Travelblog SA#32: Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia

2nd-4th December 2018

To finish off my time in Bolivia I embarked upon a three-day journey through Bolivia’s crowning jewel, Solar de Uyuni.

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Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and to enter this natural wonder you need to go on a tour in a 4×4 vehicle. Lots of packages are available if you head to the town of Uyuni – the main launching point – but the most common is the three-day excursion which takes you all the way down to the south-west corner of Bolivia.

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The only problem is getting the right guide as they seem to vary in quality. Whoever you get is not just your driver, they are also your cook, and a good one will provide you with some information about the area too. Although most of them seem to do a good job there are stories of some behaving badly, not delivering full itineraries, and even drinking while driving. Booking with a good agency is no guarantee as a lot of them will transfer you to another company if they can’t fill all the seats. It can be complete pot luck who you end up with.

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I decided to book with Andes Salt Expeditions. They had some of the best reviews out of all the companies and were reasonably priced. They were also one of the bigger ones so I was less likely to be transferred. It paid off, as I was lucky and ended up with a guide called Vladimir who went out of his way to make it a fun experience for myself and the five other people I was matched with.

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The first day, after a quick stop at the ‘Train Cemetary’ – a graveyard for the carriages which were abandoned when Bolivia transitioned from steam to diesel – we reached the salt flats. It took hours to drive through the entire expanse, but we stopped a few times to have some fun with the optical illusions you can create there. Such as this encounter I had with a dinosaur.

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And this.

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We also made a couple of funny videos, one of which you can watch by clicking here.

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In the afternoon we reached Incahuasi, a rugged island of cactuses which rises up from the plane of white. It was actually once a massive colony of coral, back when this area was a vast sea, but when the bed dried up it rose to the surface and fossilised.

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Not only is it an interesting place to walk around but it also gives you an opportunity to get some wonderful views of the plane.

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To finish the day, Vladimir took us to a cave whose name I have forgotten. It was a bit quieter than the rest of the places we visited that day as most of the other groups go to a different set of caves. It was home to some interesting inner textures formed from fossilised algae. According to Vladimir, part of the latest Star Wars film was recorded here.

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We stayed that night in a hostel in San Juan. It was just a place to eat and sleep at the end of the day and a little basic, but it was an interesting novelty that most of the furniture and fixtures were made of salt.

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The following day the landscape changed. It wasn’t so flat anymore and the road became rocky as we entered the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, passing through yellow mountains.  Our first stop was at a place with some very interesting rock formations and views of Ollagüe, a volcano with active fumaroles.

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After that, we spent much of the day passing by lakes filled with flamboyances of flamingos, stopping every now and then to take photos.

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There are three different species of which live in this area, Chileno, Andean, and James. They thrive here because the saltiness of the water creates algae that they thrive on and, apart from the occasional fox, this area doesn’t have many predators. One of the lakes we saw later that day, Laguna Colorada, was red because of the algae. I have uploaded a series of videos of the flamingos here.

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We saw lots of other forms of wildlife that day. When we reached Laguna Ramaditas there was an Andean fox.

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There was a pair of viscachas on the side of the road and we stopped for a while to feed them carrots.

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I saw so many vicunas throughout this trip that I actually forgot to take any photos of them, which is a huge shame. We did end up having a roadside chase down with a pair of ostriches. I have a video of it here. Sorry for the shaky camera.

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In the afternoon we went to see Arbol de Piedra, a series of other interesting rock formations. More exciting was Sol de Manana, the geysers. I have plenty of videos here. It was a surreal place, with clouds of smoke wafting out from crevices in the ground, water bursting out from holes like lava, and bubbling pools of grey mud.

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To finish the day we went to a hot spring by the side of a lake in Chalviri just before sunset.

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On the third and final day, some of the people on my tour were driving back to Uynui and making a few stops along the way, but for me and a couple others, it was a shorter itinerary because we were being dropped off at the border of Chile. We did make a little stop by Laguna Verde though, which wasn’t actually that green at this time of the year but still pleasant to see. From its shore, we also got a view of Licanabur Volcano and the border for not just Chile but Argentina too. This was true frontier land.

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For more photos and videos from my last days in Bolivia, click here.

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Travelblog SA#31: Cochabamba, Sucre & Potosi – Bolivia

23rd-30th November 2018

Coming to Cochabamba felt like my travelling had come full circle because it is possibly because of this place that I am in Bolivia now. Years ago, I watched a documentary called The Corporation which covered the story of how the people of this city rioted in against the rise in their water rates shortly after their supply was privatised in 1999. It escalated over the course of several months and the army had to be called in. There were several injuries and even a death but the people never backed down and eventually won. To this day, Bolivia remains one of the few countries in the world to retain a publically-owned water supply.

I remember feeling inspired because I saw a nation whose people had something that my own country lacks and I wanted to go there one day.

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And now here I am. Although, I admittedly didn’t do much during my time in this city. The cold I had been suffering from over the last couple of weeks had gone to my chest and I wanted to rest to make sure I was well enough for the ayahuasca ceremony coming up.

