It’s been a year since I published about Iceland. My friend suggested South America, but I hesitated, wondering how safe it was. A good friend of mine, Bimali, mentioned that the salt flats were not to be missed – and ever since, I have REALLY wanted to check it out.
I am glad that I challenged myself. It was the most AMAZING experience I have ever had. The awe-inspiring landscapes, scenery, amazingly affordable food, fascinating culture and potential for adventure!
If you are worried about any risks, do your homework, talk to lots of fellow travellers, book a good tour (check good reviews), or find someone who lives locally who can be a guide – I found some lovely people through friends’s friends’s via facebook and facetime. They were also profoundly deaf like me, and there will always be a communication barrier, but it’s like any language where people struggle as well.
This mainly Spanish-speaking continent is unlike others (in the hugely diverse Brazil, which has half the continent’s population, Brazilian Portuguese is spoken). My 24-day trip to South America was an exhilarating, safe experience. We visited the following cities in four different countries (South America has 12 countries in total):
La Paz •Sucre • Potosí • Uyuni • Salt Flats (Bolivia) • San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) • Salta • Buenos Aires (Argentina) • Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).
From London, we flew for 17 hours across the Pacific via Miami. We had many long commutes to explore eight cities which took entire days, but this is not a continent of very cheap internal air travel or high speed trains; if losing days travelling bums you out, or don’t appreciate vast landscapes, I would advise taking three to five months to really explore the continent at least.
1) La Paz (Bolivia) is the highest capital city in the world, touching the clouds at 12,00 above feet above sea level. It is surrounded by mountains, steep streets and unbelievable views. As wikitravel says: ‘La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia, while Sucre is the constitutional capital and the seat of the Supreme Court. La Paz was established in 1548, and is in the Andes. Altitude of the city ranges from about 4,058 m (13,313 ft) above sea level in El Alto (where the airport is located) to 3,100 m (10,170 ft) in the lower residential area.’
Food – We enjoyed two days in Bolivia and the food is affordable and tasty! The staple foods in Bolivia is very much centered around vegetables. There is a well-known joke that it’s cheaper to eat out in than to cook at home. You definitely won’t have to worry about breaking the bank. Via good reviews on TripAdvisor we discovered a brilliant vegan restaurant called Tierra Sana.
Bolivian’s love soup – I was amazed at the endless varieties on soup, such as the yellow peanut soup, which includes ground peanuts. I expected smooth vegetables in it but it was made of vegetable chunks – very nutritious. You may also have heard of this infamous Munchies soup.
Altitude sickness for some people – Many South American countries are above sea level – like Colombia, where my sister suffered from temporary loss of hearing in one ear thanks to the high altitudes for a couple of days, as was my experience in Bolivia for two days – I also had a strange time due to a faster heart rate. Some of the symptoms can include fatigue, anxiety, fast heart beating, headaches, problems breathing, nausea, vomiting, sleeping problems, vertigo or dizziness among others.
Gabi, my team leader for G-Adventure tour, explained: ‘These are symptoms of altitude, you can buy tablets (basically just aspirin and caffeine) to help with that, but really what happens is your body is lacking oxygen, you have to give it a couple of days for your body to adjust. I strongly recommend you take coca leaf tea, it’s what the locals take and have been taking for over 5000 years, you find it everywhere and it helps with the symptoms’.
But altitude sickness doesn’t affect everyone. If you suffer for more than three days then you should enquire about seeing a doctor; I pulled through by chewing on cocoa leaves and taking regular rest. Acclimatising, basically.
Two weeks after my holiday, I watched a great documentary called The Fearless Chef on channel 4 on UK television, about how much processed food there is around the world. He started his trip in Bolivia, where the coca leaf is harvested and used as a herb in tea and cooking. I was amazed how they use zip lines (like cable or rope) despite the risk of death. The team came across a two-mile wide valley which was more than 4,000 metres high. Instead of hiking from anywhere between one and three hours to get to the cocoa leaf farm, the zip lines took 30 seconds. These zip lines were invented in 1955 by Don Ignacio.
Economy – Some people know of cocoa leaves for another reason – yes, ‘coca’ sounds like cocaine…the drug is produced here illegally because of the leaves becoming a paste, but that’s not why Bolivia has so much production; there is a lot of mining here (I will talk more about my visit to the mines in next post), but the country never profited from producing pure minerals alone. Setting the law aside, from the seventies on Bolivia became known for cocaine production, and in the next decades business grew. The government tried to ban all illegal coca by 2002, and put restrictions into place as to who could buy the leaves.
The leaves themselves are legal. Coca is so good for your body for other things; chew on a leaf or brew some tea if you’re hungry, if you are cold or like I was, suffering from a high altitude.
Food Market – It is mind blowing to see so much fresh vegetables and fruit in such big sizes! I have never seen hundreds of different potatoes before, such as ocha sweet potato! I saw the biggest pumpkin ever, weighing something like 58 pounds. They grow underground during winter.
Women – The Aymara women really made Bolivia memorable for me – dressed up in bowler hats, layers of big colourful skirts (large hips are favoured culturally) and embroidered shawls. They often sat in this traditional dress on the roadside, working in the hot sun, selling things in rows with each other. They also wore colourful hand woven blankets on their backs to either carry a baby or items such as food.
Witch Market – I came across lots of these different markets which sold items as strange as dried llama fetuses (!), frogs, turtles, and snakes. Apparently, these things bring good luck, and are used in rituals, and for home remedies. The goddess Pachamama is one main focus in the sacrifice of these animals.
An Aymara could for example bury a dead llama under the foundations of a newly built house for good luck, or use it before getting a new car, or for fertility.
Infamous Death Road – My group cycled that terrifying route, thankly before i joined them!
History – The first call for independence in 1809, 16 years of war followed before the establishment of the Republic, named for Simón Bolívar. Bolivia is named after Simón Bolívar, he was one of the first fighters for independence in latin america. His name inspired Bolivia’s name. Bolivar = Bolivia.
2) Overnight bus to Sucre for 12 hours, yes i don’t know how we got through it?! The coach was comfortable, it have toilet and they have small TVs in the hall which was great. The overnight buses are generally cheap than flight.
I now know why it called colonial white city, everywhere i turned these are all white buildings. There is beautiful park where people hang around called Plaza 25 de Mayo, Surce’s main square. It is like when we wandered off four to five blocks in any direction and we came across that look the same.
I loved the way they dressed like Zebras and danced in middle of busy road, very entertaining! They guided people crossing the street, perhaps i never have to worry when i across!
Famous Para Ti Chocolate – This chocolate must to be experienced! Across the main street, there is a cafe for hot drinks. The tables were decorated with cocoa beans, showing another great reason for cocoa beans to exist: they are used to make chocolate. We enjoyed some handmade little chocolates which were of such good quality. You can see the other meals we had in the picture sideshow above.
Climbing – I didn’t get involved with this activity, but here is a beautiful view of Sucre after the rest of the folks in my group treked 20 minutes to get up this rock, before arriving at their rock-climbing destination. The group were climbed over for roughly one or two hours before it get dark.
♥ Next – Potosi, Uyuni and Salt Flats ♥