Friday, 13 February 2009


As if we hadnt inhaled enough toxins down the mines, we decided to head next for Bolivia´s otherwordly south, which is a landscape as alien to life as you could possibly imagine.
It´s geological disneyland of dazzling salt pans which extend to the horizon, Martian deserts of red ash, cauldrons of boiling mud and irridescent lakes of every colour on account of the naturally occuring toxins that tint them: borax white, sulphurous yellow, rusty red, and copper sulphate blue. I was particualrly excited to get to the Laguna Verde, the green lake, which was a beautiful emerald colour that reminded me of the Caribbean. I would have gone for a quick dip if Javier, our guide, hadn´t warned me it was laced with arsenic. Safe to say, our swimming costumes stayed firmly in our backpacks!
If that is not toxic enough for you, how about the bubbling cauldrons of mud at which our guide ignored the massive KEEP AWAY signs and then lead us right up until we almost fell in?
We managed to stay 3 days out in the wilderness, driven around in a roomy Toyota Land Cruiser, and I would say that most of that time was spent trying to get our heads round just how beautiful the scenary was. What really did my head in was getting to a lake at nearly 4000m above sea level, with the peaks surrounding it dusted with snow, to find a flock of bright pink flamingos feeding on the micro-organisms in the water. Of all the things that could live up there, I think flamingos would have been the last on my list!
Crazy place, Bolivia.


When you want to say in Spanish that something is worth an unfeasible amount of money, you say that it ´s worth a “Potosi”. Why? Because once upon a time, the city of Potosi supplied the Spanish with unimaginable quanitities of silver, enough to supply their whole Empire with coin, and was so rich it rivalled París, Seville, and Madrid for decadence (we´re presuming London was a unfashionable backwater back then).
Anyway, only greed would explain why you would find a city at 4000m above sea level. The only thing higher round there is “Cerro Rico” (Rich Hill) which looms over the city, a scarred and abused looking thing that supplied the silver we´re talking about. However, this legendary wealth was sadly extracted at incredible human cost (in terms of the lives of thousands of slaves forced to work in the mines), and the lustre of silver still drives men underground to this day.
In the warped way of modern tourism, the mines have now become a tourist attraction for the hardier traveller. Indeed, the miners welcome anyone stupid enough to brave the risk of asphyxiation, toxic dust and cave ins, as long as they come bearing gifts of coca, soft drinks and dynamite. So, considering ourselves a tougher sort of traveller, we did just that…
It all went well for the first half an hour, but then it got much hairier when the tunnel s got so hot, steep and cramped that it was like sliding down a dusty chute into Hell. Lu had to turn back, and I somehow defied my claustrophobia to make it down to the working levels below. After I while (and a few panic attacks later), it got accustomed enough to the conditions to manage shovelling enough muddy silver ore to consider requesting payment for my labour!
Despite what was undoubtedly a once in a lifetime experience, I wont deny I was glad to out of there by the end. My throat was sore and my eyes stung from the fine, most likely toxic dust down in the tunnels.
And as if that´s not enough fire and brimstone for one day, once we resurfaced, we even got to play with some dynamite, packed with ammonium nitrate just to be sure we got a bang for our Boliviano … And yes, it was devilishly fun!



After days of puffing it up the Andes, we thought we deserved some R&R heading into Bolivia, so we headed to the beach resort of Copacabana. Well, the term ´beach resort´might be a misnomer given that Bolivia lacks a coastline and there´s very little beach to speak of , and certainly no surf. However, the town sits in a bay on Lake Titicaca, and it lived up to its name in other ways; Barry Manilow would have been pleased to hear that we hit the town during the festival of the Virgin Mary of Copacabana and that we witnessed plenty of “singing and dancing” . The locals were certainly “all together at the Copacabana”, coming in from miles away to join in the fun – which involved decorating their cars with flowers, spraying them with beer and confetti, and then waiting for the local priest to bless the resulting automotive mess. Oh the fun! This was followed by marching bands, dancing ladies (albeit not the Brazilian beauties you might imagine. Far from it.) and everyone drinking about a year´s worth of alcohol. All well and good, except that the massive enebriation posed us a problem at the end of the weekend´s festivities when we needed to move on to La Paz: all the bus drivers were completely pissed off their heads. Miraculously (the Virgin works in mysterious ways) we managed to find the one tea-total evangelical bus driver in the whole place to get us out of there. And there´s me thinking she only likes Catholics…