While Bolivia has a rich and fascinating history and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, it still remains very much off the beaten path for tourists in South America. Before crossing the border from Peru, our guide told us to expect to be frustrated at the customer service in Bolivia, explaining that the people are still not that used to foreigners.
I'd also heard mixed reviews on the nation from fellow travellers, with their reports ranging from "the most beautiful country I have ever seen" to "don't go there: it's too dangerous". Driving into chaotic La Paz, my initial instincts were to agree with the latter.
After the tranquillity of our homestay on Peru's side of Lake Titicaca, manic La Paz was overwhelming for many of the group. Nestled among glaciers at 3,500m, it is a city with an immense amount of sprawl, with square red-brick houses flooding its valleys and overflowing out onto its hilltops and glaciers.
The wealthy live in big houses on the outskirts, while the poorest of the poor are relegated to the minuscule tin slums that line the hillside, where they sit outside cooking on fires; and in the chaotic city centre you cannot move for the endless market stalls and heavy traffic. In what is the highest administrative capital in the world, suited and booted businessmen walk the streets alongside elderly women in traditional highland dress, and the infamous witches market lines the cobbles around its modern central square.
Yet after weeks of exploring Peru's quiet mountaintop villages, there was something comforting about being back in a busy city, surrounded by people: even if we were afraid of many of them!
A breathtaking city, La Paz is really all about the views, and one of the first things we did was climb in a cable car to a viewpoint over the city. It was already clear that La Paz is a gigantic place, but I had no idea just how big it was until we were gliding up the mountain looking down at the absolutely breathtaking views, with buildings stretching every way beneath us too far to see. After Peru I thought I'd probably had my fill of mountains, but surrounded by glaciers and enjoying this view I was already prepared for some more.
Next on the list was a trip to the witches market, which is one of the most famous markets in the world, largely thanks to its collection of dried llama foetuses, which Bolivians like to install in the foundations of their buildings as a sacrifice to nature goddess Pachamama. Slightly grotesque to western eyes, Bolivians believe they will lend the structure longevity and good luck. Among the array of dead animals hanging in the doorways to shops were the usual jewellery and trinkets you'll find in any market, along with a handful of magical potions.
Moon Valley (allegedly named by Neil Armstrong) sits just outside La Paz's centre, and is another sightseeing opportunity for visitors to the city. The strange rock formations give the area an alien feel, and provide yet another reminder of just how diverse the landscape can be up in the mountains. The mountains - even the understated ones just lying on the side of the capital's highways - are varied in colour and unquestionably spectacular.
For all of La Paz' hustle and bustle, it is still a fairly tourist-friendly city, with plenty of hotels, bars and restaurants. These eateries are where we found out that while Peru favours Alpaca meat, Bolivians go in for the tougher llama variety. There are also plenty of high-adrenaline activities to indulge in, such as a bike ride down the ominously-named ‘Death Road', and a walk down the outside of a building at Urban Rush. While I refrained from these activities, the travellers in the group who were brave enough to tackle them came back high on adrenaline and life. However, La Paz is not somewhere you'd want to linger for more than a couple of days, and we were soon off to Uyuni for a three-day trip out onto the biggest salt flat in the world.
The Uyuni Salt Flats
Our trip to the salt flats started in Uyuni - a town full of stray dogs and with an atmosphere so quiet you would not be surprised to see tumbleweed rolling around outside your hotel window. The vast majority of travellers in Uyuni are using it as a base to see its eponymous salt flats, as were we: it's not the sort of place you visit just for fun, despite being the location of an establishment dubiously named 'Extreme Fun Pub'!
Our mode of transport for the tour was to be 4x4s. When we set off driving over the rocky terrain that surrounded the salt flats it was very easy to see why. Our first stop on the way to the salt flats was an antique train graveyard, bound to thrill any vintage-enthusiasts. The youngest train that had been abandoned in the area was over 100 years old, and the silhouette of the old locomotives against the bleak desert and vivid blue sky looked like a film set. Visitors are allowed to clamber over the trains as much as they want, playing train driver and posing for snaps and that was what we did.
After a few hours of bumpy driving over the rocky landscapes, the ground began to transform from its brown clay colour to the white of the flats. We stopped at a community that live by mining salt and also by selling props for tourists to pose with on the salt flats: they have everything from hats and clothes to toy dinosaurs. However, after seeing a woman sat in a hut bagging up a mountain of salt using a gas lamp, most of us just bought a bag of salt.
And then it was out onto the salt flats, which were formed when the tectonic plates that created the Andes trapped a bit of sea and elevated it to high altitude. Due to the strong sunlight, the water evaporated, leaving layers of salt and clay that the Incas used to travel to different parts of the country, and that tourists use mainly for taking selfies! Bolivia boasts more than just one salt flat, but at 4,086 square miles, Salar de Uyuni is the biggest in the world.
