Copacabana - La Paz - Uyuni - Salt Flats Tour - Potosi - Coroico
29.06.2009 - 16.07.2009 5 °C
Bolivia is the land of altitude - with it comes some Andean traditionalism (bowler hats and big flowing skirts return) and splashes of colour from vibrant hammocks, juicy fruit salads and all the way to pink volcanoes. For the winter traveller the stark reality is the super dry cold. One of our travelling hi-lights is the unusual scenery of the “Salt Flats tour (Salar de Uyuni)”, the landscape is so diverse and unusual... it was spectacular.
29 June – 1 July 2009
It’s 6am in the morning and we (with Kate’s parents, Mike and Sue) are waiting for our connecting transport from the bus drop off point (in the middle of nowhere I might add), it arrives – a real clapped out old combi van, similar to the old South African mini van taxi. We are on our way to the final border crossing in Latino America, with much luck given that the strike is due to hit the roads in 24 hrs. There are already signs of blockages with small rocks piled along the road. Unfortunately on arrival at the Bolivia border crossing we have a bit of waiting to do due to a time zone change. Damn it was freezing! Kate had her duvet wrapped round her and was fully kitted with llama wool hats and gloves.
We had expected a bit more from the Titicaca lakeside village of Copacabana, but it slowly grew on us. Especially when we were able to find those little sunny spots to soak up the sun. There was definitely a difference in wealth between Bolivia and Peru, even at Bolivia’s premier 'beach resort' town. Given that it is only 3 hours drive from La Paz, many family’s spend summer days along the shores of Lake Titicaca.
Kate, Sue and Mike headed off to Isla de Sol for a day whilst Seb caught up on some PhD journal reviews. If you think of a moon like landscape with the odd dotted mealie field, tree, goat, donkey, stone and grass house, then you are a goodway along to imagining what Isla de Sol looks like. The Quechua people of Peru and Bolivia largely believe that their creation came from this Island, as according to history this is where the “sun” was first born, and consequently from direct order of the “sun” the first Incas “appeared” on this island. That said there are many spiritual pilgrimages under taken to this very location. The island is not much bigger than 8km in length and sits at an altitude of 4000m, so the walk we did along the length of the island took a good 4.5 hours – and even on straights we found ourselves out of breath.
The taxi boat back to the main land did a small little tourist loop past the famous floating islands. The ones we saw are token tourist islands, kept a float by large plastic drums, cleverly hidden with reeds. But nevertheless we were able to get a good idea of what floating island life was like. These islands came about when the Inca’s became the dominating power and other indigenous tribes wanted to escape their control by floating out on their new little pieces of territory away from mainland.
1 – 4 July 2009
It's not often in Dad’s life that he has been able to call himself tall, but in Bolivia this would be how he is described – Bolivians are generally really short, and as they get older and the harsh living environment takes it toll they get even shorter with a slump. We guess this is why the buses are made for mini people, cause leg room was not a consideration during their manufacturing process. A 5 hour bus ride took us from the shores of Lake Titicaca to La Paz – the city with the highest commercial airport in the world. La Paz is a vast city. Thinking back three colours come to mind – brown, blue and white – brown being the endless brick coloured buildings which lie in the dip between huge lifeless mountains – blue being the daily clear cloudless sky – white being the snow capped mountain tops surrounding the city.
As Mom and Dad were travelling with us in Bolivia and flying back to SA from here, we were free to shop and not have to worry about the weight of our backpacks for once – what a pleasure. Being a tourist in a foreign country isn’t half as fun when you can’t shop (watching our backpack weight). We stocked up on some wonderfully colourful table cloths, hammocks and other odds and end. We also wondered through the “Witch Market” - not much more than a variety of dried plants/herbs, some stones and then the poor dried baby llama. Shame man, poor little things - hung to dry out like biltong, except whole and completely recognisable. As the legend goes it brings good luck when building a house to place a dead, shrivelled up llama under the foundations. We spent our time here to book a Salt Flats tour, bring our flight date to Aus earlier and wonder around eating huge fruit salads and yummy saltenas (a juicy pie). We also visited the Coca museum – really interesting and well presented. Covering the history of coca, and the various uses including Coca Cola and Cocaine.
5 – 9 July 2009 Salt Plains and Pink Volcanoes
A day of travelling was ahead of us, first by bus (La Paz – Oruro) then by train, heading towards the southern tip of Bolivia. We stopped briefly in Oruro, and thank goodness it was only briefly – not much in this little town. We then caught a real chilly train to Uyuni, arriving at 2am – hello minus 20 C. To our surprise, Johnny, our tour guide, was waiting to drive us literally across the street to our hotel.
The salt flats tour is all about driving 1000km in 3 days on dust and salt roads through beautiful scenery by day, attempting to stay warm at night and sleeping in houses made with “salt” bricks - everything beds/chairs/tables/walls...salt.
