Time out in Bolivia`s magnetic capital
24.11.2008 25 °C
Uyuni is not the type of place to linger in; it`s a sprawling desert town with dirty, dusty streets and no real noteworthy sites (bar the train graveyard outside of town, which we`d already seen).Street vendors block your path as you negotiate the crowded sidewalk whilst you`re forced to keep a secure eye on your belongings - even more so than normal that is.Its low, squat adobe buildings are littered with neon signs advertising tours to the Salar and beyond.With over 60 agencies currently operating from here that`s a lot of Bolivians hassling you at every street corner.The dry hot desert together with the high elevation (3675 masl) makes for an uncomfortable climate, especially for us gringoes.After three days out in the arid altiplano all we wanted was a town to kick back and relax in, but unfortunately Uyuni wasn´t it.
We decided to leave ASAP.Our next destination was Bolivia´s capital, La Paz, and to get there we had to endure a long 12 hour bus ride, and yet again the only option was another night bus.We were getting a bit sick of these by now to be honest.Even the most comfortable of them can`t make you forget that you`re stuck on a bus, and most guidebooks warn you off the night buses for safety reasons.We heard second and third hand accounts of buses stopping in the middle of the night while everyone´s asleep, and the luggage being taken right out of the hold!And if you do manage to bring your packs onboard, keep them next to you at all times.One German girl we met told us how she was duped when a local spilled water on the floor unbeknownst to her and recommended she leave her bag in the overhead shelf, so as not to get wet.Then when she fell asleep he rifled through it, taking her camera and mp3 player, among other things.So, yeah, we were loathe to take another one.But we didn´t have a choice so we booked our tickets, ate a hasty meal, and left later that night.
What a night!By far and away, the worst night of my life!The bus was a battered excuse for a roadworthy vehicle; balding tyres, peeling paint, torn upholstery, cramped seats.Plus it was packed full of Bolivian families, their kids on their laps crying more or less incessantly the whole time.There was no toilet either, and the driver stopped once the whole trip, at 1am, to let us use the facilities of a questionable cafe in the middle of nowhere.It was also freezing cold, really Baltic, and the best we could do was don ski socks and fleeces and shiver uncontrollably.We didn`t have sleeping bags with us and we enviously eyed up the locals in their heavy woollen blankets which they`d packed with astute foresight.But worst of all was the road.Or should I say, the trail.For a full 6 hours, half of the entire trip, there was no paved road.And not just not paved, but extremely bumpy, rocky and full on dangerous.We had known that the area between Uyuni and La Paz was more desert, but we had just assumed that there`d be an actual road, somehow.The bus lurched and fell as it traversed over hills of hard rock and soft sand, the gears grinding in a most distressingly brutal way as they tried to cope with the demands of the unforgiving terrain.We`d have been better off in an off-road 4WD.At one stage the bus even threatened to tip over!How the buses (and drivers) do this night after night I`ll never know.
Anyway, after hours of this torment we finally reached tarmac.Tarmac!Ah tarmac!It was a revelation to be back on level, solid ground, where the bus stayed horizontal and the gears assumed their normal pitch.I even began to fall into some semblence of sleep at one stage.However, as able as the driver had been taking us over some of the worst terrain imaginable, he obviously lacked some of the more basic of driving skills.Just as I was reaching that cozy state of deeper sleep, I was thrown nearly out of my seat along with everyone else as the driver spun the wheel hard to the left.Quite what he was avoiding on the road at 3 in the morning in the middle of the desert I wasn`t sure, but it sure as hell didn`t reassure me about arriving in La Paz safely.In South America I was quickly learning, you take nothing for granted.
Well.We made it.Of course.Bar a street demonstration as we neared La Paz (a not uncommon event, apparently) there were no more problems.By this time we were both tired, hungry and cranky; and in no mood to admire the breathtaking sight of Bolivia`s capital as we approached it from above.La Paz is a city of 1.5 million inhabitants and sits at an altitude of 3660 masl, which makes it the world`s highest captial city.The city`s location is in a long, wide valley which spills down from high surrounding mountain peaks, the snowy, imposing Mt Illamani (6402m) throwing the longest shadow downwards.Makeshift housing cling precariously to the sides of the canyon and the further south you go the posher the suburbs get, culminating in any number of modern glass skyscrapers down in the main thoroughfare (commonly known as the Prado).
