Bolivian border crossing

So getting in and out of Bolivia for American citizens is a little bit tricky. Online the Bolivian government says they require all sorts of things, from lots of paperwork to a yellow fever shot. But in reality it is usually very simple, especially if coming in by land.

I wrote previously about how we entered the country through the Salar de Uyuni tour, from Chile. Although technically the guards were supposed to ask for visa application, paperwork, proof of vaccination, et cetera, they didn’t. All they were interested in was our money (in USD, exact change) and stamping our passport with a visa. We paid 60 USD per person for a one month visa, which was half the price of a year-long visa.

At this point we made a gamble. We knew we would stay longer than 30 days, but we didn’t want to spend over 260 USD between us for five weeks. So we got the 3o day and decided to pay the overstaying fines on our way out of the country later. Here is how we did that.

Now it is later, and we left the country from Copacabana to Puno, Peru. The border crossing here is a little disorganized. Our bus dropped us off at the the Bolivian customs office and we all got in line. A guard at the entrance checked everyone’s visas and saw that Jordan’s and mine had expired April 27. We had overstayed by 10 days. He ushered us to a separate line at a different window, where we had to present our passports and visa.

The man behind the counter added up the days on a calendar and calculator and told us the fine was 20 bolivianos a day per person. This adds up to around three USD per person per diem. All in all, we had to 400 bolivianos in fines. We didn’t have that much cash left, so we paid what we could in bolivianos (100). The other 300 bolivianos we paid in USD, which we had. We gave him a $50 bill and asked for the change in USD, but he wasn’t allowed to do that. So we received change in bolivianos. He calculated the day’s exchange rate (several times, because his math was bad) and we made the transaction.

In the end, we paid about 58 USD in fines, which is still cheaper than buying the year visa. Between us we saved about 90 USD by just paying fines. The customs agent then gave us a receipt of our fine by slapping a bunch of stickers to a blank piece of paper, writing the amount, and stamping it. With our information complete we were then ushered back into the first line, where we received our exit stamp.

Then we grabbed our bags off the bus, hiked about 300 meters down a hill to Peru, and went through entry procedures for Peru.

In the end, the Bolivian government really just needs to see your passport and correct USD change to get in the country. There are plenty of forums that describe how to get into the country without proof of vaccination (or getting the shot right there in the customs office) that you can look into as well. Because what we did was technically illegal, I can’t exactly recommend that you follow what we did. But I will say it saved us a lot of money. And it was almost no trouble at all on the way out. So if you decide to pay fines rather than get a longer visa, now you know what to expect.

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Isla del Sol

From La Paz we traveled to Copacabana, a small Bolivian town on the shores of Lake Titikaka. This lake is the largest in South America and one of the highest in the world. Ancient Incans and other indigenous groups believed it was the birthplace of the sun god. Copacabana is a popular place for tourists and backpackers because it is a great leaping point to reach Isla del Sold and Isla de la Luna.

We rode on Trans Titicaca, a bus company, to Copacabana, which we do not recommend. The trip is around four hours in total, but we had a bus driver that did not know the route. Everything was fine until after the ferry ride across part of the lake. After that, the driver got lost. I really don’t know how he did it. There is a paved road from La Paz to Copacabana, only broken by the short ferry ride. But get lost he did, much to the consternation of the whole backpacking group. It took us about an hour longer to get to Copacabana than it should have, and it was a nerve-wracking trip!


The driver took an overly-large bus on dirt paths high up in the hills. Normally I don’t get too concerned when we drive on the edge of cliffs. I always tell myself, “It’s safer than it looks. The driver knows what he’s doing.” Well, the driver obviously didn’t know what he was doing because he would stop, get out and call someone on the cell phone for directions, then jump back in the bus and drive at 45 or 50 miles an hour along a rocky path hardly wide enough for a pickup truck. I thought we might pop a tire or break an axle or something. Especially on those tight curves. All the passengers looked as nervous as I felt. Usually I try not to worry. If we die, we die. If we don’t, we don’t. Worrying won’t change the outcome. But this time I did think through my family and relationships, deciding whether I would be at peace dying right then. I think Jordan did the same thing.


We finally made it down the cliffside and somehow ended up in a rural village. The people put a blockade across the path. When the bus driver got out of the bus to talk to them, they told him there was a tax to drive through their pueblo. So the driver got back on the bus and spoke to us in rapid Spanish, explaining the situation. We all had to come up with five or ten bolivianos apiece to get through the blockade.

“If we don’t pay, they will throw rocks at the bus,” he told us. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

So we forked over some cash, unhappily, and the blockade was removed. It was part trash, part herd of llamas. And we finally found the paved road again. Because the driver was late, he drove at a breakneck speed that no one liked. And he didn’t know where the bus terminal was in Copacabana, so he dropped us off near the port at a cheap hotel. Not a good experience.


The cheap hotel was cheap (40 bolivianos per person) and included breakfast, so we took the deal. After unloading our luggage, we went in search of a tour of Isla del Sol. We booked the cheaper boat trip out to the island (roundtrip) for 30 bolivianos per person. I had wondered how getting around would work, but it really was easy and best to just meander down to the port and buy tickets at a random booth the night before. There are other tickets to buy, like a full-day trip to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna (which I hear is just as lovely and less touristy). The trip out to Isla del Sol took about an hour to an hour and a half, I think.

