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Published: December 22nd 2009
From the Witches Market in La Paz through the largest salt desert on Earth and finally into civilisation again in Chile. Big week for us.
Leaving La Paz was tougher than we thought. It´s a friendly place despite its reputation to the contrary and tourists are treated better than in any other big city we´d been to so far. We left a few travelling comrades behind to party over the Christmas period preffering to spend what little we have exploring the place instead. First to Potosi.
Potosi was once the richest city on Earth thanks to the abundance of silver in the nearby mountains. Cerro Rico was the richest in silver and fuelled the Spanish economy for more than two hundred years after the conquistadors took control in the mid 1500s. The Spaniards ruthlessly forced indigenous slaves to work in the terrible conditions and to date more than 8 million people have died in the mines. Pulmonary conditions, asbestos poisioning and many other ailments have contributed to the fatatities but the main culprit were the authorities who forced young men and children to work for weeks at a time in temperatures of over 45
degrees without ever coming up for air. If they lasted six months they were entitled to ´take a breather´by working in the processing plants for the next six months. Few made it that long. Today the life expectancy after entering the mine is ten years.
Lindsay and I crawled into the mine and were soon hot and uncomfortable struggling to breathe properly. It doesn´t help that oxygen is scarce at a lofty 4200m (making Potosi one of the highest cities in the world). After 1 km of struggling, Lindsay turned back with one of our guides but not before seeing the idols that the miners worship in order to ensure protection. ´Tio´is an idol of the devil who owns all the silver in the mine. He guards the entrance to level 2 and is covered in gifts of tobacco, coca leaves and alcohol. Each level goes down 20m further. It takes an hour to reach level 5 and there are over 20 in total! We were able to reach level 3 after 45 mins of crawling and coughing and met miners who were working. We gave them gifts of coca leaves, coca-cola and dynamite!
Dynamite is for unrestricted
I love it when a plan comes together
sale in Potosi for 20p per stick! We were given a demonstration and witnessed the immense power of the stuff outside in open ground. They use shovels to make holes in the rock hundreds of metres below the surface and light the fuse, hoping that structural damage to the tunnel won´t cause too many problems! I was given a lit stick of dynamite to pose for a photo before some chap sprinted off into a safe zone to drop i and then leg it off. Safe Zone is a relative term in Bolivia. The miners do 8 hour shifts and don´t eat or drink anything but alcohol in this time. They chew coca leaves to suppress tiredness and hunger. The prescence of 14 and 15 year old boys working in the mine is a sobering experience.
Salar de Uyuni
The biggest salt plain on earth stretchs for 12000km squared across south western Bolivia. Perspective is deceptive on the perfectly white flats (see photos). We visited the islands left from an ancient sea and saw emus and llamas strutting about. We stayed in a salt hotel which I thought was going to be like the James Bond Ice Palace
but while not quite as impressive was nevertheless interesting. Everything was made of salt as you might expect.
Next up Laguna´s where rare flamingoes are abundant and we enjoyed the perfect reflections afforded by the still water and the surrounding mountains. Accommodation was more basic on our second night (you had to wash your own number twos away with scoopfuls of water in a non flushing toilet) but our guide made a sponge cake for my birthday and we bought a nice bottle of Chilean wine to share with our travelling companions.
This morning (it seems like so much longer ago already) we woke at 4:30 and went to a geyser basin that sits at 4950m abive sea level. The mud pots were sizzling at 150 degrees so we kept our distance. Next were thermal baths where we watched the sunrise over the nearby volcanoes. The water is warmed by sulpur under the ground and creates a comfortable 39 degree bath! Afterwards our guide took us to an incredibly white lake where artic gulls swooped and pecked at the salt licks and finally on to the perfect aquamarine Laguna Verde on the Chilean border.
It was a
great few days if a little tiring and now we are settled in San Pedro de Attacama, a city in the driest desert in the world. It´s about 30 degrees here and we have hammocks instead of chairs in the common areas. Christmas will be weird here. We´re very jealous of all of you back home with your snow, Christmas carols, turkey and parties. Have a great time everyone and a happy new year.
George and Lindsay
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