Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bolivia, a lot to see.

(Potosi, and Cerro Rico)

After finally getting our gas we headed to Potosi. The roads head up into the mountains and pretty much stay up there. I found it amazing that the trucks and buses make it at all. The route is in really bad shape, and is pretty dangerous to boot. But there you are, people and goods have to be moved around. We made it to Potosi without any problems, other than some heavy wear and tear on the bike, but as I mentioned, it is nothing compared to what cars, trucks and buses have to deal with. Oh, and to prove it, every few km's there was a truck, car, or bus stranded. Sometimes with people working on it, other times, just abandoned there.

On the good side, the ride is very scenic, and goes through lots of little villages. One curious thing, is we found that in some parts the road was suddenly paved and in excellent shape, this would usually last a few km's and then suddenly we are back to some bone jarring rock and sand stretches. On one such stretch we even encountered an accident which killed the two inhabitants of the vehicle. Apparently, they had blown a tire while driving much too fast and lost control of the car, one passenger was thrown free of the car and was lying in the middle of the road. The other lost their life when the car was crushed like an accordion. So there is one thing to be said for bad roads, they keep the vehicle speed down.

(Traditional dancers, Potosi)

The final few km's to Potosi was on a great road, which is good, considering that the altitute is over 4000 meters, and at this hight my bike doesn't have too much power. Potosi and the area around is of course the center of mining activity in Bolivia. For over 500 years they have been pulling silver out of the hills and mountains around here. In particular Cerro Rico, which although heavily mined for all this time, apparently still has more silver in it than they have pulled out. Potosi is also the highest city in the world, and is spread out at the foot of Cerro Rico. In typical Mining town fasion, the streets are narrow, steep, slippery, and very confusing, with the usual South American love for one way streets and lack of signalization.

(Corn soup heated by hot rocks!, check out this link for a complete desc.)

Potosi turned out to be a shock for us, it has been a long time since we have seen this many tourists. I guess it is something that we are going to have to start getting used to. Nevertheless, the town itself is very traditional if you get a few blocks away from the central plaza and the pedestrian zone which accompanies it. We spent a few days here walking around, checking out the many churches and some museums. The museum we visited was fascination, Casa de la Plata, This museum is in a fantastic building which used to the mint where, coins where made with the silver dug out of Cerro Rico. It is a very interesting museum, with some great original machinery used over the centuries to work the metal. One of my favorite displays was a single commemorative silver coin from the treasure of Nuestra Senora de Atocha. If you know the story, this Treasure ship went down in a storm off the coast of Florida. Of course the joke is that the silver recovered from the Atocha came from here, and all they have to show for it was this one commemorative coin sent back.

From Potosi we headed to Uyuni as the political problems on which I have already reported have not eased up enough to allow us to go north. For example, according to all the information that we could gather, there wasn't any gas to be had in that direction. Anyway, this gave us a chance to go and have a look at the Salar de Uyuni, the largest Salt Flats in the world. So that is what we did. The road was pretty difficult, made worse by the fact that it was pretty much all under construction. On the up side it was a very scenic road. There isn't much but a few mining towns, plenty of sheep, and a some very beautiful vistas. If it hadn't been such a bad road we would have really enjoyed the ride. Tired and dusty we made it to Uyuni.

(Train graveyard, Uyuni)

Uyuni turned out to be really nice. A dusty, windy, rugged outpost of civilization in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless it is another stop on the "Gringo" trail, so the town is full of tour bureaus and the usual tourist infrastructure. From here people book tours of the Salar and the lagoons along the border to Chile. We skipped the lagoons but headed to the Salar.

(Uyuni Salar)

The Salar is a huge expanse of white with a few islands here and there. The whole area is dominated by a volcano on the north shore. The Salar is criss crossed by tracks used by cars crossing the Salar. They stand out like veins and although you can drive/ride pretty much anywhere, in some places you are better off if you keep to the tracks. The reason being that in places, in particular near the edges, there is a thin crust of salt, below which is usually water. As a matter of fact in a number of places near the edge, water is bubbling up through the salt, making what they call the Ojos del Sala (eyes of the Salar). We spent a couple of days riding around and camping out on the sand. One thing I learnt about camping on Salt is that it is harder than steel. I pretty much bent all my special tent stakes putting up my tent. The thing which I will remember about the night on the Salar is the night sky. With no light or towns nearby, and the added plus of no clouds, you could imagine that you were floating in the middle in the stars. Unforgettable.

(The road to Huari)

From the Salar we headed north around the volcano through some spectacular scenery, volcano on one side, salar on the other. We met some really nice people with whom we had some interesting conversations. In particular regarding the political situation, which is on everyone's mind. Now we got some perspective from the local farmers point of view. Apparently they are really happy with Morales, and are expecting a lot of the government. They feel that the Civic Committees are being very unfair in their demands. It definitely seems that the government has their hands full keeping the subsistence farmers happy, if they loose that base then they will be in serious trouble. One example is that a couple of the people we talked to who raise Quinoa (a widely grown grain in this region), said that the government "owed" them a tractor, which they had been promised during the election time!

(On the road Huari)

Again, the road we took north towards Oruro was under construction. A new record for the worst road went to this stretch. Nothing but deep dust and sand. We found out that all the road building was due to the fact that they were going to be building a new airport in Uyuni and wanted to have some decent access roads. Well, they aren't there yet! In Huari, we met an Austrian couple on KLR (Kawasaki), and a Swiss guy on a XT600 (Yamaha). We spent a nice evening talking about riding and traveling. It has been a while since we had met fellow bikers.

(A festival, Oruro)

Oruro is another mining town. Some interesting museums, but not much else. Unlike some of the other towns, it doesn't really have very nice "old" town. A lot less touristy than Potosi, but there were still plenty of tourist around. Here we visited the mining and folklore museum, as well as the Archeological museum, both of which were interesting. In particular the mining museum, where we went into a mine shaft, and got to spent some time talking with an ex-miner. He provided a lot of valuable information and first person account of how the whole mining system works in Bolivia. The salient points are that, most of the mining is done by co-operatives, which are responsible for the sale of the mineral, but little else. Mining is still done by these people in the same way as it was for hundreds of years. The main reason is financial, they simply don't have the money for proper equipment and safety gear. So rather than using masks to avoid lung problems, they chew cocoa leaves and use breath through the mouth. The cocoa leaves serve both as a stimulant and as an air filter!!

(Getting on a ferry, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia)

Continuing on, we headed to La Paz and then to Copacabana on lake Titicaca. La Paz is a huge city, and very steeply built. It lies in a river valley (or canyon) and has grown up and along all sides. Horrible traffic and steep, very steep hills. We were happy to just spent a single night here before continuing on to Copacabana, which lies on lake Titicaca and is just on the border to Peru. The town is another very popular tourist destination. People come here to do cruises on the lake, and visit various islands. I really enjoyed the road along the lake and all the small towns. As with most lakes it is pretty scenic but other than the altitude and the fact that it is lake Titicaca there is not much to differentiate it from other lakes. Ok, maybe the reed boats that are on display in some of the villages we rode through does differentiate it a bit. But not much.

(Lake Titicaca and Copacabana, Bolivia)

After a few days here we moved on to Peru, and the story continues.

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