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Published: December 20th 2008
Flying High On Salt
The incredible and surreal Salar De Uyuni
The Sun Was Born Here, But Don't Expect Us To Tell You About It
Leaving Peru was simple enough and two border posts and a bit of rain later we found ourselves arriving in Bolivia. What was the welcome? An entry tax to our first destination, Copacabana. Not the Copacabana of cheesy disco fame, but a tiny border town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. From here you can visit the Isla Del Sol - the birthplace of the sun and the lake according to Inca legends.
Copacabana is a tourist town, full of places selling REAL coffee, hooray! We should explain our joy. So far, despite Ecuador and Peru both producing coffee, the stuff they give you in most cafes is bloody Nescafe. Why? We have no idea, but we congratulate the Nescafe capitalism team who have done a grand job convincing these people it is what we want to drink. Eugh!
Anyway, back to Copacabana. We set off to visit the Isla Del Sol and sat through another painfully slow boat ride to get there. When we arrived we were met by a guy who said he was to be our guide and who took us
to the museum where you buy your ticket to visit the Inca ruins and sacred rock. Then, as we walked to the site where the sun is supposed to have been born, he disappeared. We sneaked into a group that was ahead of us to listen to their guide instead and Tracey was very disappointed when the guide said nothing of the legends of the sun or the creation of the lake. She had heard the tales 11 years ago on a visit during her Gap Year. We suppose the centuries old legends haven´t changed since then, so here is a brief summary for anyone else who also missed out on the lovely stories. The first Incas are said to have originated from here. They worshipped the sun and the moon so their birthplace was hugely significant. You can visit the sacred rock where these two celestial objects were born. The story goes that the Sun launched out of the sacred rock, took several giant steps across the island and shot up into the sky. The moon duly followed. You can see the two channels this carved out of the sacred rock and also the sun´s footprints across the land.
Scars On The Rock
The marks gauged into the rock by the sun and the moon as they launched themselves into the sky
The other legend is lovely. In the past the lake did not exist. On one side of Isla Del Sol lived a community of men, on the other lived a group of women. On the island was the only well with drinking water for miles around and both groups used to visit to collect water for their towns. Both used to go at the same time each day, but because one went in the morning and one went in the evening the two had never met. One day, the men changed their collection time and arrived just as a woman had finished filling a huge earthernwear pot and put it on her head. She was so shocked to learn of the existence of men that the jar fell from her head. As the water spilled out it formed the giant lake, forcing the two communities to live together on the island. Whether you believe it or think it´s a load of rubbish, you have to admit it is a lovely little story.
Watch Out For The Path Police
From the Sacred Rock and the ruins where the well used to be you can head back to
Anybody Seen Aslan?
A stone table that has been used for religious ceremonies on Isla Del Sol for thousands of years
the boat to take you to the other end of the island, or you can take a 3 hour walk along a hilly path instead. We took the path, and being a bit more used to the altitude by now (we were at 3820m) we took the chance to see how long it would really take to walk the path. We would have done it in 2 hours if it were not for the little groups of entrepeneurs along the way who tried to charge us to walk along the path. We refused at the first, but at the second ´checkpoint´Tracey gave in due to the convincing ticket booklet they repeatedly showed us. We're still not sure if the charge was valid or not, but we met several people who paid up more than once on encountering these little groups, which certainly shouldn´t have happened.
It Is Floating... But It´s Totally Fake!
At the other end of the island are some lovely Inca steps with a fountain running down the side and also a bit further away, a few more Inca ruins. By this point we were a little disenchanted with the whole place, having had
Not A Bad Place For A Beer
A lovely hill top view of Copacabana
to rely on an 11 year-old memory for the legends, being stung for cash to walk and encountering more restaurants and ´buy my lovely cloth´ladies than actual villagers. We would say if you only have time to visit one island in Lake Titicaca then Taquile in Peru is better. If you want to go to the Isla Del Sol make sure you personally find and hire a guide who can tell you about the legends, not just about the structures that still remain.
