Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Thursday, October 20, 2005

53. La Paz (La Paz, Bolivia)

map of bolivia
Map stolen from

Sometimes when you're on the road you arrive in a place with expectations and a to-do list. Other times you just turn up and wait for things to happen. La Paz I was excited about because it's the biggest city in Bolivia (pop. 1.5 mil), the highest capital in the world (at about 3600m, although the debate's still out whether it's the capital or Sucre is), and it's built in a canyon.

La Paz - 11 - City view
Unfinished buildings line the canyon walls

However my first 12 hours were enough to make me want to get the hell out. First the taxi driver overcharged me (no surprise there, they always do), then I couldn't find the hostel I'd been recommended so ended up staying in some dump. Well the dump didn't look too bad until a young hooker turned up with a 70 year old client with no bottom jaw... I kept getting lost and winded walking the narrow steep streets, the noise and pollution... I couldn't even find a bar to have a beer. I ended up walking ages until a guy about my age asked me for a light, and I asked him where a bar was. We then went on a Bolivian bar crawl but the only places we could find open on the Tuesday night were jam-packed with tables, spilt beer, broken glasses and drunk or sleeping Bolivian men. We stopped in a couple but the atmosphere wasn't that good, just drunken. When Bolivians drink they clink glasses for every mouthful, so they drink fast. If I took a sip, we'd all clink glasses and everyone sips. So they plough through the beer. Although it was cool to hang out with local guys, I still didn't like La Paz.

La Paz - 15 - Drunk
Midday drunk, La Paz

The next day I got lost yet again and couldn't even find a cafe to have breakfast... argh I had to get out. But I finally found a decent breakfast, and with that under my belt I decided to give La Paz one more chance. The hostel I changed to didn't have any single rooms so I had to sleep in a dorm for the first time since about February. There I met an Irish bloke named Barry and that night he showed me where the gringo bars were (English-run Oliver's Travels, Dutch-run Sol & Luna)... and there I bumped into the same group of ten Irish I'd been hanging out with in Potosi, so all of a sudden La Paz was a lot more comfortable.

In all I spent 5 days in La Paz, I don't think I ever liked it but I became more used to it. I took a tour of the city in an open-roofed double-decker bus which was more like an intimate look at La Paz's low hanging power and phone lines, as they scrapped the windows. They warned us not to stand up during the tour with good reason. We stopped in Valle de La Luna (Moon Valley) which was an area of strange grey moonish rock formations supposedly once visited by Neil Armstrong himself. Valle de La Luna overlooks part of the world's highest golf course, where the ball supposedly flies further due to the thin air.

La Paz - 09 - Valle de La Luna
Moon Valley, with a fairway in the background

Our tour bus also passed the wealthy part of the city, at only 3000m altitude it's 10 degrees warmer than El Alto, the highest part of the city at 4000m. So that's where the Bolivian elite and also the Germans live - like many places in South America La Paz has a German community, as well as The German School, supposedly one of the best schools in South America, where they teach the German curriculum (in Spanish, German and English).

Another afternoon Barry and I wandered around the downtown area on foot (and got lost). He'd been in La Paz nearly a week but had yet to see any of the city due to his constant partying. We checked out the Witches Market where you can buy ceramic trinkets for your friends as well as dried llama foetuses for your evil stepmother to caste a spell.

La Paz - 24 - Llama foetuses
Dried llama foetuses

The ubiquitous shoeshine boys that are in every South American city hide behind ski-masks in La Paz, because of the shame of being a shoeshiner (or to protect them from toxic shoe-shine?). The only place in South America I've seen them do that.

