A Travellerspoint blog


semi-overcast 20 °C


After spending a couple of days in Potosí checking out the mines and the old city, it was time to get moving and we got on a bus to Sucre. We arrived sometime after dark and after an unsuccessful hostel hunt we crashed at an over-priced hotel telling ourselves we'd find something cheaper the next day. Obviously this never happened, and we spent the day drinking beer and questionable Bolivian style pre-mixed drinks on our roof top terrace instead.



We spent the whole day just lazing around and eventually hit one of Sucre's many bars, rumours had it the nightlife was supposed to be pretty good here.

Tom and Stu getting their dance on

The following morning we had a relatively slow start even for us, and didn't get up to much other than eating and playing cards. Faye and I checked out the local market which was fairly disappointing, and we decided we should probably make an effort to check out the rest of the city the next day.

Bolivia is a strange country in many ways, for instance it has two capitals; La Paz and Sucre. Sucre is the constitutional and official capital of the country while La Paz has more government departments and is therfore the "de facto" capital.

Chuquisaca Governorship on the main square

Sucre was founded in 1568 under the name Ciuadad de la Plata de la Nueva Toledo. In all the city has changed names four times eventually ending up named Sucre after General Antonio José de Sucre. Sucre attracts thousands of tourist each year due primarily to its wealth of well-preserved buildings from the 18th and 19th century. In 1991 it became an UNESCO World Heritage Site.




Sucre is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in Bolivia, and you'll see your fair share of churches as well as members of religious orders dressed in different costumes milling about in the streets.





It is not only the many well-maintained old buildings that make Sucre a beautiful city, its setting is key. The city is surrounded by green hills and mountains at an altitude of 2750 m (9000 ft.) keeping the climate cool and pleasant most of the year, some would even say a little chilly....




We didn't spend much time in Sucre, it was more of a stop over on the way to La Paz, still the city had a lot more to offer than I expected. Good nightlife in beautiful surroundings, what more can you really ask for? Nevertheless, we needed to keep moving and after about three days in one of Bolivia's capitals we got back on the bus with the rest of our travel team. Time for another climb, next stop; La Paz :)

Posted by CanWay 16:26 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)


The Devil's Mine

semi-overcast 15 °C


After about four hours on a windy dirt road we found ourselves in Potosí. Potosí is one of the worlds highest cities with an elevation of 4090 m (13,420 ft). It was founded in 1546 as a silver mining town by the Spanish, and soon produced incredible wealth. The city grew to one of the biggest cities and richest in the world at the time, with over 200.000 citizens. All the money went straight to Spain, meanwhile Indian workers forced to work in the mines died by the millions. Later African slaves were also sent to Potosí to work as "human mules" because the actual mules would die after only a few moths work.

Today Potosí is very different. When the silver extracted from Cerro Rico eventually ran out miners continued to mine for other minerals, but the wealth of the city steadily declined. Now, Potosí is a poor city with many people living in shanty towns or slums.
Nevertheless, the city is a UNESCO world heritage site among other things you can visit the former Spanish mint (Casa de la Moneda) which used to be in Potosí.


For us it was another climb to reach Potosí. The city is very hilly and the altitude really has an effect on your general fitness. After dinner Faye and I retired to our rooms fairly early, I had a headache after just half a bottle of wine (the altitude makes you a wimpy drinker) and we were both still tired after the salt flats trip. The boys kept at it. Needless to say there were some tired faces at breakfast the next day.

Potosina the world's highest beer


The main "attraction" in Potosí is the mine. I say "attraction" because it is not a museum or an abandoned mine, it is still fully functional. As I mentioned above the Potosí mine was originally a silver mine, but today all the silver has been extracted and the workers mine for other minerals. There are numerous tour guides offering tours of the mine, we went with the one recommended by our hostel. To be honest with you I have no idea whether this is an official business or not, it felt fairly random, but the tour was good :)

Picking up gear on the way to the mine

One of the reasons so many people come to see the mine in Potosí is the way it is run. The workers still mine the way they did in colonial times using picks and transporting minerals and debris in carts manually. There is no modern equipment here, the use of dynamite is the only addition to manual labour.