The final insult of the day was a stop at the ´floating islands´on the way back to Copacabana. Yes, they were floating, but they had clearly been built purely for tourists to visit. We were faced with two, very shiny, new looking floating islands with three buildings on each and of course a totura reed boat parked at the front and we were told we could pay to visit if we wanted. We seriously doubt any of the ´villagers´on each island spend more than 4 hours a day on these structures before returing to their real homes on dry land. Luckily most people on our boat had been to the real Uros Islands in Peru and
no one went aboard or handed over any cash. Phew!
Bless This Engine For It Has Sinned
All that said and done we had a lovely day visiting the island for the views and the walk. Copacabana has a few other quirky points that make it worth a visit. There is a very high hill you can climb. The Cerro Calvario is visited by pilgrims who throw stones at the stations of the cross on the way up. We saw a few people doing this. It was strange to see each cross covered in little pebbles and to watch people throwing new ones up, rather than placing them there. From the top the view is incredible, especially at sun set. We had a slightly less religious experience and cracked a few bottles of beer at the top, but judging by the merry family next to us, the little confectionary stall and the number of bottle tops and broken glass down one section of the hill, we were not the only ones!
Copacabana also has a car blessing ceremony twice a day. Bolivianos come from all around to have their vehicles blessed by the priest from the
The Recipe For Cocaine
Inside the fascinating Coca museum in La Paz
cathedral. Surely something this absurd must be for the tourists we thought, but no. We were actually the only ones watching as families pulled up, bought bows, wreaths, confetti and bottles of alcohol and decorated their cars. The priest came out in his cowl (and a baseball cap, but hey it was sunny) blessed the engine and threw holy water over each member of the family, the engine, the steering wheel and all around the outside. Once he was done the families sprayed beer and all sorts over the outside and drank champagne. They told us it is to guard against accidents, breakdowns and other car problems. Brilliant.
Coca Es La Hoja, No La Droga
Onward to La Paz, named the world´s highest capital, though if you ask a lot of Bolivianos they will tell you Sucre is the real capital. This is because the Supreme Court still convenes there, even though the government has moved to La Paz. We struggled with the hills that form almost all of the roads there and found a little hospedaje. It was right in the midde of the witches' market where you can buy any number of potions to cure
At La Cumbre
Ready and rearing to go
all kinds of ailments. Also available are Llama foetuses to bury under your house for luck. We didn´t think HMRC would appreciate us bringing one home, so we left them where they hung. La Paz has all kinds of places to visit and things to see but short of time we limited our stay to a visit to the Coca Museum and a trip down the 'Death Road'.
The museum has all kinds of facts about the coca leaf which is chewed by around 85 percent of all men and 70 percent of all women in Bolivia. They use it to aid concentration and stamina and starve off hunger, but it is also a huge part of their culture, dating back hundreds of years. There are also facts on the illegal cocaine trade. America is trying to erradicate all coca in Bolivia, while many, many farmers still make their living growing the plants. The president Evo Morales was a cocalaero himself and is trying to find legal ways of increasing exports through things like coca tea and other products, but because of the negative image of cocaine associated with the leaf he is having a tricky time. There is
This is one corner you DEFINITELY need to take slowly
a campaign in Bolivia at the moment with the slogan "Coca is the leaf, not the drug". It has all kinds of good properties and cocaine is only one of the alkaloids found in the plant. A huge amount of leaves plus all kinds of chemicals are needed to make a tiny amount of the white stuff.
We´re Up Too High. How Shall We Get Down Quickly?
