I went out again with my tour group for our last night together in Sucre.
I wouldn’t be traveling back to Lap Paz just yet. Meeting locals in all the cities I`d visited had given me a stinging urge to improve my spanish.
It’s frustrating being so limited in what you can talk about. Not being able to really get across your peronsality because you lack the vocab and grammar is a tad dehumanizing. I was sick of talking like a 5 year old, or struggling with every conversation in a fierce battle of language skills versus ideas.
My understanding had improved vastly, but, my actual ability to talk had lagged. I was starting to realise getting to the know the people, geting a feel for the culture was more satsifying for me than the sights and scenery.
I alway thought it would be the other way around for me. But all my fondest memories, the things that really stick and change the way you think have come from meeting the people.
Its exciting seeing how such a beautiful country has shaped the people, how the endlesses of thier natural wonders has given them a endless passion for life. Or you could argue the difficulty of life at times in Latin america had made the free things like friendship more precious.
The end result is I needed to study spanish and Sucre seemed like the town to do it. It’s a city full of charm, history, character and has such a relaxed vibe it’s hard to imagine it being a capital. Its the perfect city to spend some time studying and taking a slower pace.
La Paz seems dirty, dull and charmless in comparison.
Back to the evenings events . My tour group and I went to the every popular distination of Florin. It’s a dutch owned bar that is heaveningly busy on weekends, especially around feliz hora. It exudes a charming cool, set in a colonial building with ajoing colonial courtyard its quaint but trendy. It’s also comfortable with big wooden tables and a welcoming air.
The ligths are always dim and thier is always a buzz from beautiful latin girls and thier friends chatting away.
We had a few drinks before heading out to a smaller venue. On the way we met a heavily panting New Zealander who had tried to chase down a bag-snatcher in the street. The crooks had gotten away in a spending care and the vitcims were amazingly cluessless about what to do with the license plate number our panting friend had managed to get.
We invited him along to the next pub for a drink as he retold his little tale of bravery. Problem was, we would end up hearing the same story told endlessly for the next 2 hours, retold with condiment props and new thrilling details like the snatchers shoe type.
We were soon down to my tour guide, the ever humorous Kim, one of the younger tour partners and our new heavy set New Zealander friend.
Although a perfectly nice guest to have around he brought out a weird vibe in two of our co-drinkers. Awkward arguments about New Zealand and strange accuasations of homosexuality soon ensued. The awkwardness was so palpable you could taste it. At every turn things got worse.
Soon , at the suggestion of the New Zealander we were off back to florin to escape the carcinogenic social situation , there was no saving the evening over at the other bar.
We sat at the stools and had a few drinks.
I was soon chatting to one of the bar girls there, she was a quiet but sweet girl who reacted warmly to my smile and wave.
She didn`t go out much and this was one of the few nigths she was drinking and planning to go out.
My spanish seems to flow easier when drinking, I guess not worrying so much about being correct makes the difference. You stop second guessing everything and just try to get your point across, no matter how primitive.
My New Zealander friend was soon leaving, he didn´t know much spanish and had an ealry flight the next day.
My bolivian friend invited me along to one of the local, but popular with gringos, stomping grounds of Mitos. Its a reasonable taxi ride from the main plaza in seemingly quiet and quaint streets.
Its an outrageously tacky and corny venue but also popular and strangely trendy feeling. It can get can get uncomfortably full on a saturday nights. So full you are a rudderless ship in a sea of Bolivians.
It has, in small doses, the vibe of a dindgy beer hall with intensely bright coloured walls covered in scenes from the Nazcar lines.
The music is often an awkward mix of homely electro, reggaton, salsa, terrible 80’s rock and traditional Bolivian music. It all makes a bit more sense in Mitos however than it would anywhere else. But still, a Black Eyed Peas song followed by by Bolivian flutes is one of the strangest and most jarring thing you will ever hear.
My friend introduced me to a large group of her close freinds, there were lots of names to remember and plenty of faces. You never realise at the time but this chance meeting would change my whole experience of Sucre.
I met here for the first time Miho and Negra, one a Japnease girl living in Boliva and the other a Sucre local.
Although I didn`t talk much with them on this night they would soon become much cherished friends. The kind of friends you don´t really expect to make while spending a short time in a city. They would also be my link to the local social scene and a great number of local friends. They would change my time in Sucre from a meerly pleasant visit into something quite special
Sucre would become unforgetable.
A chance chat with a girl at a bar can change everything. Im learning that if you take the risk and engage with people your often suprised by what comes about. Travel has a weird way of dolling our surprises from the most mundane of starting points.
I danced the nigth away with the group and was soon introduced to one of thier friends, a 26 year old local. As I’ve begun to realise nobody really looks thier age here.
