Yes, we're back on-line!
We took the mandatory tour like all tourists of the mines which are now mainly used for tin & mineral extraction. It's hard to believe that people work under these medieval conditions in today's modern world (the mines of Indiana Jones were luxurious in comparison (we wonder if King Solomon’s weren't too!))
electricity, air-conditioning. The miners slosh around in mud & luckily
being Bolivian are small - even Stani was ducking & crawling along on her hands
& knees. The mines have 4 different levels, with the distance between
levels being 150 - 300m. The miners push old carts full of debris to a spot
& then it is hauled up narrow shoots by rope. The minerals are carried in
bags on their backs to the top (that's a possible 1200m - not sure but probably
higher than any mountain in the
The mines are run on a co-operative basis with no regulations - therefore fights over spots where the tunnels meet are not unheard of (a risky business when dynamite is freely available on the surrounding streets!)
If the conditions of the mines today and the history of the slavery of the Indians by the Spanish isn't dark enough there's still another blacker aspect to this story. The miner groups each have their own 'Tio' or 'Supay'(the devil himself) who is worshipped underground. Clad with a satanic grin & rams horns, he is festooned with cigarettes, coca leaves & alcohol.
On Friday nights,
the miners gather to honour him (which involves chewing coca leaves
fanatically, smoking & drinking until they are unconscious!) as well as
sacrificing a llama foetus. Tales abound of individual miners who have made
pacts with 'Tio' - bringing him live babies & burying them in the walls around
him - subsequently becoming immensely rich. We doubted these stories - after
all the Latin Am
In Potosí we connected up with our Swiss
Chocolate friends from
Our entry into Uyuni was a disappointment - set on the edge of the plains of Salar - we thought we were entering a rubbish dump. The town itself was a dusty nothing - until you reached the centre where a smart plaza had been built with row upon row of tourist agencies & pizza restaurants. We stayed at the Europa Hotel - hot shower & kitchen. In fact the shower was too hot & Stani feared getting 3rd degree burns!
Richard sussed it though & got Philippe to stand by the gas furnace & adjust it according to the burn factor indicated by Richard's screams!
Thanks to 2 Dutch
cyclists we'd met in
Our 1st day was an
easy ride - leaving about 3 in the afternoon & just cycling about 22km to
the town of
He was delighted to greet us & gave us a lesson in the history & geography of the area & invited us to sleep in one of the rooms - a much warmer prospect. As we cooked dinner, Sandra & Philippe showed a map of the world to the eight year old Moises, who immediately located the Chilean/Bolivian border & declared war on Chile - stating that Bolivia WOULD get it's port back.
We were surprised at the conviction he displayed & wondered how passionate his lessons were!
Our next 2 days were across the salar itself.
INCREDIBLE! Miles & miles of white expanse with the mountains & volcanoes on all sides. Great cycling too - the salt was as hard as asphalt & flat, flat, flat.
Tailwind too - a
cyclist's paradise! Our 1st night we camped on an island in the centre - no
easy task as the island is covered with giant cacti. Only one family lives on
this island - the youngest & only remaining daughter took a shine to
Richard when she found out he was French. Transpires that she had decided that
she wanted to live in
("Ah! That explains it" thought Stani - now I understand why she'd want to marry one!)
The other occupants of the island were 2 llamas & their 12 day old baby, not at all bashful; they took great interest in our bikes & tent. As did the young puppy who we nicknamed Cippolini, who we had great trouble dissuading not to enter our tent & kept running off with our shoes & cycling gloves!
The next day we crossed the other half of the
Uyuni salar & headed to the town of
We asked him how many hours he cycled daily - 10 to 13 hours was the response. (That's the difference between cyclists & other people - they always ask how many miles (or kms) you do daily) We thought he misunderstood us - after all the 4 of us only averaged 5 to 6 hours a day. But in the morning, as we crawled out our tents & sleepily searched for the spot the sun would hit first, he was packed & cycled off.
The next night was at the military camp of Chiguna.
Isolated without roads in the salar, supplied only by an old cargo train that brings food, wood & water, the commandant was most hospitable, immediately realizing the diversion 4 European cyclists would bring to the intense boredom of the remote camp. We were invited to stay the night, tempted with the offer of a hot shower - which we eagerly accepted. 3 hours later we ruefully regretted our decision. Although the shower was indeed hot as promised, it couldn't wash away our guilt. In the 3 hours that we waited, we couldn't but help noticing the 5 soldiers who ran & fetched wood, chopped it up, filled the stove & climbed up a ladder with buckets of water all for our benefit.
Richard baked a couple of cakes in our oven - much to the amazement of the commandant. We found out later that there wasn't always sufficient food for all the soldiers. In the mornings they would divide into teams & play football - the winners getting lunch - the losers doing without. Now I understand why they take this sport so seriously.
In the morning we hacked our way through the ice to fill our water bottles and went to say our goodbyes. Just as we were about to depart a tourist jeep drove up but didn't stop at the camp to present the occupants papers as it was obliged to do. The poor soldiers - the commandant barked at them & they all ran off waving their rifles in the forlorn hope of catching the jeep. Why not use a vehicle we inquired?
The camp only possessed one scooter & at this moment it was in bits in the unrealistic dream that they could repair it!
This was the last
inhabited place until we reached Laguna
A brief note on the car smugglers - everyone knows about the smugglers & the route they take - it would be easy to catch them (if the military had a vehicle!) but it's one of those ways of life. The smugglers pay $50 per car to the border guards and everybody is happy.
We decided to rest
Our trip through
this remote land of hot bathes, flamingos, incredible lakes (of nearly all the colours
of the rainbow) finally came to an end as we crossed the Bolivian/Argentine
border. What a culture shock. The first thing we encountered was the
That’s All Folks!
Stani & Richard
Next newsletter: Chile