Visiting A Working Silver Mine In Potosi, Bolivia

Potosi silver mine
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Bolivia has a turbulent, often tragic history. Rich in natural resources, the country was plundered by the Spaniards for silver and gold in the 15th century, exploiting the indigenous Quechua and Aymara peoples in the process. Yet, Bolivia has managed to retain a strong indigenous cultural presence; something that can be seen and felt throughout the country.

Despite its abundance of precious metals and other minerals, however, Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America. The remote, southwestern department of Potosi is among Bolivia’s most poverty-stricken. The high-altitude city of the same name (elevation 13,420 feet) was founded by the Spanish in 1545, and ironically remains a rich source of silver, lead, copper and zinc. Recently, large reserves of lithium have also been discovered in the region.

Although poor, Potosi has remained a stunning colonial jewel, and intrepid tourists come to admire its lovely buildings and narrow, cobbled streets.The ornate colonial buildings are painted in faded pastels. There’s a bustling mercado, and a handful of restaurants and shops showcasing local handicrafts (silver jewelry, mostly) form the basis of the centro. It’s an exceedingly pleasant place to while away a day or two.

Potosi is also a magnet for adventure travelers, who come to tour the working silver mines of Cerro Rico (“rich hill”). A massive, barren red hump of a mountain looming over the town, Cerro Rico is the main mining center, containing roughly 650 entrances to the various cooperative mines. The co-ops provide little benefit to the miners, even in the case of accidental death or work-related disease. The average lifespan for a miner is 10-15 years; most die from silicosis pneumonia. Cerro Rico is also in a slow state of collapse, due to overmining. Despite the risks, it’s believed that half of Potosi’s population of over 2,600 (mostly Quechua) work in the mining industry. The miners may not be getting rich, but let’s just say I saw a lot of spanking new Hummers rolling around those cobbled streets.

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candelaria mine exterior
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Working mine tours are one of the most controversial forms of tourism. Some might consider them exploitative. Others might be tempted to call them educational. While conducting research prior to my trip, I remained conflicted as to how I felt about them. Is descending two miles below the earth in order to see firsthand the abysmal conditions workers – many of them as young as 13 – must endure for up to 10 hours a day voyeurism of the worst kind? I believe so.

Yet, I also see the value in showing visitors (who, let’s face it, are usually from industrialized nations) the dirt behind their pretty silver baubles. We all use products containing the precious metals mined from places like Cerro Rico, but I find that irrelevant. Rather, I feel it’s important for travelers to see how others live, even if that exposure makes us uncomfortable, guilty or depressed.

The deciding factor for me came when I read about the better tour companies in town. It wasn’t just about finding one with a good safety record. I also wanted it to employ former miners, ban the use of explosives for show (some companies let tourists detonate dynamite, which is potentially deadly for visitors and miners alike), and to donate part of their proceeds to mining families. The latter is used for fresh food, which, I later learned, is the most critical need, above even medical care.

If you look in guidebooks or online forums, you’ll see that mine tours are no joke. They’re inherently dangerous, and among the risks are cave-ins, toxic gases, explosions, falling rocks and runaway carts. If you suffer from claustrophobia, asthma, or other respiratory problems, you’ll likely want to give them a miss.

view of potosi from cerro rico
Laurel Miller, Gadling

A reputable company will require you to more or less sign your life away on a waiver. They should also provide good-quality protective gear, including rubber boots, coveralls, a helmet, and a headlamp. Mine tours are not, to quote Koala’s website, “FOR WIMPS OR WOOSIES.” You should also bring a bandanna or surgical mask to protect your lungs from silica, arsenic and asbestos dust. Don’t worry about carbon monoxide poisoning– acetylene lamps are now used to detect deadly pockets of the gas. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.

I ended up choosing Koala Tours, a small company based in Potosi. They also run an excellent hostel, the Koala Den, which is where the tours depart. I arrived at 5 a.m., not-so-fresh off an overnight bus ride from La Paz. The hostel allowed me to check my backpack for free during the tour, and afterward, I paid roughly $1.25 for a shower. They also booked, free of charge, my afternoon bus to Tupiza (due to time constraints, I literally had to do the tour and hit the road).

woman weaving palm fronds
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Our group of four met with our guide, a sweet, 30-year-old ex-miner named Melvin, who took us to Koala’s warehouse, where we were outfitted with gear. Then we headed by van up the road to a neighborhood mercado, where we bought coca leaf for the miners (all of whom are men; it’s considered bad luck for women to work inside the mines, although some do work in the industry).

