Fruit in Sucre

When we arrived to Sucre, it was the first time we had been under 3000m since we had landed in La Paz two weeks earlier. Sucre is markedly different from other cities we had visited in the Bolivian Altiplano, and not only owing to the change in climate. It is a city made up of elegant Spanish Colonial era, white washed buildings and churches. As Bolivia's legislative capital, the seat of Bolivia's Catholic Church and home to one of the oldest universities in the "New World" it is not as poor as its next door neighbour Potosi. In June 2008 a group of indigenous farmers was through Sucre's central plaza, forced to take off their shirts and burn the Wiphala and MAS flags (the Wiphala flag is that of Bolivia's indigenous people, MAS is Morales' Party). All this to the cheers of "on your knees shitty Indians", "long live the capital Sucre"... This was the current political climate when we visited Sucre. Tourists like to stick around the hostels of Sucre to learn Spanish and enjoy the lovely weather. Yann and I enjoyed the hot climate and agreed that the city was quite lovely, but concluded that it was also fairly dull. As in Potosi, we visited all the churches and museums including the one that houses Bolivia's declaration of Independence. The views of the city from the top of the Felipe Neri Convent were particularly nice. The highlight of Sucre for us was the central market where we ate all of our meals with crowds of locals. We went there every night for greasy potatoes and chicken, and every afternoon for gigantic bowls of fruit covered in yogurt. The town of Tarabuco is about 65km from Sucre, and its Sunday market is a popular excursion. Tarabuco and its neighbouring villages are renowned for their intricate textiles. We decided to visit, mainly for lack of other day trip options. Most of the vendors in Tarabuco target the visiting tourists. All sell "authentic embroideries" of various quality (after a visit to the textile museum in Sucre, it is difficult to impress). Most of the local vendors wear traditional clothing, but this seems mostly to be a show for the visiting tourists. Away from the central plaza, vendors sell everyday goods and tourists are slightly more scarce. We wandered the back streets for a few hours, but we were still disappointed by the "market". Back in Sucre, Yann and I joined a group of tourists racing to the fruit stalls. Despite arriving past closing time, we managed to get a vendor to sell us all fruit cups through the locked gates. Yann and I enjoyed our last treat before our long trip to Lima.

Mining in Bolivia

There was no time to rest, even after our three day tour of the Bolivian desert. First thing the next morning, we were on the bus to Potosi. Yann had recovered well and we had received the good news that 67% of voters had supported Evo Morales in the vote of confidence referendum (that had taken place while we were on the tour). In the western highlands of Bolivia (where we were traveling), where the population is poor and mainly indigenous, support for Morales was even higher. We arrived in Potosi in the late afternoon. We made our way through Potosi's cobblestone alleys, past its crumbling colonial mansions and dozens of churches, admiring the massive Cerro Rico mountain that seems to loom over the city from wherever we were standing. Potosi has a grand and terrible history, and tourists come here for glimpses of the vestiges both of grandeur and of terror. Four hundred years of history has shaped Potosi into a city where the divide between the rich and the poor is even more present than in other parts of the country. (Perhaps why Morales and his Movement for Socialism Party enjoy over 80% support, the most of all prefects in Bolivia). It was established as a mining town in the 16th century and quickly the Spanish discovered that the nearby mountain was full of silver ore. The Spanish removed 45 000 tones of pure silver from the from what seemed to be an inexhaustible source of silver. Thousands of native Quechua and Aymara people were enslaved, and sometimes forced to live underground for 3 months (until they died). When the native population had been decimated (hundreds of thousands are said to have died in the mines), African slaves were shipped to Potosi to continue the work. An estimated 30 000 African slaves died, and rather quickly, due to the 4000m altitude. At the height of silver excavation, the population of the city swelled to over 200 000, making it one of the world's biggest cities. It is even mentioned in Cervantes' Don Quixote "I were to requite thee as the importance and nature of the cure deserves, the treasures of Venice, the mines of Potosi, would be insufficient to pay thee."

