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Boliviaaaaaa!

It`s only little...but it`s bloody cool!

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Arriving in Bolivia on our very early flight and venturing out into the Santa Cruz night, I felt like I was back in India, in ways that are hard to articulate. The streets were more barren and desolate, the boxy architecture and makeshift clumsy constructions reminded me of India and the atmosphere that promised something energising and undiscovered, all congregated to bring back nostalgic memories of the beautiful Asian country that I miss so much. I was eager to see what Bolivia had to offer.

Bolivia is a country of superlatives. It is the hemipsheres highest, most isolated and most rugged nation. It`s one of earths coldest, warmest, windiest and steamiest places. It boasts among the driest, saltiest and swampiest natural landscapes in the world. Although the poorest country in South America, it`s one of the richest in terms of natural resources. It`s also South America`s most indigenous country: over 60% of the population of 8.8 million claim indigenous heritage adding to the unparalleled beauty and vibrant, distinctive nature of the place. Bolivia has it all...except that is, for beaches. It is a landlocked country that, although frequently shaky in terms of society and politics, thanks to an impotent economy and a history of disfranchisement, flouts soaring peaks and hallucinogenic flats, steamy jungles and wildlife-rich grasslands. The underdog of South America, if you will. I was ready for the Bolivia ride!
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Our first night was spent in Santa Cruz, a sprawling city on the East of the country that seemed to have only a little to offer. We had managed to coordinate an unplanned reuinion with Sally T, as Eddie hadn`t seen her in a year and I was massively missing her face. Sally was in La Paz, the highest capital city in the world (so it boasts), with the lovely girlies that we had met in Brazil and Argentina, so after a morning of wandering about Santa Cruz and attempting to get our Bolivian bearings, Eddie and I headed off on a suprisingly luxurious but ever so chilly night bus to La Paz. La Paz is a stunning, breathtaking city, teetering on lofty heights surrounded by snow-capped mountains. We drove into the city as the sun was rising over the soaring mountains, shedding light onto the valley of La Paz. We skirted round the top of the valley and before descending onto the sprawling mayhem were treated to the full view of the expansive valley, the hundreds of terracotta buidlings tumbling down into the turbulence, the sleepy morning mist delicately shrouding selected areas like a soft blanket, the clear crystalline sky promising the delights of a beautiful day and all watched by the beautiful presence of the Bolivian mountain range including the looming Potosi. We departed the bus and the fresh, chilly morning air smacked me around the chops and soon invigourated my weary, travelled demeanour. We headed straight to Loki, the infamous party hostel in La Paz, that Sally and the girls were staying at. As soon as we walked in, a little blonde excitable lightening strike stormed towards us, bowling Eddie and I down with cuddles and kisses. Sally T!
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Seeing Sal again was a treat of epic proportions - she looked great and had obviously been having a brilliant time with the Steph, Tessa and Nat. We chatted frantically (as we do!) about our gossip, news and reviews before heading out onto the chaotic city streets. We spent hours wandering the winding intricate alleyways of the Witches Market, brimming with magic and mystery, llama fetuses, herbal remedies and women in bowler hats. Yes, that`s right. A large proportion of the women in Bolivia wear the most unbelievable outfits, including large pleated skirts called polleras (usually made out of the sparkliest material available), tassled shawls (also made out of the most garish material imaginable), and bowler hats. Apparently, it is fashionable among Bolivian Andean women of indigenous descent to wear the skirt because it was originally a Spanish peasant skirt that the colonial authorities forced the indigenous women to wear, but now it is also a symbol of pride in being indigenous and is also considered a status symbol. The bowler hat, my favourite item hands down, was adopted from the good old Brits and according to my sources the position of the hat can indicate a woman's marital status and aspirations. Whatever the reasons...these women look GREAT!
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We enjoyed a debaucherous night out in the city, a LOT of shopping and a dodgy curry that unfortunately lingered with me for a few days and with Eddie for the rest of his trip. It really did feel like India! With bellies grumbling angrily, we said our sad goodbyes to Sally T two days after we had said our ecstatic hellos. It was time for Eddie and I to experience the Salt Flats. One horrendously freezing, bumpy, sleepless, juddering, toilet-fuelled overnight bus later we arrived in Uyuni at six in the morning, half the woman and man we were before we had boarded the dreaded bus. Uyuni, the starting point for the Salt Flat tours, was an odd little town, reminding me of a bad Western movie set, where the roads are incredibly wide, dust flies up behind the tin-can cars and trucks, and dogs run wild through the streets, fighting and picking ravenously through rubbish on the ground. I felt like we had gone through hell only to arrive in Hades as we trundled in a taxi to our hostel. We collapsed, exhausted, as soon as we laid eyes on a bed and when we emerged a few hours later to book our tour, Uyuni didn`t look so quite so scary! Blue skies against quaint white churches and antiquated classic cars crawling the roads added character to the place that had resembed a ghost town earlier that day! We were both still feeling rotten from the evil curry and so booked the first tour we could find and the headed back to horizontal status.