We then stopped at a miner’s supply to pick up alcohol (more on that in a moment), water, cigarettes and dynamite. Although supplying miners with cancer sticks, deadly explosives, and 96% ethyl alcohol seems contrary to the idea of supporting them, the reality is that they rely on these items. Their wages don’t allow for much in the way of incidentals, so bringing them work supplies and “refreshments” to help them through their shifts in stifling heat isn’t just thoughtful, but more or less mandatory. No one will force you to purchase these items, but put it this way: it’s the right thing to do.

the author in mining gear
Laurel Miller, Gadling

The alcohol (brand name: Ceibo) is used as part of a daily ritual performed by the miners before they begin each shift. Every mine has a shrine, with effigies of the Virgin Mary and a “Tio,” or uncle. Tio is actually a representation of the devil (one with a very oversized phallus, I might add). The belief is that because the steaming bowels of the earth offer such riches, it must be he who owns them, rather than Pachamama (“Mother Earth”), or a Christian god from the heavens.

Every day, the miners perform a cha’lla, or offering, to the effigies. Tio is blessed by a capful of alcohol poured at his feet, and then a capful is consumed by the miner (since I like to think I’m a team player, I let Melvin convince me to try a shot, which unsurprisingly, damn near ate a hole in my esophagus). Tio is also proffered coca leaves and cigarettes, and then it’s time for work.

Before heading to the mine, we stopped at an ingenio, or smelter, so we could have a better understanding of how the rocks hacked from the mines are turned into semi-precious metals. We watched Melvin work his way through the machinery, and departed with glittering stripes of liquid silver on the backs of our hands.

Arriving at the 500-year-old Candelaria mine was almost anti-climatic. It was hard to believe that this splintered wooden-framed entrance hidden behind a few desolate, decrepit buildings, is one of Bolivia’s most prolific and historic silver mines.

coca leaves
Laurel Miller, Gadling

After a safety talk, we walked into the mine. Within minutes, the air turned humid and stuffy, and we were wading through puddles of water, and mud. Not far from the entrance was a small, makeshift shrine beneath a propped-up beam – the site of a fatal cave-in. Soon after, we ran into Carlos, one of many multi-generational miners working in Candelaria. He was awaiting the arrival of his father and brother so they could start excavating. Carlos had a wad of coca leaves the size of a tennis ball stuffed in his cheek, but managed to mumble answers to our questions via Melvin. Now in his early 20s, he’d been working in the mines since he was little more than a boy.

As we ascended deeper into the mine, the temperature soared, and the water grew deeper in places, sometimes reaching our knees. Our coveralls acted as private saunas; sweat dripped into my bandana. Periodically, Melvin would stop to point out some feature – a vein of silver running along a damp wall; 700-pound trolleys filled with rocks that would be pushed out of the mine; bulging shoulder bags full of raw metal and weighing up to 80 pounds, worn by the miners as they got off shift. Discarded plastic water and alcohol bottles littered the floors of the tunnels we explored; Melvin picked them up and tucked them into his shoulder bag for disposal, and we followed suit.

There were many disturbing images I saw in the depths of Candelaria – one of the most memorable was watching three 16-year olds taking a cigarette break in temperatures so hot it seared our lungs. But it was seeing Melvin’s face as he talked about what it’s like to work in the mines that will forever stay with me.

At times, his eyes would almost brim with tears while he explained something. I asked him why he stopped mining, curious about his response. He told me it was because he knew he would have a very short life if he didn’t. He began leading tours because he believes it’s important for visitors to know the working conditions miners labor in. He also wants to give back to the mining community (via the financial proceeds donated by Koala Tours).

Laurel Miller, Gadling

purchasing dynamite in the miner's storeThis led me to my most burning question: “Do the miners resent us for being here, especially while they’re working?” I’ll never know if Melvin’s response was sincere, but I’d like to take him at his word. “No, they are grateful, because the tourists bring them supplies. It helps them, and they understand that we are trying to educate people.”

Regardless of whether or not Melvin was speaking the truth, all of the miners we encountered were cordial. And I came away with more questions. Should I stop wearing silver? Or was boycotting it only hurting the livelihood of the miners? As a journalist, was it wrong of me to write about the tour, or was I performing a valuable service to the men and boys laboring beneath Cerro Rico’s barren soil?

