The final leg of an extraordinary journey
25.07.2016 - 08.08.2016 25 °C
La Paz to Sucre, 12 hours, and another overnighter on a bus. The main thing I remember about the journey was falling asleep listening to Bowie, who I then dreamed was showing me round some kind of enormous mansion he and Mick Jagger were building. We bumped into Jagger admiring a statue of himself. I vaguely recall Freddie Mercury making an appearance, too. This has nothing to do with my travels but it was a pretty fantastic dream. I was a bit gutted when I woke up to find I was not at the home of rock gods, but at the Bolivian equivalent of a service station. I went to the loo, which you flush by pouring a Jerry can of water into once your done. It's not all glamour, this travelling business.
Anyway, I made it to Sucre, which is a quiet, pretty, chilled out little city, and the perfect place to recover from the slightly insane previous couple of weeks. Until Friday night, that is, when the place bursts into life. My hostel, Kultur Berlin, hosted a brilliant Bolivian culture night, complete with music and traditional dancers. While that was going on, I got in a heated game of Rummy with an Aussie and a Kiwi. I won the 15 Boliviano jackpot, much to the ire of the Aussie, and it's fair to say I did not win gracefully. In fact, I showered him with the deck of cards, and quite literally rubbed the money in his face. I wound up in a karaoke bar with a group of French girls and an Italian lad, attempting to sing The Final Countdown, forgetting there are actual lyrics other than 'it's the final countdown, da-loo-doo, da-loo-do-doo'. It was a truly horrendous rendition, matched only in its horrendousness by our dancing. I was physically incapable of getting a bus the following morning, so I stayed an extra day, which was spent with the aforementioned bunch exploring the city. That evening the hostel's promise of a 60s night sadly never materialised, so I wound up getting a relatively early night (>3 hours sleep). With my batteries recharged, I finally dragged myself to the bus station, and on to Potosi.
The city came to being in the mid-16th century when huge silver deposits were discovered in the Cerro Rico, which became the richest mine in history, apparently yielding 60,000 tons of the shiny stuff by the 19th century. It's still a mining town today, albeit largely for tin and zinc rather than silver. As such, it's pretty much obligatory to do a mine tour. Having read about them and spoke to others who had already been, my biggest concern was that the tours are slightly voyeuristic. These guys work in dreadful conditions, and many die from silicosis before they reach 50. Silicon, arsenic, cyanide and asbestos are a just a few of the hazards they face in their day job. It's no joke, and a bunch of tourists ogling them as they go about their work is the sort of thing I find a bit awkward and distasteful. However, if you choose the right tour company, a lot of the profits go directly to the miners and help provide supplies and equipment (which they have to buy themselves). As it happens, the day I decided to do the tour was August 1st. I didn't realise this was significant until about 9.30am, when a guy in the hostel came up to me yelling "llama sacrifice, llama sacrifice." I followed him to a yard around the corner, and sure enough there was a llama on its side being slaughtered. It was pretty gruesome. I went back a few hours later and ate some of the furry fella.
It turns out August 1st is a big national holiday, and all the miners take the day off to get drunk. Having been to the miner's market and bought some dynamite, we headed down in to the temporarily deserted mine. The conditions are every bit as awful as I'd heard, and I can only imagine how tough working down there must be. It's said you could build a bridge to Spain with the silver that's been mined there, and another with the bones of workers who have died mining it. The fact tourists are allowed down there at all would have British health and safety types crying into their risk assessment forms. Nonetheless, it was an interesting experience, the only disappointment being that we didn't get to use the dynamite. We made it out safely, and joined the miners partying outside, most of whom were already smashed. Our group of gringos attracted a fair amount of attention, and a fairer amount of free beer. That night two of the hostel workers - both former miners - stumbled in bloodied, bruised and bandaged, so it's safe to say the party got a little out of hand later on.
My final stop in Bolivia was Uyuni, famous for the world's largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni. The only way to truly get a feel for the place and to appreciate the scale of it is to do a 4x4 tour (everyone calls them Jeep tours but I didn't see a single Jeep, most use Toyotas, and I'm pedantic about stuff like that). A few days earlier, a group of tourists were killed on a such a tour after a tyre blew and the car flipped. Assuming these things happen infrequently, I figured straight after such a tragic incident was as safe a time as any to take the tour myself. I therefore signed up for a three-day trip that would take me over the Chilean border and in to San Pedro de Atacama.
