Sunday, 26 February 2012

Sugar, the Devil and Salt



I finally left Samaipata on Sunday the 26th of February.

The plan was to head to Surce via the “old” road thus missing out on the delights of a 12 hour night bus journey along the “new” road. The day before Frank had made a verbal reservation on a bus heading to Villa Serrano.

So there I was in the morning standing on the highway waiting....At about 11am the 1st bus from Santa Cruz heading to Villa Serrano came along, it didn't stop! Thirty minutes later another bus passed me by at 40kph.

12:30 came around and there was still no sign of the bus that contained an empty seat with my name on it...bollocks, thought I!!

20 minutes later a bus heading to the small town of Valle Grande stopped at my feet. As Valle Grande was on the way to Villa Serrano I got on board. About three hours later I was standing in the rather pretty main square of Valle Grande, the town where Che Guevara's body was displayed after being killed in La Higuera. I got a room in a hotel on the square and popped into the nearby coffee shop for a much needed caffeine fix.

In the evening I had a quiet night in because pretty much everywhere was shut. I did manage to buy some local cheese and ham and a fairly good bottle of wine, which at 25bs was a bargain.

The next morning after a leisurely breakfast of champions I visited the local museums. The 1st one was archaeological and the 2nd one was all about Che Guevara, both were small but also interesting.

After chatting with the guy in the local tourist office I discovered that on Mondays no buses go to Villa Serrano, queue a lazy afternoon.

Tuesday afternoon found me sitting on a small roundabout on the main (dirt) road on the outskirts of town at 1pm waiting for a bus to turn up sometime in the next few hours. Just before 14:30 a bus came into view.

The road to Villa Serrano is the same road I travelled along to get to La Higuera. The best views are on the right hand side, sadly I was on the left but on the brightside the window opened up wide! Three hours later the bus passed the turn off for La Higuera and started a long slow hairpin bend happy descent down into the valley and a bridge across the mighty Rio Grande. The views were beautiful!

When we got to the bridge it was around 6:30pm and the driver stopped for a 15 minute lie down (the bus left Santa Cruz at 8am with only 1 driver!) I smoked a few fags and enjoyed the vista in the dimming light. Back on the bus it was only 75kms to Villa Serrano...the bus got there at 9:50pm

It was a 2 minute walk to the main square, a fairly good hostel and a much needed toilet break. With my bladder empty I needed food. I ended up grabbing a couple of egg and chip butties washed down with 2 cans of beer from a food stall in the plaza. Then I went to bed!

Due to roadwork construction on the main road to Sucre the bus didn't leave till 4pm. That was okay as the square was a cool place to hang out and while the day away.

It took 5.5 hours to travel to Sucre and the views from Villa Serrano to the main road (which took an hour) were wonderful. The main road wasn't as pretty but it certainly was more dusty. The day became night and the bright lights of Sucre appeared in the far off distance. Then another horizon was lit up by a spectacular electrical storm. The clouds shimmered silver as lightening flashed across the sky, bolts of lightening seemed to linger as the earth was connected to the heavens (and the gods spoke but only in Sanskrit).

I arrived in the main square of Sucre at about 9:45pm Wednesday evening. 10 minutes later I was dumping my bags in my room at the Hotel Torino one block from the plaza. Hitting the mean streets of Sucre I grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading to a place where they sell beer...I believe it's called a bar! It was during my 2nd glass that I wondered if the tv in my room had cable? 45 minutes later I got my answer...I was a happy chappy!

My 1st full day in Sucre was spent, no not watching tv all day but getting things done


A) getting my clothes washed

B) watching tv, well it's my 1st tv since Santa Cruz!

C) keeping my mum happy

The last one was the easiest, all I had to do was upload the last blog. My mum can go on a bit and then my sister joins in...damn you facebook!

Following an early night in watching tv, Friday morning came around and I went for a bimble. Sucre used to be the capital of Bolivia and its terracotta tiled roofs and white painted colonial buildings really didn't impress me at all! After 4 weeks of village life walking around a big city was at best an annoyance. On the brightside the coffee in Café Florin was good and there was football to watch on the that’s it!