As with many things related to tourism, there are no good answers. I’m grateful I made the trek to Potosi to tour Candelaria. It allowed me to see that behind the danger and desolation, there’s also a strange sort of pride in being part of Potosi’s mining heritage. It may not make up for the working conditions and other injustices faced by the miners and their families, but it made me understand that for many indigenous Bolivians, this is part of their story.

Project Bly Brings World Street Market Culture To You

Mumbai street market
Courtesy of Shriti Bannerjee, ProjectBly.com

If you are the kind of traveler who lives for digging through flea markets and wandering through souks, you might want to travel over to ProjectBly.com, a new lifestyle website featuring a rotation of world street market collections. In addition to shopping for carefully curated home goods and textiles, you can also check out street photography, food, fashion and members’ profiles.

Bly highlights a new city and one-of-a-kind market goods every two months, working with local photojournalists to capture the style and spirit of each place. The website works with local vendors and artisans directly to get a fair price on goods, and gives 5 percent of proceeds to local charities. The first featured city is Mumbai, India, with La Paz, Bolivia, debuting in early June. Other cities planned for the first year include Kumasi, Ghana; Bukhara, Uzbekistan; Malacca, Malaysia; and Berlin, Germany.

Bly is named after Nellie Bly, a pioneering female journalist who traveled around the world in 72 days in 1889 with just two day’s notice and one small bag (check out a nifty drawing of Nellie Bly’s packing list, which included a flask and a jar of cold cream). The founder of Bly, Rena Thiagarajan, was born in the former Indian city of Madras (now Chennai) and now lives in San Francisco, and has traveled the world in search of unique design finds and street culture.

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Get hunting at ProjectBly.com and check out the slideshow of street photography featured on the site.

A Visit To A Bolivian Medicine Woman

yatiriI’d never heard of a shaman until my first class on my first day of college. I’d signed up for “Magic, Witchcraft, & Religion” as an elective on a whim. It turned out to be one of my favorite undergrad classes and has been highly inspirational to my work as a travel writer.

The instructor was a short, plump woman of a certain age. She’d lived on a Hopi reservation while working on her doctoral thesis. She looked so exotic, always bedecked with ropes of beads, silver and turquoise necklaces and rings, and dangly earrings. She wore colorful indigenous skirts and told incredible stories, some of them involving the words “peyote” and “ayuhuasca.” She’d traveled all over the world. I wanted to be her.

So, it’s no surprise that I developed a fascination for indigenous cultures. Perhaps one of the reasons I find them so absorbing is because I don’t subscribe to any religion myself, so I find the concepts of animism, polytheism and shamanism particularly interesting. I’m spiritually bankrupt myself, although I studied holistic massage in the ’90s (big mistake), and through that developed a respect for certain alternative modalities of medicine.

But fortune-telling? Soul cleansing? Killing endangered species and then ingesting their body parts in foul-tasting teas? Um, no thank you. I find this stuff interesting, but I don’t believe in it, nor do I endorse anything that involves sacrificial offerings in the name of fortune, fertility or romance.

I once had my palm read on a press trip in Hong Kong. The fortune-teller, a wizened old man, examined my hand (at the time cracked and callused from my part-time jobs as a farmers market vendor and waitress), and asked my translator, “Why no marry? If no marry by 40, never marry. Health good, feet not so good.” Still single at 44, that asshole may well have sealed my fate, but on the other hand, my feet are in good shape.

%Gallery-186949%yatiri Still, despite my non-existent belief system, I was determined to visit a shaman while in Ecuador four years ago, simply because I was curious about the process, as well as what he’d have to say about my psyche. Unfortunately, my session proved impossible to organize on short notice, so when I went to Bolivia last month, I set about finding a contact pre-trip who could hook me up with a reliable medicine man or woman.

Throughout South America, there are variations on the type of people who perform services that, to our Western minds, are mystical, if not demonic. Depending upon the country or indigenous culture, this person might be male or female, and they can variously be considered a medicine… person, shaman, or witch. The most important fact is that rarely are these people practicing what we would consider the occult.

The function of most South American “medicine men/women” and their ilk is to provide spiritual guidance or assist with medical or emotional problems. Whether this involves medicinal herbs, potions, casting spells or purifying rituals is besides the point. For many people, particularly those from indigenous cultures, regular visits to these specialists is a way of life.

