06/03/2002 La Paz
After the small hotel breakfast we wander around in the streets of La Paz and notice that the streets are turned into a big market. You can find almost anything here, from underwear to leather jackets, cd adapters to watches, fruits and veggies, pots and pans, lamps and plugs, even complete lunches. But we don't want to start shopping before we know how we can get things home to Belgium. The book says that Lufthansa cargo is not to expensive to send parcels to Europe. We walk all the way down the avenues and up and down streets of the city and all we get in their office is a telephone number. We quickly find out that the Bolivian post is much cheaper and should be enough quality of delivery. We decide to by lots of presents and send a parcel from here before leaving town. In La Condeza we get a tasty lunch for only 8 Bolivares, just a little bit more than 1 US$. In the afternoon I get my hair cut, professional and complete for only 3,5 Bolivares ! Bolivia is the cheapest country of South America, and you can notice that quite easily. In the evening we meet half Russian, half Portugese Sacha for dinner and some beers.
07/03/2002 La Paz
Today we go to visit one of the prisons in La Paz. It is not a personal visit to somebody we know are want to give some social support. The tour inside is organized by an American inmate who got caught transporting 750 kilos of white powder. He guides us around the different cell blocks, or better 'living communities' as they prefer to say. Every different community or block has its own social structure, leader and work opportunities. Everybody in there has to work, cannot steal and has to take a shower everyday. If somebody does something wrong, the leader of the block punishes the person physically. No guards are walking around the blocks, they only guard the main entrance and outer wall. No money or food is provided by the prison to the prisoners, they have to self foresee. But women and children are allowed inside, with food clothes, utilities, whatever. If you get put in prison you will by send to a 1 star cell block, where you get a job (cleaning, cooking, ...) a free room and a small salary. If you have enough money or when you save enough money you can buy yourself into a 2 star cell block, open your own business ( a shop, shoe repair man, restaurant, ...)... So the highest way up is to the 5 star block, where they can enjoy cinema, aerobic classes given by nice girls, a sushi restaurant, pool hall, cable tv, football plaza, ITalian restaurant (with real parmeggiano), ... Not bad for a prison, I would say.
08/03/2002 the death road
At 8 am we are at the office of ecojungle-tours and jump in the van. On the roof or 7 mountain bikes. In the van 4 tourists ready to go for one of the most dangerous car roads in the world. The road between La Cumbre, at 4800 meters above sea level, and Coroico at only 1200 meters is spectacularly cut out of the side of a steep mountain range. Some buses and trucks are to big to be able to take the road and yearly some 100 people die. Rescue attempts are difficult and unnecessary as the drop down is to deep and buses who drive in fall 100 meters and more. To do this down hill with a bike is definitely more safe then with car or bus as downhill traffic is bound to drive on the left which is the ridge side. After a short briefing and security instructions we leave with 4 and a guide up front. The first part is paved and a 45 minute blast down. Then the muddy part starts and the weather gets warmer. After the lunch break the real death road part starts. We pass many crosses and memorial plates during a 3 hour thrill down. Every half hour we can remove more clothes as the altiplano is making place for jungle. At some point we see a bus try to pass a piece where a mudslide removed a part of the road. I'm happy to be on a small bike, driving myself. Early in the afternoon we reach the bottom of the trip and clean up. The minibus brings us up to the town of Coroico, where the climate is much warmer and enjoyable then on the altiplano. That is why there are some nice hostels with swimming pool, and the reason why we stay here !
We go for a swim in the swimming pool, and read and relax all the day. In the evening I by some wine from the local nuns, but we discover quite quickly that it isn't the best of choices. It tastes quite sour and too strong, more like a portwine. In the evening we go to the restaurant of a French couple, recommended for their steak with french fries. For the first time in months we eat some real Belgian food again, and enjoy it a lot.
We don't know if it was the wine are the change in food quality, but both me and Sofie feel bad. Stomach cramps and diarrea again. We stay in almost all day and have to postpone our return to La Paz for at least a day. We don't want to get in the minibus for 4 hours on the bumpy death road.
The cramps are over so we get a bus ticket and go back to La Paz. Just after 15 minutes the busdriver has to drive backwards quickly as some stones are falling down from the hill. He asks a volunteer to check the road for falling stones so he can concentrate on driving through quickly. Nothing happens and the volunteer returns safely back in the car.
Back in the big city we book a ticket for the next day to Tiahuanacu, an archeological site with museum near the Titicaca lake.
