Salar de Uyuni

The group is excited about our destination for today. It is the Salar de Uyuni, or the salt flats of Uyuni. The salt flats are Bolivia’s biggest tourist destination. It is a great expanse of flat salt terrain.

There are llamas and vicuna along the way. Llama have shorter necks, stubbier noses and more wool. Farmers own herds of llamas but they let them roam free, and intermingle. When it is time to gather them up, the farmers have to decide whose llama is whose, which is aided by ear tags similar to the brand marks on cattle. The llamas could have wandered quite far away so I can see this chore taking a bit of time.

Bolivian Llama

Llama

Vicuna have longer necks and are not as shaggy. Their wool is the finest of the 4 camelids of South America. Vicuna are protected, they were almost hunted to extinction so now no one is allowed to hunt them. They are wild and roam the great expanses.

Bolivian Vicuna

Vicuna

We notice the variety of colours in the landscape as we travel south west. From deep reds to lush greens to pale sandy colours. The colours of the rocks are also stunning, there is the standard black and brown, then there is red, green, blue, purple and yellowish tone.

 

Bolivia

We see flat plains, rolling hills and tall craggy mountains. White is added to the palette when we note snow on the top of one far off peak.

Bolivia

We stop in Uyuni to lunch and change to 4 wheel drives and go to the Train Cemetery. Trains were brought to Bolivia from the United States. This area is where the derelict engines and cars have come to rest after a life of toil.

Bolivia

We end our day at the Palacio de Sal, one of the salt hotels on the edge of the flats. It is indeed palatial and is made (wholly or partially, we are not sure) of salt. The sun sets on another great day.

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Bolivia Politics First Hand

Last night at the briefing we got a bit of a warning. Real life Bolivia might be in the way of our progress along the intended route. We are headed to Potosi and it seems the folks there are a little upset with the local government and they think maybe the mayor should resign. The mayor of course has an entirely different opinion and doesn’t really want to give up a perfectly good paying job. So the local council has set up a 24 hour protest in the form of a city wide strike.

How does this involve us you might ask. Well. Besides the fact the next day and a half our schedule lists activities in Potosi, the only road to where we are headed is through that center. Often a city wide strike includes road blockades. Since we are travelling by bus our progress could be severely hampered. We leave at 8am and the tom tom telegraph has sent no information about any road blocks being sent up.

Our highway journey chugs along without incident. The driver is excellent, diving to the road and never once scaring the pants off us. There is very light traffic so progress is exactly what is expected. Again we watch the landscape change several times in a few hours. There are a couple of things that stand out. Trees in full bloom and the flower is the most vivid purple. I can’t help but stare every time I see one. The other was the mining of the more or less dry river bed for fine rock material. For miles and miles they have been sifting the sand from the river bed into dump trucks, hauling the material they need and leaving the rest in long linear rock piles. The rainy season is about to start and I think they have totally messed with the status quo. My guess is there will be hell to pay. I suppose they are willing to deal with that when it happens as long as they get the sand and gravel they need now.

Soon we are going through the suburbs of Potosi. As we get further into the city we notice there are many semi trucks parked on the side of the road. I, innocent as I am, thought, well it is lunch time these guys all stop at the road side market to eat. Debbie said, just as we were about to come upon the road block, maybe there is a blockade ahead. At this point our driver makes a left onto a side street thinking maybe we can do an end around the blockade and still get to the town center. Nope. We weasel our way on residential roads and soon enough in front of us is another Bolivian flag draped across the road impeding our progress.

Potosi, Bolivia

One of many blockades in the city.

The option now is to abandon the bus, walk across the line and find transport to the hotel on the other side. Liz managed to hail a cab. Not big enough for us all but four and the luggage fit. Off they go leaving S, T, A and me in the middle of the road watching a few of the local guys drinking up a storm on the sidewalk. They kept us throughly entertained as we await the return of the taxi to give us a lift.

