Land of the brave

On a journey of extremes, Rick Feneley finds South America's richest rewards are in its poorest country.

The cliff-hanging cycle tour down Bolivia's Death Road is punctuated by rest stops at breathtaking precipices, where guides inform riders about the tragedy of others who have attempted the route before them: the bus that plunged from this ledge, killing 100; the four rusty crosses here that mark a car's final, fatal turn; the backpacker on a mountain bike, just like ours, who took that hairpin bend way too fast and sailed into the abyss.

Our guides are more circumspect than others have been. It is, after all, only four weeks since a 22-year-old English thrillseeker died this way.

My wife and I are not so young and we are not especially seeking a near-death experience when we tackle the 64-kilometre Death Road, an hour out of Bolivia's political capital, La Paz. It is our last full day in Bolivia, at the end of a three-month, whirlwind tour of South America, which has been action-packed enough for middle-aged risk-takers. We've swum with crocodiles and piranhas in the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil, strolled blithely into guerilla and landmine territory in Colombia and trekked to the continent's fabled lost cities.

Tomorrow we're heading home – both of us. We're quite determined about that.

So we take this ride with the safest outfit money can buy, undeterred by its name, Downhill Madness. We start at 4700 metres above sea level and descend 3600 metres in a few hours, not so much for the adrenalin but because, after only two weeks in this much-ignored country, we do not want to miss a final glimpse of its boundless, heart-stopping beauty. Beneath our pedals, clouds drift through valleys. Don't look down! Look up and a glacier steals the limelight.

Bolivia was our afterthought. It was not even on the itinerary when we left home. We squeezed it in only after the constant urging of travellers we had met on the road. They said the Salar de Uyuni, the salt plains that cover the biggest flat surface on the planet, must not be missed. Their enthusiasm was always coloured by this refrain: Bolivia is ridiculously cheap. And it is. This part of the world is generally affordable but even grimy backpackers – and after three months we counted ourselves among them – can stretch to cocktails in Bolivia. That is not really the point, though. In South America's poorest nation, we found its richest rewards – and its greatest challenges.

From Cuzco in central Peru, we take the road to Bolivia. It soon becomes the road to oblivion. A workers' blockade, a common occurrence in Peru, forces our bus to take a strike-breaking journey to the border via backblocks and rutted farm roads that the coach is not built to withstand. The usual six-hour trip becomes 20 hours and might have been 30 had we not got out to push the bus. It is a good primer for Bolivia, where the roads are worse, the buses less reliable and the strikers just as militant.

Borders are such arbitrary impositions on seamless landscapes. We enter Bolivia on a road rimming Titicaca, the high-altitude lake shared with Peru. The postcard does not change at the checkpoint. The indigenous peasant farmers still herd llamas and alpacas; pre-Columbian ruins still speckle the countryside; the locals still speak Quechua or Aymara; the women wear the same bowler hats and smile with the same flash of gold-filled teeth; and, offshore, small boats made of reeds still carry fishing families to artificial islands, also made of reeds, a lifestyle that has persevered on both sides of the border for hundreds of years.

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Indeed, this land east of the border used to be called Upper Peru. And, in 1825, Simon Bolivar was inclined to keep it that way. The South American independence hero was sceptical it could become a self-governing nation. But the new republic was born that year and, to placate the doubting Bolivar, named in his honour.

From land, Lake Titicaca is not so remarkable. Only from a boat or on its islands can one fathom its oceanic proportions. As the blue horizon keeps running from the bow, the lake becomes a sea – at 3827 metres above sea level. Bolivia's navy is equally fooled by this mirage. The landlocked nation perseveres with naval exercises on the lake, keeping alive a dream of one day recovering the coast it lost to Chile in the 1879-84 War of the Pacific.