IMG_4875Many people spend a day or two on the island, which is what we wished we had time to do. But we needed to leave the country because of our visas’ expiration dates. I doubt many Isla del Sol hostels are listed online, but don’t worry about making a reservation. There are around three hostels right at the landing of the southern end of the island, and for about two hours’ climb up the hill inland are hostel after hostel after restaurant after restaurant. If we had time, we would have stayed probably two days on the island.

Although the southern end is lovely, the northern end is where most of the ruins are. Wikipedia tells me there are over 80 ruins on the island, most dating back to Incan times around 15th century AD. The island was a very sacred place to the Incans, so it was dotted with temples and holy sites. We really wanted to see the ruins, but never found any. Hiking steep terrain in high altitude (around 12,000 feet) was hard enough.

IMG_4902So we paid the 5 boliviano entrance fee to to the island and climbed for an hour. It was rough and the sun was strong, but the views were worth it. Even though we never found any ruins. We did cross a few hikers that came from the north end of the island. Apparently that’s popular. If you really like hiking. Getting from one side to the other (with your backpacks!) takes about six hours, and there’s a port and village on either side of the island, so it is very easy to land on one side and leave on the other a few days later. I don’t like hiking enough to do that in high altitude with everything on my back.


We felt a little misled by the boat people–the southern tip is easier to get to, so it makes sense that it was cheaper, but they told us we would easily find ruins. And we did not. But we did see mountains on the other side of the lake.


At 3 pm the boat left the island and returned to Copacabana by about 4:30. It was a challenge narrowing down the time of departure. The people here do not live by a clock. I bet if you asked what time it was, they would have no idea. So I had to ask several people what time to be at the boat, what time the boat left, what time it arrived back in Copacabana, and got varying answers. So, for anyone else: The afternoon boat left at 3 pm and got back an hour and a half later.

We decided to leave Bolivia that day to keep inl

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La Paz, pt. 2

La Paz’s colonial/historical district is the most interesting part of the city, in our opinion. For our second day there we walked three blocks down to Catedral de San Francisco. It is a popular place for street vendors, street musicians, pigeons, and tourists to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. Although the church still conducts mass, it is primarily a historical site. While the church was founded in 1548 along the banks of the river that flows through La Paz, this building wasn’t constructed until almost two hundred years later, in 1743. During this point in history, the Spanish had very strict rules concerning ethnic mixing. The indigenous population could not enter this part of the city, where the church was, under penalty of death, without a specific invitation by a Spaniard. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that the law was changed. IMG_4710 Over the years, domes and steeples were added to the structure, until it is what it is today. We were particularly impressed with the sanctuary, which was intricately designed and decorated, but were not allowed to take pictures of it. The museum was about 15 bolivianos a person to enter, and it included a tour in English. It was enjoyable, especially climbing up and down stone-carved passageways to the roof and bell tower, so we would recommend it. All in all it took about 45 minutes of our time. IMG_4726  Next we rode the Mi Teleferico, which is brand-spankin’-new and a great ride. It is the first reliable public transport system for the people of the La Paz area, and opened in 2014. Right now there are just three lines, but they have plans for four or five more in the next five years. Bright, shiny, quick, and cheap, the teleferico is practically a tourist attraction in and of itself. We hopped on the bottom of the red line, about an eight minute walk from the main bus station in town, and rode the whole distance (just two stops) up to El Alto.


Many people live in El Alto and work in La Paz, as any suburb anywhere in the world, but El Alto is known to be poorer, have less resources, and largely less developed. It is also at the top of one of the mountains, while La Paz is in the valley below. Getting to and from work was long and difficult, due to unmaintained roads winding down the mountainsisde, so the teleferico cuts the time to a quarter. One-way is three bolivianos, so it is also affordable. IMG_4700 It was a great way to get a bird’s eye view of the city as well. We passed over some of the primary cemeteries for La PAz, which are all above ground. They reminded us of New Orleans, though with Latin American decor. IMG_4667 We heard of a prison in town, San Pedro, that is one of the most notorious in the world. It is illegal to enter (if not an inmate), but many tourists get unofficial tours of the place by bribing guards and paying a prisoner to show the place off. At first we really wanted to do it, until we found out that the bribes can be fairly expensive. One website said in total it could be 57 USD per person, and that just wasn’t in our budget. IMG_4709 Here is the entrance to the prison, in the middle of downtown. The woman is waiting for visiting hours. While the majority of inmates are Bolivian, that is not always the case. Reading up on it, the prison reminded me of debtors’ prisons in England two hundred years ago. Prisoners pay for better accommodations, find odd jobs to earn money, and usually support their livelihood with a robust cocaine trade through the facility. Illegal tours help, too. Guards are posted outside the prison, not inside, just to make sure people don’t escape. The prisoners sometimes have their families live with them (or visit by staying at the prisoin hotel) and maintain order by electing their own leaders and following their own codes of behavior. Up to 1,500 people live there, 200 being children, and just like anywhere else there are “safe neighborhoods” and “dangerous neighborhoods,” where the stabbings often take place among drug-addicted inmates. If you get the chance to visit, tell me about it! I want to know. Our last stop before leaving La Paz was to the Folklore Museum. It was 20 bolivianos per person to enter, and they have no English materials. We  understood enough Spanish (and could guess the rest) that it was just fine. While this isn’t a must-see, it was enjoyable and we spent around two hours looking at textiles, village models, maps, and old currency. IMG_4754 From there, we went on to Copacabana!

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La Paz, pt. 1

After a truly horrific overnight bus ride from Sucre, we arrived in La Paz around seven in the morning.

We bought the nicest seats (cama suite) for 180 bolivianos a person on El Dorado (the nicer of the tourist buses), and I can only say two good things about the trip: it didn’t break down, and the raised leg rests were wonderful. But like local buses, the bus overbooked on purpose so Bolivians sat in the aisles. There was no bathroom. And the roads were unpaved and absolutely crazy on the mountains. We stopped twice for a bathroom break. Only once was there an actual toilet, and I use that word very loosely. The other time the women just huddled under a parked semi truck and did business on the asphalt. Men just stood around the bus.

Okay, now that that is over, we arrived in La Paz. The third-largest and (possibly) most developed city of Bolivia, it is not attractive. Most hostels are in the city center, where the old colonial city was, so that makes walking to historical sites easy. There aren’t a lot of options (at least that we saw) for hostels, besides party hostels. Thankfully, most hostels are within walking distance of the bus terminal.

On Sundays, one of La Paz’s more unique tourist attractions are the Cholitas Luchadores, or fighting women. These are Aymara women that live in El Alto, the largest of La Paz’s suburbs, and wrestle. We really wanted to go to that, but all the people selling transportation and tickets wanted 80 bolivianos a person. I’m sure you can get transportation and entrance to the event much cheaper, but we were still sleep deprived and a little disoriented from our trip into the city.


Not a lot is open on the weekends in La Paz, so we took a stroll through Mercado de Las Brujas. Just a block or two behind the museum/cathedral of San Francisco, the “witches’ market” sells all sorts of potions, good luck charms, and such. Although almost everyone in Bolivia is Catholic, the traditional shamanistic beliefs of the Aymara are still strong. We saw wooden idols of the local gods/goddesses, dried frogs, and other odd-looking plants. The yatiri, or the witch doctors, were few and far between on a lazy Sunday, but we did see a few in their black hats and aprons full of herbs. The most interesting item in the market was, by far, the dried llama fetus. And there were plenty.


Bolivian/Aymaran custom says good luck comes to people who bury these llama fetuses under their homes. The offering brings fortune from Pochomama, the mother earth goddess.


Calle Jaén, one of the oldest and most historic streets in La Paz, was just one block from our hostel. Here are old buildings that are now museums. There’s a museum for precious metals, one for musical instruments, and another for Bolivian literature. On the other side of the street is a museum to a famous political martyr, Pedro Murillo, housed in his old home from 1809. One of the oldest and largest plazas in La Paz is named in memoriam of him. This plaza has often been the center of political upheaval and unrest. In 1809, one of the earlier uprisings (this was against the Spanish government) captured the plaza and several surrounding political buildings. Murillo was named president of Upper Peru (it wasn’t called Bolivia yet) with his compatriots. A few months later, in 1810, the Spanish recaptured the city and hanged Murillo and the others in the plaza.


La Paz also has other plazas filled with pigeons, street vendors, and local people enjoying themselves. Roughly 12,000 feet above sea level, it was pretty high. I popped my altitude pills religiously and feltmostly okay. I am very eager to leave high altitude, though! Founded in 1548 by Spanish conquistadors over an indigenous town, La Paz was tightly controlled by the Spanish government for over two hundred years. The indigenous people rose up against the Spanish in 1781 for six months. Again, in 1809, was the beginning of the successful revolution against the Spanish. Sucre is still the actual capital of the country, but La Paz is where all the administrative buildings are, and when all suburbs are included, it is the largest metropolitan area. Bolivia is South America’s poorest country (I believe), and you can definitely see that in La Paz. There are incredibly nice, Beverly Hills-looking places in the city, and just up the hill near the suburb of El Alto are houses that are just one step above slums. La Paz is a very interesting city, and we enjoyed our two days there. It is a great place to see an emerging economy, traditional indigenous life, and rapid change in a city.


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Bolivia travel tips

1. Interested in getting to know the community by volunteering?

Bolivia Bella provides a list of other nonprofits/NGOs to work with also. There are probably many, many more opportunities. You just need to ask around.

2. Bolivia does not get as many tourists/backpackers as its neighboring countries, so sometimes the people here can seem rude. They are not really rude, they just are not accustomed to travelers, and dont exactly know how to treat them. So smile, move along, and ease the way for the next backpacker behind you.

3. Sucre is the prettiest city in Bolivia, and a visit to the country is not complete without a few days in Sucre. It is quite common for people to change their travels plans because they want to stay in Sucre longer.

4. It is really worth the extra money to shell out for a nicer, larger seat on the buses. El Dorado, Trans Titicaca, and Copacabana are two lines often used by backpackers. I personally wouldn’t recommend Titicaca, though. I won’t ride on that line ever again. Even though the others aren’t comfortable, at least they won’t break down!

5. Bolivia is a great place to learn Spanish. Their accent isnt thick and the prices are probably the cheapest in South America. Sucre, Cochobamba, Santa Cruz, and La Paz all have multiple schools to choose from.

6. This probably goes for most places, but find a cafe off the beaten path. Internet isnt good in Bolivia, so most backpackers go to cafes near the main plazas to eat and get their internet fix. It is worth your while to search around a couple blocks away from the plaza to find a cafe designed more for locals (fewer gringo prices!) with good internet.

7. Copacabana and Isla del Sol is definitely worth a visit. But it is better to stay on the island than the town. One night or two is enough to see everything.

