Cusco

Cusco’s central plaza

After two long days and nights of bus journeying coming from Sucre, Bolivia, we found ourselves bleary-eyed and half awake at 4am at the bus station in Cusco, Peru. We quickly gave up any illusions of money-saving independence and asked one of the many touts in the bus station what he had available for cheap hotels. We knew we’d be paying a commission, and at that point didn’t care; we needed a room badly. After bitter negotiations with a taxi driver who acted like we were stealing his last cent by talking him down to a previously suggested price, the man drove us less than two minutes to our hotel, where I begrudgingly paid him his still-inflated fee and we finally got some sleep. Sounds fun, right? It is, kind of…

Central Plaza again

Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire and today is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Peru. Part of the attraction is that it’s the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, but Cusco stands up as a wonderful place to visit on its own. It’s packed with history from a whole series of cultures, most notably the Incas and the colonial Spanish, both of whom considered it a very important city and whose architectural styles combined to make a very interesting place. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s Cusco was already a large and prosperous city, and the conquering Spaniards proceeded to demolish much of it and rebuild in their own style. The Inca were amazing architects and stone-workers, though, so many of the existing walls were left in place and reused as bases and foundations for the new buildings. Many have survived repeated earthquakes over the centuries and remain to this day, and it’s pretty cool to see such giant rocks fitted so precisely together, all somehow done without modern machinery.

this kind of incredible stonework is everywhere

Girls take out their llamas to pose for tourists pictures to make a little money; we were happy to oblige

Cusco’s historic center is downright beautiful, filled with stunning architecture and serene plazas. It’s so pretty it almost seems cliché, and is the kind of place you can wander randomly for days and still chance upon a little fountain or square you didn’t know existed. There’s tons of shopping for artisan goods, some of it at decent prices, good restaurants for all tastes and budgets, and a variety of neighborhoods that range from glitzy to bohemian to sketchy. It is very touristy some areas and there are plenty of dottering oldies that would make an REI salesman drool, but it’s a fairly large town and never felt overrun to us. With so many tourists it’s no surprise that Cusco is more expensive than most other towns we visited in Peru (other than Lima), but it wasn’t too bad and we liked it a lot. The hotel we ended up at was about $20 US per night with free breakfast, and came complete with the ugliest mostly hairless dog we’ve ever seen. It had a few tufts of hair in random places and we thought it had some kind of disease, but someone later told us this is a prized Peruvian breed and to never speak badly of them to a local. We were a twenty minute walk outside the center of town which was a little annoying sometimes, but right next to a local market where meals were cheap and Denae finally found the nice wool cowboy hat she’d been looking searching so long for.

Cusco is a pretty place

­We spent our time wandering through town checking out all the great architecture, sampling the food options and doing some shopping. Probably the most interesting food we ate was a simple boiled ear of corn, but this wasn’t the typical sweet corn you get where we’re from in the US. Here the kernels are giant, almost fingertip sized, and have an almost potato-like taste and texture. One ear of corn is a true meal, and it helped me better understand the way corn was such a cornerstone of the indigenous diet throughout the Americas. There are some interesting museums in town and we went to most of them, thanks to the “Tourist Ticket” that Cusco sells. This rather annoying system forces tourists to buy one ticket (pretty expensive at about $45 US each) good for a bunch of different attractions in Cusco and the surrounding area. To get the value out of it you really need to visit most of the places, which turned out okay for us as they were mostly worthwhile, but I still prefer to be able to pick and choose individually what I want to pay to see.

The giant-kerneled corn

Some kind of meeting was going on

One of the highlights of Cusco is Sacsayhuaman (pronounced similarly to and near-universally remembered as “sexy woman”), an old Incan walled fortress on a hill overlooking town. The walls are made using the Inca’s characteristic architectural style: rocks shaped and fitted together with incredible precision, stacked together without mortar in such a way that they’ve endured for hundreds of years. The largest blocks are estimated to weigh up to a mind-boggling 200 tons each. The history here and throughout Cusco is a big part of what makes it such an incredible place. You can really see and feel the presence of the old cultures in a way that’s more obvious than most other places.

Giant stone blocks

Cusco was designed in the shape of a Puma, Sacsayhuaman was the teeth

more Sacsayhuaman

Arguably the best part of visiting Cusco is the ability to use it as a base and bus around the surrounding area, checking out the many attractions nearby. We took full advantage of this, but in the interest of organization we’ll post these day trips separately.

Oh no, the hippies have reached the Andean Highlands! Nowhere is safe!

Sucre

Sucre, The White City

It was such a relief to be out of Potosi. On this trip we pre-booked all of our flights so every day trapped behind roadblocks in southern Bolivia was eating away from our time in Peru. We only had enough time to spend one night in Sucre and although it was out of the way to get back to La Paz any movement felt like progress.

