Lamento Boliviano: Cable Cars, Mine Shafts and Bolivar’s Giant Wooden Head

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Like a seasoned con giving a beating to a naive new inmate, Bolivia took no time in asserting its dominance over me. As soon as I crossed the border the road quality turned awful, a vicious wind whipped in from the lake and on the first incline I snapped my gear cable (again). Luckily the border town of Puerta Acosta was only 5km away but I was forced to push the bike uphill through the ailing light. I’d lost my gloves the previous day and before long it was dark and my hands were completely numb. I was convinced I’d taken a wrong turn and was nearing despair when a friendly farmer assured me I was on the right track and walked me to town.

The Bolivian immigration guard also gave me a frosty reception:

“Is this fake”
“…No”
“Then why is your hair a different colour”
“I dyed it”
“I’d lose my job if I did that”

After a few minutes of scanning both my passport and my head he relented and I was granted official entry to my fourth country of the trip.  As soon as I crossed the border the poverty was evident. A small boy in muddy clothes asked me for money and a wizened old shepherdess who looked well into her 70s was still hunched over, tending to her flock. I’d heard from various tourists that Bolivians aren’t very receptive to foreign visitors and that the food is terrible, but my first impressions were quite the opposite. Other than the taciturn immigration officer everyone I met was welcoming and kind, while the food was no worse than in rural Peru, and at times better.

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The night’s accomodation was extremely cheap at 20 Bolivianos (just under $3) but I got what I paid for – in this case a freezing cold box room with a convenient window in the door for any lonely Bolivian men that wanted to watch me sleep.
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After fitting a new gear cable my first day’s riding in Bolivia was a scenic one, combining panoramas of Lake Titicaca…
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…with terrific views of the Cordillera Real.
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In the country of his death Che’s legacy still looms large.
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The architecture in Bolivia leaves much to be desired, most of it resembling a child’s unfinished Minecraft project…
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…with the occasional gaudy monstrosity thrown in for good measure – this one apparently inspired by a Decepticon’s face.
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One thing Bolivia does well is statues. I have no idea who this guy is or why he’s so angry but I like him a lot.
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“Hasta La Victoria Siempre!”
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The road into El Alto was a hellish maelstrom of traffic, roadworks, dust and rubbish, but my mood was raised at the sight of La Paz’s famous cable cars.
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The network will soon be the largest in the world and makes navigating La Paz’s sprawl of hills, valleys and ridges both convenient and fun.
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Emerging from El Alto’s chaos the colossal cityscape of La Paz was laid out before me.
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And after a surprisingly serene cruise into the city centre I found my new home from home: Cristian’s casa de ciclistas. This apartment reserved especially for cyclists is a staple for any cycle tourers that find themselves in La Paz.
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The walls are covered in maps, website links, inspiration quotes and general nonsense…
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…while everyday objects have taken on a hint of ciclismo.
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During my stay I shared the casa with a really nice group of French, Australian, Swiss and British cyclists. Look how sociable they are!
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Coincidentally my Bogota pals Kev and Carol were in town for a couple of days.
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We went to see the “Cholita wrestling” whereby women in traditional garb beat the crap out of each other (and the ref) WWE style.
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BOOF
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LOOK AT KEVIN’S FACE!
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Then went out for a very decent curry.
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The next day, while Kev was cycling the Death Road, me and Carol went for a walk around La Paz, a city that I really like.
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Llama fetuses hang in the Witches Market. They’re used to bless new buildings and the urban legend goes that for really big construction projects homeless people are plied with booze and buried alive as sacrifices to the Gods.
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I ended up spending 5 days in La Paz lazing around and running the odd errand. Me and Matt took the cable car down to the one proper bike shop in town to replace my decimated chain rings and stock up on oil and cables.
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It’s the best form of public transport I’ve ever used.

Having made plans to cycle down to the famous salt flats with my German friend, Philipp, I had a few days to spare while he made his way down from Cusco. I took this opportunity to do a little backpacking and take the bus to some of the Bolivian cities to the east of my bike route.

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The first of which was Potosi – a pretty little city that, like Cerro de Pasco, claims to be the highest in the world at 4090 metres…
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…and is famed for its ginormous silver mine which once funded much of the Spanish empire and made Potosi one of the world’s richest cities back in the 16th century. It’s predicted that at some point in the next 50 years the entire mountain will collapse in on itself due to overmining.
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I signed up for a tour of the mine. Our first port of call was the “miners’ market” where we bought coca leaves and fizzy drinks as gifts for the miners. You can even buy them sticks of dynamite.
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Fix up look sharp.
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The miners start working as young as 14 and have a life expectancy of 40-45 years. Every month an average of 14 miners die due to accidents, gas leakages, or what’s known as miner’s disease: death due to continuous exposure to toxic chemicals and inhalation of dust. 60% of Potosi’s men work in the mine – generation after generation forced to work in this living hell due to the lottery of birth.
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Every 50 metres we’d hear a shout and have to hug the wall while a 2 ton mine cart came rolling past at high speed. Apparently no tourists have been harmed on this tour but surely it’s only a matter of time.
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The primary resource in the mine is silver but they also mine lots of tin and zinc.
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The Miners’ God “El Tio”, a relative of Old Gregg, watches over the miners and in return they give him coca leaves, cigarettes and pour the 96% booze that the miners favour over his giant erect schlong.
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We got to see one of the miners, who was beyond tipsy, pack the rock wall with 5 sticks of dynamite, then we all ran off down the shaft and listened to them go off. It was like being under artillery fire or sommat.
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From Potosi I caught the bus up to Sucre, Bolivia’s constitutional capital.
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With its white painted colonial architecture it’s renowned for being the jewel of Bolivia. It’s like Popayan’s better looking sister and a distant blood relation of Arequipa.
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When I wasn’t drinking and watching terrible pre-season friendlies with the fine hostel crowd at The Celtic Cross, I went to check out the Casa de la Libertad, where Bolivia’s constitution was signed.
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Bolivia was named after the great liberator Simon Bolivar who is the subject of about 97% of all statues from Colombia to Bolivia. Here he is in giant wooden head form.
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There were also paintings of every single Bolivian president (and there have been a few). Check out this absolute fox.

As of this post I’m back in the casa de ciclistas in La Paz and will shortly be departing south for the famous Bolivian salt flats that draw so many people to this part of the world. It is going to be very cold.

Tunes: Descendents – Milo Goes to College, Husker Du – New Day Rising, LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening, Neil Young – After The Gold Rush

Reads: Graham Greene – The Third Man

 

 

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