8. Here are other resources we found and used during our time in Bolivia:

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4th Annual Festival of Reading

On April 25th Biblioworks hosted their 4th annual Festival de Leer, a festival to promote education and literacy through Sucre and the surrounding barrios. Held in the Casa de la Cultura, the festival included organizations that included libraries, human rights defense groups, disability centers, and local cultural engagement projects. Over 100 children attended, some with their schools, others brought by their parents or older siblings.

The warm, sunny day was filled with balloons, laughter, and stories. Mimes entertained children with gestures about reading while many stalls were packed with children drawing, creating a poem, or reading a book. Children as young as four to teenagers crowded the courtyard, which was filled from the morning to the afternoon.


Education is not always considered important in Bolivia, particularly rural areas, and books are expensive. Families that value education and reading have difficulty finding affordable books.

Natividad Esquivel Ticona, 14, said she enjoyed learning about the fables of Bolivia and that she owns five books. Many of the other children attending said their family owned five or six books as well.

Génesis Medrano, 15, said that though she enjoyed reading and thought education was important, not many children read. “We need to learn more about books, education, and discrimination. Many children cannot study because their parents cannot pay,” she said.


Literacy and reading is a problem, Viccenta Santivañez agreed. As a  government worker in the barrio libraries Santivañez spends much of her time showing children how reading can be interesting.

“I think participating in games and reading here, at the festival, helps the kids find interest in it later,” she noted. “I believe more options for books will help kids learn. Now many teenagers and children only play on the internet.” Santivañez had many books at her stall for children to read, from “Good Night Moon” to Laura Ingalls Wilder books to fables of Bolivia. Her only criticism is that she hopes next year the festival will be in a larger area. “We have outgrown our space,” she said. “It is a good problem.”


Volunteers Alice Molyneaux and Rory Donnelly, both from London, were excited to be a part of the festival through helping Biblioworks. “We are only volunteering for two days,” Molyneaux said, “but we really like it. It is rewarding to come as a volunteer, doing something important and seeing the kids’ energy.”

Donnelly said he was particularly impressed with the variety of activities and booths at the festival, such as the stall for braille and the booth on sexual health. “I can tell the kids are really excited to be here,” he said. “This is fun to be a part of.”

Molyneaux agreed. “We are traveling for six months, and this festival with Biblioworks is making us think about volunteering other places. It is a good chance to practice more Spanish, too.”

Teenage girls from private Catholic schools to little boys that sell food and magazines in the plaza all agreed that the festival was “very nice and fun,” and that they would come back next year.


Sylvia Tamares brought her daughter to the festival after hearing about it on the radio. “It is interesting,” she said, and thinks she will return with her children next year as well.

José-Hernando Copa, 7, came with his younger brother and older sister, none of whom can read yet. He said his favorite stall had drawing activities. He works regularly in the Sucre plaza selling food or magazines for his parents, and thought the festival was a nice pause from work. “I like the festival,” he said. “It is very nice.”


Biblioworks hosted the festival. Founded in 2005, Biblioworks focuses on building libraries and promoting literacy throughout rural Bolivia. For more information about Biblioworks and the work they do, click here.

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Mercado Central of Sucre, Bolivia

While Sucre has three grocery stores, one being a derivative of Walmart, the place most locals go to buy food and household supplies is the local market. Set up something like a grand farmers‘ market, the maze of passageways and splitlevel stairs make the building a world of its own.

Jordan and my hostel is a block away from Mercado Central, the nearest market to the city center, so we trek over there often to buy food, spices, and other random things we want.

IMG_3963Everything is cheaper here than in a supermarket, so we buy here what we can. A whole baguette at mercado central is usually 2 bolivianos, which is dirt cheap.

It took us several trips to the mercado to realize it, but there are signs on walls and hanging from ceilings to direct people to the various corners of the market. For example, on the second floor are the local spices and sauces that the Aymara women sell.

IMG_3968The colors and noises of the market are fun to explore. However, if you aren‘t careful, you will get sold produce at gringo prices, and chances are the produce is already overripe. Jordan bought rottingt fruit on more than one occasion, as well as meat that was not what he ordered. We decided it was because he didn’ t know as much Spanish as I did, he was a man, and he didn’t know as much about developing-country shopping as I did. So now I go out and buy all of our food.


The market isn‘t a place to barter on prices–those are already set, though they might try to raise the price on gringos. However, if you are friendly and polite, chances are you will get good food. I always test the fruit and vegetables they give me, gently squeezing and looking it over, of course. I also avoid stalls where the woman calls out to me. If I approach a vendor on my own, without her trying to get my attention, I think it is more likely to get fair, local prices. If you are nice enough, you might get a sprig of parsley for free.

IMG_3965The first floor is devoted primarily to meat, vegetables, and nonperishables. I bought my shortening, sugar, and pasta from the woman who also sold cat food. The smells in the market are an odd mixture of raw meat, stray dog, and spices. The stray dogs, of course, spend their time at the meat section.

IMG_3973Here you can tell they‘re selling real cow meat because of the faces set out on display. Still, if you’re buying red meat, I think it is better to go to an actual butcher. The prices might be higher, but you know you’re getting real cow and that it is still fresh and safe. Chicken I buy at the market because I know a dead chicken when I see one. No one will sell me a different animal because I’m not a stupid gringa. I do try to buy meat in the morning, when it is freshest, and cook it as soon as I get back to the hostel, however.

IMG_3977In the far courtyard of the marketplace are the juice sellers, right next to the row of potatos vendors. These people make smoothies or juice mixes. It is delicious and very cheap. Two glasses cost me seven bolivianos, or a dollar. Interspersed through the fruit sellers and flower vendors are household items, such as plasticware, spatulas, and bowls. Beside the egg aisle is the cake aisle, where women have  pasteleria shops with beautiful cakes. Above them is the spice section and along a forgotten hallway the flower vendors sell their wares. It looks like spring exploded.

