Potosi

After leaving the salt flats it was a 1 hour drive to Uyuni, where we discovered there was a bus leaving for a city Id been wondering about visiting as a way of avoiding the bus from Uyuni back to La Paz. In the end only Carol and I took that bus, so made quick goodbyes to the others and set off on a 4 hour journey to the mining city of Potosi.

I slept about an hour of the journey due to an unnaturally smooth road for Bolivia, but it‘s incredibly hard to sleep with so much great scenery to admire, so I dozed the rest of the way. We made it in at about 5:30 and checked into a pretty nice hostel, but much to my dismay were given a double room. I sucked it up and decided I‘d been sleeping in the same room as her for the past three nights so it wasn’t so bad, if a little weird. While Carol went off to do something I chilled out at the hostel, eventually getting chatting to a guy who had been in Utila, Honduras, where I had done my first bit of volunteering all that time ago. It was a strange coincidence, and I only noticed because he was wearing one of the tank tops you get from doing drinking challenges at the Utilian bars. It turns out he was a bit of a hardcore traveller, having completed 10 months of an 11 month trip, and was now on the final leg. Generally the people you meet will either be doing 2 or 3 week trips, 4 to 6 month ones, or epic worldwide year adventures. Basically if they’re over 28 or so, and are pretty clean cut, still in work mode, they’re probably just on holiday. If they’re younger than that then they’re more likely to be doing the mid-range trip, and if they’re any age but have a big beard, are pretty tanned, have tonnes of bracelets and have stopped caring about their appearance, they’re more hardcore people. This is obviously a general statement, and doesn’t apply to everyone, and obviously you’d hope most of the hardcore women don’t have big beards. Plus in South America it’s also mostly an older crowd, so it varys, but the rules still apply I think.

Anyway after this Carol returned and we went out to eat. The choice near our hostel was pretty limited, there being two pizza joints, probably owned by the same people, with the same name and same advertising outside. We picked one and by coincidence inside were two of the French girls from the other car in the Salt Flats tour. As their food took longer to arrive (our pasta took half an hour, their pizza an hour and a half) the other French girl and Kelly, the Dutch girl from our tour, arrived. We chatted to them and I tested out some French for a bit, but as there isn‘t really much going on in Potosi at the best of times, we decided to turn in and get some sleep after what had been a long day.

The next morning Carol went off while I went off and sorted through some of my phone photos of the trip, and after she‘d left for Sucre in the afternoon, I went to take a tour of the mines. Potosi, actually a UNESCO World Heritage City, was founded by the Spanish in 1545, although the hill under which the town was based (Cerro de Potosi) had been known about for many years by the Incans. When the Spanish arrived however, they realized its potential in and quickly began exploiting its seemingly never ending Silver reserves. As a testament to this, mining still goes on in Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) extensively today, only now, after a turmoiled history with the government, the miners run things. This doesn’t mean it’s a good life. The average miner is lucky if he makes it past 45, as the air, injuries and cramped conditions make life hard. However, as our guide, a funny bilingual ex-miner called Pedro, told us, the miners accept their lives, and are actually happy with it. They seem to have a strange guide of gallows humor, as well as the obvious comradeship involved (although they are meant to start at 18, most start from between 8 to 14, so will have worked with their friends almost their entire lives in there). If someone complains about being tired, they‘ll say, “Tired? You’re tired? I’m not tired. I could work for the rest of the week in here and still not be tired,” or, “you’re hot? Boy I could really do with putting on some more clothes, I’m freezing!” I guess it’s a way of keeping spirits high and remaining optimistic about your work. They generally arrive between 8 and 10, and leave when they feel like it, as some of them may have other jobs, or have a target of an amount of money they want to make in a month. The way he described it made it feel like they did enjoy their work, and maybe many of them accepted it it as a neccessary evil, but it’s most definitely not the kind of work conditions you’d say would be ideal for working such a strenuous job. Firstly it’s at a very high altitude. Potosi is the second highest city in the world with over 100,000 inhabitants at 4,050m (El Alto, the barrio/city beside La Paz is number 1), and Cerro Rico towers above it. I don’t know how much it affects the miners, but we were huffing doing very minimal exercise up there, and they pack coca leaves in their mouths throughout their whole work session. Coca leaves may taste bad, but they are pretty incredible, and help so much whether you’re doing Machu Picchu or just on a coach going through the mountains. They also eradicate feelings of hunger or thirst, so the miners don’t need to eat while working. Probably therefore a good way to diet as well.

