Monday, May 20, 2002


 bolivia map

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May 15, 2002, day 39
Yesterday we started the 4wd trip, with a few guys from the hostel. The driver, Nico seemed to be a bit of a grouch at first, but now we reckon he’s alright. This is great for language practice as I'm doing most of the translating for the group. The first day we saw some geysers, and a red lake called Laguna Colarada. Impressive if unspectacular scenery for long spells through the mountains. The altitude is over 3500m but so far not causing problems. We stopped at a little village called Villa del Mar. Can’t see the sea from here though. We strolled around the village, but walking is tiring at this altitude. Spoke to some guys selling fruit on the street. They bring the truck from the lowlands, which must be quite a trek. We chatted also to a little girl who was cleaning some cereal, maybe quinoa, and couldn’t understand why we were asking her about it. Already Bolivia is much more fascinating than Chile. Today we saw some pre-Inca ruins and some 2000 year old rock paintings. We’re heading across the Altiplano, it's mostly desert here, though with more scrub and bushes than the Atacama. Nico made us some maté de coca (coca leaf tea). Just throw a few coca leaves in a mug and add hot water. Great stuff!

May 18
The last day of the 4wd trip was definitely the highlight. The Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt lake in the world. It’s sparkling white, and looks just like snow from a distance. There's an island in the middle, the Isla de Pescado, full of cacti including one that’s apparently 1200 years old. Uyuni is an interesting town, I took a trip out to the excellent train cemetery, which is basically a train scrap yard which become a kind of open air museum. Went out for lunch with the group from the 4wd. I tried llama steak, it’s good but nothing special. Apparently it’s very lean. Yesterday I came here (to Potosí), the bus trip was a bit mad. A mini bus packed with about 12 people in the aisle and enough bags to fill a full bus. I opened the window to get some air, and closed it again when I got a mouthful of dust. Suffocation it is then. We stopped at a roadside café for lunch. There are no toilets here, so the tourist girls go up the hill where there’s a bunch of trees while the locals walk a few meters up the road lift up their skirts and piss on the road. Charming. The hostel’s not great here, uncomfortable beds and bunch of loud Isralies. It's cheap though only 15 Bolivianos (€2.30). Bolivia’s dirt cheap. I had a bit of a disaster yesterday, I left my bag in the back of the taxi we took from the bus station. Nothing valuable but my Spanish books were in there and they may be hard to replace here. Just as I was starting to do well, and it’s much easier to understand the people here than in Chile. I may get it back, I went to an office where they made a report and sent it to the taxi company. Wouldn’t be too hopeful though. The guy made his report using a manual typewriter, I hadn’t seen one of those in years. Remember, Bolivia is the poorest country in South America.

Today was definitely the craziest day of the trip so far. I went to the silver/tin mines in the Sierra Rico. They’ve been in operation for around 400 years and it looks like the working conditions haven’t changed much in that time. No safety considerations and loads of dust and all sorts of things to inhale, and no one wears even a dust mask. Our guide, Santos, worked there from 12 years old until he was 18. He lost his job when the tin marked collapsed in the 1980s. Having lungs which still function probably makes up for it mind you. On the way to the mines we stopped off at the miners market to buy gifts for the miners. Cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves. The locals chew coca leaves to help deal with the altitude. In the mines the guys chew leaves all day while they work. Also we bought dynamite and nitro-glycerine. We used traditional lamps in the mines, which use water mixed with calcium carbide, to produce a flammable gas. A small can burns for 8 hours. The mine is made up of 17 levels, with 250km of tunnels. A lot of the jumps between levels don’t even have ladders, just get down and slide! Tunnels are very low (Bolivians are short!) and narrow. We spoke to some of the workers, they were mostly quite friendly. One guy was only 16. I asked him if he liked the job, he said he hates it but there’s no alternative. The money they earn is good compared with the average Bolivian, but the average miner dies at 45 because of “problems with their lungs” as Santos says. Hardly surprising. The best character was the last guy, a 57 year old who had worked in the mines for 3 years. He didn’t speak Spanish, only Quechua, as is the same with many of the older people. He asked if anyone wanted to work so we all (Pete from 4WD trip and a Dutchman called Marco) took turns to drive the chisel a few whacks into the rock. The highlight of the day was probably the dynamite explosion which Santos did afterwards. I got the job of making a ball out of the dynamite (just like plasticine!), then he wrapped it in a bag with the nitro-glycerine, stuck in the fuse and lit it. Maybe 50m away. The blast was huge and we all missed the photo as we got such a shock! A minute later a crazy Israeli came shouting after us accusing us of trying to kill her. Funny really!
The women work outside the mine breaking stones trying to find bits of silver. We were lucky to be there on one of three Saturdays in the year when they sacrifice llamas (about 50 of them) to the gods, and splash blood and the machinery and the walls for good luck. It was all rather grotesquely compelling. Then they get drunk on beer and some insanely strong local alcohol. Some must be poured on the ground first as a sacrifice to pachamama (mother earth)
Last night I had some altitude sickness. I took a diamox which Mike gave me, and after a restless night I took another one this morning. Just walking around here makes you tired, but since it’s the highest altitude town in the world at 4070m it’s got to get easier!

