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Exploring Bolivia´s Southwest: Salar de Uyuni!

We finally reached our goal. We woke up before dawn to admire the sunrise in the middle of the Salt Flat. The vast salt desert got tinted orange for a few minutes before letting place to a seemingly infinite white stretch of land.

We then went to one of the 24 islands in the middle of the Salar: the famous cactus island or Isla Incahuasi. Incahuasi means the house of the Inca because they used to use this island as a relay when they crossed the Salar by foot back in the days. This is by the way the only island that we can visit, the others being inaccessible by car. The island has no less than 3’000 cactus that can measure up to 12 meters of height! The show is surprising and stunning even though we had some overhead clouds blocking the view.

Careful with your butt!

The next step is the obligatory photo shooting session in the middle of the infinite whiteness of the Salar. They let us in the middle of a seemingly uninterrupted white stretch of land, which allow us to play with perspective in order to, take funny and creative pictures. We would spend no less than two hours there and it really seemed a very short time!

The meat lacks some pepper I would say
What did you say?
Our guide David and our cook Gladys

To end up with our tour in the Salar de Uyuni, we went to see the first salt hotel that is nowadays a museum. We then went to see the hundreds of salt monticules at the edge of the Salar. The extracted salt is deposited in little salt pyramids in order to dry up before being collected and processed. This gives rise to fantastic scenery!

The last stop of our four-day tour is the visit of the train cemetery. Right next to the town of Uyuni, which has absolutely no charm by the way, lays this famous train cemetery. Loads of abandoned wagons and locomotives are left there to withhold the damage of oxidation and the refinement of street artists.

Back to school, boy!
And back to kindergarten!

Finally, we arrive in Uyuni where we would take a bus to La Paz to take a connection to Copacabana, on the Titicaca Lake. The original plan was to take a transfer down to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile but we decided not to go there as the landscape are apparently quite similar to the ones in the Southwest of Bolivia that we just saw.

Exploring Bolivia´s Southwest: from the stone tree to the salt hotel

On the third day, we left to see one of the most photographed attractions of the region: the famous stone tree. The stone tree, as well as all the rocks around it, is a volcanic rock that felt in the middle of nowhere after a volcanic explosion of a neighboring volcano. Its unusual form has been sculpted by time, wind, and sand.

Arbol de Piedra
The Lion Queen

The surroundings mountains feature a large array of colors. It closely resembles a mad painter’s masterpiece, exploring the richness of his color palette. The landscapes of this region are definitely enchanting and surrealistic…

We will then drive next to many smaller lagoons, most of them rich in borax or salt. One of them is also called Laguna Hedionda for its quite extreme smell… Despite the smell, thousands of pink flamingos found home in this place, for the pleasure of any photography amateur!

Laguna Ramaditas if I am not mistaken
Pink flamingos in the Laguna Hedionda

After lunch, we are granted a little tornado, not very powerful and relatively small but still quite impressive!

Tornado!

The Ollagüe volcano is one of the few volcanoes still active in the region, a smoke continuously escaping from its flank.

Fumarole del volcán Ollagüe

We get closer and closer to the famous Uyuni Salt Flat and we drive through a smaller Salt Flat named Salar de Chiguana. The salt is not exploited there because of its high level of lithium and other minerals that makes it improper for consummation. The abandoned rail tracks of an unused train pass through the middle of nowhere, which gives us a good opportunity for a little rest on the rails…!

Photo by Aurélie

We arrive by the end of the afternoon to the border of the Salar de Uyuni where we would pass the night in a salt hotel. Yes. A salt hotel. For real. Bricks are made of salt (we tasted), the floor is made of salt, the tables and chairs are made of salt blocks, the beds are made of salt and the mattress are made of mattress for our greatest relief. There is also a salt hotel in the middle of the Salar but it is nowadays forbidden to build in the Salar itself and this hotel is now a museum. Therefore, all the salt hotels and hotel lodging opportunities are located right outside of the Salar.

Yes, yes, it is salt!

Exploring Bolivia´s Southwest: volcanoes, flamingos and geysers!

