Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2

Bolivia 1


Bolivia is a country that really puts one on a high and I am not just talking about the freely available coca. Much of Bolivia (at least the parts I visited) is thousands of metres above sea level with La Paz (the seat of government so de facto capital, although Sucre is the legal capital) at 3,800 metres it leaves you breathless.

Having arrived from sea level in Peru, my first day in La Paz I needed to acclimatise as the altitude left me slightly light headed. Also just walking a gentle incline could wind me, going up the stairs to my hotel room I would have to catch my breath when I arrived. I'm really not that unfit, it really is the altitude and the following day I was much better and each subsequent one the situation improved.

La Paz is not a particularly attractive city, although not ugly. It has lots of interesting markets, at times the whole city seems to be covered in market stalls as they also line the main streets. The market that interested me though was the "Mercado de Hechiceria", the witches market. From the write-up in my guidebook I expected the demonic equivalent of something the size of Petticoat lane market or similar. In actuality it was half a dozen stalls selling herbs, talismans and slightly odder things. The talismans were generally colourful seeds swimming in oil, in a small vile. There were also numerous idols of different indigenous gods, the favourite being Pachamama - Mother Earth. Most of the Bolivians, even if professing to be Catholic, will believe in the power of Pachamama and as a result is an important deity in their lives.

The odder things on sale were stuffed armadillos, ok that is not so odd I hear you say. What about stuffed frogs with glitter for eyes then? Not quite the sort of thing you find in Sainsbury's is it? Then there are the dried llama foetuses. The llama foetuses generally looked like dried miniature llamas, even with fur. Not all of them were so well developed though. Apparently the llama foetuses are used to bless a new house and put in the foundations when it is built. If only I had known when I was doing the work on my house I would have thrown half a dozen in there, or then again maybe not.

In La Paz is the Coca museum. This museum educates about the traditional uses of coca and explains how coca as a leaf and natural stimulant is very far from the cocaine that it can be refined to produce. It is a well presented museum with archaeological and anthropological evidence showing its ancient usage, through the Spanish conquest and up to the nineteenth century when it was refined into cocaine and associated narcotics. Then its present uses and drug prevention. In much of the Andes, coca leaves are chewed by the majority of the rural population with no negative effects. On the contrary, coca is generally seen to be a mild stimulant, energising with a slight sense of euphoria. Peru and Bolivia however are the only countries where it is legal to buy, sell and have. This is despite an eradication program sponsored by the USA. In the latter part of the museums chronology it shows the development of the worlds most recognised and consumed beverage - Coca-Cola. It is unlikely to be a surprise to anyone to hear that this drink originally contained cocaine, which it stopped doing from 1916 onward. However the company still uses coca laves for flavouring (only flavouring so they claim) and just a couple of years ago bought two hundred and forty four tonnes of the stuff from Bolivia and exported it to the US. That is a lot of coca by anyone’s estimates, I am sure that they are pleased that the eradication plan in Andino America is not going too well.

All over La Paz one sees the Chollos, these are the indigenous people particularly the women, wearing traditional clothing. The oddity here is the choice of headwear. Most of them wear bowler hats (not quite Laurel, but definitely Hardy). The strange thing about this is that they have only being doing so comparatively recently, since the thirties but it has become an intrinsic part of their traditional dress. The story of how this came about is, apparently a hat salesman accidentally ended up with a massive shipment of bowler hats and managed to convince the local women that they were the ultimate female fashion accessory and it worked. This guy must have been one of the all time greatest salesmen as he actually changed the way an entire section of society dressed, and this was well before they had television or mass media to convince them. It gives the people an original look and somehow does not seem incongruous with the rest of their traditional dress.

From La Paz I took, what should have been a short bus ride to Tiahuanaku, a pre-Incan archaeological site. Up until 1986 it was thought to have been the centre of a particularly minor civilisation until further investigation actually showed it to have been probably the greatest empire of South America. At its peak it would have stretched across what is now present day Chile, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. It was a civilisation that thrived and survived for more than a thousand years. The remains of the site, the capital of this once great empire, however do not inspire the kind of feeling that this was something of the magnitude it apparently was.

