The Highest....Bolivia in a Nutshell

Trip Start Jul 06, 2005
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Trip End Mar 10, 2006


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Monday, November 21, 2005

Ok, no time to chat, LOTS of ground to cover this entry! Been moving really fast and doing all sorts of crazy stuff lately - overall Bolivia has been phenomenal (and CHEAP!). Stick with me here, because Bolivia has...

THE HIGHEST NAVIGABLE LAKE IN THE WORLD (3810 metres)

First stop, Lago Titicaca and Isla de Sol, mythical birthplace of the Incas. We essentially rocked up on an overnight bus from Peru, ditched our bags and headed out to the island on the afternoon boat. The lake itself is beautiful and we (Matt, Angela, Mark and myself) had a pretty relaxing overnight visit. Hiked to the top of the hill, built the biggest and most imposing Inukshuk rock man you ever did see (pic above), had a nice trout dinner for dirt cheap and all in all just chilled after our recent adventures. Intended to walk to the north of the island on day two but as it was pouring rain we headed back to the mainland early to catch the afternoon bus to...

THE HIGHEST CAPITAL CITY IN THE WORLD (3700 metres)

La Paz, Bolivia is officially the highest capital city on the planet, even though it isn't the capital, or is it - huh? Don't ask. This city rocked, just alive with constant street markets, great people, and a striking look as it sprawls up all sides of a bowl in a high Andes plateau (the Spanish were trying to hide from the wind, instead they set up massive uphill/downhill walks at altitude to get anywhere). For the most part just wandered, sampled street food, caught a double feature at the cinema for like $1.50, did a little souvenir shopping and soaked up the atmosphere. From La Paz, we were headed to...

THE MOST DANGEROUS ROAD IN THE WORLD (4700-1100 metres)

Sounds like a big call, but believe it. This ride is four-five hours of white knuckled excitement, descending 3600 metres from the wind swept Andes down to the Yungas jungle. It starts out relaxed, just blazing full speed down a highway with passing traffic, before you enter the really crazy part. At one point the road becomes dirt and rock, the trail a precariously one lane cut into the side of the mountain jungle - rough road, 300 foot drop on one side, rocky overhang on the other, traffic in both directions despite the narrow track, and consistent crosses to remind you of all the vehicles and occasional biker that went over the side. They lose vehicles weekly. Way too much fun, plus I got a neato t-shirt.

Che's Trail

For those of you who don't know much about Che Guevara, he is one of the twentieth century's great revolutionaries, essential to Castro's victory in Cuba and revered around the world, especially by the poor marginalized in today's societies. He was captured and executed trying to foment revolution in Bolivia, chosen due to its central location (borders five South American nations) and remote areas for training and hiding.

We decided to head WAY out into central Bolivia to see what we could see.

After another hellish 20 something hour bus ride to Santa Cruz (nice enough), we connected the next day to Vallegrande, a little town that gave us a great look at small town Bolivian life. Next morning, on instructions from locals, we were up at 5:30am to catch a farm truck to La Higuera, our end goal. It had already left so we caught the bus at 8:30am to the last town on the line, Pucará. Bus proceeded to stop after five minutes (and collecting our money) for three hours of major repairs in the middle of no-where (pic above). Right, with newfound traveller's patience in hand, waited that out and got to Pucará fairly late after 6 hours on the bus, and NOTHING. No stores, no accommodation, no transportation.

-"How do we get to La Higuera?"

-"Well, you walk, that way."

-"WALK?!?"

-"Walk, about 12 km, maybe three hours."

Now, looking at approaching darkness (we intended this as a day trip!) we squish the little voice saying get back on the bus. In the gathering rain, we set out in the direction indicated with little to say we were even on the right track. Keep in mind this is hours and hours from the nearest city or major road, and there are NO other travellers around. After powering through the 12 K we did manage to arrive to a town of ohhhh, maybe 30 people. Seriously, we had to track down the guy with keys to everything so he could open up the little school dormitory where we were to sleep, and then the tiny museum built from the building where Che was executed.

All in all a surreal experience, with every town building covered in slogans or pictures of Che. Don't get me wrong, you weren't going to find t-shirts or keychains, but they truly revere the man and what he stood for. To top it off we had the old señor guide us at 5am the next day to the valley where Che and his men were captured. This was in 1967, and our guide was 23 and living there at the time. Craziness.

