Published: June 18th 2012June 17th 2012
Alright guys! It's about time for our next update on our travels! We've been in Bolivia for over two months now (making it the country we stayed in most!), and below is an overview of what we've done in the first month or so: we entered Bolivia via the Chilean desert and you might have seen already on fb some of the beautiful landscapes we've seen there, including Laguna Colorada and the salt flats. We then headed to Sucre (via Tupiza), the capital of Bolivia, where we stayed for a few weeks, before finishing with a visit to the mines in Potosi!
Enjoy reading and hope all is good back home! San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) to Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia)
San Pedro was our last stop in Chile. From there, we embarked on a tour through the South West of Bolivia to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world (over 10,000 squared km), passing all sorts of coloured lakes and volcanoes on the way. Without a doubt, this was one of the most beautiful tours we’ve done during our trip.
The tour was for three days, in a jeep which was
driven by our guide across all sorts of crazy landscapes.We’d signed up for the tour with an English couple we’d met a few days earlier, and were also joined by another English couple in our car, making it an all-English affair (if you count Ori as English that is!).
The first day started with a three hour wait at the Chilean side of the border, and then a short drive to the Bolivian side where we had brekkie prepared by our guides; at the border there was just a little shed in the middle of the desert, with a couple of officers. We then headed on to the first sight, the magnificent Laguna Bianca, a gorgeous clear white lake with snow-capped mountains reflected in the background. Not a bad start!
After another quick stop at the Laguna Verde (Green Lake), we had a break at the Aguas Termales, a natural hotspring…in the middle of the desert, at high altitude. It was so bizarre, sitting in the baking hot water surrounded by freezing cold air, with mountains peeking over the horizon.
The next stop was the Sol de Manana geysers, a volcanic area at 5300m! It was like
being in Rotorua in New Zealand, but on a much bigger scale and high up in the Bolivian desert. It was so hard to breathe up there – a combination of high altitude and toxic fumes from the violently boiling craters of mud! Some of the mud pools were immense, splurging super-hot earth all over the place, or hissing as gases seeped out through gaps in the rock.
After descending to 4300m (!) for lunch, we visited the gorgeous Laguna Colorada, one of the highlights of the tour - a deep red lake overlooked by a volcano, and full with thousands of flamingos. It was such a surreal landscape, and so surreal to see all those flamingos in one place. I (Lee) am not sure I’d ever seen a flamingo before – here I was watching thousands of them! I never thought I’d find them in a lake at 4000-ish metres though! Laguna Colorada was really such a tranquil place – the air really calm, the sun going down, and the flamingos playing out their theatre to us. It was so nice to just watch them taking off and flying gracefully and then landing clumsily. And there were dozens
of them just near us by the bank of the lake, feeding on the nutrients in the water, bobbing their beaks down into the water and lifting their heads high in the air to drain out the good stuff. It was a pleasure to watch.
Back to our cosy dorm for dinner, a couple of glasses of Pisco, and a pretty quiet night under an amazingly clear and starry sky– we were so beat after such a massive day and had loads more to look forward to.
The next morning we set off to visit the Arbol de Piedra (Tree of Stone), a volcanic rock shaped like a tree. Even better were the selection of other massive rocks all around, all easily climbable and full of nooks and crannies to explore. We even found a cave that looked like it’d been slept in, with a jacket lying on the ground as a bed.
The rest of the morning was spent driving through the desert, with snow-capped mountains in the background and yet more gorgeous lagunas. One of them had an old mine settlement on its banks, but the buildings had all but crumbled since the mine
closed. And the final lagoon of the morning, Laguna Turquiri, was completely different to all the others we’d seen before - with underwater plants growing right up to the surface, almost making little islands on the water.
In the afternoon we headed through the Valle de Rocas, another bizarre rock formation ripe for climbing and exploring. Whilst we were there a herd of llamas passed by so we got to see them really close up!
We then stopped briefly in a little bolivian town, San Cristobal, at the border of the desert. It was our first encounter with the bolivians, and in particular the cholitas (women in traditional clothes)! They looked like puppets - usually pretty chubby, they wear silky flashy thick skirts, shiny cardigans and an apron from which they often pull out sweets for the kids or big wads of money. And of course, let’s not forget the bowler hat balanced on the top of the head, the long plats reaching down their backs and the blanket tied around their back with loads of stuff being carried in, sometimes even with a kid’s head peeking out the top!
