Tag Archives: Bolivia

Bolivia’s grand finale

Since we entered Bolivia it had felt like the days were getting better and better, with one highlight chasing the next, most of them leaving an unexpected impression of people, landscapes or local customs. With Uyuni we were headed for one of my “must-see” attractions on this trip: The “Salar de Uyuni”. But very little did I know about this salt flat, other than it can be visited on a three day tour, with one stop in the middle of the desert for some cool pictures with a dazzling perspective.

The only thing I knew about southern Bolivia was the “Salar de Uyuni”

But the first stop on the tour was the train cemetery outside the town of Uyuni. Here, Markus, our guide for the tour, told us about the sulphur mining that used to be the main business for the train companies. After the Pacific war and the discovery of artificially produced sulphur the trains became obsolete and were disposed here. Like everyone else, we found ourselves an unoccupied locomotive for some nice pictures.

The first stop was the old train cemetery outside of Uyuni

Old trains make for good pictures

From there we continued in the other direction. Santiago, our driver, took David and Lina from New Zealand, Nik, who had joined us after staying a bit longer in Peru, and Dani, Krissi and me to a little village outside the salt flats. Here we learned about the salt mining and the purification of the salt and had lunch in a house built from large salt blocks, where the layers of deposition were clearly visible.

Lunchtime in a house entirely built of salt blocks

With more than enough food in our stomachs we entered the “Salar de Uyuni”, the largest salt flat in the world at about the same size as the Libanon. Again, it used to be connected to the Pacific Ocean until the continental uplift isolated the body of water and it eventually evaporated, leaving behind all the salt. Nowadays, in the dry season it’s a bright white desert covered in salt, while during rainy season it gets flooded, producing a giant mirror.

Hundreds of tourists visit the salt flats each day
The price of this picture were some bloody hands, as the salt crystals are quite sharp (picture by GetReadyTours)

As we were in between the seasons, we got a little bit of both, but we could only imagine how it looks completely inundated or completely dry. We still got a lot of nice pictures. Some of our group were perfectly prepared with all sorts of little items for hilarious pictures. The perspective is everything, as the surrounding landscape is identical for miles and miles, playing tricks on the eye of the observer.

Someone must be very hungry
Balancing on the camera lens is easier than it looks

Because of the salty water, the cars can’t go very fast, as the more sensitive parts of the engine would come into contact with the water, damaging them through corrosion. Therefore, we had to get back out of the salt flats and drive all around to a little accommodation, where we spent the night. Early the next morning we hit the road again and find some llamas along the way. We tried our best not to scare them, but getting a proper “llama-selfie” was still nearly impossible unless you waited for them to take a pee.

Sunset over the Bolivian desert

The “Llama selfies” did not really work, so we switched to regular pictures

Further down the road we stopped at a small canyon in search for puma and an ancient plant that is related to corals, but has adopted to a life without water. It only grows about 1mm per year and has various healing powers known to locals. Needless to say that we did find the plant, but not the puma, who was probably watching us. Therefore, we returned to the car and continued our way across the “Altiplano”, the high plains of Bolivia, with a base elevation of more than 4000m and higher.

The puma was nowhere to be seen
The green “rocks” are actually ancient plants growing only about 1mm per year

As the day continued, the landscape around us became even more breathtaking than the salt flats had been the day before. Every time we thought it couldn’t get any better, nature proved us wrong. The sight of the vast desert with the snow-capped volcanos emerging from the plains was truly amazing. And the desert around us was changing as well – from sandy to rocky or from beige to light red. Everything was possible.

The desert landscape around us was ever-changing
Bolivia’s vast and deserted “Altiplano”

As the day progressed we encountered more and more lagoons. They had different sizes and colors, depending on the presence of certain minerals in their vicinity. When the air was calm and quiet they were like giant mirrors, perfectly reflecting the surrounding mountains. Dozens and sometimes even hundreds of flamingos call these lakes their home and can be watched how they search the water for food.

Picture-perfect lagoons acted as giant mirrors

The lagoons are home to dozens of flamingos

Probably the most impressive lagoon is the “Laguna Colorada” with its distinctive red and white coloring, which is complemented by an intense green of plants in the lake. It’s also home to several different species of flamingo and is under special protection as part of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. It was definitely a worthy finale of our time in Bolivia.

