La Paz and Lake Titicaca: The highest places in the world that saw us hit our lows

We’ve heard fellow travellers say that you either love La Paz or you hate it. While “hate” is a strong word in my opinion, I’ll be honest with you – La Paz will not make it into my top ten cities of South America.

After visiting cities like Sucre, Potosi and Uyuni, all of which had a fairly relaxed atmosphere, La Paz hit me over the head with a brick of sensory overload. The city is very crowded, the sidewalks are so narrow that it’s very hard to simply stroll around, and there are many cafes catered only to tourists, which makes the city inauthentic. Did I mention the altitude? La Paz and its neighbouring El Alto are the highest cities in the world, which makes it challenging to walk up the stairs or even to walk up a hill. And there are a lot of hills in La Paz!

La Paz is located 3,689 meters above sea level

In addition, it was cold! Maybe we got a bit unlucky with our hostel, but our room was freezing, so much so that we slept under three heavy alpaca blankets and water bottles filled with hot water and tucked away under our sweaters. The shower also sucked, spitting either droplets of boiling hot water or a bucket-load of ice-cold water. There was no in between! We’ve read online many people complaining about the showers. It amazes me that a city so densely populated and so frequently visited by tourists and locals alike would have the worst showers in the country because they use an electric heater to heat up the water instead of gas.

Nevertheless, we did manage to have some fun in La Paz. In order to get quickly acquainted with the city, we went on a walking tour and learned very interesting tidbits about life in La Paz. One of the most interesting stories involved a prison that is situated in one of the main squares in the city. People who are imprisoned there actually have to pay in order to stay there! In addition, their wives and children can stay with them in the prison, but have full privileges of going in and out if they please. The children go to school every day, while the wives make money by selling fruits and vegetables in the markets for instance. In the evening, they all come back to their home in the prison. Apparently it’s much cheaper for the wives to live with their husbands in the prison as opposed to living away from them in the city.

One of the buildings at Plaza Murillo. Notice how the face of the clock is actually backwards

We also learned a bit more about the cholitas on the walking tour. Cholitas are indigenous women in Bolivia, usually from Quechua or Aymara backgrounds. But the cholitas in La Paz are different from those we encountered in Sucre. First, cholitas in La Paz are predominantly Aymara, whereas in Sucre there were a lot of cholitas from the Quechua culture. We learned from our guide in Uyuni that the best way to tell the difference between Aymara and Quechua people is to look at their cheekbones. The Aymara people have very high cheekbones that stick out and their faces are more pointed, whereas the Quechua people have a fairly round face. We could tell right away that the cholitas in La Paz were Aymara.

The second major thing that sets cholitas in La Paz apart from others was their clothing. In La Paz, the cholitas wear skirts that are much longer than anywhere else that we’ve seen. The length of the skirt goes down all the way to their ankles, covering what’s regarded the sexiest part of the cholita’s body – the calves. As well, cholitas in La Paz wear very tall bowler hats. The story goes that British businessmen came to La Paz and wanted to introduce and sell tall bowler hats to men. But when the shipment of hats came from England, they turned out to be too small for the men to wear. So the British convinced the women to wear the hats by touting them as the latest fashion statement. And of course because every woman wants to have what other women are wearing, the tall hat trend spread very quickly. As a result, these tall bowler hats became a must-have fashion accessory for the cholitas, who are so adept at wearing them that they don’t even need to secure them with anything. They use their head to balance the hat so naturally that they can even dance without the hat moving an inch!

Apart from the walking tour, we rode the cable car to the city of El Alto. The cable car ride took about ten minutes, giving us plenty of time to admire La Paz from above. The city is sprawled among the surrounding mountain slopes in a sea of red roofs and occasional soccer fields. The ride made me wonder what it’s like to live on those mountain slopes and how long it would take to get down to the city center amidst the traffic and the intertwining streets of the city.

The view of La Paz from the cable car
The cable car was actually a very pleasant ride, but we definitely felt the increase in altitude as we made our way to El Alto
After ten minutes in the cable car, we reached El Alto

Finally, we attended a cholitas wrestling match. I couldn’t believe it either at first, but it is in fact a wrestling competition that takes place between the cholitas, who wear their traditional outfits, skirts and all. It was entertaining, but a bit disturbing since the cholitas were quite violent with each other, pulling on each other’s braids while some of the referees spit in cholitas faces. Of course, the entire wrestling match is staged and we could tell that sometimes they just pretended to hit each other, while acting as if it hurt. However, this was the first time we watched wrestling live, and to see it performed by women wearing bulky skirts was quite entertaining.

Cholitas ready to fight!
A cholita twisting another cholita’s arms while kicking her in the head
When the cholitas come out to wrestle, they sport their bowler hats and twirl around without the hats falling off
Trying to be tough
Flexing our muscles

While La Paz was rough on us, I must admit that Lake Titicaca beat us up harder than any cholita. The bus ride to the highest lake in the world was quite scenic. At one point we had to take a boat across a small channel while our tour bus was ferried over separately. The town of Copacabana, which sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca, was small and touristy, but the weather was warmer than in La Paz and quite pleasant.