Our first stop, much like the advancing Spanish conquistadors in the 1530s, is Copacabana, 90 minutes over the border. There is little risk of mistaking this modest lakeside town for Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana. And yet that brazen child in Rio was named after this holy place. Pretty but shambolic, Bolivia's Copacabana, one of the nation's big tourist attractions, has no auto-teller machines foreigners can use. We discover it will be two days before the bank opens. Nearly cashless, we book in to the only hotel we can find that takes credit cards, Hostal La Cupula. It is a little above our usual standard so we're relieved the next day to find $80 covers the huge double room with ensuite, three-course dinner with wine and breakfast.

Catholicism and Inca legend are fused in the town's Basilica de la Virgen de Candelaria. It contains a wooden statue of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary, dating to 1583, to which miracles are attributed to this day. The grandson of the Inca ruler Manco Kapac is said to have carved the statue after the virgin appeared to him in a dream.

The next day we are three hours to the east in La Paz and witness again the melding of belief systems. At the 16th-century San Francisco Cathedral, an indigenous woman goes to the marble font of holy water at the entrance. Discreetly, she dips a plastic bag into the font, looks about, blesses herself, then leaves the church with her loot, perhaps a remedy for a sickly child or a dying mother or a failing crop.

La Paz perches improbably on steep Andes valley walls and sprawls through mountains that howl with the echoes of its vanquished wilderness. The view from slum alleys can be priceless, though the 18,000-year-old Chacaltaya Glacier overlooking the city has all but vanished, spoiling more than a postcard. It has been a vital source of water for La Paz.

The city buzzes – it is wild but with manners, in the way of a place civilised by indigenous and Spanish customs. A tough suburb in the heights rollicks to a brass band on the night we arrive, Aymara men and women dressed to the nines and dancing in the streets, unhindered by the piles of litter at their shuffling feet.

La Paz deserves more than the few days we afford it, so we wear out our shoes on the cobbled streets of the Witches' Market, knowing we'll never again buy good leather boots so cheaply and never again find so many alpaca jumpers, scarves and blankets sold in so many shades of bargain.

But we have come with a grand plan. We will bus it three hours to Oruro, from where we will take a first-class, overnight train to Tupiza, in the far south of the country, from where we will ride horses into the canyons and sunsets that possessed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid until their apparent deaths in an ambush.

Sometimes the best plan is to have no plan. Ours is ambushed by a train strike.

Instead, we take an overnight bus further east, on one of Bolivia's few sealed roads, to Sucre, the judicial capital. It is a historic, charming, manicured, middle-class university town with cheery boozing establishments and comfort food for Western palates. Otherwise, it is an inoffensive stop on the way to the far more interesting Potosi, the world's highest city at 4090 metres above sea level.

Now UNESCO-protected, Potosi was built around the biggest silver mine on the planet. A scar of barren mountain, Cerro Rico, towers over the town. Founded in 1545, the mine bankrolled the Spanish empire and Potosi, current population 2700, grew to 150,000 by the year 1600. The mine was, and remains, a disgrace. More than 8 million miners have died over its life and many continue to die each year, either crushed by rockfalls in its shafts or, more commonly, of silicosis pneumonia or from the poisonous effects of carbon monoxide, arsenic gas, asbestos and acetylene vapours.

Every day, tourists enter the mine, which yields less silver today, more zinc and lead. It is not recommended for the asthmatic or claustrophobic. I am both. But I cannot resist this opportunity to witness men at work in conditions that have changed little since the Spanish drove indigenous and African slaves to their deaths. As was the case then, the black-faced miners chew cocoa leaves to sustain their energy underground. I pay double, about $30, for a custom-made abridged trip with the local Koala Tours – not Australian, not cuddly, but professional.

Hunched or near-crawling along a gaseous shaft, I meet a 64-year-old miner who has been working down here since he was 17. He is the father of 14 children. He counts himself as a lucky man. Most miners last about 15 years in the job; many die in their 40s or earlier. I meet a 22-year-old miner hauling a load of ore down a train track. He has been working in the mine since he was 12. As the miners expect, I have brought them gifts of dynamite, cocoa leaves and a bottle of the local rocket fuel, 98 per cent alcohol. We swig from the bottle and wince, then splash two generous nips on the ground for Tio, or Uncle, the devil figure who owns the underground and at whose whim these miners believe they live or die. “Outside, we believe in Jesus," says my guide, a former miner. “Down here, we believe in Tio.”