La Paz - 28 - Shoe shiner
Shoeshiner in action

My final day in La Paz was a long one. I'd signed up to do a downhill mountain bike ride down "The World's Most Dangerous Road", so dubbed by the Inter-American Development Bank in 1995. The road is 64km from La Paz to Coroico, descends 3600m, and is so named for its number of steep cliffs, blind corners and drunk bus drivers. I'd wanted to sign up with one of the agencies from my hotel for US$36 for the day but my Irish friends had already signed up to do it with Gravity Assisted (owned by a Kiwi) for US$50. An expensive day by Bolivian standards, considering the average wage here is US$70 a month. But they'd kit us out with decent Kona downhill bikes with disk brakes, as well as helmet and gloves (but no knee pads).
I'd kind of thought the World's Most Dangerous tag was a bit overrated as I'd met plenty of backpackers along the way who'd done the ride themselves. But then I met an Australian guy who told me the day he did the ride one guy in his group broke a collarbone, another a wrist, and another needed stiches in his knee, so suddenly I wasn't so confident. Especially since I know I have a stupid male competitive streak when it comes to speed (cars, motorbikes). After I'd signed the disclaimer the Gravity guy told me 7 people had died doing the ride in the four years they'd been doing it (with other companies, none with Gravity). So I resigned myself to taking it easy, nice and slow.

7:30am we met at a cafe, before driving an hour or so to La Cumbre, where we were given our bikes and optional rain jackets (for hire). After enough stuffing around adjusting bikes and seats our group of 21 riders was off - with me leading the way (behind the guide). That damn competitive streak. The first third or so of the ride was tarmac so we flew down, passing the odd truck or bus.

World's Most Dangerous Road - 01 - View
Viewpoint from tarmac section

Soon enough we were stopping to wait for everyone else to catch up, before setting off again. But everyone kept a pretty quick pace through the tarmac section.

World's Most Dangerous Road - 05 - Fog
Low cloud

We passed through two military checkpoints which were searching buses for cocaine or chemicals used to create it. Then the tarmac fun stopped as we descended through the clouds with visibility of only about 10 metres, so we had to slow right down. And then the tarmac finished and we were on the unpaved section called the world's most dangerous.
In Bolivia, as in the rest of Latin America, the cars drive on the right hand side. But that changes for the World's Most Dangerous Road, now we (and all the other downhill traffic) changed to driving on the left hand side. That's the cliff hand side, to be sure.
Unfortunately, the cloud cover stayed with us for about the first hour, and turned to rain cover for a while. Well, some said it was fortunate, as it meant we couldn't see the sheer 1000m cliffs we were riding so perilously close to.

World's Most Dangerous Road - 11 -
Hairpin past a stream

As we got lower the weather got clearer and warmer. Now me and a couple of the boys were in full competitive mode, passing when we could. It was actually easier to go faster, as braking made the bike unstable, although I think I was the only one in our group actually doing jumps off the bumps (apart from our guides). That was why I hated following - cos you'd have to brake when the guy in front did, and it felt easier to coast over the ruts rather than brake over them.

World's Most Dangerous Road - 13 -
Mist rising from the forest in front of the road

By the very end the road was dry and it was pretty dusty. Our guide Ian warned us that this was when 80% of the accidents happen, because by the end everyone's feeling confident. That didn't stop us in front from pushing it, but we all made it to the end without falling off (or dying).

World's Most Dangerous Road - 18 - View from Hotel
View of the valley from the hotel

With the ride over we celebrated with a beer and then they took us to a hotel/resort in Coroico for lunch and a shower. Some of the group stayed in Coroico, which seemed like a nice village to chill out in, while the rest of us had a 3 hour bus ride back to La Paz. That night I went out partying til 5am so it was a long day! And no muscle aches the next day either, surprisingly. Although I did miss my bus so had to stay in La Paz one more day, albeit most of it in bed.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