The site is located near Lake Titicaca and there are the remains of a pyramid and three rectangular areas. One was a raised platform with various monoliths and a gate of the sun. Another is a semi-subterranean courtyard with great acoustics a central monolith and a number of faces carved on the inner wall. The third was hardly recognisable from the ground. There are several museums with interesting artefacts from the past civilisation. The nearby village was interesting to walk through and see how the people live, in abject poverty. Apparently the surrounding area is only capable of sustaining a few thousand people even in this state, whereas previously there were hundreds of thousand living in the area with a surplus harvest exported to other parts of the empire. The altitude is nearly four thousand metres and the extremes of temperature make farming very difficult, yet the Tiahuanaku culture developed a system of raised fields that produced incredible yields and somehow were unaffected by the adverse environmental conditions. That was until the culture just disappeared, generally thought to have been caused by an incredibly long period of drought.

The return journey to La Paz was interesting for several reasons, the scenery was incredible with some views of beautiful mountains and also as there was a couple of sociable and knowledgeable local teachers in the bus who explained some of the local history and made good conversation.

In La Paz again I met up with Alex and Becky, friends I have travelled on and off with since we met in Ecuador and we went on to Oruro together for the Carnaval there. The town of Oruro is not an attractive one, yet the Carnaval there is famous across Latin America, although not particularly in other parts of the world.

The origins of the Carnaval in Oruru, in its briefest possible form, are to do with a desperado being saved by an apparition of the virgin, two and a half centuries ago. People from all over Bolivia come to participate in the Corsos (processions). These groups are often related to a university or a business that sponsors them, but unlike in Brazil where this is used as a major promotional tool, here the sponsorship may include just having the name of the company on the drums of the band. During the Carnaval the atmosphere is one of general fun and there are constant water fights and people spraying foam at each other (and obviously tourists are often a favourite target).

When walking around on the Friday (Carnaval proper started Saturday), we decided to buy some water bombs, not the wisest decision it turned out. As soon as the well armed kids and adults saw that we were also armed they unleashed a water assault of water bombs and spray from their high powered water guns. It was a lesson quickly learned, if you go out armed be ready for the consequences. After our brief but complete soaking we went back to the hotel to dry off. It was then the reservation prices I had with the hotel were called into question.

I had written to several hotels in Oruro to get prices for the Carnaval period and this one had been the most competitive. It turns out because they had quoted me the standard rate and not the inflated Carnaval rate when the town is full of foreign and domestic tourists and room rates are about eight times higher than the rest of the year. The owner of the hotel came and got very upset and generally uncooperative. I showed him a copy of the e-mail when he had told me the costs for Carnaval and he tried to make excuses. In the end I decided to speak to the tourist police who sympathised and sent me to the Camara Hotelera (Hotels Chamber), or as we called it, The Chambermaids Union. When there I was chatting with the head of the chamber that was a little bit drunk at the time and covered me in confetti and gave me beer whilst one of his slightly less inebriated underlings spoke to the hotel owner by phone trying to resolve the problem. Several beers and phone calls later the hotel owner was starting to waver in his previously resolute position, particularly when my new friend spoke to him and told him that Oruro needed to give a much more positive image to members of the international community, like me. I left the party there to go back and continue negotiations with the hotel owner. On a side note, in many of the offices, particularly governmental there were parties going on, on the Friday. When I had visited the Mayors office to sort out Press access, almost everyone there was wasted or on the way to it.

I got back to the hotel and the hotel owner was much more amenable and within a short time we had reached an understanding that involved me moving to another room (actually a nicer room, but worse view). This was as they had to have some concession from me, to save face or something like that.

Although on the Friday there were occasional processions of indigenous groups, Saturday was when the big thing was due to happen. Most of what was happening on the Friday was construction of seating. Most of this was done by the businesses in the road there, which constructed the stands in front of their shops and sold the seats. We bought seats that we actually didn't end up using, but they were not expensive and were bought more as insurance, to make sure we had somewhere to sit if necessary.