A dusty, viperous squiggle through canyon and desert is the main highway to Uyuni. The expected 3-hour bus journey becomes six hours. Another bus, bogged to its axles because of roadworks to seal this track, blocks our path. Digital cameras whirr as we wait: if humankind never makes it to Mars, it could always come here for the photo opportunity.

Uyuni is not a destination but a launching pad to the world's biggest and highest salt flats, a place to find a tour company, among the many good and bad, if you have not already booked one. We are directed to one of the best, Andes Salt Expeditions, and we head for the salt flats of the Altiplano.

And now we discover infinity. All perspective is lost out here, where the earth is white, blindingly white. Risen from a lake – and before that an ancient sea – the baked salt earth covers 10,500 square kilometres of Bolivia, 3650 metres above sea level. It is one colossal mirror for the sun.

From kilometres away, the labourers are visible; six or seven salt miners. They are clothed from head to toe but not all can afford sunglasses. They shovel half a tonne a day per worker, for less than $20. For a little more than half that you can buy 50 kilos of their table salt. The supply seems inexhaustible and yet Bolivia still imports the stuff.

Convoys of tourists in four-wheel-drives crawl over the salt-encrusted lake, as if daring to be swallowed. We get out to take trick photographs. There is no foreground nor background in the infinite white, so we become tiny people inside a giant's shoe, we recline in a potato chip and we poke from wine bottles as if we're the corks.

We stop at a craggy island rising from the flats that is populated by giant cacti and walk among these eerie triffids. They have grown at one centimetre a year and many are 10 metres tall, so they are 1000 years old. We find the tallest cactus: more than 12 metres. From here we take in the flats. Everything that isn't salt seems so tiny – the trucks, the tourists frolicking on the flats, all human history before and since the conquest.

That night we sleep in a hotel made of salt bricks and eat at its table made of salt, before another two days of wonders: pink flamingos swarming on lagoons coloured fluorescent green and red, the world's highest desert, remote geysers spewing steam enough to power cities and thermal springs to soothe a traveller's aching bones.

Back in Uyuni, there is a steady procession to Minuteman Pizza, the perfect comfort food for cold and weary travellers. We swear, like many others, that it is the best pizza on the planet. Maybe it's just the altitude. Maybe it's the fact they take donations for the salt miners to buy them sunglasses. Or maybe it's all the amazing photos that travellers have left on the walls.

Nobody takes bad photos in Bolivia.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

American Airlines has a through fare for about $3000, low season return, from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. This involves flying Qantas to Los Angeles then on to La Paz with American Airlines via Miami. LAN Airlines flies from Sydney to Santiago via Auckland, then on to La Paz (Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney).

Many travellers come overland from Peru, Chile, Argentina or Brazil. A 10-hour bus ride, assuming no blockades, from Cuzco in Peru to Puno, near the border, costs from $30. It's another $10 for a three-hour bus trip to Copacabana, on Lake Titicaca, in Bolivia.

Buses in Bolivia are fairly modern and reasonably priced ($29 for an eight-hour overnight trip from La Paz to Uyuni) but you'll need a blanket or sleeping bag and the bone-jarring roads make hard work of the spectacular scenery. First-class trains, if not halted by strikes, are a cheaper and better option, though have limited schedules.

Staying there

A double room with ensuite at Hostal La Cupula, Copacabana, costs from $25.50. In La Paz, a double room in a three-star hotel with breakfast costs from $55.

Things to do

Downhill Madness runs a 64-kilometre Death Road mountain bike ride for about $87; see madness-bolivia.com.

Andes Salt Expeditions runs four-wheel-drive tours of the salt flats, flamingo-filled lagoons, geysers and more. A three-day, two-night trip costs $175; see www.andes-salt-uyuni.com.bo.

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