Po-to-si, po-to-si, po-to-siiiiiii! We followed the call at the bus station. The group of us all went off on another hairy bus journey. At this stage, we were travelling with a bunch of Argentinians that we’d picked up in Uyuni.
We reached Potosi and discovered it was a surprisingly pleasant place in its own right. It is made up of red and orange buildings built with the money from the silver mining. The Args bartered for our room, trip to the silver mines and our meal that evening complete with drinks so we were quids in.
Potosi has an interesting history, colonised as it was by the Spanish as the first ‘city of capitalism’ according to the author Jack Weatherford who was of course featured in the Guardian. The discovery of silver extraction meant that from the early 1570s onwards, people were enslaved and forced to work in barbaric conditions until they were broken.
A hill in Potosi was known in the indigenous Quechuan language as ‘the mountain that eats men’. There were 140 mills grinding up the silver ore. Madness, fighting, and death was the daily routine of Potosi.
It was naturally liberated by Simon Bolivar when the 1800s rolled around. That was then. Now it is a UNESCO town due to its significance as a cashbox for the Spanish city of Seville. More importantly, you can blow shit up and buy really shitty weed. Some mining does go on as far as I’m aware, but the scary mines are on every backpacker’s list because if you’re not in mortal danger then what is the point? We went down the mines with a guide, as well as a load more Argentinian backpackers who had to translate for us.
It wasn’t as scary as I thought as there were no miners working down there. We had bought them some shitty weed as a gift and they also use coca leaves down there to help with the conditions. We smoked the pot ourselves later and it tasted like twigs. The Argentinians had bought some dynamite so we blew that up – sorry UNESCO. As if the hill of Cerro Rico hadn’t been through enough already.
It was time for us to part ways with the Argentinians and go our own way. It had been a blast but they fannied around so much that we were keen to just do our own thing and not worry about 8 other people especially with language difficulties. We were off to Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia.
Sucre is very white and colonial looking. It is also UNESCO, founded by the Spaniards in the 16th Century. A pleasant place, not the craziest but we had parted from the Args so was nice to have some peace.
There was one place on our list and that was the dinosaur footprints. I can tell you that Sucre’s dinosaur park is pretty shit, but in a lovely way and you should visit if you’re in the area. The best part is that you take a ‘dinosaur bus’ from the main square to get there and it is fantastic.
Parque Cretácico (yes I thought you’d like that) is based around a rock face which displays dinosaur prints of great importance.
Yes, part of it fell off during rain in 2010 but what are you gonna do? Say you’re going to protect it with protective plastic and never do it? Wait for it to all fall down? They have until 2020 to sort it out. Although there are apparently more prints in the layers beneath, surely Sucre and UNESCO can come to an agreement before we need to find out.
The reason the site needs to be preserved is that there are over 5000 prints made by 15 species of dinosaurs. They were discovered by a cement company which is why the rock face was sliced in a certain way so that when the rock slid off the prints came into view.
There are some giant plastic dinosaurs for you to enjoy as well as a cafe. They give you a shout before the dino-bus leaves. We managed to catch it and headed to Sucre to catch the bus to Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz is underrated as a city and as a region in Bolivia. I liked how it has a tropical feeling compared to all the high altitude cities that we had just visited. Once we got to the city we went to an Irish pub on the main square and met a millionaire seismologist from Texas who helped people find oil.
Now, that’s the way to make money. His wealth meant that he had a massive ranch outside Santa Cruz for his family. We ate chicken wings and listened to his stories. He’d once had to use his helicopter to recover bodies from a bus that had gone off a cliff. A sign of a poor government is when private individuals aid in rescue efforts. They just didn’t have access to the equipment they needed for even a small-scale disaster.
When his family arrived we got back to our drinking. His theory was that SC had ‘gone downhill’ although economically it is one of the most prosperous cities in Bolivia and the most popular with migrants.
My Australian friend Nick who you may remember from Brazil is one of those migrants. If you haven’t read that chapter then do, it is probably the best one. He set up a tourist agency to protect wildlife in Bolivia. Power to him for living with the hell that is trying to save the rainforest. His particular specialty is jaguars and he has camera traps all over the place collecting vital data. Do we need more meatheads like him? Abso-fucking-lutely.
He’s also got himself a Bolivian girlfriend, a blonde baby girl, and a big fat bulldog. They keep him busy when he isn’t complaining about poachers, the government and cheapskate backpackers. I think he’s very happy.
