La Paz, Bolivia
July 20, 2015
It is time to part company with Andy and Christine after 9 days together. We have certainly been through it since we first met nervously struggling through a blockade at 13,000 feet on the mountain road to Potosi. We leave Christine in pieces in her hotel room, feeling mentally and physically exhausted and struggling with food poisoning. Without our Irish friends, I am not sure how we would have got through the Potosi Siege. I am sad to say my goodbyes.
We can hear numerous loud explosions in La Paz. Some sound as loud as bombs going off and the police response sounds like rounds of plastic bullets.
We bump into Steve and Jennifer just before we leave. They seem in fine fettle considering what they have been through in Bolivia. They invite us to visit them in Hawaii and we hug and say our goodbyes.
I would love to see more of Bolivia, especially Sucre and the Amazon, but with our trip to Machu Picchu set for only a few days from now and political instability still threatening Bolivia, I feel it is time to get out.
We do have a couple more scares though before we leave La Paz. Firstly, there is a strike near the bus station and it is only because our driver is streetwise that he is able to negotiate a route to the station that avoids us getting stuck in the giant traffic jam in that part of the city.
Secondly, two Posh English muppets who we saw at the hostel last night are getting on the same cross border bus as us and they are clearly high as kites. They are acting all paranoid and dodgy with their bags and they are putting the fear of God into me that they are trying to get drugs through the border. You hear of backpackers putting drugs in fellow travellers' bags and I certainly wouldn't put it past these two clowns, especially as the driver has left the luggage compartment open for anyone who comes along to put their bags in. I find myself pacing up and down outside next to the luggage compartment keeping an eye on the English clowns. After Potosi, I wouldn't be completely surprised if a couple of idiots like this got us arrested at the border for smuggling drugs!
The bus climbs out of La Paz and up into the poor suburbs that cling to the mountains in every direction. You cannot really put into words what this city looks like. Cable cars link the lower part of the city to the higher altitude barrios. It is a macabre looking Gothic scene.
You might assume that reaching the plateau above La Paz marks the city limits but far from it. Once you reach the plateau of the Altiplano, the city begins to stretch for miles in front of you.
As well as missing out on places such as Sucre, we are also going to pass on a night on Lake Titicaca. My reasoning, quite apart from lack of time, is that we will spend much of today traversing the lake anyhow as we travel to the border.
Once we hit the shoreline of this the largest lake in South America (and the highest navigable in the world), I must say I find its scenery a little underwhelming compared to what went before in Bolivia and Chile. I've heard from reliable sources that the reed boat villages are a tourist freak show and if you visit you feel like you are participating in a reality TV show.
At one point the bus stops as we need to cross the Strait of Tiquina to the opposite shoreline. This is Bolivia all over: They are putting the bus on a ferry which is little more than two planks of wood, while the passengers pay for private boats to ferry us to the opposite shoreline. I am so tired and paranoid after what went before that this whole process gives me an almighty fear until we are safely on the other side. The mountainous backdrop is a beautiful sight though.
Back on board the bus rides the ''hills" of the 4000-metre high shoreline until we reach Copacabana - a jumping off and jumping on point for the majority of travellers passing through this part of the world. I wouldn't have minded overnighting here, especially as the town is experiencing a lovely sunset above the lake as we ride into town, but time is short and we need to drive on.
Annoyingly, the two Posh Boy Muppets are travelling all the way to Cusco it seems and whilst most of our fellow passengers jump off, they are with us to the Peruvian border.
After walking a couple hundred metres from the Bolivian to the Peruvian border posts, it is a painfully slow single file queue at the Peruvian border. One immediate new feature of Peru is garish Tuk Tuks. We stand in the dark slowly shuffling along for a good two hours before everyone is done, our passports are stamped and we are on our way.
We got through the border without the English muppets getting us all arrested and there is general relief about Katya and myself getting out of Bolivia after what went before in Potosi. Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed our Bolivian adventure in its countless colours, tastes and smells but I am more than relieved to get out of that place, haha.
I thought the trip from Chile to Bolivia, finishing up at the Salar de Uyuni was absolutely world class. If we forget the 'problems' in Potosi, I thought that city rates as one of my favourite colonial cities in the world. And La Paz was fascinating, and certainly safer and more comfortable than many Latin American cities. But Bolivia is also a shite show run by clowns. It constantly feels like something can or will go wrong.
