Diverse cultures and wild witches make Bolivia a unique adventure
It’s easy to be a brilliant photographer in Bolivia as the scenery is amazing, with dazzling white salt flats, red lagoons peppered with pink flamingoes and the snowy Andes as a backdrop.
The people are just as spectacular — tiny women in bright ponchos and bowler hats, with faces like dark, grooved wood after years in the high-altitude sun. There were women selling furry llama foetuses in the witches’ market. And men crouched over cleaning shoes behind face masks — not to avoid the dust, but because it’s considered a lowly trade and they want to hide their shame.
Bolivia felt like the rawest, most undiluted country in Latin America. Spanish conquistadors overran the region in the 1540s, leaving it with the Spanish language and Catholicism. But that’s just a veneer over the strong indigenous Aymara and Quechua cultures that were never quashed. Ancient beliefs are ever present below a semi-modern façade, with a lax attitude to the rules and a heady sense of wildness and witchcraft swirling in the air.
Our arrival was suitably illegal too, as the border post between Peru and Bolivia on the shore of Lake Titicaca was closed. We nervously walked across anyway and boarded the bus that had come from La Paz.
Our first real sight of the city was a three-hour stint in the immigration office, getting our passports stamped so we didn’t remain illegal immigrants.
The notorious San Pedro prison is in the city centre and I didn’t fancy my chances among the criminals who run shops and restaurants and share their cells with their wives and children. The once popular prison tours have been banned, but there is a good chance the prison’s flourishing cocaine lab is still in business.
At an altitude of 3,650m, La Paz is the highest capital in the world and literally takes your breath away, as if air is passing in front of you but not quite entering your lungs.
So you rest a while to let your erratic heartbeat slow. When my fingers tingle from altitude sickness, I find a pharmacy and buy more tablets and tissues in case of another nosebleed.
The steep street of Sagarnaga is lined with hotels, restaurants, travel agents and English pubs. One afternoon, it is also filled with smoke as people burn offerings to Pachamama, the Earth Mother, right in the middle of the city’s most touristy street.
The Witches’ Market is just around the corner, selling love potions, herbal remedies and miniature models of the things you might desire — cars, money, a woman or a man — to burn as offerings and hope they come back to you in real life. Dangling above them are the llama foetuses, to bury in the foundations of every new building as an offering to Pachamama.
There’s a far larger witches’ market that tourists are advised not to visit alone, because this is a poor city with skilful pickpockets. There is another reason to stay away too, said my guide on a Red Cap Walking Tour.
The real reason to visit Bolivia lies well beyond La Paz, in the Salar de Uyuni, an inhospitable desert of salt formed when tectonic shifts raised the Andes and left an ancient lake floundering
A llama foetus is a feeble offering for larger buildings, so urban legend has it that a sangoma will find a homeless person or a drunk, ply them with alcohol, then bury them alive. Foreigners are worth more, he jokes, so if someone tries to pick you up with offers of free drinks….
Bolivia’s volatile nature resurfaces in Plaza Murillo, where the Palacio Quemado (Burned Palace) has been gutted several times in various uprisings. In 1946, President Gualberto Villarroel was slung from its second-floor balcony then hung from a lamppost in the plaza. Afterwards, they figured he wasn’t too bad as presidents go — which they do, at a rate of 164 in the past 200 years — so they erected a bust of him.
By now I’ve realised that one of my 50 Boliviano notes is fake, failing the scrutiny of shopkeepers. I protest that I got it from an official bureau de change, but that doesn’t surprise anybody.
I feel no guilt when I palm off the fake note on a woman selling tickets to the Cholita Wrestling. Cholitas are the short but very wide women who wear Bolivia’s traditional outfit of flouncy skirts, colourful knitted socks, ornate blouses and bowler hats.
That must be a difficult to walk in, let alone wrestle in, but these women fly at each other exuberantly in a carefully choreographed match where the nasty cheat always loses. These days it’s purely for tourists, but in the past, once a year, people would settle their arguments in a ferocious fight, before calling it quits and hitting the booze together.
The real reason to visit Bolivia lies well beyond La Paz, in the Salar de Uyuni, an inhospitable desert of salt formed when tectonic shifts raised the Andes and left an ancient lake floundering. They are the largest salt flats in the world, with bubbling hot springs, a geyser perpetually shooting out steam and rocks scoured into weird shapes by icy winds.
The Dakar Rally passes through this territory, where several companies offer two-or three-day jeep trips from the little town of Uyuni.
The first stop is a train cemetery, where abandoned steam trains are rusting with their wheels sunk deep into the ground. They’ve been here 50 years at least, since all the minerals from the region’s mines now travel by diesel train or truck.
Further on, the ground becomes blindingly white and the sky a vivid blue, with extinct volcanoes on the horizon.
In the middle of it all is Isla Incahuasi, an island crowded with giant cactuses planted by the Incas. I climb to the top, breathless again, and survey endless swathes of white nothingness.
At night, we sleep in hostels built from blocks of salt, with salt beds crammed six to a room. I’m the coldest I’ve ever been as the temperature plunges to -12° C.
One afternoon, our jeep stops for a fun photo session based on the absence of any landmarks to add perspective. Our guide becomes a creative cameraman, lying on the sparkling ground and placing a toy dinosaur in front of the lens. He waves me back, then further back, until tiny me seems to be high-fiving a huge T-Rex.
Yes, I know it’s daft, but you come to Bolivia for adventure, not sophisticated entertainment.