Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Uyuni-uni-uni!!! Make Way for Victor

After our adventures in the mines we wandered around Potosi a little. I decided it looked a little like Salta in the center (colonial architecture...) and a dump outside the center. We continued our city hopping and arrived in Uyuni on the afternoon of the 24th of March. We paid a little too much for a three day Salt Flats tour, got a good nights sleep and were ready the next day for our adventures through the South of Bolivia (see map below to orient yourself!)

Day one:

We met our group - A warning to all those who head to Uyuni and Bolivia in general. Everyone is trying to cheat you out of your money! When we booked our tour it was late and we were ready to sign up with Laura Travels just so we didn´t waste the next day. She still felt the need to lie to us about a number of things including the fact that there was already a British couple signed up for the trip (she even gave us their ages) who had supposedly paid way more than we did. When we squeezed into our jeep the next morning we met our group members: two Argentine couples (one from provincia de BA and one from La Plata) and a French 19 year old girl traveling alone. We of course were thrilled to be with Argentines, to play truco, and to drink mate but laughed that Laura had thought we would be lured by this British couple who we didn´t want to hang out with anyway!
After introductions were made we drove to the Train Graveyard with our guide/driver Victor. Unlike the many young drivers in the caravan, Victor was old and leathery with few remaining teeth possibly due to his incesant coca leaf chewing. He´s a 64 year old widow with most of his kids living in BA and he is native to Villazon, where we entered the country. He was an amazing driver but more on that later.
A train line goes through Uyuni and here is where the old train parts go to rest in peace:

We then headed to a place where you could buy stuff, but the cool part about it was that all the buildings were constructed of blocks made entirely of salt!

Josh outside of a building made of salt

Then we headed to the blindingly white Salt Flats. The salt dessert is all that remains of a pre-historic Salt Lake. The salt is harvested but there is so much that I can never imagine them running out. Its so flat and white that its famous for poeple taking realy silly photos taking advantage of the easily distorted perspective like this one:

but we opted against these and Josh went for yoga poses instead...

Josh doing some yoga on top of a salt mountain that is waiting to be harvested

King and Queen of the Salt Flats

We then headed to an island in the middle of the dessert that is inhabited by a lone ostritch and cacti. I believe the island was underwater at one point because there is an ancient arch of dead coral, but there is also a 900 year old living cacuts and another that died but at one point was over 12 meters tall!!

That night we slept in a hotel made of salt which was kinda weird becuase it smelled like salt and the floor was made of loose crystals of salt and it really was less romantic that it had sounded. Around the time that we had watched an amazing sunset of the flat horizon over the salt flats I started to feel pretty sick from the altitude and had a restless night battleing a weird feeling stomach plagued by nausa.

The next day we set out and saw many of the shrinking lagoons whose inhabitants are flamingos that slowly walk around dipping their beaks into the water in search of micro organisms for a tasty snack.

We also saw amazing rock formations carved by the wind like the one below. Pretty much everywhere we drove was at one point under an ancient sea, so there is sand everywhere and intense rocks made of sand stone that have stood the tests of time. The one below is called the tree rock. I was feeling to ill to climb all over the other rock formations like many tourists but hopped out for this picture and then took refuge from the strong incessant winds in the jeep.
As we drove the landscape became increasingly stranger and stranger. There are round patches of pure fine sand in the middle of the landcape that Victor said were dried lagoons, and amazingly much of the landcape looks like Bolivia´s flag: red, yellow and green. There are quinua plants everywhere (a native plant to Boliva similar to rice) that are grean but they turn yellow and red as they mature. The moutnains are also red and have green and yellow bushes growing on them. The effect is stunning.

tree rock

That evening we arrived at our lodgings for the night. I was feeling pretty weak from the altitude and from my every more empty stomach that still couldn´t handle eating but I walked to the Lago Colorado anyway. Due to high winds it was not red but still beautiful and full of flamengos as well.
hiding from the wind at the Lago Colorado

Make way for Victor

The next morning we got an early start at 5:30 am. Becuase of some slow to cook rice we were one of the last cars to leave, but as Victor hit the road he started approaching jeeps from behind, and then he would flash his lights at them and they would move to the right to let him pass. He sarted giggling and whooping with laughter and yelled: last to leave first to arrive!!! The old man didn´t stop giggling until the sun was up and he had passed all but two jeeps in the caravan. As the sun began to peak its head over the mountains we arrived at our first destination: gysers. Having never seen gysers I was blown away (pun intended...hehe) by their incredible beauty. My photo is terrible but maybe you can get the idea?

