Experiencing the hard life of a silver miner in Potosí

A new challenge was on when we planned out our trip to Potosí. We wanted to take an overnight bus from Villazón, the first town on the Bolivian side when coming from Humahuaca, spend a day in Potosí and take another overnight bus from there to La Paz. Planned – done – succeeded… even if quite exhausted.
Potosí is the world’s highest located city. Once upon a time it was also South America’s richest and one of the world’s biggest cities, as during the Spanish colonial times, silver was found in abundance there. Now the silver reserves have almost completely been exploited, but as for now, still around 15.000 people are working in the network of mines spanning the inside of Cerro Rico, the mountain overlooking Potosí.
Nowadays, it is also possible to visit the mines. We had been told that it would be tough, but seeing and at least slightly experiencing the conditions under which the miners, who often are no older than 15, work here, day after day, was still shocking. However this day trip helped to put things in perspective: we will probably think twice next time before complaining about uni, a job, or whatever else.
After all these impressions in Potosí and two nights in a bus, we are now happily knocked out in our hotel room in La Paz, recharging all our energy for the most likely “highest” challenge of all our trip: the hike up Mount Huyana Potosí*.

When in Potosí
Where to eat & drink: Mercado Central – here you can get breakfast at one of the little snack stands in case you arrive as early as us, before anything else opens.
What to do: Book a tour to see the mines. We did ours with Koala Tours and had a good experience.
Where to sleep: We actually don’t know, we opted for the bus, but there sure are some nice hostels.

* Due to the time difference between writing and posting we can already anounce our successful ascend. Story to come!

San Pedro de Atacama – the newly snow-covered desert

We got to San Pedro the Atacama around noon, starving and pretty salty. Therefore, the first day was mainly consumed by activities such as looking for food, washing our clothes and processing the many impressions of the recent days. The next morning however, we were ready again for more. Thus we rented bikes and road off to explore the Atacama desert. Our first destination was a place called “Quebrada del Diablo”. This is a canyon, where hardly any tourists seem to go (or at least on that day). Thus, we were the only ones making our way through it. Amazed by the stunning scenery, we somehow managed to loose our originally planned track, due to which we got an extra workout session by having to carry our bikes down a steep path back to San Pedro de Atacama. In the afternoon of the same day we had recovered enough for another bike ride, this time to the “Valle de la Luna” (the “valley of the moon”). There we climbed through salt caves and hiked up sand dunes, to get an overview of this out-of-space-like landscape. We were super lucky, as just recently it had rained in the area for the first time in 80 years or so (according to the lady at the park entrance). Due to that, the whole place was covered by white salt evaporations that looked a lot like snow to our Tyrolean perception.
We got back in the evening, quite exhausted but happy and packed our stuff for the next bus ride back to Argentina. We had decided to go to Salta and the nearby towns of Tilcara and Humahuaca as it was a great opportunity to explore some bits of Argentina’s North while working our way back to Bolivia. We did not regret our choice as the scenery was amazing and we had time to do some great hikes which took us up to peaks of over 4200 m above sealevel. We are now writing this on our bus ride to the Bolivian border where we probably have to say goodbye to Argentina for good – at least for this trip, but who knows!?

When in San Pedro de Atacama
Where to sleep: Hostel La Ruca – small and cozy with a great breakfast included.
Where to eat & drink: Try the local empanadas. We found them to be the best so far and you can get them on every corner in San Pedro de Atacama.
What to see & do: Rent a bike and ride around the area, there is loads and loads to see!

Salar de Uyuni – the world’s most beautiful mirror

Back in La Paz we had one day to relax, to wash our jungle-dirty-stinking clothes and get ready for our next destination: the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat. We took an overnight bus to the town of Uyuni which got us there just in time to have breakfast before starting our three day tour in a 4×4 land cruiser. The first day was already spectacular as we got to spend it all on the salt flat. We were very lucky, as the sun was shining down from a picture-perfect blue sky after it had rained just a day before. Thus, there was just enough water to make for perfect reflections. This place is definitely the world’s most beautiful mirror. It is also so unique that it is hard to find proper words to describe it. Thus, we hope the pictures we took can provide you with some adequate impressions that make you want to go there and see it with your own eyes. After a wonder- and eventful first day, we arrived at our hotel, which was pretty much entirely built of salt. The next day we got up early to see the sunrise over the salar, and off we went to see lagoons of all colors – most of them are inhabited by loads and loads of flamingos. This day we also reached the highest point of our trip so far: 4800 m above sea level. Up here, volcanoes of 6000 m (of which there are many around here) looked like hills. Tired from the myriad of impressions and probably also the altitude, we had no difficulties falling asleep at 8 pm that night. This was great, as we had to get up at 4 am the next day to see geysers and take a bath in hot springs at sunrise. Eventually, we made it to the Chilenean border. There we had to say goodbye to our great guide and awesome tour group members, as we had to catch a bus to San Pedro de Atacama – our next destination.

