Category Archives: bolivia

And then it was over

australian-flag-mapAs I sat on the flat, spongy mattress of a cobbled together dorm room near the airport on the island of Tahiti listening to the woes of an eighteen year old French lad who’d had his money and laptop stolen whilst on a cruise out to the Tuamotus and now didn’t have any other option but to wait for a flight home, I realised that this too was the end of my journey.

Well, not really. If Stage 1 had been my initial South American adventures within Ecuador and Peru, and Stage 2 my previous time in Australia and New Zealand, then this travel through Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador followed by a delivery sail from the Galapagos Islands to Tahiti could be deemed Stage 3.

So Stage 3 was drawing to a close. There would still be more adventures up ahead, surely?

One of my favourite modern-day philosophers, Alain de Botton, says: ‘We’re getting better at learning how to structure journeys so that they can assuage what we’re lacking within us.’ And when I looked inside myself and questioned what was lacking (and causing a bit of concern), it was simple: health, familiarity, money. And a big, fat cuddle.

The biggest issue was my health, and my body was begging me to settle for a while. In the last few months, Bolivia had physically punished me and although I’d felt fairly healthy – inactive but healthy – during the Pacific crossing, now Tahiti had delivered up a fever thanks to some tropical sores, sores that stretched the skin on my left leg so tight that touch shot sharp tingles right down to my foot and up to my thigh. My immune system was shot. (I think if you’d told me then that I’d still have another two loads of antibiotics coming up once I was back in Australia, I would have cried. Seven lots of antibiotics within six months? Sorry body. Some people deal better with South America.)

I booked the cheapest flight back to Australia that I could find. But where to? Melbourne had been my original choice destination, a cultural city with opportunities for work and an agreeable cost of living, but Sydney was starting to appeal to me with its sailing scene. So why was I descending into a peachy, sunset Brisbane in mid-June?

I thought back to my French friend and hoped that his misfortunes hadn’t overly soured his impressions of paradise or deterred him from the wonders of travel. Life without travel, without adventure? Unimaginable.

I got off the plane, cursed the fact I’d worn flip-flops and a vest top as I shivered into an Aussie winter, and paused for a moment before I stepped through the Arrivals doors. My heart beating faster and a smile twitching on my lips, I pushed my airport trolley into a politely crowded Arrivals lounge. Still far from my UK home, Australia would be home for now.

Stage 4 starts. An empty page. Some good ideas, hopes and needs, but no plans or expectations. But definitely adventures. Always.

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Filed under australia, bolivia, brazil, ecuador, moorea, new zealand, oceania, pacific, peru, solo travel, south america, tahiti, travel

I just upped and went: the beauty, freedom and spontaneity of unplanned solo travel

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Pondering the next move: beautiful freedom or solo decision weightiness?

One rainy day back in Sucre I felt super flat. New friends had left and moved on and I was still sick. I sat sipping some coca tea by myself in the hostel kitchen, gazing out at a blanket of greyness, the odd flash of lightning streaking the early evening sky.

At this stage I had been living out of my backpack for eight months and I was having  one of those travel moments where I felt pretty lost and alone. Travel tired? Maybe. But did I want to go home? Where was home? Nope, it wasn’t a consideration. I thought hard about what would put the spark back into my travels.

A couple of days later I booked what I hoped would be my final flight for a little while: a one way ticket to Galapagos. Why, oh why, though, was I heading back to Ecuador? And why am I once again heralding solo travel?

Travelling with someone else is beautiful.Friend, partner, lover, whatever, – to share special moments on your journey is undoubtedly something to be treasured. I met back up with a friend in Brazil, someone I’d wandered with before. Travelling with them for three months previously had been easy; decision making fluid and compromise pretty unproblematic. No mean feat when we were in each other’s pockets 24/7.

But paths and desires inevitably take different turns and when my friend announced that Colombia was the next step, I wasn’t so sure. I did want to go to Colombia but there was the ticket price to take in to account (it required a flight) and there was my own personal journey to consider. And my gut instinct told me to do something different.

