Standing ankle-deep in salted water, with rays of sun washing over my upturned face, I was reminded inescapably of the idea of the end of the earth: a mythic, utopian place Continue reading
Unlike Rio de la Plata, named in the false hope of silver which would later be found in Potosi, Sucre has no relation with sugar in spite of the link forged by my mediocre French. The city was named for a General who played a part in the independence of the country, Continue reading
Seventeen years ago in April, residents of Bolivia’s Cochabamba region took to the streets under a simple slogan: ‘¡El agua es nuestra, carajo!’, or ‘The water is ours, Goddamn it!’ Continue reading
When you tell someone that you’ve been travelling, they have no shortage of questions. What was your favourite place? What’s your craziest story? Who was the best person you met? Where was the best party? Where was the most beautiful?
The questions vary. From the broad: ‘Why South America?’ to the obscure: ‘How did you choose what clothes to take?’ And the clichéd: ‘Did you get kidnapped/mugged/held at knifepoint?’ I’ve never struggled to answer any of them. Except one.
‘So, what did you… you know, do?’
Bolivia is one of the most underrated countries in South America. Though growing in popularity, it is often overshadowed by its larger and more frequented neighbours: Peru, Argentina and Brazil. I would argue that Bolivia has just as much to offer to travellers. It packs a huge amount into its small stretch of land. One third of the country is made up of the Andean mountain range, where the conditions can be almost polar. In contrast, it also contains the edge of the tropical Amazon rainforest. Not only is Bolivia one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world — it is also interesting with regard to culture. Indigenous people make up 60% of the population. Bolivia is multi-ethnic to the extent that their government recognises 37 official languages. It is also significantly impoverished and considered a developing nation. Poverty levels are estimated to be at around 53%. This might be a little difficult to deal with for the inexperienced traveller, but Bolivia’s rawness has its positive points. You’ll find yourself exploring cities in their natural state, not places which have vamped-up their ‘nativeness’ to appeal to tourists; something which I found in Peru, Cuzco in particular. It was refreshing to visit somewhere that has not yet fully capitalised on the influx of backpackers, though the inevitabilities of this are of course starting to show. In an attempt to convince you that Bolivia is just as worthy of your patronage as its bigger neighbours, here are my top 5 Bolivian experiences.
1. Cochabamba Market
This is the largest open-air market in South America and uniquely Bolivian. Marcado Cancha sprawls and meanders through Cochabamba. Though there is an official site for the market stalls in the town centre, the pedestrianised streets are also thick with vendors selling their wares from the floor. Expect to see unapologetic animal parts, more types of potato than you ever thought possible and bananas as far as the eye can see. Everything from chicken feet to flat-screen TVs can be bought here. There’s also a witch section of the market. Though Bolivia is strictly Catholic, its Christianity exists alongside traditional Andean beliefs. Bolivians buy dried Llama foetuses and use them in rituals that they believe will promote fertility, wealth, marriage etc. Why not buy some meat from Cancha and grill it on your hostel BBQ? Just be sure to cook it thoroughly; it will have been sitting out all day will flies buzzing all over it.
2. Cerro Rico Mine in Potosi
Potosi is a really interesting place to visit. Known as the city of silver and death, it lies in the shadow of the Cerro Rico Mountain. A tour of the mining complex in this mountain gives a great insight into Potosi’s (and Bolivia’s) history. Rife with silver ore, the wealth beneath the mountain meant that Potosi was one of the biggest cities of the new world during the Spanish Inquisition. However, this wealth had a dark side; some historians estimate that over eight million men have died in the Cerro Rico mine. Travellers can see the working conditions of the mines for themselves on a locally-led mine tour. The tours are hairy to say the least; not for the claustrophobic or the elderly. Expect to wade through deep water and scramble up rickety ladders. You’ll have overalls and a helmet but don’t expect safety ropes or a particularly watchful guide. It is now illegal to provide dynamite demonstrations in the mine, but the guides don’t pay much attention to this. They’ll take you to the miner’s market to buy dynamite to detonate and cigarettes to give to the miners. Contrary to the tour guide’s advice, I would recommend visiting on a Sunday, when little work takes place. This spares the miners the indignity of having their photos snapped by troves of wealthy tourists while they work in appalling conditions.
3. The Pique Macho
Delicious or awful, depending on your perspective, the Pique Macho is a culinary must for any visitor to Bolivia. Unlike other parts of the world, Bolivians seem to have the attitude of quantity over quality when it comes to food. This is never more apparent than when eating the Pique Macho. It consists of a huge pile of chips, covered in fried beef and sausage, peppers and onions, topped off with an egg. This is artfully dressed in ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. The dish is named as such because anyone who manages to finish it is thought to be ‘macho,’ as the portions are so large.
4. The Isla Del Sol on Lake Titicaca
I mentioned how Bolivia is less driven by tourism than its surrounding nations. This is not the case with regard to Copacabana which sits on the edge of Lake Titicaca. The place is rife with hostels and traveller restaurants and bars. Everyone congregates here to visit and trek along the Isla Del Sol. The largest island on the lake, visitors can hike from one end of the island to another. This takes about a day, and has stunning views. You can choose to stay the night on the island in one of the various guest houses, whilst enjoying fresh trout (or ‘troucha’) caught on the lake. It’s freezing cold, as the lake sits at such high altitudes, so don’t forget the alpaca jumper that you’ve probably already bought.
5. Uyuni Salt Flats
Another major draw for tourists, but one which isn’t to be missed. The salt flats at Uyuni are the largest in the world. It looks like a sea of ice that stretches as far as the eye can see — ‘where the world meets the sky.’ Tour groups of 6 take jeeps on a 3 day trip across the mountains and desert, culminating in seeing the sunrise over the salt flats on the last day. Your driver will take you up to 5,000 metres, so expect the likelihood of ‘altitida’, or altitude sickness. You’ll be provided with the traditional remedy of coca leaves to combat the sickness, but it’s questionable whether chewing the leaves makes a huge difference. It takes about a day to acclimatise. You’ll stay in a hostel at 3000 metres above sea level, and one made of salt. There are loads of different things to see on the trip: lagoons, a cactus island and much more. The trip is really varied, great fun and being in a jeep with just the 6 of you for 4 days is also a great way to make friends.
So there you have it, my Bolivia top 5. There’s a lot crammed into such a small country. I hope that I’ve proven that Bolivia isn’t a country to be skipped on your South American travels.