Good food in the central market.

Sucre is a wealthy feeling city with European architectural touches and lots of white washed churches scattered throughout. It was originally built as a retreat for the wealthy who had connections to the Potosi mine but wanted warmer weather and more orderly streets. It was the lowest elevation we had been at in weeks and we enjoyed the warmer weather. The whole place had a very tranquil feel to it.

All sorts of blended juices, they even have alfalfa juice.

We passed our time walking the streets and enjoying the parks. One of the larger parks, Parque Bolivar, had replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Arc du Triomphe adding to the European flair. Most of our meals we ate in the large market in the heart of town. Multiple little restaurants were packed side by side into a large room where women would wave us over to sit and eat. The set meals were inexpensive and tasty and we ordered them with peanut soup. For an after meal treat we would either have tumbo juice (a fruit similar to passion fruit) or jello topped with whipped egg whites dotted with ice flecks and sweetened with sugar. Sucre was quickly growing on us. We made the decision right then that if we can, we will return to study Spanish at one of the many cheap language schools and spend some time exploring the smaller towns in the area.

Parque Bolivar

On our second day we went to the bus station to try and sort out a ticket to get us somewhere closer to Peru. Surprisingly we were able to talk the sales girls into giving us a refund on our ticket for the bus from Potosi that never made it to La Paz and use it towards a bus from Sucre to La Paz. We had to wait until six that evening before getting word that the bus was okay to leave later that night. There were a few other Potosi refugees with us on the bus and we all looked at each other hoping that this might finally be the one to get us farther north.

Church steeples poking out above the roof tops.

That night we got two flat tires, each one making our Bolivian bus mates more nervous. We had made it out of Sucre and past Potosi but the more time we spent on the road the less likely we were to make it into La Paz before their roadblocks went up. We lost two and a half hours to the tire changes and despite everyone’s skepticism we made it into La Paz without any further trouble. We bought tickets to Peru immediately before anything else could go wrong.

Our amazing hotel, the Hotel San Francisco, had a great roof top hang out.

Potosi

I am rich Potosi.  Treasure of the world.  The king of all mountains, and the envy of all kings.” –from the Potosi coat of arms

Potosi steet, with the Cerro Rico looming in the background

Potosi was one of those places that, upon visiting and learning about it for the first time, made me feel more than a little ignorant for not having known about it before.  Honestly before reading our Bolivia guidebook I don’t think I’d ever heard or read the city’s name, which is crazy- it’s flat out one of the most historically important places in the Americas.

Back during the Spanish conquest of the new world, treasure was the Spaniards’ primary goal and Potosi was where they found the majority of it.  This isolated, windswept, airless (elevation 13,420 ft) place, by some quirk of geology, sits under the shadow of a large hill that in colonial times was so rich in silver that it was popularly believed to be made entirely of the precious metal.  This one hill, called the Cerro Rico or Rich Hill, funded an empire for centuries and dramatically changed the course of history.  Along the way Potosi became fabulously wealthy and grew to a population of 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time.

Potosi

By some accounts, over the course of three centuries 137 million pounds of silver were mined from the Cerro Rico, much of it carried by llamas and mules to the coast for transport to Europe via the Spanish Main.  This vast wealth was a big part of the economic rise of Spain, and Europe as a whole.

It should come as no surprise that working conditions for the miners doing all the heavy lifting were pretty bad, but just how bad they were is pretty shocking.  Because of the general dangers of working underground and especially the toxic chemicals involved in the mining process, workers had an average of one year life expectancy in the mines.  Indigenous laborers were used up by the hundreds of thousands, and eventually African slaves were imported to die in the mines under unbelievably hellish conditions.  Estimates vary wildly, but one expert wrote that 8 million African and indigenous slaves died in the mines under Spanish rule.

Obviously there was a lot of money floating around Potosi back in the day, and it was used to build hundreds of over the top mansions and more grand churches and cathedrals than you can shake a stick at.  The official Spanish mint was located here.  Potosi was a wealthy, important city, but by 1800 the silver had mostly run out and so began the inevitable decline.

