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Published: October 26th 2010
(M) So steak we had... and a pretty amazing one at that, bathed in a perfect pepper sauce. In fact, it was one of the best we’ve had in South America so far, and at a German restaurant of all places. This was a (medium) rare luxury in Bolivia where overall the food was certainly not one of the highlights. Although incredibly cheap, the cuisine left a lot to be desired (literally) while each meal was a bit like playing Russian roulette... the bullet I had somehow dodged in the Pampas which resulted in our patience-sapping visits to the hospital for Nina, finally caught me during our trip from Uyuni across the desert to San Pedro. But even spending most of the coldest night of our trip to date in solitary confinement in a tiny toilet cubicle in the pitch black couldn’t put a dampener on this incredible three-day excursion, which was out and out one of our favourite experiences... But more of that later.
After Corioco we headed back to La Paz to catch an overnight bus to Sucre, still the official capital city of Bolivia and absolutely one of our favourite cities. It’s layout and architecture has an
unmistakeably European charm which makes it stand out from most other Bolivian cities. In fact more than once Nina said she could have been walking through the centre of Lisbon. It also lacked the intense chaos of La Paz and coming into Sucre we felt like we had gone into a different country. After the disappointment of Coroico, we had only one agenda - to take it easy - and we did that spectacularly well. This was mostly thanks to a Belgian man called Rene who runs a little bed and breakfast called Casa Verde, without a doubt the nicest place we had stayed in in South America. After spending the first night in Sucre in quite a crumby hostel and narrowly avoiding a run in with the tourist police because we had a huge argument with the manager over money, we were desperately hoping they had space for us. So when they offered us a single room to share, we snapped it up in a heartbeat, and for the next three days despite some duvet tug-of-war we lived a blissful and very un-backpacker-like existence.
Casa Verde completely epitomised Sucre with its charm, and Rene bent over backwards to
make us feel at home. We spent our days wandering around the city, sipping cold beers in the sun looking out over the plaza, sleeping, sunbathing, reading and generally catching up with the world. We also ate some great food again, mostly thanks to Rene’s incredible breakfasts. We’re talking cereal, yoghurt, fresh fruit, fresh bread, cheese, ham, eggs & bacon, nutella, jams, chocolates, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. Trust me, when you’re backpacking, and especially in Bolivia, this is something worth writing about. Sucre was also home to the world’s best saltenas, but after three days we still couldn’t get used to the shop opening hours and only managed to eat them once. I still dream about both...
While we were in Sucre we also watched a film called “The Devil’s Miner” in one of the Dutch bars, something we were advised to do before deciding on whether to do the mine tour in Potosi, our next stop. This was honestly one of the most eye-opening and depressing documentaries we have ever watched - about a 14-year old boy who has been working in the mines in Potosi for four years, and his little brother who works with
him to support their mother and younger sister and pay for their education. This is because their father died young from working in the mines, the average life expectancy being 35-40 years due to frequent cave-ins and silicosis, a deadly lung disease caused by inhaling dust over long periods of time. We had heard a few really dodgy stories about the tour, and given we both have mild claustrophobic tendencies we wanted to get an idea of what it would be like. Perversely, seeing the incredibly hectic conditions these miners had to work in only made us more determined to go, and helped a lot in settling any fears. So after Sucre we headed for Potosi, the highest city in the world, and only there because of the incredible wealth of silver, zinc and tin that used to lie within the mountain which overlooks the city. There is not much else there worth seeing, so as soon as we arrived we booked our mine tour for the next day, and a bus to get us straight out of there the next evening.
Potosi used to be one of the richest - if not the richest city in the world
at the height of the silver rush in the early 1800’s. However, after the Spanish had sucked the mountain dry of its wealth through mass exploitation of the Bolivian people and imported African slaves, it quickly turned soulless. The faded facades in the main plaza are a constant reminder of its former glory, and while the goverment stopped mining there a long time ago, today there are still some 4,000 private miners who try and make ends meet every day from what’s left. The only trouble is they have to keep going deeper and deeper to find anything of value. Clearly with safety being priority number one, we paid more and booked with a highly recommended agency called Koala. They have two guides on every tour so that there is someone to take you out if you’ve had enough, and they promised the longest tunnel we’d have to crawl though was only 7 meters long. That sold it.
