Saturday, September 19, 2009

Possibly the weirdest place in the world

Salt into the distance

A bumpy 7 hour drive on dirt roads from Potosi brought us to the dusty town of Uyuni. Endurance, dust, and cold are three general themes we have come to expect when visiting many of the starkly beautiful areas of the Bolivian altiplano (high plains). Our three day tour of the salt flat and desert of southeastern Bolivia met those expectations and then some. After piling our belongings on the roof of a Toyota Land Cruiser and cramming 6 tourists, a driver, and a cook into its tight quarters, we set out to explore. I think Land Cruisers would be crowded with 7 people, so us 8 occupants got to know each other quite quickly. We made a quick stop at the 'train graveyard' littered with rusty wrecks of abandoned steam engines before heading into the blinding white sea of salt called the Salar de Uyuni. Distant mountains hovered like alien spaceships above the salt flats from the mirages, and we stopped at a strange cactus-covered island for lunch. The brilliant sun reflecting off the white salt almost could make us forget the below-freezing night-time temperatures.

Fish Island, Salar de Uyuni

Driving for several hours after lunch we left the Salar and headed into a desolate landscape. Rocks sculpted by the wind and hardy shrubs dotted the desert. We made a quick stop in the Galaxy Caves to view fossilized seaweed and pre-Inca burial tombs before driving three more hours to the tiny town of San Pedro. The sun was setting as we pulled into our simple hostel, and we think the bare lightbulbs in our rooms were the only lights in the whole village. The generator clunked off around 10 pm, so our group quietly went to bed anticipating an early start the next morning. So far from any cities or lights, the Milky Way spilled across the black night sky.

Sunset over the desert

The landscape continued to become more varied and bizarre as we headed south toward the Argentinian and Chilean borders of Bolivia. Colored lagunas were filled with chattering flamingos, llamas and vicuñas grazed the barren hillsides, and foxes and the adorable Pokemon-like chinchillas darted among rocks and bushes. While in some ways we felt like this was the farthest we had traveled from 'civilization,' the clouds of dust kicked up by the constant stream of tourists being ferried in caravans of 4x4s around the desert reminded us we were not exactly off the beaten trail.

Flamingos feasting in one of the many lagunas

We realized we didn't know cold until our second night in the 4,500 m high altitude desert when we were trying to sleep in unheated concrete structures. Our driver woke us at the painful dark hour of 4 am and bundled us into the truck for an hour-long drive to a weird volcanic moonscape of steam geysers, bubbling mud pots, and searing cold winds. As the horizon lightened with the rising sun we continued to natural hot-baths that attracted llamas and flamingos to their welcoming warmth. The feeling returned to our fingers and toes as we ate a big breakfast before driving through the Desiertos de Siloli and Salvador Dali. Multicolored mountain and volcano peaks towered over the sandy wasteland, complete with a brilliant green laguna supporting more pink flamingos.

No idea how this rock ended up in the middle of the desert

After visiting the hot spring, desert, and laguna, we still had 7 hours of driving in front of us. Packed in between my fellow tourists in the tiny space I felt hypnotized by the constantly rocking Land Cruiser as it skidded down sandy roads and lurched over rocks. Filthy and wind-burnt we rumbled into Uyuni in the evening, gratefully devoured a large pizza, had a quick shower, and enjoyed an uninterrupted and relatively warm night sleep at our hostel. We took faithful caballo out for a spin on the Salar the next day, but otherwise recuperated in our hotel room. Tomorrow we start a 1000 mile grind to Mendoza Argentina to meet our friends Tom and Kelsey.

Exploring volcanic mud pots at 5 am in the freezing windy cold

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Into the depths of hell in Potosi, Bolivia

Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia

After spending a relaxing week in Sucre, Potosi was a bit of a rude awakening. Sucre is one of the wealthiest cities in Bolivia, and at a low elevation boasts beautiful warm days and comfortable cool nights. On the other hand, Potosi is the world's highest city at 4,060 m (13,300 ft), so is frigidly cold, and also is home to some of the grimmest mines in the world. Potosi was once the largest and wealthiest city in South America because of its rich silver mines that were fully exploited by the Spanish. Up to 8 million people, mainly indigenous and African slave laborers, died in the mines at the hands of the Spanish. One of the tools the Spanish used against their Quechua speaking slaves was to threaten vengeance from their god, 'Dios' in Spanish, if the slaves didn't work hard enough. The Quechua language lacks the letter 'd', so 'Dios' became 'Tio.' The silver is now depleted from the mine and Potosi's colonial architecture is crumbling away, but miners continue to work the mines for less valuable minerals in dangerous and extremely difficult conditions. Like their distant descendants, they still ask Tio for compassion, safety, and wealth.