By the beginning of the 19th century most of the silver had been depleted and the city began to decline. Today, there is almost no silver left in Potosi, neither in Cerro Rico or in the museums and churches. Most is in Europe. We did the mandatory visit to the Potosi Mint, a testimony to Potosi's previous position of power, the coins for most of Europe were produced here for over a century. We visited a handful of churches, mostly for the great views of the city from their rooftops. And we visited museums and developed a particularly liking for some of the Bolivian artwork. We noted the common theme of Spanish conquistadors crucifying Jesus, which, given Potosi's history is quite an apt representation. On our second day in Potosi, we decided to witness what remains of Cerro Rico mining. We took a popular "Mine Tour" with a local company. For 10$ you get a trip to the mining quarter of Potosi (including the miner's market), then a refinery then a visit inside one of the dozens of cooperative mines that operate in the old tunnels of Cerro Rico. Before heading to the market we were first fitted with ridiculous suits, hardhats and lamps. The lamps and hardhats proved to be useful, but the rubber coveralls just served to highlight our invasive presence in the tunnels. We paraded through the small miners' market purchasing "gifts" for the miners on the insistence of our guide. Gifts included soft drinks, coca leaves and sticks of dynamite, all three available at most market stalls. Miners purchase all of their supplies themselves, hence the absence of any sophisticated equipment (including masks). Mines have been stripped of most of their wealth and ore is extracted with the hope of having a high enough mineral content to make decent money. Each cooperative works in teams sharing their meager profits. Miners are mostly uneducated and indigenous and are forced into mining by circumstance. Small children, boys and girls, enter the mines young, as they are able to crawl to small hard to reach corners. Miners usually die within 15 years of entering the mines, from silicosis (caused by the inhalation of large quantities of silica dust). We arrived at the Candeleria mine around lunch time, and workers were preparing to enter the mines for the beginning of their 12 hr+ shift. They prepared their painfully rickety equipment and put on their cloth masks and we watched them enter the mine. Shortly after, our group of about 8 people entered the mine behind them. We were accompanied by two guides, one to lead and the other to help people out if they began to feel uncomfortable. The first few hundred meters of tunnel is wide with high ceilings, it is dark and extremely noisy, due to the hydraulic pipes used to power the carts. The air is stale and stinky, the tunnel is hot and your lungs begin burning almost immediately after entering. It took us about 10 minutes to get to the end of the main tunnel with the ceiling at which point we sat and rested. We were given a description of the following part of the mine. We would descend a few meters at which point we would enter a tunnel in which we would have to crawl until we reached the second level of the mine. Yann had to be convinced to take this tour, and when we turned the corner and watched as people began entering the tunnel on their hands and knees he turned around to leave. Another tourist had already dropped out ahead of him and our guide left with both of them. I was the last person in our convoy. With just the slight descent further into the mine the temperature had already risen and us inexperienced tourists were kicking up dust everywhere around us, (much to the dismay of the miners that had grumpily joined the queue behind me).
It is hard for me to describe the smells and the discomfort of my few minutes crawling through the tunnel. About halfway through the tunnel, I turned around and crawled back, despite the encouragements of my fellow tourist next to me. I knew that if I got to the end of the tunnel I would eventually have to turn back and do it again. I raced out of the mine (as fast as I could), out of breath and afraid.
Outside the mine Yann and I sat in silence covered in dust and feeling pretty lame dejected as we watched a group of even young miners getting ready to enter the mine. For a wonderful portrayal of the lives of Potosi miners we strongly encourage you to watch "The Devil's Miner" a heartbreaking documentary about mining in Cerro Rico filmed in 2005.