llama sacrafice at the silver mines

21 May, Day 45
I went to a football game on Sunday with a couple of Irish lads from the hostel. Real Potosi v Bolivar from La Paz. Bolivar won 2-1. Typical South American stuff, lots of skill up front, defenders dribbling their way around the strikers, dodgy refereeing and crap goalkeepers. Loads of little kids working there selling stuff. Sad to see and they were so annoying too. I came to Sucre (the capital) on Monday, it’s very different to Potosí, more interesting and a great market. I came here by shared taxi with Mike and some others. I went out with Mike and found a nice Dutch-run bar. Yet again I ran into that french guy Steffan and his girlfriend whose name i can’t remember. I managed to find some replacement Spanish books here. Not great but better tan nothing. I’ll probably head on to La Paz tomorrow, but I need to check the times, most likely it will be an overnighter.

May 23
I arrived in La Paz today, not a huge city, the population is something like one million. I found a hostel here with some strange French guy i met at the bus station. Not the best location at night perhaps but taking taxis should mean its ok. I spent a long time looking around the markets today. There’s lots of interesting stuff especially at the witches market where you can buy llama fetuses. I went out at night to see an Afro-Bolivian band with the French guy and a few others.

May 24
What a crazy day! I went to see the famous San Pedro prison, which is right in the middle of La Paz. The guide was James from South Africa, who like 90% of the in-mates here is in for drug offences. There are also murderers and rapists. Security is lax and families are allowed to visit and even stay overnight. The cells are rented or owned, so the richer ones are in better accommodation. Not so much cells as apartments for these guys. There are even “for rent” signs posted on some cells. If you don’t have money you cant get a cell and we saw some outside in sleeping bags. Don Vicente - the big boss man - accompanied us on the tour. James introduced him as “the most respected prisoner here”, which presumably translates as the most feared. They told us how they punish the sex offenders in an induction ceremony . It’s done publicly with all the prisoners watching. They get thrown in a pool, get chilli peppers shoved up their arses and whipped with a rod, which he passed around and let us hold. Felt good. You can read a very different account of this ceremony in the excellent book “Marching Powder” by Rusty Young. It’s the story of Tomas McFadden the English inmate who started the craze of bringing tourists into the prison.
There are shops and restaurants inside and some inmates make and sell handicrafts. I thought it wise to buy something. They even have 5-a-side tournaments. Don Vicente told us proudly about how his team one last year. Which is a bit like Robert Mugabe winning the elections in Zimbabwe really. Incredibly the police do not actually go inside the prison, the prisoners control it themselves. Or perhaps Don Vicente does. I'm not sure how I felt about shaking hands with that guy at the end, but again it seemed unwise not to. James didn't tell us how that guy got to be the head honcho, I'm sure he must have been a big man on the outside at some point. He’s been in for seventeen years now. The Lonely Planet (or lonely loser as a Geordie guy I met today calls it) named this as “one of the world’s most bizarre tourist attractions” and for once they must be right. It’s handy for the inmates (one or two of them anyway) as they get half the money and the guards get the other half.