We settle down for another 10-hour fear ride (to Cusco)....
....I wake a couple of times in the middle of the night as it feels like the bus is about to crash, questioning what the hell we are doing here at all....
....tonight I am feeling done with South America....
Sunday, July 19, 2015
La Paz, Bolivia
Is this really La Paz? Our bus has entered a heavily built up urban area in the early hours but there are no cars or people on the street. Our driver goes through every red light we come to rather than stopping. I guess this isn't exactly the best area of town then.
It is still dark so we don't get to see the Gothic cityscape of La Paz before we arrive at the bus station. This station is certainly a lot more modern and less intimidating than I'd expected. It is also very attractive which is hardly surprising when you (later) discover it was built by Gustave Eiffel. I've heard nightmares about criminal taxi drivers here so I want to play on the side of caution, asking everyone to wait a few minutes until the first shards of light brighten up the scene out on the streets.
We find a bloke who looks trustworthy and he is indeed a (very) nice, polite and helpful driver who takes us to a hotel we've got lined up. We catch our first glimpses of the city in the light. What a quite extraordinary looking place! It is difficult to think of too many cities in the world that are quite so striking in their geography...but more of that later when it is fully light!
It turns out the hotel next door is almost half the price and as well as having decent rooms, it also includes a decent buffet breakfast. I reckon 24 Pounds for a very well-located hotel room in a capital city with breakfast thrown in is a bargain by any standards.
Unfortunately, Christine appears to have food poisoning. In all likelihood she picked it up in Uyuni. If you read my previous comments about hygiene standards in that place, then her sudden illness is not a surprise.
The BBC have finally picked up the Potosi Siege story! You've got to laugh! They didn't bother touching it for a week and now we are all out safely they are reporting that we are all stuck there! Presstitutes.
Katya and I go for a stroll around La Paz. We visit the Witches Market, which is rather tamer than we had expected but with its llama fetuses hanging from its stalls, it is still grotesque in its own way. Some of the old ladies manning the stalls are very witch like and a couple of them go mental when backpackers attempt to take photos of the unborn llamas and dead frogs. Other items on sale include aphrodisiacs, herbs and seeds, as well as tiny slightly-scary-looking-figurines. The street itself is clean and feels safe giving a surprisingly commercial air. There again, there do appear to be a couple of male witch doctors shuffling around so you end up feeling safe-but-intimidated by it all.
The streets adjacent to this speak of a significant tourism industry with dozens of bars, restaurants and hotels as well as travel agencies selling trips to the ''Death Road", Lake Titicaca, and Cusco. It is all so much more 'normal' than I had expected of central La Paz.
Steep, narrow cobbled streets are lined with colourful apartment houses, some with gorgeous balconies. At the bottom of one such steep hill we come to attractive San Francisco Square, the city's major urban plaza. There's an a striking colonial Basilica here and crowds of people pacing around the square. There are also dozens of people sat in the middle of the road attempting to block the traffic. On closer inspection it appears they are protesters from Potosi!
We walk around the avenues and side streets of La Paz for a couple of hours unable to find a hotel in the downtown with a good aerial view of the capital's famous cityscape.
Eventually, we end up in Plaza Murillo, which is being guarded on all its side streets by riot police and army. These boys are seriously tooled up and ready for a fight. I'm not sure the lads from Potosi will get past this bunch without the loss of one or two lives. Clearly, the authorities are ready and waiting for a big fight. Once we manage to negotiate our way through we find a classic colonial square which is home to a number of the countries most important buildings including the residential palace and the parliament building. There are no tourists or indeed locals present but there are hundreds of police and army and thousands of pigeons. Walking downhill from here we pass another police line where the officers are irritable and rather confrontational The buildings here are not so well kept as the main square, with crumbling facades and dilapidated balconies.
Back in the more touristy area of the city we find a youth hostel that has some of the best views in the city from its top floor balcony. The hostel itself is dirty and full of backpacking kids barely out of school, most of whom seem high on one kind of drug or other.
