Category Archives: Bolivia

Top Sights Bolivia

Uyuni Salt Flats
Uyuni Salt Flats

Uyuni Salt Flats
If you’re planning on heading to Bolivia then i’m sure a salt flats tour is already on your list of things to do. Driving across the salt flats or standing on one of the islands for sunrise is a truly unforgettable experience. If you’ve got the time we’d definitely advise that you do a 3 day salt flat tour with a border cross to/from Chile. Whilst the salt flats are great there is so much great scenery in the area that you really shouldn’t miss. The Bolivian altiplano with its sapphire lakes, smoking volcanoes, flamingos and llamas in droves are equally as picturesque as the flats. It’s cold, the air is thin, the ride is bumpy and uncomfortable and we’d see it all again in a heartbeat.

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The White City: Sucre
Sucre, the Bolivian capital city is definitely the nicest in the country. If you just woke up there one day you’d be surprised to find out you weren’t in a particularly beautiful Spanish city. The city received huge amounts of money when nearby Potosi was still producing silver and as such the entire town center is a UNESCO world heritage sight. Apart from the fact that the people are friendly and the food is good there are plenty of things to do in Sucre to keep you occupied. There is a chocolate factory, jurassic park and cemetery. A lot of backpackers choose Sucre as a place to stop and learn Spanish for a few weeks due to its inexpensive prices.

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El Cerro Rico: Potosi
The mountain that looms above the mining town of Potosi once produced most of the silver for the Spanish Crown. Whilst the silver has now been mostly mined out, the “mountain that eats men” is still the single largest employer in the city. If you fancy it, tours can easily be arranged all over town. If you don’t fancy going into the mines Potosi is still worth visiting. As one of the highest cities in the world the air can be quite thin but don’t let this put you off. The old Spanish mint, now a museum, offers excellent guided tours explaining the history of the city. There is also plenty of opportunity to tuck into Llama in virtually every restaurant.

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Death Road: La Paz
If you’re seeking adrenaline then Death Road is a must do. Even if you’re not an adrenaline junkie then death road is still a great day out, easily arranged from La Paz. The views as you shoot down what used to be the most dangerous road on the planet are breathtaking. If you’re used to mountain biking then this is not a particularly technical descent, I found the biggest distraction was the view. If you decide to do the road, then the only company we’d recommend is Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. Whilst they’re the most expensive, you’ll get great bikes and the guides take you through every stage of the descent. At the end there’s the opportunity to do a zip line and visit an animal rescue centre with excellent hot showers.

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The Pampas: Rurrenabaque
The Bolivian pampas are a quick 40 minute flight from La Paz, followed by a 3 hour bus and boat ride to get to your tour operators lodge. The amount of wildlife in the pampas is truly amazing. Whilst we were there we saw five species of monkey as well as caiman, turtles capybara, hundreds of species of birds, piranha and pink river dolphins to name a few. If you want to get some photos of amazing animals then the pampas is definitely the place to go. We spent three days drifting the rivers in our boat in brilliant sunshine taking hundreds of photos, stopping only to swim with the dolphins and catch some piranha for dinner.

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Lake Titicaca
The world’s “highest navigable lake” straddles the border of Bolivia and Peru. Whilst we found the towns around the edge of the lake to be fairly forgettable, Titicaca itself is beautiful. On the Bolivian side a trip across to Isla del Sol is the highlight. The small slow boats take quite a while to reach the island, but you can sit on the top deck and enjoy the sun. The island has a collection of incan ruins and there’s a pleasant hike you can do from one end to the other if you feel the need to stretch your legs. Don’t forget to eat some trout, available from every restaurant, cafe, house and street vendor…

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The Bolivian border
The border between Chile and Bolivia at Laguna Verde is an experience that we thoroughly enjoyed. Driving up out of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, you will arrive at a small concrete building in the middle of nowhere. It’s made all the more fun by the road barrier to stop you sneaking into Bolivia, as there’s unguarded open altiplano for miles all around the border post. As long as you’re not suffering from the altitude too badly you’ll find this is one of the more unique ways you’ll ever change countries. A short drive from here is Laguna Verde. At 4,300m with a towering volcano, flamingos and llamas it’s the best welcome to Bolivia.

