The last destination,Sucre, offered everything a stereotypical Bolivian city could. Artisan prints, bright colours, street food and interesting locals. We spent 3 chilled days catching up on sleep, eating and shopping before embarking on our worst bus experience so far.
As everything was so cheap in Bolivia we decided to opt for the best bus class, which was 'cama' meaning bed in Spanish, for our 12 hour trip to La paz. Toilet, Tv, bed. Sorted.
We get on.
Toilet out of order.
Tv out of order.
No blankets and no way of reaching our luggage.
So a painstaking, crossed legged trip begins,stopping every few hours to pee on the side of the street.
Highlight of the trip being woken up by some teenagers on the back of the bus inviting us to come and party and smoke with them, we politely decline, and unwillingly inhale their second hand smoke all journey.
Traveller Tip: This cant be avioded, Bolivias busses are something to be desired, just make sure you pack your day bag for every eventuality.
Getting of the bus feeling half the people we once were, we walk into a smog of pollution and are welcomed to La paz.
La paz is the 2nd capital of Bolivia (they have 2 for some reason) and is the highest capital city in the world. It is only home to less than a million residents, I can only imagine why being because of the brain crunching altitude which makes it hard for many too live. A walk to the top of the hill La Paz is set on brings you in level with the clouds, and gives you a very light headed feeling. Walking up steps leaves you breathless and two drinks make you drunk. This is no city to be over excerting yourself.
So we didn't
We spent Two full days wandering the streets of the colourful artisan markets haggling for Bolivian bargains and cheap silver jewerlly.
As well as taking a few trips to the witches market,checking out all the weird and wonderful natural remedies and lotions the white witches offered. We learnt of a ritual which consisted of burning a llamas fetus as a sacrifice to pacha mama (mother earth) in hope of health,love,jobs and material goods in return. They then leave the burnt llamas fetus outside their shop along with insense and decoration for passers by to admire.
The witches market it easy to find and a great walk through the markets of La Paz, road names are scarce but ask any local, or just keep on walking, you will find it.
Travellers Tip: Bolivian markets arent actually the cheapest subject to belief, if you are heading to Peru, keep spend to a minimum in Bolivia, they are so used to tourists prices are rising fast. However you will find the same stuff for cheaper in Cusco or Lima, so hold onto those Bolivianos
After experiencing the weirdly wonderful witches market we set up rest in a cute coffee shop overlooking the stalls and start to research about the infamous San Pedro prision, a magical mystery to all of us.
Tours into the prison are illegal, but they happen, if your lucky (or unlucky) You have to find a tout outside the prision with connections inside that will help you bribe the guards and let you enter the world's most corrupt prision. You give your name,passport number, hand over your money and get given a prision tattoo with your number on.
The guards stop at the entrance however, as the whole operation is run by the prisioners. If you are aloud in you will be showed around by an inmate who has also managed to bribe the guards. You tour the cells, are showed the cocaine factories and introduced to the 150 kids living with their parents inside.
Prisoners are said to pay for their own cells, the poorer sharing hovel-like rooms while the richer equip lodgings with televisions, DVDs and sound systems. Families are allowed to stay, as are prostitutes.
The prisoners have self-organized an entire city within San Pedro, divided it into eight sections, with their own elected leaders, and are free to move around at their own will throughout the prison.
This whole process sounds INSAINE and intriguingly attractive. After visiting Alcatraze prision in San Francisco years ago with my family, my interest in prisions and what goes in inside the brick walls has become a slight fascination.
Well aware of the dangers and the words I would receive from my dad for bribing guards and entering a life threatening prison, I had my mind set on entering this fascinating drug house.
Unfortunately I still do.
We arrive at San Pedro square and are surprised at how visible and open the outside of the prision was. There were holes in the roof and a front gate being opened and closed every few minutes. Guards causally opening the gate for visitors while chatting with their mates.
As I try and snap a picture of the entrance and the guard carrying a 3ft shot gun, I catch eye contact with him and he vigorously shakes his finger proclaiming 'no photos'
I walk away and snap a photo anyway, with the thrill of being thrown into the prision becoming the only option of actually getting in.
We walk around the perimeter, touching the eroding walls, checking out every hole, nock and cranny. Discovering little more than rubbish and graffiti.
Disappointingly we didn't get approached by any 'insiders' that wanted to help us sneak into San Pedro, so a photo on one of the four walls was my best bet today.
In hindsight stories of travellers being deported and scammed maybe made it a good thing we couldn't get in.
So now I am left with an incredible intriguement and a hunger for more information on this untouchable, corrupt, Bolivian power house.
If like me you want to find out more info, check out the BBC website, showing some interesting photos:
And read 'Marching powder' by Rusty Young, about a Brit who lived in San Pedro for 3 years after trying to smuggle cocaine out of Bolivia.
After an unsuccessful prision break in we needed a few drinks so we headed to a local jazz bar to drown our sorrows
We enter the underground bar and are hit by a smog of smoke,music and locals.
This was like a underground bar you see in movies, candlelight tables, cigarette smoke forming a think gothic like layer above your head and jazz posters decorating the walls.
Unaware of what was going on we ordered our cocktails, and sat back in our chairs, invisible to the outside world.
4 men approached the raised platform holding a flute, bass, symbols and guitars.
What was to come was an explosion of unexpected passion, dance and music. The men sang and spoke in Spanish so we only caught a few sentences, but enough to know they were in fact a flamingo band.
We sat and stared in complete amazement at the speed of the dancers feet and the collaboration between the guitars,flutes and symbols.
The whole atmosphere was powerfully inspiring, watching the men get so involved in the music and dance, while sitting in an underground bar in the capital of Bolivia.