Before we were taken to the mine entrance, our group, mostly made up of Argentinians, but with one other Brit, who had actually also been to Utila, and two French guys who had been on one of the other Tupiza to Uyuni tours, was taken to a shop. There we were told to buy a small gift for the miners and were given a choice between coca leaves, Coca Cola (used to be made from coca leaves, now it‘s synthetic) and dynamite. For some reason everyone else chose to buy the two coca products, but of course I was always going to buy the dynamite. When you have an opportunity to buy dynamite, you should always take it, is what I’ll say to my grandkids.

Once we were kitted up, we were taken inside the mines. They‘ve got pretty low ceilings (most Bolivians are pretty small people), and a vast network of tunnels of varying sizes and widths that without light would probably end up like the film The DescentAll I was thinking about when I was in there.

Eventually, after squeezing through holes and climbing ladders, we reached an enclave where a strange statue greeted us. It was a large man who seemed to be Spanish origin, with wild hair matted with streamers and two horns poking from his head. One hand was resting on his knee, open for coca leaves, the other clasped round his giant fallus, meant to represent masculinity, apparently. His mouth was open in a kind of a snarl, but the miners used it to place cigarettes in as an offering. See below for a picture. Apparently some miners have said that, while working late, or lost deep in the mines, El Tio (the devil) has visited them and guided them out. Although they‘re catholic there, and very devout, some elements of the old religions can never be lost when it comes to superstition, and El Tio, a God that will protect you if you give him fags, booze and coca, is one of those elements, and seems to be a pretty cool guy.

As it was the day before Easter there were no miners working, so I couldn‘t give away my dynamite. However once I got back to my hostel room I realized that trying to get dynamite on an eventual plane journey home wasn‘t going to be easy, so when Kristian the Norwegian arrived, I gave them to him. It would come to good use after all.

That evening I went for dinner with Kristian and the two French guys are we reminisced about the tour, then of course the conversation came to football, as it almost always does when guys get together.

The next day I made my way by bus to Sucre, Bolivia‘s official capital, and one of its most beautiful cities.

Potosi and Cerro Rico in a rare moment of sunshine. Ominously there always seem to be storms there.

Pedro, our guide, leading us through the mines.

A tight fit through one of the smaller tunnels.

And here you are. What you’ve been waiting for. El Tio:

 

And of course the dynamite.

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Uyuni, Tupiza, and the Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni)

Again, apologies for lack of posts…

Where I left off last time, I had just boarded a bus to Uyuni, a 10 hour or so overnight journey on quite possibly one of the worst roads in South America. I hadn’t really realized this, so I was happily chatting to the guy next to me, a French guy who was also meeting someone in Uyuni to leave the next day. About an hour in, after I’d finished my dinner of banana sandwiches, a wave of sickness hit me, and I had to go to the toilet for the first time that night. Those feeling squeamish can skip the rest of the paragraph if they’d like. To my horror, when I got to the toilet I found it was for number ones only, and so there was no flush function, and the sink was blocked… But at least there was a toilet. After that first bout I returned to my seat, but 10 minutes later decided to relocate my bags to the 2 seats right at the back of the bus, next to the toilet for easy access. I can’t quite fully remember the next 8 hours or so, but effectively I was a flush being pulled every thirty minutes, from both ends. By light the next day, having scared off everyone else who had tried to go that night, I went in and saw carnage. I won’t describe it… But it was carnage.

And that was my bus journey to Uyuni. It may have been down to bumps every few meters that propelled you 30cm out of your seat, it may have been the fact I was sitting at the back of the bus, and it may have been the bananas or bread I’d eaten that evening (somehow), but it was the worst experience of my life, quite comfortably.

Needless to say, I didn’t go on my tour the next day, and instead booked into a nice hotel in Uyuni and slept/threw up that Saturday. On the Sunday, having recovered sufficiently, I took a last minute jeep to Tupiza, 5 hours south of Uyuni, where I’d heard the tours were better. Tupiza is infinitely better than Uyuni, which is completely dead on account of having little actual tourist activity (they get there, get a tour, and get out). Tupiza is a town in and of itself, so feels a lot more alive, and in a way, because it’s in a desert of sorts, feels kind of like a sleepy wild west town. To fit in, I decided to become a cowboy and went on a horse tour of the surrounding area the next day. It was a 3 hour tour with my young guide, a pretty quiet guy (the people in Southern Bolivia all seem pretty soft spoken and polite) where we toured the incredible scenery surrounding Tupiza. It did feel very like the American West, i.e shrubs and cacti on light brown, sunbaked rock, with large hills and interesting rock formations dotting the landscape.

