Sunday, April 27, 2014

Bolivia

I've never had a strong desire to visit Bolivia despite many backpackers I met telling me how much they loved it and how it's 'so cheap', which is probably why they liked it. That said, my new goal before going home was to visit every South American country and that meant going to Bolivia.

So I get to the airport in Panama City and again they weren't going to let me board cos I only had a one way ticket. Thankfully I still had my Santiago-Australia print out from the Costa Rica debacle, so that was good enough and I didn't have to do any arguing with check-in staff. But seriously though, who'd want to stay in Bolivia for an extended period of time anyway? It's kinda shit. Mostly for the following reasons:

1) It's too high. I think all (or at least most) of it is at altitude. This means you can't breathe properly anywhere which makes doing everything harder.

2) It's too cold. Mostly the result of reason one. Perpetual Melbourne winter? Urgh. No thanks.

3) It's too poor. Poverty is shit. No one wants that.

Anyway I didn't really know all these things til I got there and experienced them for myself. I didn't hate Bolivia as much as I hated Cuba but I was not its biggest fan and I did end up rushing through cos most of the time I just wanted to leave.

La Paz

I arrived in La Paz at about 2am. About five minutes after getting off the plane I started to feel sick since La Paz is the world's highest capital city at 4,000m. I had tried to buy some anti altitude sickness pills in Costa Rica and Panama but couldn't. I even wrote down the name of the active drug ingredient from the internet and took that around pharmacies but no one had heard of it. 

So don't try and buy altitude sickness prevention medication in Central America. It doesn't exist.

I'd already decided that I would not book a room that night since by the time I went through immigration and got my luggage I'd only have a few hours to wait until I could go to the hostel for an early check in and save myself some money. I took my bag and went to the waiting area and found a bench to lie down to try and not pass out. Then I tried not to vomit. It was really an unpleasant wait. I hate altitude sickness. And you really can't predict if you're going to be affected or not.

At 7am I went to find a taxi and two French women off the same flight as me had done the same thing, waiting in the airport to avoid a night's accommodation. I shared a cab into the city with them. One of them was also really sick.

The airport is higher up than La Paz so you get some great views coming into the city. Plus me and the other sick woman had to stop for fresh air!


At the hostel I drank about three cups of coco tea (aka drugs tea) to try and feel better. After lying down in a bed for a few hours I felt ok and went in search of a vegetarian restaurant. This veggie place was really nice and totally caters to tourists. It was full of English speaking people but the prices are not cheap Bolivian prices. I went twice. The soups are the best thing on the menu and very filling.


The second time I went some homeless guy came in begging. He smelt like he'd pissed his pants constantly for about a week. The stench was overwhelming and so gross. Being homeless is one thing but why would you piss in what are probably your only pants???? That makes no sense. Anyway, the staff moved him along pretty quick smart before everyone started gagging too much.

The other veggie restaurant I went to was this. It is also quite good and as a bonus does a vegan dessert made out of quinoa. Very interesting. I liked it but I think it needed a bit more chocolate since quinoa is quite bland.


Anyway after taking it easy and getting used to the altitude on day one, I decided to go exploring on day two.








I hope this child has been immunised against against festy pigeon diseases.











There is hill in the middle of the city you can walk up for 360 degree views. Walking up a hill when you can't breathe is really hard!







Of course they charge you to use the toilets here. In all my worldly travels I've noticed one thing in particular. The poorer the country, the worse the toilet facilities, the more likely you will have to pay. On the other hand, in rich countries with good facilities and regular cleaners, you don't have to pay anything.

At the top of the hill are some public toilets guarded by a police officer (yes, I thought that was weird too). He totally tried to rip me off with the change. Scammer. Lucky I know how to count in Spanish. Of course when he looked in his pocket he had enough change.






The Eiffel Tower!


Chavez does not live. This is clearly a lie.






A Christmas tree made out of plastic bottles. Recycled? Not sure.





Llama fetuses in the witches market. I fail to see how this would bring anyone fortune. Plus going by the average standard of living here, it clearly doesn't.


