Bye bye Bolivia-Day 340 (23,920 miles)

The random pic below shows wool being spun by hand.  We’ve seen this often on the streets in Peru and Bolivia, it’s mainly done by ladies but we have seen the odd modern man having a go as well!  Often this activity is done while walking, talking, herding sheep and children as well.

We had arrived at the city of Potosi which is one of the highest cities in the world at 4090 metres. It has a pretty enough centre but the main reason to stop here is the area’s mining history.

It was established by the Spanish in 1546 and for several centuries slave labour made up of local Quechua and Aymara people mined more silver than anywhere else in the world.  Now, silver is a small percentage of what is mined but with lead, copper and zinc plus quite recently discovered lithium this is still the only real industry supporting the town.  Currently approximately half the population are involved in the mining industry but is is estimated that in 30 years or so there will not be much left to extract.

Whether to visit one of the working mines is a subject that splits opinion amongst visitors we have met for 2 reasons 1.  Is it fair on the miners, do they benefit from the tours? 2. Safety, some of the articles and reports on-line claim the miners drink 96 percent alcohol all day, dynamite is used while tourists are in the mine, and it is generally a flippin dangerous activity!

Anyhow, we did it.  We chose a tour guide who was an ex-miner and asked him a lot of questions before signing up.  I was a bit worried about any particularly tight squeezes or crawling but nothing they said was particularly worrying.  We also wanted to be sure that the miners where happy for tourists to visit.

Our first stop was at the miners market where you can buy coca leaves, dynamite, cigarettes, 96 percent alcohol, soft drinks and work gloves.  Not your average mini market!  Our guide suggested we take some gifts for the miners but not alcohol or cigarettes, in the mine we visited the alcohol is only drunk on Friday afternoons and the miners are not encouraged to smoke as this can make them more prone to lung disease and the nature of their work increases this risk anyway!

Before entering the mine we visited the refinery plant, as the ore mined contains multiple metals it is broken down and kind of washed over and over to get rid of the unwanted rock content.  It is a noisy place with multiple machines pounding and sifting.  There didn’t seem to be much in the way of safety guards and there were many trip hazards.  I was finding it hard to put aside the HSE type standards we expect at home.

A  sample containing some tiny weeny bits of silver and copper.

The ore is only partly refined here.  This thick mud is as far as it gets in Bolivia, this is loaded into containers and shipped to other parts of the world for further processing.

View of Potosi from Cerro Rico the mountain where all the mines are located.

It certainly is still a very manual process, the ore is loaded into bags by hand, then loaded into wheel barrows and pushed out by the miners.  There is no automation to help this part of the process.

Watch that hole.

We did climb up this very rickety ladder and squeeze through an small opening, still, we didn’t have to carry sacks of rock up and down as the miners do.

We had heard stories from others about tourists being allowed to ignite dynamite!  Maybe it’s true but here we watched a miner drilling the hole for the explosives and we were advised to move on after a couple of minutes as it got really dusty.  Any explosions are carried out during the late afternoon when the tours have finished.

The miners pay their respects to the devil, called Teo in the Quechua language.  The miners believe that as the mines are underground they must be controlled by the Devil and making daily offerings of coca, alcohol and cigarettes to help them prosper.   At the same time offerings are given to Pachamama the Inca earth mother to protect the health of the miners and their families.  We got to taste the 96 percent alcohol, mmm, I prefer a nice gin and tonic personally.

According to our guide who was himself a miner for 15 years the conditions, health and miner’s welfare has improved in the last few years.  The mines are now run as co-operatives and many miners have cut the length of their working day to 6 hours to reduce their exposure to cyanide and asbestos that are present in the mine.  They have 6 monthly health checks including chest  X-rays to monitor their health.  The change to co-operatives allows the miners to earn approximately 3 times the average Bolivian wage, this means more miners are encouraging their children into further education as they are not needed to contribute to supporting the family household.

It doesn’t take away from the fact it is a hard industry but these changes will hopefully improve the average life expectancy which was only 45 a few years ago.

We passed through some colourful rocky scenery to get to Uyuni, home of the very famous salt flats.