And on to "The Death Road." So named because until two years ago it was the only route from La Paz, down the valley to many other key areas, including the highway to Brazil. This sole road snakes its way down from 4,700 meters above sea level to only 900m in just 64Km of mostly gravel road that is, at points, about 2m wide. On some bends the drop over the edge is up to 600m...straight down! This did not stop drivers from continuing on as if they were on any other road. That, combined with the rain, the fog and the incline of the slope led to many tragedies in the 50 or so years it was open. The worst accident was a truck carrying 80 people that went
An insensitve re-enactment of what really happens
over the edge in 1996. All on board died. Another was a bus carrying 52. All on board died. The whole road is littered with crosses, plaques and plastic flowers commemorating the dead.
Now those local names are joined by the names of at least 15 tourists who have met their maker during a one day downhill biking trip. Unfazed by this news we signed up for the adventure. The first part of the road is an hour of pure speed. This part is still open to vehicles and is tarmac. You start at La Cumbre in the freezing cold, where they kit you up with (depending on the quality of your company) plastic trousers and jacket, high-vis vest, helmet and gloves. Then, after a quick practice with the brakes and gears, off you go.... FAST.
The adrenaline was incredible as the scenery whizzed past our ears and we flew past trucks and cars who had to brake much more than us to cope with the incline and the bends. Just as Tracey decided she was actually quite enjoying herself and unclenched her teeth, we arrived at the turn-off to the original road. The trucks and
This cross marked the spot of a 52 fatality crash
cars continued on down the tarmac....with good reason. We can't believe vehicles were still using this road until 2 years ago. Handling the bikes was pretty tricky and at some bends you can really see how easy it would be for someone to go over the edge. A few small cars and minivans still use the road and when we met one of those, even on our bikes, it was a tight squeeze.
If this was Europe or probably any of the other developed world we would not have been allowed to do what we were doing. The tourist operation would have been shut down when the first foreigner shot over the edge of one of the tight bends...or certainly when the second one lost control and plunged more than 300m, but not here. The guides told us most of the tourists who die are the best bikers because they get too confident and forget where they are then get all blase about the risks. However we also felt on the way down, all it would take was a sudden flat tyre or a bit of grit in your eye at the wrong time and an accident would be
Someone just had to go too fast...
easy. It was also great fun. The scenery was amazing and aside from the bum ache from the bumping and the arm/hand burn from hanging on and braking, we had a brilliant day.
There are tonnes of companies charging a wide range of prices. We chose Freebikes who were great. The bikes were fine, the waterproof and high-vis equipment a lot better than some we saw, there was more than enough food, the stop at the end with lunch and shower was great and the guide was reassuring, helpful and a good mechanic when one of our group got a flat. They also had a first aid kit to deal with David who may have had one or two little bumps and scrapes. Luckily this was in the part at the end where there is no drop, but there is a hard rock wall and lots of shingle! Freebikes charge 280 Bolivianos. We spoke to a range of companies charging from 250-600. The main difference with a higher price is the bike. We had manual brakes and they were fine. Tracey was concerened she wouldn't have enough strength for the day, but there was actually no problem and as
The mountain mine of Potosi
far as we can say, the road is so bumpy that it doesn't matter what kind of suspension you get, you are still going to get jiggled!
Sunday, Bloody Sunday
Apart from a 5am wake-up by the couple in the room next to ours, who had gone out and got extremely drunk on discovering their room had been burgled and come back intent on destroying the reputation of the hostel and threatening to burn it down, La Paz was over and done with and we headed for Potosi.
We arrived at 6am and set off to find a bed and some food. Both proved tricky. After an hour of searching we eventually found a hostal with an open door which turned out to be very nice, with a kitchen, free brekkie and a cinema room. Food was more difficult and we bumped into three other gringos also searching for food. Every single cafe, restaurant and eatery was shut. Even the market was closed... it was Sunday. In the end we all converged on the one place that had the sense to open at 8 and over pancakes and coffee we decided we´d all do a mine trip
Tracey Tastes Dynamite
Buying supplies to give to the miners
At 4060m asl Potosi is the world´s highest city and during the 16th century it was the largest city in the whole of South America. It was also larger than Paris or London. Why? They found silver in ´them thar hills´, so much silver in fact, that Potosi supported the whole of the Spanish Empire for over 200 years. Over 8 million, yes million, people have died in the mines in Cerro Rico earning it the local name of [The Mountain That Eats Men´. The Spanish drafted in thousands of slaves who were forced to work underground for 4 months at a time , eating and sleeping there too, without surfacing for 120 days. When they finally got out, many of those who had survived went blind from the sunlight.
