Bolivia – lessons learnt from my big mistake

Drum roll and welcome to guest blogger Pam who recounts her Bolivia adventure.

I land in La Paz, Bolivia, the highest capital city in the world. It’s 6 am on 30th December and I’ve been travelling for 20 hours. As I walk through passport control I spot the oxygen tanks dotted along the corridors. Lonely Planet did warn me. The altitude here is likely to get to you, causing you to faint, feel sick or at least give you numbness in your fingers!

I was Ok. I got through customs and headed for the taxi rank. Ok. But terrified. This was my second big solo trip to South America. Why can’t I be happy spending New Year’s Eve like most of my friends watching Jules Holland on the TV under a duvet cover? Or in an overpriced restaurant eating a second rate meal? I was 61 years of age, single and alone across the other side of the world. Would I be safe? Who would I meet, what experiences would I have?

I’m travelling through Bolivia with G Adventures finishing in Santiago, Chile. Here I would meet up with Danielle, an American who I had met on a travel companion website. Would we get on? What if it was a disaster? The plan was that we spend the week together in Santiago before travelling through Argentina and Chile to ‘the end of the world’ the town of Ushuaia – the furthest south town in the world.

This trip to Bolivia was a mistake. I did not read the small print when booking and didn’t realize until I was about to leave that it was’ basic grade’. Lots of really young people. I would have to carry my own luggage, travel on public buses, share a room and on two nights sleep in a mixed dorm. What had I done?

But it was too late now. Twenty-four hours later my group arrived having been together for two weeks travelling through Peru. Yes, they were all under 30 and a mixture of Aussies, Kiwis and English. Only American Tom was similar in age to me and he turned out to be one of the ruddiest people I had met in my life!

It’s hard joining a group when they have already bonded over the previous weeks. It’s even harder if you’re old enough to be their mother. But as I always say about travelling: It’s as much about the people you meet as the places you see.

New Year’s Eve I found myself joining them for an overpriced restaurant meal which I had travelled across the other side of the world to avoid. Over dinner I inched myself into the conversation trying to avoid expressions like ‘in my day’. During the evening I learned all about modern day contraception and was reminded of the energy and enthusiasm of young people. Far more interesting than talking with my friends about the merits of having a bus pass. But at times it was hard going and there were many moments when I felt the youngsters were just tolerating me. A feeling I had many times during the days ahead.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America with the friendliest of people. Living with altitude sickness becomes the norm here. Headache and nausea all the time as we climbed to 4,500 meters, down to 2,000 meters then up again and down again.

The next two weeks were hard, travelling with long days on local buses. Often travelling 12 to 14 hours a day. Sitting alongside locals trying to have conversations whilst sharing the space with their children and chickens.

Our first stop when leaving La Paz was the beautiful, but jaded mining town of Potosi. Established by the Spanish soon after the discovery of silver in a nearby hill. African slaves worked on the mines in appalling conditions but it was the silver that made it very important in the 15th century. Now its wealth was a thing of the past, like many places in South America.

The Train graveyard, on the edge of the desert was great fun. The remains of 19th and 20th century steam locomotives, built in York and discarded here when replaced by the Bolivian Government. Simply surreal and made famous when the graveyard appeared in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Next we travelled to the desolate town of Uyuni in south Bolivia ready to pick up the trip in 4WD across the largest salt flat in the world.  The brilliant white vast Salar de Uyuni. The roads were nothing better than tracks with occasional concrete. I sat for hours staring out the window. I couldn’t help feeling sad at the sight of burnt out petrol tankers, plastic rubbish bags and old tyres littered along the roadside.

My first sight of the salt lakes was the point at which I realized that this trip was the best mistake I made in my life! The lakes were just stunning. The 4,000 square mile of white expanse was like staring at the world’s biggest mirror. You can see for 100 miles, the lunar landscape burns your skin and takes your breath away.

The next two nights were spent travelling the lakes and Siloli desert.  Sleeping in hostels with no electricity, just a generator offering light for four hours in the evening. The six-bedded dorms are cold and basic. The beds are pretty uncomfortable and you wear everything you possess in a bid to stay warm. When you woke at 4 am to start the next leg you find your way to the bathroom and wash your teeth by torch.

Now over 4000 meters up we met Lake Colorada, a spectacular multicolored volcanic rock formation. So too is the volcanic zone ‘Sol de Manana’ (Morning Sun where you are 4.800 meters above sea level). Here we see the geyser basin with bubbling mud pots and a thick aroma of sulphur fumes . Inside a small crater we observe boiling lava and enjoy the hot springs. The beauty continues passing through Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) rich in lead, sulphur and calcium carbonate.

To cross the border into Chile we wait five hours for the Chilean officials to open this remote crossing high up in the Andes. The air is thin and the convoy of 4WDs wait patiently with our Bolivian guides. This is where the Bolivians invited the ‘rest of the world’ to play football. These small guys ran furiously over the flat landscape chasing the ball. The opposition, mainly from the UK, Australia and New Zealand panted and spluttered.  Unable to run at this altitude before leaning on their knees gasping for breath. So the Bolivians beat the world! Next stop Santiago the capital of Chile and the end of my adventure.

Four years on and many more wonderful experiences to tell I still reflect on the lessons learned. As I style my life into ‘so called’ retirement, I see many of my friends get set in their ways, not wanting to change anything. How hard it is to put yourself at risk, initiate change and not judge or moan. I do admit that there were many times on this trip when I felt lonely and craved the conversation of a friend but how lucky I am to have been forced out of my comfort zone. My lucky mistake!

Since this trip I have travelled lots. At times on my own or with one of my travel friends or with a group like G Adventures.  The lessons learned from my Bolivia trip I use today.  I check the singles ratio, the  age range and nationality. Oh and if the trip is half way through!

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