Monday, 25 June 2012

Bolivia is worth its salt: Potosi and the Southwest Circuit

Potosi, like many of the places we've been visiting lately, is a high altitude city, meaning it's pretty cold at this time of year. The city was founded as a silver mining town in the mid-1500s and it rapidly became one of the largest and richest cities of South America. The mines are still active today but the silver has long since been depleted from Cerro Rico (the rich mountain). Nowadays, less profitable tin ore is mined by various cooperatives and the city is not quite so rich. In fact, the conditions in the mines are described as hellish, which seems accurate when you consider adverse health effects (silicosis) that claim the lives of many coop workers. Touring the mines is possible but we decided not to since we were both recovering from recent lung infections. We heard from other travellers that it was an eye-opening experience.

We did do a tour of the Bolivian National Mint (the Casa de Moneda). It was a great museum, housed in the factory that was the mint (not the original - that was shut down after some sort of scandal), showcasing relics from the initial days of coin-making including human and animal-powered machines that were used to hammer and later screw-press coins, showing the progression to more advanced steam-powered technology. The Mint also has some seemingly unrelated, although very interesting, collections of religious art, silver and tin artisan works, skulls, mummies (including some of very small children...), pottery, rocks and other artifacts.

Coin-making machinery at the Bolivian National Mint.

Overall, Potosi was a pleasant city with some nice cafes and decent restaurants; more than I'd expected from a mining town. We also stayed at a great hostal where we caught some eurocup games with fellow travellers and enjoyed a cozy room that came with a gas heater free of charge!

View from the roof terrace of our hostel in Potosi. That's Cerro Rico in the background.

From Potosi we caught a night bus south to Tupiza, arriving at the ungodly hour of about 3am. We'd made a reservation at a hotel for the night and were extremely relieved when the night staff opened the door promptly at our ring. Unfortunately our room was freezing cold and there was no heater so we didn't have a great sleep anyway. The next morning we had our first glimpse of the gorgeous colorful surroundings of Tupiza. Described as an authentic cowboy town, the multitude of cacti, dusty streets, and red, orange, purple and yellow rocky mountains certainly conjured images of the wild west. Tupiza is also near where the infamous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their demise. So it's pretty authentic I guess.

We spent some time relaxing at our hotel, watching soccer games and catching up with blogs/emails, etc. The days were sunny and warm so we often parked ourselves on the pool deck to read for a few hours. Tragically, the pool wasn't heated. Or rather, it was "solar heated", meaning that whatever the weak sunrays did to heat it was what you got. Chris braved a dip one afternoon but I think it took about 45 minutes for his goosebumps to disappear.

We had our biggest laundry fiasco yet using the hotel's laundry service. We ended up with one surplus sweatshirt and were missing one of Chris's T-shirts and one pair of my socks. We returned the sweatshirt and asked about the other items but the hotel staff were not able to locate either in the remaining clean laundry bags. I'll confess I wasn't overly saddened about the loss of Chris's shirt - it has "Michigan" across the front and often results in us being mistaken for Americans. Gasp. But it was still a good shirt and annoying to lose when he's carrying so few to begin with. My missing socks were expensive ones bought in Peru for hiking and handy for cold bus rides. Chris's shirt eventually turned up but my socks were nowhere to be found. I asked for compensation but the hotel balked when I told them the socks were new and worth $25. Their counteroffer was to give us the night we'd first arrived (at 3am) for free. Oddly, the value of that was more than $25 so we were a little unclear about their logic but we didn't complain. I'm still mad about the socks though.

Some views of Tupiza from the roof of our hotel.

Not wanting to leave Tupiza without tapping some of the gaucho mystique, we booked a 7 hour horseback tour of Tupiza's countryside. We were retrieved from our hotel by an adolescent Bolivian dude, sporting suspiciously uber-lowrise jeans that made him look more like a rapper than a cowboy. We followed him several blocks to a ranch-ish property where some other young punks were working on getting the horses ready. One horse reared and took off, kicking and whinnying across the field when faced with the prospect of accepting a bit. Not exactly confidence-inspiring. We were definitely feeling a little wary as we took in the low quality of the tack and the difficulty the barely post-pubescent staff were having. Eventually everything was ready and we mounted up despite harbouring some residual apprehensions.

We made our way to the edge of the city and our guide (the same adolescent dude that picked us up from the hotel) was surprisingly adept at chasing away the numerous feral dogs that charged out of bushes, yards, and gutters as we rode by. The beautiful, dry landscape rolled out before us. The incredible richness of colors was astonishing. The first bit of the ride was along a gravel road with a fair bit of large truck traffic. Kind of dodgy considering how skittish our horses were but we managed not to get thrown. We ducked down a trail into a valley and followed the dusty tracks of those who had come before us. We stopped at the narrow entrance to a quebrada with fiercely red cliffs and dismounted for some photos. It was so quiet back in the canyon. The only sounds were the horses shifting their weight and chewing their bits.


