Bolivia is akin to an artist’s raw, unheralded masterpiece; beauty, uninterrupted. It was clear from my first step in the magical Salar de Uyuni, to my last, in the coral blue expanse of Lake Titicaca. In between, I spent a month experiencing a country that is surely one of the wonders of the world. A land of astounding contrasts; steeped in unrivalled natural majesty, but entrenched in poverty. This is South America’s poorest country, but viewed in the way nature intended, it’s richest.
Salar de Uyuni
My journey began in the geographical south of the country, but the cultural heart. The vast, gleaming plains of the Salar de Uyuni stretch for 10,582 square kilometres. When you are stood there, perhaps less significant than the grains of salt under your feet, they seem to stretch infinitely.
There are two possible landscapes here. In the dry season from May to September, an immeasurably pure white carpet of salt is set against the blue horizon. For the rest of the year, visitors witness an arguably greater spectacle as the white salt flats are enveloped in water, and form an almost inconceivable reflection of the sky.
I arrived in May on a three day tour with Estrella del Sur from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile with 5 others. Straight away, the altitude claimed its first victim. My Dutch friend lay incapacitated in her seat, unable to even look outside the window. At an altitude of approximately 3,656m, oxygen levels here are at roughly 65% of what they are at sea level and the plight of altitude sickness is not affected by a person’s fitness levels.
The luckiest of us stepped out into the blinding glare that greeted us. Sunglasses are a necessity if you value your sight; and of course I almost immediately lost mine as I was leaving our vehicle. We posed for the obligatory photos, our piece de resistance a can-can on a bottle of Coke (the metaphorical significance of this given a substance very similar in appearance to salt was completely lost on me at the time).
During the trip, you also see three lakes. Affirming Bolivia as a place of unique splendour, these three naturally-formed bodies of water come in the colours of molten red, emerald green and opal blue. They are spectacular, especially Laguna Colorada (molten red), which is set against a mountainous backdrop and lined with flamingos.
Another weirdly amazing part of the trip is a visit to the Train Graveyard. The extent of the trainspotting experience so far in my twentysomething years starred Ewan McGregor. However, just weaving through these rusted, discarded carriages and ultimately climbing to the top to survey the scene felt surprisingly sweet. Maybe it had to do with the subconscious realisation of where I really was at that moment.
However, it would be a disservice to ignore where that really was; a dreamlike landscape it may be, but a dreamlike existence scraped from it? Not so much. Mining of the salt continues to be done by hand to this day, and often the stark white landscape is punctuated with salt piles; the sustenance of the Colchani locals. Below is the image that truly captured the Salar de Uyuni; an image against the grain. It occurred to me it is easy to forget reality sometimes when you are travelling and selectively capturing thousands of years of history in a single flash for your own highlight reel.
On the theme of reality, it is probably worth noting that the nights are seriously cold. It didn’t help me that I lost at poker on the first night (we had no electricity so I couldn’t see- that’s my excuse) and slept in my boxers as a result. Completely unreasonable bet notwithstanding, I forged strong bonds with my group as we spent all of three days in each other’s company. As always, stories were exchanged and this time the winner was from Denmark; an opening line beginning with “A couple of days ago I skydived and my parachute didn’t open…” always has a strong chance of victory.
After 3 days and 2 nights in the salt flats, we boarded an overnight bus to Potosi. At an elevation of 4,090m, this is one of the highest cities in the world. However, the real heart lies not in its heights but at its core: Cerro Rico, a working mine once containing the world’s largest silver deposit but that has now been stripped of virtually all its mineral wealth. It is now better known as “the mountain that eats men”. Its deathly conditions have constricted the life out of many miners that earned their living where the light does not reach, deep in its depths.
Having spent the first day acclimatising, we donned the overalls and headed down into the darkness on the second day. Immediately, the suffocating heat hits you. Looking down, our feet had been submerged in a bright orange substance, the same that was dripping down from above our heads. This is arsenic, which along with asbestos, is one of the toxic chemicals responsible for the silicosis that disintegrates the lungs of the miners inside. Life expectancy for these men is less than 40- but there is no alternative here.
Being one of the bigger individuals, I was handed a shovel and asked to start mining. Within a minute, my lungs were burning, sweat dripping from my body. After a few minutes, perhaps sensing my severe discomfort (my thoughts had turned to what my last words would be), the next person was called upon as I tried to resume normal breathing. We spoke with a miner whose story echoed that of the thousands of other miners (including children starting shifts in the middle of the night before going to school). They eke out the only living they know or have access to in order to provide for their families. We presented him with the recommended gift of almost pure 100% alcohol. A dynamite demonstration followed, but the most unnerving moment for me was when we came upon a room in which stood a black deity, El Tio. We were greeted by entranced miners surrounding the imposing stone statue, its demeanour intimidating and dark. A monotone murmur echoed off the walls around us. This was devil worship, and a practice followed by all of the miners where “god doesn’t reach”. This was spine-chilling and I left deeply unsettled.
A short 4 hour bus ride followed as we moved on from a heavy couple of days in Potosi to arrive slightly further north in Sucre. The thing about travelling is you never know what’s round the corner, and it happened to be the best pizza of my life. We had just come out of the bus terminal and had walked into the first place serving anything; it didn’t even have 4 walls. The pizza came and after the first bite, I glanced up, swore triumphantly and turned culinary art to slowly savour into a savage, 3 minute interlude.
A word on food in Bolivia. Being vegetarian, I expected this to blow hot and cold. What I found mostly was genuinely good…when I was allowed in the restaurant. I often asked, “Hay comida vegetariana aqui?” before going in. A couple of times this was met with “No tenemos”, and I simply had to move on, which was unexpected to say the least. I also fell ill with food poisoning once, unable to resist cheese, one of my great loves. Dairy is generally risky if not heated. A really bad night later and now reflecting back, my thoughts are that it was still worth it for the cheese I had deprived myself of until then.
Sucre itself is a small, aesthetic city. Not as high as Potosi, many people settle here for a couple of months to take a Spanish language course. It’s the place that naturally breaks up the journey up to La Paz, and really grows on you the longer you stay there. It’s quiet, it’s friendly and it has that intangible congenial vibe. My visit coincided with Labor Day, involving a vibrant parade of local men and women dressed in traditionally extravagant attire pirouetting through the street in a rush of colour.
This was the perfect sign-off for the first half of my time in this mesmerizing country. Punch-drunk; a boxer heading back to his corner against the dancing heavyweight; but this was only round one. The baying arena of La Paz awaited.