In the mean time a car load of tourists is trying to find a barricadeless route. Not so easy. They manage to get through the first stop without incident. At the second blockade the driver and our guide had to get out of the car and convince the irate male picketer the tourists in the car had not vested interest in the battle at hand and therefore should be allowed to pass. It took some persuading but eventually they got through.

Potosi, Bolivia

Another blockade.

The return trip for the cabby and Liz was a route finding expedition and when the four of us got picked up we had a somewhat circuitous, but uneventful ride to our accomdation for the night.

It is all part of the adventure and not the first time we have had to dismount a bus and walk with our luggage across a line to engage another form of transport on the other side. It is the first time either of us have had to run barricade. It was not on the trip agenda but we go to places to see what life is like and this is part of the fabric of Bolivia and we got to experience it in action.

Potosi, Bolivia

Typical street in Potosi.

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Sucre, Bolivia

Sucre is a city of about 500,000 people set on hills surrounding a colonial center. The colonial center was built during the time of the Spanish. Most of the buildings are still intact and it is a joy to walk up and down the blocks viewing the architecture.

Sucre, boliva

Sucre, as seen from the Recoleta.

The elevation in Sucre is 2,750 meters, or 9,000 ft. We have slowly gained elevation from 416 m at Santa Cruz to 1,950 m in La Higuera to here. Murray doesn’t feel the altitude, but I do. If we walk too fast or climb a hill, my heart rate goes up and I need to take some Extra breaths. I keep reminding myself to breath deep. We are still heading higher as we approach the altiplano, so I will be drinking coca tea and breathing deep to alleviate the symptoms.

We have noticed that the personal space envelope in Bolivia is much smaller than in Canada. When passing folks on the sidewalk, they pass close rather than taking a wide arc around. This is not scary or bothersome, it just takes a little getting used to.

Sucre, bolivia

The Governor’s Office.

For lunch today, we try “saltenas” at a sort of fast food place. Liz ordered and paid for the food at a window and then it was delivered to our table. Saltenas are a pastry shell about six inches long shaped like an enclosed boat, filled with either a hot chicken or beef mixture with lots of gravy. Liz tells us that the person who drips gravy on their plate while eating has to pay the bill. Everyone drips great puddles as we have not acquired the skill to eat them daintily, whereas Liz, eats hers without a threat of a spillage.

Sucre, bolivia

La Rotonda.

This week there is a celebration of tourism in Sucre. Tonight there is live music and dancing in the central square, which is just two blocks away from our hotel. We stop by to watch some dancing and A, N and J get picked to dance. They look like they are having fun. I, on the other hand, disappear into the crowd when I see the dancers moving to find new partners among the crowd of watchers. We watch for a bit longer and then walk balk to the hotel after a busy day in Sucre.

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Candelaria to Sucre

Today is market day. Anyone travelling in southern Bolivia has heard of the Tarabuco Sunday Market. Most towns shut down on Sunday. Tarabuco opens it doors. It is our first intersection with the tourist trail.  We have not seen this many tourist since Miraflores over a week ago.

Tarabuco, bolivia

Tarabuco Market

The market is very big. It has out grown two market buildings and fills about 4 square blocks of the surrounding streets. Terabuco is at the intersection of roads heading in all directions and all that live along those roads congregate to ply their wares and purchase what is needed. It is a bit of an unusual market as a good portion of the commerce taking place is barter. A farmer with his wheat for sale will trade another seller for what ever they have, say potatoes, and completely skip the cash stage.

Tarabuco, bolivia

Selling coca leaves.

Our whole group splits up and we all go about purchasing something we see that has tweeked our interest or something quite ordinary we might need. T heads off to buy a razor as his seems to have waundered off at the last hotel we stayed at. He finds a pack of 2 for about a $1.50. N went off in search of some things on her list, ogled a ‘jumper’ and in the end decided not to buy it. Debbie wanted to find a table cloth to add to the collection at home. She thought a woven piece of fabric might be nice but we have a hard time finding one large enough. After traversing every street a second time we find a suitable piece, bargin a bit and make a solid purchase for about $12.