The lake itself is just that – a lake. I’m not sure what I was expecting from it exactly, but arriving to Lake Titicaca was a bit anticlimactic for me. But the worst part of our journey began when we took a boat ride to the nearby Isla del Sol. This Sun Island appears to exist solely for the purposes of attracting backpackers. There are many hostels where backpackers can spend the night, but besides that, there’s not much else.

The view of Lake Titicaca from Isla del Sol
Taking a break from climbing the trail to the top of the island
Children relaxing on the grass, while their mothers sell souvenirs to the tourists on the island

Of course the island is promoted as having ancient Inca ruins, of which the only one we managed to witness was the Inca stairs.

The Inca stairs, whose significance we don’t quite know

The island is also home to many donkeys, which are used to haul tourists’ backpacks or provisions up the steep slopes of the island. We had about four hours on the island, and being bored out of our minds, we ended up spending a lot of time in a restaurant. This is probably where we got one of the worst food poisonings of our lives.

A dog chilling out in the bushes on Isla del Sol
Donkeys are everywhere on the island
A happy moment with the donkeys before the food poisoning

We didn’t feel it until later in the evening, pretty much right before going to bed. Rami was the first to succumb to the illness, puking his guts out as I mentally tried to convince myself that I was fine. But soon enough it was my turn to stare at the bottom of the toilet, which turned into a very long night. We took turns being sick the entire night, with me breaking the record by throwing up five times! By the end of it, I had absolutely nothing left in me, and Rami didn’t even have the strength to stand up.

Our tummies were really hurting by the morning. I knew that this was no ordinary food poisoning since the pain and the nausea did not go away even after we puked everything out. My stomach was hurting so bad that I could barely walk. I basically had to stand in a hunched over position, while holding my stomach with one hand. We decided that we needed to get medical help immediately, and so we took a taxi to a nearby clinic. Using our broken Spanish and Google Translate, we were able to communicate with the doctors and we got a baggie full of different medications as well as antibiotic injections.

We stayed in Copacabana for one more night with the doctors checking up on us in the evening. After that we felt slightly better, but we wanted to get out of Copacabana out of fear that we might eat more food that could make us sick. You see, Copacabana is a tiny town that is very touristy. As a result, we believe that many of the restaurants just don’t care about food hygiene and quality. We needed to get out fast.

So we took a gruelling long bus ride, crossing the border into Peru and ending up in Arequipa. For five days straight, we had to take really strong antibiotics that made us dizzy and nauseous, and caused painful headaches. But the warmer climate in Arequipa and the atmosphere of a bigger city cheered us up and helped us recover even though we could only eat soup packets and crackers for the entire week.

Overall, we loved Bolivia due to its breathtaking landscapes and all of the memorable experiences that we’ve had, from taking Spanish lessons, to visiting the dinosaur park and rock climbing in Sucre, to descending into the darkness of the Potosi silver mines, and being blinded by the endless stretches of the salt flats in Uyuni. And despite the awful food poisoning, we would always have fond memories of Bolivia and would recommend anyone looking for an authentic South American adventure to put this exceptional country on your bucket list.

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Salar de Uyuni: The world’s largest salt flat

The moment our 4×4 entered the salt flat was very unassuming. The road simply changed from dirt to salt abruptly, as if someone covered it with a thin, white blanket. But as our driver changed gears and stepped on the gas, I felt myself holding my breath and unable to blink as I looked around me at the vast desert covered with blindingly white salt. I turned around to look at my fellow tour mates and we all let out a laugh at the same time and shook our heads in disbelief. How could this be? One moment we were driving on a dirt road, through a small village selling alpaca sweaters and llama keychains. The next, we appeared to be floating on a surface as flat and white as a sheet of paper.

In fact, if I didn’t force myself to look at the crusty polygon shapes on the ground, I couldn’t even notice we were moving. Other SUVs far in the distance appeared to be suspended in the air, while mountains and volcanoes seemed to be hanging just a notch above the horizon.

The salt forms crusty polygons on the ground of the salt flat

But soon enough the optical illusion was disrupted as we approached a building, made entirely out of salt. This was the oldest salt hotel on Salar de Uyuni, with everything from walls to tables and chairs constructed out of blocks of salt. I was impressed and also a bit worried since I knew we were going to stay at a similar salt hotel later that night.

Inside of the salt hotel. Everything is made of salt
I just had to give this llama statue a big hug
Can’t believe I’m here! One more thing checked off the bucket list

We walked around, taking in the vastness of the flat. There were other tourists taking “perspective pictures”, playing with the illusion of the endless desert. A collection of flags outside of the salt hotel drew people to pose with the flag of their home country, while a monument of the 2015 Dakar Rally was hard not to photograph.

We found the Canadian flag!
Rami with the Dakar monument

The sun was high up in the sky and I tried to take off my sunglasses only to squint so hard that I couldn’t see anything anyway. The salt was blinding! It was cold enough for a jacket, but the sun was beaming down so hard that I was also afraid of getting burnt.

