From the perilous silver mines of Potosi to the vast expanse and other-worldly beauty of Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia is a breathtakingly unique country.
As I set out on my South American journey in 2012, La Paz (the modern Capital of Bolivia) was my first stop.
I’d wanted to experience Latin America for as long as I could remember; Brasil, Chile, Argentina, all its countries I longed for. I dreamed of the culture, the passion, music, food, wine – of trekking through the hot amazon – oh how I dreamed! But I had absolutely no expectations of Bolivia; I knew it was one of the highest altitude countries in the world, nestled high among the Andes and to expect altitude sickness on arrival but that, honestly, was it. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the scale and depth of beauty this country has to offer.
Besides discovering the best red wine of my life, simply labelled ‘La Paz’ (impossible to export I since found) Bolivia’s capital is a kaleidoscope for the senses. Steep, narrow cobbled streets filled with food and spice markets, pint-sized locals adorned in colourful ponchos and tall hats, live music, dancing, general celebration and heavy traffic to boot.
White witchcraft is common here and the abundance of llama fetuses hanging at the witchcraft markets (El Mercado de las Brujas) is certainly a sight to behold! These are used by local witch doctors (yatiri) along with dried frogs, armadillos and potions in rituals to ensure luck, beauty and fertility.
If like me, you’re into sampling local delicacies then La Paz’s llama and guinea pig meat won’t disappoint; surprisingly lean and entirely delicious served in a garlic, lemon and herb butter, it’s far more palatable than you’d initially assume.
I was fortunate not to suffer from altitude sickness whilst there, but found myself surrounded by fellow travelers turning green, struggling to catch their breath, being struck with migraines and investing in oxygen tanks to help alleviate the symptoms; so this certainly isn’t a place for the faint of heart if you’re sensitive to headaches, nausea (or indeed llama fetus!)
After only 2 short days in Sucre, it was easy to see why this city was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1991. Bolivia’s original capital is set in a valley of low mountains blanketed with beautifully preserved colonial architecture. Whitewashed churches, museums and universities are abundant here, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a quaint European town. Public squares and parks bring locals together and one of the largest fresh food markets I’ve ever seen takes centre stage at the heart of the city. Sucre is a beautifully tranquil, proud city, a perfect Bolivian pit-stop.
Looming over Potosi, the highest altitude city in the world, stands the great Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) mountain; a working silver mine that put Potosi on the map as the location of the Spanish colonial mint for centuries. During the New World Spanish Empire the Cerro Ricco was the major supplier of silver for Spain and produced 60% of all silver mined in the world during the 16th century.
You can’t go to Potosi and not visit this notorious beast, but with the opportunity to spend a day in the mine comes great risk and the signing of an insurance waiver that removes Bolivia and whichever travel company you are with from any responsibility should death occur. This is a serious and fascinating excursion and one I wasn’t going to pass up on. Millions of workers have died working here, pneumonia and mercury poisoning being the main culprits along with dynamite explosions gone wrong and the walls of the mountain burying them alive. It’s a harsh environment and once you’ve crawled through tiny caves stomach to floor and felt the suffocation for yourself, it’s difficult to comprehend this is how Bolivian people have made a living for centuries.
But you go in prepared; full protective wear is provided and you’re encouraged to load up on bags of coca leaves and bottles of 96% ‘alcohol puro’ to appease the miners you bump into along the way. The plant from which cocaine is produced, coca leaves are chewed on to suppress appetite and keep workers alert which is essential for their grueling 24hr shifts. Alcohol puro is drank to keep them warm and a little on the ‘merry’ side . If you don’t offer these it’s considered an insult, and understandably so; while we’re on a tourist excursion they are working tirelessly in awful conditions. These essential items are also given as an offering to ‘El Tio’ – a devil-like spirit considered the God of the underworld – whose goat form statues are present at each dark entrance to the mine. He is believed to offer both protection and destruction and if not ‘fed’ will bring great harm to those working underground. Llamas are regularly sacrificed and their blood splattered across him as the ultimate offering, something to be deeply respected coming in as a tourist.
I couldn’t help but feel a little ‘Indiana Jones’ during my time deep underground, with wooden carts whizzing past on tracks, climbing up and through tiny cavities, crawling along the floor and the constant boom of dynamite explosions echoing hauntingly through the caves. The guide even sets off dynamite as part of the experience giving you 10 seconds to run out-of-the-way of danger; it’s both terrifying and exhilarating.