Our final stop of the day was
at El Cementerio de Trenes (the Train Cemetery), where a load of trains had been abandoned once the train line closed down. It was such a cool setting - some of the old train parts had been turned into swings and seesaws, and there was plenty of fun to be had climbing over all the old train carriages too!
We then settled in the town of Uyuni for the night, ready to get up nice and early the next day for sunrise on the nearby salt flats. In the evening we exchanged stories with another group on the same tour but with a different driver – it sounded like they’d had a nightmare. Their driver got more and more pissed as the day went on, and on one monotonous stretch of road late in the day he was falling asleep at the wheel, almost taking them off the road!
The next morning we woke up nice and early to get to the salt flats before sunrise. The group with the drink-driving guide were still waiting when we left…it turns out he was two hours late, so they missed sunrise. Ouch! And they certainly missed out. After driving onto
the salt flats for about half an hour, we reached a nice quiet spot to watch the sun creep over the mountains and reflect on the thin layer of water lying on the salt. We watched as the sky and its reflection changed colour, a beautiful sunrise.
Once the sun was fully up (and blinding us!) we went to some nearby salt piles that had been scraped together by salt miners. They basically scrape it into a pyramid shape and come back later to pick it up as it’s lighter when dry. We then made our way to Museo del Sal (the Salt Museum) for breakfast(to find our way, the driver followed some rocks that had been put down as markers - it’ easy to get lost in the salt flats as you can imagine!). The Museo is a house made out of massive bricks of salt. It used to be a hotel, but has now been converted into a museum and host various salt sculptures, including a miniature version of Big Ben!
We were then left to wander the salt flat at our leisure and take the obligatory stupid photos! It was such a surreal place
to be – pure white as far as you can see! And almost blinding in the sunlight. It felt like you were walking on ice as it was freezing at that altitude anyway!
We were dropped off back in Uyuni, our heads full of images of some of the most out-of-this-world scenery we’ve seen so far on our trip. Tupiza
We arrived in Tupiza at 4 am the next day and spent the day relaxing, checking out the town and watching films. We also had our first experience of the typical Bolivian almuerzo (lunch), usually consisting of a big thick soup, then a main plate with meat, rice, potatoes and maybe some beans or chips or a bit of salad as well, and then some sort of rudimentary desert like a banana or some jelly. You walk out of there stuffed, and all for about 15 Bolivianos - about £1.50. It's fair to say though that by now, we're a bit sick of rice and potatoes!
The next day we got up early to go horse-riding. Ori seems to think I’m scared of horses. Well, I’m not, I just don’t like them – they’re unpredictable and
over-rated if you ask me. But anyway I was determined to show that I wasn’t fearful and gave it a go anyway!
The horse-riding to Canon del Inca was good fun and the scenery was amazing, but we wanted to go faster! We got the impression our guide was going purposefully slow as he had to make the tour last until a given time and had a set route. There was even a guy walking faster than us – that’s how pedestrian it was!
In the evening we went up to Mirador Cerro Corazón de Jésus, a lookout over the town with a big Jesus statue. We met a few random Australian and Swiss guys and had a couple of drinks and dinner together.
On our final day in Tupiza , we woke up to the sound of animation and music in the town. We wandered to Plaza Independencia and saw a huge parade to mark the ‘Entrada de los Niños’ – a celebration of the first day of school, held each year. To think that we all dread the first day of school – they must love it! There was a parade for each school, each
with different costumes and a different dance performed by a different bunch of niños!
While we were there, I (Lee) got dragged into being interviewed by some guy for a local radio station, asking what I thought of the dances and whether we had something similar in England! I stumbled out some broken Spanish that probably made no sense! Sucre and Tarabuco
We had a pretty freaky overnight journey to Sucre (freaky journeys turned out to be the norm here in Bolivia…). By around 2 am a load of the locals on the bus were shouting to the driver ‘Borracho! Borracho! Pare! Pare!’ which translates as ‘Drunk! Drunk! Stop! Stop!’, apparently concerned as he was swinging round corners dangerously and almost going off the road. This went on for about half an hour when he was eventually convinced to stop at a police checkpoint. He said he was just tired but he had woken up now – very reassuring! To be fair to him, he stopped at the next police checkpoint and they gave him a breath-test in front of all the passengers and he passed clear! Still, pretty freaky stuff, especially with the stories of the
drunk tour guide in Uyuni still in mind!
