Days 343-350: Bolivia


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South America » Bolivia
January 3rd 2008
Published: January 12th 2008
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Arrived in La Paz, Bolivia in pretty bad shape - were both absolutely exhausted! We left Lima on a 9pm flight - to Santiago - then had 4hrs at the Santiago Airport to kill before our next flight at 6.50am. Very grim indeed, Bunny managed to doze for a while, but I didn’t manage a wink! Soon enough we were on our plane to La Paz , but we were in for another little treat first… the plane stopped at a tiny little desert airport in the Chilean town of Iqueque, to refuel and dump some domestic passengers. This really was odd, not many flights these days have 2 stops on a single journey, we didn’t even get off the plane… it was like being on a bus! Eventually we arrived at the airport in La Paz (4000m above sea level) and caught a taxi to the Adventure Brew Hostel - which has it’s own variety of beer, fantastic showers AND a free all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast!!! (I was in heaven!). We were a bit of mess, deprived of sleep and dopey with it, so we had a shower and took a well earned siesta!!

We awoke, albeit unwillingly, after a few hours and headed into La Paz to have a nosey around the city. This was always going to be a bit tough, with the poxy altitude, but wasn’t too bad overall, just a bit breathless at times. The city is a maze of cavorting streets; they go up and down, left and right, all over the show! It’s cool to photograph but not so flash for walking! There are dozens and dozens of tiny market stalls all over the city, selling wares from toiletries to knock off DVDs and local touristy stuff - great fun just to wander around and lose yourself in the mayhem. An interesting dynamic of La Paz is that there are about a million shoe-shine boys in the city, and they all wear balaclavas with holes cut out for their eyes. This is somewhat shocking at times, when you suddenly catch a guy wearing a balaclava out the corner of your eye! As westerners we seem to correlate such attire with bank robbers! However, later we were told it is because they are ashamed of their low status job ;-( On the other hand, we had one funny experience with a street vendor when Kristi wanted a cute little hand bag: we speak very little Spanish and the lady spoke no English, so it was always going to be interesting! We bargained for a while (well we thought we were bargaining…), and were pretty sure that she wanted 50 Bolivianos (NZ$8) for the bag, so we gave her 40 and said it was all we had, using our devilish cunning to knock an extra 10 Bolivianos off the price! Clever right?! We thought it was a bargain! Well she looked at us strangely and then gave us 15 Bolivianos back… bugger… I dread to think what we could have bought it for!! (And we thought we were doing so well!!). Still, having gained a leather handbag for the princely sum of NZ$4.50 I guess we can’t complain!

We went to a little English pub for dinner and were shocked by the amount of Brits in there smoking! (They are obviously flaunting the fact that they can smoke inside here in Bolivia, but can’t in the UK anymore!) Still, the meals were good, as was the atmosphere. We headed back to the hostel as the evening chill set in and visited the hostel bar, so I could sample the beer and Bunny could use the internet. A cool bar here, nicely decked out, with glass floor to ceiling windows, good music, lots of room and even a Nintendo for playing dopey games on… ahh the little luxuries. We were still fairly bushed so we turned in early-ish … plus we wanted to be at full strength for all those PANCAKES in the morning!

Pancakes were great, very yummy indeed  We checked out of the Adventure Brew Hostel and caught a cab to the Diamante Azul Hotel a few streets over - this was the starting place for our tour through Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. It was raining in the morning so once we checked into the new hotel we stayed indoors for a few hours watching ‘8 Below’ on cable TV! One of Kristi’s favourite films, and always sets her off about wanting 7 little puppies to go with Oslo!! When the rain cleared we went out for a wander, determined to find the notorious ‘Witches Market’ where you can buy the ingredients for your homemade witches brews and potions. The market consisted of a bunch of stalls along the roadside, and at first glance seems quite ordinary - until you really look at what is for sale - dried llama babies and fetus’, petrified frogs and vultures, bottles of extremely sketchy looking liquids and an array of powders, rocks, wood and bone chips and every other icky thing you could think of! (Didn’t notice any eye of newt though… maybe I didn’t look hard enough…). For the discerning home-witch with a busy urban lifestyle, there were ready made potions which only needed water added or similar very basic instructions. We couldn’t read what all of these potions were for, but the diagrams seemed to suggest most were variations on the themes of love/sex and growing a bigger brain… or bigger anything else you might want! Kristi was a bit freaked out by all the dried animals and dodgy incense and went and hid down the road for a while! We also did a bit of shopping at handcraft stalls and bought some very cute items for our two incoming nieces or nephews!

