Crossing the border from Corumba, Brazil, into Bolivia, you immediately feel like you’ve arrived on another planet. The faces change dramatically, everyone starts speaking to you in rather high pitched Spanish (a challenge for a brain accustomed Brazilian Portuguese) and everything becomes distinctly less official. After having spent an afternoon queuing at the border to get our visas, we arrived at the bus station and rather than approaching ticket desks as you do in Brazil, the ticket sellers approach you en masse and the haggling begins. We settled for the slightly more expensive but safer looking bus and had our first overnight bus trip to Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
As a brief stop over on the way from Brazil Santa Cruz is lovely but I wouldn’t say it’s worth the long bus trip east if you’re not heading for Brazil afterwards. We were especially unlucky as we arrived on election weekend which meant there was no alcohol to be had for the entire time we were there and that on the Sunday everything was closed and there was zero public transport, so that was a bit of a wash-out. The main attraction is the Parque Lomas de Arena, a huge area of sand dunes outside the city which has lakes you can swim in, and friends of ours that made it out there said it was wonderful, but Victor got a major case of tonsilitis and so we thought a trip to the desert wasn’t advisable.
We decided to move on ASAP and headed to the bus station laden with luggage to get ourselves on a bus to Sucre. Now the internet is covered with people saying that the route from Santa Cruz to Sucre is uncomfortable, dangerous and not at all worth it. We however decided we couldn’t fall at the first backpacking hurdle and decided against hopping on the very reasonably priced planes (at the time about US$50 pp) that would get us there in an hour in favour of the 15 hour overnight bus. The majority of the road between the two cities is unpaved and narrow and there are some pretty precipitous drops, and so the bus companies don’t want to risk their nice shiny new ‘cama’ (bed) buses on this route, opting to put their beaten up ‘semi-cama’ (half-bed) buses on instead. These semi-cama buses looked nothing like the very-swanky reclining seats with footrests that you find in a lot of South America. The seats we got in no way resembled beds.
Having parted with 150 Bolivianos (far more than we paid for any other trip) for the only seats on the only bus we could find leaving, we found out why the ‘panoramic seats’ at the front of the bus were unoccupied, because no one wants to see how precarious the whole thing is. On the plus side, we were the only travellers on the bus so it was nothing if not authentic. We were welcomed onto ‘Planet Bolivia’, as we affectionately call it, in true Bolivian style, complete with rain seeping through the windows as we pulled into Sucre! My advice is go for it if you’ve got the time, it’s a night you’ll never forget and you’ll save a few pennies!
Arriving in Sucre we were lucky enough to find VP Hostel a few minutes walk from the market and the Plaza de Armas with an amazing roof terrace that was run by a lovely family with a gorgeous 4 year old who told us to look after ourselves every time we left the hostel (se cuideeeeen!). I defy you not to be enchanted by Bolivian children! It was a lot chillier than Santa Cruz as it was April and so winter wasn’t far off, but still warm and sunny during the day. Don’t forget the suncream, as the altitude means the sun will quickly turn you into a tomato. We had a wonderful time exploring the beautiful city, getting lost in the central market and the local’s market, which is slightly further out of town (in the direction of the bus station) but swarming with locals and selling everything under the sun.
We were warned by people coming the other way that it was absolutely freezing at our next destination, so a lucky stall owner up at the Recoleta view point (definitely worth the short walk uphill) did extremely well out of us. We bought socks, gloves, hats, scarves and jumpers all in alpaca wool and we were very glad we did once we got to Uyuni, home of the legendary salt flats. Sucre is 100% worth a visit on a Bolivian trip, stunning, bustling and with a fascinating history.
Next stop Potosi, only a couple of hours by bus. We were there over Easter and were treated to the Good Friday processions around the town. The Plaza de Armas is stunning and you can barely move for churches. The ‘Casa de la Moneda’ is the oldest coin mint in the Americas and was were they turned all the silver that was flowing out of the mines on the mountain above the city into coins. These days, the iconic mountain that dominates the city is so full of tunnels that it, apparently, could cave in on itself any minute.
It no longer produces silver, but miners are still chipping away in the depths of the mines to extract various minerals, hoping to strike it lucky, whilst hundreds of tourists per day pay to see the mine for themselves. I did my research about the mine tours before we got to Potosi and was determined to go on a tour of the mines with one of the reputable companies you read about that have ex miners as guides, but was convinced by a travel agent that none of the tours are actually operated by ex miners and tempted by the price of 70 Bolivianos for the tour in Spanish, half what we had expected to pay. Perhaps when considering going into a mine one shouldn’t be thinking about economizing but hey, we lived to tell the tale.
Having visited a little shop where we could buy gifts for the miners (coca leaves, 90% alcohol, dynamite, take your pick) we got into our mining outfits and set off up the mountain. Most people tell you that it’s best to go on a day when the mines are operating to see the miners at work, but I was quite happy with the fact that being Easter weekend no one was in the mines making them any more unstable. The tunnel started off okay but the brick lining quickly disappeared and was replaced by various planks propping up the roof.
After a while we went off down a small side tunnel and (after having crawled under and over various obstacles) we saw the Tio (uncle) and his friends, extremely sinister statues. Our guide proceeded to make various offerings to the Tio.
Although the miners are good Christians on the outside, when underground they worship very different gods, and it’s very easy to start believing in them too. Once the statue had been given a cigarette and a few shots of the alcohol, we made our way back to the main tunnel and carried on. When it came to the point where we were asked if we’d like to go down to the next level of the mines, which involved climbing down a ladder, we decided we were quite happy where we were. By that point it had got very hot and we were thankful for our face masks as the air was thick with dust. We left the brave (crazy?) members of the group to descend further into the depths and basically ran out of there. We sat chewing a few coca leaves with a couple of off duty miners in the sunshine, extremely happy to be back on the earth’s surface. It’s not exactly fun, but it’s very eye opening and pretty compulsory if you make it to Potosi. And remember, you can turn back whenever you want!
Another very memorable experience in Potosi, and a slightly less traumatic one, is the Ojo del Inca (Eye of the Inca). Using the mini vans that serve as public transport all over Bolivia you can get out to this incredible spot 20 minutes from the city. It’s basically the crater of a volcano filled with gorgeously warm water and surrounded by multicoloured mountains.
The locals warn you not to stray too far from the edge if you’re not a strong swimmer as the water gently tugs you down to the depths of the lake! You definitely can feel a slight pull if you stop paddling for a few seconds. Apparently this lake is so sacred that the Quechua people used to come to from all over the Incan empire to bathe in the rejuvenating waters, and you can see why, so if your batteries need recharging give it a shot.
By this point we were wearing nearly every piece of clothing we had with us at once as it was pretty damn chilly when the sun went down. Thank god for alpacas and their toasty warm wool is all I can say. We booked ourselves onto a 3 day salt flats tour starting from Uyuni whilst in Potosi and got ourselves a bus over there. The bus ride is a highlight in itself as you sweep through these incredible valleys that are covered in herds of llamas, alpacas, cattle, sheep and donkeys all mixed together and grazing on the flood plains. They reminded me of herds of dinosaurs in those ‘land before time’ films, anyone remember those?!
The salt flats tour and the rest of our Bolivian adventure deserve their own post, so you only have to read my gushing about just how mind-blowing it all was if you so desire. Over and out.