Saturday, 24 March 2012

Cities that nearly touch the sky

Day 30-32     Cities that nearly touch the sky (Potosi and La Paz)

Potosi is the highest city in the world at a little over 4000m. The route there took us through beautiful mountain landscapes which in parts were notably greener with huge cacti (like in cowboy cartoons) and some trees, although it was mostly scrub land! We even passed some marshy land that was lush with green grass and had cows on it - the first I have seen for a while! Mind you, it wasn't that green as there were sand dunes behind!

When we got to Potosi I had a wander around town. We went up the tower of one of the old churches and had a good view over the town. It is a nice place with clear evidence of its wealthy past. Potosi was founded by the Spanish when silver was found there. At some point, it was apparently the richest city in the world. Most of the silver has gone now - the vast majority went to Spain in the 16th,17th and 18th centuries.  There is still some silver there - about 8 years ago a miner who had worked there for over 30 years found a 6m seam of pure silver and is now the richest man in Potosi!


The Old Mint

The next morning a few of us decided to go on a tour of the Old Mint. The mint in Potosi was one of the most important in the world and they made silver coins for the Spanish until Bolivia won its independence. They then made Bolivian Coins until the 1970s.

The Bolivian women are very interesting - a high proportion stil wear the tradional out fits with pleated skirts and bowler or other hats.  I did not like to take photos of them, but still managed to sneak a few!

In the afternoon 4 of us went on a tour of the mine which still operates, even though there is very little silver there, there are many other minerals such as lead, zinc and tin. We had been warned that the conditions were pretty bad, but it was worse than I had imagined!
Going down the tunnel

Preparing to go in

With El Tio

In colonial times, the Spanish used the indigenous peoples to work in the mines as slaves. T ensure they worked hard they taught them about the devil and put a statue of the devil in the mine to remind them to work hard. The peole, however, worked out that the devil was the enemy of Catholics and so they came to see him as a friend believing that he would determine whether they would make good finds.  Apparently, they miners still give gifts to El Tio (uncle) every Friday to ensure their next week is successful!

The miners also worship Pachu Mama - mother earth who owns the mine and looks after their health; and then of course, they worship God and Jesus
Miner at work

Whew - made it out!
Entrance to the mine behind us!

That night we took a night bus to La Paz. Bolivian buses are built for short Bolivians and so this was rather less comfortable than the Argentinian night buses we had taken before!  We drove through the night, and then I awoke early to hear lots of busy talking. It turned out there was a road block, with burning tyres becasue there was a demonstration against a recent 50% rise in bus fares. The bus stopped and we had to get off. We ended up walking about 8 or 10km (estimates vary) (more than 2 hours) through the demonstrations and road blocks carrying our luggage. there was no danger to us as the demonstration was against the bus companies and people smiled as we went through, though they seemed amused at our inconvenience!  I noticed that many of the women were just sitting in groups chatting and were spinning wool or knitting while they talked!   We managed to meet up with our transfer that was supposed to take us from the bus station to our hotel and got there safely.  It was tiring to walk that far with our luggage, but quite an adventure and quite a welcome to La Paz!
Walking through the road block
Women coming to the demonstration
More demonstrators
Walking through the demonstrators

Once we were fed and showered I ventured out onto the streets of La Paz.  The witches market was near our hotel - they sell herbs, potions, incantations and other more dodgy things (dried llama foetuses) to solve problems!! 
Witches Market
A few of us also went up to Killi Killi, a look out point over the city.  La Paz is the highest capital city in the world at about 3600m.  It sits in a bowl and is built up the steep sides of the mountains. It is surrounded by hills and mountains, inlcuding a snow covered one that is over 6000m high (which you can see shrouded in cloud in the photo below). 
View from Killi Killi

La Paz is a very busy crazy sort of city - there are buses and cars everywhere, the pavements are quite broken up so you have to watch your feet in order not to fall over and crossing roads is challenging!  Having said that it also has some quite attractive squares and grand colonial buildings. It has a good feel about it!

Main government building


Watching the world go by

High and Dry in Chile and Bolivia (2)

Days 22-28   High and Dry in Chile and Bolivia (Countries 4 and 5) - part 2

The next morning we got up early and prepared for our desert crossing. We got a bus up to the Bolivian Border where we met our 4 wheel drive transport ad drivers for the crossing.  Apparently the border sometimes randomly is not open and this then entails a 10 hour drive round to the next crossing point, so you can imagine our relief when we saw that the crossing was open.

Heading up to the Altiplana and the Bolivian Border
We met our two drivers with their Toyota Landcruisers who promptly disapperead under one of the vehicles and spent about 45 minutes dry-sealing something .... a little concerning.  We soon learned however, that every time we stopped they were checking and fixing things!  Once they were ready we loaded up the cars with all our main luggage, water, spare fuel etc on the roof and everything else inside. We had to take all our own water, food and toilet roll for our 3 days journey! We even had our own cook called Lily, who was our driver, Pablo's wife.  She fed us extremely well for the whole journey which was great.  Once we were loaded we set off on dirt tracks through desert terrain that kept changing ...

Green Lagoon
Green Lagoon
Our first stop was the Green Lagoon at 4600m (15,000ft) - it really was bright green - because of the minerals (high concentration of lead, copper and sulphur) in it and surrounded by snow capped mountains and volcanoes, including Licancabur (5960m, 19,000ft).

Coloured Lagoon

Our next stop was our lunch stop at the Coloured Lagoon - a beautiful blue with a natural hot pool in which we relaxed for a while after lunch.

In the hot pool

Better get out of the way ....

Our last stop for the day was at a place where there was lots of geological activity with steaming vents and bubbling mud pools.


Sunset from the hostal

From there we want to out hostal. It was very basic, but was clean and had flushing toilets! Once the sun went down the temperature dropped rapidly and it got really quite cold. I slept in my thermals, a fleece and my socks in a sleeping bag underneath 4 blankets and was comfortably warm!
A few of the team were feeling the effects of altitude and were feeling not very well, quite headachy and absolutely exhausted. The local brew to deal with altitude sickness is Coca Tea which is really quite nice!

Next morning we were up early, loaded the vehicles and were off again.  This time our first stop was at the Red Lagoon (4278m), which was very red from the minerals in it.  It also had loads of flamingos - not something I expected at that altitude.
Red Lagoon and Flamingos
Red Lagoon
Our next stop was at the Valley of the Rocks - an area full of enormous rocks that have been hewn by the wind into all sorts of interesting shapes. Goodness knows how they got there, but one can only assume they were fired out of a volcano at some time long in the past!

Our final stop of the day was at a beautiful Blue Lagoon with more flamingos and perfect reflections - stunning!

Throughout the trip it has been very dry - not surprising as it is the Atacama Desert - so there has been very little signs of greenery or plant life, Accordingly we did not see much animal life either. By the lakes there were the flamingos, small dipper type birds and some ducks. On the land all we saw were llamas and vicunas (like smaller, slightly less wooly llamas)! 

It is a strange and harsh place, but nonetheless very beautiful.                                                              

Our vehicles and our tracks ...
Again we packed the vehicles early in the morning and set off into the desert again.  This was our final day of the desert crossing.
Our first stop was at a strange place where there was a train 'graveyard'! There were lots of old rusting steam trains apparently abandoned there in the 1950s.  Apparently trains used to be the main mode of transporting minerals to the coast for export, but with modernisation, the old trains became redundant and stopped being used.

From there we went onto the Salars de Uyuni - the Salt Flats. This is an area of 12,500m2 of salt flat. it was originally sea and then with geological movements of tectonic plates, it bcame a lake which evaporated and formed the salt flats.  Becasue they are perfectly flat and perfectly white and there is nothing to give perspective it is possible to take some wierd and interesting photographs that play tricks with the eyes! (We didn't quite get them all perfectly right.)

Needless to say, they also make salt on the flats - 5000kg per day all dug, dried, prepared and bagged by hand, only bringing in about 1300 Bolivianas (130 pounds) per day!  The buildings by the salt flats are also made of salt - salt blocks - the only wood is for door frames and doors and window frames!

When we had finished playing with our cameras, we went to the town on Uyuni - a very strange one-horse town. It felt good however, as it was down at 3600m and the hotel had hot showers!!  It was here that we said goodbye to Pablo and Lily - you can see that Bolivians are generally very small and I felt very tall!!

I loved the desert crossing, but it was also good to be back in some form of civilisation!

High and Dry in Chile and Bolivia

Days 22-28   High and Dry in Chile and Bolivia (Countries 4 and 5) - part 1

This is the start of a new phase of my trip and a new group.  This is a smaller group - 9 of us.  We are heading up high in altitutde and into the Atacama Desert.
View over Salta

We started with a flight from Buenos Aires to Salta in northern Argentina,  Salta is a pleasant town with, it seemed, a diproportionate number of churches, including one with the tallest spire in South America.  It also has a cable car up a hill which gives spectacular views over Salta and the Lerma Valley. 

I also visited the archeological Museum as Salta has the mummies/ bodies of the three children found at an altitude of 6700m on the Llullailaco volcano.  They were from Inca times and had been sacrificed - all rather grusome but the climate kept the bodies, the textiles and the sacred objects buried with them almost perfectly preserved. The Museum only shows one at a time and they are still kept at low temperatures so it was pretty chilly!.
The next day we had a day trip to the wine growing area south of Salta, called Cafayate (1600m; 5,200ft).  The journey took us up through the Reserva Natural de Queserba de Conches (shells), lush green mountains and strange rock formations. (Spot me at the bottom of the picture - to give you some perspective!) 

When we got there we visited a vinyard and had a wine tasting.  They have to grow special grapes that can withstand the cool temperatures that they get at night.  The grapes were to be ready to be picked in about 3 weeks time.

Flooded Road

After lunch we set off for home - the weather had been cloudy, but nothing worse. About half way home we came across a raging torrent flowing across our road and a queue of cars that felt it was unsafe to cross. Clearly it had rained somewhere in the mountains.  We waited a while and then a big bus went through safely and following that, the cars and vans followed. I have to say it was quite tense in the van for the dew seconds it took to cross the water!!

San Pedro di Atacama - early morning
The next day we got the bus to San Pedro to Atacama, crossing the border into Chile and climbing to 2440m (about 7,900ft), though to get there we went over a pass at 4600m!  We arrived late in the afternoon. San Pedro is a pleasant little town with single story adobe walled houses.  Its income is almost entirely tourist derived and so it is well set up for tourists.

That night we had a great outing to an observatory where we learned about the stars and constellations and then looked at various heavenly bodies through telescopes.  It's so high and clear, you can see SO much! The best was seeing Saturn and all its rings. The milky way was just spectacular - so many stars and many of the constellations are different from what we can see in the northern hemisphere.
The following day was a day out in the desert. We went to the Valley of Death an area with real big sand dunes as well as rocky scrub land.

In the distance we were surrounded by snow capped volcanoes, most of which looked like Mount Fuji in Hokusai paintings!  The largest is Licancabul at 5940m!  I found I was aware of our altitude as I found myself getting quite breathless walking up even gentle slopes!

From there we went to another place called the Valley of the Moon that is largely white bacause of the salt that comes out of the rocks. We even saw salt crystal caves!

The desert landscape is really wierd and harsh, but at the same time stunning and impressive.