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Posts Tagged ‘Bolivia’

Rights, privileges, identity, citizenship, contraband – borders are strange places. Leaving Villazon and entering La Quiaca took awhile.  I stood in line for two hours to get my Bolivian exit stamp. From here I proceeded up the road to stand in another line for another three hours to enter Argentina.

An hour or so later I was on a bus on my way to Salta.  The beauty of nature was once again central in my mind and I was wishing I had booked a stop in the Quebradas. I was mesmerized by the landscape’s subtle hues and forms and the play of  light and shadow as we passed through the spectacular Quebrada de Humahuaca.

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(Early March 2009)

Tarija is in wine country and to get from here to the border town of Villazon is a spectacular bus ride around the mountains. It took a little longer than anticipated.

I purchased a ticket and boarded the 10 a.m. bus just as it was leaving the station. No time to buy water or snacks. However, the bus broke down half an hour into the journey. We were in a lovely resort sort of area and I was able to get something to drink. Unfortunately, it took two hours to fix the problem with the front wheel. Repair completed – the bus travels with a crew – we were on our way again and 10 minutes later we reached the unpaved road to Villazon. The route is scenic – how I love mountains  – and, at times, it is somewhat scary!

After four hours with many curves and bends the bus broke down again. This time the problem was at the back wheels. At least we were on somewhat straight flat ground at this point. It took three hours to fix. We boarded the bus again and continued on our way. Neither of the repairs were actually tested.

We were soon winding our way around the mountains again and half an hour later it was dark. We stopped and our driver negotiated with an indigenous family to sell us some food. Being quite behind schedule we were now driving at what seemed to be a rather fast speed – on a dark winding mountain road. Many trucks were pulled off to the side. Soon, we too, came to a stop. There had been a landslide.

The bus crew started clearing the rubble. The truck drivers and  passengers watched. A few eager passengers helped. Once the road was reasonably clear, and everyone was off the bus, the driver accelerated up the road. The bus got stuck at the top. The driver started backing up and everyone scooted out of the way. A little more rubble removal was necessary. And some scrambling as a small truck came up the hill from the other side. It couldn’t go very far though as our bus was in the way. Enough of the debris was now cleared that the driver could back up and shift over to the side. A little more effort clearing the road and the bus made it over. We walked up and over and got back on board.

By now we could see a lot of lightning in the distance and soon after it was raining. We arrived in Villazon just after 10 p.m. Amazingly, the bus driver and the crew didn’t seem the least bit daunted by these obstacles. Just another day in Bolivia?

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Potosi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a population of approximately 146,000. At 4060 metres above sea level, it is also the world’s highest city. The colonial architecture and narrow streets appeal to my sense of exploration. I make a point of taking my altitude pills.

I arrived in early March, in the rain, and, at this altitude, it is the coolest place I’ve stayed in South America. Days are comfortable, about 12 degrees Celsius, and it feels warmer if you can situate yourself in the glow of the sun, but the nights are cold! This is the warm season.

During its heyday Potosi was the richest city in Latin America – on par with London and Paris. “Vale un Potosi” was a common expression for that wealth. That former wealth has a dark side. The silver from Cerra Rico financed the Spanish economy for two centuries and the mines meant death for millions of Indigenous and African slaves.

There are still 286 mines in operation, which operate as a co-operative. The conditions are primitive and it’s an extremely unhealthy work environment. I booked a tour of the mine. We stopped, first, to pick up protective clothing and, then, to visit the miners’ market where we picked up gifts – coca leaves, 96% alcohol, cigarettes and dynamite. We descended into the mine shaft. Cerra Rico is dark, wet, muddy and claustrophobic. The tour involves climbing, scrambling, crouching and much slipping. Not everyone was willing to continue. It was a fascinating and shocking experience. However, it is not one I would ever want to repeat. Orphan children, as young as six, work part-time in the mines as assistants.  

Another very interesting place is the excellent Casa Real de la Moneda museum. The silver from Cerra Rico was once minted here.  I was surprised to hear that the Canadian twoonie ($2 coin) is minted in Bolivia!

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Sucre is a beautiful city! The historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the square is surrounded by whitewashed buildings. It’s a small university city, with a population of approximately 215,000. It’s also the judicial capital of Bolivia and home to many law offices.

I had read that this is an excellent place to take Spanish lessons and I head over to Fox Academy to arrange for more lessons. It’s now been almost two months since taking classes in Guanajuato and I’m eager for more. Fox is a private non-profit school that is recommended by Volunteer South America. I also highly recommend them, particularly my instructor, Lourdes.

I arrive a couple days before the start of carnival and it seems like a quiet city.  Festivals have a way of loosening things up and Carnival is no exception! The streets fill with people and merriment. For about a week, the city is alive with music, parading, and water balloons.  At first it’s just the local youth having fun water bombing each other; but, as the week progresses just about everyone becomes a participant and target of the water celebrations. I can’t get more than a few steps from my hotel without a relentless soaking!  Fortunately, it’s a very warm week and everyone is in good spirits.
Carnival is associated with the growing season. On the final day, as I make my way to class, I notice quite a few people burning incense. Lourdes says it’s the most important day of the festival. It’s a much quieter day, although the festivities start up again later in the afternoon.

