The decision to leave from the Salar de Uyuni wasn’t that easy. We loved being in such a unique place and when we finally left, it was already afternoon – let alone we had to wash the vespa thoroughly! After 2 days of driving on pure salt, it would be very likely to get a bit more rusty than the normally acceptable! We headed towards Potosi and the plan was to stop somewhere on the road and pitch our tent before the night falls. The next morning we would continue our trip and we would try to enter the city which was blocked by strikers. We finally camped outside the village Pulacayo. We followed a dirt road and found a spot where we would be out of sight from the main road. After having pitched our tent, we realized that the place we chose to spend the night was the landfill of the village! Due to the low temperatures and to the fact that the landfill seemed newly dug, the spot was cleaner than many other spots we have pitched our tent (even cleaner than some “organized” campsites).
The route towards Potosi was really beautiful. The landscape was dry and the climate of the high Andean plateau was ideal only for cacti and some other – unknown to us – plants, as well as for the llamas. The “grasslands” around us were yellowish plains and the vegetation was scarce but, still, enough for the llamas! We shot some hundreds of pictures of the cute and funny at the same time camelids and we felt a little guilty for having eaten so many of them in Uyuni…(Sorry, I just lied…We loved the llama-ribs!)
Several kilometers before we got to Potosi, the traces from the clashes of the previous days were more than obvious. There were stones scattered on the road and – especially near villages, we could see burnt materials, such as tyres, pieces of wood etc. However, the most important clue was that we were the only ones driving a vehicle on a completely empty road! We had heard on the radio that the region of Potosi wasn’t safe and that the clashes were violent, but we didn’t believe that we would be in actual danger. We had decided to stop and talk with the strikers on the roadblocks and of course, respect what they would tell us. We got at the tolls few kilometers from the city. The toll-bars were wide open and we stopped at the booth to ask if we could pass. The strikers, after asking our nationality, gave us permission to continue. After the toll, the stones and burnt pieces on the road were everywhere around us and when we got to the entrance of the city, a bus was parked vertically blocking the way forcing us to make a maneuver in order to cross and stop 5 meters away, ready to talk with some tens of strikers who were looking towards us with an expression of astonishment on their faces.
They seemed alert but not at all aggressive or threatening…Mass Media exaggerations, as usual! We got off the vespa and the conversation begun. We asked them about the strike, their demands, the situation. They asked us about Greece, the crisis, the journey. They laughed a lot when we explained them that we needed two days to get from Uyuni to Potosi. A little later, we were climbing up to Potosi. The strikers – the majority of them, miners – had reassured us that we can go on to the city with no worries. The things were a bit difficult for the vespa. Potosi is built on mountain slopes and the rocks and roadblocks we had to cross through, didn’t give us many options: the clutch had a suspicious burning smell and…I had to walk!
We had read about the colorful and noisy city of Potosi, with the picturesque colors, the traditional market and the chaotic traffic jam. About its people and its history – it used to be one of the richest cities of the region due to the silver mines in the heart of the sacred mount “Cero Rico” which lies just next to the city. What we saw, was completely different. There was not even one vehicle on the roads and every shop was closed. People were walking only in the most central places of Potosi. The whole city was on strike! We walked a bit around the center and we were surprised of how united the people were in their decision to close down everything! Even in one-two hostels we asked, they politely refused to accommodate us due to the strike. We were amazed by their will to make their demands heard: the construction of a better hospital, an international airport and a cement industry. All they had heard the last few years were promises…
We started roaming in the streets and tried to find clues that would tell us that there were people who disagree with the strike and continue working normally. We didn’t find any. We found a place to stay but the owner wasn’t against the strike, he just wanted to help us. So, we concluded that the vast majority of the people of Potosi were supporting this fight. Soon, we learned about the working hours of the shops: they stayed open for about 2 hours per day, only to supply the people with the basics. Some street vendors would also appear during the afternoon and that was it. No restaurants, no cafeterias, nothing. We were glad to have met Potosi under these “abnormal” circumstances. We had the opportunity to learn more about life in Bolivia and especially, we had information directly from the source and not from the Mass Media and their dramatic descriptions!