The view here, enjoying a cold bottle of Huari, is world class. The rich live in fine town apartments in the centre, the middle class appear to live in upmarket tower blocks just off the centre, while the majority poor live in the sprawling barrios that cling to the mountains in every direction like something from a Gothic novel. One reason the poor live so high up is a practical one: it is less pleasant to live at 4200 metres when instead, if you have money, you can live down here at 3600 metres.
As the sun begins to set, the snow capped Mount Illimani towering above an already epicly high valley at 6400 metres below it, you appreciate that this is one of the world's most dramatic city views. I turn to hear a bottle smash on the floor and witness a couple of 18 year olds collapse from drunkenness. Barely one of these kids is admiring this quite sensational La Paz sunset. They are more interested in the E's and Wizz.
Back at the hotel, Christine is getting worse and is stuck in her room for the night. Katya, Andy and myself go out for dinner and a night of celebrating our escape from Potosi.
Events of the past week have clearly caught up with Andy and I as, sat alone in the hotel breakfast room in the early hours of the morning, we carefully wrap individual Skittles with coca leaves before munching our way through them with a swig of alcohol each time. The high is shall we say different but very pleasant and calming.
But the very fact that we go to bed in La Paz munching Skittles in coca leaves is something that is so silly that it will, in time, no doubt remain as one of my highlights of this South American adventure.
Saturday, July 18, 2015
We awaken in our Bolivian ice bucket. Three blankets and a plug-in-fire that doesn't seem to give off heat beyond a 20-centimetre radius only nulls the coldness slightly. Travel certainly has its highs and lows.
Andy and I are up early to try and book our way out of here. The flights out of Uyuni are all full. The chaos east of here means that many people are reaching Uyuni and getting snookered down the south west corner of Bolivia. Hence the flights are sold out for days. The decent (safe) luxury buses are also sold out. Is Uyuni purgatory? Are we destined to stay here forever? Potosi felt like purgatory but at least it was a really cool city.
Uyuni is a barely passable tourist trap. It is cold and overpriced. Standards are mediocre at best.
So many of us are stuck here that you have got to laugh. The camper van couple are driving around trying to come up with a game plan, Alexei doesn't seem to know what to do with himself, the Swiss couple made it here safely although it was a stressful escape from Potosi by all accounts and now they are knackered and just want to lie low, some of the French teenagers are looking to travel to Chile.
A rep from the Ministry of Tourism tracks us down at the hotel and gives us 200 Bolivianos to make up for the evacuation-bus-fee-that-shouldn't-have-been and to cover some of the costs of our hotel room. That was decent of them because they could have got away with never sorting us out.
Almost the whole day is spent hanging around Uyuni's main drag of half a dozen so called ''restaurants". There must be a couple hundred backpackers in town. I remembr a time when I didn't see a backpacker in days when I first went travelling. All of the 'pizzerias' have kids working in them and the hygiene standards are seriously questionable. There are dirty, stray dogs everywhere, some of them casually popping in and out of the restaurants. I have even spotted the very same little rascal who pissed on our backpacks the morning before the Potosi Siege started.
We end the day eating at an oasis of a restaurant in a hotel adjacent to the military barracks. Minuteman restaurant seems so so out of place in this town! The salad bar wouldn't be out of place in a posh European hotel. And the establishment serves as the perfect place to seek sanctuary for a few hours as it gets dark and the thermometer drops outside ahead of our escape from here.
I bump into Alexei outside taking photos and exchange man hugs as we say goodbye. The lad is a legend. I'm not sure I've ever met anybody quite like him before. I thought he was going to get us killed in Potosi but he is certainly a character who wears his heart on his sleeve. Apparently, he is planning to stay on in Bolivia and maybe live in the country for a few months! Good luck to the Russian nutter, haha!
At Uyuni Bus 'Station', where someone is munching on a guinea pig and more local punters are drunk than not, our seat numbers don't equate to our tickets and the bus is overbooked. Luckily, I was afraid of such eventualities and jumped on and bagged our seats.
The road from Uyuni north is less road and more quarry pit.
In the middle of the night they kick us off the bus out into the cold and then we jump onto a new coach bound for La Paz. As the past two weeks has felt like army training such an episode is now water off a duck's back.
Friday, July 17, 2015
Potosi, Bolivia (Siege Day 6)
There is a commotion downstairs. People are shouting and running around. We need to get to Koala Hostel urgently.
