Bolivian Salt plains, Uyuni, Potosi, and Sucre
We set out from Chile bright and early at 8 am and headed straight for the Bolivian border. There were six of us in the dusty jeep, all led by our trusty guide and driver Javier: an old Israeli couple, a young Swiss couple, a German girl, and me. All along the way, we munched on coca leaves to protect us from the high altitude, which reached nearly 5,000 meters at times. We drove through dirt paths until we finally reached the border: a one-room cabin made of rocks with a wooden plank serving for a gate crossing. We happily got our passports stamped and the one guy working the whole deal said "Bienvenidos a Bolivia" and that was it... Welcome to Bolivia! That day, we drove across various lagunas (lakes) where the water is so clear, it reflects the surrounding mountains and volcanos perfectly, making a double impression of everything around. We passed by the Dali rocks, a rock formation in the middle of the desert that looks strikingly like one of Dali's paintings, stopped at the Rock Tree, a rock that looks like a tree (my explanations are awesome, I know) and spent a few minutes climbing the other weird rock formations in the area. Then we arrived at Laguna Colorada. Picture this, an entire lake that is completely RED covered with 30,000 pink flamingos. Needless to say, we spent a few hours there. Then it was the end of the first day, and our crickety jeep rolled in to the refuge, a very simple (no running water, no heat) hostel run by an indigenous family. The people of this region were overrun by the conquistadores in the 1500’s and their language, quechua, almost died but in the last 10 years, they reclaimed their roots, including now teaching quechua in area public schools. It was hard communicating with the family because they didn't speak spanish but Javier taught me how to say good morning in quechua so I said that like a parrot about 50 times. I also became best friends with Emma, the 4 year old running the place, and we shared our lunch and dinner with her with pity until we realized that she mooched food off every single jeep group with those lovely puppy eyes. And boy could that girl eat: 3 servings of mashed potatoes, 3 sausages, the whole friggin tray of cookies. And then it was off to the next table of turistas...sigh...women.
The next day, we visited various other beautiful lagunas in the flamingo park of Bolivia, passed by herds of wild vicunas (like llamas), passed by herds of domesticated llamas with their pretty little head bows on, and fed bread to the elusive Andino fox who quite elusively waits every day for bread at the side of the road. We ate lunch in front of an active volcano and took a nap on the red rocks. We stopped in the pueblito (little town) of San Juan for a coke and then it was a 4 hour drive to the coolest hotel in the country: Hotel de Sal (Salt Hotel). Located in Altucha, an entire town made of loose rocks (houses, church, doors), the Hotel de Sal is made entirely of...cmon...you can do this. Tables of salt, chairs of salt, even all the walls were made of salt! It was very exciting. After we finished licking everything, we dined on chicken and rice (I had to ask for some salt). And then it was coca leaves and card games by candlelight for the rest of the evening. I suffered 4 humiliating losses in Backgammon (shesh-besh) to Shirga, my Israeli uncle, and one glorious victory in Yaniv, the Israeli card game, mostly because noone else had heard of it. We finally set off to sleep at 9 pm, in our salt beds of course.
On the final day of the jeep tour through southern Bolivia, we entered the Salar of Bolivia, the biggest salt flat in the world. In the morning darkness, we drove the first few meters of the entrance to the Salar, a white path surrounded by vast water, and then Javier, in his quiet Bolivian way, turned off the lights of the jeep and drove right into the water. I gasped...you could not see a foot ahead of you and we were driving a car in god knows how many feet of water. But Javier just smiled and kept driving for the next hour and a half in utter darkness, no horizon in sight, and as I looked out the window, I could see the huge sky of thousands of stars and one big moon reflected perfectly in the water. So in reality, we were driving in an ocean of stars. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. Javier dosed off at the wheel a few times during the next hour, but it didn't seem to matter because we were driving in nothingness anyway. As the horizon brightened, we finally saw what was around us. A vast plain of white, white salt covered by six inches of clear water. You could not see anything else for miles and miles except for one peak. This was Incahuiso Island, where we parked the jeep and climbed up a hill of huge cactuses to watch the sun rise slowly against the white salt plains of Bolivia. Captivating!! We stayed at the peak for an hour, then came down to eat a breakfast of tea, bread, and eggs, and took pictures with all the rest of the tourists that had shown up for the next two hours. Thirty people standing in the middle of a white nothingness. Then Javier made us get in the jeep and we drove another hour, stopped again to do cartwheels in the salt, and finally completed the last two hours of the journey through the Bolivian salar. A half hour later, we arrived in Uyuni, Bolivia, a small railroad ghost town, where all the Bolivian women, short and stocky, walk around in their long black braids, poofy skirts down to their knees, and the traditional curved hat. We had finally arrived in the real Bolivia. I bid farewell to my dysfunctional jeep tour group and set out to get some Bolivianos (currency) but the line for the bank was over 4 hours long. This meant trouble, because there was no ATM in town and I only had enough money for one bowl of llama soup at the local lunch place (tastes just like CHICKEN...but not at all). Luckily, Luis the lawyer helped me get into the bank 2 minutes before closing (read- "help" refers to pushing the gringita past a wave of 100 angry bolivianos...I'm sure I did a lot for humble tourism that day) and we met up for dinner that night, where I tried several Bolivian national dishes (steak with salad on top with egg on top with salsa on top) and the unofficial national drink, Hauri beer mixed with coca cola. Hmmm.