“Laguna Colorada” was nothing short of breathtaking

But it was not the only finale of that day, as I had been troubled with diarrhea for the past two days. Maybe the altitude was also playing a role, as we were reaching 5000m, but by the late afternoon I was feeling really bad and didn’t care much for our last stop at the geysers. Once we reached our accommodation, I dropped everything and just went to bed, unfortunately missing out on some wonderful hot springs under a perfectly clear and starry night sky.

By the end of the day I wasn’t in the best condition to fully appreciate the geysers
By sunrise I was feeling much better

After taking two penicillin and sleeping for twelve hours, I felt much better. That way we could continue to “Dali’s desert”, where the landscape resembles the surrealistic paintings of Salvador Dali. From there it wasn’t far to the “Laguna Verde”, not green at that time due to the lack of wind, where we had to say goodbye to David, Lina and Nik, who would go back to Uyuni, while Dani, Krissi and I continued across the border and into Chile (once again).

Driving through “Dali’s desert”
A great end to our time in Bolivia

The miner’s devil

In Sucre we had been at the first real tourist information that we had come across in South America. Many offices have written “tourist information” in their window, but most of them are only trying to sell their tours and don’t have much information about anything else. This one was different. He was a nice guy from Switzerland, who took his time for us and gave us lots of tips and useful information. One of the things he had recommended was a tour of the mines in Potosi.

The “Cerro Rico” dominates the city in many ways

Potosi was originally not on our agenda, but it sounded pretty interesting, so we looked at our calendar and counted backwards the days we still needed for the rest of our trip here in South America. By the end we figured, that we would have enough time to visit Potosi. So we wrote to Jhonny, whose contact details we had gotten at the tourist information, and asked him, if he could give us a tour of the mines.

In Potosi it’s all about mining
The old town is much nicer than what we had expected

Jhonny, a former mine worker, now tour guide, confirmed our tour and set the pick-up time for Monday morning. In order to make this time, we boarded another rundown bus and were happy that the ride took only four hours. With the night spent in Potosi we were all ready and rested for this new adventure. Fredrik and Fredrikke from Denmark, who we had met on the market tour in Tarabuco, and Ilja and Tryxt from the Netherlands, who we had met back on the “Isla del Sol” joined our tour.

Ilja, Tryxt, Frederik and Frederikke joined us for a tour of the mines

After everyone was equipped with working clothes, rubber boots, helmet and a head lamp, we were ready to go. The first stop was still in town. We got off at one of the little corner stores to buy presents for the miners. We bought juice, crackers, coca leafs, cigarettes, little bottles with 99% alcohol and some dynamite. Yep, that’s right, dynamite, a stick costing about 3 Euros. We didn’t even need a special permit or present our ID or anything, we just asked for it.

Buying coca leafs and dynamite at a regular corner store

At the mines we left our car behind and entered the compound on foot. There were miners sitting around everywhere. Most of them had a stuffed cheek, which was filled with a bunch of coca leaves. This is not only good against altitude sickness, but also stimulates the body in order to be able for the long and hard work shift underground. We greeted all of them with “Imaynalla”, which is Quechua and means “How are you?”, and gave them some of our presents.

Some of the miners with their cheeks full of coca leafs
Women are not allowed to go into the mines. Instead they pick up the minerals that fall off the trucks

Then it was time for a quick demonstration of the explosive force of our dynamite. We opened the packaging and revealed some white matter with the consistency of modeling clay. We turned it into a small ball and added about one minute worth of fuse cord. Afterwards, Jhonny took it up the hill, lit the fuse and came back to us and watched the big cloud of smoke disappear after a deafening bang had startled most of us. We were quite happy that we were out in the open for this demonstration, as the narrow tunnels of the mine would have concentrated the noise even more.

Dynamite with a fuse cord for about one minute
Jhonny started the fuse cord at a safe distance

With this in mind, we took a deep breath, put on our respiratory protection and entered the underworld. Jhonny lead us through a maze of small tunnels and passages deeper into the mountain, which has been mined for silver ever since the colonial times. It’s crazy to think that people work down here every day for many hours, most of them with basic tools and without big machinery, often carrying the minerals back out on their back.