May 25
Today I found a very great restaurant, where I had some kind of cereal mixed with pumpkin and chicken. It’s right next to the small but fascinating coca museum. For those who don’t now, a lot of the coca leaves are used to make cocaine and there are a lot of coca plantations in the north of Boliva, where it must be much warmer than here!! I also booked myself on a trip with Gravity Mountain Bikes to cycle down the world’s most dangerous road. There was a parade called “El Gran Poder” so there was quite a carnival atmosphere in town. It was hard to see with the crowds. You can pay for a seat on some temporary terracing, but then the people who don’t pay walk along and stand in front, blocking your view.

May 26
The bike trip from la Cumbre to Corioco, down the world’s most dangerous road, descending 3500m in 65km. As far as I know the title is official based on death tolls. We had a group of nine including the guide. The first section was on a paved road, mostly downhill but a couple of nice climbs too. It reminded me of the movie American Flyers with the steep drop-offs at the side. About one third of the way down we came to the world’s most dangerous road. It’s steep and winding with a huge drop-off to one side. It’s not paved – just gravel – with some stones thrown around here and there. Incredibly, only one person has been killed on these tours – an Israeli girl who went over the edge two years ago. There is a monument to here on the road, where we stopped for lunch. There is no monument for any of the countless Bolivians who have died.
The road was undoubtedly dangerous but not as scary as others had told me. Today it was busier than normal because the road had been closed yesterday due to El Gran Poder. Once, I went too close to the edge as I pulled over to avoid a bus. I reckon it’s more dangerous to cycle around the average town. Especially if that town is in Bolivia. It is easy to slide though, and if you go over the edge, you’ll just have to hope you’ll at least get a monument. Marie-Ann, the guide said she is “continually amazed at how people survive”. One of the Yankee girls got a bit freaked out and jumped back on the mini-bus less than half way down. It was quite physical, mostly because of the vibration, though I wouldn't say you have to be fit, apart from for the climbs at the start maybe. Only myself and one of the French guys gave it a bit of wellie, the others took it very cautiously.
At lunch Marie-Ann told us about another trip, to the Zonga valley, which apparently has a lot more risk as there are less vehicles and you can go faster. I really wanted to do that one, but unfortunately things went against me and I never made it.
For anyone who likes bike riding this trip is a must!

world's most dangerous road

May 28
Today I left La Paz – for now – and took a bus to Copacabana, a small town on the shores of lake Titicaca. The boat to the Isla del Sol took almost two hours. I travelled with a Czech girl from the hostel. Two nights should be enough to explore the island fully. This is the birth-place of the sun and moon, from where the Inca gods commanded the sun and moon to rise from lake Titicaca, and is sacred for Quechua and Aymara people.

May 29
A lazy enough day today, didn't really achieve much. We went to the Templo del Sol, an old Inca ruin, which was pretty disappointing. It was tough with the high altitude and also we realised the island is bigger than we thought. We tried to find out departure times for the boats tomorrow to see the north of the island, but of course it was the usual nightmare with everyone telling us different things. If we can find one, we’ll take a boat to the north and walk back.

May 30
Unfortunately I'm sick today so no chance to do anything. Not sure what caused it but an Israeli girl here is also sick so maybe it was the food. The lady at the hostel, who might just be the local witch doctor, has made up some kind of potion with herbs. I doubt it did anything but it did taste good. At least I was well enough to take the boat back to Copacabana where we stayed another night.

May 31
The World Cup kicked off today. The Sol y Luna Bar were proudly handing leaflets around town telling everyone that they were showing the World Cup. Half an hour after kick-off, after endless flicking and a call to La Paz, the guy finally admitted he didn't even have the right channel. As luck would have it they did have the channel back at the hostel. Mid-way through the second half the electricity went off. One of the staff stuck his head in and said “it’s the whole village”. Finally someone noticed the lights were still on across the courtyard. Turns out some joker was watering the garden and poured water all over the electric cable. Welcome to Bolivia! A great place to visit. Onwards to Peru…