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Archive for the ‘Bolivia’ Category

Bye Bye Bolivia

Posted by Leanne on November 9, 2010

If yesterday made me glad that I had stayed in La Paz, today made me glad that I was leaving.

I had stumbled upon the main street whilst on the way to a pub with the rest of my cycling tour group last night, and decided to make a return trip to see what it looked like in the daylight.  As I was walking down the street, a man coughed in my face.  “Lovely” I thought and carried on, forgetting all about it until, over on the other side of the road, a man looked straight at me as I walked past and then coughed all over me.  At which point I realised that both occasions must have been deliberate, and put it together with what some of the others in my cycling tour group had told me about being shouted at in the street to “Go home Gringos, we don’t want you here.” to conclude that it was because I was a Gringa.

By this time the second man was behind me, so I threw my arm backwards and hit him, before continuing on without looking back.  Probably shouldn’t have dropped to his level like that, but it made me feel better to get my own back.

I tried to get on with the day in good spirits, finishing up some shopping in the Witches Market and making the most of the rest of my time in Bolivia, but in truth, the morning had put me in a bad mood, and not even the traffic zebras could cheer me up.  All I wanted to do was go back to Peru, where the people, in my experience, had always been friendly, and grateful for the money and tourism that us Gringos were bringing to their country, so I turned up at the bus station an hour early, and waited to leave, whilst trying to concentrate on remembering the good experiences and great people I had met in Bolivia.

Old people, looking almost as happy as me to be in La Paz

Old people, looking almost as happy as me to be in La Paz

For a while, I thought I was going to get my uneventful bus journey.  After a brilliant Bolivian sunset, we arrived at the border and picked our way through the rapidly darkening, scattered and disorganised streets of Desaguadero. There were only 9 people on the bus, so it only took 30 minutes before we’d cleared the border and arrived in Peru, where more people got on the bus.

As we got moving again, out of the corner of my sleepy eye, I saw someone get up and sit next to the man opposite me.  They began talking in hushed voices.  Then 2 more people joined the whispering, crouching in the aisle, just a few metres away from my seat.  Just before the next stop, about 6 more people gathered round the shifty looking group and started to pass their luggage forward.  The man who was originally sitting there went into the toilet, taking several large boxes in before shutting himself in, and as the bus came to a stop, all but one of the crowd which had gathered around the exit disembarked.  Behind me, I could hear a couple, who were sat alone towards the back of the bus getting cosy together, and I prepared myself for yet another surreal evening of bus travel…

A while later, the man who had stayed on the bus started walking up and down, changing seats, and his phone kept ringing.  Then, shortly before the bus stopped again, the man who was hiding in the toilet got out, and I figured that the intermittent phone calls must have been between the two of them. At the stop, they both hastily exited the bus, taking their boxes with them, and I closed my eyes again, hoping that the rest of my direct journey to Cusco would be uneventful enough to allow me at least 40 winks.  But then we arrived in Puno, and our direct bus changed into an indirect bus which everyone had to get off to find their connection to their final destination.

And then it was an uneventful journey…


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El Camino de la Muerte

Posted by Leanne on November 8, 2010

I’d booked the Death Road trip on impulse yesterday morning.  Maybe it was due to lack of sleep, or maybe it was because it was something I’d been thinking about doing for a while and also because I felt obliged to make coming back to La Paz worthwhile.

Of course I’d talked to other people about the trip and found out that I should be paying about 600 – 700Bs for a reputable company who were going to have small groups, decent bikes and a pleasing safety record, but to be honest, I couldn’t be bothered to navigate the tangled streets to visit the numerous agencies to find myself the best deal –  I’d had trouble enough getting my map the right way up when I went out for breakfast that morning and so I just wandered downstairs to the hostel travel agency and asked them to book me on the tour.  And then wondered if I should be worried because it only cost me 450Bs…

The day started well with the guides turning up to collect us on time.  It turned out that there were only 6 of us in the group, with 2 guides, and the brakes on the bikes did work, so I breathed a sigh of relief and started to look forward to the day.

The bus pulled up on the top of a mountain, next to several other buses with bikes fixed to the roof, and we donned our safety gear, I borrowed a fetching pair of goggles, because, like a wally, I’d left my sunglasses behind at the Wally match in Sucre, and we tested out the bikes at an altitude of 4700m on the only bit of flat land we would see for the whole day.