On the Saturday morning we got up early to watch the Corsos and try and get in where the guy at the mayor’s office had told me there was a Press meeting and then where we would go on together within the processions. There was no such thing, although I am sure in his drunken state at the time he did believe it. Never trust a drunken government official. We managed to get inside the barriers without too much difficulty though and could walk amongst the performers which made photographing them much easier. It also meant they often posed, especially the girls.

The majority of the costumes followed several main themes although there were also some spectacularly different ones. The most common type was what we dubbed the wedding cakes; these are shiny costumes that are tiered like a wedding cake, often with the performer wearing an impressive mask, often of a bearded man with a pipe in his mouth (picture below). Another popular style (although not as common) were the bears. These looking like people in bear costumes although the faces were something else, impossible to describe without seeing. Another less popular style, was the feather headed people, these had huge feather head-dresses, some of them with feathers on the outer ends of bamboo sticks, as a result when the dancer twirled it looked particularly impressive (photo below). There were also groups that poked fun at the lawyers and doctors, others that highlighted health and indigenous concerns. The most famous style however is that with the Archangel Michael and the devils that he beats in a final showdown. This is known as the Diablada and is the most traditional of all the groups. As the performers make their way over the five kilometre course, they dance, gyrate sing, play instruments and generally entertain. As this takes something like five hours to complete the course they have (what we called) their pit crews going along with them. These people feed them, give them drinks, (water, cola, beer or Cuba Libres), give them cigarettes and repair any parts of the costumes that might require it as they are going. It was sometimes odd to see someone walking around with arms loaded with animal skins and feather, then to realise they were there to repair a costume and replace fallen parts.

These dancers / performers are followed by one or several bands, mostly consisting of a lot of horns an assortment of tubas and several big drums. These people would be playing almost continuously over the course for hours, the lung power was impressive, particularly when one considers that Oruro is at 3,700 metres, which doesn't make it any easier. Sometimes the groups would dance and sing whilst accompanied by panpipes, flutes and other instruments as well.

Where we had started from was a plaza, we then walked down against the flow of the Corsos through a normal width street. We then turned on to the main drag a very wide street lined on either side with stands, loaded with many thousands of people. The groups here had much more space and actually looked less impressive to us, compared to when they were in the comparatively narrow street further along. This was because they seemed too spread out there, their dance moves seemed to have been dictated more by the constraints of the narrower streets.

To begin with when we started walking down this main street we were amongst the performers but when they had passed and we were left with a wide open space. There were just a few photographers and cameramen around and we stood out on our own there, with the next group a couple of hundred metres away and the stands twenty metres away to either side. We suddenly heard calls from both sides. “Get the tourists!” Whereupon a hail of water bombs was pelted at us. We had to quickly put our cameras away for fear they would be damaged. Meanwhile we got pelted from both sides. We walked down the middle in order to make it more difficult for them to reach us, but they were generally a good shot, my hat saving me from a lot of soaking but by no means all. Becky faired the worst for some reason, repeatedly being hit in the face by these water filled missiles whilst Alex seemed to get foamed the most. We eventually managed to reach the safe haven of the national television station’s little booth which we used to take a break before heading back in the direction we came from.

We decided to get a coffee at a restaurant we knew, near to our hotel and also on the Carnaval route. This turned out to be the best decision we made as we spent the rest of the day in, or in front of the restaurant, where we could step out into the procession to take photos etc. with the comforts of the restaurant as well, where we could eat, drink and leave our stuff as we watched the goings on. We asked the kids in the immediate area that, when we have our cameras out they not spray us with anything and they were generally very good and actually really nice kids. For the next two days then this became our base and it worked very well. As the restauranteur had taken the part of the barrier away from in front of his establishment we could literally step right out into the procession and at times were asked to join in with it, by the performers. This we sometimes did, for a bit of a laugh mostly a laugh at our coordination and dancing from the spectators. The restaurant was somewhere that the performers would often run in, in full costume to use the facilities. This looked quite odd at times, although it is strange what you get used to, as a man looking like a polar bear runs to the toilet or a woman in a massive feather headdress adjusts her makeup. The processions started early in the morning and finished at about four in the morning the following day. This was then repeated although with the groups in a different order the next day. On the Monday there were several groups still doing their thing although only perhaps only ten percent. There were also groups less formally costumed, that seemed more like impromptu gatherings of people who woke up and decided to do a Corso for the hell of it.

