Monday, 29 November 2010

The Best Thing we did in the Atacama

I know the facial expression might suggest another story.  But this was our descent from a 6000 metre plus summit.  This time we got the top.

The mountain in question is called Sairecabur - 6050 metres or bit more than 20,000 feet above sea level.

MJC at about 7.30 am.  We started the climb from Sairecabur´s base camp at 5,600 metres.  Our vehicle is a tiny dot somewhere in the shadow on the far slope.  It was bitterly cold out of the Sun.  My hands have never hurt so much through cold.  I thought my fingers might break off when I removed my double-thickness gloves.

Our guide Ivan congratulates MJC at the end of the epic ascent.  It was two and a half hours of scrambling up 45 degree scree and then clambering up a tower of massive basalt boulders.  Headache and utterly knackered legs at this point.

At the summit, looking in the direction of more northerly Chile.

View from summit into southwestern Bolivia.  We had driven past that lake (Laguna Blanca) three days earlier.  The green lake, Laguna Verde, is out of sight at the feet of the perfectly conical volcano Licancabur.

Another stunning volcanic vista from 6000 metres. Got quite emotional over being up there and seeing all this beneath us.

Ivan leading the way down.  It took about one and half hours.  Our vehicle is parked in what looks like a white quarry, just below the centre point of the photo.  For astronomy fans, I was told that the Atacama Large Millimetre Array is not far behind the two volcanoes in the middle distance.

Keep any unkind comments about the hat to yourselves.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Worst Thing that happened in the Atacama

Our tour bus ran off the edge of a dirt road and came close to rolling down a hillside.  Driver not concentrating I think.  It wasn´t exactly the final scene of The Italian Job but we were all pretty nervous getting off.  That tilt looked a lot steeper from inside the bus. This sort of thing was supposed to happen in Bolivia.  Thank goodness for our marvellous guide, Roberto.

Roberto got the fourteen of us off the teetering charabanc with calm aplomb.  Witness his gravity-defying powers with this ice-fractured hunk of basalt lava.   And the show went on without the vehicle, as he marched us to the next stop of our day´s tour of the Altiplanic Lakes of the Atacama Highlands. 


Stranded 100 kilometres from our base of San Pedro de Atacama, MJC was forced into some birdwatching.

Many more flamingos - this time the Chilean Flamingo.  But at this lake we also saw the very rare Horned Coot.  Before the bus ran into the sand, we had also seen two Puna Rheas. 

Plus we got very close to this vicuña.  Unlike the llamas and alpachas, vicuñas have never been domesticated.  According to Roberto, they die of stress if captured.

So it turned into a very good day, what with the wildlife and landscapes.  And luckily we were picked up by a busload of OAPs from Paris who gave us a lift back to civilisation.  They were lovely. 
There are vast numbers of French tourists staying in San Pedro de Atacama.  Are they drawn by the fashion?

Part of me can understand why elements of this ensemble might be at least practical in the Atacama.  Mind you, we have seen far, far worse on actual backpackers.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Out of Bolivia - the Wierd and Fabulous Southwest

Our last two days in Bolivia, in the far Southwest. The most extraordinary landscapes I have ever travelled through.  Lakes of amazing colours... active volcano and totally wierd part-plant, part-mineral growths in the desert.  What is this thing?  Get the renown botantist Dame Dr Bunty Maxwell online now.

Very high, dry and desolate.  MJC with the vehicle that took us across this part of the country.  No photo of our driver Edgar unfortunately.

Flamingos in one of several salt lake.   I m not completely certain which salt gives this lake its intense blue colour.  The white is borax.

Two of the three possible species of flamingo in these photos.  Andean and James (above).

Elsewhere, wind has blown rocks into bizzare sculptures

The 8 metre high Arbor del Piedra which some backpackers insisted on climbing all over.

The viscachas were deeply disapproving

MJC at the Laguna Colorada at about 4500 metres above sea level.  The red colour is from algae.

MJC takes a last bath in Bolivia in hot spring pool of 35 deg C, while the air temperature is something like -5 deg C.

It could be Mars.

The Laguna Verde and Volcan Licancabur.  Behind the volcano is Chile and the Atacama Desert.
Hasta luego Bolivia!

Friday, 26 November 2010

The world´s largest salt lake - Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

MJC on the thick crust of salt of the Salar de Uyuni - a salt lake covering the 900 square kilometres.  This is in southwest Bolivia where we are about 3700 metres above sea level.  Hot in the day, bitter at night.

