flamingoWe started the day early getting to the departure point at 8am. We were slightly worried when nobody else showed up until about 8.05am, but once we did it we were on the bus and off to pick up the rest of the group from their hostels. After we got our exit stamps, we started the 1 hour climb from 2,400m in San Pedro de Atacama to 4,400m at the Bolivian border. And we were starting to feel it already!

I was so excited as this was one of my most favourite of travel destinations to date and although I was worried that I had talked it up too much in my own mind, I was more worried that I had talked it up too much to Ben and Kim! But everything was exactly how I had remembered it. We were in a 4×4 with a newly wed couple from Israel. Our driver was nowhere to be seen but about 30 minutes later, he rocks up. He was there the whole time asleep! We started to get a little worried (and even more so when the other group’s driver told us he was asleep because he was drunk). Turns out, he was just tired from driving from Uyuni!

llamaWe started with the Laguna Blanca (White Lagoon), Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon), Bali Rock Desert, Hot Springs, Geysers and then finished with the Laguna Colorado (Red Lagoon) with flamingoes and llamas.

We ended at our accommodation for the night where we all suffered mild headaches from the altitude (Kim also with mild nausea). But we weren’t as bad as some of the oldies we were staying with who were vomiting in the corridors and bathroom sinks. We managed to stay up playing cards until 9pm when the power/lights went out. By this stage it was feeling pretty cold and we were glad we had lugged our sleeping bags all this way with us! We were nice and toasty that night!

After breakfast the next day, we headed to a rock formation that resembles a tree (aptly called Stone Tree), then past some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Multi coloured mountains with reds, browns, oranges, whites, greens…. simply stunning! From there, we headed to some more lagoons (Honda, Chearcota, Hedionda, Canapa) with the tamest flamingos that let us get so close you could see the water dripping from their beaks! We were blown away (well, Ben was suffering pretty badly from altitude sickness at this point, but the rest of us were blown away!).landscape From here we crossed some pretty rocky terrain, saw a smoking active volcano (Ollague Volcano) and then to a small salt flat (Chiguana) where we followed the train tracks that took the salt from Bolivia through to the coast via Chile. Our next stop was a small town called Villa Martin where we stayed in a fairly comical house. Our room was upstairs, but the stairs were old, rickety and there was no banister (even on the landing outside our room!), so there was definitely no drinking to be had this night!

This night it was my turn to be ill as my head was throbbing. We met up with the second half of our group and chatted with them all night (well, I snuck off to bed for a nap, but the boys did).

uyuni-sunriseNext morning, we were up singing to Robbie Williams at 4.30am to see the sunrise on the Uyuni Salt Flats. Our driver, Figo, was having a great old time! We sang all the way to the flats, where we got out to watch the sunrise – simply magnificent! From here, we headed to the Fisherman Island (an island in the middle of the salt flats with cacti everywhere – quite a sight), where we spent a few hours exploring before breakfast. Once we got down, we watched all the drivers vs. the tourists in a game of soccer. Naturally the tourists were not accustomed to the altitude, so it was funny to watch them fatigue quickly!

We then walked around the island and tried out some perspective shots, before our driver picked us up and took us to a better place for the perspective photos!uyuni-salt-flat We spent AGES here doing all sorts of photo trickery! We had a ball, but it was starting to heat up and we could feel our skin burning! So we headed to the salt mine and museum (hotel) before we reached a small village where we had lunch and saw the world’s biggest llama (stuffed, of course)!

Next we headed to Uyuni to see the train cemetery. Kim, Ben and I were all fascinated by the endless photo opportunities… it was just a pity it was also a dumping ground for trash and urine!

Our tour ended in Uyuni where we said our goodbyes and headed to our accommodation to do some desperately needed washing!

Next day we were up early to catch a bus to Potosi. What a bus ride that turned out to be!salt-flats A bit over 5 hours of driving, stopping for a kid to pee (with whole bus watching), stopping in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere to let people off, stopping after people stamped at the front of the bus to communicate with the driver and some more death defying driving. Kim and I were glad that we slept through the… errr… ‘trying’ parts. Most of the road was a dirt track, but there was lots of bitumen and roadworks. We imagine one day it will be a nice road all the way through!

We took a gamble with a hostel in the LP guide, settled in, and then went for a walk. Potosi is 4,060m above sea level and boy did we know it. Our hostel was downhill from the main street… and it was strange to have to take huge deep breaths to walk up a fairly mild hill! Even sitting still at times, we found ourselves needing extra deep breaths!

potosiWe had a super cheap meal (US$3 for 3 courses) and found a place to take us on a tour of the Silver Mines. Had an early night and in the morning, I decided to give the Silver Mine tour a miss – given it was definitely not recommended for asthmatics or claustrophobics. And I was glad I did…..

(start Kim’s entry…)

After a short bus ride we arrived at the area where we got fitted into our new suits for the day. It consisted of a leather jacket, MC-Hammer pants, gumboots, helmet, bandana and a torch.