Three days later, I ended up on a bus making its way through Paraguay to Bolivia. It was one of the best decisions of my travels.

Travelling in a group is fun.Bolivia turned out to be a nuisance to my health but completely blessed in terms of the people I met, the landscapes and natural wonders that I encountered and the experiences that I had.

Strangely enough, despite all the amazing things that Bolivia presented me with, most significant to me were the other travellers that I befriended. Party people, caring people, fun people, thoughtful people, adventurous people, genuine people. People a little, no, a lot like me. We clicked.

Arriving into La Paz with a few of them gave a different angle to arriving into a big, South American city. It was more fun, less of a mission. So what if I ended up changing my plans a bit so that I could stay and hang out with them for a little while? Absolutely worth it. Lake Titicaca will still be there in a few years’ time, if I choose to come back. Hopefully some of these friendships will still be around too.

But then our paths started to part. If compromise with two of you is difficult enough, try it with a group of five or more. Nah, best to go get on with your own thing and meet back up to share stories and fun times when your paths next cross.

Travelling solo is freedom. When in Sucre I wondered what would really inspire and excite and challenge me. I suddenly returned to this random thought: I have my RYA Competent Crew and Day Skipper qualifications, I’m a little scared of the massive oceans, I like to face my fears. Wouldn’t a Pacific crossing be an amazing adventure?!

Not having to consider anyone else, I got right on it. Within a few hours I’d started the research, within a few days I’d heard back from skippers who needed crew for the crossing, and within a week I had booked a one way ticket to the Galapagos Islands with no real certainty that I had a place on a boat.

But I had bucket loads of enthusiasm and a whole lot of hope and trust that life would deliver something special. If it meant I ended up stranded in the Galapagos for a few weeks, how bad could it be? A slight monetary concern, but little else.

This is what I wanted my travels and adventuring to be about. Freedom for my path to unfold.

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Filed under bolivia, brazil, ecuador, random, sailing, solo travel, south america

13 ways to be childish

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Kids playing in the plaza in Pucara

I met Adele* whilst she was beating a bug out of her system in Sucre, stole her friend when she left for Cochabamba and met back up with her in La Paz for some partying. Like me, she’d left behind her entire life to throw caution to the wind and see what life and travelling had to offer.

Unlike me, though, she was having a little panic about her upcoming birthday. And she wasn’t the first person I’d met who was worrying about the big 3-0.

For me, being 30 has been an incredible year, a real rollercoaster of emotions and experiences that have let me reconnect with what matters to me. My philosophy is that every year I get older, the happier I get.

How so? I am more comfortable in myself, I know myself better, I’m more confident to say no to things, I’m more open to life.

And I care a whole lot less about what people think about me. Too much of my life I’ve tried to adapt to be how I think other people want me to be; so much effort gone into appeasing others and losing myself into a falsity. So yeah, I’m not scared. Bring on the ageing process.

But! Not at the expense of immaturity and silliness!

Travelling has taught me to reconnect a bit with my inner child. Not necessarily in some intense hippy way but more just reminding me: don’t take things too seriously.

During my travels in the last year I’ve helped out and hung out with toddlers in Sucre, volunteered at a school literacy fair, stayed with a young family in Australia, taken bus journeys with teenagers in Bolivia and sat in amongst a smiley school group on their way to Galapagos. These are some of the times where kids have reminded me how to live. Untouched by the trials and tribulations of life, they cut through all of the bulls***t and live life openly and honestly.

