Last days in Bolivia: Isla del Sol

I’d heard and read many good things about Isla del Sol, and at the very last minute I made an improvised visit for a couple of nights. I love improvising; some of my most special experiences have been those which have been on a whim and completely unplanned. I do it when it’s possible!

Leaving La Paz, I took a bus to Copacabana at the edge of Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable mass of water in the world), followed by a ferry across to the island. This would be my last stopping off point before I crossed from Bolivia into Peru, and it turned out to be very much a highlight of my three months abroad.

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The following description of the island is from Wikipedia, just to save me paraphrasing:

Geographically, the terrain is harsh; it is a rocky, hilly island with many eucalyptus trees. There are no motor vehicles or paved roads on the island. The main economic activity of the approximately 800 families on the island is farming, with fishing and tourism augmenting the subsistence economy. Of the several villages, Yumani and Ch’allapampa are the largest.

There are over 80 ruins on the island. Most of these date to the Inca period circa the 15th century AD. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that people lived on the island as far back as the third millennium BC. . . . In the religion of the Incas, it was believed that the sun god was born here.

That last sentence is important as you certainly do feel the presence of the sun all day long. I alighted the ferry in the early afternoon and started my trek up from the beach in search of a hotel room. As the island is remote, and my decision to visit was last-minute, I didn’t have anywhere reserved like I normally do. That steep climb up the hill towards the village of Yumani was particularly punishing – it was hot and, in addition to having a fully loaded backpack, I was still weaker than usual due to the high altitude.

I was in a picky mood that day and fussy about what kind of lodgings I would accept. I wanted something just right – a friendly owner, a pretty view, and something cosy. First, I went looking for one of the recommended places in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but it took ages to find, and when I finally did I was informed that the whole place had been booked by a private party. So I continued to plod from terrace to terrace, up and down, looking for somewhere else ‘nice’. I found a couple more places that I approved of, but in each case there was nobody around. I can really be my worst enemy sometimes; there were plenty of reasonable options on the hillside and a bit of flexibility here would have been better for me given my exhaustion!

I eventually secured a dusty bedroom where I took a long and restorative nap. The place was a simple two-storey hotel set around a courtyard garden with a central outdoor staircase up to the first floor. Speaking with the native Aymaran owner was my first extensive contact with a person of indigenous heritage and I found her to be confusingly indirect in her manner. For example, when I initially asked if I could have one of the upstairs rooms, she told me that they were all taken and presented me with one next to her own quarters. Although this sounded reasonable at the time, I later on realised I was the only guest in the entire place. There was also a bit of fiddly negotiation about when I could use the shower. Fresh water is brought to the island by boat and then carried up the hillside by llamas or donkeys, so the inhabitants are right to be careful about water usage, of course.

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Yumani village
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This early morning view over the lake is a favourite shot. A work colleague recently told me that he thought it looked like a stock photo, which I definitely took as a compliment.
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Panning down, we see probably the most idyllic breakfast I can ever remember having.
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Would anyone like to tell me what kind of bird this is? I rather liked the sight of it perched on top of this twisted tree.

After breakfast I set off for a long walk to the far end of the island and back to see the aforementioned Inca ruins. The restaurant owner where I took breakfast made me some lunch in a take-away container which was a bit saucy and unfortunately partly leaked out into my day pack while I was walking. Still, it was a worthy sacrifice for being able to fill up enroute – I didn’t take my chances as to there being many restaurants along the way.

The following images of my hike are in chronological order:

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Agricultural terraces near Yumani village
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Approaching the far end of the island

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Backpackers wear the same clothes over and over (you can’t carry very much), so this was my standard hiking outfit. You quickly realise which bits of gear are the most comfortable or practical and they become indispensable. I guess they get pretty sweat-soaked; a girl I was seeing at the time jokingly said I should burn them all after I came back!

The following morning I got up to watch the sunrise from my hotel’s upstairs terrace, which was just spectacular. I felt I was witnessing something important given the sun’s spiritual significance on the island, and as a self-confessed night owl I was pleased with myself for being able to get up so early.

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Standing in my hotel’s pretty courtyard garden just before sunrise.