All in all the Carnaval was spectacular and the stamina of the participants incredible. Apparently they rehearse for four months up to the date itself, which explains a lot. Although some of the participants are very elderly and others mere infants, they all seemed to have as much stamina as each other. In one group there was an old man who must have been eighty if he was a day, and he was performing with as much gusto and rhythm as any of his younger colleagues and seemed to be really enjoying himself.

After the festivities of Oruro I headed to the city of Cochabamba, just a few hours away. There is not a massive amount to see in Cochabamba itself, although it is a pleasant enough city, with a reasonably attractive colonial centre. There is a small museum that took me half an hour to see everything in and otherwise not a lot.

The main reason for my going to Cochabamba was to get a bus to Torotoro National Park. The problem with the place is there are only three options to get there. The first is to rent a private vehicle, not cheap. The second is to get a Swiss expat with a Cessna to fly me there and back, only marginally more expensive and probably a lot more fun. Then there is the one I took, to get the bus. The problem with this option is that there are only two buses a week. So, Thursday morning I got up before dawn to get the bus, only to find when I got where it was supposed to be, it had already left. It turned out the information I had been given was erroneous so I was there half an hour late, despite being early for when I thought the bus should have left. This gave me a couple more days of relaxing in Cochabamba, until the Sunday bus.

On the Saturday was Cochabamba’s Carnaval which I went to for a short while but it seemed to be rather uninspiring. The majority of the costumes were of the home made for a school play variety, with the decent ones being from the local teams that were at the Oruro Carnaval last week. The organisation was poorer and it just didn’t do it for me, so I left.

This time I have confirmed the bus departure times, made a reservation and hopefully (as it is tomorrow) all will go well and I will get on the bus and have a good time exploring Torotoro, which I will tell you in the next newsletter.

So, once again, as you may have already worked out, I have decided to send you the newsletter from a country part way through my time there so that it doesn’t get too big. Coming to an inbox near you soon, the rest of my experiences in Bolivia.


Greetings to you all and here is the rest of my report from Bolivia.

As I mentioned at the end of the previous newsletter I was heading off to Torotoro National Park next. This meant getting up at a ridiculous hour of the morning and getting the bus for the 135 kilometre (85 mile) drive to the village of Torotoro. To travel this distance in many countries would take about an hour and a half, possibly two. In this case however it took nine hours and the first 35 kilometres (22 miles) were paved and we flew over that bit in about half an hour. With that in mind we averaged for the rest of the journey about 12 km/h (7.4 mph), which is not a lot faster than walking speed. The reason for this is that the route is at best a dirt trail and at worst just somewhere the bus had to get through. The odd thing is that the route has been and is being improved by the addition of several bridges. It used to be slower! There were consolations though and one of them was the generally beautiful scenery outside the windows. When I finally arrived, I went to stay in the better hotel, run by a charming couple. That evening there was a storm which knocked out the electricity but a few of the locals, the couple running the place (as well as the one other guest) and I, celebrated the end of the Carnival, apparently a tradition in these parts.

The following day I went with Claudio my young guide for a walk to see 65 million year old dinosaur footprints, of several different types, some in a clear track. Then we went to see some natural rock bridges and the Mirador (viewpoint) over the nearby Canyon "El Virgel", before descending into the Canyon, seeing more footprints and the nice waterfalls. When we returned from the days walk I was reasonably satisfied with what we had done, until Sergio and Marisol (the couple running the hotel) asked me whether I had seen a couple of things on the way and when I said I had not, they insisted we find a better guide (they had also found Claudio).