When you feel some adult heaviness creeping in, I invite you to try one or more of the following:

  1. When with a group of friends, chatter and giggle and whatever you do, don’t stop. Occasionally stick out your tongue or pull the other person’s hair or ear. They won’t be annoyed (if they too are subscribing to this childish therapy, or are indeed a child).
  2. Lie on the floor and just stare at the ceiling. Maybe hum to yourself, if you feel like it.
  3. Be affectionate with friends. If you like someone, hold hands and cuddle them. Simple.
  4. When you get up off the floor, put your hands in front of you, lean a little forward and lift your bum up first. Your hands and feet should both stay in contact with the ground. This doubles up as yoga practise.
  5. Put on some silly music and dance around, flailing your arms, bouncing on your legs, waving your hands and shaking your head. Don’t think about it, just feel it and let go. Completely.
  6. When on public transport, really enjoy it. Whoop and scream if you hit a turbulent spot in an airplane. Similarly, when taking off and landing, let your excitement spill out. Verbally and physically. When on a bus, clamber over the person next to you to look out of the window at the moon. Be fascinated by the little streaks of water slithering across the pane and follow them with your fingers, leaving smudges on the glass.
  7. Smell everything, including the clouds and sky. When people ask you what it actually smells like, come up with something obscure or silly. ‘Poo’ normally hits the mark.
  8. Stamp your feet and stick out your lip when you’re annoyed. Forget why you stamped your feet when you’re easily distracted by a passing airplane.
  9. Run to the window and wave frantically at airplanes.
  10. Be brutally honest. If, for example, someone makes silly voices in an effort to make you laugh, just go for it and say ‘Finola, you’re really funny… and weird’.
  11. If you don’t get your own way, lie face down and bash the floor with clenched fists. Check someone is watching you and if not, move to a spot and repeat where someone can take note.
  12. Blow raspberries and pull silly faces. At strangers is usually more fun.
  13. Finally, melt an adult with tired openness and affection. ‘Nola?’ ‘Yep?’ ‘Nola, I love you’.

*name changed to protect identity

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Budgeting Bolivia

Despite Bolivia having the poorest economy in South America it is starting to chase tourist money and prices are slowly creeping up for visitors. As with many countries in South America, there are tourist prices and local prices, and these are often not transparent. Very little is actually labelled up. Vendors make prices up on the spot and often seem loathe to bargain.

I always find the issue of bargaining a delicate subject. Prices may have been inflated for a tourist market but it does feel awkward to see travellers fighting hard to get a 5Bs. reduction for a quality piece of handiwork, something somebody has spent considerable time slaving over. 5Bs.? That’s US$0.72.

Imported products are more expensive, although you’re never fully sure whether you’re getting the legitimate brand or a counterfeit (shoes, for example, in the style of Converse with All Stan marked on the side are pretty obviously not the real deal, but there are plenty of close calls).

However, in a country where accommodation typically costs between Bs.30 and 50Bs., where a meal out will set you back 20Bs, where bus travel costs approximately 8Bs. per hour, Bolivia still is a place where cash-strapped travellers can go far. The cost of backpacking in Bolivia is cheap. No wonder some people keep extending their visa, postponing their travel on to Argentina or Chile or Brazil where life is a whole lot more expensive.

Hostel bed (rural/city) Bs.20   / Bs.50 £1.83-4.58 / US$2.87-7.18
Private room in hostel/hotel Bs.70-Bs.100 £6.41-9.17 / US$10.06-14.37
Cheap lunch out (al meurzo) Bs.15 £1.37 / US$2.16
Bottle of water Bs.6 £0.55 / US$.86
Fresh fruit juice at market Bs.4 £0.37 / US$0.57
Beer (large bottle) Bs.15 £1.37 / US$2.16
Yoghurt (1ltr) Bs.12 £1.10 / US$1.72
Branded toothpaste Bs.15 £1.37 / US$2.16
Woolly hat Bs.20-Bs.30 £1.83-2.75 / US$2.87-4.31
Woolly dress Bs.80-Bs.120 £7.33-11.00 / US$11.49-17.24
Travel guitar Bs.350-Bs.700 £32.08-64.16 / US$50.29-100.58
Cigarettes (20 pack)* Bs.8-Bs.10 £0.73-0.91 / US$1.15-1.44
Cocaine (per gram) * Bs.100-Bs.200 £9.17-18.33 / US$14.37-28.74
San Pedro powder (1 hit/trip)* Bs.10 £0.91 / US$1.15

*DISCLAIMER: By including these items, I am in no way advocating their use. I am simply detailing what is available and providing associated costs in order to give a fuller impression of the country and its marketplace.

