Saturday 21 March 2015

Bolivia – donde todos es posible, pero nada es seguro (where everything’s possible, but nothing’s safe!)

My mate Annie from the Salkantay trek has also planned to head to Bolivia so we catch a bus from Cusco to La Paz. Much of the road snakes around Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. It’s the largest lake in South America and at 3,812m above sea level is apparently the highest navigable lake in the world. 

The highlight of this trip for me is the barge that takes the bus across a narrow section of the lake - this thing is seriously third world - the bus can barely fit on it, it looks as though someone’s gone to the local rubbish dump, grabbed some shit that looks like it’s gonna float, bashed it into the shape of some kind of rustic raft and hoped for the best. We’re feeling pretty relieved we don’t have to stay on the bus when it’s ferried over, instead we jump on smaller boats that take us to the other side while we anxiously wait to see if our bus is going to make it. On the way, we stop by a place called Copacabana, a cool little town on the lakefront. It seems like it'd be nice to hang here for a day but we decide to punch on to La Paz.

Snaking down through the steep streets toward the heart of La Paz, I’m greeted by a sea of red brick buildings, I’m digging the women in traditional clothing, not wearing it to impress tourists - it’s just how they roll. Somewhat out of place are the people dressed in zebra costumes helping people cross the road safely- possibly the only safe thing I will see in this country!

La Paz ranges from 3200 to 4000m above sea level, you really notice the thin air walking up the steep streets. Checking into the hostel, I hit the hay early after a long and exhausting journey. I’mn also well aware of the fact that Bolivia is notorious for scams and people trying to stitch up tourists in general, from the fake policemen who ‘search your bags for drugs’ (only for you to open your bag later and find all your valuables gone), to the act of throwing something disgusting at you (often human faeces) and some ‘kind stranger’ offering to help you clean it up while their mate makes off with your bag! Just like anywhere in South America, it pays to keep your wits about you.

First up on the hit list is the Descendo Del Condor, a Red Bull sponsored downhill mountain bike event. This is an amazing course; some of the world’s best downhill riders lose around 1000m of altitude through an urban course consisting of stairs, goat-tracks and manmade jumps, over an intense 2-3 minutes. As I’m a white guy with a good camera, I use some of my rookie Spanish to try and convince the local security that I’m a professional photographer. Somehow I pull it off and I get to access the VIP area – free food, Red Bull and hanging with (staring at) the South American Red Bull girls. Terrible outcome.

 Annie and I with the Red Bull girls

The finalists

Death Road. The most dangerous road in the world. On a mountain bike. Shit yes.
There are a number of operators for this tour – all based in La Paz. I go with a company called Vertigo – they have good safe bikes, are professional and are pretty cheap. They pick us up in the morning and drive us to the top of a mountain a short drive out of the city. The day starts on the sealed road – I surprise myself as I thought I was going to be taking it easy.. next thing I’m trying to keep up with the guides as we’re pushing 70+kph down these amazing winding roads. 

We take regular stops so the stragglers can catch up. After an hour or so of downhill, we hit the gravel section. This used to be the main route for all of the cars and buses, now there’s an alternative (and much safer route). Apparently 200-300 people were killed annually along this narrow road (normally buses or cars plunging off the vertical faces- look closely and I can still see the odd bit of wreckage below). Nowadays the odd car still uses the road, so we have to keep our wits about us. A few cyclists have died, but normally it’s just Darwin’s theory in action – like don’t try and take selfies as you ride on a gravel road along the top of an unprotected 300m vertical cliff!! 

Confidence levels are rising throughout the day and we’re all pushing each other. At one waypoint I realise I’ve lost my phone – there’s a small rip in my jacket pocket and the phone has managed to somehow bounce around and slip out of this. I begrudgingly pedal back uphill, that sinking feeling in my stomach. Our support vehicle driver asks me what I’m up to – I tell him I’ve lost my phone and he races back uphill ahead of me. I immediately regret telling him – that phone is probably worth six months wages to him. My search comes up fruitless, and when I catch up with him he tells me the same. There’s that seed of distrust in my mind that maybe he did find it, but ah well what are ya gonna do?! 

The good thing now is that the rest of the riders are well ahead of me – the phone can be replaced after all and the good thing is I now get to open right up and have an amazing long run to catch up to the pack. 

As we lose altitude, the climate changes from dry, windy and bloody freezing to hot and humid in the valley floor. After a long day it’s the perfect spot to unwind and have a few beers. What an amazing day. One of the highlights of my trip to date - I can’t recommend this enough to anyone going to Bolivia. 

