After our incredible time visiting the world biggest salt flat – Salar De Uyuni it was time to move on through Bolivia. We were given a 30 day visa upon arrival crossing the border and we thought it would be a good time frame to stick to. (You can in fact get 90 days with a UK passport but have to ask specifically for it). We left Uyuni thinking that it was very likely that nothing else would probably compare to our experience there. Uyuni is such a popular place on the backpacker route and many skip the other cities and towns in Bolivia and then head straight towards La Paz.
We decided to head towards the city of Potosí. Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world at 4,090 metres (13,420 ft) above sea level. We actually didn’t know this before we went so we’re massively underprepared for the altitude shock. We headed to the ‘bus street’ area in the centre of Uyuni where we were met by numerous Bolivian women shouting different destinations and grabbing you into the bus stops. We found a bus pretty quickly headed for Potosí and it was already waiting outside so we were pretty set. The bus ticket cost just 30 Bolivianos/ £3 each and it was just a 3 hour journey. The bus was basic but did the job and we couldn’t have been happier to be in a place with such cheap transport again. It was also a blessing not to have to book in advance for buses like in Brazil & Argentina… just turn up and jump on!
The journey to Potosí was beautiful, but pretty rocky. Ever since we first arrived in Bolivia we couldn’t believe how stunning the landscape was. Rolling hills, snowy mountains and deep canyons. Truthfully we thought we had seen the best in other South American countries, but we really hadn’t seen anything yet!
Views for days
We arrived in Potosí to a grey and sprawling city in the mountains. We had booked into Koala Den hostel which cost us £18 a night. (By the way fully recommend this place with fantastic breakfast included) We’d looked at the map before hand and truthfully it only looked like a 15 minute walk. We had forgotten all about the height of the city and the crazy altitude and hills that would also meet us. As we set off with our backpacks we literally were so out of breath within 2 minutes, honestly we were struggling to breathe so much. Our first experience in South America of altitude sickness. We pretty much panicked and waved our hands in the air at a nearest taxi. It pulled over and jack walked over to put his bags in. Our small backpacks were on the floor next to me. Next minute I know there were two men next to me just staring at our bags. They were so close and I just knew that they were going to grab them. I literally grabbed them so quick and dived into the taxi. As we pulled off I looked out the back window and watched the men just staring at the taxi. A little freaky but nothing too crazy and I’m just grateful I was alert as everything could have gone missing.
Anyway we got ourselves to the hostel and checked in. The torrential rain poured and the altitude made us so tired. The first night we headed out to the main road and it was all pretty overwhelming really. It was hard to walk more than 5 minutes in the altitude and the streets were so crowded and busy. We had a traditional Bolivian dinner at this really random restaurant which was delicious. On the way walking back to the hotel we got drenched with foam from a car window. This was our first experience of Bolivian Carnival traditions – and we didn’t even know it yet…
We spent three days in Potosí, the city most famous for the mining but we had heard a few horror stories of the mine tours and the altitude killed us off. It was also really cold and torrential rain poured solidly for a whole weekend. For centuries, Potosí was also the location of the Spanish colonial mint meaning there are lots of interesting historical figures, colonial buildings and museums there too to check out.
The next stop on our list we decided would be Sucre, known as ‘The white city’ and one of the most beautiful old colonial spots in Bolivia. Bolivia’s Declaration of Independence was signed here and the main square houses galleries related to the city’s past as the national capital. We took a taxi from the top of the hills to the bus station in Potosí which was a pretty unusual circular building which you had to pay to enter and exit… our first of many experiences of this! The bus station was cold and full of local ladies selling socks who are instantly recognisable wearing their pollera (pleated-skirt) and European bowler hat, and a silky shawl known as a manta. We found a bus to Sucre for 40 Bolivianos/£4 each and boarded. The journey was pretty smooth, on paved roads which we were grateful for.
As soon as we arrived in Sucre we knew we were going to love it there. We’d booked in at Casa Arte Takubamba which worked out as £24 a night. It was a gorgeous old white building with courtyards full of flowers and wooden shutters on each room. The temperature was warmer than Potosí and the sun was shining. Our first evening we discovered Joy Ride Café. We’d read up online about this place before and it was such a welcome spot after a while without an international menu. That night we enjoyed the biggest BBQ chicken wings and jugs of beer we’d ever seen. A great spot.
Such a gorgeous city
Bolivian carnival was due to run between the 8th and 11th of February and we arrived in Sucre on the 7th. The actual carnival takes place in the historic city of Oruro. Oruro is halfway between La Paz and Sucre in the Altiplano and 3,709m above sea level. It’s REALLY hard to get to, along crazy windy roads and the pretty basic accommodation that’s there gets booked up months in advance for huge prices. Many people take a day trip there from the major cities too, which is crazy as it takes quite a few hours each way. After doing all this research we decided on sticking in Sucre because we were told carnival was EVERYWHERE so we would have fun no matter what. We honestly had no idea what we had let ourselves into!
