It was sad to leave Peru after it showed me a very good time, but it had to be done if we were to make it to Argentina for Christmas as planned, so we hoped on an overnight bus to Copacabana, Bolivia. The bus left a lot to be desired & it turned out that this was just a hint of what was to come on the many bus trips we took while in Bolivia.
Copacabana left a little to be desired also, Lake Titicaca was beautiful & our hostel had a great view. It was also nice to just do nothing for a couple of days, as all of us at this stage were suffering from the dreaded flu that started its life on the Inca Trail. I think it is fair to say that the only tourist attraction that Copacabana had to offer (excluding the lake obviously) was the very well presented Poncho Museum. I had been completely amused by the concept of such a museum, since seeing the sign when our bus pulled into town & had to go along for a look. Once I actually got there I realised that it wasn't really that funny, it was just a really well put together exhibit of some really great textile works. So that was Copacabana, just a couple of days, but well long enough to get the song stuck in our heads for weeks.
Next it was off to the capital, La Paz. La Paz is an amazing city. It's situated up in the mountains & it just kind of appears like a big terracotta cluster emerging from the side of a mountain. We stayed in a hostel right in the middle of it all, right near the spooky witches market that stocks anything from lacquered frogs to dried llama foetuses. There was also a large collection of stuffed cats, I have no idea of their uses, but it was kind of freaky to walk down the street while being watched by a bunch of dead animals.
This didn't however stop us from spending a lot of time in the area, which was also full of stores selling loads of great textiles & nic-nacs for close to nicks! It is so cheap in Bolivia & the produce is so beautiful, that I have vowed to return when I need to deck out my future mansion in fabulous furnishings.
Bolivia was also the highlight of our Extreme sports tour of the world, after we decided to mountain bike ride down ¨the world's most dangerous road¨. This is probably not one of the smartest things that I have ever done, but it is definitely one of the most fun. The day started off with a good breakfast at the designated meeting area where we meet our guide Ian, who secretly was Garth from Wayne's World with a different hair cut. The ride began with a few handy hints for riding the mountain bikes, which I might say, did not resemble my bike at home at all. Who knew brakes & suspension could make such a difference. We started with some helpful tips from Garth, mostly about the ¨rough rider¨ position (pretty much keep your butt of the seat), which he informed us we would need to employ unless we wanted to feel ¨fully violated¨ by the end of the day. Very good advice.
The start of the ride begins on a nicely made road, which goes for 20kms, and then you hit the start point for the world's most dangerous road. As soon as we got to the top of the road, I had second thoughts. It began to rain heavily & I was amazed as I watched a very large truck try to make the turn off onto the ¨road¨, which is pretty much just a thin dirt track.
Seriously, the road is atrocious. Around 300 people a year die on the road & it is the only route to many destinations in Bolivia. There is an alternative route in construction. It has been in construction for the past 8 years, but due to the financial state of the country, it will not be finished any time soon. The whole way down the road, there are a million very blind corners & it took me a while to figure out what the people were doing that were standing in little huts all along the way. Our guide later told us that they were human traffic lights who stand on the corners & tell people as they approach if there is anything around the bend. This practice was started when a local resident lost his entire family on the road. He started to let the traffic know what was going on & in thanks the truck & bus drivers began to tip him. Now there is someone set up on almost every corner & this is how they make their living. We were warned however that they're not always correct (especially when it is raining as heavily as it was that day) as the mist up there often hinders their view.
So once I had finally convinced myself that what I was doing was a good idea, the fun began. We did the ride on the 6th of December & the company that we went with (Gravity), finish doing rides on the 10th due to the rainy season & safety issues. It wasn't hard to see why when we headed off & found that parts of the road had been turned into muddy swamps & other parts into rivers with over flowing waterfalls. It soon became clear that the faster you went, the less likely you were to fall off, and so I felt like a BMX bandit in no time. It was so much fun, it is hard to describe, your brain pretty much flickered between.... ¨oh my god this is the most fun I could ever have! I wana do it again¨ & ¨Oh my god, what am I doing, I'm going to die now¨. Lucky most of the time it was more about the fun.
I was completely surprised when we all reached the end of the road, without even one of us falling off. It was amazing! The only mishap was when I punctured my tire. I was most amused when Garth our guide was quizzing me on how it happened & asked ¨did you hit a rock or something??¨ One of the most stupid questions ever, when your pelting down a dirt road full of pebbles & ¨Baby Heads¨, rocks roughly the size of a baby's head. He didn't think it was quite as funny when I pissed myself laughing at his quite serious question & answered, ¨oh, only about a million¨.
