Archive for the 'Bolivia' Category

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni flamingos

We arrived in Uyuni after one of our worst bus rides yet and thankfully we knew it would be our last in the country.  Of all the countries we’ve visited, bus travel in Bolivia has been the most unpleasant.  The majority of the roads in Bolivia, including those connecting major cities, are unpaved, rocky and dusty as was the case with the road connecting Potosí and Uyuni.  After being bounced aroundBolivia busfor almost eight hours in a stuffy, smelly and overcrowded bus with no bathrooms, clouds of dust pouring in through the open windows and a very drunk man repeatedly passing out on Carlos’ shoulder we finally made it.  We decided we would visit the Salar de Uyuni and Bolivia’s southwest region en route to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile on one of the popular three day/ two night jeep tours.  With various tour agencies in Uyuni offering similar tours to the Salares we had originally planned to spend our first day in town comparing agencies and prices.  We were barely off the bus when we were surrounded by people offering tours and hostal deals and one woman in particular caught our attention.  She was looking to fill two remaining spots on a tour that was leaving the following morning and offered us free accommodation that first night in Uyuni and free transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile if we signed on, it sounded good so we did. 

The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat.  At an altitude of 3653m and covering 12,000 sq km, it was once part of a prehistoric salt lake, Lago Minchín, which covered most of southwest Bolivia.  Today, a tour of the Salar and its surrounds is a surUyunireal experience with visits to salt plains, hot springs, geysers, colored lagoons and volcanoes.  The ‘climatically challenged’ landscape is incredible and isolated with just a few small towns scattered across the region.  Heading south of the Salar through the far southwest of Bolivia toward the Chilean border the landscape is nearly treeless with gentle hills, volcanoes and lagoons that are home to three types of flamingos.  Located within the national reserve, Laguna Colorada is a bright, adobe-red lake fringed with white minerals and backed by mountains.  Also within the limits of the reserve is a 4950m high geyser basin.  Tucked into Bolivia’s southwest corner just across the border from Chile is Laguna Verde, a stunning aquamarine lake.  Looming over the lake at 5930m is Volcán Licancabur.

Fortunately, our tour turned out to be amazing and the sights we visited are surely some of the most impressive natural wonders I’ve ever seen.  Our guide, Lucio, was professional and took us everywhere we were promised we would go, the vehicle was in good condition, our food and accommodations were acceptable and everything was included in the price of the tour.  But what made our tour really special waSalar de Uyuni groups the people traveling with us.  Aside from the two of us our group of six included Ivonna and Humbert from Poland and Angela and Johnny from Colombia.  We were all around the same age, spoke English and got along immediately.  Quite a relief since throughout the duration of the tour we were together constantly, even sharing the same dorm room while we slept.   After the tour ended we traveled together across the border to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and when it finally came time to part ways it was like saying farewell to old friends.

balancing act

salar 3

Salar 1

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

light as a feather

Salar

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Potosí

potosi

Cerro Rico, Potosí, Bolivia

At 4090m Potosí is the world’s highest city and a Unesco World Heritage site since 1987.  Its impressive colonial architecture is set against the backdrop of the Cerro Rico, or rich mountain.  Potosí was founded in 1545 following the discovery of ore deposits in the mountain.  From 1556 to 1783 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico by  millions of indigenous and slave laborers who were forced to work in the mines.  By the end of the 18th century the city had grown into the largest and wealthiest city in Latin America.  After 1800 the silver mines were depleted leading to a slow economic decline. 

Today Potosí is severely polluted and thousands of men and boys continue to work in the mines to extract minerals.  Working practices are medieval, safety provisions nearly nonexistent and the mines lack proper ventilation.  Work is done by hand with basic tools such as pickaxes and shovels.  Temperatures in the mines range from below freezing to more than 100 degrees F.  Silica dust in the air causes silicosis pneumonia, and most mineros die within 10-20 years after starting work in the mines.  The Cerro Rico has been mined continuously for 400 years.  With hundreds of tunnels running through it experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.