Floating Islands and Homestays: Lake Titicaca

After our days in the Amazon, and a brief stop over again in La Paz we made our way to Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is highest navigable lake in the world and is the largest lake in South America. It sits on the border between Peru and Bolivia.

First we stopped at the Bolivian side at Copacabana.

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The journey there was interesting in itself, as after a few hours drive we were all asked to disembark whilst our bus made the ferry crossing with us trailing behind in tiny boats. And from the picture below you can see why they weren’t keen for us to be on the bus at the time…

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Once in Copacabana there isn’t an awful lot to do other than visit the Isla del Sol, but that it after all why we’d come. Boats leave regularly from the port and the trip can be done as a day-trip or some choose to spend the night on the island itself. We opted for the day-trip, fearing the winter winds and cold nights on an island with no central heating. However if we did the trip again, we would probably opt to stay the night. The island is beautiful and in a day there is barely enough time to take it in.

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Once we disembarked we walked across the beach and headed for the Inca Ruins. Guided tours of the island can be arranged but are not vital – on the short 30 minute hike to the ruins all the locals point you in the right direction even if you just hesitate to catch your breath.

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After the ruins and brief stop at the mirador (viewpoint) we started off on the 7km hike across the island. If you prefer you can opt out of the hike and make your way back to the original port were the boat will be waiting, but if you feel up to it, you can be picked up from the other side of the island a few hours later. And the views really were spectacular.

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A word of warning to those considering the 7km hike – there is only just enough time to do this hike in time to catch your boat. We are of average fitness and hike in the UK but bear in mind the island is undulating and is at altitude, so it will be tougher than what you are used to. Don’t hang around too long at the ruins and set off early. Also pack some sandwiches. We literally made it in time to jump on the boat and after hiking for 3 or so hours we were starving! But the views are worth it.

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The next day we set off early for Puno in Peru. Puno is not much to write home about but is the gateway to homestays on the floating islands. After some deliberation we decided to go for the two-day, one night homestay tour. Sam and Claire, our travel companions, were convinced at our promise to act as translators between them and our family for the night. (Thankfully our Spanish later proved to be just good enough, if very broken!)

However first we made our way to the floating islands. Originally the Uros people constructed these islands as a method to hide from the Inca invasion. Now they are still inhabited but are mainly a tourist attraction.

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To start with we were given a demonstration as to how the islands were constructed. Essentially huge rafts of reeds are anchored down. These same reeds are used to create their houses and the boats.

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Next it was off to the island of Amantani to meet our Mamas and Papas for the night. The accommodation was basic, no running water and minimal electricity, but it was welcoming and homely.

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Long story short, I had caught a stomach bug the previous evening and after spending the morning throwing up I opted to spend the rest of the afternoon in bed. With some lovely herbal tea prepared by the Mama, tea is the local cure for everything, I was quite at home under a mountain of blankets.

Meanwhile the others headed off to the highest viewpoint on the island to watch the sunset.

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By the time they returned I was recovered enough to take part it the evening celebrations. Before we knew it we were attired in the traditional dress and were off dancing with the entire village. The local children couldn’t stop giggling…and you can see why…

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Only Sam really pulled off the look…

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Soon it was early to bed, as the cold was setting in, and at sunrise it was early morning goodbyes to our family and back on the boat. We would highly recommend the homestay experience to anyone and it provides a livelihood to the families on the island. Speaking even minimal Spanish certainly enriches the experience, as at dinner we were able to learn about the life of the family and the island. If you don’t speak Spanish – try and link up with someone with the basics, or fumble your way through a phrasebook. The families are well used to this!

Later that day we hiked over the island of Taquile.