Amongst the Aymara people of Bolivia, such a person is referred to as a yatiri, and they may be male or female. While plenty of yatiris can be found in La Paz’s Mercado de Hecheria, or witch’s market, I discovered that the real-deal yatiris (i.e. ones that don’t cater to tourists) are located up in El Alto, a separate city that’s sprung up in the hills above La Paz. This mostly indigenous community is a sprawling cacophony of markets, ramshackle houses, shops, traffic snarls and street vendors, but it’s also an excellent representation of daily life for urban Aymaras.

It was here that my fixer/translator, a British woman who’s been living in Bolivia for 22 years and works as the office manager of a mountain biking company, found Dona Vicentá. A practicing yatiri for 10 years (she says she felt a calling), her services are requested across the continent, including by some prominent government officials.
la paz
Dña. Vicentá agreed to see me thanks to a personal reference from a Bolivian friend of my fixer. She doesn’t usually take on gringos as clients, but for whatever reason she agreed to see me, as well as allow me to document my session. I was given a price range for a fortune telling and soul-cleansing session (the price depended upon just how much scrubbing my soul was in need of, so I steeled myself for the full fare, which was about $60).

My fixer and I took a cab up to El Alto, and there we met Dña. Vicentá in front of a community building. She was an adorable, sweet-natured Aymara woman with remarkably youthful skin, dressed in full cholita (highlands woman) attire. We walked to her “office” along a busy street. We came upon a row of squat, corrugated buildings, most of which had small fires burning in metal pans in front of each doorway. I learned that these were the workplaces of other yatiris. This area is popular with them, because of its prime location overlooking La Paz (above).

Location is, as they say, everything, and for yatiris, the double-whammy of having the soaring peaks of Huayna Potosi to the left, and Illimani to the right has significant cultural and spiritual meaning. It’s also where La Paz’s radio towers are located. This, explained Dña. Vicentá without a trace of irony, makes for excellent communication with spirits and helps her to better receive feedback on her clients. For the record, I believe she was utterly sincere, and for the sake of journalistic and personal integrity, I’d promised myself I’d submit to this adventure with a completely open mind.

My session began with Dña. Vicentá asking me a few general questions, but nothing personally revealing. She asked me for a 10 boliviano note, which she added to a pile of coca leaves on a table. She then began picking up handfuls of the coca leaves, and divined their meaning based upon the way they fell. This lasted approximately 15 minutes.

I’m not going to tell you what she said, because it’s personal, but I can say that she was eerily accurate. Not just good-at-reading-people accurate – she literally nailed certain things that only a long-term therapist, if I had one, or my closest friends could possibly know. It didn’t freak me out so much as astound me, and after that, I began to pay closer attention.

Unfortunately, this is the part where my fixer and I learned that a visit to a yatiri is a two-part process (at the very least). Dña. Vicentá told me she had a client with a serious family matter waiting outside, and asked when I could return for my soul cleansing. Apparently, the process requires the yatiri to seek guidance from higher powers, in order that he or she might procure and prepare the correct offerings. In order for me to have a certain “blockage” removed that was prohibiting me from achieving certain things, Dña. Vicentá would need time to prepare (much of this was lost in translation, but I do know that a dried llama fetus was required).
yatiri
We explained to her that I was flying out of La Paz at 6 a.m. the following morning, and had no plans to return to Bolivia anytime soon. I actually felt a little distraught. Dña. Vicentá mulled things over and decided to perform a sort of mini-cleanse in order to help me in the interim, but only with the understanding that I would return to Bolivia for the full deal at some point (this I promised, as I do get to South America about once a year).

After about 15 minutes, Dña. Vicentá was ready for my ceremony. A small, incense-fueled fire was burning in front of the office. I was told to kneel on a blanket overlooking the city. She requested my wallet, so that my money would be blessed. She then used a smudge stick to purify me (above), chanting in Spanish and Aymara the entire time. It took about five minutes and when it was over, I felt strangely relieved – like I’d acquired some karmic insurance to tide me over. I thanked her profusely and we exchanged traditional cheek kisses in farewell.

So, now I’m back home and I have to say, it seems some of Dña. Vicentá’s predictions appear to be coming true. Of course, this may well have happened without her, and I prefer to continue to believe we make our own luck, or lack thereof, most of the time. As for the long-term outcome of certain things she told me, that remains to be seen. I do know I’ve given a lot of thought to a few things she pointed out about my nature (which, for the record, she deemed as fundamentally good), and I’m working on trying to change a few detrimental habits.