Information at

Back to Civilization

After a great day two, we were ready for the final and longest day (12 hours of driving) of our tour of Southwestern Bolivia. We spent the previous evening eating spaghetti, playing cards and drinking cheap Chilean wine. None of us had particularly considered the fact that we were at an altitude of almost 4000m. We slept poorly, Yann and I huddled together in a single bed under a pile of damp blankets, wearing all of our clothes. There were around 7 or 8 groups spending a night at the tourist lodge and we had planned to be the first group gone in the morning. We wanted to watch the sun rise over the Sol de Manana, a geyser basin.

We were the first group awake (4:30am), we had all the bags ready, we passed on breakfast (much to the dismay of Hilarion who seemed to want to keep sleeping) and we began loading up the jeep. It was extremely cold outside so we took shifts going outside to help load the jeep (with Jonathan and Jonas doing the bulk of the work). Yann seemed to be struggling and was obviously not doing very well, a combination of food, alcohol (only 2 glasses of wine) and altitude had flattened him. We sent him back to bed while we tried to get things ready. We were getting frustrated with the speed at which Hilarion and Maria were packing up, they had nothing packed almost half an hour after the six of us were ready and waiting. The other groups were beginning to wake up and prepare their things (with their guides working much more efficiently).

By 5:30am we should have been on the road, but our poor jeep had had a rough night in the sub-zero weather. When we heard the repeated sound of a jeep starter (not starting), we didn't have to see whose jeep it was, we already knew... We tried everything to start it, we pushed, we boosted the battery, we changed parts. After multiple attempts at getting the jeep started by rolling it uphill, I threw in the towel. My lungs were burning, my heart was pounding and my hands were numb, I thought I was going to pass out. Jonas and Jonathan must have spent a brave 2 hours with Hilarion in the -20 C weather, trying to get our awful jeep started. They enlisted the help of other drivers who tried their best, but had their own clients and jeeps to deal with. One by one they drove off, until we were the last jeep at the lodge. We finally pulled away at about 8am, we were 2 hours behind most of the other groups.

Yann's extra hours of sleep had not improved his situation. He was pale and exhausted, and we piled him under blankets in the back of the jeep. When we got to the Sol de Manana to see the geysers, Yann couldn't leave the jeep. The stench of sulfur in the air wasn't helping him get over his nausea and headache, his face had gone from white to green. We were now climbed to an altitude of almost 5000m. I visited the impressive geysers and hot bubbling sludge by myself, trying to rush through so that we could get to a lower altitude and escape the smell. Nearby are the natural Termas de Polques hot springs, which we were really looking forward to, until we realised that we would have to strip down to our bathing suits, get wet, and then exit into the cold air. Yann had still not left the back of the jeep and was still freezing under his pile of blankets, so there was no question as to whether or not he would enter the water. The three other guys stripped down to the speedos the minute we got there and beckoned Mathilde and I to join them. I spent at least an hour in the water, which was so wonderful after our cold night and awful morning. Getting out wasn't pleasant, but was manageable.

I began to wonder why we were hanging around at the hot springs for so long, as we still had another 50km to the Chilean border where we would visit the Laguna Verde and the 6000m Licancabur Volcano. From Laguna Verde, Yann, Michael and I would leave the three Frenchmen to climb the volcano, and we would switch into a jeep who had dumped passengers at the Chilean border and was heading back to Uyuni half empty. The problem was, we were so behind, that all the jeeps were already on their way back from the border, and we wouldn't be able to catch up. Hilarion mumbled to us in Spanish, that we wouldn't visit the Laguna Verde, and we could get some money back in Uyuni. He flagged down a passing jeep handed the driver some money and we quickly transferred our things. We said goodbye to Mathilde, Jonathan and Jonas who had been wonderful company. They were nervous to be continuing three more days in the same jeep.