The minibus drives us to the site some 20 kilometers from La Paz, and on the way we stop at a traditional cow market. The locals look a little it suspicious to us strangers walking around in their daily life scenes. When we arrive at the site the sun is shining and we first take a quick look at the museum. Some temples and altars were found here, with some of the most interesting monoliths in the region. The Tiahuanacu culture probably had their ceremonial and religious center here. Some statues depict gods, others represent the person buried their. Some theories claim that the parts discovered are build over the lost city of Atlantis.
When we get back from the site we see Nick and Nick, the two english guys we haven't seen since northern Peru. We find them quickly in front of the nearby hostal were they stay and decide to go for some food together. They are finishing their South American trip in just a few days to return to 'real' life in the UK.
12/03/2002 La Paz
We finish our shopping list and go to the post office with 12 kilos of stuff to be sent home. The price to sent a parcel home is quite ok. Now let's hope the home crowd will be happy with it. We don't want to bring home presents from Venezuela only, and we don't want to drag around presents from Peru and Bolivia for 4 more months so ... I don't only sent presents home but also some clothes and books I don't need anymore. In the evening we meat Ingo and Ariana again and play some card games until very early in the morning.
13/03/2002 to Potosi
It is time to move on and we take the evening bus to Potosi, the mining city of Bolia. It used to be the mining capital of the Spaniards in colonial times as there was so much silver that it was one of the most prosperous colonial cities in these times. They still have a spanish expresion that says 'as rich as a Potosi'. nowadays the mines don't bring much silver any more and are mostly used by small families for extracting all kinds of minerals.
After a very long journey over the altiplano and through the mud, we finally arrive in Potosi, only 5 hours to late. Another bus got stuck on the road in the middle of the night and all the following buses had to wait for the morning light to see the bus pulled out by a tractor. We check in a nice cheap hostal and take a hot shower before going sightseeing.
In the center of town is the old 'casa de la moneda' or the house of the coins. In colonial times the Spanish used to produce the money of Bolivia and other countries here. The silver found in the mountains was still used untill late 19th century for medals and special coins. The museum shows the evolution of the production process, from the (ab)use of slaves in the beginning to the modern presses of the 20th century. After the interesting tour we check out the tour agencies for a visit to the mines. Most offer the tour at the same price, around 25 to 35 Bolivianos, but one agency which is very recommended costs more than the double. They should go deeper in the mines, giving most of their profits to the miners. Too bad they don't have any group yet, and Sofie decides not to risk going in the small shafts because of her fear of small places (claustrofobia). Finally I decide to check it out early in hte morning as they all leave around the same time, I could do a last minute booking anyway. In the evening we don't eat much as both our stomachs are upset, from the long busride or the food ...
16/03/2002 Potosi mine visit
I get up early and go to the tour agencies. I get a last minute price for a group that would leave at 11 am, later than the regular groups, because the rest of the group is doing a guided tour in the casa de la moneda museum first. They will pick me up at the hostal so I go back and have some breakfast with Sofie. At 11 a taxi picks me up and in it is the guide (a nice girl) a little boy and a Belgian girl that also wants to do the tour. It seems that the other group was staying longer in the museum so we get a small group instead, not bad. We drive up the hill in direction of the 'cerro rico' or rich mountain. On the way we stop to put on rainpans for the mud, boots, a helmet with lamp and battery. Then we go to the miners market and the guide tells us to by some presents fot
the miners. Soda drinks, coca leaves, sigarettes, 96 % pure alcohol or dynamite ! With the Belgian girl we decide to get drinks sigarettes and coca leaves. We don't really feel comfortable bying dynamite. With the taxi we continue to the rich mountain and stop close to one of the many entrances. The little boy is learning to be a guide and helps us carrying the presents and with the light on the helmets. Today is Saturday so most miners rest and don't work, but some haven't been lucky and decide to work also on this day. We crawl through some narrow tunnels to get in a wider hallway and hear the sound of steel on steel. A miner is making new holes to put in the dynamite. Their is a whole process that repeats every few weeks. First find a vain of minerals you want to extract. Then repeatedly make wholes for dynamite, bang a big whole, slect the interesting peaces with minerals that fell on the floor with the explosian and put them on a seperate pile, check where the vain of minerals is going to and prepare the next explosion. Every now and then they need help to get the slected minerals out of the mine, mostly done by children who are contracted per day. When there is no more mineral they have to start again from the beginning. The minerals are then selected on quality by the woman who work in the cooperative and then sold to private and state companies. Their used to be a big state mine untill 20 years ago, providing security and contracted income to the miners but when the mine was privatised all security was gone. No fixed income, no security in case of an accident ... So the miners grouped in cooperatives to have some more security. If a miner dies or has an accident the wife gets a job in the selection site, so she can at least earn some money for raising their children. Lots of times the oldest son takes over the mining right of the father. We give some drink , coca leaves and sigarettes to the miner and he thanks us for it. We continue deeper down in the mountain ond stumble on a father and son working together. They are a little bit dissapointed that we didn't bring any dynamite, but are happy to drink some and get their coca bag filled up again. After we continued to an older part of the mine, where the Spanish used to 'empley' slaves for extracting the silver. The tunnels are really small and narrow here, this would not be fun for Sofie. We suddenly smell a bitter and strong odour of alcohol and tobacco when we enter the cave of the mines devil. It is a statue of a devil with big horns and big eyes. Every Friday the miners gather in front of him to end their week of hard labour. They offer the statue coca leaves, tobacco and pure alcohol to ask for luck and good pure minerals. That is why the alcohol has to be as pure as possible, if you would offer mixed alcohol, the minerals will be mixed as well...
