Samaipata

We spent a week in Samaipata. It wasn’t on our list of places to visit, but boy are we glad we did. It’s a nice little village just to hang out in. The climate is gorgeous, the scenery really beautiful and the tourist infrastructure surprisingly well-developed for Bolivia.

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How to spend a week in Samaipata.

How to spend a week in Samaipata

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Day 1: Sunday
Arrive after 17 hours from La Paz, 2 hours waiting in Santa Cruz and a 2 and a half hour drive in a cramped minibus full of French people who speak to each other and ignore you. Go to Don Gilberto’s Tours to get a taxi to the farm where you’re volunteering. Wait over three hours for the surly Don Gilberto to return from helping a man with a cow. After explaining where you want to go, ride in his ancient car while the sun sets over the green hills around you. Be greeted by a dread-locked Brit with a headlamp who leads you up a slippery mud trail to an earth-built cottage. Once inside the one-room shack and sitting under the dim light bulb, drink some kind of tea and eat rice and vegetables from a wooden bowl offered by your host. Explain a little about yourselves and listen to your hosts beliefs on ‘forbidden archaeology’ and other conspiracy theories. Finally, take your bags halfway back down the slippery mud trail to the volunteer shelter (which is mostly just a tin roof surrounded by tarps, with a couple of hard bed bases and sleeping bags that leak feathers). Ensconce yourself under a mosquito net (not forgetting to trap a mosquito in there with you) and fall asleep quickly despite fears of scorpions and pumas coming from the nearby Amboró National Park.

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Day 2: Monday
Wake up late, but still earlier than your host. Make an attempt at using the dry eco-toilet but decide the bushes have far less flies hanging around. When your host finally awakens, go into the main house and see it in all it’s glorious dirt with light coming in from the plastic-bottle-windows. Cook porridge and listen to BBC World Service while discussing more conspiracy theories. Gather spades, a saw and pliers, and begin transforming part of the slippery mud trail into earth-and-wood steps. After several hours work, feel quite proud of your achievement even though it was mostly just following simple instructions. Take a tea break and then (following more simple instructions) plant two types of beans. When your host asks if you’re leaving tomorrow, nod non-commitally while mentally tallying up how many days you think you can survive this lifestyle. While climbing into bed fully clothed (and caked in mud), decide that tomorrow would be a good time to leave.

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Day 3: Tuesday
Although two weeks of volunteering turned into only two days, feel good when you wake up this morning knowing that soon you’ll not only be able to have a hot shower but also eat with clean plates and utensils. After breakfast (yesterday’s leftovers reheated), finish the last of the steps and then get a taxi ride from a man named Felix. Once in town, check in to Residencial Kim because it has a cute sunny courtyard and a parrot in a cage. Go to La Chakana and order the menu del día, even though lunchtime is over. Afterwards, take a shower (despite assurances of hot water, lukewarm is all you get) and quarantine all your dirty clothes together. Walk around town and find a cheap tour that’s leaving the next day. Go to a corner shop where a one-eyed cat butts its head against you in aggressive affection and buy bread and chocolate spread for dinner. Return to your room, start reading a new book and promptly fall asleep.

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Day 4: Wednesday
At Across Tours Amboró, realise that the group you’re joining are some of the same French people from before. After this disappointment, speak to them in Spanish and decide they’re not so bad but still feel happy when a lanky German joins at the last minute. Get into a big pick-up truck with your guide Clemente and travel along a dirt road to the cloud-forest area of Amboró. Walk through lichen- and moss-covered forest, with occasional patches of giant tree ferns. Pose for adequate pictures and imagine dinosaurs stalking through the primeval landscape. Start walking faster when it begins to rain. Eat a lunch of bread, ham, tomatoes and fruit while standing in a semi-sheltered spot and eyeing everybody in the group to see who looks the most bedraggled. Eventually make it back to the truck. On the return ride, periodically mutter swear words and clutch your bag tightly when the truck slides on the liquid-clay surface of the road. Instead of watching how close the truck is to the edge, concentrate on the terrified expression of the French girl and the fascinated look of the German filming everything. At the last patch of slippery surface, get out of the truck and push it from one side every time it starts to slide to prevent it from going into a ditch. When you get back to Samaipata, thank Clemente profusely and then ask about going on another tour tomorrow. Arrange to come back at 8:30pm to confirm. Enjoy removing your soaking wet shoes and take another lukewarm shower, then go to Cafe 1900 and order hot chocolate and chocolate cake. Splurge on dinner at Latina Cafe and be mildly surprised when the chicken curry contains carrot and potato like a Japanese curry. On returning to the tour agency, find it closed and discuss with Mikael the German about what to do tomorrow. Say you’ll check with the agency in the morning and then knock for Mikael at his hostel.

