We have been in Bolivia for just over 2 weeks and have not slept at anything less than 3500m above sea level. Neither of us is designed for altitude life! The headaches and nausea are at bay, but the perpetual listlessness and shortness of breath is all pervasive. On arrival at Lake Titicaca, Bolivian side, I was barely able to carry our big bag up the stairs to our hotel room without stopping and panting like a marathon runner. Our energy levels are super low and the most comfortable thing to do is actually to ride…..it’s the easiest thing to do!
As we were sitting on the bike preparing to brave the 3 degree celsius ( there was ice on the bike saddle from the night before) start from Oruro , the hotel manager stuck his head out and asked where we were going. “Sucre” we proudly told him……whereupon he frowned and indicated that our planned route was ‘ripio con piedra y mal camino’…..this is bad Spanish paraphrasing for BAD road. Now when a Bolivian tells you that the road is bad…..believe them! It so happened that a guardian angle was looking down on us as we re-planned a route to Potosi, bypassing Sucre. A good friend of ours took the road we had planned and ended up drowning his steed at a river crossing necessitating a vehicular rescue!
The best advice for altitude ailments is get the hell down! We managed to get stuck in Potosi (4060m above sea level) with bad colds for 4 nights and couldn’t move! We eventually managed an escape only to head to Uyuni, the jump off point for trips onto the world’s largest and highest Salt Plains – the Salar de Uyuni.
This amazing piece of mother nature is 3600m above sea level and spans 9000 square kilometres. It is a giant, vast expanse of perfectly flat salt plain. It’s actually a lake with the upper crust completely solidified into a crust of salt able to bear the weight of a vehicle! There are a few small scattered islands on the plains, the most famous of which is the Isla de Incahausi. You can walk the length and breadth of the island in under an hour. What is striking about the island though is the prolific number, of all things, cacti!!
These remarkably well adapted species are apparently over 900years old! The largest are over 9m high and they cover the island!! One is able to stop off at the base of the island, pay a fee to the local and wonder in amongst these ancient species.
As a biker it is always comforting to know that you are following some sort of track or piste……on the salar it’s different. We plugged in the GPS co-ordinates ( compliments of Gilles, our wonderful French BMW friend ) and we go…..the plains are perfectly flat and you can send it! We cruised over the salt at over a 100km/hr and hardly felt the surface! It’s truly spooky riding across these plains with NOTHING in sight and no indication of where you are.
The Isla is about 70k’s from the edge of the flats and by the time we were half way, we were totally disoriented…..endless whiteness. I think the pics and short video clip will give you some idea of what we were seeing. What they don’t show is the temperature – it was minus 1.5degrees out in the middle!!
After a whole day on the flats we returned to our Salt Hotel to thaw…..so we splashed a bit and spent 2 nights in the infamous Hotel Luna Salada, an exclusive hotel on the edge of the flats ( ironically only R800 for a double room with all the fancy hotel finishes!). It’s claim to fame is its spectacular and unique outlook over the flats and the fact that it’s made solely from salt bricks 🙂
Adios to the Salar and a desperate anticipation for warmer climes as we take a south-easterly dirt road 250km to Tupiza, 100km from the Argentine border. Our day started off at 0 degrees, 3600m and ended at a balmy 22deg and 2800m! We are both breathing again and slightly warmer 🙂
En route across the last stretch of the Bolivian alti-plano I was feeling sorry for the bike – she was caked in salt from the Salar…..so in the middle of nowhere we came across a small mining village where the main attraction was a car wash! One happy BMW as I jet blasted every last grain of salt off her!
It’s been another drastic landscape transformation from the bleak, dry and desolate alti-plano to Tupiza which is a small village tucked into a warm valley at the end of the plano. We went on a very affordable day’s horseback ride through the valley and were spell-bound by the beautiful and mysterious rock formations that constitute this part of southern Bolivia – I think the pics tell the story better 🙂
It’s been a relatively brief visit to Bolivia, but filled with weird and wonderful sights and a test of our physical endurance and susceptibility to altitude. We have had a wonderful time, but are indeed pleased to be heading back to more amenable oxygen pressures 🙂
Cerro Rico is the silver rich (actually not so silver rich anymore…. but it was the world’s largest deposit of silver) mountain that lies behind Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world sitting at 4090 meters above sea level.
