Monday, October 8, 2007

Bolivia - Salt plains and desert

Hi all,
A bit of a catch up to do today as just back in La
Paz after 5 days in the desert. Pretty tired and very dusty but have seen some of the most amazing, spectacular scenary along the way. I´ll try and do a bit of a recap but as I´m just off a night bus this mightn´t be the most eloquent.


At 4160m Potosi is the highest city in the world of its size. At one stage it was the richest city in the world and kept the Spanish empire rich for 300 years. That´s because it´s was one of the largest silver mining cities. The conditions here were very harsh and over 8 million people died in the mines and the town in colonial times. African slaves were even shipped in to keep the mines going. The are still some mines open but mining is a voluntary and quite prosperous occupation though still harsh conditions. There are currently about 14,000 miners as the price of silver is reasonably good at the moment.
We went to visit the Mint museum which shows how they minted the silver coins for the Spanish empire. Ironically all current Bolivian coins are now minted in Spain! We also went on a tour to visit the miners´market and the mines. This is the only market in the world where you can just buy dynamite at the side of the street. If it had just said ACME on the side it would have just been like something in the cartoons. Some of the crew then got all kitted out to go into the mines themselves to visit miners at work with gifts of coca leaves and 95% alcohol which is apparently all they survive on all day. As dark, small, enclosed spaces with explosions and noxious gases are not exactly my favourite I decided against going into the mines but went up to the mining area anyway to watch the miners coming out with their day´s booty.


From Potosi we had a very bumpy journey down to Uyuni. This was our first experience of unpaved dirt roads - something we would get very used to in the next 4 days. Unfortunately very rattley bus which we though wouldn´t make it but it did eventually. But for me it was my first experience of the vast South America country side and so enjoyed just watching the scenery go by. We were mostly weaving our way through the mountain ranges to get down from the heights of Potosi. Nothing up here really but some goats, sheep and lots of llamas!

Uyuni is the town on the edge of the huge salt plain of Salar de Uyuni. We overnighted here before picking up our 4x4 jeeps and crew for our 4 day trip. We had 3 jeeps with 5 passengers, driver and a cook who bring all our cooking needs for the 4 days.
The salt plain covers a vast area of 12,000 km square. The high altitude lake dried up about 8000 years ago leaving just a huge expanse of flat white that looks a bit like snow. The only people out here are a few locals who work on refining the salt for cooking and hundreds of tourists driving all over the place in jeeps! There are no roads - you just follow previous tracks to know where you are going. The main entertainment is taking pictures where the perspective is all confused due to the perfect white everywhere - see my example of me standing on top of 'giant' beer can! We spent hours just having fun with photos. I´m hoping the group will be able to share all the photos as I don´t have too many on my camera but there are some excellent ones where a group of people look like they are standing on someone´s hand, etc.

The strangest place in the middle of the plain is an island completely covered in giant cacti some hundreds of years old. Our cooks made us a delicious lunch of llama steaks whilst we did a hike around the island! Very tasty.
That night we went to stay in a salt hotel on the edge of the plain. Yep, all the walls, tables, chairs and beds made out of salt!

Desert - Flamingoes

The next day we set of on a bumpy drive into the start of the desert. The 4x4 jeeps are great and well able to handle the terrain. We visited a number of lagoons where there are huge flocks of pink flamingoes.

The surrounds areas are very barren and the flamingoes are the only real sign of animal life. Some of the lagoons are rich with minerals and so are all sorts of colours from deep red to glowing green.

As we continued to drive further we began to get further and further into desert where even scrub grass no longer grows. Just spectacular to be driving across red dusty plains surrounded by volcanos, some still active.
Our accomodation in the desert was prety basic but the cooks did a really good job at producing great meals for us with very limited resources. The main thing was that at 4300 metres of altitude in the desert it was freezing at night! So we wrapped up in all our thermals and recently purchased alpaca hats and weren´t too bad.

Birthday in the Desert

Well this is certainly the first birthday I´ve had where I´ve had to get up at 5am in the pitch dark and freezing cold but it was worth it to get to the geysers and bubbling volcanic mud as the sun was just rising. The freezing temperatures certainly added to the amount of steam coming out. Next stop was a dip in thermal pools before breakfast! Can´t believe I really was outside in minus temperatures at 7 in the morning in a swimsuit but the thermal pool was absolutely gorgeous once you got in so warmed us up beautifully. It then gets really hot and sunny during the day - there are absolutely no clouds in the sky at all here. We continue south almost to the border of Chile and the Atacama desert - this is one of the driest deserts in the world. We pass through areas over 5000 m and our most southern stop is the Laguna Verde - an amazing green lake which is like a mirror when still (see above) or an amazing illuminous green when the wind blows - we luckily caught both conditions whilst there.
Our final night was spent closer back to Uyuni which was at a bit lower altitude and therefore a fair bit warmer. I´m not sure how the cooks managed with only a gas burner to cook with but somehow they managed to bake me a lovely birthday cake which we all enjoyed for breakfast the next morning as we were all too stuffed to fit it in that night.

Right, time to sign out and catch a nap before heading out tonight in La Paz. It´s the last night with this whole group - should be a fun night. Hopefully we´ll get our laundry back as everything was so dusty and dirty I´ve little left to wear!
Five of us are continuing on into Peru and three new people will join us tomorrow - two Aussies and one Canadian I think. Hope to catch you soon from Peru...