The second half of Bolivia - at altitude in Cochabamba, Torotoro, Sucre, Potosi, Uyuni
13.02.2016 - 25.02.2016 13 °C
We arrived back in La Paz and our first feeling was relief at the much more livable temperature, having gone from about 200m to 4,000m above sea level. We checked back into our old hostel and had a quiet afternoon, eventually going out for dinner with our Swiss/Dutch/Australian friends from our Amazon tour at a nice place they recommended. We played cards with them (I think this is a major part is why we got on so well) and enjoyed more friends time.
The next day Laura and Peter made a start on souvenir shopping as we are finally getting close enough to the end of our trip to warrant the extra weight. The variety of merchandise available was quite amazing.
We bid La Paz goodbye and jumped on a bus to Cochabamba, the culinary capital of Bolivia. Unbeknownst to us, we arrived at about 8pm on their biggest carnival party night. We had some trouble finding accommodation, for the first time in our trip. We had places turn us away because they were full of people from all over Bolivia and the world. It was almost ten by the time we found somewhere, but we had sure wandered through a lot of the city and seen a lot of people in some amazing outfits. We decided to pass on going out and instead set out early the next morning. We explored the market La Cancha which is the largest in South America. It was all local stuff and we had had enough very quickly. We got a cable car up to a Christ statute which is the tallest statute of Jesus in the world!!! (Technically there is one in Poland which is larger if you include the height of the platform and the crown).
Afterwards we walked to the start point for a "bike art tour" but we ended up exploring some of the street art ourselves because the tour only had one free spot when we arrived.
That evening Peter wasn't feeling great so he opted to spend a couple of days convalescing while David and I got a 6pm bus to the 'nearby' national park of Torotoro which didn't arrive until 12:30am. We met up with three other tourists (the only other ones on the bus) and started hunting for hostels that were open. After about 20 minutes of knocking on closed doors (many of which had signs that promised 24 hour reception) even the park benches were looking appealing, but eventually Lily came to the door at Hostal Las Hermanas.
We woke all too soon so that we could arrange a group and a guide for a full day at the park at Ciudad de Ida ("City of Rocks") and Cueva Humajalanta (Bolivia's longest cave passage). The three others from the night before joined us, alongside driver Jose and guide Jesus. The national park sits near the ridge of the Pacific and South American tectonic plates, consequently there are many exposed layers of earth from historical times - including footprints from the times of the dinosaurs. Jesus called the park a "history book".
At the city of rocks we did a 3 hour loop hike. The views of the exposed layers was amazing from where we began.
We saw some interesting caves, rocks that looked like animals, ancient cave paintings, and old Bolivian ladies looking after flocks of sheep and goats.
After completing the walk with panoramic views over the strange layered rocks, we returned to the van to drive to the caves. Before entering the caves, however, we had a look at three sets of dinosaur footprints left in the mud 80 million years ago.
After clambering over rocks, squeezing through small gaps, and sliding down parts of the cave on our rear ends, we returned to the town of Torotoro.
We didn't plan on the five hour walk to the waterfall the next day, but this included a larger set of dinosaur footprints. Instead we opted to see these that evening with our driver Jose. This was hugely impressive - the different species, the clarity of the prints and the fact that they were all apparently heading North together.
The next day we ate at the local market where we'd eaten all our food in Torotoro town, bid farewell to the giant dinosaur statues overlooking the church from the centre of the square, and caught a van back to meet Peter in Cochabamba. Unfortunately the road from Torotoro to our next stop, Sucre, hasn't been built yet, so returning to Cochabamba was effectively going the wrong way for five hours. The three of us caught up over dinner and then found an overnight bus to Sucre, which again (like our bus to Rurrenabaque) arrived at 4am - hours earlier than expected. The bus trip was reasonably eventful as we stopped in the middle of the night to tow another bus which had slipped partly over the cliff!
Luckily Laura had bookmarked the location of a decent hostel, who let us check in at 7am - and so we slept during the day, ate, did washing, and explored the market which we would return to several times in the next two days. We had decided that we were better off relaxing and taking "rest days" in the less expensive Bolivia than spending more time (and money) later in Chile, Argentina or Brazil.
While in Sucre we visited a dedicated dinosaur park and museum. Excavations for a concrete factory had revealed hundreds of tracks in the side of the cliff making up the largest area of dinosaur tracks in the world - the flat surface which had been walked 65 million years ago is today at a sheer 70 degrees!
That night we walked up to a cafe with a lookout over Sucre.
