Bolivia: everything, everything, everything

I’ve been on a rollercoaster ride through Bolivia, and it has been amazing. I’m leaving for Buenos Aires tomorrow, but I could have easily spent six instead of three weeks here. I’m going to tell you what has been going on, but will do so in reverse order, as my last four days have been some of the most amazing in this entire trip so far.

For four days I have been driving in a 4×4 across an area about the size of The Netherlands. There are almost no inhabitants, and in this vast space I have seen the most spectacular array of landscapes. Mountains shaped like needles, vast mesas and deep canyons. A white lake, a red lake, a green lake. A lake made of shampoo, a lake made of arsenic. An abandoned Spanish minetown now teeming with giant chinchillas. An active volcano and a field of geysers. Hundreds of flamingos feeding in hot springs. Massive lava boulders scattered across the desert. A hotel made out of salt (with hot showers, a godsend as it gets incredibly cold out here at night). All this at between 4 and 5,000 meters high. It’s breathtaking, at times almost like being on another planet. I’ve included some photos below but would encourage you to look at the whole album on Facebook here.

Finally, on the fourth day comes the final, greatest landscape of all: the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flat in the world. A 4.30am wakeup meant that we were in the middle of the flat to see the sunrise, a magical experience. This huge flat expanse of the pure whiteness stretches 100 km in every direction, with the occasional cactus-filled island the only diversion. Normally you do this tour from Uyuni, and it’s a bit of a procession as all tours have the same itinerary. After a tip, I did the tour from the town of Tupiza instead, which was much better. You’re on a completely different schedule which means you’re almost always alone, and you see way more as you go through a much larger section of Southwest Bolivia.

I got to Tupiza by way of Potosi, a mining town. In the Spanish colonial times, this was the economic engine of the empire. The Cerro Rico mountain just outside of Potosi was chock full of silver, and in about 200 years it’s estimated the Spanish crown earned over $40 billion from extracting its riches. It came at a horrible cost as between 2 and 8 million people died in the mines. When the silver was exhausted in the end of the 18th century, Potosi went into deep decline. People still mine the mountain today, looking for a variety of minerals. I went on a tour of a mine, to see for myself. It’s at times quite scary, when you’re on hands and knees pushing yourself through small holes while remembering that over 35 people die in the mines each year. The miners work under terrible conditions, with no safety measures at all. Regardless, they were incredibly friendly and more than willing to talk about their life and work.

Before Potosi, I had a stop in Sucre, possibly the most beautiful city I’ve visited in South America. While Cartagena in Colombia bursts with vivid colors, everything here is white. Together with the crisp air, the city is as bright as it could be. It’s a great place to wander around for hours, and it was too bad I only had two days here. I got to Sucre from Cochabamba, an interesting busride as the busdriver got arrested at the first police checkpoint. Turned out he was really drunk. I did not get a lot of sleep on that trip after that…

Cochabamba was a nice city, a bit off the Gringo Trail which was refreshing. I had a local as a guide for a day, who showed me around and filled me in on the history of the town, as well as the political situation in Bolivia. It being a day with a local, it also included sidetrips like “we need to go past a friend’s house to pick up my phone” and “let’s go meet my grandma”. A very entertaining day.

Here’s some photos!

Sorry about the lack of updates. I’ve been running through Bolivia at a high speed, and it’s also been impossible to find internet stable and fast enough to do a proper update. My next stop will be Buenos Aires, from where I’m going to visit the Iguazu Falls, do a quick trip to Uruguay, and catch a game from the most intense football rivalry in the world, Boca Juniors against River Plate.

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