Trip to Bolivia, April 2005
comments and photos by Dimos
La Paz Sucre Cerro Rico Uyuni
Tiwanaku Potosi Liceo de Senoritas Potosi Salar de Uyuni
      Reserva Eduardo Avaroa
  Before you go to Bolivia you need to make sure you take altitude pills for 2 days and continue taking them when you are there. Also carry with you strong pain killers as the altitude pills may not be enough to protect you from the headache. Try to drink as much tea with coca leaves as possible--but do not expect to find clean toilets... Also do not expect to find the Churches open any day except Sunday. Also there are no candles in the Churches. I was surprised to find "electronic" candles in one Church...  
  The first impression of La Paz (3649 meters above sea level) is not very good. Ugly buildings, pollution, cars that drive at night with their lights off (!). But as soon as you start exploring the city, you will realise that this is quite a good place. Because the city is relatively small (and the taxis so cheap), you can easily walk from the market area with all the indigenous people to the old city and from there to the modern city. By taxi you can easily get to the area where the upper class lives. Hence you can quickly change surroundings. Depending where you are, you can be among indigenous people or among business people.. During the weekdays the city is quite polluted due to the old busses and cars.  
  Because I dressed as simple as I could and acted like a "local", I did not have people trying to sell me things or asking for money like in Cuba, Cambodia or Vietnam. However, I did not notice any locals bothering the other tourists either. Tourism is a very new thing in Bolivia and services are of very basic quality. Always ask what the "tour" includes etc. If you ask "Does it include X?", you will always get a "yes" answer. If you can speak some spanish and have some imagination, you can have conversations with people.
  If you plan to buy souvenirs, the area around Calle Sagarnaga in La Paz is the best place. The other towns of Sucre and Potosi have a very limited selection. In Uyuni everything is of very low quality. In La Paz, I suggest you stay in a hotel near plaza de estudiante. From here you can easily walk up on Avenida 16 de Julio and down towards the Sopocachi area (middle class). You can take an organised tour to Tiwanaku but I suggest you take the local mini-bus from the cemetery district in La Paz. It is more fun this way. Also, if you have not seen people buried on top of each other, visit the cemetery. If you walk back from the cemetery to the centre (Plaza San Francisco), you will see all the market area.  
  There is not much to see in the museums in La Paz. But it is nice to go and buy the ticket to support them.  
  From La Paz I flew to Sucre. I arrived in Sucre in the afternoon and everything was very quite. There is a nice pedestrian street where all the students were walking after their school. I only stayed for a 3 hours. Then I took the mini-taxi to Potosi.  
  Potosi (4,070 meters above sea level) has a bit of the same architecture as Cusco in Peru..lots of buildings with wooden balconies, small calles (streets) etc. If you arrive there at night, it looks as a cool place as Cusco. But with the daylight, you realise that the buildings are not well preserved at all (compared to Cusco). During my stay there, the Liceo de Senioritas Potosi (an all female private high-school), was celebrating their annual anniversary and they had a big parade that went all over the city. After the parade, there was a big party (till midnight) at the quad of the school. You can see photos of the young bands that entertained the students. All the people here are indigenous. All have the same height (1.60?). There are no fat people.  
  The Historic Importance of Cerro Rico: In the 16th century, when the Spanish conquistadors invaded the South American highlands, they discovered a the mountain Cerro Rico. The silver that they extracted from Cerro Rico was so valuable that it financed the Spanish wars for centuries. The mountain provided over two thirds of the world's silver demand and funded the rise of one of the richest cities in its time - Potosi. In the early seventeenth century it was home to about 160,000 people, far bigger than contemporary Madrid and equal in size to London.

Today, 9,000 Potosi miners working in a maze of over 20,000 tunnels try to find any remaining valuable minerals overlooked during the Spanish rule.


I visited the Cerro Rico mountain because of its historic importance.It is not very pleasant inside as there is no fresh air (the pipes that you see on the photos carry compressed air that is used for the creating wholes inside mountain. The miners open wholes in the rock, place dynamite, and then collect the stones and deliver them to the processing facility. There, with the help of chemicals and a lot of water, the minerals are separated. The polluted water runs into the river... This mine keeps Potosi alive. To get to Cerro Rico, you need to take an organised tour. The tour guide will make you buy gifts for the miners like soft drinks, dynamite and coca. Unfortunately, the tour guides think that tourist are stupid and that we did not notice how they keep half of the gifs for themselves...

  From Potosi, I took the bus to Uyuni. Uyuni is very small and ugly village that sourvives thanks to the tourists that visit the Salar de Uyuni. The suvenirs are of very low quality. So is everything else. There are a dozen travel agencies that organise tours. "Professionalism" is a bit of unknown concept here. There is an office where tourists write their bad memories from the agencies. The only way to avoid being rip-off is to negotiate and pay as little as possible. Paying more money does not guarantee better service. They offer 1, 3 and 4 day tours. The 3-day tour is enough. The 4-day tour covers the same distance but with larger breaks.  
  The TOUR: Seven people in a Toyota Landcruiser, the driver and his wife who tried to cook. The first day we departed from Uyuni and drove all the way to the south of the Reserve Eduardo Avaroa. We all slept together at the same room and did not have hot water and heat (at least -20 C). We woke up at 5am and we were at sunrise at Laguna Colorada. Sunrise in the middle of the moon! Amazing! Then we drove all day, on stone-roads, seeing landscape that resembles the Moon or Mars or both, and at about 6pm we reached the Palacio de Salt, a salt hotel where everything (including the building, bed, chairs, tables) is made by blocks of salt. We woke up again at 5am so we were at sunrise at the Salar de Uyuni. The view is breathtaking! The Salar is en enormous lake of sal (surface area of some 12,000 sq. km). It takes 2 hours to drive from the side of the lake to the insland with the giant cacti (more than ten meters high)... Both the moon-looking area and the salar are quite amazing... The conditions of the trip are quite challenging (really really cold, basic food, lots and lots of dust, endless hours of driving). But it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!  
  From Uyuni I took the train to Villazon so I can reach Argentina. The first class (9 hours trip for 8euro) has heating...