I sprint to the hostel, the altitude causing me to arrive puffing and panting. The Colonel is about to arrive.
Sure enough, Potosi's Head of Police arrives (with a photographer) and promises us today is the day. He has some kind of evacuation list and we are encouraged to add to this. He is very keen to snap a few images with the young French backpackers. Even in deep Bolivia, the powerful and influential always think about their PR machines.
Back at our hostel, the owners are not so optimistic as the Colonel about our imminent evacuation. They are apologising to me again about us getting dragged into this mess and they also suggest they think we could be here weeks.
There are cracks appearing in the solidarity of those remaining. The Swiss couple have decided to leave and try to talk their way past the various lines of siege blockades. They are leaving with their full backpacks and realise that they might have to walk twenty kilometres or more to safety, if such a thing is possible. Some of the French are also talking about making a run for it. This is not good. If the French get split up and it ends up with various foreign teenagers scattered here, there and everywhere, it could badly backfire. I think safety in numbers is our strength. But, yes, I guess we are reaching the point where we need to consider plans C and D. Increasingly, we are worried about the health of our American friends. I am also concerned for Katya's health. If she gets sick here, she could be in serious trouble with her condition. In fact, the pressure of it all finally gets too much for the two of us and our fears and frustrations with the siege provoke a huge row with Katya comically claiming she wants to get the Russian government to fly her back to Moscow and away from this nightmare. Thus far, both the Russian and American governments have ignored the plight of their citizens trapped here.
I continue tweeting, emailing and phoning anyone and everyone who might potentially get us out of this mess. I also make sure Alexei moves in with us so that if we do suddenly get the chance to escape, he won't miss the evacuation.
I speak to Radio France International: they are going to put a piece out on French national radio. That is a big one. After that I am sure the MSM will pick this up with their usual copy/paste news feed journalism. Presstitutes. I also speak to the British Vice Consul, the Bolivian Tourism Minister and, most significantly of all, I have managed to get the bloody Americans to final show an interest in our two elderly friends. The US Embassy calls and we make sure our story, which is in no need of being embellished, is embellished to such a degree that they are almost ready to send in the Marines. Steve lays it on pretty thick with the Ambassador and we share a smile as the phone conversation turns into a one-hour "you better come and save us or you are going to have to resign when this all goes badly wrong".
I am feeling absolutely mentally and physically drained from my efforts to get us all out of here. I'm trying to have phone call interviews with Argentine press and I can barely speak Spanish. I've got to go up to our room and get into bed for some peace and quiet and the chance to have a sleep.
I'm close to drifting off as there is an almighty racket downstairs. Vamos, Vamos! someone is shouting. I look over the balcony and see a handful of police telling us it is time to evacuate. The owners are scampering around knocking on doors and telling everyone we have to keave right now. Jeez, we only finished speaking to the US government ten minutes ago. Is this the effect of one phone call?
We hurriedly cram stuff into our backpacks and run out into the street. I still reckon this is gonna be another false dawn. But there are now more police in the street and many of the French are skipping towards us with their backpacks on.
Less than five minutes after I was about to fall asleep forty of us are surging through the backstreets of Potosi with all our bags and half a dozen police officers. It is so damn surreal.
We round a corner and there is a bus parked up waiting for us with the police encouraging us to dump our bags in the back immediately. You couldn't make this stuff up. The bus has got a giant image of a half naked woman on the back. Meanwhile, it is clear that some foreigners are missing. A young Brit and Irish went off to try and find some lunch despite me encouraging them to stay at the hostel in case the Colonel kept to his promise. Now they have missed their ticket out.
And there is also a Ukrainian couple who the French have apparently abandoned in the hostel, mainly because they apparently couldn't speak any French, English or Spanish and had been feeling ill. I plead with the French to make sure they come with us but they are having none of it. The police aren't willing to go back for them either. Am I willing to go back for them? No, not with Katya with me. But I do feel bad for not going back even though I've never met them. A couple of Argentines in our hostel are also staying put. They don't believe the evacuation will succeed and, besides, they want to go south to the Argentine border. There is no convincing them otherwise.