On the way to the mine we stopped to pick up some gifts for the workers. High on the wish list was coca leaves, 96% alcohol, mix and dynamite.

Picking up presents

Need dynamite?

One thing to keep in mind when on this tour is that you are entering someones work place. You will be in someones way at some point, and you better move when people tell you to move. This of course can be difficult as the mine shafts aren't really build for two people to pass each other, but try to see it from the workers point of view; they're definitely done working around curious picture snapping gringos.

Ready to go! Me and Jason with Raine, Stu and Tom :) The whole crew, except for Faye the photographer

Workers pushing a cart to a waiting truck

The gringos entering the mine

Both Jason and I suffer from minor cases of claustrophobia, so we were a little worried about how we would feel crawling through narrow passages far beneath the ground. Fortunately this didn't cause any problems despite our initial fears :)


Jason barely fitting through a passage

Tom catching up

Sagging bearing beams

Part of the crew

When above ground the mine workers are catholic, like most Bolivians, but below ground they turn to the Devil referred to as "Tio" meaning uncle in English. Their reasoning is that they believe that the world underground belongs to the Devil, so there's no room for Ave Marias and crucifixes.

The mine workers have built a shrine for "Tio" where they leave him little offerings. The most common are alcohol, mix, coca leaves and cigarettes.

After seeing Tio we went further down underground to get to know some of the workers. At the end of one of the small passage ways we were introduced to three of them. Turned out they were father and sons working together.

Going down

This is not uncommon in the Potosí mine. The mine is not run by a company or the state and the workers therefore do not get paid by a company or the government. If a worker has enough money he can buy part of the mine and extract minerals from his claim. Whatever minerals he finds he will sell, therefore how much a miner makes will depend on how much minerals he finds. Miners who own part of the mine can hire other workers and pay them if he can afford it, or he can employ his sons. There are many family businesses down here.

We arrived just in time for dynamite preparations

Our guide assured us they weren't going to blow anything up before we were back in the daylight. However, the fuses were not long enough for them to get out before the blast. They seemed pretty content with just waiting around the corner.

While we were watching these guys put together their explosives together we could hear others going off somewhere beneath us. It was a little scary, I'll admit that.

We presented the small family with our gifts, and they insisted we share one of the small 96% bottles. For everybody's benefit the dad mixed it with water, making it almost drinkable.

When having a drink it is customary to spill some of the drink on the ground first as a sacrifice to "Tio".

Tom enjoying an afternoon shot

Life in the mine is hard. As I mentioned the workers get paid for how much mineral they extract. The more you work , the more minerals you extract; a normal work day in the mine lasts 12 hours. There are no breaks, not even for lunch or dinner. That's why the workers chew coca leaves; it gives them more energy and represses the feeling of hunger. Because the Potosí mine isn't owned by anyone as a whole nobody is technically in charge of maintenance or the welfare of the workers. This results in sagging bearing posts, poor ventilation and broken rails for the carts. Of course there is no such thing as minimum wage or work insurance. Add to the demanding physical labour inhalation of silica and other dangerous substances. Many mine workers die of pulmonary disease caused by the different harmful minerals they inhale in the mines. It is not unusual for children to be taken out of school to work here. The workers we talked to in the mine ranged in age from 14 to 67, the father of the small "family business" we met had worked in the mines for over 40 years.
We were all happy when we could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, literally, at the end of the tour. I cannot begin to imagine how it must be to spend the majority of your life in these conditions.