The next day I caught a bus 6 hours north to Potosi, the highest city in the world, with Dan and Andrew, two hilarious English boys, and Steve-O, an Aussie who prefers to be called Steve. We settled into the Koala Den, a really great hostel with hot water, lots of books, AND Cat in the Hat bed sheets. Yessss. Alberto at the front desk bounced on the beds to show us how they bounce. We dined that night on filet mignon and llama and some wine, pondered the hamburger stand boy who could put ALL the condiments on in under 2.5 seconds, and went to sleep early in preparation for the next day, one of the most memorable days of this trip for me. We awoke at 8 am to take a beat-up bus to the Potosi silver mines. Potosi has huge mountains with large deposits of silver, which have proven to be more of a curse than a blessing. The indigenous people who lived here knew about the silver but refused to touch it to pay homage to the land but.. you can guess this...when the Spanish came, they immediately put them, along with captive African slaves from the Lima slave trade to mine the mountains, most working underground in the darkness for 6 months at a time. An estimated 8 MILLION people have died in the mines since they opened. We got equipped with plastic jackets, boots and helmets but these did nothing to prepare us for what was to come. We stopped at the miners´ market to buy the miners (they are an independent cooperative, they work for themselves) dynamite, fuses, soda, and coca leaves. We drank a bit of the 96% alcohol the miners drink every Friday to soothe the Diablo (Devil) they believe lives down in the mines. We then visited the silver refinery, one of dozens owned by Canadian companies who reap 99% of the profit from this mining. Then we finally arrived at the mine. We trudged through the mud at the tunnel entrance and then it was complete darkness. The air gets stale and dusty, you can hardly breathe but you have to keep on going. Don’t touch the exposed pipes 2 inches from your head, they hold a strong electrical current. Don’t slip into the 15 meter deep shaft next to your foot. Every once in a while, a silver cart comes flying by pushed by tired and dirty miners and you have to cling on to the dusty walls to not get hurt, praying that those walls do not cave in on you. We went in 20 meters, then DOWN 25 meters, where you have to crawl through a tiny, tiny shaft for 15 minutes, stale dust burning your throat, then another 6 meters down and another 6 meters down. Every few minutes, we would stop to gasp for air that wasn't there while Juanito, an ex-miner turned university linguistics student (how is that for a success story) described the hard lives of these poor miners, 12,000 in total. They work 6 days a week, take their breaks underground, and most die by age 28, if not before then from the biweekly cave-ins that claim so many lives. Because the Potosi mining is a cooperative, they do not have enough money to concentrate on safety (there are 30 different groups mining in the same mtn, and they have no idea where the other groups are blasting holes, making cave-ins very likely). The refining companies of course do nothing and are not pressured to do anything. Juanito quit mining after he had an accident and realized that he would die very soon if he didn't stop. Unfortunately, most of the miners do not have that choice...they need to feed their families. After being in that clausterphobic and oppressive hell for 2 hours, we were finally allowed to crawl back up. On the way up, a mining cart passed us by and the roof began to collapse. We all started screaming and running down the tunnel, finally making it out to the fresh air. The sky never looked so blue. A reckless trip overall, I completely know, but really important to get a glimpse of how other people in this world have to live. So you don’t get utterly depressed (you should be some though), we also got to blast some dynamite outside of the mine. Juanito made me hold the fuse and started to light it, at which point I freaked out and threw the dynamite at Paul who seemed to forgive me long enough to pose for some pictures (boys, boys, boys) before handing it to the miners to blast far far away from us. Two seconds before the dynamite exploded, Juanito threw a lit fuse at my feet. It didn’t have dynamite attached but I wasn’t going to stick around long enough to find that out so I ended up jumping about 20 feet and bravely cowering behind him. Crazy bolivianos (I’m hoping to have a chance to call every nationality crazy before this trip is over). That night, we went out for some drinks at a graffiti covered bar to soothe our nerves.