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Day 5: Thursday
Wake up to grey clouds and rain and decide not to get out of bed. When Mikael comes looking for you, feel a little relieved to hear that the agency was still closed. Since he’s going to the farm you just came from to volunteer for a day, arrange to hire a taxi tomorrow and go somewhere after the solstice celebrations at El Fuerte. Head over to the museum on Calle Bolívar. Before reaching your destination, be accosted by an out-of-breath Mikael who is now not volunteering as there was a mix-up on the phone. Change into your walking shoes (still wet from yesterday) and get a taxi together to Las Cuevas. On arrival, hide your ignorance that Las Cuevas are in fact waterfalls. Walk leisurely and take ample pictures of gushing water, red sand beaches and misty hills. Back in town, get the almuerzo at La Chakana again, then laze about in your room since the weather is chilly and your shoes are still wet. For dinner, go out to a tiny restaurant on Calle Sucre whose only indication that it’s an eating establishment is the woman out front saying “Hay pizza!” Enjoy a nice Neapolitan while small children, a dog and a puppy run in and out. Watch representatives of four villages dance in the plaza in a ceremony for the solstice. Attempt to get information about whether taxis will be available to go to El Fuerte before dawn next morning. Despite asking several people, fail miserably and decide to just buy cheap Brazilian beer and drink it in your room.

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Day 6: Friday
Wake up at 4:30am and drag yourself out to catch a taxi up to El Fuerte for the solstice sunrise. Decide that 80Bs for a taxi is too much when normally it’s 10Bs per person. Wait half an hour for more people to join you. Watch a crazy woman shout at, and demand money from, some young guys drinking in the plaza. Try to haggle the taxi fare down unsuccessfully. Give up and decide that you don’t need to be there at dawn, plus if you visit during the day it’ll be less crowded with New Age hippie types. Go back to bed. Get up late and eat bacon and eggs for breakfast at Cafe 1900. Start walking to El Fuerte because you’re still mad at the Samaipata taxi syndicate. On the road out of town, be stopped by a turquoise jeep offering you a ride halfway to El Fuerte. Accept and have your faith in humanity restored when the driver refuses your offer of payment for petrol. Disembark and keep walking, periodically passing groups of Brazilians struggling in stiletto heels. Once at El Fuerte, try to avoid walking in front of Brazilians posing for umpteen shots in front of information panels, trees and, occasionally, picturesque ruins. Try to identify all the rock carvings from the viewing platforms and realise that from this angle they really do look like an alien landing pad. Take a taxi back down because rain clouds are looming ominously. Eat ice cream in the plaza, then take a final lukewarm shower and pack your stuff. Realise you’re really hungry and go to eat at 6pm just as La Oveja Negra is opening. Order three different types of beer and lament the fact you can’t get any of them elsewhere in Bolivia. Go to bed early and happy, having spent too much money.

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Day 7: Saturday
Go to the market and order api and pastel (confusingly called an empanada here). See a potato-cheese-pancake-thing that looks so delicious that you order a second breakfast. Ask a shared taxi driver when the next one leaves for Santa Cruz. He tells you now, so explain you’ll just be five minutes picking up your bags. Return in two minutes to see the driver loading up the luggage of different people who just took your space in the taxi. Sit in the plaza and wait an hour for the next one, reflecting that this is probably better than waiting longer in Santa Cruz for your bus back to La Paz. Finally board the taxi to find there are two people extra but that it’s not really a problem since the driver crams them in the front with him. And so with a final farewell, begin the curvy drive back.

