Week nine (and a bit): beautiful and bizarre Bolivia

I began the week in Sucre, the proudly UNESCO named ‘White City’ because of all the looming colonial architecture still standing. This world heritage beauty however is largely confined to the main plaza, whilst the rest of the city buzzes with all the chaos, crowds and colour one might be more accustomed to in South America. Especially the market, where we could be found filling up on fresh fruit juices, daily.

Being a little saturated with ‘nice church’ tourism, I was lucky to find a group of people headed off to the more surreal sights. Amidst the grandeur of the main square, we waited for the ‘look at us stupid gringos’ bus to arrive; this glorified tin can took several laps of the square (presumably to gain enough momentum for the hills ahead, or perhaps just to allow more pointing and laughing time for the public) before heading to the outskirts of town and Sucre’s answer to Jurassic park!

A giant limestone wall, now standing vertical after millions of years of tectonic movement, played host to a plethora of dino-footprints. Much smaller than I ever expected, the T-Rex left little birdy tiptoes behind, whilst the Diplodocus left less glamorous circular splodges. One might assume that the world’s largest collection of footprints might require some serious preservation; but, being Bolivia, this site still doubles as a quarry, requiring visitors to duck and dive around tractors and dust clouds!

To accompany the footprints is a wonderfully tacky and ridiculous area of plastic lifesize replicas and a cafe selling particularly underwhelming dino-burgers. A bit of history and a lot of kitsch- the perfect combination for any tourist!

Other than that, Sucre has several museums- housing plenty of rocks, skulls and artwork. As much of the modern art museum (once they moved on from gaudy religious imagery) was politically angled towards the mining industry in Potosi, that was my next stop.

Potosi, the highest city in the world and once the richest, sprawls across narrow winding streets, like a high altitude, slightly grubbier version of Cartagena.

Despite the moral qualms about the intrusion of the tourist industry, I thought it important to see the silver mines of the ‘Rich Mountain’ that had provoked the exploitation boom here since 1545. Not a particularly comfortable experience, and certainly not for the faint-hearted.

All decked out in our mining finest, and after a trip to the miner’s market to buy some coca leaves, dynamite and much needed rehydration, we entered the tunnels through a cramped hole in the mountainside and were forced to run in order to escape the approaching booming that signalled a two tonne wagon was flying your way. Difficult to breathe at this altitude at the best of times, the dust, low ceilings and stench of explosive ammonia certainly didn’t aid things.

We were escorted to some of the private areas that workers rent from the cooperatives (the mines stopped being nationalised after a market crash in 1986) to see how they survive amongst the darkness for 8-18 hours a day. Some men prefer to work alone, quietly excavating the highest quality minerals they can find; whilst others form a team, with ‘staff rooms’ set up from old car seats, carnival decorations and piles of discarded beer cans and coca leaves. The group we visited showed us how they prepare dynamite explosions, and despite it being the thing we were waiting for, the crash caught me completely off-guard every time!

Via a couple of small shrines to the mining God (a phallic-centric representation of the devil, as he rules all that is underground) we headed towards the light at the end of the tunnel. After just two hours in the mine, I was struck by how time had stagnated there; the processes in place can’t have changed much since colonial times and over 60% of the city’s male population are unable to escape this inevitable career path.

On a somewhat less morbid note, Potosi has a hive of other activities to offer. A trip to the museum at the former Royal Mint may sound a little dry, but provided a rich insight into the city’s historical importance and into Bolivian life as a whole, both then and now, thanks to our overly chatty guide!

The Santa Teresa convent and attached church also had a colourful story to tell, combining an abundance of glamorous clothes and jewels (all for the parade dolls of the Virgin) with a miserable tale of life trapped behind four walls, unable even to enter the church to which the sister’s dedicated themselves, unless behind a separating screen.