She was a fun and friendly girl who taught me a little bit of salsa and some of more traditonal bolivan dances. There is always a section at the end of the nigth when the dj indulges in such tunes.
She had one of those beautiful latin bodies they all seem blessed with in this city. All around were beautiful girls happily salsaing the night away.
We kissed and danced for the rest of the nigth as the club slowly began to swell with people.
Nights start late and finish late in Sucre. It’s a sleepy town during the day but a haulking party machine at night.
I got home around 6am and had plans to catch up with my dance partner the next day.
The Next Day
We spent the day walking around Sucre and eating in local restuarants.
We ventured up to one of the best viewing spots in sucre, a large colonial courtyard on the top of a hill overlooking the entire city. Its a popular spot with couples, there confessions of love scrawled all over the arches holding up the roof of the balcony. The Mirador offers some of the best views of sucre.
Below we could see the beautiful white colonial buildings of sucre nestled in the dry hills and capped by a blindingly blue sky. The hills have a relaxing roll and ebb about them, covered lightly in trees and greenery. Sucre is altogether gorgeous. The mirador, our viewing spot, is a massive and beautiful courtyard of a colonial church.
Its one of the most romantic spots in Sucre so kissing was almost obligatory.
On the way down from the Mirador we had a chance meeting with Miho entering her apartment. Miho was the Japanease girl I had met the night previously.
She had been living in boliva for close to 8 months and had become quite entwined in the place. Learing Spanish as she slowly forgot the english she had learnt back home.
Miho is probably the sweetest girl you will ever met, constantly smiling or bursting into laughter or playful banter. She is tiny , even compared to many Bolivians, and almost uncomfortabley cute. She is so cute she looks like the inspiration for an anime character. Her animated and warm personality furthers the likeness. With little warning she would burst into an over the top expression of interest, outrage or shock.
Her spanish is excellent but has the slight a high pitched quality left over from her Japanease accent. Yet another tick in the cute box.
We sat in her small but comfortable apartment, chatted away and played with her loaned cheeky little orange kitten.
Miho invited me that night to go along with her to a very popular show in Sucre. Some of her friends were performers and she was going along for free and wanted some company. To this day i’m amazed at how warm she was, she had barely met me.
I worked this out after.
I agreed to go along at the time but didn`t really understand what I was agreeing to. I only caught that we were were going dancing with her friends, turns out we were going to watch them dance.
My spanish clearly needed work.
I met up with Miho that night and we set off to the show. It was down some cobbled streets a fair way from the main square of Sucre.
It turns out we were about to watch a dance performance covering a host of traditional dances covering Bolivian, Andean, Spanish and Latin cultural elements. The show had the rather hard name to pronounce of Orígenes.
The Bolivians are very proud of thier culture and heritage but I was still suprised to see the predominately local crowd out in force. I always assumed these sorts of things were tourist only fair.
We sat down in the theatre at the back at the suggestion of Mihos connection. It was a large theatre with tables and chairs for dining.
I ordered a meal just as the show began.
I was totally blown away by the perfromance. Ive found in the past these cultural shows are typically at best interesting and at worst contirved and dull.
It was a roaring performance based around popular folklore, mythology, dances and stories originating from all of Bolivia’s rich cultural sources.
At one point the story would cover some greek mythology, at others Andean tails, spanish love stories, african influenced demon dances and even Boliva in the 1950s. It was a whirling inisight into the rich but utter motley of cultural influences in boliva.
The dancing was lively, energetic, passionate and full of character. I had seen somthing similar in Peru but this was on a totally different level.
The dancing moved from latin salsa, to african tribal dancing and all the way to comedic revelry.
This was all set to a sound track of thumping drums, andean instruments and slightly electronic elements.
The show zipped along at a frantic pace as the storeis unfolded with beautiful girls and athletic men.
One of the most impressive aspects of the show were the costumes. They were ornate, beautifully decorated and gave the show that extra special quality.
At times the dancers were dressed in elborate costumes and masks rendering them as demons, tragic characters, monsters, devils, cows and even Andean gods. They were dripping with style, perosnality and sheer visual punch.
The girls danced in beautiful dresses designed to flare out dramatically as they danced, twirling and twisitng about thier bodies in beautiful spirals.
The show was full of sex appeal, laughter, excitement and passion.
At the end of the show the performers grabbed a bunch of people and took them onstage for the last dance. Miho and I were chosen and were were soon on stage embarrasing ourselves amongst the myriad of other locals laughing. It felt spontaneous and fun.
What a show.
Later that night…
Afterwards we waited around and met some of Miho’s dancer friends. They were a colourful bunch of personalities with a slightly more liberal and wild air than some other locals I had met. They dressed slightly more metro and had a trendy cool air.