Anyway, we got to Sucre safe and sound at around 4 am - buses always arrive at stupid o’clock in Bolivia - and checked into Gringo’s hostel for a much needed sleep.
For some time before, we had planned to stop our travels for a month or so and stay somewhere, preferably in a homestay, to get fully involved and imprinted by the way of life in another country. We’ve always tried as much as possible to diversify our experiences, and we thought that getting to really know a place and its people, to the point where you know some people and develop a routine, was something we needed to do during our travels – sometimes it feels like you zoom past places too much. Sucre was the perfect place for this. It has loads of language schools and volunteering opportunities, so we planned to take some classes, stay in a homestay while we were there and maybe get involved in a good cause too. After a few days of asking around, we started our Spanish classes and moved into our homestay on the same day.
Our host was
the lovely Christina, a 60ish year old lady, who lived with her brother Ramiro. They were so friendly and welcoming, but it felt a bit weird living with just a couple of older people, whereas we’d always imagined a homestay being with a whole family. So it did take us a bit of time to get settled, but in the end we had a great time in our homestay. We had many nice meals and chats with Christina and Ramiro, and Christina even taught Oriana macramé – the art of making friendship bracelets, necklaces, and so on out of string. And I enjoyed the company of Christina’s dog, Pucha!
Our language classes were great too, if not a little intense! We were pretty comfy with the Spanish we’d learnt so far and wanted to learn some new tenses, in particular the past tenses. But there are quite a few of them and it can get pretty confusing! It’s fair to say our brains were pretty scrambled by the end of each lesson!
And as for the volunteering…well, we checked it out and it wasn’t quite what we expected. We arranged with our language school to go and help
out in a kind of nursery, where mothers can leave their kids while they go out to work. We were basically over-run by children from the moment we walked in, and left sitting with about 12 four year-olds going nuts running around us with just a bunch of Lego bricks as entertainment, and that was about it! No structure or anything, we just sat there and got the run-around from the kids while the staff would stand around and chat to each other, leaving us to it.
We’d heard a few slightly negative things about some of the volunteering opportunities in Sucre. It’s a city that’s well known for volunteering, and many language schools aim to link you up with whoever it might be, whether your help is really needed or beneficial at all, in order to offer you a ‘volunteering opportunity’ and make the tourists feel good about themselves. We felt like we were in one of those ‘tourist traps’ and so decided not to go back.
Anyway, we haven’t even spoken about Sucre itself yet! It’s a really nice city, with loads of old white colonial buildings with terracotta roofs. In fact, Sucre’s residents are obliged
to paint their houses white to keep up the reputation of the ‘white city’. It can be a pretty busy place though, especially around the lively central market, with loads of buses and cars beeping past. Not forgetting the numerous protests that take place almost every day in town, using dynamite and fireworks to attract attention – Bolivians are rather the revolutionary type! They’ve had almost 200 rulers in just 200 years of independence from Spain, so it wouldn’t be surprising if there was an uprising at any time!
The central Plaza 25 de Mayo was a gorgeous place too, with grand buildings all around the outside and trees providing shade for the open space in its centre. It was a great place to sit and buy a fresh OJ from a street stall and people-watch, wasting a few minutes. It was a pretty lively plaza too - one evening I (Lee) was dragged into a street circus act and had a wig and make-up put on me!
Sucre also has a really tranquil park, the Parque Bolivar, which was packed with kids enjoying ice cream and has its own miniature version of the Eiffel Tower and Arc
de Triomphe! And we also spent a few nice sunsets at a lookout over the town (La Recoleta), as well as from the roof of the Convento de San Felip Neri.
We also visited the nearby town of Tarabuco, notorious for its artisanal markets. The markets were great, and so was our journey there and back, in a microbus, squeezed between two cholitas, making our way through the yellow valleys between Sucre and Tarabuco.
But one of the main things we’ll remember Sucre for was the nightlife. While we were there we met up with the guys from our Uyuni tour a few times, met an old friend from Brum we hadn’t seen for five years, and also met up again with our mate from the UK, Damo, who we’d also seen in Chile and Argentina. Within a few hours of meeting up with Damo, we were sinking ‘Triple Emocion’ cocktails (Jagermeister, Gin and Martini!) in Joyride, and toasting his birthday at midnight. What followed were two notoriously messy nights, with a hazy set of memories and a hilarious set of photos!
