October 3, 2013
Thursday, September 26. The campesinos in certain communities have blocked the only road between Sucre and Potosí, protesting something I don’t quite understand, and postponing our travel plans. We spend the day uncertain whether we’ll be able to take our trip tomorrow, the next day, or a few days later. One can, we hear, take a taxi to the blockade, walk around the hundreds of campesinos, and take another taxi on the other side; that plan, however, is scotched when we learn that there are two blockades at different points on the road.
Friday, September 27. To our suprise the blockades have been lifted. We pack clothing, towels, blankets, food, and water, and, with Carlos, Zannah, and a young Biblioworks worker named Roxana, take two buses. The first, to Potosí (three hours), is too hot and we can’t get the window open; the second, to Uyuni (four hours), is too cold and we can’t get the window closed. We arrive around ten; the flat, ugly town greets us with cold air and overcharging taxi drivers. We separate from our friends, who go to an ultracheap hostel. The first hotel we try is full; the second has a shabby room with four beds, but the toilet deodorizer has filled it with paradichlorobenzene. We try putting it outside and opening windows, but the literally freezing air and disco music outside make us shut them again, and we sleep with the suffocating odor.
Saturday, September 28. The main drags are Ferroviaria, a wide street along the train station lined with tour companies, and Plaza Arce, a pedestrian mall with a couple pizza parlors. The tour companies all open around nine, with agents walking around trying to entice tourists to visit. We listen to four spiels and settle on one company that promises us better accomodations and food. (The promises aren’t kept.)
The tourists in Bolivia are from Australia and Europe, occasionally from Asia, and never from the United States; we never see any families, only twenty-something backpackers and, rarely, groups of elderly Europeans. At some point—I think on Monday—Jacky asks me what was my most memorable vacation, and I realize that I’ve only enjoyed being a tourist when few other tourists were around. That’s certainly not the case now.
We’re supposed to leave at 10:30, so we actually leave an hour later. Our driver and guide, José, is taciturn and unenthusiastic; but he’s friendly, provides us with information when we ask for it, and shows us some places that other tour guides don’t. Our first stop is a train cemetery outside town; we climb the old junked trains and take pictures like all the other tourists. Then it’s off to the Salar, leaving paved roads behind.
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s biggest salt flat, about half the size of New Jersey and more than twice the size of Salt Lake, about 12,000 feet above sea level. One enters via Colchani, where villagers have set up stalls selling souvenirs made of salt, just like the hotels here—at least the bricks, mortar, tables, chairs, and beds (in the bricks you can see how the layers of salt signify the amount of rain per year). Most of the time the water in the Salar is covered by a thick layer of salt strong enough to withstand the weight of an SUV, which is what everyone rides in; but in the rainy season (November through February), the Salar is impassible. The vast whiteness shines, reflecting the mountains around so that they look like Laputas, horizontally symmetrical islands floating in the sky. We stop and kick at the crust, which is composed of vague polygons about four feet in diameter; one can drop pieces of salt into the holes at the corners of the polygons and watch them sink slowly into the clear water underneath.
In the afternoon we visit Inca Huasi (home of the Incas), an unearthly island in the middle of the Salar composed of volcanic rock and petrified coral and covered with ancient cacti (trichocereus pasacana) up to thirty feet tall. We hike up to the top and view the entire expanse ringed with mountains fifty to eighty miles away.
On the edge of the salar we don plastic helmets and crawl on our hands and knees to get through la Cueva Galaxia, a cave thus named because galaxia sounds like estalactita but is easier to say; since the rock is all volcanic, the formations have a lacy, coral-like appearance unlike any others I’ve seen.
We arrive at a salt hotel in Colcha K, a town near the Salar, at sunset. Some confusion about the rooms ensues—we had asked for two, one with a double bed and one with two singles, but get one room with four single beds. José is furious and spends an hour arguing with the staff. We wait a few hours for dinner, but at least we’re given tea, crackers, and cookies. The Milky Way and constellations are clearer than I’ve ever seen them.
Sunday, September 29. We get a late start, José hungover from partying the night before with other tour drivers; he keeps drinking all day. He is less taciturn after a few beers, but, sore about the night before, complains about the agency, tells us it’s his last trip with them, and keeps suggesting that we just give up and go back to Uyuni. His driving doesn’t seem affected by the beers except when he decides to have a race with the other drivers (and loses). We tell him to stop that. At least he's not snorting cocaine, like one of the other drivers.
The town of San Juan del Rosario is on a much larger island/peninsula near the edge of the Salar; it is almost completely cut off from the world during the rainy season. We go to a bar and I try a beer flavored with coca leaves made in Sucre by Cervezeria Vicos—the best beer I’ve had here, though I’ve never actually seen it in Sucre itself. Next door is a necropolis, a hill covered with volcanic boulders that look like coral; each one was hollowed out in pre-Inca days by a group called the Lipes, who used them as tombs. The treasures they buried with their dead were stolen by conquistadores, but the bones and clothes remain.