Silver was first discovered at Cerro Rico by a local herder who lost a llama on the mountain. The nights are VERY cold here and the legend goes that he started a fire on hill and liquid silver ran from the fire……the mountain itself was beleved to have veins of silver.
The history of the mines from the 16th century till today is littered with the bones of those whom the mountain has swallowed. The first mines opened in the late 1500 and the Spanish colonialists were the first to exploit this natural resource. Initially locals, Indeans and African slaves were used to mine the silver. The conditions were very rough with the slaves working 20 hour shifts and only having four hours off to sleep. They were also kept in the mine for up to six months at a time…. if they survived. The legend goes that enough silver was mined to build a bridge from Potosi to Spain and that enough lives were lost to build another bridge to match it from human bones. Makes me thik twice when I look at my silver jewelry.
Today there are over 400 mines with 150 being actively mined and over 15 000 miners working in the mine. The life expectancy of the average miner is only 45 to 55 years due to silicosis and asbestosis. They usually have an unpleasant death due to the lack of medical services and know that their time is up when they start coughing blood. The miners work for themselves and there are no safety guidelines in the mines. There is also no limitation on the amount of time that they are allowed to work. Children as young as 13 years old are working in the mines to support their families. There are no females working in the mine as it is believed that they will bring bad luck and are not strong enough. The only females working near the mine work outside the mine sorting the rock. These are usually widows of miners that have died in the mine.
The mountain of Cerro Rica is actually getting smaller every year to the persistent mining. The government of Bolivia has tried to close the mine due to the terrible conditions but they were unable to as what would they do with the 15 000 miners and the co-ops where they extract the silver? There is no other industry here so it would leave the people destitute.
In the mines themselves the conditions are appalling. I went on a tour of the mine and was only able to do the first section (about an hour) due to my asthma flaring up. The air is so full of dust, there is no ventilation and the fumes from the dynamite come in waves. On the lower levels of the mine the temperature goes up to 40 degrees Celsius. Most work 8 hour shifts and chew large balls of coco leaves to help alleviate the altitude sickness, headaches and hunger. We were told after our tour that 3 days earlier miners had died in a collapse. This happens often as there are no safety regulations in the mine.
Before entering the mine we were taken to a store to buy presents for the miners. It is quite scary as there is no restriction on the sale of alcohol or dynamite. Even young children can buy it. We bought drinks for the miners as many do not even take water with them into the mines.
Outside the mine the miners are Catholic. Inside the mine they worship mother earth and El Tio. El Tio is the male equivalent of mother earth and all the mines have statues of him. The miners leave him offerings and if he is happy they believe that they will have more mineral wealth. Offerings include alcohol, cigarettes, llama fetuses and even human fetuses. If miners die in the mines it is believed that that Gods are satisfied with the sacrifice and that they will be rewarded by increased mineral wealth for the next month or two.
It is not known for how much longer the miners will be able to mine here. To me it felt as if we were in a time bomb that could collapse at any stage.
People often ask me if I get bored sitting on the back of a bike, what do I see, do I sleep and do I ever drive?
This journey between La Paz and Potosi answers a lot of those questions.
Firstly there is no way I could sleep as I need to keep balanced otherwise I could topple the bike…. that is one of the things about travelling on a bike…. you need to always be aware…. even if you are just sitting on the back. Andy and I also have a speaker system that allows us to chat to each other while riding which has really revolutionised our travels.
Do I drive… the easy answer is no because my legs are not long enough and I can’t reach the peddles. The longer answer is more difficult. I don’t really know if I would be brave enough to do it. I have so much trust in Andrew’s ability that I don’t really need to think about whether I would be able to. I know that when we hit really hard sections that I am fine and that I can manage, but whether I would be able to ride the whole thing on my own… I’m not sure. We have met one couple on 2 bikes and have read a blog of another couple. I really do admire those girls. Maybe if I was bigger I would feel differently? Who knows…. luckily the short legs save me from having to face this dilemma…..