Overall, Sucre was a really different experience. It took us some time to settle
there and by the end, we had itchy feet to get moving again! Also by slowing down for a month or so, we had more time to reflect on the last seven months of our travels and for the first time, we really talked about what we will be doing when we get back ‘home’, where ‘home’ actually was, should we live in London or Birmingham… Our heart said Birmingham, as everything we know and miss is there, and London is too much of mish anyway – can’t imagine taking the tube every morning and paying a fortune for a flat with no garden! Potosi
Our next destination was Potosi. At 4,090m, it is one of the highest cities in the world. Potosi is dominated by the Cerro Ricco (“Rich mountain”), a mining site of silver, zinc and other minerals, which provided the major supply of silver for Spain between the 16th
It is said that Potosi was wealthier than Paris and London in the 17th
century. The plazas, cathedral, churches and other colonial architecture that spread along the steep and cobbled streets of the city are a remnant of this time and
we loved exploring them. In fact, unlike most tourists who come to Potosi for a couple of days only to squeeze in a visit to the mine before heading to Sucre, we actually really enjoyed the city itself and ended up staying there for 5 days. A typical day in Potosi would start with a fresh squeezed orange juice on the sunny plaza, watching the locals and doing some macramé, followed by a wander around town, punctuated by some frequent pauses to take our breath back due to the lack of oxygen!
As you can imagine, the visit to the mines was a pretty interesting and at the same time claustrophobic experience! We signed up for a tour with our Hostel Koala. We were in a group of 6 people – we were the “llama-fuckers” according to our guide! After kitting up with overalls, helmet, head-torch and wellies, we paid a visit to the miners’ market, where we bought some presents for the miners we would meet later. We purchased a few dynamite sticks for a couple of quid only, and some local alcohol Ceibo (‘buen gusto’ as they call it) at 96%, also for £2, which the miners
like to offer to the devil of the mines, Uncle Tio. We had a sip of it in the shop – my lips felt anaesthetised ! And of course, the tour of the market wouldn’t have been complete without a stop at a coca leaf stall, the one and only food of the miners, who chew on it all day along to stock up on energy as it’s too dusty and nasty in the mines to take food down.
After the market we had a look around the processing plant where they grind up the rock that the miners bring, mix it with chemicals and let the silver residue settle. It’s then taken elsewhere to be smelted. The refinery had a pretty basic setup – a load of massive cranking machines patched together inside a half-finished building. And all the filthy water full of chemicals and rock residue is just flushed straight back into the river that passes by.
Finally we got to the mine, and prepared to enter its obscure tunnels. We walked a few hundred meters in a narrow tunnel and then crawled a few meters further until we arrived in a room with a sculpture
of a devil made in mud. It represented Uncle Tio, the devil of the mine. Every Friday night, the miners meet in the cave and share alcohol, cigarettes, and coca leaves with Tio in exchange for good fortune and wealth.
After the visit to El Tio, I (Ori) wasn’t feeling too motivated to get any deeper in the mines. I had a feeling of claustrophobia since the crawling incident, and wasn’t too keen to continue. But when the guide told us that as many as 150,000 people work in 1,200 mines in Cerro Rico every day, I thought I should at least force myself to do it once!
It was pretty dangerous though…I mean, you were lucky to find a piece of wood sustaining the ceiling above your head! And we later read that Cerro Rico is collapsing! Some passages were really narrow and we would be crawling on our bellies for a few meters. Sometimes, your throat would get strangled by some toxic gases trapped in some corners of the mine. To top it off, we heard 3 or 4 detonations of dynamite during the tour –the walls of the mine were trembling around us, not too
We crawled our way to the fourth level down (about 400 meters below ground) through some tiny tunnels, and past some manual pulleys which are used to lift minerals from one level to the next, using massive buckets. On the 4th
level down, we met a guy chewing on coca and making a hole in the rock for dynamite… with a hammer and chisel! The tools they use are really rudimentary; we actually didn’t see a single machine!
On the way back up, we crossed a few trolleys pushed by some miners. We went through some really hot parts of the mines (up to 40 degrees!), the heat adding to the feeling of claustrophobia. At one point we were all squeezed into a tiny room with about 12 other tourists and 8 miners, where they were shovelling rocks and earth from one trolley into another – it was so hot, dusty, sweaty and claustrophobic – what a hard job, such nasty working conditions!
