Night bus to Sucre. There is only one company that goes directly without changing at Potosi. All long distance buses seem to travel overnight in Bolivia, which is probably for the best, at least I don’t see the road.
Happy birthday to me! My plan to be somewhere nice for my birthday worked out, Sucre is beautiful. Old spanish colonial town, all white, full of churches, museums and cafe’s. It is still technically the constitutional capital (although the Parliament and the presidential palace have been long moved to La Paz) and the seat of High Court. I am torn about what to do. Some people from the Uyuni tour are staying in the same hostel, and some of their suggested we should celebrate my birthday, but I have no intention to get drunk with people I have seen once before (no offence intended, I am sure they are all nice, but being nice in not sufficient to qualify as suitable company for my birthday dinner). I don’t want to sound as a grumpy old woman, and of course being with friends an family, or even a man I love (provided the man I love remembers when my birthday is) would be great, however, there is no such possibility, and at the end of the day, it’s just another evening. So I sneak out (easy enough, everyone has their eyes glued to their cellphones) and I go for dinner to the nicest italian restaurant in town, Caffe Monterosso (an anonymous door, you have to ring a bell and Roberto, the owner born and bred in Bergamo, will let you in). Great food and, as there seem to be no bubbles available in the whole Sucre (trust me, I tried), a bottle of Bolivian tannat, which is an obscure grape grown only in a few villages in french Pyrenees, no one in Europe knows it, but they are doing miracles with it in Uruguay and Bolivia. Few more years and tannat will be the new malbec.
April 27 – 29
Days spent doing not much (or not much publishable) in Sucre. Getting over the consequences of my solitary birthday party takes about a day, followed by few more joint birthday parties with other people who are staying in Sucre and it happens to be their birthday, too.
April 30 – May 2
3 days trek to Crater de Maragua. I booked with Condor Trekkers. It’s an Australian non-for-profit company, who runs a vegetarian restaurant not far from the main square in Sucre city centre (and trust me, given the uniformity of local food, vegetarian will be a welcome option), but they specialize in trekking in the surroundings of Sucre. All the profits go in support of local indigenous communities or into training locals to become trekking guides. The trek itself can be probably done independently, but it’s for a good thing and you will learn a lot about history and nature, too (and £70 for 3 days all included is not really an expenditure).
Day 1: Transport to the sanctuary of Chataquila, from where we start walking along the ancient Inca trail (the same that eventually goes all the way to Macchu Picchu), descending about 1000 m down to the valley of a river, that we follow for most of the day (with a break for swimming in a waterfall). In the afternoon we gently ascend into the Maragua crater. It is unlike anything I have ever seen before. It is not an actual crater, as in, it is not a volcano, it probably used to be a lake many millions of years ago, and it looks like a giant flower with petrified petals of multiple colours spread around the “crater”. We have walked roughly 17 km; long, but not difficult at all. We started in almost 4000m, then down to 3000 and back up to about 3500.
On the first day we are two groups, the two-dayers and us, a mix of Europeans and Australians. We sleep at the village of Maragua, three people per room, and I end up with a young french couple that has been looking for the entire day like they could use a room. I go to sleep with my headphones, just in case. I guess it’s the envy speaking.
Day 2: Out of the crater in the morning towards village of Potolo some 19 km away. We see petrified dinosaur footprints on the way, more beautiful scenery, coloured mountains, eroded rock formations, dozens of kinds of flowers, and at some point a group of condors. There are only seven of us left, Lisa from Switzerland, Kaili and Josh from Oz, Caro from Brasil (acting as translator) and Edwin the guide. We are having a good laugh on the way (and I don’t even mind that much that I am carrying additional 2 kg of quinoa for our dinner on my back). Apparently my way of speaking spanish is attractive, because all the local guides look at me with an amused admiration and start giggling like schoolgirls every time I open the mouth. Or maybe I am just that hot.