What is really amazing about travelling on a bike is feeling your environment. It might sound strange but feeling the temperature changes and wind really helps you to understand what the land is actually like. The disadvantages of this are the cold and the stress that you put on your body…. but I suppose you can’t have everything.
Not having to concentrate on the road also gives me so much time to just observe. The landscapes are so dramatic and different. As we drive past I see the most amazing things. From little children playing soccer, to birds on the side of the road, to cloud formations, to rainbow coloured mountains, pink lakes, old women chatting to their friends….. I often wish that I could just blink my eyes and take a photograph to capture some of the beautiful things I have been privileged to see.
Being independent is something that both of us really appreciate. We haven’t had to look at a clock pretty much the whole trip. We measure our days by how much sunlight is left, if we feel tired we sleep, if we are sick we stay longer, if we are feeling good we drive further. We also mostly get all the sights to ourselves… very special.
So why bike? Yes it is dangerous but there are so many advantages….. and I just feel so privileged to have been able to experience so many spectacular things.
Driving through La Paz was crazy!!!! The traffic was something else. Drivers don’t take any notice of lanes, let alone which side of the road you should drive on. Pedestrians and dogs think that the roads were made for them. One way roads are everywhere…. I think you are getting the idea.
Both Andrew and I had been feeling homesick and were really excited to be meeting up with Debbie and Dean in La Paz, friends that we had met on the Navimag ferry in Chile. By an absolute miracle and thanks to the GPS we found Debbie and Dean. We had a wonderful time catching up on travel stories, touring the city and enjoying each other’s company.
La Paz is different. It has a beautiful setting under a snow capped mountain but is such a clash of the senses. There are beautiful run down colonial buildings, exquisite cathedrals, streets covered in rubbish, beggars in the restaurants, stalls selling chicken feet, tourist shops selling beautiful fabrics, witches markets selling dried llama fetuses…. I think you get the idea.
We walked past a riot in the street, then past photographers in a square who still use the old box cameras. We saw the outside of a prison that is run by the prisoners with guards only on the outside. Families are allowed to live with the prisoners if they have enough money, children then enter and leave the prison to go to school…. so different to what we are used to.
Our hotel didn’t have a hairdryer so I went to have my hair washed in a salon (it had been quite a few days and I had been wearing a thick band over my head for a very good reason). This was very entertaining…. I ended up walking out looking like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde… Andrew even nicknamed me Puff.
The next day we had planned to ride the most dangerous road in the world. I woke up with a throat that felt like it had been dragged over sandpaper so spent the day in bed. Andy had a very exciting day. After just starting to head down the most dangerous road in the world an alarm light went off on the bike. The bike was out of oil!!!!! So my husband then decided to freewheel a GS1200 motorbike down the most dangerous road in the world. All I can say is that I am really happy that I was not pillioning on that ride.
Going through the front pages of the Rough Guide to South America I first saw a picture of Tiwanaku.
With a little more reading we realised that we would only be 75km away when we were in La Paz….. so Tiwanaku was added to our itinerary.
We had to wait for 2 days while I recovered from a bout of laryngitis but luckily we got there eventually.
Tiwanaku is the Macchu Pichu of Bolivia. It was the ritual and administration centre of the Tiwanaku empire. The empire first started in about 1500 BC (probably as a little agricultural village) and developed over the next 2000 years from there. Archaeologists believe that most of the buildings were built between 300 and 1000 AD and during this time the empire grew significantly and that the empire expanded.
It was discovered that the Tiwanaku people made human sacrifices where they disembowelled the person and then displayed in rituals to the gods. Mummies without heads were also discovered so it is thought that they may have decapitated people too. Despite all this it is believed that in general they were gentle group of people who were more interested in economic and agricultural growth making treaties with neighbouring people including them into their empire. (wouldn’t have wanted to get on their bad side though).