We walked all around the area and saw steam shooting out of the ground at 200 degrees celcius, and we also carefully walked over volcanic ash to get a rare peak inside the earth. There were holes in the ground covered in steam and when the steam cleared away you could literally see the earth bubbling below. Grey water bubbled away in the morning light and we left our footprints behind on the soft ashy ground with this image of earth´s natural power burned into my memory forever.

We then headed to some natural thermal baths where we ran with frozen feet to the hot water that at first burned and then soothed our goosebumby skin in the early morning chill.

I´d like to start everday in a thermal bath...

Josh has the rest of the photos for the day, but the landscape got increasingly wierder as we headed back to town. Over then eight hours or so of our return journey the landscape went from dessert to trippy mountains that looked for sure like they were from another planet, to greener wetter paths and through small towns that stood in the shadows of large rock formations and green mountains. We also passed this donkey mummy:
Our friend Andres from Colombia has always wanted us all to take a trip to Uyuni together where he planned for us all to drop acid and marvel at the natural wonders of the earth. I got the front seat for a leg of the journey, and mind altering potions were not necessary. The mountains seemed to breath in and out, the landscape was trippy enough on its own. We passed the Salvador Dali mountain with flat fine sands and big lonley rocks that indeed did seem to be inspiration for many of his landscapes and backgrounds for dripping clocks. And if someone had blindfolded me, and dropped me off in the middle of this place, I indeed would have believed them if they told me we were now on a different planet. It was amazing...

While we were unhappy that we had been ripped off and hardly any of the promises our tour company had made had been kept in terms of drinks and lodgings, we do not regret spending three days in this strange strange place. The looming volcanoes, gysers, mountains, deserts, and the never ending white salt dessert are some of the most incredible sights I´ve ever seen in the natural world. If you are headed there, just know that all tours are exactly the same no matter which company you use so don´t pay extra!!!!! Its also a great place to loose any left over weight from asados in Argenina. At our highest point (the green lagoon) we were well over 4000 meters and when we got back to Uyuni I had lost any beer gut or beef belly I had picked up over the past year. Not to mention the fact that after Bolivia you will feel amazing anywhere you go!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cough Cough, I think I have the black lung pop

Like the jungle post this post is not finished or to my standards but whatever, the internet in Copacabana is ten Bolivianos an hour and it sucks to boot so here is what I got for you guys. You should probably start at the text and then look at the pictures above it. Copying and pasting here...just not an option.

me holding some lit dinamite after the tour - yes it did go off but not in my hand

the older Tio smoking a fatty

250 K bag of dirt brought up by the machine

Josh in the mine - the miners decorate their mine so that it looks prettier!

us and the guy manning the machine pully

a vein of silver, they used to be over a yard wide, now most are around a foot or so

Josh and I decided three cities in twenty four hours would be a good record, so after our flight from Rurrenabaque landed in La Paz we headed straight for the bus station and got on a bus for Potosi. Potosi was once the wealthiest city in South America due to its silver mines, but the Cerro Rico has a twisted history. In 1650 the town exploded with people looking to get rich quick, and of course this entailed the forced labor of over 8 million indigenous people in the mines. Over 8 million indigenous poeple also died in the mines after being forced to stay in the airless tunnels for as long as six months.

Today, the mines are almost depleted but the miners still make a pretty good living and still have a much shorter life span than most Bolivians. Only forty miners die in the mines every year, and the number would probably be less if the mines weren´t strewn with empty beer cans and plastic bottles of what I call rubbing alcohal, but what others call 95% drinkable grain alcohol. I tried some of it mixed with coke...wouldn´t take long to burn a hole in something with that stuff. However, if I had to work in the mines for 8 hours at a time with nothing but soda and coca leaves to fill my belly I might take to the hard stuff myself.

The tour of the mines takes about three hours, and begins in a room full of clothes. You done your work outfit and head back to the van. Outfitted in our pants, rainboots, jackets, belts, hard hats and head lamps we were separated into Spanish speakers and non-Spanish speakers.

looking silly in the streets of Potosi but ready for anything!

Turns out Josh and I were the only gringos fluent enough in Spanish to make it through the tour so we ended up with our own private guide!