The Team

The Team

Our first task was to cycle to Death Road on some steep downhill tarmac which gave us the chance to get to know the bikes.  “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”  I thought as we whizzed down the road at the same speed as some of the cars.  I wanted to go faster, but there was a no overtaking rule, so instead, I tested out the braking muscles in my hands and restricted my speed, as the guides whizzed on past us, cycling with no hands and taking photos and videos for the souvenir CD we would get later.



We stopped outside a tunnel and Kevin, our guide explained that we would cycle round the edge of the tunnel on a bumpy rocky surface which was much more like what we could expect from Death Road.

“OK, Let’s vamos” he said and I got back in the saddle and started to follow the group.  Far too fast as it turned out because it was about 5 seconds before I fell of my bike, covering myself with dust and badly bruising my thigh in the process.  But I got back up and soldiered on, given that we hadn’t even got as far as the dangerous bit yet. Oops.

Eventually we came to a fork in the road, the left side pointing towards the new ‘safe’ road which had opened in 2006 and the right side, a narrow rocky path, barely wide enough for a car which had an ominous skull and crossbones sign marking the entrance: El Camino de la Muerte, so called because of all the people who had fallen victim to the narrow winding surface, barely deserving the title of a path, yet alone a road, cut into the side of towering tree covered mountains.  It was difficult to believe that it used to be the main road between La Paz and Coroico with traffic moving both ways up and down it.  This crazy track affords some stunning views, none of which we saw during our ride because we were so intent on watching the floor for rocks which could potentially bounce us off course and over the side of the cliff where we would inevitably plunge to our death.

Perilous Beauty

Perilous Beauty

We were cycling for five minutes before the first stop – an opportunity to gawp at a small white speck half way down the cliff – a car which had plummeted from the side only four months previously, killing one of the three people inside.  Every 15 minutes there was another stop, and another memorial perched on the side of the road, as if we needed reminding that it was actually quite dangerous to be here.  The registration form for this particular tour was in fact the only one I’ve ever completed which asks for your blood type as standard.  And I’ve jumped out of planes, jumped off bridges and rafted over grade 5 rapids in my lifetime.

On the Edge

On the Edge

Fortunately for us, the new road meant that the traffic nowadays is mostly bicycles and their accompanying vans.  We only passed one or two none-tour group cars on the whole way down.

The narrowest part of the road didn’t even look wide enough for a whole car, yet alone one of the trucks or buses which must have regularly made the journey between La Paz and Corioco before the new road was built. And just to make it all the more precarious, it was wet and slippery from a dwindling waterfall which, in rainy season sends tonnes of fast flowing water over the edge and onto the road below.

Narrow waterfall-y bit

Narrow waterfall-y bit

By the time we stopped at Devil’s Corner – the most dangerous bit where there were countless memorials stuck into the ground on the cliff edge and scattered in sheltered sections of the cliff walls to represent the hundreds of people who had become its victim, our hands had moulded themselves into claws from the constant braking over the past three hours. It was therefore a relief, after the next 6 or 7 tricky corners, to be given a break in which we actually needed to pedal.  It was really very pleasant to at last be cycling at my own pace, not needing to use the brakes, and I even had a few moments when I took my eyes off the ground to appreciate the beauty which had no doubt been surrounding us all day.

After one final stop at the exit checkpoint, we got our braking muscles out again for one final tricky section of road (there was an easier route, but Kevin instisted that this one was ‘more fun’).  Just when I was starting to lose all feeling in my fingers and it seemed like I wouldn’t be able to keep pressure on the brakes for any longer, I rounded a corner to find some of my faster team mates waiting at the bottom of the road next to the van.  We had survived.

Exit Checkpoint

Exit Checkpoint

Kevin passed us a celebratory beer each and we sat on the side of the road sipping happily and watching the guides load the bikes back onto the van.

Celebratory Beer

Celebratory Beer

It would have been a bit of an anticlimax to get straight back in the van and drive back to La Paz right then, which is probably why they drove us to a nearby outdoor swimming pool and provided us with a buffet lunch, towels and shampoo.  Having descended to just 1200m altitude, the temperature had risen considerably and it was certainly bikini weather here.  Lazing by the pool isn’t my usual cup of tea, but it turned out to be just the ticket after an action packed 4 hours.