This is a great city to just hang out in but I do visit the Casa de Libertad, where the Declaration of Independence is on hand – the most important place in Bolivia. I also check out the museo enthografica – it has an interesting mask collection, and I take a day trip tour to Tarabuco, an indigenous market town about 65 km away. I even ride the Dino Truck to Parque Cretacico.

The dinosaur footprints are on a vertical section of mountain at a cement quarry; although, as the park interpreter explains, when the dinosaurs left these prints the ground was flat and Sucre was a lake. The Nazca tectonic plate is responsible for the formation of the Andes mountain range.

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Cochabamba is not really a tourist destination, although, apparently it is a prosperous city. It has a population of approximately 517,000 and was the first place in South America where I saw blonde-haired residents.  The climate is wonderfully warm; it’s actually hot and humid and I’m enjoying it, particularly after the rain and cooler temperatures in La Paz!

It’s easy to notice the contrasts between wealth and poverty here. Parts of it are very gritty and the streets are lined with disabled men and impoverished women propped up against buildings with babies lying on the pavement. A few blocks away is a crowded and busy business square. Here men sit at tables sheltered from the hot sun by umbrellas as they put their typewriters to use. I’m not sure, but I suppose they are independent business service providers. A little further north is a lovely tree-lined boulevard with upscale restaurants and cafes.

I liked the city and stayed a couple days. I gave my camera a rest and didn’t take any photos. I now regret this!

My next destination was Sucre. Bolivian buses are not particularly comfortable and they lack washrooms. I was squished into the seat with a large Indigenous woman  who kept falling asleep, dropping her hat, and wakening abruptly to pick it up, brush it off, and look at me accusatorily. Along the way we picked up other passengers and the bus was full; however, the driver allowed two young women and a baby to take a spot in the aisle. Their night was certainly more uncomfortable than mine.

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(Mid-February 2009)

La Paz has a population of about 1.5 million and it’s the world’s highest capital at an altitude of 3660 metres. I arrived on February 13th, got a dorm room at the Hostal Republica, former residence of a former president, walked around a bit, took in the atmosphere at nearby Plaza Murillo and wondered why all the shoeshine boys and men wear masks.

The next day I started exploring. I visited the museum and took in the views from Iglesia de San Francisco and followed the Lonely Planet’s walking tour. I gawked at the llama foetuses and was enchanted with the charms in the Witch’s Market. While I was taking photos someone with a southern US accent repeatedly tried to get my attention and, mindful of my guidebook’s scam warnings, I ignored him and pretended not to speak English.

A couple of hours later, back in Plaza Murillo, I was subjected to another scam attempt. This time it caught me off guard. A woman sat down beside me and we started chatting. She said she was a tourist from Mexico and asked if I would take her picture in front of the cathedral. I looked over and was about to suggest she ask one of the many people on the steps but the conversation was pleasant so I said sure. Once at the cathedral, she wanted the picture taken inside and chose a dimly-lit section that provided no indication of being in a church. I was having trouble with her camera and no longer interested in helping her out. At this point a man approached me and flashed an ID badge stating that he was a tourist police officer – I realized I was the target of a scam.

He said taking photos in the cathedral is illegal and asked us for our passports. The “Mexican tourist” complied and I responded I wasn’t carrying mine, it was irrelevant as I had not yet taken a photo, and that I did not believe he was the police. They were not going to give up that easily. He insisted we go to my hostel to get my passport. I walked out of the church with them and approached the guards at the adjacent Legislative Palace. As I tried to explain to the guards that this couple were about to rob me, not knowing the Spanish words for “thief” or “robbery”, the fake police officer sped off in an awaiting car. The tourist just walked away. Unable to communicate my message to the guards I continued on my way. On the next block the tourist came up alongside of me. I told her I knew it was a scam and she feigned surprise. I asked her why she wasn’t the least bit upset about having someone drive off with her passport and again indicated I knew she was part of the scam. Then, the fake police officer drives up beside us, hands over her passport and says that he’ll just leave it at a warning this time! I wasn’t frightened by this encounter but I was astonished! I did feel a little uneasy later that day when I went to use an ATM – with guys lurking nearby I opted to wait another day.

The next day I ventured out again. I visited the Museo de la Coca. Andean people have been chewing coca leaves for about 4,500 years and the museum is an interesting place to learn about the social and political history of coca. For instance, the church banned the leaf believing it interfered with the conversion and conquest of the Indigenous people but then retracted the ban when it was realized the slave labour force were more productive when they were able to chew the leaf. In addition to relieving hunger, cold and altitude discomfort, the leaf has a spiritual meaning for Andean people. Wealthy nations used coca to develop cocaine.

I also headed over to the free Museo de Etnografia y Folklore. The museum has an eerily exhibited collection of masks and a good collection of textiles. I strolled along the colonial Calle Jaen and walked around Parque Laikakota. And, I caught a glimpse of Mt. Illamani early in the evening.  I had almost forgotten about it!

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