Soon it became our turn to take perspective pictures. We hopped back into our SUVs loaded at the top with our backpacks and jugs of gasoline to last us the full three days of our trip around Salar de Uyuni. After driving for another fifteen minutes right into the heart of the flat, we stopped in a place where there was nothing around us, but the vast stretches of salt. No other tourists were in sight and even the mountains blended into a single purple haze, indistinguishable from one another.

We were two SUVs and our drivers were kind enough to help each one of us to take some fun pictures, playing with the endless horizon of the salt flat. Our guide even coordinated two fun videos by positioning a Pringles can into the shot and having us “come out” of the Pringles can, pretending that we were entering a new planet for the first time.

A tough balancing act on the palm of Rami’s hand
You can’t visit the salt flat without taking at least one jumping picture
Don’t eat the salt! It will turn you into an ogre or a midget. The results are unpredictable 😀

The emptiness of the flat was unbelievable. I felt like I was in the Matrix, transported into the training module where there was nothing around me but whiteness. We must have spent about an hour taking pictures, but it felt like ten minutes for me. Before I could exhaust all the possibilities of crazy photographs that we could take, we were ushered back into the cars to our next stop – The Cactus Island.

Just when I thought the salt flat was completely empty, out of nowhere appeared a piece of land, full of cacti. The salt flat is actually the bottom of a prehistoric lake that no longer exists, and this piece of land is an island called Incahuasi. In fact, there are many islands on the salt flat, but this one is extra special since it is home to five thousand cacti, many of which are over one hundred years old.

What a contrast between the salt desert and this island!

The cacti are extremely tall with trunks as wide as trees in some cases. Although their needles are thicker than toothpicks, I’m sure they could do some serious damage if touched. Interestingly enough, these cacti are not native to this island. Their seeds were blown over here by the wind, sprouting up on the scarce pieces of fertile land among the desolate landscape.  I could only imagine how colourful this island must be when the cacti flower.

Reaching for the top!
Thousands of cacti lining up the slopes of the island
Rami made a new friend. He’s just afraid to hug him

We climbed to the top of the island, walking past the giant cacti and trying not to slip and fall. On more than one occasion, I felt like there was a person from our tour standing next to me only to discover that it was actually a tall cactus towering over me. I knew that I had to be more careful if I didn’t want to end up with a free acupuncture session!

Sitting among the cacti, admiring the vastness of the salt desert

As the sun started to set, we made our way back to our vehicles and set off for another spot on the flat where not a soul could be seen all around us. There we watched the sky as it lit up with shades of red and orange, admiring our shadows that stretched for probably a kilometer or two as the sun slipped below the horizon. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped drastically. Despite all of the layers of wool clothing I was wearing, I began to shiver.

The sunset over the salt flat
Look how long our shadows are in this sunset

We drove in pitch darkness towards a much larger piece of land, harbouring our hotel made entirely out of salt. The temperature in the room was cool just as I suspected, but the salt blocks insulated us from the strong winds that howled outside throughout the night. We slept under two alpaca blankets with a sleeping bag on top of us for good measure.

Our room in the salt hotel. Lots of blankets, that’s for sure!
Ok, I have to admit, I licked the wall in our salt hotel. I couldn’t help it! I needed to know…and yes, it tastes salty!

The remaining two days of our tour were full of adventure and admiration of the diverse landscape that this south-western part of Bolivia has to offer. The second day turned out to be particularly tough. We had an early morning start and started driving across another stretch of flat land, but this time it was not covered in salt. There were mountains and volcanoes all around us, and the land was so flat, that you could see the shadows of the clouds on the ground and on the slopes of the mountains. The wind was strong and cold, even though it was very sunny.

Flamingos feeding in a lake
Jumping for joy at the vastness of the altiplano
With some very picturesque mountains

I sat in the front passenger seat because I usually get a little carsick if I sit in the back. From my great vantage point, I spotted a South American animal called vicuna crossing the road or nibbling at the grass in the distance. Our driver was a Quechua man, and true to his roots, he continuously chewed coca leaves the entire day to fend off hunger and the effects of altitude. I sat there in the front, admiring the volcanoes around me, trying to spot vicunas and breathing in the smell of coca leaves as we drove on, stopping in certain spots to take pictures.

Looking at the active volcano in the distance
Serene landscape all around
There are so many cool rock formations
I’m prepared just in case it rains

Our entire trip to South America was timed to avoid the rainy season. As a result, we were visiting Bolivia during the winter – the driest, but also the coldest time of year. It just so happened that this year in particular, the area around Salar de Uyuni got a little bit more snow than usual. In fact, we were under the impression that we could only go on a two-day tour, because we were told the three-day tour may not be possible due to the heavy amount of snow.

However, we got lucky and the tour company decided to run three-day tours after all. But in the afternoon of the second day of our tour, we tried to make our way to Laguna Colorada (or the Red Lake as it is commonly called), and our group of four SUVs took turns getting stuck in the snow.