Next up is a visit to the Amazon, to a town called Rurrenabaque. Unfortunately the planes there aren’t running due to thunderstorm activity so the only option is by road. I randomly bump into a Emilie and Therese (who I was hanging with in Argentina!) they are also dead keen on heading there with a few others, so we decide to get a 4WD truck with a driver to get us there. 

This 12 hour journey is the true death road. Our driver is either a madman, or brilliant, or both. This is possibly the most scared I’ve been in my life. It’s basically a one to one and a half lane wide road running along a valley. You drive on the opposite side of the road here so the driver can be on the outside of the road see exactly where his tyres are relative to the cliffs!! With huge drop offs below, the drivers have to be on their A game. When two vehicles come toward each other, often there’s an awkward standoff before one slowly creeps along the outside edge, tyres crawling aloing the edge. We witness a fair bit of carnage during this drive – a few crashed cars (including one crushed 4WD just like ours that had slipped off the road down to the riverbed below), not to mention the near-misses we had when an oncoming car would materialise out of the dusty air and we’d have to take last second evasive action. Just mental.

 Vanessa, Ida, Janis, Emilie and Therese

 Typical road carnage

Mini venison

We finally arrive in Rurrenabaque and catch another ride out to the Pampas – these rivers form part of the Amazon system. It's freakin hot here too. We jump into some boats and start crusing up the river.  One of the first animals we spot is the omnipresent capybara – for some reason these remind me of Brian from Family Guy. See the resemblence?!

There are some pretty cool birds, monkeys and a heap of caiman and alligators.  We get to a wider area of the river where the pink dolphins hang out. Our guide asks if we want to jump in to swim with them.. I think he’s joking at first, especially as there are a heap of alligators on the bank. Turns out he’s not. I ask him whether it’s safe, he assures me it is. Pretty much any activity known to man seems safe compared to the drive here and as it’s probably the only chance in my life I’ll get to swim with a goddam pink dolphin I take the plunge into the muddy brown water. The dolphins get really close to me, but it’s so murky you can only see them when they break the surface. I figure I’ve pushed my luck far enough when my hand hits something very hard as I’m swimming though the water, quite possibly an alligator. Yeah, I might jump back into the boat now eh.

Pink dolphin. They're actually pink! 

The couple of days that follow are a mix of catching piranhas, snakes and seeing all sorts of crazy wildlife. It’s pretty awesome but at the same time it’s not quite as wild as I imagined it would be  – the bush area is really just a strip of bush 50m or so either side of the river. When we go up onto the banks there’s just mainly open farmland. There are also quite a few hostels dotted along the river and it really feels a bit too commercialised for my liking. I find out later that there’s a tour where you build your own raft and then head down the river in it for a few days – this would be far more my style and if I was doing it again I’d opt for that.

Rappelling 50m face first down big building in the heart of La Paz sounds like my cup of tea. An Alaskan dude named Jason is also a bit of a lunatic (his job back home is catching king crabs ala Deadliest Catch styles!) so he joins me, along with Janis. The company that runs it is called Urban Rush – it’s very professional and the setup seems very safe. Nevertheless, I’m standing on the edge and my brain is screaming at me to not lower myself over the edge. I’m absolutely shitting myself and adrenaline levels are through the roof. I maintain my composure. Just!  This is seriously one of the most awesome things I’ve ever done and I’m pumped afterwards. This is a must-do if you’re in La Paz! 

Jason also wants to head to Potosi to check out the mine then on to Uyuni salt flats so he’s my travel buddie for the next few days. We catch a flight to a town called Sucre – the trademark of this pretty little town are its whitewashed buildings. There are few tourists and photo opportunities galore, especially at the local markets. 

The town of Potosi lies at the base of Cerro Rico, the mountain that is mined for silver and employs around 15,000 of its locals and is the heart of the town’s economy. This mountain has so much history. It’s been mined for around 500 years, with estimates that EIGHT MILLION people have died in the mine over the centuries. The average life expectancy in Bolivia is 67 years, but the poor bastards that toil in this mine only get an average of 40 years (most go down to silicosis). 

I’ve heard that this tour is pretty awesome and I’m not disappointed. Our guide, Pedro, from Big Deal Tours, is an ex-miner and a bloody hard case to boot. He takes us to a little tienda where we can buy a few gifts to give to the miners. I stock up with a few bags of Coca leaves (the miners chew on them all day to keep their energy levels up), a few bottles of Ceibo (the local brew with a casual 96% alcohol content) and a few sticks of dynamite. What a combo, and all for the bargain cost of around $10!

