My Misadventures in the Bolivian Highlands

After finishing the fall semester, I went with Adrian to Bolivia for 10 days. The trip was Adrian's idea, so I pretty much tagged along. Although the experience was memorable, this was due more to the discomfort, nausea and appalling conditions than the natural beauty or Bolivian culture, though both of the latter were very interesting at times. As I write this, it's so nice to be back in São Paulo, and to no longer be carrying around a roll of toilet paper, a shrinking cake of soap and a bottle of clean water.

Friday, December 8

We flew on state-owned Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano (LAB), which ought to be renamed Fuck-my-ass-with-a-rusty-pipe Airlines. We received a call the day before we were supposed to leave advising us that our flight was cancelled, with no apologies or explanations. They told us, however, that we could fly on their competitor, Aéro Sur, so we went to their office to make the change. Yet when we arrived at the airport five hours early to ensure we got on the flight, the change was not made in the computer systems, so we stood at the check-in counter for about 2 hours while the idiot working there made the necessary changes. Two hours?!! That there were no passengers behind us the whole time was a sign of how bad this airline is. Finally, the woman managed to change Adrian's seat but could only manage to put him in business class. I wanted business too for all the trouble, but didn't feel like dealing with her any more.

We left only about a hour late on Aéro Sur to Santa Cruz, the economic capital of Boliva, and were supposed to go back to LAB for the remaining leg to the capital, La Paz. We had a few hours between flights, so we took a taxi downtown for dinner. We had few choices, and settled on a nauseating dinner of fried chicken and French fries. Then, we saw a huge protest in the main plaza of the town, which was over the city's being a net contrbutor to the national finances, and their wishes for autonomy. I don't think Evo Morales would allow that.

When we got back to the airport, we were informed that that flight would be 3 hours late because the airplane had not yet arrived. After 3 1/2 hours, they informed us of an additional 2 hour delay while they fixed the windshield wiper on the aircraft. All the while we were sitting around and eventually sleeping in the airport while watching an interesting montage of videos from movies and movie musicals. They repeated "What a Feeling" from Flashdance, "Against All Odds", several songs from Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and the eponymous tune from The Neverending Story plus others over and over again. I was impressed with Bolivian's taste for American pop culture.

The girl's thigh from the Flashdance video

When the airplane was finally ready for boarding near dawn, the flight attendants told us to sit wherever we wanted, so I sat up front in business class with Adrian. The aircraft was old, and when Adrian asked the flight attendant, he said it was the first airplane purchased by LAB in 1969, and "it's still flying," he said.

We made an unexpected stop in Cochabamba, where some passengers got off and others got on. There were, in fact, more passengers than seats for the last leg. The flight attendants were asking mothers to hold their babies on thier laps, and passengers were sitting in the seats flight attendants use during take-off. They made me go back to coach from business, and I imagine they had some people doubled up in those seats.

We arrived in La Paz at dawn, only 9 hours late, and what a shock. It was freezing, and coming from Brazil, we were rather poorly dressed. At 3,640 meters (11,942 feet), La Paz is the highest capital in the world. The altitude makes you feel dizzy and short of breath, and you can feel your heart beating in side of your body.

Amazingly, our luggage come out of the plane, and we took a cab downtown to a hostel.

Saturday, December 9

We immediately got into bed to rest, but found it very difficult to sleep, a typical symptom of the altiude sickness. Adrian told me that while I slept I entered into very deep, irregular breathing every few seconds. We woke up around noon, and headed out to see La Paz. The city is situated near the top of a mountain. At the highest parts is the airport, and a lower-class area called the High City, or El Alto. In general, the further down you go, the nicer the city gets. Whether you are looking down from the top or up from the bottom, you see a seemingly endless cityscape of buildings, perched precariously on very steep hills.

Looking down at the Centro

Looking up at El Alto

Leaving our hotel, we walked into what seemed to be the main plaza, which was very pretty and full of colonial buildings.