Whilst we were in Bolivia there were riots in Santa Cruz. The reason for this unrest was down to six letters – ATPDEA. The Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act is a trade agreement between the US and Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. The four coca-growing countries. The coca leaf is a staple in Andean life and it is unthinkable to stop growing it. However, some top-notch decision-makers in the glorious Bush administration wanted to them to do that in return for trade of other products that couldn’t be made into drugs.
The trade agreement was beneficial to Bolivia as many Andean products were exempt from trade tariffs and this was good for textiles, wool, oil, copper, flowers, jewellery, asparagus, and sugar. This agreement began in 2002 and was set to expire in 2006, it kept being renewed for arbitrary amounts of time, six months, then 10 months and so on until the 31st December 2008. They were then kicked out of the agreement for their failure to adequately curb coca growth, hence the rioting whilst we were there.
It was ultimately a storm in a teacup in terms of safety for tourists but the American travellers got expatriated anyway. US travellers to Bolivia say $100 for their Bolivian visa as insurance for when things kick off and they’re asked to leave. They are the only country to pay this fee. It is now $160 for a visa.
Bolivia was allowed back in at the end of 2009. Unsurprisingly the whole scheme was a failure as drugs crops were only slightly reduced and it actually had a negative effect on the US economy as they had to compensate American asparagus farmers for their losses. The whole scheme lapsed into oblivion in 2013 after the last surviving member, Ecuador was kicked out.
We went to the Santa Cruz zoo on a day out because I wanted to see the sloths. The sloths had previously been living in trees in the town square but this got a bit out of hand as people kept having to help them to cross the road, if you’ve seen any videos of people assisting these creatures then they’re probably in Santa Cruz. These sloths were moved to the zoo to live freely in the trees. The zoo wasn’t great and I couldn’t find the sloths so I was pretty disappointed. The hostel that we stayed in had two toucans flying loose, little did I know that I would finally find a sloth and that I would later be attacked by a toucan.
From Santa Cruz we got a shared taxi to the lovely village of Samaipata.
Samaipata is the jumping off point for the Ruta del Che which we couldn’t afford to do. Che’s last stand was in La Higuera which is about a four-hour drive away if you don’t trek there.
There is an objective for this tourist trail or ‘pilgrimage’ for his supporters and that is to make money for those in need. One of the last people to see him alive was a 19-year-old trainee teacher who said ‘I remember Che as very handsome; he had great presence and piercing eyes’. And ultimately that seems to be his legacy, his image stands for rebellion, for left-wing politics, for adventure – basically anything you want it to mean. His face is worth more than his acts, not all of them virtuous, a reductive way to view a man who lived a complex life with a loose grip on morality at times.
His compadre Fidel Castro is now dead, although he was so rarely seen that he could have been dead for years and we wouldn’t have known.
A recent TV show called One Day at a Time (Un Dia La Vez) tackled the perceived agreement by all Cubans with everything these two said and did.
The show is about a Cuban family in the US. Their American neighbour comes in wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt saying ‘Viva la revolución!’ and he receives a thorough dressing down. They tell him it’s like wearing a Hitler t-shirt in a Jewish home. The army veteran parent says “Do you have any idea what this come mierda (shit eater) did?”.
The daughter adds: ‘He burned books, personally he banned music, he personally oversaw executions, he’s a mass murderer!’
This is exactly why non-stereotypical representation is so important on TV.
Samaipata itself is very small and relaxed. We did have two awkward situations, one when we gave a ripped banknote to a restauranteur and she chased us across the square demanding a new one and another when Steph had too long a shower and accidentally flooded our hostel.
One day we climbed up to the ruined fort of Fuerte de Samaipata. I read a blog that described it as ‘enigmatic’. I’m not sure that was my reaction but it was a different kind of ruin to some of the others we’ve seen. The reason for this is that it is pre-Incan and thought to be built by the Chane people.
It was thought to be a military edifice – hence the ‘fuerte’ but is actually a religious site adorned with animal carvings. I read that an organisation called ‘Stonewatch’ look after these carvings to protect them from erosion etc. I have not verified this, but I like to believe this is true. The fact that it is an English and not a Spanish or Quechuan name does make me suspicious.
It was time to brave the altitude again in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, to visit the world’s most dangerous road and a prison where they make cocaine…