29.03.2010 - 05.04.2010 25 °C
Arrival in Bolivia by way of the salt flat tour was sensational. From
Uyuni we got a bus to Potosi, which was not so brilliant. The bus was
6 hours from 7pm until 1am, we were seated on the back row in the
corner over the rear wheel, the bus was full, including standing room
in the isle and it was hot and sweaty. The bus was old and the road
was rough. The bumps had the ability to knock the wind out of you and
any idea of sleeping was not possible. To add to the uncomfortable
trip as soon as Seth sat down he needed to go to the toilet. Two and a
half hours later a stop at the side of the road resolved that issue
and gave some relief to the trip. By the end of the trip consideration
was being given to a three hour bus to Sucre and a flight to La Paz in
place of the 9 hour bus ride to La Paz from Potosi.
Finally we got off the bus and transferred to the hostel with our French friends,
Pauline and Romain, incident free although Sarah and my booking
resulted in a twin share rather than a matrimonial, as they are
called. No problem, Sarah had a cold anyway so quarantine was a bonus.
Potosi is a pretty little town at about 3600m. The large hill, Cerro
Rico, on the outskirts of the city is rich in silver and other
minerals that were mined in pretty harsh conditions by the locals. At
one time in the 16, 17 and 1800s Potosi was the economic capital of
the world due to the silver mined there. A Spanish vessel that was
transporting valuable silver back to Spain sunk back in the hay day
and was recovered in 1985 with a cargo worth USD400 million, so gives
you some idea of the wealth of the city. The story goes that silver
was discovered when a camp fire was lit on the side of the hill and
the silver melted and cracked and popped, hence the name Potosi , it
kind of sounds like the popping noise!
The next afternoon we did a tour of the mines. It involved getting
dressed up in the jacket and pants provided and then heading off to
the miners’ market to buy gifts for them. We purchased coca leaves
(stimulant that is chewed like tobacco, to help with altitude sickness
and also give energy), coke to quench the thirst of working in the
mine and dynamite, fertilizer plus detonator cord. Yes, you can buy
these last three items on the street legally and at the age of 13 and
up... what we did not buy was the compliment to this easy access to
explosives and that is the sugar cane liquor available that is 96%
alcohol!!! Yes, it is like metho, and the miners drink it every friday
We then headed to the processing plant, where cyanide along with other
chemicals is used to separate the minerals from the waste. A serious
lack of OH&S, well none actually. Chemicals splashing around, moving
parts open, including the crushing mills, not to mention the floor was
just boards and in some cases when you stepped on one end the other
end would flip up, as it was not secure, where there were board and
not just gaping holes. But we survived that and off-loaded some coca
leaves to the workers there who looked very happy about that.
Next we were off to the mine. With helmets and lights on we walked
into the mine, even 800m in Seth was already duck-waddling due to
height issues and bumping his head, trying to avoid the cables that we
were informed were live with electricity!
The mine was dusty and we had entered the mine at 4800m so breathing was very difficult, we had
bandannas across our faces for the dust, but they made breathing even
harder. The mine we were in did not have any carbon monoxide present
so it was relatively safe!!! !!! Just before we descended to the lower
levels Seth decided that he was too big to go crawling around in the
mine and at this point returned to the surface with the second guide
and left Sarah to push down the lower levels.
As soon as we headed down, Seth’s decision seemed like a good one, he
really wouldn’t have liked the mine. There was so much dust and the
walkway in most places was only about 1m high. The bandana that
covered my mouth made it quite hard to breathe… it was hard either
way, with the bandana over my mouth it was quite hard to breathe due
to the thickness of the material, but if you lifted it, it was really
dusty. Sometimes when we had to do a lot of walking and started to
breathe heavily it was scary.
So we scrambled down rocky pathways and dodgy ladders, passing some
unhealthy looking people on the way. It was really hard to imagine
people working in these conditions everyday for years. The mine we
were visiting was a cooperative mine (as opposed to a private mine) so
people worked for themselves and could be set for life if they found a
good silver seam. There is also an image of bravado and toughness
amongst the miners and they are proud to do this job, we met a miner
who had been mining for 20 years and his 14 year old son worked with
him, scary. It didn’t feel too voyeuristic, the guide asked questions
about each miner and they asked where we were all from etc etc, and as
long as handed over coca, coke or dynamite they were more than happy!