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We were treated to a trout lunch (from the lake of course) and demonstrations of the local handicrafts.

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Unfortunately by this point Iain had caught the stomach bug and so by early afternoon we were a little bit glad to find ourselves back on the mainland in Puno. But we thoroughly enjoyed the two days and would recommend it to anyone!

Wildlife in the Amazon

Pink River Dolphins and Piranhas: The Pampas

After the wet days in the Amazon Jungle and the continuous downpours in Rurrenabaque, our journey to the Pampas was never going to be easy.

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Like in many rural areas in South America, the roads around the small northern town of Rurrenabaque are unpaved. What should have been a mere three hour journey along the dirt track turned out to be closer to six. In all honesty we were surprised we made it to the Pampas at all. But we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to attempt the journey…

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In three people carriers without 4WD, the journey was more chaotic than our trip across the salt flats! Each car took its turn to get stuck…ours was so deep in the mud, the doors were jammed shut and we had to escape though the windows…

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The farm animals and those on horseback trotted by, whilst we dug out the cars with pick axes and a ball of twine as a towrope. I say we…most of us tourists could barely stand up straight in the mud…thank goodness for the experience of our drivers…

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Instead we tourists made ourselves useful by playing with this little sloth by the roadside. He really didn’t seem to care as we stood below him snapping away and instead focussed his efforts on his afternoon nap. Way to live up to the stereotype, Mr Sloth.

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So was the journey worth all the trouble? Without a doubt! As we eventually disembarked the beaten cars, ourselves coated in mud, we were greeted by the second wildlife encounter of many. Our lodges were a little way up the river and as we waited for our boat to transport us, the playful pink river dolphins made their first appearance.

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Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to swim with them, we dumped our bags at the lodge and grabbed our trunks and bikinis and were in the water within minutes…

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Despite trying to entice them near to us with all the tricks we’d learnt from watching “Flipper” as children, these dolphins were very much disinterested in us. Instead they were fixated with the plastic water bottle toy our guide had made for them…

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Although our pictures do not show this well, they really are pink in colour! As we watched from the boat we could really see the various shades – as the dolphin gets older, the pink intensifies.

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As dolphins have been one of my favourite animals since childhood this really was a fantastic experience for me. Swimming with dolphins was certainly on my bucket list. Swimming with alligators and piranhas, however was not. As we travelled back up stream to the lodge our guide took this opportunity to point out the various caimans and alligators along the riverbank and also announced the river was infested with piranhas. Best we knew after our swim I guess…

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After a good rest and some wonderful food back at the lodge, on Day 4 we donned our wellies (or rubber boots to some of you) and set off in search of anacondas.

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Long story short we failed to find any but we spent a good few hours traipsing through mud, grass and ponds deep enough to almost render the wellies pointless…

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Somehow looking back walking in long grass looking for one of the largest snakes in the world seems like a bad idea, but at the time the intrepid explorer in all of us took over…and the ponds didn’t disappoint with other wildlife.

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IMG_4381Slightly disappointed not to have found an anaconda but relieved to have made it out of the bog un-constricted we set off once again up the river to see what other wildlife we could find. And wow…we could now understand why the Pampas is famed for the endless wildlife on show.

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We literally sat back and floated along, not knowing where to look first…

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After seeing the capibaras, caimans, alligators, endless birds, turtles and monkeys jumping tree to tree we finished off the day with a spot of piranha fishing. In a few hours our group had caught 24, enough for a decent dinner.

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Then we watched the sunset before returning to eat our catch.

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The final day finished on a high. We set off in search of squirrel monkeys and before we knew it they were in the boat with us. I’m not sure who found who more fascinating…

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Some admired their reflection in my lens…

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Whilst others were clearly in a stand off with the monkey looking back…

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When it was time to leave they looked at us blankly as we attempted to encourage them off the boat, but as we pulled away from the bank they elegantly jumped back into the safety of their tree. And with that the wildlife adventure was over.