And so, with about 40 of us on the coach, we slowly set off towards the first road block. Sergei suddenly turns around and addresses everyone on the bus with some surreal speech about escape. "Oh now he thinks he is Jesus Christ," Irish Andy comments.
The young Irish and British are extremely fortunate as the police have tracked them down and managed to drive them to join us on the bus at the very last moment.
And a few hundred metres back we also spot a second bus - a double decker - which is transporting the sizeable Argentine contingent (almost certainly without our hostel friends from Salta).
At the first hardcore blockade some of the strikers get on the bus and begin pacing up and down the aisle. One of them has a wooden club with two huge nails protruding from the end. He could kill you with one blow with that. His face is grotesquely swollen, seemingly from chewing coca, with his right cheek swollen to four times its normal size. His eyes are red and I whisper to Katya to avoid making eye contact with him.
Once past that check point, we only manage another 200 metres before the bus is forced to stop again and the leaders of our convoy get out to negotiate with the seige men. There appears to be a priest, a union leader, a high ranking police officer and a couple of other civic leaders involved in trying to get us out.
Meanwhile, on the road side the reaction from the locals is a friendly one rather than the potentially violent one of stone throwing at the bus we feared. Many Potosi citizens are waving at us, giving the thumbs up, smiling or displaying expressions which seem to say: we are sorry you got caught up in all of this! The sight of them all lining the roadside as we leave is something to behold.
After an hour, we have reached one of the biggest blockades near the prison we trekked past on the way in (that seems like weeks ago.) Negotiations go on for some time here and some of us have time to get off the bus to chat and take photos of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The final blockade is the hardest of all to get past. Many of the tired and rough looking men seem completely opposed to letting us pass. I can understand why they might think their position is stronger with us stuck in the city. The Catholic priest seems to be the main man in this negotiation and what ever he has said has worked as diggers clear some of the earth, concrete and tyres from the road so that the bus can pass.
At this point, we all get off the bus and everyone exchanges handshakes and hugs. Team photos are taken and the civic leaders congratulate each other on managing to get all the foreigners out. We have made it! Well, we have escaped Potosi at least!
It is like the film credits of a spaggheti western as our bus drives on an empty mountain road into the sunet, llamas by the roadside, cacti to the left, cacti to the right, and Bolivian music blaring from the bus radio. The sense of relief is hard to explain.
One hour past the final blockade and you've got to laugh!! The driver calls me to the front and asks me to collect the bus fare from everyone. We are being charged for the evacuation bus!!! This is hillarious. It surely cannot be correct but so relieved am I that this man was willing to drive us through the blockades that I am willing to take his word for it and start collecting cash.
Back in Uyuni, the police escort us into the city, which is full of sand from a recent sandstorm. There is a welcoming committee waiting for us with hot drinks and handshakes. The hot drink is actually coffee mixed with coca cola, which seems fitting somehow. Apparently, the Bolivian Tourism Ministry and the city of Uyuni is going to put us up for the night! Wow, that is nice. I am imagining a night in the city's only four-star hotel, a hot shower and a well-earned brandy in its bar...
....turns out our "free hotel room" is a £4 hostel dorm!! It is Baltic in here and the owner knows nothing about it being ''free". You wouldn't want your worst enemy to stay in this place for a night! Many thanks to the Bolivian Tourism Ministry! You have surpassed yourselves!!
Me, Katya and the Irish couple find a three-star hotel charging £30 near the train station. Let's treat ourselves! We say. American Steve has booked into the only good hotel in town for about 100$. And who could blame him?!
It turns out our room is crap and there is no heating. I can hear screaming coming from the Irish couple's room as one of our friends is finally tipped over the edge by Bolivia. She did well to last so long haha.
Dinner in town is predictably bad. The service is slow and stupid and one of the chef's kids touches my food with his dirty fingers and helps himself to something. I nip out the back to see what is going on and spot that the kitchen is absolutely filthy.
We had dreamed of escape, imagining an evening of good food, good company, plenty of alcohol and a warm bed. In the end, all we have managed is the good company and a couple of absurdly overpriced cold beers. But we had that in Potosi!
We dodge past a pack of dogs fighting in the sand-filled dirty street outside the restaurant and retire for bed, tired, cold and pissed off .... but at least we are free ... if we can ever get out of here...