Our much-anticipated Salt Flat tour was absolutely incredible, and made for an outstanding highlight of my trip. The first day of the three day tour was spent firstly playing on huge, rusting locomotions and carriages at the train cemetery. I felt like I was on an Indiana Jones film set (film sets being a prominent theme over the next three days!), leaping on and over oxidising metal machinery and posing for photos on the tracks. Then, it was onto the Salt Flats, or Salar de Uyuni. The flats sit at a lofty 3653m and blanket an amazing 12,000 square km. They were was part of a prehistoric lake, Lago Minchin, which covered most of southwest Bolivia. When the lake dried up, it left a couple of seasonal puddles and several salt pans. When we suddenly pulled up onto the salt in our trusty jeep, I felt like we had inadvertently landed on another planet of vast white expanse, where nothing seemed real or made any sense. A desert of salt spanned before us, the dazzling white brightness gleaming against our eyes, demanding the attention it duly deserved. Mounds of salt drying in the sun punctuated the flat plains, like myriad mole hills created by some strange salt monster. I waded in the salty water, the texture and consistency confusing my feet as it turned from a slushy, mud-like consistency to hard, crystalline sharpness as I climbed through the salt puddles to a larger mound. We visited a hotel made entirely of salt, complete with salt sculptures, tables, chairs and floor, and enjoyed a delicious lunch of llama steak and salad! Surely the most incredible of the stops that day on the eerie, hallucinogenic plains was a place called Isla de los Pescadores, or Fish island. Isla de los Pescadores stands tall on the salt desert, appearing out of nowhere as we soared across the brightness. It used to be underwater and so bears resemblance to coral but also bears amazing stands of giant cactus. The cactus sprouts all over the land mass and as I climbed to the top of the island, I literally felt like I was under the sea somehow...the bright white oceanic expanse spanning out before me and the bluest sky peering over, meeting the salt desert in a haze on the horizon. So strange. So beautiful. I never wanted to leave.
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Alas, sadly we had to leave. Off to our salt hotel (again, entirely made of salt - they really know how to maximise their resources in Bolivia!) for a cosy night at our lofty heights. The next day brought more breathtaking sights, more film-set reminisces (Star Trek and Jurassic Park to name but a few!) and...a hostage situation. Hmmmm. That wasn`t included in the itinerary!? Protests, marches and demonstrations (mostly peaceful) are apparently a perpetual part of the country`s mind-boggling landscape (she reads in Lonely Planet after the frightful event took place!) and we experienced this first-hand in what can only be described as a desperate demonstration by local people. We were happily riding along in our jeep, soaking up the bizarre surroundings of boulders made of coral and volcanic mountains, when a group of men intervened in the road, placed rocks infront of the car wheels and asked our driver to get out of the car. They had basically created a road block so that they could raise awareness for the fact that they were being deprived of basic necessities such as water and electricity. Their roads are in a bad way and their government isn´t listening to their requests for help. The group wanted us to go in convoy with them to their town, email to our embassies and appeal to them for assistance for the Bolivians. It all seemed pretty dodgy but eventually we agreed to go with them, as it is was either that or waiting in the middle of the wilderness for hours. So, again resembling some kind of action movie scene we journeyed in convoy following a huge black freight truck with three dozen Bolivians in the back bearing rocks and stones, one Bolivian on the top of each jeep, again with rocks in the pocket in case we tried to veer away. Dust was flying up behind the truck and all of the ten or so jeeps that were following on. It was a bizarre and unsettling experience. No one knew what we were getting ourselves in for and when we arrived at what can only be described as a temporary settlement, with hundreds of people cheering our arrival, and more freight trucks lined up in a row with small huts on stilts scattered about, we knew that we had been brought there on false pretenses. The rest of day consisted of waiting...a lot of waiting. The locals protested for about an hour, holding up banners and chanting about their plight (which was ineffective seeing as most tourists couldn´t understand Spanish) and then, around 6 hours later, after our driver had lined up to receive a flimsy piece of white paper liberating us from our hostage status, we drove off into the sunset, feeling more confused than ever! But certainly relieved. Bizarre!
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The next day consisted of no hostage-taking (score) but spouting geysers and hot springs (score!!!). We awoke at a heart-wrenching, eye-wretching 4am and, in the freezing climes, bundled into the car and towards the geysers as the sun rose. We were now at a lofty 4950m altitude and two of the people in our group had been truly struck by altitude sickness. Eddie was still a poorly one too, his stomach like a teething baby, demanding constant attention. The geysers, albeit stinky, were amazing! A gaggle of boiling mud pots and sulfurous fumaroles bubbled away as we wandered about the soft ground, holding our noses and watching the sun rise above the steaming holes. It was quite a sight...I almost expected to peer into a pit and see Jabba the Hut, shaking his flab and lauging contendedly in his stinking jacuzzi! After the geysers and after my feet had well and truly turned to ice blocks we arrived at the Termas de Ploques hot springs. Oh my lord, those hot springs! They were heavenly...perfectly temperatured sulfurous water spouting naturally to provide us with the most relaxing morning dip at 4200 metres! Perfection!
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After the Salt Flats we bused it off to Sucre and chilled for a day before Eddie embarked on his monumental trip back to England. A mere five flights, two taxis and a bus ride over the space of three days. Brutal. I was left in Sucre, wondering what to do with myself and decided to buzz back to La Paz, where I had toyed with the idea of working on the bar for a while at Loki. At the bus station in Sucre I started chatting with a Aussie girl called Loz, whom I became good friends with (you´re never really alone when you´re travelling!) and stayed in Loki with for the 5 nights I was there. La Paz was once again party time at high altitude...amazing fun but by the end of the 5 nights I was ready to leave, detox, breathe and exercise! And so, Loz and I decided to go to Lake Titicaca for some good, clean, natural beauty gazing.