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Sad to leave all the animals behind, that afternoon we made our way back to Rurrenabaque. Thankfully the mud had dried out so the return trip was less eventful than the previous…yet we still managed to bump into this anteater along the way….

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This was right before we ran out of petrol and had to flag down a passing car to beg for a loan. Who said travelling is easy…

Once back in the little town we relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon and the next day made our way back to the airport…if you can call it that…

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Although our fears of finding a tiny propeller plane waiting on the runway had been quashed on our outbound flight this time we weren’t so lucky!

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With just 20 seats and two captains that we could wave at from our seats at the back, the journey started off fine. That is until they announced our plane would be diverted, as there was an “incident involving a plane” at La Paz. As a result we experienced what we can only be described as a hair-raising near vertical landing into Cochabamba. Give me a muddy track and a people carrier any day.

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Rain in the Rainforest: Rurrenabaque

From La Paz it’s actually a simple process to get yourself down to the Bolivian Amazon. There are two options, bus or flight. The bus takes the better half of a day, has a safety record that you’d never mention to your mother and is meant to be one of the worst experiences on the continent. The plane takes 30 minutes and has great views. That’s right…we went for the plane.

Sam and Lauren were initially a bit worried as we’d heard we’d be crammed into a 12 seater twin prop aircraft. In fact we were crammed into a 50 seater jet and shot off towards the rainforest. An interesting fact, going from 4000m above sea level to 0 causes your Pringles tube to implode and crush all of your crisps.

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Rurrenabaque airport has recently upgraded to a tarmac runway, the “terminal” is still the same though. I guarantee you’ll be using gate 1 in terminal 1, there isn’t a duty free, there are refreshments but you have to milk the cow yourself.

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We’d booked onto a 4 night 5 day combined rainforest and pampas tour and would be departing the next day. After a quick orientation at the office we headed to the hostel for an early night.

 We awoke that morning to the type of rain you’d expect in a rainforest. The empty swimming pool at the hostel was now half full, as was reception. We took it in our stride and headed to the boats.

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As we headed up river I couldn’t help thinking of Indiana Jones and wondering whether there was a seaplane or rolling boulder around.

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The rain abated and the sun came out just as we got to our halfway point. A sugar cane farm. We were handed a machete and shown the best way of chopping down the canes. Next we headed to the press and used a bit of muscle to get the sugar. After adding local citrus to the drink this stuff is far more potent at waking you up than coffee. We also got our first introduction to the biting insects of the rainforest that seem to think our insect repellent was an interesting sauce.

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A bit of river wading was of course necessary to get back to the boat.

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The jungle lodge really is set in the heart of the jungle, after getting off the boat we waded a couple more rivers and then trekked up to the lodges hidden in the trees.

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Our guide Ron was excellently versed on the local flora and fauna and took us off into the rain to explain all the bees and trees to us.

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There were of course local plants that will do pretty much anything, from pregnancy tests to painkillers. We did catch on pretty quick though that the majority of the plants, spiders, ants and bugs are just there to kill you.

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Ron did warn us to watch where we put our hands, with trees like this you can see why.

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Humidity also started to be a problem for the cameras…

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After multiple more river crossings and a few more machete sessions we were all feeling like true jungle explorers and were happy to head back to the lodge for some more of the excellent food.

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There’s only one solar panel at the lodge and it hadn’t exactly been sunny, so there was enough light for dinner and then bed.

The second day was unsurprisingly wet, so wet in fact that there was no point heading into the jungle to look for animals. Instead we lit a fire, made rings and necklaces out of local nuts and played around with the bows and arrows.

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That evening we went for a trek in the jungle. When we stopped and turned off our torches the darkness was absolute, you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. It did give us the chance to hear the sounds of the forest though. We didn’t see much wildlife except an Ocelot and some type of jungle rat, probably the Ocelots dinner, but the walk was still worth staying up late for.

