Tags: backpacking, bolivia, cementerio de los trenes, high altitude, latin america, salar de uyuni, south america, southwestern bolivia, sucre, train cemetery, travel videography, travel writing, uyuni
I had a rough experience with a night bus my first week in Ecuador, resulting in my insane fear of taking other buses at night throughout Latin America. Yet with great distances and little time, it can often be an unavoidable thing to do. In Peru I took a night bus and noticed that at least the service was better, with few stops and a smooth road. In Argentina my opinion changed greatly, with the quality of the buses so good that I didn’t even consider it a risk. In fact, I began my trip with a night bus up to the Bolivian border without a thought.
Yet once in Bolivia, it was another story. This place had me a bit worried about taking a night bus, yet it was really my only option to get from Potosí to Villazón and return to Argentina, so I had to swallow my fears and go for it. I left Sucre on the 9 am bus, which really didn’t leave until about 9:40, causing us to get into Potosi (3 hours away) late, causing me to miss out on the 1:30 pm mine tour, which I had begun to consider again. I only had a few bolivianos left and didn’t want to change more because I was leaving the country, so I ate a cheap enough lunch and walked around the center for a while. I couldn’t even go into the Casa de la Moneda, a museum on the Spanish mint, because I didn’t have enough cash. With four hours before my bus I went to the station and waited in the new and empty-feeling terminal.
Before getting on the bus I chatted with a guy who was visiting his grandmother in Potosí, but lived in Buenos Aires. This helped me feel that at least one person on the bus could help me out if I needed something. Night fell along with the temperature and we boarded the cold bus for an eight hour trip down to the southern border. Reluctantly I noticed that I was given the worst seat in the bus, on the top and in the far back corner next to a couple and their young child who they kept on their lap. I had to argue with them to move out of my seat and then when they didn’t even get up, had to climb over them.
Once in the seat, I had the child’s feat kicking my legs during the ride while the father leaned into me, taking up all of the space. Normally it would be worth complaining about, but his body actually provided a little bit more heat on my right side, so I didn’t say anything. Every once in a while he would ask where we were and comment on the cold, but apart from that, they didn’t say anything to me, which was fine with me really. About 20 minutes after leaving the terminal every light in the bus was turned off, forcing us to try to go to bed at 8:30 pm.
Surprisingly, because I was so tired and felt secure in that no one would come up from behind me, I was able to sleep a bit, though always woke up periodically throughout the night. And with a bit of luck, there were no hijackings or rollings off of cliffs. By 5 am we pulled into Villazón, stepping down into the freezing night and shivering uncontrollably. If anyone ever tells you that you can wait in the bus until the border opens, it’s a lie. You get tossed out as soon as the bus stops and have to wait in the cold.
I met up with two other Argentinians on the bus and together we walked down to the border, accidentally crossing illegally into Argentina before it opened. Once we realized it, we started talking to a border guard who didn’t really seem to care and told us we could wait at a gas station up the road. I chose to play it safe and cross back into Bolivia to stamp my passport, avoiding any potential trouble later on. There I waited alone for an hour and a half, freezing and unable to feel my feet at 11,000 feet above sea level. Finally a Bolivian guard let me wait inside where at least it was slightly less cold. I had to take out the pair of alpaca socks I bought in Sucre and use them as gloves, having forgotten mine in Buenos Aires.
Even after the border opened, we had to wait another 30 minutes for the guy with the stamp to show up. It was Labor Day, May 1st, and no one really felt like working. But all things considered, I was the first person stamped out and feeling tired and more glad than ever to return to Argentina, I saw the “Bienvenidos a Argentina” sign and crossed in, rushing up to the bus terminal to catch the first bus to Tilcara, a small village in the northern province of Jujuy.