So, the salt flats are well, salty.  Although driving across the flats and getting those pics of us and Juanita would be great and sleeping under the stars there would be amazing it’s not what we did.  We want to bring Juanita home and hopefully travel in her for a few more years.  She deserves better than to have salt and salty water in all her little crevices.  Some people say it’s fine, you get the underside of your van sprayed with diesel and then washed afterwards.  We weren’t happy with this, you also hear from some that as water is in short supply (Uyuni is in the desert)the places that wash vehicles recycle salt water!  So we don’t have those photos but we had a fun day out on the salt in someone else’s 4×4.

The graveyard of old trains previously used to ship salt out of Uyuni.

Salar de Uyuni, approximately 11,000 sq kms, the largest salt flats in the world.

Sun glasses and sunscreen were definitely required.

The Dakar passed through here in 2015.

There had to be a couple of silly shots!

Quite stunning.

We have seen such a lot of cactus on this trip but this is the first time we have seen the wood used to make things.

Furry forecourt attendant.

We decided to spend our last few days travelling the Laguna route between Bolivia and Chile.  It is all dirt road and some travellers we had met had said Juanita didn’t have enough clearance and we shouldn’t attempt it.  Anyway more people who’s judgement seemed sound said we would probably be OK if we took it slow.

Our first night’s camping spot.

The same stream the next morning, a little icy.  The temperature gauge inside the van read -8.5c!

Laguna Colorado, borax makes some areas white and algae makes some areas red. Continue reading “Bye bye Bolivia-Day 340 (23,920 miles)”

Ruta Che, Spanish school and socialising – Day 331 (23,483 miles)

Our plan had been to spend less than 30 days in Bolivia, we reckoned on travelling around 1500 km to cover what we wanted to see so considered this to be plenty of time.  But if you can’t change your plans when travelling like this when can you?  So we headed an additional 400km east to the small town of Samaipata to meet other travellers at a Horizons Unlimited get together.

Nice views to begin with.

Ruta 7 had been badly damaged during the 2015/16 rainy season and is still being repaired, this plus fast detoriating weather conditions extended our 7 hour journey to 11 hours.

Not much of a view.

Then they closed the road for 2 hours.?

Still, it was worth the journey.  Back in 2011 we met our friend John RTW at a Horizons Unlimited meeting in Chiang Mai and had some good times travelling with him in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.  John has continued to travel since then, so glad we managed to catch up with him on this continent.

A great bunch of travellers to swap stories and information with, some like us were travelling through and a few had made South America their home for now.  Pete standing to my right comes from Surrey, that old small world thing!

Drone photography, good fun although it freaked the dogs!

After 4 days of fun, food and drinking we headed off with John to Sucre which was back on our originally planned route.  The route we took from Samaipata to Sucre took us through some beautiful countryside and is known as the Ruta del Che as Che Guevara spent the final months of his life and was subsequently killed in this area.

We made a stop at Vallegrande, Che’s body was rather strangely laid out in the above laundry room at the hospital to prove to the world’s press that he was dead.  Officially you can only visit on a guided tour which we didn’t have time for, the building is still part of the town’s general hospital and not sign posted at all.  We ran around the hospital until we found the building and managed to get some workmen to let us in for a quick look around!

We spent the night on a great little campsite at La Higuera which was the site of the old telegraph station where the telegram advising the authorities that Che had been captured and executed was sent from.

The old school house where he was executed and which is now a museum.

We had caught up with Pete and Franzie who were also travelling to Sucre.  There where some nice photo opportunities in this amazing landscape.

Juanita in the town square at Villa Serrano, Pete, Franzie and John were able to get their bikes into the hotel courtyard and had rooms inside.  The very accommodating staff allowed us to park outside and use the shower and loo for a nominal amount.  It seems like whatever night of the week there is often some kind of parade around the town square in Bolivia, luckily the accompanying brass band didn’t play too late into the night.

Fab pic taken by John RTW, he spotted this lady through a small door as he drove by and she was happy to be photographed.

When discussing Bolivia with other travellers the subject of fuel is one of the big topics. Anyone driving a vehicle that doesn’t have a Bolivia registration plate should officially be charged approximately 8 bolivianos per litre for petrol, as opposed to the rate of 3 bolivianos for local vehicles. In order to sell you fuel the staff have to record a ridiculous amount of information including your name, passport number, address in Bolivia, details of the vehicle, blah, blah, blah. This can result in a variety of scenarios:- They follow the rules and sell to you at the tourist rate and record the information OR will sell “sin factura” (without a receipt) for anything between 3 and 7 bolivianos per litre straight into your tank OR will only sell to you if the fuel goes from the pump into a can then into the vehicle (as shown above) which allows them to bypass the frustrating information logging!  Needless to say getting fuel can take quite a while and be a bit of a lottery.