We travel south, passing dozens of newly sown quinua fields, which at this point are simply flat, ridged expanses of dirt. On a hill a collection of climbable rocks made of lava look like they were shaped by Yves Tanguy; the kids and I wander up and down while Karen has a chat with José about his drinking (he promises not to drink tomorrow, and doesn't). In the distance a small plume of smoke rises from the top of Ollagüe, Bolivia’s only active volcano, on the Chilean border, 19,000 feet high. We can’t count the volcanos here—fifty, a hundred, more, almost all dormant, with their craters often displaying different hues of red and brown.
A series of shallow lakes lie in the midst of the volcanos, full of flamingos. We stop at Laguna Hedionda, which smells strongly of sulphur; the wind blows fiercely and the temperature is dropping. Snow glistens on the mountains and the flamingos shovel the mud with their beaks, remaining amazingly spotless, while plovers hop and flit.
An engine belt in one of the SUVs broke and hit another belt which detached a hose through which hydraulic fluid for the clutch leaked out; Jose and four other drivers drink and repair it while we wait in a salt hotel near the lake. The other tourists are mostly twenty-something Australians and British, and they tell tales of past disasters with drunk drivers, scaring the kids. We want to sit outside and get away from them, but it’s too cold and windy. By the time the SUV is fixed, with hydraulic fluid siphoned from the others, we’ve been there for over two hours and are just an hour from sunset.
We wander among more odd-shaped volcanic rocks, including one the size and shape of an apple tree, and then enter the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Abaroa, the southernmost tip of Bolivia, a nature preserve the size of Delaware. The temperature drops below freezing; we’re at 15,000 feet. The hostel is a small building with six rooms, no heat, and a kitchen; besides us, only a charming group of elderly French tourists are there. They cough so violently during the night that we think they’re throwing up. We sleep little, and get up at four; we offer them some Cipro that I bought at the Sucre bus station, only to be told, “Oh, ça va, c’est rien du tout.”
Monday, September 30. José comes sober and silent a little after five to take us to the Sol de Mañana, a geothermal field that is only active in the mornings. Just like everywhere here, there are no fences, and we wander freely around the boiling mud. We stick our feet into jets of pressurized steam issuing from reddish holes to warm them up; the sun rises, but the wind blows so much steam around us that it’s hard to see.
Our next stop is a hot springs, the nicest I’ve been in, despite the crowds of European youth; we see Carlos, Zannah, and Roxana again here, but only Carlos gets into the water with us. The hot water enters the pool and then runs into another huge shallow lake full of flamingos, steaming as it goes. When Thalia gets out of the pool and changes into her clothes, ice forms at the ends of her hair.
The reserve is mostly bare desert and snowy mountains. We see vicuñas, which look like a cross between gazelle and llamas; viscachas, which look like rabbits with squirrel tails (we feed some pasta to one); flamingos; and practically no other wildlife. There are no trees here, just cacti, including some smooth green globular ones; the effect is unearthly. There are no communities here either, and no other vehicles except for tourist SUVs and trucks full of borax.
We pass a patch of desert named after Dalí since it’s littered with widely spaced and weirdly shaped rocks and finally arrive at the southernmost point in Bolivia, the Laguna Verde, colored green from arsenic, at the foot of the Licancabur volcano, whose perfect cone rises to 19,500 feet. Even though it’s well below freezing, the lake stays liquid due to its high mineral content. It’s an extraordinary contrast to the milky lake (Laguna Blanca) right next to it.
Our last stop is Laguna Colorada, a huge lake nestled among snow-capped mountains, colored bright orange-red from its algae, and swarming with flamingos. The sight is overwhelming. Then we drive five hours back to Uyuni, the last hour on actual paved roads, but the first four across deserts, through streams, around canyons, and on dried mud flats. The highlight is seeing a rhea, a rare ostrich-like bird, running across the dirt road.
We eat pizza in Uyuni and try calling Potosí hotels; we finally get in touch with a reasonable one. We arrive there after eleven; the bus ride is better; the rooms are well-heated.
Tuesday, October 1. Potosí is the highest city in the world, and was, back in the early seventeenth century, one of the biggest. It sits in the shadow of Cerro Rico, the site of what was once the world’s greatest silver lode, where millions of indigenous slaves died digging for the Spanish, and where campesinos still dig for tin. Now it’s about half the size of Sucre, with narrower streets, and with the colonial buildings painted in pastel colors rather than white. While Sucre is laid out in a grid, the streets of Potosí wind haphazardly and steeply. I love it here—the chaos, the ultra-savage history, the lack of tourists. We eat K’alaphurka, a thick corn soup with a hot stone in the middle that makes it bubble like a volcano; it’s astonishingly good. In the restaurant, however, we see a young Japanese man whom we’d met in Uyuni, who tells us that tomorrow, Wednesday, will be a general strike, with all roads, museums, restaurants, and stores closed, so we need to leave tonight.