One last stop (and something that was disappointingly missing from my Rough Guide) is the thermal lagoon just twenty minutes out of town- though the drastic shift in scenery suggests a much greater distance. A natural infinity pool of volcanic activity, this 30 degree water is too high and too relaxing to warrant swimming, thus floating and lounging, amidst the sweeping colours of the mineral-rich mountains, is a perfect way to spend an afternoon before tackling the hectic bus station.

Our (that is me and my new French right arm, Julien) journey back to civilisation was interrupted by road closures and excitement, all owing to a Saint’s day carnival taking place in the main square. Glamorous and sexy attire for the women, men in ridiculous dragon-esque outfits, brass marching bands in full suits and daytime fireworks exploded with colour and fun; and it all felt very English, as the whole fiesta took place despite the pouring rain!

Having been in the middle of nowhere for the last few days, I’m forced to cover just over a week of busyness all in one blog post; thus our next stop was to the desolate ghost town of Uyuni, a necessary checkpoint on our way to the salt flats.

Having booked last minute onto a three day tour, with a suitably dodgy ‘don’t tell anyone what you paid’ tour provider, we squeezed our knees into the back of a jeep full of vibrant, vigorously dancing Brazilians and we were off!

First stop was the train cemetery, a shout out to Uyuni’s past as a useful transport hub. I questioned whether perhaps attempting to reuse this abundance of scrap metal may have been more prudent, but certainly less fun, as this site was essentially a grown-up playground, perfect for climbing and exploring (although I got a little ahead of myself at times and Julien had to lift me down from the roof- not so James Bond after all.)

Just beyond lay the edge of the salt flats; akin to snow when it gets dirty and slushy a couple of days after fresh fall, the impure salt here allowed pockets of the bubbling water from below to surface and prove that we were in fact standing on a giant, crusty lake! Further into the centre of the Salar, everything becomes cleaner and totally perfect. Aside from the odd conical piles of salt and an abundance of Japanese tourists around the Hotel de Sal, there is nothing, as far as the eye can see, until your gaze settles on the distant mountains. Having brainstormed in the jeep, now was the perfect time to run around taking ridiculous perspective pictures and generally regressing to a childlike state.

On the other periphery of the Salar, just a couple of inches of water created the most magical mirror effect. Other than our awkward ‘keep my socks dry’ waddle, it was like walking on clouds. Without doubt, one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting.

We slept a night in a hostel, made of salt of course, and marvelled at the uninterrupted views of the stars, before an early morning start for a variety of landscapes, each one far from the salty desert of the day before. Lagoon after lagoon got increasingly more impressive, culminating in a red lake, almost entirely covered in grazing flamingoes. Briefly resting my eyes in the jeep (not sleeping, thanks to the infuriatingly repetitive music our driver insisted upon) transported me from views of volcanoes to totally arid desert, where we ate lunch, probably the furthest from civilisation that I’ve ever had a meal. But my highlights of the day were the volcanic rocks of all shapes and sizes which provided yet more adventurous places to clamber and explore, determined to find the best vantage points and the best ‘guess where I sat and played my ukulele’ spots for Julien to claim.

Our final day began under the blanket of stars, at 4am. Totally freezing, we had a brief stop at some geysers in order to warm our hands and to generally bask in the smell of sulphuric eggs, before heading to our final lagoon. Hidden amongst a mist of fog, an occasional flamingo wandered past as we took refuge in the tiny inlet of thermal volcanic activity. Sitting in a warm bath, whilst others froze their toes off around us, watching the sunrise through the fog, was one of those perfect moments, tinged too with total smugness!

A journey across the last stretch of desert (bearing an uncanny resemblance to a Salvador Dali painting, for which it is named) and we reached the border with Chile. Much fewer security measures than one would usually expect at an international border, but I guess the vastness of the desert is enough of a deterrent for any potential trouble makers. We bid goodbye to our new Brazilian buddies (with whom we had bridged the language barrier with card games and dancing) and it was time for the European contingent to change countries.


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