The border crossing into Bolivia is an interesting experience. Raul introduced us to our Bolivian guide, Juan Carlos, who then took over. The farewell to Raul was a little sad, we’d gotten to know him quite well.
Juan Carlos then lead us to the immigration queue, where we jumped ahead as our local guide Sandro was holding a place for us. Jumped over 100 people and saved about an hour, needless to say there were a few grumbles. The driver went ahead with our bags, they were in Bolivia while we still queued to leave Peru. Immigration involved them taking our entrance card, stamping our passports and waving us away. We then walked across the bridge into Bolivia and joined another queue, again Sandro had jumped the queue for us, more grumbles but more time saved. As soon as you cross the border you notice a change, it seemed more chaotic and less friendly.
Our journey then started along a dusty, rutted road out of the border town of Desquerado. Sandro was giving us information about Bolivia and it’s way of life. First stop on the way to La Paz was the town of Tihuanaco where we saw ruins accredited to the Aymara peoples. The cultures in this region are very much like Peru, the stonework and stories very similar. Sadly the museum here, although new, is mostly closed due to rain damage. Sandro tells us there is no money to fix it due to government corruption, this is apparently a common occurrence.
From here it’s on to La Paz itself, the roads are good but as in Peru everywhere is very dry and dusty. Before reaching La Paz though we have to go through El Alto, formerly a suburb but now a city in it’s own right. As it was formed out of necessity due to La Paz not being able to administer it properly it developed quickly and with little planning. Due to corruption roads and other infrastructure have not been completed. Sandro tells us that initially it was quite lawless, a sort of modern day wild west. Some areas are still quite dangerous especially at night. Many people here travel into La Paz each day to work hence El Alto is often called the ‘bedroom of La Paz’. It is also the location of the international airport, there is not enough flat land in La Paz, At around 4000m it’s the highest commercial airport in the world, or so we are told.
The drive down into La Paz can only be described as chaotic, there seems to be no rules other than he with the biggest vehicle goes first. Our first impressions are that tbe city is crowded and hectic. When we arrive at our hotel it seems to be in a market zone, street stalls and sellers are everywhere. Juan Carlos suggests we rest and meet at about 6 for a walk and dinner. The city walk we will do in the morning as today is a big street dance and it will be very busy, sounds like a great idea to us. Our room overlooks a courtyard. With few hours to rest we hit the wifi to see what the world is up to. Wifi speeds this far have been erratic, this hotel, the Rosario, has very fast wifi. The room is a little weird though in that we have the restaurant toilet right outside our door. Then when you enter the room the first thing you see is our toilet, the bathroom door always swings open.
At 6 we meet Juan Carlos for a walk and dinner. First we visit the Witches Market, in the corner by our hotel, they sell all manner if things to allow the locals to honour Pachamama, the Mother Earth. They are bright and colourful and full of the aroma of burning herbs and wood. Local artisans are also selling crafts, i finally succumb and buy a Alpaca wool jacket. After strolling the steep streets for a while Juan Carlos leads us to a very cool restaurant located in a house around 400 yrs old. It’s decorated with all manner of Bolivian history, no photos are allowed though. After dinner we head back for an early night, seems again like we’ve been awake for ages.
Our morning walk takes us through a Sunday market where again everything is for sale. As we walk we pass through streets devoted to individual items. Watch out Harvey Norman, these guys cram their stores full of bargains. From the markets it’s through a row of terraced buildings to an important square. It’s surrounded on all sides by government buildings as well as important churches. The President’s Guards are outside the Congress offices signifying that he is in the building.
The main road through La Paz has been closed in one direction for billy cart races. Imagine doing this on St George’s Terrace! It’s quite cool to watch the homemade carts take a run down the street, some look decidedly unsafe.
As we head back to the hotel we ask Juan Carlos about the infamous San Pedro Prison. Helen and I have both been reading Marching Powder, the story of an English drug smuggler arrested in La Paz after a bribe went wrong. It’s quite an interesting read. He points us ine the direction of the prison, based on being in tbe square we were in earlier. We head back to tbe hotel to end our time with Juan Carlos. After a rest, streets here are very steep, we set out to see the prison, and where up until 2009 you could go on tours run by the inmates.
We backtrack to the square then follow the directions, mmm, no prison here. We head back to the square and ask some police for directions. Their English is not good at but we get the idea and head off in the opposite direction to before, no prison here either. We ask another policeman, get new directions, these are no good either. Almost ready to give up we log into free wifi at a Burger King, just the wifi, not eating there. From here we see none of the directions we’ve received have been any good. At least though we know where we are going.
Finally we reach the prison, its visiting day and families are lined up outside. I try to take a picture by am waved away by armed guards. We watch for a while then move to the side if the square facing tbe prison. I take what I thought was a sneaky picture and we move on or try to. A guard appears and demands to see my camera, he insists i delete pictures of the prison. He has a rifle, so the pictures go. At least though we’ve seen the placethe book is centred on.
Back at the hotel we relax until our pickup for the trip to the airport. There are no direct roads here, it seems we go in circles but we get to the airport and check in. After our two flights we make it to Santiago and collect our bags. Outside we are greeted by a driver who takes us to our hotel, quite nice it is too. Here things don’t do so well though. On opening our bags we discover that somewhere in transit they’ve been opened, despite being locked. All our things have been ransacked. The toiletries bag that was in my case is open and things scattered through my bag. Likewise the gadget bag I carry with cables and chargers is also opened and scattered. The backup hard drive that was in the bag is still there thankfully but no longer in it’s leather case. Looking at time at airports our suspicions fall on baggage staff at La Paz, the only place really where there was time. Also at Inquique this would maybe explain the reason my bag was so slow at coming out compared to Helen’s. The whole thing leaves a sour taste in our mouths. I’ve reported it to LATAM Air but don’t expect much to happen.
So goodbye Bolivia, hello Chile, lets see what a new day brings.