52. Cochabambing (Cochabamba, Bolivia)

The Spanish of Bolivians is a bit different from that of Argentinians, especially that of Buenos Aires. For one thing, there's the double-l pronunciation. Calle, which means street in Spanish, is pronounced kind of like ka-jsheh in Buenos Aires, but like kal-yeh in Bolivia (and most places Spanish is spoken). So calle or llaves or llamado (street, keys, a call) is often not understood. The same goes for the y pronunciation - ayer (yesterday) is a-sher for Argentines but a-year for Bolivians. Pronunciation aside, there's the occasional vocabulary difference too.
One thing I'm quite chuffed about is I'm always getting compliments on my Spanish speaking. Some Bolivians even think I'm from Argentina, or aren't surprised when I tell them I lived in BA seven months - "ah, so that's where you got your gaucho (cowboy) accent" they tell me.
When I first met up with Gabriel (the Argentinian I travelled with a few days) in a restaurant in Sucre, he told me he was sick of Potosí, especially the people there, that they didn't understand him well. Next thing our waitress turned up at our table with 2 decks of playing cards. We'd asked for la carta which means the menu in Argentinian Spanish, and she'd brought us cartas!

From Sucre we headed on night-only bus to Cochabamba. Fortunately, the bus was a bit late so we arrived at 7am instead of 5am. Since we travelled on a Saturday night we arrived Sunday, when most things were closed. Walking around the streets we spotted a poster for a concert by Texas-based band Kumbia Kings.

Cochabamba - 10 - Kumbia Kings
Poster for the show that night

We both new the name of the band and that they were popular, but not sure if we knew any of their songs. Cumbia is a style of music popular in South America, it's kind of slow and with a South American swing, and a kind of slow whiny singing. I dunno how to describe it, but I don't like it. Some people love it but it has it's niche. But we both had a feeling that the Kumbia Kings weren't a cumbia band, so we went along to check it out.
The first songs were pretty good, kind of hip-hop but they soon started crooning some love songs. Of the entire set we only recognised one of their last songs from the radio. The mostly female crowd loved it, singing along to every song, and all the best looking girls of Cochabamba (pop. 500,000, Bolivia's 3rd largest city) seemed to be out. But we'd found ourselves at a Latin Backstreet Boys concert, and left before the last song.

Cochabamba has a giant Christ the Redemptor looking over it from a nearby hilltop (like the more famous one in Rio de Janeiro) so the next day we took the gondola up the hill to get the view of the city.

Cochabamba - 03 - Matt Redemptor
Get Behind Me Jesus

The giant jesus was actually hollow with lots of square peepholes and you could climb up inside him, which I did.

Cochabamba - 04 - View
Jesus-eye view

Also in town were the contestants for this year's Miss Sudamerica contest, Miss Argentina, Miss Brazil, Miss Venezuela etc. But we didn't know where they actually were and it was only in the local newspapers that we saw any of them.

Cochabamba - 11 - Miss Sudamerica
Miss Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile, Panama & Ecuador

We only spent 2 nights in Cochabamba before Gabriel and I headed our separate ways. He headed west to the town of Villa Tunari to check out Inti Wara Yassi, a wildlife refuge where you can volunteer to work with the animals. I'd liked to have done it since it's not every day you get the opportunity to work in a zoo in the Amazon, but it was a 15 day minimum and I was already running out of time in Bolivia. The 5 days I spent waiting for my keys in Uyuni (for nothing!) was really starting to piss me off. In fact I'm sure I'll regret not doing the volunteer thing.

Cochabamba - 14 - Plaza oldies
Old boys chillin' out in Cochabamba's main plaza

Meanwhile I headed to La Paz, Bolivia's largest city of 1.5 million. The bus got a flat tyre on the way which wasn't a good omen, so we stopped for 20 mins while they changed the tyre and all the men stood on the side of the road watching, while the ladies waited inside the bus, and the older ladies in traditional Spanish-era skirts and pettycoats and bowler hats squat-pissed nearby. But at least my bus didn't roll, unlike the bus of an Australian lady we'd met in Sucre, who's bus rolled when it got a puncture at speed. She only had a slight black eye but said quite a few were injured, blood on the windows etc. Unfortunately Bolivian bus drivers have a reputation for driving too fast (and too drunk).

