Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sucre: City of marching bands and lawyers

Sucre is the constitutional capitol of Bolivia and some say it's prettiest city. It has some great colonial buildings and street after street of lawyer offices! I don't know if it's just really easy to become a lawyer here or if all the lawyers go to Sucre but they're there if need be.
We also witnessed no less than 7 different marching bands playing throughout the streets in the 3 days we were there. I think this might have something to do with carnival coming up. They mostly all played the same tune but one had a whole bunch of young guys with huge bells on their boots jigging in time up the street to their band. Very fun to watch.
We didn't do to much here other than walk around, although the sidewalks were pretty narrow and when school and work was let out it wasn't to pleasant. We also found this restaurant we went to two times (that usually doesn't happen!) that was old saloon themed. There are tours you can do from Sucre like walks to see dinosaur footprints, which unfortunately will be gone soon due to a concrete company that will come in and destroy them. Like you can get that back again! ugh. Or you can go rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking or horseback riding. We chose to do nothing as to save some money for other trips but we did find a free!! museum that had a great display of masks used in Bolivia. We also checked out the cemetery which had some huge mausoleums and many wall drawer graves. A whole wall of them was all kids with toy decorations in their little cubby hole. Pretty sad.
We stayed here a day longer than planned just to have a relaxing day and do online researching and blogging and whatnot.

cemetary with wall of graves

Potosi: A Morning in the Mine

Nick and I decided to go to Potosi instead of straight to Sucre with Lauren and Marianna just to see it.
Many people go there to do the mine tours, which is what Potosi is famous for. It was founded in 1546 as a mining town and for 4 hundred years the people of Potosi have been blasting their way throught Cerro Rico, the mountian next to the city, which has been providing them at first with a looot of silver, and after the 1800s (when the silver ran out), they now export zinc and tin. As the silver diminished so did the wealth of the town and the size of the mountain as it gets blasted every day by over 10,000 miners. Back in the day when the Spanish learned of the silver they used indiginous people of the region to get in there and get it out. It's hard and dangerous work and they died by the thousands.
Then they brought in slaves from Africa to compensate for the loss of indigenous labor. It's estimated that over 8 million 'workers' died in the mines.
Nowadays the mines are owned by the government and a cooperative has been set up so that men can work in the mines and pay some tax to the government on their extractions.
The city itself is one of the highest in the world at 13,420 feet with windy, narrow streets which I found very charming. We were only going to stay one night and leave for sucre the next day since there were buses out pretty much all the time. I wanted to go to the national mint museum and just walk around, I had no desire to do the mine tour (but Nick did) because it sounded dangerous, claustrophobic inducing and maybe a bit exploitative. We were walking around the centro looking for a good map when we wandered into The Real Deal tours. I asked the guy for a map and he gave us a small one and asked what we were up to. Then he started to talk about the only way to know Potosi is to visit the mines. What we hadn't realized was that we had walked into the only mine tour operation that was totally run by ex-miners. They had all worked in the mines from a young age (13!!) and then worked for big tour companies before breaking free and starting their own.
The way he explained it diminished my fears a bit and let me get talked into doing a tour the next morning!