When we woke up, we could see how cold are the freezing nights in this region. Indeed, the small rivers are completely frozen and ice covers some parts of land in the shadow until late during the day…

Frio!!!

Our dear French companion absolutely wanted to improve our meal by adding a good lama steak to it. We therefore landed up in a lama breeding to attempt to buy a couple of kilos of fresh meat. Arriving there, two men were cutting down the skin of two freshly slaughtered lamas to sell their meat later on in Tupiza. Despite our request, they refused to sell per kilos and wanted to sell only a whole limb or a whole body part. Thus, we ended buying… a full 7 kg leg! Our cook would cook it the last day for our greatest joy!

Nice face, huh?
Gladys bargaining our leg

On the way, magical landscape again left us out of breath. We arrived at a lagoon named Laguna Hedionda, which means smelly lagoons in English. Indeed, this lagoon is full of suffer which gives it a nauseous odor absolutely repelling. In addition, it is full of Borax, a white crystal used to produce ceramics, glass, soaps, and other cosmetic products. Later on, we arrived at another lagoon, la Laguna Kollpa, where the Borax is extracted and where pink flamingos often wander around. However, the freezing cold left the lagoon frozen explaining the absence of flamingos that day.

Laguna Hedionda
Laguna Kollpa

We continued our route and passed by the Hot Springs that we would enjoy a little while later. We then arrived at the splendid Dali desert, located at no less than 4750m of altitude, which surnatural colors and volcanic rocks deposited in the middle of the sand gives a surrealistic impression worth of the great paintings of Salvador Dali. This desert was apparently named after the visit of the later in this place.

Desierto de Dali

At the Chilean border, we arrived at the Laguna Verde where the calm waters perfectly reflected the marvelous Licancabur volcano. The volcano’s summit is at no less than 5950m high and the highest lac in the world lays at its summit. We had wanted to climb that beast but could not find anybody to join us in this tour… Finally, it was maybe not such a bad thing, as the climb takes no less than eight hours with freezing temperatures and very little oxygen. It is well over 1’000m over the Mont-Blanc, the highest European summit…

Laguna Verde and volcano Licancabur
Rocks, borax, ice and water…

After lunch, the wind started to mix the different minerals in the water of the Laguna Verde. This started to make the water foggy and gave it a green emeralds color.

Miam miam
And that is why we call it Laguna Verde!

It was time then to relax and enjoy the warm water of the Hot Springs that we previously saw. The 40 degrees Celsius are a pleasure against the cold of the day.

Hot Springs

The volcanic activity in the region still had another surprise for us. At more than 5’000m of altitude, we arrived at the Geysers Sol de Mañana where suffer vapors offer us a very sweet odor but mostly a fantastic show of smoke and light. The boiling mud and the smoke that emerge from these geysers are magical. We met a few crazy cyclists, travelling by the sole strength of their leg, facing the horrible altitude and the terrible cold at night… How well we slept in our non-heated lodges in the end!

Geyser Sol de Mañana
Thanks to Antonin for these pictures

At the end of the day, we arrived to the most beautiful spot of our tour from my humble point of view: the Laguna Colorada. The lagoon’s name come from the numerous microfilaments that gives it this reddish color depending on the sun orientation. It is located in front of another volcano, the volcano Quetana. Hundreds of pink flamingos wander around in it. Add to this wonderful picture the Borax crystals and the yellowish herbs typical of this region and you obtain a true paradise for any photographer!

Laguna Colorada
Volcan Quetana and Laguna Colorada

This night will be even colder than the first one which will not prevent me to have fun observing, admiring, and photographing the wonderful Southernhemisphere night sky, so beautiful without any light pollution from close-by cities. The Milky Way is simply splendid and highlights the contour of the Quetana volcano. My poor sister got really worried by her brother’s long absence alone in the night before I joined her to show her this wonderful sky…

The Quetana and the Milky Way

Exploring Bolivia´s Southwest: the Lipez

The Salt Flat of Uyuni. This vast salt desert is one of those things that you just have to see when visiting Bolivia. Loads of different tours are proposed to visit this marvelous natural wonder. We opted for a four-day tour in a 4WD starting from Tupiza. This tour will first of all bring us in the Bolivia South-West to admire volcanoes, geysers, lagoons, and pink flamingos before bringing us Northward to the Uyuni Salt Flat, or Salar de Uyuni.

