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Along the shores of Lake Titicaca: Discovering rural Bolivia on a 20km hike

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A random encounter at the lake

When we met Don Hilario, we were dead tired. We had already walked 15 kilometers, at an altitude of 12,600 feet. This random encounter, (which wasn’t so random after all), was exactly what we needed to keep us going for the last five kilometers of the hike. lake titicaca cowsThe old Bolivian campesino who lives right on the shore of Lake Titicaca doesn’t get to see foreigners very often. So when he does, don’t expect to be let off the hook any time soon. Our Lonely Planet guidebook, even though mostly unreliable in South America, was spot on in this case when it briefly mentioned you might run into an odd character named Don Hilario on the hike to Yampupata.lake titicaca view boliviaYampupata itself is not really a tourist destination, a sleepy village on the lake shore, which is why there aren’t many unknown faces passing through here. And even though the village is connected to Copacabana, the closest town, via a dusty dirt road, it is far enough to let you forget that you were anywhere near a larger settlement. Out here, the lake shore farmers and fishermen live pretty much the same way they did fifty years ago.lake titicaca housesLonely Planet also mentioned that Don Hilario had a large collection of postcards from all over the world, which he would show hikers if they were lucky, and sure enough, after sitting us down on one of the reed boats that are typical for Lake Titicaca, he went into his little hut and returned with two hands full of postcards. We were grateful to sit and rest for a few minutes, so we eagerly read every single postcard he showed us, from places like Canada, the US, Holland, the Czech Republic, New Zealand and Germany.lake titicaca reed boatAfter admiring his postcard collection he offered us a ride in his new motorboat – the reed boat in front of the house seemed to be purely for show these days – but we decided to continue walking before we’d loose the last remaining bit of energy we still had.lake titicaca viewIt had taken more than four hours to get to Sicuani, the tiny village where Don Hilario lived, and it was our first ‘warm-up’ walk for our five-day trek to Machu Picchu a couple of weeks later. We were both still recovering from sickness and had never hiked at such a high altitude, so we figured it was time to test our fitness levels.lake titicaca road to yampupataThis hike, which we had found in the Lonely Planet, sounded just right for our first test run. It seemed to be mostly flat, so it would be a good way for us to ease into the high-altitude trekking.lake titicaca yampupata hikelake titicaca yampupata and isla del sol view

The perfect day hike from Copacabana

I was also keen to get out of Copacabana, were we had based ourselves for a few days, because Copacabana turned out to be a town I didn’t care too much for, except for the fantastic lake views from top of the Cerro Calvario mountain maybe. copacabana viewLake Titicaca itself is the true attraction here, and not only because it is the highest navigable lake in the world, but also because of its mystic aura. It was here where, according to the beliefs of the Inca, the creator god Viracoca rose up and create the sun and moon, stars, and the first human beings. This all took place on the appropriately named Isla Del Sol and Isla De La Luna, both only a short boat ride from Copacabana, and even closer from Yampupata. Isla Del Sol would be the place of our second warm-up hike.lake titicaca boliviaDuring the hike we barely met anyone. Every now and again a motorcycle would pass us, but if we didn’t pass through a village, we were on our own, aside from the odd llama or some sheep and pigs.
lake titicaca llamaThree kilometers into the hike, we passed a small set of Inca ruins, which we had to ourselves, and another two kilometers later we reached Chani, a small village where tourists from Copacanana who booked a boat ride on the lake were taken to experience a floating restaurant (a tourist trap).lake titicaca yampupata hike roadUp to here, the road had been following the shoreline the entire time, but now it turned away from the lake. Many empty ruins sat along the way, remnants of settlements that had been erected and left many moons ago. They added to the sinister atmosphere in this isolate place, making me wonder what it must have looked like here at the height of the Inca empire.lake titicaca deserted houseslake titicaca fieldsWe passed a religious shrine inside a cave, followed by a steady climb to the top of a hill. The altitude was hard to get used to and I felt like I was huffing and puffing more than ever before, walking slower than an 80-year old woman. When I reached the top, I was rewarded with views over the Camino Precolombino, and the road luckily went downhill again towards the water.Bolivia lake titicaca hikeNear the lake we reached the only bigger village after a few lone houses along the road. We were greeted by chickens, dogs, sheep and some farmers who were working their fields. lake titicaca sheepUp until this hike, I didn’t have the best impression of Bolivians – they didn’t seem overly friendly or welcoming, most of them seemed to see you only as a walking cash dispenser.But here, in this part the country where people barely ever get to see foreigners, we were greeted with smiles, hellos, and in the next village over by the sweet Don Hilario.lake titicaca church boliviaAfter waving goodbye to the old man, we had another uphill walk to make it through, and at this point we were fairly tired. My legs hurt, I was hungry, and I was ready to lay down.lake titicaca deserted houses ruinsOnce we made it to the highest point though, the fine views over the lake and the islands, the green fields and Yampupata below us made it all worth it. Now that I could see the end point, I felt a boost of energy run through me, and I knew I could do it.lake titicaca danilake titicaca yampupata roadWhen we reached the village, we didn’t stick around long – we could have taken a boat over to the Isla del Sol straight from here, but we wanted to hike across the entire island and knew that we needed more time (and some rest before the next big hike).lake titicaca shoreLuckily we found a taxi that was heading to Copacabana right away (10 bobs pp) and only half an hour later, we were back where we started.lake titicaca blue watersThe achievement of the hike felt extraordinary – and got me even more excited for the hike through the Andes to see the lost capital of the Incas, Machu Picchu. But up next was the mystical Isla Del Sol…lake titicaca views

Practical information

The walk was definitely longer and harder than expected- it’s more like 19 or 20 km, not 17 as I had read. The road was also much more hilly (up and down) than I had thought.

It took us a total of 5 hours to get to Yampupata (incl short breaks and the 30-min chat with Don Hilario).

Pack snacks and water, as there aren’t really any shops along the way.lake titicaca deserted house

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The Day I Cycled Down Bolivia’s Death Road

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A road where 200 to 300 people are killed every year. Let me repeat this: 200 to 200 people EVERY YEAR. When I read about the Death Road for the first time, I felt distressed, and was already freaked out about traveling on this road when we would make it to Bolivia. This narrow road, officially known as the Yungas Road, winds through the mountains from Bolivia’s Yungas region all the way down to Coroico in the jungle region of the Amazon. The road, which is not even asphalted, is actually not very long – only 43 miles (69 km), and yet, there have been so many accidents that it is lined with crosses. Entire buses and trucks were dropping off the cliffs regularly, never to be seen again. This is how the road earned the dubious title of the World’s Most Dangerous Road in 1995.

bolivia yungas roadWhen we started to plan our trip through South America, I found out that you can now take mountain bike tours down the Yungas Road – an agonizing leisurely 40-miles (64 kilometers) bike ride along the 2,000 feet (600 meter) deep cliffs, surrounded by lush green mountains and what was supposed to be some of Bolivia’s most stunning scenery. I was equally terrified and intrigued.

death road yungas road boliviaWhen I learned that the original Death Road had been replaced by a new, safer (asphalted!) road several years ago and that the Yungas Road was used mainly by thrill-seeking cyclists these days, and car traffic was minimal, the deal was sealed. The thought of cycling down the road didn’t seem as terrifying anymore now that I knew that I couldn’t collide with a truck or bus anymore. Of course I could still drop off a cliff, since most of the road doesn’t have any guard rails, but I figured with some caution I would be fine. When the road was still in heavy use, the main reason for accidents was that in many spots it was too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other at the same time, causing the bus or truck on the cliff side to fall off.

death road panorama boliviaA leisurely bike ride along a 2,000 feet deep cliff

So on a gloomy morning I found myself in a minivan leaving La Paz for the mountains; along with a few other travelers who were stupid brave enough to take on the Death Road. Our group of foolish daredevils consisted of us the Jess and me, a German couple, a French couple, a Bolivian couple, a young American solo traveler and a Brazilian guy.

bolivia death road mountainbikers

We started at La Cumbre, the highest point of the mountain range, at 15,320 feet (4,670m). Our end point would be in Coroico, 12,000 feet lower than La Cumbre, at 2,950 feet (900 meters) – a crazy difference in altitude! We even had been told to bring bikinis to relax in a swimming pool in tropical surroundings after the ride – something that seemed completely ridiculous at this moment, as we were shivering up on top of the mountain in the cold of the early morning.

death road riding through the fog

We were fitted into our gear – a jacket with elbow pads, pants with knee pads, gloves, and a full-face helmet, tested our mountain bikes (the brakes worked great, which was excellent news!) and off we went. For the first 20 kilometers we didn’t cycle on the actual Death Road, but on the new asphalt road to Coroico, to get used to the bikes. This part should have been an easy ride, but it was so foggy that you could barely see anything. I prayed that the fog would lift by the time we’d reach the Death Road. What if we weren’t even able to see the steep drop?

