Southern Bolivia – Life on Mars

Arriving back into La Paz, we bundled out of the bus with all our bags in the middle of rush hour traffic and legged it to the bus station.

The time was now 20:20, we had clearly missed our planned 8pm bus to Sucre and the last. Well so we thought , thankfully there was a bus at 20:30 with Trans Copacabana.

We bought our tickets , left our bags and were escorted round the back to the bus. Boarding a little worried our bags might not make it, we sat down in our seats close to the back.

Having been on quite a few busses over the last three months, I am becoming quite an expert on the pros and cons of bus travelling. Trans Copacabana was a real surprise. 30B cheaper than the others, the bus looked older than me, but the seats were by far the most comfortable yet. It was more like being on an old BA 747 business, without the miserable service.

However there was no toilet.

Perfect for the next 8 hours of sleeping. Except for the five kids that were asleep around my feet. A family had seemingly turned the back of the bus into their mobile home.

Sucre is a town full of beautiful colonial buildings and was once the capital city of Bolivia after independence due to its close proximity to the booming silver mines. It lost its importance after the civil war when La Paz became the capital.

Sucre is also known by another name, the ‘White City’ of the Americas, due to the buildings being white washed once a year. Classified as a UNESCO world heritage site, Sucre has maintained its original beauty.

A Walk up to the Recoleta view point is well worth it to get a good view of the whole city and see how far it sprawls.

Hostel CasArte Takubamba was a great little find.

Five blocks from the main square, through a little front door into a whitewashed courtyard with bright coloured art work on the walls. Breakfast was served in the garden daily and the dorm was a large size with two ensuite bathrooms.

Two days was enough to see Sucre, and visit some of the best museums Bolivia has to offer. Six hours further South was Potosí – the highest city in the world at 4100masl and once the great rich silver city.

Mining is still the biggest form of employment, but all the silver has long since gone, sold or taken by the Spanish. Now they many 1000’s of men nine for tin, copper and other minerals.

For 100b you can experience the conditions in a working mine, and spend a few hours with a guide taking you around.

As we wait to enter, we can hear the rumble of wagon full of rocks and minerals. Out of the black hole comes two young men pushing a good few tonnes to the pit.

Decked out in our hard hats, lamps, welly’s and overalls we walk into the mine entrance in the side of the mountain. Laden with our gifts – fizzy pop, coca leafs and 90% proof alcohol – that we bought from the miners market.

The tunnels are dark, damp and really dusty and get worse the further you go. With several levels above and below, there are many access points used to move the rocks, dirt and mineral through the levels.

Bits of wood are jammed into the holes to stop the roof falling into the tunnels below.

Being over 6ft, I am definitely not the height for a miner. Banging my head on a beam or the roof as we descend  further into the mine.

Keno on the other hand was the perfect height and build for pushing the wagons – which to prove his massiveness he tries to push along the tracks. Much to our amusement – his massiveness fails and he requires some help to push the heavy wagon along the tracks.

We are led down a series of ladders that take us 4 levels lower and navigate some tight and small passageways, sometimes on our hands and knees.

Our guide seeks out his mate that is leading a small group of miners. Through the metal gate and through a small hole one level above we find 4 miners at work. We are invited to sit down with the leader and discuss what life is like for the miners while being passed the bottle of 90% alcohol to sip.

Not surprisingly the conditions are not great , I find out the miner is my age and has been doing it for over 15 years, leads a small team of 5 men and is married with one child. Life expectancy is very low at up to 50 for men who work the mine all their life.

It is experiences like this that make me realise how lucky I am and how much I take for granted with what hand I have been dealt in life.

An hour flies by and we say our goodbyes. A lot less steady on my feet than before I follow the group out of the mine back to the clean and fresh air.

The following morning it was time to take another bus towards the Atacama desert and the town of Uyuni. A six hour drive through some of the most incredible landscape, of luscious greens against the reds of the deserts and mountains below the piercing blue sky. Definitely a journey to be carried out in the day.

Following the black tarmac road the bus turns the last corner out of the mountains and we are met with just an expanse of flat plains that carry on for as far as the eye can see. In the middle is a dark grey square, that forms into the town of a Uyuni as we get closer.

There isn’t much to see in Uyuni itself, it’s just a dropping off point for tourists to head out to the Salta de Uyuni – Salt Flats.

The three day excursion in a jeep is the best way to see all that this part of Bolivia has to offer. We paid 740B/ £77 for our guide with Blue line tours.

It’s a 10am start and we are in our land cruiser with 3 additional tourists, a couple from France and a German girl. I quickly realise that our guide doesn’t speak English – thanks god for my Spanish lessons.

The first stop is the train graveyard less than a ten minutes drive away. Along what use to be old train tracks are rusty old steam trains, once used to deliver goods across Bolivia.

Now it looks more like a playground for train lovers; with adults climbing into and on top of of the trains to get that perfect Instagram picture. It’s quite sad to see these once great machines just abandoned, sinking ever more into the sand as each year passes.

It’s back into the jeep and off to what we have all been looking forward to, and what I have seen so many pictures of – Salar de Uyuni – the worlds largest salt lake at 9000 square kilometres. The lower levels are saturated by water, but covered by a thick crust of salt compacted together, strong enough to support a vehicle.

After lunch we head out further onto the salt lake and the pure white is blinding, the suns reflection makes it look like there is water all along the horizon. It’s such a magnificent sight.

With our guides help we all take a series of funny pictures, where one of you looks like an ant by walking far away in the distance. I manage to capture me gobbling Esteban, while the boys insist on making it about how strong they wish they were.

Next it’s onto the random rock formation that sprouts out of the lake and has thousands of cacti growing. Mother Nature is just incredible.

As we progress further towards the Chilean border over the next few days the landscape and scenery drastically changes. The colours of the mountains are made of a bright red colour, mixed with blues and greens.

I can only describe it as like being on a set of Star Wars or what it could be like when man first steps on Mars. I can’t quite believe this is on earth.

The sulphar lakes, with thousands of flamingos flying away every time you get to close. The multitude of colours reflecting against the days sun. All quite frankly mind blowing and by far the most beautiful sights I have ever seen and will be remembered for ever.

Running through hot steam gushing out through holes in the ground, at Sol de Manana like Mother Nature is giving off some steam. Larger holes that have boiling hot mud, that looks like grey molten lava bubbling away at over 1000 degrees centigrade on the surface.

The only negative part about this 3 days tour, is the amount of tourists that follow each other to every stop and just ruin every picture opportunity. Oh, and I would recommend ending at the border with Chile. As the 7 hour drive back to Uyuni is quite painful.