We are four tourists in our car together with our guide who is also the driver and our fantastic cook. Four other travellers and their guide occupy the second 4WD. As soon as the tour started, we are already flabbergasted by the surrounding landscapes. We first admire El Sillar, rocky formation worth a landscape on the moon.

El Sillar
On the other side of the road!

We are four tourists in our car together with our guide who is also the driver and our fantastic cook. Four other travellers and their guide occupy the second 4WD. As soon as the tour started, we are already flabbergasted by the surrounding landscapes. We first admire El Sillar, rocky formation worth a landscape on the moon.

Lamas
Isn’t that a cute little boy?

In the midst of these hundreds of lamas, we have the chance to encounter a small herd of vicuñas, close cousin of the lama that have very short but very effective wool. The quality of its wool is incomparable and is the most expensive wool in the world: 500$ per kilo! The insane price is due to that exceptional quality and softness of the wool and its rarity. Indeed, there is a very limited number of vicuñas and each vicuña can only produce about 300 grams of wool per year. This means that for a standard poncho, the wool of 5 vicuñas is required. In addition, all vigognes in Bolivia are wild and hunting them is strictly forbidden. To assassin one of these wonderful animals would cost you 5 years of your life in a Bolivian jail. Therefore, the wool is collected in summer, when the temperature is warm enough so that cutting the wool of a vigogne would not be harmful. They simply capture wild vicuñas, take the wool and let them go again.

Vicuñas

We stopped for lunch in a tiny humble village. Here, inhabitants get basic commodities such as electricity, running water, and primary schools. Kids that wish to continue higher education have to go to Tupiza for that purpose. Villagers live from the breeding of lamas and the extraction of various metals from surroundings mines. Unfortunately, the future of this village appears to be very uncertain. Indeed, the whole village economy was based on the will of a single Chilean company that took care of the mines and the herds of lamas. Unfortunately, this company left the place from one day to the next, letting the villagers alone, unprepared, and incomprehensives. Nevertheless, this terrible social tragedy does not seem to prevent them from cheerfully smiling.

Estrellita the baby lama!

We then head down to the village of San Antonio de Lipez. In addition to lamas and mines, this village surviveswith tourism by offering hostelling to travellers touring the Southwest and the Salar. In fact, the original village of San Antonio de Lipez is located a few dozens of kilometers away. As Potosi and so many other places on this continent, this village has a tragic history from the Spanish colonization. The small mountain next to the old village is rich in precious metals that the greedy Spaniards were keen to extract with the “help” of the locals’ hands. Putting thousands of locals to slavery in the mines, they forced the men to stay a whole month in darkness before letting them see the sun for a single day and return to hell the next day. Men died in the mines while women and children were beaten and raped in the village… It is believed that the spirit of the deads haunted, and still haunt, the town. It is said that it drove their assassins crazy, tormenting them in their sleep up to the point that the village was abandoned and rebuilt at its actual location. Despite the beauty of these ruins, they smell death, suffering and injustice…

San Antonio de Lipez
Ghost town…
Most recent building in front of the rich mountain

On a more positive note, we admire later the sunset on the Laguna Morejón with our group. In our 4WD, we are accompanied by a French girl living in Australia and a German girl living in Santiago de Chile. In the other car, there are two British that will soon go to live in Singapore and a French and his Finish girlfriend that are currently doing a wonderful tour around the world. We end up our first day in a little village named Quetena Chico. It is actually a larger village than its neighbor named Quetena Grande. As we are sleeping at about 4000m of altitude in the beginning of winter season, the night is freezing and our lodging does not have heater of course…

The team in our 4WD!

Los Caballeros

Despite my warnings concerning the inevitable soreness that such an activity would provide, my sister really wanted to do a little tour on horseback. We were back to Tupiza in order to organize a tour in the Salar de Uyuni, we decided that we would go on another adventure for not one, nor tow, but for three days on horseback. The program was quite similar to the one I already did a few weeks before and we could slightly change it so that it would not be too repetitive for me. In any case, the second day would be completely new for me as I previously did only a two-day tour.