We gear up with helmets, lights, boots and overalls and check out the processing plant – safety standards are pretty much non-existent. Unguarded machinery and chemicals lie everywhere; it’s quite an intricate setup - the end product is a mixture of unrefined silver, lead and tin which is bagged up and exported for further processing.  

The mountain resembles a rabbit warren, with dozens of mineshafts dotted all over the barren slopes. As we mill around the opening of one of the shafts, our guide nonchalantly asks us to step to the side. A rumbling sound grows louder and louder before a small carriage loaded with ore and miners hanging on for a free ride comes flying out of the opening, just scraping past us. 

We head into the mineshaft and it’s a maze in there – myriads of different tunnels with rickety ladders are shooting off in random directions. We meet one dude who has somehow managed to beat the odds - at 62 years old he's still working hard in the mine. These guys work phenomenally hard - they load up what are basically potato sacks with ore and carry it through the mine on their shoulders. No modern technology - just hard slog.

In the heart of the mountain is a big room with a statue of a devil with a boner. Apparently the Spanish used to use it to intimidate the workers in the mine. Not sure why he needed to be chubbed up to achieve this but it’s amusing nonetheless. Apparently the devil donger room is also the most appropriate place to prep your dynamite and drink your Ceibo – pretty sure I’m drunk on the fumes before it even hits my mouth. We’re told that convicts were often forced to work and live inside the mine permanently – they wouldn’t see daylight for years and would often die while they were in here.  We’ve only been in the mine for a couple of hours and when I see daylight I do feel a certain sense of relief. Out in the open, Pedro lights the dynamite fuse and proceeds to pull off hilarious poses before running down the hill and doing pushups over the burning fuse. Classic stuff! 

Next on the agenda is Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world at 10,582 sq. It’s about three and a half hours by bus from Potosi and we arrive in the early evening. I’ve taken a skipping rope and an elastic workout band with me on the travels – it’s light weight and I can keep fit for my return to the coast. Jason and I set up a little training circuit in the hotel – dips on the stairs, pushups etc. I show Jason how to use the elastic band to do bicep curls by pinning one end under his foot. Unfortunately the handle slips off his foot at full stretch - it flies up and smacks him square in the face, opening up a nice gash! He reckons he's going to make up a story about how it happened as the truth is just too lame.

Jason has to head home to Alaska so goes for a one day tour while I opt for a three-day tour – basically you just jump in a 4WD with a guide and he drives you around to see the coolest areas and stay at different places on the way. Shops are few and far between, so all of the food is pre-packed and organised for you during the day. There are a lot of companies trying to cash in on this – do your research before you go as some have terrible food and guides.

Our guide Lucio from Red Planet tours is a good guy and very knowledgeable. There are two vehicles in our convoy – some cool cats in the other 4WD. Unfortunately, I’m stuck with the incessantly talking English chick. When she’s not talking, she’s blasting ABBA at full noise. Ironically she’s talking about going on a silent retreat in Chile after this - I really wish she’d start practicing now! Before I lose my shit, I plug in my earphones and focus on enjoying the amazing scenery.

The days are filled with all sorts of amazing scenery, including the ‘train cemetery’ where trains were dumped back in the 1940’s after several decades of mining in the area came to an end. I get a chuckle when I bump into someone who said they'd been talking to an Alaskan guy who'd apparently been on the Potosi mine tour and cut his head from a falling rock! Didn't have the heart to tell them the real story haha. We see just about every colour in the landscape you can imagine, vast plantations of Quinoa, vicuña (relative of llamas) and even flamingos - at an elevation of 3600m above sea level this was the last thing I expected to see!

I opt for the overnight bus from Uyuni to La Paz – I’ve heard it’s the worst bus ride in South America as the road is so bumpy – basically 8 of the 12 hours you’re getting the shit shaken out of you. I figure I have a cunning plan and as we leave I pop two pills of Valium to knock myself out – the plan is to put my ear plugs in and wake up in La Paz. Brilliant in theory, however at around midnight the bus comes to a halt and the driver is revving the crap out of the engine. I wake up and try and make some sense of the situation in my Valium induced haze. My first thought is that our bus is getting held up and we’re about to get robbed– shit, I haven’t even had a chance to back up my photos!!! Turns out the gearbox has given up the ghost and we now have to get off our luxury tourist bus and jump into a rickety, overcrowded local bus. No easy task when loaded on Valium!