We drove back on the new road, which didn’t really look all that finished in some places, but was properly paved in the places where it mattered (i.e. the dangerous curvy bits).  As the sun set on our day, we glimpsed snatches of the mighty Death Road across the valley from us and marveled at the experience that we’d been fortunate (and brave) enough to have that day.

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Bolivian Buses

Posted by Leanne on November 7, 2010

When booking Bolivian buses, there’s a lot to think about.  Is it a cama or a semi-cama?  When travelling overnight this is essential for a bit of sleep.  Does it have a toilet?  This is irrelevant because if it does, it probably won’t work, but worth asking, because it may give you leeway to negotiate the price down.  Does it have heating?  Air conditioning?  If it doesn’t have heating, you will probably freeze.  If it does, it either won’t work, in which case you will freeze, or it will work too well and you will cook.  Either way it’s a minefield…

Sometimes I would quite like it if I could take a bus journey and not have a story to tell as a result.  But alas, last night’s 12 hour ride from Sucre to La Paz was not to be the one.

I picked the company, El Dorado because I’d seen the buses driving down the streets in La Paz and they looked shiny, and also because someone else had told me that they were good, so it just goes to show that shiny buses and a good reputation doesn’t always go that far in Bolivia.

I arrived at the station last night unwashed and unfed after spending longer than I expected playing Wally and saying goodbye to my teachers and fellow students, so made do with buying a chocolate bar from some small children on the bus.  I was glad I managed to turn up the recommended 30 minutes before the departure time since the bus left 10 minutes early.  I assumed that this was because everyone was on board, but it turned out I assumed wrong, because for the following 30 minutes the bus stopped at intervals to let angry people who had been racing to catch us up in taxis because they had only arrived 5 minutes before the departure time, and therefore missed the bus.  And then, calmness.  Apart from the french people nattering away loudly to each other.  I put on my ipod to shut out the noise and closed my eyes…

The bus stopped again about an hour into the 12 hour journey, for reasons I never found out.  It was at this point that I thought I could smell petrol… After about 10 minutes, the conductor walked through our level to the back of the bus and seemed to be looking for something – I imagined the source of the smell, but when the french people asked him what was going on, he denied that there was anything out of the ordinary.

After another 10 minutes, the fumes still hadn’t dissipated, even with the window open.  Just as I was contemplating whether it would be better to get off the bus in the middle of deepest, darkest Bolivia and take my chances with the elements, or risk death from inhalation of fumes, I heard a local lady ask the French people to close the window.  What followed was a heated argument, ending with the words “vamos a morir de asfixiation”, no window being closed and an attempt to get the conductor to come back to smell for himself.  He refused.

A local man, who was already annoyed because he was one of the ones who had to chase the bus in a taxi after its early departure, led a party upstairs to see if they could find some more seats away from the smell. There were only two spare, one of which he took, and the French people suggested that I should take the other one, since I was the only other person travelling solo.

As I gathered my things together to head up the stairs, some of the French group were perched on the narrow window ledge, trying to breathe in some fresh air from the small opening at the top of the window…

Once reseated, I settled into an uncomfortable and uneasy sleep, fingers crossed that the bus wouldn’t explode, and that we wouldn’t run out of petrol.

To my surprise, we arrived in La Paz on time, and the French people were still alive…

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Leche de Tigre

Posted by Leanne on November 6, 2010

I was incredibly sad to wake up on my last day in Sucre, and incredibly glad that there were things to do to keep me entertained.

Calvin had spent the morning shopping for a list of ingredients, provided by Jorge to make Leche de tigre (one too many makes you go ‘rah!’) and then came back to the house to start work on the process which went a little bit like this:

  1. Pose for a photo with all of the ingredients
  2. Jorge and Calvin go Tigre

    Jorge and Calvin go Tigre

  3. Pour lots of different kinds of milk into a saucepan with some cinnamon and clothes
  4. Bring to the boil
  5. Meanwhile, take 1 litre of ALCOHOL – just alcohol, not vodka, rum, gin or whisky, and then do this to it:
  6. While the milk and ALCOHOL cool in their separate containers, separate 6 eggs and whisk until they start to peak
  7. Once everything has cooled, stir in the egg whites and add vanilla essence, ALCOHOL and grated coconut to taste
  8. For that authentic Bolivian look, pour into plastic water bottles
  9. Go and play a game of Wallyball
  10. Get on a bus to La Paz

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Last Night in Sucre

Posted by Leanne on November 5, 2010

For my last Spanish class, Delia turned up with a portable CD player and a CD full of salsa music which wouldn’t play on it.  She looked quite disappointed and like she didn’t have many other ideas about what we could do in my final lesson.

