My Amazonian adventures (see post below) are the icing on the cake to what’s been a pretty memorable few weeks. Among the most notable experiences was a fairly gruelling 50km bikeride up and down the green, stunning hills surrounding Sucre, Bolivia’s official capital – where we got royally lost in the middle of nowhere and found ourselves getting chased by frankly terrifying dogs. Despite the odd near-death moment (and serious saddle pains for the following week), it was an epic trip over to and around Yotala, a quaint village a drive away from the city where we got burgers for 3 bolivianos (less than 30p) – and well worth a visit for anyone budding to get off the beaten gringo track.
Sucre itself – aptly nicknamed ‘white city’ for its rows of blanco buildings which tell of its colonial history – was a pleasant place with a town-like, almost Mediterranean, feel. That was especially true at the Mirador, a cocktail bar/cafe surrounded by palm trees with stunning views over the whole city.
I brushed up on my Spanish with some private lessons and explored cultural gems like the Casa del Libertad and the Central Mercado – a market showing off delicacies like furry cow heads and tails, an experience I’d rather not repeat any time soon. The combined wafts of raw meat and fruit smoothies certainly awoke the senses, and it’s the place to head for street food-type comida. I also visited some beautiful waterfalls nearby – not quite Iguazu but worth the trek for the peaceful scenery in the surrounding area – and witnessed the ‘world’s longest trail of dinosaur footprints’ at Parque Cretácio.
Prior to Sucre I checked out Potosí, once the wealthiest city in South America for its silver mines. Zinc mining is now the base of its economy, and a tour 40m down one of them was an experience I won’t be forgetting any time soon (for claustrophobes and the vertigo-prone it’s a worst nightmare come true – think several ladders and lots of crawling). Tradition has you buy the miners gifts – including 96 percent alcohol, which literally left my tongue burnt for days after attempting a tenth of a sip. Somehow the tour guide managed to swig away merrily as if it were a glass of chilled milk.
La Paz, where I’m sitting as I type now, is a pretty stark contrast to both of those – and it’s a lot more like the Bolivia I’d imagined, with a grittier feel, a louder voice, and a more hectic, lively atmosphere. Its steep hills are dotted with endless rows of outdoor market stands and street food stalls – mainly selling fried chicken, hamburguesas and traditional rice dishes/soups – which seem at odds with the peaceful, misty, snow-capped mountain peaks and weirdly jagged rocks among which it’s set. People seem to either love or hate the place, and I’m somewhere in the middle. My main complaint is that it’s bloody cold at night – not surprising since it’s the highest capital in the world, at over 3500m above sea level.
That brings me onto the world-famous salt flats of Uyuni in the south of Bolivia, which – aside from almost freezing to death in a ‘salt hostel’, where everything from the bed base to the floor was literally made of salt – was an amazing experience. We spent three days exploring the area in a 4-wheel drive, admiring brightly coloured, flamingo-dotted blue and red lagoons, swimming in steaming hot springs, and, eventually, watching sunrise over the huge expanse of snowy-white salt flats. We then spent a good few hours taking odd, optical-illusion type pictures that for some reason just seems to be a thing there (see below…)
It really was as spectacular as everyone makes out, and it’s apparently even better earlier in the year when the flats are covered in water and swathes of light bounce off it in perfect reflections – another trip awaits. That’s as far as my Bolivia trip has taken me so far – next stop is Copacabana on Lake Titicaca and after that it’s Peru time, where more adventure and intriguing Inca history awaits – stay tuned for updates.