Because of my previous poor luck with Claudio, I had Mario Jaldin guide me for the remaining time I was there. Mario is recommended by all the guide books and is known to be the most knowledgeable man in the area about the things that might be found around Torotoro, a position he protects jealously, not sharing information with the other guides, so at times annoying the population of the village as he has made it a one horse race. The previous day he had not been available due to some domestic strife he was having. Mario, Frederic and I then set off the following day to the Umujalanta cave. Frederic was a strange German with a penchant for camping, but more about that later.

En route to the cave we went past a number of other dinosaur prints and in one place we could see where a young veloceraptor had been running alongside its mother, 65 million years ago. We also came across some dinosaur teeth, one of which clearly showed the venom sack, in the same way venomous snakes today have them. When we reached the cave we were met by a park ranger, German (pronounced Herman), who accompanied us in the cave. The cave was very nice with stalagmites and stalactites. There were also underground rivers, that was were the problem started. In the past days there had been quite a lot of rain and this deluge had flooded parts of the cave so we had to change our route back, ad-libbing a bit and squeezing ourselves through minute apertures. We all survived though and then took the easier walk back to the village and a rest. This was when Fred decided to go camping on top of a nearby hill (looked like a hill from the village, although at about 3,500 metres above sea level it would certainly be classed as a mountain). He left in the afternoon and returned to the hotel about 8.30 that night as he thought it was bit windy. He arrived just in time to get another one of Sergio’s excellent meals – Sergio used to be a professional chef and produced good food every night.

That evening the entire village slept badly due to an invasion of flies and mosquitoes and the following morning everyone was tired due to a lack of sleep. The plan had been to go for a long trek to the ruins of an ancient fortress, but both Fred and I decided we were not in the mood. Also being a bloody fool, he had left his backpack and tent up on the hill, not having felt like taking it down the previous evening. So off he went to get it (an hour and a half’s walk up to it), an hour or so after he left a tropical storm descended. We were not sure what had happened to him as the storm was in force for a few hours and the river that he had to cross (usually jumping across stepping stones) was now in a raging flood. Mario went to look for him and the park rangers were notified and when the storm had abated at midday he finally turned up drenched and miserable, but just in time for a nice lunch by Sergio. The storm changed the plans for the day and later in the afternoon only Mario and I went out looking for fossils. Fred was feeling ill with a cold etc.

The first location we went to, was a stream, where the stones would have been turned over and swept along by the storm that day, as well as bringing more rocks from further in to the highlands. This area was full of fossilised marine life, mostly dating from around the Cretaceous period (400-350 million years ago). These are mostly represented by fossil shells, corals and marine plants. Gastropods, cephalopods, belemnites and many more Latin names being the proper sobriquets. It was nice to find so many good examples of such ancient life but the best was yet to come. As we were walking back to the village I saw something in the bedrock that looked to me like a fossilised bone and said so to Mario. He said he had seen this thing before, but did not think that it was. I cleared the area of some of the dirt, mud and stones and found just a few inches from one end of what I thought was a bone a perfectly preserved and encased vertebrae about ten centimetres (4 inches across). I then started looking more thoroughly throughout the area of the same piece of bedrock (about twenty square metres / yards) and found several more bits that looked like bones. This lends credence to the first one I looked at having been a bone. Then Mario found what looked like a claw about twenty centimetres (eight inches) long and then I found some particularly different footprints. These footprint did not look like dinosaur prints but more mammalian. They looked almost like pig or sheep prints but larger, with a cloven foot as opposed to the three or four toes one sees with dinosaur prints. After all this we were both well pleased with our finds. There is an unmistakeable satisfaction to discovering something that hasn’t been seen for many millions of years.

The following day a mostly recovered Fred, Mario and I went first to the Turtle graveyard, where some turtles were interred about 50 million years ago in mud. The mud being very loose there and the fossilised turtles being fragile there was not a massive amount to see, although a cross section through a turtle shell was nice to see. We then went to another part of the canyon I had visited on my first day and saw some ten thousand year old rock paintings. I think it is fair to say that the artists back then were a bit crap, although they did know how to make a long lasting paint, better than Dulux. We then went back to the Mirador I had been to on my first day with Claudio and saw some of the endemic parrots, red bodies with green/blue wings. From there we headed back toward the village and saw the largest of the dinosaur footprints about 65 cm (2 ft) in diameter. One could then appreciate the immensity of some of these prehistoric beasts as the stride of this quadruped was about two metres and the actual creature was about four or five metres high but probably eighteen metres from snout to tail. A bloody big brute.

