Jun 14, 2011 by     No Comments    Posted under: Bolivia, Brandyn's blogs, Uncategorized, Where two now?, Where we've been

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Bolivia, so far, has been my favorite country. Bolivia’s beauty has surpassed that of anywhere else in South America and most of the world for that matter. It is the country where I have had the single best day on the trip so far, thought that I was going to die three times in one day, and saw some of the most unique landscapes I am sure I will ever see. Being as keen as I am on this country it would only seem fit that I would write about Bolivia; it’s magnificence and it’s many faults. I hope to address them both in journal form so as best for me to remember when telling my grandchildren about how adventurous and fun I once was.

We took the bus from Puno, Peru; a place not worth putting on the map aside from an easy access point to visit the floating islands of Lake Titicaca.

Overland crossing for US Citizens into Bolivia and Visa Requirements:

Being from the states we couldn’t really find anything about the requirements for us to cross from Peru into Bolivia. I will give a quick and easy guide of what is required and what was asked for from us. First $135, there’s no doubt that everyone knows that is what is required to enter the country. That gives you a 90 day tourist stamp and a Visa that lasts for 5 years. Next, Yellow Fever Vaccination, this is required but we weren’t asked for it, I would keep it handy anyways. Copies of your passport; we made two copies each, but were only asked for one. Passport photos; you need to give them two photos, the sizes don’t matter (mine were a SA size and Cori’s were a US size). Hotel reservation, we had one for the first night but weren’t asked for it.

If I were to recommend this to anyone, make certain you take a reputable company which does the route from Puno to Copacabana / La Paz often. Our bus driver’s assistant shuffled us to the front of the line and got us through without much problem at all. Bring a pen, you’ll have to fill out forms in the office and they didn’t have any pens.

For anyone hemming and hawing at the $135 entrance fee for Bolivia; don’t pay it; go to a less beautiful, less fun country and enter for free.

On to the less technical stuff.

Copacabana, Bolivia: the name makes everyone think of half naked women on the warm sandy beaches of Brazil. This is anything but…there is no sand, the elevation is over 3,800 meters (12,500 feet), as you walk along the lakes edge it smells a bit like sewage; but it’s got charm. Indigenous women with their traditional garb who are trying to get you to eat at their fish stands, old men with mounds of coca leaves in their cheeks visiting 2011 from yesteryear, and adorable babies on the backs of their mothers all strewn about town.

We arrived in Copacabana three days before their La Patria; the day of their patron saint so it was the calm before the storm. Fortunately the ATM worked for us, I say for us because the woman before us got rejected. Good accommodation is easy to come by in Copacabana, but there’s only one place you can book online and it is very cute, but grossly overpriced.

At around 5:30 the next morning we awoke to what sounded like war in the distance. Trumpets blaring and explosions could be heard from our hut. One thing that I had heard, but not witnessed was that Bolivians have a knack for explosions. This I suppose it is part of being a proud people.

We left said grossly overpriced place early and checked into a beautiful old converted mansion on the water for $25 a night. This was closer to the action and we had wonderful views of the water. Cori and I walked around the entire town watching hundreds of women adorned in beautiful outfits dancing in the streets chugging beer. We stumbled upon a shop selling candy bars, beer, and dynamite; I got a beer and with Cori’s disapproving look did not buy any dynamite. In case you’re curious, a small stick of dynamite is about 5 Bolivianos or roughly 72 cents. For a stick roughly 20cms long it is about $1.50. That being said, we decided that the locals could have their fun and we’d stay on the outskirts of the celebrations to avoid me buying dynamite and later blogging about the medical facilities in Bolivia.

We left the next morning after getting some good pictures of the partiers to go to Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca. This was the supposed birth place of the Incas. It was to have excellent ruins and a great 3 hour walk over 14,000 feet in elevation so we were in.

When we arrived at Isla del Sol, I was amazed by how clean it was in comparison to the shores of Copacabana. One thing that anyone has to know about going to Bolivia is that they need to always carry $,20 approximately USD$7 extra Bolivianos anywhere you go. There will be no shortage of tariffs, fees, or stupid things you have to pay for. When we arrived, we found out that in order to enter the north side of the island we had to pay a mandatory $.10 Bs that was never mentioned anywhere. Oh, one more thing that anyone who has gone to Bolivia will attest to is their uncanny ability to insist that you take a receipt for EVERYTHING. Seriously, you go to the bathroom; here’s a receipt for the two squares of toilet paper you purchased. You sneeze, here’s a receipt.

So we paid the entry fee and started walking. Everything when you’re almost 3 miles above sea level is difficult. The sun is brighter, the UV rays are stronger, the climbs seem steeper, and the scenery is more beautiful. When we got to the ruins we were honestly a little disappointed; everything’s a disappointment after just having been to Machu Picchu. We couldn’t however have asked for a better day. About two hours or so into our walk / hike it was time to pay another surprise entry fee to the south part of the island, after getting our receipt, we took about a million pictures which I’ll let them speak for themselves. My one piece of advice is to NOT sit on the top of the boat on the way out to or returning from Isla del Sol, it is insanely cold with the wind.