Tarabuco, bolivia

Back Carrier used by locals.

Onward to Sucre. Upon arriving in town we head straight for Parque Cretacico. The highlight of this park is a huge vertical wall imprinted with dinasaur footprints. I was personally quite disappointed. The wall is 300M away across a gorge made by the excavations of a cement plant. The prints are visable, but barely, and definately not identifiable as the markings of a bygone era. There is several castings of the prints in the park’s buildings and one real chunk of rock with four prints on it that are more what I was expecting and worth a look but the rest of the place I would give a pass.

Sucre, boliviasucre, bolivia

Dinosaur footprints.

All in all not a hard day with the market being the highlight. Debbie and I have visited many markets, in many different places but I think Tarabuca, although quite ordinary in some ways, is one of the most impressive. The sheer size of it, and the variety of goods available is worth the visit.

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Candelaria Hacienda

We spend our day today at Candelaria Hacienda. It is a break from riding in a vehicle for long periods of time. We are learning new skills.

Candelaria hacienda

Mixing dough for buns.

We start with baking buns. Elizabeth, the owner of the hacienda, mixes the dough, with the help of J, in great quantities, explaining to us the ingredients she is using. We leave the dough to “sleep” and Liz, our tour guide and daughter of the owner, takes us on a tour of the hacienda. There is a chapel dating back to the Jesuits in the 1600’s. We view the museum that is being created, the grain storage, corn storage and surrounding land. We are visiting as winter is turning to spring, so the fields are brown. This area would be a wonderful sight when all is green and ripe.

Candelaria hacienda

Once the dough has risen, we crowd back into the kitchen to knead it and make the buns. I knead bread for the first time in my life. After a rough start and some advice, I get the hang of it and knead about four small blobs. Some of our fellow travelers, A and J, are obviously make bread as they are expert kneaders.

Candelaria hacienda

Bun sized orbs are formed by the group of T, J and Liz, and set out on a tablecloth to rest some more.

Candelaria hacienda

We go watch the adobe brick oven’s fire being lit. And then we return to the kitchen to flatten the orbs into small pancake sized buns. The oven cooks a thinner bun much better than a thick bun, so these are flat. It doesn’t take long to cook them and we get to sample our hard work.

After lunch of vegetable soup and picante chicken with pasta, we learn how to spin and dye wool and weave. Spinning wool onto a large bobbin is much harder than it looks, I keep breaking it by pulling too hard. The young girl showing me is very patient and laughs along with me. Murray tries spinning a finer thread and the local women have fun with him.

Candelaria hacienda

Dying wool is an art that only master dyers perform. The 70 year old dyer creates four colours – yellow, magenta, orange and green. The green starts out blue, but they do not use the colour blue in their weaving, so she takes out the wool, adds some yellow and creates a lovely green. All the colours are vibrant.

Candelaria hacienda

Once the wool is dyed, it is spun again to make finer thread which is used for weaving. There are two ladies weaving and we are encouraged to try. I weave part of one line with the weaver instructing me in Quechea (ie no idea what she is saying!) about which threads to pick up. I must have looked like I knew what I was doing because the weaver told Liz that I was good.

Candelaria hacienda

Shopping comes next and everyone purchases items such as wall hangings, purses, bookmarks and table runners. We have fun bargaining with the ladies and both sellers and buyers leave happy.

It is a relaxing day full of learning and laughter at Candelaria Hacienda.

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La Higuera to Candelaria

The last two days have basically been a road trip. 7 or 8 hours each day seated in a 4 wheel drive. Road conditions vary greatly. The roads from Samaipata are mostly paved but in poor repair. The majority of yesterday’s journey is one lane gravel roads in very rough shape. We went through pass after pass using steep switch backs. Today we started on the same gravel roads and then progressed to recently constructed cobblestones and on to a super highway (two narrow lanes) of newly paved asphalt.