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After breakfast — in the same restaurant because I am a man of habit — I went for an energetic hike to the tip of the near end of the island. I didn’t have long before I needed to catch the ferry back to the mainland, so I made the most of my time.

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I passed some crosses made out of interwoven branches supported by piles of small rocks. I imagine they were some kind of grave or shrine.

PD: As I write, this trip was well over a year ago now. I remain determined to finish documenting the story of my travels and with three weeks in Peru to go we are nearly there. It will be a great record for the future and selecting which photos to publish is good fun. Plus, it’s just nice to finish what you start, isn’t it?

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A rest in La Paz

From Sucre, I took the night bus to La Paz. I stayed here for nearly a week as my altitude sickness was fairly strong and I needed some time to recuperate. I stayed at an upmarket hostel not too far from the city centre, run by an enthusiastic local man who took a lot of pride in his recently opened lodgings, particularly the artisanal breakfast (it was good, but it wasn’t all that). Once again, I share some photo favourites.

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La Paz as viewed from the neighbouring city of El Alto above during late evening. The low sunlight across the mountains was stunning. A budding network of modern cable cars makes it easy to get to high ground.
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Empanadas constitute a typical paceño lunch. On the advice of the friendly hostel owner, I visited a local joint that makes them in the authentic manner. The stew contained within was very runny and to avoid making a mess I observed how other locals ate them before starting mine. The method is to hold the empanada vertically, take a bite off the end, then scoop out the insides with the spoon. Certainly this was unique compared to the way I’ve seen empanadas eaten in other South American countries.
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Somehow this photo made the cut onto my blog! What a silly (but also adorable) dog. It was poking its head out from under the gate of its owner’s house. Just playing about, I think.
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The main bus terminal, housed behind a very grand façade.
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Inside the bus terminal
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Basílica de San Francisco

My next stop was to Lake Titicaca, which I’ll follow up with in the next post.

Sucre

Here are a few selected photos (I didn’t take many) of my stay in Sucre, following on from Potosí.

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Arriving into town. Nearly every car in Bolivia seems to be a used Japanese import, such as this taxi that has been crudely converted from right-hand drive. I had to do a double take when I got in as it just looked so bizarre!
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The lion in the city centre’s Plaza 25 de Mayo
Cute girl pouncing on pigeons in the main square in Sucre
Children playing in Plaza 25 de Mayo
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Eating ice cream at a local heladería
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The local buses in the smaller cities, like Potosí and Sucre, are Far Eastern imports. Many of them still have oriental writing on them, such as this one: ‘Sunfish Sports Club – Furukawa’.

 

The mines in Potosí

The second stopping point I made in Bolivia was in Potosí, four hours’ drive along winding mountain roads from Uyuni. Founded in 1545, it is a small, relatively provincial city located an impressive 4070 metres above sea level.

Potosí has a beautiful central square surrounded by splendid colonial era buildings – including a cathedral and The National Mint (now a museum) – though away from the centre the ambience is less impressive. The edges of the city, apparently expanding rapidly, mostly appear to comprise reinforced concrete and red-brick utilitarian dwellings. In addition, the air is rather contaminated, due to a proliferation of aging city buses that belch out unsavoury clouds of black smoke. Although you wouldn’t think it now, the settlement was once the most prosperous in the whole of Latin America. The reason: Cerro Rico.

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The main square: Plaza 10 de Noviembre

Translated as ‘rich hill’, this mountain once contained seemingly inexhaustible reserves of silver. When the Spanish discovered this, they founded the city and set about pressing thousands of indigenous workers, as well as many more African slaves, into service. They mined the silver relentlessly in some of the most appalling conditions imaginable and invariably lived short lives. The metal, which was sent back to Spain, was a considerable source of wealth for the empire for over 250 years by which time the reserves were virtually depleted.

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Cerro Rico seen from the cathedral’s bell tower

Nowadays, mining continues to be a big business in Potosí. The mines are run as co-operatives, which means that the miners work for themselves and take home whatever they are able to extract. Each team of workers define their own area of the mine which is off-limits to everyone else. As there is no longer very much silver left, most of what is harvested from within the mountain is tin, lead or zinc.