The next 5 hours were spent racing back to Uyuni, with a brief stop at the Valles de Rocas (where I puked from motion sickness, and Yann still did not have the energy to exit the jeep). Despite Hilarion's terrible jeep, I was grateful to not have taken the trip with our new driver. He was driving way too fast for the terrain. I asked him to slow down a few times and he obliged. Apparently, he had drank so heavily on the second night, that he was still drunk in the morning. His driving was so erratic that one of the tourists had driven for most of day two while the other passengers navigated. Our jeep troubles seemed minor when I listed to the description of their awful experience. We felt some frustration for having been promised a "great jeep" and missing one third of the sights on the circuit due to its utter crappiness. But since Yann was so sick, we were happy to have saved him from the extra 3 hours of driving. By the time we arrived in San Cristobal Yann was able to get up and walk. We had descended 1500m in one day, which seemed to relieve his headache somewhat. Back in Uyuni, Yann went to bed at 6pm and didn't wake up until the next morning. Meanwhile, Michael (who spoke some Spanish) was busy blasting the travel agent at Ripley Tours. She eventually reimbursed us each some money (reluctantly). So basically our trip was a great success!

Note: About a week later we ran into Jonathan who described their trip continuation with Hilarion. They had paid for 3 more days, but Hilarion only wanted to do 2, they argued with him for the rest of the trip over the terms of their agreement, the jeep broke down two more times, stranding them both mornings AND the absolutely unforgivable: they completely ran out of food!

Guide to a Problem Free Day on the Southwest Circuit

We learned that whether or not your package tour of the Bolivian southwest has nothing to do with careful preparation, and everything to do with luck. Luckily, we had good travel companions, and we made it through at least one of three days without a jeep breakdown. Our second day was great, we weren't even bothered by the fact that when Hilarion came to pick us up in the morning he was driving the exact same jeep as the day before, unrepaired. So we are actually able to summarize what the second day of the Bolivian Southwest Circuit should be like:

Wake up is at 5 a.m., if you are sleeping in Puerto Chubica (as we were) you can watch the sunrise over the salt flats. After sunrise you will have a breakfast of pancakes, jam, and dulce de leche, complete with moccacinos (hot chocolate, instant coffee and powdered milk). Leaving Puerto Chubica and the salar, you will head to San Juan to pick up supplies: Chilean wine, orange drink, chips... (Note: Depending on your jeep situation the previous day, the small town of San Juan could actually be your day 2 starting point). If your group is organized, you can start the day ahead of all the other groups and at least feel like you are not visiting the desert in a convoy of 30 jeeps. We were actually very organized group, but given our situation, we followed the "last is first" method, in order to have the sights to ourselves.
The first stop of the day is a vast plain of volcanic rock formations, with views of the smoking active Volcano Ollague in the distance. The rest of the morning is spent driving through barren, rocky terrain. On some of the steeper trails, all the passengers have to walk (especially if you don't have a spare tire). You can request stops to admire the packs of Vicunas (llamas with long silky hair) grazing in the distance. For many, the most impressive sight of the day will be the thousands of South American flamingos. These flamingos only inhabit the high altitude (over 3000m) salt lakes and lagoons of the Andes. They are pink due to the beta-carotene contained in their algae diet (the source of beta-carotene the African flamingo's diet is shrimp). You will have your lunch at Laguna Hedionda where you can watch this endangered bird eat, fly or just stand around on a leg. The only thing that detracts ever so slightly from the experience is the raging stench of flamingo poop. The first stop after lunch is the rock forest. You might question the enthusiasm with which it will be presented to you by every single tour operator in Uyuni. The wide-spread belief seems to be that the most interesting thing on the tour is the Arbol de Pietra, a rock shaped like a tree. In the afternoon, the colours and shapes of the desert terrain seem to change every few minutes. The last sight of the day is the Laguna Colorada, sitting at 4300m, red from algae and plankton with shiny white deposits of minerals colouring its banks. By the time you arrive at the lodge just past the Laguna Colarada, you will have traveled for more than 12 hours, covering almost 200km. You will appreciate the wine purchased in San Juan and the spaghetti dinner, especially when the sun sets and the temperature drops to -20C.