For more pictures of Samaipata, see our photo essay.

Banditos escondidos

You can hike from one end of Isla del Sol to the other in a few hours. Each time you come to a new community, you have to pay an entrance fee to walk on their land. We found this written on the trail somewhere along the way.

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Hey friend
Pay 5bs
I will wait for you there
If you haven’t paid I will kill you with a shotgun and bury you
Pay here

Lake Titicaca: Bolivia

When you hear the name ‘Copacabana’, you probably think of Brazil. But the original, less famous Copacabana lies on the shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. From the Aymara ‘Kota Kawana’, the town has been a sacred place even before the Incas, and later the Spanish, arrived. Nowadays Copacabana is a nice little holiday town, as well as a pilgrimage site of the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana.

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From Copacabana you can easily take a boat to Isla Del Sol or Isla de la Luna. We didn’t have much time so we focused only on Isla del Sol. It’s far less developed than the islands on the Peruvian side of Titicaca, and it’s possible to visit independently although you’ll still probably encounter the same bunch of tourists as you all wander around the island. Although it is winter right now, it felt more like spring to me with all the young animals about and sudden rain storms.

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There are plenty of rooms in Copacabana and on Isla del Sol. We got a barebones double ensuite (with cable tv!) for 80Bs. For more than twice the price, a room in La Cúpula is worth the splurge (no tv, but a heater which makes all the difference). A meal of fresh fish at the market in Copacabana cost 25Bs and it was much nicer than food from one of the tourist restaurants.

Bolivia’s new tourism video

Have you seen this music video?

That’s La Paz, the train cemetery in Uyuni, the Salar, a mine in Potosí and Cerro Rico. With these locations, and the surreal characters, it’s a pretty good showcase for Bolivia (I like it better than this).

And in case you’re wondering, there really are kids that cute here, and also women who look like that. But they don’t sell raw hearts on the street. And traffic police aren’t as cool as this guy.

Read an interview about the making of the video here.

Bolivian bus tips

Someone recently asked me for tips about overnight buses in Bolivia. Try to get firsthand information as much as possible. By this, I mean ask other people you meet what their experiences have been. There are tons of horror stories out there, and I’ve had some pretty bad rides myself, but I’ve also had good journeys too (and no-one ever tells stories about those). Buses vary greatly between routes and companies (even within companies sometimes), so take the chance to get detailed information when you can.

GENERAL TIPS

Buy bus tickets at the bus station. You’ll be able to checkout the different companies and maybe save a little commission by not going through an agency. Often, companies won’t sell tickets in advance (the night before the day of travel is usually the earliest, but I have managed a week in advance once). A very general rule is that every hour of the journey costs 10Bs (e.g. La Paz to Sucre cost 120Bs and takes about 12 hours). Of course, you might get stuck in a blockade or diversion in which case your journey could be much longer.

Splurge for cama. Like other countries in South America, Bolivia has different levels of comfort and price. I’ve been on a cama bus that was as good as any in Argentina, but I’ve also been on a cama that most definitely wasn’t. However, if you can afford it (which you probably can in Bolivia) then go for the best quality you can. If it doesn’t turn out to be so great, just think of how awful it could have been if you’d gone for the cheaper seat.

Bring snacks. Sometimes buses stop where you can buy food, sometimes they don’t. Most of the time people get on the buses to sell you food (sandwiches, bread, dried snacks, jelly etc.), but it’s not always the most appetizing or hygienic. Plus, if your journey gets delayed (see above) you’ll be stuck on the bus getting hungrier and hungrier if you didn’t bring anything. Better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.