At about 950 AD something very significant happened that caused this empire to collapse. There was a significant climate change at that time and the most popular theory is that a very significant drought caused the collapse. Without water there was less food, less food means hungry people, when hungry rebellion is the next step with a loss of power. A few hundred years later the Inca’s then discovered Tiwanaku and integrated it into their culture.
My favourite was the Semi-subterranean Temple. A number of heads protrude from the walls. It was an awesome sight.
Other highlights included the Gateway to the Sun which was decorated with fine carvings of Viracicha who was known as their “god of action and shaper and destroyer of many worlds.
There is a museum that houses all the pottery, tools made from stone, wood and bone, textiles and metal ware. I was again astounded at the artistic skill. The engravings were beautiful and they sculpted pumas, frogs, tortoises and many other animals. There was also a stone monolith with very intricate carvings that was bigger than the Moai statues in Easter Island. This was Andrew’s favourite.
Yet another empire that has come and gone…..makes one realise there has been so much before us.
Bolivia is a landlocked country and has been through quite a few battles of which it has lost most. It lost it’s costal connection to Chile in late 1800 (Chile won the rich in mineral Atacama desert from them), then Brazil caimed an area rich in rubber and if that wasn’t enough, Parauay then annexd a large area of arid desert thinking there may be oil there but until today none as been found.
From what we have seen so far, the majority of Bolivians live a very simple life. The women all dress the same and wear multilayered skirts and top hats. It sems that most live in small mud huts and li off subsistance farmng and herd llamas. When you look at the locals it looks as if life is hard. For the first time in South America we have come across beggars which are mostly elderly women who walk into restaurants asking for food and money.
The local food is very basic and it seems as if lunch is the main meal. There is usually a soup (watered down chicken broth) followed by a meal of chicken, rice and vegetables.
Initially we thought the Bolivians were much more friendly than the Peruvians when we crossed the border. We only had to go to about five different counters to collect stamps and smile, and at the last counter we asked if all was correct and we got a very big smile and a handshake from the customs official and off we went….. only to be stopped by the Bolivian police in a road block just outside of Copacabana.
The conversation went something like this in Spanish and I will use my very limited Spanish to translate…….
Police officer: Papers
Andrew: Very polite….. hands over Bolivian papers, international drivers licence and bike papers
Police officer: Where is the police stamp on the back of Bolivian papers
Andrew: We asked if everything was in order and they said they were and we could go
Police officer: Huff Puff, calls border post on cell phone…… tells us to turn around and head back to the border
So back to the border post we go and we find the “police department” which is an unmarked door.
Andrew goes in while I wait with all our belongings.
After about 25 minutes Andrew comes out with the “stamp” on the back of a piece of paper, not looking happy. This was the first time we had been asked for a tip or others would call it a bribe. The police officer stamped the paper and then made the universal sign for money. Andrew then said no and eventually gave him the equivalent of one rand but it still didn’t feel good.
Then we headed back to the police road block outside Copacabana only to find that they had left already. What a start to Bolivia.
Copacabana is on the shore of Lake Titicaca which is the largest high altitude lake in the world. Being so high it is also very cold….. something we are again getting used to unfortunately. In my imagination Copacabana was a place where there would be gorgeous people frolicking in swimwear…..sadly this was not the case. It was beautiful but all the people where covered up and there was definitely no swimming in the water.
We found a lovely hotel and the bike got to sleep in the lobby… which was a good thing otherwise I am sure some part of her would have frozen. The view from our room was also spectacular. The ony thing that I was dissapointed by was the fact that we didn’t get eggs for breakfast. What I would do for real yellow South African eggs….
We took a day trip to the Island of the Sun and the Island of the Moon. These Islands had a lot of significance in the Inca culture as they believed that the Sun god was born on the Island of the Sun. They also had a nunnery on the Island of the Moon and special women were selected to go and live there is isolation (women only….. can only imagine what that was like).