“I don’t have much battery left,” I said, “but I have my ipod with me which is full of salsa music.”  Which is how we came to spend 2 hours listening to my salsa music and trying to decode some of the lyrics, and then an hour talking about phonetic transcription and clicks in Quechua, until it was time to go downstairs to join the other students and teachers for the weekly lunch-in.

Tha evening, Claudia, Siobhan, Aoife, Calvin and I went out for a few mojitos to mark my last night and we chatted about our experiences of South America so far.

Claudia told us about a conversation she had with some female Peruvian friends when she went out for a drink with them whilst living in Arequipa a few years ago.  She told them that the men in Switzerland don’t tend to whistle and make remarks to women like the men in Peru do.

“But,” replied her Peruvian friend in genuine bewilderment, “then how do you know that you look good?”

I looked forward to returning to Peru with this new perspective…

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Markets and Fairy Tales

Posted by Leanne on November 4, 2010

I felt quite hungover today after 3 turbo charged mojitos the day before, and not really in the mood for 3 hours of Spanish lessons, but it turned out that, not only did I get through them, they were surprisingly enjoyable.  Mainly because they involved reading fairy tales for 3 hours. After class, I really wanted to go home and to bed, but I had arranged to meet with Calvin for a walk to the ´American Market´ and he was outside the school waiting for me after classes, so I plowed on through the day.  Fortunately, the first thing he suggested was lunch, which boosted my hydration and sugar levels for a walk around the market, via a dinosaur phone and a plaza with some statues of soldiers on it.

Dinosaur phone

Dinosaur phone

The market itself was just another street market, but with clothes that would fit people who are larger than the average Bolivian (but still no ´giant´size 12 trainers for Calvin).  We got back into town just in time for a fresh jugo from the market before I headed off to help out with my English class.

And then I got to go to bed!


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Posted by Leanne on November 3, 2010

In Bolivia, there are many different types of salsa, tomato based ones, chili based ones and they are generally served….

…only joking – I went dancing!

It took me almost a week to find out where things were happening on the dancefloor in Sucre on account of the fact that the only place that did host a salsa night doesn´t advertise in any way whatsoever – not even a small poster on the door of Cafe Cuba to let you know that if you come back later, you might be able to dance.

On a concrete yard outside Cafe Cuba, every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday night, gringos and locals gather together for a line dance (to call it a class would be exagerating) for half an hour or so before grabbing a partner for a dance while the less experienced can practice steps on the side of the courtyard with the owner of the cafe and perfect their moves for their future partners.

I turned out to be quite popular, attracting both attention and compliments from the regulars who were impressed that I could follow a dance after only one lesson….  At one point I had to claim dehydration to get one guy to let me go after 5 dances in a row.

I also impressed them with my Spanish, over an extermely strong mojito or two after the dancing had finished, when I laughed at a joke that one of the locals told.  I hadn´t actually heard the joke, only that it was about a fish and  the punchline was ´por fin´which is funny because fish have fins.  This is not why it is funny in Spanish, but I seemed to get away with it!

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Día de Todos Santos

Posted by Leanne on November 2, 2010

There were no classes for me today, since the Día de Todos Santos celebrations were continuing so that the dead that were welcomed back to Sucre yesterday, could be sent back up into heaven for another year.  I could have gone to do something useful with the extra time, but instead I sat on the rooftop terrace reading my book and collecting a few more freckles while a pile of chilies lay on a tarp in front of me, drying out in the sun.


As students of Fox, we had been invited to take part in some of the rituals and traditions of the day in the afternoon, and since it was my homework to write about the said traditions, I thought I´d better make the effort to join in.

