Bo-living it up…
When you arrive in Copacobana, just across the border from Peru, you are in Bolivia. And you really know it.
The currency is half of that in Peru, and so things are a little cheaper, but you have to dig for it. Everything is aimed at tourists, much like Peru, but unlike most of Peru everything seems a little more desolate, unfinished and poor. The landscape is vast but houses are sparse, and seem lonely and cold.
As part of our Bolivia Hop tour, which we started in Peru, we took a boat out to the natural island of Isla del Sol, and had a short trek with our lovely group, with some spectacular sights of Lake Titikaka. The island was isolated, an hour-and-a-half from the shore, and as dark fall was due to set in we were all keen to get off the island and to La Paz.
We finally took the Bolivia Hop bus to La Paz, and arriving at 10.30pm at night wasn’t the best time to see the city. It looked really run down and our hostel, La Pirwa, was cold and had no plug sockets (a traveller’s nightmare). After 24 hours on a bus – you just need those things.
The next day we saw La Paz in a new light. OK, so it is a little run down and my god there are a lot of houses, most of which look unfinished, with exposed blocks separated by white cement. But it’s an incredible sight, and couldn’t be further from the city of Cusco or Lima in Peru. There’s definitely something about the city. Perhaps that it felt more real than high-end Lima or artifical Cusco?
We did a selfie walking tour and walked through the old Spanish colonial parts, featuring the incredible San Pedro prison – which you may have heard about? The prison is set inside an old monastery, and is literally in a plaza in the middle of the city. With no guards inside the prisoners govern themselves, and it costs to live in this prison. You pay to get in and you even pay for the type of room you want – so you have to work while you are living there. How? We aren’t entirely sure.
Men live with their families in the prison, and Coca Cola sponsors the prison, they’ve made a deal with the prisoners to become their exclusive drink of choice – and we actually saw the arrival of the drink in crates – unbelievable. The lack of funds for paying prisoners also led to the prison becoming a strange tourist attraction, after a British drug trafficker bribed guards to let him charge tourists to stay the night in the prison – but thankfully that has been stopped. Apparently it was even in the Lonely Planet. No. Way.
We found the prices in La Paz to be extraordinarily disparate. In a tourist place a main meal could set you back around 60-100 Bolivianos, but in a local place you were looking at 10-15 – especially in the markets. So, at the witch’s market – famous for selling Llama fetuses – we picked up a Choripan (a sausage sandwich) for 15 Bolivianos for us both, that’s £1.50! It’s these tiny successes that get you through.
The next day we took the brand new (only opened last year) cable car to El Alto to see its famous Sunday market. It was even bigger than La Paz’s sprawl of a market (where the witch’s market is) and we were instantly overwhelmed. Still struggling with colds, we picked up a giant fresh orange juice for just 2 Bolivianos and felt ready to face the crowds.
We had an incredible steak lunch in a what would be a hipster restaurant if it were in London. The walls were stark, nothing but brick blocks, and the tables and chairs were actually vintage. Serving only Bolivians at the time, the steak, rice and potato meal, with soup to start, set us back just £1.20!
In central La Paz, the Brixton market-style Lanza Market was by far the best thing we found. The market is located in a car park that you wouldn’t ever EVER think to walk in. But when you do you are seriously rewarded. First come the tiny shops selling flowers, then the cafes, then the juice shops, then the sandwich shops and finally the lunch restaurants. You take ramps to each level to discover a new treat, full of colour and life.
Every little “stall” is no more bigger than a small shed, measuring about 10 feet long by five feet wide, but in every single stall there is a bench and a bench-sized table for diners. Every row of stalls is selling the same thing, and so competition is fierce (they are all run by women), but when you try any of them you feel like you’ve hit the jackpot. And you become her favourite customer, at least until you pay.
Since we arrived in La Paz we’ve eaten there every single day, after traipsing around the city looking for a match. With it’s low prices and great selection, from fried chicken and soup lunches to choripan with egg, and cool setting, for us Lanza Market is the best thing about La Paz.
Our second favourite thing has to be the unique experience that is “Cholitas Wrestling”. Women dressed in traditional Bolivian clothing take on men dressed as Mexican wrestlers in a ring, with masks and all. The refs are corrupt, the crowd goes wild, the wrestling is deplorable, and it’s all set in an old and run down sports hall. But it was the best night we had in La Paz. We laughed intensely, booed and hissed the characters and left smiling. I totally recommend this to any tourist – even though you feel awful that you get the VIP seats at the front and the ordinary Bolivians don’t. That’s not a nice feeling.
Our main excursion away from La Paz was a trip to Uyuni, the location of Bolivia’s famous salt flats. The desert of salt is a popular tourist destination can be seen in one day, or you can spend three days exploring more of the desert landscape.
We opted for the one day jeep tour with Extrema Tours (booked through Kanoo Tours, which really confused us). To reach Uyuni you have to take a ten hour bus across rugged roads. We went with Todo Turismo, again booked through Kanoo, and had a hot meal and a movie. It was cold and very uncomfortable, but what do you expect from ten hours on a bus?
You head out in a 4×4 across barren landscape that is Uyuni, a town where every other house is either empty or unfinished. It reminded me of an old abandoned ghost town, but people were definitely still living there, we think.
The first stop on the tour is to the train graveyard. Old Spanish and British 19th century trains used to pillage the nation of its coal, gold and salt (or maybe not) but have since been abandoned after the mines were effectively empty and workers deserted the town. Uyuni was once a thriving train station, with trains heading out to the Pacific coast, it seemed a sad reminder of this awful past.
Today it’s a kid’s playground, you get to sit and swing on the giant locomotives, until your 15 minutes is up and you have to leave… Sadly, as is part and parcel of organised tours, our next stop was to a market where the toilet costs 4 Bolivianos and you are expected to buy something. We, with no money, had no intention of buying anything and so ended up standing around trying not to look interested in the goods, for fear of constantly having to regrettably say “no, gracias”.
The best part of the tour were the flats themselves, which you can see around the Salt Hotel (where we had lunch) and afterwards around an island, that was once surrounded by water. Our hilarious guide, who only spoke Spanish, Henrique, insisted on taking the comedic dinosaur photos that have become associated with the flats, and it was during this part that we had the most fun on the tour. Henrique knew what we wanted from his models.
After attempting to avoid the tourist trap restaurants with their over-priced food in Uyuni while waiting for our bus (ten hours back to La Paz), we searched for street food. Unsuccessful we ended up buying a giant beer in the hop it would send us to sleep on the bus. Ten hours later and we had survived.
Next stop… Brazil