We slowly made our way out of the mines and saw light at the end of the tunnel after 2-3 hours of complete obscurity. What a relief!I mean it was a very interesting
experience but it was also pretty dangerous if you ask me – health and safety considerations can be a pain back at home, but they're non-existent here!
But it was interesting to talk to some of the miners. Before the visit, we thought it might feel quite voyeuristic but actually it wasn’t like that once we were there. It’s true that you end up in the miners’ way sometimes, and it feels awkward taking pictures, but most of the miners were pretty happy to receive their gifts of booze and dynamite and chat to us about their job. Plus, a percentage of the fees for the tour go to the miners which subsidises their income a bit.
Some of the miners told us that they had been working there all their life, starting as early as 13 years old. Their fathers were miners too. It¡'s fair to say that there aren’t a great deal of job options in Potosi (which makes you wonder what will happen to the city once the mines are closed), but in fact many of the miners choose that way of life as they can earn quite good money. We were surprised to hear
that their salary can be as much as 5 times the minimum salary in Bolivia and the 'cooperatives' they work in offer a pension scheme too. Of course, this doesn’t make up for the risks and the short life expectancy (45-50 we were told) they’re exposed to. The most common cause of death is silicosis, a pulmonary disease. Apparently, the miner must have lost 50% to 80% of his pulmonary capacity before the cooperative allows him to touch his pension!
On our next day in Potosi, we went to visit the Casa de la Moneda, where Spanish money used to be made using the silver from the mines, first using a hammer, then machines powered by mules, and eventually using steam-driven machines. It is said that with all the silver that the Spanish exploited in Potosi, you could build a bridge over the Atlantic between South America and Spain. It is also said that a bridge could be built with all the bones of the people who died in the mines!
In the evening, we went up a church tower (Torre de la Compania de Jesus) for sunset. The view over the city was beautiful, with the
Cerro Rico looming over it. A guy told us the story of Potosi - how the Incas had found some traces of silver on the Cerro Rico, but heard an explosion and saw it as a sign from Pachamama (Mother Nature) not to exploit the minerals. The name Potosi is said to come from the word “explosion” in Quecha, as interpreted by the Spanish. Then, one day, a guy lost his lama on the hill. At night, he lit a fire and saw flows of silver down the hill. This is how the Spanish discovered Cerro Rico.
We also visited the Convento Santa Teresa, a part of which has now been converted into a museum. Our guide Gris was excellent. She told us about the Carmelites who used to live here many years ago. A few Carmelites still live here today but the rules have changed considerably.
Carmelites came from very good, even noble, families. As a rule, they were always the second child. They would enter the convent at age 15, accompanied by a ‘domestico’, and the Carmelites would never see the outside world again for the rest of their lives. In fact, the Carmelites were
even buried within the Convent (next to the bedroom!) and the parents wouldn’t even be informed of their death!
There were only 21 Carmelites in the convent at any time. Places in the convent were hard to get (since you’d have to wait for the death of a Carmelite) and there was even a waiting list! It was an honour for a family to have a daughter in the convent. Families were also required to donate a dowry to the convent, often in the form of an onerous painting or sculpture.
When they entered the convent for the first time, the Carmelite would make 4 promises: chastity, poverty, obedience and silence. They could only talk for 2 hours per day; they would sleep on hard wooden beds; and they would self-flagellate, using barbed chains that are still on display! From 5am to 12pm, they would prey, work on embroidery, do some gardening, or make some biscuits and jam, which they would sell to the outside world. The irony is that the money was then stored in a coffin for decades but never used! If they ever received visitors, they would talk to them through a grill, their head
covered, constantly overlooked by the mother superior. And even the church was on the grounds of the convent, with a separate mezzanine and confession room for the nuns, so they never got contact with the outside world at all! Pretty tough life! Sucre again
Back in Sucre for one night, we met with our mate Damo again and spent the night in Florin, drinking caprinha and moving on the music of a local band! The next day, we headed up to Samaipata and then to the Amazon jungle (Trinidad and Rurrenabeque), which we will talk about in our next blog!
More pics are available on albums 39 to 43 at the following address
Lee and Ori xxx
There are more photos below