Sucre, Potosí, Uyuni, the Salar, and San Pedro de Atacama
In all of Bolivia, Sucre has been one of my favorite places. It has stunning colonial architecture that actually intrigues the eye beyond the main plaza; the city is actually safe enough to walk the streets at night alone; the people here are incredibly friendly and welcoming; and there are plenty of surrounding trekking opportunities to occupy several days. What I enjoyed the most, however, was basking in the serene atmosphere. I meant to stay two days but lasted five.
I cannot say that the extension of my stay had anything to do with being overwhelmed with activities, really it was how convenient it was to add a couple days while determining the rest of my travel plans. Sucre is large enough to keep one entertained day or night but small enough that you can head to the large market for last minute supper ingredients before the water boils over. My primary appeal for Sucre, however, was that I would soon be heading into Chile and truly needed to know my agenda before entering a new country. This need was expanded by the fact that I did not know whether the best route heading south would be to make occasional border crossings into Argentina to prevent expensive back-tracking later. Turns out it is best to cover north Chile all in one shot.
Thus my extra days were spent in Internet cafés. Though I did do my share of exploring the city and even partook in a Condor Trekkers (non-profit tour agency, I highly recommend: http://www.condortrekkers.org/) one day trek. We visited Parque Cretácico, which houses one of the world´s most impressive dinosaur footprint sites. Using print sizes and strides, they have replicated life-size dinosaur models to walk amongst and a brief presentation over dinosaurs and the Cretaceous Period. I found the knowledge base a bit wanting, but I was inspired by the quarry company efforts to inform the public and preserve this tremendous dinosaur remnant discovery. After our tour of dino land, we started a trek into a deep river valley, which turned into an adventure to scramble over crumbling rock cliffs as the river system was fuller than normal due to all the rains they have been receiving recently. Then we lunched at the “Seven Waterfalls,” which is really just a single waterfall with maybe seven breaking platforms. Though is was quite nice, especially with the above normal water flow level.
After Sucre, I jumped over to nearby Potosí. This is a nothing of a town, but used to be hopping during the mining boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though as early as the 16th century. It was a quick trip but provided an important lesson about the conditions that miners are still subjected to today. The weather in Potosí is cold, so when you first enter the mines it is cold. However, shortly after entering you start reaching quite hot temperatures. We barely even entered the major depths of the mine and people on the tour could not even handle the dust and heat. I truly cannot imagine being in those conditions for the 8 to 24 hours shifts some people do. And the working conditions are not the only problem. The mines are privately owned, so workers are only paid if their mine produces (the mineral mainly being silver). The concept is that they are not getting paid unless they work hard, however it is impossible to produce silver if the vein has been depleted or the quality is not worth the effort. Thus, many workers are quite impoverished. Only the young ones who have potential for school will ever leave the mines. And if you are working in the main drilling areas, where you make the most money, your life expectancy is lowered daily due to the toxicity of your environment. Many miners die from silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust, causing inflammation and scarring in the upper lobes of the lungs. These workers also will spend their entire shifts chewing on coca leaves as a way to stipend hunger from not eating (be it from lack of money or length of shift) and to lessen the effects of working underground in hard conditions for long periods of time. While on the tour, you cannot help but notice the active precipitation of sulfur-related minerals in all small cracks and drainage areas. To make matters worse, I watched a documentary called “The Miners´ Devil.” It was supposed to portray the culture of how miners practically worship this mining god as a form to prevent accidents and deaths within the mines and to ensure successful discovery of silver veins. What the documentary achieved on a greater scale was show the startling reality of how small children of 12 to 14 years are included in the roster of mine workers. These children have various backgrounds, but frequently they come from families with no father where the eldest child works in the mines as a means to support the family. I still cannot fully comprehend such a lifestyle. It is truly eye-opening to other cultures when you first hand witness such living conditions.
Seeing the mine working conditions really brought to light a comment someone told to me recently. They said you can tell the level of poverty of a place by observing where children play and what toys they are playing with. The context was for the fact that we were watching children playing a soccer-type game with a 2-liter plastic bottle on the sidewalk of a major street. At first I compared the ingenious utilization of a plastic bottle to my childhood days of playing in boxes, but the comment stuck and now I have been paying attention to little signs. There was more truth than I realized to that statement. While in Sucre, observing the noticeable lack of crime, I also realized there is a noticeable lack of young children playing in the streets and older children loitering around parks that have become a background site in most of South America. I then thought about my trip to Santa Cruz when Gillian mentioned the over abundance of activities for young people there. Despite the plethora of extracurricular activities, there are still major hubs of loitering youth. Coincidentally, most of those areas are also in the areas where Gillian advised me to never carry a bag or anything of value. Interesting… Then there is this stark comparison to Potosí when the realization that the miner demographics include young children. I could not make an appropriate comparison in Potosí as I arrived during Carnival, thus most children and adults were running around in odd costumes covered in paper streamers and confetti while spraying all bystanders with water guns (or water balloons) and foam spray. Despite the celebrations, I did see large numbers of adolescents not partaking in the celebrations except to target innocent on-lookers (tourists apparently make especially desirable targets).
My last stop in Bolivia was Uyuni. I was only there long enough to book a Salar (salt flat) tour which ended in the tiny Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama. I did take an evening to eat at Minutemen Pizza, quite possibly the best pizza I have had since leaving the U.S. and the Death by Chocolate cake, valiantly tried to live up to its name.
My three-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni was easily one of the high-lights of my entire last seven months. I have been to Death Valley in California to see salt flats, but the Salar was utterly stunning. The vastness of pristine land was phenomenal. At the salt flats proper, where the raining season provides a good foot of water over the salt layer, the reflections made the sky look never-ending. Truly the world´s largest mirror; horizon to horizon, only interrupted by distant mountain ranges. The perspectives of sight are amazing. For three days we simply drive through an uninhabited desert seeing the salt flats, mountains, volcanoes, lagoons, intriguing rock formations, and never-ending landscape. I will not even try to explain how breath taking the entire three days are. And sadly my photographs will not be able to speak for it either, as I brilliantly dropped my camera into the salt lake on the first day. Go me! Two cameras stolen, one camera broken, all in less than a year. I have never had such difficulties with cameras. Luckily my tour included three great girls (though everyone on the tour was fantastic) whom have been incredibly helpful in documenting the sights. On the last day we woke up before dawn to drive through a snow-covered geyser field and end up at a hot thermal lake for sunrise where we lounged in fantastically warm waters overlooking a flamingo-filled, misting lake with the sun peaking through the mountains. Indescribably mesmerizing.
The end result, I have finally arrived to Chile! At the end of the tour, we took a bus over the Bolivian-Chilean border to the little desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. I have finally reached warm weather! What a relief after the months in cold and rainy Bolivia. And I stayed with the three girls from the tour. One of whom, Leen, I had met twice before, once in Arequipa through my fellow Cusco hostel worker Melanie and then again randomly in Sucre at the same hostel. It was such a delight when I saw her arrive to enter the same tour vehicle for the Salar. While in San Pedro de Atacama, we rented mountain bikes and rode to Valle de Muerte and Valle de la Luna to see the Chilean side of the desert. Then we went on a night astrology tour. We ended up having exceptionally cold and windy weather and a very cloudy sky, thus not optimal sky observing conditions, but it was fun none-the-less.
I finally made it to Chile! I am so relieved to be moving again. The only down side it that Chile and Argentina will be obnoxiously expensive compared to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, but I will manage somehow. 🙂