Our three-day ‘jeep adventure’ across the altiplano ended in the Bolivian town of Uyuni. The next day we took the bus to Potosi, the first of three Bolivian cities we planned to visit. Forget what we said in the last blog about South American buses – Bolivian buses are something else! Our journey (4.5 hours) cost very little, but the bus was nothing like the luxurious vehicles we’ve travelled on in Argentina and Chile. It had no loo, no seatbelts and not much space. It was crammed with backpackers and local people, many of whom had large packs on their back (some containing babies). We remembered reading about ‘chicken buses’, so-called because passengers sometimes have their chickens with them. We didn’t actually see any chickens, but you get the idea. At one point a passenger requested a loo stop, and several people got off the bus, each clutching toilet paper, and looking for their own personal tree.
Potosi is the highest city in the world (4090 metres) and owes its existence to the vast reserves of precious metals (mainly silver) in the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) which towers over the city. Historically the conditions in the mine have been appalling and thousands have died there. These days the conditions are apparently still bad – you can do a tour of the mine, but we didn’t feel it was for us.
One of the most important buildings in Potosi is La Moneda (the Mint), built by the Spaniards to turn the silver coming out of the mountain into coins. It’s a vast place, built like a fortress; we did a tour and were shown all the old machinery which was used over the centuries to turn out money, until 1951. It was fascinating to think that much of the Spanish ‘wealth of the Indies’, celebrated in pirate stories and tales of naval heroes like Drake, was created there.
The most interesting painting in the art gallery in La Moneda, the work of an anonymous native artist, shows the Virgin Mary in the form of the Cerro Rico, celebrating both the riches found there and the local history of the mountain.
While in Potosi we saw a procession of hundreds of children of all ages, and were told they were celebrating the anniversary of their school, named after Pope John Paul II.
From Potosi we took a two-and-a-half-hour taxi ride, through some impressive scenery, to Sucre. (This may seem wildly extravagant, but it cost about £15, and although the bus would have been cheaper still, it was nice to have door-to-door transport with all our luggage.) Sucre is the ancient capital of Bolivia, and is still claimed to be the ‘constitutional capital’, though all the government and political power is in La Paz. It is also reckoned to be the most beautiful city in Bolivia, with some of the finest Spanish colonial architecture in South America. Certainly it has an attractive main square and several white-painted colonial churches; we were disappointed that the latter were almost all shut and had locked gates, making photography difficult.
Near Sucre is the ‘Parque Cretacio’, an old quarry where hundreds of dinosaur footprints have been found. It’s now been turned into a very modern museum/theme park, with loads of massive dinosaur models as well as an opportunity to view the footprints in a sloping rock wall, from a distance. We waited till midday, when the sun slants across the surface and the dinosaur tracks are easier to see.
Also in Sucre we visited the ‘Casa de la Libertad’, where the independence of Bolivia from Spain was signed in 1825. It also has a lot of memorabilia of Simon Bolivar, after whom the new country was named (against his wishes). There are portraits of some of their 65 presidents since then, most of whom seem to have been generals of some sort, and many of whom didn’t last very long.
While in Sucre we went to a folk dance show one evening. It was really good, with lively music, colourful costumes, and dances of different types from across Bolivia.
From Sucre we had an 11-hour overnight bus journey to La Paz. This was a smarter bus than the one from Potosi, with fully reclining ‘cama’ seats. However, there were a couple of problems. One was with ‘unofficial’ passengers coming and squatting near while we were trying to sleep, till we managed to chase them away. Another was the amazingly rough condition of the roads, which meant you also got a vibro-massage while you travelled. We must be adapting, however, because we managed to sleep most of the time.
La Paz is the highest capital city in the world (3660 metres), assuming you ignore the claim of Sucre to be the capital still. It has the feel of a big, if rather scruffy, city – crowded, noisy, hectic. It is circled by mountains, and many of the suburbs are on the hills around the city. One night we ate in a restaurant at the top of a tall hotel, and got a good view of the lights on the hills all around.
We did an afternoon tour to the nearby Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon – the third of these we’ve seen so far). This is really spectacular, with acres of eroded pinnacles. We walked through for about an hour, and took lots of photos. On the same tour we got an overview of the city from a high hill, and also visited the main square with the cathedral, presidential palace, congress, and lots of pigeons.
Another day trip we took was to the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku, about 70 kms out of the city. This was an Andean civilisation which lasted for about 3,000 years, just before the Incas and then the Spanish took over. It has a pyramid and two temples, and we were able to explore them all, though Ian was annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to film there. The site was interesting, though not as spectacular as some others we’ve been to.
Exploring Bolivian cities (and riding on Bolivian buses!) has made it obvious that we are in a very different country. Chile and Argentina are quite westernized, but Bolivia has a more ‘third world’ feel. For travellers, it has the advantage of being much cheaper. The indigenous women have their black hair in waist-length plaits, and many still wear the traditional dress (very full skirt, coloured woollen stockings, bowler-style hat) even when doing non-traditional jobs (for example, many of the road sweepers and gardeners we saw were women). In Sucre we bought a magazine called ‘Inti’, which turned out to be a juvenile version of the Big Issue. From it we learned that Bolivian children attend school four hours a day, either morning or afternoon, and many work the rest of the day, cleaning shoes or selling sweets. The sale of ‘Inti’ helps support these working children and their families.