A new year, a new month and here we are, still in Latin America!
Waking up on January 1st always offers the ephemeral chance of new beginnings, fresh starts and anticipation of what the year may hold. When you're on the road, those feelings are still there, but perhaps you don't have the same approach towards your 'resolutions'; it's not about that new gym membership or starting that latest dietary regime, but more a sense of looking ahead to what adventures lay in store. We certainly felt that, but the arrival of 2016 also meant a little sadness as it heralded the beginning of the end of our two-year adventure.
After being in this part of the world for so long, both of us had actually been a little under-excited about visiting Bolivia. The country is huge amongst backpackers but we were both worried about travelling in a country where most places of note are at 2,000 metres above sea-level and where the summer season also means the rainy season.
However, we got off to a great start in sleepy little Tupiza, just over the border from Argentina. We did some hiking, explored the markets and enjoyed the laid-back un-touristy atmosphere in the sunshine.
Originally, we were going to find a tour to bring us from here to the biggest attraction in the country - the Salt Flats. However, a quick reccy of the tour companies and some on-line research told us that it would be much cheaper to take a bus to Uyuni and go from there.
The only thing is, there is no road between Tupiza and Uyuni.
So, a sweaty, cramped journey of 200kms along bumpy and dusty tracks in a rickety old bus with shot suspension and broken seats was quite an experience. Thankfully, in our first proper brush with notoriously awful Bolivian drivers, we had quite a sensible one that day.
Uyuni live once!
The big bucket list item in Bolivia is the Salt Flats. The majority of people opt to take a 2 or 3-night jeep journey across them, visiting various lakes and lagoons along the way. However, after much thought, we decided that we, frankly, did not have the energy for this.
We had already travelled the neighbouring Atacama desert, so some of the scenery wouldn't be too new to us, plus the nights are very cold out there on the Flats in basic accommodation and we just didn't want to spend hours and hours driving around.
So, we went looking for the best one-day tour alternative which would give us the most time at the Flats and found a real gem with Hokkaido Tours, which offers an extended day tour option so you could see the sunset. Funnily, the agency is HUGE in Asia (and pretty much everyone from that part of the world picks them) and they told us that we were the only Europeans who had gone with them in weeks.
We joined our coca-leaf chewing driver, three Japanese travellers and a couple of South Koreans at 10 a.m. and set out in blinding sunshine. English was the common language, so we acted as translators for our Bolivian driver - which is always nice for our linguistic confidence levels.
Due to El Nido, Bolivia had been enduring a longer than expected dry season which meant that we could enjoy those endless vistas and take those touristy perspective shots (which actually resulted in Andrew breaking his favourite pair of shorts).
As you can tell from the pictures, it's a stunning part of the world. Although the 3-day trip is always going to be held up as the best option, we were more than satisfied with only opting for the one-day and being wrapped up in our cosy beds by 10 p.m.
We've both taken a strong interest in the socio-historical aspects of travel in Latin America and how these continue to impact the current state of affairs to such a great extent. Potosi was the place where we would observe this to some extreme levels.
We're going to write a lot more about the brutal colonial history of the city and the role of tourism within the present day economy but, in a nutshell, Potosi is home to 'Cerro Rico' which was once a mountain full of silver. For centuries, the Spanish used indigenous and imported African slaves to mine out the precious metals which bankrolled their decadent and expansionist monarchy. Some accounts vary, but it is thought that 8 million people died directly from this practice.
However, such hardship isn't simply ancient history. Hundreds of Bolivian men (and young boys) still work the mine today with little pay, little protection and little hope. It's a bleak existence but the poor of Potosi have few alternatives. And yet, despite the shocking labour conditions and shameful historical roots of the mine, one of the most popular activities in the city is for tourists to go down the mines for a few hours.
We have known about this 'tourist attraction' for some time but one thing has always been clear in our minds: it is not something we wish to be involved in. We already know that Cerro Rico is the place where people die providing for their family and where a child's future is extinguished before it's even begun. We already know that its workers don't live past 40. We already know that its working conditions haven't changed much since the Spanish forced slaves into its bowels to extract riches.