On Monday I got on the midday bus to Potosi 3-4 hours up the tarmac road! Potosi is famous for two things

a) it's the highest city in the world

I found walking around at 4070masl to be fairly easy, guess I’m used to the altitude.

b) it's right next door to the Cerro Rico or rich mountain

Since the 1500's over 60,000 tonnes of silver have been mined! The numbers of people, who were forced to work in the mines that have died number in the millions!

I got a room one bock from the main square and the 1st thing I did was put on some long pants and get my big fleece out of the rucksack. Yep, it's bloody cold up here! With warmer clothes on I went to a nearby coffee shop for a much needed slurp. On the way back to the hostel the sun had set and my room was colder than outside...but at least it had wifi.

A few hours later after dinner and a couple of beers it was 10pm and I was getting ready for bed. Jumping into the bed was like lying on a block of ice!! Ten minutes of frantic horizontal running later the bed was warm, well the small bit in the middle where I was anyway. Trapped under several blankets the heat couldn't escape to the rest of the bed and on the odd occasion when my foot moved to far the heat got sucked out of it!

In the morning I needed a shower...the room was still freezing cold but thankfully the water was lovely and hot but I did at some point have to turn it off!

I spent the morning walking around the centre of Potosi and because there was a strike on it was refreshingly car free. Potosi was back in the day the richest city in south America and the grandeur of the houses was impressive but along with the once brightly coloured paintwork its slowly faded over the centuries. It makes for a great place to walk around, down narrow streets with the front of the houses shielding hidden courtyards, to the impressive churches appearing at random, to the pavements so narrow they would be called kerbs in England.

One of the main tourist attractions is the mountain itself. Although the silver is all gone, tin and other precious rare earth metals are still there waiting to be dug up. 1000's of people work in co-op mines in basic conditions with most of them heading to an early grave due to various lung diseases caused by the poor air quality. To protect themselves from harm they “worship” the Devil in a quasi catholic fashion.

The idea of spending 3-4 hours scrambling around a working mine that H&S had forgot really wasn't pushing any of my buttons. In the end I decided that I would rather spend the time sitting in a café drinking coffee! Night-time came around and the bed hadn't suddenly got warm!

The next day was Wednesday and it was to be my last full day in Potosi. I spent the morning unsuccessfully trying to find a pair of boots in my size that were wide enough (my 15 month old caterpillars have about 20 miles left in them). In the afternoon I had a guided tour around the “royal mint”. Its the largest colonial building in Potosi, yes even bigger than the cathedral and was built in the 1700's replacing the original mint that had become to small. The 90 minute tour was fascinating but the biggest surprise was that the modern day currency of Bolivia is minted and printed in Europe as it is cheaper to do so???

The evening found me at the bar sitting on the stool nearest the heater drinking cold beer and “looking forward” to getting into bed. At least tomorrow afternoon I’ll be 500m or so lower, so it could be at least 1 degree warmer...time to get back into the shorts!

The road from Potosi to Uyuni is described in the lonely planet book as “scenic”, it is so much more than that! It took just under 5 hours to travel across various mountain ridges but eventually the high plain became visible as the little bus crested the final ridge. Far off in the distance were snow capped mountain peaks, in front of them was the wide expanse of the salt flats and at the place where mountains and plain met was the small town of Uyuni, seemingly placed at random.

Compared to Potosi this place was scorching hot and after getting a hostel room I did indeed change into my shorts. Uyuni is a small town of 20,000 people or so and perhaps back in the day it had a industrial/commercial reason for being here. These days it seems to be all about the tourist hoards that descend on this little town as the starting point for a 3 day 2 night tour of the nearby salt flats.

In the evening I had a little bimble around the mean streets of down town Uyuni, it didn't take long! I ended up in the “Extreme fun pub”...a bold statement of intent if ever I saw one!

The morning came around and after a lovely lie in I went for the usual. When breakfast was done I needed to book the “3 day tour” from one of the many many many tour companies. Most people would check out several different ones and talk to gringos who have just come back from doing a tour. Me, well I just walked into a tour company office that had a nice wooden door.

So, with the trip booked I had nothing to do...

