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Bolivia

The Dizzy Highs and Lows of Bolivia: Pt 2

Potosí, Sucre and Santa Cruz - 2nd - 7th September

Woke up to a light dusting of snow in Uyuni for our freezing cold 6 hour journey to Potosi by local bus, along a very long, winding and icy road that I think (judging by the dozens of JCBs and lorries we passed coming the other way) they were actually laying as we went along it. I kept thinking it would suddenly end and we would hurl down a precipice.

At 4070m Potosi lays claim to being the world`s highest city, and it certainly felt it. Overshadowed in more ways than one by the additional 800m high backdrop of the Cerro Rico Mountain, the town's ongoing mining history is both tragic and fascinating.

The silver and mineral deposits discovered within the mountainside allegedly kept the Spanish economy booming for the best part of 200 years. However, this was at the expense of the lives of millions of indigenous workers, followed by slaves brought over from Africa to work the mines. Working conditions today, as I was to discover, sadly are not much better.

The co-operatives that own the mines employ workers on a freelance basis, and I was shocked to find out that children as young as 11 years old found the appalling conditions in the mine an acceptable and reliable way to earn a living (as we saw that evening in the award winning 2005 film "The Devil`s Miner").

Many operators offered tours of the mines, and we were warned that these were not for the faint- hearted – they were working mines, with lots of dangers. Interest took the better of me, and we set off the next morning kitted out like fire-fighters in our wellies, waterproofs, helmets and torches. We were encouraged to buy small gifts for the miners (such as “alcohol, cigarettes and dynamite” – which I thought was the new Pogues CD??). These all sounded quite dangerous at first until we learnt that the average life expectancy in the mine was only 40 years, so I guess health wasn`t a priority.

The locals were conned into working the mines by the Spanish who convinced them that they would be protected within the mine by Tio (The Devil) and there were ghoulish effigies all around the mines which the miners left offerings for. We entered the mine following tiny tracks and soon found ourselves quickly jumping out of the way of the trolleys containing the minerals which were pushed at breakneck speed past us.

We were eventually led along smaller and smaller tunnels and down tiny holes in the ground, down rickety wooden ladders. A few dropped out and it took all my guts (and regular stops to catch my breath) to continue down four levels into the heart of the mountain. The working conditions were hot, dusty and incredibly claustrophobic, with no light apart from the miner’s gas-lit helmets and no fresh air. Most miners had huge balls of coca leaves in the mouths, as chewing these was supposed to give them strength and suppress hunger. We sat and chatted to a gang of miners who were sorting piles of rocks into those containing silver and those containing other minerals and gave us each one to keep. The miners worked shifts of up to 20 hours a day – incredible! They were happy to receive our gifts and we spent some time drinking toasts to their livelihood, the health and families – and to Tio, before we could stand it no longer and made our way back out to fresh air and daylight, with the worrying sound of nearby explosions ringing in our ears.

Glad to be back in the relative safety of the town itself (although I felt like hanging on to my face mask to protect myself from the awful pollution created by the traffic fumes), I found myself a nice little internet cafe for the afternoon. Other than the coin museum, which I decided to give a miss, there was nothing much else of interest to see.

We moved on the following day to Sucre, another pretty colonial town – the highlight of which for me was a proper supermarket at last! It also boasted several nice pubs and cafes, and as it was the weekend, and the weather was much warmer at this altitude, I spent a happy couple of hours sitting in a cafe up at the viewpoint overlooking the town. This town loves it`s parades and wherever we went that weekend, we could hear a band marching through town – from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. The groups that formed the parade ranged from schoolchildren to what looked like a group of Mafia Dons and they were giving it their all! It was so funny and entertaining to watch.

I managed to fit in a visit to a local orphanage before leaving – there were several organisations in town that asked for donations and volunteers, and it was very moving, but gratifying to see the little ones being well cared for. I felt tempted to smuggle one cute little fella called Nigel back home with me! However, judging by the number of small children that we saw begging around the town, I feared they were fighting a losing battle.

We flew out that next afternoon to Santa Cruz, Bolivia`s biggest city and home to most of it`s industry as far as I could see. The short flight saved us a 16 hour bus journey which we were grateful for. The city centre was laid out around a grid system, and I have upgraded Bolivian drivers to joint No. 1 Worst in the World (at least there aren`t so many cars in Saigon), due the fact that they seem to have no rules at junctions other than “every man for himself”. I have come to the conclusion that the Bolivian Highway Code can be written on the back of a postcard, that wing mirrors here are nothing more than status symbols, the sole use of rear view mirrors is to hang crucifixes on, and that the safest way to cross the road is in a tank!