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Why did I skip these? Things I missed out on in Bolivia

Cyclists on the Death Road, Bolivia (image from blog.brazenbraden.com)

“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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).

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Being a bad tourist in La Paz

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Tourist targeted

I’d love to tell you that I mean bad as in badass movie style bad girl, a rebel out to cause chaos in La Paz. Despite some flirtations with danger, the truth is a little less Hollywood.

During a week in La Paz I managed to avoid most of the usual tourist traps like the trudge up to the Kili Kili viewpoint of the city, or the climb up Huayna Potosi. I didn’t swot up on Coca leaf history, and I missed out on hanging out in Route 36 (what has to be one of the only clubs in the world to openly sell you a gram of coke to your table) and I didn’t party with a predominantly gringo crowd in the Blue House.

I didn’t visit any of the museums. I had wanted to check out the Coca Museum (Linares 906) and the Bolivian Musical Instruments Museum (Jaén 711) and the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore (Ingavi 916 esq. Jenaro Sajinés) but time just disappeared. I didn’t prioritise them. And I also missed out on others, such as Museo de Textiles Andinos and the National Museum of Art, the National Museum of Precious Metals and the National Museum of Archaeology.

But I did swing by the San Pedro prison, go out to some traditional peña and face paint up for a party where someone got stabbed. I went to the sketchy area of El Alto and watched Cholita Wrestling and locals dancing and playing competitive table football. I got a pretty, beaded lulu knotted into in my hair, I had customised rain trousers made for 80Bs. and I went shopping for woollen dresses and presents and a travel guitar. I queried the purpose of dried llama foetuses and healing herbs at the Witches’ Market, and I took taxis all over town in search of doctors and hospitals and testing laboratories. I sat in a posh hairdresser and for the first time in a year had someone attempt to do something with my hair for a price I could actually afford. And I survived a stay in a Loki hostel.

So in terms of being a bad tourist, I’d love to tell you that I mean bad as in badass movie style bad girl, a rebel out to cause chaos in La Paz. The truth, however, is that my time there was not about losing my cocaine virginity and getting lost in hedonism, and had very little to do with gangsters and corrupt authority figures.

In a way, I just lived La Paz. Not as a local, I shan’t pretend, but I pottered about and got a feel for the city. And I’m all okay with that.

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La Paz mapped

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Weird wonders at the Witches’ Market

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Occupying a small section on the corner of Santa Cruz and Linares is El Mercado de las Brujas– The Witches’ Market – a market for all things herbal, natural and superstitious. Do you have your shopping list to hand? Might it include tea for a bad belly? They’ve got it here. Llama foetus for a ritual offering? Tick. San Pedro cactus or ready to take powder? Time to get seriously spaced out.

Intrigued but slightly unsettled, I had a peek around a few shops and stalls. On seeing the llama foetuses I asked the shop owner how they were used.

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Llama foetuses

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For offerings’, she said, ‘to Pacha Mama’. ‘How?’ I asked. ‘Do they burn them?’ ‘Yes, they burn them during ceremonies’, she told me. Later I heard that the llama foetuses are also buried in the foundations of a new house to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. I’ve no idea which account is correct. Maybe both.

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San Pedro

Strangeness aside, La Paz is said to be a great place to stock up on clothing and gifts before moving on or heading home. Bargaining isn’t always easy but when bulk buying in a shop, owners may swing you a deal.

Close to the Witches’ Market are a host of music retailers. In between places selling inferior quality instruments (such as travel guitars for 300Bs.) are some more legit dealers whose prices are pretty much double.

Still further along Linares is the more expected artisanal market where colour spurts out onto the street in the form of blankets and throws, cushion covers, woollen dresses, hats, scarves and obligatory gringo jumpers. Here I stocked up on presents and warm knits and then posted some of this Bolivian love on to my family. Around this area are also tailors who will stitch you together an outfit for a reasonable price (such as custom rain trousers for 80Bs.).