So, instead, we ate some of the best pizza we've found on the trip, took some photos around the town, got politely ripped off by old women selling chocolate bars, wandered around the market and asked old men to teach us how to chew coca leaves properly and drank the world's highest beer in the world's highest city. The altitude in Potosi, which sits at 4,067m (13,343ft), was an issue for Emily, with her resting heart beat hitting 120 bpm on our last evening.
Potosi also brought into stark vision the poverty of Bolivia. Child workers - shining shoes, selling sweets, serving in restaurants - are so common that you forget that they should be in school. One group of siblings - the oldest no more than eight, who was working hauling heavy bags of laundry around the streets whilst looking after her brother and sister who were about 5 and 3 years old - had a profound effect on us. We had to give them some money - it won't make any long-term difference for them but we hoped it gave them a little bit of respite to be children for at least that afternoon.
Settling down in Sucre
We arrived in Sucre with the expectation that we'd take a couple Spanish lessons and enjoy one of the nicer cities in Bolivia (think white buildings, a smattering of ex-pat influence and a spring-like climate).
We found a lovely little hostel which had a nice mixed crowd of South American, Asian, European and American travellers. Something we've loved in Bolivia is a return to shopping in the markets which have the freshest and most abundant fruit, veg and grains you can think of.
Although it took us around a week of being consistently ripped off (we're talking being charged three-four times the actual price), we eventually worked out what the fair prices were for most things and now tackle the old matriarchs who man the stalls with a resolute attitude! We don't mind paying a little more, but the price has to be fair and within the realms of reality.
We cooked meals with big bunches of basil or coriander (20 pence each), the plumpest and reddest tomatoes, bags of quinoa for less then 50p and supped on a bottle of the local wine most nights - well, it was only £2 a bottle!
As the hostel environment was so nice, we mostly just hung out there chatting with people or wandered around the city with a camera; sometimes not doing much on your travels is actually the best way to fall for a place.
The Sunday market
If you've been following our rebooted Instagram feed (and if you're not, then please do!), you'll see that our lenses have really loved the Bolivian streets. With the tradItional dress of the bowler hatted cholitas, there literally is a picture on every corner.
Bolivia's population is around 60% indigenous, something that has to be celebrated after learning how many countries basically wiped out their native populations in this part of the world, and nowhere is the diversity in ethnic groups and identities more striking than at the Sunday market in Tarabuco, a couple of hours collectivo ride from Sucre. It was a gem of a place to photograph and just soak in the way of living.
We had both decided that it was about time we bought ourselves a souvenir and this was probably the best place to find something original. We had our hearts set on a colourful blanket which, because of various losses and throwaways the past few months, we can now just about fit in Andrew's backpack. However, we were shocked at the prices being charged for the wares.
As mentioned above, we're not that couple who will bargain over nothing, and we're happy to pay a little bit more if it means a fair deal for all parties, but the prices we were quoted meant there were no bargains to be had (seriously, it would have been cheaper buying it at home), which was a real shame. But, as we always say, the photos we take are some of the best souvenirs to take back.
Loving la paz
La Paz is a city we expected to barely tolerate. It was going to be a three-day whistle-stop visit, ticking off the main sites and photographing the people. However, a good value private double in a hostel with a kitchen and EXCELLENT wi-fi by Bolivian standards, hot sunny days and a some incredible markets, meant those three days gradually turned into nine!
We soared over the city in a cable car, we booed and cheered at the Sunday night Cholita wrestling, we found a cool little coffee shop to hang out in, we took so many photos, we shopped in the market every day, we discovered the city on foot, we had a gringo night out and watched all of Making A Murderer on the subsequent hangover/treats day!
The city has got some gritty parts, and the 5 p.m. traffic is horrendous, however we would recommend that people don't just skip over it entirely when they visit Bolivia.