La Paz - 02 - Change bus tyre
Pit stop

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

51. Sucre (Sucre, Bolivia)

From Potosi I shared a taxi 3 hours to Sucre. The taxi was only a bit more expensive than the bus, but I'd missed the bus by an hour cos I'd been told the wrong departure time.

Sucre is the official capital of Bolivia, but La Paz is where the Government sits which makes it the Capital in most people's books (including the Bolivians). And what a beautiful city it is. The downtown area has preserved its colonial-era colour scheme of white buildings with terracota roofs.

Sucre - 10 - View
The view from atop a church

The climate was pleasant, because of the 2500m altitude it has a year-round spring feel (although it was a bit wet during my visit). Evidentally it's popular with gringos too, there were a couple of bars owned by Dutchmen now living here. Sucre itself doesn't have too many activities apart from a lot of museums. Although the Dutch-owned bars such as Joyride Cafe provide hiking and mountain biking tours, as well as being backpacker favourites with good menus and a big screen for movies.
I met up with Gabriel, an Argentine backpacker from Buenos Aires I'd first met in Uyuni and then Potosi, and we spent a few days chilling out visiting museums. We also timed our visit for the weekend, and found the clubs to be good value. Lots of hot girls too, better than the south! Did I mention the city's clean? It so doesn't feel like the Bolivia I expected, it feels more like Argentina or Chile even. And great food too.

Sucre - 07 - La Recoleta
La Recoleta, Sucre

A great place to hang out was the central plaza, where the whole town seems to meet. Beautiful gardens and plenty of benches, a great spot just for people watching. Unfortunately I couldn't get a decent photo of it, but here's a photo of one of Sucre's smaller plazas.

Sucre - 02 - Plaza
A smaller plaza in Sucre

A few kilometres from Sucre is a quarry, where 40 years ago the quarry workers discovered a set of Dinosaur tracks. The site is one of the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world, and although it sounded like a tourist trap (or fraud) we went along on the cheap tour.
It was actually quite impressive, millions of years ago when the world was still two continents the area had a lake, at which dinosaurs evidentally drank. A volcanic eruption occured and the dinosaurs in the area were presumably wiped out, but their footprints in the mud were preserved by the layer of volcanic ash. The footprints were from a variety of dinos, from Brontosauruses to everyone's favourite the Tyrannosaurus Rex, whose claws had left scratches indicating it had been running through the mud (chasing something?). The tracks were along a long, tall, gray wall, a wall which was created by the pressure from the plates colliding. The area was still owned by the quarry, but they'd stopped work on the wall when the tracks were first discovered. They say there's over 5000 prints at the moment, but more are discovered all the time as the wall erodes, unvieling more prints.
Dinosaur Tracks - 04 -
Two sets of parallel Brontosauras tracks
Another unexpectedly interesting stop was the Indigenous textile museum, which displayed the 6 different styles of textiles weaved by the indigenous tribes of the region near Sucre. They weave mostly wallhangings but formerly weaved skirts or ponchos. A largish wallhanging (0.7m by 1.5m) is up to 3 months of fulltime work!
Weavers - 02 -
One month of fulltime work, only two more to go!
In all I spent 4 days in Sucre, but I could easily have spent longer, or even live there, like the Dutch bar-owners. Being a large city, it also has a fair amount of beggars, mostly very old women with incredibly weathered faces, in traditional Spanish colonial-era dress.
Sucre - 15 - Beggar
Street beggar

Still, Sucre really exceeded my expectations. A lot of Argentinans in particular told me bad things about their northerly neighbour (Bolivia), that it's dirty, uncivilised, that men piss in the street, etc. Some Argentine friends that backpacked through on the way to Peru refused to eat anything, such was their fear of Bolivian food poisoning. Other friends told me of constant diarrea throughout their stay. To me some of the smaller cities are a little undeveloped, but the larger cities are as clean as any others in South America. Sucre is one of the cleanest I've seen. The food is great, and cheap. For 8Bs in a cheap restaurant (US$1) you can have a set lunch of soup, a salad, a main, and a dessert, and you'd be eating well, as well as the locals. For double or triple that you can eat like kings, picking whatever from the menu of the nicer restaurants. And so far, no problems at all with food poisoning in the 2 weeks I've been here, touch wood.

