Saturday May 5th to Wednesday May 28th
The Southern Altiplano
What a great place! Bolivia is a little more like the mental image most people have of South America. Dusty, dirt roads, little peasants in bowler hats, ancient religions and gods and untamed, stunningly beautiful wilderness.
We entered Bolivia at a desolate border crossing 30 minutes from San Pedro de Atacama at an altitude of 4000m. Two men in a little hut stamped our passports and, after a little breakfast, we were off. Our three day trip was in a Toyota 4x4 across the most rugged, amazing and beautiful landscape you can imagine. It was strange that in some ways it seemed to be mile after mile of the same thing and in other ways the scenery seemed to change every five minutes. We travelled, in addition to our driver, with two other couples, one from South Africa and one from Holland. They, too, had quit work and were backpacking for many months so they made good company for us.
We passed tall rocks, sitting on a flat plane, that had been sculpted by wind and sand into strange shapes including the famous "Arbol de Piedra" (Tree of Rock). The mountains surrounding this area are coloured and shaped in smooth powdery hues of beige, yellow and pink as if Salvador Dali himself had designed them. Next we passed a series of lakes, each a different and vibrant colour. Laguna Verde is jade green, caused by the magnesium, calcium carbonate, lead and arsenic in the water. In the afternoons Laguna Colorada has a red tinge caused by the micro-organisms growing in it. These micro-organisms are what the flamingos eat that gives them their pink colour. There were many more lakes, each with its own unique colour. The shores of these lakes are encrusted with brilliant white borax. We also got an opportunity to warm our toes in a little thermal spring and explore the bubbling mud pools and steaming geysers.
Our first night was spent at a small outpost on the edge of flamingo filled Laguna Colorada at 4278m. As soon as the sun goes down it gets bitterly cold. Even though we were inside a building and in a bed, we appreciated our warm down sleeping bags.
The next day we travelled up and down more hills and across more wide flat expanses and passed more lagunas full of flamingos. We lunched in a quiet spot from where we could see the active and smoking Volcan Ollague. Later, we passed through a military checkpoint near the border with Chile. Why this deserted place needs defending we do not know. The soldiers were cheerful and friendly though. They had a dog for a mascot, he was wearing a camouflage coat. Near the end of the day we came to the edge of the Salar de Uyuni salt lake. There were more farms near here and most had domesticated llamas with colourful tassels in their ears to identify their owner. We dropped off our packs at the little home in the village of Atulcha where we were to spend the night. We were then taken for a walk to a hill and shown some caves. In these caves were the mummified remains of a people long forgotten.
The final day it was out across the salar. This salt lake is huge. It is the biggest in the world, twice the size of Great Salt Lake in United States. The brilliant white expanse reflects the bright sunlight and one would be blinded without sunglasses. The horizon shimmers in a mirage so that the mountains around the edges appear to float on a layer of mercury. In the middle of the salt flat we stopped at Isla de Pescadores (Fishermen’s Island). It is covered in huge cacti, some are over 12m high and 1200 years old. Here there are vizcacha (relative of the chinchilla) that look like rabbits. Also in the lake are “Ojos de Sal” (Eyes of salt). These bubbling holes are breathing spaces for the subterranean rivers. We also stopped at a salt hotel. This building (except for the roof) is built entirely out of salt blocks cut from the lake. Unfortunately, due to the pollution it was causing, it has been closed for overnight stays but we could still look around and see the salt tables and salt beds covered in alpaca furs. (They were in the process of building a new salt hotel on the edge of the lake in the village of Atulcha where we had stopped the night before). We also saw how the workers scrape the salt into piles to dry before it is shoveled into trucks. The salt is then taken to the town to be cleaned and iodinated (there is a law that all salt must contain iodine to prevent goitre).
Uyuni is a little town on the edge of the salar where we ended our Land Cruiser journey. It was once the hub of the salt industry but now mostly services the gringos who come to see the amazing salt lake. Uyuni is not a pretty town and its cold, wide, dusty streets have an almost post-apocalyptic feel. This town is also a military base so every morning we were treated to reveille at 6:00am. At 7:00 it was the soldiers singing (and we use the term loosely) the national anthem and at 8:00 the military band started practicing. We think that the army sends the new recruits who want to learn to play an instrument down to this lonely outpost. Uyuni is about as far away from anything as possible so they won’t be heard by too many people. Good thing too (they were really, really bad),
It was in Uyuni that we saw our first Bolivian campesino (peasant farmer) ladies in their lovely hats. They were all short (even Jackie felt tall) and plump. They all have long, black hair tied into pig tails and wear wide, many-layered skirts (which make them look even fatter). They also wear hats that look totally like they came from Europe many years ago. Each village has a different hat style to identify them. There are several varieties of bowlers or derby hats, delicate sun hats, tall brightly decorated stovepipe hats and hats that look like conquistador helmets. We think the campesino ladies are cute.