Stu walking towards the light


Leaving the mines behind us we headed back to the city. It was our last day in Potosí and after a shower we headed out for dinner. The whole crew were heading for Sucre the next morning so we had a quiet last night. Pictures will be up soon :)

Posted by CanWay 19:57 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

4x4 Chile-Bolivia

semi-overcast 10 °C


We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, the driest desert in the world, just as it started raining:/ San Pedro is situated in Northern Chile, on the border to Bolivia. Like so many other backpackers we were planning on entering Bolivia on a four day 4x4 trip that would take us to the famous salt flats in Uyuni.

We weren't planning on spending too much time in San Pedro, just enough to acclimatize to the altitude and find a tour company. San Pedro is at 2407 meters (7900 ft.) above sea level and the trip to Bolivia would take us to 4800 m (15840 ft.), which is a big change from the beach. We didn't really notice the altitude in San Pedro, probably because it had taken us all night by bus to get there and we had a fairly slow climb.

After doing some research online and talking to a couple of tour agency we booked with Estrella del Sur Travels, and were ready to go the next day :)


Waiting to get picked up

After driving for about half an hour we hit the Chile-Bolivia border. It was an easy crossing:


Here we got introduced to our drivers, and divided into different groups. Randomly we had met up with an English couple we knew from Rio, and had requested to go with them. En route to the border we made friends with two other Canadians, and little did we know at the time that this would be our travel group through-out Bolivia.

Our first stop was at a high altitude lagoon. We were climbing pretty fast, but none of us felt sick, yet. As a measure to avoid altitude sickness we had invested in a bag of coca leaves.


Team coca leaf. Jason with Stu and Tom.

Climbing even higher we made it to some hot springs at about 4500m. The air was cold, but the water hot :)




After warming up in the pools we got back in the car,it was time to observe some geysers. When we stopped we were at 4800m (15840 ft.), and I for one could definitely feel it. Shortness of breath, nausea and headaches, all symptoms of altitude sickness, kept me siting down for most of the time. Jason didn't seem to feel it, he was running around taking pictures.


After relaxing for a bit, and chewing a substantial amount of coca leaves, I eventually felt better, although the smell of sulphur being released from the geysers didn't help the nausea:/


At our next stop we arrived at our "hostel" for the night. Here we had lunch before we headed back out to the cold see yet another lagoon and thousands of pink flamingos :)

Home for the night

Lagoon Colorada. Named after the different colours of the lake.

The water is red due to red sedimentation and pigmented algae.


I thought flamingos were tropical birds, I was wrong.

Power went off 9 p.m. at the hostel, which kind of set the bed time. It was fine by us as we were all pretty tired after a long day.
The next day started at 6 a.m. and after breakfast we all piled back in the cars. This day would mostly just be transport, as we were getting into Uyuni that afternoon. Still, we made a couple of stops on the way.

First was the Salvador Dali desert, an extremely barren valley characterized by landscape resembling the surrealistic paintings of namely; Salvador Dali. To be honest I thought it looked like any other desert we'd seen so far, but I'm no expert.

Yet another desert we got to see up close was the Siloli desert, famous for this strange volcanic rock formation;

This is "El Arbol de Piedra", Stone Tree.

The were lots of random rocks that looked like they had been thrown around by a giant. Of course the guys had to climb some.

After a quick lunch we headed back to civilization. Before visiting the "train cemetery" we made a stop in a small traditional village.

Stocking up on coca leaves

All the locals ladies wear their hair like this. I'm sure its never been cut.

At the train cemetery. I would call it a train dump site. Jason had some fun pushing old wheels around,so I guess it was worth it.

We arrived in Uyuni that afternoon, and checked into our hostel. After 3 days with no hot water everyone was ready for a shower. There were a total of three bathrooms, we were about 15 people. Luckily we got in early and were the winners of hot water and water pressure.

The afternoon and evening were pretty uneventful. Uyuni is not a very happening place, and between buying some alpakka gear and having dinner, there wasn't much to do . Just as well as we were getting picked up at 5 a.m. the next morning to see the sunrise on the salt flats.