The following day I left early to get the arduous bus journey back to Cochabamba. The first part of the journey was not too bad, the a fat, stupid, selfish old woman decided to sit in the most obstructive place possible in the middle at the front of the bus, blocking the passageway. This meant that due to my seat being at the front by the aisle and the fat fool being in the way, people often literally had to climb over me to get down the back of the bus. As the imbecile was old they generally would not climb over her, due to some warped sense of respect. This left me acting like a shoe shiner, with people’s feet and arses clambering all over me. I was far from impressed.

Here are a couple of websites with pictures etc. from Torotoro.

I didn’t do much in Cochabamba this time, just got a night bus to the nations capital, Sucre. Sucre is an attractive city with regulations ensuring that all the buildings in the centre are white washed. This gives the city a pleasant, clean feel, also making views of the city centre pleasant from the nearby viewpoint. The city itself although pleasant was not the most interesting place, however there are a couple of noteworthy attractions nearby. One is the Fanseca cement quarry, an odd attraction you might think, except that at the quarry they found a number of dinosaur prints. Yes more footprints, these included hat is allegedly the longest continuous veloceraptor trail in the world, brontosaurus, anchilosaurus and stegosaurus prints and at one point there is a spot where one can see the prints crossing of a herbivore, over those of the carnosaurus carnivore running to it, then the added pressure on one foot as the carnosaurus attacks and lifts the herbivore and then no more herbivore prints. This has apparently been verified as one of the few existing examples where one can see the exact moment in time (about seventy million years ago) that an attack took place. To get to this quarry and go round one must take the dino-truck. This is a truck painted with dinosaurs that one gets from the city’s main square, embarrassing all aboard. Then one is shown around by a guide, Daniel, who would make an excellent children’s television presenter. He made the whole thing very understandable and digestible.

From Sucre I also went to the Sunday crafts market in Tarabuco. This market is famous as many of the campasinos from the area come to the village to sell their artesania. Although most of the stuff on sale was not necessarily what I wanted or of my taste, a lot of it was very good. It was also a good opportunity to see different ethnic groups in their traditional clothing. Many of them wearing interesting headgear. One group wear hats styled on the conquistadors helmets, odd thing that.

My next stop was to Potosi, supposedly the world’s highest city at over four thousand metres. At this altitude the nights are cold and walking uphill can be a real effort. Not the ideal location for a city one would think. Actually for some time a couple of hundred years ago this was the world’s largest city. All because of the massive wealth of Cerro Rico. This mountain apparently produced enough silver to build a road from Bolivia all the way to Madrid, where the money all went. I don’t know if it was planned to be a single lane or a dual carriageway or whether they planned on having a hard-shoulder, lay-bys and service-stations or what but it is still a lot of silver. The centre of Potosi is pleasant in the colonial style, however the reason for visiting was to go on a tour of the mines.

The mine tour I took was with a pleasant group of people. The tour starts by getting changed into plastic clothing, getting helmets, Wellington boots etc. Then we went to the miners market where all the miners can buy there requisitions. As the miners work in independent co-operatives they need to buy all their own equipment, from Coca and dynamite to hammers and gloves. It is also a good place to get gifts for the miners that we would be seeing, so I bought some sticks of dynamite as I haven’t done so for weeks. Our guide (called Llama Face), a former miner explained all the resources they use, need and want. Next was to see where the material brought out by the miners is processed, to a very limited extent, into the metals in the material separated from the rock and dirt. There is no proper processing facility in Bolivia to refine it any further.

