which was well worth doing. Plenty of culture if you want it!
We also had a great day out trekking to see the dinosaur footprints just outside Sucre – where we walked for several hours down an old inca trail, explored the famous Macarangua crater, and even had the chance to sit in enormous dinosaur footprints! If you don’t fancy trekking, there’s also the Parque Cretácico which is a small park where you can see a wall of footprints and some fun lifesize dinosaurs. It’s still a working quarry site and the footprints are continuing to deteriorate so visit quickly if you want to see them.
La Paz is probably famous for being one of the most dangerous cities in South America, and doesn’t typically receive the best write ups.. but it definitely has its plus points. We arrived at about 6.30am after our night bus from Sucre, and made our way to the cable cars where for about 30 pence a ride, you can spend a peaceful couple of hours enjoying some views of the city. Again, the altitude is pretty crazy at around 3,650m so it’s a good way to see more of the city without having to struggle with too much walking.
We did attempt a quick city tour where we saw the only remaining colonial street in the city and had a brief wander round the local witches market – famous for selling various odd ingredients including llama refuses, but we were pretty exhausted and didn’t see too much more. Sadly, after we finished our quick tour, it was the end of any sort of cultural experience and on to 2 days drinking at the English pub located a couple of doors down from our hotel. Shameful I know to not explore a city in any depth at all, but hey there were free shots at happy hour and once we discovered that it was all a bit late to salvage any sort of cultural experience.
The other thing we did in La Paz that’s worth a mention is the infamous Death Road – renowned as one of the most dangerous roads in the world where tourists now pay upwards of $100 for the pleasure of mountain biking from top to bottom at high speed. Rob loved it, so we’ll focus on his experience – which was apparently exciting, exhilarating and enormous amounts of fun… I on the other hand, spent 4 hours gripping onto the brakes so hard that my hands cramped up, and trailed to the end at least 30 minutes after the rest of our daredevil group.
If you’re into extreme sports and a bit of an adrenalin hunter, I hear it’s a great experience – starting in snow capped mountains at an altitude of 4,650m and biking down to the end of the trail in the jungle where you find a hostel and swimming pool to relax and recover for a couple of hours, it’s certainly an experience, but again, probably not one I’d repeat! It’s also worth mentioning that safety standards vary dramatically, so pick your company carefully if you’re going to give it a go – we used Altitude Adventures who we felt were very good with 4 guides for our group, and even they’ve experienced injuries and even a fatality on the road. Be careful kids!
And so ended our adventure in Bolivia, a country where I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas and had heard many mixed reports, but where we experienced many of our trip highlights so far and met some really awesome travel companions – onwards to Lima where we’ll be meeting them again!