Despite the blazing sun it wasn't overly hot. I guess it IS winter in South America. We continued on our ride, noting after the first episode of cantering that our horses were not the smoothest runners and began praying that there would be few stretches of speed. Despite our discomfort, the scenery was amazing. We stopped for lunch near a milky jade-colored river bordered by spiky rock formations. There were a million goats (and a few sheep masquerading as goats) mowing the sparse grass along the river bank. They were interested in our lunch as well but we only shared with the couple of scrawny dogs that stopped by to see what we were all about.

Our butts were already sore by lunchtime and we were wondering why we'd booked a 7 hour trip but we had no choice but to get back on the horses and continue along the loop back to Tupiza. This stretch involved several crossings of the river, most of which were completed without issue but there were a few stumbles and splashings that nearly ended in complete dousings. We followed the river as it wound past other interesting rock formations and the many farmlands that exploit the fertile soils of the valley. It was apparently time for the carrot harvest because we saw sacks and sacks of them along our route. Lots of people hard at work too. Families, with their wawas (babies) propped up in blankets near the sacks.

Do I look like a legit a cowgirl?

Train tunnel. Just before we came through this we encountered a group of three guys,
one of whom was carrying a rifle. Totally thought we were going to get ambushed in the tunnel, Wild West style.

We could literally barely walk after making it back to Tupiza. I think 5 hours is my max for horseback riding... especially on a makeshift saddle! But we did see some amazing sights. Chris had the foresight to suggest we plan a down day before heading out on our tour of southwest Bolivia. Our asses and backs were everso grateful! If only the pool had been heated!!

We'd booked a 4-day 4X4 tour with Tupiza Tours, specially requesting Marco as a guide based on rave reviews from Scott and Katherine, whom we met on the Isla del Sol trip. The itinerary included stops at several unique lagunas, volcanoes, ruins, villages, and geyers, culminating with a day at the Salar de Uyuni: the world's largest salt flat. Colin and Michelle (French and Irish, respectively but now living in London) were our tourmates in the same vehicle but we also hung out with fellow Tupiza-tourers, Yann and Kate (French and Canadian/Austrailian, respectively but most recently abiding in Vancouver). The latter couple shared their vehicle with a German couple who we spent some time with but they were a bit odd and kept to themselves a lot of the time.

The first day we saw the Quebrada de Palala, notable for its incredibly tall red rock needles stretching up into the crystal blue sky over the desert, and El Sillar (the valley of the moon), named as such for its lunar-esque landscape of peaks and craters. We passed some tiny mining villages where cooperatives mine gold and antimony. The colors of the mountains were unreal. Every color of the rainbow was there. I couldn't stop thinking about Skittles for some reason. Maybe that whole "Taste the Rainbow" campaign or something. There were also these thick grassy bushes everywhere that reminded me of Treasure Troll hair. Some of you will know what I'm talking about.

Wandering around the town where we stopped for lunch. 

Altiplano finches. 

We spent the night in the tiny village of San Antonio de Lipez, located at 4260 m above sea level. It was a chilly night but we had hot soup with our dinner, prepared by Maria, our ride-along cook for the tour. We even got a mini-concert from some local boys who did their best to play some pipe flutes in harmony and sing for a bit of pocket money. After dinner and that unexpected bit of entertainment we started a game of cards with the group. This became our nightly routine on the tour. Chris and I started playing rummy together fairly recently but it was nice to add a few more people and play something different. We played "Asshole", which some of you will be familiar with. It was during the first round that I learned about left-handed cards. This concept has never occurred to me before. I never realized that is why some decks have markings on all four corners of the card and some don't. It's for lefties who hold their cards in their right hand while playing! You can't see the markings if it's a "right-handed" deck. Seriously, this was a revelation for me. And it only came about because Yann, in the way typical of the French, complained that my deck wasn't made for lefties (good-naturedly, of course). Anyway, as usual, I've digressed.

Church of San Antonio de Lipez. 

San Antonio de Lipez from above. We hiked up for a view just before sunset. 

The stars of the Milky Way.
Amazing what you can see when there's no light pollution!
Chris had to brave pretty cold temps to get this shot though. 
Day 2 started at early with a visit to the abandoned town of San Antonio before sunrise. It was surprisingly large and had architecture ranging from before and after the arrival of the Spaniards. We then drove through some more scenic areas including a stop at the borax-rich Kollpa Laguna. A little further on we changed into our swimsuits and braved the icy winds to take a dip in a pool fed by the Rio Amargo hot springs. It was awesome! I didn't want to get out. Ever.

