Tales of a City Girl

Gringo Diaries Part 2: Bolivia, from La Paz to Sucre


Bolivia is, in one word, chaotic. The streets are narrow and tightly packed. Cholitas with their long braided hair, bulky cardigans under aprons and thick socks under open-toed kitten heels, sell empanadas, scarfs and jewellery next to street grills which always have chicken on (pollo and polloterias are a big deal).

Markets are far more commonly used than supermarkets so you’ll also see some weird shit being sold on the streets – a food mixer, or coat hangers, for example. What’s even odder is that like sticks hopelessly close to like here – if you see someone selling coat hangers, you can almost guarantee someone will be right next to them selling the exact same thing.

Bolivia is the most poverty-stricken country in South America, and this is clear to see when you visit. It’s a bit dilapidated and rough around the edges. For example, in the capital La Paz, an ugly high-rise building is being erected directly behind a beautiful church in the main square. I became a bit delapidated too – bumming around in increasingly baggy and stained trousers, my hair a mad, coarse halo around my head (no hotel hairdryers here).

Bolivia feels more like a place you’d want to travel and absorb and spend time if you had more of it to spare and wanted to really get under the skin of South America, as opposed to somewhere you can imagine your mates heading to for a 2 week summer break.

The authorities and rules here are also pretty archaic. We started off our time in Bolivia with the most incredible ‘bite your fist to stop from screaming’ border experience possible. We were constantly on and off the bus, including being wordlessly shown that we had to cross a river while our bus, with all our luggage on board, left to access the river another way. At one point a man came onto the bus to ask for money because we were passing through his neighbourhood – which everyone pretty much diligently gave.

That’s before you get to the customs bit itself – a fun maze of queuing in order to join another queue while surly-faced officials shout at you in Spanish. By the time we got to La Paz we were barely on speaking terms with each other.

La Paz was an interesting city. It felt small and personable for a capital city when you’re walking around the centre – and it’s only when we climbed up to the Mirador (viewpoint) overlooking the city that we saw how vast and sprawling it was.

We experienced the main markets (including getting fresh mixed juices for less than £1 and looking at the rows of baby alpaca skeletons in the witches’ market) and visited the Museo del Coca.

However, we spent a lot of our time in La Paz feeling like we were missing something integral – that what we were seeing was good, but somehow there was somewhere else where we could unearth something great, if only we could find it. This is especially true of the nightlife. We’re generally pretty crap at staying out bar-hopping when it’s just the two of us anyway, preferring a carby dinner and a lie-down like the boring fuckers we are.  I’d recommend trying the Bolivian Drinks Museum for a tipple or two (its a bar,  not just a museum – not even we’re that sad), where I was introduced to singani, a really good Bolivian spirit that usurps even pisco.

After La Paz we took the bus to Uyuni. There is only one reason you would go to Uyuni – which looks like something out of a TV programme about backwater Nowheresville, America – and that’s to go to the salt flats.

The salt flats was Dan’s favourite trip of our holiday and was up there for me too. For 3 days we travelled in a cramped 4×4 over vast expanses of diverse landscape, hurtling through dust-laden tracks and through frozen streams. From one hour to the next, the difference in what you can see is like another planet, and in some cases there would be something just incongruously emerging that you would stumble upon – like the hilly Inca Wasy island of cacti right in the middle of miles of flat, sharp salt flats.

We lolloped after llamas in the valleys, absolutely certain we’d be able to touch them (they’re bloody savvy, you can’t do it) and ate soy burgers in rambunkle towns and on the side of craggy slopes, which frankly made me regret ever saying we’d be vegetarian on the salt flats trip as I might as well have eaten soil.

You may have seen the pictures of people playing with perspective on the salt flats (any gringo in Bolivia’s Facebook album essentially) but to me the best bit was going to the red lagoon, so called because of the pigmentation caused by the algae. Hundreds of flamingos flock to the red lagoon, mainly of the James variety, which if nothing else, is a great name for a flamingo species. Llamas also meander in the shallows pulling at moss and drinking ice-speared water. The colours are truly sensational – the red and blue of the lagoon, combined with the pink flamingos; giant brown ice-flecked mountains in the distance; and mossy shallows framed by dusty stony paths.

Accommodation on the tour is basic at best, with toilets that smell of rotting flesh, and freezing cold conditions, but on the second night our hostel was next to a hot spring with a natural pool which reaches 35 degrees. After the guide had explained the Milky Way formations you can lie back and watch the stars – and if you’re particularly classy like our group, fill up plastic bottles with the wine from dinner in order to have a drink down there in the water.

After the tour was over and we’d done 7 hours in the bus to get back, along with Sebastian the German who insisted on playing slow, Christian-inspired songs about Jerusalem most of the way back, we moved onto the mining town of Potosi.

Potosi is just nothing to shout about really. I wouldn’t necessarily go there unless it’s on your route. It felt like a fairly nondescript town, without any of the charm of La Paz, or the proximity to world-class sights like Uyuni had. There are active mines you can go down and visit, but I was emphatically told that they are terrifying and something you wouldn’t want to do. We did go to the National Mint of Bolivia to learn about some of the old processes of making coins, but that was probably the highlight, which is saying something.

Our final stop in Bolivia was Sucre, which I loved. Sucre, which is the administrative capital of Bolivia and where Bolivia’s Declaration of Independence was signed, is a city of glistening white. The buildings are ornate and varied and there’s a recoleta up the hill with a look-out point and a square with swarthes of schoolchildren playing football. We spent a great afternoon up there with our tour guide Jazz in a tiny traditional Bolivian pub, drinking chicha (fermented corn drink).  Make sure you also go to the Museo del Tesoro, where you can learn about the jewellery and gems in Bolivia, without having to go down into a Potosi mine to find out about it.

Sucre is a bit of a tourist trap in places so be careful – don’t trust a ‘happy hour’ as far as you can throw it, especially if it involves the Joy Ride Cafe – but ask the locals for recommendations if you can.

We stayed in – Hostel Iskanwaya, La Paz (don’t bother); Jardines de Uyuni (stay here); Hostal Tukos La Casa Real, Potosi (meh) and Hostal Patrimonio, Sucre (yay!)

We ate and drank at – La Cuerva, La Paz; Minuteman Pizza, Uyuni; Cafe Potocchi, Potosi; Cafe Gourmet Mirador, Sucre

We booked with – Red Cap Tours; Red Planet Expedition, Uyuni; Condor Expeditions, Sucre