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The next morning we jumped on the boat to head back to Rurrenabaque and the next part of our adventure, the pampas.

 

Surviving Death Road: La Paz

The worlds highest capital city lies at 3650m above sea level. As a major transport hub, with an international airport, La Paz is full of gringos suffering from altitude sickness. By the time our group finally reached the Bolivian capital we’d all been at altitude for over a month and were happily running up and down the steep streets. Ok so we weren’t running but we were at least able to make it around without collapsing. The local old women were still easily outpacing us…

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We arrived on an overnight bus from Sucre early in the morning and compared to Sucre’s white buildings and colonial charm La Paz is, well, pretty rough. But if you are coming from Sucre then make sure you’re awake for the arrival into La Paz as it’s spectacular. The city is located in a bowl like depression with 6000m mountains in the background. As the bus came in sight of the city the rising sun illuminated these snow capped peaks giving amazing views. If you arrive by plane there’s a good chance you’ll be looking up at the mountains on the way in to land.

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The front of main bus terminal is lovely, take a good look as the rest of the city is a bit ugly. Accommodation options in La Paz, consisted of a number of “Party Hostels” as no one was that keen we opted for a cheap hotel.

We decided to go on the “Red Cap” walking tour. We’d thoroughly recommend this excursion to anyone visiting the city as you get a thorough breakdown of the sites as well as the history of the city. It’s free with tips given at the end.

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The tour starts outside La Paz prison. This is a fascinating structure though i’m not sure it would work in European nations. The prisoners run the prison, completely, all the guards are stationed outside the walls. If a prisoner has a lot of money then they get a very comfortable stay with jacuzzi, flat screen TV’s and an apartment. If they don’t have money then they get to share a mattress with 8 other people.

Inside, there are shops, barbers and a small cocaine factory, they even steal the WiFi from the hotel over the road. Tours used to be arranged so people could see inside and even stay the night. This is no longer the case, if you go in, you don’t come back out.

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The tour continues through the local markets, witches market, (chance to buy a llama foetus) modern market (probably the worlds ugliest) and finishes up at the top of a hotel. Here there’s a chance to abseil down the side dressed up as any superhero you can imagine, or as a slice of bacon.

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Another popular activity is the Cholita wrestling on Sundays (which we sadly missed) Cholitas are the local women who still dress in the “traditional” skirts and bowler hats. The wrestling is actually a way for them to show off as the stronger women are considered more attractive.

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Anyone heading to La Paz is probably at least considering “The Worlds Most Dangerous Road.” The Death road or Yungas road to give it its real name (you might have seen it on Top Gear) is now mostly closed to traffic after the construction of a new highway. For the last 10 years mountain biking expeditions have hurtled down this road every day for the amusement of thrill seekers.

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We chose to go with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. This company is the most expensive but is the oldest, has the best bikes and an excellent safety record.

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Whilst it’s called the Death Road and over 20 tourists have died on it, one a couple of days before us, it is certainly not a dangerous excursion. Around 300 cyclists go down the road every day and in 10 years only 20 tourists have died. If you’re an experienced cyclist then you’re going to find it a great day with amazing views. If you’re not an experienced cyclist you’ll probably find it a bit more intimidating but still perfectly safe and lots of fun. Two of our group haven’t touched bikes since they were children and they both survived until the bottom.

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Gravity break the day into about 30 sections, the first half (distance) is on wide paved highways which you can charge down and get used to the bikes. After this you head to the off road section which takes around 3 hours to traverse.

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Our instructors explained the layout of the next section of track during each break, so we always knew to look out for any particularly tight corners or rocky sections.

They didn’t warn us when we were going to be heading through a waterfall or river, but this was more for their own amusement watching us get soaked.

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As you’d expect with vertigo, Lauren stayed away from the edges and enjoyed the view, whilst I concentrated on getting my adrenaline fix.

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The very last section is actually  where the most accidents happen. As you head into town it’s not very steep and there are no vertical drops. However chickens come charging out of houses to attack your wheels. If you hit it you buy it.

