Archive for the “Bolivia” Category
Distant mountains surround a tiny shack in the middle of nowhere, marking the international border between Bolivia and Chile. Apparently we’ve arrived at immigration. The officer tells us there is no Customs here, it’s about 60km back across the desert, and we need to go there to hand in our vehicle paperwork. Running low on money, food, water and most importantly gasoline we know this is never going to happen, and tell the guy we’re just going to leave our papers with him.
“No problem”, he says while throwing them on a stack of identical papers.
The amazingly remote border post
To get an exit stamp from Bolivia, we need to each pay 15 Bolivianos (about USD$2), he says. Warren, Sara and Rob have already paid up when I ask for my usual receipt, which is where the trouble starts. The more-or less official-looking receipts, complete with hologram, are stapled to the tourist cards he has just removed from our passports. Unfortunately, he can’t give us a copy because they have to be sent to La Paz.
I’m tired, hungry, covered in dust and not at in the mood for any South American bribery crap and proceed to argue loudly with him for the next ten minutes about how this is an official border crossing and there is no way I would be required to pay money without an official receipt. Furthermore, I add, I watched at the immigration office in Uyuni while ten tourists were stamped out, on their way to cross this exact border. Nobody paid a cent there.
“Yeah, that’s different”. Sure it is.
Chile, complete with road signs!
Rob points out he only paid 12 or 13 Bolivianos, everything he had, and the guard accepted it happily. In my mind, this is always a sure sign of something screwy – the guy is happy to take what he can get. In the end he reluctantly stamps my passport and gives it back, though my tourist card doesn’t get a hologram-equipped sticker.
While waiting for Rob to organize some gear I stew in the Jeep, wondering if that was a really stupid thing to do. He could easily not hand in my customs paperwork, or mess with my tourist card, or …
I think I’m getting a little too big for my boots and taking this arguing thing a little far.
Next time I’ll keep my mouth shut and pay the USD$2.
We move off into Chile and can’t help but take photos of the excellent paved road we’re following for another 45km into San Pedro de Atacama. It’s all downhill and I think the gas gauge on the Jeep actually goes up a little, alleviating all my prior stress. It’s a serious shock to see a road with a great surface, well painted lines, distance signs, corner signs and emergency stopping lanes for trucks. On top of all this the other drivers even use signals to overtake and do so sensibly and safely.
I seriously wonder if I am hallucinating from exhaustion.
Paved road goodness!
We pull over at the customs checkpoint just out of town, are stamped into the country after filling out yet another tourist card, and receive paperwork for our cars based on the registration.
No copies, no money, quick and easy.
Chile is pretty serious about keeping out fruits and vegetables, so we sign a very serious looking legal declaration before a cursory inspection where my honey and popcorn are both confiscated, currently my two favorite food items.
We roll forwards into Chile, a whole new world.
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Posted by Dan in BlogSherpa, Bolivia, Camping, Hot Springs, Road-tripping, tags: Árbol de Piedra, Chiguana, Laguna Colorada, Laguna Hedionda, Laguna Verde, San Juan, Uyuni Salt Flats, Volcán Licancahur
From the minute we drive off the Uyuni Salt Flats we’re on extremely bad gravel roads, sometimes doubting the existence of a road at all. Every few kilometers the surface changes, keeping us on our toes. At various times we encounter deep sand, rock slabs, powder-fine dust, shallow river crossings and the occasional small salt/hard mud flat. It doesn’t take long before Rob is sweating profusely trying to keep the Harley upright and inevitably he drops it in the sand, deep enough to wrench even the Jeep. Even with most of Rob’s gear in the Jeep, the Harley is still too heavy to pick up single-handedly, so Warren and I dash over to lend a hand.
We soon develop a rhythm whereby whichever vehicle is closer jumps out to assist Rob as the Harley topples over time and time again in the deep sand, or else gets beached on the home-made skid plate. Following the most obvious track and trusting the occasional sign we miraculously arrive in the little village of San Juan, a great rest stop. Just twenty minutes out of town the Harley repeatedly loses power, to the point it’s unridable. Over the course of an hour and many false starts we diagnose and tighten a loose battery connector, to get the monster roaring to life once again. Since sunset the road has become unbearably cold and windswept and even after I put on all my thermals and 5 layers my extremities are numb, and I have a bad case of windburn on my arms, face and legs.
Likewise for the others.
We head back into San Juan and get a warm hostel for the night, exhausted and excited at the same time.
Rob and the mighty Harley
The morning is crisp and clear and we leave town in a different direction than yesterday, on the advice of locals. The salt flat of Chiguana is a great relief after the horrible roads and we can move along at 60km/h on even the worst parts. After posing for photos with the heavily armed military guys in Chiguana we take their advice and turn South, quickly realizing we’re on a tiny track that is seldom driven. There can be no doubt, this is a desert, complete with sand dunes, crazy rock formations and extremely little vegetation in the baking hot sun.
