Once we finally chose a tour operator from a plethora of options, and gave up on finding Michael, a friend we met in La Paz, we left to tour the southwest region of Bolivia. We spent 3 days trying to cover as much of the region as we could, and I can safely say that for that entire three days I felt like I was on an insanely different planet in a completely different galaxy, light-years from earth.
We started by spending the afternoon on the Salar de Uyuni (the Uyuni Salt Flats). Having never been exposed to anything like a salt flat, this place blew our minds. Just white and completely flat for eternity in all directions. Apparently, the area used to be an ocean, which, after it dried up, left behind an ocean of salt deposits. It’s still covered in water, but only a thin layer from the rain. We drove out onto it, but only into what seemed like a fraction of the whole thing. We spent a while taking pictures. The lack of perspective made for a fun chance to take pictures with different sized people seemingly right next to each other. We also had to get some naked pictures. It felt wrong to cover ourselves in a place where the earth is so exposed.
The next two days were a blur of giant snow-covered volcanoes towering over insanely desolate, high-altitude deserts featuring colorful, shallow, alkaline lakes. We drove for hours through the completely foreign terrain, stopping every once in a while to get out, walk around, and try to make sense of it all. Like I said, otherworldly is really the only word I can think of to describe it. None of it seemed real but it was all so beautiful. We got a chance to hike around a valley covered in volcanic rocks, ate lunch next to a lake filled with red water and flamingos, and even had the chance to relax in a hot spring in the early morning when the desert is freezing cold. Hardly any wildlife (besides the flamingos and alpacas surrounding the lakes), no other people but fellow tourists, and almost zero development, this extreme part of the world was certainly a treat to visit.
We didn’t spend much time back in Uyuni before we got a bus headed towards Potosí, the next stop on the gringo trail. The highest city in the world at 13,420 ft., Potosí is well known for its incredibly rich mineral deposits. Out of a mountain on the edge of town, 20,000+ local miners extract white silver, lead, tin, and zinc. The mine is no doubt the driver of the local economy, not just because selling the minerals brings a lot of money to the city, but also because tours of the mine are very popular among tourists.
We weren’t planning on taking the tour after hearing about the sketchy ladders, lack of oxygen and general danger that it was comprised of, but after being in Potosi and talking directly with people who had just taken the tour, we became convinced we should check it out. Well, we were all very glad we did. Yes, there were very sketchy ladders and yes it was very difficult to breathe that deep in a mine just outside of the highest city in the world, but that was all just part of the experience. We also had to navigate tiny mine shafts (I hit my head constantly) in the dark and through the dust, but it was all worth it just for a short look into the life a Bolivian miner.
We started by doing a little shopping at a few dispensaries just outside of the mine. The first thing we bought was dynamite kits. They consisted of dynamite, a long wick, the detonator, and some ammonium chloride, all to help make a massive explosion while we were about 2 kilometers deep inside the mountain. We also bought a few gifts for the miners we were going to meet on the tour. One of the gifts was bags of coca leaves, which the miners chew constantly to keep their energy levels up while they mine for up to 18 hours per day. We also bought bottles of miner’s alcohol. Also called ‘Bolivian Whiskey’ or ‘Alcohol Potable’, this stuff is insane. It’s a clear liquid that is 96% alcohol that the miners drink while down in the mine to stay perky. Before we went into the mine we each had to fill a cheek with coca leaves and throw back a capful of miner’s alcohol. Not even a half shot of that stuff perks you up real quick, along with warming up your insides, making your throat burn, and giving you a bit of a buzz- crazy that a small bottle of it costs 2 Bolivianos ($0.30US).
Then it was into the mine, crouching as we made our way through. We went around, checking out different parts, talking to a few workers (there weren’t many in there that day because it was just after Good Friday), and getting an idea of the type of work by helping them out for a bit. They would tell us about what they did in the mine and we would thank them with the gifts we’d bought (we saw one guy all but chug that miner’s stuff- insanity). We walked pretty far back into the mine, went down a few sketchy ladders, and then got a tutorial on how to blow up dynamite. When the tour guide lit the dynamite and walked off with it saying “see you in the Heaven” I was rethinking taking the tour. But when it exploded and I got to feel the strange displacement of air throughout the entire mine, hear the deafening explosion, taste all the dust instantly in the air, feel the walls shake, and I was still alive, I couldn’t have been happier.
We got some beers with the miners that afternoon, then took an evening bus to Sucre, Bolivia’s legislative capital. We spent a while there, checking out the town and some of their strange traditions on Easter. We met up with fellow traveler and Northern Californian, Gary for a couple nights out on the town. Not long after, we said goodbye to Gina who was headed back to Argentina and started planning out the next leg of our journey: finding our way to our great friend Tess Duffy’s Peace Corps site in rural Paraguay.
Thanks for reading- we send our best.