La Paz, Cori and I have vastly different opinions about La Paz as well. I felt like I was in a safe clean city. There wasn’t much pollution, I didn’t feel threatened by anyone at any time of the day and was impressed by how friendly everyone was. The first night in La Paz Cori and I walked around until we found a swanky steak joint to satisfy our lust for third world meats. One lesson I learned the hard way about Bolivia is that NONE, not even the nicest restaurants have toilet paper. You must bring your own. The steak was amazing and we collectively with alcohol spent about USD$15.

My single favorite day on the trip:

Thank you Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking for making the World’s Most Dangerous Road such an amazing experience. I must have seen the Top Gear episode when the boys go to Bolivia probably 15 times; the part where Clarkson is going up the WMDR and the car is passing him on the inside was my favorite part.

Unfortunately after riding down the road I know that scene was full of shit and totally staged. Skip forward if you don’t want a ton of technical jargon. While driving on the WMDR everyone ALWAYS keeps on the left; this way you can always see where your wheels are when they’re on the outside. So you’ll see in that video that Clarkson is supposed to be going uphill towards La Paz, but, you’ll see that he is on the left, which would be the cliff side. So, in this shot (about 20 meters away from a place big enough to turn around in) he’s going downhill to get a good and scary shot.

That being said, I rode down the World’s Most Dangerous Road on an amazing bicycle, and made it about 3 seconds behind our guide. At the end of the day I was ready to go again. I will reiterate this piece of advice to anyone who asks. Do not mess around with your life. People die on this trip. It is not worth saving USD$20 and risk being killed. Other operators do not have bikes that are as good as Gravity’s, they don’t have sufficient safety equipment, and they are far less than the best. Some people on the road were riding Iron Horse bikes that were at least 5 years old. Some tours looked so bootleg, I saw one person hit someone else on their tour in order to stop because the brakes were so shitty. The last rule, which I think is the most important rule and should be followed the ENTIRE time in Bolivia is “DO NOT BE A FUCKING IDIOT.”

Coroico, an insanely stunning town on the side of a mountain, in the heart of the coca growing region was where we spent the next four days. The place we staying was insanely gorgeous and for the price couldn’t be beat We had our own bungalow, hammock, and outdoor kitchen for about $40 a night. While this is about $20 more than the second best place in town, it was a steal and easily could have been $400 a night if it were in Costa Rica or Mexico. The internet was slow, the sand flies were abundant, and I couldn’t get enough of this amazing little town. The population was less than 2,000 and I could have spent a month there. I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the hammock one afternoon and traded The Monster of Florence for The Quiet American which I’d always wanted to read.

Buses in Bolivia don’t leave until they are full. When we arrived at the bus terminal in Coroico there were two buses which were waiting for two more to get on. We went to the minivan because they are supposed to be about an hour faster to get into La Paz. Everything but one of it’s wheels checked out. That was a problem, we could see steel coming out of it. The road we were going on to get back to La Paz is insane we gain over 4,000 meters in about a three hour drive, the turns are sharp, and the drops are steep. We decided against getting the minivan after we confronted the driver about the wheel to which he responded, “HAHAHAHA” right in Cori’s face. By then the other minibus had left and now we had to wait for another 12 people to come so we could leave.

We had time to kill and decided to go to an English pub which we knew had wifi and could safely keep our bags while we waited for our overnight bus to Potosi. I knew that Moises was in town and hoped through Zuckerburg magic that he would get my facebook message so we could be reunited again. Moises was the nice young man who stayed with us in NYC then we stayed with him in Bogota and included in that blog. So, after our third or fourth pint, Moises showed up and absolutely made our afternoon. We shared a beer with him and went back to his hotel to relax and have a small dinner. Cori had the best milk shake I’ve had in my entire life. For a place where you have to be careful because the water which is used to feed the plants and humans is contaminated with sewer water, it was incredible that something as good as this shake could have been made form it. We left Moises to catch our overnight bus.

Overnight buses aren’t so bad at all if you have a good company. In Peru we used Cruz del Sur. Right now I’m writing this on an overnight bus. They’re great and comfortable; more comfortable than first class airplanes everyone we’ve talked to have said. Bolivia however is different. We were going to Potosi, which is the world’s highest city. It’s elevation is quasi debilitating, however it was a cool little city. It gets way below freezing every night. The bus we took to Potosi didn’t have a bathroom, didn’t have heat, and the roads for half of it weren’t paved. It was our most miserable journey yet. Potosi at one point was South America’s richest city whose streets were paved in silver. They started mining in the mid 16th century and the behemoth mountain lays like dormant Swiss cheese now. They continue to mine now using the same rudimentary tools and techniques from yesteryear and have tours of the mines for anyone with USD$9..

I wouldn’t suggest anyone take the mine tour. I seriously, thought I was going to die three separate times on this trip. This picture here about sums it up (this was taken at lunch after the tour).