But first we visit the mint, a two-hundred-room colonial building whose thick cold walls house, among other things, Potosí’s greatest painting, the anonymous and indigenous seventeenth-century “Virgen-Cerro,” which artfully equates the Virgin with Cerro Rico while depicting the Spanish whipping the indigenous miners; all the machinery used to make Spanish reals over the centuries; an astonishing mineral exhibit; and much more. And we visit the Museo Santa Teresa, the most purely Spanish place we’ve seen in Bolivia, where once upon a time one could find twenty-one nuns of Spanish birth or descent living completely cloistered, from the age of fifteen until death, eating little, speaking only for two hours a day, embroidering church vestments, and flaggelating themselves with fine barbed chains. The convent’s beauty clashes weirdly with its ascetic nature; it’s impossible to tell how gratifying God’s grace might have been for these imprisoned women. Five nuns still live there, though not under quite the same conditions.
We take a taxi back to Sucre; the driver speeds around the narrow mountain roads, desperate to get back to Potosí before midnight, when the blockades will begin again.
And today, Thursday, October 3, the general strike has come to Sucre too. The streets are empty, the shops are mostly closed, the kids and I have no school, and all is peaceful.
Here’s something Karen wrote to my father today:
Our trip was astonishing, but very difficult. One has to travel by bus here (there are almost no flights) and we were on a very short trip by Bolivian standards -- 7 hrs on the bus. When it is hot, the windows of the bus won't open; when it is cold, they won't close. They often put on loud music. The accommodations were dire on the whole. The food was safe, though that is the best one can say about it. The other tourists were mostly annoying and loud 20-somethings from Europe or Australia. On our way back, we wanted to spend a couple of days in Potosi, but they were about to have a general strike (because the government is trying to take a representative away from them because of new census figures). As a result, we took an express taxi back to Sucre that night and at the last second they raised the price 20%. Those are some of the down-sides of the trip. I was warned by an Argentine friend that traveling in Latin America is difficult (especially in the poorer parts); now I know what he means. However, what we saw was utterly astonishing -- it made us live "in the moment" and forget about the lack of hot water, late meals, meagre accommodations, incredible cold (w/out heating), altitude wooziness, etc. So we must flush from our memory the discomfort and just remember the volcanos, vicunas, cacti, and mineral lakes. Amazingly enough, that is not hard.
There is a "luxury" eco-tour company that charges $400 per person. That trip might be less uncomfortable, but we were traveling with young friends who are on a tight budget -- $90-100 each -- and consequently took the "low road." After the first night, Yuval decided that we would need to switch to the high road, but we didn't get as high as the eco-tour company. We met a group of older French tourists from the Pyrenees who were delightful. They had a cheerful, wonderful guide whose name I got. In the future, when we need a guide, I'll contact him. Our tour guide was taciturn when sober, verbose and maudlin when not. However, we had some interesting conversations, especially about town economies in that area.
When we arrived in Uyuni (that is the town from which the tours depart), we were besieged by tour operators and I understood clearly for the first time to what degree a tourism economy is like prostitution. The town is dirty, run-down, with lots of stray dogs, and trolling tour-operators who clearly misrepresent their offerings. Rip-offs are flagrant and they are hard to write-off as simply a "gringo tax." By contrast, upon our return, we stopped at a small mining town for a break to stretch our legs, and I was astonished. The town was clean, with broad streets, neat houses (not made of adobe, which harbors insects that spread a dangerous disease -- chagas), no dusty children idling around, no one begging. Everyone wore shoes (not the ubiquitous, dusty campesino sandals) and clean well-fitting, brightly colored traditional clothes, children riding bikes, brightly painted garbage and recycling receptacles prominently positioned. The mercado central was spic and span. The men of the town earn about 5000 Bs (about $750) and have good amounts of time off. The women have local businesses. The mining company clearly helped with town planning, they have paved the road to the town, have installed high-tension electric towers to power it, bus the men to and from work. And for those who live too far away, they offer a camp where the men can live while they work (either in two or three week shifts, with a week or two off in between) that is equally clean, well organized, and comfortable. And all this transformation began only five years ago. What a difference humane treatment and a decent salary makes! Unfortunately, however, the hill that they mine for zinc and lead is defaced. I don't know if they have any post-mining restoration in mind -- that hill was in shocking contrast to the rest of the landscape that we saw, which seemed perfectly pristine. It is a Japanese company that is doing all this, though they go by a local name, Compania Minera San Cristobal. On the whole, this brief stop was an interesting lesson in development economics.
Anyway, by contrast, Sucre is most civilized!!! ...especially now that I know my way around town and the mercado, so I can avoid all together the unpleasant bits, like roads clogged with bus exhaust and the meat vendors. Today, this city is having its general strike (like Potosi -- same reasons), so it is lovely and quiet. It is not quite like the "Dia pietonal," the day of pedestrians, when no cars were allowed in town. That day had an other-worldly carnival quality to it (well-groomed dogs out for a walk off leash playing with each other, children with balloons and lollipops, bike riders all over, couples pushing strollers...). It is very nice, but not quite like that today. After all, it is a strike.