Friday, June 29, 2007

Potosi Mine

After a very long bus ride - much longer than we expected - we arrived in Potosi and checked into a very nice hostel called "Koala Den". This is the first place I´ve been to that actually has heating! We immediately signed up for a tour of the Potosi mine which is a must do in this part of the world.

The following day, bright and early, we were at the miners cooperative getting fitted out with helmets, wellington boots (obligatory for any tour), and protective trousers and jackets.

First stop on the tour was to pick up gifts for the miners. These consisted of bottles of coca cola, dynamite, and coca leaves.

Dynamite is readily available throughout Bolivia and it´s completely legal for anyone to buy and blow up. Typically the miners use a package called a "Completo". This consists of: a stick of dynamite (from my limited knowledge this looks and feels like plastic explosives), a 5 minute fuse (enough to get 30-50 meters away safely), a bag of amonium nitrate (fertilizer -gives you more bang for you buck).

All this is available for the princely sum of 17 Bolivianos (about $2) from your local shop...

Before visiting the mines, we visited one of the ore processing plants, this was a good taster of what to expect in the mines. The miners sell the raw ore taken from the mine to these plants to be seperated out and then sold onto the international markets.

Here´s the mountain "Cerro Rico" that the mine is in. The mountain used to stand at about 5,800 meters, but is now down to 4,800 due to instability caused by the mining.

From the mine you get a good view of the city.

And after taking some photos, it was time to go in...

Nothing that anyone had said or anything that I had read had quite prepared me for the hideous conditions within the mine. The dust, the cramped conditions, the lack of ventilation. I doubt that this mine would be allowed to operate in any other place. What made all this worse is that these conditions are not being imposed by some evil multinational mining corporation. The mine is actually run by a collection of mining cooperatives!

Unfortunately, there are over 60 mining cooperatives all working on this one mine. Rather than working together to improve things, they work in competition with each other, occasionally conflicts over rich seams lead to confrontations in the mine where the weapons of choice are sticks of dynamite.

It was quite depressing really. You would hope that having the mine controlled and run by locals would make conditions much better. Instead it seems to have made things much worse. Most labor is still carried out by hand. An electric winch to hoist rocks from 7 levels below the entrance only costs $3500, but only one cooperative has the money to buy one, so only one cooperative has one. A few cooperatives have electric carts. Everything else is done by hand.

As you would expect, life expectancy of a miner is pretty short.

A few hundred meters inside the mine is a small museum, this also houses the mine devils that the miners pray to for good finds, safety etc...

Having climbed through some pretty tight tunnels filled with dust and finding it almost impossible to breath I decided to cut my tour short at the end of the first level of the mine. The thought of going down through level 2 to level 3 really wasn´t that appealing.

Once outside it was time for a bit of light relief, we got to play with some of the dynamite that we´d purchased.

Our guide had kindly brought along a stuffed monkey, the stuffing was quickly removed and replaced with the dynamite.

And here´s me holding a monkey stuffed with dynamite, and yes, the fuse coming out of its mouth is lit!

Here´s the video of the explosions:

Sucre, Dinosaurs!

One of the big tourist attractions in Sucre are some dinosaur tracks that can be seen quite close by.

From the town square we caught the dino-bus..

Which took us to the local cement factory (where the tracks were discovered...).

Guess what the dinosaurs are made from...

The tracks are pretty interesting, but sadly you´re not allowed to get as close as you used to be able to as they are trying to preserve them.

More dinosaur models:

Back in town we attempted to visit another major attraction, the cemetry (I kid you not).

Sadly it was closed and having exausted the options in Sucre we headed to the travel agency (aptly names "BS Tours") and booked a bus ticket to Potosi.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Last night we were supposed to catch the bus to Potosi with the ultimate aim of going on a tour of the salar salt flats.

Sadly the busses were all full, so we´re now down the road in Sucre, so far it´s a bit uninspiring, nice town, but not a lot to do really.

Tomorrow I should be in Potosi.

Video from the death road

Saturday, June 23, 2007

"The Worlds Most Dangerous Road" AKA "The Road Of Death"

Yesterday we went mountain biking down the famous Road of Death :

And today, we are still alive!

Here are the photos:

We got up around 7:30 and left La Paz for a short drive to the start of the death road. On arrival we got all our gear on and tried out the bikes:

This was probably the first time I´ve ever ridden a bike with breaks that really work properly!

The first part of our ride was on properly surfaced roads to get us used to riding the bikes again (a couple of us had not ridden since we were 12 years old...).ç

The road was pretty steep with some funs turns that you could pretty much take without slowing down.

And a few uphill sections that required a bit of rest afterwards.

