Bolivia

BOLIVIA PART 1, Tarija to Sucre

Our entry into Bolivia did not go like clockwork. Bolivia has a rule that only one vehicle can be imported per person? After the friendly custom lady tried to enter the scooter on a separate TIP the computer indicated that Robert Van Den Hoven already had one vehicle temporary imported and a second vehicle (the scooter) was not allowed!!! Hence, we explained to the custom lady that I would sell the scooter to Clary. Few phone calls and all was solved. The scooter is now owned by Clary.

After an overnight stop on the way we arrived in Tarija, as the locals will tell you the nicest town in Bolivia. Its location is nice in between valleys, forest and plains on the east side. Tarija It is also home to the wine producing area of Bolivia and has some of the highest (in altitude) vineyards in the world.

Our next destination was Sucre again also nominated by the locals as Bolivia’s most beautiful city. Here we decided to park our truck at Alberto and Felicidad’s small camp area (read back yard) highly recommended by Ioverlander. It was a popular spot and had just one site left for us when we arrived. The location is a winner right in the middle of the city. We stayed longer than planned but great company and a great host and his wife you can’t beat.

We visited the colourful markets and did our shopping, we visited the farmers market at the Mercado central, where on the top floor you can enjoy Bolivian cuisine. Make sure your stomach is used to local food!!!! as hygiene is not the same as at home. As we walked out, the butchers were trying to sell us the bloodied meat and all animals and carcasses are here on display.

Also, you can’t walk past the freshly made juices sold in the Mercado plaza. The market we wanted to visit but missed (only on Sunday) was the Tarabuco Market 40km East of Sucre where the Yampara people shop in traditional dress.  Just outside Sucre we visited La Glorieta Castle. It is the tale of a Prince and Princess and the pink, crazy fairy-tale castle; both Prince and Princess were involved in charity. Prince Francisco became wealthy due to his shares in the Potosi silver mine.

The building now belongs to the military and is empty. Entry fee for an international tourist is double the price a Bolivian pays! Sucre General Cemetery has endless rows of stacked graves, hidden behind glass-plated shrines which are filled with photos, flowers and objects dear to the deceased.  We never saw any children working but we are told over 100 children work here looking after graves and offering tours to tourists. Being disappointed with the view point from the top of the mountain as the trees were blocking the view, we were told about the area La Recoleta. At the bottom of the mountain we just drove up to that area and we had much better views over Sucre than from the top.

Till next time from Potosi and the work place from hell 

                         BOLIVIA PART 2, 2018                                           POTOSI & the workplace from Hell

It was time to leave Sucre, next stop Potosi one of the highest located cities in the world at nearly 4300 meters above sea level. It is a cold and barren place.  In the year 1600 this was one of the wealthiest cities on earth. It also was larger than any European city at that time.

Since the Spanish arrived in 1500 they (possibly) shipped thousands of shiploads of silver over the next 300 years. But after the silver dried up Potosi has become one of the poor areas of Bolivia (despite miners earning 4 times the average wage in Bolivia). Today most make money out of tin, copper, lead and small amounts of silver. The day before and after the tour we explored Potosi. It became a major challenge to manoeuvre our 7 meters long and 3.7-meter-high truck through the town and for a while it reminded me of our travels in India, Pakistan and Nepal.

Potosi Mountain, better known as Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) in Potosi, has been called the “gates of hell” and is not a place for wimps. Before we started our tour we visited the miners market where we purchased sticks of Dynamite, and other explosives. It was also possible to purchase pure grain alcohol (96%), but our guide Wilson asked us not to as the miners were drinking too much of it already.