As I learned more about Potosí in the days leading up to my arrival, I became increasingly keen to take part in an organised mine tour. Claustrophobia was never a concern for me, but I did fantasise about the mine collapsing while I was in it, something that happened in Chile some years ago leaving 33 men (affectionately known in Spanish as Los 33) trapped underground. Eventually, I decided that the chances of anything untoward happening were extremely remote, the oldest parts of the mine having been there for centuries and my foray inside being for only an hour or two. I was determined to explore.

So on the morning of my first full day in Potosí, I set off for the tour company office with a new Australian friend called Aaron. He was very hesitant to go into the mines, but between me and one of the tour guides that we spoke with the night before, we managed to convince him that it would be a worthwhile experience. From the office, a rattly old minibus took us and the other tourists to our first stop: the miner’s market.

Here, workers typically visit in the morning to purchase tools (dynamite, gloves, pickaxes, etc.) and food and drink. We were advised by one of the guides that we could buy gifts here to give to the miners once inside. His actual wording was, ‘it’s not obligatory but it is a bit necessary’; I found this contradiction rather amusing. I bought a bag of coca leaves (which all miners seem to be addicted to chewing on) and a pair of protective gloves.

At the next stop we were kitted out in full protective gear. This comprised overalls, Wellington boots and a hard hat with integrated headlamp. Curiously, the battery for the light was attached to a belt that we wore round our waists – perhaps it was too large, heavy or fragile to fit onto the helmet itself.

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Aaron and I in our protective gear

After a short visit to a smelter to see how the ore is processed (and where I nearly stepped on a fragile plastic pipe carrying noxious metallic liquids – oops), we were driven up the mountain where we arrived at the entrance of the mine itself. This was the big moment.

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One of the large machines in the smelter
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‘Consumption of alcohol is forbidden during working hours’

The six of us followed our Bolivian guide inside the opening. The twisting passageway was narrow and very low, but fortunately it opened up into a roomier cavern just as soon as daylight had completely disappeared. Here we encountered our first miner, who was hurriedly carting a wheelbarrow full of rocks out to the entrance. We were asked to move out of the way as he scuttled past.

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Entering the mine for the first time
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A miner carrying rocks out of the mine

The subsequent passageway was relatively large and propped up by wooden supports. Still, we had to be careful to avoid random holes and shafts that we could fall into (insert obligatory anglophile joke about lack of health and safety precautions). As we walked, I noticed we were tracing the route of a network of large pipes that gave off a high-pitched whining noise. It turned out that these were air pipes, which delivered pressure to pneumatic drills further inside the mountain.

Meeting a couple more miners – who communicate with each other in Quechua rather than Spanish – we were informed that there would shortly be a series of nearby dynamite detonations. This definitely got us on our toes!

We were lead into a quiet cavernous corner of the mine which was relatively safe from the dangers of falling rocks. Next to us as we sat down was an ominous looking ceramic figurine with horns, marbles for eyes and a large penis(!), lavished with multiple offerings of coca leaves and confetti. Empty beer cans littered the floor around him, and cigarettes had been placed in his mouth and lit. As the mines are hot and rather hellish underground environments, many miners conclude that they must be close to the devil, and that the metals they mine belong to him. Offerings are left at his shrine, therefore, in order to appease him so that they might avoid accidents – and, of course, strike it lucky in their hunt for precious metals. He is referred to as Tío (‘Uncle’) or Supay – but never as Diablo.

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El Tio’s shrine is littered with offerings

Our guide explained the customs and beliefs of the miners, after which he proceeded to pass round a small bottle of 97% rubbing alcohol. Following his suggestion, we each poured a few drops on the ground, as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth), before taking a small swig. As you can imagine, it is extremely nasty stuff to be imbibing, but nevertheless one must respect a miners’ tradition. Finally, we were told that we could ask Tío for a wish. Many of the miners ask for more girlfriends; a lot of them already have half a dozen, or so they claim!

There came some shouting, in Quechua, from another part of the mine. It was to warn us that the detonations were about to begin. The seven of us remained quiet, and waited with nervous excitement.

