Friday, April 27, 2012


La Paz, Bolivia's seat of government, stretches from an altitude of 3200 to 4000 meters. The center follows a narrow valley, with avenue Prado in the middle. The various neighborhoods climb up steeply on both sides, without much regard for the terrain. Downtown isn't much to write home about, it's incredibly congested and mostly built from dirty concrete and open bricks. There's apparently some tax scam involving unfinished buildings, so not much is ever finished.

Here, too, commerce doesn't so much happen in regular shops, but out on the street, in dingy covered markets, and hole-in-the-wall shops. Once we saw street vendor carts vanish when police was approaching, and reappear just as quickly a minute later.

We rented a taxi for the afternoon and had the driver show us around. The affluent leafy neighborhoods are at the lowest point; the poorest are the highest. We also saw the "moon valley" with bizarre needle-like rock formations, probably on the theory that erosion is typical on the moon. In any case, views from the hills down on the city, with the mountains as a backdrop, are fantastic. Also because the buildings don't look as bad from a distance.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

At 4000 meters in the Andes

Potosi is the world's highest city at 4070 meters, in the Bolivian Andes. Having visited places in Tibet at up to 5400 meters without difficulty, I underestimated the altitude a little - you need to breathe a lot faster, heartbeat accelerates, and you feel an urge to do everything very slowly.

The city spreads out over a number of hills and much of it is dusty, ugly, and poor. You expect Mad Max to roam the streets in search of new hubcaps or something. The center is quite nice though, with the usual leafy square in front of the cathedral, and a number of colonial buildings and shopping streets. Shopping tends to be dominated by little hole-in-the-wall shops and old ladies with bowler hats spreading their wares on a blanket.

The main attraction in Potosi is the silver mines. The Lonely Planet guide book says that it's actually possible to visit them without permanent health damage due to exposed asbestos, arsenic, tunnel collapses, and other attractions, but we decided to pass this one.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sucre, Bolivia

Sucre continues to enchant. No amount of white paint was spared to turn this city 2800 meters up in the Andes into a shining colonial architecture monument. UNESCO thinks so too.

The Museo de la Recoleta, an old convent built in 1600 on a hill, offers a great view over the city and the surrounding mountains. Although it is lower than Lhasa, which I visited three years ago, I find I have to breathe more than normal when going up those steep hills... But tomorrow will make 2800 meters seem like nothing.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sucre, Bolivia

What a surprise. Sucre is everything Santa Cruz de la Sierra isn't. It's elegant, spotless, affluent, and full of interesting colonial architecture. It's a joy to explore after seedy Santa Cruz. Our hotel is spacious, has vaulted ceilings and attentive staff, and definitely doesn't smell of mothballs. And the food in Sucre is excellent as well.

Getting here isn't so easy. Sucre is in the Andes and at 2700 meters. That's an arduous and dangerous 20-hour bus trip, or 40 minutes by air. We got a little 18-seat turboprop that looked rather scuffed and bedraggled. For ten minutes before landing there was some sort of alarm in the cockpit. No matter...

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Iquique photo

Blogger is failing again. Trying to repost the photo.

Traveling to Bolivia

It's not easy to go north from Santiago. Our plane made a stop in Antofagasta, and a longer one in Iquique. That's a town mostly known for its 142-hectare duty free shop. The airport boasts five gates and a very desolate location (I took the picture just outside the departure door). As apparently always in South America, formalities are perfunctory.

We are now in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, on the other side of the Andes. Bolivia is clearly much poorer than the places we had seen before. Prices are much lower too.   The central plaza is nice enough but two blocks away it's all a little decrepit, and most restaurants are gaudy fast food joints with loud music and clowns.

The airport shuttle looked exactly like it should when I travel: a rattling minibus with foldable seats and a door that gave up closing decades ago. Disappointingly, I couldn't see the street through the floor, and the seat-to-passenger ratio was way below 2. Need to work on this.