Onwards across the Altiplano to Oruro

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June 28th 2011
Published: August 15th 2011
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We spent part of our 36th wedding anniversary on a bus driving across the dusty altiplano from La Paz to Oruro. It is a dusty windy city once renowned for its silver mines, since exhausted, then tin mining, also now exhausted. Today one of its main attractions is the Carnival held here yearly. This festival, now considered second only to the Rio Carnival is similar to the Gran Poder, as wonderful masks and costumes are worn by all the participants as well. The festival in La Paz went for only 24 hours - the Carnival in Oruro involves similar festivities for a week. Oruro is set at an altitude of 3770 meters on the altiplano (high plains) region which stretches from Lake Titicaca and extends nearly 1000 kilometres to the south western corner of Bolivia. The altitude of the entire region is above 3500 meters, and it is very barren and dry, though the colours of the country can be quite spectacular. The people who live in this region have a very tough life as they are very isolated and are amongst the poorest people in the country. Temperatures are bitterly cold in the winter and high in the summer. It was very dusty the day we travelled and when we arrived in Oruro the outer suburbs of the city were covered by a thick dust storm. The only ‘flowers’ were the thousands of blue and white plastic bags which were fluttering in the wind after being caught on the fences and scrubby vegetation. Not a welcoming sight though the massive statues at the entrance of the city made up for them. Developing countries world wide have a passion for spending money they can’t probably afford on hideous statues which usually are situated close to the major entrance points of their cities. The one in Oruro included large copulating grasshoppers!
After booking into a hotel across the road from the bus terminal we set off to walk into the city centre (about ten blocks away) and to have yet another pizza (sometimes it’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t sell pizzas - they are everywhere in South America!) for our anniversary dinner. From Oruro we were planning on travelling to another tin mining city, Potosi, and then to Sucre, the city Devin lived in for a year in 1996.
It was very cold! We found the city very interesting - the streets were busy and the city had a fascinating market. The ‘witches market’ was much larger then the one we had visited in La Paz - there were lots of dead birds, armadillos, snakes, hundreds of llama foetuses and all manner of colourful potions and herbs. We also discovered the Immigration office by chance and decided to return next day to see if our visas could be extended there - we had been planning on doing it in Sucre. Upon our arrival in Bolivia we were only given one month visas and as we were planning on staying in the country for nearly two months we needed another 30 day stamp. They can be time consuming and expensive to obtain - supposedly free but there is usually a ’fee’ involved.
The cold sent us back to our hotel room - the wind was bitter - but as we were up early next morning having decided (after doing a bit more study of our guide book) that if we could get our visas extended in Oruro we would catch the night train to Tupiza and book a tour of the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flats and the remote region bordering the Chilean border) leaving our time in Sucre for later in the trip. We had no problems getting our visa extended - the policeman was speaking to somebody else in his office when he gestured to us to come in, stamped our passports and handed them back - all without breaking off the conversation he was having and barely acknowledging us! It was too easy! And free… From there we walked to the railway station to book our tickets on the train that evening, passing dozens of stalls selling furniture and musical instruments.
At the station we were told that the only seats available were the lowest class - very cheap but probably not very comfortable. We decided to book them anyway and after paying a tiny amount of money left to explore the rest of the city. We planned on visiting a museum which had been the home of a tin baron but as it was closed for the three hour lunch hour that everybody takes here we climbed up to a church above the town. It had a great view of the roof tops of the city and the dust haze on the horizon. The church was beautiful inside - very well maintained with a gorgeous blue ceiling painted with gold stars, a couple of large central domes lined with brightly coloured religious paintings, gilt on the altar and all the wall niches and stunning stained glass windows which showed the culture of the region. Below the church is a defunct mine - we explored the tunnels and saw the devilish miner’s god, El Tio. He was covered in offerings made from sugar, paper, bottles of beer, cigarettes and cocoa leaves. It felt a little odd to enter the tunnels from within the church - the doorway was next to one of the altars at which people were praying. After exploring the tunnels we visited a museum nearby and saw an interesting display of carnival masks.
Late in the afternoon we went back to the hotel to collect our luggage before going to the train station. We met a group of young backpackers there who had checked in late the previous evening - they told us that whilst they were filling out paperwork at the hotels reception at check in somebody walked into the foyer and stole a backpack belonging to one of them - a young man lost his DSLR camera amongst other items. We’ve heard so many similar stories of robberies, particularly around bus terminals, since we’ve been in South America. I was targeted in La Paz whilst I was walking along the passageway close to our hostal - a street cleaner flicked a pile of street dirt at my face - these types of actions are commonly used as a distraction so you can then be robbed by another person. We were right outside our hostal door so I was able to duck straight inside before I was targeted further. You are warned of all these scams via guidebooks and warnings in the hotels but I guess you never expect them to happen to you.
The train station was very busy when we arrived and I felt a little concerned about the next few hours when I noticed all the locals carrying big bags of blankets on board with them! The third class carriage was full of mainly indigenous people - the small of cocoa leaves was overpowering (everybody was chewing it!)- and they all had big bundles of belongings. The bench seats were padded - just - but were not particularly comfortable. I though longingly of the recliner style seats which we had seen in the other compartments… The people were very friendly though we could only communicate with gestures. The train left on time but we could see nothing except car headlights as were parallel to the main highway for most of the trip. The road was dirt because though the train windows had metal screens inside which were lowered - every so often clouds of the dust kept falling out from behind them. A very uncomfortable night of absolutely no sleep followed. After a couple of hours everybody pulled out their blankets and curled up in any available space - including the corridors which made trips to the toilet nearly impossible. We were very cold - we don’t travel with sleeping bags - and though we were wearing heaps of clothes by morning we were chilled through to our bones. Early in the morning some of the people left so we were able to stretch out a bit more which was slightly more comfortable, though no warmer! When daylight arrived and the metal screens were raised we weren’t surprised to see the window panes covered inside with a layer of ice.
An hour late we arrived in Tupiza - found a hotel with a hot shower - and spent most of the day recovering from the previous night. Not an experience I wish to repeat ….

Additional photos below
Photos: 14, Displayed: 14


Tunnels under the churchTunnels under the church
Tunnels under the church

Old mining tunnels - you entered from within the church

Another festival mask

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