This is the moment we started to notice SOME snow on the ground
One of the SUVs on our tour being pulled out of the snow

At one particular stopover, we were pummeled by hail as we hobbled through the snow to a nearby restroom. The visibility decreased radically throughout the afternoon, but our guides were determined to show us all the must-see places on the tour. Due to the delays getting stuck in the snow, we were way behind schedule. By the time we got to Laguna Colorada, I started to feel carsick and altitude sick. Although Salar de Uyuni sits at over 3,600 meters above the sea level, I didn’t feel the altitude on the first day. But on the second day, we climbed all the way to an altitude of 5,000 meters. Coupled with a long afternoon on bumpy roads, the freezing weather and the snow, the altitude started to get to me. My head was pounding and I felt nauseous. When we finally got to our hotel for the second night, I went straight to bed.

And this is when we were pummeled by hail and the visibility was very low

Our final day of the tour was filled with wildlife spotting and looking at various rock formations. We started out looking at rock paintings made by the ancient Viscachani culture, which would mix animal blood with llama fat to make red paint. This ancient culture actually knew astronomy and painted various animals on the rocks, such as snakes and pumas, which they believed corresponded to the constellations in the night sky.

Rock paintings left by an ancient culture
A rock that looks like a mushroom!

While looking at the paintings, we spotted a viscacha among the rocks. This is a furry rodent that is a mix between a chinchilla and a rabbit. I even came across a ball of its fur stuck on a bush as it escaped from us between the rock formations. There was evidence of llamas from the hoof markings on the ground and an abandoned bone with a hoof that I found lying around. We saw Andean geese flying in twos above the land, and wild ostriches walking around among the bushes. There were also many llamas grazing on the grass in a mossy canyon that we visited.

Viscacha paw prints
A rock that looks like a camel
Sitting on top of a rock together with our fellow tour group
Hello from the “Italian City” – a group of very tall rock formations that form a maze
The “Italian City” from above
This opening in the rock was just calling to us to snap a photo
And here’s Rami rock climbing with one hand 😉
I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me. Llama, llama-razzi

Unlike Peru that heavily promotes tourism, Bolivia is humble and quiet on this front. As a result, it remains largely undiscovered and often overlooked by backpackers and tourists alike. But our tour of Salar de Uyuni and the surrounding areas clearly illustrated that there are natural wonders and ancient history that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

One unforgettable landscape

Potosi: The darkness of the silver mines

I have to admit that I didn’t even know the significance of Potosi until I started reading travel books about Bolivia. So in case you don’t know it either, here’s a quick summary from my understanding.

Potosi is famous for being a major source of silver to the Spanish during their colonization of South America and Bolivia in particular during the 1500’s. The Cerro Rico mountain, which translates into “Rich Mountain” from Spanish, had enormous supplies of silver, so much so that the Spanish joked that they could build a bridge made out of silver from Potosi to Spain and still have loads of silver to transport via this bridge.

The view of Potosi from Cerro Rico

However, as with any discoveries involving precious metals, Potosi has a dark past. In order to exploit the silver resource, the Spanish enslaved millions of people of African origin as well as indigenous Bolivian people to work in the mines. The conditions in the mines were awful of course. From the long work hours to unsafe explosions, to health problems arising from breathing in toxic substances, it is estimated that about eight million miners died in the mines during the colonial times.

The city of Potosi itself is full of colonial architecture, like this main plaza in the center of the city
Ornate white arches decorate the center of Potosi

Today it is popular among tourists to go deep into the bowels of Cerro Rico to walk in the historic mine tunnels and see the miners still at work. Sadly the mountain only has about seven more years of silver left, after which it will be completely depleted. And despite working conditions improving slightly, miners start working as young as fifteen years old and die young as well, anywhere between 50 to 60 years of age.

Our tour started off with us being outfitted in some miners clothing, complete with a helmet and a headlamp and rubber boots. We also brought some bandanas with us to cover our mouth since we knew that the mines were going to be very dusty.

Sporting our new miners’ gear
And bandanas for good measure
Ready for the tour!

Our guide explained to us that there are currently 12,000 miners working in the mines. About 30% of these miners are organized into cooperatives, which actually provide some form of health insurance and pension. The cooperatives then employ the rest of the independent miners, which receive only 100 bolivianos per day (about CAD$20) plus a share of the profits from the mined minerals.

This is what all the fuss is about – specs of golden and blue dust, indicating zinc or silver

In order to help the independent miners (and in a way to say thank you for letting us walk through their workplace), tourists often buy gifts for the miners before the tour. But these are no ordinary gifts. In order to be as productive as possible, miners don’t eat much during their shifts. Instead they chew on coca leaves to give themselves an energy boost and keep alert. Coca leaves also help with altitude sickness since Potosi is the highest city in the world after La Paz, which is also in Bolivia. In addition, miners often drink almost pure alcohol at 96%! As such, it is common to buy the miners coca leaves, alcohol, Fanta or dynamite sticks as gifts. Yes, I also thought it was a joke at first to buy dynamite, but apparently miners are very appreciative of these gifts especially since there are many robberies that occur between the miners inside the mines. Anything from equipment to dynamite usually gets stolen if it’s not locked up properly. So a stick of dynamite actually comes in handy!