When we came across a lone miner or group of miners taking a break, we had the opportunity to sit with them and share in the shots of alcohol puro. The custom before taking a sip yourself is to drip 3 drops on the ground, another offering to ‘El Tio’. But we met so many miners along the way and repeated this custom with each one that I couldn’t avoid feeling a little drunk by the end. After hours underground, climbing, crawling, running from explosives, sweating and drinking all with limited oxygen, I emerged delirious. Probably one of the most fascinating experiences of any of my travels up to that point – I was filled with a heady mix of pride that I survived such an escapade but also awe and sadness for the men whose life this is every day.
‘Has there been an apocalypse?/Have I reached the end of the world?’ were my first thoughts on entering desolate Uyuni; a gateway town to the worlds largest salt flats, commerce crossing to Chile and home to a famous ‘train cemetery’.
The few grey sandy roads present in this town are wide & empty much like those seen in old spaghetti western movies – only cold and frost-bitten – and with a population of just over 10,000 in the July winter, bumping into locals was a rare sight outside of market street.
This is where you stop off before the epic trek to the world-famous slat flats and there’s no denying you’re on the very edge of something spectacular due the very nature and feel of this isolated town. 1 nights stay is enough to recharge before the trip and allows a morning visit to the eerie and spectacular antique ‘train cemetery’.
Originating in the 1880’s, trains passed through Uyuni carrying minerals to the Pacific Ocean ports but faced constant sabotage from Uyuni’s indigenous people who saw it as an intrusion to their lives. Mineral depletion eventually lead to the collapse of the mining industry in 1940 and as a result many trains were simply abandoned – and so a ‘train cemetery’ was born. Although epic in scale, you can in fact climb and explore until your heart’s content; amazing photo opportunities and the chance to feel like a small child in a giant playground makes this a very unique and awesome place to be.
Salar de Uyuni (Salt flat enclosure)
So vast and white it can clearly be seen from space, the Salar de Uyuni is epic to the point of being almost indescribable. But, I’ll give it a good go…
The landscape is so far removed from anything you’ve ever seen before you can’t help but feel like you’re on another planet. The expanse of white salt & mirror-like reflection of the sun on its surface makes anything distant appear like a mirage. I drove for 3 hours solid with absolutely nothing on the horizon in all directions. I felt like I was in a bubble, on a cloud, in heaven or on some lone icy planet spinning its way around the sun all at once. When I finally did come across something in the abyss of it all (a giant cactus island no less) it took hours to reach; the optical illusion of space and distance here is why so many travelers have been able to create such awesome and now distinctly recognisable photos; cue said cliché photos…
Eerie and mind-blowing all at once, the salar is virtually devoid of wildlife and vegetation which makes coming across the giant Incahuasi Island all the more surreal. A lone rock island covered in 39ft (12m) cacti is as bizarre and magnificent as you might imagine. Climbing over its surface leaves you feeling once again that you’re on some other un-earthly world. I spent a long time looking out to the stark and awe-inspiring view beyond the cacti and couldn’t help but contemplate the sheer grandeur of mother nature and how lucky I was to be seeing such majestic a sight with my own eyes. Like no place I’ve seen before or since, taking it all in was an overwhelming experience to say the least.
The Atacama Desert
The terrain of the Atacama has been geologically compared with that on Mars and because of its similarity (fun fact alert) it’s been used as a filming location for many a Mars scene in recent years, most notably Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets!
Known as the driest and oldest non-polar desert in the world it’s another of Bolivia’s spectacular sights to behold.
En-route to the Chilean border town of San Pedro de Atacama a vast plateau nestles between the Salar de Uyuni and the desert that combines both astonishing landscapes of flat salt lakes and mountainous horizons. This is home to flocks of Andean Flamingo who feast on the lakes algae and splash the scenery with their distinctive pink colouring.
Volcanoes, jagged rock expanses and rust coloured ravines fill the Atacama vista. Ancient meteor craters can be seen on the sides of great mountains and active geysers make for an atmosphere that’s far beyond our own. There’s not much life out here but that makes for some epic scale experiences; sand-boarding the giant dunes of Death Valley, floating in Cejar Lagoon, stargazing the Milky Way and walking through the El Tatio geyser field at dawn to name a few.
This was to be my last stop in Bolivia before crossing over to Chile and as with the rest of this astonishing country, the Atacama Desert blew me away with its out-of-this-world expanse. Brash and enigmatic this is a country of such unprecedented natural beauty, rife with unpredictable experiences, rich in indigenous heritage and an absolute must for globe-trotters who, like me, crave the unknown and spectacular.