Friday, October 07, 2005

50. Mining - it's a blast! (Potosí, Bolivia)

From Uyuni I headed 5 hours west to Potosí. Potosí's history is extremely interesting to me. A llama herder named Diego Huallpa discovered silver in Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) in 1544, when he lit a fire for warmth, which glowed strangely.

Potosí - 04 - Potosí
Cerro Rico, overlooking Potosí

Soon after the city was founded and mining commenced, using black slaves brought in from Africa, or imprisoned Indians. By the 17th century it was one of the largest and richest cities in the world, 200,000 inhabitants, 86 churches and 800 professional gamblers. A duel between caballeros (gentlemen) would be fought with gold encrusted swords and shields. I read an interesting book on the history of Potosi and one of the quotes from the time was something like:

The fires that feed the smelters are constantly in need of fuel. But because of the altitude kindling is scarce, so they burn almost anything, even animal dung. Thus there is a living to be made collecting pieces of llama dung from the streets. Even the excrement of humans can be used for such a purpose, so the Indians go to a certain place and leave their waste to dry, waste which is later sold for 8 reales.

Conditions were dire, hours were long, and over 8 million slaves died during the mine's peak years.
By the 19th century the silver was exhausted, but the mine continued thanks to its tin, lead, and zinc reserves. After the Bolivian revolution the people were proclaimed the owners of the mine, so now each miner owns a part of it and it's worked as a co-operative. But it's still a terrible life, most miners die of silicosis of the lungs 10 years after entering the mines. Tourists can do a tour of the mines, but I was a bit reluctant as I'm slightly claustrophobic (and sometimes asthmatic), and I'd heard it gets hard to breathe down there, what with the altitude, dust, and poisonous gases. Even the pamphlet selling the tour says "not for wimps or woosies". But in the end curiosity got the better of me, so I signed up.
First off we visited the miner's market, to buy gifts to give to the miners we'd meet on the tour. The miners don't eat anything in the mine as the environment is too toxic so they'd poison themselves, but soft drinks, alcohol (96%!!), coca leaves (to chew for energy), and dynamite are welcome gifts.

Mine Tour - 01 - Dynamite
Sticks of dynamite for sale in the miner's market

Mine Tour - 03 - Alcohol coca
Miner fuel: 96% alcohol and coca leaves

I purchased a dynamite kit consisting of a stick of dynamite, detonater, fuse and ammonium nitrate (for added kick), for only 10Bs (US$1.10). Ammonium nitrate is the active ingredient in fertiliser, which is why so many homemade terrorist bombs are made using fertiliser.

Mine Tour - 02 - Dynamite
My little terrorist - my dynamite kit

Next we went to get suited up, we were given overalls, gumboots, hardhats and headlamps. I'd heard it gets unbearably hot on the tour so I stripped off, wearing only my boxers under my overalls, which proved to be a good idea. I'd also heard it's hard to breathe so we all bought dust masks in the miner's market as well, which proved to be worth their weight in silver for me. Later we'd pass other tour groups without the dust masks, I don't know why they didn't have them, but the masks made it a lot easier to breathe.