Andy didn’t really enjoy the day as it was a very long slow boat trip. I had a great time as I could jabber away to him without him escaping 😉
So after a wonderful time in Machu Picchu and Cusco we started our journey to Bolivia. The ride was beautiful and again we were up at 4000 meters above sea level. It is amazing that people can actually live up there in very basic houses with no heating.
Along the way we drove through a police stop (one of the many we have previously just driven through), so when Andrew asked if they were blowing whistles at us I said no I was sure it wasn’t for us. Five kilometres down the road when the flashing lights caught up with us we were a little nervous. Luckily after a difficult discussion in Spanish we had sorted it all out and showed them our international drivers licence, our bike passport (which we got at the border), our third party insurance and all the registration papers. I think they were a little disappointed that we had everything in order :).
The delay meant that we got to the Sillustani burial towers at sunset. These towers were built by the Colla people and held the remains of complete families. When the towers were excavated mummies were found inside the tombs. I had a wonderful time taking photographs and the view was spectacular.
The only problem was that when we left Sillustani and arrived in Puno (which was 30km away) we arrived in the dark. I thought I had found the perfect hotel…. (Alex I think you would definitely agree). It was a five star hotel right on lake Titikaka with beautiful views (or so I thought in the dark). Andrew didn’t quite agree …. and so we headed into the town of Puno and much to my disappointment found a very reasonably priced hotel (R180 for the room) with an ensuite (and hot water), cable TV, breakfast and the bike was allowed to sleep in the hotel lobby…. so I really had no leg to stand on for us to return to the five star hotel.
The town of Puno itself was frantic so we decided to head straight for Cococobana in Bolivia. Being the tour guide I happily told Andrew that we could see the floating islands from Cococobana (oops)…..
So we headed to the border driving along lake Titikaka not quite believing that our time in Peru was over.
Machu Picchu survived the Spanish conquestadores by mere virtue of being inaccessible and hidden amongst a cloud and mountain pass deep in the Andes. Peruvians would call modern day grave robbers “American” since it was an American, Bingham, who discovered Machu Picchu and started excavating it over a period of 30 years from 1911 onwards thanks to the financial support of Yale! Now the locals are bleating for their 124 mummies and myriads of artefacts to be returned…….it’s a tough debate with an outcome looming in the near future with Yale promising the complete return of artefacts by the year end!?!
There are no roads that lead into this mountainous region. The closest town is Ollataytambo, about 50km from Machu; itself 80 km from Cusco. From here you can only either walk the Inca trail or take a train to the Machu Picchu town ( called Aqua Callientes for tourists because of the disgustingly filthy and crowded hot water springs located nearby). From here it’s a 20 minute bus trip up the side of the mountain where ONLY registered tour buses can go!
My point; by the time you get here, anyhow, you deserve it!
The Inca trail; Machu Picchu is not a major city or town. It’s considered to be a religious/ceremonial site where only royals or nobility used to come on special occasions. It is linked to the outer world by 7 Inca trails coming to the town from various directions; the sea for fish trade, the amazon for fish/fresh produce trade, Cusco for administrative detail etc. The famous Inca trail that people walk used to be the traditional route that nobles used from Cusco to the Ancient religious city of Machu Picchu.
2500m above sea level, covered in cloud and rain during summer and open to the cold heavens in winter, this Ancient world clings to the mountainside of Mount Machu Picchu. Giant terraces hold back the slopes from landslides and double as contoured agricultural plots. Finely carved rock buildings represent shrines or temples to the Sun and Pachamama or Mother Earth; more simple rock-built structures house nobles, warriors, grain or common workers. Large, open, flat green areas represent common ground for ceremonies or gatherings. Building techniques vary according to the nature of the occupants; the more royal, the more intricate the stonework. No mortar is used for most of the construction. Rocks are carefully cut to fit into each other either at 90 degree angles or strangely angled obtuse planes. The blocks have a roughly trapezoid shape cleverly designed to resist the occasional earth tremor! Some of the walls have large foundation stones surrounded by smaller stones – so when Pacahamama (mother earth) shakes, the foundations can cope with the movement!!! Remember, they are still here 500 years later!