It was 1:30pm when Jorge gave us a shout and, along with some other students, we went into a house across the road.  On entering, the first thing I saw was a woman, sitting alone on one of the chairs which lined the walls on either side of the room.  She was dressed from  head to toe in black and looked like she had been crying.

The second thing I saw was a shrine to the dead person we were here to celebrate, and it felt a little like we had, quite inappropriately arrived at someones wake.  At the head of the room, a large table, covered with a white lacy tablecloth and decorated with flowers and candles.  The centrepiece, was a large photo of the dead guy, and this was accompanied by a large man shaped (but not man sized) loaf of bread on one side, and a ladder shaped loaf of bread on the other.  Yesterday was about welcoming the dead back to the living world, and today was about making them go away again – the ladder, to assist him on his journey back up to heaven.  Plates of his favourite foods and cups containing his favourite drinks were also scattered around the table.

A group of 8 foreigners walk into all this and immediately everyone feels uncomfortable.  Were we allowed to smile? Talk? Laugh?  We had been told that today was quite a party day but in this house, it didn´t really feel like one.  In spite of noone knowing who we were, nobody asked, and instead they brought us cups of chicha, a brown sludge coloured liquid with some pink scum floating on the top, which I politely drank, followed by some dried out sweet breads and rock hard biscuits to munch our way through, and wash down with a shot of wine. 

Much to the relief of many, we left after about half an houra to get a bus to another ´party´across the other side of town.  Claudia mentioned how impressed she had been when she saw me drink the chicha, saying that she just couldn´t bring herself to do it, after finding out how it was made.  I didn´t ask her how it was made, as I had a feeling that there would be more chicha at the next place which I would probably be obliged to drink, and so opted to remain in ignorance…

After two bus journeys, we arrived at the next house –  a much more jolly affair than the one before with a shrine decorated in garish black and purple ribbons amongst the usual flags, food, photo, bread etc…  At the door, a group of 4 people, all holding a bucket of liquid greeted us.  Which meant that before even being allowed over the threshold we had to drink a welcome cup of chicha, a welcome tigre de leche, a welcome shot of something else and one final fruity liquor .  Once in the courtyard, we were handed plastic trays of Mondongo and a bag of hard bread to tuck into before being ushered into the room with the dead person table in it. 

At our feet, and dotted all around the yard and the main room were buckets and washing up bowls full of chicha, each with a blue plastic cup floating in it for anyone to pick up and take a gulp.  It was difficult to last 5 minutes without being persuaded that you must drink another shot of something suspect and I soon learned that it was wise to hold a cup of chicha in my hand (which I had no intention of drinking) to ward of the drunks who were anxious to get us up to their level.  I did however accept the shots of leche de tigre when they came round, because they were almost pleasant.  Jorge told us that they got their name, because, after a few, they made you go ´Rah!´

Mmmmm, chicha
Mmmmm, chicha

When I told him I was observing closely so that I would have something to write for my homework, Jorge asked why I hadn´t taken any photos, and told me to go back inside to get some snaps.  Somehow it just didn´t seem appropriate, and so I resolved to make do with the surrepticious blurry shots I´d managed to subtley take earlier.

The Altar of the Dead

The Altar of the Dead

As we left the party, the four people who had greeted us with welcome drinks, sprung to their feet, grabbed their buckets and made us drink more before piling out onto the street.

Back at the casa de Jorge, Don, who had been conspicuously absent from the afternoon´s festivities explained that he´d been invited to accompany another member of the family to the cemetary where she said a few prayers and left some flowers.  Whilst there, he had witnessed a funeral going on – for a grave which was located on the top floor of the grave stacks and was morbidly fascinated to watch two people mount a ladder, each with one side of the coffin on their shoulder, and a third standing on the ground, lifting the back end up with a fork while everyone below watched on tenterhooks as they precariously swayed around with the coffin, trying to slot it into its final resting place.  He overheard a mother explaining to a young child about why their relative had died: “We all have to die,” she said bluntly. “It´s my turn next, and then it will be you.”  It´s best not to sugar coat these things…

Later that night, Calvin, Siobhan and I went to see Voces Inocentes at Joyride, which is a tour agency, bar, cafe, restaurant, nightclub and cinema all rolled into one.  We sat on sofas in the darkened room watching the brilliantly moving film about the civil war in El Salvador, told from the point of view of a 12 year old boy, one of the many who were trying to escape being recruited into the army. It highlighted how little I know about South American history, and I resolved to find out more. 