Never thought I would be holding a stick of dynamite in my hand, let alone be buying it as a gift!
But this is the reality of Potosi – dynamite is a hot commodity and makes for a valuable gift for independent miners
We also couldn’t help but to throw in some coca leaves in our gift for the miners

Outfitted in miners clothing and gifts in tow, we finally arrived to the main entrance of one particular mine to start the tour. This mine has nine levels, containing 91 kilometers of tunnels inside and about 500 entrances. Every day, miners have to walk for about ten minutes just to get to their work site!

Rami ready to enter the mine
Posing near the entrance to the mine, and of course photobombed by an actual miner

Inside the mine it is absolutely pitch dark. Unless you have your headlamp on, you will not be able to see anything in front of you. The mine is literally a tunnel burrowed out of rock, with jagged ceilings and uneven floors. There are rails that run along the floor that enable carts loaded with rocks to be wheeled out of the mine. There are various cables that run along the ceiling of the mine supplying electricity or pressured air.

Rami inside the mine
In some places inside the mine, we could spot some colourful spots on the ceilings due to various gases that are released from the rock during the explosions
Carts outside of the mine used to wheel out the rocks and transport it to the refinery

The tunnels are uneven, requiring you to bend your knees and bow your head in order not to hit it against the sharp ceiling. Thank goodness for helmets because I definitely hit my head more than once! The air is hot in places and cold in others. There is constant dust hanging in the air, which reflects in the rays of lights from your headlamp. If you are not moving, you are surrounded by dead silence, the kind that doesn’t even carry sound.

The only source of light is the headlights of the people on the tour with us

We spent about three hours inside the mine. We came across two miners working on preparing an explosion on the level above us in order to break a large piece of rock that they found. Although we didn’t linger long enough to hear the explosion, Rami climbed up to another level to see the piece of rock for himself.

A miner at work, preparing to block the wooden shaft in order to collect the remnants of the rock that is about to be blown up
Another miner getting everything ready for the dynamite explosion

We descended into another level, crouching on our knees at times and scaling down a precarious wooden ladder not attached to anything in particular. At this level, we came across an area, where the miners were preparing holes in the rock, in which to stick dynamite sticks. While there were no miners there at the moment, we were able to peek into the bags they had loaded with promising samples. Some rocks contained blue shiny particles, which were silver deposits, while other rocks sparkled with almost golden dust that was zinc deposit.

We also came across the “God” that miners worship, which was basically a statue decorated with ribbons and surrounded by various offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes, alcohol and beer cans. I put the word “God” in quotations because the miners, which are from indigenous backgrounds, actually cannot pronounce the word God in Spanish, and instead refer to this statue as the Devil. The miners believe that this God or Devil rules the underground and hence should be worshiped in order to keep the miners safe and bring them luck in finding good deposits of silver.

The God or Devil that the miners worship

After three hours of walking around and breathing in dusty air, I personally was exhausted and eager to get out and see the light of day. I’m not usually claustrophobic, but by the end of the tour I was starting to get antsy. I can’t even imagine working a 12-hour shift in this dark and dusty mine every day for several decades! Nevertheless, it was remarkable to walk through these tunnels that are saturated with history and struggle. I only wonder what will happen to the 12,000 miners that are on the line to lose their jobs once all of the silver is depleted from Cerro Rico.

The harsh reality of elderly life in Bolivia

Every Spanish school in Sucre organizes some activities for the students, whether it would be cooking classes, playing sports or salsa dancing. Our Spanish school organized a trip for us to a senior people’s home to get a glimpse into the harsh reality of getting older in Bolivia.

The entrance to the senior people’s home

Unlike Canada, senior housing in Bolivia does not have many resources. As a result, the majority of the elderly people cannot actually stay at this home overnight. Those people that absolutely cannot move end up sleeping on the floor at this home. But the others hike up to two hours each way every couple of days just to get a single meal and maybe some medicine.

The senior home we visited had no medicine whatsoever. Donations from us and other students were used to buy some muscle relaxant cream (similar to Tiger Balm), medicated heating patches for sore muscles and ear drops to prevent and treat infection. Why would these people need muscle relaxant, you ask? Well, the beneficiaries of this particular senior home were indigenous people, mainly from Quechua and Aymara background. The majority were women that still work at the markets despite their age. They carry heavy bags on their backs, full of produce or handicrafts to sell. They often hike for a very long time carrying these bags, which puts a major strain on their muscles.

Upon arriving at this senior home, we were greeted by the elderly people and shook hands with them. We then set up a room where each elderly person could sit on a chair while we, the students from the school, would massage their sore muscles. We massaged their backs, their arms, their sore legs and feet. Rami even treated a woman who fell and had a huge bruise on her elbow. I administered ear drops for every senior person there.

Students massage sore legs and feet of the elderly
Rami gives a back rub
Rami examines a woman who fell and hurt her arm

Some elderly women teared up when they were being massaged. Perhaps it was a simple act of kindness from us that caused them to get emotional. Sadly, we could not communicate with any of these people since they spoke in their own indigenous languages instead of Spanish. But we learned about their stories from our Spanish teachers.