Dynamite, ammonium nitrate, and a fuse

Mine tours in Potosi try to show a slice of the miner's life, and after 3 hours I was fully convinced I would last less than a day in the mines. We first visited the miner's market to buy presents for the miners. Shelves stacked floor to ceiling were brimming with sticks of dynamite, bags of ammonium nitrate, and fuses. Our enthusiastic guide, formerly a miner, demonstrated a fuse to us in the store. We nervously watched as he waved the sparking wire around what seemed to us a huge bomb of a store. After purchasing these lethal bomb-making ingredients, we headed to a nearby stand to buy coca leaves, 190 proof alcohol, and cigarettes. All of these would be distributed to any miners we met during our tour. As the miners do not eat in the mines and sometimes spend 24 hours straight underground, they go through bags of coca leaves a day, which they use as an appetite suppressant and energy booster.

Chris shoveling minerals with the miners

We then drove to a mine entrance and entered on foot. The snaking tunnels were barely 5 feet tall in many sections and filled with water and dust. We climbed rickety ladders and crawled through narrow sections to descend into the mine. Chris helped shovel minerals into huge carts the miners push by hand down rusty rails. We also sat in the tunnels with some miners for half an hour to share alcohol, chew coca leaves, and learn more about their lives in the mines. We emerged from the mines after 2 hours exhausted, filthy, and choking on dust. As a special treat to conclude the tour our guide blew up a stick of dynamite outside the mine. That people can spend much of their (often short) working lives in these mines is really beyond belief. A hot shower and big lunch later we still felt so tired we spent the afternoon napping and reading in our hostel rather than visiting any of the local museums or churches. We head next to the salt flats of Uyuni to experience another harsh yet more beautiful location in Bolivia.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

You know you're at a Latin American fiesta when...

Marching bands serenading the Virgin of Guadalupe

...there are marching bands in the streets and fireworks 24 hours a day. We found ourselves in a familiar situation the first night we arrived in Sucre, Bolivia. The drive from chilly La Paz to (relatively) balmy Sucre was uneventful except we finally had to pay our first bribe. We think we got caught by the only radar gun in all of Bolivia, so we handed over $7 'for gas money' and two chocolate power bars to clear our passage. We arrived in Sucre just hours before the streets were flooded by crowds of dancers and marching bands practicing for the main festival event coming up in a week. We immediately appreciated the warm evening air and the beautiful architecture after freezing for a month hectic La Paz.

Kristin with Ignacio and his wonderful mother

We were also looking forward to finally meeting our virtual friend, Ignacio, in person. Over a year ago, Ignacio contacted us through this blog, offering to act as our host when we arrived in Sucre. After reaching him on his cell phone and meeting him for dinner at a local restaurant, we quickly got to know the 'unofficial mayor' of Sucre. It is hard for Ignacio to walk down the streets of Sucre without being constantly stopped by his many friends and colleagues. We met his lovely family for lunch at his mother's house the next day, and were interviewed by Sucre's newspaper, Correo del Sur, as Ignacio is friends with some of the editors.

Parade of decorated cars for the Festival of the Virgen of Guadalupe

While we had originally planned to stay in Sucre for only a couple of days, we extended our stay past a week when we learned about Sucre's annual Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The patron saint of Sucre, the city devotes several days of elaborate church services, parades, music and dancing to celebrate the Virgin. The party started on Tuesday with a parade of the jewel-encrusted Virgin through the streets followed by the ubiquitous marching bands and eardrum shattering fireworks. As an interesting twist to the traditional Latin American festival, a line of uniquely decorated cars snaked around the city following the parading Virgin. Decked out with colorful cloths, dolls, stuffed animals, pots, pans, and silverware, the cars were decorated as thanks and prayers for success.

Children dance and sing in the streets for the festival

The festival continued through the weekend. On Friday huge groups of school children from kindergarten through highschool paraded miles around the city. Dressed in brilliant costumes representing the many traditional clothing and dancing styles of Bolivia, in a test of endurance the kids danced for 6 hours before ending up at the main catheral for a quick blessing in front of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Not to be outdone, the adults followed suit the next day starting at 8 am. Fireworks, marching bands, glittering costumes and amazing choreography, they boogied through the streets and the party didn't end until around 3 am. We found Ignacio in the main square that afternoon, danced in the streets with the exhausted but still enthusiastic marchers, and met more of his good friends. Several of them extended invitations to their houses for brunch the next morning, but unfortunately we had to turn them down since we were leaving early the next morning for Uyuni. We loved Sucre for its lovely weather, amazing traditions, and beautiful architecture, but want to also thank Ignacio and his many friends for being so welcoming.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Deathly roads and witches markets