La Paz looks ok in these photos but I didn't really like it. It's a Monet - looks nice from a distance but it's a mess up close!

Once you get out of the city centre into the poorer parts things really start to deteriorate.





The traffic is ridiculous. No one in Bolivia knows how to drive properly, which is not surprising since most people can't afford a licence.


It's Che Guevara! They love him over here.


Tiwanaku

There're several day trips you can do from La Paz including the ever popular Death Road bike ride, which I chose not to do cos I like being alive. Plus I didn't want to end up in a Bolivian hospital. 

I went to Tiwanaku instead which contains Bolivia's most significant ruins. 

It was alright.












I liked all the heads.






They are still uncovering stuff.


It was so ridiculously cold here. That bit I did not enjoy.

There is a town next to the ruins. This hobbit house was the highlight of the trip!


Er, I'm guessing this dentist does not cater to the growing medical tourism sector.






We had lunch in some restaurant. I was on a cheap version of the tour which didn't include lunch so I brought my own (fine by me anyway). Outside the restaurant were some abandoned houses like this one. While I was waiting for everyone I went and had a look in one.


There were human shits all over the floor. So gross. And why would you shit inside? I assume homeless people are squatters here. But if you were homeless, wouldn't you shit outside and then sleep inside? Especially cos it's freezing even when the sun's out!

I don't get people.

And considering I’m not a health care worker or the owner of a small child I have seen way too many human shits recently.

The most interesting part of the tour is actually on the outskirts of La Paz. You drive past a bunch of hanging effigies in high crime areas. These are basically warnings to criminals to stay away or you will be lynched and/ or burned alive if you're caught committing a crime here. Basically the people have no faith in the judicial system or useless, corrupt police so they've taken matters into their own hands. I met one tourist who actually witnessed a public hanging while the police stood on the sides and watched! True story apparently.




I liked the view coming back into La Paz.



Sucre

After three days I was keen to leave so I booked the most expensive night bus I could find (which was still only $20) to Sucre. This bus had fully reclining seats that went into beds. I'd heard about these but not yet experienced one. It was really good. You can only get night buses between these two cities but you need to do some research and/ or ask around cos some bus companies are a bit dodgy and/ or have an unsafe bus fleet.

Despite being a 'luxury' bus, this bus did not have a working toilet. I've since found out this is fairly common on Bolivian buses. The toilet is either not working or it's permanently locked and you can't get in. If the bus stops regularly, then you can plan for this. However, this bus stopped once at some toilet facilities in the entire 13 hour journey. ONCE!!! That's ridiculous. Although if you're a guy you would have been able to get out and piss on the side of the road. And all the Bolivian women wear these big ugly, A-line, round skirts which, I'm pretty sure is so they can squat on the side of the road without revealing anything. Western women in jeans just have to hold it in or flash to everyone. No doubt all the pervs would love to watch that.

Yeah, so the luxury $20 bus was not so luxury between the lack of toilets, extra loud tv all night and either being freezing cold or boiling hot.

Then we get to the outskirts of Sucre and it looks kinda shit and there's rubbish everywhere and there's pigs eating all the rubbish. It's gross. Especially when people probably kill these pigs and eat them and all the poisons they've ingested. It's good to be vegan.





But the city centre of Sucre is really nice. It's by far the nicest city in Bolivia. It is UNESCO listed.
















 


The weather is also significantly better here too, since it's much lower down that La Paz. And it's pretty much where Bolivia makes all it's chocolate. Of course I had to try some. A few of the places do dark chocolate, which was not too bad (still a long way off Lindt quality). Plus it's Bolivia so it's pretty cheap and therefore fares reasonably well on a price to quality ratio.

There is a good veggie restaurant in Sucre that has decent wifi. This was necessary for me since I stayed in this shit hostel with constantly broken wifi and where you had to bring your own toilet paper. This is the only place I've ever stayed where you need to provide your own toilet paper. I was gobsmacked but then I met other travellers who told me this was not uncommon in Bolivia. Still, I wouldn't recommend this hostel.