After 4 days in Potosi, it was time to go on. First, we had to find petrol. Βy coincidence, we met a kind man who took some out of his own motorcycle and gave it to us. It would be enough for many kilometers and he reassured us that we could find petrol when we would leave the Potosi region. However, the real adventure started when we reached the main exit of the city. Of course, there was another roadblock there, but this time the strikers on guard were women. Α “sturdy” middle aged woman, traditionally dressed with her huge colored skirt and her two long braids, came towards us threatening to hit us with a wooden stick! The moment we saw her, we stopped and tried to explain her that we had the permission to be in the city and that otherwise, it would impossible to be there. Probably, the angry lady was also a bit confused…The orders were clear: nobody would pass! However, the detail she hadn’t caught was that nobody would cross TOWARDS Potosi, not OUT OF Potosi. Finally, a young woman who also wanted to practice her English a bit, came and helped us. The big lady decided that we could continue but probably, in a last attempt to scare us she warned us that on the next roadblock, the stikers (who were miners) would try to hit us and pinch our tires! The funny thing was that not only didn’t the miners threaten us, but on the contrary, they helped us cross a small mountain of dirt and stones which was the main roadblock and they were happy to talk and make jokes! We were the only foreigners they had seen for a long time and they probably wanted to have a small chat with others than their colleagues. From that day and on, the only thing that frightened me in Bolivia were the big ladies with the long braids…and not with no reason!
The element of surprise was present during our whole stay in Bolivia. However, nothing could prepare us for the adventure of “petrol purchase”! Due to the strike which held on for about a month, the petrol pumps had dried out and the same thing was about to happen to the vespa, too! In some parts of the route where the road was going down, Stergios had to do the old trick “turn-off-the-engine-and-just-let-it-roll”. The first petrol station which was open was more of an oasis to our eyes – until I got there holding the jerrycan…There, I heard for the first time the phrase that I would be tired to hear in the future: “Sorry, we can’t sell you petrol!”. According to the law, fuel is sold at a low price in Bolivia, though only to the locals. The foreigners, should pay three times more than the locals – but, this is not the only problem. There are only few petrol stations allowed to sell to foreigners (holding the legal documents – permit), so in most cases we had to make an “illegal” purchase. This means that if you don’t want to pay 1.30euro for something you can buy for 0.40euro, you have either to beg with a huge naive smile or to agree with a local to buy the fuel for you. In any case, you should never go to the petrol station with your vehicle, but park it somewhere where it’s not visible and take your jerrycan with you. In some places where they insisted to sell us at the “international” price, we demanded a receipt, but they were not happy to give us one. We are not sure if this system really helps the local economy or produces other types of problems. Until our last day in Bolivia, purchasing fuel was the only really annoying thing we had to cope with.
In order to buy enough petrol to get to Sucre, I used the “smiling and begging” trick which went well! The polite young woman at the petrol station hid behind the pump and filled the jerrycan at the local price. Soon, we were in Sucre. This city was completely different from Potosi – I’m talking about the city center, because in almost every city we saw, the poorer suburbs were very similar to each other. The historical buildings were made of stone and the colonial architecture was prevailing in most of the areas around the historical center. We found a nice hostel to stay and we decided to spend some time to see Sucre. The first thing to do was to go to the customs office and extend the temporal permit of the vespa. Everything went surprisingly well: we renewed the permit with no problems or suspicious extra charges. However, when we left from the hostel to go to the customs, the exhaust of the vespa accidentally hit and broke a small piece of the cement joint at the edge of one step. The lady in charge – a big lady with long braids – got angry and tried to scare us telling us that she had to call for a technician to fix it and that it would cost a lot! We took full responsibility of the broken step but we wouldn’t agree to pay a fortune for such a minor damage! She couldn’t believe her ears when with a wide smile on our faces, we reassured her that we would fix it on the same day! When we got back to the hostel, we had already bought the materials to fix the step (and if we wanted, we could fix about 10 more broken steps in the hostel…). In less than half an hour, it was like new and the lady had a smile of disappointment, having realized that she didn’t have any excuse to get extra money from the “gringos”.