Today Potosi is anything but a rich place.  It’s still a mining town, but the thousands of miners now are their own bosses, working in self-owned cooperatives.  Unfortunately there aren’t a lot valuable minerals left and no one is getting wealthy by first world standards, although today’s high commodity prices are helping things out and the miners can make a pretty good living.  The hellish and primitive conditions sadly remain, and the decent money gained from a life of hard labor in the mines is offset by a good chance of being killed in an accident or a painful death from lung disease.

in the market, with one of the many churches in the background

Tourism is a big part of the economy in Potosi now, and there are many tour agencies that will take you on a tour of the mines.  This is not the safest thing in the world.  You have to remember in countries like Bolivia that there are often no regulatory agencies keeping an eye on things, and you just never really know whats going to happen.  You do your research and choose carefully, but you’re placing a lot of faith in a random guide and a lot of it comes down to luck.  Tromping around unregulated, unreinforced mine shafts hacked out by random guys, in an environment filled with chemicals and dynamite and toxic dusts is just inherently not the smartest thing in the world to do.  But it is a hell of an opportunity to see something unique and we weren’t going to miss it.

We did some research and decided on an outfit called Real Deal Tours, which we eventually figured out had been renamed Big Deal Tours after a business dispute.  It’s run by some ex-miners who used to work for a rival tour agency, but got fed up with poor treatment and started their own company.  Big Deal turned out to be a good choice, and was a decent price at about $13 us.  Our guide, Efraim, spoke good English and was a charismatic guy who seemed to be a personal friend to everybody we saw that day.  He was cracking jokes nonstop, and was actually pretty informative too.

Dynamite for sale, cheap. Anyone with the cash is welcome to buy as much as he wants

Before going to the mines themselves we stopped at a kind of miner’s supply store, which was packed with various tools, helmets and clothing, lights, and all kinds of other stuff.  You could buy a stick of dynamite, a fuse and detonator for less than $2 US, completely unregulated.  Efraim, already throwing around jokes about potential terrorism, threw a stick of dynamite at us.  Apparently it’s totally stable without a detonator…

Next we all bought giant bags of coca leaves for next to nothing, and had a snack of saltenas (a tasty meat pie) for about .15 cents each.  Bolivia is cheap!  We also picked up some bottles of juice to give to the miners.  It’s a smart tradition they have going, the tourists give gifts of coca and juice and whatnot to the miners, who are then always happy to see tourists, who would otherwise just be a huge annoyance I imagine.  Efraim also purchased some of the miner’s preferred hooch, a nearly 100% (200 proof) alcohol that sold for a pittance.

Efraim on the left, and the coca vendor in the middle

We checked out a refinery where they used machinery and chemicals to separate whatever minerals they could from the rubble hauled out of the mines.  It was a pretty nasty, dangerous place, filled with enough hazards to give an OSHA inspector a lifetime of horrible nightmares.  We found ourselves inching past roaring machines that would take off your head or hand in an instant, then send you falling down a story or two into a vat of noxious chemicals.  We had bandanas wrapped tightly around our faces against the chemical smell, which had a rather cancerous bouquet

Finally we found ourselves at the mine entrance, one of hundreds entering into the Cerro Rico, at all different elevations.  Supposedly the hill is so riddled with excavations that there is a real chance that some time in the future the entire hill will just implode like a collapsing volcano.  I tried not to think about that as we hunched over and walked into the darkness.  We were wearing thin protective outer clothes supplied by our tour company, along with rubber boots, helmets and headlamps.  As we walked deeper underground we found ourselves sloshing through shin-deep water, as temperatures rose and ceilings dropped.  I was stooped and claustrophobic; Efraim was in his element, babbling about how much he loved the mines and how at home he felt with the proud, hard working, vulgar miners.

inside the mine

The miners are a hardy bunch, putting in long hours of incredibly hard physical labor, and passing the time telling each other the nastiest dirty jokes you can imagine.  Every time we met one we’d hive him a big handful of coca leaves, which they chew endlessly for energy.  These are some course dudes, and Denae won their undying love by learning some dirty words in Quechua and randomly spouting them off.  The miners would cheer and tell her to wait while the found their friends and have her say it again.  They told me my plumbing must be broken because we didn’t have any kids.

There were crazy minerals in all different colors everywhere, and at one point I reached up to feel some feathery white crystals growing out of the tunnel ceiling.  “What is this,” I asked Efraim, “Salt?”  I was feeling the soft mineral between my fingers, where it turned to powder.  “No that’s arsenic,” he said.  “Wash your hands after the tour.”

men at work

Just walking through the mines was hard work, and deep inside the heat was pretty intense.  At one point Denae looked at me and asked if I was OK, and I realized that in fact I wasn’t feeling so great.  I pulled out our water bottle and effortlessly drank an entire liter of water.

Almost passing out by just doing their commute made me appreciate the work the miners do, shoveling tons of ore into carts and pushing them by hand outside where the ore can be transported to refineries.  We helped push a cart up some slight uphill sections and that is some hard labor.  Next up, we crawled through a particularly tight tunnel to find our way to Tio.