In the highest level is where people sell prepared meals. This is usually soup or some sort of chicken-and-rice concoction.  Usually only local go up that many stairs to eat there, and the tables and floors aren‘t exactly clean. But if you do brave the food up there, you can probably get a full place for 10 bolivianos.

Don’t miss the local markets if you go to Bolivia! They are a good place for cheap food and practically a tourist attraction in and of themselves.


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Potosi silver mines

I thought about having Jordan write this post, because by the end of our tour I was not having a good time and very close to passing out. He was still alert and aware of his surroundings. But Jordan prefers to be the photographer, so here’s my take on the silver mines of Potosi.

Note: If you are claustrophobic, have breathing problems, or altitude sickness, this tour is probably not for you.

When the Spanish conquered/colonized most of Bolivia, they discovered silver throughout the Andean mountains. Sucre was built primarily on the wealth of silver. Potosi, a city three hours south of Sucre, was founded in 1545 to dig out the silver, iron, lead, and zinc in Cerro Rico. It is also one of the highest cities in the world, the lowest point of the city is at 4080 meters, or 13,385 feet above sea level. The Spanish forced many of the Aymara and Yamparaz men to mine for them, in dangerous situations. The refining process in the 1500s was to smooth the rocks with bare feet in a mixture of water and mercury. After a few years they quit doing that because too many Indians were dying. Imagine that. The supports used in the mines at that time, however, were/are actually first rate and better than what many of the miners use today. That type of fortification is too expensive to use now.

We had read in a guide book that a mine tour is one of the most interesting things to do in the region, though murky when it comes to ethics. The mines are “medieval” with terrible conditions. Miners usually live only to about 50 years old. Although it is illegal for men under 18 to work in the mines, we met several miners that began as young as eight years old. When you breathe without a mask, you can feel the asbestos, sulfur, and arsenic coat the back of your throat. Only the miners that work with blasting use face masks. So ethically-speaking, it is taking entertainment from another’s suffering. Yet at the same time, the miners are all friendly and love to see new people. They are proud of the work they do, even though it is incredibly dangerous (accidents, explosions, collapsed tunnels, the toxic air, etc.) and appreciate the gifts tourists bring them.


I was very curious to see the mines, mostly because I think it is important to be aware of the difficult lives many people lead, but didn’t want to support economic oppression. We found Big Deal tours, which was highly recommended online at trip advisor and other blogs, an agency made up of ex-miners. Many of these miners left the mine in search of better health and a longer lifespan. We decided we could support that. These ex-miners worked in the mines for around 20 years, beginning at 9 years old, and don’t have any other marketable skills besides mining. They also will probably develop cancer or some other terrible diseases from breathing in so many toxic materials, and giving them our business seemed much more ethical.

Jordan, Julia (another volunteer/friend), and I barely made it to Potosi in time for their 1:30 afternoon tour on Saturday. Due to rain, the bus drove slowly. But only half of the cliffs had guardrails on them, so I didn’t complain too much at the more careful pace. Big Deal tours’ office is right off the plaza, near the Casa de La Moneda.


It was the silver mint the Spanish built in 1574. Now it is a museum explaining the silver refinement and colonialization process, open only with guided tours (and closed on Mondays). I had hoped to visit it, but we didn’t have the time. This building (and the cathedral on the plaza) show how important Potosi used to be in the region. Now there is very little there but mining and buses to La Paz.


The cathedral on the plaza

Big Deal tours was 150 bolivianos a person (which I thought was a little pricey, especially considering a tour cost 100 in 2013), but they include face mask and water. I think other tour companies make you buy your own.

We started the tour by piling in a bus and going to the miners market. It is customary to bring gifts when going to see the miners, such as juice, cigarettes, alcohol, coca leaves, or dynamite. I think the miners prefer food. Julia, Jordan, and I split the purchase of juice and coca leaves for 5 bolivianos total. Wilson, our guide, told us that miners will stuff coca leaves into their mouth and hold it in their jaw, like chewing tobacco, with a pinch of flavor from other fruit or herbs. When the taste disappears, they know it has been four hours. They rest, then fill their mouths again. Miners regularly work 12 hours a day or more during the week and around six or seven on Saturdays.


We then went to the companys storage place to get into our gear: hats, lights, coveralls, and belts. Dont we look grand?


The refinery plant is higher than the rest of the city and where much of separating of rock and minerals are done. It was loud, completely without guardrails or caution signs, and dirty. We were also able to talk with a couple of miners about their work.



After giving them coca leaves, we drove on to Cerro Rico. The peak of this mountain is 4800 meters, or 15,478 feet. At this point I felt fine because I had taken 1 mg of dexamethasone earlier in the morning. We stopped about two-thirds up the mountain and walked through the miners huts. They dont live in these shacks, but it is where they store their food, equipment, and water during the day. Because we went on Saturday the miners were already finishing their workday by the time we arrived around 3 pm. We stayed clear of the tracks so the miners could push the carts out of the mine and dump their contents down a slide.


The mine is cooperative, meaning it is owned by the individual miners. It seems much more fair than working for a mining company. The process to join the cooperative takes years. A new worker would apprentace under a seasoned miner for three years. At the end of the three years, he will own one of the veins he worked in and have the chance to join the cooperative for 7,000 bolivianos. Gross income is roughly 3,000 (444 USD) a month, but some of it goes to the refinery plant and other mining necessities.