After some more riding we reached the death road proper and tried out the first section.

Having successfully completed this without falling off the edge our guide offered us the choice of splitting up into two groups, one fast and one a bit slower, or all of us going a bit faster.

So we all chose to go faster and carried on down the death road.

After about 3 hours of riding (with frequent breaks for water and rest) we reached the bottom.

And had a very welcome beer!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Pampas and Jungle tour

Last week we left La Paz to go down to a place called Rurrenabaque which is to the North and is part of the amazon basin.

Booked our flights the day before with Amazonas Airlines and the following day set off at 11 am to the airport to catch our plane. Almost immediately it became pretty obvious that not all was well, with all of the people who were supposed to get flights that morning still hanging around the airport...

But eventually things sorted themselves out and our little plane arrived at 3pm to finally take us down into the lowlands.

And when I say little plane, I mean little plane (though it was a bit bigger than the one I got in the Galapagos Islands):

Take off at 4000m is quite an exciting affair, you don´t really climb very much higher!

So we came fairly close to the mountains that surround La Paz

Before finally coming into land at the dirt strip in the middle of the jungle (don´t know how the pilots actually saw anything through the windscreen...).

This is the airport:

They turn the planes around pretty quickly and head straight back to La Paz with a load of tired and dirty tourists fresh from the jungle.

After a quick bus ride into town we found our hostel (they still seem to be constructing the road to it...) which was very nice with some very comfy hammocks.

A quick wash and brush up followed by a trip to the travel agent to book a tour to the Pampas with our new found friends and it was time for some happy hour and many many cocktails with the fellow survivors of the plane ride.

Next morning bright and early we had the usual confusion of the start of a tour. First step of this process is usually being taken from the agency that you booked through to a completely different agency...

After a bit of milling around and general confusion seven of us were packed aboard a 4x4 and sent on our way (on a 3 hour incredibly dusty road)

to find the boat that would be our main means of transportation for the next 3 days. This brought back many memories of my trip to Mosquitia in Honduras - fortunately there´s only a river to navigate this time!

All aboard and we´re off down the river to find some wildlife and accommodation.

First thing we see is a pretty big caiman!

An hour or so later, and quite a few caiman later,

Some monkeys lazing around in the trees.

Followed by some more little monkeys that were kind enough to pose (in exchange for crackers).

Also seen, pink dolphins! Sadly almost impossible to photograph as they only surface for a quick breath and then dive down again.

That evening we went upstream a little bit to visit the Sunset Bar for a couple of beers followed by a nice evening meal - possibly the best food I´ve had so far in South America.

The following day was anaconda hunting day! First order of business, finding some wellington boots. I must say, the girls look rather fetching in their new apparal.

About 30 minutes upstream, with the usual abundance of caiman and dolphins, we stopped to head into the pampas to find our anacondas.

Our earlier grumblings about the new rubber boots dissapeared quite quickly as we discovered just how deep the mud was round here and spirits were generally good.

Perseverance rewarded, we found an anaconda! Don´t know why this photo has fallen over, I´m sure I fixed it.

Following this, our two crocodile hunter australians found another, sadly in a slightly deeper area, so our wellingtons filled up with water and creepy crawlys.

We also managed to buy 3 bottles of vino tinto, this seemed to please the French girls immensely!

Back at camp everyone was quite keen for a quick swim to wash the mud away. However, our usual swimming spot was occupied:

No more swimming!

The following day was spent attempting to swim with the pink dolphins. We managed to swim with them only in the sense that they were in the same river as us. But it was still fun splashing around with the caiman and the pirahnas (health and safety, what´s that?).

The following morning we went fishing for pirahnas, our guide caught five, between the rest of us, we managed one. They tasted pretty nice, but there´s not a lot of meat on them.

Then it was time to head home back down the river to pick up our ride back to Rurrenabaque. Stopping off to torment some pigs.

We decided to book ourselves onto the jungle tour for the following day, so once again, it was time for a quick shower, cocktails, and another early start the next day. Sadly at this point my camera´s battery finnally went flat, so there´s not photos of our adventures.

This time we went down a different river and left directly from Rurrenabaque. The night before we left it had rained very heavily and it was still ominously overcast when we left. Almost immediately it started to rain and our newly purchased plastic ponchos were put to good use.

Luckily it cleared up once we passed the mountains and the climate turned more humid and jungle like.

Not much to report from the jungle, very different from the pampas, much harder to see any wildlife. We did manage to catch a good look at some howler monkeys, and saw a whole heard of wild pigs (100+) stampeding accross the trail.

Best bit of the trip, cutting up a notepad to make playing cards... Not much to do at night in the jungle!