Mine Tour - 04 - Matt John suited
Kitted out with John, in front of Cerro Rico

As we learnt on the tour, the miners start out as a second assistant, move up to first assistant, then after 7 years are given membership of the mine meaning they'll have their own claim. If the claim has any value they can hire their own assistants to help them work it. The minimum wage in Bolivia is 600Bs (US$75) a month, a miner could earn around 1500Bs (US$190). Hardly worth poisoning yourself for. Today around 10,000 miners work the mine. Usually they work 8 hours a day but the miners we met on the tour said they'd started work at 6am that day and would work until 9pm - a 15 hour shift. Second assistants have the shit jobs like removing the trolley-loads of rocks along the rickety rail tracks. Trolleys weigh over 2700kg and it takes four of them to remove it, sweating all the way. Unfortunately our tour was on a Monday and we didn't get to see that happening. The mining is done using dynamite, but to place a stick in the rock they first need to carve a 15 cm deep hole - using a pick and a hammer this takes about 2 hours - using a jackhammer 15 can be done an hour, and can be placed a meter deep for more effect instead of the 15 cms. If the miner is fortunate enough to have found a rich vein he could afford to install air pumps and hoses for the jackhammers, but the majority don't so they still work place the dynamite using hammers and picks.
Although it's all in the one mountain, Cerro Rico, there are a number of mines. We toured the sections of the Rosario mine. We started out following the entrance tunnel which was reasonably tall, but we had to duck a little for some sections.

Mine Tour - 07 - Miners
The first miners we met. Note cheeks full of coca leaves

The good times didn't last though, we were soon crawling and scrambling our way to get to other tunnels or to other areas where the miners were working. However, finding a miner proved to be as difficult as finding a silver vein. Although the tours run on a Sunday, no miners work, so we'd all waited until Monday to do ours. However, the day before they'd been a big miner party, so many miners were still hungover and hadn't come to work today. The second guy we came across was up a narrow shaft ten metres or so, all by himself, chipping away with hammer and chisel to place his dynamite. We had to go through one at a time as it was a dead-end, and I gave him my dynamite kit.
We also passed an important figure in the mines - a statue of the devil. As Catholics, the bible says that God lives in the sky and the Devil lives in the ground, so at every level there's a shrine to the devil, which the miners give gifts and make live llama sacrifices for. They give the Devil gifts so that he doesn't take any of them, since they're in his territory. This also coincides with the traditional Incan earth god of Pachamama, to whom they also make sacrifices. Our Devil had a dried llama foetus sitting between his feet, as well as a decent covering of coca leaves, and burnt out cigarettes.

Mine Tour - 08 - Tío
One of the many Devil shrines. Erection = fertility

Another hour of hunched over walking, followed by a bit of crawling and some ladder work, and we met another group of miners. The member in charge of them we spoke to at length, he'd been working in the mines 30 years - since he was 8 years old. The guy was tiny, he'd lucky to be 50kg dripping wet. He'd started working the mine as an orphan, and now he had 10 kids to feed which I guess is why he's still doing it.

Mine Tour - 13 - Miner Mario Quenca
30 years in the mine and counting

We gave him a bag of coca leaves as well as some soft drink and dynamite. It's because of these gifts that the miners are happy to waste a bit of their time talking with us.
After about another hour of scrambling we were finally out in the open again, blinking in the bright sunlight. In all we'd been in the ground 3 hours, which was plenty, but only a fraction of a miner's working day. I'd proved myself well enough, the tour wasn't as tough as I thought it would be as the really tight spaces we went through only lasted a couple of metres before they'd widen again to give a bit of breathing room. The cheap dust masks helped too.
With our final stick of dynamite our guide gave us a demonstration blast.

Mine Tour - 15 - Dynamite
Our guide prepares the dynamite

He shortened the fuse plenty but it still took over a minute to go off, by which time we'd all thought it had gone out... BOOM!

Potosí - 14 - Street
Colonial style narrow streets

In all I spent 3 days in Potosi but I could have spent a few more, I really liked it there. I've now gone from being anti- to pro- tour guides, so I got a tour from a local guy about my age. Now that I'm backpacking I'm mostly speaking English with other gringos so getting a tour is one way for me to speak and listen to Spanish for an hour or two. He took me around the city, pointing out the colonial style streets, the many churches, as well as taking me around what used to be the Indigenous quarter in the colonial days.

