The problem with Peru is that it has a near monopoly on Inca
ruins. Moreover, ever since the Shining Path went to ground,
it's been relatively safe. As a result tourism is now its economic
mainstay. And, like anyone with a monocrop tourist industry,
many of the Peruvians have (understandably) come to rather dislike
tourists. Not everyone of course, but there's a lot of crappy
service, poor products and indifference from people who, for
obvious reasons, have come to regard you as a walking ATM.
Thus it's something of a relief arrive in La Paz. Of course,
Bolivia's capital has tourists (and, for that matter, malodourous
travelers) but if they disappeared tomorrow, life would go on.
Also, La Paz is very crowded and has a real bustle to it: the
main drag reminded me a little of Oxford Street. I know that
Oxford Street is a dump - but when you haven't seen them for
nearly a year, you start to feel vaguely nostalgic about the
familiar places you normally hate.
Actually La Paz is a very peculiar city. At 3600m it's the highest
capital in the world. Even driving there is odd: you don't really
see it until you're right upon it because it sits in a bowl.
In a neat inversion of the norm, the rich live lower down the
bowl and the poor higher up, where, presumably the air is even
thinner and colder. But the strangeness doesn't end with geography.
The streets near our hotel were crowded with stalls run by old
women selling incense, statues (which they offered to cast spells
on) totemic dead creatures and so on. Initially I assumed the
entire country was in the grip of some sort of voodoo cult,
but then I discovered that we were staying in the middle of
one of the city's odder attractions, the Witches' market. Which
certainly explained why some mad old crone dried to sell me
a dried llama foetus every time I left my hotel.
Simon and Justine, by contrast, had booked themselves into the
'highest five star in the world', which, at US$75 a night for
a suite was an undeniable snip. That said, I can't imagine 'El
Presidente' will be holding on to its fifth star for much longer.
We took cocktails at the 'unmissable' rooftop bar. The cocktails
were terrible and the bar was deserted but for us - very missable,
although it did afford nice views of the city's lights and occasional
blackouts. The rest hotel looked like it had last been decorated
in 1982, with the help of one of Pablo Escobar's henchmen. The
only other place you're likely to find so much tawdry marble
and gold used to such effect is London's Edgeware Road.
Spit and Run
Just as I was getting into the swing of things, Bolivian style,
I was the victim of a dastardly crime - I fell prey to a saliva
mugger and this really is quite as disgusting as it sounds.
Basically, these menaces spit a huge gobfull of saliva on to
the back of your head. In the ensuing confusion, they nick your
wallet/bag/camera/valuables. I had in fact been told about these
nefarious types, but, in this case, forewarned is not fore-armed:
no matter how many times you're told that a stranger will spit
on the back of your head it's always a surprise when it happens.
So they got my wallet, which contained a Switch card, a driving
license, a credit card and no cash whatsoever as, Jane, sensibly,
allows me only pocket money. The loss of an (non fake) Gucci
wallet was a tough blow, but the Bolivian police were charming
and I figure I got off pretty lightly: Saliva is not the only
fluid these muggers use.
La Paz, although good fun is a little short on obvious attractions.
Nonetheless, we spent a diverting afternoon at the Coca Museum.
OK, it's the kind of thing that traveling types love it does
look a little bit like someone's GCSE science project. But it
takes a surprisingly even handed look at America's risble war
on drugs, which, as the joke goes, drugs won years ago. It's
also a learning experience and I learned a number of surprising
cocaine facts which I list here in order of the surprise they
evinced. 1.The US (with 5% of the world's population) consumes
50% of the world's cocaine (surprise level: 2/10). 2.Coca Cola
is still a major buyer of coca leaves and scores them by the
ton to flavour its soft drink (SL 6/10). 3.Finally, I learned
that chewing coca leaves results in a blood drug level of about
40% of that which you get from the more traditional rolled up,
bloodstained $100 note and mirror (surprise level 9/10 and I
rushed out to buy another bag).
Thin Air, Thinner You
Speaking of things that make you thinner, life on the South
American Altiplano is also a joy in terms of diet. Not that
the Bolivian capital is a foodie mecca, although it is rather
better than Peru. But mainly because, until you fully acclimatize,
your heart has to work considerably faster in order to get the
necessary oxygen to your vitals. This effectively means you're
constantly exercising and, hey presto, the weight just drops
off. Normally fairly healthy eaters, Jane and I were pigging
out on burgers, chocolate, salami, cake - anything that took
our fancy - and still losing weight. Indeed, further to this
discovery, I am minded to set up a company that flies exercise
averse fatties to high altitudes to lose weight, just by sitting
around. Although I suppose if they're really fat, it might backfire
and the strain placed on their hearts by taking a cab to the
nearest pie shop could kill them.
La Paz was also the scene of our farewell to Simon and Justine,
our companions of a month and a day. After much dithering they
decided to head off to the northern Jungle. Naturally we went
out and drank plenty of Pisco and Tequila to celebrate, as much
as anything, the making of a decision. Thus, with crippling
hnagovers we spent our last day in La Paz watching cable TV,
while Simon and Justine (flashpackers extraordinaire) disappeared
off to Santa Cruz where they chartered a private plane to fly
them to a seven star eco lodge in the Noel Kempf National Park.