Off we went with a bag full of explosives (legal to purchase in Potosi). Next we were fitted out in overalls, hard hats and gum boots. From here we drove half way up mount Cerro de Potosí, and the last safety instructions followed before we entered the mine (we already had signed an accident waiver as we went at our own risk and were not insured). Wilson advised us not to fall down a hole, like a Japanese fellow did and he died, to not ignite the dynamite and to not hit your head. We had to crawl on our knees for the first 100 meters after entering the mine, before we could upright again. First stop EL TIO, the devil god of the mountain. Happy with the break to get my breath back. Wilson explained if you make Tio happy he will reward you with the discovery of a great mineral deposit. But if you upset him you can end up injured or killed in the mine due to cave ins and the like. Wilson poured pure alcohol over the statue and offered him a cigarette.  During our next stop Wilson explained that in the 16th century Potosi was a very rich city, but today it is very poor. Today the miners are no longer employed, miners take out a contract on a plot of the mountain and do as they please, operating as sub-contractors supplying everything themselves and sell any of the minerals they mine to the buyers in town. The mine employs children sometimes as young as 10 years old but officially this is illegal we are told. It’s incredible to see these men and children at work and what they go through every single day. At one stage we saw a miner (Roberto) wedged in a crevice above us where we were walking. Robert was happy to show us how to detonate dynamite and after we gave him our dynamite he showed and explained this in detail. We were moved to a safe area (this is what we were told) before the big thud and the dust and sticky air hit our faces.

Roberto had detonated our present, hoping this would give him more money. After we climbed up a huge dust hill, it was time to slide down the dust hill again. What an experience, and not a touristy one but a complete working mine and we saw the hardship, lack of health and safety issues (NONE) and what it is like for miners to work in those terrible circumstances every day of the week. 28000 miners work like this every day, scraping out whatever ore deposits they can, inhaling dust and most of them (if not all) will eventually get silicosis, cancer or lung decease.

Average life expectancy for the miners is around 40 years. But today it is still the most profitable job in town for teenage boys and men looking after their families. For us crawling into a dark mine, not safe, and at an altitude of between 4300 and 4900 meters we were already struggling to catch our breath, without having to work do any work. The mines are still today the major source of income for the town, but all the silver was depleted a long time ago.

Is visiting the mine dangerous? Well based on the statistics it is, with around 35 miners killed each year. But so far only one tourist has died (this is what we are told, he fell down a shaft). The mine is a working mine and not a museum, health and safety issues are non-existing. Therefore, you must sign a disclaimer.  Wilson expects the mine which is now in existence over 500 years, to cave in completely within 30 to 50 years. Hence work gets more dangerous every year. Wilson also assured us that visiting the mine just for a tour has no lasting health effects. The question remains why we visited a mine that claimed many million lives over the last 500 years?!  …….   As our slogan states: YOU NEVER NEVER KNOW IF YOU NEVER NEVER GO

On Facebook I found this video clip about child labour it is called  The Devil’s Miner a documentary about child labour inside Cerro Rico.

Bolivia Part 3 2018,  Salar de Uyuni

We arrived in Uyuni around midday and parked our truck at the train graveyard just out of town. The trains were used by the mining companies in the 1940’s and 50’s but with the mining industry collapsing many trains were abandoned, resulting in the train cemetery. The only reason this town survives is the nearby Salar the Uyuni. We walked around for an hour or so and this was enough.

The Salar de Uyuni is an amazing area. The Salar is considered one of the worlds most extreme vista’s in the world! It covers over 10000sq kilometres and is the world’s largest salt flat at an altitude of 4000 meters. The crust of salt extends till the horizon and has a great pattern.

The solid salt crust varies in thickness from 10 cm to a few meters. During our 2 nights stay the days were fine but the nights were cold at minus 10 degrees Celsius. We learned from the locals that the Chinese are mining for Lithium and Magnesium. Lithium is the most important as it is a vital component for the growing market of powering lap tops, smart phones and batteries for electric cars.

We are told Bolivia holds 43% of the world’s Lithium reserves and most are in the Salar de Uyuni. Besides the Lithium the Salar holds around 11 billion tonnes of salt. Across the Salar de  Uyuni the altitude only varies by around 50 cm. This is what we call flat. And the feeling of infinity is amazing. The Salar is part of the Altiplano of the high Andes and is the world’s second largest plateau. The scenery surrounding the area is also amazing with volcanoes, hot springs and snow-capped mountains. We are sure we will visit this area again during 2019 wet season.

Should the Salar de Uyuni be mined as it will destroy the Salar?

For Bolivia (one of the poorest countries in the world) the question is: are they prepared to give in to the world hungry for resources and reap the rewards of mineral wealth to be able to offer impoverished people better lives but potentially destroy the Salar (and eco system) in the process? Alternatively, they could ask the world to pay them to leave the Lithium in the ground……….