Jess ready to rock n roll

Fog and rain – nightmare #1

In terms of actual cycling, this part turned to be easy, since we basically just rolled down the mountain while holding down the brakes. At this point we were so cold that our fingers were completely stiff from holding on to the brakes so hard.

fog on the death road

The weather gods didn’t seem to be on our side that day – as if the fog was not enough, it started to rain. After riding through the fog and rain for an hour and getting close to freezing to death before even reaching the Death Road, we stopped for a snack in a little village while the bikes were loaded up on the van. The next 8 kilometers were uphill, and since it was pouring now, we got to ride in the van for a few minutes.

fog on the yungas road

Then we arrived at the original Death Road. The fog had lifted, and we could see the road snake along the mountainside for miles, and giant imposing cliffs on the left side of the road. I started to feel a little uneasy, especially when our guide told us that we’d be riding on the left – the cliff – side of the road! This is the only road in Bolivia with left-hand traffic, the reason for this being that drivers who ride on the left see the cliff (since the steering wheel is still on the left side), and drivers who come up the road see how close they’re to the mountainside.

death road bolivia van

Oncoming traffic on the Death Road – nightmare #2

We also learned that since a landslide had covered part of the new road eleven months ago and the clean-up was still ongoing, trucks and local cars were using the death road again! This meant there would be oncoming traffic. I have to admit that had I known this before, I would probably NOT have signed up for the tour. I felt a bit better when our guide announced: ‘This is a tour, not a race. Take your time and enjoy the scenery.’ After being passed by some of the other tour groups, I knew that they saw this ride as a race, speeding down the hill as if it was about making it first over the line rather than alive and in one piece.

Death Road with Truck

Luckily the rain had stopped, and so we started the ride in good spirits. Every time I dared to look down to my left, it resulted in a racing heart and sweaty palms. The drop was unbelievably steep, and you couldn’t see the bottom.

death road bolivia

We stopped several times to take photos – most of the time our guides took photos of all of us, since we were too busy holding on to the brakes and our camera gear was in the van that was following slowly behind us. Later on we were even relaxed enough to pose for some goofy photos at the edge.

dani death road

Not one, but two accidents

The scariest moments were when cyclists of another group tried to pass us. There were eleven or twelve groups with around ten cyclists each, which means in total, well over one hundred people were biking down the road that day (and every other day of the year, in fact). We were supposed to yell ‘Passing on your left’ or ‘Passing on your right’ when overtaking other cyclists, but not all of them did that when they passed us. Some would just appear scarily close to my right – seemingly out of nowhere, at lightening speed, causing rocks to fly against my bike, which can result in ugly accidents.

death road cyclists

Our group of ten had two guides, and Jess and I were riding slower in the back with the Bolivian couple, and while one guide was riding with the daredevils of the group, the other guide was always in the back with us. The other six were much more daring than we were and were always way ahead of us – whenever you could see the road ahead of us on a less winding part, they were nowhere to be seen.

Death Road Survivors

After about two thirds of the way, we rode on a flat part for a while – the first time all day that we had to use our pedals! Most of the time we just sat on the bike and hit the brakes hard, trying not to go over the edge. Because there are so many curves on the way, the cars that come up the road usually honk before turning around a corner. Suddenly a car turned around the corner and the sound of honk took me by such surprise that I hit the brakes too hard – and I flew over the handlebars. Luckily I didn’t go over the edge and was able to catch the bike before it went over, making this an incident without a tragic outcome (except for me being terribly shaken up with visions of me on a rock at the bottom of the mountain).

death road dani

Not long after that, I heard a loud crash behind me and when I turned around, I saw Jess on the ground, her bike upside down in the slope next to her. It turned out that she had also been lucky and the accident looked much worse than it was – a minute later she was back in the saddle and raced towards the end, having become much more comfortable than me on the bike.

Death Road on a rainy day

A few minutes later, we arrived at the main road – we had survived the Death Road! Not quite accident-free, but we lived.

All of the Death Road cycling tours include a buffet lunch at a hotel with swimming pool in the valley, and our group celebrated our survival over some beers and lunch – though it was already late afternoon. Somehow it had taken us much longer than the promised two to three hours to cycle down the road.

dath road bolivia

The Death Toll Is Still Rising

Before we drove back to La Paz, our guide told us that the day before, a guy had gone over the edge – he lived, but was in the hospital with several broken bones. He had cycled with a company called Overdose, whose group we had met briefly early in the morning, and we weren’t surprised to hear that it was this company – they were among those cyclists that were racing down the road at full speed. We learned that in addition to the thousands of people who had died in cars and buses on the Yungas Road, 21 cyclists and 5 guides died since the road had been opened for mountain bike trips. It might not be the most dangerous road in the world anymore, but it is still the Death Road.

death road yungas road cross

Tips on surviving the death road

Keep in mind that even though between one and two hundred people survive the death road every single day, accidents also occur on a daily basis.

Make sure to choose a tour company that provides you with full safety gear, especially a full-face helmet. The most expensive tour company, Gravity, only provides vests and not always full-face helmets – you can read here what this can result in.

Cycle at your own pace and be careful when passing other cyclists.

Don’t try to take pictures while cycling! That is one of the most common reasons for accidents.

Check Tripadvisor for the latest reviews for the company of your choice before booking your trip.

Death Road Drops

Our tour company

We went with Vertigo Biking, and were happy with the service they provided. The bikes (Haro mountain bikes) were excellent and I was thankful for the full-face helmet.

Vertigo charges 480 Bolivianos (US$70) for the Death Road trip, which includes a snack, full lunch buffet, a T-Shirt and a CD with all photos of the day.

Would you cycle down the Death Road? Or have you been to Bolivia and are the proud owner of an ‘I survived the Death Road’ T-Shirt, too?

hanging out at the edge

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Thanks to our guide Kenneth for taking some great shots of our group!
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Where to stay in Sucre: Hostal CasArte Takubamba

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When we arrived at Hostal CasArte Takubamba in Sucre, we had no way of knowing how much time we’d end up spending here (spoiler: a total of two weeks!), and not just using it as a place to put our heads down at night, but actually spending time in the room… lots of it. I don’t think we’ve ever spent that much time in a hotel room before, to be honest. But being horribly sick forced us to stay in bed for days on end, and I couldn’t imagine a better place for situation like this than Hostal CasArte.

Sucre Hostal CasArte Takubamba BoliviaEntering the hostal, you find yourself surrounded by freshly-painted bright white walls, typical for Sucre’s historic center, and by art. Lots of art. The hostal is family-owned, and the owners have done a great job transforming the historic buildings into a hostel maintaining Sucre’s unique character and add a funky vibe at the same time.

With only 15 rooms (most of them double rooms, but there are are a couple of single and triple rooms, as well as an 8-bed dorm), the hostal has a cozy, quiet feel – it never feels crowded and you actually get the chance to chat to the other guests in the courtyard or the lobby thanks to the intimate atmosphere at CasArte.

Sucre Hostal CasArte Takubamba Bolivia ArtThe rooms, which all have an ensuite bathroom, are bright and spacious, and most of them are reached via individual staircases, making them almost seem like independent apartments set around the courtyard instead of ‘just’ rooms.

Hostal CasArte Takubamba housesThe high ceilings, original wooden framework and floors of the historic buildings have been maintained, and the rooms themselves are big enough to fit a king-size bed and still have enough space around the bed that Jess and I could have both done yoga at the same time (which is something that wouldn’t happen, since I just can’t get into yoga – the more space for Jess though!).

Hostal CasArte Takubamba roomEvery morning, breakfast is served outside in the little backyard (if the weather allows it). Rolls, dulce de leche and jam are served buffet-style, and eggs, fresh fruit juice and fruit with yogurt were served to order. In addition, you can choose between several teas and coffee (sadly, only instant coffee, but that’s the norm in Bolivia).

Hostal CasArte Takubamba breakfastIf you don’t want to go out and explore the town, you can just stay in the backyard and swing in a hammock while reading a book, or study Spanish at one of the tables – it seemed like there were quite a few Spanish students staying at the hostel while we were there. If you are looking to stay longer, CasArte offers special rates for weekly and monthly stays.