Now the silver is mostly gone and what is left is a city with crumbling colonial buildings in its centre and tiny shacks around the edge where the miners that still try to squeeze minerals out of the Cerro Rico live. These days the mine is run by co-operatives who earn money when they hit a rich vein and go hungry when they don´t. Instead of the
Ready To Enter The Mine
This was our last taste of fresh air for two hours
mechanical equipment and electric wagons you would expect to find, they use ancient wagons weighing 2 tonnes when full, moved by hand by miners wearing what you might wear to do the gardening. The dust is suffocating, even on a 2 hour journey inside like ours. The heat is stifling at the rock face while the cold outside is chilling. Even for the small Bolivian men the tunnels are tiny and back breaking. For Dave some of the spaces were almost too small to pass.
Our tour, just like every other one started at the miners´market where we bought coca leaves, fizzy drinks and dynamite to take as gifts for our miners. The five of us had watched an amazing documentary called "The Devils Miner" at the hostal the night before and were feeling a lot more sympathetic towards the miners than some of the rest of our group who didn´t buy much. This was a shame as during our trip we didn´t have enough bits and pieces to give all the poor men we passed in the mine who were dying for a drink. On entering the mine we were taken to visit the ´Tio´. The Tio is
Keeping Tio Happy
Making offerings of coca, food and cigarettes to The Devil
a statue of the devil. Every mine has one and every miner fears and respects the Tio, who they believe is responsible for their yield and has the power to kill them if he pleases. Outside the mine they all go to church and worship God, but they also hold the natural and ancient beliefs of their ancestors. This means they always try to please Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) and every June sacrifice a llama at the entrance to the mine to keep her happy. Miners´wives are not allowed inside in case it displeases her and brings bad luck. Whistling is also considered a bad omen. And every Tio is appeased with coca leaves, cigarettes, alcohol and gifts. ´Tio´comes from the Spanish word for God ´dios´but the Quechua speaking miners can´t pronounce ´d´properly, it sounds like a ´t´instead.
After our ex-miner guide had given Tio a cigarette and some coca we continued into the mine and almost got mown down by one of those 2 tonne wagons. Once they start moving they are tricky to stop and we found ourselves squeezing against the walls of the tunnel to let it and the 4 miners pushing it, past. At another
Two tons of mineral filled rocks rolling past
point in the tour the guide kept stopping to listen and half way up a narrow shaft we had to turn and run back to a wider point to avoid another wagon. At the deepest point, where a sole miner was hammering holes into the rocks with a long metal pole, the heat was unbearable. He had completed two of the three holes he needed to place the dynamite and had one to go before they could set off the blasts. All this work was done with a simple hammer, no drills. We edged our way through tiny holes to get to other levels of the mine and all the way were men with huge balls of coca in their mouths and simple, filthy clothes. They weren´t even wearing the 1 Boliviano face masks you can buy in the market and our guide explained it stops them breathing enough air when they are working hard. It is said you have around 15 years to live once entering the mine because of silicosis. The men do it because they are not educated enough to do anything else or because there is the chance to earn almost double the average annual wage,
Can Anyone Find The Timetable
Playing around with our tour group in the train cemetary just outside Uyuni. Can you find all 5?
IF they hit a good vein. Children as young as 10 also work the mine, even though it is illegal. They are usually there because their fathers have died and they have no choice but to support their families. It is such a shame to see. We were really relieved to hit the fresh air and stand up straight after just a few hours. How those men do that work every day is incredible.
