Bolivia. We finally made it. :)
Bolivia = Food
Bolivia = Hotels
Bolivia = Bus/Train
Why is that ? Well, let me give some examples: 3 sweetbreads with syrup = 10 cents. 1 Hamburger = 35 cents. A bowl of meat, potatoes and corn = 60 cents. Hotel room = 3€. A 7h busride = 4,5€. To make it short: We travel very luxurious now, no camping, public transport, sleeping in hotels and eating all day. In the end we spend the same amount of money then in Argentina, but we get a much better value for it. We also found Almuerzos, that is a set meal at lunch. Salad, soup, main course, dessert, for around 1 €.
Our last entry was from Salta. From there on we continued north towards Tilcara, a small Argentinian village near the Bolivian border. We did some trekking there, looking for caves (and didn't find them) followed a river up to a nice 10m waterfall, watched football with the locals, met a German traveller again we knew from Paraguay and uploaded lots of pictures. 64mb upload took about 8h to finish... All in all a nice stop, the scenery and the surrounding mountains look amazing. 25km from there is the village of Pumamarcha with the "Hills of the Seven Colors", a rock formation with many colorful layers. We did camp there on a field with a clear view of the hills and when the sun rose we could marvel at the sight from insight our warm sleeping bags. :)
We left Tilcara after two nights, meeting four French bicyclists coming our way. An hour of chatting later they were a guidebook and some directions richer, we received a map of Bolivia and some tips for onward travel. Most of the way to the border was uphill and against the wind though, two long days of wind and dust. We passed a 3780m pass and then: Bolivia. Border crossing was easy, free visa, but long lines of backpacker. We were surprised by the amount of tourists, but the following days showed us that Bolivia is stock full of them. For a reason, because it's awesome. ;) We tried to get the train from the border town of Villazon towards Uyuni, but all the seats were full, so we decided to take the next train. which would leave two days later. Villazon is not the nicest of places, apparently the biggest smuggler area of Bolivia, with lots of fake money around. But with a lot of time on our hand we did organise everything we needed. A nice hotel, cash from the bank (ATM doesn't work) a feel for the prices and tasting new kinds of food. Api deserves mentioning, a hot, corn based drink with sugar, usually served for breakfast. Another thing of note is the lack of supermarkets. Only small stalls sell fruits, sweets, breads, food, but they are about the size of a phone booth. hamburgesas, llama meat, fruit shakes, empanadas, everything is sold on the street. The restaurants are mostly for tourists, with prices at least double of the normal street food.
After 2 days of waiting the next train arrived, the Expresso del Sur, going overnight to Uyuni. At the train station we met ShuMi the German backpacker for the third (and probably not last) time. He was going to Tupiza, a trekking based town and the first stop of the train. We on the other hand went straight trough to Uyuni, next to the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt lake in the world. Temporary lake I should add, it is very shallow in rain season and projects a perfect mirror image of the sky then, but in dry season (which is now) it is dry. We arrived at 0100 at night and slept in the waiting hall of the train station. The next day we took a hostel, Hostal Marith. Because a truck/bus just killed some cables, the hostel had no power.No problem, we just got some discount and stayed anyway. The salar is about 25km on a dirt road from Uyuni, heavily frequented by jeeps full of tourists doing a multi day tour of the lake and the surrounding sights. We just cycled there ourselves :)
On the way we saw some Vicunas, a smaller rarer sort a llama, with a beautiful backdrop of snow covered mountains. The lake itself was visible from far away, a real Fata Morgana, the buildings nearby seemed to levitate in thin air. When we reached the salar a big surprise was awaiting us. Dry season, with a flooded salar. The first kilometer of the lake was under water, with jeeps just going through, with partly submerged tires. I (Martin) tried first, going from salt bank to salt bank till I finally reached dry ground. The whole area is a salt mine, with piles of salt prepared to dry in the sun, which is then transported by trucks. There is such an over-abundance of salt, they even build a salt museum (out of salt) and 3 salt hotels, all illegally build completely out of salt. After some (or a lot) of pictures I went back to Diana and convinced her to try to cycle the lake. After 5 mins of don't-knows, maybes and "I see myself in the water already" she took up her courage and went ahead. Together we had another go at the salar, this time accompanied by several tour groups, all slightly in awe of the maniac cyclists in the middle of a lake. (Hello dude in the car that took pictures of us on the way back:If you happen to read this, please send them to us, thanks :) )
The bikes were totally encrusted with salt, a deadly sin and horrible for all the parts, so the very first thing we did when we were back in Uyuni was rinsing the bikes. Clean, with new oil on the chain and more air in the tires the bikes looked just as new. All in all they did surprisingly well, apart from two lost screws, we had no trouble at all, not even a single flat tire so far, on over 3500km.