Day 3: there is a possibility of a short trek in the morning, which we cancel because some people in the group get the altitude sickness, and we just head back to Sucre. You may have seen the pictures of the infamous Death Road off La Paz. Well, the dirt road our bus uses to climb out of the valley is quite as bad, only there hasn’t been an accident where hundred people died in one moment. Yet. We cannot get all the way to town because of some protest marches (the favourite pastime of the locals) taking place in the city centre. At that moment it looks more like a party than a protest, but it’s all yet to come.
I wake up to a completely blocked off Sucre. There is a bus parked across every junction in the city centre, so there is no traffic except for bikes and scooters. It’s almost a sunday atmosphere. No cars, people smiling, walking happily on streets normally heavy with traffic, children riding bikes and playing ball in the streets. In the morning I walk to the bus station to ask whether anything is leaving anywhere (because buses to La Paz were all cancelled) and they tell me they have a bus to Cochabamba (which is where I want to go) the same afternoon, but that it will leave from somewhere out of town. The lady tells me to turn up at five with all my stuff and we’ll see from there. I ask her how long she reckons the protests will last, and she confesses that the last time it was a month. There is no room in my hostel for the night, so I decide I may as well suffer through it now.
I set off with both my backpacks and walk again to the bus station. I meet a weird french guy in his 60 along the way, who instead of saying a boring hello opens with “Your parents lost a child”. I look at him puzzled “I beg your pardon?”, and he continues with “You are travelling alone because you are searching for a soul mate, and that is your dead sibling”. Well, fuck you too, mate. I travel alone because I don’t need an idiot who feels the need to marinate in his ego by explaining things to me by my side, especially when I don’t ask for an explanation. I spot him again at the counter at the bus station, where he is explaining to the visibly distressed ticket lady that she should learn to cope with the death of her mother. The lady gets her vengeance though, because she takes us both to negotiate a motorcycle taxi from outside of the terminal, and while my price is 20 bolivianos, the french weirdo ends up paying 50.
And the funniest part of my travels so far: leaving Sucre. The only way to get to the village out of town where the bus allegedly leaves from is on a motorbike. I am with my big backpack on my shoulders, and the small backpack on my chest, holding tight to the driver, who rides (very carefully I must say) through the barricades of Sucre (some of them burning). Each time we go uphil, I risk that the weight of my backpack will obey the laws of gravity and drag me down with it, I pray to every deity I can think of to allow me to make it through this alive. Good 45 minutes through war-like Sucre later (though the atmosphere is not hostile) and after what probably qualifies as the scariest moment of my life as yet, we finally arrive to my bus. It’s about 6 pm and it’s due to leave at 7, but as all the buses in Bolivia, they leave when full. Which means 9.30 pm in this case.
I thought I had it difficult and adventurous, but when I talked to my friends who attempted to leave Sucre a couple of days after me, they had it much worse. Motorcycles were not allowed through the barricades anymore, and the indigenous people were throwing stones and trying to reap the tyres of cars who tried to take tourists anywhere. They ended up walking for the whole day, some of them all the way to the border with the state of Potosi. With a surfboard (whatever you may need it for in a landlocked country). Few days later there was no gasoline left in Sucre and the food was becoming expensive. To this day (May 22nd), Sucre is still blocked, although they occasionally lift the blockade to let the food trucks in and the garbage trucks out.
So what is it all about? A large oil deposit has been recently discovered on the border of the states of Santa Cruz and Chuquisaca (where Sucre is). The government (probably in an attempt to appease the rich and traditionally anti-government state of Santa Cruz) gave the extraction rights entirely to Santa Cruz, which enraged the people from Sucre, who would like to see some royalties. In protest against the government’s decision, the inhabitants of the capital blocked every access road to the city, effectively disrupting any traffic between Sucre and every other city in the country. The airport stopped working two days into the blockade, allegedly to stop a delegation of Sucre representatives from flying to Santa Cruz for negotiations. Now, if you ask me why did the locals opt for barricading themselves in their own city instead of putting Santa Cruz under siege, I have no reply. This is Bolivia, I guess.