We met at the office at 8:30am and waited for the 4 other people that would be on the tour with us. Our guide would be the guy we talked to last night, named Efraim, who was full of energy. He had learned English by talking with tourists but had never formally studied it. One day as he was working in the mine a tour was coming through and the owner of it heard him talking with one of the tourists and asked him if he wanted to leave the mine and be a tour guide. Which he did, for 11 years with this big company, but he left to start this one after the promises that the big company would build a pharmacy or hospital for the miners never came to fruition. He didnt' like that they didn't give back to the miners. So now they have this company and we were happy to support it. They have a 13 year old boy  working at the office that they saw at the mine. They told him they would employ him to help make money for his family so he wouldn't have to work in the mine, so he works for them in the am and goes to school in the pm now.
First we went to the miners market where we bought gifts for the miners, such as juice, coca leaves and dynamite. Armed with a stick of dynamite in Nick's backpack and some leaves in mine we went to get our galoshes, pants, shirt and helmet with flashlight on it that we needed to enter the mine. Then we made a quick stop at the processing plant where they extracted the minerals from the 'garbage'. It was very primative looking and prob full of toxic stuff. We gave some of our coca leaves as gifts to some of the guys there. Arriving at the entrance of the mine I started to get a little nervous, going into the depths of a mountain. There were many guys milling about getting ready to start their day in the mine. We went to one of entrances and waited while guys pushed carts on tracks full of bags of rocks out of the darkness. Then we entered. The ground was very wet and we had to step to the side for carts to come through or miners to pass by as they ran to their part of the mine.
This is a fully operational mine and really no place for ogling tourists, and really this would NEVER happen in the US or England, but here we a mine. We learned that the miners have a short life, usually getting silicosis because of what they're inhaling in the mine. Average lifespan is around 45 for someone working all their life down there. It's also against the law to have young boys working there but it happens and no one regulates it. They usually have to start working to help support the big families that they tend to be part of,
could be like 7 kids plus parents. Efrain was the first to admit that if they had smaller families the money would be more and the kids wouldn't have to work in the mines so young. Lets hope it catches on...
We went deeper into the mine and had to duck at some points. I hit my head pretty hard on a beam, thanking the fact I had a helmet on but still..ow!!
Different groups of miners have their own section in the mine. A group could be anywhere from 5 to 20 miners and they decided when and how long they will work that day. We visited a couple different groups but the most memorable was when they invited us to go see the mineral vein they were working on and we had to
climb throught a hole using a rope to lower ourselves down. gulp. It turned out to be not as bad as I thought but I went first so as to get it over with and not let myself think about it waiting for others. The space wasn't tight when we got down there so it was ok. The guy showed us some rocks from the mineral vein and then climbed up the wall and started pounding a hole with a long medal rod and a mallet to make a hole for dynamite. It would take him 4 hours to pound this hole and blast time is 6pm every day so it had to be done by then. Nick and I gave this group the coca leaves, juice and dynamite as gifts. We also visited El Tio, the god of the mine. He owns the rocks in it so the miners have made statues of him and give him cigarettes and  alcohol and coca leaves as thanks for what they are taking. They also give thanks to the earth mother, Pacha Mama, dropping coca leaves on the ground and drops of alchohol. At this point we had to drink two shots of 96% alcohol, one for El Tio, and one for Patcha Mama. It buuuuurned!!  We visited one more mining group before heading out into the liiight! The entrance to the mine was totally abandoned at this point since all the guys were inside. We dropped off our stuff back at another guides house and went out to lunch with Efrain and talked more about mine life. It's a tough job, dangerous for the workers and pollutes the river (processing plant) and it all gets exported out of the country.
Such is the way of the world.
I'm really glad we did the tour and glad we did it with the this company. I dont think I'll forget that experience any time soon!
If interested, a documentary was made on it called The Devil's Miner.

At the entrance with one of the guides, Wilson


Efraim with El Tio and the 96% alcohol

Part of the processing plant

inside the mine

a miner spider man style on the wall chiseling a hole for dynamite

Southwest Circuit tour with Solar de Uyuni. Tupiza to Uyuni.