The Salar de Uyuni is the world's biggest salt flat at 4086 square meters. The salar was formed when a prehistoric lake dried up creating two smaller lakes and two slat flats, the biggest one being Salar de Uyuni. The salt crust of the Salar is composed of varying layers of salt and water, and underneath the salt surface there is a lake of brine.

En route to the salt flats.

Waiting for sunrise

This entire building is made out of salt and used to be a hotel. But because the sewage from hotel was polluting the salt flats it has now been shut down.

Popular place


After the sun had finally come up and we weren't freezing cold anymore it was time for some picture taking. The salt flats are extraordinarily flat with an average altitude variation of only 1 m over the whole salar. This makes for some pretty good photo options. Jason was excited, he had been planning photos in his head for days.






The Salar de Uyuni is a huge tourist attraction, but of course tourism isn't the only thing that goes down here. The Salar contains large amounts of sodium, potassium, lithium and magnesium, of these lithium is considered the most important as it is a vital component of electric batteries. The brine underneath the salt crust is extremely rich in this mineral, it contains 50-70% of the worlds lithium reserves, which is in the process of being extracted.
Furthermore 25.000 tonnes of salt are extracted from the salar every year.

Extracting salt



After playing around taking picture for a while we had only one stop left of the tour. Our driver explained to us that this wasn't normally part of the trip, but he just happened to know about some mummies in the area that he wanted to show us.

Flat tire, only accident on the trip, and very undramatic.

Stone huts containing mysterious mummies



Puma mummy hanging above the door...

None of us could really make out were these mummies came from and why they were there, our driver wasn't the most talkative man, and our Spanish just didn't cut it. Creepy.

After the mummy encounter we were driven back to Uyuni and pretty much got right on the bus to Potosi along with our English and Canadian crew. The trip from from Chile to Bolivia was amazing, and the Salar a definite highlight! Although there might have been a few too many lagoon stops, I'd most definitely recommend it :)

Posted by CanWay 12:45 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

La Serena

semi-overcast 20 °C


After spending a few days in the Chilean capital we got back on the bus. This time we headed north to La Serena. After Santiago it is Chile's oldest city, founded in 1544.
The city is popular with tourists, especially in summer when hordes flock to the beaches. Unfortunately we arrived a little late for the beach weather, still there are plenty of things to do in the area.

La Serena has a grand total of 39 churches! We didn't make it to all of them, there is a limit to how many churches you can actually enjoy in a limited amount of time.






We arrived in La Serena just in time for Easter. This is a holiday that's taken very seriously in South America, and people tend to travel more than usual. For us this meant staying an extra three days in La Serena because we couldn't get bus tickets to our next destination. Despite all the churches there's not that much to do in the city, therefore we ended up booking a bunch of tours to fill the days.
Our first trip was to the Mama Lluca Observatory. La Serena and the surrounding area is famous for star gazing. It's no coincidence that three of the world's most important scientific observatories are located in the region.



We were very lucky with the weather the night we went, there were almost no clouds and even though there was a full moon there wasn't too much light pollution. Looking through different telescope we could see star clusters and even Saturn :) Looking through the telescope Saturn looked just like one of those glow-in-the-dark stickers from the 90's. I'm not even sure it was real.


We were lucky to have a great guide who pointed out countless constellations and rattled off the names of half of the stars in the sky like it was nothing.

The following day it was time for another organized trip, we were heading to the Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve a couple of hours outside of La Serena. Here you can spot sea lions, bottlenose dolphins and of course Humboldt penguins.

Ran in to some vicuñas on the way :)

Once we arrived in Choros, a small fishing village, we got in the boat and were ready to see some wildlife :)



Humboldt penguins


Sea lion

Humpback whale. We cruised right over top of this big thing! I was terrified!

After cruising around looking at wildlife we moored at Damas island, where we wandered around for a while.


We didn't go swimming, it was too cold :( But I'm sure it would be really nice in summer.