Tio

Tio (Spanish for Uncle) is the Devil, but he’s a semi-benevolent combination Christian/indigenous god to the miners, who say that Tio lives underground and therefore owns the minerals they seek.   Each mine contains a statue of Tio, and the one we visited was a scary looking life size Devil, complete with a giant erect penis.  Efraim poured a couple shots of the overproof booze on the ground, one for Tio and one for Pachamama, and forced us to take a shot of the nasty eye-watering liquid out of respect.  He put a lit cigarette in Tio’s mouth (this was a lot like San Simon in Guatemala) and told us about growing up in a mining family, and in the mines.  He said miners don’t drink Cafe con Leche, because milk is for babies.  And he used to wonder why his father chewed coca like a llama, but after entering the mines and finding the camaraderie and traditions he understood.

None too soon the tour was over and we found ourselves squinting in the sunlight, relieved to be out and trying to clear our flehmy throats after breathing in so much nasty dust and who knows what else.  Anyone who wants to learn to appreciate his crummy job more would do well to take a Bolivian mine tour, and he’ll be employee of the month in no time.

Outside the refinery, looking down at Potosi

We headed back to our $17/night hotel, which was expensive for us but the only cheap accommodation we’d been able to track down was downright dungeon-like and sketchy, so we’d ponied up for the decent place.  The bathroom still smelled strongly of sulfur, and after visiting the chemical filled refinery we decided to buy bottled water rather than treating the tap water with our Steripen like we usually do.

Exploring Potosi was fun.  There are something like 80 colonial era churches scattered around, and the picturesque streets are lined with grand old faded mansions and lots of cool architecture, always with the Cerro Rico looming in the distance.  The town square was pretty and every night had a bunch of things going on, from protesting miners to horrible high school marching bands who managed to be both off-tempo and off-key at the same time, although it didn’t seem to bother the large and enthusiastic crowds of onlookers.  People were out in droves every night despite the freezing high altitude temperatures.  There were plenty of fireworks around also, and we watched one guy shoot off a hand-held roman candle type thing and hit a pigeon sitting on the church facade.  Good fun!

faded grandeur

We did feel like the center of town was a little under-served by reasonably priced restaurants, but we located a nice tea lady in the market for our daily coca teas.  We also visited the Casa de Moneda (house of money) museum, which is a grand old building taking up an entire city block.  Built in 1757, this was the Spanish Mint for many years, and the original hardwood coin-presses that were turned by teams of mules were very cool to see.

After a couple days in town we were ready to move on, so we caught a cab to the bus station.  Unfortunately when we got there we found out the miners were striking and had blockaded all the roads leading out from Potosi.  This is a common thing in Bolivia, where striking seems to be almost a national pastime and blocking transit a good way of getting attention.  Resigned to another night in town, we headed back in and found a hotel with cable.  We spent the evening watching a marathon of Criminal Minds and chewing our leftover coca leaves, like llamas.

The next day we tried to get to a nearby hot spring but the transit strike made it impossible.  Denae wanted a wool True Grit hat like some of the local ladies wore, so we spent a lot of time trolling markets looking for one, but only found bowler style hats.  The ladies would encourage Denae to try them hoping to make a sale, but couldn’t hold back the laughter when they saw how ridiculous the gringa looked in the local attire.  Things just weren’t going our way, but then we stumbled upon a chicha stand selling the drink out of large dried hollow gourds.  The locals were amazed and happy to see gringos drinking chicha, and even though it wasn’t as good as in Peru we felt cheered up.

Back at the hostel we sat in the lobby using wifi and listened to other travelers trying to figure out how to get out of town.  I googled Potosi transit strike and read about a group of tourists getting stuck in town for two weeks (!) the year before by a similar strike.  We had some time constraints with a flight coming up and were feeling pretty discouraged.  Finally word came that there was a bus leaving that night for La Paz, that would definitely be able to pass through the strike.

So that night we were back in the bus station, arriving an hour early to be safe.  Finally the 9pm departure time arrived and we boarded the bus, and proceeded to… wait….  for an hour and a half, during which time half the Bolivians gave up and left.  Finally though we headed out, but only drove for ten minutes before we came to a huge traffic jam ending at the roadblock.  Everyone got out of the bus and walked around, trying to pass the time.  Later an earnest group of Bolivians came by, recruiting people to go and try to talk some sense into the miners.  If enough people asked nicely, surely they would let us by?  Nothing seemed to come of it though, and after a while everyone was back on the bus, trying to sleep and waiting it out.

Suddenly a young woman burst into the bus, shouting in Spanish “there’s just no reasoning with them, it’s no use!”  She looked around and said “Oh, I’m on the wrong flota” and scurried out.  At one point we heard the luggage compartment beneath the bus open and a man climbed in and closed the door behind him.  Worried about theft, someone went below to check what was going on and the man yelled at him, telling him to go away and let him sleep.  It was a weird, surreal night that passed slowly.

