I was supposed to be in southern Bolivia today, at the Uyuni salt flats. This is supposed to be one of the highlights that South America has to offer. Due to being on a tight timescale I was planning to get the night bus down yesterday, go on a tour there today and fly back tomorrow afternoon. About two weeks ago the airline informed me that the flight had been changed to arrive back in La Paz late tomorrow night. This was cutting it fine for the onward flight to Quito. No alternative flights were available and the only other option would have been to get the night bus back to La Paz tonight. This option would have given hardly any time at the salt flats. In the end I just decided not to bother in the hope that if I’m ever in this part of the world again I can spend more time in Uyuni. Amazonas are getting close to giving Santander and American Airlines a run for their money in terms of companies with dreadful customer service. It took 11 emails before they agreed to a refund that has still has yet to reach my credit card account.
While the hostel bar didn’t have any beer it still showed football and provided a half decent breakfast. The main game was Man City v Everton but there were other matches being shown at the same time. If you try to watch three games concurrently you seem to miss that much so as you don’t really watch any of them.
I decided to take a walking tour that visited some places around La Paz that were a bit of the beaten path. This included going up the El Alto cable cars that I didn’t make it on yesterday. As it was a paid tour there was only myself and a German couple. Some of the free tours have ten times as many people. This gave us a good chance to talk to the tour guide Jonathan about Bolivia. I asked why most properties seem to be unfinished, with extra storeys on top of houses that were seemingly started but not complete. This made them look ugly and somewhat untidy. Jonathan said that it has got nothing to do with people wanting the option to extend in the future. Apparently a tax is due when a building is completed so many structures are a work in progress (nudging and winking)! I was also interested about the origin of the name of the La Paz football team, The Strongest. I’d like to think that I’m not gullible but quite often things are so crazy in South America that whenever you hear something a bit mad you’re not sure if someone is having you on! Someone told me that The Strongest are named in English as people struggle to pronounce the Spanish translation. I put this to Jonathan, himself a supporter of The Strongest. He informed me that someone had indeed been winding me up. Many South American football clubs were started by British immigrants and still maintain their original names, such as River Plate and Newell’s Old Boys.
The tour started by getting into one of those collectivo minibuses that are all over the place. You flag them down and then shout to the driver when you want to get off, paying the 25p fare upon exit. Jonathan told me that the only seat I’d fit in was in the front next to the driver. This point of view makes Bolivian driving even scarier. We got off and walked through a cemetery to reach the cable car station. It was maybe a bit of a strange place to visit but it was different to the cemeteries back home. All the tombs were above ground and stacked high in order to fit the required amount of people inside the cemetery. Next up was the cable cars. They have been running for two years to allow people to travel to and from the hilly areas of the city in a timely manner. The whole set up was extremely modern and looked like something you’d expect to see at a ski resort in the Alps. At the top there was a lookout point that provided great views of La Paz below and the snow-capped mountains on the horizon.
We were now in El Alto, the separate city that overlooks La Paz. From its beginnings as a shanty town district of La Paz, El Alto is now a huge city in its own right with a population of around one million people. It is the poorest city in Bolivia. I probably wouldn’t have fancied wandering around El Alto without a guide although we had no issues. We stuck to the main road which was essentially a big line of market stalls. Among the stalls was a less touristy version of Witches’ Market which included delicacies such as goats penis soup (apparently great for hangovers). There were plenty of dead baby llamas that I mentioned the other day would supposedly bring luck to the construction of new buildings. There were also some gruesome stillborn llama fetuses which were particularly grizzly. We caught another collectivo across El Alto to take a cable car back down to Le Paz.
I’d switched from the so-called party hospital (which incidentally never sold a single beer during my stay there) to a hotel tonight. As I’m likely to be sharing rooms for the next three weeks this was a good opportunity to get the relative luxury of my own room for the night. For £15 you can get a night at an OK hotel in these parts. If was difficult to find any decent food near the hotel tonight. About three quarters of the places seemed to be fried chicken outlets. Most of the other restaurants were empty. From what I’ve seen, Bolivian cuisine isn’t the greatest. It’s usually some sort of meat with a combination of potato, rice and bread. Vegetables were close to non-existent although you can find fruit. I reluctantly opted for some sort of chicken meal combo.