We escaped out of this melee the next day to visit a waterpark, whose owner was proud to show us the “Indiana Jones” pools – that were still in the process of being built! We managed to find a pool that was freezing cold, but nevertheless was finished and spent a welcome few hours chilling out in the sunshine.

We had all voted to pay extra to upgrade our overnight train trip from the “Train of Death”. I can`t begin to imagine what that would have been like, as our “luxury” train rattled along the tracks like it had square wheels for a painful 14 hours. After a sleepless night, we reached our final destination Quijarro, on the Brazilian border – tired but excited to be embarking on a new adventure in the Brazilian Pantanal.

Miss Slagheap - September

Miss Slagheap - September


Should you really be smoking down here???

Should you really be smoking down here???


The Dancing Queens

The Dancing Queens


(Not) The Train of Death

(Not) The Train of Death


Down in the mine

Down in the mine


Get your lovely dynamite here!

Get your lovely dynamite here!


Going...

Going...


Going...

Going...


Gone

Gone


Arsenic down the mine

Arsenic down the mine


Going down t`pit

Going down t`pit


Tio

Tio


Trolley Duty

Trolley Duty


Pieces of Silver

Pieces of Silver


Potosi`s Statue of Liberty

Potosi`s Statue of Liberty


Potisi`s Homage to the Guitar

Potisi`s Homage to the Guitar


Potosi

Potosi


Potosi

Potosi


The Mine

The Mine


Sucre Church

Sucre Church


View over Sucre

View over Sucre


Sucre - climbing the hill

Sucre - climbing the hill


Sucre Parade

Sucre Parade


Sucre Parade

Sucre Parade


The Don`s March

The Don`s March

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

The Dizzy Highs and Lows of Bolivia

Part 1: La Paz and the Uyuni Salt Plains - 27th August – 2nd September

From the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, I continue my ascent to La Paz, the highest (governmental) Capital City in the world at 3660m.

The bus journey was quite scenic – we followed the shoreline of Lake Titicaca. At one point, we all had to get off the bus, while it was ferried on a separate barge across a narrow part of the lake. Us passengers all then jumped on another boat and met up with it on the other side!

La Paz is a sight to see, thousands of houses and shops spilling down the mountainside surrounded by snow capped mountains. The centre of town is a bit like Marrakech or Istanbul – lots of little side streets full of stalls, people, cars, dogs, you name it – all life is here! I quite like it – probably the most lively city I`ve been to since Havana. The drivers here however, have made my No. 2 spot in the league of the World`s Worse.

A welcome return to relative civilisation – my hostel here has all mod cons, like wifi, two beds with blankets, a tv (no remote though), a scary balcony, a scarier wall mural, a phone, and even a heater (although it didn`t feel quite so cold here). My room is on the fourth floor, and there was no lift, so what with the altitude, I could have done with some oxygen by the time I got up to my room. There`s also no fire escape, but I`m trying not to think about that. I`m so high up here, that if I do perish in a fire, at least I hopefully won`t have too far to go to reach the pearly gates!

Ventured out to find the hotel that I was to meet the group at tomorrow. I also tracked down “The Star of India” (a recommended restaurant in Lonely Planet) in my quest to find a decent curry outside of the UK. Was disappointed – the service wasn`t very good, and I had found better Indian food in Mexico and Guatemala. They did have “Llama Korma” on the menu though!

I was looking forward to exploring the town in the daylight. I found myself a bit lost returning back to the hotel – I remembered that my street had an old lady selling potatoes on the corner. However, when I got back, EVERY street seemed to have old ladies selling potatoes on the corner. I found it eventually, more by luck than judgment. My hostel seems to be in the “fabric (and potato)” district – there seems to be whole streets that sell the same thing, be it sanitary ware, or electrical goods, or stuff for Fiestas or hats, or very sweet and sickly looking cakes. It`s very odd, but strangely endearing, and the place certainly has lots of character, along with everything else.