I do however, recommend this burger mix if you have access to a kitchen. It's totally vegan and not full of chemicals. I saw it in a couple of supermarkets so it's relatively easy to come by.


More Sucre.






Guard dog.




Sleeping dog. Although this does not look comfy.








Ah, there's pro marijuana people everywhere.


And finally another Eiffel Tower (which was designed by Gustav Eiffel and brought over from France).


It is pretty ugly and there is graffiti written all over it so I wouldn't make a special trip down that end of town just to see it. But if you stay in my shit hostel then it's in the park across the road.

Potosi

Next up was Potosi. The bus ride is only a few hours and buses go regularly so you can pretty much just rock up to the bus station and buy a ticket.

I have to say I was blown away by the scenery. I've said it plenty of times before and I'll say it again now. The Andes are stunning. These photos don't do it justice at all.












There's really only one reason to go to Potosi. The mine. The town is shit, it's really high up (4,090m) so breathing is hard and it's really cold. The best backpackers is the Koala Den. The same people also run the more expensive B&B option Hostal Eucalyptus. Despite the names I didn't see any Aussies running the place, although plenty stay there. The advantage of these places (apart from that they are good hostels) is the mine tours they run. These tours are well regarded, safe (as far as Bolivian mines go) and part of the money goes back to the workers. Unlike miners in Australia who get paid an absolute shitload, these workers get paid fuck-all and actually welcome tourists coming to the mines to supplement their incomes.


Now, I have worked in the mining industry and been to several Australian mine sites during my career. Since Australia pretty much sets the benchmark in mine safety I really wanted to see what this would be like. This documentary (The Devil's Miner) provides an excellent insight. I highly recommend watching it as it's a real eye opener. 


So the mini bus shows up and the first thing we notice is that petrol has been split all over the floor and it's really slippery. This is the first of many OH&S violations we will encounter today.


Then we get kitted up.


Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to a non-regulated mine site I go!



No steel-cap boots. Gumboots are fine and they keep the water out.

No high vis clothing.
No safety googles, earplugs or dust masks.
No OH&S induction video.

Back in the bus!


Then we head off to the Miners Markets (the miners have to buy everything they need. Their employers don't provide anything). Tourists buy things like drinks, coco leaves (since they suppress the appetite and the miners can go all day without eating) and dynamite as gifts for the miners.








Someone bought a flask so then people start drinking on the bus. So clearly no zero tolerance policies for drugs and alcohol when on site. 


Then some guy lights up on the bus despite the petrol on the floor and the fact we’d bought some dynamite with us for the miners.


First we head to the refinery where they extract the silver or lead.


Refinery pigs.




Silver refinery








Tailings (I think).




I asked them where the store the tailings (given the water is full of dangerous chemicals from extracting the silver) and they said there is a dam outside the town lined with leather. 


Um....... 


That concerns me from an environmental and animal welfare perspective.


Pretty sure this guy is violating all these safety precautions. 






Next we head to the underground mine. You just drive right up. No gate or anything.

No minimum distance between the mine and the town. They just kind of merge together.





No security. 
No need to sign in.

Obviously kids and dogs onsite are welcome.





Rubbish everywhere. Seems to be part of the mine rehabilitation plan.



Yeah, I'm kidding. There's no rehabilitation plan.


Workers' onsite change rooms.




Thankfully we were already ready.



Then it's like the mine ride at Dreamworld (which interestingly no longer operates, that's how out of date it is).






None of the miners wear any safety equipment. A lot die of respiratory illnesses from inhaling silica and arsenic.


Note: a bandanna is not an effective mask.





The youngest worker is 14 (as you can see in the documentary link above). I didn't see any kids in there though.





We climbed down a hole for 40m. 
I should point out there were no radios should there be an accident. I'm not even sure they knew how many people were in each group. This concerned me.



I've already mentioned that doing anything strenuous is hard at 4,000m. Now try doing something strenuous in a mine. It is SO hard to breathe and there's dust everywhere. These are some really tough conditions. 


There is heaps of ground water in the mine (which is probably why they wear gumboots). I assumed there would be a pump. No, it’s guys with buckets putting the water into a cart (500 tonnes) and pushing it out.



