Hello dear friends! I have to tell you right off the bat that after the success of my last entry, I´ve been driving myself nuts with pressure for a repeat performance. Unfortunately, at this time I am not quite inspired to the right degree…sitting in an Internet Cafe (No Wi-Fi- or wee-fee as we say in Spanish) surrounded by teenage boys signed into their online role-playing games and bass bumping out of the speakers as the guy running the place (yes another teenage boy) turns up the dance club music. Internet cafe cum Discoteca cum Video arcade?
So I decided to stop beating myself up over the quality of my blog and just post. See, tomorrow night we are boarding a bus headed for Tupiza, a town at the edge of the Uyuni Salt Flats. Strange as it may sound, the Salt Flats are one of the top tourist destinations in Bolivia. A 4 day tour driving around endless flats of freezing cold and high altitude salt where you spend most the day in the car and flat tires/breakdowns are common place may sound like a nightmare, but it´s one of the top tours around here and we´ve heard amazing things about the trip. So off we go tomorrow. But the Salt Flats don´t have much in the way of modernity. Electricity? Heating? Internet? Ha! So I figured I might as well try to post something so that you, my dear readers, wouldn´t think I´d forgotten about you. So lower your expectations of greatness and read on for an update on our last couple weeks in Bolivia.
After we returned from Buenos Aires, we took a couple of days to explore the picturesque, new-agey town of Samaipata, in the east near Santa Cruz. We stayed in one of very favorite hostels so far, La Posada del Sol, run by Texan Trent and Bolivian Chery. It was absolutely adorable- the kind of place that makes you understand how folks get stuck down here longer than planned. Samaipata was relaxing and beautiful, but we had a bit of a misadventure at El Fuerte– the local ruins. I have to say, if you want ruins, don´t come to Bolivia. Especially not after Peru. Peru´s ruins are incredible. And not just Macchu Piccu- Peru is covered, top to bottom, with amazing ruins. So many that I was actually a bit relieved to cross the border and know that it´s be while until I had to admire stone walls again. But here we were in the middle of the countryside, in a town where the top ruitourist attraction is the ruins on top of the hill- said to have mystical powers. So we hopped in a taxi and headed out there. Some of you who have been loyal readers since Ecuador may remember the tragic bus ride that earned me the nickname Poop Girl (still Cameron´s favorite name for me- so much for romance.) Well, at the risk of turning away some of my readers, I admit that Poop Girl has made another memorable appearance.
The one way walking loop around El Fuerte takes about 2 hours to complete. We had shared a taxi and were walking with two girls we´d met at the hostel. The four of us paid our entrance fee and started around the loop. We were about 30 minutes and a few viewpoints into the hike when we noticed the intense rain cloud looming in the distance. Not simply the type of rain cloud that threatens, this was the type where you can see the sheets of rain falling through the sky and heading directly towards you. It was also at this precise moment that the thunder started in my gut. I knew with certainty that a storm was on it´s way and we weren´t going to make it another hour and a half back to shelter before it hit. I casually told our friends that I was going to run back to the bathrooms and I´d catch up with them. Cam snuck me the spare bit of T.P he had in his pocket and off I went, nearly running up the hill. I´d only made it about 10 minutes when the drizzle started coming down and I realized that in my haste I´d left my raincoat with Cameron. I also realized that my own internal storm had reached a crucial point. Waiting was not an option. Luckily, the rain had scared the tourists off and the path was empty…for now. The situation was a first for me, and I´ll spare you the details. Let´s just say I have a new appreciation for the many uses of wet leaves. When Cam and the girls made it back to the front, I was wet and waiting for them. Cam reassured me that I didn´t miss much and we headed back to town.
After Samaipata we worked our way over to Cochabamba. Cochabamba was memorable for the protests in the street. I mentioned in an earlier post the road blocks and protests in La Paz after New Years when President Evo Morales tried to remove the government subsidy on gas- it would have raided the price of gas 70% in one day.