We headed back to the hotel for our meeting with the rest of the tour group, there were only 4 of the 7 people there for the meeting though - 1 guy was out biking for the day on the “Death Road” - something we would have liked to do but ran out of time for - and the other couple had gotten stuck at a roadblock somewhere and no-one knew when/if they would return! Our tour leader was a Norwegian named Anne, she suggested we go out to a restaurant she knew for dinner and hope the others arrived!

The five of us went to a cool Asian restaurant, and were joined by the Aussie guy, Nick, who finally got home from biking - still no word of the other couple! Anna, Nick and I went to a small night club after dinner to soak up a bit of the Bolivian culture, eg: people watching! Meanwhile Kristi and the other two girls went back to the hotel to get some much needed sleep. Nick and I ended up going to several nightclubs and didn’t get home until about 6am… uuurrrgggh… not a great idea the night before a long day! I did get to see a lot of La Paz on my 1.5hr taxi ride home though (which should have taken 15minutes..)…. ah the joys of not speaking the local language!

The next morning we checked all our gear into storage at the hotel and spent the day wandering around La Paz with Anna and Nick. We did a bit of shopping, nothing too exciting though, and had lunch at a cool juice bar who did giant fresh sandwiches - Bunny managed to eat most of Bolivia’s avocado crop too! Kristi, Nick and I also visited the Coca Museum, which was very interesting. We walked in and were given a big thick booklet, which was the English translation for all the Spanish explanations around the museum. There was so much information to take in, it was like being in a library or something - you would read a passage, look at some pictures, read some more then look at a model or diagram, then read some more… We now know vast amounts of random facts and statistics about coca, cocaine and coca-cola! They even had a model of a ‘crack-addict’… magic. After the Coca museum we headed back to the hotel for a bit of down-time before leaving to catch our 12hr night bus to Potosi. (Kristi and I did buy some Alpaca socks on the way back too… fun!)

Our two lost group members had finally made there way back to La Paz (not without there fair share of difficulty, and great tales to tell!) so the 8 of us headed off to the La Paz central bus station, about 10minutes away. Checking in our baggage etc all went very smoothly and soon we were on our bus ready to endure a 12 hour marathon to the mining town of Potosi. The bus has a very cool overnight set up: the seats reclined almost to horizontal and there was a wacky ironing-board looking thing which lowered from the back of the seat in front to meet with the chair you were on - effectively giving you a full length bed-like surface - with only a mild angle upwards. Really comfy considering we were on a bus! Kristi and I didn’t want to take any chances so we took a sleeping pill each - I especially was feeling a bit murky from the night before. We woke a few times, like on the ONE toilet stop, but more-or-less were out to it for the whole drive - although apparently I did bash Kristi several times in my sleep… ooops! We arrived in Potosi at about 6am, the altitude was very notable as soon as we hopped off the bus - Potosi is 4070m above sea level, the highest city of its size on the planet. Everyone was pretty shattered so we went straight to the hotel and checked into our rooms for a decent nap. Kristi and I emerged at about 11am and had a brief look around the town - which is quite small but used to be the size of Paris when it was in its heyday - Potosi is right beside a tremendous mountain which had the largest ever deposits of silver - this mountain is now an immense network of mineshafts and the biggest draw card that Potosi has to offer, the mine network stretching from 3500m to 4100m above sea level. After a nice pizza lunch in town Bunny and I returned to the hotel to join the rest of our group for a tour of the mines!

The mines of Potosi are infamous for all the wrong reasons! The mines provided the financial backing for the Spanish Royal Court for almost two centuries, at the expense of over EIGHT MILLION indigenous Indians and African slaves!! That’s right the Spanish were directly responsible for the deaths of millions of miners in atrocious conditions... funnily enough it’s not widely known outside of Bolivia! I’m not sure if there is anywhere else on the planet that has seen so much death in such a small space. The saddest thing is that the conditions have not really improved all that much, at least one bad accident still occurs a day and a minimum of 1 death a month! Although most of the silver is now gone, there are significant deposits of lead and other minerals so the mining goes on and does not look set to end anytime soon - mixed news for the miners (Aged from as young as 10!) who don’t often survive more than 10 further years once leaving the mines. These days the miners work for a cooperative and individually sell whatever they extract from the mountain - however this is not much better than slavery as with so much less silver they must work horrendous hours just to try and support their families.