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Linares markets, La Paz

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Linares markets, La Paz

Close by and in the other direction – a little off Jimenez and on a constant incline – is the ‘American’ market, the place to buy your more everyday clothes and shoes.

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The American Market

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Shoes at the American Market

Trainers cost around the 220Bs. (£20.27 / US$31.60) mark, jeans 100Bs. (£9.21 / US$14.37 and rucksacks between 90Bs. (£8.98 / US$12.93) and 180Bs. (£16.59 / US$25.86) . I found bargaining here near on impossible but still managed to snap up a nice pair of Converse All Stars (having only just avoided the cheaper All Stan alternatives). I knew I would be heading back to Australia where shoes and clothing cost a small fortune so buying in some basics was a sensible move, even if it meant that my prided little backpack now started to spill over into another bag.

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Getting told off at San Pedro Prison

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Hanging out in the plaza directly opposite the prison

Some guys at my hostel told me they’ll probably let us in if we slip them a twenty’, said Blair, my Kiwi travelling friend. I’d met up with him in the sunshine flooded San Pedro plaza where people sat around and socialised, seemingly oblivious to the criminals contained behind the gates of San Pedro prison just across the road.

Since Thomas McFadden, a Brit banged up for cocaine trafficking, decided back in in the late 1990s to start up prison tours and Lonely Planet jumped on board with unintentional promotion, backpackers have found ways to enter Bolivia’s notorious prison for a bit of a nosy. Bribing poorly paid guards, for example, seems to have worked for a fair few people.

But what are visitors actually hoping to gain from getting inside San Pedro’s belly? The legendary, cheap cocaine? Insight into a lawless society? The thrill of being so close to criminals and the taste of danger? Did anyone really care where their money was going? Or the underhand methods at play? Or, as with so many travelling experiences, was it just to see something different?

It was April 2012 and research told me that the San Pedro prison tours, despite being openly discussed amongst travellers, were banned once again. Brad Pitt’s upcoming film adaptation of the book Marching Powder is suggested to have panicked the government and triggered a clampdown on prison tourism. Bolivia is, after all, trying to build-up its reputation beyond that of cocaine and criminality. For the super keen, however, I knew that there was always a way around these rules. Whilst I’m no goody-two-shoes, did I really want to break these rules? And if so, why?

BoliviaBella.com makes a clear case for not supporting these illegal tours, asking instead for a more responsible, ethical approach. She adds that ‘there is nothing benevolent or altruistic about taking this tour’ and that, asides from the voyeuristic nature, it is also ‘a risk to you and your liberty’.

Like many other travellers before me, I stood outside of the prison and pondered: did I want to find a way to get inside? I wandered around looking up at the great grey mass of concrete, questions and butterflies flitting around inside me. Placed centrally within La Paz, it took five minutes to stroll the perimeters.

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San Pedro prison perimeters

What struck me about this infamous place was the size and location. I’d just started to read Marching Powder and as a result I expected these heavy, windowless walls to contain a massive village of activity, yet here, in reality, I couldn’t imagine it was actually that big inside. I guess that looks can be deceiving… but still… it seemed surprisingly small.

A glamorous girl in her late twenties balanced a young child on her hip whilst she rang the bell of a discreet side door. The door opened and a woman let her in. ‘Is this the entrance?’ we asked. ‘Are you here to visit someone?’ she quietly asked back. We weren’t. Time to move on.

A bustle of people clustered outside the main gate opposite the plaza. I walked over to get a closer look and saw a single iron gate leading into a courtyard crammed with men. Some waved. Dangerous criminals? High security? It all felt very close and accessible.

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Main gate at San Pedro prison, La Paz

I crossed back over to the plaza and watched from a bit of a distance as a prisoner exchange took place. Above the archway into the jail, prisoners gathered at the window and watched the outside world and their new inmate arrivals. It surprised me how relaxed the whole operation was, how security was kept to a minimum.