Sucre is a small, pretty and friendly city that we intended to visit for 4 days and ended up staying for 13 days! John, Pete and Franzie were all basing themselves there for several weeks, some of the other travellers who we had met at the HU meeting were also passing through plus we stayed on a great little campsite and met other nice people, there was just too much good socialising to be had!

In addition John wanted to get to the bottom of Juanita’s juddery acceleration that had been going on for a while.  Previously he had cleaned the injectors, idle control valve and changed the throttle position sensor but not sorted it.  So now it was time to change the spark plugs, all six of them, 3 of which meant quite a lot of bits (my technical term) had to come out of the engine bay.

The spark plugs looked in pretty bad condition so we thought changing them would do the trick.  Unfortunately until John put it all back together there was no way of knowing.  It turned out not to be the fix we had hoped and a local mechanic suggested John should have changed the spark plug leads as well so it all had to come out again!  Anyhow that did the trick, Juanita is now running perfectly and John having now had so much of the contents of the engine bay out (twice) feels he knows how she works pretty well.

This is Christina and Torsten our great neighbours and fellow campers.  Torsten is a mechanic with many years experience and was John’s sounding board when working through Juanita’s issue.  Like John, Torsten could not rest until their van was in perfect working order.  Christina and I had both perfected the facial expression that suggests we are as interested and concerned as they are about that tiny little noise that we really couldn’t even hear!

We also fitted in 20 hours of Spanish language classes. I would like to say it has really improved our conversational skills but it wasn’t enough!  When we just used nouns linked together with a bit of miming we seemed to do OK.  Now we are trying to use the gender appropriate articles and adjectives it seems soooo much harder.?

A nice relaxing afternoon spent with Franzie and Pete at the Mirador overlooking the town.

Our change of plans had meant we had to extend both our personal visas and temporary import for Juanita, thankfully both were pretty quick and easy to do.  We left Sucre having met and spent time with some great people and could quite happily have stayed a while longer.  But, we needed to get back on the road and continue through Bolivia otherwise we really are going to be getting to Patagonia in the middle of winter???.

??Lake Titicaca and into Bolivia – Day 309 (23,076 miles)

Our last day in Peru we meandered through the pretty countryside close to the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Compared to tales from some other travellers we have been lucky up til now as the border crossing into Bolivia was the first time we’ve been asked for “unofficial” payments.  While being stamped out of Peru the official asked for a $20 payment, after us repeating “por que” a couple of times he said it was a “voluntario” payment, we chose not to pay!  On the Bolivian side of the border a policeman asked for $5 for a Peaje (road toll) unfortunately for him his sidekick couldn’t keep a straight face and it was obviously a scam.  So again we chose not to pay, especially as we had to open the barrier ourselves!

Quinoa in it’s raw state, a very pretty crop.

We spent the night in Copacabana the first tourist spot in Bolivia.  Obviously not the same place favoured by Barry Manilow, there were ladies in traditional dress but no show girls.

We took a slow, rather long and boring boat ride to the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, the weather on the island didn’t live up to it’s name hence the washed out skies in the pics.

Our photo was taken by Sandy a traveller from Hong Kong who we spent the day with but forgot to get a photo of. ☹️

The usual thing to do on the island is to be dropped at the north end and walk along the ridge for about 4 hours then pick up a boat in the south to head back.  A couple of weeks before we arrived there had been a dispute between villages in the north and south regions to do with damage to some Inca ruins and the north is closed to tourists for now.  Bit of a shame and must be a blow to the islanders involved in the tourist industry.

John showing an unusual interest in some tourist toot.

So much prettier with blue skies.

Our next boat trip on the lake included Juanita as it’s necessary to cross the water to join the road to La Paz.

La Paz, a city that has an interesting centre to walk around although at 3640 metres it’s the highest capital city in the world so the pace was pretty slow.

You’re never too young to work a fruit and veg stall.

Equador, Peru and Boliva all have 100’s of different types of potato.  These brown and white stone like objects are potatoes that have been dried for up to 2 years and are then rehydrated to use is soups or cooked and served with a spicy sauce.  Bolivian equivalent of Smash! Continue reading “??Lake Titicaca and into Bolivia – Day 309 (23,076 miles)”