Hostal CasArte Takubamba backyardIf you do want to explore Sucre though, the hostal is perfectly located at the southern end of the historic center and in walking distance to the main square, many restaurants and cafes, and all the museums and churches, the market and other sights Sucre has to offer. The hostal is actually very close to the beautiful cemetery (five minutes away) and the cinema (four minutes away).

Hostal CasArte Takubamba vasesThe backyard des not only serve as the breakfast area, but also has a fully equipped outdoor kitchen including a traditional Andean stone oven in which you can prepare lunch or dinner.

Is the weather bad, a second kitchen can be found upstairs above the reception area, where we often used the large table to work.

Hostal CasArte Takubamba communal roomThe reception area has a big lobby with couches, where guests can enjoy the many books and art displayed here, or just hang out there to make use of the Wi-fi, which works best closest to the router (located near the reception). Like in most of Bolivia, wi-fi is provided but doesn’t work very well. Our room was close enough to the reception to get some of the signal in the room (or at least in parts of it), but most rooms don’t seem to have wi-fi reception. When I used the wi-fi in the lobby, I usually had a pretty good connection (even allowing me to upload some photos or large attachments to an email!).

Sucre Hostal CasArte Takubamba BoliviaMost guests seemed to be around our age (late twenties – early thirties). This is definitely not a hostel for party people, but for travelers who appreciate a tranquil place with comfortable rooms on a quiet street. You will still get to chat to other people over breakfast or in the lobby, and the travelers we met all had a similar travel style to ours and we met some really interesting folks… just not the typical backpacker crowd.

We found all of the staff to be very friendly and helpful, even though we had to remind them several times to clean our room.

Hostal CasArte Takubamba paintingStandout feature

The large, light and clean rooms with the wooden framework and wooden floors were something we were always looking forward to when we came back from our explorations. We’ve rarely stayed in equally comfortable rooms in South America. Another plus: the hot showers with good water pressure, which are also something you don’t take for granted in this region of the world, and when a hostel has them, you really appreciate it!

Hostal CasArte Takubamba roomRoom for improvement

The rooms should be cleaned every day without guests having to ask for it (considering that toilet paper is disposed of in a bin and not in the toilet) and the wi-fi could be better, but that’s a common problem in all of Bolivia, so we can’t really blame CasArte for that 🙂

Hostal CasArte Takubamba sucre painting

Details

Website: Takubamba.blogspot.com
Location: Calle J.M.Serrano #256, Sucre, Bolivia
Price: Double rooms start at BOBs240 (US$35), single rooms start at BOBs130 (US$18.80, dorm beds start at BOBs70 (US$10)
Digital Nomad Friendly: If you don’t mind working in the lobby where the best wi-fi connection is
Amenities: Free breakfast; wi-fi; towels, shampoo and soap provided; courtyard with hammock; kitchen use; lobby with books; laundry service.

Sucre Hostal CasArte Takubamba Bolivia

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When your laptop gets altitude sickness…

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Yes, laptops get altitude sickness, too! We learned this the hard way, when my brand new Acer Aspire all of a sudden started to act up in Potosí, Bolivia at 4,050m/13,500ft, only five weeks into our South America trip and six week after I had bought it.

It began slowly: First, the laptop would freeze but ‘come back to life’, then it would freeze until I couldn’t do anything but turn it off, and eventually it would just shut off completely without any warning.

I freaked out, knowing that it was nearly impossible to repair or replace a laptop in Bolivia, and not sure if I’d be able to return the laptop to the U.S. from here while it was still under warranty.

laptop acer aspire
My laptop, the Acer S3 13-Inch Ultrabook

I also had laptop envy – Jess’ MacBook Air continued to work without a glitch… until a few days later, when it started to show the same symptoms. Much more proactive than me when it comes to laptop issues, Jess googled the symptoms right away and found out that our laptops were suffering from altitude sickness.

We didn’t even know that this was a thing (for electronics), or that laptops had a maximum operating altitude!

In case you’re wondering what this altitude is:

Now, for most people this will never be an issue, since only few places in the world are actually that high up.

Looking at our travel plans for the next couple of months though, this didn’t bode well for us. We had planned to spend around eight weeks in the Andes Mountain region of Bolivia and Peru, where almost all the places we wanted to visit were considerably higher than the altitude limit for our operating systems:

  • La Paz 4,058m / 13,313ft
  • Lake Titicaca 3,841m / 12,602ft
  • Puno 3,860m / 12,420ft and
  • Cuzco 3,399m / 11,152 ft
la paz
La Paz, nestled in a valley atop the Bolivian plateau at 4,058m / 13,313ft, surrounded by snowy peaks. In the background: the white head of Illimani, the sacred mountain.

In fact, Sucre at 2,810m / 9,220ft would be the only town we’d visit where we would be able to run our laptops without the fear of ruining them. Altitude sickness in laptops does not only mean that they randomly freeze or shut down without any warning, but the altitude can ruin the entire hard drive.

This affects mainly laptops with a hard disk drive, where the reading head rides on an air cushion just a fraction of a millimeter above the spinning disc. When the air pressure gets lower, as it does at high altitude, the reading head gets too close to the disc – and if it slams into it, it results in a hard drive crash and loss of all the data on the disc. Laptops with a solid static drive (Apple laptops, for example), a hard drive without any moving parts, are much safer to use in this altitude because they can’t crash the way hard disk drives can crash. However, the problems caused by altitude still arise and won’t be covered by warranty due to Apple’s maximum operating altitude warning.

The ordinary backpacker will probably not care much about this issue, since you’d only be using your laptop to book some hostels, look up information on your next destination or send some emails home, which are all things you can keep to a minimum while you’re traveling at that altitude. As digital nomads who run an online business this was a serious problem for us though. We travel at a much slower pace than most people, meaning we spend much more time in places, including the ‘laptop danger zone’, and we also use our laptops much more often, with entire 12-hour work days spent typing away on our laptops.

Well-meant advice for this situation like ‘keep your laptop shut off while you’re in La Paz’ wasn’t really helping us.

In the end, all we could do was trying to minimize the time spent on our laptops. This wasn’t particularly beneficial for our business, but since the wi-fi in Bolivia was painfully slow in most places, we wasted a lot of time waiting for websites to load anyway.

Whenever we did work on our laptops, we opened only one program at a time instead of running several programs simultaneously. Whatever we worked on would be backed up on a USB stick or an external hard drive right away to make sure we would not lose anything should one of our hard drives crash.

After leaving the high altitude of the Andes Mountains, my laptop kept acting up – my Acer has definitely suffered. Had we known about ‘laptop altitude sickness’ before traveling above 10,000ft, we would probably have prepared better – but I wouldn’t recommend spending an extended time in this area while trying to run a business and using your laptop more than an hour per day.

laptop acer working
Not fully recovered, but it’s still working!

Here are some tips on how to keep your electronics safe when traveling through the Andes, or regions of the same altitude such as Nepal or Tibet:

Back up your data before reaching the maximum operating altitude of your laptop.

Should your hard drive crash, you will at least have saved all your data. Flash drives are not affected by the altitude since they don’t contain any moving parts.

Always shut down your laptop completely

Power down your laptop entirely when you don’t use it, don’t just put it in ‘sleep’ or ‘hibernate’ mode. This goes especially for travel days.

Don’t overstress your laptop when you turn it on.

This means: as few tabs as possible in your browser, only one or two programs at once and no programs that keep updating / refreshing automatically (back-up programs, email programs).

Keep your electronics warm

High altitude usually comes with cold weather, which also puts a burden on the battery of your devices (iPods, cameras, laptops, etc). Keep your electronics as warm as possible to extend their battery life.

When your laptops get altitude sickness...
Trekking in Peru – 4,600m / 15,090ft

Does this apply to planes, too?

You’re save to use your electronics at 30,000ft since the airplane cabins are pressurized above 10,000 ft, making it safe to use your device during a flight.

Have you been to a region that high and experienced ‘laptop altitude sickness’ there? Please share in the comments below!

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Heaven and hell in Sucre, Bolivia

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Expectations: Most of the time, when I have high expectations for a place and a certain idea in my head of what it is going to be like, it doesn’t turn out that way at all. Sucre was one of these places for us. We had heard great things about the city – tales of scrumptious vegetarian food, a laid-back vibe, gorgeous architecture and finally: a town that wasn’t at 4,000m (13,100ft) altitude, which would make it much easier to enjoy the city and not being out of breath after just a few meters. Sucre was actually going to be the only city below 4,000m we’d visit in Bolivia. We couldn’t wait to get there.