As we walked further down towards the Calle Sandaga, the main tourist drag where the Iglesia de San Francisco and many hostels and touristy shops are located, things began to change. La Paz is very dirty, with extremely polluted air and other stenches related to sanitation issues - They throw both organic and inorganic waste into the streets at night. The narrow sidewalks are littered with merchants, selling llama and alpaca wool sweaters, hats and gloves, coca leaves, and many other items. One of the most curious sights in La Paz are the cholas or cholitas if you want to use the diminutive, which are a type of Indian women who wear strange clothes. Usually made of pretty materials, their outfits consist of long ruffly dresses, and a large shawl that covers everything else. On their backs are a hobo-type piece of fabric filled with all of their things, and the shawl covers this sack. Since they are usually fat (genetic, I think, related to the altitude) they end up with a large, round form to them. Finally, on their heads sit funny-looking top hats that are too small, and are made of felt with a curled up brim and a ribbon around the side.

Some cholas

We walked a little ways, and saw the Iglesia mentioned above, and then went to buy some crafts (hats, gloves and the like) before going to the Museo de Coca, or the Coca Museum, which is a small building with numbered posters you follow along the walls to read about coca. Interesting, but too much reading.

The Iglesia de San Francisco and the market out front

Outside the Museo de Coca

From there, we walked over the Witch's Market, which is full of traditional medicine, statuettes and, most notable, dead llama fetuses, used in religious ceremonies in Bolivian culture, I guess.

Here is a video to give you an idea of the noise and chaos of a La Paz street. I wish video could give you smells, too - noxious exhaust fumes everywhere are no fun. The micros (microbuses) have young boys that hang out the windows, shouting the stops their bus will make in auction-style speed. It is obnoxious, because they do it non-stop, whether anyone is around or not. In the video you can hear "dos bolivianos, dos bolivianos" shouted repeatedly.

Sunday, December 10

The next moring, we woke up early and took a bus to Copacabana, which sits right on Lake Titicaca. We took a really cheap bus in which we were the only tourists, which surprisingly was ok as far as comfort. Still, Bolivians appear very unorganized, and they seemed unable not to stand up and walk around the bus before and after departure, turning around, talking, reorganizing their bags and, in general, making travelling much more difficult than necessary. I had some cholas stick their big asses in my face more than once. I think Bolivian's have a some serious complexes, because we sat in the wrong seats to avoid two rowdy boys running up and down the aisle while their father just watched. When the people who were supposed to sit in our seats got on, no one said anything to us even though they knew our seats belonged to them. On the streets, also, they ignore you sometimes when you speak to them in Spanish. Although many Bolivians speak Aymara and Quechua as their first language, most all of them speak Spanish, too. Also, practically all of the Bolivian ads (billboards and the like) have Caucasian people in them, many of whom are blonde, which is so ridiculous because 95% of the Bolivian people are not even mestizo but pure Indian. The only blondes I saw had badly dyed highlights, most of which looked ridiculous. But I digress...

We had to cross a part of Lake Titikaka to get the the peninsula on which Copacabana sits. That peninsula is attached to Peru, and the Lake it the only sizable body of water in land-locked Bolivia.

The Bolivian Navy at Titicaca

When we arrived at Copacabana, we went and bought a boat tour of the Isla del Sol (Sun Island), which sits in Lake Titicaca and is where the Inca civilization is said to have begun. They believe the first Inca emerged from the Lake. Before leaving, we took a micro to the Peruvian border for thrills. We couldn't get the stamp in our passports, because the Peruvian government requires you to stay overnight if they stamp your passport. Still, they let you just walk right across, and we did.

On the Peru-Bolivia border

When we got back, we walked briefly around the tiny town of Copacabana, and saw the church there. Before the beach in Rio de Janeiro or the Barry Manilow song, the real Copacabana has always been in Bolivia. The name is derived from the Aymara kota kahuana, meaning "view of the lake." The church in Copacabana has a well-known virgin in it, a copy of which was brought to Rio de Janeiro, which is how the beach there got its name.

The Church of Copacabana

We left for the tour of the Sun Island, and met a Norwegian couple on the boat. They allowed us to piggyback on the guided tour they had purchased, so we did.

Martin & Sessel

On the way to Sun Island

The Incas believed the terraced ladscape was a gift from their Gods

A view out at at the wide expanse of mountains

More alpacas (alpacas are simply smaller llamas)

The Inca's Sun Temple

That night we too a bus back to La Paz. Martin & Sessel had agreed to come with us and go to the Calle de la Muerte (Road of Death) the next morning.

