How Many Changes Are Possible- Bolivia?

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.  Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I- I hardly know, sir, just at present- at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Arriving in Bolivia after Peru, I realized I knew nothing about this country. I think, in the end, I am quite grateful for that as every moment was a surprise. This country has one of the most diverse landscapes I have ever seen, one that changes every hour of every day. We did our border crossing by land and journeyed to La Paz, the fake capital (most of the government buildings are here yet the capital is actually Sucre). We dumped our luggage in the hotel and headed off to the Witches Market. While we hoped for lots of crazy shops, it is really a handful of cool shops and lots of souvenir stands. The witches stores were pretty interesting and had plenty of potions, lotions and talismans to cure any ailment, find love or revenge and make millions. While much of it was a bit ridiculous, I did really appreciate the all natural lotions for muscle aches and pains. After the market, a few of us hopped on the cable car for a 360 view of La Paz and its mountainous landscape and massive hillside cemetery.

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Day two in Bolivia may perhaps be my absolute favorite of the trip- the Death Road Bike Ride. My trip around the world has given me many opportunities to ride bikes and helped me rediscover my love of riding. This ride took me to a whole new level. The Death Road is a 35 mile ride, given its name from when it was built, but appropriated by the cyclists who brave its nearly 12,000 foot descent. Approximately 200-300 people per year die on this road, most of them being motorists. The highlight is the 3000 foot cliffs with sheer drops, which I, of course, road past as fast as I could (at least 50 mph- only slight exaggeration). I loved racing down this mountain at full speed for me (even my guide was impressed at my bravado) and am now officially addicted to mountain biking. I was a changed person! My warthog, George, joined me on this ride and at one point, had nearly as much mud on him as I did on me.

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After the adrenaline rush of the Death Road, it was time to rejoin mundane. We flew to Sucre, the real capital of Bolivia and began two days of sloth. While I did manage to get in a few miles of walking through parks, I also squeezed in an entire book and several ice cream stops. Sucre has a somewhat limited English speaking population and I had a birthday party to plan. It is unfortunate that a documentary crew was not present to film my highly amusing attempt to locate balloons, candles, cards and presents in the local market using my limited Spanish but very animated sign language. Feeling empowered with my success, I joined two others in our group for dinner in a local man’s home. We had found a restaurant in town that was literally the man’s living room. You have to locate a small sign, ring the doorbell and hope someone answers. Luck was on our side and we were admitted into his home, surrounded by neighbors and friends, the only non Spanish speakers in a 3 km radius. Of course, imagination took over as we gave him his own name and history and created his wife and mother cooking away in the kitchen. It was my favorite dinner of the trip, enhanced by the 80’s Alternative Music being played in the dining room.

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Needing to expel some energy, we moved on to Potosi, a mining town in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the drive to nowhere was a beautiful drive (one which I imagined seeing on a bicycle instead of a car). Potosi is a cool town, which I liked until I remembered that it is a mining town and my environmental senses tingled distaste.  Fortunately, this was a brief stop en route to the second highlight of Bolivia, the Salt Flats.  It was another beautiful drive. I wish Bolivians knew how unique and beautiful their country is and find other ways to dispose of trash other than the side of the road. The gorgeous landscape is continually dotted with garbage. Perhaps a bit of national pride might change that mentality.  We found another town, Uyuni, in the middle of nowhere, an oasis of 18,000 people and a stopping point for those entering the flats.  Walking around this town, we came across what appeared to be something resembling a 5K race.  Only the participants were wearing handmade numbers on their chests and many of the girls running in skirts, native clothes and sandals. Permanently humbled, I will never complain about running in my overpriced running shoes again.

IMG_1568Entering the salt flats is like nothing you have ever seen. At over 4,000 square miles and can easily be seen from space. It is white ground and blue sky as far as you can see. We drove for a bit before stopping for the tourist required shots playing with perspective. I really liked our driver as he seemed to march to the beat of his own drummer, listening to gangsta rap and taking different paths than the other cars. Kindred spirits I suppose. In the flats, it seems like you can drive for miles and miles….at least until your car breaks down and you see nothing around you.  Anywhere. This allowed us to spend our first evening on the flats entertaining ourselves with photography and one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. You can really tell the makeup of a group when confronted with unexpected issues and delays. This group made the most of it and had a fantastic time- which was good because the following day we would be challenged again as another vehicle broke down completely losing a tire not long after we left the flats.

While the flats were lovely, I was ready for something different.  Time to move on to my happy place, the mountains. My driver had switched to 90s Alt music and it was probably the first time I listened to Creed and not changed the station. We were on the Chilean border and there were snow capped mountains everywhere you looked. There was even a smoking volcano. And the Seven Color Mountain was one of the most beautiful mountains I have seen.  While I would have given anything to hike or bike these mountains, time was not on my side. Perhaps another day. There should be a million photos of this place, but I find pictures taken through car windows can’t possibly do justice to the beauty of the landscape. So, I watched through the window and enjoyed my solitude, interrupted occasionally by horrible Coldplay songs.

And because we were in Bolivia, it was time to change again. This time to the desert, where at 4600 meters is a bit chillier than the deserts I know.  The Bolivian desert is filled with lagoons, red, white, blue and green, many with flamingos. Unfortunately the flamingos were a bit camera shy and most of the photographs look more like white spots than birds. The highlight, though, was the hot springs, a lovely dip in the hot water in the slightly chilly desert.

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And so we exited Bolivia, my mind in awe of the beauty and diversity I had seen. I was glad I didn’t know much about this country. Its ability to change before my eyes forever imprinted in my memory.

Off to Chile.

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