Sucre BoliviaLike I said, Sucre didn’t turn out the way we expected though. Don’t get me wrong, the city does have all the neat features we were told about. It’s not Sucre’s fault at all that we had a hard time there. Quite the opposite – the city did everything it could to charm us, and our time there started out well – with pleasant strolls down the streets, along the pretty white houses and across the well-kept main plaza. It felt glorious not to be left breathless with every step like we were in Potosí (due to the altitude)– at least for the first few days. Later on, I could barely walk down the street.

Sucre Bolivia Historic CenterWe had both already felt sick in Potosí, and now that we were finally in a place where we could spend a few weeks catching up with work without ruining our laptops, we felt worse with each day we spent here. Did you know that laptops have a maximum operating altitude? We certainly didn’t, but it turned out that Sucre, at 9,220ft / 2,810meters was the only place in Bolivia where we were below the maximum operating altitude of our laptops (which is just under 10,000ft / 3,000meters). But that’s a topic for a whole other post.

In Sucre BoliviaWe loved our first couple of days in town when we were still able to wander the streets of the gorgeous historic center, which gives the city its fitting nickname – the White City, thanks to all the white buildings and churches. Founded by the Spanish in 1538, Sucre is laid out like most Spanish-colonial towns in Latin America, with a large main square and the streets around it organized in a grid.SucreThe whitewashed houses with their meticulously placed red roof tiles, the beautiful bright white churches and the palm trees lining the several town squares reminded me a lot of the little towns in Andalucia in Southern Spain.

Sucre Bolivia The White CityEven though Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia (the government seat is La Paz), it felt more like a small provincial town, especially in the historic center. Beyond that, the newer parts of town are a bit more chaotic, less pretty and less white, and not as well preserved as the a UNESCO World Heritage site declared historic center, but still charming and safe to explore.

sucre tree-lined street boliviaAfter weeks of mediocre food (with few exceptions) and accommodations, we felt like we were in heaven in Sucre: enough vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants to make it hard on us to choose one for each meal, and a hostel that was pretty much perfect (a detailed review of Casarte Takubamba is can be found here), a movie theater with English-speaking movies just down the road from where we were staying, one of the cleanest markets we’d seen in South America thus far, and even good coffee (surprisingly, a rare find in most of Latin America!).

Sucre Bolivia MarketNot soon after arriving though, our sickness took a turn for the worse. We both knew that we had a stomach bug, and went to get some antibiotics in the pharmacy. Still not better after five days, we decided to go ahead and buy some parasite killers, having read too many horror stories about parasites contracted in Bolivia. Instead of feeling better, I still got worse. When I couldn’t drag myself out of bed until 3.30pm one day, I realized that I had to see a doctor. What followed was hell: Four days of twice-a-day treatments with IVs, antibiotics and injections in my butt, after being diagnosed with tonsillitis and a lung infection in my right lung in addition to my stomach bug. The doctor’s bill nearly made me faint, especially considering that we were in Bolivia (one of the cheapest countries in Latin America) – but the doctor, a business-savvy well-traveled elderly man who thought that every gringa had to be rich, took advantage of the miserable state I was in and added a not insignificant amount to his pension fund through our daily sessions.

Doctor SucreSucre could have been great, but being sick for so long dampened our mood and in the end we were both more than ready to leave. We still managed to visit the pleasant cemetery with its ornate mausoleums and grand tombs from the 18th and 19th century, a popular hang-out spot for young couples and students because of its peaceful feel.

Cemetery Sucre BoliviaWe saw a couple of movies at the cinema (on Wednesdays you get 2 tickets for 30BOBs/US$4.34! The cinema is in Calle Perez above the supermarket), and visited Simon Bolivar Park which was teeming with locals and stray dogs alike – we fell for one particular puppy there, and several other dogs we ‘met’ around town, adding to the number of times we were heartbroken because of a dog!

Dogs in SucreWe also walked up to the Recoleta Mirador for the lovely views over the city and enjoyed a couple of exquisite Saturday brunches at the Dutch café Flavour. However, we didn’t make it out to the Parque Cretacico, even though this dinosaur park with several preserved dinosaur footprints was high on the list of things we wanted to do in Sucre, and also skipped the many museums.

sucre view boliviaThe much anticipated excursion to Tarabuco, an indigenous village about 64 kilometers south west of Sucre famous for its Sunday market, was disappointing. We dragged ourselves on the bus out there even though we were still sick, but we didn’t find the market any more special than other markets (and not cheaper, either), and the locals didn’t seem particularly fond of the tourists.

tarabuco marketI think that if we had been both healthy and not fighting a horrible illness, we would have loved Sucre, and spent much longer there. For digital nomads like us, it is easy to rent cheap short-term apartments and for people who’d like to learn Spanish, Sucre is one of the most inexpensive places to do that in Latin America (if not the cheapest!), while offering all the amenities you might possibly need: a good mix of Western and Bolivian restaurants, plenty of coffee shops, and enough to see to keep you entertained for a while. When we traveled through Bolivia, we noticed though that lots of travelers were skipping Sucre, only visiting Lake Titicaca, La Paz and the Uyuni Salt Flats – but even though we had such a hard time in Sucre, we’d definitely recommend adding it to a Bolivia travel itinerary!

Bolivia Sucre

Our favorite foodie places in Sucre

  • El Germen – they have a big vegetarian selection and 20 BOBs (US$2.90) lunch deals
  • El Condor (vegetarian) for their 8 BOBs (US$1.16) tucumanas and sometimes the set lunch menus, depending on what they have (25 BOBs/US$3.62)
  • Flavour Café (very good Wi-Fi, could even Skype there!) – Great banana yogurt shake and Saturdays all-you-can-eat-and-drink brunches for 40 BOBs ($5.80)
  • Abis Patio (well working Wi-Fi, best cappuccino in town). They have a second branch right on the main square (Plaza 25 de Mayo)
  • Joyride Café has good ‘gringo’ food, and movies upstairs every night. The vegetarian filled potatoes were delicious (and the vegetarian salad).
  • El Tapado (good Bolivian food with some excellent vegetarian options, including a yummy quinoa black bean salad)

Sucre food and coffeeHave you been to Sucre? What were your favorite things about the Ciudad Blanca? Share in the comments below!

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On the hunt for quinoa in South America

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One of the things we were most excited about when we finally started traveling through the Andes region of South America was the prospect of getting quinoa right out of the farmers’ hands, being right where it is grown.

Quinoa – A global food phenomenon

During our annual visits to the U.S., we had witnessed how quinoa had gotten more and more popular there over the last few years, and it had become a regular item on our shopping list. In 2010, it was still a novelty to see quinoa on a menu – only available at Whole Foods or other specialized vegetarian or organic shops – two years later, nearly all of the major supermarkets were stocking quinoa and in 2013, it was hard to find a restaurant that didn’t have some kind of quinoa dish on the menu.

In fact, the U.S. had imported 68 million pounds of quinoa in 2013 – compared to only 7.3 million pounds in 2007! Within six years, consumption had almost multiplied tenfold and the U.S. are currently the world’s number one importer of quinoa. The UN even declared 2013 as the ‘International Year of Quinoa‘!

cafayate quinoa salad
A quinoa dish in Argentina

What had happened that this exotic vegetable (often thought of as a grain, but it is actually closer to spinach or beets than to grains), virtually unknown a decade ago, had become one of the most sought-after foods in such a short time? It is rare that a ‘new’ food is incorporated in a nation’s diet as smoothly as quinoa found its way into thousands of health-conscious people’s kitchens. When you look at the nutritional value of it though, it is easy to understand why quinoa is so popular: one portion covers nearly 30 per cent of the recommended daily protein intake (a portion of rice in comparison only covers 5 per cent) and it has nearly twice as much iron, magnesium, zinc, fiber and potassium as grains or rice. And it is not only super nutritious, but also delicious! A nutty taste, while the texture reminds of couscous, and it is easy to prepare. In addition, it is gluten-free and considering the growing amount of people who try to avoid gluten, this is the ideal ‘superfood’ for celiacs, for vegetarians and vegans.

Are we hurting the people who grow quinoa?

When demand really rose a few years ago, critical voices started to appear. They were claiming the growing export numbers caused such an increase in prices for quinoa that local farmers in the Andes region, where quinoa is grown, weren’t able to afford it anymore. By buying quinoa, people would hurt Bolivian farmers who had lost their most nutritious food due to the huge appetite for quinoa in the U.S. and other first-world countries, selling so much that there was barely anything left for their own needs.