Potosí - 05 - Statue of Liberty
Potosi's Statue of Liberty. Tits out represents freedom of thought

Another day a group of us from the hostel went to the nearby Hot Springs at Tarapaya, 22km away. As well as crowded swimming pools, nearby is a 500 year old swimming pool, dug by the Incas, with a thermal vent in the centre keeping it a pleasant 35 degrees or so. They did a great job digging it out, as I couldn't see nor touch the bottom at any point. We spent a great afternoon lazing on the grass poolside, and for a laugh covered ourselves with the mud from the banks which the locals told us is good for your skin. A camera crew with 2 hot girls for presenters came over and interviewed us, evidentally for some tourism TV show. After a bit of on camera flirting one of them invited me to go with them to Uyuni, but well I'd just spent 5 days awaiting my keys there and didn't feel like returning.

Potosí - 07 - Tarapaya Matt Gav mud
Maori-ing it up with the thermal mud

The final place I visited in Potosí was La Casa de la Moneda, or the Mint. This historic building was used to mint silver from the mines into either ingots or coins, to be sent back to Spain. The tour was OK.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

49. Mining (Uyuni, Bolivia)

Here I am in Uyuni, 5 days after our tour ended, still waiting for my keys. It's back another era here with the communication, as I said in the last post the only way to communicate with the town I left them in is by CB Radio. So it's my CB Radio operator attempting to communicate with the only radio in the town of Quetena Chico. The method is that she goes on one of the 5 open frequencies and says "Quetena Chico-Quetena Chico-Quetena Chico-Quetena Chico?". Then waits a couple of seconds for a response before repeating. On the same frequencies at the same time are other voices of other users looking for someone in the town they're trying to contact: "Tupiza-Tupiza-Tupiza-Tupiza-Tupiza?". But I'm usually not the only one in the radio office trying to get hold of someone, sometimes they'll be 3 or 4 of us so she'll put the call out for all of them at the same time: "Quetena Chico Tupiza Tupiza Montaña Montaña Serena Serena Quetena Chico?". If I'm lucky after about half an hour of that she'll get hold of the radio operator there, and he'll pass a message to the hotel owner or arrange to call back at a later time, at which point I have to come back and the whole process repeats again. It's just my luck that the place I'm calling is probably the smallest, as we hardly ever get through to Quetena Chico but the other users usually get through a lot quicker, and proceed to have a conversation about Dad's new job and yes, we're all doing fine here thanks Mum, which the rest of us listen to while we're waiting.

Pulacayo - 06 - Town
Overlooking the former miner's quarters at right, now ruins, Pulacayo

A couple of days ago I hired a mountain bike and got a ride on a bus to Pulacayo, 22km away. Pulacayo is the site of what was the world's second largest silver mine in the 1800s (second to Broken Hill in Australia). It was this mine that had Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid coming to Bolivia, not that of Potosí as I wrote earlier. The mine at Potosí was the world's biggest in the 1600s through to the 1800s, but Pulacayo took over in the 19th century. I turned up with my bike and rode around the tiny town for about half an hour, not really knowing where the mine was or what to see. The few people I passed were all very friendly, everyone offering a buenos tardes (Good afternoon). I asked some kid on a BMX what's there to see in this town and he showed me around a bit. Eventually I returned to the tourist info office which was closed earlier, and met a guide who offered to give me a paid tour, which I took him up on.

Usually I don't like tours as you feel too much like a sheep being led around the place, but I didn't really know anything about this place and the guide named Angel was great, he knew everything about the history of the place, and told me that at one point it had 35,000 inhabitants and was the second largest town in Bolivia. And how the mine was run by European engineers who had to abandon it following the 1952 Bolivian revolution (which had it's roots in this then city, with the 1946 Tesis de Pulacayo), and how the new Bolivian owners had no idea how to run the technology the Europeans subsequently left behind, so it was closed down in 1956. Today the town has a tiny population of 600, largely farmer's families but also a small workforce that works the mine using primitive methods, or sorting through the debris left behind from its heyday for any leftovers.