We got to the mine entrance at about 4,350 metres above sea level. There we watched some demonstration detonations of three sticks of dynamite outside, the bang and shock was impressive. Then into the mine, dodging the two tonne mine carts hurtling down the tracks at high speed driven by gravity and a couple of miners. The first part of the mine was cold but it quickly got hot as we went further in. It was also very cramped for the most part, with cables and pipes draping all over the place. Several parts require one going on hands and knees, if not commando crawling to get through to the next part. As the mine is maintained by the miners, there is no expense or time wasted on making the place more comfortable or safer, only the bare minimum is required here. We descended down a total of four levels, via tunnels, sheer drops and what might be loosely referred to as a ladder for the final descent. As I was going down this abstract collection of wood my headlamp battery failed so I had to descend the last part in near darkness, guided only by the little bit of light from someone below looking up. It is a good thing I am not a nervous person. I got a new battery from one of the guides and then was the last to see a miner working at the face. We chatted briefly as he spent time whacking an iron rod with a heavy hammer to make a hole big enough to get the dynamite in. Very few of the groups have drills, this is the most common method of making the holes. He asked me to have a go, I initially declined but he insisted. I squeezed myself into the cramped space and had a few whacks at the rod, turning it each time so it didn’t get stuck. Firstly hitting the rod at such an awkward upward angle in a confined space was difficult, then there was the heat, couple this with a lack of oxygen due to the altitude of the mine and then the depths of the tunnels. After perhaps ten hits I was tired enough, this guy does this for twelve hours a day. The guy works like a dog, has a pathetic life expectancy and can expect between twenty-five and thirty-five Bolivianos a day (between three and five dollars).

As we were in the third level a short while later, taking a break, there was a sudden shock through the air as some dynamite on the level below was detonated. All the group but myself and Dan, an Australian were sat to the side of the tunnel, only feeling a little of the air movement. Dan and I however caught the brunt of it and because Dan was a couple of feet down the tunnel towards the blast from me I got to catch not only the shock wave but also Dan as he was knocked forward into me. This was followed a few seconds later by a second blast, which we were better prepared for. We were all a little unnerved as the danger of cave-ins in these mines is a very real one and one we had been warned about. We then ascended towards the exit, stopping at the mine museum en-route. This is in the mine on the first level and has exhibits and information about mining in Potosi. When we were there, a couple of miners finished for the day joined us, although they had been in the mines since their early teens, about twenty years, they had never previously visited the museum. The most interesting bit was the awe with which they looked at a big drill, although it was rusted, broken and ancient they looked at it as though it were an incredible thing and for them it would have been.

The miners believe that “El Tio” (“The Uncle”) actually the Devil, guards the mine and its contents and so daily make offerings of cigarettes, alcohol or Coca to appease him. They might be right this is certainly a hell. Another interesting footnote is that there are women miners too. It is sometimes odd where one finds equality.

From Potosi I took the night bus to Tupiza a small town not far from the Argentine border. Tupiza itself is not an attractive nor interesting place, however the surrounding area has some extraordinary scenery, some quite odd, so I took a horse ride through it for a day. As it is impossible to describe what I saw I will leave it at the fact that it was very nice and although my rear-end suffered from having been in an Andean saddle all day, it was worth the effort.
Horse ride

The main reason for me having gone to Tupiza however was to take a jeep tour round the area and to the Salar de Uyuni. The majority of people take the trip from either San Pedro de Atacama in Chile or from Uyuni. I was reliably informed that it was worth doing it from Tupiza and they were right. The tour is a day longer and is more of a circuit than the two and from route that one has from the other places. Also the scenery becomes more dramatic as the days go on as opposed to the other ones starting in the Salar, the most dramatic bit and going on from there. The group was made up of myself, Roger (Swiss), Stephan (French), Claire (Irish), Alison, Elizabeth and Tom (Americans). Our guide, driver and cook was Nelson a veteran of the circuit and one of the original pioneers of the tours. An excellent driver, very knowledgeable, good fun with a ready smile and a decent cook.

Once again as so much of the scenery was indescribably lovely I won’t be describing the majority of it, but give you only a very potted version of the tour. We visited various lakes, including the Laguna Verde, a green lake with number of minerals and chemicals making it a vivid turquoise in the afternoons, one of the principal ingredients is arsenic making it particularly toxic. We also saw the Laguna Colorada, a bright red with many thousands of flamingos feeding in it. There were many other lakes of varying colours, although none as dramatically colourful as these two.