Do I now believe in witchcraft, shamans and spirits? No. But I’m willing to accept that perhaps there are certain people out there who are blessed with a type of insight that goes beyond what the human mind can readily comprehend. Or maybe Dña. Vicentá has just read some of my writing.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller/Jill Benton]

La Paz’s Museo De Coca: A Historical And Cultural Look At Bolivia’s Most Controversial Crop

coca leafHoja de coca no es droga.” “Coca no es cocaina.” You’ll see these sentiments, which are indeed accurate, on T-shirts displayed throughout La Paz’s tourist ghetto, which is centered on Calle Sagarnaga.

I should preface this post by saying I’m not a fan of recreational drugs (no judgement; I do live in Colorado, after all), so my recent trip to Bolivia had nothing to do with that. It’s unfortunate, however, that a certain type of traveler has made Bolivia a destination to obtain cheap coke, because it’s not doing the country any favors with regard to its reputation. But, if you know where to look, cocaine is available in abundance. If you know the right people, you’ll also find it’s the best-quality stuff available (sorry, Colombia). And yes, it’s illegal.

How do I know this if I don’t partake? Let’s just say that I’m a journalist, and I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I’ve also spent enough time traveling in South America to understand the difference between coca leaf– the raw ingredient– and cocaine, the manufactured drug.

For thousands of years up until the present, coca leaf has been an integral part of the cultural, spiritual and economic psyches of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. A member of the family Erythroxylaceae, coca is native to the Andean lowlands and highlands of western South America.

For aforementioned reasons, the plant is considered a high-value cash crop because it contains trace amounts of alkaloids, including cocaine. It’s important to note that ingesting the alkaloid is not the same as using the synthesized, concentrated form of the drug cocaine. Synthetic cocaine is, as we all know, a powerfully addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Since this isn’t an article about “Just Say No,” let’s get back to coca leaf, shall we?museo de cocaThe indigenous peoples of the Andes (primarily the extinct Incas, and the Aymaras and Quechua) have historically relied about coca leaf as a means of alleviating altitude sickness, fatigue, hunger and thirst. It also acts as a mild analgesic, and has been used to treat everything from digestive issues to fractures. Macchu Picchu is said to have been impossible to build without the aid of coca leaf. South American miners and other laborers also rely heavily upon coca leaf to help get them through the long hours required for their jobs (in a forthcoming story, I’ll post photos of Bolivian miners in Potosi, cheeks bulging with acullicos, or quids).

Coca is traditionally consumed in two different ways. It may be brewed into tea called mate de coca. I drank a lot of mate while on a trek in the Cordillera Real; you just take large pinch of dried leaves pour hot water over them. The flavor is … very hay-like.

Alternatively, the leaves are compressed into a ball, and tucked into the cheek. A pinch of ilucta (quicklime or a quinoa ash mixture) is added, which helps facilitate the flow of salivia and make the leaves more palatable (I tried this in a market in Potosi, and in no way did it make things remotely palatable enough for my gringo taste buds). This is the delivery system by which the alkaloids are absorbed into the body. In Bolivia, the act of chewing coca is known as picchar.

In recent years, much has been made of the medicinal benefits of coca leaf. Bolivian president (and former cocalero, or grower, as well as union leader) Evo Morales began lobbying the UN in 2006 to legalize coca, which would be an economic boon to the country, South America’s poorest. And that, perhaps, is the best reason to visit the Museo de Coca in La Paz.

The museo is located in what looks to be a former apartment in an old, colonial-looking building. It’s in the Mercado de Hecheria, the heart of La Paz’s backpacker ghetto (coincidence? I think not). Regardless of your reasons for visiting the museum, its overriding purpose is to educate visitors about the cultural/historical use of coca leaf, the economic importance of its cultivation in Bolivia and medicinal benefits.
coca leaf
Photography is not permitted in the museum, but there are hundreds of vintage photos of cocaleros, indigenous peoples using coca leaf, the various species, and technical information on the chemical breakdown of the plants. There’s also a section dedicated to the manufacturing and history of cocaine, as well as the dangers of cocaine use (illustrated by some very dusty mannequins surrounded by gutter detritus). The museum patently goes to great lengths to distinguish the difference between plant and synthesized drug.

If you happen to be in La Paz, the Museo de Coca should be on your list of things to do. It’s highly informative and interesting (and sometimes, unintentionally entertaining), and more important, it’s a part of Bolivian culture and history that too often goes misunderstood.