The miners who enter the mountain each day, some as young as 10 years of age, work the mine as a cooperative venture, with each miner selling his ore to a smelter through the cooperative.  The mines are dangerous and nightmarish places with unexpected explosions, falling rocks and runaway trolleys all resulting in frequent injuries and deaths.  Potosí’s ever expanding cemetery is a testament to this fact.  To protect themselves from ‘The Mountain That Eats Men’ the miners worship their devil, Tio, a wooden figure housed deep inside the mine.  They visit him regularly with offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes in an attempt to ensure their own safety. 

Tours of the working mines are popular among foreign visitors to Potosí.  Tours begin at the miners’ street market buying gifts for the miners, continue through the mines scrambling and crawling in low, narrow and dirty mine shafts, and end with tour participants holding lit sticks of dynamite.  Tour companies advertise the tours as, “an opportunity to crawl around inside the terrifying but awe-inspiring labyrinth in which over 200 miners are working.” Participants and tour operators alike will swear that the tours are not exploitative.  Unfortunately, the money generated by running the tours, around $10 per participant and more than many miners make from an entire day’s work, only benefits the tour companies.  

As for us, we opted not to take a tour of the mines, though we talked to several people who had and they all had the same response, “Eye opening, terrifying and unforgettable, but never again.”  Instead, we attended a screening of the documentary film The Devil’s Miner.  Produced in 2005 the film accurately depicts life in the mines and tells the heartbreaking story of a 14 year old miner.  It’s a must see for anyone interested in learning more about the horrific conditions of the mines, the plight of the workers, their fascinating traditions and beliefs, and the extreme poverty and desperation that plagues Bolivia’s indigenous majority.

Tarabuco market

tarabuca market

Located 65km southeast of Sucre, the small indigenous village of Tarabuca is famous for the festival of Phujllay (meaning ‘to play’ in Quechua).  The village is also well-known for its beautiful weavings and colorful, sprawling Sunday market.  The people of Tarabuco are easily identified by their traditional dress; woven red, maroon or black ponchos and decorative hats. 

Chewing coca leaves is common practice throughout much of Bolivia.  Apparently, chewing the leaves helps to eliminate hunger, eases the effects of the cold and provides energy.  The leaves are sold very inexpensively just about everywhere.  Pictured above are two local men in the traditional dress of Tarabuco shopping for coca leaves in the market.

Sucre

Sucre

Designated a Unesco Cultural Heritage site in 1991, the city of Sucre, with its whitewashed buildings and red terracotta rooftops is quite possibly the most beautiful city in all of Bolivia.  After visting the impressive Museo de Arte Indígena, a collection of traditional clothing, weavings and musical instruments from the surrounding towns, we ventured out of the city twice.  Once to the indigenous market at Tarabuco and again to see the dinosaur tracks at the Cal Orcko cement quarry just outside of town.

tracks 1tracks 2

Samaipata

Samaipata

After departing La Paz we traveled to Oruro where we spent a day and then on to Cochabamba where we spent another day before boarding a night bus headed to Santa Cruz.  Located in the vast lowlands of the Bolivian Oriente, Santa Cruz de la Sierra is Bolivia’s second largest city and prides itself on being more Brazilian than Bolivian.  From Santa Cruz we continued three hours along rough, unpaved roads before finally arriving the beautiful village of Samaipata.  Set in the wilderness surrounds of the Cordillera Oriental, Samaipata serves as the jumping off point for treks, wilderness hikes and the popular Ché Guevara route.  It’s also the perfect place to kick back, relax and shoot the breeze with fellow travelers, many of whom find themselves extending their stays over and over again.   

If you ever find yourself in town be sure to check out La Posada del Sol, a lovely bed and breakfast up on the hillside.  The owners Trent (originally from Texas) and Rosario are two of he nicest people we’ve met here in Bolivia.  The Posada is professionally run and impecably clean with excellent American style breakfasts, loads of local information and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere all at a price that fits into a backpacker’s budget.  If that’s not convincing enough, on our last day Trent and Rosario drove us out to the highway to catch our bus, helped us out with  information and contacts in Sucre (where we were headed) and sent us off with hugs and good wishes for a safe trip.  It’s not every day that you leave a place after two days feeling like part of the family!