We decided to do our tour of the salt flats and beyond from Tupiza to Uyuni. It seems more people just go to Uyuni and do a three day 4x4 tour and end back in Uyuni but we did a four day 4x4 tour starting in Tupiza and ending in Uyuni. We chose this because we heard Tupiza was a nicer town (I needed to acclimatize to the altitude before doing anything, took me about two days to not feel headachy but I was always out of breath. Figured it would be nicer to hang around Tupiza) and we heard the tour companies were more reputable out of here. After reading online about drivers drinking during the tour and jeeps flipping we thought we'd spend the extra money with a better company. We chose Tupiza Tours and were very happy with our decision. Our driver, Abner picked us up at our hotel and we loaded up the Toyota Land Cruiser with all our stuff plus food, water and fuel for our four day trip. A cook named Nasaria also came along to make us delicious meals, as well as Lauren and Tim. So four of us plus the driver and cook hangin out for four days in the Bolivian wilds.
Day one we drove on a very high up dirt road very close to a drop down into a valley with some wonderful sites. Saw alloooottt of llamas and most had these colorful tassels on their ears which made them look like they were wearing pretty earrings. During all that driving around we were (thankfully) able to plug in Lauren's Ipod and listen to that, or else it was Abners cumbia music which can really only be listened to for an hour max before wanting to jump out the car door. That night we stayed at a refugio in a small village. It was a building with a bigger room for tables and eating and bedrooms, the bathroom was accessible from the outside. We had a snack of tea and hot chocolate, cookies, crackers and jam and went into our room which had four beds with five blankets on each bed. An hour later dinner was ready and it was really good and very filling. We had to wake up at four the next morning which was not nice but we had 9 hours of driving to do to get to the next refugio.
The second day was hard for me, I hadn't slept well that night and had been up since two am so all I wanted to do was sleep in the car. This day we visited lagoons that were all supposed to be spectacular colors like blue and pink and yellow..but since it was overcast they all just kinda looked grey :( The first place we stopped at was a 'ghost town', the ruins of a town that was once very prosperous and now is just crumbling rock buildings. It was eerie since we got there at 5am and it was still dark but with a hint of light. Apparently the people there became so rich they went crazy, or so says Abner. Around the lagoons of many colors that were all grey we saw many flamingos which is funny because you think of them in tropical places not in cold lagoons in Bolivia. It's sad though, they come here to nest and with all the tourists always about they're having more trouble nesting but they prob need the tourists to keep the area protected. At these lagoons is also where they extract borax which is used in cleaning stuff and other things. We had to pay to get into the national park and they also were charging 3 Bolivianos to go to the bathroom, which nick ignored and he got scolded. course we had been having to pee outside for most of the trip in the bano natural so we weren't used to having to pay! We also went to some hot springs today which we got to go into for 20 mins before lunch. They were very. very. nice. At the end of this day we went to see the famous red lagoon but since the sun wasn't out it wasn't so nice so we didnt' get out.
Next day was a 7am start and we were off to see some cool rock formations made from volcanic rock. There are a bunch of volcanoes in the area which had erupted at some point and formed rocks of all shapes and sizes. One is called the Arbol de Piedra (the stone tree) which everyone photographs. We drove through the Dali Desert (named after the painter because of the colors) and another desert which was covered in snow, where we took many pics. Early afternoon we arrived in Uyuni where we would be staying the night. We visited a train cemetery which had been turned into a park almost, there were swings and a see-saw... something that would never happen in the states! This was also a great place to take pictures. That night before dinner we watched No Reservations Peru to get ourselves ready for even though we won't be there for a bit yet.
Next day was up at 4am to get onto the salt flats for sunrise. The solar de Uyuni is the biggest salt flat in the world. It used to be a big ancient lake that then evaporated leaving the salt, filled up again with another ancient lake and evaporated again leaving us with what it is now, a huge area of white that looks like you could be on a frozen lake but it's really salt. It's, of course, used for salt harvesting and there are hotels made of salt for tourists. One of which is on the salt flat itself which apparently is bad because of the sewage. We made it there for sunrise along with many other vehicles full of tourists coming to see it. Everything was fine and tranquil until 2 jeeps pulled up, one with Israeli girls and one with Israeli boys, who proceeded to scream and shout and yell and jump around like little kids in a bounce house. So our tranquil sunrise turned into everyone else trying to enjoy it and the Israeli group jumping around like they were the only ones there. Really nice of them. Anyway, we had breakfast inside the salt hotel. Our table was made of salt, chairs, the floor. Breakfast was really good with pancakes and hot chocolate, then we made our way out more into the flat to take cool pictures using the flats unique no horizon look to make the funny pics.  After two hours of that we went back to the hostel, had lunch and said goodbye to Abner and Nasaria. Met up with Marianna (another returned pcv) and stayed the night in a very economical with a great shower hotel and took a bus to Potosi the next morning. The trip in total was great, I only wish I hadn't been so tired the 2nd day.

ghost town

the path

llama faces

snowy desert

bear rock

train graveyard

Watch out! Tim Giant!

driving out of salt flats

Friday, February 10, 2012

Tupiza ina pod. Horseback ridin in the 'wild west'