On day one an early morning start was the order of the day, with sun basking and a cup of hot chocolate topping the agenda – we know we’ve mentioned it already - but damn this place is cold and dry. Then we headed out with Johnny, the tour guide/driver/cook, 2 Boliviano tourists and the 4 of us, to the train grave yard. A large open piece of land used as a dump for heavily rusted old trains – giving it an eyrie/fun feel. Being so close to the salt flats cars and trains don’t have any chance of avoiding rust.
We then headed off in the direction of the salt flats, obviously making a stop at the token tourist market. With Mom and Dad heading back to SA in a few days time, we were not shy to have a look, sending them back laden with our goods, and guess what we came across – a Sharks Rugby cowboy hat – yes that is right, a South African Natal Sharks Rugby hat – in the middle of absolutely no where.
The salt flats are naturally occurring, rejuvenating its salt supply annually. For environmental purposes only certain areas can be harvested for salt, whilst the rest must remain untouched = in theory all is good. Thousands of years ago the salt flats were part of Lake Titicaca, hence the salt factor and being so flat. One of the wonders of the salt flats is that no perception of distance is possible.
Cacti are one of the few plants that can withstand the harsh salt worldThey were even hardy enough to form a little Cactus Island. Here we had our first lunch stop – llama steaks. That night was spent in the best accommodation – the new salt backpackers – and nothing better than a bottle of plastic “whisky” to keep you warm and a game of shithead with some Dutch guys – oh ya and don’t forget those minus 20 deg sleeping bags.
You would’ve thought with the tour being called “ salt flats tour” there would be more of the white stuff, but day 2 and 3 were spent driving through alleys of volcanoes. Majority of the volcanoes still emit sulphur so all the tips have beautiful colourings – white/yellow/pink. With the odd one spewing out some smoke.
The area is mineral rich with borax rising like icebergs out of the red lagoon. Chincillas are the token rock rabbit which inhabit the dessert like surroundings, whilst flamingos in all their pink glory make up for monotony in the dessert brown.
Our next nights accommodation was not quite as luxurious as the first so we found ourselves early to bed to try and keep warm.
Our 3rd and final day saw us with a 5am start. We arrived before sun rise to the witches cauldrons – a bubbling mud pot caused by escaping volcanic gases from a volcano in Chile 35km away. With the faint light at that time of the morning, the scene was spectacular. Luckily for us, a little way on there is a natural hot spring, oh it looks so inviting, but to get naked in those temperatures was quite a challenge – just to give you some idea of how chilly it was - Kate had icicles forming on her wet hair.
Our final stop was rock city – a valley of unusual rock formations which have been compared to cities due to the appearance of buildings and alley ways.
It was then a good bye to Mom and Dad, who were heading home to South Africa!
10 – 11 July 2009 Silver Mines
The bus trip from Uyuni to Potosi can definitely go down as one of the worst bus trips ever. For 6 hours we travelled on a dirt, corrugated road with no ventilation, so windows had to be open. Kate’s jersey turned from black to brown, literally, with the amount of dust that was blown in.
Quiz Night Question: Q-What is the highest town in the world? A- Potosi
We stayed at a well equipped hostel and cooked our first dinner in 4 weeks, a small feat, but when you gotta eat every meal out, it becomes tiresome. A volunteer group of Frenchies were at the hostel – they were working with the miner’s children trying to help with their learning and development. The learning and attention span that the kids had was sadly shocking, with lack of stimulation from their also uneducated parents – not a town one wants to have to be born into.
Mining tours have become the tourist must do in Potosi, with ex-miners playing tour guide. All “suited up” – overalls, gum boots, hard hat and torch – we headed to miners supply shopping street. Here we were able to buy gifts for the miners – coca leaves (wakes ones up and reduces hunger), cooldrinks and DYNAMITE, yup real life dynamite and its not illegal – anyone can buy this stuff! Before heading over to the actual mine, we stopped at a metal extraction plant. Old technology, but with heaps of raw silver powder just lying around in piles drying. Imagine little heaps of silver sand!
The best way to describe the mine entrance, is by comparing it to an old Western movie when they are gold mining. The mines are not regulated, engineers are not consulted when digging tunnels and anyone can work in the mines, no specific training needed. Men start mining at an early age of 13 and up, and generally learn the skill from their Dad’s who are also miners. Miners work in teams, all having specific jobs, which are rotated on a weekly or so basis. The diggings and extraction from the week are then shared amongst the team. The earnings are small, with miners being happy if they earn R1500 a month (approx USD 200) for 6 days work a week. As no regulations are in place, breathing masks are not law. The miners can’t afford to replace the filters on the expensive masks every 3 days, so instead they endure the inhaling of dust and a variety of gases/chemicals. This exposure is so damaging to their health that after working in the mines for 10 years, they have an expected 10 more years to live, dying from silicosis pneumonia. That makes the average life expectancy of 30-40 years, depending when one starts working in the mines. The dust/sulphur smell were so intense that from the one hour that we were underground, with Kate wearing a makeshift bandana mask, her voice was hawse for 2 days after the mine tour!
