Sucre, Bolivia

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Bolivia | Leave a comment

Sucre was a breath of fresh air after the smoggy chaos of La Paz. The city is the second capital of Bolivia, and is known as “La Ciudad Blanca” (the White City,) because just about every single building is painted bright white. It creates a wonderfully clean and peaceful aesthetic. Sucre is much more quiet and calm than other South American capitals. There are several universities in town and thus an abundance of young students in the area; however, that definitely doesn’t make it a party town like you might imagine. It’s also a popular spot for Spanish lessons, so a lot of travelers come to Sucre to chill out and study the language before continuing on the “Gringo Trail.”

We planned to stay in Sucre for two or three days before heading out to Uyuni to see the famous salt flats. It’s centered around a charming park in the main square, which is bordered by a lively ring of shops and cafes next to vintage, grandiose government buildings. We spent the first day on our hostel rooftop—it was sunny but cold, in typical high-elevation weather—and the evening wandering around town, searching for vivacious restaurants and live music.

One afternoon while we were out for a stroll, we ventured a bit further than we had gone before. We weren’t too far, but definitely outside the tourist realm. We were about to head back when Murray suddenly perked up, saying she smelled something delicious and had to have some of whatever was cooking. We followed the scent to a tiny house, which had a raised garage door and a makeshift bakery set up inside. We arrived just as a squat Bolivian woman was pulling a tray of steaming, glistening empanadas out of the oven. Now, you’re probably thinking, “Empanadas in South America can’t be THAT exciting…” But they were! True, it’s common to see these pastries for sale in food carts and restaurant display cases, but they usually look dry, crusty and unappetizing. These were a different story. We ordered five or six of the vegetarian delicacies and were blown away! Although we tried several times over the next few days, we couldn’t find the secret bakery ever again. We must have told everyone we met in Bolivia about “the best empanadas in the world” but there was no way to give directions so that others could share the experience.

I made good use of our next otherwise idle afternoon by running some much-needed errands. I had noticed a plethora of medical offices in town, so I decided to get a couple checkups. I went to the eye doctor for a vision prescription, got a teeth cleaning at the dentist and a haircut—for less than $30 total! We also found a lovely little Pilates class that night and the instructor turned out to be from Palo Alto, of all places (Murray’s home town!)

When we first arrived in Sucre, we had heard that all the bus and truck drivers had gone on strike, but as were planning to stay for a few days, we figured the whole thing would blow over before we had to worry about it. Apparently, strikes are very common in Bolivia—nobody seemed at all bothered by the situation. However, after a few days, we tried to schedule our escape and nobody would sell us bus tickets! The problem was that there is only one way in and one way out, so we couldn’t exactly come up with an alternate route. We must have gone to ten different agencies and they each gave us different accounts of what was going on and when we could leave. We never got the full story, but from what we could gather, it seemed the drivers didn’t want to pay taxes based on the cost of their cargo, but rather a flat rate… Or something like that. Anyway—we were trapped in Sucre! Everyone made it seem like the strike would be over any minute, but finally after almost a week, we had to take matters into our own hands. We teamed up with a few other travelers at our hostel and decided to take taxis to the frontier of the strike and just figure it out from there…

We got dropped off about 40 minutes outside the city, which was as far as the taxis could take us, since the road was completely blocked. There were trucks and buses parked perpendicular across the road as far as the eye could see, preventing any and all vehicular access.  We donned our big backpacks and started the trek, weaving through dozens of semis, their drivers sitting in circles under the shade, playing cards and drinking bottles of beer.

There was no telling how far the block stretched, so we just continued to hoof it, sweating profusely but still laughing at our bemusing predicament. Finally, after what seemed like forever but was only probably about an hour, we reached the end of the line! There were about 30 taxis, waiting to transport—and most likely overcharge—those who navigated the maze. Thankfully, Bolivia is super cheap so a two and a half hour taxi ride cost less than $20 and we made it safely to Potosi in time to take a bus to Uyuni..

La Paz, Bolivia

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Bolivia | 1 Comment

Some fellow backpackers from Copacabana recommended a hostel for us in La Paz called Wild Rover. Knowing nothing about it, we headed straight there in a taxi from the bus station and immediately, we could tell that it was a party hostel by the rows of lockers, stale cigarette smoke, loud music and clusters of grumpy twenty-somthings that looked like personified hangovers. We checked into a 6-person dorm room at about 2PM and found three boys still sleeping off their previous night’s debauchery. In an honorable attempt to be respectful, we silently ditched our backpacks and set out to explore the neighborhood.