The museo is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Sundays. Entry fee is about 10 bolivianos ($1.50). Calle Linares 906.

[Photo credits: tea, Flickr user MacJewell; sign and T-shirt, Laurel Miller]

International Adventure Guide 2013: La Paz And Southwest Bolivia

bolivia
Bolivia is the least expensive destination in South America, yet it has an increasingly efficient tourism infrastructure. Going now, especially to the remote southwestern part of the country, means faster, easier, more comfortable travel than in the past (although you’ll still have to be prepared for your share of bus rides on rutted out, unpaved roads, depending upon where you’re headed). In general, you won’t find yourself tripping over tourists except for a handful of streets in La Paz.

In the remote Southwest (where the renown Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, is located), you’ll feel like you’re in a vastly different cultural and geographic universe. Regardless of where you venture, Bolivia is a country of diverse and often harsh- yet starkly beautiful- environments; wimps and whiners need not apply.

You’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Bolivia offers incomparable scenery ranging from towering Andean peaks and Amazonian jungle to crystalline lagoons, and high desert reminiscent of the American Southwest on steroids. Plus, there’s world-class trekking, climbing, and mountain biking, gracious people, a thriving indigenous culture, and the kind of crazy adventure activities rarely found in industrialized nations. Bolivia is also politically stable, relatively speaking (there are frequent protests, but they’re internal, and mostly in the form of roadblocks). Go now, before it becomes the next Peru and prices for guided trips hit the roof.bolivia

Adventure Activities

Trekking/climbing
Novice or pro, Bolivia has it all when it comes to bagging peaks (some extinct or dormant volcanoes) or trekking, mostly within a few hours of La Paz. The Cordillera Real range offers verdant river valleys teeming with llamas and alpacas, and the occasional Aymara farmstead; calderas, and glaciers, all in a day’s hike. Best of all, you’re not likely to see another soul, other than your guide, cook, and the mule or llama carrying your gear.

If you’re into mountaineering, Huayna Potosi (19,974) and Illimani (21,122 feet) are both visible from La Paz. The former can be done by beginners in good physical condition (acclimatization time is crucial, however, before you attempt a summit with a reliable guide; click here for tips on choosing a solid company), while the latter is a technical climb. Seattle-based Mountain Madness offers a Bolivia climbing school using local guides, and is an exceptional outfitter. June through August are best, weather-wise.

Private trips, however, are the norm in Bolivia, and can be planned around just one person. Another great company is UK-based Bolivian Mountains, which specializes in the Cordillera Real region. Owner Jon Cassidy is a guide himself, and relies upon local, experienced guides to keep operations running smoothly from across the Atlantic. Expect first-class attention, service, and food, for super-affordable prices; IFMGA-certified. From $400 for one person (including aforementioned pack animals, cook, guide, and tent, for 3-day trek).

Mountain Biking
These days, you can’t walk a block in La Paz’s backpacker ghetto (Calle Sarganaga, between Plaza San Francisco and Calle Illampu) without seeing a mountain biking agency, thanks to Alistair Matthew, who essentially introduced the sport commercially to Bolivia about 14 years ago. The Kiwi founder of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking started out with four bikes, and today runs an internationally-renowned company frequented by industry pros.

Many outfitters offer the “World’s Most Dangerous Road,” (aka Death Road/Camino de la Muerte, about 35 miles east of La Paz, in the jungly Yungas region) bike trips, and it’s by far the most popular trip offered by Gravity (with over 10,500 feet of descent, from glaciers and cloud forest to Amazon Basin, small wonder). Yet, there are better, less-crowded options that will appeal more to hardcore riders.

Gravity’s “Size Matters” ride in the Chacaltaya-Zongo region (about two hours from La Paz) starts at what was once the world’s highest ski resort, on the slopes of Huayna Potosi, providing views of all of the region’s 6,000 peaks. You can kill it on the winding road down into steaming jungle, on one of the world’s largest descents achievable in a single day. Gravity also offers advanced trips to two Incan foot trails, Takesi and Chorro. Terrain ranges from smooth, flowing dirt at 15,000 feet, to technical rock and step as you make your way into the jungle. The best months for riding are May through late October.

bolivia

Horseback riding
If the Old West is your passion, then you’ll love Tupiza, approximately 11 hours southwest of La Paz. Bolivia’s frontera town is famed for being near the (alleged) final heist and resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Looking like the love-child of Sedona and Bryce Canyon, this is a region of ravines, red dirt, cacti, and ranching. Indulge your inner cowboy — or girl — by taking a three-day horseback ride into the high desert, exploring scenic spots such as Quebrada Seca, Valle de los Machos, Cañon del Duende, Palquiza, Pampa Grande, and Entre Rios.

