Bolivia came in a flash, an overwhelming wave of new culture, experiences and places. The altitude made it a struggle for many, our first day reaching five thousand metres. Unlike the other countries we’ve been to, entering Bolivia was easy. Our leaders disappeared with our passports, and returned with them stamped. The Bolivian altiplano is desolate and unforgiving. Only accessible by four wheeled drive, we required a local guide to direct us through the random dirt tracks that crisscross this no mans land. High up in the Andes, the scenery was almost surreal. We passed lakes high in calcium, steaming, stinking geysers, rocks melting into rolling dunes and the famed Laguna Colorada – a pink lake full of flamingos. The savagely bumpy road was not kind to those suffering the altitude, and dust filled our already oxygen lacking lungs. I was thankful that altitudes affect on me that day consisted of mild confusion and drowsiness. Water was a saviour, an important remedy for surviving the altitude. I set my goal at the recommended minimum of three litres, which I achieved. The downside was my body quickly processing the higher than normal consumption and needing a bathroom when there was none. The ‘bush wee’ takes a whole new meaning when there are no bushes or rocks and twenty girls all need to go.
We arrived late at a refugio in a small village somewhere in the centre of the altiplano. One had already been rushed to Uyuni due to the altitude, yet many others suffered the nausea, vomiting and headaches. It was a quiet, freezing night but the beds were warm and comfortable. The next drive day was just as long and bumpy, but the idea of a lower altitude was a blessing in itself.
I was surprised when we rolled into Uyuni; too used to wealthy Argentinian and Chilean towns. Bolivia is one of the poorest South American countries, exploited and left to survive on little. Dust and mud carpeted the town. Rubbish heaps acted as roundabouts for the cars in the streets while starving dogs climbed them in search of food. Pathways were tight with overflowing shop fronts and people, selling unrefrigerated meat and dairy. The few souvenir stores were packed with alpaca clothing at absurdly low prices, adding to my anticipation for La Paz markets.
A convoy of seven four wheeled drives came to pick us up the next morning after a fulsome buffet breakfast. There were waffles, pancakes, cereal and more at the Minuteman restaurant, famous for the highest pizzas in the world. We quickly visited the train graveyard to see the rusty locomotives disintegrating into time. People climbed all over the trains, taking away from photos and the eerie, forgotten atmosphere. Stopping at a small town just outside of Uyuni, we were encouraged to wander the markets before our adventure into the salt flats. The adventure of my shared vehicle was literally stalled as the dodgy car needed a push start. Unfortunately the driver made the ill decision to attempt to drive through a large puddle and stalled yet again just before the salt flats. I maintained my good spirits despite the doors opening onto shin length water.
Successfully on the salt flats, we drove far into the vast emptiness. The otherworldly nature of the flats toyed with us as we drove for an hour and seemed to get nowhere. Other cars drove around us in the distance, darting along like ants. Spotting an unusual shape, we began to hope it was the Fish Island of our destination. Piling out at the random island in the expanse of white salt, it was lunch time. Two beautiful Bolivian women in the local dress served us chicken, potato and pasta. Impatient to do the one thing I’d come for – photos! – I marched around the islands circuit. It was an unusual landform, a volcanic rock island spotted with tall cacti, frozen in an ancient, dried sea. By the time we finally got to the salt flat for our photos, the sun was casting long shadows and the wind raced along the desolation. I was devastated when the few photos I wanted with a dinosaur and Inti the Lllama didn’t work out. We were pressured for time and photographers, not all able to master the art of capturing the mind bending perspectives. Salar de Uyuni is definitely one place I would return, if only to capture those amusing images at the proper time of day, and with more time and props. To compensate for the bitter disappointment I felt about the photos, a spectacular sunset glowed across the white salt. The sun never fails to disappoint, filling me with awe as the sky turned from orange, pink, lilac and navy; the salt softly reflecting its surroundings. Tired from the big day out, I was thankful to curl up in the warm bed and sleep soundly.
