I'll start where I left off in Potosi which was definitely one way of getting acclimatised to altitude - start in the highest city in the world! Headaches and shortness of breath were a problem - even putting a jumper on tired me out! Potosi is most famous for being a mining town, mainly silver. When I first arrived it seemed to be quite a sad place, with lots of dark narrow streets and high walls set at the bottom of Cerro Rico, a huge mountain looming in the background. It's here that you can find many entrances to working mines. Maybe there is a sad air to the town because of it's dark history - thousands of people have died over hundreds of years from the appaulling working conditions in the mines. The conditions are still dangerous today, with many miners contracting the lung disease silicosis, making the average life expectancy only 40 years.
I arrived at my hostel, The Koala Den, and was lucky to find Andy and three Canadian boys I'd met previously there. It was great to catch up with them all and we spent the Friday evening sampling the local alcohol and cocktails, including singani which is a grape brandy. I also tried some llama burger too - very tender and tasty! The next day, I had to get up at 7am to start a tour of a mine and I have to say the combination of a singani hangover and the high altitude was not a good mix! Our guide was an ex-miner called Ronald who had worked in the mines in Potosi for two years and he told us that some of the money from the tours goes back to the miners. Our first stop was to the workshop where we had to put on protective trousers, jackets, wellies and a helmet with a head lamp. Ronald surprised us all by coming out in just his pants explaining that it can get very hot in the mines! Thankfully, he did put some clothes on to continue the tour! The next stop was to the miner's market where the miner's can buy everything they need including dynamite, coca leaves, water and a 96% alcohol made from sugar cane. We all got to try a shot (the best hair of the dog I've ever had!) and as you can guess, it was pretty strong and pretty disgusting. The bottle looked more like something you could buy from B&Q, rather than something you could drink! We bought some water and soft drinks as a present for the miners we were going to visit. We visited the local refinary where we saw huge machines proocessing everything that had been mined and Ronald showed us liquid silver - I even had a ring drawn on my finger!
Finally, it was the moment of truth, time to enter the mine. We all stood nervously outside the entrance as Ronald explained that it is still a working mine so we had to pay attention to him at all times. Suddenly, we heard a thunderous rumble and he told us to stand to the side of the track as a young man came out pushing a heavy metal wagon full of rocks. Once inside the mine, we had to wear bandanas to cover our nose and mouth from the dust but it was difficult to breath as the deeper inside we went, the hotter it got. We were passed a few times by miners pushing and pulling wagons - one young boy even had a rope tied to his waist to pull the wagon from behind. It was quite scary because we had to bend down and even crawl through some tiny passageways, as well as walking through muddy water too. We visited El Tio which is a small statue of a man with a rather large penis covered in coca leaves and ribbons! Every Friday, the miners go to offer him coca leaves and throw the 96% alcohol over him to ask for good health, good luck, better working conditions and more silver (oh and a good sex life)! We met a few miners along the way, including a father and his 16 year old son who had already been working for a year. We were told that children as young as twelve can work in the mines. It's terrible to think childen as young as that have to work in such horrendous conditions. Each miner we met was very grateful for the drinks we gave them and were happy to stop and chat to us. One thing I noticed was the comradery and sense of humour among the miners. They were always laughing and joking amongst themselves as well as with us - I'm sure it's an important quality to have to keep your spirits up working in a mine all day. At one point, we had to squeeze passed a wagon and crawl under some wooden beams before climbing up a rickety old ladder. Me and one girl were waiting under the beams when suddenly we heard rocks falling on top of the beams and there was so much dust we couldn't see or breathe. We thought the tunnel was caving in but thankfully it was just some men loading the wagon! Feeling that scared for just a moment, I can't imagine what those men have to go through everyday...It was a very interesting experience though and we even learnt a little bit of 'quechua', one of the indigenous languages in Bolivia.
From Potosi, I had to say goodbye to Andy and team Canada as I was heading south to Tarija, the wine region of Bolivia (right up my street)! I got an overnight bus there and arrived on Sunday when everything was closed so I spent the day people watching outside a lovely restaurant on the main plaza. I had the most amazing steak, and a glass of red wine of course! Tarija is a beautiful city, known as the Andalucia of Bolivia. I can see why, with it's relaxed atmosphere, friendly people and family feel. The next day, I went on a tour of the bodegas with six fun Bolivian girls from Santa Cruz. We had a great day visiting the Kohlberg bodega and vineyards and sampling lots of nice wine - red, white, rose, dry, medium, sweet...and eating lots of cheese and salteñas, a typical Bolivian pasty filled with meat, vegetables and a spicy sauce. That evening, there was a big storm and the most rain I've seen for awhile! I had to get another overnight bus on a another windy, cliff edge road so I didn't have the most relaxing journey. I do miss the luxury of the comfortable Brazilian buses! Imagine driving over huge bumpy rocks, steering round constant sharp curves, looking down over massive drops, breathing in fumes from the engine, screaming babies, very dodgy sounding brakes, a broken seat that doesn't go back, some weird liquid dripping on you from above, for a good 12 hours and you get the picture of a typical Bolivian bus journey! The plus side though is that between traditional Bolivian music and cheesy Latin American pop songs, you get the odd random gem including Queen 'I want to break free' and Rod Stewart's Do ya think I'm sexy - always a winner!
I eventually arrived in Tupiza where I bumped into Simon again so we decided to do the salt flat tour together. The last four days I have spent in a 4x4 with Simon, a lovely Dutch couple called Merel and Sacha, a unique Norweigan guy and our driver Freddy! It has definitely been a highlight of my trip, although it has also been the coldest I've been so far - alpaca gloves and hat came in very useful! We saw some stunning scenery including rocky red canyons and cactus trees on the first day, known as the Wild West of Bolivia. We saw many beautiful lakes including Laguna Colorada where the water was a copper colour because of the red micro-organisma that live in it. We relaxed in some thermal springs with a perfect blue lake as our back drop. I saw my first llama not on a postcard which I was very excited about! Over the four days llamas and alpacas became a common sighting, as well as vicuñas (like an elegant looking deer) and viscachas (a rabbit with a cat's tail)! We visited four lakes which were filled with hundreds of flamingos, a beautiful sight including white flamingos too. We saw some geisers (very smelly and lots of bubbling grey liquid) and semi-active volcanos seperating Bolivia and Chile. We drove through the Desierto de Dali which has similar rock formations to some of Salvador Dali's paintings - that was really interesting to see beacuse he is one of my favourite artists. We passed through lots of little villages where there were only 30 or 40 people living there and we stopped at an eerie ghost town which is now just ruins after all the people died there.
On the last night we stayed in the Salt Hotel where everything was made out of salt, even the beds and the walls (we did the lick test to check)! There was even a dog there that looked like he was made from salt, a small white bundle that camouflaged into the salt floor! The last day we drove into the Salar de Uyuni for the sunrise. It is a huge bright white mass of salt for miles and miles. I have never seen anything like it, it felt like we were driving over snow - very impressive. We stopped for the typical cheesy tourist photo shoot and had lots of fun taking crazy photos and videos because of the perspective the salt makes! Photos to follow when I find some faster internet... We were then dropped off in Uyuni, quite a strange little town on the border of the salt flats. Simon, Merel, Sacha and I spent the afternoon relaxing, trying coca beer and then having dinner together before Simon and I had to get another overnight bus to La Paz.
So here I am in La Paz and very happy to be reunited with two of the Swedish tigers, Martin and Viktor! La Paz adventures to follow...
Lots of love xx