Sunday, October 30, 2011

Locomotive Cemetery and the world's largest salt flat

The road to Uyuni
 ------A quick note: If you look above, you'll notice that there is now a link to our SPOT page, where you can see our current location, and get a better feeling for just how behind the blog posts are. Sorry I didn't do this a long time ago, it's a pretty fun little add-on...

After three days in Potosi, we were off to one of the most highly anticipated destinations on the trip, the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on Earth. It was a five hour ride on a mix of asphalt and gravel, and we got into the town of Uyuni in the afternoon, covered in dust and thoroughly worn out.

Jill finding us a place to stay in Uyuni. The poor bike had a rough day.
My fried Cory Gordon was mostly responsible for getting us so excited about Uyuni, and after unloading we headed straight for the locomotive graveyard he had shown me pictures of.

There are around a dozen locomotives sitting in the desert a few miles from Uyuni, all of which had split boilers or other terminal damage. They were originally brought in from North America and Europe to haul out the minerals from various Bolivian mines. In most places they would be scrapped, but the nearest city, Potosi, is a mountainous 120 miles away. The scrap value isn't high enough to warrant hauling a disabled locomotive that far, so they were left here, rusting in the desert for the last 100 years. It's quite a sight.

View from the top of one of the boilers
Some of them have been raided and the good sheets of steel cut out
After half an hour Jill had seen enough, so we went back to town and ate. Afterwords I went back out to get some shots at dusk.

The last section of the road from Potosi was badly washboarded gravel, and had slowed us down to about 20 mph for the last 10 miles. I had already read that the roads around the Salar were horrible, and that there are no real roads on the Salar, so I was having doubts about taking the bike. An e-mail to Cory put me in touch with his friend Sergio, who is a photography expedition leader and an expert on Bolivia. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that taking the bike out into the wilds of southern Bolivia was a very bad idea. At best we would take years off of the life of the bike, and at worst we would get lost in the desert forever.

A quick look around Uyuni revealed about 30 different companies offering three-day tours of the Salar and surrounding areas, all for around $90US each - "meals" and "lodging" included. At Andes Tours we met Gonzalo, a Bolivian who had spent much of his life in the U.S., and, consequently, spoke perfect English. We settled on a tour leaving at 10AM the next day, and set about packing up what we would take, and storing the bike and the other stuff. I had always wanted to ride the bike on the salt, so that afternoon we rode the horrible 20 mile dirt road to the Salar. The white, featureless landscape of the Salar was really strange; once you are out a few miles from the edge it is pure white in every direction. The lack of reference points robs you of perspective, so you can take some pretty interesting photos...

A "road" on the Salar. These would go for a while, and then just fade out, leaving you in the middle of the salt. Oh, and compasses don't work here because of magnetic mineral deposits. Good luck!

Our bike

No camera tricks on those last two, just good, old fashion irresponsibility!
We had fun playing around on the salt for a few hours, and then headed back to finish getting ready for our three day adventure. This post is getting a bit long, so I'll hand it over to Jill, and she can tell you about the amazing sights on the 4x4 tour.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The world's richest city

Between Coroico and Uyuni it was time for another oil change, so we rode around town looking for some quality oil, found it, paid $60US for it (waayyyy too much!) and found a shop to do it in. Wilber and Mario (pictured above) were kind enough to let me use their shop, and after that we were off to Potosi.

We drove four hours into the barren landscape from our last stop, Oruro, and arrived in the dusty city of Potosi. Potosi was founded by the Spanish in the 1500's, and has a long and troubling history of mining and exploitation. In it's heyday it was larger than Paris or London, and the silver mined from the Cerro Rico (literally "rich hill") pictured above fueled the ambitions of the Spanish empire for three hundred years.
In this unattributed Spanish painting, the Holy Trinity crowns "Mary" the mother of God who is also a Bolivian mountain filled with silver. In other words, the Spanish were pretty excited! (This, ironically from a country busy scouring Europe for "heretical propositions" and "blasphemy"!)
 All of this wealth came at a cost, and that cost was the lives of eight million indigenous laborers and African slaves who extracted the silver. The conditions were worse than you can imagine, with slaves sent into the mines for six month intervals without surfacing. Those who were "lucky" worked in the processing plants on the surface, chemically separating the precious metals and inhaling every carcinogen in the periodic table. One part of the process, amagamation, involved laborers stomping in pools of crushed silver ore and mercury with their bare feet, after which the mixture was heated and the mercury vaporized. Mostly into their lungs.