We hopped in a small bus and were transported across town to some random backyard, where we were fitted out with brightly coloured trousers and jackets, helmets and gumboots - very styley! Next we headed to the miners markets, where we could buy gifts for the miners - these consisted of coca leaves (a vital part of the miner tradition), alcohol, cigarettes (both to smoke and to sacrifice to the devil!), crackers and dynamite! The coca leaves are by far the most important - the miners chew great wads of them into a ball and then add a catalyst to draw out the alkaloids from within (a mild form of cocaine) this allows the miners to work for very long periods (12-48hrs!!!) and not feel hunger or fatigue! When the Spanish originally heard about this practice they banned the use of coca leaves as being against God - then quickly reversed this decision when productivity plummeted!! We were offered handfuls of coca leaves to try chewing ourselves (they also work against the altitude - many people drink them in tea) and so I helped myself to a huge mouthful of the acrid tasting leaves (Bunny tried some too but kept swallowing them by accident!!) - pretty yucky over all, the most notable result I could feel was a mouthful of manky leaves!! Next we headed up to one of the 5000 mine entrances, got fitted with lights and headed into the mines! The entrance we used is one of oldest, dating back to 1545 when the mining first began - obviously this area is pretty well mined out and so a good place for tourists, although there is still a fair amount of activity as these shafts are used to cart out rocks from other areas, both above and below. The first thing that struck us was the absolute darkness: if you turned off your light there was simply no light at all, it was impossible to get directional bearings of any sort. We wandered along and looked at various mineral strains in the rock (no silver though!) and saw some of the methods of mining - virtually all done with hand tools (no money for electric tools) other than a few heavy duty compressed-air drills (loaned to the miners at quite a price!!). After exploring many large shafts we then had the option to explore some of the more dangerous areas, which required much crawling and climbing. This is simply too claustrophobic for many people and its not hard to see why, we were wriggling through some very dodgy areas with massive drops all around - very freaky indeed! Despite having a great time we were all a bit relieved to see the light at end of the tunnel!!!

After leaving the mines we then went to a secluded spot where we got to try out some of the local dynamite, which was mushed into a ball and then put into a bag of fertilizer for extra ‘boom’! One of our group, Thomas, got to light the fuse and then run along with the lit dynamite before placing it in a pile of rocks and running like jiminy to get away! (I was so jealous!) The resultant boom was tremendous!! … Awesome.

After that we left the mines and returned to our hotel for a bit of relaxing time before dinner. Kristi and I found the world’s cheapest restaurant (we think!) we both had a burger and fries and a drink and parted with the astronomical sum of NZ$3 total! Madness.

The next morning we woke to heavy rain, which was a bummer as we were due to take a seven hour bus ride with our gear tied on top of the bus! It all panned out OK though as the bus guys had a big tarp to put over our bags… pheww! The drive to Uyuni was pretty cool, the scenery was spectacular - vast ranges of mountains and giant hills: because of the rich mineral deposits in Bolivia many of the rocky hills were bright reds and yellows! We also saw vast fields packed with hundreds of Llamas. The aisle in the bus was packed with locals who paid less to stand for the entire journey… yikes! We did stop a few times to let off locals and pick up others - the funniest thing was when we stopped in the middle of absolutely nowhere to let people off - where did they go?! We had been told that the locals often bring on sheep and chickens etc, so Bunny was very disappointed when only humans boarded! The roads were about as sketchy as they could be; muddy, sloppy, bumpy and precarious in the extreme, still the time flew by and before we knew it we were in the small town of Uyuni, which only exists as an entry point to the world famous Salt Flats of Bolivia. We checked into our hotel (very nice) and the Bunny and I explored the town, which took about 10minutes!

The next morning our group packed all our gear on top a pair of 4x4 Toyota Land-cruisers and prepared to head off for a 3 day/2 night tour around the salt flats and lower Bolivia, Bunny and I bought some supplies for the trip, including a cool Alpaca wool bag to carry all our munchies! We drove out of Uyuni and along a desert road to the local salt refinery at Colchani, where we saw all the touristy stuff they can make out of salt and then were shown how the salt is refined - this is a lot more boring than you might think! However we were soon back on the road and shortly arrived at the glorious Salt Flats (there are actually several in Bolivia - but this is the biggest). Due to intense rain over the last week or so the salt flats were actually flooded (all 10000 acres of them!) this means they were covered in anywhere from 2cm-40cm of water. While this meant the flats didn’t have their traditional appeal of the vast white expanses of nothing, there was a different sort of magic created. The famous illusions of size and distance could still be created with cameras, but now there was the extra bonus of perfect reflections too! The salt flats really are fantastic, so vast, but with virtually no change in terrain - just endless flat white salt!

After copious amount of photos we drove further into the plains and arrived at the ‘Salt Hotel’ a free standing structure smack in the middle of the Flats - created completely out of salt bricks. Unfortunately the salt browns a bit when exposed to the elements, plus the architects add the occasional layer of mud to help it all stick, so our imagined beautiful white castle was actually a muddy brown shack like structure. After several hours playing in the flats we were all very sun burnt and in need of food and shade, so we headed back to Uyuni for lunch. Although the flooding meant the flats weren’t as we originally expected I think they actually exceeded our expectations overall as the water created such awesome visual effects over the ivory salt - it was an incredible experience!