If having the roads cluttered with market stalls, people, dogs and cars etc. wasn`t enough, the street my next hotel was in, also was being dug up and re-surfaced! I therefore had to stagger down it`s very steep gradient on foot, with my rucksack. I wandered around a little more as I had a few hours to kill before I met the rest of the group. I found the going quite tough as this town has more ups and downs than San Francisco and every step took major effort with the altitude. Discovered the Witches Market, a tiny alleyway full of craft stalls containing everything you could possibly make with alpaca wool, plus some very macabre Bolivian white magic charms such as dried llama fetuses – yuk.

I finally met up with the rest of the group later that evening, after they had returned from a high adrenaline bike ride down the “Road of Death” - a 64km incredibly steep road where numerous people have lost their lives over the past 20 years. Feeling quite grateful to be far too old and sensible to do such a thing, I made acquaintance with my mad but intrepid companions for the next month; Kezia and Mark, a couple in their 30`s from New Zealand and 22 year old Kayleigh from Canada. Lupe – our young Peruvian tour leader went through the formalities, and we went out together for a Thai meal to get to know each other. The other three had been travelling through Equador and Peru together, so I had a lot of catching up and “bonding” to do.

My last day in La Paz was spent on a short walking tour with Lupe, being shown the main sights, but also discussing life in Bolivia compared to her home in Lima, which was fascinating.

The following morning we set off for the bus station for our 3 hour journey to Oruro, where we were taking the overnight train to Uyuni, the gateway to the vast salt plains of the Salar de Uyuni. We had been warned that the train journey might be cold, but we were issued with pillows, blankets and even an inedible meal and a very sweet cup of tea, so it wasn`t too bad. Arriving at a freezing cold station at 2am wasn`t so good though, but at least our hostel had warmed the room up for us and we were able to have a hot shower the following morning. Our trip across the world`s largest salt flat was going to take three days and we would be crossing the Atacama desert and travelling down to the Southernmost tip of Bolivia, climbing to an altitude of 4,700m.

Joining us in our all terrain vehicle were a really nice, but completely bonkers, couple from Italy (Romano) and Austria (Eva), plus our guide/driver and a local cook. After a quick visit to the frankly quite unimpressive “train cemetery” (lots of rusting old ex-mining trains) we hit the salt (or rather, it hit us – see below). The completely flat, white and treeless landscape is utterly surreal – I had never seen anything like it before – in fact it features in several Salvador Dali paintings (“The Stone Tree” )and parts of the desert are even named after the legendary artist. It also lends itself perfectly to taking odd “perspective” photographs, where you can make things look bigger than they really are. Romano and Eva easily won the “most silly photos taken on any one trip” prize and each stop comprised of the rest of us taking shelter in the car while they took photos of each other jumping, pretending to be running, lying on the ground, on top of, under, looking through an adjacent rock/cactus/piece of wood (you get the picture).

We hit the salt “flat” literally and had plenty of time to take photos when one of the tyres blew on our jeep after only a couple of hours into the journey. Thankfully we didn`t have to rely on the Bolivian AA (they`d have probably turned up on a llama!) and our driver, with the aid of various other passing tour vehicles, managed to change it and fix the buckled wheel.

We had lunch at Fish Island (because of it`s shape rather than any sea-life there) but which sported an impressive collection of cacti. The sun was at it`s hottest and felt even more intense reflecting off the white surface. A few more perspective pictures later, we set off for our overnight stop in a hostel made of salt. Even the beds were made of salt (I had visions of having dreams about kippers and giant pepper pots). We had one last foray into the desert to see the sun set and visit Galaxy Cavern, which thousands of years ago was an underwater cave containing interesting coral formations.

There were no hot showers and the power was turned off at 9.30pm so we had no choice but to have an early night and managed to stay relatively warm under several blankets and a sleeping bag. But we`d been warned that it was going to get harsher and colder....

The next morning we set off south into the desert – an amazing terrain of volcanoes and multicoloured lagoons filled with pink flamingos. By now we were close to the borders with Argentina and Chile and our guide explained that Pinochet had planted landmines along the border with Bolivia in the 80`s and most of them were still there (a worrying notion when we set off along the pitch black tracks the following morning).