And then suddenly two guards were in my face. They grabbed my camera from Blair. ‘Where is your camera?’ they barked at me. I told them that what they had was actually my camera. They refused to give it back to me. It was forbidden to photograph the jail, they told me, didn’t I know?

I thought quickly about everything I’d read and heard about San Pedro prison and wondered whether a bribe was in order, whether it was expected. Instead I persuaded them that I was sorry and would delete the photos.

They held on to the lead whilst I showed them the photo of the prisoner exchange. They weren’t happy. I got a lecture and a telling off in Spanish. And then I deleted the best photo of my trip to the prison. They seemed appeased and sent us off into a La Paz midday.

I feel like we’re not having the full experience’, said Blair as we skulked away from the prison. I understood what he meant yet, at the same time, prison tours have been banned (again) for good reason. All it took was a small photography altercation and my mind had been made up. I didn’t want to mess with these guys. Why had I even considered it?

So I dodged the con artists trying to sell tours that wouldn’t materialise and I avoided bribery of any sort at the gate. I left with mostly a clean conscience and only a few photos of the outside of the prison.

An eye-opening experience or a sensationalist enticement that ultimately allows the wrong people to profit? Without having done the prison tour proper, it’s difficult for me to fairly comment.

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Why you should skip the tourist bar and head straight for a peña instead

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Trad play

After a night out in a pretty nondescript club where the only thing unusual was a stabbing on the dance floor, I was more than happy to sample something a little more… more typically Bolivian, I guess.

My friend Max suggested a peña. ‘It’s a place for traditional music’, he said. Did I fancy it? Sure! Of course! Something different, something local. Finally.

Me and a little posse of travellers made our way along a side street in La Paz and down some stairs into the belly of a building where musicians sang and played woodwind and percussion whilst groups of friends clustered around tables, chatting, drinking and welcoming in a Friday night.

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Candlelit moodiness and music

Ojo de Agua didn’t fit with Frommer’s comments about peñas tending to be very touristy. We were pretty much the only tourists in there, and it was obvious. So we split up and mixed and merged.

By candlelight I drank te con te, a hot alcoholic drink, and chatted and danced with locals. Pan pipes, accelerating beats and spinning around and around after too many shots of warm, alcoholic tea made me deliciously dizzy.

As the music wound down, we all climbed back up and out of this high ceilinged, lightly populated dance hall and back into the cold, cold chill of La Paz. Early evening fumes had lifted and the streets were surprisingly quiet for a city on the brink of a wild weekend.

The evening finished further away from the centre in a softly lit bar bursting with Bolivians and the smell of cigarette smoke and rising heat from a huddled collective of bodies. People bent in to hear near whispers, orders were murmured at the bar. A man perched on a stool crooned away, finishing songs with a dramatic burst of strummed chords, claps and whoops exploding after the final slap.

I may have missed out on the salt flats eco rave but this low-key night out was a cosy little moment in the great city of La Paz and a lovely little reintroduction to a social drink and dance after far too long on antibiotics.

As the only tourists in both places, it was also a teeny taste of the real La Paz.

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Who goes to watch women beat the crap out of each other?

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Outside the venue in El Alto

I’m not quite sure how I ended up parting with 80Bs. (£7.29 / US$11.49) in order to go and watch a load of women taunt and beat each other up in the rougher La Paz district of El Alto, or why I didn’t stay behind with my hungover friends and eat pizza on a Sunday afternoon rather than join a load of excited locals and a few busloads of bemused backpackers to sit down to three hours of fakery.

But I did.

Cholita wrestling, as it is called, has been packaged up and commodified for the tourist market. Vouchers for drinks and popcorn and little welcome packs containing postcards and a mini figurine are included in the entry price. I do wonder, however, just how inflated the ticket prices are compared to what the locals pay? And wouldn’t some of the kids in the audience enjoy the goodie bags too?