The terraces; not all the terraces were simply for crop planting. According to their location on the mountainside they were used as a type of herbarium/experimentation region for growing seed from different regions or hybrid plants!! Due to the relatively high rainfall, the drainage systems built under the buildings and terraces are designed to not only drain the water off the mountain, but can regulate the rate of flow of water off the mountain. An intricate system of above- and below ground aqueducts facilitate this incredible feat. Furthermore, with appropriate drainage, the stone foundations are kept dry thereby preventing sinking and wrotting!
Machu Picchu is overlooked by the nearby Hyanu Picchu mountain, seen in all the classic pics of Machu. On top of Hyanu is a fortress or watch-tower that overlooks Machu Picchu and used to serve as look-out and message relay point. Only 400 visitors are allowed up here each day versus the 3000/day to Machu Picchu. We were lucky enough to get tickets to this peak the day before. It’s a pretty vertical climb up the face of the peak to the viewpoint where Machu Picchu lies splayed below one in its condor-shape!
We walked down the other side to the Temple of the Moon, a small cave with several niches intricately carved out of the natural rock, and then had to ascend around the base back to Machu – 3 and a half hours later we had yet to start our trip into Machu proper 🙂
It’s vital to take a guide (R600). We were lucky with Olga; her English was excellent, enthusiasm right up there, and explanations more real than any book 🙂
Prior to all this, our day started with a 4:30am wake up to get to the highest terrace of Machu Picchu and see the sunrise over the ruins. Why walk when you can bus, took the easy bus ride to the entrance 🙂 where we were horrified to see all the Inca trail hikers waiting to enter the ruins. I am sorry, but that really sucks, you have slogged 4 days and now you have to wait with hundreds of others to get into Machu Picchu?
Total time amongst the ruins – 10 hours 🙂 foot sore and filled with lovelly facts and history we made our way back to Aqua Callientes for a second night to rest the tired limbs!
Machu Picchu not only represented a wonderful indulgence into a centuries old culture, but it is also the most Northerly point of our journey. From here on, every revolution of the wheel is a step closer to home as we start the return journey through Bolivia and Northern Argentina.
The Inca peoples and culture sculpted the modern landscape for which Peru is renowned and attracts several hundred thousands of visitors each year.
One of the many surprising things about the Inca rule is that it was short in the scheme of things 1438-1532 and yet had such a profound effect on Peru.
Cusco was the ancient capital of this giant empire stretching from Colombia in the North to below Santiago, Chile in the South, about 7000km and extending across the Andes into Western Argentina and Western Bolivia, about 2000km East-West! The ancient name of for the Inca empire was Tawantinsuyu, which means the coming together of 4 provinces ie at Cusco.
Sun-god worshipping and sacrificing animals and humans was the order of the day, metal was not known to these people and eventually contributed to their destruction when the Spanish arrived with sword and cannon.
Their single greatest ability was their incredible knowledge of veld, flora, agriculture and building. Structures that were built 500 years ago are still in perfect nick today on a continent riddled with landslides and earthquakes!
Agricultural sites reveal micro-climate control and hybridisation projects!
They were not formidable modern-day warriors. A small army of Spaniards effectively conquered the entire empire between 1533 and 1538!
Thereafter and before?
3m years ago, Lucy and the Taung child of Austrolopithecus, Ethiopia and South Africa respectively
2000 BC building of the Egyptian pyramids
1500 BC to 1000 AC the rise and fall of the Tiwanaku empire
200-500BC, In Arica, southern Peru we met the oldest mummies in the world
200 -500 AD, In Nasca we met the true Ancients in the Chauchulla cemetery,
400-800 AD, the Nascan people and Nasca lines
500-900 AD, the Sillustani tower funereal tombs were built
We then move into vague times of the pre-Inca civilisations with no written records and only pottery and clay fragments to date peoples
1200-1400 AD construction of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
1550’s, Spanish invade the Inca empire