On entering the mine we visited the mine God’s shrine to pay homage, offer our respects and ask for our protection. We then continued on along the passages which are dimly lit, have narrow fresh air pipes lining the ceilings and rail tracks for pushing the heavy stone bucket loads. Walking on a level was okay, as the passages were relatively wide and high enough – but going in between levels was extremely scary (at least Kate thought so). The small passages were barely big enough to crawl along, with minimal support structures, and coupled with the fact that no engineers are involved in the construction brought along an unknown fear of Kate’s claustrophobia. She nearly turned back, but managed to level 2 after a few tears. Luckily we didn’t venture to any of the other 3 levels.
Along the way we met miners, they demonstrated their work to us with a few tourists offering a helping hand. As there is no entrance fee to the mines, we showed our appreciation to the miners by handing out the gifts which we had bought previously - of course keeping a little stick of “bang” for our entertainment when on the outside.
It was an emotionally taxing morning seeing what working conditions people are exposed to and the feeling of entrapment, so we thought the hot springs we had heard about from a fellow traveller would be well worth a visit. Our journey brought us to an interesting “hot spring”, or cow dipping pond – we weren’t quite sure, but either way we ventured in. Not quite as hot as we had hoped but a good little laugh and adventure to reminisce about.
A short stay in Potosi as we headed on a night bus to Coroico, can you believe we are doing another one, we hate these damn night buses.
12 – 15 July 2009 Green Coroico
We couldn’t quite believe it but if you drive 2 hours east from La Paz over a mountain range you hit the tropics. Coroico was a warm oasis of a town, where 5 layers of clothing were not needed, green valleys roll down below you and there was even a swimming pool at our hotel. A swimming pool in Bolivia, woweee, completely not like the last 2 weeks we had spent with cracking skin and frost bitten toes. We chilled, read our books, had a massage, ate a tasty steak (good meat is rare in Western South America) and even ventured into the hotel sauna – much needed “reheat” time!
16 July 2009 Hasta Luego South America
A typical long haul travel day flying: 5.30am taxi to airport - La Paz – Lima – San Jose – Los Angeles – 3am bed.
And we got whacked with exit tax at both La Paz and Lima, even though in Lima we were just in the airport - $100 each thanks for visiting!
Accomo: We stayed at Hotel Cupula ($24 double,priv bath), great to relax. Heaters and good showers.
Food: Food on strip not great, but Cupula restaurant decent. Cheese Fondue Yummy
Activities: Day trip by boat to Isla de Sol. Good day walking, chilly, take a packed lunch. I was happy not to stay on the island. Caught the 3:30 boat back and saw the “token” reed islands, floating on plastic drums but the effect was there
Bus: From Cuzco to Copacabana we travelled with Litoral – old seats but spacious and comfy to sleep.
Accomo: Hard to find, settled for Hotel Condeza, very central just up from artisenal street, decent rooms ($27 double room, basic bfast incl). Adventure Brew apparently good, but was full, gotta book in advance, so we didn’t check it out
Food: 100% natural - huge sandwiches, Angelo Colonial good reasonable food
Oruro – only passed through thank goodness, to catch train to Uyuni
Accomo: Before tour stayed at Avenida, comfortable, cheap, but cold rooms (Bols 100 double), across from train station so convenient as arrived late 2am. After tour the managers of Avenida were ridiculous and so bitchy, my parents couldn’t leave their luggage in the room while we went to a restaurant for dinner before their train! So we left and went to Tonita Hotel- friendlier, warmer, and great great pasta pizza restaurant on site. The breakfast is simple but great fresh bread and kitchen staff are very friendly (Bols 240 double). Try not stay at Avenida if you can.
Activities: Salt Flats tour – gotta do it. Did the 3 day tour with Johnny from Brisa ($100 per person). His English was basic, good food. 1st night accomo in the new salt hotel, 2nd night really chilly, taking a -20C sleeping bag is a must (rented from La Paz)! We saw everything except the City of Rocks and the Green Lagoon “green”, apparently to see it green you have to be there around midday and we were there early morning. But we did see the Geysers in the early morning, beautiful, before the sun comes up is a must! Lots of driving on 3rd day, would maybe consider doing 4 day tour in future. Most ppl we spoke to didn’t have much time on the salt flats, so as soon as you get to the hotel with flags, and then cactus island take lots of photos.
Accomo: Koala Backpackers, warm rooms, decent kitchen, free internet (Bols 150 double ensuite)
Food: Ate at 4200 – good chicken wings
Activities: Mine tour, just did it through Koala, decent equipment, and guides all seem to be well treated. Scary!
Accomo: We stayed at Hotel Esmerlado, old school family hotel but big suite room, and warmer than rest of Bolivia!
Food: Great steak at an Alemania restaurant on bottom of square. El Cafecito was slightly disappointing. Tasty pizza at Hotel Esmerlado, good deal buffet salad, chocolate fondue
Bus: tourist buses generally small, but better than the ones in Costa Rica. Eldorado kama (sleeper) very comfy for trip from Potosi to La Paz
Food: Saltena – juicy pie tasty!