Bolivia: llama foetuses and shooting the shit with the miners

There’s a reason we spent more time here than we did anywhere else in South America…

I’m going to completely fail you here, because my memory is completely failing me when it comes to remembering the rest of our Bolivian sojourn. Whether it be because not enough oxygen was getting to my brain due to the altitude or whether we stayed closed up indoors for too many days and I just repressed those memories for shame, I have some tips to provide for La Paz, Potosi and Lake Titicaca, but not enough to warrant separate posts. Sorry.

*Also read: South America on the cheap: money tips and advice
*Eating around the continent: the best food of South America

La Paz

In a city of almost one million residents stuck high up in the mountains with little to see or do, you’d expect La Paz to be a bit of a transit hub; one you come to only to leave again. But we somewhat formed a bit of an affinity with La Paz. Whether it be because we were too lazy to leave our rooms for about a week and watched too many chick flicks to count, or because we were caught unawares with how beautiful it looks from above, this turned out to be our favourite South American capital.

Aside from stuffing yourself full of delicious sweets and pastries, partying at one of the city’s party hostels, or just sitting inside and catching up on movies as we did, we’ve got two requests of you while in La Paz.

Calle Sagarnaga: Llama foetuses, and all the woollen things you could wish for. This is the city’s main tourist street, but far from tacky, it’s lively and wondrous in the things you’ll find there. You will have heard the stories about Llama foetuses being up for sale here, and they are, hung all over the place. There’s wool shops galore too, so you can only imagine how much heavier our bags were upon leaving.

Mirador Killi Killi: We only heard of this place after a friend recommended it, and it turned out to be the highlight of La Paz for us. Forgo heading up the cable car (that you have to pay for, naturally) and amble up this, admittedly quite steep, street for sweeping views over the city. The undulating hills and never-ending terracotta is best viewed from here, and there will likely be no-one else around, aside from some local kids shooting the shit.

Wild Rover Backpackers Hostel: This hostel, as well as the famed Loki, reign supreme in La Paz, and almost South America as a whole actually, as the premiere party hostels. We moved here for a singular night, knowing how off our party ability was, and quite rightly so. Drinks begin in the bar, and escalate real fast. Soon, there’s people dressed up in costume pouring open bottles of vodka in each other’s mouths.

The next morning, you won’t recognise a single person at breakfast, not just because you’re sober – but because everyone looks like actual corpses. The stale bread and jam will also do little to satiate your hangover.

Note: Not a great idea after completing biking the Death Road, and the night before you attempt that same road again in a gigantic bus, very near the cliff. Hungover anxiety is something not quelled by anything.

Potosi

One of the highest cities in the world, sitting pretty at a breath-catching 4,090m, Potosi will take your breath away – quite literally (I cringe). You’ll notice the altitude even walking down the street, when it feels like you’re wading through water, or struggling to breathe. We only came here for the Silver Mines, which we were ethically conflicted about from the get go, but we decided to go through with nonetheless.

Basically, the rich silver deposits in the nearby Cerro Rico has been keeping the town going for hundreds of years, and even now, men are sent off to work every day in those claustrophobic, unhealthy and dangerous shafts with little other choice. Miners used to be underground for weeks, and they still die from silicosis (from breathing in the dust) in their early forties. Asbestos is said to be exposed in the walls, and the dripping water supposedly contains arsenic and cyanide. And now, it’s been turned into a tourist draw- with outsiders getting to pay for the pleasure of observing the 10,000 local miners in their misery. However, it’s an important, while shocking, experience to observe the price some have to pay for the wealth of a very few in society.

Never thought I’d buy a stick of dynamite

A tour starts with a visit to the miners’ market where you can at least show your support and willingness to aid them even a little bit, by buying them supplies and gifts – anything from coca leaves, to drinks to actual dynamite. You’ll also visit an ore refinery plant where the miner’s sell what they collect, before you head into the mines.

You’ll crawl, crouch and pull yourself through the shafts for two or three hours, hand your gifts to the miners themselves, and learn about the history of the place. One of the most interesting aspects is the shrine to ‘El Tio’ near the entrance, where the miners make offerings for a safe day ahead. However, it doesn’t always pay off – there have been known to be minor and major shaft collapses.

El Tio

Where we do draw the line here though, is in the posing and photographing the miners as if they were animals in a zoo. Please, for god’s sake, if you do visit – be respectful. This isn’t a day job for them, this is their entire life.

Lake Titicaca

Whether you’re aiming for Lake Titicaca as a transit point on to Peru, or making a special trip, it’s worth a visit. Supposedly the world’s highest navigable body of water (whatever on earth that means), it’s an impressive sight nonetheless. Furthermore, in Andean belief, it’s the birthplace of the sun, which explains why the the Isla Del Sol (island of the sun) in the middle is so important to the South American people. From Copacabana (not the golden sand and palm tree flanked beach in Brazil, unfortunately), the main Bolivian town on the shores of Titicaca, it’s easy to book a boat from any of the tour operators in the town. Much of the town’s economy comes from tourism, so a lot of it is geared towards out-of-towners.

Cerro Calvario is a beautiful spot on a hill overlooking Copacabana to watch the sunset from.

A trip to Isla del Sol involves an afternoon spent wandering across it in every which direction, seeking out pre-Columbian ruins, traditional villages and incredible vantage points.

This is also absolutely the place to try River Trout, a regional delicacy. Head to just about any restaurant in Copacabana and they’ll offer it in some form, sometimes as part of the menu of the day. Handy hint: the cheap ones taste like shit.

We then carried on to Peru from here, catching a bus from Copacabana. However, we were stymied a bit by a blockade/ protest by locals that had blocked the road for about a week while we were there. All we could do was wait it out.

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