We entered a mining tunnel that has been in use since colonial times, or the mid 1500s. It was exactly like a working mine would be: dark, damp, dirty, with low ceilings. We followed the track into the mountain until it branched off, and Wilson our guide happened across his friend who blasts dynamite. So he herded us into a branch of the tunnel with fortifications from the 1500s and had us wait while his friend set off 19 sticks of dynamite.

That is a strange sensation, let me tell you. The pressure of the whole tunnel changed and hit us hard. My ears hurt at the first blast, so I opened my mouth, which helps normalize pressure in your body, and it was more bearable. We could feel the vibrations through our bodies and my hair flew everywhere. It wasn’t that loud–not loud enough to cover our ears–but we could feel it everywhere.


Wilson told us we were now going down 45 meters, that it was a little difficult but not bad. Hogwash. It’s not bad if you’re five feet four inches and you’ve been doing this two-thirds of your life. The tunnels got smaller until we were bent over double. I breathed a sigh of relief when we got to the hole to go down, until I realized it wasn’t a ladder. It was like a rocky, curving slide that you had to grip with her hands and feet to not fall the whole distance. I crab-walked half the way down, then lowered myself down the vertical distances with just my arms.


Once at the bottom, Wilson told us that when a miner works alone, he fills his buckets of rocks and minerals and has to climb the distance carrying 20 or 40 kilos with him. I can’t imagine.

We stopped at a vein and rested. I was starting to feel sick at this point–I couldn’t catch my breath and bending over double (and still hitting your helmet on exposed beams!) wears on you quickly. I had taken one pill that morning for altitude sickness, thinking it would be enough, but it was not.

IMG_4086Miners live hard lives, he explained, and although they often make more money than other workers in Potosi, they live shorter, due to accidents, toxic fumes, alcoholism, and just hard living. But they are also very proud of the work they do–even though it is very unsafe. We had been underground for about two hours at this point, and I was only getter sicker. Wilson led us back into the main tunnels, larger ones the government constructed 30 or 40 years ago, and onward.

Miners, although Catholic, are incredibly superstitious. While their wives can help sort the rocks and minerals into containers to ship over to the refinery plant, they are not allowed in the mines, touching the minerals. Although they go to mass every Sunday, once inside the mine Pochomama and El Tio rule the miners and their world. Pochomama is the goddess of Mother Earth, more or less, and is married to El Tio, who guards and preserves the mineral veins. If a woman touches the minerals, Pochomama will think that the woman is attempting to seduce El Tio, and she will cause landslides and earthquakes in the mountain, hurting the veins and the miners.

Every year the miners gather around an idol of El Tio and offer him llama blood. Odd numbers are unlucky, so there are always at least two llamas killed and their blood poured around the shrine to El Tio. We saw the bones of a baby llama at his feet.

IMG_4115Miners regularly stop by to offer him food, coca leaves, and alcohol (96% proof alcohol!) from their packs. They stuff cigarettes in his mouth and ask him to bless their veins, to keep them safe from accidents, and guide them through the tunnels. Wilson asked us if we had any gifts leftover to offer El Tio, but we had given them away already. So he pulled a bottle of alcohol out and set it on the hand of the idol, then prayed. Much of the prayer was for show, for the tourists, but some of it was real. That was a really interesting experience.

We got up and started to leave the tunnels, and my sickness was in full swing. I am not claustrophobic, but with a killer headache, stomachache, and shortness of breath I was feeling very anxious about all the walls and dirt around me. After I lost circulation in my arms and almost passed out twice, I just breathed without my face mask. A little asbestos was fine, I decided, as long as I could catch my breath.

We passed colorful rock formations, all completely toxic, and Wilson told us what they were. I think this is copper sulfide or something. I really was not paying attention to anything anymore.

IMG_4103The assistant guide made me sit and rest for a few minutes in the tunnel and poured the 96% alcohol over my face mask. I dont really know why. She gave me extra water, and everyone was urging me to drink it. “Just keeping drinking water,” they told me. “You will feel better with more water in yoru system.” I suppose there is truth to that, but I have been altitude sick before and no matter how much water I have forced down my throat, it never made me feel better.

I was sick enough that when we finally left the mine (I almost fell on my knees and started crying), they ushered me to the waiting bus. I hung my head out the window on the trip back to town, expecting my nausea to erupt. We returned to the storage place, took off our protective clothing, then went back to city center. The center of the city is also the lowest point, thankfully, so my nausea began to fade. My headache was now at the level of a moderate migraine.

Julia, Jordan, and I ate dinner quickly, then rushed back to the bus terminal, only to find that we missed the last bus to Sucre by three minutes. I laid down on a bench while they went from stall to stall, asking about other buses.

This is important. The last bus from Potosi to Sucre leaves at 7 pm sharp.

“I cannot spend the night in this city,” I told Jordan. “I will be throwing up at the toilet all night long if I do.”

So we took a taxi to the old bus terminal, where we found no buses, only taxis. To make a long story short, we took a taxi back to Sucre (a two and a half hour drive) for 50 bolivianos apiece. It was over twice the price of the bus, but we had no choice. We would have spent more money sleeping in a hostel and riding the bus the next morning. Because Potosi is in a valley, the taxi driver had to climb the mountains to get out before going back down the mountains. That was a very tense 30 minutes for me. But the lower we got, the better I felt. We arrived back at our hostel, 7Patas, exhausted, dirty, and (in my case) with a bad headache (it downgraded from moderate migraine to bad headache as we went downhill).