Monday, December 11

The Calle de la Muerte (Death Road) was by far the coolest excursion we went on in Bolivia. The road earned its name for its dangerous, twisting curves above steep cliffs that drop off into rocky hillsides or lush vegetation (mostly coca plants) far below. If memory serves correctly, in the past decade about 800 people have died descending this road from it's 4900 meter (16,076 ft) summit about an hour from La Paz to the 1,200 meter (3,937 ft) low point at Yolosa. Luckily, bicyclists have had better luck; only about eight have perished during the same period. Some of their tombstones line the rocky path, providing an eery reminder of the dangers. Israeli graves seemed over-represented.

When we arrived at the summit, we along with the Norwegians and a group of three Australian guys got into the brightly-colored windbreakers and pants the tour company (Astrid Tours) provided and got acquainted with our bikes. We had the good fortune of taking this tour just three days after the opening of a new stretch of the Death Road, so we began our journey on a smooth, paved surface. The temperature was markedly lower there, and the wind made outr ears red and we zipped downward, literally riding through the clouds at speeds up to 50 kmh (30 mph). It was exhilarating!

I'm the one in the back with the black backpack on

Soon we arrived at the old stretch of the Death Road, which is still an unpaved rocky path. As we descended, the temperature rose quickly and the vegetation increased in quantity. There were also more and more waterfalls and wet, muddy patches we had to cross. The bouncing over large rocks was painful on my hands as I gripped the brakes tightly, but was well worth it; you really feel alive when you're close to death.

Here you see an Israeli tombstone next to the Australian guys

Riding through a waterfall beside a steep cliff

Cooling off near the bottom

After reaching the low point, we got back in the van and headed up the hill to Coroico.

Having lunch at a hotel in Coroica afterwards

We arrived back in La Paz that evening quite tired, and paid a hotel to let us take a shower before boarding the bus to Uyuni, the gateway to the famed Salar de Uyuni(Salt Desert of Uyuni). My Bolivian friend in DC named Carlos said to avoid road transportation in Boivia, so I did not expect the 10-hour overnight bus ride to go well, and it didn't. We left around 9 PM, two hours late, and around 3 or 4 in the morning I noticed a fire up ahead on the road. As we got closer, it became apparent that there was a road block made by local villagers. I can't explain why they chose to block roads in an effort to get a greater share of the government's spending, but using large boulders and gasoline-filled tires shooting huge flames into the air they effectively stopped all traffic until dawn. All the while, our bus full of tourists and ordinary Bolivians just sat there, unable to do anything. This is where the trip really started to go downhill.

Tuesday, December 12

Somehow, we arrived in Uyuni around 10, not too late to catch tours leaving that day. As soon as we stepped off the bus, throngs of tour operators rushed us and every other passenger. Like moths to a flame, they came at us aggressively and deaf to our nos in Spanish. Some insisted on speaking English to us even though they had no idea where we were from and we only spoke to them in Spanish. Eventually, a curt váyase became necessary.

Over breakfast in the main plaza of Uyuni, we decided somewhat arbitrarily on the company we would take. We had no real knowledge on them, but read everywhere about scams they pull on you. A rankings bureau exists to help tourists avoid companies that charge you extra along the way, or skip sites to save time and gasoline; however, we had heard more than once that operators pay for good rankings. We ultimately decided on one, and left shortly after noon.

Our driver was accompanied by a young girl named Elisabet who was probably about 15 years old. Her job was to help out and cook all the meals during the four day tour. The Norwegian guy and I had both brought along MP3 players and a car adaptor, and when we asked her to put it in she replied rudely saying simply "no," and putting on annoying Bolivian flute music. Right there I told her that we had paid a lot of money for the tour (for five people, some USD$400 - a fortune in Bolivia) and she would allow us to listen to the music we brought. She bowed her head in embarassment and did not reply at all, showing her age and immaturity.