The ride from Uyuni to Sucre was long but nevertheless rewarding. The first 45 minutes to an hour were rough, with bumpy dirt road causing the old bus to sway back and forth. Considering that it was five hours to Potosí, it felt like we were going to have sore bodies by the time we arrived to the world’s highest city. Yet by the one hour mark we turned on to what must have been a main road, any by comparison it was suddenly smooth and enjoyable. From then on we were treated to the stereotypical scene of Bolivia—high mountain peaks, deserts and valleys of intense color and depth.
Originally I had wanted to spent a night or two in Potosí and visit the mines, known the world over for their miserable conditions. Yet talking it over with Alex and Faye made me realize that it was kind of patronizing to come to a miner’s work place and gawk, taking photos as if they were in a zoo. I don’t approve of slum tours either, because in my opinion they demonstrate just how separated we let ourselves feel from people who have to live in poor conditions, rather than trying to help. So I scrubbed the mines from my plans and went with the girls to Sucre. Just as well, because in passing through Potosí I could see that it wasn’t a particularly attractive destination and had an odd feel to it.
From Potosí it was another three hours to Sucre, this time descending a bit and going through green valleys which, with the right lighting during sunset, somehow reminded us of Tuscany. By nightfall we were in the disputed capital of Bolivia, and adding on a Slovenian girl named Ana to our group, I haggled with a taxi driver who laughed as I bargained him down to slightly above the going rate to the center. Along the way he gave me a good run down of city life in Sucre, explaining the traditional food, local activities and what sureños like to do.
Even though it was night, I could already tell that I liked this city. With colonial influence in the center, it reminded me of Cusco and Cuenca, which are both also located in the south of their respective countries. We walked around looking for a restaurant to please the vegetarian needs of Ana, and once we found an extremely touristy resto-bar, I made a grave mistake. I thought because it was a place for tourists that I could eat anything, and I naively ordered the chilli con carne. This would prove to make me quite sick for the next few days.
Our first day got off to a late start because we really needed some extra time to recuperate, especially after days of waking up before dawn on the Salar tour. Previously I had considered spending the night in Sucre and then in the afternoon heading back to Potosí, but after the long and tiring trip to Sucre (which had always been too far away to visit in my plans), I decided to make the most of it and spent two nights. After all, it was a nice place anyway, so why not enjoy myself? Thus, we leisurely headed to the central plaza by noon, but not before stopping in at Para Tí, one of the most well known chocolate shops in Sucre. An unlikely destination for chocolate, Para Tí actually has an excellent selection, as well as coffee and other caffeinated beverages which run for close to $1.50 or so. There are two locations in the center, and we wound up going to both that day.
Our goal was to visit the Dinopark, which houses fossils and dinosaur tracks lodged into the side of a hill. They used to be flat, but as the Andes Mountains are the youngest mountain chain in the world, they have over time been elevated and now make it appear as though dinosaurs could defy gravity and walk up cliffs.
The park itself is nothing special, and the guided tour is 30 minutes long in one small room, though the guide tells you about the fossils and how they were probably formed. The cost of $30 bs is debatably worth it, and the extra $5 bs you have to pay if you want to take pictures is definitely not worthwhile. Especially when you consider that, if you’re a sneaky ninja like Alex, you can simply take out your camera when no one is watching and take a picture. I wasn’t so clever.
Apart from that activity up in the hills, our day was spent walking around the center’s blindingly white architecture and perusing the hundreds of stalls set up with the traditional alpaca sweaters, socks, hats, and millions of knick knacks. I splurged on a necklace and a pair of alpaca socks, anticipating a cold winter back in BA. If I could have winged it, another day in Sucre might have been nice to visit another part of the city, but I was concerned with the timing and left for Potosí the next morning, where I would have to wait around all day with nothing to do and feeling ill. This was the only day on the trip that was “wasted,” even though I’m glad to have seen Potosí. Anyway, the good times had in Sucre made up for a lazy day in the middle of a long adventure.
I’ve finished the first video on Bolivia, featuring the first two days of footage of the trip through the southwestern part of the country. Take a look at it here:
Leaf through a Lonely Planet published in the last few years and when you make your way to Bolivia, you’ll probably come across the town of Uyuni sooner or later. Check into hostels and activities, and eventually you’re gonna realize that you need to eat too. And there, at the top of the list, is where you’ll find Minuteman Pizza, an unlikely gastronomic delight in a random high altitude speck in the world. All things considered, it’s a major find.
