Chloe Hayes: Seeing South America Chapter 5 (Part 2)
I got up early for the mines and was relieved when I found that there was another guy coming with us as Julio, the guide was very intense. We hopped onto a local bus and took it up to the top of town where all the miners live. It was so polluted up there it was really hard to breathe, you could actually feel the dust sticking to your throat. We went into a miners shop as they all work for themselves as a co-operative so they buy all their own supplies. It was just like your regular builders merchants but with dynamite just casually in bags along the top of the table. Apparently it´s totally legal for them to sell dynamite in shops and no one abuses this fact surprisingly. We bought 2 bottles of juice and 6 sticks of dynamite to give as presents for the miners, then went to get changed. The tourists buy the miners gifts as it is a real working mine and the tourists are generally just in the way of their everyday working routine. The gifts sort of sweeten them up and it means you can give something back directly. After getting kitted out in full miner attire, trousers, jacket, belt, helmet and headlamp we bought a huge sack of coca leaves to give as well, and hopped onto the bus with the workers to the mines. The juice is because when you get to the mines there is nothing there, no shops, not even any clean running water, the coca leaves because it prevents the miners from getting hungry and gives them energy and the dynamite because it is expensive to purchase as they have to buy so much, even though each stick only cost me £2.50. This means that the miners have incredibly poor health to the point that their life expectancy is no more than forty.
e got off of he bus and immediately Julio was greeted by the workers, you could tell he was proud to be an ex miner and was keen to show us what a good relationship he had with the miners. He laughed and joked and then we went to sit in the miners ´Staff Room´, a muddy cave in the side of the mountain decorated with coloured flags and a few pieces of fabric to brighten up the place. The men were all very friendly, shaking our hands with their cheeks filled like hamsters one one side with coca leaves, black lips and teeth showing the evidence of years of chewing bags of them every day. After prepping our headlamps we headed inside. You could immediately smell the thick, heavy air like a really damp building and a dusty workshop all in one.
The tunnels were tiny to the point where we were sometimes almost crawling on our knees and holding onto our hats. The floors were either muddy or completely waterlogged and the ceiling was filled with pipes and hatches. It was really, properly dangerous and not in anyway touristy. There was no gift shop, no toilets and no cafe, this was the real deal, to the point where we were the only tourists there. It got dark instantly and almost straight away we were being shouted at to jump onto the tiny ledge off the rails to let cart loads of rock and earth go by. They were pulled at the front and pushed at the back and the men were tied onto it like mules.
After meeting a few men and giving some more supplies out we heard from 2 boys, 18 and 20 that worked there that they were making explosions. Within about 5 minutes we could smell the fuse and see the clouds of dust coming out. It was really thick and you could barely breathe, we left that area as even our guide thought it was too dusty and went to see the el Tio, the lord of the underworld. The miners worship the devil whilst working underground, leaving things like coca leaves and alcohol for him so he keeps them safe underground and because they are taking the minerals and metals from him. After about an hour and a half in the mines we crawled out and back into the open, it was amazing to think that before I went into the mines I thought the air was awful and as soon as I came out I couldn´t wait to breathe it! I wanted to come to the mines as I had seen so many amazing and beautiful things on my travels and I wanted to see a real, everyday part of the country too, I always feel like tourists never get to experience the real country and so that was my reasoning and I am so glad I did it, however I completely understand why many tourists never dare to step foot in them. None of the people I met in my hostel were going to do it, neither was Zdenka.