Crazy rock formations in the desert
Using my map and compass I’m pretty confident I can navigate us around and feel like the 6000ish meter mountains surrounding us correspond with the map nicely. When we arrive at the sizable village of Copacabaña, confidence in my navigation drops, and not for the first time in Bolivia I have absolutely no idea where we are. Incidentally, I’ve still never seen that village on a map and have no idea where it actually is. Again, our faith goes to the locals, and again we drive through, in and around an enormous desert, this one packed with rock towers and bright red dirt, reminding me of the national parks of Utah. With little confidence I conclude we’re driving on roads that are not on any of my maps, and we’re happy to pass a few Landcruisers packed with tourists going the other direction – a sign we are probably (hopefully) on the right track.
Late in the day we arrive at Laguna Hedionda, packed with pink flamingoes, and hope that a few abandoned rock huts will provide enough protection for camping from the frigid wind whipping around us.
Younger white flamingo
The older ones turn pink from eating shells
The temperature plummets overnight and I’m not surprised to find all my water bottles are frozen solid, as is the washer fluid under the hood of the Jeep. Early in the morning Rob and I get separated from Warren and Sara and after waiting almost an hour I drive back the 10km, and start to get a little nervous about gas. After scraping over a rock, Warren has found oil leaking from the transfer case and is rolling around in the dust trying to figure out what’s going on. A driver from one of the tour companies assures us it’s just the breather venting a little oil because of the seriously cold night, and we move on, keeping a close eye on things.
Our days begin to blur, moving from one flamingo-covered lake to the next, crossing sandy, rocky and then pebble strewn barren deserts, all the while at around 4500m in elevation. Highlights include a stop at the rock tree, the stunning orange & white Laguna Colorada and camping at a hot spring on the side of the road. The nights are now excruciatingly cold and the sun blazes during the day, causing ever increasing sun and windburn. The exhaustion and stress begin to tear at us as we’re all anxious about our quickly depleting drinking water, food and gasoline supplies.
Crazy beautiful mountains
The amigos at the rock tree
Without a doubt this is the kind of adventure I’ve been searching for my entire trip, maybe even my entire life. There is no safety net, no room for error – seriously far off the track, rolling with the punches, thinking on my feet, living it to the fullest.
By far the most full-on, out there adventure of my life.
Three vehciles in the desert
On the sixth and final day we’ve all hit our limit, physically and mentally. The last liter of water is shared out between us, and all gas containers have been empty for days. Everybody we ask is certain of the distance we still have remaining, though none of them agree. The fear of running out of gas is too great, so we buy more from a guy on the side of the road. Rob doesn’t have any Bolivian money remaining, so I lend him all I have, closing down my options fast.
Further South at Laguna Verde the wind torments my ragged state of mine and I can only stand outside the Jeep for 10 seconds, long enough for one photo. I become fixated on the enormous Volcán Licancahur (5760m), sitting at the far end of the lake and marking the border with Chile.
Freaky Laguna Colorada
Roads of sand
After a stupid debacle where the trucks are separated from the motorbike, I end up driving back around the entire lake, yelling and screaming to myself about the 35km of gas wasted the whole time.
Eventually we find Rob waiting at the border, and we all manage to grin and laugh when we realize we’ve done it. We’re there.
Amazing views from the hot spring
Laguna Verde, with Volcán Licancahur (5760m) in the background
(A note to anyone attempting this – From the last gas station in Uyuni to the Chilean border we drove 570km with minimum back-tracking and screwing around. It’s another 45km to the first gas station in Chile. Driving at extremely high elevation and crawling through sand and rock deserts decreased my usual gas milage by 25%-35%)
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Preparing to leave Uyuni I feel like we’re setting out on a mission to mars. We being myself, Warren and Sara in their Toyota 4Runner and Rob riding a Harley Davidson.
No, that’s not a typo. Harley Davidson. Street tires. 10cm of ground clearance.
I ask all the guides I can find exactly which tracks we want to take (the biggest ones), how far we need to cover gasoline-wise (500km, 600km to be safe) and if we’re going to make it (maybe).
Still unsure of what to expect we pack food for three nights, fill our drinking water and for the first time I carry a jerry can with 20 extra liters of gas.
The three vehicles almost on the flats
En route to our entrance point of Colchani I’m stunned to see an Emu & chicks.
Again, that is not a typo. Emu. In bolivia. More bizarre.
We’ve heard over and over the most dangerous part of the salt flats are the entrance points – sometimes with heavy rain they can turn to muddy salt water where a vehicle will sink up to it’s axles. We follow the heavily used track and after navigating a few small puddles, we’re happily rolling on solid salt. Bizarre is now normal.
The surface is extremely hard, though not perfectly flat due to the salt forming hexagon like shapes on the surface.
The amigos elated to be on the salt flats
There are heavily used ‘roads’ where black tire tread makes it easy to follow, or it’s perfectly OK to veer off in any direction and go wherever I want. We’re constantly stopping to take photos and it’s hard not to drive a little crazy with the other guys so close by. Some guides point to the tracks we want to follow and we set off, grinning from ear to ear on our way to Incahuasi Island – A piece of land jutting up from the flats where we camp for the night.