The Spanish scraped and blasted every shred of silver from the mountain, and every shred of life out of the millions of people they bought or kidnapped and then worked to death. However, local miners are still working some of the thousands of veins of less-precious metals in Cerro Rico. They use the same techniques, and even contemporary miners have a life expectancy of ten years after they start work. Tours of the working mines are available to the brave, but we decided that this was one thing we might actually skip. Firstly, because it's horrible for you, secondly, the use of dynamite is totally unregulated so cave-ins still happen, and lastly, it seems a bit patronizing to "tour" someone's place of work to marvel at how bad they have it.

We did go for a tour of the mint, and there we got an image of the life of a surface laborer.
These massive minting machines, brought from Germany, ran 24 hours a day and were powered by "four donkeys" turning a shaft on the level below.
  Our tour guide assured us (almost TOO enthusiastically), that these machines were NEVER powered by slave labor. However the book I have been reading, Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, says that the teams of four donkeys would only last a few months in this work, and were replaced with teams of 16 African slaves soon after the mint began production. Nowhere on the tour did the guide mention slavery, though with the working conditions it was obvious slaves were used. Every piece of literature on the place states as much, and even their own display showed a curiously dark-skinned "Bolivian" at the un-enviable task of pumping the bellows...
A life pumping the bellows, smelting silver to fuel the Spanish Inquisition. Abducted and sold in Africa to perform slave labor in Bolivia to fund state-sanctioned religious terrorism in Europe; the literal beginning of the modern world economy.
Over the course of 300 years the Spanish whipped and coerced 45,000 TONS of silver out of Cerro Rico. The mint housed some of the relics of the good times. How much silver did they have? Well, enough to that it seemed reasonable to build solid silver tables, and solid silver lampes to put on them. There are stories of the rich in Potosi finishing dinners and throwing entire silver services out into the street, to be picked up by passers by.
How many people died to make these silly, silly things?

Once the silver was gone, so were the Spanish, leaving behind opulent mansions and churches for which the dirt-poor population had little use. They pried off everything metal, sold everything beautiful, and lived in what was left. The center of town is one of the longest-occupied on the continent, and is now a mish mash of re-purposed villas.
Electricity and plumbing have been...retrofitted.

Beautiful stonework and seamlessly stuccoed arches in an abandoned building

Though life certainly goes on, every ornate facade in decay serves as a reminder of the crimes commited against the people there.  It will never be a quaint Bolivian village; and there is no escaping Spanish ghosts when you live in their ruins. Potosi feels like a city of hermits whose poverty is mocked by their foreign-built home. Living in the master's quarters does not fit, and his absence is not enough to bring back the spirit of a people driven so low. It seems that the Cerro Rico has cursed everyone who has touched it. Potosi is now the poorest state in the poorest country in South America, despite having the richest silver mine in the history of the world. The silver is gone, Spain's empire is gone, and we all know that the world was, and still is, filled with greed and heretics.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Out of the mountains and into the more monkeys!