We ended up switching from a hostel outside of town to Hotel Mitru in the center. It's 50 Bolivianos (about $7) per person, we got a 3 person room to include Tim our traveling buddy who was meeting up with us. They have a tour company affiliated with them that we had heard was very reputable and the next day (after resting my very unhappy stomach) we booked our tour for the SouthWest cuircuit including the solar de Uyuni (salt flats). We also booked a horseback ride at the same time and got a bit of a discount! The tour was 1,200 ($174) Bolivianos for four days three nights everything included except price of national park enterance and bathroom fees and horsies were 150 ($22) Bolivianos for a five hour excusion.
Next day Nick and I got up and ready to ride. A representitive picked us up from the hotel and we walked 20 mins outside of the centro to where the horses were. I was assigned a horse named Tabacco who liked to be in the front and Nick's was named Pinta who liked to follow and her colt that tagged along named Pinto (all the other horses kept trying to bite him if he got in front of them, poor little guy!)
We headed out of town and rode through what was deffinatly the wild west with canyons and red rock formations. It was really pretty and the nice thing about horseback riding is you dont have to watch the ground all the time and can enjoy the view. Our tour guide was a teenage boy who didn't tell us anything about where we were and just kept making coyote noises and howling jingle bells. Thankfully we had teamed up with another group whose guide sometimes would say the names of where we were.
This area is also known for the final days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They were found hiding out near here and supposedly died or killed themselves in a shootout after they did their last bank robbery. Interesting to think about since the scene is so westerny. Was beautiful.
We rode off into the sunset and straight to the hotel pool...

out west

Lookin for the old saloon

The horses waiting around not even tied up

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Crossing the Border: La Quiaca, Argentina to Villazon, Bolivia

 I was particularly nervous of this border crossing because I had heard many horror stories about crossing into Bolivia. I heard from other Peace Corps volunteers that crossing from Paraguay to Bolivia was particularly tricky, and that I needed to show them 9 different documents from my yellow fever vaccine to a paper saying I have no criminal record in Paraguay. That was actually a big reason why we didn't go right into Bolivia from Paraguay! This border crossing at Quiaca, I heard, could take 6 hours to get through. Was not looking forward to that.
We had a short (for us) 7 hour ride from Salta to Quiaca that left at 12:30am and arrived at 7:30am. Since it was an overnight ride we thought everything would be ok but it was not. The cellphone of the guy across from us kept ringing and no one was waking up but us! Then the people behind me (after kicking my seat many times) woke up at 6 and decided that since they were up, it was ok to talk at high conversation volume. Also, cell phone guy kept his curtain open and the streetlights kept blinding me so I had to wrap my hoodie around my face. I keep thinking about those little eye covers you get on a plane that I left in my dresser in Paraguay.

We get off the bus, hit the bathroom then take a taxi for 7 pesos to the border. It was chilly compared to when we left salta and I felt the difference in altitude right away.
We got in line to stamp out of Argentina thinking we may be at this for awhile but the crossing went really well! We actually had the most wait time getting out of Argentina. There was only one person at the window and she had decided to close the window and disappear for 40 mins out of the hour we were waiting. Got stamped out without a prob, walked across a little bridge and we were in Bolivia! Only took half an hour to get in as well and that was with me buying a visa! I told this guard on the bridge that I was from the States and he took me right into the office and gave me this big white paper to fill out. I'm sure they were happy for me to show up since I was about to give them $135 USD but they were quite nice. I just had to hand over the money and a copy of my passport and that's that. They explained that I had the visa for 5 years and I can only be in Bolivia for 90 days out of each year and only enter 3x per year. When Nick and I were walking out another guard came over to me and explained again that I could only enter 3x per year and had 90 days in country. They reaally wanted to get that point across to me.
We exchanged some money, there are lots of places to, and headed for the terminal and right away jumped on a mini bus to Tupiza for 15 Bolivianos which is like, $2.20 for an hour and 15 min ride.

So far I like Bolivia! I was a little nervous going in because of the border crossing and just thinking about what the border crossing was like going from Argentina to Paraguay but Villazon wasn't bad and Tupiza has it's charm. I love that you can see Bolivian women wearing traditional garb still, something Paraguay doesn't have. They have swishy skirts and high socks, colorful blankets, a bowler cap and usually two braids, it's very quaint. And of course it's great to be back to these prices, still have a budget you know!

The bridge between Argentina and Bolivia

View of mountains surrounding Tupiza
Me walking across the bridge from our hostel into the center of Tupiza with all my stupid, big, heavy bags