Rob & Warren on the flats
The views go on in every direction
In the morning we all smile and laugh while experimenting with ‘perspective’ photos with all the props we can find. Because there is nothing to give perspective, it’s easy to make objects look extremely small or big, just like being on the moon.
Rolling on the salt flats
Our campsite at Incahuasi Island
Sunset over the salt flats
It’s great to have so many hours to really soak in the alien landscape and every few minutes we all go silent and just stare around us, still disbelieving.
Sunrise over the salt flat from Incahuasi Island
The views in every direction
That's one GIANT Jeep
Throwing the frisbee out here is great fun
Reluctantly, we move South, and safely off the salt flat, beginning the next part of the adventure…
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A visit to the world’s highest city, Potosi (4060m) is an absolute must for any visitor to Bolivia. The enormous Cerro Rico (rich mountain) is visible from practically every street corner and rightly so, as it’s single-handedly responsible for the town. Centuries ago the Bolivians knew the mountain was full of precious metals and mined enormous amounts of silver among other things. Enter the Spanish conquistadores and the rate of removal was stepped up, at one point reaching 1.6 tones of pure Silver per day, mined mostly by forced slave labor and shipped to Spain. Now, almost nothing remains and thousands of man hours are required for a pitiful return.
The Rich Mountain above Potosi
I sign up for a mine tour with “The Real Deal”, a group of guys who used to work in the mines, have been guides for many years and have recently started their own tour company. We gear up in full weather-proof gear, gumboots, helmets and headlamps before a visit to the miner’s market – a district of town where all the essentials can be purchased, namely dynamite and coco leaves for chewing. It’s tradition for tourists to purchase these items to offer as gifts, so we stock up.
Playing with a stick of dynamite with the detonator and fuse inserted is a little surreal
TNT in hand, with detonator and fuse
Down at the refinery we see textbook techniques from the 1750′s. The raw rock is crushed and refined with a variety of chemicals to a raw paste, containing lead and tiny amounts of silver. There are no safety measures of any kind, and almost everything is hard manual labour.
Coco Leaves for chewing
After a short drive up to the mountain we enter the mine and after a few hundred meters I’ve smashed my head on the low roof about 10 times and am extremely thankful for the helmet. We stop about 800 meters in and the harsh environment begins to show it’s ugly head. It’s extremely hot & humid, due to the elevation there is very little air and most of that is stale with clouds of dust sitting still for us to choke on.
All the latest technology at the refinery
We enter a small side tunnel where the humidity and dust increase times ten and find a family chipping painfully slowly at the rock face. After crawling on my belly I enter a chamber half the size of my Jeep, where the father is using a hammer and chisel to “drill” a hole in the rock suitable for dynamite. After the struggle to get in I’m really short on air and extremely hot and uncomfortable, to the point I have to concentrate to calm myself down. The man is working in an extremely tight space, and only has about 25cm to swing the hammer, before rotating the chisel and repeating – each time issuing a genuine grunt from the effort and sweating profusely.
It will take him six hours to make one dynamite hole.
He’s 55 and has been working in the mine for over 35 years, ten to twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week. His son, 16, is working in the next chamber gathering small fragments of rock by hand. Their brothers, uncles and cousins are scattered around, chipping, digging and gathering rock. They have been in the mine for eight hours already today, and will probably do another four, he says. Because of the harsh conditions in the mine, none of them eat any food during the day, they only chew coco leaves and drink soda. While watching them work for ten minutes in unbearable conditions, it really sinks in they will be doing this for the rest of their lives.
The combination of shock and pity I feel for this family is overwhelming and I give them all my dynamite and coco.
I have never even imagined third-world slave labour, and it really moves me. Seeing the 16 year old boy working in these conditions is a very powerful sight. The miners all work for themselves, usually in a family unit and earn USD $14 on a good day, around half that on average. Most expect to die by the age of fifty, overcome by lung and respiratory problems. It’s not surprising the miners toast prosperity with 96% alcohol, and I’m bewildered to see the bottle we sip out of is exactly the same as the one I bought to burn in my camp stove.
It’s an extremely difficult situation to dwell upon, and I am lost in my thoughts as we make our way back down the tunnel to sunlight and fresh air.
Outside, our guides take a stick of TNT (which really does feel just like soft clay), put in a detonator and fuse, pack the whole thing in a bag of ammonium nitrate and light the fuse. While everybody else surges back, I move forward, eager to hold the dynamite with fuse furiously burning down.
After thirty seconds of fun they run down the hill, deposit the package on the ground and run back before the explosion, which is strong enough to knock the wind out of my lungs. Woah.
Holding the smoking package...
Visiting the cooperative silver mine of Potosi is a first-hand experience of poverty and desperation in the third world. Something I will not soon forget.
I highly recommend the guys at “The Real Deal”.
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