I assume they just dump it outside with no regard to the chemical composition in the water and what impact that might have on the surrounding environment.


At first the mine is really cold (since it's the eternal winter outside basically) but then the further in you go the hotter it gets. After a while you're up to about 35C. The miners told us that one section of the mine is 60C and they basically have to work naked. I don’t see how you could do physically demanding work in a 60C environment with no air. This is one place where I would support unions.





These miners were pretty keen on me even though I look a bit like a terrorist with my sub-par bandanna dust filtration system.




Then there was a dynamite blast right near us (this is why they employ kids so they can climb in the holes to place the dynamite). It was a weird pressure. I've never felt anything like that before.


The mountain is government property but cooperatives are awarded leases to mine certain areas. If you want to be a miner, you have to join a cooperative. Then you are paid between 50-100B (so $7-14) a day depending on experience and quality of mining area. If you can work an electric drill you get paid 200B a day. This really is fuck-all and why they encourage tourism. If you select an ethically sound tour, part of your money goes directly to the workers. 


Instead of upgrading worker safety practices, each mine has a 'tio' which all the miners pray to. He apparently keeps them safe if they offer him booze, smokes and coco leaves.




Of course he has a big dick.




After an hour or two of walking inside in the mountain I was ready to leave. Here is our final group photo. 




As someone who’s worked on a number of environmental impact assessments for Australian mines, there appears to be no real benefits to these workers in this very poor city. The miners all have significantly shorter life spans, limited education and training opportunities (including safe work practices) and the town does not appear to be benefiting from the mine's flow-on income through the construction of schools, hospitals, etc. In addition, some workers drink while on shift. Our guide showed us the place where the latest miner died two weeks ago. Apparently he was drunk on shift, fell down a hole and died from breathing in toxic gases. So many questions came to my mind after hearing this, it’s really quite unbelievable.



There does not appear to be an environmental management plan. Here's the leather lined tailings dam. 


A quick google search tells me that this mine is unsurprisingly plagued with environmental problems.



As far as rehabilitation goes, there doesn’t appear to be any. There seems to be piles of waste rock around, combined with rubbish (particularly blue sacks and the cable from lighting the dynamite). Then some desert plants grow around it.


However, at the end of the day, Western consumers in particular are driving demand for these metals. It’s sad that many people and the environment are suffering serious consequences as a result of this mine and others like it. This is an excellent summary if you want to know more about the Potosi mine.

Uyuni

The next day my new mate Joe from Melbourne and I got the bus to Uyuni. Again, another bus ride of amazing scenery.











At best Uyuni is a one night town which you only stay at at the start or end your Salar de Uyuni tour. The town is so shit and cold and expensive by Bolivian standards. We went to the hostel closest to the bus station (which was a mistake) since it was cold and raining. It was very basic but cheap (like $5 each), although there was no running water or toilet paper and the toilets stank of piss since they clearly never got cleaned. On the plus side, it had the hottest shower I’ve had anywhere in South America but then the woman tapped on the door going “you have to pay another 5 bolivanos for the shower”. Turns out we didn’t as our $5 covered having a shower.




Uyuni's only redeeming feature is the Extreme Fun Pub where the drinks come out in a variety of genital shaped mugs. This blog pretty much sums it up as does this photo.




All the salt flats tours go to the same places. However, the accommodation, food and whether you get an English speaking guide or not is where the price differences come in. Joe and I checked out a few tour places before settling on the most expensive one with Red Planet Expeditions. Their tour seemed better than the others and they get good write ups on Tripadvisor.


You can get some vegan snacks in Uyuni - aka, chocolate - which Bolivia does a reasonable job of, and vegan chocolate quinoa cookies destined for Canada going by French/ English writing on the box. These were actually very yum.




First stop on the tour is the train graveyard just outside of town.








Then to Colchani village to see salt getting processed. 

Population: one dude processing the salt, two women manning the toilets so no one gets in for free, and about 100 tourists!




Salt beds in a salt hostel.