Go to the bathroom when you can. I’ve yet to see a bus that has a bathroom, or, if it does have one, that passengers aren’t allowed to use it. Buses do stop for toilet breaks, but not regularly. They might be at a service station where you have to pay to use the (usually poor) facilities, or they might just be in the middle of nowhere with a few bushes for cover. In this latter case, I recommend not straying too far (despite the desire for privacy) because once the driver decides to leave, he won’t wait for you.

Dress for all temperatures. Some buses have heating, some don’t and the nights in Bolivia can get very cold. If you’re travelling in the altiplano, take a blanket or sleeping bag with you. I’ve even worn scarf, hat, gloves and multiple socks before! Likewise with air conditioning, it’s not guaranteed so wear layers that you can strip off if it gets too hot.

Carry all valuables on your person. I’ve never heard stories of crime on Bolivian buses (unlike in Argentina), but it’s better not to risk anything. Have them easily accessible because there are occasionally police checks (though mostly only during the day time). Don’t leave anything on the bus if you disembark during a rest stop.

Take medicine with you. I class medicine as valuables. Once you get sick in Bolivia, you’ll understand why. Especially with the lack of toilets on buses, you’ll need loperamide and motion sickness pills if you do get sick. Throw in some aspirin for good measure too.

Don’t travel during holiday periods. Not only is this a busier time, but drivers are more likely to be drunk or hungover. Note that Bolivians tend to start their partying a day or two before the official holiday and continue a few days later too.

SPECIFIC JOURNEYS

Uyuni to La Paz:
100Bs, about 12 hours. I don’t remember the name of the company but it was one of several similar ones in Uyuni.
I have never been so cold in my life. They said there was heating, but there wasn’t, although they did give us blankets. I remember seeing frost on the inside of the window at one point. My legs were numb from the knees down, partly from cold and partly because there was no space to stretch (and my legs are not even that long). The road was incredibly bumpy in some parts (I kept dreaming of earthquakes) and we made detours to go and deliver some sacks to farms in the middle of nowhere. The only other option was a tourist bus that was almost three times the price. If I was doing it again, I think I might go for that.

La Paz to Sucre:
120Bs, 12 hours, El Dorado.
I bought cama, but when I got on I realised it was cama ejecutivo. It was a super new bus with really comfy seats that reclined almost totally horizontal. Plus heating! I didn’t even need a blanket. The road seemed to be in good condition as I don’t remember any uncomfortable patches.

La Paz to Santa Cruz:
175Bs, 17 hours, El Dorado & Bolívar.
Both were cama but El Dorado was a much newer, cleaner bus. The heating was on very low so I was cold until we reached lower altitude. When I returned from Santa Cruz, I saw at least two cockroaches on the Bolívar bus. The seat was also less comfortable despite it also being a cama, and it was a colder journey. I might have just had bad luck, because I saw other Bolívar buses which looked nice. The road is very curvy in parts (this time I dreamed about being on a roller-coaster) as it needs to make switchbacks between the high and low altitude areas.

Sucre to Tarija:
80Bs, 12 hours. There were only two companies running this route and they both looked the same in terms of quality.
They insisted it was cama, but it was more like semi-cama. It wasn’t the worst bus, but not the nicest either. The departure was at 4pm and arrived inconveniently at 4am in Tarija. I think if you’re not travelling between major cities, the schedules aren’t made to suit passengers. This journey included a bathroom stop ‘in nature’.

Tarija to Potosí:
80Bs, 10 hours. Don’t remember the company name.
Again, there was no choice about schedules so it arrived at an inconvenient time of around midnight. There were lots of companies running the route, mostly semi-cama. Nothing stands out about this journey; neither bad nor good.

Potosí to La Paz:
100Bs, about 9 hours, El Dorado.
I’ve used El Dorado quite often, and they’ve always been good. They were also the only company in Potosí who would sell us a ticket the day before rather than the day of travel. You have to go to the new bus station on the outskirts of town, not the old bus station where many buses will drop you off. It’s a cold overnight journey on the altiplano.

