July 25, 2004

Through Bolivia and on to Chile

I started my trip through Bolivia with a visit to Copacabana, not the Brazilian beach and not the Copacabana of Barry Manilow fame, but a really nice place nonetheless. It's a small resort-type town on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca, and the area is really beautiful. I spent one night camping on the nearby Isla del Sol, according to Inca legend the birthplace of the Sun, and the view of the sun coming up over the mountains and the lake makes it pretty clear why the Inca held the place to be sacred.

From Copacabana, I headed southeast to La Paz, where I spent the next few days. Of all the big cities I've visited, La Paz was definitely the nicest. The setting is pretty spectacular - the city is located in a steep valley, and when you arrive from the surrounding plains the whole city is laid out below you. The city centre and the nicest areas are located right at the bottom, and from there you can see the city rise up around you.

My third day in La Paz was definitely one of the strangest I've spent in South America. On Sunday, July 18th, a national referendum was held concerning oil exports. There was a fair amount of protest leading up to the referendum, and the government was worried enough that a national state of emergency was declared three days before the vote. On the actual referendum day, all vehicles were banned from the streets of La Paz, and almost all businesses were closed. Even all the market stalls disappeared from the streets. It was pretty amazing to see - a city of somewhere around 2 million people suddenly turned into a ghost town. In the end, there was nothing to worry about. I didn't even see any protests.

The next stop was Potosi, a 10-hour night bus away. So I thought. After setting out at 9PM, I woke up around 2AM when the bus suddenly started to stop. I looked outside to see what was going on, and the bus was surrounded by huge bonfires. Apparently the local people had some issue regarding the town's borders and had set up a roadblock in protest. No traffic in either direction was getting through.

I woke up around 8 in the morning and we still hadn't moved an inch. I spent the whole day on the side of the highway, hanging out in the sun and reading a book. We were just a little ways outside of a town, so there were people walking up and down the huge line of buses, selling snacks and drinks to the crowds of people who had no idea how to pass the time. Finally around 5 in the afternoon, the army sent in a couple jeeploads of troops to clear up the situation, and I arrived in Potosi around 8, almost 24 hours after leaving La Paz.

Potosi is located beside Cerro Rico, "rich hill", a small mountain where a huge deposit of silver was discovered over 400 years ago, and the hill has been mined ever since. At one point the city was actually the biggest in the Western Hemisphere.

I visited the mines in Cerro Rico, and what I saw was unbelievable. The mine is a collective mine - it's not owned or run by any company. All of the miners work for themselves and sell the ore they excavate. With no organization, the result is that miners pretty much dig wherever they want, leading to an absolute jumble of caverns and passageways within the mountain. The state is such that an American consultant predicted 11 years ago that the whole mountain would implode within 7 years. Four years past the deadline, miners still are working just as they have for the last 400 years.

Over that time, conditions in the mine have changed remarkably little. It was eye-opening to watch the miners at work. There is no modern technology, no equipment, no machines. Everything is done by hand, in cramped and hot passageways. I spent some time watching a miner working in a really tight spot, trying to drive a chisel 50 cms into solid rock, where he would then pack in dynamite. After detonation, he would tranfer the removed rock up a narrow and winding passageway climbing to the level above. From there, he would load the rock into a mine cart on a track and then ride it Temple-of-Doom-style to the mine exit. It could have been the 1800's inside the mine and nothing would have looked any different. It must have been the worst job I have ever seen. Most of the miners develop silicosis in their 30's, and the life expectancy of the miners is something like 50 years. The miner that I was speaking to had been working in the mines since he was 14.

After Potosi, I headed to Uyuni, in the southwest of Bolivia. Nearby is the famous Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. I did a 3-day tour of the flat and the surrounding mountains, visiting islands in the flats, geysers at 5000m elevation, brightly-coloured alkaline lagoons and aquamarine pools filled with bright pink flamingos. The whole trip stands out as definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far. The sight of a featureless white plain extending all the way to the horizon, with an utterly still pool of water in the foreground perfectly reflecting the stars above really was mind-boggling. Again, it is one of those places that really defy explanation without using pictures. You'll just have to wait until I get some up ;)

The trip took me to the border with Chile, from where I headed to San Pedro de Atacama, in the north of Chile in the Atacama Desert. That's where I am now, and I leave tomorrow. This place was quite a shock - after a couple months of being able to live on a few dollars a day, having to pay near-Canadian prices for meals and lodging really takes you by surprise. But tomorrow morning I leave and head southeast for Salta, Argentina, and from there I head south.

Posted by major at July 25, 2004 10:28 AM
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