Pulacayo - 02 - Miner
A woman looking for rocks

The mine itself is full of silver, lead, and zinc. The scroungers (all women) put a pile of rocks into a bucket filled with water, shake it up with a kind of sive, and the ones that sink faster have elements inside. Each rock usually has a mixture of the 3 elements. The rocks are ground up into smaller rocks, with which each worker fills his bags. Once a month a truckload comes and everyone's bags are taken to the mineral market in Oruru, where a sample taken from each bag is analysed for mineral content and the miner paid accordingly.

Pulacayo - 10 - Stones
Ground rocks ready for bagging

Angel also filled me in with a bit more of the Butch Cassidy story, showing me one of the trains that Butch Cassidy robbed in 1912 for it's payroll. He said that although in the movie Butch Cassidy and Sundance were both killed in the shootout in San Vincente, in reality it was only Butch Cassidy who was killed by the Bolivian Police and US bounty hunters, and that they'd parted earlier and the Sundance Kid was then in Argentina.

Pulacayo - 04 - Butch Cassidy Train 1912
Butch Cassidy robbed this train in 1912

Near the town entrance there were half a dozen abandonded locomotives, but unlike the train cemetary near Uyuni these were still preserved. However, these were a lot smaller, being smaller narrow-gauge locomotives. Angel explained to me how prior to the locomotives they used to take the silver, lead and zinc to the Pacific (when Bolivia had still had a coastline before in was annexed by Chile in a war) by horse and cart, 120 carts in a huge convey. The trip would take 3 months each way so a 6 month round trip. The locomotives were then a huge investment, especially since Bolivia had no coal reserves so had to import the trains and then the coal to run them. Later, when they discovered oil reserves in Bolivia they converted the steam locomotives to run on petrol instead - the coal wagon got made into a tank, and a hose fed petrol into the boiler instead of a shovel feeding the boiler coal. Everything for the miners was imported too, shoes from Italy, clothes from France, cashmeres from England. Of course the miners, being peasants, had no idea the value of a pair of Italian shoes and as was often the case the ones making money during a goldrush weren't the miners but the storekeepers who supplied them.

Pulacayo - 05 - Matt tunnel train
Not a toy train for kids, but one built for the 3m high, 3km long tunnel

After the tour I left town on the bike and headed back to Uyuni. When the mine closed the trains stopped being used, and recently they've dug up and removed all the old railway track, which now makes a nice mountain bike trail. And I was told it was mostly downhill. I had a hard time getting out of town as I had to climb a bit of a hill, and at 4200m once you lose your breathe the recovery time is pretty long. Still, I haven't had any other problems with the altitude. After that the ride was pretty good, once I'd found my way to the old train track. One of the gorges I went through was where Butch had held up the train I'd just seen in Pulacayo. Eventually I came to a part where the trail was washed out so I had to continue the rest of the way on the public dirt road. As I crested a hill I got a great view of the sunset, and although I stopped to take photos I knew I'd freeze as soon as it got dark so I had to rush the last 10km, arriving back in Uyuni in the pitch black at 7pm.

Pulacayo - 14 - Sunset
Sunset. The Salar de Uyuni is on the horizon at right, looking bluish

Right. I still haven't gotten my keys back as there's been no traffic at all passing through the hotel for Uyuni. So tomorrow I'm leaving anyway, but I've left behind a stamped and addressed envelope for the Poste Restante in La Paz, so if my keys arrive hopefully someone at the hotel will send them on to me. I've already spent 5 days here waiting for them, but at least I've been able to catch up on the blog and my email during that time!