We walked home via dog bite alley, feeling safe since Calvin was there to protect us!

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El Cementario

Posted by Leanne on November 1, 2010

Today, in a lot of South American countries is El día de Todos Santos and also tomorrow for some reason, and so, my homework for the next lesson was to write something about the customs and traditions of this special holiday.

Because many of the local people were off visiting the dead, the centre of town was relatively quiet, and the people I could see, were mostly carrying flowers in their arms, undoubtedly on the way to the cemetary where they would be taking the favourite food and drink of their recently deceased relatives to welcome their souls back into the land of the living.  Just until tomorrow.  At midday, when most of these customs take place in the city, some people say that they can feel the breeze of hundreds of souls returning to the land of the living.  I´m inclined to think that it´s just a breeze, which is quite common on even the sunniest of days at these high altitudes.

My house is a 2 minute walk away from the cemetary, and as I got closer, there was noticably more traffic than normal clogging up the road towards the cemetary, and noticably more people, all either carrying flowers, or on their way to buy them from the hundreds of stalls which lined the streets outside of the cemetary.

Flower Stalls

Flower Stalls

The cemetary itself, is a bit of a tourist attraction in Sucre, and today it was busier than ever as hundreds of locals crowded in to visit their dead.  I had been saving my first impressions of it until today and the minute I entered through the grand stone archway into the grounds, I could see why it was an attraction.  Once you´ve walked past the people giving out ladders in the entrance, and wander down a pathway amongst beautifully groomed trees and huge grand tombs and mausoleums, reserved for the families of the rich folk in the area, you come to the walls around the side of the cemetary which contain lines of well kept cubby holes which represent the graves of lost relatives. These graves are stacked up on top of each other, 5 stories high.  Each have a lockable window behind which relatives put flowers, candles, toys, food, drink and messages for their dead relatives.  Here, it becomes obvious why you might need ladder:

Cemetary walls

Cemetary walls

The whole beauty of the place and the fact that it is so well maintained showed the depth of the respect that the Bolivian people have for their dead, though it was sad to think that they were only allowed to keep the graves there for 3-5 years, after which they either have to pay to keep it in place, or be displaced by the newly dead.

I didn´t stay in the cemetary for long.  In a way I felt as it I was invading their religious rituals because, on this special day, hundreds of people were visiting graves to say a prayer, and to bring food to welcome the spirits of the dead back amongst the living for the day.

In completely unrelated news, Claudia got bitten by a dog on her way home from the cinema that night (maybe they were spooked by all of the lost souls floating around the streets) which made me feel completely justified and not at all wimpy in running away from the two that had barked at me the day before.  And it also gave me an idea of which street not to walk down without being accompanied by a pocket full of rocks to throw in my defense should the same gang of 3 dogs  surround me one day.

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On Being Chased by Dogs

Posted by Leanne on October 31, 2010

Calvin (who is another student who lives in the same house as me) had told me about a big hill you can walk up to get a good view of Sucre, and kind of told me how to get there, so this morning, I set off in search of that path.  As I headed out of the pristine white city centre, the buildings became more ramshackle, a bull crossed the road right in front of my eyes (in the middle of a city!) and chickens stalked the increasingly disordered pavements around me.

City Bull

City Bull

I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable about wandering so far (a ten minute walk) out of tourist territory alone, and it only took a couple of terratorial dogs with big gruff barks to convince me that I didn´t really want to climb a hill after all, and I certainly didn´t want to find out first hand if their barks were worse than their bites.  What I really wanted to do on a lovely Sunday morning was sit in a cafe having a lazy lunch.  And so that I did.

For the first time since I left York, 8 weeks ago, I felt as if I was on holiday.  Sucre is such a tranquil and relaxing place, where it feels more than OK to sit alone sipping on a jugo made of fresh stuff and reading a book, or just chatting to a fellow student who you bumped into on arrival at your favourite local cafe.  Of course, I knew about the numerous tourist tours and attractions , but lacked any kind of inclination to go ahead and do them, instead content to wander past the museums on my way to buy fresh fruit from the market, or find another cafe or plaza to while away a lazy afternoon.

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