When in Uyuni
Where to sleep: A salt hotel – one sleeps amazingly sweet on salty beds.
Where to eat & drink: Hope for your guides cooking skills to be as good as ours : )
What to see & do: Do the three day tour of the Salar if you have time, it is worth it!

The road to Rurrenabaque…

…also known as the “Death Road”, and that for decently good reason: The Yungas road to Rurrenabaque is quite famous and was actually well known for years as the world’s most dangerous road. Since 2006, however, the most critical part of the road has been replaced by a newer one, leaving the original route to brave downhill bikers like us. Our ride down the death road started on 4700 m above sea level and took us down through the stunningly beautiful scenery of the Bolivian cloud forest which, by the way, is supposed to be the country’s best coca region. The tour ended after a descend of more than 3000 m of altitude in a town called Coroico. Most people do the death road by bike as a day trip, however, as we felt brave, we pimped this adventure with another one: the bus ride to Rurrenabaque. Thus, after a humongous “lunch-dinner” in Coroico we got on our bus and off we went. If you google this bus ride, you will find that this part of the road is way more scary than the part we did with the bikes. To be fair, only the first few hours were nerve-wrackingly intense as we could actually see how close to the edge we were ALL THE TIME. And the edge usually was facing cliffs of several hundred meters of height. Thus, it felt like a blessing when the sunlight faded and we could not see anymore. And luckily, the ride went smooth, so we eventually arrived at Rurrenabaque’s bus terminal early in the morning. There we hopped on a motorcyle-carried wagon, which took us to the town’s French bakery. There we helped our strained nerves to recover, by feeding them the best pastries we have encountered since setting foot on this continent (we recommend warm apple and chocolate bread!). Strengthened by this hearty breakfast we started our “Pampa” tour. During this three day tour, we were almost eaten alive by the biggest mosquito armies you can imagine. In spite of that, though, we had a blast looking for Caimans, pink dolphins, monkeys, birds, Piranhas and Anacondas. After these “Pampa-days”, we had one night in “Rurre”, before continuing with a two day exploration of the “Selva” (the rain forest) of Madidi National Park. This park constitutes a big part of Bolivia’s chunk of the Amazon’s basin. There, our guide was Erlan, who back in the day, grew up in one of the native communities of the area, where he was sent out to survive in the jungle all by himself at the age of 12 for a couple of days to test his survival skills. Obviously, he had passed the test and now had a blast watching us clumsily trying to make our path through the rain forest, swinging on lianas, climbing over fallen trees and jumping (and slipping) over lake-like puddles. He also taught us lots about the forest: about plants that can provide potable water, about some that can cure illnesses of all kinds and about several others that should be avoided as they can harm and even kill you. He also showed us how to defend ourselves against a jaguar attack, but luckily, he never left us alone in the forest to put our newly gained knowledge to the test. After two days of tip-toeing (that is necessary to not scare off all the animals) through the forest, we got back to Rurrenabaque, where we swung onto mototaxis (motorbike-taxis), which brought us to the most minuscule airport, any of us had ever seen before. However, it functioned efficiently and soon after we were sitting on our plane back to La Paz – enjoying the amazing bird’s eye view of Madidi National Park.

When in Rurrenabaque
Where to sleep: Hostel Ambaibo – the rooms are clean and there is a pool to recharge your energy after the tours.
Where to eat & drink: The French Bakery – chocolate bread made in heaven. Our first and last stop in Rurre.
What to see & do: Do a tour of both – the Pampas and the Selva to discover the region’s fauna and flora most thoroughly.

The San Francisco of South America, located in dizzy heights

Arriving in La Paz was literally a “breathtaking” event for us. Some other passengers of our flight, however, were obviously even more awestruck as they simply collapsed upon their first “impression” of the city. Or maybe also due to its most protruding characteristic: its height of about 3600 m above sea level. After an almost sleepless night of horrible headaches and nausea, we were eventually able to start discovering this stunning city which spreads out on a plateau surrounded by mountains with snowy peaks and of mighty heights of over 6000m. Our exploration tour, though, was a slow-mode-mission, as sightseeing in La Paz involves climbing hill after hill which was quite a challenge for us three breathless and still altitude-sickness fighting backpackers. This reminded us of San Francisco – simple relocated to South America and in dizzy heights. In the end, it took us a whole day simply to slender through the various market streets where everything is sold from fresh fruits and vegetables, to hopefully fresh enough fish and chicken, to pastries (generally containing lots of cheese and sugar – yes, usually combined in one pastry) and even witchcraft equipment. The next day, due to the help of lots of coca tea and time, we finally felt way better and were ready to take our exploration to the next (altitude) level. Thus, we boarded one of the local telefericos, (cable cars build by the Austrian company Doppelmayer!) to El Alto, the city overlooking La Paz from an altitude of about 4200 m. There we enjoyed the great panorama, and a delicious lunch of chicken (the local top-top-top favorite food) and fried bananas at the local market.
The next day it was already time to leave La Paz behind and bravely conquer the famous Yungas road to Rurrenabaque, the gate to the Bolivian part of the Amazon basin.