Three hour walk back through the hills to catch the bus at noon and back to Vallegrande. Che's body was brought here to be displayed to the media, and then buried with 6 other guerilla fighters in a mass grave at the local airport. The body was moved to Cuba in '97 and now the excavated site is all that remains, still a site of reverence in the area. After a fight with the hostel owner over his "day trip" instructions and trying to charge us for an extra night as we left our bags behind, we finally found a cab to the main highway and in the dark managed to flag down the first passing bus. Way off the beaten track and some true adventuring behind us, we were headed to...

THE HIGHEST CITY OF ITS SIZE IN THE WORLD (4200 metres)

Potosi is a pleasant city towards the south of Bolivia, but the main reason us travellers swing by is for the mines. Potosi was once the silver load of the Spanish empire, and over 8 million people are estimated to have died from working the mines there. Now small miner collectives work for a pittance in miserable, medieval conditions with the average life expectancy 45 yrs old. We were able to go into the mines to see the conditions first hand and we were all plenty exhausted and rattled after 2 hours underground, without working.

There's no air, tons of dust, and the tunnels are cramped with sliding on your belly the only way through at times. The miners work with picks and shovels, dynamite, and no machinery - even carrying the rock to the surface on their backs at times. There is an incredible amount of comraderie and spirits are kept high, but its really a sad scene. After work the miners all drink heavily, 96% drinking alcohol is sold in miner's markets. We did get to play with some live dynamite, and watch a demonstration of what we had earlier been able to hear booming in the depths beneath as we crawled around underground. We all bought pop and dynamite as presents for the miners for letting us visit as well - all in all a sad but incredibly interesting (and somewhat scary) experience. Ready to move on, we finally arrived in the town from where I write this, Uyuni. Gateway to...

THE LARGEST, AND HIGHEST, SALT FLATS IN THE WORLD

So, I sit here freshly back from a truly epic three day tour of the nearby salt flats and high altiplano of the Bolivia/Chile border region. We headed out on day one and soon found ourselves in a seemingly unending expanse of blinding white. The entire area was a massive inland sea, and now that its dried up the slat flats, ancient preserved coral, and a Dali-esque landscape are all that remain. Check the pics above for some funny shots using the loss of perspective it created, and one of our little tequila party (what else to do with all that salt?).

Ended the day in a little town next to a pre-Incan burial site. This culture had used the coral left behind when the see dried to construct hundreds of burial mounds, all with openings facing the setting sun. Looked amazing enough from a distance, but once closer we realized that several mummies still remained, unprotected and exposed, much as they had sat in the dry rarified air for over 800 years. We seriously could have just taken one, no precautions, no supervision, just free run through the site.

Day two took us through landscapes of seemingly unending Martian moonscapes, interrupted by... colourful salt lakes full of bright pink flamingos, of course! Just what you'd expect at over 12,000 feet... The scenery was too much to explain here, but the pics will give you an idea, just unreal. Finished the day at the bright red/orange laguna colorado and slept at 4300 metres. It, gets, COLD up there!

Last day took us to a set of bubbling mud pits and massive active geysers first thing (like 5am first thing), followed by an early dip in some thermal hotsprings. Negative temps outside, no-where really to change, and a couple dozen tourists from different groups all converging for a dip in the shallow hot water. Too funny, made the rest of the crowd jealous when I revealed the cold beer I'd been hiding to enjoy in the "hot tub". After that a LONG drive back to town (8-9 hours) in the 4X4 with our guide Javier, and here we are.

That should teach me for trying to cover an entire country in one entry! Just waiting for an overnight train to the Argentinean border, and that about wraps up Bolivia. Train leaves at 2:30 am of all hours, so should prove fun after the 4 am wake-up call this morning.

As always, hope this finds everyone well, always great to hear from you,

--Shawn
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Comments

tamtation
tamtation on

:-)
Wow I never knew that they dug up salt from a mine, all this time I thought that they just distilled a bunch of sea water!. Misled I tell ya! lol. I like that one pic of you holding your friend in your palm. You're becoming quite the photographer now :-) Should have crawled up beside that mummy and given him bunny ears for a good keep sake pose..or at least that's what I would have done :0) Sounds like you've been having some pretty crazy times. Miss you lots!

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