The Tour

The 3 day/2 night tour takes in several lakes, more mountains than you thought you needed to see and of course the world famous “Salt flats of Uyuni”

It all started at 10:30 outside the tour company office on Saturday 10th of March and in typical Latin American fashion we didn't leave till at least an hour had gone past.

The “We” were Anna and Amy from London, Angelic and Paul from Paris (Paul was half English, the lucky man!) another French guy (whose name I could never remember....sorry dude!) and me. The seating arrangements in the 4x4 sorted themselves out easily. The girls in the back, the French in the middle and little old me up front next to the driver....I know, what a result!!!

The 1st Day

It was really only half a day but what a way to spend a Saturday afternoon. After checking out the Train cemetery which has several trains from the late 1800's rusting in peace (at least one of them was held up by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) we headed to the salt flats. It took about 45 minutes to drive to the edge of the salt flats. Normally the tour route goes straight across the 12000 square kilometres of flats but its the end of the rainy season now and as a result a large area is under water making it to dangerous to drive across.

At the edge Angelic, Paul and myself climbed onto the roof for amazing views (I’m not going to be describing the views I took lots of photographs instead!) The Jeep was heading to the salt hotel in the distance, it was hard to judge the how far away it was...

The Jeep traversed across the sparkling blindingly white salt crystals, the tyres crunching, then when we hit water a gentle sloshing sound. The sounds interchanged at irregular intervals till at last we reached the salt hotel. The “hotel” is built , yes, out of salt and in three directions was the only visible man made structure. Many photographs were taken......

Eventually it was time to leave and head to the small village of Villa Alto about 3 hours or so along the main dirt road (there is no tarmac in the area). Driving into the small courtyard/car park of the local hostel we discovered several other Jeeps, the place was going to be busy tonight. Whilst we were getting the bags off the top of the 4x4 three more turned up full of Israelis. This was not such good'll find out why later!

By 23:30 many empty red wine bottles littered our dining table (we had “bonded” as a group...go Team Wolf!!!) and I decided to call it a night. Ten minutes later the Israelis decided to have a impromptu 3 hour outdoor rave...Whoop!...Whoop!....You Bastards!!!!!!

Day Two

In the morning just before they left those wonderful Israelis thought it would be “fun” to block up the toilets so that other people couldn't use wouldn't catch the Palestinians doing that!

After breakfast we were on the road heading into big sky country. The day was spent visiting 4 lakes, each one a different colour due to the mineral contents of the water. We also went past many snow capped peaks.

The final lake was Lake Colorado, red in colour with hundreds of flamingos wading around. From there it was a short drive to the evening's accommodation (at 4300masl). Just before dinner it started to snow and it didn't stop for several hours. By 9pm the daily two hour limit of electricity was up and we all headed to bed in the dormitory. Everyone was putting on thermals and jumpers before climbing into sleeping bags and then getting into bed and under the covers. There I was standing in my boxers wondering why everyone was feeling cold!

Day Three

The next morning we left at 5am and I think out of the group I am the only real “morning person”. It was dark, misty and everything was under a blanket of snow. Cresting a ridge at 5000m we saw the geysers below us, superheated steam blasting out into the fridged air. In deference to the cold I was wearing my long pair of socks, however they were rolled down to my boots and I was still wearing my shorts!

Leaving the geysers behind we travelled down the road. 10 minutes later the Jeep stopped so that we could all enjoy one of the best sunrises I’ve ever seen!

From there we travelled to the Chilean border to drop off Anna, Amy and the French dude. As they walked to the checkpoint I thought to myself “you know for an old girl Amy does have a great arse”

Then it was several hours of driving back to Uyuni, there's something about blue skies and snow capped mountains that makes my heart sing!

I spent another two nights in Uyuni before getting on the Wednesday midday bus to Tupiza....well that was the plan. Unfortunately I was the only passenger, so it got cancelled. Instead I got the 20:30 bus arriving Tupiza at around 3am Thursday morning...what joy!

I hanged out in the pretty little town of Tupiza till Saturday morning. I didn't do much...well apart from sort out 3000 or so photographs. On the Saturday morning I got the bus to Villazon which is a town on the Bolivian/Argentinian border. I hanged out there for my final night in Bolivia and on Sunday morning I queued......