Even still, they were immensely friendly and made me feel one of the gang as we headed in a van out to florin.
On this night I also met Pocito. He is nicknamed Pocito for being rather short, even compared to the rest of his friends.
He makes up for it with a cool breezy vibe, a freociously skilled hand at charming the ladies and solid sense of humor. He is the type to burst into laughter at anything and everything, especially if it was a strange gringo trait.. We would end up being quite good friends.
We made a deal that night, I would introduce him to Australian girls in exchange for being introduced to some latin girls. A fair trade in our minds.
We drank and chatted in Florin, sharing a jugs of beer, as electro pumped in the background.
Later we were off to Mitos, cramming a crazy amount of people into a taxi.
There we all danced, chatted and drank the nigth away.
I spent a great deal of the night flirting and chatting with girls, going along with Pocito as he went about charming every single one in the club.
I had my first insight into how to charm like a latin chico.
The girls here are strikingly beautiful and love nothing more than a good dance.
It was another late night in Sucre.
Its appropriate that the name Sucre hints so much at something sugary, it’s by far the sweetest city in the whole of Boliva.
It comes as somewhat of a surprise, usually the capital cities of South America are interesting but maddening, ugly and outrageously busy place. Sucre is entirely different, its strange for a capital city to feel so much like a village or town, a sleepy one at that.
That tranquil air of the place slowly oozes in to you, time seems to flow at a pleasantly sluggish pace.
From the main square the city spreads out down spacious streets lined with old white plastered buildings with red tiled roofs. The brilliant white of the buildings against the intense blue sky are quite a site to see, especially as the shadows give the buildings an exaggerated 3-dimensionality.
Around every concern you can find a beautiful white church towering gently above the surrounding buildings. They are ornamented with arches, statues, copper domes, and sandstone courtyards. Many are kept safe by large wooden doors and black oranamental fences. Hotels, restaurants and small stores line the streets. In the distance you can see the brown and tree crowned hills that protect sucre on all sides.
The city feels familiar and homely, it has an odd comforting feel about it.
The streets lazily head off in every direction from the centre of Sucre, a beautiful yet quaint central square surrounded by Sucre’s most beautiful buildings. In the centre of it all is a large and towering sandstone mural and statue of General Sucre. Below he is guarded by four large lions with intelligent faces. About this is a lovely square filled with benches, gardens and old trees shading the walkways.
Framing the main square are some of the most beautiful buildings in the city, including a grand white cathedral and other treasures from the towns rich history. Each has its own unique and intricate architecture , often with a flourish of spires and statues or intense colours.
It’s by far the most beautiful city in the whole of Bolivia.
The relaxing calm is at first strange, but it slowly takes a hold of you and you fall in love with the place. I’d later talk to traveller after traveller who spent far more time than they planned in this town, often a planned stay of a few days turned into months.
You can see the calm of the city and its gorgeous natural surrounds in the manner of the locals. They walk about leisurely and have a warmth about them that’s hard to find in many cities.
I likewise walked leisurely through the city, enjoying the warmth of the day. I did what I normally did in new cities, I grabbed a map and did my best to explore without much concern for getting lost or a defined end point.
I walked past beautiful white churches with sandstone details, streets lined with arches and charming mini-squares filled with people wondering about.
I couldn’t help but notice that Sucre also had the prettiest girls i’d seen in Bolivia, another plus it had over La Paz.
My aimless wondering eventually took me to Parque Bolivar. Its a large park 15 minutes from the main square , a beautiful place filled with flower gardens and completely shaded by lush old trees. The warm sun filtered in through the gaps as I walked around. Even with the artificial lake being half drained it had a tranquil calm about it.
Nearby is the main university of sucre and a military academy.
On most days the park, surrounded only by charming white buildings, would be incredibly quiet but today there was a buzz. Students from the military academy strolled about dressed in bright yellow historical military costumes, while families and gathered near the military academy.
Out front one of the government buildings facing the park were a host of military police and well dressed person filtering into the building.
I waited around to see what was happening and was soon chatting with an old man and his son. Despite my poor spanish I was able to work out that the Bolivian president was visiting the city.
Soon a host of SUV’s pulled up, a few meters from where I stood and out came the Bolivian president and his entourage. Soon the square in front of the park was filled with the sounds of the military band and the stomp of the yellow costumed students as they went through the formalities of welcoming the president. Even here in the old city I couldn’t help but think how archaic and odd these military performances seem.
As the crowd tired of the performance I headed off for more wondering.