But the primary purpose of my visit was to get a high quality, if a little expensive, tour to the salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni, possibly Bolivia’s most stunning natural phenomenon, and probably in the top 3 in all of South America. The Salar (salt flat in Spanish) is about 10.5 thousand square km or 4 thousand square miles, and, to put it simply, is effectively a completely flat desert made of salt. As in the sort of salt you can eat. It’s also so flat and large that it is used for calibrating the altimeters of orbiting satellites. However before reaching the flats there are 3 days of driving. On the map below you can see the route.

So on the Tuesday, at 8 am those of us taking our tour (from La Torre Tours, would highly recommend this company) all congregated outside the three jeeps that would be departing that morning. Although the people in our jeep would be who we’d be spending most of our time with, we would also see the other two groups at every stop we made and while we were travelling. In my group there was a French couple in their early thirties- Jerome and Benedicte, a 24 year old Dutch woman- Kelly and a 65 year old English woman from Twickenham- Carol. By strange coincidence, the guy I’d played pool with in La Paz, Kristian, was in one of the other jeeps, with 3 French girls. The final two members of the jeep were our driver, Frau (don’t know the spelling, or even how to pronounce it properly), and our cook Marta, both of them no more than thirty and again, soft and slow speaking, helpful traits when driving through the scenery we were going to be seeing.

https://i0.wp.com/www.latorretours-tupiza.com/images/tours/mapa_option1.jpg This is a pretty small map of the route, but hopefully it gives an idea of where it is in Bolivia, in relation to Argentina, Chile and La Paz.

The first day was the longest, a 12 hour drive with relatively regular stops for use of the toilet, views of the landscape and lunch. But 12 hours in Bolivia means it’s hard to fall asleep. The reason I love the country so much is it seems to have everything: snow capped mountains and strange rock formations, modern cities, old cities, huge cities and crumbling ones. Tiny, remote villages, and 32 different indigenous cultures. The Andes and the Amazon, Lake Titicaca, the Salar, llamas, alpacas, and flamingos. One trip is never enough.

The first stop we made looked over a vast canyon, quite similar to the Grand Canyon in Nevada actually, whereas the second was a prairie, inhabited by a herd of llamas and donkeys. As we were driving we were also getting higher and higher in altitude, and as such it was getting progressively colder, and the air thinner. I think the altitude is something that, as always, will affect some people more than others, but it’s definitely worth acclimatising for a few days somewhere in the Andes, whether it’s in La Paz or elsewhere, beforehand, as it really helps.

For lunch that day we stopped off in a small local village and wandered around, pretty much just stretching our legs and admiring the scenery. Eventually we were called into a small dining area, and we all sat around a small table as both a meat and vegetarian lunch were brought in front of us by Marta, the cook, along with coke, water, rice and salad. The food was incredible, and set the tone for really some of the best food I’ve had in South America, apart from maybe some really good restaurants. How she did that just from her equipment and ingredients in the jeep is beyond me. Once we arrived at our accommodation for the night, a rather basic hostel set up especially for our groups, we again gathered round the table as dinner was being prepared. Tensions began to rise due to a delay in the arrival of dinner, as no information had been given as to whether it would be provided (although I was one of those assuring others it was coming) and so for about 2 hours we made do with biscuits, coca tea and dulce de leche. The dulce de leche, if you haven’t had it before, is basically caramelised milk, what you use in banofee pie. Here though, it was a tub of it, and so for each breakfast and before dinner we would guzzle it down, trying to enjoy it without ruining our appetite. Eventually dinner did arrive, always in the form of a quinua soup first, then the main, generally for the meat eaters, a piece of chicken or beef, rice and salad. When I said the food was some of the best I’d eat over here, I meant that some of the food was. Some was just food that you appreciated but didn’t make you weak at the knees or anything.

That night we were fully prepared for the cold, and cold it does get, often down to below freezing. We had been given sleeping bags, and 3 layers of duvets, and I also slept in a jumper, so it was no surprise that I woke up at 3 in the morning covered in sweat and having to shed some layers.

Over the next two days we became a really tight-knit group. Kelly was interesting because of how naive and innocent she was about everything. Everything you told her she believed, even if it was a joke or sarcasm, but it was endearing. The French couple, Jerome and Benedicte, were both incredibly nice people who became the group’s photographers, as for some stupid reason I left my camera battery charger in La Paz, and have agreed to UPS everyone a DVD with all their photos on them. Carol was a very unique woman. Divorced some years ago, she now travels to India and Bolivia and Columbia every year; India because her daughter runs a hotel in Mumbai, and Bolivia and Columbia because she loves the countries. She does have some incredible stories of her intrepid travels deep in FARC territory in Columbia, coming across villages and beaches untouched by Western eyes, travelling by boat, bus, bike and military plane to the site of Che Guevara’ś death, and living with indigenous groups deep in the Amazon. For a single woman in her sixties I was impressed.

