World's largest salt flats and a scary silver mine

Trip Start Aug 03, 2007
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Trip End Aug 01, 2008


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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Finally back to blogging. We are way behind in sharing our adventures with you, partly due to a very busy and full October but mostly due to some technical difficulties with this website. But we are back in action and typing away!
What an amazing place is the Salar de Uyuni in southwest Bolivia. It is the world's largest salt flats covering 12,000 sq km! It is at 3653m elevation which is over 10,000 feet. It was once part of a prehistoric lake that dried up and left this GIANT land of salt! During the dry months such as now, there is no water on the plain so it is blinding white against a blue sky for miles and miles. During the wet months there is a layer of water covering the plains and the pictures we have seen show an amazing sight...the sky reflected in the water so that you cannot tell where the sky meets the ground. We wish we could have seen this but we were glad for good weather. The way it works is that you show up in Uyuni, a really small town (that has a great pizza restaurant!) and you book a 3 or 4 day tour there. You pack 6 people into an old Toyota Landcruiser and you drive for days! It is quite an experience as the drivers do not take it easy on the trucks. They are constantly stopping and checking parts and fixing parts and you just hope the truck makes it the whole trip.
The first day we spent on the salt flats playing around, taking pictures, and visiting a small island called the Isla de Pescado where there are many cacti in abundance! The next couple days we drove through a different landscape, more of a desert but beautiful. All dirt roads with only Land Cruisers full of tourists passing you by. Some of the landscape truly looked like a Dali painting and we expected to see dripping clocks or something wacky like that at any moment. We drove through some rock formations where we got out and played for a while. The most interesting was the famous Arbol de Roca (Rock Tree) that looks like it should be impossible to stand as it does. Check out the picture in our gallery! We also saw a few lakes, some flamingos, and some natural geysers spewing bubbling mud and "sulfurous fumaroles" shooting hot steam out of the ground. It was a cold morning when we stopped there so the hot air felt nice on my feet. Had to be careful not to get too close though.
One of the best parts of the trip, however, was the 4 other people in our truck. We spent a lot of time with them so we had many chats and a few good card games.  A couple from Spain, Rocio and Ivan, are also traveling for a year and speak English as well as Spanish. Hiroshi and Jun from Japan did not speak much English but we found ways to enjoy our time with them! If you make it to Bolivia, you must see the Salar de Uyuni. It is a must see!
After Salar we jetted up to Potosi, a 5 hour bus ride northeast. Most people go to Potosi to to visit the silver mines, a scary, dirty and dangerous tour but sobering as well. Potosi was founded in 1545 and began being mined for silver in a large hill in town, the Cerro Rico. It is the city with the highest elevation in the world at 4070 meters. When it began being mined it was the wealthiest city in Latin America. It is no longer very wealthy however the mining continues and the Cerro Rico, still being mined after so many years. It is said that during the 300 years of colonial rule, about 8 million miners died from diseases and accidents. The horrible part is that 15,000 miners continue to work in the mines on a daily basis in terrible conditions. They say that the life expectancy of a miner in the mine is 40 years old whereas the life expectancy of a person working in the refinery is 50 years. Most die of silicosis pneumonia from all the toxins and chemicals they breathe everyday. Despite knowing this, people continue to work there because they do not feel they have any other option for making a living (we learned this from our tour guides, both of whom worked in the mines for a couple years and whose father worked there for 34 years before he died in his 50's). Supposedly the current Bolivian president has talked about making changes so the mines are less hazardous but nothing has happened thus far.
I was really nervous about doing the tour because everyone we had spoken to said it was awful but really worth doing. I am not claustrophobic but still not a fan of being in small, hot spaces underground where toxic substances are all around. We decided to give it a try and if at any time we wanted to leave the mine we could. We began our tour getting the right clothing and purchasing some treats for the miners...cold soda and coca leaves. Coca leaves are a big deal in Peru and Bolivia in high elevation areas and the mines. Chewing the coca leaves is one way of using them....the miners chew on a wad all day long and it gives them energy and appetite suppression. We drank a lot of coca tea during our time in these countries as it helps with reducing headaches and digestive issues related to high elevation. It is not addictive but obviously when it is used to make cocaine there are other effects! We also bought some dynamite for the miners and for a demo we would have later.
We visited the refinery where we learned about where the minerals go after they are hauled out of the mine...ancient-looking machines there. They mine not just for silver but for zinc and tin also. We then went up the mountain to the mines. The plan was to enter about 400 meters and see a small museum in the mine, then go down 2 more levels to see more of the mine and the miners in action. To my mother's relief, James and I made it only through the first level and then said adios to the mine. I was prepared to do the whole thing, I really wanted to, but when we got to the "hole" where we were to climb down to the lower level I decided I liked my life too much to risk it here. I was expecting a ladder or at least a space large enough for my body to smoothly pass down the passageway, but instead there were a bunch of logs in the hole (being transitioned to a lower level) and we were supposed to slide between them and the wall without seeing where we were going or really knowing if we would fit. The safety precautions in Bolivia are not quite U.S. standards and this was not something I was ready to brave. Plus, it was already hot and getting harder to breathe so that was another reason to check out.
Despite our early exit, I would say we got to experience the misery of the mines. The active miners were moving all around us, pushing the full carts past us at running speeds, often times we had to jump out of the way quickly so as to avoid a collision. We cannot imagine going there on a daily basis knowing that at any moment they could be trapped and also knowing their health was quickly declining. So sad. It reminds us once again how fortunate we are to have the opportunities we do at home to work where we do. I hope we remember this experience when we start to complain about our jobs!
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Comments

knsutton
knsutton on

Nice Feet
You crazy kids! Wow, this sounds like a gnarly experience! Glad you made it through, and that you were still able to grasp the point of it all.

Love you guys!

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