Starting our descent of 11,000 feet into the jungle...
After making our way through La Paz we headed on for Coroico, a small town located at the beginning of the Amazon Basin.  A new, safer road to Coroico was recently built replacing the original, infamous “death road,” which claimed around two trucks a week over its steep drops for several years before.  Now “death road” is mostly used by adventurous mountain bikers and the occasional tourist brave enough (or stupid enough) to drive down it. 
The entrance to "death road"
Of course, we HAD to drive down part of it on our way back to La Paz, but we will get to that later.  We started our decent at 15,000 feet on a beautiful, windy road though some pretty dramatic mountain scenery.  It was freezing cold and as we got a little further into the drive it started snowing.  The snow quickly turned into freezing rain as we continued to drop in altitude. 
We should have known things were going to get rough!
After dropping more than 11,000 feet in a little over two hours (all in the rain and clouds, of course) we finally made it to the turnoff for Coroico.  After driving up 10 km of wet cobblestone and mud roads we finally made it to our hotel, where we finally caught a break.  The senora ran a very nice restaurant on site where she happened to be making one of Ty’s favorite dinners, spaghetti with meat sauce, and she was more than happy to wash all of our muddy clothes. 
The next day was beautiful and after enjoying a nice breakfast we headed down the road about  7 km to La Senda Verde animal refuge, the main reason for our visit to Coroico.  We rang the bell at the entrance, which was located at one end of a suspension bridge crossing a beautiful river below.  After a few minutes, a tall, South African man came to the door and showed us to the main building.  Our ears were immediately filled with the sounds of hundreds of tropical birds surrounding us on all sides. 
A couple of the beautiful residents having lunch
We walked in and met Danny, a volunteer from England who would give us a tour of the refuge.  First, he showed us the capuchin monkeys who all hung out at one end of the refuge.  Several of them were allowed to run around freely, but a few of them had to be kept in (very big) cages for their own safety or the safety of others.  For example, one female capuchin had been badly abused by her female Bolivian owner and any time a woman would get near her she would bite.  Two other capuchins were kept in a cage together because all of the other monkeys bullied them; luckily they really loved each other and were very happy hanging out in their own little area together.  Regardless, all of the monkeys seemed very happy in their current environment at the refuge. 
Unfortunately, bullying happens in the monkey world too.  This little guy and his friend were so sweet and I was glad they had each other.
Most of the animals living there have been rescued from private homes where the owners kept the animals in cages and did not give the animals the proper care they need.  As a result, many of the animals have permanent ailments that will prevent them from ever being able to be released into the wild.  But, like I said, they all seem very happy being where they are. 
Next up, he introduced us to some of the beautiful tropical birds.  There were scarlet macaws, blue macaws, green and gold macaws, parakeets, toucans, pheasants, and one very special bird named Scruffy.  Scruffy was a blue macaw who had been abused in the past and was so traumatized by it that he constantly picked out all of his beautiful feathers, hence the name “Scruffy.”  However, this trauma did not keep him from being the friendliest bird Ty or I had ever come across; he would come up, lay on his back and beg for belly rubs amongst many other very sweet things he would do. 
Cute man...
 We continued our walk through the refuge were we saw six giant tortoises along with about 30 smaller turtles living in a nice little pond next to them.  Next, there was a baby crocodile (fenced off from the turtles, of course) living in his own little pond nearby.
Some of the tortoises basking in the sunlight.
As we walked towards the end of the refuge, we were lucky enough to glance some of the squirrel monkeys up in the trees chasing each other.  They are very fast and sometimes pretty difficult to see and, as we were informed by Danny, are quite the troublemakers.  Even so, they were extremely cute and we were glad we got to see them.
It was tough to even snap a picture of this rascal!
Lastly, we made our way to where the spider monkeys hang out.  There were several of them hanging out in the trees above us and Danny pointed out Cacao, the alpha male of the group.  He was so beautiful and, to our surprise, he started walking down the tree right towards the bench we were sitting on.  He hopped up on the bench next to me, grabbed my hand and laid his little head right in my lap.  It was so amazing and if it weren’t for the sand flies absolutely destroying me I think it would have been tough to ever leave! 
Hanging out with my new buddy, Cacao
Such a nice little man!
As we walked back towards the main house, Cacao grabbed Ty’s hand and decided he would walk with him back to the house…too cute! 
I'm a pretty big fan of this duo!
After an amazing lunch of homemade pasta and a delicious salad bar (while the monkeys hung out on the roof)

we went outside to meet one last lady; she was a coati, which is similar to an anteater, and I didn’t think they were usually very friendly with humans.  She was different though and she hopped right up on my lap expecting a belly rub.  I was happy to oblige and a few minutes later she wandered back off down the pathway. 
I was so surprised at how friendly she was!
We said our goodbyes to everyone at the refuge and headed back to our hotel for the night.
The next morning, we headed out for Oruro (nothing spectacular, just a good halfway point on our way to Salar de Uyuni) via La Paz.  It was a clear, beautiful day; the exact opposite of the day we came down.  The scenery was stunning as we climbed the 11,000 feet back up to the entrance of “death road.”  We decided we had to drive atleast a portion of the road just to see what it was like.  It was exactly like we thought: very windy, gravel road with extremely steep drops and some seriously beautiful views.  We didn’t think it was that much worse than some of the roads we had already driven on, although we could picture two semis meeting on that road which was barely wide enough for one truck to get by and we could see why it had gained its nickname. 
A roadside grave along "death road"
We made our way back up to the main road and headed for Oruro for the evening en route to Salar de Uyuni!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bolivia, birthplace of the sun

The day we left Puno for Bolivia was clear and bright, and we both felt great riding along the edge of Lake Titiacaca toward the border. The Peruvian side was about as easy as it gets, and after less than 10 minutes we were on our way to Bolivia. As U.S. citizens we have the special priviledge of paying $135 US to enter the country, while everyone else enters for free. Evo Morales, the current and socialist leaning president of Bolivia, thought it wasn't quite right that his citizens had to pay hundreds of dollars and jump through a variety of legal hoops to enter the U.S., while U.S. citizens entered his country for free. So he changed it so that we couldn't. On our budget we definitely feel $270 in surcharges, but it's hard to get too bent out of shape when you look at the facts, so we ponied up and headed in. The customs officials were out to lunch from 1:30 to 3:30, but around 3 one of the officials who had been standing around looking at us for an hour decided that we had waited long enough.