After we got changed and got back to Potosi town I went to my hostel to get my bag, had a quick salad and then went to the bus station with the German guy from the tour. If I say peoples nationalities it´s because I can´t remember their names, which I am sure you´ve guessed already. You meet so many people whilst travelling and if you have a brain like mine as well, it´s really hard to remember everybody´s name! The bus to Uyuni took about 4 and a half hours and after leaving the German guy there to book his tour, I got in a taxi to the hostel that I told the tour company to pick me up at in the morning. When we got there I couldn´t really see the hostel but that has happened to me before and it has worked out and the taxi driver assured me it was there so I didn´t think anything of it. Turned out it was completely shut up, and there was no sign of a bell or anything, luckily there was a hostel next door, unluckily it was fully booked so I was stuck, just outside of town, with everything I owned on my back in the pitch black and absolutely desperate for a wee. I panick-ly walked up and down the street but there was no sign of any other hostel so I reluctantly got back in the cab, whipped my guidebook out and chose a hostel. Fortunately it only cost me 3 Bolivianos (35p), I checked in to my own room as they didn´t have dorms and breathed a sigh of relief, it is never fun when that sort of thing happens. That evening I went out for some soup and got ready for the Salt Flat tour in the morning, so excited! It´s the thing I had been looking forward to since entering Bolivia.
I woke up a little bit worried as although I had informed the company that I had changed hostels, they hadn´t got back to me. I made the decision to walk around the town a little bit, have some brekkie and then get my stuff and walk to the other hostel. Luckily as I was walking out with everything on me, a lady called my name and they had come to pick me up! Few! A few minutes later and I would have been at the other end of town. They took me to the tour office and there I met the rest of my group, A British couple named Theana and Sam, a British dude called John, 2 Canadian girls, Joanna and Giselle, 2 Germans Stephanie and Sebastian and a French couple Timothee and Emilie, YES I remembered everybody’s names! Our guide was Victor who was lovely and he went through what we would be doing day by day. After about 10 minutes we were split into 2 Jeeps and we were on our way!
Our first stop was literally 5 minutes out of town, Cemeterio des Trenes, an old railway track with abandoned, rusty trains that everyone was climbing on and taking photos, it was super fun. John and I waited ages for people to get off of the railway so we could get an epic shot of it going into the distance but people just kept trumping one another so we just kept walking and walking up until everybody was waiting for us at the jeeps, oops. Our next stop was Colchani, a small town on the edge of the salt flats that primarily refines the salt collected. We were shown the small place in which they refine the salt and how they do it, I bought a little bag of salt also, although how I am going to get that through the border I will never know and we were on our way to the flats themselves!
As we were driving along it felt amazing, darting along the flats with the tracks behind us, watching the other jeeps on their various routes and when we stopped it was even more incredible. Everywhere was completely flat and it looked like it had been snowing even though the sun was boiling hot. We were climbing on the little mounds of salt and kicking it and crushing it just as you would a frozen puddle. Whilst we were being ridiculous our drivers and guide were setting up lunch. It as the most incredible place to have lunch ever, just us and the whiteness and the lunch was pretty amazing too. Alpaca Steak with loads of veg and quinoa and watermelon. Whilst the guys packed it all away we were told to go for a walk over the flats and we would be picked up when they were ready. We literally became children picking up chunks of salt and throwing them to the ground seeing who could make the best salt explosion or gently peeling slices off to see who could get the biggest intact wedge. It was really really fun and I knew I had a good group which was really lovely. We were eventually picked up although we were having our doubts and w were off to Playa Blanca, the first ever hotel on the salt flats. Although no longer a hotel, it is a museum and there is also a place where you can put the flag of your country to fly over the salt flats, there was even a Syrian one, God knows how that got there.
The next stop was the classic. The stop in the middle of nowhere to take all those silly pictures you tell yourself you´re not going to take and then end up having the best time doing it. We were fighting dinosaurs, eating each other off spoons, being drunk out of a tea cup, being chased by giants and walking along tight ropes, it was literally hilarious and we had such fun. The next one was the one that I had most been looking forward to, Inca Huasi. An Island in the middle of the Salt Flats that was completely covered in Cacti that were all 100s and 1000s of years old. They were 3 times my height and there flowers alone were the size of the cacti that you would get at home, it was amazing and as we trekked up the island the view got even more incredible, seeing the Cacti on the perfectly white background with the mountains in the background. On the trek back down I got to know Theana and Sam a little bit more and it turned out they were moving to Oxford! Amazing. (That´s where I am from by the way). Our last official stop before the sunset was to Pia Pia Island, an eggshell like cave in the side of a rock, the formation inside was amazing and we took yet more silly photos before we drove on.