Some one in the group ahead of us however wasn't so lucky. He fell off & split open his knee, his knee cap was visible, but as he was a doctor & obviously high on adrenaline, all he could say, was ¨don't worry, Ill just stitch it up & keep going¨. Crazy, luckily the tour company wouldn't let him, so we didn't have to watch him ride down the rest of the way spurting blood.
I thought that coming down the road was supposed to be the scary part, but I was very mistaken. As there are no other roads in the area, to get home you have to ride a bus back up the road. I have never been so frightened before in my life. The trucks & buses just fly around the corners without a thought about what is on the other side. The experience was made even better when it began to rain again, it got dark & the mist rolled in. There was no way to see even 1 meter ahead of us, which on one hand was good, because I couldn't see what was coming, but if I couldn't see, neither could our driver! We did make it back however, which is why I'm here to tell the tale of surviving the world's most dangerous road.
After fulfilling all our BMX bandit desires we decided it was time to head out of La Paz. We first planed to go to the Pampas, a grass land that is inhabited by many weird & wonderful creatures, but sadly with our budgets & time frame we missed out. Instead we jumped on the only bus available to Oruro. Transport in Bolivia is dodgy at the best of times & we just so happened to be in the country just before election time. There were road blocks everywhere & the bus that we caught had a large ¨off road¨ stint that the guy at the counter warned us about. The entire bus was full of locals trying to get home, a group of Israelis & us made up the difference. The bus stank & as soon as the engine started we were greeted with some terrible panpipe music blaring through the speakers. This was soon replaced by a deafeningly loud war movie, that was very graphic & not really what you want to be watching when travelling though a fairly unstable country at election time.
Once we hit the off road section of the journey the bus pulled to a halt & the driver's side kick took a collection of $1 Boliviano per person for the ¨road block¨. No one got out or on to the bus anywhere near the road block. This was obviously just a nice little money maker on the side. So $1 boliviano I can handle but about an hour latter we were stopped again & the asking price was now $5 Bolivianos. Even the locals on the bus at this point started to go crazy, but we were in the middle of nowhere, not a road in sight so we had no choice but to pay the money. This time it was for ¨petrol¨, the magic kind that doesn't require a stop at a station.
Once we finally arrived in Oruro we were sorely disappointed. The people were rude to us, all the hostels stank & were extremely over priced & it took a lot of walking around fully packed up to find a hostel that we could bear to stay in for one night. We decided then & there that we would leave for Potosi as early as possible the next morning & that's what we did.
We arrived in Potosi after an 8 hour bus ride, which was fantastic as we thought that it would take about 12. We checked into a hostel called ¨The Koala Den¨. Potosi is a mining town & the hostel owner informed us that they had named it the Koala Den as Koalas chew eucalyptus leaves much like the miners chew coca leaves. I don't think they had ever seen a koala as the sign out the front looked some what more like a brown bear, but it was a great hostel with the most comfortable beds ever.
On our second day in Potosi we had booked to do a mine tour. I was a little dubious of this due to my dislike of small spaces, but thought I would give it a go. I was saved however by a nice case of traveller's tummy & couldn't leave the hostel for the fear of being more than 3 meters from the bathroom. I still haven't decided what would have been worse the sick belly or the mine, but from what the girls tell me the mine was definitely a claustrophobics worst nightmare.
The next day my tummy was behaving itself & we jumped in a taxi to Sucre. I think taxi might be a little stretch of the imagination, more like jumped in some guy's car who was going to Sucre & said he would take us. We tried to get a taxi to take us, but after being refused many times & being told that it was going to be about double the price that it should have been we accepted a paid lift from a guy that was going there anyway. He was really lovely & went to a lot of effort to drop us right at our hostel door.
Sucre is known for its chocolate, so it is hardly a surprise that we decided to visit. There were cute little chocolate stores everywhere & you could get a selection of chocolates for $12 Bolivianos a kilo, practically free I tell you. It was great. But besides the chocolate it is also known for having one of the largest archaeological sites around. There's a lime mine just out side of town that has unearthed a huge amount of dinosaur prints, mostly from T-rex, Brontosaurus & Stegosaurus. It was amazing. All the prints were on a near vertical wall; our guide told us that this was due to the same tectonic plates colliding that also made the Andes Mountains. The flat ground had been pushed straight up. The tour was made twice as fun by the terrible hardhats that we had to wear, which inspired a very funny YMCA photo. The rest of our group thought that we were slightly crazy & they're probably right.