Straight away he informed me that the open gate I had ridden through and parked 10 feet after was the legal boundry of Bolivia, and passing it without customs paperwork was an "infraccion."  I gritted my teeth, apologized, and sarcastically asked him if he wanted me to move it back 10 feet. Of course he didn't, he just wanted to say that and see if I handed him some cash. I didn't. After a five second, Larry David-style staredown we both said, "Ok" and took our seats to get down to business. Much to his dismay all of my paperwork was in perfect order (hey, I've done this 14 times now!) and he really had to dig to find something to hassle me about. When he looked over the title he found it; the license plate number is not listed on the title. I explained to him that in the U.S. cars change license plates every few years, and the title is permanent, so the plate number is not on the title. Absolutely true, but NOPE. Not in his world, and that's where we were playing.

Another stare down, and he defiantly declared that I couldn't enter until I produced paper that proved that plate went to that bike. (Or, it was implied, gave him some cash.) That's just not me, so I said I would be right back. I walked out to the bike, got the expired registration, ripped off the corner with the date (they got me for that in El Salvador, and the registration hasn't been out since) and took it back to him. "What was on this corner?" "Hmm, no se" (You know what? I really don't know! Now what?) There was the plate number, the VIN number, and a small missing corner on a document of a type he had never seen and would never see again. - How many times do you want to go around?! -

With hate and defeat in his eyes he entered our info and we left. Lesson: If you want some money sell something or ask for a handout, because if you try to scam me for it it's going to be a long day.

We were only eight kilometers from Copacabana, so the riding day was over in record time. Copacabana is a funny little resort town on Lake Titicaca, which appeared to cater to mostly Bolivian tourists. We found a big hotel on the beach, secured a penthouse suite with a jacuzzi...scratch that, literally the only jacuzzi in Copacabana, (for $22 a night) and headed down to check out the life on the beach.

Jill on our private balcony

Down on the beach there was all sorts of activity, but what caught our eyes was the hourly dirtbike rental guy. Standing next to a row of oft-crashed, beaten down bikes, he would rent you a bike without even cursory formalities - hand him $10, you have a bike for an hour. Jill had been wanting to gain some experience, so we plunked down $20, checked the controls, and took of on two Yamaha 175's that looked like they had spent the last decade in a cement mixer. We parked mine and I hopped on with Jill, for a little refresher before she took her first solo motorcycle ride. After 10 minutes practicing the basics I hopped off, and coached her via helmet radio. In another 10 minutes we were riding along side by side, and Jill was dodging dogs and burning up the beach like an old pro. We haven't had a video in a while, so here you go:

Jill riding on the beach
Our hour was up faster than we would have liked, but with the storm coming in (evident in the video) it was just in time - we were being pelted by hail before we even made it back to the hotel room! The storm was short-lived, and we had a good view again by sunset.

Sun, boat shadows on the lake, and hail streaking across the balcony
Aside from beat up dirtbikes, Copacabana is also famous for boat tours to the "Isla del Sol," the birthplace of the sun in Incan mythology. $3 gets you a round trip ride to the island, a total of five hours on a boat. Not bad! We set out at 7am, and it was about as cold and nasty as it could get. For the first hour everyone huddled inside the boat and wondered why it had an open seating area on the roof. Sick of the outboard engine fumes, I was the first to venture out onto the deck, and though it was inhospitable, at least I wasn't huffing smoke.

After not too long the morning fog was gone, an everyone was coming up to have a look at the deck.

Another hour of cruising between rocks and islands we docked at the island, and set off on a hike to the Incan ruins. The hike was nice, but four days out of Machu Picchu it was hard to be too impressed with the buildings.

Incan sacrifice table - a bad place to be a llama

I started feeling a certain familiar...urgency when we were hiking, and made a b-line for the closest restroom - which was 45 minutes away, in town. Aaghhh!

I survived, so we hopped on the boat and made it back to Copacobana just before dark.

The next day we were on the road again, headed for La Paz. To get there we had to cross the lake, and to do that we needed to catch a ferry.

The term "ferry" applies quite loosely to these vessels, which were little more than giant wooden rafts with outboard motors on the back.
Jill and Mario, the jovial owner/operator of our $3 ferry.
Safely on the other side, we headed straight to and through La Paz, where we didn't take a single picture, but only because we didn't see a single thing we wanted a picture of. Oh well, on to the Amazon!