Our first day in Sucre lead us to the central market. The streets were so alive with drinking and drums from the earlier hours so we were excited to get out there and see what was happening. We wandered into the market and were met by all the market stall owners smashing through bottles of spirits and beers. Women were doing synchronised dance routines and music was blaring. They even had a stage up. The locals didn’t seem to mind us wandering in and checking them out. As we soon came to learn, in Bolivia they DRINK. HARD. Like until they pass out. EVERY TIME. Before we knew it we were buying beers and joining in. To be honest it was all pretty crazy, the locals were drinking their local spirit, called chicha made from corn. It was SO sour and being served directly from a bucket but we still drank it. They literally had gallons of the stuff and we learnt that the way you drink it is to take a full cup, shot it and splash the last drop on the floor. We ended up dancing around in circles with lots of the market workers and Jack caught the eye of lots of the older ladies!
I’ll let my pictures speak for themselves:
Starting off civilised
Lots of new market friends
Right in the middle of the market where all the ladies are wearing matching outfits
The next day we woke up in a haze late morning. Every morning we were in Sucre we were awoken by huge marching bands. They started so early too and we were soon to find out that they went on and on and on. Honestly we didn’t do a right lot this day, it was Friday and we were told the real fun would start on the Saturday with a parade. That evening we went to a Chinese and Thai restaurant called simply ‘Chifa and Thai’. This was the first time in months we had seen anything like this and were pretty shocked to see things like spring rolls on the menu. We ordered a few bits and to be honest it was kind of weird but the flavours were there so we were impressed with just having something different for a change.
A different taste for once
The next day was Saturday, the big day. We were told things would kick off really early in town so we should get there 9ish and no later. We finished our breakfast as quickly as possible and headed out to Plaza 25 de Mayo, neither of us knew what to expect so we didn’t have a clue what to wear, but looking back now I definitely wouldn’t have worn jeans and would have stuck to waterproof or quick dry stuff…
We headed towards the main square where families lined the streets. The children were already attacking each other with what is known in Bolivia as ‘puma’ or ‘bubbles’. Like even at 9am they were drenching each other. We found a spot and about 10am a parade came toward us. It was mainly made up of religious food offerings, traditional ladies dancing, children on small floats and weirdly tiny children dressed as men with painted on beards. There was also older ladies sitting on floats offering out the dreaded corn drink to the crowds. After not long Jack and I were been attacked with puma left right and centre. The rule is that you’re only allowed to attack the opposite sex so there I was being attacked by 10 boys no older than 8 years old. No one is safe here, the children will get anyone and everyone, especially the gringos with no defence! After long we knew it was time that we had to get involved and buy some ‘puma’ we headed towards the park where the parade was headed and picked up some at 5 Bolivianos a can, which is £0.54. The day descended into full on puma fights. Once the locals realised we had the cans they were up for a proper fight. We honestly got drenched and had to run for hours to escape huge groups of people on every corner.
Even the performers get covered!
Just a small amount of puma
Know let me tell you one most important thing about Bolivia: the Bolivian people DRINK. I mean really drink. They drink and drink and drink until they pass out. They get pretty sloppy drunk most of the time and to be honest with you it’s hilarious and you will be forced to get involved. Street sellers and stalls offer you cans of beer for just 8 Boliviano a can which is about £0.80 max, sometimes less. The Parque Simón Bolívar (the biggest park in Sucre) was so busy even before lunchtime. There’s plenty of super cheap food stalls down there too offering delicious bbq meat and lots of sweet treats.
After a long afternoon of attack children with puma we headed back towards the centre of town where we met with chaos. Now the streets were lined with big drinking parades and bands and drunk people everywhere. It seems families and perhaps people from communities join together to form their own marching band and just march around for hours and hours. They’re all armed with horns, puma, enough alcohol for a small army and a brass band. It was honestly mental. People were so drunk by 3pm they were all over the streets passing out! We hit the shop to get our fix of beers. This is when the water bombs started. Water bombs were flying left right and centre and hitting us right in the face! It was so ruthless and honestly one of the funniest experiences.
We were pretty drunk by late afternoon (in true Bolivian style) and next minute we knew we were being grabbed in by a marching band. There was some sort of road block, basically all the parades sort of bump into each other and you’re stuck in the middle. So we joined a parade, we were at the front and all we had to do was take shots of whisky and corn stuff and dance along to the music for hours. Let me tell you it was one of the most fun experiences of my life, it was just mental. It was also a great talking point for other gringos in the city!