There wasn’t much to do in Uyuni so we spent a whole day uploading photos, writing emails and getting the journal up to date (there was so much to write about the trip). One little note, one day we found meat drying on the washing line in the courtyard of our hostel. It should also be noted that this is the area in which Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end.
Potosí has the most amazing history. In 1544 a llama herder followed some wayward llamas up Sumaj Orcko (Beautiful Mountain). It got late and cold so he lit a fire and stayed the night. In the morning he discovered that his fire had smelted a vein of silver. The Spanish caught wind of this and, in no time, took possession of the mountain and founded the city. The city grew rapidly and became the biggest single source of silver in the world despite the fact that it was being extracted by pre-Columbian methods. When the surface deposits had been used up, mercury was introduced to extract the silver from the ore (with a royal monopoly on mercury supplies). The Casa de la Moneda (the mint) was also set up to turn all silver into ingots so it could be taxed (20% went to the Spanish crown) and lastly the Spanish reintroduced the "mita", a pre-Incan forced collective labour scheme. Silver from this mountain made Potosí the biggest city in the Americas in 1585 (pop:125,000) and one of the richest in the world, rivalled only by London, Paris and Seville. However, it was at a great cost, as many (mainly Indians) lost their lives to the mine - some say around 9 million.
At 4070 metres above sea level, Potosí is the highest city in the world and, yep we were breathless, literally. It is dominated by the pink Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain as it is now called). Silver production peaked in 1650 and then went into a century long decline. Mexico took over as the biggest source. It did pick up again in 1730 but never reached the earlier levels. In the first half of the twentieth century the demand for tin (a metal the Spanish had ignored) saved the city from absolute poverty. Today, mining still continues in the treacherous tunnels that riddle the Cerro Rico. Now it's mainly tin, zinc, lead, antimony and wolfram that are extracted.
The most interesting thing we did was to go on a tour of a mine. These mines are operated by workers who earn based on the quantity and quality of ore they personally dig out. They share the work of tunnel repairs etc. and have to buy their own dynamite and other supplies. There are also state run mines but these men prefer to be independent, have the chance to strike it rich and not have to work fixed hours. The mine tour is of an actual working mine and we were told it's not for "wimps or woosies". The mines have been described as the mouth of hell and that it will be a physically and emotionally draining experience. It started off ok as we got geared up in protective clothing, helmets, wellies and lamps and visited the miner's market to buy presents for the miners. Only in Bolivia are you able to buy, with no questions asked, dynamite, ammonium nitrate, fuses and coca leaves. The miners also like Ceibo, a liquor made of 96% alcohol. The bottle says “potable” but we were not about to test that assurance. Also on sale is calcium carbonate, a mineral that gives off acetylene gas when wetted. Some miners used this old style of lamp with a chunk of calcium carbonate in one compartment, water in another and a little flame for light. Most, however, use fairly modern lamps with lead acid batteries strapped to their waist. This is what we had, we hoped that the batteries didn't leak.
We went into a co-operative mine that has been opened since 1901, La Candelaria.. It was cold to begin with but soon heated up as we got deeper into the mine. The ceilings are low and there were very few times when we could walk upright, most of the time we had to crouch or duck walk. We watched our step on the muddy ground as we walked along the trolley rails (climbing the walls to get out of the way when one came along) and negotiated many holes. The miners are catholic (nominally) and worship the Christian deities when they are above ground but they worship the devil when below. (That makes a lot of sense to us.) We soon met "El Tio", (the devil). He has a cigarette in his mouth, coca leaves at his feet and is festooned with paper streamers. The miners give him offerings because they believe that the minerals belong to him and, to appease him, they make offerings of cigarettes, coca leaves and alcohol. We gave him some coca leaves -- can’t be too careful.
The air in the mine got hotter (40°C) and denser with noxious gases (arsenic and asbestos amongst others). We went down several levels and met miners on the way. We saw a recent cave-in which was being repaired and heard dynamite being exploded (how far away was that?). What was most unnerving was the sound of the trolleys rumbling through the tunnels - where were they? - tourists have been killed. We watched miners struggle to push 2 ton trolleys along broken rails. After a couple of hours we headed back out and we were glad to breathe the cool air. We can't help but think of those who are working there every day. Their life expectancy is about 30 years after entering the mine (if the dynamite, cave-ins and trolleys don’t get them, the silicosis does).