It was a short drive to Potosi, staying at four thousand metres. Potosi has a heartbreaking history, once one of the richest towns in the world to now rock bottom. The bounteous silver mines have been raped, and the Spanish gone with all the wealth. Now the miners, including children, scrounge for remaining tin in deadly conditions with minimal safety equipment. Climbing from the bus, the smell of vehicle fumes and waste made me instantly ill. Walking the streets I was saddened to see rich kids with iPods skipping around, the poorer, working kids hidden away. There was an optional trip to the mines which some brave souls experienced, but I opted to stay in our nice hotel. There are many times we chose to ignore what we don’t want to see or know. It’s heartbreaking to see so much struggle, and knowing there is so little one can do to help. Much of South America has been exploited, left in poverty while the wealthy escape freely. It’s shocking to realise the majority of the world is like this too. The privileged world I grew up in is more rare than common, yet so many people would not believe this is so.
Trying to move on from the internal battle, a small group of us went out for dinner. Rushing through the dark, crowded streets, struggling to breathe the poisonous air, we finally made it to a lovely restaurant by the name of El Fuego. Feeling adventurous I ordered the llama, knowing the smell of it in Uyuni had my mouth watering. I was not disappointed when I tasted my new favourite meat! Many ask how it tastes, but it’s hard to describe. Salty, chewy, delicious… It does not taste like chicken, or beef, or pork, it just tastes like llama!
Our pleasant night out ended in disaster as a dear friend became crippled by the altitude. The streets were cold, my whole body shaking as I crouched protectively beside my semi conscious friend. Some kind locals offered to help, one leading some of the group to the Red Cross as we waited, pressed against a wall of a tight street. Never in my life had I dealt with such an upsetting situation. To be completely helpless to someone who has helped me at my worst. A few hours later, after some tears and much appreciated hugs, a slightly wobbly but familiar smile wandered back into the hotel. But she was not out of the woods yet. The next morning things weren’t great again, and the pressure was on as it was time to leave for La Paz. Thankfully my amazing and kind leaders allowed me to hop off the ready to roll Gus, letting me stay with my Amber friends and await news. The best option for our suffering friend was to be evacuated to the town of Sucre, at much lower altitude. We will see her again later in Peru.
Exhausted from a sleepless night, and numbed by concern we commenced the long drive to the huge city of La Paz. Driving, we passed mud brick houses either in use or fading back into the earth and small communities where locals till the earth, backs bent with many days of work. The world is much smaller here, working to live rather than making a living. Traditional women, beautiful braids and wise creased faces are hunched with children wrapped on their backs and hats balanced perfectly atop of their heads. These are no princesses here, the women working hard and usually waddling with decrepitness. Their dark eyes are infinitely thoughtful and the rare smiles pure.
At one drive break, a kind, silent old lady grasped my hand in her small, fingerless knitted gloves, dragging me into her stall to see her hand made leg warmers. There was a hopefulness and kindness in her aged eyes. It is times like these I wished I had put that extra effort into my learning so I could speak and understand her. This is my motivation to be fluent in Latin Spanish, to be able to truly immerse myself and help these beautiful people. To communicate with the people that only wanted to help as I crouched beside my unconscious friend. With the guy that gave me a peso in Argentina at the fast food restaurant. With those that do not scorn me for what I have, but welcome me.
A large full moon rose over rocky mountains, gazing on to the flat agricultural plains of Bolivia. Clouds behind glowed pink and lavender, the colours blooming across the soft fluff. I was able to distract myself with Netflix and music on our way, but a few hours from La Paz, the world tested my emotional strength again. Looking up from my iPad at the worst possible moment, I saw a large dog spiralling off the road. It’s legs had been broken, among other fatal injuries, yet its back legs pushed to help it escape the metal and headlights that threatened his life. The scene was unbelievably upsetting, pushing me to contemplate all the suffering I’ve seen here. Coming from a sheltered Australian life, the last few months have been incredibly eye opening. I’ve seen death, both human and animal. I’ve seen the suffering of those barely surviving in a cold, hungry world. I’ve seen cruelty, a disregard for the life of people and animals.
But I’ve also seen purity, the happiness of those who are content with little. Pride in a place, a people and a culture. I’ve seen generosity, strangers helping the confused blonde girl.
