We got to Tupiza in Bolivia without too much of a hassle, and also gained 2 hours in the process - due to time difference. Tupiza is a lovely, small little town with not much to do apart from chilling out and booking tours to the salt flats - Salar de Uyuni. Tupiza is also near the place where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid met their match and were killed. We scoped out the tour agencies, decided on one of them and got ready for the tour in 2 days time. It was a 4 day tour in a 4WD, with uncompromising roads, extremely high altitudes (over 4,500 metres above sea level) but great scenery and culminating on the massive salt plains (12,000 sq km). The advantage of starting the tour from Tupiza as opposed to Uyuni, where 90% of people start their tours was that we see the places at different times from the masses, and save the best for the last... ie the Salt plains.
The tour started in the morning at 8.30am, and we had an American couple - Tim & Ellen in our jeep as well. They are also doing a similar route up Bolivia as us and we have done a bit of travelling with them since. On the first day we went though some great scenery, saw a few craters, lots of llamas and some flamingoes in a lake.
On the second day, we saw more flamingoes, passed by 5 lakes, all in different colours due to different mineral content, had a dip in a hotspring and reached an altitude of 5,000 metres above sea level (that is higher than any mountain in Western Europe and only 200 metres below the top of Mt Kenya). Thankfully we slept at 4,200 metres, otherwise it could have been an uncomfortable night. The third day was quite uneventful, and it just consisted of us getting to the edge of the salt plains for Day 4. We started early on the 4th day - at 4.00am so that we could catch the sunrise at a vantage point, an hour plus drive away.... for some reason, the driver didn´t seem to be in a hurry, and when we got there, we found that we had to walk up this big rock to get the best pictures.... normally it would not have been a problem, but we were at 4,000 metres above sea level, which made the rush up pretty hard. And so we just managed to catch it, but unfortunately, we were about 30 seconds too late for the perfect pictures. We had breakfast after we got down, and then walked on the plains for a bit. The plains are a fantastic sight..... a sea of white as far as you can see in every direction. (p.s. don´t think there is any danger of the world running out of salt) We proceeded on to visit a salt museum, had lunch at got dropped off at Uyuni where we would spend the night.
The next day we made our way to Potosi and met up with Tim & Ellen. Potosi is a mining town, and used to be very rich at one stage when it mined silver, but the silver reserves have since been depleted. Its also reputed to be the highest city in the world - not a bad place to celebrate my 30th birthday, but not a good place to recover from hangovers either. The lack of oxygen at 4,000 metres makes recovery extremely slow and painful. We went out that night as it was my birthday eve, stayed out till 1.00am, had a few drinks too many (well I did anyways) and spent most of my birthday watching TV and getting over my hangover.....
The following day, we went to visit the famous mines. They are still operating, but work is still done with primitive tools, in cold conditions and at an altitude over 4,200m. There are organised tours, with ex-miners as tour guides. The miners are mostly self-employed and work in co-operatives and get paid by how much silver they extract. The tour starts with a visit to the miners market, where tourists are encouraged to buy gifts for the miners. So we bought them cocoa leaves (which helps them to work and not feel hungry during the day as they only eat in the mornings and at night), soft drinks ( to keep up their sugar levels) and dynamite (for obvious reasons)!! Some of the dynamite would be given to the miners, and some would be exploded outside for demonstrative purposes. We first visited a plant where silver is extracted from the rocks, and then went into the mines .
I only managed to get as far as the museum, which is 300 metres into the mines as it is extremely small and dark, and there are lots of noxious chemicals and gases which can make breathing difficult. Aarti only managed a bit further up - the shaft got smaller and you had to pass the miners working which made it even smaller. But we managed to have a feel for how hard it can be for the miners. Most of them work in the mines due to lack of other work, and alot of them only live for 20 years after starting working in the mines due to toxic fumes. This really is a job from hell! After the rest of the group came out from the mines (there were a few others who couldn´t make it either) we were treated to a few dynamite explosions.
Definitely the highlight of the tour. We visited a couple of interesting museums in the afternoon and made our way down to Sucre (only 2,500m) the next day.
Sucre has got to be Bolivia´s most beautiful city and is the symbolic heart of the nation. Its got white washed buildings, sheltered pretty patios and thankfully, strict controls on development. We spent a few days there, visiting a dinosaur park where they uncovered footprints millions of years old, went to a nearby market to stock up on cheap andean merchandise, and generally chilled out.
Next stop was La Paz at 3,600m. For the first couple of days we just walked round town, booked our amazon trip, ate the delicious street food, and booked a couple of other tours. We also visited the very interesting Coco museum.