But of all this escaped us.All we knew was we were cold and tired, plus the early morning sky was cloudy and wet which didn`t improve our moods.We hopped in the nearest taxi without checking the fare and made straight for our hotel.Bolivia being quite a poor country, we figured we could afford to stay somewhere a bit more luxurious than our budget normally allowed.The result was Hotel Fuentes, a mid range accomodation smack in the middle of the Mercado de Hechiceria (the Witches market) and behind the Iglesia de San Francisco, two of La Paz´s top sights.We checked in and promptly fell asleep.
Our time in La Paz was typified by taking it easy.We hadn`t really had time to recuperate after the draining, but thoroughly enjoyable, trek throught the salt flats, so we were keen on taking some serious time out.Luckily for us, La Paz turned out to be a great destination for such a requirement.Our hotel, for one, came equipped with cable tv; we spent hours just watching whatever film or programme happened to be on, as long as it was in English.Another great pastime was the internet, specifically the many internet cafes that proliferate all around the main street.Many an hour was had sipping excellent coffee whilst surfing the ´net, occasionally writing up a blog or posting up photos.We also, of course, did the requisite sightseeing, browsing through the many of La Paz`s markets and street vendors and checking out churches, plazas, museums and the like.One of the more interesting markets was right on our doorstep, the Witches Market, so called due to the abundance of elderly Bolivian women selling all manner of exotic wares; potions, powders and poisons of every colour; herbs and the dried leaves of unusual, indiginous plants; empty armidillo shells and shrivelled llama fetuses, which the locals bury beneath their house porches for good fortune.There was also the inevitable stone carvings, replicas of actual artefacts found in nearby archeological sites.It made for an unusual shopping experience, a bit like browsing through the famous markets in Marrakesh perhaps, where anything and everything is for sale.Another local area was the Mercado Negro, or black market, where more usual commercial products were on sale; tvs, mp3 players, guitars, amplifiers, keyboards, cameras, camcorders, memory cards... all manner of high tech electrical equipment was on offer and despite its name the market is all above board.It`s spread across a huge area, and you almost can`t move for the jostling crowds it attracts.It is, however, notorious for the particularly nasty practise of spitting, a technique used by thieves whereby one of their number spits on an unsuspecting gringo from afar whilst another robs him as he`s cleaning himself off.They typically use knives to slash rucksacks and then take whatever falls out.We heard of a pretty disgusting variation whereby a backpacker had faeces thrown at him!Nasty!
Another of our visits was to the famous Coca Museum, a backpackers favourite and just up the road from our hotel.The museum itself is pretty dated and in probable need of a facelift, but the detailed tour (in English) was fantastically illuminating.Coca is grown at specific altitudes on specialised terraces and there are three distinct varieties depending on how high it is cultivated.We learned how the plant had been a valuable crop for Pre Columbian cultures for its many medicinal properties, from combating altitude sickness to tiredness and hunger.The Inca`s thought so highly of coca that they reserved its use to the Incan nobility and for most of their sun rituals.Indeed, many, if not all Incas were buried with a special weaved pouch that contained dried coca leaves.The Spanish had no need for it and tried to ban its use until they realised that the natives would work much longer hours in their silver and gold mines, especially at Potosi in Bolivia.Indeed, they soon passed a law actually forcing the natives to use it, as they had to endure 12 hour days in the dangerous mines, often without food.At one stage the value of coca leaves was outstripping the value of the silver that the natives were extracting, so essential was it to the continued slave labour.
Later in the early 20th century the essential ingredient of coca was isolated, and cocaine was first synthesised.Its use heralded a new age in anaesthesia, and surgery, before it was recognised to be habit forming and subsequently banned.Indeed the first known cocaine addict was none other than Sigmund Freud, an early proponent of the drug.Around this time, an American called John Pemberton derived a non alcoholic version of a French tonic wine called Vin Mariani that used coca as it main ingredient, naming it Coca Cola.The rest, of course, is history.But while Coca Cola has famously stopped using cocaine in its drinks, it still legally ships huge quantities of the crop from Bolivia every few years, for ´taste´ purposes, or so it claims.Is it coincidence that the worlds most recognisable product is partly manufactured from the raw material of one of the world´s most addictive drugs??I think not.....
