Bolivia, Chile & Argentina

August 14th, 2000

I’d first met Pip whilst doing voluntary work for the Parks and Wildlife commission in the Northern Territories of Australia, assessing Cycads. After that we’d met up again by chance in Perth and later, over Christmas and the New Year, in Melbourne.

Since then we had both continued our world trips, with the odd email now and again to chart our progress.

In June, I received an email from Pip saying that she would be flying to Peru at the beginning of July and would be in South America for a couple of months – maybe we could meet up ? As she was traveling from west to east and I from east to west be decided to meet up in Sucre, Bolivia around the middle of August.

Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is quite a pleasant town with some nice old buildings and a central plaza supposedly with sloth’s living in it’s tree’s. Jeremy, an American guy that was also on the bus from Asuncion and who had got to know the Paraguayan police better than he’d wanted and was subsequently $90 worse off, and I came to the conclusion that there weren’t really any sloth’s at all. It was just a rumour spread around by the locals to make all the tourists walk along with their faces skyward and consequently trip over unsuspecting benches !!

Time, unfortunately, was not on our side as we had to get to Sucre to meet Pip. Nither were our navigational skills – we got seriously lost about 15 minutes before our bus was due to leave – This was one time that I was glad that the bus operator had been economical with the truth concerning bus times and the extra 30 minutes allowed us to catch the overnight bus to Sucre.

Sucre
Surrounded by low mountains Sucre is Bolivia’s second capital. La Paz may have the President and Governmental Departments but Sucre is home to Bolivia’s Supreme Court.

Even though our meeting plans had been a tad vague “I’ll meet you at the Villacruz hostel in Sucre, Bolivia around the middle of August”, Pip, Jeremy and I managed to arrive in Sucre within an hour of each other. Mission accomplished.

Sucre is a very pleasant town and we spent a few days just chilling, catching up with each others lives, visiting a few museums and going to the market for fresh juices that were to die for. Talking of the market, it had an interesting meat section that displayed just about every conceivable (and some not so conceivable) body part of a cow that you have ever seen. Some of it complete with fur/hair. Definitely not for the squeamish !!

Pip and I figured that we had about 2 weeks together and so came up with an action plan for our travels. We decided to head across the Bolivian Altiplano to San Pedro in Chile, then to hitch across the Andes to Salta in Argentina and then, if time permitted, to head back up to Bolivia. We didn’t know if it was all possible, especially the hitching bit, but traveling would be boring if everything was planned out to the Nth degree wouldn’t it ?

After a few days of relaxing it was soon time to start executing Plan A, feeling refreshed and ready for action.

Potosí
At an altitude of 4070m Potosí is the worlds highest city. It’s history is of silver. In 1545 the Spanish discovered silver in Cerro Rico, the hill that overlooks the city. There followed almost three centuries of exploitation. “The silver veins proved so rich that the mines soon became the worlds most prolific and the silver underwrote the Spanish economy for over two centuries.”* The mining conditions were (and are) appalling and during the nearly 300 years of spanish control they say over 8 million people died in the mines. Sometimes the miners would be down for over 6 months at a time. When they came to the surface for a well deserved rest their families would apparently have a party because they knew that the next time that they entered the mines would be their last. A popular saying here is that with all the silver that the spanish took you could build a bridge from Potosí to Spain and with the bones of the slave labour that died mining it you could build another bridge back again.

It’s possible to do tours of the mines to experience them first hand. So we put on our worst gear, got some protective clothing and boots and headed off towards the Cerro Rico. On the way, our guide gave us some excellent information about the mines, both past and present, and gave us the opportunity to buy some gifts for the miners that we might meet. The shops on the way to the mines were an eye-opener as it is possible to freely buy dynamite, TNT, fuses etc for just a few bolivianos (less than US$1). Fireworks in Potosí must be a blast !!

After a quick demonstration of exploding dynamite on the surface (by an 8 year old girl !) we were equipped with a sulphur gas lamp and headed into the mine proper. After just a few metres our guide pointed to a white crystalline substance on the mine wall and told us not to touch it – “What is it ?” – “Asbestos !” – great !! After some dark tunnels we found our first miner. They all work independently and sell their ore to a cooperative. Our man had been working over 25 years and his lungs were giving out. He had 10 children to support and so couldn’t stop work. He didn’t expect to last another year. Two of his sons, aged 8 and 11, were in the mine with him, perpetuating the cycle of things.

As we were talking to him, I noticed a burning smell and, looking to discover it’s source, saw that the sulphur lamp that I’d idly hung by my side had set fire to my trousers !! The next few moments were spent frantically putting out the flames. I had to throw away the trousers afterwards but at least I had the satisfaction of giving our hardworking miner a good laugh.

In every mine is an effigy of the devil to which offerings of coca leaves and rocket fuel alcohol are made every Friday in order to keep the mine productive. An offering of alcohol is made to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), a little is drunk and the rest poured over the devil and set alight. An eerie sight in a pitch black mine. The christian God may be Lord above ground but here in the bowels of the earth it’s the devil that gets homage !

Back in Potosí you can visit the worlds highest Internet cafe and also the Casa Real de la Moneda (The Mint). Although no longer in operation the Casa Real de la Moneda minted the Spanish coinage at the source of the silver for almost 150 years. With independence it changed to minting Bolivia’s new currency. It was closed only a relatively short time ago as the bolivian government decided to outsource the production of it’s coins and notes. Ironically, after almost 300 years of having it’s wealth and peoples exploited and decimated by a foreign power, the government decided to have their cheap, second rate, alloy coins produced by…you’ve guessed it, Spain ! The final indignity.