On Friday, we went to see some pre-Inca ruins near La Paz which were ok - nothing like the ones we saw in Peru. Saturday we took a day trip to get to the top of a dying glacier, Chacaltaya. This involved driving up to the glacier - we got to 5,300m and then there was a half an hour walk up to the top at 5,395m. And thats 200m more than Mt Kenya!!!
On Sunday, I attempted to moutain bike down The World´s Most Dangerous Road - WMDR (According to the World Bank). This is a 44km stretch of a gravel track just 3.2m wide with 600m drops, rock overhangs and waterfalls that spill across and erode the road. An estimated 26 vehicles used to disappear over the edge until a new road was built 18 months ago. However, the old road is still used sometimes by vehicles, but mostly by companies who offer these mountain biking tours down the road.... ohh and 11 riders have also died mountain biking - but they were all avoidable deaths. Aarti was in the support bus.
We started off 22km up the road at La Cumbre at 4,700m. The first 22kms are on tarmac where you can reach dizzying speeds of 70-80Km/h. We were given instructions at the start, got our great mountain bikes (Kona double suspension - worth over $2,500) and we started our trip. The first 5 minutes are abit scary as you try and get used to the high speeds, and get a feel for your bike, but it started to get fun soon after. We made lots of stops so that the group didn´t get too stretched and this continued for half an hour until we got to a series of uphills. I and most of the others apart from 4 guys sat it out and rode on the bus because the weather conditions were not great - it was raining and we were still at over 3,000m which would make it quite difficult. Half way through the uphills, we came across a motorbike crash with a German woman badly hurt (probably due to the wet conditions). We had 2 support busses, and one of them had to take her back to La Paz to a hospital so we were now only down to one support vehicle. We continued on and we soon got to the gravel track and the official start of the WMDR. Now the fun started!! We obviously rode at lower speeds, and again it took us a few minutes to get used to the new surface, and the fact that the road was now much narrower with big drops. However, its definitely not dangerous if you follow instructions and go at a pace you are comfortable with. Saying that, one guy broke his collarbone half way down the track by going too fast at a corner. But the views, when I dared to look up were fantastic, and the experience was great. When we finished the ride (Yes, I survived intact) we had dropped down to 1,100m. We had a late lunch and then made our way back to La Paz up the same road - on bus this time!! It was great to get back intact, and we (yes Aarti also) got a t-shirt saying that we have conquered the WMDR.
Having survived one death wish, we decided to embark upon another one and visit the San Pedro prison the next day. This is a unique prison where there are no guards inside, no curfews and prisoners have to work to pay for their cells. It used to be a normal prison until 16 years ago, when during a big crackdown on drugs, a few drug lords were arrested and were put in a seperate part of the prison. Here, they could build their own flat, and could basically get all the food, amenities that they could afford and were allowed out on weekends. They would have barbeques, champagne parties etc...In time, that got replaced by prisoners who could afford to stay at the rich section, paid their way while the rest got dumped with the population. Eventually the population rebelled, and now the same rules apply to both sections but both sections are kept apart. To get into the richer section will cost you $400 plus rent for your space. There used to be official tours to the prison, but that was stopped 3 years ago as most toursists went to visit the prison in search for cocaine.
However, some of the foreign prisoners have started arranging unofficial tours, and I had to call up one of the prisoners (a South African) to arrange a day and time - was quite surreal talking to a prisoner, trying to arrange to visit the prison. We got to the prison at 11.30, and after abit of difficulty managed to get into the prison. That was the first time we had set foot in the prison, and it felt pretty weird looking at prisoners roaming about, and guards outside!! We were taken to a Portuguese prisoners flat - he seemed like the main organiser of this tour and chatted to him for abit while another prisoner was summoned to give us a tour of the prison. All of this felt extremely surreal. The Portuguese had a big bed, nice mattress, ensuite, a small kitchen with a dining table, a lap top and cable tv with more than 100 channels. We talked about the prison for abit and then another South African came to give us a tour of the prison. Most of these people were in prison for drug trafficking. On the tour, we visited the best place in prison, a 3 floor flat belonging to a Colombian (it was bigger than our flat in London) and it had all the amenities including internet etc..., met a Canadian who was in for carrying a gram of coke, met a guy who had chopped up his sister into 8 pieces (which we only found out later thankfully) and heard lots of crazy stories. The prisoners seemed very pleased to have visitors from the outside and it was a fun 2 hour visit - and we came out intact!!
We chilled out yesterday, and today we are off to the Amazon for a week. That and more in the next post.