The film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” has a lot to answer for.
This has been a standing family joke for years. Bolivia was the kind of place we joked about visiting but never thought we would ever go to.
We were in San Pedro de Atacama in November 2008 and some of the tour companies were advertising a day tour to the Bolivian salt flats. That got us thinking. We loved the Atacama desert and the Altiplano and this was just the excuse we needed to get back there. We got the guide books and started planning.
Bolivia is popular with backpackers as it is very cheap. Our days of ‘roughing it’ are long gone as we like clean sheets, comfortable bed and if possible en suite accommodation. A tourist infrastructure is beginning to appear.
We ruled out the Amazon Basin and places like Santa Cruz as they are low lying and humid. There are ‘bitey things’ which can spread nasty diseases like malaria or yellow fever.
San Pedro de Atacama was a good place to start as we could spend several days there as we began to acclimatise to the altitude before crossing into Bolivia. Apart from Sucre most of the places we wanted to visit were around 4000m. Altitude needs to be taken seriously as it can affect anyone regardless of age, sex or general fitness.
We decided we would concentrate on the high Plateau in Bolivia; crossing the salt flats to Uyuni and visiting the colonial towns of Potosi and Sucre before heading to La Paz and Lake Titicaca. We would fly home from Lima which had a better service than La Paz.
With a tentative itinerary drawn up we went to visit Audley Travel in Witney who we use for all our long trips. Bolivia the way we wanted to do it would not be cheap as we would have our own driver and guide throughout and the hotels we would be stopping in would be expensive.
We knew local companies chosen by Audley would be reliable. We had heard horror stories of some trips across the salt flats with drunken drivers and poorly maintained vehicles which ended in disaster.
Bolivia is still very traditional and most of the population live in the countryside and farm. The population is about 80% native Indian with only 20% of Spanish origin. Quechua and Aymara are the locally spoken languages with Spanish.
Men wear western style trousers or jeans but the women still wear the traditional costume with a pleated skirt. This is made up of a huge amount of material which is gathered round the waist and makes then look square. They wear a big apron made from flowery cotton/polyester material. All the women wear a shawl which is used to carry everything on their backs from the baby to trays of eggs. Most wear a bowler hat. This appeared in the 1930s – no-one knows where from – and is very much a status symbol as it is expensive to buy. Married women wear it tilted to the right, unmarried to the left.
Life is very hard in the countryside. Fields are small and apart from oxen used for ploughing, all work is done by hand. The main crops are potatoes (about 80 different varieties) with broad beans, sweet corn, oats and barley. At high altitudes, quinoa is grown. This is a grain a bit like rice. Quinoa seeds are planted in furrows as it needs dry conditions to grow. The heads are red when young and turn yellow as ripen. The whole plant is pulled out and left to dry in rows and then the seed is winnowed like wheat. The dry stem and leaves are dug back into soil as fertiliser.
In the villages, the Bolivians have few belongings. The more isolated villages still don’t have electricity and roads are only just reaching them. Traditionally houses were small, usually a couple of rooms with a barn for animals or the hand loom. Cooking was done in the courtyard over a wood fire and there was an adobe oven for making bread.
Barter is still important and they are great sales people, especially the women. Anyone can set up a stall on the pavement selling. At first this is a hand cart but is later replaced by a permanent stall. If all goes well, they progress to a small and then bigger shop. Once there is money they build a house above the shop. This gradually grows from one story to about 6 for the really wealthy. Most of the population don’t pay income tax – only people in government employment or on a regular set income.
We loved Bolivia. The 3 days across the high plateau for the highlight of the trip. This is desert country surrounded by the peaks of volcanoes. None are active although some have fumaroles which ‘steam’ gently. The colours are amazing from white (borax), yellow (sulphur) red (iron) to blue green (copper) with shades of orange and brown between. The lakes were surrounded by a white deposit of borax and Laguna Colorado really was a vivid orange red colour.
The third day took us across the salt flats. These are completely flat and stretch to the horizon as far as the eye can see, a mass of gleaming white. The rainy season had finished and by mid April the flats were beginning to dry out and crack into the typical hexagonal shapes. Remains of old volcanoes stand up as islands above the salt. The mirage effect makes distant islands appear to float.