Our sunset viewing spot was in the middle of nowhere and as we got out of the car it´s almost like our guide pressed play on the sunset button. The sky was turning all colours of the rainbow and it painted the clouds like a 1800´s oil painting. Because the ground was white it reflected the colour of the sky and the whole area had turned pink and purple as the sun got lower. We took more silly pictures then sat on the crispy floor to watch the last of it dip away. It was the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen and the others agreed. We drove to our accommodation which that night was in a little village called Agencha. We had individual huts made from salt bricks and grass roves which were beautiful and I was sharing with the 2 Canadian girls. We had tea and then later an amazing dinner of chicken and soup and then we all went to bed early as we were super tired from such an amazing day!
Up at 5am because we had a very long day ahead of us we had an amazing breakfast of Bunuelos, bread and this incredible pot of dulche de leche stuff which was so naughty but utterly incredible! I over ate of course! Sadly Timothee came to breakfast and told us that Emilie was really ill. She had been very quiet the day before and he told us she had been feeling ill for 3 days now. They had to stay in the village and get a jeep back to Uyuni to find a doctor. We were really sad to see them go but hoped that Emilie would get better and said they had made the right decision. It was a real shame but sometimes youé just got to do it! We set off and went to our first stop, Stone Army. It was a valley completely filled with rocks made from petrified coral, it looked incredible and we were climbing all over the rocks like children again, although the rocks were super sharp as you can imagine.
After this we stopped at Chiguana to see another railway area and take more silly pictures and then to see Ollague Volcano, it was also smoking which was super cool. The stop after this was Cañapa, the first of the lagoons that we were going to see. It was amazing. A beautiful colour and with the mountains in the background and the borax, a white mineral around the edge it made it super spectacular. The cherry on the cake was that there were literally hundreds of Flamingoes in the lagoon all feeding and making noises and flying, it was truly magical and like nothing I had ever seen. We went for a walk around the Lagoon, then when we got back to the jeeps our lunch was already set up for us! What another incredible place to have lunch! Again it was fabulous and afterwards we walked back alongside the lagoon, waiting for the jeeps to pick us up on the other side.
We drove to our next lagoon, Stinking Lagoon to be exact, which if possible was even more beautiful than the last, even if a little bit stinkier. There were more flamingoes here and the colour of the lagoon was a beautiful rich blue green. We walked alongside it and up to our jeeps and headed for the next incredible view. Siloli Desert and the Stone Tree, a super windy, freezing cold place, that actually formed these rocks, they were cut by the wind it is so strong, forming the crazy formations you see today. Off to our last lagoon of the day, Red Lagoon which was yet another stunning site, it is hard to absorb so many different things that you have never seen before all in such a short space of time and all so beautiful as well. The red colour was really strong, created by the minerals in the water and again, the white Borax fringing finished the look off amazingly.
We drove to the entrance of the national park, where we could stamp our passports (I love collecting them!) and pass through to our accommodation for the night in Wallajara. It was getting dark by the time we got there and the wind was bitterly cold, although not as cold as everyone made out it was going to be! We had tea and then a little time in between so we checked out San Pedro in the guidebook and chatted about what to do next. All the English people were going to cross the border whereas everyone else was heading back to Uyuni. After dinner, we all got ready for bed and I am not lying when I say the place was like the hotel out of The Shining. It was bitterly cold, we were the only people there and the halls were long and cold and made of concrete, the only light was awful fluorescent light bulbs every now and again. We were all a little bit creeped out but we were sharing room so it was ok, the couples in one room and the singles in another. We freaked each other out a bit by mentioning scary things and then we went to sleep listening to a door banging in the wind all night.
Although I have become accustomed to being by myself, it was so lovely to be part of a group again, especially one with a few Brits in, we really had so much fun together and became mates very quickly, it was nice to be silly and to play as well. So much of your time is spent looking out for yourself and your stuff when you are on your own that it is nice to let loose and not to worry about anything, even if just for a moment.
Words and images by Chloe Hayes