So. The mine tour. I didnt expect it to be loads of fun, because, well, its a mine. I went because I wanted to know about the lives of other people. And I guess I did that. If youre not over 6 feet 3 inches you can make the tour (uncomfortably), and if you dont get altitude sickness, you should be fine. Jordan had a better time than I did. Do I regret it? Ehh, no. But I will never, ever, ever do it again for as long as I live.






Categories: Bolivia | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

INTI children and the weariness of poverty

Every afternoon, rain or shine, weekday or weekend, around a dozen children swarm the central plaza of Sucre to make a little extra money for their mothers.


Most of the children, around nine years old or younger, spend over 20 hours a week trying to sell INTI magazines to tourists and locals. When they sell as many as they can (five is the daily goal), their mothers or mother’s friends hands them bags of seed to sell.

These children come from the countryside and the barrios, or suburbs, and live in poverty. Their mothers usually fooled around with a machista 15- or 16-year-old boy just out of the military and get pregnant with their first child by the time they are 14 or 15. Then, if the boy is good, they marry and have a few more children. Or the father leaves his family to go find another 13-year-old to seduce. So most of these kids have no father at home, either because he abandoned them or because he lives in a different city, trying to find work to feed his family. The children go to school for four hours a day, then walk into the city to sell things. Their mothers also sell things on street corners, but usually not near her children.

Biblioworks, a nonprofit in Sucre dedicated to encouraging literacy and education, works with a British expat to create and publish INTI, a short magazine for children and tourists, in both Spanish and English. They distribute the magazine to the children, which costs only four bolivianos. Two stay with the children and the other two fund the magazine.

These children are sweet, smart, and polite. Many of them are embarrassed that they have to approach strangers with merchandise to feed their families. They are all fluent in Spanish and Quechua (they don’t understand why I can’t speak Quechua) and have big, wonderful dreams. 10-year-old Carlos said he wishes he could take his whole family to France to see the Eiffel tower because he heard it was nice. One of the boys told me that Washington, D.C. was the capitol of my country. Two weeks ago Biblioworks took the kids to the movie theater to watch Home. It was the first time they had been in a movie theater.

Selling the magazine gives the children a greater profit than a bag of seeds, and it helps them practice their social and communication skills. They get very little attention at home. This isn’t to say their parents are bad (though domestic abuse is a serious problem in Bolivia), but when you are extremely poor, all energy goes into putting the next meal on the table. Basic survival trumps hugs and cuddles.


As a volunteer with Biblioworks I walk around with the kids, talking with them and encouraging them to communicate with the people on park benches. I am supposed to offer a chance to socialize as well as safety. Child disappearances are a problem in Bolivia, and the police are either unable or unwilling to do much investigation. Also, these kids walk from the suburbs to city center and around very busy streets. We volunteers are there to make sure they don’t get hit by a car while trying to make money.

Last week I walked one girl to a bank building so she could sell in the offices. Unbeknownst to us, her four-year-old brother followed, his trying to sell his bag of candy behind us. We crossed two intersections and walked in the street because the sidewalk was under construction. We didn’t see him until we were halfway through the bank building. The older sister, who is nine, started yelling at him and boxing his ears. I assume she was yelling in Quechua about how dangerous it was for him to walk by himself. I finally got them to stop, but by that time both little boy and his sister were in tears. As an oldest child myself, I understand full well the weight of responsibility one assumes, especially if the parents are absent like hers (mine never were, thankfully). Family ties are extremely strong; the poor girl was probably almost as terrified for her brother’s safety as if he was actually her son and just as anxious to protect him as a mother would.

So I calmed both down, had her carry his bag of merchandise, and held his hand as we crossed the busy streets back to the plaza. We both made him promise not to follow us again. It was so sad to see how hard these children’s lives are. And yet they are some of the sweetest, happiest children I have met.

Seeing their lives shows me two things. First, we need very little in order to be happy. Nice cars, iphones, and great clothes really aren’t necessary to wake up with smile and enjoy our day. We learned in kindergarten that the most important things in the world aren’t things, but people. Our relationships with neighbors, friends, and family are what really give us the most joy in life, and this is something that Latin America (and many poor people) realize. Once basic needs are met, some of the poor in the world are probably happier than the richest, just because they know what really matters in life.

Second, poverty is wearying. When we struggle to obtain the basics for our survival, we are exhausted physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The worst part of destitution and extreme poverty I think, it’s not actually the lack of money, but the lack of a purpose in life. You can’t go to school. You can’t get a job. You can’t fix the hole in your roof. You can’t plant a garden. You can’t talk to interesting people. Most of life’s goals are completely inaccessible because poverty closes all doors in society. It makes you doubt yourself and become apathetic. People so poor they slap together sheets of tin for a hut are desperately unhappy, unfulfilled, and unmotivated because poverty (not just of money, but of soul as well) robs them of their humanity and agency. People that send their children out to work aren’t quite as bad off, because their basic needs are being met through great toil and struggle, and are therefore probably much happier than the poorest of the poor. But they are still exhausted.


I hope the shoeshine boy gets to see his father again. I hope these nine-year-old girls don’t become mothers in four years. I hope the Down syndrome girl gets the help she needs. I hope they don’t drop out of school in a year or two. I hope their mothers have the energy to kiss them goodnight.