Our driver, Miguel

We continued to our first stop, if it even counts as one. The Train Graveyard is simply a dirt yard located in the outskirts of Uyuni in which the Bolivian railway operator throws old, broken trains covered in rust, plus other garbage. It is certainly an unsafe place to hang out, but we took a quick walk around to see if there was anything interesting. There really wasn't.

The Train Graveyard near Uyuni

Next, we arrived at beginning of the giant Uyuni salt desert, the attraction for which the tour really exists. The totally flat expanse of salt is what is left of Lake Minsin, which dried up about 40,000 years ago, and was connected to other lakes including Lake Titicaca far away. It is huge, measuring 10,582 square km (4,085 square miles) and sits at 3,650 meters above sea level. There are an estimated 10 billion tons of salt there, of which less than 25,000 are extracted annually. The workers that come to extract the salt in what must be back-breaking work stay out from dawn to dusk, chewing coca leaves to keep their energy high. At high altitudes, the sun is extremely intense, and the reflection of the white ground burns your skin easily. If you look closely at the pictures you can see my nose got very red during trip.

Soon we arrived at the Salt Hotel, which is no longer in use as a hotel but still cool to see. The whole struture save the roof is made of thick, heavy salt bricks taken from the ground. It is rock hard, and doesn't seem to dissolve in rainy times. Even the table and benches located out front where we ate lunch were made of salt.

In front of the Salt Hotel

Before lunch was ready, we experimented with some trick photography, which is made easy by the all-white surroundings!

Me stepping on pint-sized Adrian

Adrian stepping on mini me

Must Lift Giant Rock Save Earth

After lunch we headed toward another hotel which they referred to as another salt hotel, though it wasn't.

I had left the tape adaptor in the truck's deck, and noticed sometime during the afternoon that Elisabet had thrown it out onto the dusty ground. I was pissed, and spoke with our driver, who said not to worry and that we could go on without her. We jumped at the chance to ditch her, not only to avoid her bullshit attitude but to get some more room in the car.

As the sun began to go down, the temperature dropped precipitously. The dry air and altitude made night time conditions surprisingly frigid.

That night, we were all afraid to eat her dinner for fear she would mix some excrement, spit or God-knows-what in the food to make us sick, though everyone ended up eating the gruel except Sessel, the Norwegian girl. As luck would have it, only she woke up during the middle of the night and vomited all over the floor of her and Martin's room.

Wednesday, December 13

At 6 the next morning, Elisabet just pushed open the door of both our room in which three men and a straight couple were sleeping, without a knock and saying simply desayuno. We talked during breakfast about how we were all so pissed at her, and would make sure she leave, that little shit!

In the first part of the day, Adrian and a Dutch guy who was on our tour named Philbert decided to climb the volcano that sat right behind our lodging. Its peak was at about 4,900 meters, but in five hours they only managed to make it to about 4,700. We went back to bed and sat in the sun while they did that.

Next, we headed to Isla del Pescado (Fish Island), named for its shape, though we never got the right view to appreciate that interpretation. It is not really an island, but a mass of rock that emerges from the salt flat. You can tell that there was once water in this region of the world when you look down at the beach-like base, as evidenced in the picture below. Spectacularly large cacti grow in abundance there. They estimate that each centimeter indicates one year of cactus growth, making many of the cacti there more than 1000 years old. Check out the pic of the 1,206 year old plant below.

If you click on this photo, you can see that this cactus is 1,206 years old!

After our last lunch with Elisabet, we noticed on of the volcanoes letting off some smoke. The whole of the desert and much of the surrounding areas is made of volcanic eruptions, which apparently continue to take place to some degree.

Next we headed off toward a cave discovered a few years ago by two Bolivians. It is filled with cool plant fossils in limestone, evidence of a water world here a long time ago. They said they were still waiting for the lab report from Italy, which would tell them its age. Next to it is an Inca burial ground where, as legend goes, a lost girl once stopped after getting lost and died there. I forget the rest of the story, but a bunch of other children's skulls can be seen in some deep holes dug into the ground. Sacrifice or burial ground? You be the judge.

Then, we got back into the truck and headed down winding, dusty roads over mountains for several hours. We often had to keep the windows closed to avoid getting sand blown into our eyes and mouths, but of course it got very hot as a result.