Cholita seems to gain its meaning from the cholo, a reference to a Hispanic man of mixed racial background. It is often associated with low-income and a tough sub-culture. Cholita can be used in a positive sense but is often associated with that of being a tough girl. Cholita wrestling, therefore, is tough girls fighting it out.

Although a very low key set-up with plastic seating and wooden benches, there was very clearly a created sense of them and us; tourists versus locals: tourists got ringside seats, locals seated further back. No integration. A little strange.

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Local crowds watch the action

I had been warned about the dangers of this event. Want to go to the toilet? You’ll need to be accompanied by a chaperone, a guard. The seating segregation? Necessary. Watch your back. Don’t make eye contact. Whatever you do, don’t throw anything at the audience or at the wrestlers; people might flip out and attack you. I had gone with all these potential scenarios in my head, curious as to what exactly I was getting myself into. And still not sure why I was going.

In reality, much of the warnings were hyperbolic, maybe for the benefit of letting us backpackers feel brave, as though we’ve done something a little daring and exciting during our time in La Paz. El Alto is, after all, known as being the roughest part of La Paz, home to the poorest population of the city and a place where life expectancy is just 62 years of age. Backpackers, meanwhile, are rich enough to have travelled to this far-flung part of the world. What a difference.

So my experience? Not being a fan of the likes of WWE, I found the wrestling a little strange. Why people get excited about acted fighting is a little beyond me. I tried to understand it but the closest I got was appreciating some of the skills used to slam down an opponent without breaking their back.

It started off with two guys, the warm up. They paraded the audience, warmed us up.

Then on came the first woman, a thick-set lady with a mean stare and traditional dress. I watched a man beat the crap out of her. All for entertainment. Of course she wasn’t hurt, this was a performance, but spectator gasps indicated the controversial nature of the act. During one move, front seaters excitedly insisted that they saw some scrotum escaping from her pants. Maybe it wasn’t just the fighting that was fake but gender was also being simulated? Who knows. I was further confused. This was all turning out to be a bit of a pantomime.

During the break, I ventured out a little into El Alto with Casey and Kate, two fellow female travellers. A Sunday church group were singing and dancing, ladies swishing their layered skirts and smiling away, men partnering them with a little more sternness, music accompanying the whole affair. A young boy bounced about, weaving in and out of the group, getting up close to our faces and grinning a slightly unhinged grin.

Sunday dancing and smiles

Further along were various stalls and a cluster of table football tables. Casey challenged a local to a game. ‘Money’, they insisted, clearly a little amused by this woman interrupting their Sunday afternoon play. It was a case of put your money where your mouth is, I guess. She lost. Grandly. They gained 20Bs.

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Casey challenges the local men to a game… and loses gracefully

Back inside the makeshift stadium and the fighting continued, culminating in the pairing of two agile women. This time, there was little doubt about their gender. Shorter frames and toned legs covered in a bustle of skirt material, these girls were fit and ready to take each other on.

With each flip, bounce on the ropes, slam on to the floor and chase around the ring, the crowd cheered. These women worked it. Not in any great professional sense, but they were the best of the bunch. Little kids went wild, geed on by their overly excited dads. The performing women each tried to gain support from the crowd. Sides were taken.

Some tourists started to throw popcorn at the two competitors, who in turn decided to attack the audience with water bottles, squirting liquid all over the place. The empty bottles were then used to bash their opponent; headlock and then bish, bash, bosh.

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Cholitas break loose before turning on the crowds and eachother

Another tourist flung a chair towards the ring. He was flung out of the door by security. Plonker. We’d had a pep talk about that kind of behaviour on the bus ride up. Testing the water, I guess. Maybe it just added to the fun and my inability to recognise the comedy value means I’ve become dull? Hmph.

And then I got a bit bored of the whole thing.

Watching the cholita wrestling had been a strange, new experience for me and watching the crowds was only marginally more interesting. Whilst I’m glad that I went, I wouldn’t go back. Been there, done that, got the goody bag.

Will I keep my mini cholita figurine? Yeah, maybe.

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Filed under activity & sport, bolivia, culture, south america