We left then, my sister, our guide, and myself on our stallions, slightly more obedient than the ones I had previously but there are still loads of progress to accomplish. From my unbelievably high experience with horses – two days – I was given Cascarita, a horse that apparently would rear back on its hind legs if I stopped it too strongly… Unfortunately, it would not happen during these three days, it would have been fun… or catastrophic! My sister got a lazy boy, sweetly named Tobacco whose main characteristic is its ability to drink beer. Our guide rides Apache, a splendid brown and white horse with quite an unpredictable behavior.

Los Caballeros

The first day, we passed by a place called the Valle de los Machos (Male Valley) for the suggestive shapes of the surrounding rocks… We would then head up to the Inca Canyon before joining Toroyoj where we would have a little rest for our butts and eat our lunch. We then joined our lodging in the village of Espicaya after having enjoyed a few galloping sessions on the way.

A little walk around allowed us to climb on top of the cliff next to the village, which gives us an incredible view over the whole valley. The colors are magical in this late afternoon.

The next day, we did a long and tiring trip of about eight hours on horseback. No gallop today in order not to tire the horses too much. We would go and see the Cañon del Condor where we can glimpse at these wonderful and gigantic creatures with a little bit of luck.

The third and last day, we returned to Toroyoj using another trail where we can appreciate the wonderful landscapes of the Bolivian Far West. The colors of the rocks are splendid, going from beige to ochre while featuring some black and grey as well. We went to eat in front of the Torre (the Tower), a sort of huge phallic rock that I already introduced you in a previous article.

Hum…
These turkeys were way too impressive too pass by for my brave stallion…

These turkeys were way too impressive too pass by for my brave stallion…

In the Hell of Potosi’s Mines

Potosi, your name means wealth and exuberance. Potosi, your name means suffering, hardship, and death. Behind tiny colorful streets, glorious colonial buildings appear, letting us wonder about the greatness and importance of this town back in the colonial time. Potosi lies at the base of the Cerro Rico, mountain whose silver sources used to seem infinite to supply the needs of the greedy Spanish Kingdom. Potosi, you saw wealth, you saw suffering, you saw death, and you keep going in this painful path in the hope of exploiting the last tiny bit of valuable metals that the Spaniards left you.

Cerro Rico: Hiding wealth and hell in its belly

Potosi’s miners say that they eat the mountain, and that the mountain eats them back. Thousands of indigenous people and African slaves were exploited here for almost three centuries, 8 millions of them being swallowed by the mountain during that time. This forced Spain to look for men farther and farther away to supply the necessary workforce for their greedy exploitation. Letting these men live instead of working them to death was probably too much of an effort for their shameless mind. These courageous and hardworking men sometimes stayed four months in a row in the mine without seeing sunlight. Their only relief being found by chewing coca leaves to have a bit energy and ease their pains.

Nowadays, the working conditions are not much better. We left for a visit of the mine during the national holiday of Corpus Christi. Our guides, full of humor, are former miners that had the rare chance to leave their work in the mines and work in tourism instead. They gave us all our equipment: trousers, jacket, helmet, and electric torchlight. After getting ready, we went to the miners market where all the material that they need to extract the precious metals is sold without any sort of control. That way, we can buy dynamite and its catalyst, so that it blows off even more strongly, for no more than 20 bolivianos, the equivalent of three US dollars. In general, tourists buy a little gift here for the miners that they will visit while they work: dynamite, coca leaves, cigarettes, or fruit juice. The coca leaves help the miner resist fatigue, pain, and hunger when they are under. They constantly chew coca leaves and cannot eat in the mine. Indeed, the toxic dust would accumulate on the food and make them sick.
We could still joke around then

After this, we went in a processing plant where the rocks full of precious metal are brought and sold by the miners to a private company. In the past, when the Spanish dominion was still present, almost pure silver was extracted from the mines. Today, the best you can hope to find is a rock containing about 15% of silver, no more. This company will be in charge of extracting the metals, silver in this case, and make a first raw processing of the extracted product. After this first basic processing, the extracted material is sold abroad, to Chile and Argentina where they will be processed with better technologies. The equipment here is very basic and the chemical product smell forces us to put our bandanas on. And yet, this is paradise here compared to what we will see in a few minutes…