With our new suits we headed off to the miners market were we were given a quick guided tour of what miners needed when working in the mine. The store had shovels, hard hats, gloves, alcohol (96% strength) and dynamite. Unfortunately there are no rules on who can purchase any of these goods so Potosi has some serious problems with alcoholism and children getting their hands on dynamite. There was one more crucial thing that the miners needed to work in the silver mine – that is coca leaves. After purchasing some dynamite and coca leaves to give to the miners as a present we headed off to see the refinery.

In the refinery we were shown how they separate the minerals from the stones. We saw the process of crushing the stones; mixings water and chemicals the minerals are separated ready to be shipped out. It was a long process and the final product still needed to be sent to another factory for melting.

Arriving at the mine we see some miners standing outside talking and chewing coca leaves. It was at this point that we are told the most important thing the miners need to do their work wasn’t dynamite or shovels but coca leaves. Miners do not eat while in the mine. They chew coca leaves all day and use it as a source of energy and help them keep going.

At the entrance of the mine we see black markings that the guide tells us is llama blood. This blood is painted on the entrance during a ceremony to prevent bloodshed of miners. This was the first instance of how miners are very superstitious.

The first 2 levels the mine seems relatively roomy apart from the low beams here and there. This is when we realised how important the helmets were. There were a few times after hitting our heads we felt like we were a foot shorter. As we go lower and lower the path gets smaller till some stages we were crawling and sliding down on our bums through gaps. With the altitude affecting our breathing and the mines getting hotter and hotter it wasn’t the most pleasant place in the world. There was so much dust flying around we wet our bandanas and tied them tightly to our faces. This did not improve our breathing at all but it was better than eating a mouth and nose full of dust.

During our decent down to the lower levels we find ourselves dodging miners pushing and pulling trolleys. These trolleys held wooden logs used for support in the mines. We were told that the trolleys normally hold stones that need to be moved to the refinery plant. Four miners push and pull 2 trolleys weighing up to 2 tones. With the current conditions the miners are working in I don’t think I could even push an empty trolley alone for 30 meters let alone 2 tones worth.

We were shown how superstitious the miners were inside the mines as we found statues made by the miners were sacrifices of alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes. These sacrifices are to prevent miners getting hurt and to increase prosperity in find more minerals.

After spending nearly 2 hours climbing up and down mine shafts we were absolutely exhausted. All the mine shafts were created by miners using dynamite so it was essential that the miners created holes in the mine to deposit dynamite. Our final stop in the mines was to see the miners using jack hammer creating holes where they will plant the dynamite. Getting to this point was not an easy task. We had to move up 2 levels and going up mine shafts was a lot harder than going down. By the time we got up to where the miners were getting ready to drill we were so tired we only wanted to sit. As part of the traditions, the miners hold a ceremony to make sure everything goes as planned before they start drilling. We were asked to be part of the ceremony so each of us was poured a shot glass of alcohol. Yes it was the 96% paint stripper… I mean alcohol. We were told to pour some on the ground and then drink the rest. Ben and I both do not drink so it was even harder for us to even smell the paint stripper let alone drink it. Ben turned off his head lamp and poured the rest of the alcohol on the ground but I wasn’t so lucky being closer to the miners I had to drink some of it. I don’t know how the miners do it but that stuff is just plain wrong. I got drunk just by smelling it but sipping it made me ill.

We finished the day by blowing up one stick of dynamite. One of our group members prepared the dynamite under close supervision of our guide. Once the dynamite was prepared the fuse was lit. The guide proceeded to tell us that we have 2 minutes to hand the dynamite around before it goes off. After we played hot potatoes with a live stick of dynamite the guide took the dynamite and ran as fast as his little legs could take him. With only about 1 minute left he ran off buried the dynamite and quickly walked away. With a loud bang we felt from a distance how powerful a single stick of dynamite could be. I couldn’t imagine what kind of damage a few sticks could do let alone children playing around with it.

It was a very interesting and informative day and we were both very glad Phillipa didn’t go as it is not a pleasant place for asthmatics.

(end Kim’s entry!)
(back to Phillipa’s….)

I spent the day researching how to get out of a town where there were blockades at every road exiting the city. After asking numerous people, I kept being told there was ‘no salida’ ie no exit today. But I was determined, so I waited in a coffee shop until just before the bus was due to leave and asked the (seemingly) only English speaking person if they could ring the bus terminal to see if buses were leaving Potosi that night. After about 4 hours of waiting, we were in! I was mostly glad to be leaving because the rude lady at our accommodation was so intolerant of my poor and broken Spanish she wouldn’t even entertain the idea of engaging in a conversation with me!

So I grabbed the boys and we were off to get the tickets, some food (we are starting to get sick of Pringles at this stage, but this is what we got… again) and book some accommodation in La Paz, our next destination!

la-pazWe have another lovely cama (bed) bus that took us to La Paz overnight. Only problem was, we arrived at hour stupid so we waited at the bus terminal for an hour and a half until 7am when we told our accommodation we would be there. We got a bit lost on the way to Arthy’s Guesthouse, but eventually we get there to find some backpackers waiting out front. They obviously didn’t see the door bell, so after we rang it, they also came in!

