Bolovian southern Alto Plano
19.10.2011 - 31.10.2011 32 °C
Apologies for the lack of photos and hyperlinks but I´m working on rudimentary PCs...
I have joined a merry band of travellers, overlanding in a truck named Gus, from La Paz in Bolivia to Santiago in Chile <http://www.dragoman.com/>. The main attraction of the trip is traversing the southern Bolivian Alto Plano which would otherwise be difficult to do on my own. The high desert plateau that stretches from south of Potosi to the borders with both Chile and Argentina <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altiplano>.
Potosi (one of the highest city in the world at 4,067m), marks our entry to a world of: sand in your little bits; searing sun in the day; brittle, neigh, freezing nights/mornings; and the most stunning landscapes. Potosi itself is all faded grandeur and hard work - the main industry is still centred on the hill, Cerro Rico, that overshadows the town <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potos%C3%AD>. A hill that hosts 5,000 silver mines and has seen the death of 8 million people since the colonialists first started working it in the 16thC. The ore is manually dug out of the mine and the women-folk crack the rocks open to pick out the best bits to sell on.
We visited the mine. I´m not a fan of the heath and safety profession generally but there was a harrowing lack of it and some wouldn´t have gone amiss. We purchased dynamite sticks and ignitors along with and coca leaves for chewing as presents for the miners. We pulled scarves over our faces to ´protect´ from the noxious gases and had a hard hat against the myriad of head butting hazards on our way. The two mines we visit are dark, hot, cold, wet, narrow and low and I am so blessed not to be working there.
The miners work in co-ops since the government washed its hands of the mines in the 80s, and in turn the government had nationalised them in the 50s from the hands of foreign-owned private companies that were leaching the wealth out of Bolivia. Our guide tells us that they are likely to be closed, good news for the 2-3 people who still die each month but bad news for the community that rely on the now slim pickings.
Next is Uyuni at the edge of the Alto Plano. It is notable for its salt flats (the remnants of a massive sea across which the dinosaurs roamed), and being close to the place where Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid eventually met their maker. Three salt flats facts: they are the largest in the world and apart from being visually spectacular conceal 50-70% of the world´s lithium and are so flat they are used to calibrate satellites. Lithium is key in the manufacture of batteries especially those for hybrid cars. If the cars take off who knows how long the salt flats will survive the pressure to process them... <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salar_de_Uyuni>.
The flats are an endless expanse of white out. It is difficult to get a sense of distance and it is this characteristic that lends itself to a creative photo oppotunity. We spend an entertaining half hour taking perspective-bending photos. I am being eaten by a carniverous toy dinosaur and popping out of the neck of a beer bottle.
The highlight, apart from the hotel made of salt blocks, is Fish Island. It is a fish-shaped rock island in a sea of salt: an island that is covered in cactii up to 6,000 years old and is visually breath taking. I take too many photos of the cactii against the salt sea and the altar to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) at the top.
Then it is onto the Plano Alto for real. We are off road and make slow but romantic progress. Gus wends his way through the snow-capped volcano cones and the muli-coloured lakes. At one point we can see volcano cones in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina at the same time. The lakes are hues that reflect their chemical composition. We see lakes of calcium carbonate (white); arsenic (green) <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laguna_Verde_(Bolivia)>; and algae (red) <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colorada_Lake>. But the bounty of flamingoes aren´t fussy about the colour - they are happy to graze on any putrid sulphur-smelling lake.
My over-riding sense, as we progressed towards the Chilean border was of the first Planet of the Apes movie <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planet_of_the_Apes_(1968_film) - the part where Charlton Heston crash lands with his fellow astronauts in a lake. After escaping the sinking spacecraft they walk optimistically through a parched desert landscape they unaware of the fate that is in store for them, dun dun duhhh....