Keeping it real (part 256)
With our stated commitment to keeping it real (and meager budget),
chartered planes were clearly out of the question. So we took
a bus to Cochabamba - which sounds like a Latin themed nightclub
in Romford - but is actually a rather nice city. It's rather
nice for a number of reasons. Firstly as somewhere just off
the Altiplano (and at a piffling 2600m) it's warm and you can
sit outside drinking beer in the evenings. The nightlife is
agreeable in a sort of brass band playing outside your restaurant
kind of way. What's more, there are real trees! And rain! This
may not sound like much, but after a month staring at buff coloured
hills, I got pretty choked up over the sight of wet trees. It
has the best steakburgers in the world; there are people who
wander around with mobiles acting as human phone boxes; and
you can get a three star hotel for a tenner. Finally, although
fairly attractive, it's mercifully free of travelers. Well,
I did see a rather crusty looking group skulking in a café once,
but I chucked a couple of bars of soap at them and they scattered
Pleasant though it is, Cochabamba was just a staging post on
our way to Toro Toro National Park. Although a mere 200km from
Cochabamba, TT is not an easy place to reach, though, to be
fair, it shouldn't be that hard either. We arranged a taxi.
He didn't show. We arranged another taxi. One block from our
hotel he doubled the price. We heard it was possible to hire
a Cesna, at a price not that different from the doubled taxi,
but it hardly seemed worth it. Eventually with the help of another
taxi driver who looked like an extra from the Godfather, we
managed to find a local bus. Our driver warned us that the park
was absolutely crawling with tourists. Our hearts sank until
he cautioned: 'There may be as many as ten'. So we wound up
on the bus. It cost £1.50 and was about as real as you can get.
That is, poverty can be quite charming when viewed from a few
hundred metres; less so when it's sitting next to you and pukes
all over your bag.
In terms of westerners, we had only the company of a quite strikingly
unpleasant American girl. As we got off the bus for a meal stop,
I said, 'Hello'. She blanked me. Later on, she asked me, in
Spanish, if I spoke English. I replied that I was English, of
course I did, also in Spanish. She then asked, rather haughtily,
this time in English, 'Were you trying to talk to me earlier?'
I replied, that, well, yes, I might have said Hi and asked her
if she was from Georgia. 'What makes you say that?' she asked
'Well...'I said warily, 'you are wearing a T shirt that says
'Well I'm from Nebraska' she snapped, turned her back on me
and started talking to a woman in Spanish. Jane later said that
her feminine instincts told her that the girl thought I was
hitting on her. Which was both presumptuous (she was rather
plain) and stupid (Jane was standing about a metre from me).
Still, as the silly little cow clearly wanted to pretend she
was the only tourist in the park, I made a point of greeting
her with an effusive, 'How absolutely lovely to see you again'
whenever we bumped into her therafter.
I'd been expecting the landscape to get lusher as we headed
east - Toro Toro is right on the edge of the Andes and is probably
less than 100km from the Amazon basin - but it's as dessicated
as everywhere else, if rather warmer. Toro Toro, the town is
bigger than you expect, especially for somewhere so isolated.
It's also rather cute, but in the right way - that is, nice
and rustic without being self consciously so. The doors, for
example, are the kind of thing the chattering classes get full
on rustic chubbies over. But they're just old doors and when
they rot, they'll be replaced with new ones. TT is also notable
for the luxuriant moustaches of its inhabitants - they have
some of the finest facial hair anywhere in the world. With moustaches
of this quality, they ought to be careful. Otherwise George
Dubya will be directing his missiles at them in his long awaited
war against moustaches, sorry, terror.
Puking By Candlelight
We found more swish low cost accommodation in TT: at the best
place in town, eight pounds bought us a suite of four rather
good rooms, breakfast included. Indeed, this hotel would have
been an altogether charming three and a half star experience,
except the town had running water only at night (sometimes)
and electricity for about two hours a day. Moreover, if water
was a problem, so was finding food. There weren't any restaurants
per se - you just wandered around the town to see who happened
to be selling food from their front room that day. Which places
were and weren't restaurants changed daily, though the fare
- rice, potatoes, steak, egg, salsa - did not.
Still food was the least of my worries. Something I'd eaten
en route had disagreed with me violently. How violently? Well,
I spent most of the first night (when, thankfully there was
water) either on the loo or vomiting, often simultaneously.
Disgusting as it sounds, my projectile puking was leant a certain
olde worlde charm by the lack of electricity. For not only did
I have to rush to the bathroom in order to void the contents
of my stomach, I also had to find matches beforehand in order
to bring my guts up by candlelight.