For more information about happiness and money:

  • UNDSP Happiness Report 2015
    • In the past, Scandinavian countries have always ranked highest in happiness, and several half-developed countries like Mexico rank higher than their GDP and other economic indices would suggest. The United States, which one might assume would rank highest in happiness as it does in economics, does not. Hypotheses include: Mexico and Sweden both have strong support systems for individuals (Mexico through family, Sweden through social welfare programs), making sure people know they will be helped and not forgotten. The United States (because of a strong tradition of independence or a reliance on money rather than people, or the odd mixture of ethnicities and SECs, take your pick) does not guarantee support, community, or belonging for its citizens, and the country’s wealth can only make up for some of that social/spiritual/human deficit.
  • Gross National Happiness: Buhtan
  • $75,000 The Price of Happiness
  • Planning for Sustainable Happiness: Harmonizing our External and Internal Landscapes, by O’Brien (2005)
  • Anything by economist Amartya Sen, such as this Reuters interview
Categories: Bolivia, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Apple pie with basic amenities

I was very worried I had overextended myself. As I wandered through the maze of Mercado Central I was fairly convinced I had bitten off more than I could chew. But I missed home, and I wanted something familiar. So I baked an apple pie. My mom bakes a killer apple pie, and it is by far my favorite desert. I grew up helping her peel apples and mix spices, so this reminds me of home. And, because this century is all about oversharing on social media, I took picture to share with you! Perhaps it will guide someone else in making their desert, even in a hostel with a bad oven.



  • 2 cups/457 grams of flour
  • 1 cup/228 grams of shortening
  • 1/3 cup/ 78 mL of water
  • 1/2 teaspoon/ 2 1/2 grams of salt

Pie filling

  • 4 teaspoons/20 grams of cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons/10 grams of nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons/10 grams of cloves
  • 2/3 cup/ 150 grams of flour
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups (343 to 457 grams) of granulated sugar
  • 7 to 8 granny smith (green) apples

Cooking: Everything depends on altitude, heat of oven, and other factors. However, aim for 350 F for an hour (180 C for an hour). Less heat obviously takes more time. Time amount also depends on how high you are. Anything above 6,500 feet (1982 meters) is considered high. You can see this is more art than science. Note: If you are making this in a hostel (like I did) expect variation in measurements, spices used, and time of baking. It took me several trips to the market to find the spices I needed. In the States I use store bought apple pie spice. Here I had to make my own. There are a variety of recipes, which was good, because I did not find everything I needed. Any mixture of cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves will work, as long as it is 2 parts cinnamon to 1 part of each of the other spices. I could not find allspice or cadamom, so I settled with ground cloves, ground cinnamon, and a whole nutmeg. I ground the nutmeg on a fine cheese grater, and it worked. 20150416_124602 The wheat flour I bought still had some of the husks in it, so Jordan (who helped me because he is very nice) used a small sieve. We guessed on how large a cup was. For the average-sized person, a cup is roughly the size of your fist. We filled an average coffee mug two-thirds full and called it a cup. We did the same with the shortening (which I bought for 10 bolivianos and is called manteca in Spanish. Only took me three conversations and two hours to find that out.) 20150416_124551 Pour the water into the bowl with the flour and shortening, and mix together. The colder it is, the better it will mix, so use knives and spoons to cut and smoosh. When it looks like dough, dump half of it onto a counter (with flour to keep it from sticking to the counter) and knead. We did not have a rolling pin, so I used a vodka bottle instead. It worked okay. 20150416_130613 We also did not have a pie plate, so we used a medium/large skillet. I have an average woman‘s hands, and if I spread my hand over the skillet I could not touch the edges. So it was around nine or ten inches in diameter. When the dough is circular, place into the skillet. For the filling, grind/grate what you need and if you don‘t have measuring cups (we didn’t) use your hand as a guide. Here is a nifty little website I found after the fact. I definitely just poured things in my palm and eyeballed it as it went into the mixing bowl. I have also made apple pie for years, so I knew roughly how filled the bowl should be when the whole filling was mixed together. One teaspon is an average person’s thumb to the first knuckle. Because I couldn’t rely on accurate measurements, I tried to stick to the part rule: two parts cinnamon, one part cloves, one part nutmeg.  Then flour and sugar into the same bowl. It’s roughly two parts sugar, one part flour (or more sugar, if you like lots of it). Peel, core, cut all the apples. Slice until they are pretty thin. Layer the apples into the skillet/pie pan (the lower crust is already placed in the skillet at this point). When you cannot see the crust below the apples, sprinkle with the spice mixture. Layer again with apple slices and spices until all apples are used. Pour any remaining spice/sugar mixture on top. 20150416_132553 Roll out the other half of the dough to make the upper pie crust. Place over the apples and pinch the edges together. Use a knife to cut breathing holes. My mom always does a leaf design. This time I made a “B” for Bolivia. Put in the preheated oven. As you can tell from the photo, our oven was very old and very small. Jordan had to light the gas with a match. If the pie is very full, as it cooks juices might leak. This dirties your oven and makes a terrible smell. If the oven has an exposed flame, like ours, it could also be dangerous. So place foil or some pan to catch any drips underneath the skillet. Pie typically cooks at 350 F or 180 C, but this oven didnt get that hot. So we turned it up as high as we could, to 290 C and just checked on the pie every ten minutes. 20150417_121158 After an hour and fifteen minutes (due to altitude and low heat) it was done! And it tasted pretty good! You have no idea how relieved I was. 20150416_161441

Categories: Bolivia, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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