San Pedro in the Atacama Desert was the starting point for several amazing daytrips (see previous blog entry) and also the first station of the three day 4x4 adventure trip to Uyuni in Bolivia. A Bolivian driver, six tourists and heaps of baggage and water were closely packed in a Toyota Land cruiser. We visited several spectacular natural attractions, but spent most time driving from one highlight to the next. Once arrived, there were at least ten other tour groups already present. Nonetheless, a unique experience.
The first day included several top spots, such as the green colored “Laguna Verde” with the perfect cone-shaped volcano Licancabur in the background, geysers and bubbling mud pools, a small thermal pool inviting us for a short bath in the middle of nowhere in the desert and hundreds of Flamingos at “Laguna Colorado”. We spent the night in a basic “Refugio” in 4800masl, without heating and only two hours of electricity. After a bitter cold night (-25C) we got some unwelcome, but not entirely unexpected news. Our driver got so drunk during the night that he didn´t even show up in the morning. Fortunately, his brother in law works in the Refugio, and as he´s also an ex-driver/guide, he took over our group. As we started two hours late, we needed to rush from viewing point to the next, on the other hand we were mostly all alone, as all the other cars were well ahead of us.
The second night was more agreeable, in a hotel built mainly of salt bricks, even beds, tables and chairs were carved out of salt! Despite Bolivian national day, our driver stayed sober and we started timely at 5AM in the morning, to see the sunrise in the middle of the Salar the Uyuni. The biggest salt lake covers more than 2000 square kilometers, and except some rock islands covered with cactus, it´s just white, flat and salty!
One of my personal tour highlights was the last stop in Uyuni: Former trains of the Uyuni – Oruro line were exploited and the remaining unusable parts just left to rust.
200km to the Northeast lays Potosi (Elevation AMSL 4090m), one of the highest big cities in the world and during colonial time the mayor Silver mining town of the Spanish Empire. Founded in 1545 as a mining town, it soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming one of the largest cities in the Americas and the world, with a population exceeding 200,000 people. Miners were mainly indigenous and later on also slaves from Africa, working often several months in the dark without seeing daylight.
Even today, still 180 mines perforate the “Cerro Rico” like as Swiss cheese, and the 10´000 workers that are mostly organized in cooperatives, work partly still the way their ancestors did, using human labor and explosive, but seldom pneumatic drill hammers or automated transportation systems.
After an “apprenticeship” of three years, working for one of the cooperative members and sharing the proceedings, the miner can apply to buy into the cooperative (onetime fee of around 1000 USD) and then work at the own sidearm of the mine at his own risk and reward.
The somehow controversial tour through an active mine was an impressive experience and a proof, that my childhood claustrophobia completely vanished, otherwise one wouldn´t survive the 3km trek through the mines, without orientation, 400m below the ground, sometimes only 1.50m high gangways and the dust and heat. To compensate the miners being watched like animals in a zoo, visitors are supposed to bring some gifts, such as Coca leaves (Chewed by miners to minimize the impact of the altitude and decrease hunger, thirst and tiredness), drinks and even explosives. I got two sticks of dynamite including fuse and detonator for 30 Bolivianos (4 USD) in the local miners shop without any restrictions, despite that would be enough explosives to blow away a small omnibus!
After visiting few of the almost 100 churches, and wandering the colonial streets of Potosi I realized once more, that I´m no big fan of visiting cities, as I got bored quite fast.
My original plan to visit another important colonial town (Sucre) and the capital (La Paz) was changed overnight by organizing a 5 day trip into the Bolivian Amazon basin. Unlike my background and experience, I didn´t plan any reserves in between the 9h overnight bus from Potosi to La Paz and the onward flight to Rurrenabaque, which is the gateway to the Madidi National Park. After two hours of driving, at 11PM in the night, the bus broke down. 60 passengers on the street, shouting at the driver, trying to stop other buses that passed and worrying about their money (the journey costs 50 Bolivianos = 7 USD for semi-reclinable seat) made an amusing tohu-wabohu. Except that I wasn´t really in the mood to enjoy the spectacle, as my chances to catch the flight diminished with every minute waiting on the road. Finally, using elbows and an extraordinary high bribe of 100 Bolivianos, I got a place in a passing bus, which was already fully booked. Therefore I spent the next seven hours lying or sitting on the ground, trying to get into a comfortable position and catch some sleep, but my attempts were hardly successful. But I reached the airport in time, and enjoyed one of the most amazing flights ever. La Paz has the highest international airport in the world (4060 masl) and the “thin air” requires an almost doubled starting and landing speed of the planes, which explains the incredible long runways at the airport (4km instead of 2.5km). The flight with AmasZonas lasts only 25min, but the scenery change is spectacular. While during the first few minutes the Highland and the capital La Paz dominate the view, the scenery changes then sharply to snow-covered Andean peaks and mountain lagoons and another few minutes later to the rainforest of the Amazon basin. As we almost descended by 4000m, the exiting at the mini-airport of Rurrenabaque (280masl) was a pleasant surprise, finally after two weeks in the cold highlands and mountains I could unpack my summer clothes again.
The following 4 days were spent in the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, a small camp 3.5h upriver Rio Beni/Rio Tuichi, deep in the Madidi National park. The Ecolodge is owned managed and maintained by the local indigenous people, living in the park. The daily programs included hiking in the jungle, visiting nearby lakes and rivers and observing the wildlife, including birds, butterflies, monkeys, wild pigs, capybaras (biggest rodent), caimans and a tapir, and unfortunately also mosquitos. The tour was great, but taking good pictures in the jungle is a real challenge, as the thick leave roof let only sparse sun rays pass. In addition, the wildlife is either far away (i.e. birds seem to prefer the highest trees) or constantly moving (i.e. from tree to tree jumping Capuchin and Squirrel monkeys).
As there is both a constant competition among the plants for light and the nutrient-rich soil, almost every tree serves also as host for one or more climbing plants such as the strangler fig.
After three nights and dozens of mosquito and sand flies bites I flew back to La Paz (3700masl) to acclimatize for the next adventure in Bolivia, the ascent of Huayna Potosi (6088masl). Due to bad experiences with altitude sick mountaineering buddies I decided to book a private guide for the three day trip, a bargain at slightly above 200 USD. Back home, the train ticket to the “Top of Europe, Jungfraujoch” is more expensive than this exclusive private guided tour.
The rental gear was top-notch and the food prepared by our cook Elio better than in many La Paz restaurants. On the first day we drove to the Base Camp (4700masl) and did some training on the glacier, on the following day we carried all gear to the Rock Camp (5130masl) and rested in the afternoon. At 1.30 in the morning we started our ascent to the summit, the night was clear, far below the lights of La Paz could be seen and the temperature was comfortable (-5C, no wind). Although not too technical, the ascent was exhausting due to 10-20cm fresh-fallen snow and the thin air (air pressure at 5500masl is around 0.5, meaning that every breath supplies the lung with only half the O2 than it would do on sea level). Our timing was perfect, as we reached the summit shortly after sunrise, providing a top photo opportunity to me.
After a long awaited hot shower back in La Paz I signed in for the most famous day trip around La Paz, the downhill bike ride along the “World´s Most Dangerous Road” (North Yungas Road, Road of Death or Road of Fate). The road first ascends from La Paz to around 4650masl at La Cumbre Pass, before descending to 1200masl at the town of Coroico. Until 2006 the slippery, narrow, step and unpaved road caused every year around 300 casualties (i.e collisions, vehicles falling down into the abyss), but with the building of the new paved alternative route for the traffic, the old road remains a tourist magnet. The 3h to 4h downhill ride isn´t as dangerous as proclaimed, as there is almost no oncoming traffic, the bikes and particularly the disc brakes are first grade (depending on the company you go with, but you shouldn´t go for the cheapest option, when a failing break means a serious accident or death). As long as one isn´t to self-confident or going too fast, I rate biking in a busy city such as La Paz more dangerous than this road. The views are breathtaking when biking next to the several hundred meters deep abyss. By the way, the only person in our group that crashed during the ride was our guide! He took one of the curves to confident and fast, and the bike slipped away. Nothing serious, except some scrapes at the forearm.
The next stop, Lake Titicaca at the border with Peru promises less adrenalin and challenges, but some nice scenery and easy hikes.
Previous destination: Northern Argentina and Chile
Next destination: Peru