I eventually found a place to buy jeans, I needed a pair since I’d left mine in Uyuni. I had the weird experience of entering a posh looking store and then getting inside a change room that was a converted cupboard with a light and mirror.
Pleased with my purchase I headed back to the hotel, the main square was for the first time full of traffic as the day came to and end.
The white of the buildings held the golden glow of the sunset beautifully.
That night was my tour guides birthday, a night of dining and drinking was planned.
We would be going to one of the institutions of Sucre, Joy Rides, a particularly clever entity that is everything from a restaurant, to a bar, to a nightclub and tour operator and tee shirt shop. We all chuckled at its catchphrase “No Solomente Para Gringos”(not only for gringos). Its a large venue with wooden floors and strong wooden tables. Most importantly it’s a great place to buy some fantastic beer by the stein. Our German companion approved.
It spans 3 levels and has everything a Gringo could ever want.
We were soon drinking beers by the litre, laughing and tucking into some great food. I ordered a spicy Bolivian dish that was an odd combination of chicken, spaghetti and dehydrated potatoes.
Soon some other tour leaders presented our guide with a gift, The Joy Ride special birthday shot complete with flaming helmet to light it. The contorted and ridiculously cartoony expression on our guides face after downing the concoction left everyone else in hysterics.
The strong Alcohol soon led Manuel to explain a Peruvian tradition in his hometown of Puno. It involved a belt and whipping. So there we were whipping Manuel with a belt on the buttocks in the middle of a crowded restaurant, one for each year.
The majority of tour group were polite and gentle, but myself and one other got into the full spirit of things.
The drinking continued on at the bar and then went on to another small bar nearby, a cozier and far emptier venue. Tequila shots and a host of other weird shot experiments soon had us all rather drunk. Over the course of the night the group shrank and sharnk untill it was only four, a tour guide, Kim , myself and a New Zealander.
We were soon out in the main square of Sucre, jumping about, singing, climbing the statues and generally being ridiculous. This was all to the sound of ringtone-esque christmas carols coming from an unknown source.
Back at the hotel a shared bottle of Rum finished made the rest of the evening a bit hazy.
The Next Morning
The next day after breakfast I went and found my tour guide, he was still in bed. I had apparently left some things in his hotel room. He stumbled out of the room, he was a complete but happy mess. He wasn’t making too much sense, he was still rather drunk, and kept talking about the pair of shoes he lost that night. He was half man, half blubbering back patting machine.
Apparently some members in the group got cozy that evening, but nobody really remembered much.
Not a bad evening for a weeknight.
We left Uyuni early for yet another 11 hour Journey, this time to the capital of Bolivia, Sucre.
We would be leaving the raw beauty of Uyuni behind and returning back to civilization. It would be also the last trip we took as a tour group. It would also signal the start of an interesting part of my journey. From then on i’d be traveling alone, before me was many month that potentially could teach me a to. In my mind the idea did seem somewhat scary, all that freedom can be an intimidating thing.
But I also had this rush of excitement welling up, this is the part where I could really push and explore like I never had in my entire life.
The bus journey took us across ruthlessly bumpy roads along stunning desert scenery. We were passing by dreary desert towns, never quite finished yet seemingly falling apart from old age.
I sat next to Kim , a 30 something fellow Australian in my tour group with a big heart and boisterous sense of humor. there is something about long journey to bring out Deep And Meaningful talk about life, ones path in it and the world we live in. I won’t lie, I love these sort of chats.
The bus trip was briefly broken up by a stop in a largish town, where we bus hoped to avoid a 4 hour wait. Some confusing door taxes and even more confusing snacks were bought before boarding the bus and heading on our way.
Near us sat an old man, his face intricately wrinkled, wearing a large cowboy hat and bushy mustache. His broad cheekbones and tanned skin made him look unimaginably aged, like he had a wrinkle for everyday of his life. He chewed a large ball of coca leaves that sat as a large lump on the side of his face. We caught him a few times giving us curious glances.
Kim and I did stand out, blonde haired oddities talking in an awfully jarring accent. It was quite amusing watching him try and sneak a glance in between adding coca leaves to his mouth.
Behind him sat his granddaughter, a cute little girl with wide eyes and a curiosity she had clearly inherited. She spent most of the trip staring at us, and shyly looking away when we caught her glance. It was quite humorous watching her grandfather and her look at us while she sat on his lap.
Eventually she worked up the courage to begin talking to Kim. Unfortunately Kim didn’t know much, well any, spanish whatsoever. The little girl was greeted with smiles and confused looks.
Manuel our tour guide tried his best to help as a translator, but she was a little bit scared of him. I also tried my best to help Kim, but my spanish needed a lot of work and the little girl spoke so lightly.