After a late lunch we headed back to La Serena. It was an early night fro us, as we had to get up early again the next morning to go on yet another tour.
On our last day in La Serena we went on a tour to the Elqui Valley, which among other things is famous for it's pisco distilleries.
First stop was at an Elqui valley baker, well known for his delicious pastries.


Notes from former costumer. This guy is popular.

We made a few stops that were more or less interesting before arriving at a pisco distillery.



River of wine?!


Pisco is a grape spirit produced in Chile and Peru. Both countries claim having invented the drink, they even have different stories explaining the origin of the name. Apparently Chilean and Peruvian pisco differ in taste as much as rum and vodka and can be considered different spirits. Our guide was pretty passionate about this, so I'll take his word for it.



After some generous tastings of different types of pisco, it was time for lunch. Our guide took us to a restaurant were all the food was cooked in solar ovens, it was pretty cool;



After a hearty lunch we were all pretty tired and after a quick stop at a rather boring museum we headed back to La Serena. Back at the hostel we drank the last of our fancy pisco and got packed. The next day we were finally going to San Pedro de Atacama, our last stop before entering Bolivia :)

Posted by CanWay 10:57 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Lollapalooza in Santiago

semi-overcast 20 °C


After a fairly slow and relaxing few days in Valparaiso, we arrived in Santiago early in the morning. Over a third of Chile's inhabitants live in Santiago, and they like to say that "God is everywhere, but his office is in Santiago".


Like so many other backpackers we had invested in Lollapalooza tickets, a music festival that travels the world.
People had come from just about everywhere to see the show, therefore it was impossible to find accommodation and we had to arrive in Santiago the same day as the show.


There were many great artists on the program, our favourites were Foster the People, Friendly Fires, MGMT and of course Foo Fighters :)


This was going to be Foo Fighters first concert in Chile ever, and we weren't the only ones excited to see them


The concert lasted for almost 3 hours (!!) and was most definitely the best concert either of us have ever been to. Dave Grohl is an amazing preformer, and the band is just as awesome. By far worth breaking our budget to get the tickets!


After finally managing to get on the subway home after the concert was over, we went food hunting and after that headed to bed, it had been a long day.

The following day we had a slow morning, and didn't really do much until it was bar time, with one exception. You cannot go to Chile without trying the ubiquitous completo. A completo is a hot dog in a bun covered in avocado, fried onions, ketchup, mustard and mayo. Perfect hangover food.


A friend of mine that used to live in Santiago had recommended "La Piojera" for the somewhat special drink called "Terremoto". La Piojera is not a typical gringo spot, and you'll find yourself fighting for tables with local drunks, students as well as backpackers.
A Terremoto is white wine mixed with Fernet Branca and pineapple ice cream. I said it was special.


Kenneth said not to have more than four. These are half liter drinks, you shouldn't have more than two.

At the bar we ended up sharing a table with a couple of local girls and a Chilean guy who’d grown up in Canada. His phone rings, they’re heading to friends house for a bbq, and he asks us if we want to come. We figure we’ve got nothing to lose, so went for it.

We were pretty confident with our decision until he puts these shades on while on the subway. Alan from the The Hangover?

Meat shopping. We got both.

Red Bull vs. Quiet Relax Drink

Chileans have a different way of barbequeing. There are no individual pieces of meat on plates intended for one person. The huge piece of meat we bought is slowly roasted, and small pieces are cut off and served as they are ready.


The chef

The gringos

Inevitably we ended up at the bar.



We both woke up with slight hangovers at our less than cool hostel. Luckily it was my birthday and we were splurging on an actual hotel room!

We ended up staying an extra night, it was just too nice to leave!

Earth quakes are common in Chile. Much of Santiago was destroyed by one in 1985.

Sushi lunch :)

For dinner we went for Indian food, but as we were still tired after last night we went home early. Plus, we had to enjoy the luxury of the big, clean, air conditioned hotel room.


After two nights at this wonderful hotel we had to get moving. Our next stop would be La Serena, a quiet coastal town further North :)

Posted by CanWay 20:19 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

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