BOLIVIA Part 4 2018, SALAR DE UYUNI TO LA PAZ. 

After 3 days at Uyuni it was time to travel north towards La Paz, 600km away. The mostly flat, perfect road lays at between 3800 and 4100 meters. We bush camped on the way. The only major town we passed was Oruro with a population of 270000 people at 3800 above sea level. (5th largest city in Bolivia) It is a dirty city (our view) that depends on mining, mainly Tin, Silver and Copper. From here it was double lanes all the way to La Paz. 20 kilometres before La Paz we took the short cut to the suburb of Malasa. It became the first test negotiating La Paz’s steep and narrow s streets after we took a wrong turn. La Paz is divided in 3 areas La Paz, El Alto and Viacha with a population of around 2.5 million people. La Paz is in a valley surrounded by very high mountains up to 6600 meters above sea level (Mount Illimani).

La Paz bustling streets, lots of traffic and narrow and steep streets is not for the fainthearted and after 2 years of civilized travel in South America, we required some adjustment and the traffic reminded us of India, Pakistan and Nepal. But as they say when in Rome……so beep the horn and never stop. One benefit we had was that we started to get used to the high altitude being at around 4000 meters for the last 3 weeks. But nevertheless, being out of breath reminded us of the high altitude every time we had to walk up a steep street.

We loved La Paz, it is chaotic but somehow it seems to have some type of system. Life in La Paz is basically on the streets and especially in the old quarters the whole place feels like one big market. Due to the high altitude, exploring La Paz is exhausting. But since 2014 or 2015 La Paz has the Teleferica the longest and highest cable car network in the world between 3600 meters and 4200 meters. La Paz is the first city in the world to use cable cars as its main transport system. The city now has 7 lines: Green, Yellow, Blue, White, Orange, Light Blue and Red. Each line has stops and to use this system is the best way to see La Paz.

Not sure what the people below think as we are watching them sitting on the patios or look into their houses. It used to take over one hour to travel from the city centre of La Paz to the suburb of El Alto, this is now reduced to 10 minutes. The system can carry over 3000 people per hour from the city centre to El Alto. Cost is 3 Bolivianos (0.60 cents Australian or 0.40 cents Euro), compared to 1.5 Bolivianos for the bus ride of 1 hour (0.30 Australian or 0.20 Euro cents). Built by Doppelmayer (Austria) the world leader in ski and cable car design, it has been designed to run on electricity and solar to reduce smog in the city. A great system, super clean, but the observation here is that it looks out of place in such an old city. But it employs hundreds of people, and during the height of construction it employed over 1400 people. The total cost we are told was just over 280 million USD. A great way to view the city from above and visit the highest Metropolis in the world El Alto at 4200 meters.

During our visit we twice visited El Alto and its markets. On Thursday and Sundays this is the biggest open-air market in Bolivia covering nearly 7 sq. kilometres. Both days the main road is closed for traffic, but the markets extend into all the side streets. Everything is for sale here from vehicles to toothbrushes, second hand shoes, car-parts, engines, tyres, clothing, watches, illegal copies of CD, video’s, and DVD, computer software, medical equipment, fake I pods, TV’s, radios, sofa’s, huge cabinets and beds etc etc. Basically, everything you can think off. The majority of the stall owners are indigenous ladies.

Another very interested area is the Witches market or Mercado de las Brujas. Stores and stalls full of coloured potions, curing everything from headaches to how to control your husband, potions to cure infertility etc etc. You can buy dried frogs, medicinal plants, dried llama foetuses and powders. But also dead baby llamas which hang from the ceiling in many shops. Our guide explained that many are still births???? But to be fair to the Bolivians in Bolivia the Llama foetuses are sacred.  The dried Llama foetuses are buried under foundations of Bolivian houses as an offering to the goddess Pachamama and this will bring good luck. We have visited many cities in the world but only a few have a setting that can be vaguely compared to  La Paz. But like many large cities it also has shacks hanging onto valley slopes on gradients you would not believe.