The weather had turned distinctly chilly and very windy, so it was becoming a bit of an ordeal actually getting out to take photos (and even more of an ordeal waiting for Romano and Eva to finish taking their obligatory “silly” shots). Our “home” that evening was a remote outpost in the middle of the desert, which although offering little in the way of home comforts, did surprisingly have a small store which sold exceptionally bad red Bolivian wine. We started chatting to English group who were staying there (including an ex-squaddie who used to bring the British troops out here each year for training!). Needless to say, several bottles later we were all feeling a lot better prepared for another freezing night in our 6-berth dorms. I comforted myself by thinking that this would be good practice for Glastonbury next year.

Up before sunrise for a drive out to visit the impressive geysers and hot springs of Sol de Manana. Since it was still absolutely perishing, and blowing a gale, I decided to opt for breakfast inside, rather than brave a dip. The incredible landscape continued and we drove through scenery straight out of a sci-fi movie. The temperature seemed to be dipping further, and it was trying to snow by the time we returned to Uyuni. A pizza, a hot shower and warm room had never been so welcoming!

Scary Balcony La Paz

Scary Balcony La Paz


La Paz Market Scene

La Paz Market Scene


La Paz

La Paz


Fish Island

Fish Island


Altiplano Volcanic Landscape

Altiplano Volcanic Landscape


Geyser - Altiplano

Geyser - Altiplano


Che Made of Dominoes

Che Made of Dominoes


Train Graveyard

Train Graveyard


Has Anyone Seen the Salt???

Has Anyone Seen the Salt???


Our Luxury 4WD!

Our Luxury 4WD!


I Only Had the One.....

I Only Had the One.....


Attack of the Giant Spider!!!

Attack of the Giant Spider!!!


Kayleigh Blows Us Off...

Kayleigh Blows Us Off...


Fish Island Coral Cave

Fish Island Coral Cave


Our Salt House

Our Salt House


Atacama Desert

Atacama Desert


View from the Galaxy Cavern

View from the Galaxy Cavern


Flamingos on the Lagoon

Flamingos on the Lagoon


Everyone Do The Flamingo

Everyone Do The Flamingo


Salvador Dali Desert - Stone Tree

Salvador Dali Desert - Stone Tree


Volcanic Landscape

Volcanic Landscape


Hot Springs

Hot Springs


The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon


Fish Island Cacti

Fish Island Cacti

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca (Peru and Bolivia) 21st – 26th August

We made it back in one piece, as did the car, to Cusco where we`d arranged to meet the car rental man at the airport. Naturally, being Peru, he didn`t turn up and the airport information desk had to phone him to get him out of bed. All this left us late catching our train, but we made it to the freezing cold, coffee-less waiting room of the Andean Explorer (boy, could Peru Rail learn some lessons from Orient Express...or even National Express come to that!).

Feeling optimistic, we tried once again to see if we could get off the train at our hotel (which apparently has a stop which has to be requested), rather than going on into Puno itself. Well, you would have thought we had asked if they could drop us back in London! First it wasn`t allowed, then it was but we should have already gotten special permission, then they could but there might be an additional cost! We`d all but given up, when the train manager pulled something out of the bag (and then remembered he had to pull our bags out of the luggage compartment) and agreed to drop us off.

The Andean Explorer went about as fast as a one-legged tortoise, so took around 10 hours to make the journey. It was a fairly pleasant way to spend the day though, chugging through the stunning Peruvian countryside, eating and drinking, with the odd stop to once again be harangued by locals selling stuff you`d probably never wear, eat or have in your house, or charging to have your photo taken with them. I know that they`re only trying to make a living, but it does get a bit exhausting, especially when you can`t even get away from the hard sell on the train, with the obligatory "fashion and pan pipes show".

The tracks seems to run right through the main high streets of the villages we passed, nudging against people, dogs and market stalls as it ploughed through. We even ran through the middle of a wedding party, and the bride and groom seemed overjoyed to have the train along with dozens of gawping tourists in the background of their wedding pictures!

The train stopped on cue, and the hotel even had a porter alongside the track waiting to take our luggage. For once, we were impressed. It was short lived, however, when we were given the smallest and noisiest room in the hotel. Dave managed to “persuade” them that they weren`t in fact full and they miraculously managed to find us a lake view room before the manager was summoned.

Dave was suffering from a touch of “Alpaca`s Revenge” and I was feeling a bit sad that the next day would be our last together for 6 months, so we decided to get an early night.

The glorious views of the lake from our balcony the next morning lifted our spirits, and we were looking forward to our tour to the Uros Islands, a unique collection of over 50 floating islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca, made entirely of reeds. Lonely Planet describes them as a “reed Disneyland” having become shockingly over-commercialised, and we certainly felt as though we were being taken for a ride.