The processing plant

When we arrived outside the mine, we found a few barracks where miners change themselves as well as a few old wagons rusting in the sun. The mountain does not look that terrible before we enter inside its belly. Lama blood splashed the whole entrance. The animal was sacrificed in order to protect miners from the mountain’s dangers. Inside, the sunlight disappears, quickly letting place to a shivering darkness. We walked a few minutes in a relatively spacious corridor even though the tall persons in the group still had to bend a bit to avoid constantly knocking their helmet off. This spacious luxury will be very short though. We entered a small gallery where we had to crawl on the floor to visit the Tio statue. Miners give gifts to the Tio, or Uncle in English, who is more or less the god of the hell. Miners give him coca leaves and cigarettes among others in order to calm his wrath when they enter his kingdom. The walls are yellow and the sulfur smell is obnoxious. The path is even made harder by the warmth that makes it difficult to breath. Inside the mine, we do not talk about accident or death. We do not whistle either; this is bad luck. Miners do not listen to music either; it would prevent them from hearing explosions or rocks falling. Everything is silence, sweat, and dust.

One of the entrances to hell
El Tio

We kept moving forward and climbed down one floor, barely holding to the slippery rocks, trying not to throw loose stones on the guys below. When we arrived at the bottom, we had to crawl again and met the first miners working today. Even though it is a national holiday, these men work hard this day, like almost everyday of their short life in fact. These men are brothers. Both started to work in the mines well before their majority. They extract rocks manually with a hammer and a chisel. Their father works with them and selects the rocks extracted by his sons. Later today, they will have to carry their findings to the surface, carrying no less than 50 kilograms on their backs. We already start to be tired and the bandanas that protect us from the dust make it very difficult to breath. We continued our way and went down two more floors where the galleries are slightly larger and where rail tracks allowed the miners to use wagons to carry their loads to the surface. They would still have to push the heavy wagons manually though. Here, we met a 55-year old father and his four sons. This man is the oldest man working in the mine. The youngest kid is 16 years old and has been working here for 4 years. Their work is physically challenging but the hardest part is the dust that they constantly inhale. Indeed, they do not wear bandanas as it prevents them from breathing. It was already hard for us to breath with these on while doing nothing, I cannot imagine how hard it would be when working the stones or carrying the rocks away.

When we reached the surface again, nobody wanted to laugh anymore. Every one of us received a true lesson of humility that many of our fellows back home would deserve from time to time. These miners have such hard and terrifying working and living conditions. Nevertheless, they are really proud of what they do and they deserve our admiration. Unfortunately, their conditions are not about to improve and the young miners’ sons will not get out of the mine soon. Indeed, miners in Potosi earn on average 4 or 5 times more money per month than the average salary of other professions in Potosi. Young kids do not see the interest in going to school or changing job whereas they can earn much more in the mines. Moreover, as miners work in cooperatives that they manage themselves, the government does nothing to improve their conditions. Miners are managed independently in small groups and chose the number of day per week that they work as well as the number of hours per day. Each group exploits a little part of the mines for which the cooperative gives them the right of exploitation. 7% of their earning goes to the cooperative and about 7% to the state in the form of taxes. Moreover, miners earn their daily bread based on what they find in the mines. If their sources get dry, their revenue gets dry as well. Even though the salaries are relatively high for the region, their working conditions and the high death rate does not make it an attractive activity. In general, silicosis would sweep away the miners before they reach 55 years old. Retirement being at 65 years old, it would be the wife and the family of the deceased miner that would receive the allocation.

Smiles are swept away and hearts are crying

We went back to our hostel after this life lesson. This was not an enjoyable trip and we were greatly shocked by what we witnessed. The youth of these miners was the hardest thing of all. However, we are glad that we made this visit for what it taught us. I would recommend to every person traveling in the region to do it if his or her health allows it. But it is only advisable to do it with an agency that gives back part of the benefice to the miners so that the voyeurism that we are guilty of would not be done in vain.