After recovering from the hardhat hilarity we headed to a cafe in town to watch ¨Maria full of grace¨, a movie set in Colombia that I had been meaning to see for a long time. It was quite disturbing, the subject matter being a few young girls who decide that being a mule between Colombia & the USA for a local drug dealer is a better option than the crap that they have to put up with in there every day lives. It was crazy to think that stuff like that really happens & it was made even more real by the fact that we were watching it in this part of the world. I'm proud to say that no matter how poor we all get, there will be none of that going on here.
As hard as it was to leave chocolate town, we had to head on to Uyuni, a fairly small town that is the gateway to some large salt flats.
The bus to Uyuni was probably the dodgiest bus so far. We left the bus station with a regular amount of people onboard (& quite a lot of chickens etc.) & then about 10 meters away from the station the bus driver stopped & let as many people as it was possible to fit on, in. The whole isle & front cabin were packed, with kids, adults, bags & dogs. It was crazy. There were people sitting all over each other. One of the new passengers, a 7 year old girl named Vanessa, took a particular liking to Amber & I, & decided to park herself in the corner of my seat & at points on my lap. She was travelling with her sister, who was maybe twelve, back to their home town, which took around 12 hours. She was definitely much more patient than I would have been if you put me on a 12 hour bus when I was 7.
When we reached Uyuni, our main aim was too book a tour for the next day. Luckily for us, our hostel offered tours, as we didn't arrive until 8pm.
Our tour started at 10.30am, the perfect time, as after too much bus travel, a sleep in was definitely in order. Our group consisted of Amber, Al, Nik, Me & a very funny Israeli named Eido, we also had our driver Feo & cook Marina.
The tour started at a train grave yard. Still to this day I have no idea why, or what this had to do with the salt flats, but they were kind of interesting anyways. The sky was bright blue & the train skeletons were rusty red. Then it was off to the salt. The first stop was a tiny salt museum, which was pretty much a big scam. It was very funny, the only exhibits were Llamas made of salt & a taxidermed armadillo. Not quite sure what they were going for, but there were a lot of people going in to see it for some strange reason. The actual salt flats were amazing. It looked kind of like a whole heap of snow, but it sparkled & gleamed in the sun. It was really beautiful. The first stop on the tour was Fish Island, a hill in the middle of all the salt that was full of cactus. It was a huge contrast from the very flat white salt, with its red soil & green cactus & it offered a 360 view of the flat when you reached the top. On the next leg of the journey our car over heated. In the middle of a salt desert we were stuck. This happened twice on the way to our hostel for the evening, & Feo & Marina weren't too impressed when we all stated taking photos of the car, in the middle of the salt, with its hood pooped. Once the car was functional again we headed straight for our hostel & managed to see a couple of flamingos along the way. They were beautiful & quick & ran away before any of us could get close enough for a photo.
The hostel that we were staying in for the night was still under construction & had no power or running water & won the ¨worst beds EVER¨ contest hands down. It was however in a very cute little village, which right on the edge of the flats & Marina still managed to cook us up a great feast on a few little camp stoves. When it was time, we headed back out onto the salt to see the sunset, which was amazing & to continue our new found love for human words we took a happy snap of us spelling salt, in the salt.
On the second day of the tour, we woke at 5am & walked up a volcano to a cave full of mummies. It was very Indiana Jones - a little metal door that we had to ferret through & then a small cave full of 7 skeletons. It was really creepy & there was no explanation of where the people came from, why they were there, or how they died. The most disturbing part of all was that three of the skeletons looked as though they couldn't have been older than 3. All the poses that the skeletons were in were also very distressing, they all looked as though they were in some terrible pain at the times of there death.
After recovering from such a sight we went for a wander around the town that we were staying in. It was tiny & all the houses were more like little mud huts. It was fun for a night, but I cannot imagine how you would actually survive there, it would be a lot of hard work. The only hint of how they might do it was a tiny farmish thing that grew corn & the many Llamas around the place that I'm sure make a tasty treat.
So that was Bolivia, after heading back to town, we had a day to get prepared for the following 4 days of trains & buses that would get us across the Bolivian border before election day & take us to Buenos Aires in time for Christmas.