Bolivia

Part of out route through Bolivia.

The switchback roads traversed mountain pass after mountain pass. I have to guess it has been at least 15 passes and valleys. We also passed through as many ecosystems. From out and out desert, to pine tree forests, to the altiplano.

Yesterdays objective was to follow the Ruta de Che. Che Guevara was captured and executed in Bolivia. After accomplishing the goal of revolutionizing Cuba he wanted to convert the whole of South America to socialism. The idea was to start in the center, Bolivia, and work out to the edges conquering one bit at a time.

Two bands of revolutionaries, with a total of only 52 fighters, set out to recruit the local Bolivian population to join in and take over the existing government then handing control to the people. In August 1967 the first group of fighters was found and all were killed in a battle with the Bolivian army. On October 8, the army, with help from a local farmer, located Che’s group. Four of the group were killed in the ensuing battle, Che and two others were taken prisoner. The next day an order from the CIA to execute the prisoners was carried out and they were shot in a school house in La Higuera. Their bodies were helicoptered to the near by city of Vallegrande and put on display to show the world Bolivia had helped to rid the globe of a menace. I suppose it is debatable as to whether or not socialism is a system that should be thrust upon any population and/or if in fact it would be a better system than what is in place and your opinion on this would be what you base whether or not Che was a hero but he was a champion of the poor and many love him for that. I would venture to guess he is more of a hero because the CIA was sticking their nose in what was not really their business resulting in a folk hero being snuffed.

Point of interest, I asked our Spanish speaking driver if che had any meaning in Spanish. I’m quite sure he said, Che is a sort of slang used to describe an Argentinian. A perfectly good reason to call Ernest, ‘Che’.

Bolivian charango

Besides again passing through some amazing countryside our one task enroute is to visit the world’s largest charango, a type of Bolivian guitar. When we enter the museum where it is kept I am surprised to find this thing is a real cheranga. It can be played and is on special occasions. It takes four people to make music, 3 to work the frets and 1 to strum and pick. It is 6M long and 1.5M wide. It was made by a sculptor but with help from an engineer, and several other experts to make sure it makes the proper sound.

Our convoy of 4 wheel drives pulls into our next destination about 4.30 pm. A hacienda, first built in the 1600’s in the smallish town of Candelaria, more or less south of Sucre. This is where we say good bye to our chauffeurs of the last 2 days as we are stationed here for the next 2 nights.

Candelaria hacienda

Candelaria Hacienda

Shortly after we arrive the other two guests E & S get back from their outing. They are geologists studying the rocks of the area. Soon they are part of our group and we sit in the kitchen (the warmest room in the place) and chat while dinner is being made. Moving to the dining room our conversation traverses many subjects and you would think we had been friends for a long time.

Our group of 7 J,J,A,N,S,T, Debbie and I ,and our guide Liz. Have gelled quite well. Every single person has travelled extensively and we all trade stories of other places. From my point of view it does create a bit of a problem. We already have a list of too many places to visit before we die and the list is getting longer. It is amazing the ideas that are presented. Some of course are easier. Japan, always exotic and not hard to travel in so it seems natural for it to on a list of to be visited. Then North Korea pops up, I would never have thought of going to NK with the crazy person they have for a leader but T insists it is not only a good place to consider but should be upgraded to a must.

Our day ends with setting a shower schedule so we don’t blow a breaker drawing too much electricity with the on demand hot water heaters. The road conditions will not be much of a concern tomorrow as we stay put.

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Che Guevara

The big part of the day is the story of Che Guevara as told by the keeper of the keys to the school where he was executed.

Bolivia
We arrive at the small village of La Higuera about 4:00 in the afternoon after 62 km of winding, dusty gravel road from Vallegrande where Che’s body was put on display and then secretly buried. Our journey ending where he was captured and shot.