The afternoon’s chaos (… what I could capture during it anyway)
At the front of the parades
From what we had read online Sunday was also a huge day for carnival in Sucre so after the previous days activities we dragged ourself up and back into town towards Avenida de las Americas. Supposedly this was where things kicked off. We arrived to a completely dead main road, but we thought perhaps we were just early. We found a restaurant and rain started to pour. The whole street was flooding and it honestly didn’t stop. A few parades passed us and trucks filled with kids in the back armed with water bombs. They were so prepared it was unbelievable, they were even covered with a plastic sheet so they could attack others and still be protected! Eventually we plucked up the courage and went for a walk, the street was getting busier and the shops were full of life. We spent hours throwing water bombs at passing cars and parades. We met a Bolivian family who had the cutest baby which we legit wanted to steal.
In summary our time in Sucre was an absolute blast. The city itself is truly beautiful and has loads of great spots. It’s also a place in Sucre to find a backpacker vibe and lots of international food. It was an hilarious option to head here for carnival instead of trekking to Ouruo.
Other beautiful spots not to be missed:
It truly is a white city
Gorgeous building facades in Sucre everywhere
Plenty of photo spots
Where to head to next after Sucre was such a debate. We struggled for a couple days deciding what would be the next option. We spent Valentine’s Day having a chilli con carne at Joyride cafe surrounded by heart shaped balloons and rose petals all over the table and still not knowing what our next step. Travel in Bolivia isn’t that smooth, roads are pretty bad and there is so much misleading info online about the best and worst routes to take. We were looking at heading to Cochabamba for our our next stop but we had read online that the journey there was horrendous and really dangerous. Honestly I got a bit worked up by it all because everyone just said the journeys everywhere from Sucre were terrifying and you spent the whole night praying for your life.
In the end we settled on taking the Trans Copacabana night bus toward Cochabamba. It cost us the equivalent of $12 US dollars each. I had terrible anxiety about the journey was expecting hell. It was even more stressful at first because the company didn’t tell us you have to check your bags in first upstairs before getting on the bus. It was so weird they take your bag and lower it down on a rope to the bus, made no sense… but hey Bolivia doesn’t make much sense in general…
Anyways in reality the bus journey was absolutely fine. The journey was really smooth and it was pretty much a paved road the entire time. The only struggle was the windy roads but the driver was relatively slow and everyone was just passed out on the bus (including us) not feeling a thing. We couldn’t believe it when we arrived. What was all the fuss about? I couldn’t recommend this company anymore (just head to the bus station to book a ticket).
We arrived in Cochabamba at 5am which wasn’t ideal. We grabbed a taxi and arrived at our hostel we had booked online. The guy looked super confused when we turned up and after a while we discovered that we had booked for the wrong month. What a nightmare. We left into the rainy darkness of Cochabamba and stumbled across the road to a very tacky looking hotel called ‘Hotel Diplomat’. It was pretty expensive, but we were desperate. The hotel was super dated and almost American motel style with an interesting black bathroom. Just another thing to add to our list of weird experiences in Bolivia. That day we met up with an old friend of mine in a cafe who I worked with in Nepal. We also had a Burger King that evening which was actually best damn Burger King I’ve ever had in my life! Sometimes it’s so thrilling being a backpacker!
Cochabamba was an interesting place but there wasn’t really a recognisable tourism base. But weirdly enough Cochabamba is home to the biggest statue of Jesus in South America which towers over the city. In fact this Christ is 34.7ft taller than Christ The Redeemer in Rio? The cable car up costs just £0.65 (one way) and honestly has such spectacular views. Bolivia is SO budget friendly it’s crazy.
Cable car up to the top
Apparently you used to be able to climb up inside Cristo- hence all the holes as look out points!
Another extremely interesting spot was Palacio Portales which for me made our visit to Cochabamba all worth it. The gorgeous bright yellow residence inspired by Versailles was completed in 1927 & owned by Simon Iturri Patino – a Bolivian millionaire nicknamed “the tin baron” who controlled over half of the nation’s output in the 1930s. It’s a true rags to riches story which is even more interesting. The house offers free guided tours in English after a small entrance fee. All materials and decor used to build the house was imported from both France & Italy, shipped across the world to Chile and transported by train across the Mountains to Cochabamba. The house is in perfect condition as Patino never even got to live here after he retired!
Would you ever expect this in Bolivia?
Exploring- so quiet too
Other highlights of Cochabamba included a giant mall with amazing and super cheap fast food (especially chicken wings WINGS are EVERYWHERE in Bolivia), TGI Fridays and a lovely square surrounded by the cutest old colonial buildings such as an old pharmacy and a lovely Cathedral.
Main square in Cochabamba- pigeon central
I found these buildings so charming
Following our stint in Cochabamba we once again struggled to decide where our next destination might be. Many people head towards Santa Cruz but is undoubtedly a pretty long journey and an even longer one to get to La Paz afterwards. We settled on getting straight into La Paz…