Knowing this, we were interested to travel in the regions where quinoa was grown – the altiplano of Bolivia, and Peru’s and Ecuador’s Andes regions, which are the world’s three biggest producers of quinoa. We wanted to see what the situation was really like.

quinoa salad at quinoa
Quinoa at Quinoa in Santiago

When we crossed into Bolivia from Chile, we quickly noticed that there was indeed barely any quinoa to find. We didn’t see quinoa on many restaurant menus, and had to really look for it in the markets. Coming from Chile, a rather developed country, we had come across quinoa in several places, even an entire restaurant dedicated to it – Quinoa in Santiago.

Too expensive for the locals?

When we didn’t really come across much quinoa in Peru either, we figured that the rumors must be true: quinoa had become too expensive for the locals to afford it. After all, the price per kilo on the world market had tripled between 2006 and 2011 and was still rising!

Whenever we did see quinoa in a supermarket, it was around a whopping $4.85 for a 1-kilo bag – while noodles would cost around $1.20 for the same amount, and rice even only $1. There seemed definitely truth behind the claims that it had become too expensive for the locals.

However, it turned out that critics who claimed us greedy first-worlders would eat all the quinoa and leave the farmers without their most nutritional food were actually wrong. While quinoa had been grown in the Andes for over 6,000 years and been a main staple for the people who lived in the altiplano for centuries(since corn doesn’t grow at 4,000 meters/13,100 feet),  its cultivation had been prohibited by the Spanish when they conquered the region and replaced it with European foods such as wheat and rye. The ‘mother grain’, as it is called by the Incas, never made a comeback after the Spanish left – particularly potatoes and corn had replaced quinoa.

Bolivian Market
A typical market scene in Bolivia: Dozens of kinds of potatoes… but barely any quinoa

Most Bolivians don’t even know quinoa

That’s why many Bolivians outside of the altiplano don’t even know quinoa (!) and it hasn’t been on their menu for decades. Some of the older generations still cook it occasionally, but people here prefer potatoes, corn and rice. Quinoa had become so insignificant for Bolivia’s agricultural sector that it was only grown by very few farmers in the altiplano.

It was only thanks to the sudden demand from North America and Europe that production was boosted again. Instead of stealing the locals’ food, the demand for quinoa from overseas enabled the farmers to buy better agricultural equipment, have a significantly higher income and to afford better food. The people who were eating quinoa all along still keep a share of the harvest for their own consumption – after all, only the very best quality quinoa is exported. That’s something we experienced in South America: whenever we did find quinoa in the local markets, its quality was way below the quality we were used to from the States. When we did find quinoa on restaurant menus, they were usually special vegetarian restaurants. Local restaurants almost never offered any quinoa dishes.

A better life for quinoa farmers

Since quinoa had become so popular, it has started to improve living conditions in Bolivia’s altiplano, one of the poorest regions of the country. More demand called for more quinoa fields, it employed more people, and the higher income helps them to build better houses and achieve a better quality of life. They did use to eat more quinoa before it became a food phenomenon in the first-world, but only because they didn’t have much of an alternative. Now, thanks to their larger income, they are also able to afford more foods that can’t be grown in the altiplano. The country’s president actually pushes its production and offered huge loans to quinoa farmers in the last few years.

potosi cafe la plata quinoa cake
A rare innovative quinoa dish in Bolivia: Quinoa cake

Do you love quinoa as much as we do? Feel free to share your favorite quinoa recipe in the comments below! And if you’ve traveled through the Andes, we’d love to hear if you felt quinoa was nowhere to be found or if you came across it more than we did!

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Bolivia’s Cerro Rico – Risking my life inside the ‘mountain that eats men’

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The morning I was scheduled to go on a mine tour in Potosí, Jess asked me ‘Why do you have to do it?’, looking at me anxiously. I knew she wasn’t happy about me going into this mountain, especially after finding out that it can collapse anytime, and spending a couple of hours crawling through narrow muddy passageways in the worst conditions thinkable, and had no interest in experiencing the mine for herself.

However, I just had to know what it was really like inside this mine. We had read so much about Cerro Rico, the fabled mountain that helped the Spanish to get rich when they conquered South America in the 16th century, providing them with enough silver to build a bridge from Potosí to Madrid (figuratively, of course). Now, the silver is long gone, and Potosí, once one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the world, is now the poorest city in Bolivia.

potosi with cerro rico
Cerro Rico looming over Potosi

Why risk my life?

Reading about the dangers of the mine tours certainly didn’t leave me unaffected – possible accidents through explosions or trolleys gone lose, potential cave ins and exposure to silica dust, asbestos deposits, chemicals and gases, doesn’t sound like most people’s idea of a fun day out. But it wasn’t supposed to be fun anyway, it was supposed to be educational and eye-opening.

Miners continue to go into the mountain every day, even though there is no silver left, and the state-run enterprise closed down in the late 80s due to high losses and not enough profits. After that, the miners were desperate to keep working and formed cooperatives that, without state involvement, work for themselves and still extract enough minerals such as led, zinc and tin to make money off it. Apparently the mountain looks like a Swiss cheese on the inside now, with hundreds of tunnels running through it, which is why it is on the verge of collapse.

potosi cerro rico minesYou can read all about the horrendous conditions, but it is just not the same as seeing it with your own eyes, feeling the darkness of the tunnels, lit only by your headlamp, the smells of gas, the noise, the claustrophobically narrow tunnels.

So I booked myself a spot on a mine tour with GreenGo Tours, said to be one of the more responsible tour operators that don’t sensationalize the experience (until a couple of years ago, other tour companies allowed tourists to set off dynamite just for fun). It was only me, a couple from France and our guide Julio, who made our way up to Cerro Rico on this sunny Friday morning, hoping to learn more about the mine, the miners, their lives and working conditions.

potosi street with cerro rico view
The road leading up to Cerro Rico

Cigarettes and coca leaves: gifts for the miners

There is some controversy around these tours and if it is okay to watch the miners like some kind of zoo animals but I had read that they actually appreciate the tourists since they bring them gifts and distract them from their monotonous work for a while. It is obligatory to bring the miners some presents, which is why the tour starts at the so-called miners’ market. I pictured a big market where all the stalls offer something for the miners’ needs, but in the end this ‘market’ turned out to be one of many similar little shops along the road that leads up to the mine that sell things like rubber boots, head lamps, masks, juice, cigarettes, coca leaves, dynamite and gloves.

potosi coca leaves vendor
A coca vendor in the miner’s market

I asked Julio what they needed the most and he suggested juice, coca leaves and cigarettes. Especially the last two might seem a bit bizarre, but since the miners all work in cooperatives they have to provide their own gear and tools, which they often can’t afford from their little salary, and snacks are a luxury which they can’t justify.

We had changed into our protective gear and helmets in a nearby storage room and hopped on the next bus up to the mine – not without getting some funny looks by fellow passengers. I felt a bit silly in my gear, obviously not being a miner. The minute we walked into the area of Julio’s cooperative (he’s actually a member, and nobody but him can tour the tunnels of this particular co-op), the miners who were standing outside taking a break were cheering at him, offering him beer and joking around with him. It made me feel better to see that they seemed to truly like him and not just tolerate him.

potosi miners market
Miners market shop with alcohol, cigarettes and other necessities

Before we went into the mine, he told us a lot about the miners, their struggles and their lives. ‘Don’t ask them if they like working at the mine-’, he said, ‘don’t be stupid’. Obviously nobody enjoys spending 8 – 10 hours in the closely-spaced tunnels inside a dark mountain, but most of them don’t find any other work, and the mine pays pretty good compared to other jobs in Potosí (of which there aren’t many in the first place). They get 120 Bolivianos a day, around US$17.40, which adds up to US$4,500 a year – way above the average wage of US$1,503 in Potosí. You have to consider, however, that the miners are usually the sole providers for their families and that, after nearly 500 years, the mountain does not have many minerals left which means that the 15,000 men who are working in the mines will be out of work sooner or later.