La Paz is a pretty cool city. It’s actually one of two capitals of Bolivia. Technically, the legal capital of Bolivia is Sucre; however, La Paz is considered the administrative capital, and more commonly regarded as the country’s main city. It’s also one of the highest altitude cities in the entire world, ranging in elevation from 3100 – 4058m (10,170 – 13,313ft) above sea level. We weren’t suffering too much, having seamlessly transitioned from a trail of high-altitude locations, but between the frequent hills and the dense smog my lungs were working overtime. I can’t recall the name of the area where we were staying, but it seemed to be pretty central to everything and just a few blocks away from the main square, where the presidential palace is located. If you look past the film of soot covering everything, you’ll notice the architectural drama of La Paz’s authentic and stately architecture. The buildings, even those housing unpretentious businesses, are gorgeous.

We weren’t really sure what to do in the city, so we spent the first afternoon wandering around and getting our bearings. It was a Saturday so, expectedly, when we got back to the hostel, happy hour was in full swing at the bar. As I had learned from my previous experiences at party hostels: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! We ended up having a jolly good time and met a lot of interesting characters from all over the world…

That night, at about 5 o’clock in the morning, one of those same guys busted into the room, turned on the lights and proceeded to boast to his buddy about his crazy exploits that night, involving sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Actually, he didn’t really say anything about music, but his story did end with getting chased out of a girl’s house— naked— by the girl’s father, and leaving his friend behind, somewhere 45 minutes outside the city. Party hostels can be the worst because you almost always encounter some version of this personality type. Traveling abroad is so much more rewarding when you’re not surrounded by the exact people that give Americans such a bad name!

There are a few “must do” activities in and around La Paz, the most popular of which being extreme mountain biking down the “Deadliest Road in the World.” Thrill-seeking tourists flock to the countless companies offering guided excursions. The so-named Death Road earned its title by claiming a chilling minimum of 100 lives annually (until abnout 2006, I think.) It extends about 70km, from La Paz to Coroico, descending 3600 meters through a range of climates and ecosystems. They recently built a new road to serve as the main highway for cars and trucks, although many still prefer the original route. The single-lane path is ridiculously narrow, with sharp turns and unanticipated obstacles. As if that wasn’t nerve-wracking enough, a treacherous drop-off borders the road and, before we even arrived in La Paz, we had heard some gruesome horror stories about injuries and even fatalities on the Death Road. Naturally, we signed up for the next morning.

IMG_0688We started at 4700m in the early morning, fully clad in protective gear and surrounded by ice and snow. It was so cold we even had to wear cloth masks to cover our faces. We looked like a motley crew of gringo bandits! I definitely felt a little shaky and unconfident as I mounted my bike. I’d actually never been mountain biking before, so this was one hell of a first experience to choose!

The road starts out paved, smooth and wide. The cold air burned my eyes as I sailed down the initial descent but within a few minutes, my anxiety melted away and I started to feel one with my bike. It was hard to keep my eyes on the road when all I wanted to do was stare out at the scenery… It was a lot to take in! I felt like a tiny ant in comparison to the giant cliffs and mountains surrounding me. We were told that we’d take breaks every 10-15 minutes so that people could catch up and check in. At the first stop I remember thinking that the ride was a piece of cake so far. That’s when our guide explained to us that the first stretch was the easy part and to buck up cause shit was about to get real.


Soon after that, we merged onto the real Death Road—a rocky, constricted, twisty mess of a highway. By this time, however, I was feeling invincible and Murray and I both started inching up from the caboose to the front of the pack. I was so impressed by the way our bikes handled the terrain! Every time I was sure I was about to eat it on a rocky patch, I sailed (somewhat) gracefully through.

IMG_0713Each time we stopped for a break I had to shed a layer of clothing, as the further we descended, the hotter it became. It wasn’t long before we were covered in sweat and dirt, Murray and I turned our flame-patterned facemasks into sweatband/doo-rags. The scenery was breathtaking and ever-changing. We cruised from dusty, rock-strewn passes through luscious greenery, miniature towns and even a drug checkpoint, to our final destination in the jungle.

The whole ride down took about five hours. When we arrived at the bottom we got to go to an animal sanctuary for lunch and a much-needed shower. The little reservation was home to myriad free-roaming animals including monkeys, parrots, caimans, turtles and an adorable little raccoon/anteater guy that I can’t remember the name of (pictured.)


Back at the Wild Rover, it turned out that two of the guys in our room, both named Yoav, were pretty cool and we joined up with them for a night of fun. After dinner we went out in search of live music. Murray and I had been craving an authentic folk scene and had read about Bolivia’s indigenous music peñas. We didn’t want to go to any of the places listed in the guidebooks because we knew they’d be overpriced and full of gringos, so instead we asked a local for a recommendation. When the taxi dropped us off across town in the neighborhood we had requested, we couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical at first. There was hardly a soul on the street, and it didn’t look like any businesses were open. We walked up and down a few streets, straining our ears for a sign. Just when we were considering giving up, we spotted the place: a small, unassuming stone building with steps leading into what could have been a dungeon.