We had bought extra dynamite, ammonium nitrate and fuses for a demonstration. Our guides were ex-miners and they put it all together for us and then lit it - we had a four minute fuse so we all (rather stupidly) held the lit fuse and bag of ammonium nitrate/dynamite for photos. They then put them about a 100m away and we watched them blow up -- BANG -- great fun.
In Potosí we also visited some of the great colonial buildings around town and of course the famous mint, the Casa de la Moneda. This huge building has 160 rooms and fortress thick walls. On display are colonial paintings, including the famous Virgen del Cerro (a fusion of Catholicism, Mother Nature and Inca beliefs). Coins, which were acceptable all around the world as they were 93% silver, were minted here. This included the famous “pieces of eight” coin, so sought after by pirates including Francis Drake. We also saw furnaces, mule driven presses and other steps in the process of producing coins. In 1953 Bolivia stopped producing their own money and it is now done by the UK, France, Canada and Spain. It is too expensive to manufacture hard-to-counterfeit money and they don’t trust their own officials to run a mint honestly. The 5 bolivano coin is minted in Winnipeg and has the same bi-metal construction as Canadian toony ($2).
Also in Potosí we tried llama meat for the first time. Very tender, sort of like beef. However, to our cost, we find out later that llama is often full of parasites and should be well cooked. Our bellies and other parts suffered.
One thing that we just missed out on whilst in Potosí was seeing a tinku. This is a ritual fight where two communities meet up and beat the living daylights out of each other. They drink lots of alcohol first and then a fist fight begins, each fighter wears rings of bronze adorned with claws (and protective padding). Women are not excluded and the drinking and fighting goes on for a couple of days. Apparently the fight symbolises the need to co-exist with other people.
This city is the official capital of Bolivia although only the courts are still here. Sucre’s loss to La Paz in a civil war saw the legislative and administrative branches of government move to La Paz. Founded in 1538 the centre is full of beautiful, whitewashed colonial buildings. It has the oldest university in South America (San Francisco Xavier) which was founded in 1624, making it 24 years older than Harvard. This university was the main source of libertarian thought and gave birth to the very first demands for independence heard on the continent, on 25th May 1809. (Although, interestingly, Bolivia was the last South American country to gain its independence from Spain.)
We visited the Casa de la Libertad, where the declaration of independence was signed on 6th August 1825. This former Assembly Hall of the Jesuit University is impressive, with paintings of Simon Bolivar and Antonio Jose de Sucre (the liberators, but both were actually Venezuelan), golden balconies and the declaration itself on display.
We also took in the very tasteful white and gold Cathedral. Attached is another smaller chapel with the famous jewel-encrusted Virgen de Guadalupe (1601). This is very gaudy and is surrounded by plastic flowers and funfair style lights. Quite a contrast.
The city has many museums and cultural centres. We popped into the excellent textile museum. Not only did they have fantastic weavings on display, it outlined the history of weaving in the department (state/province) and the unique styles of the different villages. Some have human figures and depict events such as harvest time (Tarabuco) and others have weird creatures (khurus) from the underworld (Jalq'a).
Andean textile production began from the simple need of clothing. Gradually, more complicated techniques and designs evolved and the textiles played major political, social and religious roles. Woven cloth was the most highly-prized possession and sought after trading commodity in the Andes in pre-Columbian times. Spanish chroniclers reported that, upon retreating from battle, Inca soldiers sometimes left behind thousands of llamas and prisoners, and even gold and silver, but chose to burn entire warehouses filled with cloth rather than leave them for the conquistadors.
From Sucre we visited the village of Tarabuco and their weekly market. This is a colourful affair as the local people still wear traditional clothes. The men wear brown, orange, red and pink stripy ponchos with conquistador-style helmets and the women wear elaborate woven overskirts and "toy soldier" style hats with sequins and pearls. We watched the comings and goings - people arriving by truck or foot and donkeys bring in the local farmer's produce. After all the shopping is done, the men sit in the main plaza chewing coca leaves and smoking handmade cigarettes (at the same time).
We then headed to the big city lights of La Paz. This was on an overnight bus just after a heavy and unseasonable rainfall. Some parts of the road were very muddy and at one stage (around midnight) we stopped and watched as the buses and trucks tried, one at a time, to climb a particularly bad slope. The back wheels of one bus swung all the way round and it took him several tries to get up the hill. Then it was our turn, a few local people got off and walked up (not a good sign) but our driver kept right to the inside edge and skillfully got us to the top. On that night we saw two accidents. One a minibus on it's side and the other a lorry had jack-knifed and a car was smashed up. Somebody was dead. We were so glad for daybreak and reaching La Paz in one piece (see below about Bolivian roads).
Click here for Bolivia Travelog (Part 2)