Potosí and Uyuni
My remaining journey through Bolivia took me to visit two cities Potosí and Uyuni. Before we got there it surprised me how long it took to actually leave La Paz. It was hours before we left any urban areas. The roads were not in the best of states and we have encountered some sort of control points or tolls about every 70-100km.
As Christmas was coming up, we came across some sort of procession in Potosí full of very traditionally clothed people so it very much counted as a cultural experience. The next day there was an option to visit the famous silver mines concentrated in the Cerro Rico that dominates the landscape. I actually knew quite a bit about them and opted not to see them.
It felt a little bit like “poor porn” – I heard it recently used by Trevor Noah and decided to adopt the term as I do agree with its premise. I really didn’t feel like going into someone’s working place, watch them sweat in horrible and dangerous conditions and then just leave and feel better about myself cos I left some money behind.
For over 200 years they have delivered Spain over 40 000 tonnes of silver. Their history mainly tells tales of perish, brutal treatment, mercury poisoning and slavery. Potosí used to be one of the richest cities in Latin America, if not I the world, but by the time of Bolivia’s independence in 1825 the silver has almost run out and the miners were left with tin.
Reality for the miners is still often death in accidents or due to mine-related diseases. Cerro Rico has now the texture of a Swiss cheese and there are concerns of the whole mine collapsing. That is “poor porn” for me. I can agree to stay at a local home, maybe because the idea of a sort of B&B, Airbnb or couch surfing is not that outlandish. I do have a feeling people then do agree to welcome you in their home to share their culture and of course earn some money, but it feels more like their decision to participate rather than visiting their place of work, feeling sorry for them and then leaving to keep on living in blissful ignorance.
As part of the adventure our truck broke down and I think I would have been disappointed if it didn’t. For that was part of overlanding. It only took the handy driver an hour and a half to get it to work again and we got to Uyuni in no time. Part of the experience in town was that the hostel was very close to some kind of a military base and we were supposed to be very careful were we walked.
Anyway, instead of the mines I just walked around the town. Part of the mission for the day was to do some shopping for the communal kitchen as we had some meal ahead of us that we had to plan for. The truck we had also had sort of kitchen facilities and we had pre-planned meals when we cooked together and then ate in sort of camping conditions. And that was the whole visit in Potosí for me I’m afraid. We went on our merry way to Uyuni.
The next morning we were ready to visit one of the most impressive sites I have ever seen: Salar de Uyuni. First, we stopped at a refinery and it was not the first time our guide/tour pilot/whatever she was called, turned out to be completely useless. She didn’t speak any Spanish and the guide in Uyuni any English. So, I started my work as a translator.
The salt is collected on trucks and brought to the refinery to be dried. It’s done manually, they shovel it onto a special stove where it dries for about half hour and then it goes to a kind of mill where it’s crushed and mixed with iodine. During a normal working day (when no tourists are around), 8 people can process and pack up to 5 tonnes.
The place is fantastic for some crazy photography experiments and so I have spent most of my day on that. However, it’s better not to have too good of a camera as the whole trick is based on the fact that you can cheat the perspective.
In the afternoon we had another crazy picture opportunity. We visited a train cemetery. For someone who likes industrial landscapes the combination of those wracks with the desert surrounding them is quite unforgettable. Also, the view of the tracks seemingly going to nowhere. They are the remainder of an old rail line that was connecting the area with the coast.
The Salar itself is 12 000 square kilometres and there is still some water underneath the surface – it flows down from the mountains surrounding the plateau. There used to be a massive sea, or rather it was part of the ocean, once it got separated the water evaporated leaving the layers of salt. There is also apparently ore of lithium. Unfortunately, Bolivia doesn’t have the technology to mine it. Or rather fortunately because they would have destroyed the salt flats. Let’s hope once they get the technology it would be one that doesn’t eviscerate everything around.
There is a fantastic island in the middle of the former sea, great place for a lunch break and amazing views from the top of the little hill. On our way back, we saw something a bit out of ordinary. An unfinished salt hotel. Yes, a hotel that is supposed to be built entirely out of salt. It wasn’t finished then and it actually looked like someone ran out of funds a while ago and just left it there to wither away. I wonder if they ever finished it. The only thing there was a gift shop and a toilet with a view – missing half of the wall and of course lacking the plumbing entirely.
I realize that I promised to stay positive, there was one thing however that I have to mention. We had Secret Santa organized and the guide/pilot managed to forget to put one name in the hat, so she left one of my fellow travellers without a gift and she herself managed to get two. How someone like that gets a job is beyond me. End of negativity.
The next day was Christmas and we were cooking our own lunch. It was the first time for me in the provisional truck-kitchen. I was very impressed, everything was organized, all boxes clearly signed and neatly packed. There was even a special system for dish-washing so all could go smoothly and quickly. I managed to help with cutting carrots, I’m definitely not made for cooking. Also, the fridge got messed up because someone didn’t close it right. So, I got to wash it and again not cook. All in all, it was a great experience, food was amazing, the view stunning and everybody seemed happy.
For more images from Uyuni click here.