This is home to the many poor people in the poorest country of South America. We were parked at the carpark of Hotel Oberland in Zona Sur the better area of la Paz. More important for us was that the hotel sits at just 3300 meters, hence warmer than La Paz and a lot warmer than El Alto. Life is cheap in Bolivia, but you do need to negotiate; even for our diesel it was a constant battle to avoid paying the international price 8 Bolivian per litre while the local price is 3 Bolivian per litre.  We were hoping to visit the Cholita Wrestling but run out of time and this is only on Thursdays we were told. Cholitas are indigenous woman wearing traditional skirts and hats. They fight each other to entertain the crowd however the whole experience we are told is extremely fake….

BOLIVIA PART 5 2018, LA PAZ TO THE PERU BORDER

Leaving La Paz for Copacabana took us over 3 hours after we took the wrong turn. Traffic was mayhem and police have no control as the minibuses do what they like. However, the funny part of La Paz traffic is the dancing Zebra’s. Bolivians dressed up like Zebra’s who are running in front of cars to ensure they do not run red lights. It is a lot of fun to watch them. (The human zebra photos) are not ours. see video clip for our version.

Once out of La Paz the roads are good and traffic light. Copacabana is the only beach resort in Bolivia and it is filled with backpackers. We found a perfect spot on the beach and had 4 days of R&R. Copacabana is famous for its 16th century shrine the Basilica, home of the virgin of Copacabana. But the main attraction are the boat trips on Lake Titicaca and to the Isla del Sol, the sacred Inca island.

Lake Titicaca is the highest fresh water navigable lake in the world at just under 3850 meters above sea level. The locals call it the birthplace of the sun and the moon. For the Bolivians Lake Titicaca is also South America’s largest lake but some consider Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela South America’s largest lake. But this is disputed by Bolivians who believe Lake Maracaibo is an inlet rather than a lake and is salt water. Lake Titicaca is around 8300 sq. kilometres is 190 kilometres long and at its widest point 80 kilometres wide.

The lake is wedged between the Andean ranges in a large basin which covers over 58000 sq. kilometres all part of the Altiplano. Mountains around Lake Titicaca reach 6400 meters above sea level. Lake Titicaca is on average around 180 meters deep and its deepest point is 280 meters. With over 25 rivers emptying their waters into the lake evaporation is huge due to sun and strong winds. Lake Titicaca has more than 40 islands and some like Isla del Sol are densely populated. The local Aymara people living around the lake still follow ancient methods of farming on stepped terraces from the Inca times. Mostly they grow barley and grain. On the Peru side the Uru people still live on floating islands (reed) and have boats made from bundles of reed. But this part of Lake Titicaca we will visit next year (2019).

We decided to visit the Isla del Sol on the ferry and the village of Yumani. The ferry trip was an experience meeting the locals. On the way back to Copacabana we stopped off at Island del Luna home to more Inca ruins. Back in Copacabana the following day it was market day, a very colourful experience in the centre of Copacabana. Another interesting fact is that thousands of people drive to Copacabana to pour beer over their new cars to have it blessed for safe travel.

This is done by a priest and the blessing is to Pachamama, or mother Earth. After the blessing by the priest the owners pour beer over the car to stop the thirst of Pachamama. Unfortunately, we did not see the blessing, but we will be back next year. We camped one last night at Lake Titicaca enjoying the beauty of this lake, shimmering blue water, great sunsets and sunrises, it is like heaven. Our 4 weeks in Bolivia have come to an end. 4 weeks is by far not enough and we have only covered the western part of Bolivia. Next year we will cover the east and northern parts of Bolivia.

Our first impressions of Bolivia

Bolivia it is a country of extremes, it is landlocked and the highest and most isolated country in South America. It has borders with Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile. It has the largest group of indigenous people which account of 66% of the population. It has huge gas reserves. (second largest in South America) It is the largest producer of coca in the world (also the raw material for cocaine), for many poor farmers the only form of income.

Even though Bolivia is regarded as a Highland country only 33 % lays in the Andes Mountains where most of the larger cities are and 66% lays in the low lands. Or as called by the locals the warm lands. These are the area’s we will visit during our next visit to Bolivia once we return by the end of the year.

In all, Bolivia was a great experience and we will be back in 2019 when we explore the rest of Bolivia.