It was a good drive through the mountains from Uyuni to Potosi. At 4,090m Potosi is the highest city in the world. Cerro Rico at 4824m dominates the town and was the richest source of silver in the world. At its height, Potosi was one of the wealthiest cities in the world with splendid colonial houses and richly decorated churches. Silver mined here was exported to Spain and used to fund her wars against England.
The mines are still worked and it is possible to go on a tour into the depths of Cerro Rico to see the workings. We chickened out as we didn’t fancy crawling through narrow passages in the depths of the earth at 4500m with temperatures in the 80s, in what can best be described as very basic conditions.
From Potosi we drove to Sucre which was the administrative centre for the Potosi mines. The families of the wealthy Spanish mine owners lived here rather than at Potosi. The wealth from the Potosi mines funded lavish churches, monasteries, palaces, administrative buildings. It was the capital of Bolivia until the government moved to La Paz in 1898 after the decline of the Potosi silver industry. Sucre is still the constitutional capital of Bolivia while La Paz is the administrative capital.
The centre of Sucre is a World Heritage Site because of its splendid churches and colonial architecture. Neon signs are banned in the city centre and buildings have to be whitewashed every year.
We had expressed an interest in visiting a weaving village while in Sucre. All the tourists visit the Sunday Market in Tarabuco which features in all the guide books, which seemed a good reason to avoid it. Instead it was arranged for us to visit Potolo. The road only reached here two years ago and it is still a very unspoilt traditional area with few visitors.
We flew to La Paz from Sucre. Hand luggage was put in a tray (not x-rayed or checked) and we walking through the security screen. This was very sensitive and most people set off the alarm and had to be checked with a body scanner. We think this may be a new toy as there were delighted smiles when it picked up zips or metal buckles and you were waved through.
La Paz sprawls along a narrow canyon with the newer and much bigger town of El Alto and the airport on the plateau above.
We had a full day tour of La Paz with our guide on a Thursday and knowing we were interested in getting away from the usual tourist attractions and were interested in markets we changed the itinerary to spent the morning around El Alto market.
The Thursday Market is the largest market in Bolivia. As we drove up the side of the Canyon from La Paz we could see the market stretching the length of El Alto as far as the eye could see. It is purely a local market, selling everything from dried fish to furniture. We were the only Gringos, but attracted little attention. Mini buses loaded with passengers and goods were parked everywhere. Stalls filled the streets.
There is a very popular second hand car market. Cars are parked along the side of the street and prices are haggled over until agreement is reached by a shake of hand. Old rubber tyres are not wasted and are made into shoes, soles for mending shoes and cauldrons of all sizes. These had considerable style and would have graced any patio.
We had a full day trip to Tiwanaku, a city established about 1000BC on the shore of Lake Titicaca. By 700 AD it dominated and controlled much of modern Bolivia, southern Peru, northeast Argentina and northern Chile. At its peak it was a thriving city of about 115,000 people with another 250,000 in the surrounding area. The Tiwanaku civilisation fell into rapid, irreversible decline about 1000 AD. Fields were abandoned, the population dispersed and the empire disappeared within 50 years. It is thought the population moved towards Cusco, leading to the development of the Inca civilization.
From La Paz we went to Lake Titicaca and spent a couple of nights on Sun Island. Every available space is terraced and there is a network of tracks and paths through the fields. Stone banks were covered in wild flowers – mainly white as well as some yellow daisies and lots marjoram which released its smell when walked on. There are no wheeled vehicles on the island and no aircraft flying over. It was so quiet. The only sounds were birds, insects and donkeys braying. We spent the two days pottering. We watched the llamas being taken out to graze in the morning, people at work harvesting potatoes (all by hand) and loading them onto the backs of donkeys to take home.
It was a wonderful end to a superb holiday.
A few words about Eleanor
My husband and I hit the age of 60 and decided it was time to start visiting some of the places we had always dreamed about but never thought we would ever get to. We sat down with a bottle of wine and the list got longer and more exotic. Many places inaccessible in our youth like Mongolia or Greenland are now relatively easy to get to. We are gradually working our way down the list. We don’t do shopping or high adrenaline activities, but want to see what a country, its landscape, people and history are really like. I enjoy researching the places we want to go to. We try and avoid the tourist ‘honey pots’ and visit those parts of the country off the usual tourist beat. The arrival of our Grandson means we now have baby sitting commitments to consider.