Reccommendations Are Always Best
Our merry band of 5 continued on together to Uyuni to do a tour of the famous salt flats. David was enjoying talking to fellow Kiwis Rowan and Katherine about home, while Tracey had another Brit, Claire, to wind them up about the Rugby World Cup! Uyuni is full of operators trying to get you on their tour and to a large extent it is a bit of a lottery what you end up with. Our advice is to go with a reccommendation if you have spoken to someone else who has done one. We went with a company called Ripleys which was pulling in punters by the bucket load for two reasons. They have an English speaking guide
Claire enjoys a nutritious snack
and and English speaking person in the office. This, as it turned out, didn´t mean anything when it came to the quality of the tour. Firstly we should say we had a great time, saw everything we wanted to see, got all the information we wanted and ate fairly well, but the man in the office had said a lot of things that weren't exactly true to get people to sign up and the people in the second car were very unhappy with the food and drink provided, compared to what he had told them they would get. We also left very late. This turned out to be great because all the other tourists had gone by the time we got to each site, but there was no explanation at the time as to why we were late, which left some people quite angry. And at the end of the trip 6 of our group of 12 were going to Chile. We were told we had tickets and introduced to the driver of the bus by our smiling guide. But once on the road to Chile the driver decided to tell us we needed paper tickets in our hands to
Where Did This Come From?
Endless kilometres of flat salt desert and then this....a coral island of giant cacti. Very weird.
have a seat in the bus. This was clearly a scam, though on whose part we´re not sure. We were made to feel awkward when there weren´t enough seats on the bus for everyone and it was suggested the driver would have to pay a fine for over-filling the vehicle. Tracey found herself in a gringo versus driver battle for not the first time in her life... and for not the first time in her life, won. We resisted all attempts to unseat us and relieve us of money, but we wonder if every tourist does this, or pays up more in desperation to get to the border.
This Perspective Lark is Trickier Than You Think
The grumbling aside we actually had a great time. First visiting the train cemetary. A very sad place for lovers of steam locos, where dozens of ´dead´trains are simply rusting slowly away. They were moved out to this spot just outside Uyuni when they were replaced by diesel engines at the end of the 70s. Locals had a great idea to use them for tourist trips one day, but we suppose ´one day´ hasn´t arrived yet!
Next up was the
Finger puppet props for photos in the Salar
big draw card. The salt flats themselves. Covering around 12,000km square, this is like being on a huge snowy plain, except it is actually the ancient remains of a giant sea, created millions of years ago when tectonic plate activity caused Brazil to seperate from Africa, created the Andes and caused a massive, high altitude sea in the south of Bolivia. The sea soon dried up as volcanic activity continued and what´s left is this bizzare landscape where the salt is anywhere between 1.5m and 12m deep.
For tourists its a great chance to play games with the brain and it has become a bit of a tradition to take silly perspective photos with such a white background to play with. We had all kinds of grand ideas, but it is a lot harder than it looks to get someone popping out the end of a banana or standing on the end of a knife. In desperation we resorted to nature and took all our clothes off instead!
You´d Be a Bit Prickly If You were This Old
Next up was the most surreal part of the trip. An ´island´ in this ´sea´of salt. It is
Mr and Mrs Flamingo
Day two was all about these beauties, thousands and thousands of them
formed by a volcanic erruption that occured under the water when the sea still existed. Coral then grew on the cooled lava. When the sea evaporated it left the rock behind, poking out of the white expanse. Cactus seeds somehow blew there and now the whole area is covered in the ancient plants. They grow incredibly slowly, around 1cm a year, so when you find yourself staring up at huge structures some 4 or 5m high it is quite incredible. The largest intact one on the island is over 9m tall. There was a giant 12m one but it was dead at the top.