In Sucre we learnt a lot about Bolivia's history and politics. Peter and I visited the House of Liberty - an historic building where Bolivia's independence was signed, the original Argentinean flag is housed, and where there are many artefacts and paintings from Bolivia's turbulent history. We filled in the rest of our time in Sucre by shopping, eating and enjoying the beautiful public squares and buildings.
After taking the short bus to Potosi, we enjoyed a huge carnivorous dinner for $8 each including a beer. Potosi is an important silver mining town which in the 17th century mined and minted 80% of the coins produced globally (at this time the Spanish currency was globally recognised - a sort of USD of the time). The town is now well into its decline, with the low quality and quantity of metal able to be extracted today and the low global silver price.
On our first full day in Potosi we went on a tour of one of the active mines. The group purchased gifts for the miners, which our guide Willie handed to the miners we met on the way - which did make them more glad to see tourists than they would have been otherwise. At the start of the tour we pushed Laura in the minecart into the mountain, and at the end we gifted coca leaves to a devil statute, and sat to learn about the superstitions, jokes and comradery of the miners.
That afternoon we took an excellent tour of the House of Money - formerly the busiest mint in the world. Over the three centuries of the Spanish colonial exploitation of silver in Potosi had a huge human cost - with eight million deaths of indigenous Bolivian and African American slaves shared between the mines (accidents, silicosis) and the mint (mercury fumes from the fire, losing fingers in the press and overwork).
The next day was referendum day in Bolivia (which we now know was lost 49% to 51%). I have to correct from our last blog that the president hadn't already changed the constitution to allow himself a third term, in fact a court ruled that his second term in reality was in fact his "first term" under the new constitution. Due to the referendum, everything was closed and we knew we couldn't get to Uyuni. We had a quiet day, but did manage to walk to top of hill for a view of town and of the famous mining mountains.
After our enforced day off, we set out for Uyuni - but not before we toured the San Francisco monastery. Although we were shown Bolivian paintings of Jesus (which depict the Romans wearing Spanish conquistador clothes), bones in the crypt, and the church itself, the activity which impressed us most was the 360 view of Potosi from the roof.
We were efficient on arrival in Uyuni - finding accommodation, booking the classic three day tour and also a night visit to the salt flats for sunset that day. To Peter's delight, there were vast areas of the flats covered by a few centimeters of water - making for a giant mirror. In particular this made for a unique sunset.
There were too many clouds to see stars, but instead we enjoyed a fierce thunderstorm on the horizon until the driver told us we should probably get going earlier than planned due to the weather change.
The salt flats are a photographer's heaven. Unfortunately for us our time was curtailed there - partly because the water on the salt flats meant that our three day tour took a modified route where we had an extra three hours driving on the first day (the only day on the slat flats) and partly because we started an hour late due to the disorganization of our tour company. Despite this being the worst tour company we have had (due to misinformation, broken promises to the others in our group, delays and the guide being inflexible), we made the most of our time on the flats. At the time the white was too bright to see, but looking at the photos afterwards we were very happy.
We started the tour at the train graveyard.
Tourists often use the expansive flats to play tricks with perspective - and we were no different…
We had hoped that our guide would bring a dinosaur toy (as many tour companies do) so that we could continue our waking with dinosaurs theme, but instead we had to make do with yet again meeting a giant unicorn.
After enjoying the dry part, and visiting a “salt hotel”, we also stopped at an underwater area to add to our photos from the night before.
Because of the water, we then turned back to the town of Uyuni and drove anther few hours to our overnight stop. The next day we joined back up with the usual route, visiting four lagoons in the flat highlands between Bolivia and Chile. We saw flamingos in lagoons backed by snowy mountains and climbed unusual rock formations.
At our final lake - the red coloured Lake Colorado, we saw the unusual sight of one llama having its way with a female, only for another llama to gallop over and push him out of the way - taking his place!
On the third and final day of our salt flats tour (and our last day in Bolivia), we woke up at 4am so that we could visit a geyser for sunrise and then a hot pools at 8am before we finished the tour at the Chilean border at 9am. At the border the officials only let one or two people into the room at a time - and we are fairly sure they tried to scam everyone one by one. They asked us to pay around $3 to exit the country, flashing an official looking piece of paper. When we insisted on a receipt they quickly pivoted and said - you were on an expensive salt flats tour? Your tour included the exit fee. Of course our tour was the cheapest we could find, and didn't even include the $2 entry to the hot pools (which we had been promised when we booked).
On reflection the salt flats were among the most unique places we have visited and we are glad we did it - even if the tour covered the bare minimum. We have some incredible photos (especially from Peter) which we didn't even appreciate fully at the time. At this point we waved farewell to the picturesque, underdeveloped, inexpensive and welcoming Bolivia.