As soon as we walked in, every head spun around and a hundred eyes stared at us in disbelief. We were probably the only white people to ever step foot in the joint. It was pretty packed and there were no open tables, so we had to squeeze in with a large group who clearly were not thrilled to have us there. But the icy tension thankfully didn’t last long! The other patrons were surprisingly open-minded to our presence and I guess we wowed them with our good vibes and positive attitudes. After about thirty minutes and a few rounds of cocktails, the group took the stage, (I use that term loosely… By “stage” I mean the tiny corner of the room jam-packed with myriad instruments and a microphone.) Bolivia is a macho culture, so we were shocked to see that seven of the eight costumed band members were women. They ROCKED! We had such a good time grooving to their lively music and the entire room was feeding off the collective synergy. At one point we were all passing around instruments and contributing—albeit awkwardly—to the sound. We made friends with everyone at our table. Heck, we made friends with everyone in the entire restaurant! When it came time to leave that night we exchanged hugs with almost everyone there!

La Paz is also famous for its Mercado de Las Brujas—Witches’ Market—where you can stroll from shop to shop and buy creepy cosas like llama fetuses, love potions, dried amphibians and voodoo dolls, along with the typical alpaca sweaters, scarves and hammocks. Many of the products and services advertised on this street have religious or spiritual undertones—most of them are positive: good luck charms, spells for a long life, herbs to increase sex drive… However, we also saw some signs for Black Magic, including curses to hurt individual people and evil witchcraft to ruin businesses.

We had to inquire about the ubiquitous llama fetuses, which are sold in every shop and come in many different shapes and sizes. Why would anyone want to purchase such a thing?! Well, the answer is that the llama is considered a sacred animal in traditional Incan history; for centuries, they have been used a for their wool and their meat, but more importantly as sacrifice to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth.) The llama is a highly-respected animal in the Andean culture and many locals believe that if you bury a llama offering under the foundation of your house, you will bring good luck to your family. Apparently, llamas often miscarry, self-abort, or have stillborn babies, so the eerie fetuses are readily-available and relatively common.

We ended our stay in La Paz with one last night of partying at the hostel and by morning we were ready to pack up bus it to Sucre for a change of scenery and some peace and quiet!


Copacabana, Bolivia

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Bolivia | Leave a comment

Let’s hop in the time machine and travel back about seven months… After the Machu Picchu trek and a recovery period in Cusco, Murray and I separated from Meghan and Kyle for a bit to check out Bolivia. Our first stop there, (after a brief stay in Puno and a mini-tour of Lake Titicaca on the Peru side,) was a small beach town called Copacabana—or as Murray called it, “Coco Banana.” It’s a quaint place with one main road that leads straight into the water. Because we were still at high elevation, the sun was strong but the air was chilly.

IMG_0682Much like San Pedro in Guatemala, Copacabana has an artistic appeal that attracts an abundance of pierced and poncho-clad youths who express and sustain themselves by selling homemade wire trinkets and hemp bracelets on the street curbs. Murray and I came up with plenty of theories about the differences between lake towns and ocean towns, and the reasons why places like Copacabana become a Never Never Land of sorts for certain types. One surefire answer is the cost of living: Bolivia is so cheap!! Our jaws all but dropped when we learned the price of our hotel room… $4 per night! Granted, it wasn’t the Ritz, but it was clean, quiet, had two beds and a private bathroom, so we were psyched! The exchange rate, while we were there, was 7:1. To give you an idea of what we were spending, typical meals usually cost us somewhere between $2-3.

IMG_0684One morning we hiked up to the highest point in town for a beautiful panoramic view of the area. Copacabana must thrive in the summertime—all along the shore were docked paddleboats and lines of closed restaurants that, from our vantage point, looked more like game stands at a carnival. Lake Titicaca is enormous and a deep, beautiful blue color. Our tour guide in Peru told us a joke that, because the lake spans between both countries, the “titi” side is in Peru and the “caca” side is in Bolivia, haha!

IMG_0661The next day, Murray and I caught the ferry over to Isla del Sol, an island about thirty minutes away. We had lunch up the hill on a restaurant patio with a gorgeous view across the lake of snow-capped mountains in the distance.

We made some friends in town and enjoyed a night out at one of the local bars, but after a few days in Copacabana we started to feel a bit claustrophobic from the small town environment, noticing that the things we initially found charming were starting to feel creepy. That’s when we decided it was time to hightail it out of there!  We packed up our bags, shedding any and all excess weight, stocked up on snacks from the bodega, and boarded the overnight bus to La Paz..