Walking with Dinosuars
After a day's convalescence, I got to appreciate the delights
of the park. For starters, it's a huge, dramatic valley that
looks like a range of hills has had the middle scooped out of
it to reveal the land's layer cake strata. Pretty much what
happened, except the scooping was done by volcanoes. TT's main
claim to fame though is its dinosaur tracks which are absolutely
everywhere, all over the shop, I've never seen quite anything
like it; if you lived there you could probably have a dino-footprint
patio. But this dinofest conceals a Jurassic tragedy. Many of
the prints have raised edges, as if they were made in mud or
plasticine. In fact they were made in molten lava and for most
of the dinosaurs who made them, these steps were the last walking
they ever did.
There's also a pretty stylish canyon. Although this canyon is
about one tenth depth of Peru's much ballyhooed Colca Canyon,
it is far, far better, because it actually looks the part. Nothing
is visible until you get to the edge and then there's a sheer
300 metre drop, straight down to a river the colour of hot chocolate.
Real 'Roadrunner' stuff. Finally on the way back to town, we
caught some rock paintings, which, in all fairness were absolutely
the most rubbish Inca artifacts I have ever seen. We'd been
told that these were a highlight of the park by a couple of
rather nice American retirees so we were a little disappointed.
But we later discovered the Americans belonged to the American
Society for Inca Art or somesuch, so I guess their keenness
over these rare but entirely crappy paintings was understandable,
rather sweet even.
Hole Lotta Fun
Back in TT and we met another American, bringing our tourist
total to three. He was in his early forties and had the boozy,
porky look of frat boy who has stayed at the party twenty years
too long. He was treating the local family has was staying with
to a meal in a rather ingratiatingly awful way and had quite
the worst Spanish accent I've ever heard. Try saying 'tiennes'
in a really whiny US accent and you'll see what I mean. We also
met David and Hester, a far more pleasant Dutch couple, who
we, discovered, were going to be our cave buddies the following
Along with Dino tracks, TT is famous for its caves, but these
are not like the caves you find in the US and UK which have
nice concrete walkways and cheesy souvenir caves selling willy
shaped plastic stalactites. No, we went into these, via narrow,
deep holes, with ropes, had to belly crawl, much like the Viet
Cong, through passages about half a metre high and needed to
limbo dance through passages so narrow they would defeat even
the mildly plump. Much of the cave also had a, weird, vaguely
meaty smell: this was down to its resident colony of vampire
bats. Still, all very interesting if you've taken enough coca.
Seriously though, caving is cool enough as a one off. But it's
basically mountaineering in dark, wet places. And to spend every
weekend hanging around some scummy pothole in Wales, well, you'd
have to be a little bit keen for my liking.
Post cavernas, we had to hang around in TT for a couple of days
unsuccessfully trying to hitch lifts, while we waited for the
bus. Then, on bus day, proverbially enough, three showed up
at once. It gives you an idea of the sort of isolation TT enjoys
that the town has a carnival feel on bus day. After returning
to Cochabamba, we went on to Potosi, which, for those who get
excited about such things is the world's highest sizeable city
(4070m, 13,200ft). But I've long since stopped noticing the
altitude thing. Indeed, it astounds me to think that, seven
months ago, back in the Himalayas, I considered myself something
of a hero for having reached 4000m and was constantly alert
for the symptoms of altitude sickness. Here, I don't even notice
it unless there's a particularly steep hill.
Still Potosi is not just remarkable for its height. It also
has a less than charming colonial past and is famous for its
silver mines (probably also the world's highest) in which some
eight million people died, largely at the hands of the Spaniards.
A lot of art from the time depicts Indians working while Spaniards
stand over them with whips, which is not a bad summary of the
Spanish colonial experience. Anyhow, this rather gruesome history
means that, at one point, not so long ago, Potosi was the richest
city in the world, more populous than London and Paris combined.
Indeed, it has a wealth of fine architecture and a pretty cool
museum in its old mint, which, the usual crappy Spanish religious
paintings aside, is pretty interesting.
Mine All Mine
Best of all, though, is that you can actually visit the mines,
in the towering 'Rich Mountain' behind town which are still
worked as cooperatives. You get togged up in very necessary
protective clothing; you buy gifts of coca leaves, dynamite
(yes, over the counter) and 96% (!) drinking alcohol for the
miners. Then you walk into a hole in the mountain. It's worth
stressing that, although tours are run, this is very much a
real mine, with huge perilous pits everywhere. The mountain
has some 6000 miners and an unspecified number of unofficial
workers (who are often minors, haha). I had been told that it
was a harrowing and shocking experience and, to be sure, the
miners do suffer from health complaints, chew coca like bastards
and drink the aforementioned near neat alcohol while working.
But they were working for a cooperative and seemed largely happy
with their lot; besides, which in Bolivian terms, their salaries
So we spent a claustrophobic, but undeniably interesting and
unusual afternoon wandering around a thoroughly cave-in prone
mine, using gas lanterns to light our way. While wandering around
with a naked flame, I was carrying neat alcohol, (the obligatory
big old bag of coca leaves) and two sticks of dynamite - to
play with later - in my rucksack. And this being Bolivia, in
all likelihood, this really was every bit as unbelievably dangerous
and stupid as it sounds.