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At the end of the tour, Gravity take you to a monkey sanctuary for some food and a chance to get clambered on by monkeys. There are around 5 species of monkey present as well as macaws and parrots. What you might find quite odd is that the whole complex is under a cage with the animals peering in at you.

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As long as you follow the instructors advice then Death Road is a great day out with amazing views and a free beer and T-shirt at the end. Go on give it a go!

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Studying Spanish in Sucre

After our stay in Potosi and our visit to the mines, our group, now numbering seven, decided to travel to Sucre. We travelled the three hours in two local taxis, as this was the cheapest option for our group. With Claire’s suitcase tied with twine to the top of the smallest taxi in the world and a few hairpin bends along the way, where we all feared the suitcase would end up at the bottom of the cliff, we were relieved to make it to Sucre in one piece.

Determined to improve our Spanish and learn a few more phrases than the overused “dos cervezas por favour”, when we arrived in Sucre we signed up for a week of Spanish lessons. Opting for one-to-one sessions at the Bolivian Spanish School, we spent our mornings studying and the majority of our afternoons doing homework and relaxing in many of the lovely cafes Sucre has to offer. So taken with our studies and thanks to another blockade we ended up staying for two weeks of lessons.

Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia. Although La Paz remains to official capital many Bolivians have campaigned for Sucre to take its place. With beautiful architecture, museums, cafes and friendly people it’s easy to see why we were more than happy to be stuck in Sucre for two weeks.

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They even have handy Zebras to help you cross the road too…

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So what else did we get up to during our stay? With an array of Musuems on offer in Sucre we opted to visit the Museo Universitario Charcas in our first few days in the city. Although much of the information was in Spanish (but hey we needed the practice!), it was worth a visit even if just to see the fascinating collection of mummies.

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After a while though some of us got a bit bored…

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On another of our afternoons we hiked up to the Recoleta Mirador and enjoyed a few glasses of wine in the sun…

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On the weekend we dodged the cars racing through the city in Sucre’s annual rally. Only in Bolivia would they host an event where the cars speed through the city without any barriers to keep the pedestrians out of the road!

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Taking our lives into our own hands we made our way to the city’s Cemetery. Walking around was a very different experience to the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires – the graves were brightly decorated with photos, flowers and often singing cards.

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On the Sunday in Sucre and after a brief visit to the Para Ti chocolate factory for a chocolate breakfast and tour (photos were forbidden sorry!), we made our way to Parque Cretacico to see the fossilised dinosaur footprints. We looked very fetching in our hard hats…

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It was a bit of a hike up and down, but was worth a look.

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You are not allowed too close to the fossils for their protection and for fear of falling rocks and this was aptly demonstrated by the security guard, who made sure we knew were the line was…

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And of course we didn’t miss out on the chance to pose with the many dinosaur models…

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But sadly the dinosaur play park was reserved for children only…

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During one of my Spanish lessons I was treated to a trip to La Glorieta Castle. Not really a castle but more of a palace, it grounds were home to an old orphanage that now forms part of the city’s military barracks.

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My tour of the castle was in Spanish, and my teacher tested my understanding after, but tours are also available in English. Although not recommended in my guidebook, it’s certainly worth a visit even if just to study the weird mishmash of architecture.

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And finally with the world cup in full swing and despite never watching football in the UK, it was easy to get behind Bolivia’s enthusiasm for the sport and spend many an afternoon with a few beers in hand!

Still not fluent in Spanish but greatly improved, Sucre was certainly a pleasant and worthwhile place to hold up for a few weeks of study.

We took 4 hours of one-to-one lessons each day Monday-Friday at the Bolivian Spanish School and at US$130 a week we would highly recommend it to any one who wants to improve their Spanish! The teachers are happy to adapt the lessons to your needs and with a few field trips thrown in, and a Friday night cookery lesson, we were sad to leave!