Later one of the other tourists on our bus burst in and said he’d been at the roadblock and a bus had busted through!  Apparently the driver just got fed up and gunned it straight at the protesters, who’d had to get out of the way and then thrown things at the bus as it sped away.  Potentially dangerous stuff.

Finally around 3am we turned around in defeat and headed back to the bus station.  We got in a taxi to head back to town, but on the way I thought to ask the driver if there were any collectivos or anything that were leaving for Sucre that night, a possibility we’d heard about earlier.  He said there were, and even though we were tired and discouraged we decided to give it a try.  The driver dropped us off a the right place, and we got lucky and were the last two people to fill a waiting minivan, and a few minutes later were on our way out of town on some kind of back route.   Three hours later we were in Sucre, searching for a hostel to finally get some damn sleep as the sun came up.

Uyuni

The Uyuni clock tower.

Leave behind your troubles in Uyuni.

We were told that the overnight bus ride to Uyuni was a cold one but I didn’t understand just how cold it gets in the Bolivian highlands when the sun goes down until we made it through the night. The evening started off fine enough with us both wearing multiple socks, down jackets, hats, raincoats, sleep sacks, and using anything else we could use to drape over us as blankets. We even managed to catch a few hours of sleep before waking up to the bus swaying back and forth, pitching our bodies in every direction as it slowly pushed forward on the rough road to Uyuni. Once awake there was no going back to sleep, the cold had seeped into my bones causing the sort of pain in my toes that made me wonder how easy it was to get frost bite and whether it was slowly happening to me as I slept. No amount of huddling together could keep us warm. As we reached our destination and the bus doors opened we grabbed our virtually weightless bags as quickly as possible from under the bus. We were wearing everything that used to be in them.

Mounds of salt drying on the Salar de Uyuni.

The land blurs with the sky.

In the pitch black morning we had no idea where we were or where to even begin looking for a hotel. Thankfully we could see a lit up hotel sign a handful of blocks away. We rang the bell until a disgruntled teenager came to let us in and showed us to a basic room. Standing in the freezing cold didn’t put us in a good position to negotiate a cheap price so we paid a little more than we wanted to. Which made me really annoyed when we pulled back the sheets to discover fresh looking stains. Another minute of CSI work later I decided that the room had been used and not cleaned before we showed up, and ignoring Andy’s pleas to just deal with it, I marched down to the office and asked for a new room. After what felt like ages we were finally set up in a cleaner room with plenty of heavy wool blankets. We piled them high on top of us and fell asleep immediately to the muffled sounds of the movie Bluestreak coming from the T.V. It took a few more hours before the feeling returned to our extremities.

How we ate our lunches on the trip.

Playing with perspective.

Uyuni is a small town 12,139 feet in elevation with not much going on but one huge tourist draw; the nearby salt flat. We decided to do a three day Land Cruiser tour starting with the salt flat and working our way close to the Chilean border through Bolivian national parks. It was easy to book a tour through one of the many tour agencies and after declining to sell the woman the down jacket and vest off of our backs we were on our way with tickets to leave the following morning. She made us promise to bring more down clothing if we ever come back.

Deserted town where we spent the first night.

Having fun climbing up rocks.

That evening we found our way into a tiny tea shop run by an older woman. We sat on a bench covered with a wool blanket and drank mate de coca as she told us stories of how the town had changed over the years and described traders using llamas to carry 50 lbs of salt bricks to other towns. When another customer came and sat with us she told him, almost proudly, “These two white people speak Spanish. Can you believe it?!” We are far from fluent Spanish speakers but that didn’t stop this woman from being impressed. As the sun set the bitter cold returned and we holed up in a chicken roaster restaurant to stay warm. The food was amazing and the place was full. All of the other diners were glued to the television set watching a show called El Chavo del Ocho, a Three Stooges like comedy from the eighties that involves a lot of adult actors playing children. Not really my type of show, but I guess it is hugely popular and we saw it playing in a few different places throughout Bolivia.

The rocks made all kinds of crazy formations.

In the morning we brought our backpacks to the travel agent to store during our trip and picked up our loaner sleeping bags that Andy had talked the woman into giving us. There is no reliable agency in Uyuni right now for the salt flat tours and it is completely up to fate what kind of guide you get, there are bad ones and good ones. We already have really low expectations when it comes to travel agencies in other countries and were prepared for the worst case scenario. We got lucky this time with a competent young guide named Emitario. Our first stop of the day was the Train Cemetery just outside of town. Just a pile of old rusted trains abandoned by the mining companies, it wasn’t really much to see. We walked around for the obligatory half an hour along with the other tourists from the line of Land Cruisers parked side by side. Although we were in a group of six people and one guide, we found that all of the groups follow the same exact schedule for visiting the sites and all stay in the same guest houses. We were worried at first that the amount of people would detract from the scenery, but as the day went on the vehicles spread out a little bit allowing for less people to crowd the sights.

