Thursday, September 8, 2011

Salt, Silver and Sucre!

After an uneventful day in Uyuni scouting tour options and downing 1Lt bottles of beer in the sun filled village square I was more than ready for some local sights and sounds. In a 4WD packed with five Brazilians we headed off, bound for the attraction of the day; Salar de Uyuni. 

The worlds largest salt flat didn't disappoint, an unimaginable expanse of white... white and blue on the left and the same to the right but with a backdrop of mountains. Salar de Uyuni provides the perfect backdrop for a multitude of tricky perspective photos, limited only by your imagination and what you have in your backpack. We spent the afternoon crafting crazy pics, visiting an island filled with cacti hundreds of years old and watching the sun set beyond the white expanse; sprawling pink, orange and red across the evening sky.

Having been well warned about the extreme night time temperatures (and we all know how I love the cold!), after dinner we cocooned ourselves in layers of sleeping bags and blankets within our hostel made entirely of salt. 

As we set out the next morning I was excited; high altitude, dazzling coloured lagoons and pink flamingoes were on the itinerary. My excitement however, was thwarted like a kid whose ice cream scoop balanced precariously atop of a cone had just fallen to the ground when I approached the first lagoon and few dozen pink flamingoes only to discover that my camera had decided to bite the big one. Nine months in, ten days till I go home and it decides to I always do have issues with timing!

There was nothing to do but suck up the reality and take in every moment of the rest of the day, draw in every ounce of the majestic lagoons and statuesque flamingoes. 

As the day drew to a close I stood perched on a hill overlooking Lagoona Colorada as it sparkled fiery red and striking blue, framed by a white sodium and magnesium crusted shoreline and dotted with dozens of flamingoes. The sun sprawled its setting rays across the stoney path that led back to the dorms and lit up the large round clumps of brassy grass with a golden glow. I breathed in the crisp dusk air, letting the beauty of the day soak deep into my memory. 

After an evening of teaching my new Brazilian friends to play Shithead, then enduring an icy -12c night, I awoke feeling less than chipper... As the day and the seven hour return trip advanced, so did my stomach bug. By the time I arrived back in Uyuni I was in no condition to take another six hour bus journey to Potosi as planned. I holed up in a comfy hostel where Pamela the owner cooked my up her grandmothers home remedy and miraculously within hours I was on the mend!

The next morning I awoke hungry for a big breakfast and ready to get on the road to Potosi. Arriving mid afternoon with my new Spaniard amigo, we hit up the city's star attraction Casa Nacional de Moneda - the National Mint, a gorgeous colonial building dating back to the mid 1700's that was used to mint handmade silver coins called Potosis. The other tourism drawcard for Potosi, other than its pretty colonial architecture are the cooperative silver mines. 

Cerro Rico rises up to the East of the city; it is unknown how much silver has been extracted from the mountain but it is said that the Spanish could have built a bridge made entirely of silver and still had enough silver to carry across it! These days the silver has more or less dried up but there are still over forty operational mines on the mountain. 

After donning very attractive protective clothing, helmet and headlamp we set off for a tour of one of the mines. The word tour however in this case is a complete misnomer and for once the Lonely Planet actually got it right. The mine, the one I visited anyway was hell on earth, a dusty, windy, trash ridden mountain side, fumes of burning plastic filled the air and in the side of the mountain a small, carbon monoxide stained hole marked the entrance. The miners habitually drink themselves into a trance with 96% proof alcohol and chew on wads of coco leaves in order to tolerate the nightmarish conditions of working inside the mines.  Dynamite (which can be bought for about $3.50 a stick) is used to blast out new sections in search of silver and rubble is loaded into heavy metal trolleys, then lifted and pushed through the mine to the outside where it is dumped around the mountain side. After running through the mine corridors, jumping off to the side to avoid being trampled by rubbled filled trolleys and crouching in a "safe" archway while 25 sticks of dynamite were detonated I was ready to get the hell out of there. It was certainly an experience, and most definitely the most unsafe I have felt during my time in South America.

After safely arriving back to town and stuffing myself silly I boarded another bus set for Sucre. The sun set in the cloud smeared sky and three hours later I arrived in the whitewashed city, greeted by fireworks and a flurry of activity. Sucre is by far the diamond of Bolivia (in my opinion), it is filled with charming colonial architecture, warm winter sunshine and gentle cool breezes that waft through the air. As I sit on the terrace of my less than $6 a night private room which overlooks the city's terracotta rooftops I wonder whether I really do have to leave... Definitely a place in the world to look for me if I ever go missing!

With just a week of Bolivia left there are still a few adventures to be had, markets to be frequented, trails to be trudged and of course cerveza's to be guzzled... 

Me and the Brazilian crew

White and blue for as far as the eye can see...

Salt Hotel anyone!

Mmm Brazilians

I should sell this pic to Kraft for their next ad

Aaahhhhhh giant

An island of Cacti

What a view!

Salt and more salt

Salar sunset

Cerro Rico

Miner for a thanks

Just one of the many churches/cathedrals of Sucre

Sucre's plaza delights

Sucre...whitewash beauty

Mandarin anyone?

Tomato maybe?

Love South American markets

Feather duster...or 50?

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