Bolivia is a daunting undertaking on the backpacker trail around South America, dirt poor and landlocked, it has fruits to bear and shadows to be cloaked in. Its north west border dominated by the great Lake Titicaca, splitting the border with Peru, it is a strangely calm ‘ocean like’ supermassive body of water. To the east the Amazon Jungle colours the land a lush green, with wild jungle passes, pink dolphins and the abundance of spectacular wildlife associated with the great Amazon. The very antithesis to this myriad of life sits at the south-west of Bolivia, just beyond the stunning white salt flats at Salar De Uyuni, The Atacama Desert nullifies life. The driest desert on earth, it is heaven for those that seek an eye on the heavens, but a nightmare for those that seek really anything else to do. Bolivia truly is a land of absolute extremes.
I crossed into Bolivia a lot easier than people would have had me believe, my bus stopped for a few hours at the massive Lake Titicaca, I spent a few hours fending off vendors trying to sell me half day tours to see the ‘locals’ who definitely don’t live on the straw rafts in the middle of the lake. Titicaca itself is astounding from its shore, its surface effortlessly uneventful, glass smooth as far as the eye can see, it’s troublesome to comprehend it as a mere lake and not an ocean.
Arrived in La Paz late afternoon, the bus dropped me off somewhere, where I had no idea. Managed to navigate my way to the hostel with a map I found outside a mini-market. On my way there I picked up some chorizo stew thing from a street vendor, having eaten nothing since leaving Peru, that proved to be the meal that brought on the inevitable travel stomach. That was me done for days, I wallowed in a dorm room with eleven other people, sweating through night and day, dashing to and from the bathroom like clockwork. These were dark days in Bolivia.
Three days in I managed to venture out from my necessary twenty yard perimeter of the toilet, took the short walk over to the witches market, terrible idea in my current state. Quite simply, several streets adorned with dead baby llamas in varied states of undress; little dead and skinned llamas, little dead and not skinned llamas, half a baby llama, baby llama heads etc etc. My insides were a nightmare, i skurried back and bunkered in till the fog of food poisoning lifted.
I finally got to experiencing Bolivia the next evening, me and Ronnie from Stockport headed out with the guide from his city tour and a few others to the local stadium to watch a top of the table derby in the Bolivian Premier League, Bolivar v Cochabamba. On our way down we bought three dollar bottles of scotch and a two dollar match ticket. Growing up on the terraces of Old Trafford my senses were heightened by the bustle and fervour of a highly anticipated night game, the punctuating smell of Salford burger vans now the dull stench of chicken hearts on sticks, the back and forth Mancunian battle cries now…well i didn’t have a clue what they were saying to each other.
We pushed our way down the terraces, a brilliantly white moon flanked by a venus in opposition lit the stadium, 30,000 or so raucous Bolivians swayed and coalesced as one, a goal down after three minutes, their support remained vocal and steadfast. Drums banged, arms flailed and flags flew. At half time we watched new fans (thankfully not us) be initiated in, with legs pulled apart it was their duty to receive a kick right in the yarbles from whoever was knocking about it would seem. Bolivar scored two late goals and sent the deserving fans into a frenzy, amongst the herd on the way out we watched running three-way battles between opposing fans and police, and in my twenty years frequenting football grounds it was that one night in Bolivia that I got my first taste of tear gas.
Before I left i took a morning to go check out some of La Paz. Really not that much to explore, of note was the old palatial friary, some strange artwork, cool wooden carvings, a below ground church hall, the tombs of Bolivian warriors and the chance to scoot across the rooftops from bell tower to bell tower.
Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats).
I left La Paz with Scott and Dave, two lads from England I had met in Mancora. We caught an awful night bus (more the state of the roads than the bus itself) down to Uyuni, an almost barren, western looking town in the desert. With a few hours to spare and nothing to do, we loaded up on supplies for the three-day tour, showered in a little cafe off the main road and awaited our pickup.
With the jeep full of us three, a Canadian, an irish girl and a german, we drove out an hour or so to the abandoned train yard eerily located where there were no train lines or evidence of them. Old steam engines, slowly dissolving in the arid desert winds, rust carried away on every breeze, entropy dismantling these once magnificent beasts piece by piece. We made that graveyard our playground for an hour or so, climbing in and out of carriages, running along the roofs and swinging from their bones.
From there it was on to the salt flats, a surreal expanse all in white, the horizon only occasionally interrupted by distant volcanoes. We played like children in the reflected sunshine, tried unsuccessfully to get those perspective photographs that everyone seems to know how to do so well, ate alpaca steaks on the back of the jeep and headed for the ‘hotel’ made of salt that would be our refuge for the evening.
It was a cool place to spend a night, bathed in the glow of a million stars we played cards, drank and smoked until the small hours.
Day two was a long drawn out affair, our interest peaked early as we stopped at a lake populated with flamingos underneath an active volcano. The rest of the day was a hard slog, sweltering in the back of a jeep being ferried across martian landscapes from one strange rock formation to another. The day was bookended beautifully by our final stop at the Red Lake, a stunning algae covered body of water that changes its colours as the light falls upon it throughout the day. We were relieved to arrive early at our hostel in the desert, apparently so was our driver.
We gathered for our 4.30am role call to drive for sunrise over the salt flats, our driver did not.
The only clue to his whereabouts was the discarded bottle of spirits by his cab door, sure enough 45 minutes later he stumbled our way. A little old withered guy, looking like an old piece of fruit left forgotten in the sun, he climbed into his seat and ordered us to follow. One of our spanish speaking companions tried in vain to see if he was fit to drive, the little fucker got real defensive real quick. As we white knuckled it in the back, our gin soaked boy up front swerved from side to side, accelerating through thick dust clouds until we could take no more. Passing another tour by the side of the road, we arranged for our driver to follow this one to the next stop so we could allow this guy to sleep off his libations.
As he did, we marvelled at giants geysers atop the volcano. The sulphur in the air burnt the nose, the clay at our feet bubbled violently, water in all three of its forms dominated the landscape, it was quite literally breathtaking. And while old sleepyhead rested, we soaked ourselves in the hot springs just down the hill, thick steam spinning and diving to reveal jaw dropping volcanic landscapes as far as the eye could see.
Romeo had his Juliet, American Beauty had that floating plastic bag, Forest Gump had the reflective equipoise of the heavens and the earth and now I have the superlative majesty of the Bolivian salt flats, its constituent Martian landscapes and its forty degree natural hot springs.
I spent my last few days in Bolivia fighting little boulder like women to get on buses at the closed border with Chile, drinking cheap rum at an almost comedic club night, relaxing at Cafe Florin in a pretty student town called Sucre, and waiting for the border strike to end so we could cross into Argentina.
The salt flats aside, Bolivia I can take you or leave you.