I wasn`t convinced that the families dressed in garish versions of the local costumes, actually lived on the islands, but it was interesting to hear how the islands were formed of layers of reeds, which had to be replaced on top as they rotted below. Their huts, lookout towers and boats were also made of reeds and it struck me as an accident waiting to happen, especially when cooking over an open flame. I prayed that each island had a no-smoking ban and an asbestos boat moored alongside.

After buying something purportedly “hand crafted” on the islands, we then handed over more money to be taken on a reed boat to another island where we were once again given the hard sell. By this point, I was almost reaching for the lighter!

After our tour we felt obliged to give the town of Puno a once over. It really is a dump with hardly any redeeming features at all, apart from being on the lake. We decided to head back to the hotel and had a lovely walk down to the pier alongside grazing lambs and alpacas, as we watched the sun set.

I bid Dave a tearful goodbye the next morning before crawling back under the duvet for a rare lie-in, and made the most of my last luxury hotel for quite a while. Checking in to my hostel in Puno was pretty depressing, and although the room was clean and comfortable, it felt freezing. I decided that I needed to invest in some warm clothing and added a pair of leggings and some gloves to my winter collection. And I thought South America was supposed to be hot!

I managed to find a pizzeria with a big brick oven to sit by, and then spent a few hours in the internet cafe warming up before going to bed dressed in pjs, socks, fleece and my spare blanket. Good job Dave had gone home, he would have found me hard to resist!

Up early again the next morning to catch the bus to Copacabana (definitely not “the hottest place south of Havana”, but a lakeside town across the Bolivian border). The town itself is quite small, with an interesting tile roofed church. However, it is the embarkation point for boat tours to the Isla de la Sol and Luna, supposedly the birthplaces of the sun and moon in Inca Mythology. I had planned on staying over on the Sun Island, but my hotel in Copa was invitingly warm and cosy, so I decided to base myself there and booked a day trip instead.

The journey takes about 2 to 2 and a half hours, and the boats are cheap but very uncomfortable and I was ready to get up and explore when we arrived at the pretty little port. I was once again suffering the effects of the altitude and had to take it easy walking up the hill to the ruins. The views were rewarding and reminiscent of Italy or Croatia, with terraces sloping down to white sand beaches and turquoise blue water.

The Sacred Rock and the remains of the ancient Inca Sanctuary were set amongst this striking backdrop and made the 2 hour round trip well worthwhile. Back on the boat, we sailed round to the south of the island, where there were more ruins, but sadly we only had time to grab a bite to eat before heading back to town.

Heading off to La Paz tomorrow to meet up with the group I`m joining for a month long tour through the wilds of Bolivia and into Brazil. This will probably be the toughest part of my trip with unforgiving terrain, harsh weather conditions and very basic accommodation, so I`m looking forward to the next few weeks, albeit with some trepidation.

View from the Train

View from the Train


Photo Op

Photo Op


Welcome to the Uros Islands

Welcome to the Uros Islands


Copacabana from my Hotel

Copacabana from my Hotel


Isla De La Sol

Isla De La Sol


Ikea (Cusco Branch)

Ikea (Cusco Branch)


Excuse Us

Excuse Us


Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels


Here Comes The Bride

Here Comes The Bride


Peruvian Countryside

Peruvian Countryside


Level crossing...what level crossing??

Level crossing...what level crossing??


View from the hotel over Lake Titicaca

View from the hotel over Lake Titicaca


Feeling peckish, Dave starts on the island...

Feeling peckish, Dave starts on the island...


Here`s one I made earlier...

Here`s one I made earlier...


Held hostage by the Uros...

Held hostage by the Uros...


Baby Alpaca

Baby Alpaca


Baby lamb

Baby lamb


Lake Titicaca Sunset

Lake Titicaca Sunset


Copacabana Harbour

Copacabana Harbour


Copacabana Scene

Copacabana Scene


Isla De La Sol

Isla De La Sol


Isla Del La Sol

Isla Del La Sol


Temple Doorway - Isla De La Sol

Temple Doorway - Isla De La Sol


Harbour Scene - Isla De La Sol

Harbour Scene - Isla De La Sol


The boat`s on time...my ass!

The boat`s on time...my ass!

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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