Then, of course there was a whole load of information pertaining to the current problems of cocaine addiction and the resulting US-led `War On Drugs`.The raw coca leaf is neither harmful nor addictive and is high in calcium, iron and vitamens, whereas cocaine is an obviously highly addictive CNS stimulant.The DEA attempted to curb the problem in the 1980`s with a now familiar 2 pronged approach; eradication of the coca crops in areas of high cultivation and the introduction of alternative agricultural products.This approach largely failed, as it has with the opium poppies in Afghanistan, mainly due to the negligible profit margin and long culivation period of these alternative crops.The simple fact remained; coca was a profitable, hardy plant with a fast rate of growth that the poor campesino farmers had no choice but to rely on.The fact that it devestated distant communities far removed from Bolivia had little meaning to these simple peasants trying to eke out a living on inhospitable soil.Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the cost of cocaine goes not to the growers but rather to the middlemen and jungle chemists who treat the pulped leaves with various chemicals to arrive at the distinctive powdered form.Until the demand for the drug is curbed at the source (i.e. largely US and Europe) these farmers will continue to do what they have to to survive and the War On Drugs will never be successful.
La Paz is an interestingly diverse and endlessly colourful city.Its streets are frequently jammed with fume spewing collectivos, minivans that double as bus transports to all the corners of the city.They rush by at speed as the `conductor´ leans perilously out the open door, shouting out the names of eventual destinations.The women here (that is, the campesino women, people from the country) are all strangely dressed in identical clothing; they are all short and more than a little round, with stumpy legs and long jet black hair down to their waist, always in a thick double braid.On their heads they all unfailingly wear a black bowler hat (I`m not making this up) while their skirts are thick with many layers of multi coloured petticoats.Quite why they all dress in such similarly unique clothing I`m not sure, though we were to see more of this style throughout the rest of South America.Shoeshine boys, the scourge of the city, their heads covered sinisterly in full length balaclavas (no doubt to protect them from the spewing collectivos), harrass and petition everyone who walks by them.Vendors wait on every street corner, selling everything from watches to cooked chicken to pirated dvds.But it is also a city that likes to dress up and have fun, as evidenced by the citywide parade that took place one weekend, where half the citys inhabitants had dressed themselves up in traditional Bolivian attire while the other half lined the streets to watch.Teams of dancers, men and women, in every colour combination imaginable paraded before the excited crowd, who cheered and clapped and laughed and danced.Full marching brass bands complete with matching suits tried to outplay each other until the resulting tumultuous din deafened those watching. Playful children clutching icecreams ran through the parade, dodging the dancers expertly as their anxious parents looked on....It was colourful, it was loud and it was dazzling.
And that summed up the city for us.It mightn`t have the landscapes of Rio, the sophistication of Santiago or the vibrant tango halls of Buenos Aires, but La Paz was a bustling, bright, brash revelation.Its steep cobbled streets (which would exhaust the fittest of travellers), sprawling markets, casual coffeehouses and elegant churches made this one of our favourite cities so far.We hadn`t expected too much, and perhaps that was why.Either way, it made for a relaxed yet exciting break between bus rides and we certainly left it on better terms than we had found it.But luckily for us we would be here again, for our next destination was to be into the isolated Amazonian rainforest, via the lowland village of Rurrenabaque and the only way back was through La Paz.So we left in good spirits, glad to have a familiar city to return to, and glad to be leaving for another of the expected highlights of the trip; the Chalalan Ecolodge.An all inclusive trip into the heart of the deep Bolivian rainforest, where we would stay for three days with some indiginous locals and hopefully get the chance to observe some of the country`s little seen flora and fauna.But first, once again, we`d have to endure some uncomfortable travelling conditions, though it was going be more uncomfortable for some than for others.