Two capital cities that could not be more different, followed by a death road, which – luckily – turned out to be not so deadly.
A good old market
A familiar bittersweet taste, like the one we felt in Ulaanbaatar. The salt flats and lagoons of the Altiplano had taken us to a beautiful world before dropping us cruelly at the doorstep of the Gringo Trail – the well known route that most backpackers follow when in South America.
Armed with our Spanish and craving for a little bit of authenticity and an opportunity to chat to the locals, we left Uyuni in a heartbeat and headed for Sucre.
Not quite off the beaten track, but close enough. Where do we start? The market of course. We thought the sounds of a good old market were a thing of South East Asia. We were wrong.
Fresh vegetables, loads of fruits, countless different types of avocado and ribbons. Yes, ribbons, it does not get any better than this – at least for Paula.
In the upper floor, food stalls, selling pretty much the same dishes, which were cooked right on the spot. It is better not to think too much about health and safety – just grab a seat next to a local family and follow your nose. A delicious main course together with fresh juice for £1.50. Anyone?
Outside, twenty stalls offer the best dessert one could wish for. Strawberries? Blackberries? Papaya? Oranges? Mango? Banana? with milk? A bit of everything perhaps?
Now we were ready to explore the city.
A touch of history
As Bolivia gained its independence from the Spanish Crown in 1825, the town previously known as La Plata was renamed to Sucre, honouring the revolutionary leader Antonio Jose de Sucre, and becoming the capital of the new nation.
Wealthy families who benefited from the silver industry in nearby Potosi, established themselves in Sucre, and wasted their fortunes in big mansions and opulent parties instead of helping build a brighter progress for the country. These mansions are the legacy of that era – before and after the independence – and precisely what draws visitors to this city.
One can’t deny its beauty. The whole town is full of colonial heritage, mansions that have become museums, welcoming faces, fried banana stalls, ladies selling freshly made juice and kids running around.
Sadly, our days in Sucre came to an end and reluctantly we got on – yet another – night bus heading north, while we listened to reports about potential road blockades.
A nice surprise
After an uneventful journey – luckily the blockades were called off -, we arrived in La Paz. Bigger in size, with not that many colonial buildings and a dreadful reputation, it was meant to be the ugly one of the two. Really?
Street markets where you can find anything, from massive TV sets to love potions and coca sweets. Old buses crawl their way through the narrow streets of the old town. And then there is the people. Cholitas – indigenous Aymara and Quechua women who can be easily identified by their iconic outfits – are ubiquitous adding a touch of tradition to a city that seems to be anchored in the past – in a good way that is.
Take San Pedro prison for example: here the inmates have jobs, elect leaders, produce cocaine and run a hotel. No guards allowed inside, only tourists. True story.
After the decline of the silver industry in Potosi, and following a civil war, the seat of the government was moved here, hence why Bolivia ended up with two capital cities, which could not be more different.
From the viewpoint next to the newly built cable car, we admired the vastness of the city, surrounded by gigantic mountains, and thought about the next day. Apparently, there is road that must be dealt with not far from the city. Good night.
The not so deadly road
Back in the days, in the outskirts of La Paz a dirt road connected the capital with the highlands. A narrow path starting at nearly 5000 metres, cutting through the jungle in between mountains and cliffs. Many lives were lost there and so it was dubbed the death road.
Today, a new road has been built, but the old track still attracts a lot of traffic. Adrenaline junkies hoping for the bike ride of their life. And us.
A few minutes after we started cycling down, we witnessed how the bike of one of our fellow riders broke down with the poor guy finishing on the ground, miraculously with just a few bruises – death road indeed.
As the heat intensified, we headed into the more challenging part of the ride and witnessed a few more – light – accidents. As our guide said: “if it wasn’t for the falls, we would be out of business”.
A 4000 metres descent in just three hours. According to all books, a must do activity while in Bolivia. I would not go that far as I am sure this country has a lot more to offer than this. But it was good fun anyway. And the end of the ride comes with a swimming pool and a parrot. Can’t complain really.
Copacabana – the original one – and a little island at four thousand metres. And then, an Inca story.