The accommodation was gorgeous with a nice big spacious room, hot showers and English speaking hosts. We were so happy!!! We spent the day walking around the main parts of the city and seeing the sights. We visited the art museum before having an awesome brunch at a very trendy cafe.

We headed toward the witches market, where I almost vomited at the sight of the llama fetuses. I couldn’t handle it, so I avoided it like the plague. We then headed toward Gravity (getting lost again), where Ben booked in for the World’s most dangerous road bike ride which he did the following day. Needless to say, the man is nuts. But he got a free t-shirt!

la-paz-hillsAfter that, we found a place that makes the most awesome desserts and then visited the famous Coca Museum. This place was quite interesting and we spent quite a bit of time in there learning about drug addictions, chewing coca leaves and Coca-Cola.

On our way home, we stopped at a Japanese restaurant called ‘Arso-San’ purely because of the name! It was a great meal that reminded us of home!

Next day, Ben went on his death road thing and I took Kim to a restaurant called 100% Natural, except I got the address completely wrong and we ended up in the middle of the suburbs! But we got there in the end and had an awesome lunch. We then took it easy, walking through the back streets and found a cafe to have a coffee. It was a great day – especially because that night I watched 2 chick flicks while the boys went out for dinner!

Next day we headed to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. We took a ferry to cross to the peninsula and the views from here were breathtaking. Beautiful, clear, green water with the hills rolling into it. It was a lovely drive from here to Copacabana, a sleepy tourist village on the shores of the lake.copacabana-2 We checked in to a crappy hostel (recommended by fellow travellers by the way, should have listened to Or!) and then set off to look around town.

The town itself (well the main parts) seemed purely geared toward tourists. We found a little restaurant with hammocks where we had some lunch. Only to find a VERY sleazy guy who was constantly trying to look down my top. I was keen to get the hell out of there, but there was a girl (staying in the room next to ours) who loved the attention. All the best to ya luv.

After we scoffed lunch, we tried to find an ATM. Except they don’t exist here (should have trusted that Lonely Planet). So we had to wait until the bank opened to get a cash advance. We soon realised this was not enough cash, but we figured we could live on a budget for a day! But we wandered the streets and tried to take random photos of the old women here – they have so much character in their faces!

We booked onto a cruise/tour to the Isla del Sol (Sun Island) for the next day. Around 6am, we started hearing pretty loud thunder that set off car alarms (more than once!). When we got up, we saw that it wasn’t just raining, but hailing as seen by the piles of them outside! And yep, wouldn’t you know it, it was still raining. Not deterred in the slightest, we put on our trusty waterproofs and headed out to the boat. This was after the worlds most disgusting breakfast – but the juice was fresh and lovely!

copacabanaKim didn’t take any chances and took a travel sickness tablet. And good thing he did. The boat was rocking like never before! It was quite a choppy ride, but by the time we got to the north side of the island, it was a beautiful day with clear skies and calm waters (probably blocked by the island itself!).

So we were rushed off the boat and into a museum where we got to see artifacts from Pre-Inca days. But we weren’t allowed to spend much time in there, as we were rushed to the site of the sacrificial table and Titi-caca wall. This is where the guide told us that if we touched the wall, we would be healed. So we obliged and touched the wall. Then I asked Ben what of his was healed. He replied that he was cured of sarcasm. But it didn’t last long 🙂 Ben and Kim also had doubts about the authenticity of the sacrificial table. They thought that it looked far too clean and flat to be genuine. We figured they just put it there for tourists.

We weren’t there long before the guide was asking for a tip then sending us back to the boat. We would have walked to the bottom of the island, but we were short of cash (in the cheapest country in the world it seemed) and didn’t buy any food for lunch. And we were starving! There was no way we would last 3 hours!

So we hopped back on the boat and headed for the South of the island. We found a place to eat along with an Irish couple who we spent the rest of the day chatting to. As we were leaving, we glanced over the cliff we were sitting on to eat lunch and saw the pile of bottles that were just tossed over the edge. Nice.

On the way back to Copacabana, we stopped at a ‘floating island’. We were getting pretty sick of being ripped off at this point, but there wasn’t anyone demanding more money, so we jumped off the boat onto the ‘floating island’. Turns out this thing was on floaters and it was a complete fake. Ben spotted it a mile away, I thought it was just so typically Bolivian! As was the fact that someone was collecting money as we got back on the boat! What a joke!!!

Back on the mainland and we were getting pretty low on Bolivianos. It was just hard not to laugh at the fact we were on a tight budget in the cheapest place we had visited! We tried to get tickets to Arequipa, but no one would accept our slightly torn US$20 note. So in the end we got tickets to Puno in Peru, ate a nicer dinner than we had planned and then went to bed. We were broke, tired and feeling bitter from one big tourist trap!

Next day, we set off for Peru…

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