Breathtaking. Not in the awe-inspiring or beautiful way though.
La Paz, a city perched high in the Andes in a preposterously steep valley at an average elevation of 3660m, houses clinging to its slopes, world class views of snow covered peaks – it sounds beautiful and majestic. In reality, you can barely breath in the filthy city due to a combination of the high altitude, constant fumes and the wretched smells of the streets. The pollution appears to be partially from the poor mechanical condition of the vehicles and partially from the fact that many of the vehicles can’t burn fuel properly at these high altitudes, causing a constant cloud of fumes on the streets. Mix that in with the already low oxygen content in the air (from the altitude) and the fact that in every direction you walk there are steep hills; just carrying groceries back from the supermarket feels like an intense workout.
Sucre, set in a valley surrounded by low mountains, the city of white-washed buildings with red clay/tile roofs lies at an altitude of 2750m.
Santa Cruz, at a tropical elevation of 416m and to the north of the Andes mountain range, this vibrant and booming city is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.
Luckily for us we visited them from lowest to highest which helped (possibly) adjust to the increasing altitudes.
Santa Cruz, Bolivia
We arrived the day after Carnival finished and the entire city along with the people in it were dyed a purple-blue. We learned this was due to a tradition of throwing small balloons filled with ink at everything and everyone during Carnival. A blond girl at the hostel we were staying at had her hair completely stained, everyone’s clothes were ruined from the night before and city walls, streets, sidewalks alike were freshly coloured. Supposedly the parties were fun but all the guests at the hostel were required to sign a waiver stating they wouldn’t stain the sheets – and as such, many had opted to not go to bed for fear of having to pay for the sheets. To say the least, we weren’t overly disappointed we missed these festivities in Santa Cruz.
Surprisingly, Santa Cruz was the most ‘Americanized’ city we have seen yet. The roads were crawling with brand new expensive full-sized vehicles; such as, Toyota Tundras, BMW SUV’s, top model Dodge Rams and so on. This was shocking since all the other vehicles in South America have been small cheap-commuter cars. Many of the younger generation was wearing American brand-name clothing and shoes. Little did we know this would be the nicest city we would visit in Bolivia and is clearly where the wealthy Bolivians live.
Our funnest afternoon in Santa Cruz turned out to be spent in one of the main squares with two friends we made from Britain and a whole lot of pigeons. There was an old man selling seeds for 2 Bolivianos (less than 50 cents) and the pigeons seemed fearless. More than once we saw people fast enough to catch the pigeons and squeeze one between their hand showing them off to the kids. One lady who had captured a pigeon in her hands proceeded to force-feed the miserable bird.
We didn’t capture any pigeons but we did get them to land all over us. Dan was much more calm than Kyra, while Dom even got them to land on his head!
From Santa Cruz we headed southwest and up into the Andes to Bolivia’s official capital, Sucre. We booked a private room in Bertha’s Homestay through AirBnB. We thought it would be nice to try something a bit different and stay with a Bolivian family. Bertha lived in a house with her husband, father-in-law, two young children and dog. We also couldn’t beat the price at only 15$/night. We didn’t get to spend much time with the family and while the dog Coco was super friendly and loved to be petted, she hadn’t been washed in a while and was filthy. Bertha was a Spanish/English teacher and attempted to convince us to take lessons. We tried to explain that languages really weren’t our thing and we were probably a lost cause when it comes to conversational Spanish (we are getting decent with basic and necessary Spanish). We learned from the family that Bolivians eat a small breakfast of bread and coffee with lunch being the main meal of the day, and typically don’t eat dinner. This helped explain the restaurant hours and prominence of food stalls in the afternoon.
This city was much less developed and urbanized than Santa Cruz. We spent a good portion of our time here in two of the nicest cafe’s we have stumbled upon yet in South America. The first was in a convenient location downtown and had cheap daily meal specials with fast internet. The second was in the Recoletta neighborhood higher up the city slopes and with a great view. There were lounge chairs in the sun and pitchers of delicious fresh lemonade on sale, this was a great way to pass a few hours by.
As a general rule of thumb in South America – vehicles do not yield to pedestrians. Nor due they slow down (they might speed up) and it’s a 50/50 chance if they will respect a stop sign or a red light. To stay alive you had best be a lot more alert for traffic than in Northern America. And you should probably run across the street, not slowly walk. In areas that do have designated cross-walks the signs clearly indicate this.