We read up upon our next goal, the silver mines of Potosi, the highest city in the world, on 4060m above sea level and took the night bus for meagre 4 €. The bikes were fastened on the top of the bus and we left around 19pm. Now, usually a night bus is a good idea, you get a bus ride and a free night rest, but not when you arrive at 1am at night... lots of fun ensured. We had to find a hostel in the middle of the night, it was freezing cold and every place was full. The first one we found wanted to sell us a room for 150 bolivianos, thats 15€. No, thanks. One hour later we found a suitable place, the Koala Den. 35 Bolivianos, thats much better. Free breakfast, wifi, and lots of other backpackers. Even though I have to admit that the same talk gets boring after a while. Where are you from, where have you been, how long are you travelling ? Thats mostly all you hear, every day anew. First it is fun to see the faces when we mention that we go by bike, 3 years and that I (Martin) have been travelling 4 years already, but after that 100th time of telling the same story all over again you would wish for some variety ;)
We stayed a full week in Potosi, first two days of rest, then sightseeing and a mine tour. Potosi has the worlds biggest silver mines, since 200 years. Over the time 8 million Indian and African slaves died in these mines and the working conditions today are not much better it seems. The miners buy the right to mine an area and get paid by amount of ore the mine, not by working time. Usually the whole family is working in one shaft, but only the men of course. And men would include 12 year old boys as well. Our tour was 4 hours, from the cold entry with icicles hanging from the ceiling, till deep into the bowels of the earth, with 40° Celsius and steam in the air, like a sauna. The shafts are shallow, we had to crawl sometimes and had to bow our heads always. Most silver has been mined out and now the miners are looking for nickel and whats left of other ores. Due to silicon dust the average lifetime in the mines is 10 years, although we heard of miners working for 30 years, since childhood...
The best part of the tour were the outfits. We made some pictures of us and you can vote for us. Who looks dumber ? ;) Just click on the image and you will jump to our Facebook-profile. There you can vote by clicking "LIKE" The winner gets... nothing, just for fun ;)
After that experience we wanted to continue north to La Paz, but no bus could go. Strikes and roadblocks made travel impossible for 2 days. Other travellers we met payed a fortune for flights, just not to loose these precious 48h. We did relax in the Koala Den, reading books and surfing the web. Tranquilo, as the locals say, no hurry. Eventually we did reach La Paz, again by night bus, this time a bit better timed. We stayed only one night before we left for our biggest adventure yet, the Huayan Potosi. A 6088m high mountain we want to scale. For a three day tour, with guide, equipment, food, accommodation and transport we only paid 100€ each and we left early the next morning. We walked to the tour office, met our companions for the next days, 6 other locos, picked up our stuff and cramped inside a minivan.
3600, high is La Paz. 4750m high the base camp. A rise of over 1000m is not easy on the body, but the company only offered 2 or 3 day tours, both too short to properly acclimatise. The first days was alright though, only 4h trekking and some ice climbing, testing the equipment and teaching how to use it. The other want-to-be mountaineers were a good crowd, SantaCruz the Boliviano, Mario the amateur movie director from brasil, two extremely gay (just kidding) frenchmen, an older italiano named Mauro, and Oscar ;) Everyone seems ok with the altitude and the crampons, ice axes, plastic boots, although only Mario and me (Martin) have ever been on a mountain before.
The second day the tour started. Another easy day, 4h of trekking towards the high camp, on 5200m. Some light headaches, stumbling over rock and ice and paying another 10 bolivianos at the entry to the national park area. But the view was amazing, a bright blue lake full of glacial sediments, partly frozen waterfalls, a huge glacier full of crevasses in the background and we in the middle of it all. That night we would go to bed eraly, because we want to get up at 1am at night for the summit. Unfortunately one of the guides snored so loud, that I (Martin) did not sleep at all. ^^
Sure enough we started at 2am. At night. In winter. 5200m above sea level. Might have been a bit chilly, with -15° and wind. But hey, we have vacation, we can do whatever we want ;) The only problem was the quick rise in altitude. 2 days are not nearly enough for 2400m and every single one (except Diana) of us had a headache, Aspirin did not help and soon enough more symptom of altitude sickness showed up. Santa Cruz gave up even before he reached the high camp, Mario shortly after the start on the second day, Mauro, Diana and me turned around at about 5600m, less then 500 short of the summit. Only three made it, the two french and the danish. All of them with severe signs of altitude sickness, not the most reasonable thing to do, but may be worth in the end. But the climb was a good experience, still higher then anything Europe has to offer and with good views. We could even see La Paz and lake Titikaka from there.
We left the mountain the same day, going down all the way, drove to La Paz and rewarded us with an ice coffee, something not easily found in Bolivia ;)