We are high up! And tall!

Marshy area that we crossed on foot after our drivers suggested we take a little walk...
the grassy islands were mostly frozen but I still managed to get my feet soaked when I chose my route poorly. 

Frozen shoreline of Laguna Hedionda Sur.

The 4X4s. Ours was the silver.

Laguna Kollpa. The white stuff is borax, aka sodium borate or sodium tetraborate, an important compound with a wide variety of uses including as a component of detergents, cosmetics, fire retardants, and as an buffer for use in artificial biological systems (that last one is particularly close to my heart).

Mining borax.

Ahh the hot springs!! So nice. But the building on the right wasn't actually open for changing so we had to
make a mad dash to our clothes in the frigid wind and try to dress as unscandalously as possible. 

The laguna into which the hot springs flow. 
After a quick lunch we drove through the picturesque Desierto de Dali. The colors of the surrounding mountains made me think of two things. First, pistachios. They were exactly those colors of green and purple and sometimes pinky and the sand was the color of pistachio shells. The other thing I thought of was the greasy sheen of oil on a puddle. All those slightly muted colors doing a formidable job of mimicking iridescence. Amazing.  A short jaunt south brought us to Laguna Verde, which was in fact very green. The afternoon had grown even windier so we weren't able to see the lake in its apparently magnificent placid state but it was still remarkable. FYI, it's green because it's full of arsenic and magnesium. Mmmm. Anyone for a dip?? Picture perfect Volcan Licancabur solemnly overlooks the laguna, its black volcanic rock slopes contrasted by the bright white snowcapped peak.

Lithified ignimbrites (volcanic ash and pumice solidified into rock formations) in the desert.

Where should we go next?

Me with Michelle and Colin in the desert.

Marco said this is called the range of seven colors. I reckon that's an underestimate!

Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur in the background.
Next we visited the sulfur springs field of Sol de Manana, an area known for intense volcanic activity. Our itinerary listed them as geysers but they were only steam holes. True geysers eject water and vapor (thanks Wikipedia). The landscape was out of this world nonetheless. From there we went to our final stop for the day - Laguna Colorada or "red-colored" lake. It was so bizarre. Like a lake of blood! The red color is from rust-colored sediments and a red-colored algae. The lake also has borax islands and flamingos!!

"Geysers". Sulfurs vents in Sol de Manana.

It's chilly at 5000 meters above sea level.

Laguna Colorada (red-colored lake). The red color is from sediment and algae.

Flamingos! Borax island in the back right.

We spent the night in the village of Huaylljara (yah, I don't know how to pronounce it either). A freezing cold night!!! Temperatures dipped to nearly -20 below zero and our very basic accommodations did not have heat. We slept in several layers of clothing in sleeping bags under 4 blankets. What survivors! We awoke to frosty windows and the unpleasantness of getting changed in extra crisp air. Brrrrr!

First stop on Day 3 was an area of interesting rock formations featuring the sacred Arbol de Piedra (stone tree). It was a neat place and we did a little bouldering (with gloves on because it was still freezing cold out). We continued north passing a series of lagunas and finally catching a glimpse of the impressive, smoking Volcan Ollague.

Arbol de Peidra - the stone tree.

Icy laguna.

Nice graphics...

More flamingos! In an icy lake! Who knew they could survive outside hot places like Florida or the Galapagos.

Nice shot of Michelle and Colin at our lunch spot.

The Salar de Chiguana.

Railway cutting through the salar. It's used for transport of goods between Chile and Bolivia.

We spent our third night in a salt hotel in the village of San Juan on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni - the world's largest salt flat and our final destination. By salt hotel I mean that the walls, tables, chairs, floors, and beds were all made of salt. It was pretty cool!

Hallway in the salt hotel.

Dining area complete with salt tables and stools.

Our (messy) room with salt walls and beds.
We arose very early on day 4 in order to take in sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni. It was cold but spectacular. At first it looked just like we were driving through a massive field of snow. It was certainly cold enough! Once the sun was up you could see the characteristic hexagons of the salt. The vastness of the flat was mind-blowing. It just went forever and ever. You could see mountains in the distance but the pure white flatness was overwhelming. It was also alarming when Marco explained that the salt does not rest on a bedrock but there is actually a saline lake beneath the crust. A lake of up to 10 meters deep. Under a salt crust ranging from 2 to 20 meters thick. Huh. I guess it was enough to support our jeep. After sunrise we visited the Isla del Pescado in the middle of the salt flat and hiked up its rocky slopes, admiring the giant, ancient cacti. Some of the cacti are a millennium old! The terrain itself is quite remarkable, having been formed from corals and marine shells. 