Reflection on still water.

The scenery was incredible.

We were excited to move on and finally see the Salar de Uyuni, the worlds largest salt flat covering an area of 4,086 square miles. Before we could see it though, we had to take another half an hour break at a little town consisting of a line of stalls selling cheap woolen goods and handicrafts made of salt. I was starting to feel a little irritable after watching a mob of tourists with digital SLR cameras pointing them in a little boy’s face like National Geographic photographers stalking a rare animal. He played on an old truck for a while acting more shy as the camera lenses multiplied. When he put out his hand for a few coins no one offered up anything and shortly after that we were herded back into the Land Cruisers to move on to the next stop.

Lots of sky.

The salt flat was incredible. We saw people raking the salt into pyramids so the water would drain to the bottom leaving the top part dry and ready to use. The reflections of the sky off of the water made for some beautiful views and we drove straight across the wide open space to a building made of salt bricks. The flat being so perfectly white and big makes a great background for creating optical illusions and we entertained ourselves for quite a while taking photos while Emitario made us all lunch. A couple hours passed quickly on the salt flat and pretty soon we were back in Uyuni for a pit stop. Andy and I opted for a snack of blended beer, raw eggs, and sugar to pass the time before heading out farther away from civilization. That night we slept in dorm beds and ate dinner in a long dining hall with each group separated to different tables. It was another cold night and the town was deserted except for a few stray llamas.

Arbol de piedra.

The second day of the tour we started to see some different and equally beautiful scenery. There was a lot of red rock, reminding me of Zion National Park in Utah, and we had a blast scrambling up and down the cool rock formations. When we got back to the car we started to get the feeling that our tour companions were kind of duds. The four other people were sitting next to the vehicle looking bored and unimpressed waiting for us. We didn’t care, we couldn’t get enough of the beautiful landscape.

Laguna Colorada flamingos in flight.

Up close view of the flamingos.

Not much farther on we saw our first flamingos of the trip, hundreds of pink birds dotting the still lagoons. The most impressive lagoon was the last one we saw that day; the Laguna Colorada. The lake sits at 14,035 feet and looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. It is completely red, made that way by the red algae that grows there, and has white borax islands that add to its other worldliness.

Fueling up the Land Cruiser on our second night.

The altitude made it hard to sleep that night. I frequently woke up out of breath with a feeling that I was suffocating. Everyone in our group slept fitfully until morning when we left before the sunrise for our first stop of the day; some geysers. In the cold morning the geysers let off so much steam it was like walking through a thick fog. Looking around I had a moment where I realized that I was in a remote corner of a remote country taking in some amazing feats of mother nature. One girl from another car managed to step into some kind of steam vent and burn her foot. I guess it turned out to be only a minor injury but it certainly made us realize just how much a person’s safety is in their own hands when they travel. There are no park rangers telling tourist to stand behind a rope or stay on a path out there.

Early morning geyser viewing.

Bolivian hot springs.

The same volcanic activity that created the geysers also made a nice big hot spring where we took our breakfast break. While the rest of our crew huddled in the freezing cold, Andy and I ran for the hot water where we spent a good half an hour soaking. The rest of the day was spent driving back to Uyuni, but with stops in places like the Salvador Dali desert it wasn’t a typical boring car ride. On the way we managed to see flamingos, a fox, wild ostriches, vicunas, and plenty of llamas roaming the wide open spaces. The trip was amazing and we are so glad that we took three days to see the area rather than the one day salt flat only tour.

The Salvador Dali desert where huge boulders are set in the sand like objects from a Dali painting.

Arriving back to Uyuni we were surprised to see some actual activity in the normally deserted streets. There was a fairly large market going on and I couldn’t resist doing a little shopping. Determined not to suffer through another cold bus ride I managed to find some wool tights with alpacas circling the ankles and thick furry leg warmers. We also snagged some coca leaves and accompanying black goo as well as a bus ticket onto Potosi the next morning.


Mountain biking down The World’s Most Dangerous Road

Getting ready to go

Only an hour or so out of La Paz lies the beginning of one of the most popular adventure tourism opportunities in Bolivia: mountain biking down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.”  The road was given this dubious title by a development organisation in the 90’s, after an estimated average of 200-300 travelers had died transiting the road every year for decades.