We went down another level and more scrambling made me feel quite
nervous and a little panicky, mainly the altitude mixed with dusty
breathing, but I wasn’t alone even the big guys in my group were
looking a little worried. During the tour we met some interesting
statues, El Tio (Uncle) was a jolly looking chap, who the miners sat
with on a Friday and made offerings of alcohol, cigarettes and coca.
He was the kind of God of the Underworld for them. We also met Diablo,
Once the rest of the group returned to the surface (only one other
larger man returned prematurely) 40 minutes after Seth, the guides
took the dynamite that we did not give as gifts, broke the sticks into
three, put a third in each small plastic bag of fertilizer, with a
detonator cord attached and tied the plastic bags off. These bags were
round and about the size of soft balls. The fuses were then set alight
and frantic photos were taken holding the items until the guides ran
down the hill and placed them in the dirt. Fair to say that from 70m
the 10 bangs that went off were ridiculous! Chest shaking (and camera
wobbling as you will see!) shock wave, ear rattling bang and a good
amount of dirt displaced.
After a good, hot shower to wash away the dust and grim we had dinner
with the French and Danish, from our tour, and a couple of games of
Uno… Aussies came out on top, again. There was rain and hail during
the afternoon and night.
Day two in Potosi was rainy and cold and therefore a quiet affair with
blogging and resting in bed, the order of the day. A bit of a walk
around the city in search of silver trinkets and a trip to the museum
– Casa Moneda – being the highlight. The museum was the old mint.
Obviously due to the silver the mint was situated in Potosi for much
of the last 400 years, only stopping in the 1950s. Bolivian currency
is now made in France, Canada and Chile! The museum was interesting
with art, coins and amazing original oak processing equipment to
smelt, flatten and prepare the silver into blanks to be manually
stamped, one by one. 3000 were stamped a day by one person. There
were also steam and electric driver machines that showed the
modernisation of the mint over the years. A French architect designed
the building and at the entry is a large smiling face which is meant
as an insult to the Spanish as it is smirking at them as they leave,
with such wealth still in the area.
Dinner and on the cama (lie down bed-type) bus to La Paz – the roads
were far better and Seth coped with the travel.
The bus trip to La Paz was comfortable and we both a got a good sleep.
On arrival in a rainy, dark and freezing La Paz at 5am we were both
keen to waste some time at the bus station on the internet prior to
facing the taxi hassles. An hour later we walked out of the station
and ran into the Swiss couple from our Salt Flat tour. We decided to
share a taxi and they chose to stay at the hostel that we had booked.
On first appearance La Paz was a dirty run down old town, as
everything was shut as we drove through the streets. Four hours later
after a short sleep we went for a walk to one of the city miradors
(viewpoints) and found that the streets had come alive with stalls and
sellers of every kind. Not to mention things were CHEAP... There was
also a playground at the mirador so we played for a little while.
The second day we went to Tiwanaku which is an archeological site of a
pre Inca civilisation. They were the grandparents of the Incas. The
site was about 3 hours drive from La Paz so we decided to do a tour,
which also would give us some explanations about the area and history.
Did you know that they domesticated potatoes? And they can keep
potatoes for 10 years – dried? Part of the Tiwanaku settlement is
Pumapunku, which is believed to be part of the lost city of Atlantis,
even though it is now 19km from the edge of Lake Titicaca (the Valley
was previously all underwater).
Unfortunately the excavation is slow and not very progressed (lack of
money) so there is a bit of looking at a dirt hill and being told what
is underneath it, based on satellite imaging etc. The most interesting
thing was the ´hole in the wall´ which was shaped just like the inside
of a human ear. When we spoke through it our voices were amplified
which was pretty cool and showed that the Tiwanakans had a strong
understanding of anatomy.
The Tiwanakans, like the Incans were pretty good at construction as
all the stonework is perfectly joined, without cement.
The temples were also aligned with astrological layouts and all the symbols were
based on the astrological calendar. The sun gate was the final piece
we saw and it was amazing… the symbols were in patterns of 7 (days),
12 (months) and 52 (weeks). The calendar is correct right through for
centuries which also indicates they did not just understand the times
they were in but also the way in which the sun, earth, planets etc
would behave into the future.