Approaching La Paz, thick clouds reflected orange light, a sea of hazy, glimmering pinheads in the distance. Even at high points in the city’s bowl, the pollution clouded under street lamps and hung like mist among the buildings. The pooling city below buried in concrete and haze. The closest I’ve been to a mega city, the population density is unbelievable as brick upon brick is stacked haphazardly and cars pack the streets.
It was late at night by the time we finally arrived in La Paz, Amber’s leader Duncan doing an amazing job on his own as his co-worker was in Sucre. Sam and Sara waited patiently, relieving Duncan of a long day to take the truck away and help us with our rooms. Aching body and sunken eyes, my heart filled with gratitude when my leaders told me I’d been given the single room and my bag was already inside. Just this small act of kindness healed the tear in my heart that threatened to open. This was my first private room since the start of my journey in Rio de Janeiro. Thanking them with tears in my eyes, I shuffled into the elevator and up to my fourth floor heaven. The Estrella Andina is a gorgeous hotel, each floor decorated in beautiful paintings; my floor having a rainforest village design. The lock beeped cheerily to my key card, opening up to a luxurious double bed with fluffy blankets and plush pillows. My bag grinned at me, leaning beside the table – how perfect is this? For the first time in so long I relaxed into the room. Not living from my bag but spreading out onto the table. Leaving my toiletries in the bathroom; toothbrush on the sink and soap in the shower. Keeping my room key with me, not negotiating use of the television. All such comforts so easily taken for granted. I fell asleep that night with a small smile, glad to be able to appreciate such a blessing.
The sleep in I promised myself disappeared when I awoke bright and early with one thing on my mind – witch markets! Behaving so well throughout Brazil, Argentina and Chile, I now have more than enough to buy souvenirs and spend my hard earned Coles hours. The streets were alive, cars shooting through the street as sellers and stalls clung to the side path. To the left, modern jackets and other clothing were on sale. To the right, the mystical witch stalls were nestled between overflowing tourist shops. A delicious smell of chicken soup mixed with the overpowering incense and herbs, all underlined by the sharpness of petrol and exhaust filled the narrow streets. The witch markets are not touristy, in fact foreigners aren’t always welcome. The wise, old witches that arrange the many plants, herbs, charms and dead, baby llamas take their work very seriously. An aged woman sold me a charm, a beautiful square of pottery that acted as ‘protection para la casa’ (for the house) but spared little time for my blonde hair and foreign accent. I do not blame the Bolivians for their attitudes towards foreigners, as the country has been screwed over by them for centuries.
The constant array of car horns, screeching tires and echoing loud speakers befuddled me as I wandered into the first tourist store. Determined to find my family and myself the classic llama jumpers, I made the rookie error of buying before looking well around. The vendor, a large, old lady in the traditional Bolivian skirt and braids chatted to me enthusiastically as I naively decided between the jumpers I had found. Proud of my Spanish and my choices, I wandered back to the hotel with a bulging bag. It was only until I went out again with some friends did I see how badly I’d been ripped off. Finding an awesome sweater for myself, I was quite embarrassed when I realised it was fifty BOB less than the similar ones I’d bought for my family. Haggling is not something I am comfortable with, and although it’s disappointing to be ripped off, I understand the people and country needed the thirty dollars more than I did. My market day was mostly successful, if not downright gluttonous. With still two countries, and a month worth of purchases to go, I’m beginning to contemplate my luggage allowances.
A group of us girls decided to see a movie in the afternoon, knowing I desperately wanted to watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I thought I’d found the English session, but on our arrival we discovered every session had been ‘doblada’. I had been trying to catch a film since Buenos Aires but always seemed out of luck between timing and language. I’d love to experience a Latin American cinema, but if I do miss all the movies I want to see at least I’ll have more to look forward to later in the year. Back at the hotel, contented with a long, active day I curled up in bed at four pm and didn’t leave the room. Having a long hot shower, using conditioner in my hair for the first time in three months and moisturising my tough skin felt amazing. Clean, warm, munching on Skittles and watching the small box television filled me with comfort. Four movies flickered by on the only channel in English. Feeling so blissful and peaceful, I was thankful for this small and momentary blessing after so long on the road.