After lunch we drove out to a train graveyard, where the hulking heroes of the long past days of South American Railroad glory have been collected together and left to rust. There are dozens of engines of all shapes and sizes all lined up on a pair of rails, slowly disappearing - while this was quite odd to see, it was quite cool at the same time - who knew trains came somewhere to die! Leaving the train graveyard we had a long drive to the mining town of San Christobal, where we had a brief stop for snacks. The weather was fairly appalling through this part of the trip and we had to drive through some pretty impressive sections of running water - many were bigger than the rivers we crossed over on bridges! Leaving San Chrsitobal we drove through pouring rain and lightening to our accommodation for the night at Villa Alota. Alota is a tiny hamlet consisting of only one main street, we shared a room between the eight of us, it was pretty crumby but serviceable. Kristi, Thomas and Nick stayed up drinking vodka while the rest of us tried for an early night, however they were unceremonially kicked out of the kitchen when the generator died quite abruptly about midnight!

The next morning we drove from Villa Alota to Laguna Colorada - and passed by some of the most spectacular scenery we have seen in all of our travels. It began at the Valle e Rocas, where there are thousands of strangely shaped rock formations all along the road - these are a rich reddy-brown in colour and look sensational contrasted against the vibrant blue sky. Leaving the rocks we were quickly surrounded by colossal snow capped mountains on all sides, at an altitude of over 4000m it is quite humbling to look in all directions and see gigantic mountains all around! Through this incredibly scenic drive we visited several large lakes (Canapa, Chiar Kota, Hedionda and Ramaditas), these were just breath-taking both for the fantastic colours and reflections they offered, but also the three types of Flamingoes wading in the shallows. Next we passed through the immense Desert of Siloli - this was just crazy as it consisted of huge sections of sand, then massive areas of multi-coloured tundra… then all of a sudden we were driving through snow!!... then just as suddenly we’d be back in the desert again!!! This ever-changing desert was such a shock to the senses, the whole environment would change in minutes!! One area of the desert is particularly memorable for the small area of huge rocks thrusting up from the sand - they seem so out of place in the endless flat sands. Of special note in this area is the famous ‘Arbol de Peidra’ a huge stone formation that looks like a tree, with its tiny supporting base and huge upper area. Just when we thought it would be impossible to see any more varied and amazing landscapes in a single day, we arrived at Laguna Colorada - this large lake is a rich salmony orange/pink in colour due to the dense population of algae and plankton in the water - it really is odd to see a bright pastel coloured lake!! This drive was one of the most memorable and breath-taking of our entire trip, there were just so many incredible sights, it even surpassed the internationally famous salt flats in terms of its ability to boggle the mind! We had such a great day, we even convinced out Bolivian driver, Huan, to pull donuts in the middle of the desert!

Our accommodation in Laguna Colorada was simple and pleasant, we had a yummy dinner and then Kristi, Thomas, Nick and I settled into an epic game of 500 - I was partnered with Thomas against Kristi and Nick… and lets just say that due to some fairly amazing luck we won VERY convincingly! A great night had by all, lubricated by the altitude combined with beer and vodka!

The next morning we left early and headed up to 4900m to the nearby thermal activity region, for a look at Bolivia’s answer to Rotovegas (Rotorua): Sol de Manana. While it didn’t have the sheer size of Rotorua, this area of Geysers and boiling mud was very impressive - the high mineral content of the soil meant the mud was often pink, red, white or yellowy in colour. The geysers often covered the whole area in steam too, which made for some nifty photo opportunities too. There was no sign of any human structures of any kind in the whole area; it felt as though we could have been the first people ever to go there, which was very cool indeed. Next we drove to a nearby hill top, for the sole purpose of having reached 5000m above sea level… strangely satisfying!!

Our next stop were the hot springs, this was a bit of a laugh actually, there was one piddley little pool near a lake which was quite nice and warm, the Europeans in our group were in awe of it, while we could only smile and try not to think of Waiwera, Parakai, Rotorua etc etc etc!! Next we drove to Laguna Verde, which was our last stop in Bolivia. This was actually pretty cool, the lake rests in an area of rich copper deposits and thus is an awesome emerald green - very striking amongst the barren landscape all around! Leaving Laguna Verde we had a short drive to the tiny shack that was the Bolivian immigration department, for entry into Chile.

Bolivia has to be one of the most underrated tourist destinations on the planet, it has so many amazing sights to offer, yet all you really hear about it (if you hear anything at all!) is the salt flats. We were both so impressed with the country as a whole, its not the easiest place to travel, but one of the most rewarding!

Next stop, San Pedro de Acatema, Chile!!







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