He explained about the coca leaves, and how we needed to bring gifts the the miners to we could make them happy and take photos with them. We brought orange soda and coca leaves and headed to the mines.

no words sexy though

miners outside the mines sorting the days work into piles of quality: pure rock with silver, less pure, and earth mixed with good stuff

We headed into the mines, and I realized that I was a little scared. What if the whole thing colapsed? The guide told me I was being silly, and to watch my head as I tested my hard hat against some obvious obstacle for the first of many times and we followed the tracks into the earth. We met some guys running the carts full of earth and silver out of the mines like the one being emptied above. The carts way a tone and a half, and these two guys need to bring carts like these out of the mine twenty times a day.

We then separated from the English speaking group and our guide to a reluctant me down seven levels into the earth and down nine wooden ladders that I climbed slowly and with a bit of fear even though I knew the miners scurry up and down these ladders all day.

At the lowest level there is just one worker filling up a rubber bag of earth that weighs about 50 K. This is attched to a manual pully that two men on the next level pull up. These men fill an even bigger bag of around 250 K which is attached to a mechanical pully. One man operates this machine on a higher level, and the other helps guide the rubber bin over to the side where its contents can be dumped and put into these wooden holders that jet out of the walls on the path in the mine which are emptied into the metal bins that are sent out of the mine.
We also saw a man drilling holes in the wal for dinamite. This a very high paying job due to the noise and dust the drill makes. The dust was so thick you could barely see him and I high tailed it out of there as soon as possible for the sake of my unprotected ears and nose. Miserable....
We then headed to visit the Tio of the mine. This statue was origionally supposed to be a devil, but since the natives didnt have the letter d in ther vocabulary it came out Tio instead of diablo. The big read statue with a rather large falus was surrounded by offerings, and the older head of another Tio of the mine had a smoking cigarette in it. Non filtered of course just like what the miners smoke. When an accident happens the miners say that the tio is angry and they have forgotten him. Another superstition is that women are bad for the mine. The earth is a female diety, and if the miners bring their wives into her mine she is jealous and the vein of silver will run out.
Sorry again for how the posts are looking, I am doing my best down here which isnt very good at all!!! But its something....From Potosi we headed to Uyuni but that post will have to come later!!

Welcome to the Jungle

I hope not to many people have lost interest in the blog! I know its been a while, we have been running around, and this post has taken forever. There are many more photos I would like to post, but I figure lets get this to the people and more photos will follow.


We left La Paz like fugitives, at dark, with our belongings strapped to the roof of our van. We could barely see the faces of our new companions with whom we would spend the next five days with but introductions were made anyway. There was a couple from Canada on their gap year (Emily and Jay), a couple from Paris (Silvan and Veronique) and Morton from Denmark. As the sun rose, it was revealed to us that we were driving above the clouds! The mountains in Bolivia are lush and dramatic, and so are the clouds from above!
As we drove the road got narrower and narrower and eventually we stopped for breakfast (which I think was responsible for me getting sick) and then the road turned into a one lane dirt windy number. I looked out the window and was thrilled for all of three seconds to notice the sheer cliff we were driving on. Then I decided fear was the best emotion and for the next few hours I was as tense as tightrope walker who is walking above a shark tank. I was literally unsure we were going to make it every time we had to swerve towards the edge of the cliff to avoid a head on collision with a truck or jeep or another taxi that came careening around a hairpin curve.
Finally we made it to Guanay, a small town at the base of the moutains where we were to begin our journey. We had lunch, walked around and watched soccer practice and a political rally.
Finally, half an hour after promised, Bebeto - one of our guides - came and got us and led us over the muddy ground to our raft. The raft...was litterally just that. It was a bunch of innertubes with a bunch of sticks on top tied together with string. I think Huckleberry Finn had nicer accomodations.

The raft and ME

We were then given these blue plastic bags and rubber ties and told these are all that were going to be between the roaring river and our precious belongings. We rightly were sceptical, but tied up everything and then watched as our bags were tied down to the rafts and the guides pointed to them and told us to take a seat! Seated on top of someone else´s belongings we headed down river.

kinda comfy on the raft

The ride was as short one and we landed on a beach where we stayed the first night. The gringos were given the task of building a fire while the guides set up camp and cooked dinner. Josh jumped for joy and set about his favorite task and began collecting wood.
We had three guides. The head guide was Ivan, a La Paz native with pretty good English skills who has been working as a river guide for about ten years. Abel and his son Bebetto are natives of Guana, where we set off from, and are a family of guides. I´m not sure how long Abel has been a guide for, but he lookes like he was born with the paddle in his hand and with his camo fishermans hat on his head. His strength was incredible for an older looking man, and his son Bebeto loved to show us ladies how strong he was by constantly stripping to the waist and walking around flexing his impressive 18 year old mucles. We ate in front of the fire trying to avoid the sand flies that would prove to be the end of us and then went to bed early.