You’ll spend nights in small villages, accommodated by local families (the lodging is basic, refugio-style). Besides the scenery, it’s an amazing opportunity to delve into Quechua and vaquero culture. Previous riding experience isn’t required, and Tupiza’s climate is temperate year-round. That said, during the January-March rainy season, certain areas may be inaccessible due to flooding.

Tupiza Tours is one of the region’s most well-established and reputable outfitters for both Salar de Uyuni and horseback tours. From $106 pp/meals and accommodation included.
Av. Chichas 187, Tupiza, tupizatours.com

Hotspots

Condoriri Massif, Cordillera Real
Bolivia’s most famous spot for trekking and climbing is about two hours east of La Paz, and remarkable for its towering volcanic peaks, calderas, and lush river valleys. If you’re pressed for time and can’t spare the 13 or so days needed to do the Transcordillera trek, opt for a three-day adventure along the famous Codoriri Massif (this series of 13 snowy peaks is so named for 16, 944-foot Cabeza del Condor, which resembles a condor, head turned, wings folded).

The scenery is stunning, with turquoise alpine lakes, herds of llamas, alpacas, and sheep, Aymara farmsteads, and narrow mule trails on the interior of ancient calderas. As long as you don’t have previous problems with altitude, are in good physical condition, and have sufficient time to acclimate prior, you’ll have no problem. Be forewarned, however, that you’ll be trekking and sleeping at 14,000 to 15,000 feet, completely isolated from civilization; in the event of altitude sickness, you’ll have no choice but to hike out. Be sure to bring plenty of layers as well as a down sleeping bag. The best times to visit are post-rainy season, from April-December.

Sorata
Imagine an alpine colonial village, built onto a hillside in an Andean Valley. That’s Sorata. At just under 8,000 feet, Sorata is a haven for climbers, trekkers, and mountain bikers, who use the town as a base to acclimate and condition or kick back, pre- and post-trip. It’s equally popular amongst vacationers from La Paz, 93 miles away, who come for the views of towering, snowcapped Illampu, and Ancohuma. Mountain biking in the hills above Sorata, often above the clouds on mule trails and scree slopes, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Tupiza
Located in the southwest of Bolivia about six hours from the grim, dusty town of Uyuni (which lies at the edge of the salt flat), and roughly an 11-hour bus ride from La Paz, Tupiza is a pleasant, relaxing place to hang out for a few days. Local outfitters offer a variety of activities, including horseback riding, hiking (you can also opt to do this on your own), volcano climbing across the border in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and four-day Jeep trips to the salt flats (a more scenic, albeit slightly longer, trip than the standard, round-trip Uyuni route that’s growing in popularity).

If your idea of heaven is exploring quebradas (ravines) and bizarre rock formations, or staying on a rustic estancia, Tupiza is your place. While there’s not a lot to do in town proper, there are full amenities, and the Mercado Campesino (Mondays, Thursday, and Saturdays, on the edge of town) is fascinating for a food and culture fix. Tip: If you’re coming from La Paz, an overnighter bus is ideal if you’re pressed for time; just be sure to bring a sleeping bag or blanket with you.

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Hotels

Hotel Fuentes:This popular, comfortable, colonial-style cheapie is located right in the heart of La Paz’s tourist ghetto, aka the Mercado de Hecheria (Witch’s Market). It’s no frills, but is walking distance to just about everything you’ll require, the owners are accommodating (for example, rising at dawn to call you a cab to the airport, and waiting with you to ensure it arrives), and if you score a room on the third or fourth floors, you just may have views of majestic Illimani. Breakfast and free wifi included. From about $13/double with shared bath. Calle Linares 888, tripadvisor.com

Hotel Anexo Mitru:The newer sibling to Tupiza’s upscale (for Tupiza) Hotel Mitru, this is a friendly, airy, seriously affordable option right across the street from the train station. Rooms are large and well-lit, with comfy beds, desks, and cubbies, and the staff are cheerful and helpful. Breakfast and free wifi are included. From $15/triple with shared bath (note, these rooms are rented to solo travelers when available). Calle Avaroa s/n, hotelmitru.com