The cooperative we visited has over 400 members and Julio assured us that there are no children working in the mines anymore, one of the things that was always a big complaint about the mine. He told us that many of the miners don’t want their sons having to work in the mine when they are old enough and one miner told us later that when his 16-year old son failed his school year, he brought him to the mine for a month during his summer break to show him what would await him should he fail high school. The next year, his son studied like crazy and swore never to set foot in the mine again.

potosi cerro rico mine

Inside the mine: close to a panic attack

The minute we entered the tunnel into the mine, I got really scared. It was darker than I had imagined – conditions in Cerro Rico are said to be about 50 years behind modern mining technology, which means there are no lights in the tunnels for example, and the trolleys used to bring rocks and dirt out of the mine seem to be from the 19th century. We also couldn’t walk standing straight up at all. Julio told us that we had to run for the first 300 meters because of the trolleys that use this way to exit the tunnel – and sure enough the first cart came running at us not long after entering the mine! The four of us jumped into a little nook and I was praying that the trolley wouldn’t hit us.

potosi cerro rico mine workersIt passed us with only millimeters to spare and Julio was ready to move on when I thought to myself ‘I can’t do this. I have to turn around.’ I was breathing heavily, the air was so thin that I was basically wheezing. But Julio had already disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel, the French couple in toe, and so I followed them, feeling a panic come up inside of me that I’ve never experienced before. We were rushing deeper and deeper into the mountain and I remembered the article I had just read about a crater that had opened near the summit of the mountain a couple of years ago, and geologists warning that more collapses and implosions would follow in other parts of Cerro Rico. I was so scared that I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

The trolleys, filled with rocks and debris that are discharged outside of the mine, weigh 700 pounds and need to be pushed by three people – and can easily get out of control because they don’t have breaks. Trolley accidents are actually among the most common in the mine. When the next trolley passed us, the three young guys who pushed it asked if we had juice. I quickly took one of the 2-liter bottles that I bought out of my backpack and Julio threw it on the trolley.

potosi cerro rico mine cartsNot all of the miners had time to talk, but the ones who were on a break were as interested in us as we were in them, wanting to know where we were from, if we had kids, what we did for a living. We were only at our second stop when Julio disappeared into one of the tunnels off the main passageway, and I finally started to calm down a bit. I was still extremely tense, terrified that the mountain might collapse at any time, and had a hard time breathing due to the stuffy, thick and dusty air.

Julio returned and told us that Ernesto, the miner he went to talk to, was in the middle of setting up two sticks of dynamite and we would be hearing an explosion shortly. Now I was even more scared, and ready to leave – if I only knew which of the three completely black tunnels was the way out. Ernesto came running down the tunnel and right after he sat down with us, we heard the two explosions go off nearby, while I cowered in a corner covering my ears with my hands. No smoke cloud came out of the tunnel though (I had expected getting covered in dust), and the miner had time before going back down there to stay for a chat and to refill his bag of coca leaves from the 1 pound bag we had bought. Most of the miners we saw inside the mine had a bunch of coca leaves stuffed in his cheeks, making it look as if they had a tennis ball inside their mouth. Coca helps to reduce hunger, and keeps them awake during their long shifts in the darkness.

potosi coca leavesErnesto’s job was simply burrowing into tiny crevices and placing dynamite. He was one of the smaller miners, which allowed him to do this job. Most of the miners specialize in one type of work: the younger ones usually fill the rocks and debris into the trolleys, others excavate, others are in charge of making new tunnels.

The horrible working conditions in the mine

The working conditions are so obsolete that the excavators still use hammers and iron chisel to break through the rock. No oxygen is being pumped in, the rails and trolleys have never been renewed. There are no health and safety regulations in place whatsoever, which is why most of the miners don’t even wear masks and thus breathe in gas and dust all day long. The minerals and raw metals that are found are brought out of the mine in shoulder bags weighing up to 80 pounds (36 kg). The conditions in the mines have been horrible since the 16th century when the Spanish conquerors used local Quechua people as slaves, forcing them to work inside the mines for days without leaving, and thousands of slaves and miners have lost their lives inside the mountain, which is why Bolivians call Cerro Rico La montaña que come hombres – the mountain that eats men. If the miners don’t die in a trolley accident, a cave-in or an explosion gone wrong, they are likely to die from the long-term consequences of working in the mines; usually lung diseases caused by breathing in poisonous gases on a daily basis for many years.

Cerro Rico Mine PotosiWe met one last group of younger miners before we made our way back out of the mountain. They joked and laughed with Julio for a while and were curious about us. When one of them asked if we had juice, and there was no bottle left because I had given my two bottles already away, I felt guilty instantly. These guys had been in the mine since 8am and were sweating, their clothes sticking to their skin. The inside of the mountain is actually hotter than the outside, up to 40C in deeper tunnels. I handed over the small bottle of water I had brought for myself, knowing I would be out of the mountain soon, while they still had at least 4 more hours left inside, and were already dehydrated and tired.

I was so relieved when Julio announced that it was time to leave, I almost burst into tears of joy. We hurried back out along the tracks, hoping that no trolley would come while we were on them. When the light of the end of tunnel finally came insight, I ran faster, holding my helmet with my hands as it continued to hit the low ceiling. Outside, the bright sunlight was almost blinding, and it took me a few minutes to catch my breath and to realize that I survived the mine.

potosi cerro rico mine daniThis mine visit was by no means a pleasant experience, and I have to admit that I was surprised about how much I panicked inside the mountain – I am usually not claustrophobic – and how trapped and scared I felt the entire time. Knowing that these men spend 60 or 70 hours every week inside Cerro Rico is something I can’t wrap my head around.

I am still glad that I went, got to meet some of the miners and saw how hard working in a mine is – especially in this one which is so far behind modern mining techniques. It definitely was an eye-opening experience and made me appreciate minerals like zinc and led so much more, being aware of how hard it is to extract them.

If you go:

If you are in any way claustrophobic, this tour isn’t for you.

cerro rico silver mine potosiThe mine tour is an experience you will never forget and that will probably change your perspective on your own life. It is supposed to be an educational an informative experience, not a spectacle. Choose the company you go with carefully – I opted for Greengo Tours because it is run by an actual former miner (most companies claim their tours are run by former miners, which isn’t true in many cases) who is a member of the cooperative he shows visitors and makes sure visitors understand that this is an actual working mine, not a tourist attraction. Greengo charges BOB130; plus an additional BOB50 – 100 for you to spend on presents for the miners (it is entirely up to you how much you want to spend, but you have to bring something).

Don’t visit the mine on a Sunday – this is the one day when the mine is actually not working. However, some tour agencies still offer Sunday tours to make a profit.potosi cerro rico mountainBuy a mouth mask – None of us had one, but it was so dusty inside the mine that I wished I had one.

If you bring your camera, bring a plastic bag for it, or it will be covered in dust after the tour.

How do you feel about tours like this one – human zoo or educational? Share in the comments below!

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Breathtaking Bolivia: Our week in Potosí, the world’s highest city

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At first, the idea of buying coca leaves seems almost rebellious because you connect it with cocaine. The first time you drink coca tea, it’s like a novelty.

But after a few days in the world’s highest city, coca became an integral part of our day; the only thing we connected it to was the way it soothed our altitude sickness.

potosi coca leaf vendorWe spent our first full week in Bolivia settled in Potosí, a colonial city at 13,500ft (4,050m), which is high even for the Andes. The city center charmed us immediately and the history here is so fascinating – all we wanted to do was get out and explore.

potosi colorful houses boliviaThe problem was that in order to explore it, we’d have to huff and puff our way up and down the city’s hilly streets at an average altitude that would be the peak of a climb in Europe or North America.

potosi streetWhenever we walked downhill or on a flat part of this UNESCO protected city, we could walk and talk about the beauty of the buildings or wonder about what it must have been like when the Spanish discovered the silver in the Cerro Rico mountain that looms over Potosí. potosi historic balconyWe would imagine life here as the Spanish subjugated the indigenous locals to extract it all and even brought in over 30,000 African slaves to work the mines and the massive amount of man, horse and llama power it would have taken to get the goods to the coast to ship to Spain. When you’re walking down these well-maintained colonial streets, it is easy to feel connected to the bustle here in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was one the world’s richest and most populated cities.

potosi fountain boliviaAll of that imagination was possible while going downhill.