Enough with the nasty surprises! We loved Sucre for all the nice surprises that followed! For about 10 days, we walked in every narrow street of the historical center, took some hundreds of pictures and last but not least, tried almost every kind of street food! And this time with not even the slightest food poisoning! Our favorite place was the central municipal market. In our opinion, it can’t be compared to any other marketplace we visited in Bolivia. It is a half open-air market of several square meters and it is divided into sections selling all kinds of goods (vegetables, fruits, meat, cheese, bread, flowers, clothes…). We spent many hours in that market seeing and tasting fruits completely new to us, taking pictures and videos and talking to the vendors who were almost always eager to give us information about the goods they were selling or a smile for a photo (Of course – one big lady with long braids “attacked” poor Stergios because she thought that he’d take a picture of her…she threw him pieces of rotten meat! If only she had thrown a steak, it could have been a great dinner!)
I have to admit another thing, though! Our everyday walks to the market were not only with the purpose of taking pictures. On the first floor of the building, there was the “prepared-food” section. The sign wrote “Comida Tradicional” – traditional cuisine and there were women cooking and serving all types of typical Bolivian recipes! Tasty, freshly-cooked cheap food in large portions: ideal for us! Meatballs, sausages, spicy chicken or meat, soups, salads…and I repeat: with not even the slightest food poisoning! The best part came after lunch: On the ground-floor patio, there was the “juice and fruit salad section”…the best in Bolivia! Tens of women were selling freshly squeezed juices or fruit salads with crème-fraiche and yoghurt. With fruits like “chirimoya”, “maracuya”, “carambola” etc, every fruit salad we ate was a pleasant experience!
Our evening walks in the city were not very different: night market with sandwiches, hamburgers, empanadas and desserts (my favorites were the “birthday-cake” pieces!) everywhere around us. My birthday was cοming and I had decided to celebrate it in Sucrre – with street birthday cake! After a week of everyday indulgence, we realized that we had to leave Sucre – not because we were fed up with our stay there, but because if we’d spend more time in this culinary heaven, the poor vespa wouldn’t make it with both of us on it! Leaving Sucre wasn’t that simple, though. The day we decided to go, the annual celebrations for the country’s independence begun! That meant 3 days of closed roads, parades, music, dance and drunk drivers. So, we had to wait patiently, listening to the music played by the army’s band (We were familiar with that music from our time in Uyuni, when we attended the celebrations for the town’s anniversary!) and making plans how to leave from Sucre during the last day of celebrations. We thought that it would be better to see which roads were open, as the city was completely empty all 3 days – except for the center where all the celebrations took place. We preferred to leave then, because of the usual problems we had with the high altitude and the steep slopes. Burning the clutch while trying to leave from a place was not the best thing to happen. We did it! After a moment of tension between us and a guy who wanted to charge us with the “international” fuel price – with no receipt, of course, we were now on our way to “La Higuera” – the small village where El Che had been captured and assassinated…
* We think that it’s about time to tell you about the 2 travelers who played an important role in our trip in Bolivia – and in the rest of our journey in South America. Giannis and Elena, a couple from Greece who made the same trip on a BMW GS800, 3 years ago gave us not only information but also inspiration. From Giannis and his blog, we took valuable details about the road conditions, the cities and villages and for the precise altitude of each route – which was really important for the vespa! His vivid and at the same time balanced descriptions helped us take the decision and cross through the notorious “Lake Region” – which others told us to avoid. Also, Giannis and Elena are “responsible” for the amazing days we had in “La Higuera”. Last but not least, watching Helena’s pictures made us want to visit those places and see them with our own eyes! Thank you guys! Check out their blogs: roadspirit.wordpress.com, latrismixanis.wordpress.com