I did go up to see the Cristo de la Concordia one afternoon though. It is the second largest statue of Jesus in the world and it is set within a park overlooking the city. The cable car to reach it was near to my guesthouse so it was a nice way to spend a couple of hours.

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Eventually, the night of the ceremony came. I still had not got over my cold but decided to go ahead with it anyway. It was in a house on the outskirts of the city and there were about a dozen other people there, most of them locals from Cochabamba.

The shaman was a man called Miguel Kavlin, and he has been a practising scared medicine for several decades. He spoke to us for a while about some of the experiences we were likely to have before the ceremony began and then commenced with a long period of meditation and prayer. We were each called up to imbibe some of the liquid.

What happened over the hours which followed I will not go into too much detail, as it was very personal. Almost everyone who drinks ayahuasca will experience contact with spirits and entities. They will also relive moments from their past – some of which they thought they had forgotten – which helped shape the person they are, and they will do so in a way which helps gain a sense of clarity. It is an emotional rollercoaster, but most people come out of it feeling a sense of catharsis.

I cannot compare Miguel to other shamans because this was my only experience with ayahuasca but I can say that I was very happy with the way he worked. When I arrived I was nervous and he said some things to me which put me at ease. He has a very comforting presence about him and he worked hard all night to create a great energy in the room. While I was fading in and out of awareness, between all the visions I experienced that night, he was playing drums and other instruments and their rhythms helped ground me.

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I didn’t sleep at all the night of the ayahuasca ceremony and then the following night I caught a bus, so I was very tired by the time I reached Sucre. It was a great place to kick back and rest, having well-maintained colonial streets, a laid-back atmosphere and lots of great restaurants.

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After resting, I spent a couple of days touring around Sucre’s museums. The Cathedral and the Museo de Charcas had great collections of colonial religious art, and I also particularly enjoyed the Museo de Arte Indigena which had old lots of old tapestries which were excellently crafted. There are some outdoor activities one can embark upon from Sucre, including day trips to mountains and waterfalls, but I was quite happy to spend my days there languidly. My mind was still contemplating a lot of the things that I saw during the night of the ceremony and it was going to take me a while to feel ‘normal’ again.

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After a couple of days in Sucre, I moved on to Potosi, one of the highest altitude cities in the world. It is a historic place, nestled beneath Cerro Rico, the world’s largest known silver deposit which people have been mining for over four hundred years.

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I spent my first couple of days in Potosi still pursuing light activities. I had to acclimatise again as I was at 4100 meters. I wandered through its UNESCO awarded streets and I visited its Convento de Santa Teresa, which has been home to Carmelite nuns from affluent families for centuries and is now also a museum.

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A visit to Potosi isn’t complete without going down the mines though. It is not one of those things you do for enjoyment but it is illuminating and part of the experience of Bolivia. There are some dangers involved, as the mines still largely operate the same as they did hundreds of years ago, so you are at a slight risk of cave-ins and breathing in noxious gases.

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First, we all needed to be kitted up in red over-garments, rubber boots, and helmets. We even had to wrap our feet in plastic bags for some reason. Our guide then took us to the market so that we could buy snacks, drinks, dynamite and coca leaves as gifts for the miners. It was surreal seeing how easy it is to buy dynamite in Potosi. It only costs $3 a stick and you can buy them alongside groceries.

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In the first few minutes descending into the caverns, a couple of the people in the tour turned back. Apparently, that is normal, and I could understand why. The initial tunnels were quite narrow which forced us to climb and crawl, and the air was dusty. All the silica in the air combined with the altitude makes it difficult to breathe.

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Despite this being one of the most gruelling work environments in the world, the miners seem quite proud of their job and fairly happy considering that their life expectancy is so short. Most of them don’t die from accidents but from a condition known as silicosis, where the lungs fill up with the silica dust. They say that once you start working down there you have twenty years before the disease either kills you or forces you into retirement. At one point we met a man who was on his twenty-fifth year, currently the oldest miner.

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One of the most interesting things we saw were the effigies for El Tio, a local deity whom the miners leave offerings and pray to daily. I have videos of our guide explaining this tradition to us here.

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It is true that there is a slightly voyeuristic element to first-world people paying to be taken on a tour down these mines, but I also feel that if you enjoy some of the trappings of the modern world – such as a smartphone – you owe it to these people to see the price of obtaining the necessary materials. It is sad that these people live such gruelling and short lives but, having lived many of my years in Wales, I know that simply closing these industries down without giving people other means of income is not the answer. I have seen what happens to such communities. I am not going to pretend I am smart or knowledgeable enough to know what the answer is though.

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For now, I do think that tourists going for trips down these mines are mostly a good thing. The gifts that they give to the miners help supplement their income and the more people who are aware of the poor conditions, the more likely things are to change. Most of the guides are former miners who have now found a source of income which doesn’t require them to spend as much time down in the caverns so it has probably prolonged their life spans.

 

For more photos from Cochabamba, Sucre and Potosi, click here. This album also includes much more videos from down in the mines.

Travelblog SA#30: Torotoro – Bolivia

19th-22nd November 2018

I deviated from my plans this week, and I believe it was a good choice.

