Another entertaining drive yesterday getting out of Potosi – fortunately this was a Sunday and the traffic was more manageable but the GPS became fairly confused so there were some hilarious moments driving down the narrow streets in what seemed like circles before the way out of town was sorted.
Another excellent highway although only 2 lane as far as Oruro, a bit over half way through the 500km journey, where it all turned a bit pear shape. Oruro is another mining city but unlike Potosi appears to have no redeeming features at all. Rod, our Melbourne based travel agent had described Ororu as somewhere ideally suited for the testing of an atomic bomb. Dirty, dusty, chaotic and not a single completed commercial or residential structure to be seen – in any direction. We finally found a way to access the high level 4 lane highway heading towards La Paz but this involved driving through some even less appealing parts of town. Casper was a bit concerned that we hadn’t got the message about how to find the on ramp – somehow our response was lost behind some other UHF transmission so they waited for us on the very steep ramp. On attempting a restart, Casper stubbornly refused to climb the grade. This has been a problem for most of us because the engines develop very little power at low revs at these high altitudes so the only way to get going is rev the engines to over 2000 rpm and slip the clutch – not at all good for clutch longevity. By the time we arrived Casper was boxed in by a couple of trucks but luckily after a few attempts they got going again.
The drive into La Paz was even more exciting. We later learnt there is an easy way to reach downtown La Paz on the auto piste but our GPS decided on a short cut which basically involved launching our cars off the edge of the volcano rim where the satellite city El Alto sprawls and down incredibly steep grades to reach downtown located 400m below the rim. Even more exciting for Ross who lost his brakes. Our only major incident occurred at an intersection with traffic lights where the locals interpreted a red light as the signal to go. We bluffed our way through on the green light but not without some serious intimidation, especially from a min-van who screeched to a halt a few mm from Lorraine’s door. All a bit scary but we got there unscathed.
Next morning we had a half day city tour booked with our guide Carlos. First off through the very affluent area of La Paz to some interesting rock formations at Moon Valley overlooking the south east corner of the city. Then back up to El Alto to an observation area from where almost the entire city could be seen sprawled out across the crater and up the steep sides.
Then it was into the main plaza to see some of the grand buildings from colonial times and finally a visit to the Witches Market where one can buy everything from herbal remedies to miniature samples of anything you may wish for in your life. All the things you would expect such as tiny houses and cars but a few surprises also such as the tiny set of spanners one of the team bought especially for Ken.
La Paz has a population of over 4 mill including its satellite towns with a huge disparity between the incomes of rich and poor. Average income is only around US$100/month but a downtown apartment costs close to $400K and there are many houses costing $1-2 mill which are only affordable for people involved in lucrative industries such as mining. Bolivia is fortunate to have most of the world’s reserves of lithium, a material now in high demand for battery manufacture especially in Japan and China. Everyone wants to know about the influence of the Incans in pre-Spanish times but we were reminded that their domination was for a relatively short period – just over 100 years before the Spanish arrived. The major influences came from the Tiwanaki period stretching from 2000 BC through to around 1200 AD when there was a lengthy drought which the Incans were able to take advantage of. Today their descendents, the Aymara people, are still the dominant indigenous group and strongly supported by the present government which has a policy of recognising and supporting all 38 ethnic groups making up the Bolivian population