La Paz to Rurrenabaque:
I haven’t done this route. It’s an extension of the Death Road, except after Coroico it hasn’t been rebuilt yet. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has travelled there has returned by plane, even if they originally intended to take the bus.

What’s your experience with Bolivian buses? Are there any routes you would avoid? Any particular companies you would recommend? Leave a comment and help add to this list.

Vinapho

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Yes, that’s pho. Yes, you can get it in La Paz. And yes, it’s good. Really good.

We discovered Vinapho shortly before Christmas. The sign for a Vietnamese restaurant had been up for ages, but since the premises showed no sign of life we assumed it was old and had been closed down a while. After a Game of Thrones marathon, we needed sustenance and headed out in search of food. And there it was, Vinapho, open and waiting to feed us delicious noodle soup.

The menu has changed a little since they opened. They now offer two sizes of pho as well as fried rice noodles, spring rolls and hotpot. They no longer give you a small dish in which to mix your soy sauce and chili. I’m guessing it’s because the waitress had to constantly explain to unenlightened Bolivians how to do it.

They also sell Korean beer and soju. I’m not sure why. The pho tastes better than at the Vietnamese chain restaurants I used to eat at in Seoul. It tastes almost as good as the home-made pho I used to buy from the tiny Vietnamese restaurant in Taiwan.

A word of warning: Since March, there was a sign in the window saying they were closed for two weeks for renovation. I’d been putting off publishing this post until they opened again, which has finally happened now that it’s June. Let’s hope they stay open now.

Address: Sanchez Lima (next to Hipermaxi supermarket) just off Plaza Avaroa.

Try more Asian food in La Paz at Corea Town and Chifa Dragon.

Canarios del Chaco at Teatro Municipal

Whilst some things in Bolivia are relatively expensive, an evening out at the theatre isn’t. We paid 20Bs ($2.87) for a seat in the upper ring at the Teatro Municipal (the most expensive was 30Bs and the cheapest was 10Bs).

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The theatre itself was gorgeous – red velvet seats, painted ceilings and creaky wood floors – and worth the price alone considering we didn’t really know what the concert was going to be. The program said folk music, which we thought might be interesting so we went to buy tickets a few hours before the show (this being Bolivia, we got tickets numbered 1, 2 and 3 because we were the first people). They have a delightfully old-fashioned way of assigning seats; a wooden board with little holes arranged like the seating plan, with slips of paper curled up in the holes. Like some kind of carnival game, you choose where you want to sit and pull out the paper slips, which you need to keep safe for later finding your seats.

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The Canarios del Chaco are a group from Tarija, in southern Bolivia, so there were no charangos or zampoña. Instead the music used fiddles, guitars and drums. I recorded some songs with my iPod. Although the quality is not too great, you can still get an idea of the overall show.

It was a nice surprise to have some of the songs accompanied by dancers as we thought it was just going to be the musicians. This next video is my favourite; it not only has more twirling dancers, but also a religious icon carried on a litter, a guy in black costume and blackface, as well as some guys dressed in animal skins whipping each other with ropes. I wish I knew what it was all about!

This third video shows some very twirly skirts and some pretty awesome dance moves from the guys.

Incidentally, we saw a tiny boy in the audience dressed in the same costume as these guys. He later turned up on the side of the stage during the final song. I hoped he was going to dance, but he disappeared backstage so I can only guess he was a relative of one of the performers. You can see him briefly on the left in this final video. Be warned: it’s pretty long and they tried to get the audience to join in but I guess we weren’t prepared at first. However, by the end we’d got the hang of it and demanded an encore.

How to enjoy el Gran Poder

El Gran Poder is a street parade that winds its way through La Paz from morning to night. Copious amounts of dancers, sequins, marching bands and alcohol are involved. The route is closed off from view, so you need to line up to get inside and see anything. Food stalls fill the surrounding streets and enterprising individuals wander along the parade route selling fast food and beer out of backpacks.

One of my students described it as anarchy.