Lake Titicaca is an incongruous splash of sapphire amid the stark planes of the altiplano and is absolutely gigantic. It is more than 230km long and 97km wide and straddles both Peru and Bolivia, and is apparently a remnant of Lago Ballivan, an ancient inland sea. We boated across the expansive gleaming lake to get to Isla del Sol, or Island of the Sun. Isla del Sol is the legendary Inca creation site and the birthplace of the sun in Inca mythology. Having befriended a Swede named Sofie and a Dutchie named George, we departed the boat and heaved up the millions of steps to the hostel we had chosen to stay in. After the debauchery of La Paz, the fact that we were at an elevation of 3820m, and considerig the enormous lump of possessions on my back, it is safe to say that my heart nearly popped out of my chest! So exhausting! But it was so worht it once we had scaled the many steps - cobbled alleyways, glistening lake stretching out as far as the eye could see, donkeys grazing and whinnying in to the atmosphere, tumbling hills falling to the steep precipices of the waters below. bgith Bolivian materials against the beaming blue sky. Utterly gorgeous. We only had twenty four hours on the island so we made the most of it. We took a bumpy boat up to the north of the island, as we were staying in the south, and then walked back down. It was an arduous walk considering the altitude and the oppressive sunshine (wearing factor 70 I still got burnt!) but so beautiful, and really made me remember how much I love to use this body of mine. Not just for partying and riding on buses, but for exercising! Bring on the Machu Picchu trek!

And so...Bolivia had had its´time and I parted ways with my company. On my own again and off to Cusco, Peru to see what all the fuss is about this mountain!

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Posted by Anna Rowl 13:30

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