The story is fact or historic fiction, we will never know. When we arrive in La Higuera we are lead to the infamous school that was used for a prison and place of execution. There are several artifacts around the room and we spend 10 minutes pursuing them, mostly items commemorating Che’s quest left behind by previous visitors.

 

 

Bolivia
Without any warning, the keeper starts to rattle out the local story of the time Che was in the village. There is no written or taped record of the story, just the local accounts as passed on over almost 50 years, from those that were there to this keeper who was only 2 years old at the time. Fact or fiction, this account was delivered in true belief and with passion, with all the embellishments and changes that happen to an account as time marches on. The keeper’s daughter and grand daughter were present and this story will soon be passed from generation to generation and changed and modified as each person becomes the holder of the story.

La Higuera, Bolivia
This is the oral tradition in action. The story will soon be, if not already is, fact and will be the accepted account of how history took place. The incident happened recently enough, but there is no record, which the powers at the time may not have wanted, so the history with be passed on as oral history, changing with time.

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Samaipata, Bolivia

We are a caravan of three 4wheel drive vehicles. Leaving Santa Cruz we drive south towards Samaipata. The speed limit is 70kph, and slower through the towns we encounter. It takes us three hours to arrive at our destination.

Our goal today is El Fuerte de Samaipata, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It dates back to pre Incan times, as far back  400 AD when it was a Mojocoya village, then from 800 – 1450 AD as a ceremonial center for the Chane people, who carved figures in the rock, followed by the Guarani warriors.

Samaipata, Bolivia

Ceremonial figures and shapes carved into rock.

Then the Incas came for about 100 years and finally the Spanish around 1550. There are indications of all these peoples on the site.

Samaipata, Bolivia

Spanish ruins.

Liz, our guide, tells us a story. The Inca were very vicious when they swept through an area to conquer. They basically killed everyone although they did subjugate some peoples and imposed a rule saying each family has to work for the community for a certain time, say 2 months, and then the rest of the year is their own. When the Spanish came into power, they heard about this rule and liked it, so they imposed the same thing on all subjugated people’s including the Incans but made it even tougher. “You will work in the mine for 4 months, and when that time is was over, here is your pay of 6 Royales, but wait, you owe us for food, 2 R, clothing, 2 R, and medicine, 4 R, so you now owe us 2 R. You can pay cash right now, or work it off in the mine.” Basically, the people ended up working in the mine for the rest of their lives.

El pueblito

We are staying the night in a quaint resort called El Publito, which is built like a small town, each room is decorated in the fashion of one of the shops. We are in the “Botica”, the pharmacy. I am sitting in the dining room, where the WIFI is stronger, and the aromas coming from the kitchen are making my mouth water.

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Let the Tour Begin

Today we meet up with our travel companions. Noon is our target. We start out to have breakfast across the street, the cafe is closed and when we go back to the hotel to ask where else to go they inform us we could have the complimentary breakfast we paid for upstairs on the second floor. Surprise to us.

We ask if the street we are intending to walk is safe and the folks look at up as if we are nuts. Sure it is safe but it is a long way. People just don’t walk I guess. The entire walk takes us 1/2 hour. On schedule a group of gringoish looking folks walk through the front door and damned if they are not looking for us.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Introductions all around. Liz the chief gives an outline agenda for the day, we climb into a mini bus and off we go. Our first stop, the central square from whence we just came. A repeat of most of the highlights. Ivan, the local guide knows his stuff. I don’t think one question stumped him, mind you he could say it is green and we would have to believe him because none of us would know the difference. He did tell us the imposing cathedral  was orginally white plaster like the rest of the buildings on the plaza but was reclad in brick in the 1970’s. And his intro speech enlightened us on the fact that Bolivia is a ‘melting pot’ of cultures. Many different indiginous groups and indeed peoples from all over the world have settled here over the centuries to make Bolivia what it is today. Did you know that there are about 70,000 Mennonites living in the areas around Santa Cruz?