Soon we learnt how this little girl wanted to know all about us and our home, she was fascinated by Australia. She was equally fascinated by Kim’s long blonde hair. Kim smiled widened unimaginably when the little girl described her as the “most beautiful girl in the world”, she was too charming and sweet for her own good.
We spent most of the trip chatting with her, learning about her home while she asked us endless questions about Australia. She even began to warm to our Afro-Peruvian tour guide Manuel and his cheeky demeanor.
She was excited to start learning english at school and we gave her an impromptu lesson. Her curiosity had a beautiful intensity to it. That’s what I love most about children, they see the world as rich and detailed, they haven’t tired of new things.
As we chatted along Manuel suggested we give the girl a little gift, something as simple as an Australian coin.
We handed her a handful of Australian coins, a gift of cold and silver. The Australian coins are great because they are covered in pictures of native animals, they are beautiful objects when you stop thinking about what they are worth.
Her eyes lit up and her smile widened when we gave her the gift, she was clearly very touched by the gesture. She held them and studied them like they were the most precious things in the whole world. Sometimes the smallest things make the biggest impact. To her they were a connection to a place she was fascinated by in books, they were an exotic relic, an unexpected treasure and a beautiful thing to have.
That grin on her face was the exact same one I used to have when my dad would bring me coins from his travels. The mystery they hold is enthralling as a kid.
Kyle’s Travel tip # 3080: Coins from your own country are surprisingly the coolest gift you can give to people you meet.
The bus soon stopped near her little town, she said goodbye with a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. Even Manuel managed to get one. Sometimes even a bus ride can stay with you.
Rolling brown hills covered in trees gave way to the outskirts of Sucre. We disembarked and caught a taxi to our hotel, New Idependenica, a mere 100m’s from the main square of the city.
It was time to explore…
We awoke to our soviet-bunker-esque hotel room at 4am. We would be leaving soon to see a volcano and thermal geyser somewhere in the Solares De Uyuni, Bolivia.
The early morning desert world proved to be a brutally and viciously cold one. I noticed it all the more as I rummaged through my things in search of my comfy pair of jeans. The very pair that had kept me warm countless times, the very pair that had a dry cleaning mishap and were returned smaller but much better fitting in Peru. No where to be found and a harsh desert morning to endure I sulked to my tour guide. He lent me some jeans, some that were playfully covered in salt and mud.
After breakfast I braved the outside world with a warm cup of coca tea in my belly, 4 layers of clothing including a jacket, a benie, a borrowed pair of jeans and a pair of Dunlop Volleys filled with holes.
It was the coldest I have ever been in my life, the air bit into my bones like like some horrible monster. My hands lost all feeling and my body ached. Even my teeth hurt from the harshness of it. I will admit I’m a costal baby not used to this sort of thing, but it had to be at least a million degrees below zero. To add insult to injury one of our New Zealand companions peacefully wore a pair of shorts while everyone else shivered in their cocoons clothing.
The cars proved to be warm refuges from the still dark and cold night all around. It seemed as if we were driving through and abyss, how the driver knew where to go is a mystery to me.
As the sun slowly began to rise and thick blackness gave way to a mild murkiness we arrived at one of the first sights, a man made geyser near a natural gas extraction plant. The unnaturalness of it took away some of the luster of a rather spectacular gush of white gas hissing 30 meters into the air.
It was still uncomfortably cold, I was soon back in the van hiding from the elements.
Nearby was a more natural and quite erries site. Before me was a large area of steaming pools of mud belching out sulfur against the silhouetted hills of the desert and a slowly brightening sky. They were all arranged around small craters stained in white, yellow and red. Figures vanished in an out of the steamy veil streaming across the post-apocalyptic scene.
I watched with intrigue as the pools of mud spluttered and bubbled, occasionally exploding in massive gobules of molten mud. We treaded carfully around the bubbeling crater pots, feeling as we went where the mud was soft and likely to lead us to our demise. The heat from the pools sapped the cold morning of its bitterness.
We continued on our drive to see a nearby volcano. Th esun had began to rise in full and a golden light streamed from above the black cutout hills. It flooded the cockpit of the car in a brilliant blinding light, our cars cast long shadows outlined in gold.
We soon arrived at yet another alien world a few 100 meters from the base of a volcano. Before us was brown landscaped deeply accented by massive craters. The hills would roll up smoothly before crashing sharply down into the numerous little valleys and massive craters. They were filled with massive bunches of desert grasses, twisted shrubs and alien-esque moss that grew in ginat bubble like formations all over the place. All the elements didn’t seem to fit, even the shape of the craters has a strange unatural look about them. Once again Uyuni’s natural wonders seemed other worldly.