This man tried very hard to communicate with me, but I could not understand him. At times his facial expressions would be serious and his eyes would swell up with tears as he passionately explained something to me. But when I shook my head and smiled apologetically that I couldn’t understand him, he would start laughing

One woman was 99 years old and spoke in a language that no one understood. In order to communicate, she would point to parts of her body that hurt. She was the only one in a wheelchair, and due to the lack of mobility, she slept on the floor at this home.

The 99-year old lady who was forced to sleep on the floor of the senior home because of her immobility

Another woman was a bit younger but could not make any sound at all. We learned that she had mental issues and her own family tried to kill her by slitting her throat and leaving her to die on the street because she could not contribute financially to the economic well-being of the family. Since her throat was slit, she could not talk at all.

Yet another woman was 98 years old and was in a good shape considering her age. She had sore muscles of course, but she was smiling all the time and communicating with our Spanish teachers. Her hair was jet black, with not a single grey hair! Rami and I were thinking that her active lifestyle involving hiking everywhere is likely a contributor to her relatively good health.

The 98-year old woman who despite her age was very cheerful and happy to be pampered with massages

There were also two orphaned children that were being looked after by the man, who runs the senior home. They were both found on the street and were being educated in hopes that they could make something of themselves in the future.

One of the children at the home

After we finished giving massages, we fed the elderly with some crepes and fruits juice. And when we were done, they all clapped for us and wanted to take some pictures.

A simple meal of crepes and fruit juice
A group picture with some of the elderly women and other students

Of course not every senior person in Bolivia ends up in these dire circumstances. Those that are lucky, have families to take care of them when they are older. But this experience opened our eyes to a harsh reality that exists for some indigenous people in Bolivia as they get older and have no relatives to take care of them.

Dinosaur footprints and rock climbing in Sucre

Who knew that dinosaurs not only lived in Bolivia, but left some pretty cool footprints behind? There are several places in Bolivia where one can spot dinosaur footprints, but the closest place to Sucre is Parque Cretacico, which can easily be visited in half a day.

Welcome to the real Jurassic Park!
The entrance to the park
Another replica at the entrance of the park

The Cretaceous Park exhibits replicas of many types of dinosaurs, which are more aimed at entertaining kids. But by far the coolest thing at this park is a gigantic wall that holds a record for having the largest number of dinosaur footprints on a single surface. There are 12,000 dinosaur footprints on this wall from ten different types of dinosaurs!

With my favourite dinosaur – the brachiosaurus
Apparently this park has the largest replica of this dinosaur
Smiling from ear to ear cuz we love dinosaurs!
Ahhh! Look who’s behind us!

The most intriguing fact is that this wall is actually not a wall at all. It used to be the bottom of a lake, which dried up and during its last days was basically just mud, which allowed for dinosaur footprints to be imprinted. When two tectonic plates collided, the lake became a vertical wall. Years and years of sediments covered the footprints, until one day the cement factory nearby discovered them as the workers were digging in the area. Another cool fact is that our Airbnb host in Sucre was actually a manager at this exact cement factory for several decades and was there when the footprints were discovered!

The various types of footprints that can be found at this park
Checking out the footprints from a viewpoint before setting out to look at them up close
The view of the right side of the wall with the footprints
The view of the left side of the wall. Several years ago, a triangle-shaped part of the wall collapsed, which had even more dinosaur footprints
Getting a bit closer to the footprints. Can you spot them?
Here we are with the footprints of brachiosaurus behind us. They’re huge!
Here they are again up close
A footprint from another dinosaur up close
Against another part of the wall with other sets of footprints
Just look at the scale of this “wall”. I’m only a small speck standing against it
Imagine the size of the dinosaurs that were able to leave these large footprints
You feel very small and insignificant standing next to these gigantic footprints

Now visitors can get up close to the footprints or admire them from afar. It is truly incredible to see actual proof that dinosaurs existed!

Due to the mountainous nature of Bolivia and Sucre in particular, we were also eager to try some rock climbing. Rami is a huge fan of rock climbing, having had memberships at various rock climbing gyms in Toronto and having experience rock climbing outside. While I rock-climbed indoors at the various gyms as well, this was the first time for me to actually rock climb outside.

Rami is super excited to give rock climbing a go in Bolivia

Surprisingly we only had to drive about fifteen minutes to the outskirts of Sucre and hike for another twenty minutes through a eucalyptus forest in order to reach our rock climbing wall. This was a very new experience for me as I was literally faced with an almost vertical wall, which at the beginning looked very intimidating. I basically had to find cracks and crevices in this wall for me to hold on to or to put my foot into in order to climb to the very top.

Ready to tackle the wall!
With our guide – Cesar. He’s been working as a guide for rock-climbing and other hiking expeditions part time while he completes his university degree
Here he goes!

The wall was actually quite steep and very high. Rami scaled the wall four times and I scaled it three times, each time using a different route. When standing at the bottom of the wall and looking up, Rami looked so tiny and small, which speaks to just how high this wall was.