As we hauled our heavy packs from under the bus, we noticed that there were more than a few people milling around Copacabana. And cars, in hats. However, it wasn't until we had nonchalantly turned down a couple of expensive hostels and spent another hour and half tying to find an empty bed that we discovered it was a public holiday. Even a bed in a small worn down brothel-like lodging was not available to us.
It was through gritted teeth that we handed over too much money for a hotel with no functioning shower and a bucket for 50 guests to use as a sink before taking in our first sunset overlooking Lake Titicaca.
As we dragged our unwashed bodies out of bed the following day, we were more than ready to check into the fantastic La Cupula Hostal, with whom we were working during our stay. Views of the lake, a fabulous suite and not one, but four alpacas to pose and make friends with.
A few hours to settle in, and then it was time for a border run. After deciding to change our plans (again), if we were going to spend longer in Bolivia, we needed a visa extension. Elsewhere on this trip, we've simply nipped to a new country for a couple of hours then crossed back with extra days - no muss, no fuss. However, true to form, the Peruvians just weren't playing ball. Or they were, for a fee. Not keen to hand over $50 to a pair of schemers in exchange for being able to pop in and out of Peru, we had little choice but to head back over the border to Bolivia and pray we could get an extension on our return to La Paz.
By our third day we were ready to visit Copacabana's main draw - Isla del Sol. After two hours on the world's slowest boat (we're pretty sure it used to be a barge) we set off on our hike of the island. We don't think we need to say too much here as the pictures tell the story far better than we could ever manage, but suffice as to say, it is truly spectacular.
Crystal clear water, jagged rocks, beautiful blue skies and brightly coloured flowers. The four hour hike was tough enough that we were glad we had acclimatised and we were more than ready for a bowl of delicious home-made quinoa soup with the best view in the world by the end.
Unfortunately, the island wasn't ready to give us up yet. After leisurely strolling down the side of a hill to where we thought the boats home were docked, with 30 minutes to spare we realised that we were on the wrong bloody side of the island! We have never moved so quickly at 4000m in our lives. Lungs burning and legs ready to give way, we made it to the dock with literally minutes to spare.
Coroico and the death road
After a night back in La Paz, it was time to head back out and on to Coroico, a place famed as the finishing point to the world's most dangerous road. Thankfully, about 12 years ago, after hundreds of people had lost their lives over the perilous edges of the huge cliffs, a new road was constructed. Theoretically, all should now be fine and dandy, but the government forgot to consider one thing - Bolivians drive like maniacs, on the wrong side of the road, at speed, and don't think anything of overtaking on blind corners. This is what they consider reasonable driving etiquette even in fog and torrential rain as we unfortunately discovered on the hell-raising journey back to La Paz. We chose not to do the famous death road cycle but this terrifying ride gave us a glimpse of how that might feel.
Our time in Coroico was spent in the delightful Sol y Luna Hostel. Perched high amongst rain forest and with breathtaking views over the valley below, it was a place we found difficult to leave. Days were spent reclining on a sun pool next to the pool, getting lost on walks through the jungle, reading books on the terrace and disconnecting from the hurried life that is so ubiquitous throughout the rest of the country.
Allow us to blow our trumpet
As well as Bolivia exceeding our expectations, January was also an incredible month for Along Dusty Roads. Our travels and photography were featured by Travelettes, which led to a big jump in our fan numbers on social media. We also had a record-breaking month in terms of traffic, with over 56,000 page views. When we started nearly two years ago, 50,000 was always a number we thought was significant but it felt so unachievable - it's crazy that we've made it! Lastly, we were also listed as on of the 24 Best Travel Websites in 2016 - when we found that out we danced around our room and went straight out to buy a bottle of Bolivian red to celebrate!
We've loved creating this little website and sharing our adventures with you. A lot of hard work, hours and more than a few arguments underpin everything that you see here, but, just now, it feels like 2016 might be a good year for us professionally. Thanks a lot to all of you, old readers and new, for the support and clicks along the way.