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Potatoes

I would rather walk than ride a bus but we do cover a lot of territory in a short time as we see parts of the city we would not have found. We drive by the park we were headed to yesterday when the lady told us it is not a place for tourists with cameras. It did look a little sketchy. We drive  through less affulent and total upscale residential areas. We do a tour of the outshirts and then stop at the largest and most popular mercado in Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Not very crowded on a Tuesday but the potential for a weekend scrum is big. We stop at a “real” indiginous handy craft place where the local folks sell their goods but the deal is they must be of export quality. Too early for us to start shopping, so no purchases, although we got some ideas!

The crew is interesting enough, from a young lady that trades bonds in New York to a 80 year old electrical engineer that worked in high end speaker factories in England. Should be a good couple of weeks if I can get used to the group movement thing.

Some more random thoughts. Shoes. Man they are important. Tell a man by his shoes they say. Here the only stores open on Sunday are shoe stores. On every street corner there is a shoe shine guy and there is more often than not someone in the chair getting their shoes shined.

Eating out is much more about the dining experience than satisfying a basic need. We can sit all night and the check would not come. You have to request “la cuenta”.

September 24 is a big celebration day here. It is the day the area, Santa Cruz, got its independence. During the entire month of September there are events to mark the occasion. It is also a time when the municipal government springs for some funds and does a lot of spruce up maintenance around the city. Yesterday 1/2 the benches in the central plaza were unuseable because of a fresh coat of shellac. Today we cross the street and notice last night while we slept the city guys were out painting new lines on the main streets.

We are leaving Santa Cruz tomorrow to head south and west to less populated areas. We will post whenever we have WIFI, as we have been told that we will only have it in the cities. Stayed tuned!

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

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Santa Cruz, Bolivia

We read this Santa Cruz is nothing special and I think I must agree. Nice enough place but just a city. This is our first time to Bolivia so it is a really good intro and the city seems friendly enough but there are not a whack of tourist sites to attact tourists so there are not too many tourists either.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Caffe sellers in the square.

A few quick observations. The central park is a popular spot. We arrived on Sunday and it was packed. By the evening you had to hunt to find a seat and there are hundreds of them. Families gather there. The kids are occupied the entire time. Last night a lady selling bubbles makers cleaned up. Mom and dad spent the evening blowing bubbles the younger kids spent the entire time chasing after them, clapping them into the ether.

Today it is pigeons. Someone is selling small bags of seed, mom and dad feed the pigeons and the kids chase them away. The pigeons are very accommodating and return again and again so the kids can again chase them away again and again.

There is a sign at a pizza shop, “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy pizza and it is the same thing.”

This city can get hot in the summer. Two things make that obvious.  All of the street sides of the buildings have porticos (overhangs) the width of the sidewalk, which provide shade from the intense overhead sun. And, a much more recent addition, ice cream shops. Fancy ice cream shops, I think there is a least one on every block. Today we are lucky, it was supposed to be 33 C but there is a cool wind blowing making the temp quite pleasant, which results in us not buying ice cream.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

In the higher end neighbourhood.

We walk through a higher end neighbourhood. Fancier high rise condo buildings and gated single family homes. It is good to walk cities and discover where the ordinary folks live. They are mostly just like us in where they live, work, eat, shop and play.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

House in the higher end neighbourhood.

We wander across a small local restaurant as we are due for lunch. We take a chance and enter. Fortunately one of the young chefs speaks English and explains the menu to us which is written on a white board outside the eatery. I have my usual, chicken and rice and Murray has chicken lasagna with rice. The young man is very accommodating with me to prepare something not on the menu. Murray orders a Coke and it comes in a rather large bottle, 600 ml, enough to share. The price for the tasty lunch is about $6 US.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Our lunch stop.

Tomorrow we meet up with our tour group and life will change for us. No more wandering Santa Cruz or stopping at off the beaten path restaurants, but we will get onto the salt flats and altiplano. Till tomorrow.

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