BOOM!

The explosion shook the mine with a deep and vigorous thud that permeated every atom around us.

BOOM!

I likened it to being in the vicinity of a warzone, something I’ve fortunately never experienced.

BOOM!

(Etc.)

And so the detonations continued for a minute or so more. It was a visceral and humbling experience that I suppose brought our little group closer together, in a primal sort of way. At last, another shout from a distant part of the mine indicated that the detonations were over, and we could now relax.

We left Tío’s shrine and continued exploring the mine further, passing through narrow passageways and climbing rickety ladders; the smell of dynamite wafted through the air. We came across more miners, one of whom was completely covered in white dust; he had been using a pneumatic drill. I was glad to see that he was wearing a respiratory mask, but I think he was the only one.

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Navigating the mine’s passageways was at times awkward
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A miner hard at work

The miners didn’t seem to express too much gratitude upon receiving their gifts, or for that matter really very much of anything at all. Our guide later explained that they become reserved around us Gringo tourists, and spending a large proportion of their lives underground, are often in awe of how different we look from local people. We must take into account, too, that Bolivians are generally very introverted from a cultural perspective. However, the miners are apparently rather gregarious between one another when tourists aren’t around, giving each other rude nicknames. Our guide, also a miner, reluctantly told us that he had been christened the Quechuan equivalent of ‘donkey fucker’.

These sort of jokes assist with keeping up morale. A miners’ life often begins in early adolescence and is one of hellish and relentless toil; conditions have hardly changed since colonial times. Miners typically work for 10-15 years before becoming afflicted with silicosis pneumonia, a result of continuous exposure to asbestos and other noxious gases, eventually leading to death. Staying in good spirits is therefore of the utmost importance, and we were advised several times beforehand that we should enter the mines with a positive disposition.

A second series of detonations, some more shimmying around narrow passageways, and a pause at another shrine followed. After this time, we were lead back outside for a little debrief and the chance to ask any final questions.

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A group photo on the top of Cerro Rico

Entering the mines in Potosí was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience that offered a glimpse into a totally different way of life from what I am familiar with. My lengthy write-up is surely testament to the richness of the tour. Even Aaron admitted that his earlier fears were mostly in his head, and that he too had enjoyed the experience.

Uyuni and further upwards

I confess that it’s been a while since my last blog entry here. Actually, nearly two months have passed since I concluded my travels in South America and returned to England. I’ve so far documented the highlights of my seven weeks in Argentina from start to finish, but haven’t yet broached the latter six weeks spent in Bolivia and Peru. Rest assured I’m determined to finish my story, as a) I don’t like leaving projects half-way and b) I still have plenty of impressive photos and stories to share.

I ventured north from Salta to a small and dusty border town called La Quiaca, where I spent a single night before crossing on foot into Bolivia. From the other side of the frontier I would make my way up to Uyuni, a small city and gateway to the country’s fabled salt flats. I was pleasantly surprised to find out I would be going there by train: there is a narrow-gauge railway network that connects what I presume are the key mining towns of Bolivia together. Originally built to carry mineral exports to the Pacific coast via Chile, there are currently a handful of passenger trains each week.

A brief word about altitude sickness. Since Salta, I’d ascended from a modest 1,150 metres above sea level to 3,700m in Uyuni, and I would be ascending to a staggering 5,000m+ for a brief period during the salt flats expedition. The NHS website states:

Altitude sickness is a common condition that can occur when you climb to a high altitude too quickly. The decrease in atmospheric pressure makes breathing difficult because you aren’t able to take in as much oxygen. Most cases are mild, with symptoms that can include: headache; nausea; dizziness; exhaustion.

Proper acclimatisation to altitudes of about 2,500m (just over 8,200 feet) or more is the best way to prevent altitude sickness. It usually takes a few days for the body to get used to a change in altitude.

I was lucky enough not to experience any headaches, nausea or dizziness whatsoever. However, I did suffer from fairly extreme exhaustion for quite a few days as well as breathlessness when exerting myself physically.