The people fought back and Morales backed down. But it wasn´t just the gas subsidy. He also removed subsidies on sugar and flour. I don´t quite understand the whole of the situation, but I can tell you that the Bolivian people are protective of their sweets. They went straight to the streets to fight for their sugar. Cochabamba is known as the political activist center of Bolivia- in 2000 they made international news for fighting World Bank and the privatization of Bolivia´s water. And they take their job as protesters seriously. Every day was filled with chanting, bottle rockets, and noise of all kinds through the streets- rain or shine. It was all peaceful, but was definitely enough to put me on edge.
Next was Sucre, an adorable colonial town that I can envision staying in for a while. Beautiful plazas, a lot of tourists…and water balloon wars. The local kids were ready for Carnival and armed with water balloons and aerosol bottles of spray foam. Number one target? Gringos. Every time we ventured near the central market for world-class fruit salads, we ended up soaking wet. So we did the only logical thing. We bought our own water balloons, stored them out of sight, and surprised the hell out of the kids by throwing back. Imagine how embarrassing it must be to get pegged by Gringos! The other highlight of Sucre was our visit to Parque Creactico- where the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world was discovered by a local cement company about 30 years ago. Pretty cool.
Potosi was a bit more…depressing. Located at 13,500 feet, Potosi is cold and airless. But once, it was the wealthiest city in the world. When the Spanish found out that the local mountain, Cerro Rico, was filled with silver, they began exporting it by the ton. First local indigenous people, and then African slaves died by the thousands in the mines where they worked for 6 months at a time without every seeing daylight. Mules too, who apparently live only 3-6 months in Potosi´s conditions, were imported at 5,000 per year and worked to death. Potosi was a town that grew exponentially, lined with silver, and when the silver ran out, the town fell just as fast. It´s very much still a mining town- but there isn´t much left to mine. The miners (including an estimated 800 children) develop silcosis pneumonia within 7-10 years of starting mine work and have a life span of about 35 years. The mines are filled with silca dust and asbestos. The reason most tourists go to Potosi in the first place is to take part of one of the Mine Tours. As a tourist you dress up in protective clothing and rubber boots and then wriggle through holes in the 100 degree heat of the mines to see the hell that is the miners´reality. Talking to people who have done the tour, the most common review is “It´s an experience…”. Cameron decided long ago not to do a tour. He says he feels a bit too voyeuristic watching the miners work. But I was torn about whether I should do it or not. I wanted to…I felt like it would be good for me to see that reality, but I was scared. I was scared of the airless heat down there, of feeling claustrophobic, of doing it without Cameron, and of the poison that fills the air. They say that spending 2 hours inside is unlikely to cause any long-term problems, but what if… In the end, after days of wavering and watching a wonderful, but devastating documentary about a child miner called El Minero del Diablo, I decided not to go on a tour. I´m ashamed that I was too afraid to face for 2 hours what the miners face every day of their lives, but that was my decision. So we finally left Potosi and headed for friendlier ground in Tarija.
Tarija is Bolivia´s wine country. Campos de Solano, La Concepcion, and Kohlberg are some of the bigger vineyards around here. Tarija is beautiful and so far we love it. We´ve found delicious street food (which literally can make or break a place for us, we´re such foodies. Last night we drank a delicious $4 bottle of local wine and feasted on kabob, rice, and cheesy corn crepes for about $2.50) and a very interesting park/rec center/zoo (we paid 14 cents to get in and watched the monkeys play for an hour). We have a nice little garden hostel where we´ve made friends with another American couple. Tomorrow we head out for a half day wine tasting tour (3 vineyards with transport and a guide for $14) and then hop on a night bus that will drop us off in the town near the Salt Flats at 3:30 am.
After we finish with the Salt Flats we´re off to Argentina for Carnival and I promise we´ll have lots and lots of stories for you after a week of drunken debauchery and parades! Until then, stay dry and foam-free and know we are making plenty of toasts to our friends and family at home!