Yipes! Keep those wheels on the road. Photo borrowed from Wikipedia

What could possibly make a road so deadly for vehicle traffic?  Well, it’s barely a road at all, consisting mostly of one narrow gravel and dirt lane (with occasional wider spots) hacked out of a cliffside, with a vertical wall on one side and nothing but empty space on the other.  Much of the time hundreds of feet of empty space, and no there are definitely no guardrails protecting that crumbly outside edge.  Cars and trucks used to topple off the road alarmingly frequently, hence the Death Road moniker.

Nowadays there is a much safer modern alternative road connecting La Paz with the Amazonian lowlands, so the Death Road sees little vehicle traffic or accidents.  Vehicles have now largely been replaced by hordes of tourists on mountain bikes, guided and outfitted by dozens of “adventure tourism” companies from La Paz.  It has become very popular in the last several years and is big business, with tourists shelling out big money (over $100 usd for the pricier outfits) by Bolivian standards for the privilege of risking their lives.

Nice scenery, but better to keep your eyes on the road

What’s the draw?  Well, there’s the chance to brag about your exploits afterwards, assuming your survival of course.  All the companies knowingly give out “I survived the Death Road” tee shirts to participants.  But more than that is the fact that it’s a truly incredible ride.  You start at over 15,000 feet in elevation and zip down 20 or so miles of paved downhill, going as fast as you dare.  Then most companies put you in the van for an uphill stretch, and drop you off at the beginning of the actual one lane Death Road.  From there you keep descending, coasting down and down in elevation through different climactic zones, going from frigid mountain cold to steamy jungle heat, eventually ending up at a little town at around 3600 feet in elevation.  That’s almost 12,000 vertical feet -well over two miles- of elevation lost over the course of about 40 miles of biking.  With only a few flat and uphill sections you barely even have to peddle the whole way.

Hell’s un-motorized Angels

Even with barely any vehicle traffic to worry about, there’s still no denying the danger of the bike ride.  Since the mid-90’s when the first people started making the trip somewhere around 20 tourists have gone off the edge and died.  An unknowable amount of injuries, both serious and minor, have occurred.  But really it’s completely non-technical and not out of the question for enthusiastic and able bodied beginners; it’s really just a long downhill gravel road, and if you ignore the omnipresent threat of death a few feet to your left it’s really not too big a deal.  When you think about it that last sentence also describes a normal road ride with traffic zipping around you, and most people don’t worry too much about that either.

Big cliffs

The only thing that made me really nervous about the trip was watching Denae gain confidence and start to really haul ass, as is her nature.  Unfortunately she hit a rock wrong at some point and went over the handlebars, crashing pretty hard on the road, thankfully in non cliffy section.  She was a trooper though, and after a short ride in the van to recover she was back on the bike and at least slightly more cautious, although she could barely walk for the next few days from all the bruises.

Be prepared to get dirty

Also probably easing the fear factor for us was the unfortunate weather, with clouds and fog and drizzling rain obscuring the more terrifying views.  We still had a blast though, and got ourselves some nice tee shirts.  The trip rivaled the time we mountain biked down from the world’s highest motorable pass in India…

Made it

Note: we went with a company called B-sides, who had a nice office and gave a quality presentation, representing themselves as a nearly top shelf company.  We paid extra to go with them, and were pretty disappointed.  The bikes were junky (Denae’s back brake went out at one point; not cool and potentially deadly in the wrong moment here), safety equipment was beyond well used, and the guides were nice young guys but very cursory in their safety talks and attention to detail. If we were to do it again we’d either pay up and go with the gold standard- Gravity Tours- or not fool around with all this “safety” and use a cheapo.  Midrange didn’t seem to work out for us.

La Paz

La Paz city center, with buildings clinging to the hillside in the background

I’ve always been intrigued by Bolivia, that landlocked country way up in the Andes.  It’s one of the poorest and most undeveloped countries in the world and has a very heavy indigenous presence, ingredients that usually combine to make for an interesting place to visit in my experience.  Lately the country’s politics have gone extremely left, and the socialist president Evo Morales has been busy nationalizing, reforming, and generally taunting the United States in any way he can.  How could anyone not want to see what things were like in such a place?

evening light

Other than a night in the border town of Copacabana, La Paz was our first stop in Bolivia.  At an elevation of about 12,000ft it’s one of the highest capital cities in the world (technically it’s not the capital but the “seat of government”), and is apparently known as something of a suicide mission for breathless visiting lowland soccer teams.

Open air markets

La Paz has to be one of the most dramatic looking cities anywhere.  It sits in a steep-sided valley with houses and buildings climbing up the sides, and is surrounded by snow capped mountains.  It’s a picturesque mixture of high-rises and dilapidation, with an incoherent layout and impossible traffic.  It’s filled with informal outdoor markets, crowds of people and noise and chaos everywhere, but somehow never felt overwhelming.  There are giant protests and blockades all the time that bring the city to a standstill, and while we were there protesting miners threw small sticks of dynamite at the police.  But all in all it was a fairly friendly place, and seemed surprisingly safe.  We loved it.