The first day was incredible. At roughly 10,000 square metres, Salar de Uyuni is a natural phenomenon and like nothing I've ever seen. It really is like being on a different planet. Given the vast, flat landscape, photos playing with perspective have become part and parcel of any visit. We used a toy dinosaur, a Pringles tube and a beer can, among other props, to get our fill of clichés. The volcanoes forming the Ring of Fire around the flat complete the otherworldly landscape, made all the more remarkable as the sun goes down (and with it, the temperature). In the evening we stayed in a salt hotel on the edge of the flat, had dinner and a few beers. It was very pleasant, and we all went to bed by 11pm. Then, around 2am, I was partially woken up by someone in close proximity talking foreign (I wasn't conscious enough to figure out which form of foreign). A few minutes later, I was completely woken up as I was pushed to one side of my bed. Apparently I was taking up too much room for the guy who'd decided to get into bed with me. I sat up, utterly confused, and tried to find my phone so I could see what the hell was going on. By this time foreigner was fast asleep and snoring. The two Swiss girls I was sharing a room with awoke and asked what was happening, to which I replied something along the lines of: "there's a random f***ing dude in my bed." I couldn't find my phone so got out of bed and found my torch. My first concern was the whereabouts of my phone, thinking he may be the cockiest thief in the world - one who gets in bed with his victims - and by the time I'd found it he'd slinked out. It was really bizarre.
My group spent the morning trying to figure out who my mystery visitor was, based on the clues that he wasn't English and had dark curly hair. We eventually blamed one of the drivers, assuming he got drunk and went into the wrong room. Anyway, the tour. We spent much of day dos in the car, covering the vast ground between Salar de Uyuni and the Bolivian side of the San Pedro de Atacama desert. I didn't mind being in the car as it was proper off-roading and a lot of fun, and we stopped frequently to admire the ever-changing landscape. Minerals in the rocks create wonderfully colourful rainbow mountains, while an array of seemingly impossible rock formations are the result of thousands of years of volcanic activity. We drove to the crater of one such volcano, where pools of boiling water and mud bubble violently and kick out steam. It reminded me - both in appearance and smell - of Rotorua in New Zealand. Only in Rotorua you follow a one-way path with barriers to ensure you keep a safe distance, while here we had free reign to do as we wish and if you fall in, well, whose fault is that? By this point, British-health-and-safety-type would be having a nervous breakdown. We ended the night in a thermal pool below the most spectacular night sky I've ever seen. I didn't realise it was possible to see so many stars - many shooting - from Earth. It was the perfect final night in Bolivia, a country that in two weeks has made quite an impression on me.
We popped to another colourful lagoon the following morning before the group split, half heading back to Uyuni, the rest of us into Chile. San Pedro de Atacama is a picturesque little city dropped in the middle of the desert, with plenty of activities and excursions on offer. However, with my stomach having finally succumbed to South American food, I spent most of my three days dashing between a hammock and the bathroom. I was able to muster the energy to visit Valle de la Luna with a couple I'd met on the salt flat tour. I've become somewhat blasé to incredible landscapes after two months here, but the sunset was rather special. As I write this I'm back in my hammock, readying myself for the overnight bus to La Serena. From there I head to Santiago, possibly via Valparaiso, which will be my final stop before jetting off to Auckland.
Unless something mental happens in the next week (which I'm not ruling out), this will be my final blog post from South America. It's been a truly extraordinary two months, possibly the best of my life, blowing away whatever expectations I had when I first set foot in Quito. The places I've seen, the people I've met and the experiences I've enjoyed have been beyond what I could have ever hoped for. If anyone I've met here reads this, know that you have contributed in some way - big or small - to a remarkable journey. I'll be gutted to leave South America next week, but there's no doubt in my mind I'll be back here, hopefully with a little more Spanish under my belt.
And if I find I'm feeling too sorry for myself as I board the plane, I just need to remind myself I'm heading to bloody New Zealand for a year! As far as consolation prizes go, that's not too shabby.