A red sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni.

Sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni.

Giant cactus on the Isla de Pescado.

Isla de Pescado (also known as Incahuasi)

After a chilly breakfast on the island (I think we were cold for 90% of this tour) it was time for shenanigans. The salt flat is a great place to set up photographic optical illusions. We tried our hand at a few before one of the guides showed us the ropes. Unfortunately most of those photos are on our friends' cameras because the trick to taking a convincing shot was to get the camera below the surface of the salt flat. This meant finding an Ojo de Agua, a hole in the crust where the saline water seeped through, prostrating oneself and carefully holding the camera in the hole above the water. Of course, Chris wasn't overly keen to try this with his new camera.

Yann has us in the palms of his hands.

Our tour group with the two cooks in the middle.

Salt piles drying out before being manually transferred to trucks and transported to processing facilities in the nearby village of Colchani.
The final, albeit impromptu, stop on our tour was the train cemetery just outside Uyuni. There the hollow husks of steam engines are rusting away in the dusty desert winds but i'ts still a sight to behold. Uyuni is an important railway hub, serving as a junction between Oruro, Potosi, Calama (Chile), and Villazon (at the Argentine border).

The train cemetery outside Uyuni.

The Southwest Circuit and our visit to the Salar to Uyuni were beyond a doubt one of the highlights of our South American adventure. I highly recommend planning a trip to this area. In many ways it truly was like visiting another planet. 

We spent a few days in Uyuni, warming up after our chilly tour (only thanks to a small electric heater we rented from our hotel - Uyuni itself was still very cold). There wasn't much to the town but we did have a few decent meals. We also thought it would be a good idea to load up on a few more blankets and table cloths to send home as gifts and souveniers before we left inexpensive Bolivia. We found a really nice shop and set about examining several of the textiles and trying on some sweaters before the proprietor, a guy in his early 20s, showed up and started yelling at us. It was very confusing but I guess he was mad that we were touching things and trying them on. Strange considering that's normally how you go about selecting purchases and this store was no different than dozens we'd been in before. Not like it was a china shop or something. Affronted by his unwarranted attack we left without buying anything, wondering how the hell he ever got any business if he didn't permit more than looking. Who buys clothes without trying them on or even unfolding the item to see the pattern? Strange. 

It bears mentioning that we had perhaps the best laundry service of our trip in Uyuni. Not taking any chances after our experience in Tupiza, we made itemized lists of our laundry contents, which we gave the clerk when we dropped off our bags. We had no problems. Everything was returned, nicely folded AND they used fabric softener. Our clothes smelled fabulous!!! Better than they've smelled in 6 months. I couldn't stop sniffing my sweater, my toque, my pajamas. Trust me, little things like this grow in importance after a few months of travelling!

Eventually it was time to move on so we bought our bus tickets to Calama and prepared to say goodbye to Bolivia. We caught our bus at the ungodly hour of 4am and snoozed for the 4 hour trip to the border. We arrived just before 8 and waited a while for the control station to open. We'd actually obtained our exit stamps in Uyuni but the bus driver didn't understand when I tried to explain that so we wandered over to the office to confirm we had all the necessary paperwork taken care of. We then returned to the bus to wait for our transfer to the Chilean border control. And wait we did. For FOUR hours. In the middle of the desolate, freezing cold altiplano. On a bus with no heat. Talk about a long goodbye to Bolivia. 

Finally our bus showed up, we transferred our luggage and were driven to the Chilean control point. We completed the required documents but it ended up taking 2 hours to clear the control point for no apparent reason. There was no one else at the border and only half a dozen people on our bus. No idea what the delay was but the staff just seemed disinterested in attending to us. Fun fun. We finally reboarded the bus and started to leave the border town when our bus suddenly turned around and went back. We were unceremoniously informed that we were stopping for almuerzo (lunch). Okay. Turned out to be a pretty tasty meal and we enjoyed the company of a super chatty indigenous woman from Chile who was not discouraged in the least when I told her we didn't speak much Spanish. 

At last we were en route to Calama. Our month (plus or minus 6 hours) in Bolivia had come to an end. I'll say it again - go to Bolivia! It's beautiful and one of the most inexpensive places to travel in the world. 

1 comment:

  1. That's a lot of pictures haha.

    A moment of silence for Ange's socks (but not Chris' shirt?).

    Love that Milky Way shot. Was it time exposed at all!?