In the distance was the towering snow capped volcano, a small puff of steam and smoke chuffing from its cone. It looked exactly like the volcano a small child would draw in rough crayon.
I eagerly explored this odd world, running and climbing in the craters, finding where all the strange plants and what was hidden in all the bizarre nooks and crannies crated by the craters.
The strangeness of it was increased as the early morning sun gave the horizon a purple flourish of colour.
The cold still lingered.
We were soon off and driving as the sun increasingly climbed up the sky, the long shadows of the hills and vehicles dancing along.
We drove past yet more salt lakes rimmed in white and coloured with red bacteria, flamingoes slept the morning away in the steaming pools barely visible amongst the shroud of steam.
One of the people in my tour group sitting in the front of my 4×4 nodded off during the drive, her head swaying about and almost reaching the gearstick. The driver looked on with a mix of concern and appreciation for the humor. We all wondered if her head would hit the gear stick, a sick little silent odds game.
One of the last sights was an outcrop of bizarre rock formations seemingly scattered amongst the desert. I climbed ontop of several out of curiosity and to see the landscape. The wind blew furiously strogn a few meters up
We also spotted a few vizcacha, a dopey looking animal that is best described as a cross between a rabbit and a cat.
We continued on to our final destination, a lunch spot next to yet another flamingo filled steaming salt lake. Here could also be found a small thermal bath built into the rocks and surrounded by tourist. A few were brave enough to endure the eventual cold for the instant gratification of the bath. After some feet dabbling and lunch I, along with one of my 4×4 team mates, were amongst that small group. After a brief adjustment to the temperature it was all heaven and sleepy eyes while the steam floated about.
Soon it was time to go, even the cold couldn’t make us a regret that hour of utter bliss.
Th trip back to the city of Uyuni took us from desolate desert landscapes to lush mountains fed valleys and back again to dry desert hills. We passed a few lithium mines along the way.
Back at Uyuni we visited a lonely planet recommended pizza restaurant, like everything in Bolivia it made no sense that some of the best pizza in the whole of South America can be found in a dessert town seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
During the walk back through town we came across a small but splutteringly little fare complete with precarious ferris wheel and strangely twisted animal themed train. Some of the tour group decided to have a ride on the ferris wheel, they sure got value value for money when the 14 year old boy operating disappeared for 30minutes. All the while the wheel turned and turned and turned to the dismay of the gringos.
We were all soon asleep. Tomorrow we would be heading for the capital of boliva, Sucre.
I would never of guessed what Sucre had in stall for me…
With my first day of exploring the surreal Salt Flats of Bolivia finished I awakened early on the second to a bitingly chilly morning.
My GAP tour group enjoyed a light breakfast in our gleaming white salt hotel, the crunch of salt crystals could be heard underfoot as people trudged around.
The group set of in our convoy of oversized 4×4’s, heading out across the dark mud around the hotel and back onto the gleaming splendor of the salt flats. We were soon engulfed and encircled by a sea of white. That errie feeling of being in a surrealist painting returned, the other vehicles disappearing in a mercurial blur as the heat from the son distorted the horizon.
There was nothing else to do but look out at this strangely white and severely flat world, and ponder.
After a few hours of driving we came upon a large island in the distance, it stood out oddly from the other wise endless falt world around us.
Incahuasi Island is a large rocky island covered in gigantic cacti that stand in rows marching up the sides of the hill. The majority of them tower above your head into the empty blue sky above, covered in brown prickly spines that take on the appearance of fur at times. Their sheer size and number is doubly confusing in such a barren ivory land.
Once the vehicles were parked, and the local bathroom facilities investigated, I went about exploring the rocky hills of the islands. I wondered up and down the rough hills walking amongst the watchful cacti. Some had sprouted beautiful flowers like crowns while others wore small birds balancing on their spikes whilst picking at grubs and worms.
The scene from the top lookouts is awe inspiring, A brown ship crewed by cacti men in a sea of milk set against a brilliant blue sky. The salt about the island had dried in a ripple like effect, taking on even more the appearance of a frozen sea.
I hugged cacti for dramatic photos while exploring the island, ducking into caves and peering out into the endless while. All the other travelers had the same stupid look of disbelief and child like wonder. Its hard to find a reference of familiarity in such a place.
After lunch all the groups, there were numerous there now, went out to play in the endless white world. A wonderfully flat white world for creating playful photos, abusing a cameras inability to show depth. People ran about, jumping and striking weird poses as the camera holders line them up just right to show a giant kicking a tiny person or someone holding their friends aloft. This place had the ability to turn anyone, even the most jaded traveller into a crazy child running about crazily setting up humorous photos. It was quite a site to see everyone get slowly drawn into the senseless fun of it. Soon everyone was a little bit tired and covered in salt.
Getting photos of myself lying on the ground like a corpse was my one innovation .
Even just exploring was fascinating, you could walk out into the whiteness just far enough to be away from tall the noise and take it in. You feel at the centre of your own world as you watch the glare and heat distortion play with your mind and be bend objects in the distance.
The ground had an amazing texture, like that of a giant snake, from the pools of water that had long dried up. 15cm under the surface was a briny sludge of salt and water, anything dipped in this would soon come out perfectly coated in salt.
More driving lead us to one of the many salt lakes we would encounter that day. The first came spectacularly into view as our van sped up a low sandy hill. In the valley below was a large flat lake, rimmed in a thick border of salt and set against grassy hills and a brilliant blue sky.
In the lake was a swarm of flamingoes, a menagerie of white birds sporting their own unique patterns of pink coloring. About the lake were mossy bright green marshes. If you weren’t careful the squishy platform could leave you ankle deep in the putrid smelling water.
The pink, green, white, brown and blue created such a bizarre image. The more you see of the solares the less you believe it really exists. Its utterly beautiful in that raw natural way, yet completely unnatural in its oddness.
We stayed for a while by the lake side watching the flamingoes feast on the bacteria in the briny water in between fighting and awkwardly strutting about. Flamboyant doesn’t even begin to describe them. The lake was awash with the sands of flapping wings and the the odd clicking and and gurgling sounds of the birds.
My photographer companion in my 4×4 took an outrageous number of photos, she had a little bit of a flamingo fetish it seemed.
The next few flamingo filled lakes added to the weirdness by mixing in a massive swirl of rich red and even yellow bacteria to the colour pallete.
The day ended as we arrived at our 2nd dessert hotel, this one less that playful salt experience and more the soviet era prison.
Star gazing brought the days activities to a close.
The next day, new years day, there wasn’t much to be heard from my tour group.
Turns out almost everybody , even the older couples, had a rather heavy nigth of drinking and dancing. They were very much occupied nursing thier heads and drowning thier sorrows.
I wasn’t feeling so grand myself. The altitude has a way of magnifying all your aliments, it conspires with all those beers from the nigth before to doll out pain and suffering.
Several litres of water was what I needed.
I decided to go for a walk around the city, a tiring endevour hungover and with all those hills to scale.
The hustle and bustle was nowhere to be seen, the streets of la paz were choked with silence instead of cars and people.
Its strange to rediscover a city when its empty, its takes on an all together differen´t quality and textrure. A city without its motion of people and without its sounds is errie and stragely lonely. cities are usually quite ugly things, you really need the details of people rushing about to fill it with colour and intrigue.
I did enjoy having the streets to myself but, I could explore large parts of the city quickly. The strange ghost town air is all together unsetteling. Leaves a lot of room to fill with thoughts.
My melancholy mood from the nigth before had carried over into the new year.
I spent the day wandering around the empty streets, spending a lot of time in thought.
The business of the streets was repalced with a swirl of thoughts in my head about what I wanted to do, happiness versus money and even what I was doing and trying to get out of travelling. Lots of questions were pondered but I didn´t come to many conclusions.
I felt rather alone.
My new year was all togther dampening. I guess your mind doesn’t care how you define a day or a year.
That nigth the tour group was rounded up and put onto a bus headed for uyuni. Unyuni is were you can find the stunning salt flats of Boliva. A particulary strange natural wonder.
The bus trip was probably the least comofortable I have taken. The first half of the 11 hours was along reasonable paved roads. The second half was along rocky dirt “roads”.
The bus vibrated, shook and bounced along a road it was never intended to traverse. My brain and everything else itched from the constant resonating chasis.
My tour guide decided to down a bottle of vodka and drunkinly sleep the suffering away in a grogy haze.
The irratic shaking of the bus and the alcholhol inspired him to some strange and contorted sitting positions, often without a tee shirt and with sunglasses. The whole tour group quitely laughed as his sleeping positions became more bizzare and began to take over more and more of my free space.
At one stage the bus driver stopped in a remote and dusty town to make a phone call that lasted close to 40 minutes. My tour guide wasn’t standing for it and was soon out forcefully taking control of the situation. Most of the other passengers were too battered and tired to care.
Manwell always turned from the most cherry guy in the world into a ruthless machine when it came to making things happen on time. I guess thats what made him such a good tour guide in such a chaotic part of the world.
We were soon on our way again. Somwhere out of a haze of bad sleep and inertial wooziness we arrived at Uyuni. The cold greeted us as we stepped out to see a rather quiet, almost lonely desert harbored town. The colour of the buildings blending into the sandy colour of the surrounding hills.
