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Bolivia IV - Going South

Marooned in no -man's land


My next stop was in Sucre after a horrendous twelve hour bus ride. The main reason for this was that I had my legs crossed most of the way because the one and only toilet stop was so awful. On the subject of toilets - yes ladies, you have to pay and for this you may be given a few small squares of toilet paper which you are not allowed to flush down the toilet. In this instance the toilets were so revolting -they were outdoors, none would flush and one had no door, that I opted for a stricture instead.

Sucre was a pleasant town however, especially after miles and miles of dry eroded badlands. It would get my tidy town award. It had green squares, well tended nature strips and wide avenues with shade trees. There were beautiful whitewashed churches and more interesting architecture generally with the buildings properly finished and nicely painted. It is the official capital of Bolivia although La Paz has usurped most of its functions and become the de facto capital. The only remaining government office here is the Supreme Court thus the streets are lined with attorneys' offices. The hostel was a quiet little place where everyone seemed to be taking Spanish lessons. It had a very pretty courtyard  and a big kitchen too, but did not provide breakfast. This meant taking my chances in the market where I bought bread rolls and some beans - a green vegetable at last!.

Interior courtyard at the Seven Papas

The courtyards are kept immaculately clean, often in stark contrast to what is outside - the stray dogs, broken paving, rubbish  and open drains, although these problems were not apparent in Sucre.

I took a solo trip with the local buses to the seven Cascadas here amid deeply riven gorges.  You are advised not to do this trip alone as there were reports of muggings and robberies, and even a would -be mugger getting shot, but not finding anyone to do it with, I set off alone taking very little money, no credit cards or passport and not even my camera as advised. I don't own any jewellery or trendy clothes. You don't want to be mugged for your  sneakers. I also reported in at the local Police Station before heading off down the track. The officer seemed quite amazed and excited that I was doing it by myself. 
Alas, I didn't make it beyond the first two waterfalls because the others involved some serious rock climbing. If it was one thing I couldn't risk, it was being injured in some way. It was hard enough scrambling back up to a road where I hoped I might find a bus. After walking uphill for hours I finally hitched a ride with what was virtually the only car. The driver wanted thirty Bolivanos for taking me to the nearest bus station - a fortune in the local currency, but it was hot, I was tired and a bit lost and  I didn't want to be stuck out there in the dark so I had little choice but to give in.

Potosi, where  I landed next, was like Sucre's ugly sister. Once the richest town in Latin America  due to its vast quantities of silver - the biggest deposits in the world, it is now an appalling wreck with only a few sooty colonial buildings as a reminder of its former glory. If ever an argument had to be made for a mining tax while the going was good, this place is it. The landscape was desolate and devastated. The few attempts at tree planting had expired long ago and the air was so bad that my eyes watered. Wish I had  pictures of this along with the black smoke pouring from the micros as they lumbered up the hills.
There is a very modern bus station in Potosi. Unfortunately my bus didn't go from there but from an old one in a less salubrious part of town. I went there in a decrepit taxi whose driver refused to give me change even though we had originally agreed on a price. However it doesn't pay to argue when you are travelling alone.

I looked down the row of bus companies touting for fares and booked with the one that had a picture of a sleek modern tourist bus - those that look like insects because their mirrors hang down like feelers, and was sure to have good toilets since I was facing another seven hour bus ride to Uyuni. With four hours to kill before the bus came, I set about searching for something to eat. The outside of the terminal smelled like a urinal. Mangy dogs snuffled around in the copious amounts of garbage and it was freezing cold. I didn't know it at the time but at 4600 m Potosi is  the highest city in the world.

 The only thing I could find to eat in a bit of a market below was a stale empanda.  Needing a coffee to wash it down, I went back to a little cafe with plastic tablecloths that I had seen in the way in. The coffee came out of an unmarked black bottle and was poured into a tin cup to which water was added from a kettle warmed by a gas cooker on the floor - the kind we use for camping. The result was lukewarm and tasted vile, but it was cheap. No one smiled and the people I saw on the street looked pale, unwell and miserable. My guide book says, that because of the harsh conditions in the mines which people still work cooperatively, people die of silicosis within ten years of working there.
My heart sank even further when I saw the bus. Contrary to the poster, it was an old yellow rust bucket, rather like a school bus, hard sprung and without layback seats, much less toilets. The seats were so narrow that I barely had room for my feet. Heaven help a taller person. I didn't fancy spending the night here and there was no one left in the office. It was going to be a long journey.

I didn't think it was possible, but Uyuni proved to be even colder than Potosi, though the town is pretty enough with  lovely churches and an attractive pedestrian mall lined with cafes and craft shops. It even had rubbish bins. I'm sure it is even nicer in summer when the trees are in leaf. They may dare to come out by then.  People come here to do tours of the lunar -like salt lakes in the region, but having seen my fill of salt lakes in much warmer places - I even worked near one in central Australia for a while, I wasn't all that keen to do it here, especially after hearing that the temperature there would be around minus 35o Not sure if that's Celsius or Fahrenheit but either way it was already teeth -chatteringly cold. Although there was a brave little heater going in the dorm in the hostel and there were big thick doonas, it felt about the same.

To warm up a bit, I ordered a big plate of spaghetti carbonara at one of the many gringo restaurants here.  This was expensive. Everything was dearer here - even the hostel cost twice as much as the one in Sucre, but the spaghetti was lukewarm and followed by a lukewarm coffee. Even the people were lukewarm. They just gave you the food and took the money without any expression or acknowledgement and then went back to watching the World Cup. Bolivians call the people of Uyuni armadillos. Not sure if it's because they can withstand the climate or they have such thick shells.
My next meal was a soup. This restaurant advertised ten different types, but after ordering the one with chickpeas, I was told that there was only one. This was a thin vegetable kind. While I was eating that the owner had a massive plate of a hearty looking soup with meat and potatoes. That was one occasion when  I really wanted to say, "I want what he's having!"

The only bus left at 4.00 in the morning and you had to be there at 3.00. It was minus ten when I arrived wearing everything I owned and I was still cold. The locals knew the drill, arriving with ponchos, thick shawls and bedding and big stripey bags of food and drink. You couldn't move in the bus. The lady next to me took pity on me - perhaps my lips were blue, and covered me in blankets. We travelled for some hours to the border between Bolivia and Chile and had to wait in line for two hours while Bolivian authorities stamped our  passports. Enterprising local women had set up huge pots of stew and were doing a roaring trade, but with more more buses arriving by the minute, I didn't want to lose my place in line.
Eventually we were shepherded  back onto the bus to travel another half hour or so, when the bus stopped abruptly in the middle of nowhere and we simply had to wait. It may have been two hours or three. This time there was no food or drink to be had and we were all starving, bored and cold. The ladies with their stew pots could have done a roaring trade here. Alas, the only activity was a volcano smoking gently in the background and the worst part was not knowing what was happening.

A volcano smokes gently in the background
 At last another bus came from the Chilean side and we were brought to the Chilean border still some miles distant. This border is apparently a bit of a soft spot for cocaine smugglers, so after the usual immigration rigmarole - long queues, people pushing in - locals giving priority, we then went to customs for another couple of hours while officers searched every single thing. The lady beside me was caught with several bags of undeclared coffee.

Dusk falls in the Atacama desert

I'd given my E.T. A. at the hostel in San Pedro as six P.M. How wrong I was! It was 9.30 before we hit Calama and even though we just managed to catch the last bus to San Pedro at 10.15 we still had an hour and a half to go. At least it has never rained in Calama and they serve expensive but very generous meals including dinner plate sized rolls and burgers. They even offer you a doggie bag so you can take the rest with you.