Though you might want to focus on the typical food while in Bolivia, once you get to Uyuni you’ll probably be craving something that doesn’t make your stomach churn, or at the very least reminds you of familiar food that you can rely on. And Minuteman is just the place for a fix up of good food. But still, it’s not just food that suffices in a harsh environment, and it’s really good.
After our tour of southwestern Bolivia ended with the icing on the cake, the Salar de Uyuni, the girls from the tour and I were looking for a decent meal to cap off the excursion and have a nice goodbye. Alex, Faye and I were heading to Sucre in the morning, but Erica was leaving at midnight on the train to Oruro, so using the Lonely Planet’s advice (often times way off, by the way), we wandered into Minuteman, which was recommended for having good pizza. I thought that maybe the guy who owned the place had at one point visited the Boston area, because that name is specific to my hometown. You see, during the American Revolution, regular Joe’s would be sitting around a tavern drinking a beer. Suddenly a church bell would ring out, and within a minute they were on their feet with muskets in hand, ready to fight the British. Hence, Minuteman, which is also the mascot of UMass Amherst, my alma matter.
My ideas of a Bolivia with knowledge of Boston were thrown for a loop, however, when I walked in and saw the Red Sox flag on the wall. I heard the guy behind the counter talking with another American and though I couldn’t spot his accent immediately, knew that the owner was from the States. Suddenly I heard it: “I’m from Amherst, Massachusetts.” Of course, it all made sense. The flag, the name, but how on earth did this guy get to Uyuni, Bolivia to open a pizzeria? Was he a tourist who fell in love and stayed behind?
I waited for my turn to speak and then eagerly went up to introduce myself and say I was from the Boston area as well and had gone to UMass. With a big grin, he shook my hand and introduced himself as Chris Sarage, saying welcome to Uyuni. We chatted it up and it turns out he used to be a manager for the (world) famous Antonio’s By the Slice pizzeria in the center of Amherst. Antonio’s had been a highlight of my four years in college, and the fact that I was talking to a living legend who helped set it up and create my favorite slice, the chicken bacon ranch, was a total shock. Like the salt flats, I felt as if it was some kind of illusion.
Chris told me the interesting story behind Antonio’s and the food industry in Amherst, and told me how he met his wife, from Bolivia, while serving her a slice in Antonio’s. Eventually in 1998 they moved back to Bolivia, first to La Paz, where Chris found the pizza to be lackluster. All the Bolivians ever wanted was a Hawaiian pizza, and though he swore he’d never make one, he eventually added it to a rather long list of topping filled and appetite stifling ‘za.
So much of a restaurant also has to do with its onda, or atmosphere. Minuteman Pizzeria has buena onda, or in other words, good vibes. Though it was mostly filled with tourists, it felt like a branch of the South American Explorer’s Clubhouse, a place where weary travelers could unwind comfortably and safely and share stories. Good music playing in the background, appropriate lighting, and a location across from the train station (ideal if you have to catch a train out and need a place to kill time) completed the experience. It was also one of two places I went to in Bolivia that actually had toilet paper in the bathroom, in addition to humorous survival guides on the wall.
The restaurant was a bit more expensive than the other places in town where you’d get a typical meal, but sometimes you need to splurge when you’re on vacation. And when you do the math, it’s fairly cheap as it is. Take a load off and get a cappuccino or a slice of death by chocolate with ice cream on top, because it might be your last chance while you’re in Bolivia.
Sometimes you make your home where you are, and other times you create a new one. Chris Sarage has helped to bring a little slice of home back to those on an adventure of a lifetime, and for that, I’ll raise my pizza in the air in salute and say, “¡Buen provecho!” Bon appétit.
Address: Av. Ferroviaria 60 (in front of the train station and military base)