After resting for a few days, I embarked on the Salar de Uyuni three-day expedition, in which you get taken to see the famous salt flats, and then up into the surrounding mountains. It is a breathtaking tour and is more or less the sole tourist draw to the city. Below are a selection of photos from the trip, which the iPad version of the WordPress website has arranged into a very nice mosaic-style grid.

Around Salta: Cachi & Cafayate

Moving on from urban Corrientes in northeastern Argentina, I arrived in Salta where I would spend several days. It is an attractive colonial city with plenty of old buildings, good food and a lively atmosphere. As part of the former Inca empire, the area has a distinctly more indigenous feel from other parts of Argentina that I visited.

At the hostel I made friends with two Brazilian ladies, Anelise and Ana, and we decided to rent a car together for a couple of days to see Cachi and Cafayate. These are a pair of pretty rural towns to the south that can be easily visited from Salta, and thanks to the interesting routes one takes to get to these settlements, make for a worthwhile excursion. I was excited to be driving for the first time in South America, though as the girls didn’t feel confident taking the wheel on Argentinian roads, the onus was on me for the entire 500km!

On the road. We drove along national routes 30 (to Cachi), 40 (to Cafayate) and 68 (back to Salta)
Some rather nice dahlias seen at a rest stop on the way
Entering Los Cardones national park, we begin to note the cacti adorning the hillsides
We look back along the winding road after a steep ascent into the mountains

The Los Cardones National Park that we drove through on the way to Cachi was the most impressive part of the journey for me. The mountainous desert landscapes were littered with such large numbers of Cardon Grande Cacti I couldn’t believe it. I think I’d only really appreciated similar plants in conservatories and glasshouses in Europe beforehand, so it was impressive to see them proliferating in their natural environment.

Cardon Grande cacti – also known as the Argentine Saguaro – were everywhere

I got told off by a rather surly tour guide at one of the viewpoints for stepping outside the designated walking area – apparently this can interfere with the reproduction of the cacti, due to the way they scatter their seeds on the ground. To be fair on me, there were no signs or other warnings posted to this effect.

Just the three of us (four if you count the cactus)

We were running well behind schedule by the time we arrived in Cachi, so we had a late lunch at 5pm at the first restaurant we found, followed by a stroll to the main square for a quick coffee/ice cream and back to the car for the journey on to Cafayate. The road from here onwards was unpaved and very twisty and bumpy, so care and concentration was needed, especially after nightfall. Local radio and music stored on our smartphones played through the car’s hi-fi kept us motivated, and after what seemed like an eternity we finally hit smooth asphalt road on the approach to Cafayate. We parked the car just as it started to pour with rain, and we hastily searched for two of the most important things in the world after a long journey: lodgings and a place to eat supper.

If the town of Cafayate had something to offer culturally or otherwise, I’m afraid to say we didn’t have a chance to find out what it was. Anelise had a 4pm bus to catch leaving from Salta, so we had to hit the road right after breakfast. This may sound hasty for a return journey of only 200km on a properly paved road, but the reality was that we were going to be driving through Quebrada de las Conchas. Here, we would encounter a myriad of impressive natural rock formations that would urge us to stop and explore.

The sign says: Hydraulic action has eroded the red sandstone layers of this canyon, inviting you to see the interior with its endless number of magical geological formations. Ideal for short hikes.
Me amongst the cacti in Quebrada de la Conchas
I thought these stuffed cacti at a roadside gift shop were very cute, and am planning to have a go at making some of my own when I get back to London. Note the price tags: $65 refers to Argentine pesos (around £3.50); I didn’t previously know that the $ sign was used to denote other currencies than US dollars.
La Ventana (the window) seen in Quebrada de las Conchas
El Anfiteatro (the amphitheatre) in Quebrada de las Conchas, our final viewpoint

The last part of our drive was somewhat rushed and after all that non-stop driving I did get a bit stressed, especially as we re-entered Salta with its congested roads and carefree Argentine drivers. But we made it on time, and once Ana and I had dropped Anelise off at the bus station, and subsequently left the car at the rental agency, I set about having a decent siesta at the hostel! A little more breathing space in terms of time would have been great, but having said that we packed a lot in and saw some wonderful areas of natural beauty, so really we couldn’t have asked for much more.