After a weird tour we finally get to the open air again and give the rest of our presents to the family guarding the mine. They will give these to the miners of their cooparative on Monday when the working week starts again. I ask the guide about the little boy and she tells us his father died in a accident in the mine. He tries to make some money by helping guiding, to provide food for his 6 brothers and siters. In the afternoon we take the bus Sucre, as we heard about a independance celebrationin a nearby town the next day. We check in a cheap hostal in the center and book our bus ticket for the next day Tarabuco trip. That is where the yearly Phujllay independance celebration is held.
17/03/2002 Tarabuco market
In the morning we go quickly for some cookies and by water when suddenly a guy says 'hello Wim and Sofie'. We knew that we would find Martin here in Sucre or maybe afterwards in Uyuni, but this coincedence was quite lucky. Martin is a room mate and friend of our dear frien Falk from Berlin. We have met Martin a few times before but the last time was at least a year before !
The world is small and full of coincedences, as we notice when Martin is on the same bus we are. On the way to Tarabuco we have one flat tire and we chat with Martin about his trip so far. Strange to meet a friend in a distant location on this beautifull day. The festival in Tarabuco started at the old train station and then continues through the streets over the centrel placa, to move on in the afternoon to the big open placa at the soccer square. All the indiginous people are dressed in colourfull clothes and skirts and hats. Different groups of men run around makingg music with flutes in a center circle, and with dancing locals on wooden cloggs around them. They have some metal rings on the bag of these cloggs that make a rhtimic sound. Chewing on coca leaves they contniue like this all day and when we finally arrive at the football square where all groups gather most dancers are in some kind of trance. Beautifull pictures and strange atmosphere. We meet Rupert and Fulvia again which we met earlier in La Paz and Potosi. We get a drink together and enjoy the view in this not forgotten culture. In the late afternoon we get on the bus back and get some nice food together with Martin.
Today we go to check out the oldest proof of life on earth on this side of the planet. A cement factory discoverd some strange footprints some years ago on one of the vertical layered walls they were using for the cement production. Specialist confirmed these were lots of different dinosaur footprints. With Rupert, Fulvia and Martin we take the locals bus to Cal Orcko instead of the touristic dino truck leaving from the central plaza. We think we save money this way but once at the entrance it seems the dino truck was just little more and quicker then the bus. A guide leads us around and shows us the decaying layers with all kinds of dino species footprints. The layers are very soft so with the weather and erosion whole footprint paths dissappear and new one show up every week. every few days the whole wall is fotographed to keep track of the tracks.
We get back and me and Sofie do an afternoon walk to the park and some shopping. We bought some music tapes for the coming jeep tour in Uyuni !
Sucre is quite a nice and relaxed town and we enjoy hanging around a little. Martin left to the mines in Potosi, we should catch up with him on the way to Uyuni.
20/03/2002 to Uyuni
We only buy a ticket untill Potosi and once their we ask the bus companies if they have a crazy German named Martin on the list. The first one is the right one and an hour later we are together on the road again. It is a long bumpy trip on the Bolivian 'roads', but the views are stunning and make up for the quality ride. We arrive in the late afternoon and I already go to check out a recommended hostel. Some nice Israeli girls try to comvince me to go to another hostels near, same price but nicer. I check them both out and she is correct. I reserve a room with tree beds and wait for the others. Finally they show up, but with a very unhappy face. The buscompany sent Martins bags back to Sucre in stead of to Uyuni. This might ruin our plans but I am convinced it will turn out fine. So we check in the hostal and go to the tour agency to see for the salt lakes tour. We all want to cross to Chile after the 3 day tour in stead of doing a 4th day driving back to Uyuni. Martin thinks he needs to come back for the bags, but the woman of Colque tours assures us she will arange to get his bag to the final stop the 3rd day of the tour. She knows the owner of the bus company and everyhting will be ok, a jeep that has to go to Chile will drop of his bag at the white lake at the border. So we book the tour for 70 US$ a person including everything except water.
