Its been a couple of weeks since this whirlwind tour of southern Bolivia, so my summaries are brief and not particularly detailed. But memories aren´t going to get any fresher, so I better write something before going home, where my recollections will jumble with the excitement of seeing family, friends, and maple trees. In Arequipa, where I´m writing this, all the internet cafes are full of teenage boys playing online games that must be collaborative, because they´re yelling at each other about hidden enemies and urgent actions, and this nonstop screaming all around me isn´t facilitating calm thinking either. Asi es la vida.
A canceled Cochabamba-Uyuni bus forced me to change plans and check out the famous “white city” of Sucre, of which I´d heard very mixed reivews. Some fellow travelers loved it and stayed for weeks while others told me I should skip it. Its a relatively prosperous city, the constitutional capital of Bolivia, and its marketed as a safe and beautiful place to visit and study spanish. I arrived at 6am and enjoyed my early morning walk from the bus station to the market´s fresh fruit stands. Found a hostel recommended by some German travelers whom I had bumped into four different times in Cochabamba (we clearly had the same rhythm, from plaza to park to restaurant to bus station) and took a siesta. At this hostel I found myself surrounded by young foreign travelers, mostly european, and all white: the first such moment in my travels. Because I´d heard from some long-time Bolivian residents that Sucre had a reputation of being a racist place (“white city”…go figure), I asked at the hostel if they had any sense of racism in the city. The German dueño replied that its only a problem when people like me dwell on it, that he doesn´t think there´s any racism, and that I should just relax and have a good time. I wanted to leave pronto.
What struck me about the city was its lack of graffiti. La Paz was full of all kinds of messages and art on its walls: wheatpasted posters, stencils, colorful murals. But Sucre´s downtown is a grid of plain whitewashed buildings. Every building is white and unmarked. I kept getting lost.
After just one night in Sucre I hopped on a bus to Potosi, a much more colorful place. The imposing Cerro Rico mountain looms over the city, casting a shadow heavy with its history of incomprehensible exploitation. Five hundred years of mining it has left it totally barren of vegetation, and it has an oddly symmetrical form, straight lines leading to a dull, dusty point. As many as eight million people have died in the mines here, many enslaved to the silver-crazed Spanish empire. In the 1600s, Potosi was one of the biggest cities in the world.
A kind old woman looks after me on the impossibly crowded bus downtown, and I feel bad for having a giant backpack while people are crowded in the aisle and hanging out the door. Just as I get off the bus I witness a gorgeous glowing sunset and make my way to the Koala Den, the friendliest hostel of my trip. A trio of young French women share their excess pasta with me and I spend the night talking with folks from all over the world.
I got into some deeper conversation with a mother and daughter fresh from a vipassana retreat (seriously, mom!). Ilivia, the mom, grew up in Chile and moved to Argentina when repression got intense. Then she moved to Germany when dictatorship came to Argentina. Ilona, her daughter around my age, grew up in a community of Chileans in Germany. We decided to spend the next day together, wandering around the pleasant downtown area then taking a bus out of town to hot springs. Eventually we found the Ojo del Inca, a serene hot spring set between gorgeous mountains, a short hike from the road. Swimming all afternoon was magnificent, with clouds giving us occasional breaks from the strong sun, and Ilivia feeding us and the ducks slices of carrots and tunas (not fish—refreshing seedy cactus fruit!)
The next morning I woke with a fever—not a good sign, but one I didin´t think much about at the time. Manuel, an Argentine traveler I´d bumped into twice in two different cities, and I headed to the bus station to leave for Uyuni and its famous salar. We scored the last two “seats” on the bus…sitting up front with the driver and his helper. One of us got a seat and the other sat on some steps in the middle, and the kid who took tickets spent half the trip standing in a squished spot by the door and half the trip sleeping…maybe in one of the luggage holds underneath, I don´t know where else he could have been. The trip was beautiful, long, and slow. Uyuni felt quite desolate and somehow managed to be an ugly little city in the middle of beautiful land. Garbage is a huge problem there, strewn everywhere, and plastic bags blown far and wide, snagged in bushes. In my search for a hotel room I made a friend in Juliana, from Cordoba, Argentina. We shared a room…and terrible sickness that night. Our tours were already reserved and paid for, so we took care of ourselves as best we could and hoped for the best.
We shared the next three days with a couple from Australia on a round-the-world trip and two women from Germany. Between all those english speakers and Jose, our driver, who spoke only spanish, and Juliana, who spoke mostly spanish, I was surprised to be the most adept translator in the car. At first I tried translating everything for the German women, who spoke very little spanish, but that proved relatively unsuccessful, so they took the back seat and enjoyed the landscape that transcended language completely, entertaining us with frequent giggling. Jose, born in Uyuni, told us that the town served as a train hub for much of South America until the 1990s, when Bolivia´s train infrastructure was completely abandoned in favor of privatization, cars, and highways. The trains left in Uyuni now sit in a “graveyard” where artists have added beautiful and fun elements like swings to the rusting metal. Today the city thrives on tourism, and many residents hope to see the salt flats exploited for the underlying lithium.
Quinoa is originally from the Uyuni area, and as the market for it keeps growing, it becomes more valuable to the regional economy. Fifty kilos sell for about $100 these days, and the price keeps going up. I liked quinoa a lot before coming here, but after seeing the beautiful red, yellow, and green plants waving in the high altiplano wind, I like it even more. Llamas eat it too, and their meat is also a hot commodity in the Uyuni area. Driving out of town towards the salar, we passed a lone baby llama standing near the body of its mother, dead on the side of the road. The bewilderment of the little creature was palpable, and the memory of the poor thing haunted me for the entire trip.
We visited the salar itself that first day, taking lots of pictures of the surreal endless white and blue landscape, occasionally brightened up with a crew of pink flamingos flying overhead. The rainy season left anywhere from an inch to a foot or more of water on top of the salt, so workers make neat little piles to dry and harvest it. The only worker we saw out there had ridden his bicycle through the water :)
After the salar, we drove through a wild mix of landscapes: huge rocks, colored lagoons, volcanic mountains, sandy high desert. We´d stop and climb around, taking pictures, but the vast majority of the time was spent in the vehicle. I survived the days with minimal discomfort but each night was miserable. Of course I´ll show you some love by sparing you the details, but I did pass out on a bathroom floor one night. Those southern lands would be incredible to explore independently, because after the caravan of vehicles is gone, the silence must be incredibly profound.
I have lots of beautiful memories of the salar, but I´m exhausted right now and the photos will do a better job of telling you what it was like: