The Journey vs. the Destination: Backpacking in Bolivia
| Teaching House Nomads Blog
“I want to inspire kids around the world.”
“I love the learning process.”
“I’m inspired by helping others reach their goals.”
Maybe one of these is behind your decision to get a CELTA certificate. But, likely, your desire to travel is the driving force. It certainly was the trigger behind my decision to become a certified ESL instructor. And it makes sense: the geographical choices in teaching English as a Second Language are infinite and allow you to make money while living and exploring the region of your choice.
Which is why, after six months of teaching English in Uberaba, Brazil (go ahead, look it up on a map – I had to), I took off for three months of solo travel.
No schedules, no plans, no commitments. It had been almost 20 years since I last visited the world by myself. Scary? Let’s see…
First of all, how to get there? Visa restrictions would prevent me from traveling overland through Brazil, but flights to La Paz were astronomical at US$800. Then, someone told me about the Brazilian website Decolar.com, which lists flights to cities not listed on other international sites. You need to have a Brazilian credit card, though, which luckily I do. So, I found a flight for US$150 from Sao Paulo to the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz.
What was there to see in Santa Cruz? I had no clue. How would I get from there to anywhere else? I wasn’t sure. But that’s how I found myself in this tropical city in eastern Bolivia, staying at a hostel with a toucan who occasionally sat on my shoulder while I read.
Santa Cruz had no major “sights,” but there was a lovely square, perfect weather and delicious salteñas to snack on (similar to empanadas). I also made friends with a French girl who convinced me to travel with her to the village of Samaipata.
I didn’t know anything about the town of Samaipata either, but I was ready to move on. Despite our limited Spanish, we were able to find a shared taxi ride, which had us sandwiched between a family of four. As they passed their smiling baby around, we drank in the rolling green hills and lush forests speeding past the window. Three-hours later, the taxi dropped us at Samaipata’s tranquil square, before rattling away on the sun-baked, dirt roads.
Three days turned into five in this middle-of-nowhere town as I explored the convergence of three ecosystems: the Andes, the Amazon and the Chaco (desert). I hiked through ancient fern forests, swam in waterfall pools, helped make homemade gnocchi and haggled at the daily market.
As I contemplated my next move, my German roommate invited me to travel with her to La Paz by way of Cochabomba. We hopped aboard a dusty, old bus taking the “local” route. While most buses in South America are comfortable and modern, this wasn’t one of them. We wound our way around mountain roads, crested onto plateaus and then plunged into valleys before starting again. Despite the desolate landscape, we had many pick-ups and drop-offs. The mostly indigenous passengers clambered on with babies strapped to their backs, carrying sacks of potatoes and livestock. I pressed my nose to the window as the driver bound the legs of a sheep together before placing it in the storage below. We were serenaded for the next two hours with its “baaahhh-ing,” before it sprung free to munch on grass alongside the road as its owner paid his fare. Meanwhile a poncho-clad man boarded the bus and plopped down next to me, gumming coca leaves in his toothless mouth, which hung open for the rest of the ride as he stared out the window.
We spent the night in a creepy hostel straight out of the movie Psycho in Cochabomba, waking early to visit the city’s Christ statue, (supposedly taller than Rio de Janeiro’s) before going to the bus station to find a ride to La Paz. My first “proper” bus station in Bolivia was an audible feast of destinations as women cried out the names of places in a sing-song melody.
“POE-TOE-see, POE-TOE-see, POE-TOE-seeeeeeee! La PAAAzzz, La PAAzzz, La PAAZZZZZZZZ! “Santa-Croooz, Santa Crooz, Santa Crooooooooooz!”
We scored seats in the front row of the top floor in a luxury, double-decker bus. The view was literally breathtaking; from this elevated vantage point, every tight curve left us suspended over empty space, with nothing but clouds to catch our fall before we whipped around a turn. On bathroom breaks we gathered mystery snacks: strange “chips” that appeared to be made of corn and air, overly sweet candies that tasted like… potato? corn? cream? It was hard to tell.
My German friend and I parted ways while I settled into La Paz by myself. Emphasis on the word “myself,” as so far, I had been traveling with other people. Time to swallow whatever fear I had left and hit the streets. After all, I had to find out for myself why every single person I had met so far said they hated this city.
To my surprise, I loved La Paz.
It has the third-world buzz of Bangkok and is shaped like a bowl, with houses climbing up the sides and spilling out over the rim, spreading out for miles along the plateau. Add crazy traffic, which follows no rules, tangled electric wires and a spirited protest by miners complete with dynamite explosions that disperse in time for lunch.
I settled in for a week of Spanish lessons and walking tours, art galleries and cafes, stunning cloisters and crafts fairs. I huffed and puffed on ascents and descents, desperately trying to acclimate to the high altitude. I spent hours wandering through markets filled with traditional hats, spices, llama fetuses (used for religious ceremonies) and alpaca gloves and sweaters.
