South America Travel Tips

Tupiza, Potosí, Sucre: 3 Bolivian Stories

After the Uyuni Salar, I wanted to get out of Uyuni town asap – it didn’t look great at all. Thankfully, I got the first bus to Tupiza. Unthankfully, I had to spend almost a week in a room to look after myself.

I took a pill in Tupiza…

Yes, Tupiza… not Ibiza. Ah well 🙂

But first the good news. The hostel I got on didn’t have my single room (welcome to Bolivia), so they sent me to their sister hostel a few meters down the road and gave me an ensuite double bedroom with TV for the same price: €13 including a basic breakfast.

Don’t you love Bolivia!!!

This soon revealed to be the best thing ever for myself. Things happen for a reason, don’t they?

Well, it could have been that weird chicken at the Salar. Or maybe the unwashed fruit and veg. Or maybe the non refrigerated food. Or possibly the altitude, the tiredness, the lack of sleep. Or maybe all of it. Yes, the first day in Tupiza I got a strong fever and started to experience other “traveller’s disease” problems (apparently it’s a thing).

Thankfully I was in my own room and had a lovely friend to share my days with: the TV!

The TV kept me busy while I couldn’t do anything else. I even watched the SuperBowl (wow, what a match!), and several other football matches and movies. Just perfect.

I got some pills in the pharmacy and after a few days I recovered. Pity, as I could not really appreciate Tupiza because of this, and I also started to grow this thought in my head: “Bolivia is s%&t!”. Lol 🙂

Tupiza: poverty, Bolivian habits and a short hike

When I felt a little better, I got out at times to get an idea of the town. The busiest shops are internet points and videogame rooms. They are packed with young guys who spend hours in there (also, schools were still closed for the summer).

You really sense they have nothing at home.

There are no “supermarkets” as we know them, instead they have lots of 3 square meters shops that sell the most unlikely things such as dolls, individually un-wrapped toilet paper, weird sweets, coke, flour bags, black bananas. As space is limited, sometimes vendors sit on the products themselves. These mini-shops try to get everyone’s attention, as they sell the exact same thing at the exact same price. Many get people to stop as they show Wrestling on TV. Or maybe have very loud music. Or they shout everything they sell. Or, literally, they call you and ask you to enter.

The real shopping is done in the Mercado Central. As in all Bolivian towns, this is where business gets done, and also where there is no sign of a fridge, gloves, or clean water. Meat vendors sell their meat as it is, usually of a dark colour, definitely not refrigerated, and full of flies. You just need to close your eyes (and nose) while you pass by!

Fruit and veg vendors (only ladies), sit down all day on uncomfortable seats and “clean” their produce by peeling off leaves or soil. At times, they use some fresh leaves of coca (yes, that coca) on their cheeks to cure their skin.

Back into town, the main road has two lanes. One for vehicles, the other for the merchants’ trolleys, who go shop by shop selling bottles of coke or water. By foot.

All buildings are unfinished, or under construction. You can usually see one floor done and then empty floors above it, with concrete and rebar left there. Apparently there is this crazy law in Bolivia that if your house is unfinished, you pay less taxes. So there you go 🙂

The cool thing about Tupiza is the Cerro Corazon de Jesús, that you can hike in 15 minutes from the plaza, and enjoy a lovely view from the top. Here’s the main plaza (where everyone meets) and the lovely view:

Finally, Tupiza has really funny Mototaxis and you can clearly see people driving to the river and wash their car there. I didn’t feel like taking a picture in this case, but once again this is real Bolivia.

And trust me, it’s going to get even worse if you keep reading 🙂

Potosí: 4090 meters, pollution and contamination. Oh, and the Mine

I felt much better after my 6-day recovery in Tupiza eating dry non-cheesy pizza and crackers. So I felt brave and took a bus to Potosí.

Potosí is located at 4090 meters above sea level. Yes, there is no oxygen.

Moreover, is one of the most polluted places I’ve ever been in. No oxygen + pollution…

Besides, it’s a mining city. Every men work in the mines (and sometimes, women as well). Water, air and food are contaminated because of mining activities. No oxygen + pollution + contamination = WTF!

Anyway, I had an interesting bus journey. Let’s say I needed a double shower afterwards. The guy beside me reached for the window at some stage and threw a plastic bottle outside, in the middle of a street. At lunch time we stopped at a restaurant for “20 minutes”, which in Bolivian translates into: “whenever the driver has finished eating” (and hopefully not drinking). Unlike Uyuni>Tupiza, the road was paved.