So it was with this group that I was couped up in a 4×4 with until the Salt flats, arriving at some incredible scenery, including both green and red lakes, flocks of flamingos, steaming sulfer geysers, hot springs, volcanoes, moon like rock formations and never ending rolling hills. Unfortunately all the photos are at my house in a DVD, but the ones I took on my phone are on Facebook! They’re in my album ‘Bolivia’. As soon as I have access to the ones on the DVD I will upload them here, as I’m sure there’s some amazing photos there.

For the last night we stayed in the most modern hostel of the tour, one whose novelty was that it was made of salt. The walls, floor, tables, bar, beds, duvets, everything was made of salt. Ok fine the duvets weren’t, but that would be ridiculous. It also had the first shower of the trip, and so the group took it in turns to have our 8 minutes under the beautifully hot water before dinner. Dinner was also a nice surprise. After our dulce (sweet) appetiser, we were served an amazing vegetarian lasagne, one which the vegetarians in our group declared was the best they’d ever had. We also had some wine and beer, and played pool afterwards, a game of terrible quality where Kristian (my partner in La Paz) and I, barely beat two novices, taking over an hour to do it. We blamed it on the altitude.

The next day was an early start, waking at 5:30 and leaving at 6 for the sunrise on the flats. As we boarded our jeep the excitement grew, and by the time we hit the salt, we’d completely forgotten the time and were just staring in wonderment at the first rays of sunlight reflecting off the pure white salt crystals. Eventually we stopped and we let out onto it for the first time. Kelly immediately began planning the photos while the rest of us watched the sunrise over the distant mountains. After about 20 minutes we loaded back into the jeep and headed to the isla del pescado (fish island), an actual island in the middle of the Salar, covered in giant cacti, which can be up to a hundred years old and over 12m high. We never actually found out why it was named that, and there’s no chance any fish could be found anywhere near it, but I guess it’s there for the imagination to think up.

From here we were allowed to climb it and then take some photos, as its elevation makes it the perfect way to survey the entire area. After we returned we found a tablecloths laid on some more salt tables, and Marta laying out a sponge cake, cereal, and more dulce de leche for our breakfast! This was one of the best surprises of the trip for me (I love cake), and I can now tell you that dulce de leche and sponge cake go really well together (there’s a photo of Kelly really happy about this on Facebook).

After this came the photos. We drove for about 15 minutes further into the salar, mostly to escape all the other jeeps that were there, and then the car was stopped and we were told we’d have an hour and a half for photos. Frau switched off the engine, pulled his cap over his face, and fell asleep. He’d evidently seen this too many times.

One of the coolest things about the flats is it reduces your sense of perspective, making it easy to create cool photos. It’s kind of hard to describe, so here’s an example:

 

Jerome is the big guy. From Left: Kelly, me, Carol

I’m sure there are plenty more on the DVD, so that ones just a taster of some of the cool stuff that can be done, although creating the photos can be pretty funny yet frustrating at times.

Anyway, that’s probably enough words. Here are some photos that I’ve taken off the French couple’s facebooks!

Our group. From left: Marta, Carol, Kelly, Frau, me, Jerome, Benedikt.

Salt Hotel

Isla del Pescado

Among the geysers

Breakfast on the final day

y finalmente…

The Salar de Uyuni, at sunrise. The shapes in the salt are from when the water evaporates. Water covers it for about a month every year when it rains. Purely spectacular.

La Paz

From Puno I took a 5 hour bus to the Bolivian border, which took about an hour to get through, and then I was in! Copacabana, the town from where Bolivian tours of Lake Titicaca begin, is a far nicer, tourist friendly place than Puno, and is also covered in restaurants, which was perfect for my 1 hour stop. After a quick sandwich (my first experience of Bolivian tardiness) which ended up taking up the full hour, we set off again and by about 5pm were in La Paz. I’d quickly looked up a hostel to stay in for the night, so after some discussions with the taxi driver, ended up at Muzungu’s B&B backpacker hostel. Muzungu’s, I later learnt, means white man’s or effectively gringo’s hostel, in Swahili.