MJC at the train cemetery outside the town of Uyuni.  Not much here to intrigue but these rusting shells of steam engines.  Uyuni is the place to come however to get out onto the Salar.

 MJC proves this vast plain of salt is a lake of sorts.  There is a layer of highly salt-saturated water under the crystallised stuff.  12 000 years ago, the Salar de Uyuni was a lake 70 metres deep but it evaporated to leave this incredible landscape.

People living around the edge of Salar make a little money by excavating the salt and bagging it up for sale in Bolivia.  They don't make much but there's very little else to do.

It's obligatory to behave oddly in front of cameras on the Salar, to mess around with the strange perspective of this wierd white world.  Almost did myself a mischief.

 There are a few isolated islands in the salt crust, which have been colonised by huge cacti.

Some of the plants are about 10 metres tall and estimated to be 900 years old.  For cacti lovers...

Our hotel after a day's exploration of the Salar de Uyuni.

A hotel made entirely of salt.  Not the curtain and bedspreads obviously.

These poor little blighters were on the reception desk. 

Down the Mines in Potosi, Bolivia

We went on a tour of a working silver-lead-zinc mine in a mountain with an appalling history, in the world's highest city, Potosi (4060 metres).  The thousands of miners working here today still do so in extremely dangerous conditions.

Lady Dynamite.  The tour started with a visit to her shop in the miner's market.  Here we each bought a stash of nitrogylcerine, detonators, coca leaves and soft drinks.  These were presents for the mine workers we were to visit.

Efrain Mamami, our superb guide, explaining that the miners in the mountain chew coca leaves non-stop during their 12 or 13 hour working days.  They don't eat at all during that time.  They would be throwing up because of all the gases and dust in the tunnels and shafts. 
Efra worked as a miner in the mountain, Cerro Rico, until 11 years ago.  He then started taking tourists around the mines.   He and three other ex-miners have just set up a new mine tour company which they say is the only one in Potosi which is owned and operated by miners.  The company is called The Real Deal. 
They get my *****star recommendation.  Efra was an extremely informative and entertaining guide, with really good English. 

 MJC and Sarah from Cork, with Cerro Rico in the background.  An ugly-looking mountain with an even uglier history.  From the mid 1500s to mid 1700s, the Spanish colonisers established the world's most productive silver mine in the mountain.  During that time, an estimated 9 million people died working in their mines here.  The victims were indigenous people from Ecuador to Bolivia who were there under a forced labour system, and African slaves.
Of course, the Spanish Empire and Catholic Church in Spain and South America did very well out of it.  During the 1600s, Potosi was one of the richest cities in the world.

The mountain has been long plundered of its incredible seams of silver but, as we were about to see, cooperatives of mining families are still making something of a dangerous living from the impoverished ore-bearing veins.   We are not talking about high standards of health and safety here.  Rock bottom in fact.

One tonne of rock being pulled and pushed by four miners in one of the tunnels.  They have got about a quarter of a mile to go before reaching the outside.  There are about 10 000 miners working in Cerro Rico today.  They earn between US$200-250 per month.    That is not a bad wage by the standards of most Bolivians, but the penalty is a life expectancy of about 40 years.   Although we didn't see anyone younger than about 17 years old during our tour, there are some miners as young as 13 years, according to Efra.

MJC demonstrates the only available protective device against the thick clouds of fine rock dust in the tunnels.  Long term exposure to dust and gases within the mines is the primary reason for the shortened lives of the workers.  There are about 20 deaths per year through accidents, according to Efra.  I was surprised it was not much higher.  A terrible place to spend most of your waking life from the age of 16 (or younger).

Definitely not a place for claustrophobes.  We had to crawl through holes and shafts on our hands and knees in some places and most of the time we were walking stooped or bent over.

We sat in a 3 foot high tunnel and watched some poor sod doing the 4 hour job of excavating a hole for an explosive charge.

At least we could get out after 5 minutes, albeit up a dodgy 15 ft ladder.  Our colleague Rebecca's expression sums up how enjoyable that climb was.

El Tio.  The Devil or chief God of the Earth for the miners.  He is their protector as long as they give him regular offerings of coca leaves, fags and libations of the local 90% proof sugar cane liquor (tastes horrific).   Once a year he also gets sacrificial llama blood.

To unwind after the stresses of our 2 hour subterranean tour, Efra made up some explosives.  He lit the fuses and told us we had two minutes to pose for photographs.