Uyuni and the Salar
Uyuni is a small town in the middle of a desolate landscape. It’s only semi-interesting feature is a train graveyard of old british steam locomotives, abandoned just outside of town with the advent of diesel. From here it was though, that we organised a 3 day tour of the Salar de Uyuni and Altiplano that would eventually take us down to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

Uyuni sits near the edge of the Salar de Uyuni an immense saltpan of over 12,000 sq Km at an altitude of 3600m. It’s an amazing experience driving over the perfectly flat, dazzlingly white, saltpan. The Isla de Pescadores with it’s cacti and Vizcachas (large chinchilla type animals) sits, as an oasis, in this ocean of salt.

We eventfully left the Salar and moved onto the desolate, volcanic and stunningly beautiful Altiplano. With increasing height you encounter colourful lakes of blue, green and red, rich in minerals and bacteria and home to many Flamingos of the Chilean, Andean, and the rare, James varieties.

Keep going and you reach geysers and holes of boiling, bubbling mud, thermals and strange, surreal landscapes. Apparently this is where Salvador Dali found the inspiration for many of his pictures.

Last stop was Laguna Verde at 5000m and in the shadow of Volcan Licancabúr before we changed vehicles and started our descent into Chile and San Pedro de Atacama.

Chile – San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro is a dry and dusty oasis town which sits in the Atacama desert at the foot of the Andes. Here Pip and I chilled (We left Jeremy in Potosí) and did very little except go to restaurants. We did manage to go to Calama, the nearest major town with ATMs and did an excursion to the Valle de la Luna where there was some amazing scenery and rock formations and a spectacular sunset which made the Andes glow red.

Across the Andes
Following our vague plan, the idea now was to get across the Andes to Argentina. We found out that there was an infrequent bus service, over the Paso de Jama, from San Pedro to Salta but we decided to stick to our plan, make an adventure of it and hitchhike. So on a cold Monday morning we checked out of our hostel and headed towards the border checkpoint, just outside of town, where we could hopefully get a lift.

At the border post we discovered that the pass was closed due to snow and high winds and nothing was allowed to leave the border post. The situation could change as any time though and so we had no choice but to wait. By 6pm (10hrs later) it was obvious that the pass wouldn’t open that day and so we headed back into town.

The next day followed a similar pattern and that evening we checked back into our hostel for the 3rd time, to the amusement of the owner. That evening we discovered an alternative way. It was to get a tour back to Uyuni, then a train down to the Bolivia / Argentina border and then a bus to Salta. It would take 2 days. Time was beginning to run out for Pip as she had to get a flight back to Oz but after much contemplation we decided to try just one last time.

The following morning we were back at the border post. At 9am the tour buses stopped on their way to Uyuni. Did we want to go with them ? Pip and I looked at each other – “We’ll stick with it !” and we watched them disappear into the distance. We started to prepare ourselves for a 3rd day of waiting under a hot sun when a commotion started, the pass had opened and the backlog of lorries started to move ! We quickly found some drivers who could give us a ride and were soon in a convoy of 4 chilean lorries on their way to Brasil.

The scenary was some of the most spectacular that I have ever seen, much of it even better that the Altiplano. We rose up to 4800m, made it over the pass and then dropped down towards the Argentine border. At an extremely windy and dusty border post in the middle of no-where the sealed road abruptly stopped and a dirt track welcomed us to Argentina. It was another 12 hours on some pretty dodgy roads before we finally arrived in San Salvador de Jujuy, our drop off point, in the early hours of the morning. We’d made it !

We had a celebratory beer with our drivers in a service station just outside town before heading for a hotel. They had been extremely kind to us during the trip, been infinitely patient with our spanish and wouldn’t even accept money for the beer. It had been a great experience.

The following morning we got a bus to our final destination of Salta.

Salta
Salta is a pleasant town to hang out in and the YHA is one of the best I’ve stayed in. It was also a good place to do some admin things like getting photos developed, sending packages and going to the dentist (I’d managed to get a gum infection in Bolivia and had dosed myself with drugs until I could get to Argentina to get it sorted out). We saw a few things around Salta and also went to Cafeyate, a small town to the south, but basically we chilled.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye to Pip. We’d actually travelled together for 3 weeks and had had a great time. Now she was quickly off to Iguaçu and Buenos Aires before flying back to Sydney to see the Olympics. Pip, thanks for being a great companion.

The “Freight Train a las Nubes”
El Tren a las Nubes – the Train to the Clouds – starts from Salta and climbs, through numerous switchbacks, 2500m through the spectacular scenery of the Andes to the town of San Antonio de los Cobres at 3700m. It is apparently on of the world’s great train journeys.

It is also unbelievably expensive with a days journey costing US$105 !! There is, however, an alternative. On Wednesdays there is a freight train, with a single passenger carriage, that does the same route and costs US$10 – bargain. Being the cheapskate that I am, it was the later that was the chosen means of transport.

It’s a beautiful trip with some amazing scenery and even the odd condor. The passenger carriage was surprisingly comfortable, the cafe onboard serves good snacks at local, not tourist prices and you get the chance to chat to the locals who live in the small villages through which you pass and for whom this is an important mode of transport. Well worth $10.

Soon it time to head north. I was quite sad to be leaving Argentina for what is probably going to be the last time this trip but there is still a long way to go. So on 7th September I headed north towards the Bolivian border and to new adventures.

Until next time, take care,

Iain


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