“Get through Bolivia as quickly as you can”
“Yeah you’ll probably end up getting robbed in Bolivia”
“Watch your back at the bus stations because there’s a good chance you’ll get kidnapped and have your credit cards emptied”
These are just a glamorous selection of warnings I received about Bolivia from pals, travel guides, and fellow travellers alike.
So if you believe everything you hear, you’d be forgiven for thinking that crossing into Bolivia is akin to walking aimlessly into a warzone wearing shin pads and armed with nothing more than a well sharpened pencil as a weapon.
Although a lot of the stories seem a little far-fetched and a bit like scaremongering, I couldn’t help but feel slightly apprehensive arriving after dark in the middle of a busy street in Potosi, well equipped with pretty much everything I own.
Like most places, however, as long as you don’t strut around shouting about your shiny new IPad or go wandering down dark alleys at 2 in the morning with Beats headphones growing out of your head, things in Bolivia turn out alright on the whole.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about Potosi is the altitude. At 4,090 metres above sea level, it is one of the highest cities in the world, and climbing a flight of stairs leaves you feeling like you’ve been trying to man mark N’Golo Kante for ninety minutes.
Indeed, a mere breathless stroll up the street made me realise why football pundits assert that no South American football team likes playing in Bolivia, and it would come as no surprise if Messi plots his next impromptu retirement from international football to coincide with Bolivia away.
Potosi as a city, however, doesn’t have a huge amount to offer, and having already visited some of the more developed countries in South America, the contrasts are immediately obvious.
The food is cheaper, the buildings appear more rundown, and Potosi’s main attraction is its mines which, in itself, sounds somewhat outdated.
The mining tour, however, is far and away one of the most interesting tours you can do in South America.
Men can start working in the mines from as young as thirteen years old, and the working conditions that they have to endure are something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
Just a few hours crawling through claustrophobic spaces and climbing ladders through the narrowest of gaps is enough to put you off giving up the day job and moving to Potosi, but learning about the mining rituals and superstitions is incredibly useful for dinner party small talk.
For a start, you have to take gifts down for the miners. This doesn’t involve a cotton hat and new socks, but more useful things like cigarettes, coca leaves, and 96% miners whiskey which you end up awkwardly seshing with the workers.
The most intriguing superstition, however, is the mining God who all the workers offer up sacrifices of booze and cigs. Sculpted like a menacing devil, the deity is well equipped with an above average manhood which the miners believe represents fertility when they drill for silver and zinc.
A trip into Potosi and its mines certainly takes you back in time, but just a three hour bus journey north to Sucre teleports you back into the present.
In most of Bolivia, an unfinished house actually means that the occupier doesn’t have to pay taxes.
However, in Sucre, it’s possible to tax dodge by painting your home white, which leaves visitors feeling like they’re in the middle of Florence rather than a third world country.
Indeed, Sucre feels like the furthest thing you can get from a stereotypical picture of Bolivia. The streets of the constitutional capital are colourful, the roads are quiet, and even the altitude isn’t that exhausting.
However, that doesn’t stop you from gasping for air after walking up a steep cobbled hill to the Mirador cafe for a breakfast view of the entire city.
But as you sit sipping pineapple juice and yamming down bacon, eggs and avocado, while overlooking a beautiful city built high into the Bolivian hills, it’s hard to believe you’re in one of the poorest countries in South America.
Indeed, Sucre pulls somewhat of a blanket over the real Bolivia, and other than being a great place to relax, eat well, and drink for a few days, there isn’t a whole lot to do there.
The black market is definitely worth a trip or two (especially if, like me, you’re in need of a cheap phone), and if dinosaurs are your thing, the dinopark is a must, where you can see 68 million year old Sauropod footprints.
So it’s safe to say that, so far, Bolivia has been worryingly uneventful and, instead of being robbed of my possessions, I feel slightly enriched from learning about the culture of a country that operates with a smile on its face despite not being quite as well off as those around it.
Next stop, the red brick city, La Paz. Until then.