21/03/2002 Salar de Uyuni
The jeep leaves at 10 am so we have time to buy water, cookies and a toothbrush for Martin. We are in the jeep with 3 more people and take of for the amazing salt lakes. The first part is already amazing, with a salt hotel and old salt extracting factory. Then we take off through this perfectly flat landscape, made of a thick layer of salt, up to 15 meters deep. The rainy season just finished so even this 'dry' part of the salt flattens is still a little bit wet. We stop in the middle of nowhere for ome pictures and the quiteness and the brilliant shine over the salt is unbelievably peacefull. This part used to be connected to the Titicaca lake forming a huge inland see in the Andes. Because of the vaporation over time the salt has made this lake the highest and biggest on earth. We continue our trip and are happy we bought some music tapes becasue the driver/guide only has typical Bolivian music, which is fun for half an hour but not for 3 days. At the horizon an island rises from the white plane and once we get close enough we can see the huge cactuses on it. We walk on the island while the guide prepares lunch. Beautifill views all around us. When we continue in the afternoon we get to the wettest part of the salar. Here there is a layer of water of a few centimeters. So when driving it seems to be like flying through the sky. The horizon far away is reflected and it is like having a big perfect mirror all around you. The weather is perfect with a bleu sky and no wind. The marvellous ride ends at the eastern end of the salt flattens where we start driving through quinoa fields to finally reach San Juan, our sleeping place for the night. Together with Martin and another guy we finish a vodka bottle in the local bar 'discotheque'. We go out and walk up a small hill to check out the stars. I think I have never seen so many stars in my life, but we are on 4000 meters in a dry isolated environment. After half an hour watching the shooting stars we go for some sleep.
22/03/2002 Laguna Colorada
The second day of the trip brings us to weird landscapes, we pass active volcano Ollague, see many flamingoes in the small lagoons and finally reach the reserva Eduardo Avaroa headquarters at the laguna colorada or red lake. Sofie thucks into bad as she is not feeling well but I take of for a walk along the lake and shoot some pictures from the rare James flamingo, only found around this lake. Once the sun starts setting the temperature drops quickly. We are happt that we asked to sleep in the reserve headquarters in stead of the general tourist acomodation. other tourist come to see if there is still place but everything is full. Evening dinner and some card games later I go out with Martin to see the stars. It is freezing cols so we get back around 11 and go to sleep.
23/03/2002 To Chile
We get up at 5.30 am and leave without breakfast. We are perfectly on time at the geysers to see a beautifull sunrise between vapour of the mudspitting hot pools. We contniue 5 minutes to arrive at a hot lake, where we can jump in if we want. I'm the only one of our group with a bating suit near and after some doubts I decide to go for it. Getting in was no problem and the water was perfect of temperature. The getting out was quite cold though so I put on my clothes in a record time. In the meanwhile the scrambled eggs and sanwiches where ready. Afterwards we drove to more surreal landscapes, one of the valleys is called the valley of Dali ! We finish at the laguna verde or green lake. The minerals at the bottom of the lake turn up at the surface if the combination of sun and wind is just right. But we are unlucky and even after some heroic attempts of Martin to disturb the water, we still don't see the green miracle. The view with the Licancabur volcano is spectacular though ! We arrive at the white lake just next to it where the tour ends. Some bad news, the bags of our friend haven't showed up yet. They had arrived in Uyuni but forgot to send them asap to the end place. Martin is very pissed of and releases some of his anger on mister Colque himself. They promise to bring the bags into Chile to San Pedro the Atacam, the town we are going to, just on the other side of the border. After calming down Martin alittle we drag him on the bus and take of. Some stamps on the passport and half an hour later we are at the Chilean checkpoint in San Pedro itself. For the first time on our trip the bags are searched, not for drugs are weapons but for food ! Chile has a strict policy on fresh food entering the country to prevent animal and plant diseases to spread. After asking around we find a cheap and nice accomodation in this desrt and hot town. What a different in temparature after a month in hte Andes and altiplano.
Bolivia is the most indiginous of the South American countries and therefore very interesting to see the way of living. The isolated south with the salt lakes and desert landscapes and lagunes are definately one of the nature highs of our trip. La Paz is a one of a kind city because of location and way of living. We choose not to explore Bolivias part of jungle allthough most tourists we meet are very positive about it. It think Bolivia is one of the most interesting countries to visit for the backpacker with time. Roads are bad and transport is unreliable, but there are so many place to go and it is so cheap that it is definately worth it. If you only come for a few weeks with a schedule it might be little bit stressfull.
Lots of greetings to Rupert and Fulvia, special hugs to Martin in Berlin.