However, the highlight was the cholita wrestling match. Cholitas are indigenous Bolivian women who wear the traditional clothing of their Aymara and Quechua ancestors. I had hemmed and hawed about going, certain it was tourist trap. Imagine my surprise to see that 90% of the attendees were locals, our small tourist contingent swallowed up by the cheering and booing of Bolivian families enjoying a night out. While the matches were clearly staged, we all laughed so hard we cried.
The next day, a three-hour bus ride took me from La Paz to Copacabana, situated on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I spent a day there soaking up the shimmering lake, before hopping a boat to Isle del Sol, one of the most populated islands on Titicaca. Without any roads or cars, it is a steep climb to just about everywhere. The lung-bursting sludge up to my hotel should have taken 45-minutes. But at 12,500 feet it took three hours, past giggling school children, irritated donkeys and old ladies shouldering sacks of bricks. But what a magnificent view! It begged for constant photography, so I snapped away in the quiet sunshine, listening to the distant squawk of birds and people. At dinner, I was befriended by two retired British couples who inspired me with their tales of long-term travel.
After an easier climb down, I backtracked through La Paz to catch a bus to Sucre. Bolivia’s constitutional capital is known for its chocolate, and I sampled chocolate-covered everything. However, the city’s hidden courtyards were the sweetest surprise. Every closed door concealed secret gardens, graceful arches, whitewashed walls, or vibrant Bougainvillea climbing the walls. I tried several high-altitude-growing potatoes that took ages to work their way through my digestive tract. (Roughly 5,000 different varieties grow here, many of which can disrupt the untrained digestive system.) I visited a cemetery that buries its dead with an assortment of talismans and took trips to neighboring villages on market day. And one night, I even ran into the British blokes I befriended in Isla del Sol.
I also made two new friends: Georgina and Shaun, an Australian couple traveling their way through South America as a transition between moving from London to Sydney.
We shared a taxi from Sucre to Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world and once a rich mining town. But word of protests and a road block had us concerned. Would it be safe? We found out several tense minutes later, when our driver refused to take us past the blockade. Lugging our bags on backs and wheels, we braced for an angry Spanish confrontation. Instead, we were met with smiles, as young boys and grizzled men pushed aside rocks, cars and other “blockade” material to let us pass.
Remnants of Potosi’s former wealth are visible in the architecture. We visited the beautifully constructed former mint and Cerro Rich, or Rich Mine. I hesitated over whether I wanted to be inside an active mine with shoddy safety controls, or contribute to a tourist activity that some complained exploited the local people. In the end, I was won over by our enthusiastic tour guide and former miner. During the tour, we met a miner who was coming off a self-imposed 24-hour shift and had yielded about US$800, a small fortune in Bolivia. We were told that despite documentaries showing child labor and an early death for most miners, few children actually worked inside the mines and many men worked only a few years before changing jobs.
There was a young boy on our tour who said that after school, he sometimes helped the men outside the mine. While he seemed well-fed and happy, I was sad to see him working at all, especially near a mine. He talked about his plans for college, so perhaps his generation will break a cycle of mine work. I have no sense of their reality and no clue what it’s like to live in poverty. But while I am not naïve enough to believe all of what I was told that day, I’d like to think that there was some truth to it.
After our day in Potosi, we caught a bus to the place most travelers come to Bolivia to see: the Salt Flats. Here, we joined with two friends that Georgina and Shaun had met in Peru; John-Henry and Mary from South Africa.
We took a three-day rumble over this barren landscape that was magical, cold, uncomfortable and awe-inspiring. We saw an island of cactus trapped by a dry sea, slept in a hotel made entirely of salt, created optical illusions along the blinding-white, cracked, saline surface, tip-toed around steaming mud pits and watched flamingos frolic in frigid lakes.
Bolivia has an unmatched natural beauty, a Wild West vibe and is an affordable place to travel. But what did I really learn, traveling from one end of the country to the other?
1) You are never alone! It’s one of the biggest misconceptions of traveling solo. But travelers are a friendly and helpful bunch.
2) Be flexible. Make a plan if you must, but write it in sand rather than marble.
3) It’s not necessary to book accommodation in advance. Only consider this if you’re going during high season.
4) Research local websites for flights. Some may require a local credit card, but a local friend or hotel can usually help.
5) Know yourself and don’t apologize for it. No 40-hour bus rides for me! I preferred to break up any long bus rides and stay in a combination of dorm rooms and private rooms, which was affordable in Bolivia.
6) I don’t speak Spanish, yet I always got on the right bus. Still, some language classes will help, even if it’s only a week.
7) See the “sights,” just don’t dismiss the non-sights. These usually offer the best surprises, the friendliest people and most delicious food.
8) Sure, ask others who have been before you where to go. But never ever take their opinion as your own. Go find out for yourself what you think.