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Last year we went during the day (photos and video). If you want fewer crowds, a good seat or simply to be able to see the floor before it becomes a damp mass of accumulated rubbish, then this is the time to go.

If, however, you can cope with people cutting in line, being crushed in the crowd and drunks repeating “People indigena” and “My name is! My name is!”, then going after dark is the thing for you. This is what we did this year and it was a blast!

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Here’s why I enjoyed this year’s Gran Poder so much:

It was both entertaining and frustrating to watch police try to stop people from pushing and cutting in line. I used my elbows a lot when initially trying to get into the parade area. On the way out I didn’t even need to walk – I was just swept along by external force as the whole crowd pushed forward and I sort of floated with them.

Once inside, we walked along the street amongst all the dancers and musicians. Everyone was doing it so we just followed along. This involved getting smacked in the head by whirling rattles, spiked in the chest with feathered costumes and being shouted at by the audience in seats whose view we blocked momentarily as we walked by. It was a pretty awesome experience to be so close to the dancers, actually swept up with them at some points and swirled along with the parade.

The dances seemed more varied in the evening than in the day. I saw some styles that I’d never seen before, with some really amazing masks and accessories – not just the morenada. Plus the costumes looked even more spectacularly glittery under floodlights than during the day.

The unexpected little extras: almost witnessing a fight between a dancer and pedestrian who was trying to squeeze past where there really wasn’t any space, being sprayed with fire extinguishers, catching the eye of lots of dancers and/or drunken revelers joining in who then were really happy to see foreigners enjoying the festivities.

The freedom of being able to leave when I wanted. When I bought a seat last year, I wanted to get my money’s worth so I had to rely on mobile vendors selling me overpriced Burger King and pizza because I didn’t want to give up my seat. This time, once we’d had enough of the parade we left and went to eat from the cheap street stalls: anticuchos and sandwich de chola never tasted so good. The food was super fresh because of the high turnover (I didn’t get sick at all – always a bonus in Bolivia).

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A final word of warning: don’t wear your best shoes. In fact don’t wear your best anything. Most of the time you won’t be able to see the floor, but you’ll be able to feel it’s texture, and it isn’t pleasant. That stream of liquid is not water. Neither is it spilt beer.

A postcard from Flor de Leche

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Good cheese is hard to come by in La Paz. You can buy ‘Cheddar’ and ‘Gouda’ but you’ll be disappointed at the plastic consistency. You can fry tasty queso criollo (like halloumi), but it doesn’t melt which makes a lot of cheese recipes impossible.

But, if you’re willing to pay for it, there is Flor de Leche. Run by a Belgian, located in Achocalla (just outside of La Paz), and producing organic, European-style cheeses and dairy products, Flor de Leche is sold in all the supermarkets here. And, you can visit their factory in Achocalla. Even better, they have a restaurant there which serves fondue and raclette.

Hell, I didn’t even know what raclette was until I saw the table next to me. But that saturday lunchtime, sitting on a lawn eating a big pot of melted cheese, I could be forgiven for forgetting I was in the middle of the altiplano. Except that the fondue came with little potatoes as well as bread and salad. Unlimited potatoes, bread and salad. It was good. Really good. The perfect way to get a cheese fix in La Paz.

After stuffing ourselves on fondue (which was meant for two but easily fed the three of us), we asked our waiter if we could see where they made the cheese. Although no one was working in the factory at the weekend, he got the keys and opened up the processing areas to show us. It was pretty cool seeing lots of cheeses floating in the dark.

Flor de Leche
Contact: (591-2) 2890011 it’s necessary to make reservations
Open: Saturday and Sunday
Cost: Fondue / Raclette 150Bs, Pizza 75Bs
Directions: No.4 Calle 4 de Abril. From La Paz or Zona Sur, take a bus to Mallasilla, get off at the roundabout and change buses to Achocalla (it might be the same bus you’re on, so ask the driver). You can also get a bus direct from El Alto. Stay on the bus as it goes past the lake in Achocalla and look out for a small wooden sign on the left. Flor de Leche is a few minutes down the alley.