Not gonna lie, I felt very intimidated by this wall and had a couple of weak moments when I was up there.
But I did it! The rock was actually pretty cold and sharp, which I didn’t expect because when climbing at an indoor gym, the rocks are plastic and smooth
Look how high this wall is! The trees nearby barely even reach the top of the wall
Rami is a natural of course
Standing at the foot of the wall, Rami looks like a small speck on this wall
I actually really enjoyed the view of Sucre from this rock-climbing place. It’s very convenient that we didn’t have to go very far from the city to do this excursion
Thank you Cesar for a very memorable experience!

We would have never thought that it’s possible to go rock-climbing in Sucre, but it was definitely an experience to remember!

Sucre: The simple Bolivian life

We decided to start our journey in South America in a city called Sucre (pronounced Suk-reh), which is the capital of Bolivia. The main reason behind our choice was the abundance of Spanish schools in Sucre. We read that it would be very difficult to travel through this continent without knowing Spanish as practically no one speaks English in South America.

The gorgeous view of Sucre

But we were also craving for the atmosphere of a quiet, quaint, little town. Wait a minute – how can a capital city be quiet and quaint, you ask? The best analogy I can give you is the comparison between Ottawa and Toronto. Of course Ottawa is the capital of Canada, but let’s face it – it simply doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of Toronto. It’s the same thing with Sucre. While Sucre is the official capital city of Bolivia, the true center of activity lies in La Paz. However, Sucre was just perfect for us. We needed a relaxing atmosphere, in which we could concentrate on learning Spanish and adapt to the new culture.

Mmm, I need this relaxing atmosphere!

Many people come to Bolivia to study Spanish because Bolivians speak much slower and clearer than people in other South American countries. Bolivians also don’t have any special accent, so the Spanish that you pick up in Bolivia could be easily transferrable elsewhere. And boy, were we right to sign up to a Spanish school! Besides our Airbnb host, who spoke English fluently, and the teachers at our Spanish school, no one (and I mean NO ONE) speaks English.

A child plays on the street beside his mother, who sells popcorn and other snacks

In our first few days in Sucre, we went to a local restaurant that doesn’t even have a menu. It serves one type of food – chorizos – or basically sausages that are a classic cultural dish here in Sucre. After managing to order the chorizos, we were dumbfounded by the waitress’ question that had something to do with “tomar”. We had no idea what that word was and how to even spell it. So looking it up in the dictionary was a challenge. The waitress got frustrated with us and left to take care of our order. Only after a few minutes scrambling through our dictionary did we realize that “tomar” means “to drink”, and she was simply asking us whether we want to order a drink with our food. It was surprising to us at first that the locals don’t even know such basic words in English like a “drink”, but we soon realized that this was the case everywhere. It just meant we would have to work very hard to learn Spanish!

One of the most popular local foods in Sucre is the chorizo! It’s filled with meat and spices and is surprisingly very tender and light.

Sucre is located at 2,800 meters above sea level, which means that there is a possibility of altitude sickness. However, Sucre is much lower than La Paz, which sits at over 3,600 meters above sea level. That is another reason as to why starting our journey in Sucre made sense. We wanted to give ourselves time to adjust to the altitude before tackling cities that sit at even higher elevations. In fact, we met a couple that started their journey in La Paz and they were miserable for several days because of altitude sickness. Only when they finally left La Paz for Sucre, did their symptoms subside.

Just look at how steep this street is!
Here is another example – notice the angle of the street

We were actually quite lucky that altitude did not affect us. But Sucre is a very hilly city. You might be walking downhill on one street, and then you turn right and are faced with a steep street that goes uphill. So walking about the city could easily take your breath away. Our Airbnb apartment is also fantastic. It is located at the top of a hill, several blocks away from a church called La Recoleta, and it has an amazing view. In fact, travellers often climb up to La Recoleta to take in the view of the city, but we have this luxury every single day looking out our window. The flip side however is that we have to climb up to our apartment every single day (sometimes several times a day, depending on what we are doing).  But this gives us some great exercise and makes us even more capable of handling a higher altitude.

The view of Sucre from our Airbnb – just red roofs, blue sky and mountains in the background
Our Airbnb is huge! This is just the living room
Look at this cute little reading nook in our Airbnb apartment. That view though!

We also signed up to a gym called “Vista” in Spanish or “The View”. Besides having a great view of the city, the gym also allows us to train at altitude and become more adept to these living conditions. It has hot showers, towels, a strong Wi-Fi and all the equipment that we could possibly need.

Getting my sweat on at the Vista gym
Of course our gym would not be called “Vista” for nothing. It offers great views of the city

The Spanish invaded Bolivia in the mid-1500’s and made Bolivia their colony. That is why Sucre has a lot of “colonial” architecture, which to me just looks very European and beautiful. Although Spanish is obviously the main language, 80% of the population in Bolivia is indigenous and speaks various indigenous languages. The two main ones in Sucre are Quechua and Aymara. The indigenous women (often referred to as “cholitas”) wear bowler hats, flowy skirts and sweaters of various bright colours, and have their jet-black hair in two long braids. We encounter cholitas everywhere – in the markets or on the streets, selling produce or fresh orange juice out of a cart.

