“A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.”
― Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
‘You can’t come to Bolivia and not do the Death Road!’ said one of my travel buddies when I aired my disinterest. ‘Of course I can’, I protested, ‘I’m pretty scared of heights and cliffs, I had a bad bike accident in Peru, I’m just not feeling it’.
Other tourists did the trip, got kitted out with fancy suspension bikes and cycled down the infamous road where every now and then, people still fall off and die. They all came back buzzing. The views, they told me, were incredible, the day out totally worth every penny.
They nearly persuaded me to re-evaluate, but I stuck to my guns. I don’t have to do everything touristy, tick off everything there is to do in a country, do I?
I do travel a little slower than many people I’ve met and I tend to get stuck in a place for a little while. Often, this is to the detriment of seeing all the top spots of a country – natural or otherwise – but the upside is I get a better feel for the place where I’m staying and I make some connections in the area.
Whilst I do prefer it this way, during my seven week stay in Bolivia there were a few key attractions that I skipped, some by choice, some by a sudden change to my travel plans that meant time ran out. Would I live to regret it?
- Cycle the Death Road. The original link between La Paz and the northern regions of Bolivia, this road was given the Death Road label after an average 200-300 people tumbled and tripped to their death every year. Narrow bends, vertical drops and impossible passing points add to the peril of this place, and chunky rocks litter the pathway with sure-fire trip up potential. Even looking at pictures of cyclists and vehicles on the road sends my stomach into a frenzy. How can you go to La Paz and not give it a go? asks Rob on his Lonely Planet blog. Erm, actually easily enough. I love some adrenaline activities but this one wasn’t for me. And it turns out that I’m not the only one opting out.
- Go horse riding in Tupiza in south Bolivia. I heard and read so much about the spectacular landscapes around Tupiza and the legendary resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It sounded rugged and beautiful. Horse riding through the red rock canyons is the one activity that I really wish I’d had the time to do in Bolivia, although according to one blogger, I didn’t miss much. Each to their own. If I ever make it back to Bolivia, Tupiza is on my list.
- Take a trip down the mines in Potosi. On the way to Uyuni, my bus passed through Potosi, the highest city in the world, where it is rumoured women pack up and leave in order to conceive and give birth. The main ‘attractions’ in Potosi are the mineral mines. Ethically, I ummed and aaahhed about this one. Why visit working mines where conditions, by Western standards, are unsafe and detrimental to the worker’s health? Where children are put to work? Where the average life expectancy of a miner is between thirty and forty years of age before they die an uncomfortable death of silicosis? Whilst in Sucre, I watched a documentary called The Devil’s Miner. It is one of a few times where I’ve cried at a film and was left speechless afterwards. Why? Because I couldn’t understand how this could be going on, and because I didn’t see how I could help. Was visiting the mines the right action or the wrong thing? I wasn’t sure whether I was just judging this with Western eyes, whether the film was seeking an emotive response, whether this was a lifestyle choice or not.
- Sleep out in the jungle. Tourists either take the rough, twenty-four hour bus journey from La Paz or otherwise soar in on tiny, low flying planes to Rurrenabaque, the gateway to the jungle and pampas of Bolivia. Having already visited the jungle back in Ecuador, I didn’t feel a huge pull to the Bolivian Amazon, because although the Bolivian jungle is rumoured to be a rich, dense habitat for wildlife and plantlife, most of the tour activities and wildlife that I would encounter were the same as what I’d already been lucky enough to see in Cuyabeno, Ecuador. And for some reason the mosquitos seem to be so much more vicious in Bolivia, providing another excuse to give the tour a miss. I met many returned tourists completely covered in raised bites, despite having worn a full covering of clothing and a good dose of antimalarial spray.
- Visit the famous floating islands of Lake Titicaca. During my stay in Peru, I’d got so close to but just didn’t make it to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world and here, in Bolivia, once again I didn’t make it near to the pure water shores. Chatback about heavy tourism emphasis on the floating reed islands of the Uros tribe did somewhat put me off, but I was still intrigued by how people live on such transient foundations. The tranquil shores and rocky terrain of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) was, however, attractive to me with its walking trails and rugged appearance. Instead, I ended up staying longer in La Paz than intended, checking out hospitals and doctors, markets and mayhem.
- Transfer into Chile. Although slightly aside from Bolivia, before I made a random travel decision to head back to Ecuador that put time restrictions on my stay in the country, I had really wanted to get to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and explore the Atacama desert a little. The route suggested by Olaf in Roadrunners in Samaipata was to take the Uyuni tour to San Pedro (and maybe mountain bike the Moon Valley), take the bus to Calama, bus to Arica (spend a day or two on the Chilean coast), bus to Putre (where you could do a half day tour to the National Park) and finally bus across the border to La Paz, Bolivia. Other tourists I spoke to agreed that it was a scenic route, but that it definitely required more time than I had.
The saying goes, regret only what you haven’t done, not what you’ve done. Well, I chose to go slow and stay in some places, and I don’t regret that decision one little bit.
Thanks Bolivia for all the beautiful moments and memories (and let’s pretend the bad belly bugs never happened).
- Lake Titicaca – Copacabana, Bolivia (travelpod.com)
- Enjoying the Death Road on Friday the 13th – La Paz, Bolivia (travelpod.com)
- The world’s most dangerous road (BBC News)
- How To Survive Bolivia’s Death Road (Gadling.com)
- History echoes in the mines of Potosi (BBC News)
- A History of the Potosi Mines in Bolivia (Suite101)
- The Devil’s Miner (film site)
- The Bolivian Amazon: The Jungle vs The Pampas (neverendingvoyage.com)