Potosí is a miners city and they expect to run out of minerals within 50 years. There is no farm and fresh produce as you couldn’t grow anything without being contaminated. The whole place has no future. Slowly, Potosí is gradually dying.

And so are the workers. Safety doesn’t exist here. And let’s not talk about personal hygiene. So, I decided I wanted to see this with my eyes.

Hence, I booked the mine tour to Cerro Rico.

And I tell you – the tour was interesting, but for once I found something I wouldn’t want to do ever again: being inside an active mine.

In Potosí, the majority of the mines are “public”. 49 cooperatives manage the whole silver, zync and lead mining operations. Miners buy a stake in the co-op, get assigned a zone, and spend there as much time as they can.

They have no food, just a few coca leaves to chew, they smoke to avoid breathing other fumes, they work with tools from the 1850s and should they find anything, they work double shift.

Dynamite is widely and legally sold in town.

Inside it’s dark, low, dusty. There is no oxygen outside at 4090m – imagine inside.

I didn’t think I was going to make it at some stage, I was even tired from the lack of sleep. And I’m not claustrophobic, but jeez this time I was so looking forward to exiting.

Inside the mine you find statues of mine “gods” that they thank and worship for prosperity. They all look like devils. If you like darkness, and weird things, this is the place to be.

It’s an active mine, so sometimes you have to let the miners pass. Two of them pushed an unbelievably heavy trolley full of rocks – yes, by hand. Others used long metal bars as levers to move huge rocks around and spot minerals. Some others worked with a noisy jackhammer (and no safety).

Being inside there is the worst thing it could happen to you. And these miners do it everyday, for 50 Bolivianos (€6 approximately) a day.

They stay inside all day and they chew coca leaves to keep the energy going. They probably live nearby, as when they find something they do crazy shifts… the more they find, the more they keep working.

But they all die early.

Sucre: the capital (I thought it was La Paz)

I found out a few days ago that Bolivia’s capital is not La Paz, lol.

Sucre is the first place where I did nothing touristy. Actually, nothing at all. Just ate (badly), slept and worked all weekend.

In fact, internet and the house were very good, so the tourist in me went for a break and I just worked constantly. The only times I got out were for lunch and dinner – until I realised I had to get starting cooking before getting too sick again.

Sucre is a busy 300,000 people town which lies at an elevation of 2,810 meters. Roads are narrow and full of traffic, but what really kills you is the smog. Buses wouldn’t pass an emissions test in a million years. Cars, taxis, trucks and motos contribute to the madness.

Together with Potosí (which beats Sucre), I didn’t think it was possible to ever find places more polluted and dirtier than Rome, well – there you go!

The square is where a little green shows up, and also where everyone relaxes on the bench, buys something off the street vendors, check their phones (yes, Bolivia is not that backwards), hang out with their friends. It really is the heart of the town, together with the Mercado.

The mercado is absolutely huge and super interesting – until you get sick and promise to yourself you’ll never eat out again in Bolivia!

Each vendor sells a specific thing in a specific sector. There are dozens of meat sellers; many potato vendors; lots of hot food stalls; even make-up and fresh juice shops. There are so many and their prices are so similar that vendors have to be unique about their businesses.

Some of them, mostly at the hot food stalls, shouts the meal of the day and doesn’t stop shouting until you give up, by either sitting down at their stall or leaving. This is when I had a wonderful cereal soup for €0.70… and felt sorry not leaving a tip!

At the potato shops, one lady was optimizing her long day by peeling potatoes. That’s definitely a great idea to differentiate herself from the competition.

Other than that, Sucre was a meh to me. Didn’t have much time to visit it but didn’t give me much inspiration to go out either. Maybe because I was launching an important product for my business and spent hours to get the first draft done.

Or maybe because Bolivia’s cities are just starting points to visit the landscapes, because there’s really nothing happening. And for the majority, Sucre is the most beautiful city of Bolivia!

Sucre is crazy.

There are street vendors everywhere. People who are that fortunate to live beside the road, take their cooker outside the door and sell street food.

Baños and ducha caliente (toilet and hot shower) are the most popular street signs…

People stop on the road to watch Wrestling.

Yes, Bolivian cities are nuts. And I haven’t even started talking about La Paz.

But hey – you’ve got to see and experience in order to judge, so I’m in a strong position now to say Uyuni is definitely the most beautiful thing about Bolivia, together with the Toro Toro National Park, which I decided not to visit as it was way out of my ultimate plan: getting out of Bolivia ASAP.

Lol, not to worry, because after the upcoming short blog about La Paz and Lake Titicaca, I will finally start showing you the amazing Peru.

So, thanks for being with me once again, as it’s not always roses and sunshine!