Week 1-2 Bolivia
Sorry for the delay this is a double post, I was sick most of the second week and we didn’t do much the second week anyway. On the road to recovery...
After a long delay over a snowed out border pass and $100 tax to enter the country, I was finally in Bolivia!
We transfered to a Jeep and began our tour of the national park.
We saw a few beautiful lakes with flamingos in the distance and frozen puddles. Should have brought some skates! After that it was off to a hot springs that was much better than the one at the Chilean geysers. Some geysers followed.
The next day we did a bit of climbing on some beautiful rock formations. At this elevation, a short climb left us breathless! The views from the top of the formations were worthwhile. The view reminded me just slightly of the American Southwest. A few more beautiful lakes, some of strange colors.
The hostel we stayed at was made nearly completely out of salt. Floors of large grain salt. The walls were made out of salt blocks. Fortunately, the food and the blankets where not entirely composed out of salt!
The next morning we were off to the salar (Salt fields). It is the largest salt field in the world! It is essentially an ancient dried seabed. The terrain is extremely flat and monotonous. The salar is also a strange place where proportions go out the window. Giants and tiny people. Tiny people make good tea!
We arrived later to the mining city of Potosi. One of the highest cities in the world at 4200 meters (13650 feet)! Stairs are hard work here! There wasn't much to see so we left to Sucre. Our journey to Sucre was interrupted when part of the road was closed for a car race. An instant market had formed, and people looked for good places to view the race. There were for some reason spectators standing on the road, with the cars narrowly missing them. While we did not see anyone hit, there were reports of race injuries on the radio.
Our view of the street race
Sucre was only slightly more lively than Potosi. We took advantage of cheap Spanish lessons ($5 an hour for a private lesson). After that it was off to a trek among villages.
The trek was quite beautiful, and we encountered many interesting villages. It is truly another world. Small agricultural villages made of small mud huts and not much else. The kids we encountered were a bit rude, instead of saying hello they all just demanded one thing:cake. We encountered a kiosk and asked the lady if she had any snacks or empanadas. She did not, but she offered to make us a homemade meal!
The mountains were particularly interesting, some purple, some red, and some that looked like layers of soft dough that had been pushed up and folded.
A few observations I have made about Bolivia so far:
Bolivia is a third world country. It's average population is quite poor, and things that are often taken for granted in first world countries such as clean tap water, are not present here.
This is by far the cheapest country I have visited so far. A plate with meat and rice starts around $1.50, with empanadas and hamburgers going for about $0.70. It is oftentimes cheaper to eat out than to buy groceries. A cab will get you across town for about $0.70 per per person (but the driver will try to get more out of a gringo if you don't barter!)
Bolivians don't understand the purpose of roundabouts. They put stoplights in them.
People will try to sell you anything, anywhere. This ranges from stands on the street corner to snake oil salesmen selling phony miracle cures with a microphone on long bus rides. Unfortunately, many Bolivians have a lower level of education and many people buy their products. Then the sleazy salesmen tips the bus driver to ensure he is allowed on next time. Bus terminals themselves are quite overwhelming. The minute they spot someone, vendors will pounce. It can be a bit confusing with so many options for busses, but the good news is that the busses have to be cheap to stay competitive. It is also possible to barter on ticket prices. Cochabamba to La Paz (8 hour trip) for less than $5!
Out of the countries I have visited so far, Bolivians have on average the most Native American blood and culture. Lots of old grandmas carrying colorful bags and in traditional fashion. Some of the elder generation in the villages do not speak Spanish. However, those who speak Spanish speak more clearly and understandable than Argentinian or Chilean Spanish.
Bolivia also has the best outlet socket type. It is a combination of the USA flat plug with the European round plug, allowing the use of both types.
After returning to Sucre we visited the outdoor market. Lots of exotic fruits. Shout out to the lady who was "too busy" to sell to us! We had fresh smoothies at the market. We thought $0.85 was a good deal for a smoothie only to realize that it was actually for two smoothies. When we gave back the cups we got a refill!
Sucre from above
Without checking the weather we hopped on a bus to Santa Cruz. It is on the edge of the rain forest and it was pouring rain the whole time. The second and last day in Santa Cruz was mostly spent at the mall, the largest in Bolivia. It was a very Americanized place. Many of the prices were in USD. The difference between the the people on the street and the people in the mall was astounding. They were clearly dressed in more western and expensive clothing. More importantly, there was a quality arcade upstairs.
Next stop was Cochabamba, a not so interesting city but my travel buddy Yael had a family friend and the forecast wasn't good in La Paz anyway. While it was nice to stay in a homey apartment with wonderful hosts free of charge, we ended up getting stuck for quite a while in Cochabamba. Unfortunately I was quite sick with the flu. Well at least they have a Jesus statue...
Bigger than the Rio Jesus
The Spanish words of the week are alto, deli and zebra.
Alto (high, height). Bolivia is an alpine country, with all major cities except Santa Cruz being over 2000 meters above sea level. The altitude can take getting used to, a few people of our group got sick in Potosi.
Do you even lift bro?
Deli is slang for delicious.
Zebra can either be zebra the animal or crosswalk. This is because the black and white stripes of the crosswalk resemble zebra stripes. I discovered this when crossing guards in Sucre were dressed in Zebra suits!
Tips of the week:
Drivers have right of way in Bolivia, always. It doesn't matter if you are already crossing, if a driver believes that he can pass without running you over, he will cut you off. When I was in in Rio, I was surprised to see taxi drivers run red lights in the middle of the night. Here busses run red lights in the evening and illegally pass trucks on windy mountain roads. Despite a general disregard for rules, the drivers are actually quite good. Despite many people cutting off others or other erratic techniques, I have not seen one crash here.
Some cars are quite small tho
While probably not recommended for dental health by 4 out of 5 dentists, get a bag of coca leaves. Yes these leaves contain cocaine, but only in a very low concentration (less than 1%). The effect is quite mild, comparable to caffeine. They are most commonly chewed or put into tea. It is not uncommon to see someone pass by with a mouth full of leaves. The leaves have been part of native culture in Bolivia and surrounding countries for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is known to help with altitude sickness, and is readily available at the market. Even if you don't want to try the leaves yourself, it is customary to gift to people in rural areas. While it is not quite currency, if there is a money exchange, they will likely agree to a lower price if accompanied by a healthy handful of leaves.
Water can be dangerous to drink. Fortunately a bag of 600ml only costs $0.07 and a 2.5L bottle goes for about a dollar.
Barter! Often times prices are inflated for gringos anyway. If you are in a place like the central market competition drives the prices down.
There are several cheap phone plans, but beware the plans as some of them are only good for 24 hours.
Well I'm off to La Paz, which has been described to me as the India of South America.
Quite a beautiful country