It is hard to describe in worlds how horrible the experience was, I apologize ahead of time for the foul language, but, it is nothing compared to what I was thinking. We took a minibus aptly named the Nissan Civilian to a house on the side of the hill. It was here that I got into my water resistant clothing and was given boots that were four European sizes to small and a headlamp that out-aged me by about 15 years. After gearing up and realizing that I was the only English speaking person in my group it was time to go buy some soda, coca leaves, and dynamite. In no time I was going to be in a Swiss cheese mountain which was almost completely decommissioned with a bunch of really jittery short men lighting off dynamite; sounds like a perfect morning, doesn’t it?

After walking at 90 degrees totally bent over for about 45 minutes, I started to think two things. Why did I do this? I was the only American (as I was the entire trip…I only met one other American in Bolivia), there were four French people, and one Japanese man. My other question was, would America, France, and Japan pool their resources to get us out of here when this place comes crumbling down? A few minutes later we arrived at “Tio”. Tio, is the devil, seriously. Because they are Catholics, and Catholics believe in and worship like 10,000 deities, one of those happens to be the devil and it is in the bowels of a crumbling mountain. This was the first time I thought that I was going to die. We all had to pay our respects to Tio by giving him coca leaves, sprinkling alcohol on him, lighting him a cigarette, and drinking a shot with him to keep us safe. Just after we did this I heard a voice not too far off scream EXPLOSION! Then eight dynamite charges came blasting one right after another. My ears started to ring, the walls shook faintly and rocks fell on top of us. I was thankful that I had my helmet.

It was now time to walk more. Before we started I asked my guide, how much longer until we leave? The guide’s immediate response, “two and a half more hours,” I was still shaken and couldn’t hear too well. The heat was staggering, it was over 35 degrees I had no water and cotton mouth. We then found two miners that were taking a break. We starting talking with them and gave them presents of coca and dynamite. Their answers as you’d expect, sad, their demeanors, depressing, the amount of time left they had to live, little to none. I took my cushy day job for granted.

We started trudging along deeper to see miners doing the more difficult and dangerous labor further down. A few of the main tunnels led to the outside or to other paths that led to the outside. These major tunnels had cart tracks on them to haul 500 kilos of rock. This carts are not motorized, are not modern in any way, and there is not much room between the tracks and the walls beside them. The carts are brought uphill by workers, two in the back pushing and two in the front pulling with ropes. Walking down these paths are dangerous as there is heavy traffic and this is a working mine. While we were walking downhill we could hear a roaring in the distance, our guide screamed for us to jump, just as we did a full cart with no handlers attached screamed past us carrying over 1,100 pounds of material. When it passed, it hit my backside and spun me around cutting my hand. $130 for my tetanus shot doesn’t seem like a lot of money anymore.

The third time I thought that I was going to die happened about 5 minutes after the cart almost killed me. We were standing in a semicircle watching miners prepare dynamite and I was stuck under a defunct shaft which was boarded up. Despite it being boarded up, rock was falling down into it. I could hear large rocks falling what I later found out was 80 meters onto fairly thin pieces of wood. When I looked up dirt was falling on my face and my heart wouldn’t stop pounding. After a few minutes of standing there I almost had a panic attack, I asked my guide if I could move because I was going to freak out, she told me to move quickly as it was not safe where I was standing.

I had to get out of Potosi and do something worth dying for. The drive from Potosi to Uyuni is supposed to be amazing. Being from Arizona, I can say that it is alright. The American Southwest is pretty cool and being brought up in it had made me jaded towards other deserts. Uyuni is a one horse town with slow internet, 1,000 people all trying to sell you the same tour, and crappy weather. After roaming around town we talked with a few tour agencies which seemed to do the trick. But, as with anything in Bolivia, the more you pay the better the result. We decided to take the same agency that I did the silver mine with because they have a good reputation and I didn’t die during the tour.

The Salar de Uyuni are the largest salt flats in the world. They are approximately the size of Belgium. The pictures we took were amazing. One crazy thing is that a lot of people die on this tour. Jeeps crash into one another, they are in shitty condition and flip, or the kids on the tour encourage the drivers to drive like idiots and everyone dies. Our guide however drove like an old lady, a safe old lady and let us listen to my iPod, which was super cool. It was a three day tour which would take us through a number of different sceneries. Salt flats, high desert, boulder forest, red lakes, active smoking volcanoes, amazing sunsets, green lakes, geysers, over 5,100 meters, and many other amazing things we’ll never see anything close to again.

Our group was good and the pictures speak for themselves. At the end of the three day tour, we ended in San Pedro de Atacama, the desert town in the Atacama Desert, which is the driest desert in the world, where it hasn’t rained in over a thousand years and nothing can live; not even on a cellular level.

That being said, Bolivia is a land unlike any other. It’s dangers, it’s beauties, it’s rough and unforgiving way of life all hold a special place in my heart. I will never forget this amazing place. My only regret is not doing another ride with Gravity.

Thanks for reading.



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