Exploring a swamp

In northeast Argentina lies Iberá Provincial Nature Reserve. It is a large wetlands, remote and difficult to access, with enormous biodiversity. Think caimans, capybaras, deer and a dazzling array of wild bird species, all living in harmony in their natural habitat. After getting caught up in the beaten tourist trail that is Iguazú, I was keen to have a deeper and more personal experience with nature. Iberá was, for this reason and many others, an attractive prospect.

The wetlands are accessed from the small community of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini. To get there, I had to get a bus south from Corrientes to Mercedes, and then take a privately run minibus early the next morning to the reserve itself. The latter journey is slow, as the road is unpaved and in particular difficult to pass after rain without a 4×4.

The rickety old bridge that grants access to Carlos Pellegrini

I arrived, along with a few other tourists, at around midday; the heat and humidity was searing. I found a simple lodging at a place called Hospedaje los Amigos, which to put it politely was not a well-loved place. Behind the shower curtain in my bathroom were hundreds of mosquitos taking their siesta, the net on the window having had a large hole ripped in it. The place overall was fairly unsavoury and unsanitary. I am not too picky regarding accommodation but I do prefer a reasonably clean and cared for environment; basic on the other hand is no problem.

Enormous toads came out in the lodging’s garden during a spell of rain, which unlike the mosquitoes in my bathroom I thought were very cool indeed

 

Here you get an idea of their size

 

Fortunately the other guests staying there were nice. I met two German ladies in their twenties (who may or may not have been in a couple), an older man from Argentina and an American chap called Gregory. We got to know each other over lunch and decided we would go down together to the campsite, where the boats launch from in the evening, for a tour of the swamp.

The boat tour itself was fantastic and the punter got us up close to several caimans, as well as groups of capybaras that were swimming about. I am particularly keen on this large rodent, perhaps for its exotic nature or perhaps simply for its cuteness. Gregory had a DSLR camera similar to mine but kitted out with an enormous telephoto lens. This allowed him to get some excellent close-ups of the various avian fauna and I do slightly regret only having brought a wide angle lens (but I will make sure to borrow my Dad’s zoom lens next time!). Greg is a man who has travelled extensively in his twenties and thirties, with many fascinating stories to tell, and has learned exactly what he most enjoys as a traveler. As such, while Iberá was just one of many stopping off points for me, visiting it was the sole purpose of his trip.

A heron is just about to fly off as we drift past it. The punters switch off the outboard motor near the fauna which I thought was a nice touch as it allows you to better appreciate the surroundings.
A family of seemingly laid back capybaras amongst the foliage
A different capybara swimming around the swamp in evening light
A caiman; we saw several and were told that they open their mouths to cool down when they are too hot. I was pleased to get this very nice shot of him (or her)…

Our boat. I don’t think anyone noticed me take this photo!
We set foot briefly on a floating island. Notice the dragonflies in the air behind me; they were in abundance.

The next morning, the two of us went for a walk outside of town to reach a few of the short trails that the wetlands offer in addition to the boat launches. The first was a raised wooden walkway that takes you some way into the swamp area. It was not the sights, but the sounds which most impressed me here. The harmonious combination of insect, amphibian and bird noises was out of this world: it was music to the ears and wonderfully enchanting.

Click here to hear the sounds of the swamp

The other two treks we made were in the jungle. Here, one is supposed to be able to encounter Howler monkeys, which are billed as being the world’s loudest land animal. After a little observation we did find one high up in a tree, but unfortunately for us it remained motionless and silent. So we did not see very much in the way of wildlife here, although the sounds were once again impressive. Gregory rightly mentioned that you have to spend a lot of time in nature to properly observe your animals of interest – the more time you dedicate, the better your chances – precisely why he had chosen to stay in the reserve for several days.

A large moth or butterfly seen on the trek through the jungle

Although I myself only spent a day there, the wetlands offered exactly the brief respite I needed from the air-headed tourist haven I had just come from. It was an enriching experience and I hope to someday visit another swamp!