Entering the darkness of the mines
In the faint light of our head lamps we explore the narrow tunnels

We met a few people along the way, but most of them work even deeper down. After turning left and right, climbing up and down through the tunnels, everyone but Jhonny had lost their orientation. At that point a devil had appeared out of nowhere, probably telling us that we had lost our mind. But it turned out to be a statue of “El tio” (“The uncle”), the god of the miners. We offered him some of the alcohol and some cigarettes and asked him for a safe passage back out.

Helping a mine worker with one of the heavy rocks
Face to face with the devil

It seems like the offerings were accepted, because all of us made it safely back into the daylight. By the end we were exhausted of crawling through the tunnels, and the altitude and the bad ventilation left us craving for fresh air. Back out in the open we enjoyed the warm sunshine on our faces, but we were happy for this outer-worldly experience.

By the end of the tour we were quite exhausted and craving for fresh air
We successfully escaped the underworld

Steps back in time

After La Paz we were heading for Bolivia’s capital, Sucre. It was here that Bolivia declared its independence from Spain and the other Spanish colonies in 1825. The very place where it proclaimed used to be a church, was later turned into a university and is now a museum known as “Casa de la libertad” – house of liberty. Although it was very interesting and considered to be one of the top sights, the “English tour” consisted of a tablet with a badly implemented app, leaving more questions than it provided answers.

Sucre is full of white buildings from the colonial times
The “Casa de la Libertad” used to be a church and is now home to the Bolivian declaration of independence

In the evening we tried out one of the free Salsa classes, which I had been wanting to visit for a long time. I have danced Salsa before, but that was a long time ago, so it was good to review the basic steps. However, we didn’t stay very long, as the location was a little bit odd, being in a courtyard full of junk, with Salsa music coming from one speaker and different music coming from another one in the bar next door. Additionally, I was the only guy, which meant that half the girls had to dance as the guy.

Free Salsa lessons in the courtyard of a hostel

The next day we decided to visit the “Parque Cretacico”, a dinosaur park on the outskirts of Sucre. It is located on the grounds of a cement factory and was opened about 20 years ago, when they accidentally found a large area with fossilized dinosaur footprints. The factory had been extracting limestone from the ground and had stopped the extraction one layer before the footprints were visible. Wind and rain eroded that last layer and revealed the world’s largest area of dinosaur footprints.

Life size models of South American dinosaurs at the “Parque Cretacico”

This part of South America used to be covered by a big salt lake, after the continental uplift had cut off the connection to the Pacific Ocean. Over time the lake slowly dried out. Just before the ground was dry, dozens of dinosaurs had walked across the area, leaving their footprints in the mud. They were quickly covered with sediments and thus fossilized and were preserved.

A drawing of the tracks and the dinosaurs that made them
A replica of one of the dinosaur footprints

We took one of the free guided tours down into the quarry to get a closer view of the footprints. It was really amazing and felt a little bit like they had been here just yesterday. However, the noise of bulldozers and large trucks quickly brought us back to reality, as they are still working in the quarry. This is also the reason why the park hasn’t been declared a UNESCO world heritage site yet and probably won’t be in the near future even though the application is ongoing.

It was almost like standing right next to the dinosaurs

The trucks are still working in the quarry

On our last day in Sucre we decided to go to Tarabuco, a small town which is known for its traditional markets. It has a market for livestock, which was very quiet and looked more like a few people meeting up on a fenceless pasture than the loud and bustling market that we had imagined. The textile market was full of the typical tourist souvenir booths and didn’t look like locals were buying anything here.

The market for livestock in Tarabuco was very quiet
The textile market seemed to be more for tourists than for locals

Only the vegetable market was busy with people selling their produce and buying their weekly supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables. However, we didn’t see anyone trading goods for goods like we were told before. Everybody seemed to be using money to pay for the purchases. And after two hours on the markets we were quite happy to sit back and enjoy a presentation of traditional dances in a nice but overpriced restaurant.

Money is used by most people to pay for the produce at the vegetable market
A presentation of traditional dances at a touristy restaurant

Back in Sucre we had a few more hours before our bus to Potosi was leaving. While Krissi decided to update her diary, Dani and I decided to visit the main cemetery. This proved to be way more interesting and authentic than the markets, as it was a Sunday and the cemetery was full of locals. They seemed to be on family excursions to replace the flowers and the small bottles of soda or alcohol, which are left at the graves for a refreshment of the deceased.

The cemetery is a common place for locals on Sundays
Reflections of the multi-storey graves on the cemetery

Between two worlds

From Copacabana we took a bus to La Paz. The bus was rather old and we were quite happy that it didn’t fall apart before we reached our destination. But the ride had several hurdles that we needed to overcome: Shortly behind Copacabana we had to leave the bus for a short passage on Lake Titikaka. While we took a small passenger boat, the bus was transferred on a small pontoon, moved by manpower through poling and a tiny motor.

The bus was crossing Lake Titikaka in a tiny pontoon
We had to leave the bus and take a boat to the other side

Some hours later, as we thought we made it to La Paz, the bus started to take tiny roads in really bad condition, either to avoid some tall fees or to stop at the abandoned terminal of El Alto, which is part of the metropolitan area of La Paz. In any case, the last 15 km took us about an hours time, reaching the final terminal in the middle of the night. Luckily the hostel we had chosen was right around the corner and had space for us.

La Paz has different levels all over town

We used the next day to discover more of this vibrant city. We strolled along the busy streets until we reached the yellow “teleferico”, part of a gondola system that connects the city high above the roofs. It’s not only much easier and cheaper to build than a metro system, but it’s also quite easy to cover the large differences in height between the different parts of the city. As a bonus there is a wonderful view of the city with majestic snow-capped mountains in the back.

The snow-capped mountains can be seen from the “teleferico”
Discovering La Paz with Daniela and Kristina

These mountains were our destination for the following day. We got picked up early in the morning, along with two slightly hungover Israelis and Rick from the Philippines. The minibus took us up to about 4700m, where we got our safety equipment and the bikes. In the distance we could still see some traces of snow from two days ago, when the tour had to start at a lower altitude for safety reasons.

We started the “Death Road” at about 4700m (photo by Altitude Adventure)

The first part of this 50 km downhill ride was on smooth asphalt. We had the chance to get used to the bikes and take in some of the amazing landscape around us. We were surrounded by a bare alpine flora with waterfalls dropping off the cliffs everywhere. And just when we had gotten used to the easy biking we turned off the road for a short section to avoid a tunnel. Afterwards we boarded the bus again and were taken to the beginning of the actual “Death Road”.

The first part of the road was paved and led through an alpine terrain (photo by Altitude Adventure)
One of many stops along the way (photo by Altitude Adventure)

The “Death Road” was built in the 1930s by Paraguayan prisoners to connect the Yungas region, part of Bolivia’s rainforest, with La Paz. Many prisoners died during the construction period, but it didn’t get any safer once was finished. About 200-300 people per year died in accidents on this narrow and winding road up to 2006, when a new road replaced the most dangerous section. Nowadays it is only used by very few locals who live along the way and by adventure tourists like us.

The beginning of the old road to the Yungas region
The second part of the journey leads us through a thick rainforest

The further we descended on the road, the hotter it got. By then we were surrounded by a dense rainforest with occasional waterfalls across the road. Of course we got wet, but it dried pretty quickly and was all part of the adventure. At the end of the road (1200m) our hands and arms were hurting from the constant vibration on the gravel road and we were happy to relax a bit in paradise – a hostel with pool in the middle of the jungle – before the minibus took us back to La Paz.

Getting wet while crossing some waterfalls along the way
The “Death Road” ends in paradise

In La Paz we still had the evening to explore the city by night. While walking around we found an area with several esoteric shops, which were selling different herbs, alternative medicine and dead llama babies, probably for sacrifices or other superstitious rituals. It’s interesting to see that even this modern city has its more traditional side, hidden among hundreds of high-rise buildings.

One of the many esoteric shops in La Paz, which are selling dead llama babies
La Paz by night