Plaza San Francisco

We found an $8 room in a cheap hostel right in the center of town, and proceeded to walk all over the place for a few days, exploring and eating and dodging the impatient old ladies in bowler hats with their sharp elbows.  There’s a famous “witches market” where you can buy dried llama fetuses and other such witchery supplies.  It seemed a bit on the touristy side, but that didn’t stop Denae from buying am amulet from a business savvy pre-teen.  Food was cheap and okay, with most of the street food consisting of hamburgers and fried stuff.  Popcorn was available from street carts everywhere and practically free, so we almost always had a bag of it with us.  Probably the most interesting street food was a drink made by pouring beer over whipped and sugared egg whites.  It foams up heavily and is eaten with a spoon.  It was very popular among people of all ages and coca cola and non-alcoholic beer were other options to pour over the stiff egg whites at some street stands.

Bowler hats and blankets used as backpacks are standard around here

At night things got very lively out in the streets despite the high altitude cold, and the crowds would be out shopping and mingling.  It was a fun atmosphere and we had a great time strolling and eating popcorn, then stopping in for a coca tea somewhere.  While we were in town we also visited the popular Coca Museum, which had some interesting displays and information about this notorious plant that is so important to many cultures here.  We were given a free sample of leaves to chew along with the black goo made from quinoa that the locals use to help unlock the effects of the leaves.  We packed our cheeks full and after twenty minutes or so ended up with numb mouths and a buzz similar to strong caffeine.  I hadn’t known this before but that numbness was part of what made coca (and cocaine) so revolutionary to medicine back in the day; apparently it was the first local anesthetic, which was a pretty big deal.  Before that trips to the dentist involved whiskey for pain management, not novacaine or lidocaine or other synthetic cocaines that are commonly used today.

La Paz

We also made plans for an adventure just an hour outside of town: in the next post, mountain biking down The Worlds Deadliest Road.

Ekeko- a god of fortune and prosperity. People place banknotes and miniature versions of whatever they want on these alters.

Copacabana

Copacabana’s cathedral.

Avoiding the tourist buses, we decided to do the border crossing into Bolivia on our own. We took a bike rickshaw to the bus station, a bus to a town near the border, and an auto rickshaw to the actual border crossing a few miles further past the town of Kasani. We marched into the immigration office prepared to part with the 135 US dollars a piece it costs for an American to get a Bolivian visa. What we weren’t expecting was the imaginary ‘processing fee’ that the man controlling the stamp charged us, or to find forty US dollars some how missing from our stash when we went through our things after we got out of the collectivo in Copacabana. This may have been the only time in our travels that we wished we were part of a tourist group, mainly to avoid the corrupt border crossing officials. The little bit of extra money we could have paid for the direct bus would have saved us the pain of taking four different modes of transportation from Puno to Copacabana and losing money to a few jerks in uniforms who had nothing better to do than figure out how to scam us.

The plaza

Copacabana is a relaxed town with not much going on except for boat tours to the Bolivian islands on Lake Titicaca. There are lots of stalls selling tourist nick-knacks and cheap sweaters and the streets are filled with traveling hippie types trying to sell people baked goods from Tupperware containers and getting temporary jobs touting for tourist restaurants. We’ve found that as a general rule of thumb the dirtier the backpackers are in a town and the more billowing pants they wear, the cheaper the accommodation is. The first hotel we stopped in proved our hypothesis by offering us a room at 30 Bolivianos, or $4.25, without even bargaining. It even came with some Argentinian neighbors who asked us if we had mushrooms and wanted to listen to the Doors on our iPod.

View of Lake Titicaca from town.

We followed our stomachs around town for the afternoon eating bunuelos and api in the market and trying our first silpancho (a fried egg on fried beef on white rice) in a crowded restaurant as traditional pan pipe music videos blasted from the ancient T.V.

Sunset over the lake.

As cute as Copa was, it felt like a town set up only for tourism and Andy and I were anxious to delve deeper into Bolivia. We passed on the island tours, having just visited the Peruvian islands, and bought tickets for a bus leaving the next morning. La Paz is only a few short hours away and the bus ride is one of the most beautiful we’ve taken. We had amazing views of Lake Titicaca as well as the glacier covered Cordillera Real and at one point had to take a boat across the lake while the bus was loaded onto a ferry and brought across the water separately. Soon enough we were passing through the streets of El Alto and looking down on out first glimpse of La Paz.

The bus being loaded onto the ferry.

Crossing Lake Titicaca.