The next day we rafted until we got to a beach where we went on a hike. Abel lead it and suggested flip flops as appropriate foot wear. Maybe for a man with leather feet like Abel, but for this soft footed girl it was torture! I walked bare foot to avoid slipping in the flops, and in flops to avoid the sharp rocks, but inevidably fell and arrived at a beautiful waterfall sweaty and ready to jump in!

waterfall number refreshing!

On the way back I wore hiking boots even though they got soaked and fell hard once despite my efforts to balance and at this point the fevery feeling that had been sneaking up on me since lunch in Guana was too much and I almost started crying. I pulled through and made it to the beach where a nap and no lunch was all I could handle.

The raft ride was beautiful and better after someone genersouly donated some ibprofin, but to my dismay the campsite we were headed for was run over by cows and their mud pies! In the dark we navigated to a rocky beak where a sany lot was found and I retreated to my tent for a feverish dinnerless night. I hardly slept and was sure I was going to end up being horribly sick for the next three days with no releaf until the next morning my savior angel appeared in the form of Morton and his anti biotics! One mega pill of three later and I was ready to go and feeling better almost instantly.

The rest of the trip consisted of really awesome hikes with explanations by Ivan, fishing for Piranahs, a night hike, and a constant repairing of the blue plastic bags with tape some poeple had bought in the last town we stopped at. Some of our stuff inevidabley got wet and our things stank (as did the tents) but the bad memories and the discomfort are already things of the past while these photos reveal some of the amazing experiences we took in as we went.

leaf cutter ants are amazing, they carry giant leaves to their nest and bury them. A few weeks later these leaves turn into mushrooms to feed the colony

home base for the leaf cutter ants

a side note on ants: there are way to many of them. They come in all different sizes and some of bit. The 24 hour ant´s bite will hurt for at least six hours, and the little fire ants that terrorized us as we hiked over their lare in flip flops as they scurried around and over our toes left us yelping and hopping in agony until we had passed this gauntlet. Ants are still amazing creatures, but after having them in my tent, biting my feet I´ve had enough of them for a little while!

Josh hiking through the jungle

There were so many different kinds of butterflies that flew out to our raft, and they all seemed to have a pattern or color to match a differnt item on the raft. A blue irridecent one for the blue plastic bags of death, an orange one for the life jackets, a brown one for the wood, and others that seemed to blend in with nothing but astounded me with their complexity and beauty.

Emily caught a piranah!

Crazy natural tree protection

a note on trees: there are so many different kinds with giant termite nest, and many that can cure arthritis, stomach issues and other ailments brought on by life in the jungle. They were so interesting!

Josh eats a banana from a banana tree in the forest after a hike

a piranah with a fish hook in its eye

a tower made by the ants of dirt

a quick not on life on the river: the people who live on the river are gold miners. In the eighties there was a gold rush and while most of the gold is gone, families with more money use machines and can find up to four grams of gold a day. Poorer families use the traditional wooden pan and find around one gram a day. A gram of gold fetches abour 250 Bolivianos, but the trade off is living in the jungle with the sand flies and a generator, and worse is that the cold river gives people arthritis very early. We camped next to a house where the oldest child was eight. His mother could barely walk as she left the river to take a break from what for us was a relief from the heat and for her a curse on her aching body.

tired and damp on our last morning

On our last day we woke up ready to be out of the jungle but ready for one last amazing experience. With the amazing strenth of Abel and Bebeto we ended up at the most beautiful waterfall I´ve ever seen. All the strength and glory of the Gargantua del Diablo waterfall we saw in Iguazu was contrasted in this amazingly delicate waterfall that fell from an impossible hight but with grace into the red pool below.

When we got to Rurrenabaque we splurged for the 100 a night room at the Oriental Hotel and were greeted with limonada and this view:

There were star fruit trees, showers and hammocks. We decided on the more expensive flight back to La Paz the next day over a 20 hour bus ride and headed back to cooler weather where we hoped our bug bites wouldnt itch quite so badly. All was worth it though for the view of the monkeys we saw as well as all the above!!!