Salt ride. This was a bit of a stealth photo since you were supposed to pay to sit on this thing. 



Next up was the salt flats, which are AWESOME!!!!






Then you spend a few hours at the bit where you can take the cool photos. Surprisingly they take a while to line up properly.















Next up is Isla del Pescado (Fish Island). Despite the name, there are no fish on the island or around it since there’s no water. But from the sky it looks like a fish apparently. This is one of numerous islands in the salt flats with heaps of cacti growing on it. Very interesting and beautiful, even though they all look like giant, spiky penises.












Then we stopped to help one of the other tour jeeps with a flat tyre. Interestingly, pretty much all the jeeps are landcruisers. Says a lot about the quality and reliability of Toyotas. This is a very harsh environment which basically eats cars.

I took advantage of the stop and lighting to do some yoga postures.





I love this one.


We spent the first night in a salt hotel. I was expecting it to be cold since salt is hardly the most insulating material for building houses, but it turned out to be ok.  

Charging anything was problematic though. 


See this is one of Bolivia's fundamental problems - half arsedness! Bolivians don't do things properly. Like, if an electrician came around to your house to install this plug and this is the result, you definitely wouldn't pay him and you'd probably ring up A Current Affair so Tracey Grimshaw could rip the shit out of him on national tv. But in Bolivia, everyone's like yeah, that's fine cos it's what they all look like.

It's bullshit. 

Half arsedness doesn't not lead to productivity gains and wealth creation people!

No wonder they are poor.

Day two started with the Ollague Volcano (5,840m high). Half Bolivia, half Chile. Semi active, meaning it’s blowing a bit of smoke but that’s about it.












Then we had lunch with these weird squirrel, rabbit, Mr Miyagi things.



Then it was on to the four lagunas with flamingos. Beautiful. Stunning. Amazing.










 


Desierto de Siloli is the highest and driest desert in the world at 4,550m. It was also really cold. I needed to put on pants, a jacket and my new beanie, which I'd bought especially for this part of the trip.

These are vicunas, which are part of family llama family and look a bit like a deer.


These mountains have so much colour in them they look photoshopped.






There are big igneous rocks everywhere. They came out of the volcano but since it’s so windy, they erode all the time.


The arbol de piedra rock. Basically a rock that looks like a tree.


Our guide said that in winter the tours don’t come here because there’s like a metre of snow everywhere. I don't really understand that since there's no moisture, but hey, I'm not a meteorologist so...

Our penultimate stop of the day was Laguna Colorada. This place is absolutely stunning but a bit toxic due to the chemical composition of the water. Flamingos like it though.










The wind in the afternoon makes the lake red. Again, it's freezing cold here so you need all your gear on.

Our last stop of the day was the geysers. This is basically mud and steam and has a rotten eggs smell coming out of the ground. You can walk right up to the edge. No safety. If you fall in it would totally be like Terminator 2 where Arnie he falls in the boiling pot of fire and melts.

Apparently it’s -5C in the afternoon and -15C in the mornings when the other groups arrive at about 6am. Glad we went in the afternoon!







We stayed in a very basic salt hostel with no electricity but a generator for about 2-3 hours.



It was right next to some hot springs which were nice to sit in for as long as we wanted and look up at the stars in the crystal clear sky. No clouds, no light pollution. Very relaxing.

The next morning all the other groups showed up and only got about 20 minutes in the hot springs and it was really crowed. This was one of the reasons why Joe and I paid more for our tour.





Our first stop of the morning was the Salvador Dali Desert. You can can see why he was inspired.






Then it was onto our last stop. Laguna Verde. It was not very green because there's not much wind to mix up the algae in the mornings. However, the reflections in the water are like nothing I've ever seen. Beautiful.











And that was the end of Bolivia. Most of it sucked, but Bolivia really came through with the salt flats and lakes. This was definitely one of the top five highlights of my trip and made visiting Bolivia worthwhile. Do not miss it if you have the opportunity to go there.

Then it was on to the border and over to my favourite South American country, Chile!




Next stop: Last night I dreamt of San Pedro.