We finally arrived at our lodging for that night, a very simple house with two small rooms on the top floor. We ate an awful dinner and talked before going to bed. At this point in the trip, I was in a pretty bad mood because of the conditions, discomfort, the cold, the fact that i hadn't slept more than about four hours each night since arriving. This was due to the altitude and early start times each day. There was also a neverending feeling that I was going to either shit my pants or throw up. After dinner a group of kids with snotty noses came in and played a song for money. Then we went to bed.

Thursday, December 14

We woke up and headed towards a series of cool rock formations.

Then we saw the first of three pools where three species of South American flamingos breed.

Then, we drove onto some more cool rock formations, including a Salvador Dali-like Rock Tree.

From there we drove to the Green Lagoon to see some more flamingos. The color is due to algae growth and minerals in the water, they said.

That night we slept at a strange compound comprised of about four barracks-like buildings. We slept in one room on very uncomfortable metal spring beds. The cold was unbearable here, near 4,500 meters above sea level. The owners cut the generator at 9 PM, and before bed I spent a few minutes stargazing, which was unbelievably good. I've never seen such a sight in the sky as in Bolivia. There were extremely clear forms to the Milky Way and at least two other galaxies, with a purplish bright blue light to the sky.

Friday, December 15

The temperature when we woke up was literally freezing. Keep in mind that this was in prime Summer for the Southern Hemisphere, and temperatures at this elevation during the winter are said to go as low as -30 degrees Celsius, though this was probably an exageration. We went first to some geysers, which spewed up hot, sulphuric gases high into the air. The smell was great!

In hot, muddy places like these, scientists say, life began.

Then we drove to a natural hot spring. The cold of getting undressed was awful, but getting in the water I really warmed up for the first time in many days. Some ignorant Israelis broke out some shampoo and lathered up, polluting the water before I bothered to say something to them.

From there, we ate breakfast and drove to the Chilean border, where I said good-bye to Adrian and the others on our tour. I was to go back to Uyuni with the driver by myself that afternoon in order to catch the night bus to La Paz, and my flight. About a half hour before we reached the border, we sprung a leak in the coolant tank, which stranded us for a short while. Once I was alone in the car with the driver, we began having consistent problems and stopped every twenty minutes along the six or seven hour journey to add water to the tank. We filled up a couple dozen empty water bottles wil water to take with us, first at the hot springs, then later at other natural springs along the way. The engine was also having trouble starting at this point, so we had to push the truck just the two of us whenever we stopped. While doing it on an upward slanting spot where we got stuck I think I almost had a heart attack, and was breathing like someone who had been underwater and on the verge of suffocation for a good 5 minutes, thanks to the altitude. Needless to say, I was eager to get back to Uyuni. As luck would have it, about an hour from the town we ran out of gas. The driver then had the nerve to ask me for money to buy more, though I refused and made the Bolivians he picked up along the road (against my wishes, as we had paid for a round trip whether we were five or one) pay him their fare as gas money.

While getting out of the truck in Uyuni, I cut my toe badly and looked for a shower, but there was no water in the town due to an water outage. So I bought a few bottles of spring water and, in the main plaza where we had sat four days earlier, I took a bottle bath and cleaned up my foot, then got something to eat, checked my email and boarded the night bus back to La Paz.

Saturday, December 16

Once there, I headed straight for the airport to change my ticket to leave the next morning. On my way, I got some cash and left my ATM card in the machine. It was Saturday and the bank was then closed, so it was unrecoverable. I was so ready to get the hell out of Bolivia and back to lovely Brazil. I spent that day sleeping under the covers in my mold-infested hotel room, the nicest I could find, and watching cable. I awoke at 3:45 the next morning for the 6 AM flight back to SP, as I had been instructed the day before. Thankfully I had about 40 American dollars, and was able to pay the surprise airport tax of USD$22, a lot of money in Bolivia. In true form, LAB advised that the plane was behind schedule and had to fly to Lima, Peru, and back before we could go to Brazil. We left at about 11:30 that morning, and I was cursing life itself by that point. Landing at Guarulhos airport in São Paulo was like the end of a nightmare. Thanks for the memories, Bolivia. I'll never forget it.