In front of a government building in the center of the city
In front of the La Recoleta church, which actually used to be the center of Sucre
The current center of the city is Plaza 25 de Mayo, which has a few fountains and lots of shady spots to hide from the sun
The very center of Plaza 25 de Mayo
Sucre is full of colonial architecture. Oversized doorways (like this one) to churches or other buildings are common
In the La Recoleta square
Cholitas are easy to spot – a flowy skirt, bring colours, a bowler hat and two long braids
Cholitas often carry colourful sacs on their backs, like this one inside Mercado Campesino
Here is a cholita selling freshly-squeezed orange juice

Sucre is a fairly cheap city to live in. A decent lunch for two is about CAD$15, but you can find even cheaper places that offer “menu of the day” involving three courses for about CAD$4. However, these menus of the day are typically heavy on rice and potatoes, so we try to opt out for meals with some protein.

This was the first of four courses, part of the menu of the day that only set us back CAD$5 per person. Notice the French fries in my soup

Fruits and vegetables are also fairly cheap at the local market (Mercado Central). For about CAD$7, you could score a broccoli, two cucumbers, a gigantic avocado (the size of a huge mango), a mango, some grapes, a large zucchini, a small bag of green beans and an onion. You can buy ten huge bananas or ten pieces of fresh bread for CAD$1! Laundry is less than CAD$2 per kilogram and is washed in separate washing machines, unlike Southeast Asia where your clothes would be combined with someone else’s to be washed.

A lady selling fresh bread at Mercado Campesino
We were so in love with the chorizos, that we ended up buying raw ones and cooking them at our apartment
Local markets remind us of St Lawrence market in Toronto, but much bigger. Along with fruits and veggies, you can find all kinds of meats, like chicken…
…liver…
…more liver or some other organs (we’re not entirely sure)…
…and coca leaves! Coca leaves are a staple in Bolivia, used by the locals to give an energy boost and to help cope with altitude. They are often chewed or made into tea. They are also an ingredient in Coca Cola…BUT the most lucrative purpose for coca leaves is to make cocaine. Don’t worry – it’s not possible to get high or even addicted by chewing the leaves or drinking coca tea.
Look at how many coca leaves are in these huge red bags!

Every now and then we buy fruits and veggies at the market along with a whole roasted chicken (for about CAD$10) and we make meals in the kitchen of our apartment. We also like a local food called salteña, which you can buy for CAD$1.60 a piece. There are two types of salteñas that we discovered: one filled with broth and chunks of beef called salteña de caldo, and another filled with chicken, egg, veggies and some spices called salteña de pollo. The fun part is to actually eat these pastries with a spoon because biting into them will cause the broth and the meat juices to spill. The locals eat them as a mid-morning snack, washing them down with milkshakes or lemonade. But for us, a couple of salteñas is a pretty big meal and the equivalent of a pretty filling lunch. In fact, lunch is the main meal here. At altitude, your digestion slows down, so eating a big meal late at night is not recommended.

I love avocados, and look at how huge this one is! It is literally the size of a large mango and it’s perfectly ripened
Salteñas! A delicious snack or lunch depending on how many you end up eating
Chicken salteña
Beef salteña

The temperature in Sucre varies greatly during the day. In the morning it could be as cool as 6oC, but during the day it could climb up to as high as 23oC. As soon as the sun starts to go down, it becomes cooler again. It’s important to be prepared for these swings and carry a jacket with you. It’s also important to wear sunscreen since getting sunburnt is a lot easier due to the elevation and a thinner atmosphere.

A light jacket is a must as temperature can vary greatly throughout the day

There is also no central heating (or any kind of heating for that matter) inside the homes. Hot water is boiled by a natural gas heater that requires oxygen to combust and start working. The stove in our kitchen also uses gas. We often spot trucks on the streets delivering natural gas tanks to homes.

Buses run on diesel and spit out clouds of black smoke as they huff and puff to get up the hilly streets of Sucre. All the cars that people drive here are manual because automatic transmission could not handle the steep hills of this city.

There are many stray dogs on the streets, but they seem much fatter and healthier than the super-skinny ones we saw in Thailand. However, this also means that you are constantly dodging piles of poop as you’re walking down the street. Consequently, all of the stray cats live on the roofs to get away from the stray dogs.

There are people dressed in zebra outfits and people pretending to be mimes at the main plaza in the city center. These zembras and mimes help you cross the street because that particular intersection can be quite tricky. There are also a ton of kids in Sucre, which explains why the zebras and mimes are necessary to help them cross the street. During the weekend, the kids play at a large park (Parque Bolivar) where they have access to the coolest slides and jungle gyms.

A person dressed in a zebra outfit says hello to a kid crossing the road
I just had to take a picture with a zebra! And I was photobombed by a passing schoolboy!

Overall, Sucre is a very friendly city, rich in culture and beautiful architecture. We are very happy that we decided to spend an entire month here, dedicating ourselves to learning Spanish and building up our tolerance to the higher altitude.