Walking uphill (which was at least half the time) we could only focus on the burning in our lungs, or trying not to attract attention with our obnoxious panting, always stopping to drink water at the end of every hill. For breakfast and each afternoon, we would drink coca tea to cut back the headaches and dizziness of being at altitude.

potosi streetEven most of the sightseeing involved climbing hundreds of stairs to the tops of cathedrals for incredible views. Our favorite stop was the Convento de San Francisco, which can only be seen on a guided tour. We climbed up through the tower onto the roof for incredible views of Potosí and the Cerro Rico, but it was the roof tiles themselves that were the most fascinating.

potosi convent san francisco jessEach and every one was formed by the thighs of former miners who were taken in by this monastery, the only escape for a small fraction of miners, the rest of whom otherwise die an early death from silicosis or mining accidents. Between 2 and 8 million ‘miners’ (slaves) worked and perished in the mines throughout the three centuries of colonial rule, most of whom would live below ground for weeks or months at a time without coming-out for fresh air.

potosi cerro rico mines boliviaThe silver mines were depleted by 1800 and although tin and other minerals continue to be extracted today, by the early 19th century Potosí’s slow and steady economic decline had begun. You can learn much more about the history and present day conditions of Cerro Rico on a mine tour, the town’s main – and very controversial – tourist attraction. The tours are dangerous, have a ‘human zoo’ element and yet also provide international awareness for the terrible conditions for the miners. Despite her altitude sickness, Dani was eager to do a tour of the mines and I decided to sit it out. She talks about the intense experience in detail here.

potosi cerro rico daniMost tourists spend just a day or two in town between stops in Sucre and the Salar de Uyuni salt flats tour, but if you can stand the altitude, spend a few extra days in what is easily one of the most important historic cities in all of South America.

potosi central plaza

What to do in Potosí

Tour the cooperative silver mines of Cerro Rico 

There are several companies, some more ‘ethical’ than others. Check the reviews on Tripadvisor to make sure you book the tour with a reputable company that really supports the miners and not just says so.

San Francisco Convent and Temple 

Visit this gorgeous example of 16th century architecture (don’t forget to appreciate those roof tiles!) on a guided 1.5hr tour. There are also catacombs on the property.

potosi red roofs and city viewCasa Nacional de la Moneda 

This is a great museum about the history of the silver mines, Potosí as one of the world’s first coin mints and the ties between the evolution of coin money to the economic decline of Potosí itself. Guided tours in English or Spanish lead you through 20 galleries that show everything from weapons to archeology to the coin presses themselves.

Cathedral 

Set on the town square, you can enter through a nearly nondescript back entrance, pay 15Bs (US$2.17) per person for a quick tour of the beautiful, yet unfinished cathedral’s restorations and climb to the top for views of the city from the bell tower. The cathedral is open from 9-12 in the morning and 3-6 in the afternoon.

potosi cathedral insideLa Merced Church Museum and rooftop cafe

Although we attempted to visit this highly recommended rooftop cafe almost every day of our stay in Potosí, it was somehow never open. Sipping coffee with incredible views is supposed to be a highlight to a visited to Potosí.

Discover the beautiful colonial architecture 

Make sure to plan in time to stroll around town – the best time is earlier in the morning or on Sundays when less traffic makes the narrow streets easier to wander. Our favorite things to spot are the incredibly ornate carved wooden balconies that hang over the sides of the colonial buildings throughout the center. You’ll quickly see why the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Lonely Planet has a full list of Potosi’s architectural gems here.

potosi ornate church door

Where to eat & drink in Potosí

Café De La Plata 

Right on the main square, the high ceilings, dark wood and big windows here make you feel as though you were part of the Spanish upper class who would have enjoyed this place centuries ago. Today they serve up great coffee, yummy cakes (try the quinoa cake if they have it!) and affordable international dishes.

potosi cafe la plata quinoa cakeLa Manzana Verde 

This hole-in-the-wall vegetarian restaurant is surprisingly popular with locals and tourists alike, and with only five tables and a seriously good deal on their set lunch menu (five courses for 18Bs / US$2.60), we often had to wait just to get a seat. The set lunch is served til later in the afternoon, so avoid the 1130-1:30 lunch rush if possible. Come for dinner and order veggie burgers with quinoa, oats or lentils for only 9Bs (US$1.30) or full dinners for 15Bs (US$2.17)

La Taverna 

This upscale French restaurant serves up quality local dishes as well. Food options are very limited for vegetarians, but our soup and salad were lovely.

Koala Café 

This backpacker joint just off the main square attracts plenty of locals too, with its cheap food – including great set lunch menus, good cakes/cookies and not-painfully-slow Wi-Fi makes this the kind of place you can come for lunch and stay for coffee.

potosi bolivian coupleLa Casona

This was our favorite place to grab a drink in Potosí. The bar is set in an 18th century colonial building and has a great local and international vibe.

How to combat altitude sickness in Potosí

Drink coca tea
Most restaurants have this on the menu and your hotel will likely have some available for free at all times.potosi with cerro rico mountainChew coca leaves
This is an option, though most visitors don’t do this. Much like baseball players with chewing tobacco, you fold up ten or so leaves and pack the wad into your cheek. We did this on the salt flats tour and Macchu Pichu trek, but not for everyday use.

Drink water
Altitude sickness dehydrates you so make sure to drink three or more liters of water per day.

Avoid alcohol
Altitude sickness dehydrates you and alcohol only makes this worse, plus who needs an even bigger headache or more dizziness of a hangover the next day.

potosi feeding pigeons boliviaGet acclimatized
The most important thing you can do, even if you have spent time in La Paz and Sucre coming from the north or Uyuni coming from the south, is adjust to the altitude. The altitude in Potosí is serious and you should take time to adjust. Spend at least one night and day taking it slow before doing the mine tour or spending a full day sightseeing.

potosi jess mirror reflectionGet to a lower altitude
If your symptoms do not subside in a day or two, head back down to lower ground, maybe hop the night bus to Sucre. There are more serious developments to altitude sickness that could develop if you are affected and do not get to lower altitudes.

Check out our image gallery for more pictures of Potosí:

[flickrslideshow acct_name=”globetrottergirls” id=”72157641471982423″]

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Polaroid of the week: The mystical Isla Del Sol in Lake Titicaca

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polaroid of the week bolivia isla del solOur last stop in Bolivia before crossing over into Peru was the beautiful Isla Del Sol within the massive Lake Titicaca. An easy trip from the Bolivian town of Copacabana, you could spend only a day, but we spent the night to have more time to explore the 3200 square mile island. The trip turned out to be one of our highlights in all of Bolivia!

The harsh, rocky island is inhabited by 800 families who live entirely off farming, fishing and some tourism. There are not really any roads and definitely no motorized vehicles of any kind. Even cycling would be nearly impossible along the paths up and down the steep hills. Instead, locals rely on the help of donkeys and llamas to carry the bulk of their materials. The island is covered in these furry animals, and loads more sheep everywhere you look.

Life here is hard, and it isn’t much easier on the tourists. We stepped off the ferry in Yumani on the southern side of the island and onto to solid ground, only to be forced to climb 210 stairs up to the village. Once we’ve made it, though, we were rewarded with sweeping views over Lake Titicaca, the Bolivian Cordillera and Peru across the lake.

There is a clear, well-worn path up and over to the northern side of the island, a hike that took us 5 hours to accomplish. We saw the Chincana Inca ruins, a big stone complex full of mazes on the northern tip of the Isla Del Sol. The island was regarded as the home of the supreme Inca god Inti (the sun god) and it was here that, according to the Incas, the creator god Viracocha arose from Lake Titicaca to create the world. He created the Incan version of Adam and Eve, Mallku Kapac and Mama Ocllo, who went on to populate the world from here, making Lake Titicaca the true birthplace of the Incas.

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Goodbye 2013: Our year of travel in pictures

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I remember leaving for the airport in London like it was yesterday. Dani kept looking at me with my big, funny backpack, and I at hers (and the extra bag she had filled with magazines she just had to finish before we left the U.S.) as we walked to catch the bus to the airport. We were filled with exhilaration that we were actually free – like high school seniors on the last day of school.

2010 brought us from Europe, through the US and Mexico to Central America, it was an unforgettable 2011 through Central America, Europe, Canada, the US and then Thailand. In 2012 we spent time in South East Asia, India and finally to South America.

Now here we are, this is the FOURTH time that we’re looking back at our year of travel. 2013 was as much a year of city-hopping as it was spent in some of the least populated areas of natural beauty on Earth. Our travel style was mostly on four wheels overland and technically slow, visiting only seven countries, but we covered a huge portion of this planet this year across Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, the US, Germany, Bolivia and Peru.

Follow along as we look back at what we are still able pack in, nearly four years after setting off on this nomadic adventure. Click through on the dozens of links to read in more detail about each of these stops along the way.

The year began in Santiago, where we housesat for two months. We still think often about our two adorable Scottie dogs there.

1 january santiago de chileWe were practically becoming locals, so we had to rip ourselves away at the start of February to start our travels through Chile. We began in Valparaiso, and fell in love with this colorful city on the Pacific.

colorful houses in valparaisoFrom there we headed to the Lake District and the island of Chiloe, before returning to the Argentine side of the Andes to explore Bariloche and Nahuel Huapi National Park with its famous black glacier. Then it was time to hit Patagonia.