Originally, I was supposed to be spending more time in the mountains around La Paz. Hike the Takesi trail, spend some time in Chulumani , and maybe even do what most backpackers seem to be doing these days and cycle down the infamous ‘Death Road’, but my slight disappointment with the El Choro trail made me realise that maybe I was in Bolivia at the wrong time of year for such activities because of the weather. Having lived half of my life in Wales, I am not shy when it comes to a little rain, but getting that wet isn’t worth it with the mist swirling around the Andes at the moment obscuring its views.

I began to look into other options. I needed to be in Cochabamba for an ayahuasca ceremony soon so I read up on that area. A place called Torotoro National Park caught my attention. Not only is it home to canyons, caves, waterfalls, and even prehistoric dinosaur footprints, but there also happened to be a festival going on.

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I was pretty tired when I arrived. Getting there involved an overnight bus from La Paz to Cochabamba followed by a walk through the pouring rain to reach the stand where the colectivos for Torotoro left. I was crammed into a minivan with several others and it was a bumpy ride. Although less than a hundred kilometres away, the journey took over five hours.

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Shortly after I arrived, I called into the ranger’s office and they told me if I turned up early the next morning and they would match me with a group for a tour of the park. There were still some hours of daylight left and there was a mirador only an hour’s walk away on maps.me so I decided to check that out.

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About halfway there, I came across a barrier and a woman in uniform came out to ask me where I was heading. It turned out that I was about to enter a restricted area of the park for which you need have paid the entrance fee (something I had not done yet) and have a guide. I explained to her that I was due to go out on a tour to see the caves the next morning and was just following something I noticed on my GPS.

While we were talking, a Bolivian couple with a guide arrived and the ranger was eventually lenient allowed me to tag along with them. I hopped onto the back of the guide’s bike and we headed into the park.

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I am glad I got to have had a guide for this part because it was an enlightening experience. We walked along some of the riverbanks and he showed us dinosaur footprints. Some of many I would see over the next couple of days.

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There were some other interesting geological formations along the trail, including a natural stone bridge.

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A huge boulder which, over the years, has been split apart by a tree.

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But the highlight was when we reached the mirador of the canyon.

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There was another great viewpoint of the canyon a few minutes later too, and we even spotted a group of bright green parakeets.

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The following day, I turned up early at the registry office and they put me with a group of French and Spanish people for an eight-hour tour of Cueva Humajalanta and Ciudad de Ita.

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I was a little apprehensive about Cueva Humajalanta. I haven’t done any intermediate-level caving for a while. It is something which I do not do very often because I have moderate claustrophobia.

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Most of it was fine though. I have a video here of the worst bit – where I did need some encouragement but I did manage to get through it in the end. It was a two-hour journey through all the chambers and we passed lots of caverns, underground rivers and even a waterfall.

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Ciudad de Ita, like its name (‘City of Rocks’), was a metropolis of crazy rock formations, with stunning views of the park’s landscape the entire way.

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There were also cave paintings, which our guide informed us were over three thousand years old.

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And towards the end, we came across a pair of local musicians filming a music video. They asked the French girl to sit down with them for a while as the song was about a ‘Gringita’. I have videos here.

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By the time we returned to Torotoro town I was very tired but I it was the beginning of their festival that evening so I forced myself to power on through. It was to commemorate the town’s inception 135 years ago. As evening began to set in, I went to the plaza and waited.

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To be honest, this first night to the two-day festival was not too spectacular when compared to Puno Festival (which I went to just a few weeks before and had lots of colourful costumes and dancing). People simply marched in groups, representing the different industries of Torotoro. The tour guides, bus drivers, taxi drivers, farmers, and so on. At one point, fireworks started (which I caught a video of here).

Although it was quite basic, I did enjoy the atmosphere. It was intimate, honest, and I felt very privileged to be there, witnessing this moment of community pride.

For me, the heart and soul of the party that night were a group of men playing harmonicas and drums and looking like they have chewed on far too much cocoa but loving life (videos here).

The following day was a festival too, so I lingered in the town for another day. I was tired and the cold I caught while on the El Choro trek had gone to my chest, so spent the day relaxing in my hostel. I occasionally ventured outside to see what was happening. There was a bit of activity in the streets and preparations were being made. I asked some people what time the day’s events started, and one person told me midday and another said 3pm. I went back to my room, eventually hearing a brass band at 11:30. I rushed outside and there was a parade going on. I followed it to the plaza, but there was no costumes, dancing or anything too interesting going on. It seemed to be just a repeat of the previous day, with people merely marching.

I began to think that maybe this day was going to be a write-off, but then at 6pm I heard sounds again and rushed outside, finally seeing the sort of festival I came here for – filled with music, costumes, dancing and everything (I have videos of the highlights here, but there are a lot more in the full album which is linked below).

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For a place which wasn’t even on my original itinerary, I am very glad I came to Torotoro. Not only did I get to see a unique landscape which I had never seen anything like before but I got to witness village life and a festival.

 

I have more photos of the national park and also plenty of videos from the festival here.