Claptons Blues Bar doesnt have a website or contact details I could find but it is easily accessable on Santa Cruz among many other Jazz bars. Get a taxi to 24 de Septiembre and have a walk around.
It provocted reflection in a grand scale, I sat there completely emerged in the culture, realising this was one of the main reasons I love travelling so much. While the music vibrated through our shoes and our eyes fixtated on the flamigo, my brain was looking back on an incredible 2 months. 3 countries, 2 volunteer experiences, New friends, New memories, New knowledge. I felt profoundly grateful and lucky to be in my current situation, at a constant state of happiness.
The only problem now was that I was more aware of what an exceptional world we live in, and my appiete to discover more of the unknown was at a all time high, having only scratched the surface of this foreign land.
Bolivia was growining on us day by day, the best thing about this country so far, I greedily admit, is the food. And the prices.
Our cholesterol was knocking on dangers door persuading us to move on to somewhere with maybe less temptation. Unfortunately for our health that's no where in South America, but it was time to move on anyhow. La paz had fulfilled its main goal, which was to shop. So packing my bag was a squeeze of Aztec prints, earrings and noveltys.
Copacabana was the next stop. Only hearing about it a few days earlier, it seem like the obviously choice, home to Lake titicaca the highest lake in the world (and with a pretty fun name)
Altitude was nothing to us now, we laughed in its face when it warned us of more height, having spent 11 days from 3000-4000 meters above sea level.
So we took the leisurely 3 hour bus ride through the northern hills of Bolivia, over the first stretch of water we had seen in almost 2 weeks and into our new favourite place in Bolivia.
The next day in Copacabana we booked a boat tour across Lake titicaca on to island del sol for a 4 hour trek with the best views of the lake. Arriving late to the boat we got the worst seats in the open air. Wrapped in layers we huddled together trying to avoid the morning chill. 2 and a half hours later (they told us it would be 1 1/2 hrs..) We pulled up on island del sol and are offered a guided tour to the ruins and around the island for £2. Now fully into Bolivian budgeting we refused the 'steep' offer and opted for a self guided trek from the north to the south where the boat would pick us up 4 hours later.
Equipped with about 5 layers, crackers, water and 20 bolivianos (just under £2) we start our trek. From the first step we were propelled into views of natural beauty an picture perfect scenery. Being surrounded by water created a calm feeling and a great change from the pollution and city life.
We stopped by some Inca ruins which we know nothing about as we refused the 'expensive' tour, so just watched as the richer among us place both their hands on the ruins and prayed. I'm guessing it was some sort of holy rock.
That's one to Google.
The strange thing about the island was you were charged the longer you walked. Originally we were told to bring 20bolivianos for entrance fees, but had already spent 10 of those within the first killometer. As we reached another stopping point we saw a sign asking for another 15 bolivianos. Explaining we had only been told to bring 20 we were confused as to why we had to pay another 15. The local explained it was to support the island, children and pensioners. Hmmm. We were a little bit dubious after spending 2 weeks I'm Bolivia and learning the ways. We paid up after promise of no more charge and were back on our way.
By now the Sun was well and truly out, living up to its name of the island of Sun and the walk was getting tougher in the heat. So more water stops were needed.
3 hours in we had no idea how far we were to the finishing point, but saw another stop ahead where we could ask directions.
That was after they asked us for a 5 bolivianos however. This time we blankly refused, mainly for the reason that we were honestly completely out of money, but also as we could tell they were just trying to get money out of us.
They didn't put up much of a fight and let us through claiming we only had 20 minutes to go.
An hour later we had just run onto the boat as it was about to depart, sweaty,out of breath and pissed off.
We met the other travellers on the boat who had taken the tour and were looking refreshed and with heavier pockets as they weren't charged the same a us.
The island was a really cute place boasting some incredible views but unfortunately the residents had put a sour taste in our mouth as they tried to take advantage of tourists and rip us off.
And this was quite a trate of Bolivia.
It may sound like a generalisation but they really don't like tourist. We received nothing but bad customer services In restaurants and shops and were barely greeted with a smile when trying to chat to locals. In markets they would offer you a ridiculous high price for an item worth a third of it and get annoyed if you tried to haggle. Understanding most Market sellers around the world would try there luck and we didn't think too much of it untill we saw how obvious it was there were trying to rip tourists off.
I asked a market seller how much a purse was and he replied with 35 bolivianos. A local came along 30 seconds later and asked the same guy how much for the same purse. He replies 20 bolivianos. This was all while I was standing in the same position still facing the bloke. He knew I heard but didn't batter and eye lid asking 'yes, you want?'
On our daily vists to the rows of cafes to get our avocado sandwich we would regularly visit the same vendor as it was a good price and was actually served with a smile. One day the regular lady wasnt at the stall, but we order with her employee anyway. When it came to pay she asks for 10 bolivianos when we had paid 5 the day before. When we explained this she said ' ok 5 then' annoyed she hadn't won this time.
To be honest there are daily examples of paying one price only to hear someone else had paid half, and buying something at one shop and seeing it cheaper just next door.
It was so frustrating and tiring that the locals would always try their luck and it felt like you constantly had to be aware of how much things should cost. Discussing with other travellers, all had the same experiences, and all had grown thin of the constant battle between Bolivian and tourist.
Understandably we (tourists) are perceived to have a lot of money, and of course a lot more than most Bolivians living in the poorest country in South America. However being ripped of regardless of how much money you have is such a frustrating feeling. So we were ready to move on , with a respect for the country but unfortunately not so much from the tourist hating locals.
After 2 weeks of travelling it was time to settle down again and find some work, so our next destination was Cusco in Peru where we will work in a hostel bar untill New Year to claw back on spending. So another 10 hour bus ride, and another country awaiting.
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