After hours of narcissistic posing out on the white plains, our memory cards full, we sped towards our first night's accommodation - situated on an island in the flats - under a striking sunset, with purple and orange streaks illuminating the black clouds that hung above the mountains. That night we enjoyed a dinner of beans and rice before settling down on our beds, which were constructed out of salt, in our cabin, which was also inevitably made of salt.
The next day it was time to leave the plains and head out into the surrounding desert, which was located on the Chilean border. During our time in the desert, in between motoring through incredible mountain scenery, we visited active volcano Ollague, a stunning black lagoon and a pink lagoon packed with llamas and flamingos. The whole day was punctuated with red, brown, grey and white mountains, surrounded by cacti and dry thirsty earth. This was Bolivian scenery at its best.
On our way back to Uyuni we paid a visit to some geysers and also to a selection of hot springs out in the desert, which had formed among Bolivia's volcanic landscape. This was an incredible experience, but the transition from the hot springs to cold weather at such a height proved too much for a number of the group - myself included - and we succumbed to altitude sickness, which was a problem as we were only going to get higher on our way to Potosi.
Potosi and the Spanish conquest
Historically, Potosi was the most interesting, not to mention most moving, part of Bolivia I visited. The town lies under Cerro de Potosi or; "the mountain that eats men", and the significance of this silver-filled mountain in the context of Bolivian history cannot be underestimated. The mountain has given a lot to the country: without it Bolivia would not exist, but it has also taken an inordinate amount from this proud nation, with around eight million people estimated to have died there. Men die in its silver mines due to accidents or the inevitable lung disease silicosis - currently an average miner cannot expect to live past 35, sacrificing their lives for their families - while many working in the mint in the past died of mercury poisoning.
The Spanish conquest has a lot to answer for when it comes to Potosi, with the invaders once forcing locals to work in the mines and in the mint. After the invasion, those made to work in the mint were given a veritable death sentence, with the average worker lasting just three months after they started toiling there. There is a fascinating museum surrounding the history of the mint in the town, which really helps visitors to understand Potosi's history.
The Spanish convinced the native people to work as miners by building a statue of devil-God Dio, of which there remains one in every silver mine in the mountain. As the local people could not pronounce the ‘D' in ‘Dio', to this day the imposing statues are known as ‘Tio', which means uncle in Spanish. The miners regularly make sacrifices of coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to these statues to ask for protection. If they are having a bad season in the mine they will go so far as to sacrifice a llama to him in a traditional ceremony. Above ground the miners are staunch Catholics, but their underground workplace is so dark, loud and menacing that they do not believe it is within God's reach, and instead take to bargaining with Tio to avoid accidents and save lives.
With miners still working in the mountain, a visit to Potosi is like witnessing history happening before your eyes, and it is very important to see this unique town if you want to understand Bolivia's history.
Sucre: The white city
After the intensity of La Paz, the isolation of the Uyuni salt flats and the sadness of Potosi, three days in the gorgeous white city of Sucre proved to be a huge relief. A modern city with beautiful Spanish-inspired white buildings and plenty of museums and churches in which to discover the history of Bolivia, our time in this town felt almost like a European city break.
We enjoyed our first real night out during our time in Bolivia at a restaurant-cum-salsa club that occasionally played the Spice Girls before heading to a Shisha Bar that the owner told us was "not for gringos", and the next day, with banging heads, we visited a number of museums that shed a lot of light as to how Bolivia came into being.
After its successful 19th century battle for independence, Bolivia was actually a fairly large country, with access to the coast. However, after several devastating wars, bits and pieces were gradually taken from Bolivia and added onto the surrounding countries. Our guide explained:
"We are bad at war...and also at sports."
This means citizens no longer have access to the sea: a right they are currently hoping to win back.
The country is named for its first president Simon Bolivar, and since then it has had a lot of presidents, but the current premier, Evo Morales, is incredibly the country's first indigenous president.
There are also a number of activities you can do around Sucre, from going to visit dinosaur footprints to quad biking around the surrounding towns and villages. Seeking a bit of an adrenaline rush, I went for the latter. The landscape surrounding the city features lots of countryside and farms, and is dotted with small towns, and despite the bike breaking down a number of times, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day.
Was Bolivia everything I expected?
Driving into Bolivia, I anticipated the stunning mountain scenery and the unique beauty of the Uyuni Salt Flats, which absolutely exceeded my expectations. What I did not bank on was the country's incredible history and culture, and the warmth of its people.
Visiting Potosi was an incredibly touching experience, as was hearing our guide talk with such passion about her country when we were in Sucre. The nation's incredible nightlife and passion for late night salsa was also a huge bonus, with a night out mandatory if you want to immerse yourself in Bolivia's culture.
Other than the salt flats, I didn't have too much interest in Bolivia upon entering the country, but the things that will most stick in my mind from my visit, in addition to the fantastic scenery, are the history, and the passion and pride of its people.