The Driest Night of Our Lives
We slept the night in a salt hotel just outside the salar and threw altitude caution to the wind with rum and coke plus a bottle of wine from the 6th member of our car, Jouke from Holland. He was particularly impressive, having come from a country whose capital is below sea level, straight to La Paz and Uyuni in a matter of days. The following morning we felt the effects of sleeping in a room with salt walls and floor, on a bed made from salt.
Pass The Soap
We´re that far under the water because the wind is freezing!
No one could open their mouths to speak. The salt dries the air SO much we were all gasping for water (of course the alcohol the night before had nothing to do with it!).
Do you hear the drums, Flamingo?
Perhaps the altitude was kicking in, or perhaps we were just having fun, but we had purchased some ridiculous finger puppets on day one, having been very jealous of the ones that Katherine and Rowan turned up with! One was a flamingo and as the second day of the salar trip was to be ´flamingo day´we woke up with Abba´s Fernando in our heads and instantly converted it to suit the theme of the trip. We certainly did see plenty of the beautiful creatures with their funny bendy-backwards knees and ladle-esque beaks. The colours looked beautiful against the white of the snow... sorry, salt and the Mars-like backdrop of reddish mountains. They stay here in this apparent wilderness because of the red alage that grows in the mineral rich lagoons which gives them their pink colour.
We started out at the first lake in first-day-of-safari-panic, snapping hundreds of photos of flamingoes heads up, flamingoes heads down,
Air Conditioning Bolivia Style
The whole fun team - thanks for the memories guys
flamingoes eating, flamingoes flying, flamingoes on one leg, flamingoes on two etc, etc but by the end of the day when our driver stopped at our hostal at the edge of a giant lagoon full of flamingoes, the cameras barely left their cases! We did totally knacker ourselves by walking out to a small hill though. What started as an 'oh look, that looks like a good place to see over the whole lake and there's time to kill before supper' ended up in a 45 degree battle against the wind. We didn't really notice on the way there as the wind was on our backs and we were happy to be out of our 4x4 for the day. But on the return, with a VERY strong head wind that ripped away the breaths we were desperately trying to take, it certainly seemed a lot further. We had the added problem of a very cute and fluffy baby alpaca that had decided one of us was its mummy. Maybe it sensed the compassion from Ro whose family has alpacas back in NZ, maybe it was drawn to the 'pura alpaca' hat Dave was wearing. Either way it was lost and
The Shadows without Cliff Richard
As the sun set in the Salar the fun photos continued
wanted us to adopt it. We ended up having to scare it away back towards the Inflation of Alpcas in the distance (Blame Wikipedia if this collective noun is wrong. We thought a simple ´herd´would do!), which felt a bit mean but was best in the long run.
A Bath At Last!
The flamingo photos securely in the bag and enough salt and rock pictures to make any geologist happy, the final morning we were up very early for a quick trip to the highest geyser field in the world. This was handy for some of the group who were suffering with jippy tummies. The sulphur at the geysers did more than enough to cover any little indiscretions. And finally, after two shower free nights and in very chilly temperatures we found ourselves stripping off and jumping into natural hot springs for a pre-breakfast bath. It was wonderful relaxing in the 30 degree waters just metres from a lake that had ice around the edges. Getting out wasn't so much fun, but the amazing fruit sald, yoghurt and pancake breakfast made up for that!
A Postscript to Dirty Food!
We've already mentioned what happened as
we waved goodbye to Claire, Ro, Kath and Jouke and tried to cross to Chile on a bus, so we just wanted to add a quick thank you to the 'dirty' foods of Bolivia. On every street corner you can buy freshly fried salteñas (a kind of cornish pasty type thing) and smother them in a wonderful array of sauces. They have more un-identifiable street-meat bbqs than anywhere we have been... and then there are the Salchipapas. Sliced and fried frankfurters with chips, smothered in mayo and aji (spicy sauce) served in that white paper that goes soggy and lets the grease through. Yum.
Bolivia we´ve had a great time. See you again one day.
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