The last day in La Paz was quiet, consisting of a ride on the cable car, a trip to the markets and Mexican for dinner. I had my first frozen margarita and decided I still wasn’t ready for the poison of alcohol after Santiago. Now back with my old group, travelling with the luxurious Amber truck, we set of on a new leg of this huge journey. Morning rush hour in La Paz is chaotic, police trying to organise the sea of vehicles and people. Dressed as zebras and donkeys, volunteers guide school children across the dangerous and crazed frenzy of road life.
Glad to breath some clean air, we spent the morning at Tiwanaku ruins – the society that has left us more questions than answers. Our guide for the next few days was a quirky, knowledgable Bolivian that always had his fluro yellow aviators on his face and a wad of cocoa in his cheek. Pre-dating the Incas this mysterious culture disappeared, hiding away its secrets. Thousands of years later only four percent had been unearthed, leaving us baffled. Alien looking statues, purposely deformed skulls. Stone cut perfectly, with not trace of the instrument that shaped it. Ceramics made in temperatures surpassing the technology of the time. Huge stones from far away places, representations of far away people. The one stone that is magnetic, yet its brothers of the same material are not. A peaceful culture that was weaponless yet its supremacy and knowledge inspiring the Inca empire. Damage so great to one temple, as if it had been kicked across the ground… except no earthquakes or hurricanes haunt this area. Shrouded in mystery and wander, limited by politics, this impressive site will continue to provoke conspiracy theories for centuries to come.
Driving further, high on the Copacabana mountainside after a quick peninsular crossing we were at Lake Titicaca. It seems like sheer white clouds stand closely to the tall hills across the peninsular. In reality it is great snowy mountains towering above and reaching for the heavens. The gorgeous sunsets and sunrises here never cease to mesmerise me, no matter how often I see them. As dark descended, I admired the way light glitters from the water at night, illuminating the murky liquid as it ripples soothingly under the fluorescent lamp glow.
Expanding my food knowledge, a group of us followed Duncan into a cluttered building of sweet smelling food the next morning. For less than two Australian dollars, I tried the traditional Bolivian breakfast of buñuelos. These airy, fried donut things were delicious with a spoonful of sweet syrup; crunchy and soft at the same time. To accompany them, a steaming mug of api – corn, cinnamon and other ingredients. The taste was unusual, somewhat like mulled wine. After breakfast we set out with our fun guide to explore Isla del Luna and Isla del Sol of Titicaca.
Hiking on such a perfect day, with the sun warm in a mild breeze I felt a wave of homesickness. Beautiful fresh air after so long in pollution filled cities. Lush green grass, the softest and thickest I’d seen in months. Gum trees standing tall, frail leaves dancing in the wind. The debris littering the base of the peeling bark trunks, taking me back home. The hum of buzzing insects, drifting from bush to bush. People are outside, the gorgeous day a blessing. Children sit in the crops while mothers are bent over to toil the earth. A hidden village appears off the dirt road, built of stones and ancient history. Birds chime in the tall gums and wispy shrubs, butterflies bouncing across the soft mounds of grass, streams of clear water and stone walls. Reminiscing home, I’m sitting on the veranda in similar, perfect weather, the sun on my skin and soft breeze in my hair. The grey days do comfort me, but there is no beauty equal to a gorgeous day.
Isla del Sol was a lovely small island, our hostel a long hike to the top but worth the view from the bedroom window. Restaurants with equal views and delicious food lined the mountainside, the sun creating a glorious light show across the spiritual lake. There was a feeling of intrusion though, locals ignoring our hola’s or attempts to communicate. I completely understand, knowing I would grow irritated with tourists wandering my precious home.
Walking to the docks in the morning, there was so much serenity, birds singing to the distant lap of water. So peaceful you wander what the difference is. In realisation it’s the absence of cars, white noise and pollution. Isla del sol, untouched and fighting the technology that creeps on our world.
Less than a week before the great feat of Machu Picchu, I feel both prepared and unprepared. The travels so far have helped ready me, previous treks in Patagonia teaching me the ways of trek mentality. Our visit to Lake Titicaca, birthplace of sun god Inti, has helped bring me strength, as has a trip to ancient Inka water site Tipon. Now it’s all up to me. I’ve been looking forward to Peru for a long time now, the prime territory of the Inka’s holding many opportunities and experiences.