South American drivers. I officially dub thee the worst drivers in the world. Never have we seen such inconsiderate selfish and down right useless imbeciles until we arrived here. Stop street? More like hoot street. Red light? Ha! Those red things? Thought they were for decoration. Zebra crossing? Na those don’t exist. We had heard stories of the notorious bus crashes in Bolivia. Averaging 500 per year. That almost 2 per day. Honestly though, they put their hands in God. Countless times we saw them holding their rosaries and saying their prayers before switching on their belching engines. Don’t worry, Jesus will guide the way. Right mate. Was Jesus your mechanic? Did he also turn your radiator water into wine? Perhaps he could part that mountain up ahead so we don’t have to go over it!
Our first two bus rides were fine. No problem with the drivers there. From Uyuni to Potosi and from Potosi to Sucre were all hunky dory. But from Sucre to Samaipata and Samaipata to La Paz were absolute nightmares. Bolivia is situated between the Andes. In all honesty the country shouldn’t exist. Its wedged between Chile, Peru and Brazil. Most people live at altitude and getting their supplies requires long hauls up and down varying altitudes. The buses have to traverse these ridiculous Andean giants all on roads built for ants. Now its tradition in Bolivia for the locals to chew endless bags of coca leaves. Gives them a ‘buzz’ to wake up. But it also gives them an unfounded sense of confidence (our trusted lord brethren Jesus will do the work). It became the norm for our bus to take over on blind corners, in the dark, with oncoming traffic. Clearly we were all in the wrong vehicle as these guys thought they were driving Ferraris. All blaring their reggaeton music while tempting leaps of faith. I decided (much to Fem’s caution not to) book tickets for the front seats on the upper deck, meaning we could see everything from the drivers perspective. My god, if you ever want to live a final destination horror story in real life try these seats. The glass was foggy and it was the middle of the night. Every 5 minutes all we could see were beams of light coming directly at us. Unsurprisingly we didn’t get a wink of sleep that night. Never again will we book a seat with panoramic views of our own demise! Anyway, I write as if this was the only thing we did in Bolivia but luckily for us it wasn’t!
We left the desert construction site the day after arriving and made our way to the highest city in the world (4000 meters above the sea). Potosi. Once a city that bank rolled the Spanish Empire, Splendour and grandeuriouse buildings dot the street, serving as a reminder of a city that once was. A scrawny Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) stands over depleted of its resources. Since the spanish left, the locals still mine for silver and tin but that goes unchecked. Unfortunately health and safety does not exist. Children as young as six years old are given an axe and a stick of dynamite to wean the mountain of what still remains. You can do tours, but we opted out, thinking it was a bit of a human zoo. The miners are supposably ‘proud’ of what they do and want to show tourists their work conditions as a sort of ‘right of passage’ but no matter what was said it just didn’t sit well with us. Instead, we decided to see how the Spanish turned this raw material into coins and other trinkets. Situated in the centre of town is the old mint. Tour guides proudly describe how their colonists turned their precious metal into dimes, quarters and head gear by getting locals to smelt and hammer away in harsh conditions (the Spanish first brought some african slaves over, but they couldn’t stand the altitude and kept dying, much to the Spanish annoyance). Its estimated that around 60,000 tonnes were mined here. Locals would rather risk their lives and descend into the depths because they can get double what they would earn from minimum wage. Allas, the vast majority of the silver mined in the mountain today is sent off to refineries in Chile, meaning Boliva is left with the scraps. As we didn’t want to do the tour, we decided to move on from Potosi to the capital of Bolivia, Sucre.
A place defined by progress and liberty. Sucre boasts as the founding city of independent Bolivia and where the seeds of revolution across South America were sown. As with all South American cities, the energy and lifeblood spawns from squares across the city. Sucre is no different. The hustle and bustle of everyday life centers here. People gather to rap, dance, sing and perform while locals sit on benches looking on. It always amazes us how many talented people surround these parts. Singers that could pass as pop stars, dancers that could put MJ to shame. We watched in awe as the hum of activity surrounded us. There’s a book by Niall Ferguson called the Tower and the Square which theories that those at the top of their ‘towers of power’ have been overstated and the influence of “the social networks down below, in the town squares” has been underestimated. Watching life go by here, I’m hard pressed to believe his theories. As we sat, we pondered what we could do in this ancient town. The Lonely Planet mentioned a few activities. Spanish school. Dino footprints. Museum of Bolivar. Hmm not a whole bunch. But dino footprints sounded interesting and I had been wanting to do Spanish lessons since first stepping onto this great continent.
Before us lay a huge vertical clay wall with more than 12000 paw prints of the past. According to our local guide, the footprints are the biggest deposits in the world. Parque Cretácico is truly amazing had there been no cement factory right next door. The story goes some miners happened to stumble upon a footprint while digging the ground for clay. Locals are fighting hard for the ground to be a world UNESCO heritage site because the mine wants to continue its operations in the region. We learnt about the past life, why these huge turkeys came to this area and why the seemingly could climb vertically (much to my disappointment – dinosaurs don’t have suckers for feet – but rather the ground had shifted and pushed the land sediment upward). It was strange to see these prints so perfectly intact. Their toes wedged between the mud, unaware of the impact they would leave 2 million years later. Based on the imprint, archaeologists can determine their weight, their diets and their age. The first two determinants seem fairly obvious (the heavier you are the deeper footprint and the lack of claws meant vegetarians) however, the last one entails taking samples of the surrounding rock layers, and then through deducing other things, like bones found in the area or carbon dating plant matter, scientists were able to make a calculated guess. I’ve never really been into dinosaur history, other than wacky facts (chickens were once the mighty tyrannosaurus). Maybe it was Jurassic Park that put me off the scary things, however, new theories are starting to arise that may suggest ‘life’ hitched a ride on a meteorite before evolving into what we know as dinosaurs today. Don’t believe me? Here’s a few articles backing the theory (here, here, here). Seems quite ironic that this was the way they met their creators then, doesn’t it?
After having our eyes wowed it was time for me to tackle some Spanish. Fem is already native to the point where I’ve started started calling her Felicia. But I still struggle in the face of a taxi driver, a hostel owner or an everyday mercado interaction. It was time to pull up my socks and attempt a third language (officially Dutch has become my second – but I’m not very good at that either). My teacher decided I was absolutely useless, and started me at the beginning. Forming a sentence in the present tense. Like anything, it requires patience and effort to understand and speak a language. I’ve found being in South America particularly helpful, as very few people speak English. These days, I can get by with the basics but I’m far from being able to converse in any fluent manner. Watch this space for blogs purely in Esponyol…
After spending a relaxing and rather warm time in Sucre, meeting a few lovely people, it was time to say our goodbyes and head off into the outer edges of the Bolivian jungle. A friend had recently been to Samaipata and highly recommended that we went. We booked and gleefully packed our bags.