When in La Paz
Where to sleep: So far we are still looking for a nice place, let us know if you are more successful than us. Here are some potential places in La Paz.
Where to eat & drink: The local markets – proper restaurants are not so easy to find – Burger King and some Chicken fast food places where the main recommendations for “good restaurants”.
What to see & do: Chew coca leaves and take the teleferico up to El Alto for a great overview of the city.

Big city life in Santiago

We got to Santiago on a Saturday and took it easy during the day in order to fully indulge in the city’s pulsating nightlife. Due to doing that quite thoroughly until the next morning, we kind of had to take it easy the next day too. After having sufficiently recovered, we started our sightseeing tour. We, of course, hiked up the San Cristobal hill, Santiago’s major tourist attraction, had a lovely fish and seafood lunch at the Mercado Central, strolled along the shopping streets in the city center and spent lots of time laying around in the city’s many parks, usually while enjoying delicious ice cream. The ice cream was necessary, as despite it being fall, it was still really hot. We furthermore explored Santiago’s outskirts, by hiking in Parque Natural Aguas the Ramón and Parque Mahuida, from where we got impressive overviews of the sheer size of this huge city, of the not less impressive layer of smog covering it and also of the snow-covered peaks of the Andes surrounding it. Moreover, we had a great time exploring the city’s various “comunas” (that’s how the different neighborhoods are called here), of which many have squares full of constantly crowded bars and restaurants. After 5 days in this beautiful and slightly European-vibed city, we were relaxed, happy and ready for new adventures in Bolivia.

When in Santiago de Chile
Where to sleep: The Princesa Insolente Hostel – quiet, welcoming and clean!
Where to eat & drink: Mares de Chile – delicious fish and seafood and super friendly servers in the Mercado Central. Plaza Nuñoa – a favorite after work spot for locals with lots of bars and restaurants.
What to do: Nightlife in Bellavista – the #1 party area. Parque Natural Aguas the Ramón – scenic hike to a beautiful waterfall.

Relaxing days with lots of grape juice in Mendoza

Our visit to Mendoza was originally not on the agenda but just a view too many fellow travellers told us tempting stories about this capital of wine, situated in mid-west of Argentina. Trusting their judgement, and also, having been out of Argentina for almost 10 days, and thus already missing alfajores, dulce de leche and the world’s best asado, we went back. This time, to Mendoza.
While here, we once rented bikes for a day to paddle from winery to winery in Chacras de Coria, one of the two major wine regions around Mendoza. We not only tasted great wines that day, but also learned about how (organic) wine was made and much more. But to be honest, most of it we will have to learn again some day, with less wine tasting involved in the process.
We also explored Mendoza’s many plazas and parks of which Parque del General San Martín is especially nice, for instance to enjoy a bottle of wine while watching sporty locals rowing in the park’s lake. We furthermore went for a hike up Cerro Arco, a hill just outside the city from which we could have enjoyed a great view for sure, if it had not been for the dark and thick rain clouds blocking it. It was still a nice walk that ensured we got our “shower” in the end…
To make the most of another rainy day, we opted for a spa day in the Termas Cacheuta. That turned out to have been a great decision, as we spent lovely, relaxing hours in the hot waterpools there, spoilt our skin with multiple mud treatments and, of course, also overendulged with lots of delicious food at the spa’s grand buffet. Having been backpacking for so long, it has been a while since we have felt so thoroughly clean as after this day in the pools.
After this relaxing day we felt like action again so we took the next best bus straight to Las Vegas. However, not the one in Nevada, but the one in Potrerillos. This town is located close to Mendoza and no, it is not the place to go if you are looking for never ending parties. Instead, due to the lack of people and the abundance of nature and hills around here, the place is great for outdoor activities. So after having been woken up by the host’s eagerly crawing rooster, we went for a hike around the hills and had an awesome picknick at a perfectly located hill overlooking the town. Soon enough we were looking forward to some big city life, though and booked our bus tickets to Santiago de Chile – and off we went.

When in Mendoza
Where to sleep: Hostel Mora – best breakfast we have ever had in any hostel so far plus a great location.
Where to eat & drink: Bodega Pulmary – an organic winery and a great place to enjoy a delicous lunch.
What to see & do: All the bodegas in Chacras de Coria of course – best explored on bicycles. Perfect for a rainy day or if you need some relaxation – Termales Cacheuta.