So off we went the next morning, sporting full miners gear, firstly to the processing plant to see how they extract the silver from the rubble, then to the market to buy gifts for the miners - some coca leaves, soft
drinks and sticks of dynamite - before heading into the mine itself. Once we were in, we both felt absolutely fine and it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences we’ve had. Having entered the mountain about half way up, we went 400 meters in and about 55 meters down. That’s a lot of earth above your head! Despite the volume of people going into the mines every day, this is not a tourist excursion where they put on any kind of show or stop what they’re doing to give you a tour. This is their livelihood and time is money. So when the cart comes flying along the tracks full of rocks you have to get out of the way.
We spent two hours walking and crawling through tunnels, visiting Tio, the devil god that all the miners offer gifts to to give them fruitful digging and keep them safe, and watching the miners churn out the rock at different stages down the mine. As we went further down, breathing became more challenging and the stuffy heat meant there was always a trickle of sweat running down your back. At the lowest point we were going,
there was a 16-year old boy making a hole on the rock for some dynamite. After leaving to go back up, we hadn’t even got up to level two when we heard a loud bang from below as he used the dynamite we’d just brought him. The dust from the explosion started making its way upwards and we quickly headed for the exit. Needless to say we were very glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and to breathe fresh air again. It’s then that you really reflect on what it must be like for the miners who have to spend 8-12 hours a day down there, often more. And we only went down to level four, out of 27. By all accounts an incredibly sobering experience...
From Potosi we headed off on what we knew would be the worst overnight bus journey of our trip - which didn’t disappoint. It also wasn’t long enough to warrant taking sleeping pills as we’d be arriving at two in the morning, so we endured the mostly gravel road journey as best we could. We had to be up at 8am to begin our tour across the border
to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, so the next day was a slow start. But once we got going, the drousiness quickly wore off and once we reached the salt flats was long forgotten. You’ve really never seen anything like this in your life. After stopping to take some pics in the railway graveyard (trainspotters eat your hearts out) we headed into the middle of this vast salt desert, where you lose all sense of perspective. On all sides of the horizon of this endless white wilderness, were ‘floating’ islands as the shimmering light created a layer of sky underneath the land. And when we stopped to have lunch, we had loads of fun taking some hilarious perspective photos. In the afternoon, we spent a couple of hours walking around Fish Island, right in the middle of the salt plains. It’s covered with ancient cacti and fossilised coral rocks, and the views from the top were pretty incredible. It’s so difficult to get one’s head around the fact that millions of years ago this place used to be at the bottom of the sea - and that at 3,000 meters above sea level. But what is left behind is
nothing short of spectacular I can assure you.
After catching the sunset on the salt flats and spending a very comfy night in a hotel made entirely out of salt, we left the flats early the next morning to go south across the desert and take in a few wonders along the way. And wonders they were, which can’t really be described and which the photos will do little justice. First we drove along a second salt flat next to a dormant volcano, before going to three of the most beautiful coloured lagunas, two of them inhabited solely by an abundance of flamingos. The combination of the white salt patterns, blue and red lakes, pink flamingos and melted chocolate coloured mountains in the background was truly something to behold. To illustrate the point, no fewer that three times that day Nina shamelessly exclaimed “this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my life!” But have a look at some of the pics to try and get an idea of what we mean. Incredible stuff.
Unfortunately by the time we reached our hostel on the second evening, my lurgy as mentioned earlier had well and truly
kicked in, so Nina played nurse and I failed miserably at trying to keep anything in and fighting my fever. So after literally no sleep, we headed off at 5am on the third day for the geysers and the Salvador Dali desert, before getting to the Chilean border by mid morning. Notwithstanding the fact that the 15 degrees below zero temperature at that time of the morning and the gale force wind completely exacerbated the effects of my already bone-penetrating fever, we braved getting outside the car for five minutes to see the pretty impressive geysers and managed slightly more when we got to the Laguna Verde. But once the sun brought some sanity back to our day and we crossed the Salvador Dali desert, we were once again doing a lot of jaw dropping. The place is famed for bizarrely shaped rock formations reminiscent of paintings of the eccentric artist, who spent time in this part of Bolivia and you can see where the inspiration comes from. It’s otherworldly and beautiful beyond words, and I’ll just leave it at that.
At the border we said goodbye to two of our group members, a French ski instructor couple, who
provided lots of entertainment for our other companions, two young Indian guys from Australia called Mushy and Sashi, who in return provided lots of entertainment for us, and the four of us headed for San Pedro. As soon as we crossed into Chile we could feel the difference, and once the border post was out of sight and we turned onto a spotless asphalt road, despite feeling very sad to leave behind truly one of the most incredible countries we have had the privilege to visit, it felt good to be back in relative civilisation. Also, we had stayed in Bolivia 10 days longer than planned, and it was time for new country.
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