Getting our bags off of the bus turned into yet another drama, the bus driver refused to give us our bags without the tickets we were given 11 hours earlier before the traumatic journey.
Him driving off with them didn’t seem such a great idea. Our tour guide acted quickly, giving the bus driver one hell of a push before grabbing our bags in one swift maneuver. It stood out as even more aggressive given how quiet the street was.
With the bags safe and the bus driver thoroughly rattled we grabbed a taxi to our hotel, a comfortable but devilishly heated place to sleep before heading off.
Solares de Uyuni
Before heading out I explored the town a little bit, it was dusty and extremely quiet, like the desert landscape around. As my luck would have it i’d lost my sunglasses in the last city, right before the place where not having them would lead to likely blindness. I bought the most outrageous pair I could, bright purple raybands, just for fun.
Soon our convoy of 4×4 trucks were out front of the hotel, roofs filled with the supplies we would need and covered in desert sand. They looked mean and ready for adventure.
I was comfortably set up in one of the rides with only two people from my tour group, a quiet but friendly driver and cook. One of my tour companions was Jia, a Newzealander with an unhealthy obsession for taking photographs of everything and her older friend who was at this poitn not feeling the greatest.
The journey took us through a few more kilometers of lonely towns and unfinished plazas. The whole of Bolivia is filled with thousands of half built buildings and ghost towns. I’m not sure anything will ever be finished.
We were clearly part of a larger convey of many tour groups but it didn’t really matter, its hard not to feel alone when driving thorugh a flat and seemingly boundless desert.
Our first stop was a steam locomotive graveyard in the middle of the desert, a few small mountains in the far distance were the only real feature to mark the place. Here a large number of lumbering and rotting steel trains were left to die and ever so death. Industrial skeletons sitting lonely, twisted and bitter in the middle of nowhere.
Myself and some of the younger and male members of the group were soon running amuck in this grownups playground of dangerous objects to climb, jump between, hang off and tunnel through. The massive steel frames offered up great spots to explore. The furnace hulls and engine rooms proved the most intriguing due to there tight manhole entries. The corpses offered up some stunning geometrical and mind bending shapes, but you had to take the time to look.
Some others in the group remarked “why are we looking at old trians!”, I guess they didn’t get how fun it was to jump the 5m gap between two mammoth steam engines.
All about small green birds hopped and peeped out of the various nooks and hiding spots. A beautiful Brazilian tourist also offered up great views.
We soon headed off into the desert, soon all traces of where we were vanished as the horizon started to stretch out in every direction. Soon our van was encircled by an endless horizon, the flat sand of the desert stretching beyond the limits of my gaze. I’ve never felt quite so lost in my whole life, you truly feel at the centre of nowhere.
The heat distortion turned the desert-scape into something even more surreal. Cars in our convey came in and out of existence, entering and then exiting as a ball burning with a mecurial flame. The cars and even mountains in the distance seemed to float, seemingly burning away before touching the ground.
There is something frightfully beautiful being utterly and impossibly surrounded by infinite desert. Your car weaving about the landscape as you watch the other vehicles carren along, floating above the landscape with tails of dust like comets.
We drove amongst this surrealist painting of a landscape for a few hours before in the distance we noticed a stunning patch of blinding white in the distance. This meant we were approaching the salt flats, an unfathomable large area covered in a thick layer of crystalline salt. It creates a brilliant scene as it ruthlessly reflect the rays of the sun, throwing them up from the desert surface.
It got brighter and brighter as we approached and soon enough the wheels of the van were tearing along this blinding bright road. It shone and glistened, its hard to describe how strange a landscape this is.
We were soon out of the vans and exploring this alien world. Underfoot the ground felt and looked like slush, a snow like mix of salt and water. In places we could find holes filled with salt choked water. Dipping a hand in would soon leave you with a painted limb.
We jumped, kicked, ran, felt and even tasted the place. Salt fights were inevitable and to be encouraged. We were all soon covered and splattered in salt that dried and become crystalline. Removing ones sunglasses would reveal an eye destroying brilliantly white world.
We travelled further into the salt flats and were soon surround, completely by a landscape of glistening white. The flat white surface extending seemingly to the horizon in all directions. You really loose sense of place and time, i’ve never felt so removed from the world.
Soon some definable objects came into view and we were at out hotel near some mountains. Its was a spot near where the desert sands and salt fought for dominance.
We stayed the night at a hotel built from salt, its walls , beds, tables and even the rocks underfoot were built from the bountiful salt. It was a charming little place to stay, there is something awfully fun and whimsical about it being built from salt, like a children’s story.
Dinner, cards and star gazing were the nights activities. Away from civilization the sky was an explosive scene of stars and nebulas.