The next day, we visited the Casa de Moneda (House of Money) along with Paul (previously mentioned) and Karin (both UK). We unfortunately got a racist guide who insisted on describing in detail why Spanish, American, Peruvian, and Israeli people are awful and lowly people. He did very well, he managed to insult my two nationalities and Paul made him apologize publicly at the end of the tour. Que puedes hacer? What can you do, really, people… the funny thing is, 99% of the locals I have met on this trip are such warm and open people so it doesn’t even matter.
Dan, Andrew, Steve-O and I left Potosi shortly after and took a cab 2 hours north to Sucre, one of the capitals of Bolivia. I tried to enjoy the scenery but our cabbie was determined on flooring it at 80 kmh around mountain curves, school buses, and cute dogs sitting right in the middle of the road. So Andrew, seated in the passenger seat, put on his best poker face as we faced death, I buried my head behind Dan while he said “Look at that overturned truck! Oh wait, you don’t want to look at that. Don’t look, Don’t look..”. And Steve-O? Steve-O slept. Lucky bloke. (I’m picking up the Queen’s English instead of the Bolivian Spanish).
We arrived at Sucre, settled into Hostel Characas, a motel-like hostel, where Esperanza at the front desk insisted that we come home that night by 11 pm lest we be considered sinners on the eve of Good Thursday (is there such a thing…Good Friday? Something Easterish). We argued but came home by 10 pm anyway. That night was the first night of the 4 day Tournament of Cards 2006, Sucre, Bolivia. Being that it was Easter Weekend, there was not much else to do, so we played at least 4 hours and 5 games of cards every day, most of which I was great at until I actually understood the rules. Every night we would go to the local pub, meet at least 10 people we already knew (all Brits!), and play cards until the wee hours. I tried to follow along on futbol talk, nodding sympathetically, as well as Andrew and Dan’s comedic chatter but my most popular comeback was “I have no idea what you people are saying to me”. In good news, I learned that my pronunciation of tomatoes and potatoes is no-question-about-it wrong. Well, bullocks.
Before leaving rainy Sucre, we did manage to visit the huge open-air market of Tarabuco as well as the largest site for Dinosaur tracks in the world. I don’t know why I need to capitalize Dinosaur but it just needs to be done. In case you didn’t know, 65,000 years ago, Dinosaurs roamed the Earth. In Sucre, the cute little critters walked across a lake, and then there was a volcanic blast which preserved their footprints. Then some plates collided, pushing the flat lake surface vertically. So basically you can see all these Dinosaur footprints on the face of this vertical cliff…really great. And of course it’s Bolivia so you can get up real close and put your little wrinkly hand in a very big footprint. I’ve put my little wrinkly hand in a Dino footprint, have you? Thought so, sucker.
After all this Dinosaur excitement and gambling excitement (Aalap, I only talk about gambling for you), it was time to leave Sucre. We sadly bid Paul and Karin farewell and took a quinua bus (I call it that because all the Boliviano women effortlessly carry huge sacks of quinua (of the rice family) onto the bus, leaving no room for anyone to move their body parts) east to La Paz. It was a hard 14 hour journey and poor Dan and Andrew had no room for their long legs but we managed to entertain ourselves by finding the one constellation we knew and guessing what the staticky movie on the screen was about. Oh, Steve-O disappeared. Did I mention that? Around the second day in Sucre, he just up and left. Maybe he really, really didn’t want to be called Steve-O. I guess we’ll never know. So at 5 AM, we arrived in La Paz, one of the most dangerous cities in South America, where you can’t take a cab lest you be robbed and killed by fake policemen. Are you proud, mom?? No, in reality, it is safe, you just have to be careful, like in every other city in the world. So no worries, very safe here. I am actually overly paranoid most of the time, you will be happy to know. So I will report on La Paz as soon as I get out of this car trunk. Besos!