However I literally just dumped my bags before heading out to meet Mariana, the Godchild of my aunt Rachel, who’s family moved to Sheffield about 20 years ago, and then moved back to La Paz when Mariana was 6 months old. We went for dinner at a cool Thai restaurant, and then went to an art gallery to check out one of her friends’ recent installments. So this was my first experience of La Paz. Probably different to most people, but still pretty fun.

When I got back there were some Isralies in the room (they’re all around South America doing some post National Service partying) and a couple, the girl from Norway and guy from Australia, although they’d lived just outside Oslo for the past 2 and a half years. The next morning I went out with them to wonder around the city. We went to a market to get some fruit juice, to a square known for the pigeons that will climb all over you if you give them food (I’ve got loads of photos of this for Facebook or here at some point) and then on a 3 hour free walking tour around the city (obviously you then have to tip) which was really good. That evening I’d arranged to meet Mariana, but kind of bailed on her (sorry!) and met up with the Canadians I’d met on Machu Picchu, Travis and Steven, because they’d just got down from Huayna Potosi, a giant 6,000m mountain that tours above La Paz, and is probably one of the toughest climbs in South America, maybe even America in general. Plus it was Steven’s 28th Birthday. We went to an Indian restaurant, the highest in the world (there’s a lot of ”the highest in the world” when you get to the Andes), which also has a Vindaloo challenge which only 2 people have ever completed. Due to a fragile stomach, as usual, I decided against the challenge and got soup. The Canadians were also joined by some of their fellow climbers, 2 Germans, a Norwegian, and an English guy from West London who was also a Fulham fan. The evening was actually really fun, as we ended up going to an English pub afterwards and chatting and playing pool. The game was me and the Norwegian vs. Steven and Travis, and with an incredible final shot from the Kristian, my partner, we won. This is relevant later.

In the end I went and hung out at their hostel afterwards. It’s kind of sad when you’re traveling because sometimes you’ll meet really cool people like those two, who you’d feel would be perfect travel companions, and then they leave or head off somewhere else and you’re back on your own. But I’ve got a home in Edmonton, Alberta, if I ever want it. I guess that’s an advantage of meeting them.

 

La Paz is probably my favourite city I’ve been to, and that includes Cusco. It’s pretty vast, but is also nestled in a valley where in the north is sided by sheer cliffs, and in the south by strange craggy alien rocks, which look really cool. On top of the north side is another city, which used to be a district of La Paz, called El Alto. It’s about twice the size of it’s parent city, but much poorer and effectively filled with all the people who come to La Paz from other parts of Bolivia and find there aren’t the work opportunities they expected (this is obviously symplified). La Paz is basically a grander, more bustling, urban, important and importantly, Bolivian version of Cusco. The sight of Huayna Potosi right behind the city is also something to behold, although its peak is usually covered in cloud.

 

A strange thing happened when I was walking back from the Canadians’ hostel. On the walking tour we’d learnt about this prison that was home to various non-dangerous criminals. Politicians, foreigners, drug dealers etc. At about 2am I was walking back to my hostel and met this American guy who looked pretty rough and worn. He smiled at me and asked me how I was doing. As I’d been drinking, I didn’t consider this too weird a thing, and how sounded friendly, so I said I was doing fine, and how was he. He replied that he’d just been released from that prison after 7 years inside for drug smuggling, and could I give him 6bs, as he was trying to find a place to stay while he sorted stuff out. 6bs is about 50p, so I obliged and bid him on his way.

The next day I went to the Ortega’s/Mendoza’s beautiful suburban house for lunch, where we were joined by their Belgian friend and his Bolivian wife. It was a really nice lunch cooked up by their cook/maid. They told me about their time in England, football, and we talked about Rachel, Mike and their children Aiden and Logan, who they hadn’t really seen pictures of. They also agreed to take my bigger bag while I took the Salt Flats tour for a week, which was great of them. So I went back to my hostel, hastily packed up my things and rushed back to their house in a cab, dropped it off, and then got stuck in a La Paz Friday evening traffic jam for an hour. My night bus to Uyuni was scheduled for 7:00, so I was sure I’d missed it. However TIB (This Is Bolivia, my version of TIA, This Is Africa) and of course it was late. I made it in time to get some bread and bananas, and boarded the coach to Uyuni, with an agreement in place to meet the Aussie and Norwegian couple there the next day to start a tour with them. However it was to go terribly wrong…

 

Addition:

Brilliant music video and a great song based in La Paz and I believe the Potosi mines, both where I’ve been. It’s also directed by a really talented Brit called Ian Pons Jewell.

Enjoy

Would say spread it around but it already has 300 million views!