Children parade in traditional dress in La Paz

Fully recovered from our lengthy battle with intestinal parasites, we were finally ready to leave our hotel room and explore La Paz. We spent a sunny afternoon wandering the hilly streets with Ana of the local tourgroup Downhill Madness as our guide. Walking just a block from our hostel Ana explained many of the mysterious objects for sale in the witches market - llama fetuses for good luck, pottery effigies for curses, and herbs for ailments of any kind. We walked through narrow streets lined with crumbling colonial facades and choked by the jankiest looking electrical wiring. Afterwards, a quick taxi ride up to the 'mirador' (look-out) provided a great view of the city. Tall skyscrapers clustered in the middle of the valley were surrounded by brick houses with sheet-metal roofs climbing all the way up the steep cliffs. As a random but fun addition to the tour we visited the zoo and rented 4x4s to roar around the dusty trails surrounding the zoo - another 'would never have been able to do this in the US' moment. No waiver, no down payment, and no rules. We drove around for 15 minutes, which cost us 20 Bolivianos or $3 USD.

Witches market in La Paz

We also braved one of the 'must-do' tourist trips for those visiting La Paz - biking the 'Death Road.' Named the Yungas road, this narrow dirt road snakes its way down from La Paz to the jungle town of Coroico. Until 2006, the Yungas road was the only connection between La Paz and the Amazonian rain forest of northern Bolivia. In 1995 it was dubbed the most dangerous road in the world by the Inter-American Development Bank due to many factors including its death toll. One estimate is that 200-300 people were killed every year on this 40 mile stretch. Once on the road, it is easy to see why the road is so dangerous. The road is cut into sheer cliffs that drop 2000 ft (600m) to the narrow river valley below. Waterfalls pour off the cliffs above and onto the gravel roadbed over large sections. Mudslides and low visibility due to thick fog are common along the route. There are no guard rails, and most of the road, at 10 feet (3.2 m) wide, is barely wide enough for one vehicle. Because of these extreme conditions, unique driving rules apply - vehicles drive on the left side of the road. Since the cliffs plunge off the left side of the road, drivers can stick their heads out the window to see how many inches they can spare without having their wheels slip off the edge. It also forces the drivers heading downhill to slow down, as they are risking their necks driving on the outer edge. In the past, this road was filled with trucks and buses causing even more danger. A new paved road that takes an alternate route complete with two lanes, bridges, and tunnels was finished in 2006, so today very little vehicle traffic travels the Death Road. After battling some hairy roads in Peru, we were hesitant to take this trip until we talked to Adam, a tour guide we met at our hotel. After he explained that this was a highlight of the trip for most people on his tour and that we wouldn't be competing with large trucks and buses trying to pass each other, we decided to brave the trip.

Getting ready to start at La Cumbre

The bike ride down the Death Road starts at the breathtaking (literally) height of 15,000 ft (4,600 m) at La Cumbre. Here a giant statue of Jesus, arms outstretched, looks down the valley and the deadliest road in the world. Truck and bus drivers about to take the plunge stop here to make offerings for a safe trip. We suited up in helmets, windpants, and every available layer as it was windy and below freezing. The road is paved for the first 18 miles (30 km), so we sped down through the brittle sunlight, passed only by a couple of trucks. The wreckage of a bus was visible 1000 feet below after one sharp curve in the road. The barren mountains slowly turned green and the sun was obscured by fog as we split off from the new paved road and headed down the old Death Road. We only passed one foolhardy car the entire way down to the bottom of the valley - oddly enough an old BMW with a blond in the passenger seat. Stopping every 20 minutes to regroup, eat a snack, or shed some unnecessary layers of clothing, the air grew humid and the vegetation wildly fertile. While the road was comfortably wide for mountain biking, it really was incomprehensible to us that buses and trucks used to form traffic jams on its narrowest sections.

Whizzing down the 30 km paved stretch of the death road

Two malfunctioning rear brakes and one broken chain later we made it to the bottom without major incident. We gratefully changed into bathing suits and lounged around the pool of a local hotel that hosted our group for a couple of hours. We then sadly left the warmth of the Bolivian jungle and drove back to frigid La Paz on the new highway. We head for the colonial city of Sucre at the end of the week.

Not much room for error

The website has a great article on the old Yungas road, which recounts some people's stories about the road. Here are some of my favorites:
-The bus I'm riding in slides to a stop. The driver asks us not to move. We realize that the front right wheel of the vehicle is hanging over the edge of a fathomless drop. We vacate through the driver's emergency door and fifteen of us help to pull the bus backwards onto the road again.

-A friend of mine loses concentration for a moment at the wheel and rolls his car and its occupants 700 feet to the bottom of a gully. Some are badly injured, but, fortunately, all survive (this time, seatbelts save lives).

-Another friend gets out of her car to relieve herself and steps into thin air. Her body must be recovered by rockclimbers.