As we drove past stunning mountains and volcanoes we often s the local wildlife. This included foxes, llamas, vicunas (similar to llamas), vizcachas (similar to rabbits) and interesting bird-life. The few villages there are in this part of the country are generally for the subsistence farmers there. One small village of about three streets San Pablo de Lipez, was actually the provincial capital. On the way we also saw people who have taken blocks of salt from the Salar and then walk with their donkeys and the salt for two weeks to Tupiza to trade it for Maize.

We went through deserts, plains, through valleys and over mountain passes. We passed one place known as Dali’s stones as the boulders look as though they have been placed and shaped to form a surreal foreground in the desert in front of a mountain. One day we visited the Arbol de Piedra (stone tree) and Ciudad de Piedras (city of stones). This is a strange rock that looks a bit like a giant stone bonsai (I am aware of the oxymoron). We also crossed several small salars (salt flats). On our last night we stayed in the village of San Juan. Just a few hundred metres from the village is an ancient necropolis of egg shaped volcanic rocks about five metres tall hollowed out to form tombs, complete with pottery, clothing and mummies. Some of the mummies are still clothed and have hair. The custodian followed me around the site explaining and pointing things out. I asked him where the rock was from as it did not look local, whereupon he told me that it was brought during the great flood (the one Noah features in) and then the locals just shaped it a bit. I decided to concoct my own story about a giant eagle laying stone eggs. In these eggs were some of the first people of the area, unfortunately not all of them hatched properly. I like my story more. Nelson told me that apparently the rocks were brought from nearby during the last ice age, party pooper.

Our fourth and final day we arrived at the Salar for a beautiful sunrise. This is the worlds largest salt flat and is immense. It was once a massive lake that has now dried with a salt crust over the whole area. At some points the salt is as much as seven metres thick or as little as a few centimetres. It is also the deposit of seventy percent of the world’s lithium. It looks like snow and in the wet bits, it feels like it underfoot too. In the middle of the Salar is the Isla de Pescado (Fish Island), so called because of its shape. This is a rocky outcrop covered in giant cacti, that affords fantastic views across the Salar. As it is totally flat and because of the clear air at altitude, one can see for huge distances in all directions and depth perception is difficult. Apparently inexperienced people have been caught out by this thinking themselves nearer to the shore than they were when they had jeep troubles and so dieing of exposure.

On the Salar there is a salt hotel, entirely built of salt, except the windows and roof. It was closed down by the government though as it was contaminating the area, although we visited just to have a look, you can no longer stay. There were a couple more salt hotels on the shore, and one massive one under construction but without the dramatic location of being on the salt flats they lacked the dramatic feel of the first in my opinion.

We then went to Uyuni and the nearby train cemetery, where is a big collection of old British steam trains that were in service hauling the salt and minerals from the area to the coast for shipping. The majority of them were in service from 1820 – 1980, now that is reliability. After this we had lunch at Nelson’s in-laws place and then the group split up, with only Roger and I returning to Tupiza with the jeep. The group was generally a good one, although Claire the Irish girl should never have come with as she whinged so much and was so ill prepared, walking over mountain passes in flip flops and then changing those for her high-heeled leather boots. Otherwise everyone was good fun and got on well enough. Roger , Stephan and I getting on particularly well.


The drive back to Tupiza was through different scenery again and we were pleased to be back and Nelson was as good a good a driver / guide as could be asked for, he obviously being largely responsible for the outcome of the trip.

I have now come to the end of my journey through Bolivia for the while. It has been very good, for me a country of images, impossible to describe in words. Also a country of strikes and protests although generally peaceful, most days in towns and cities I have seen either a student march, a blockade, a hunger strike or similar. It seems to be an integral part of the existence here.

Tomorrow I should be off to Argentina, to see some of the North, which I did not see when I was last there two years ago. Also to see a good friend I haven’t seen for a couple of years.  



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