La Paz, Bolivia
While Sucre is Bolivia’s official capital, La Paz is considered the administrative capital which offends locals from Sucre. We stayed at another AirBnB in La Paz. It was a private room on the 4th (top) floor of an apartment building. The lack of an elevator in the building normally wouldn’t be much of an issue; however, given the small amount of oxygen in the air we were literally panting and hearts racing every time we reached the top of the stairs.
Luckily the apartment was quite nice and a relaxing place to hang out because as mentioned above, the city was not so pleasant.
On Sunday, we took the cable-car up to a neighboring town called El Alto, which happens to be the world’s highest major metropolis at an elevation of 4150m. The cable-car was brand new and much nicer than expected, very similar to the brand new gondolas at Whistler. It turns out that this cable car-system just recently opened and is the longest urban cable-car system in the world. The three lines can move 18,000 passengers an hour over nearly 11km. This is a huge accomplishment as traffic is a major problem in the region and the cable-cars drastically reduce travel times for commuters. At the end of the line we got out of the station and stumbled upon a market. The market itself was awful and smelled worst than the rest of the city, which we didn’t think was possible. The stalls were filled with junk – everything from horrible looking food cooked in unsanitary conditions to knock-off brand-name clothing to old worn-out car parts. Needless to say we took in the panoramic views of the city below and then headed back down in the cable-car.
Evidence of the cities traffic problem, the round-a-bout near our apartment was constantly crowded. You can hear the sound of traffic all day and through most of the night. Cars honking constantly for no apparent reason, traffic police blowing their whistles, car alarms going off for hours on end and cars/motorcycles with annoyingly loud exhausts.
Coca leaves are the locals cure to altitude sickness and sold everywhere on the side of the road in large bags for less than 2$. Over 1.2 million kilos of coca leaf are consumed monthly in Bolivia. Bolivia also happens to be one of the world’s top cocaine producers, producing approximately 290 tons per year. While coca leaves are completely legal (and very common) in Bolivia and Peru, they are illegal in most other countries and we won’t be bringing any home.
Tomorrow morning we hop on a short bus ride over to Copacabana. This little town is on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the largest lake by volume of water in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world with a surface elevation of 3812m. Overall, that is a lot of ‘world’s something’ in Bolivia. An interesting fact given that Bolivia has been our cheapest destination yet and is considered a developing country.
On a side note….
People of South America, PLEASE STOP LYING TO US.
In Sucre, we didn’t want to walk all the way to the bus station to buy our tickets the day before so we opted to buy them from a near-by hostel (we usually don’t have a problem with walking, but this was our first days at high altitudes and walking was difficult). The guy at reception informed us that there was only one bus company that did direct buses from Sucre to Uyuni and gave us the time and prices and sold us the tickets. At the bus station we discovered there were multiple companies that did routes to Uyuni and were cheaper than the tickets we had been sold. Additionally, we ended up having a two hour lay-over mid-way and watched multiple buses continue on to Uyuni. We were far from pleased. Leaving the second station, they tried to charge us a terminal tax from using the terminal – we refused to pay stating that we never used their terminal and didn’t want to stop there anyways. Outside the terminal, the bus picks up the majority of the passengers who assumingly don’t want to pay the tax and we can’t figure out if they even pay for the bus.
The lies seem constant and never-ending. The desire to rip-off and misinform tourists (perceived by locals as “walking money-bags”) seems overly present. Our confusion is, where does this desire and perception come from? We often say that tourism ruins a place – “Burma will be the next Thailand in 10 years, go before it gets wrecked by tourism”; “get to Cuba before it is too Americanized” etc. etc. But at home, in an overly Americanized country, we don’t rip off or lie to or purposely mislead our tourists. So how is that we blame ourselves for destroying these countries and yet they aren’t even things we do back home?
And it wasn’t just Bolivia this happened to us in. It’s happened in almost every city we have been to yet in South America. In Argentina it went beyond the discreet rip offs to the point where they openly charge tourists more for everything. Plane tickets are almost two times the price for a foreigner. It’s the same damn plane! When we bought ferry tickets in Buenos Aires to Colonia, Uruguay, we walked into the official office, read a posted sign with prices and then were charged four times that and forced to pay in US$ (probably to ensure we weren’t getting the Blue Market rate for Argentine Pesos).
In some cases it is understandable, for instance charging locals less (or nothing) to visit a church in their city vs charging tourists a fee. However, in most cases, it is completely unreasonable and deters from our love to travel the world.