2 bariloche cathedralAfter that infamously long 27 hour bus ride, we landed in El Chalten, where Dani set off on some solo hikes, and continued to El Calafate, where we visited the impressive Perito Moreno Glacier.

2 argentina perito moreno glacierThen it was back over the border to Chile to see Torres Del Paine. We opted for a full day tour of the National Park, and it became one of our favorite places in all of Patagonia.

3 chile torres del paineAfter a few days in Puerto Natales, the base town for Torres del Paine, we continued our journey south and traveled to Tierra Del Fuego via the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas before finally reaching Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, after hitchhiking from Chile back into Argentina.

UshuaiaOur next stop was Uruguay, a quick flight from Ushuaia, where we visited Montevideo (and almost got robbed!) and the dreamy colonial town Colonia del Sacramento.

3 uruguay colonia del sacramentoOf course we couldn’t leave without visiting some of Uruguay’s famous beaches!

3 march uruguay punta del este3 uruguay beach dayAt the end of March, we went from Uruguay to the north of Argentina and spent a lovely week in Rosario, before we made a 48-hour bus detour to the Iguazu Falls – a detour that was well worth it!

4 argentina dani and jess iguazu fallsWe continued our journey through Northern Argentina to Salta, a city we didn’t love as much as we thought we would, but we fell for the small wine town of Cafayate four hours south of there.

4 cafayate streetThe road took us back north through Salta to Jujuy, where we rented a car to road trip through the Quebrada de Humahuaca for two days.

4 purmamarca street and seven color hillHere we also stopped at the first of three sets of salt flats we’d see this year. 4 argentina salinas grandes salt flats salt rainAfter returning the car, we took a bus to San Pedro De Atacama in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

4 san pedro de atacama streetIt turns out that we seriously love this town and the surrounding scenery on this first of two visits to San Pedro in 2013, and were actually excited to know we’d be making our way back up here again later in the year to continue our travels to Bolivia from here.

4 april northern chile atacama desertDuring this first visit, we took a tour that showed us some of the breathtaking landscapes around San Pedro…

4 april chile atacama desert… including salt flats #2.

4 salt flats chile atacama desertBut instead of heading north to Bolivia from here, we broke our South America journey to fly to New York City for a two-month housesitting gig that made our dream of living in New York come true (at least temporarily!). We landed in New York just in time for our third anniversary as nomads and loved ‘our’ two cats and ‘our’ apartment, just a five-minute walk from the Brooklyn Bridge.

6 brooklyn bridge new yorkIn June, we flew straight to Germany to test out five weeks living in Berlin, which is now one of our favorite cities in the world.

7 alexanderplatz at nightWe couldn’t have asked for a more perfect summer in Germany, where we were featured in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of the national newspapers and interviewed by a major radio station about our housesitting book before flying back to the US in August.

sueddeutscheIt felt great to jet set in the summer as we flew from Berlin to New York to spend the weekend. We were mainly on a quest to find the best pizza in NYC, but also had time to revisit some of our favorite places off the beaten path and cycle through Manhattan on the Citibikes.

8 best pizza in williamsburg brooklyn new york city white pizza5 dani roosevelt islandOur next stop was Tucson, to a housesit we’ve done three times now for homeowners and a dog, Miss Millie, who we just love! We enjoyed some quality time by the pool and the desertscape that we love so much.

8 Jess and Millie in TucsonIn September, we took off on one of the best adventures of this year: a road trip through New Mexico, which would finally bring us all the way back to Chicago via Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa.

We started at the amazing yet little-visited Gila Cliff Dwellings, followed by the otherworldly White Sands…

9 white sands jess & daniThen we spent Jess’ birthday at Carlsbad Caverns before moving on to the aliens of Roswell, Las Vegas (the small New Mexican town) and Albuquerque…

9 carlsbad cavernsThen we hit Santa Fe, explored Georgia O’Keeffe country, the Bandelier Cliff Dwellings, various Pueblos and then finally spent time in magical little Taos, our last stop in New Mexico. Here we got to trek down into the Rio Grande gorge with llamas and our wonderful guide Stuart of Wild Earth Llama Trekking.

9 bandelier monument new mexicoAfter 19 incredible days on the road, we reached Chicago, where we visited friends and family, hit plenty of our favorite sightseeing spots and ate our way across the city.

10 bean reflections at night chicagoChicago is where Dani got to experience her first ‘real’ Halloween in the U.S.! Look at what we did to her face! 🙂

10 globetrottergirls halloweenIn what now, looking back, seems like our year of New York City, we spent another long weekend in Manhattan before hopping onto the return leg of our flight back down to Santiago, Chile – but not without eating more pizza, spending time in Williamsburg, meeting up with quite a few good friends and watching the New York Marathon.

11 New York sunsetFinally we flew down to enjoy all the things we love about Santiago – and just in time for the perfect spring weather (and escaping the freezing cold New York weather that hit the day after we left!)

11 santiago lastarria churchInstead of pushing through on the 24 hour bus ride to San Pedro De Atacama, we visited three new places on the way: La Serena, a quiet though sizable colonial town with a wide beach seven hours from Santiago by bus. This is the jumping-off point for the beautiful Elqui Valley, which became one of our five favorite places in all of Chile.

11 la serena street with churchThen we traveled 19 hours through the narrow piece of land between the Andes and the Pacific to Iquique, a beach city in the north of Chile. The town grew on us slowly, and we ended up enjoying our fourth visit to the Pacific in 2013. This was our last beach visit of the year, too.

11 sea lions in iquiqueThen we went on to San Pedro and made sure to visit the Tatio geyser fields – an incredible piece of desert nearly 5,000m high where geysers explode, gurgle and spurt. It was well worth the 4am wake-up call to see the geyser field at sunrise.

11 geyser de tatio chileAfter a few days of an obsessive amount of research on good tour companies, we finally jumped on our three day off-roading tour through Bolivia’s South West, otherwise known as the Salar de Uyuni salt flats tour. Our first ever border crossing in a jeep, on a tour and in the middle of absolutely nowhere, there was so much more than the salt flats. We saw more otherworldly landscapes, volcanoes, flamingos, lagoons and rock formations of just about every shape and color imaginable.

11 Bolivia laguna verde11 laguna hedionda flamingos bolivia11 arbol de piedra and mountain boliviaOn the last day of the tour we spent sunrise out on our third set of salt flats for the year, which also just so happen to be the largest salt flats in the world, the Salar De Uyuni.

11 Bolivia salt flatsThen we started our travels through Bolivia, with our first stop in the 4000m-high colonial town of Potosi. For those of you who think in feet, this is 13,500 ft high, or almost three ‘mile-high’ Denver cities stacked on top of one another. This is officially the highest city in the world, and we enjoyed the beautifully maintained historic town center which was a great introduction to the country – although just walking its hilly streets was a massive challenge at that altitude.

12 potosi viewsNext were three weeks in both of Bolivia’s capitals: first in Sucre, the official capital (and a city we spent two weeks battling a massive stomach bug that practically laid us flat for half the time)…

12 sucre street bolivia…and then La Paz, the de facto seat of the government. It was from here that we signed up (read: Dani signed US up!) for the mountain bike trip down the world’s most dangerous road – and survived (barely 🙂 ).

12 death road boliviaOur final stop in 2014 was Lake Titicaca, first on the Bolivian side in Copacabana, where we spent Christmas, then followed by a couple of days on the Isla del Sol and then crossing the border into our first stop in Peru – Puno – where we are celebrating New Year’s Eve.

lake titicaca with boats copacabana bolivia

This was a big year for us as The GlobetrotterGirls as well!

We released a second and much, much sexier version of our book, The Ultimate Guide to Housesitting – check that out here if you want to start housesitting in 2014.

We started the Break Free podcast, where I interview globetrotting women who have created the incredible life balance of running successful businesses while traveling the world. You can listen on the website or subscribe in iTunes.

Then there was the launch of our Escape Route travel planning and consulting service. We seriously love helping people make the most of the travels, and we’ve loved being able to help readers and clients plan their perfectly customized holidays.

Perhaps most exciting for us is the launch of our GlobetrotterGirls Getaways – starting with our seriously epic overland trip from San Francisco to Seattle in May 2014. If you’re interested in joining us on a seriously unique trip (in a custom-converted American school bus!) read more about the Getaways here. Early-Bird pricing ends today, December 31st, so if you’re interested, save $150 and put down your deposit today!

Dani and Jess in Argentina

Thanks so much for following along on our journey in 2013. Stick with us in 2014 for even more epic adventures through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, the US, Europe and who knows where we’ll end 2014!!

Happy New Year!

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