After Tiwanaku we went out for dinner with Andy and Helen, the Swiss,
they had heard that a dinner and dance (pena) place was excellent so
we decided to check it out. We walked into a totally empty restaurant
(oh dear) and after very tentatively deciding to stay, the owner went
and started ringing up the band and dancers to get them in for a
show... the restaurant has obviously hit some bad times! The food was
priced as expected but the show had a cover charge of US11 which is
about twice as much as the food cost. Anyway the food was terrible,
but the show included a four-person band, and 5 dancers and went on
for about 3 hours. There was an interlude at half way and we thought
it was time for bed, asked for the bill and but we weren’t allowed it…
there was more show to be had. By this point we were all getting a
little tired, ‘why?’ you might ask… well... because there were three
female dancers doing the main show part of the routine was to drag
people up from the audience and as there were only 4 people in the
audience, they kept picking us out... leaving one person to take
photos and laugh!!!! So ok, the show was good, very traditional and
quite impressive but they could have varied the audience participation
and length a little!!
The next day we headed off to the death road!!!! Mountain bike riding
down a road that started at 4900m and finished at 1400m of altitude –
dropping over 3500m over 68km of road. We started by riding down the
main road for about 27km and then onto the old road which is the
actual death road. When the road was open about 100 people a year died
before the new road was built. Not sure how they even managed to get
2-way traffic on the twisting, dirt road, seemingly, trucks used to
drive with one set of wheels hanging off the edge!! Just riding round
the corners on a bike was difficult!
The riding was great fun and only dangerous if you were out of control
which a couple of people in the group were not far off. A tourist died
last year riding on the road, got too near the edge.
Our tour had a few boys that got a little too near the edge and one
lady fell off her bike after 50m of gravel road, she looked totally
unsteady on her bike from the moment she started - the Aussie bloke
behind her was too close and went over the top, she was the
back-marker for the rest of the day.
The pace was good and outside of the guides Seth was the second fastest- but that was still pretty
slow. Better to be safe than sorry. Only one incident with a dirt
wall, but just a scrape, didn’t even come off the bike. Sarah went
quick and was right behind only one other girl, who had a cracker
stack in the second last stage after gaining too much confidence
staying in front of me on the stage before.
The scenery was amazing (even if it was hard to look at, as we had to
concentrate on the road!) and a full day’s riding only required about
5 minutes of pedalling. That is excercise!!
We had decided not to go back with the bike group to La Paz but
instead stay in Coroico, which is a small town in the mountains 8km
from the end point of the ride. We were left on the side of the road
where there were some shops and told to hail a bus or van or anything
that was heading up the road to Coroico.
Luckily two Bolivian guys decided to do the same thing and their ability to speak the language
and confidence in getting to where we needed to be was the only thing
that kept Sarah and I from crying on the side of the road. 40 minutes
later we were on a mini-van, (totally over-crowded) for the 1300m
climb to the village. But it was also a long weekend (easter) so most
of the hotels were booked out, a very popular place for the well-off
in La Paz to holiday for long weekends. We ended up staying the same
hotel as our new Bolivian friends and shared a beer and great chat by
the pool about growing up in Bolivia, studying and what the future
holds for them. It was really nice to talk to some locals and get an
understanding of how things are. (Of course, their English was a
million times better than our Spanish!)
The next day we intended to walk to waterfalls and stuff, but due to
elections being the next day the busses were full going back to La
Paz, as nothing was open on Sunday, so we had to get on the only bus
we could at 1030am which cut our stay short. The drive back was
entertaining up the new road. Talk about a hill! It was just about as
scary as the Death Road!
After getting back to La Paz we went shopping again and found a DVD
store.... purchased a bit of TV watching.... much to Sarah´s disgust.
We also caught up with our French friends from the salt flats. We had
dinner with them and also shared some 24 episodes (TV show).
On the election day, there was nothing open in La Paz, it was quite
surreal and very peaceful, no cars and kids playing soccer in the
street, so we walked up to Killi Killi mirador in the city. Great
views across the city and hills. As we had our Spanish speaking French
friends with us we ventured into buying some lunch on the side of the
road. Things did open up a bit in the afternoon so we did a bit more
shopping and Seth decided to buy a couple more DVDs.
In the end La Paz turned out to be a great city and somewhere both of
us would highly recommend and maybe one day return to. We had a great
time and only did two excursions from the city. There was so much more
to see and do. An intriguing place!!