Altai Oasis Eco-lodge-Organic Farm:This lovely, family-owned adobe lodge in Sorata is a favorite amongst the outdoorsy crowd, in part because it offers both cabins and camping. The other reason it attracts nature lovers? Its location deep within a valley surrounded by the Andes, in the shadow of Illampu. Many ingredients for the on-site restaurant are sourced from the property’s own garden, and you’ll drift off to sleep with the sounds of the Challazuyo River in your ears (not like you won’t already be exhausted from all the hiking, biking, and climbing). Amenities include hot showers (a big deal in Bolivia), fireplaces, and hammocks for lazing on muscle-repair days. From $18/pp cabins$12 pp dorms/$4 camping. Go to website for coordinates/directions, altaioasis.com/home

Getting Around

La Paz’s El Alto Airport, despite its elevation (13,323 feet), is clean and modern, and serviced by a number of carriers, including TACA, LAN, Avianca, and American Airlines. It’s about 15 minutes by taxi to downtown, and fares will vary depending upon your driver (and his ethics; don’t take unmarked cabs); prices average around eight to 10 dollars.

Buses run nationwide, but their quality varies wildly. While the train route that goes from Orouro to Tupiza is famous, the bus is actually faster and more comfortable, as long as you spring for a semi-cama or cama variety (these have seats that recline part-way and a footrest, or fold down into a bed). Avoid the janky old beaters at all costs, unless you enjoy hours of Shaken Baby Syndrome on your body. The best carriers will depend upon where you’re headed, and it pays to do some asking around or online research; El Dorado is a solid pick if you’re headed to the Southwest.

If you’re on a tight schedule, book or purchase bus tickets a day ahead. If you’ve got the cash to spare, you can fly from far-flung outposts like Uyuni to La Paz or Santa Cruz (Bolivia’s Amazon region), but taking the bus also affords an opportunity to see spectacular scenery. Budget travelers can opt for overnight bus hauls to offset lodging costs, and save time.

Tip: The new Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook comes out July 1. Pre-order yours now.
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Safety

Given Bolivia’s current political stability, the biggest problems are potential road blocks due to flooding or demonstrations. Before leaving town, register with the U.S. Department of State for updates on everything from road conditions to disease outbreaks (this isn’t specific to Bolivia, fyi; it’s a good idea for anywhere you happen to be traveling in the developing world). And while Bolivia is fairly safe, it’s still a developing nation in Latin America. Solo female travelers should use the normal precautions, and for the love of god, no one should even think about buying drugs, especially cocaine.

Use only marked taxis, rather than freelance drivers. At worst, you’ll get ripped off. Be aware that even the legit taxis usually don’t have meters, so if you have concerns over cost, ask your driver the approximate price before departing.

With regard to buses, it pays to do your research. Check out sites like TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum for bus and outfitter recommendations, and remember that you usually get what you pay for. It’s not worth saving a handful of bolivianos if it means dealing with a drunk driver or guide, or a crappy Jeep for that Salar de Uyuni tour. If you’re planning a trek or, especially a climb, make sure that the company has legitimate certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association ( IFMGA), and also do online research or ask personal contacts if they have referrals for where you’re headed. Trekking and mountaineering in the Andes is no joke, and again, it’s not worth risking your life to save some money. You need time to acclimatize, regardless of your physical condition, so don’t plan on scaling any mountains within a few days of arriving.

Another tip with regard to finding a reputable outfitter: always try and contact them via email before you depart on your trip. If they don’t respond right away, move on. Just as you would at home, go with companies that respond promptly, and answer all of your questions thoroughly. Good tour operators have bilingual staff answering emails, so that shouldn’t be a barrier, although some trips will charge extra for a bilingual guide. Although some companies will require payment in cash, they’ll at least make a reservation for you, so don’t let a “no credit cards” rule necessarily deter you.

Seasonality

Bolivia’s high season is December through early March (remember the seasons are reversed, since it’s in the Southern Hemisphere), which also coincides with the rainy season. January through mid-March are generally not very pleasant; since most of Bolivia’s charms lie in outdoor recreation, plan accordingly. The ideal time to visit may depend upon what you’re interested in doing.

Also note that different seasons may mean different types of tourism. The Salar de Uyuni, for example, is a vast, blinding white sea of salt crystals in the dry season, while in the wet, it shimmers with mirror-like reflections. Both are stunning, but when it’s wet, the flooding often prohibits driving across the Salar, or visiting its main attraction, Isla Incahuasi.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]