Bolivia - Salar de Uyuni & Potosi


Natalia Cohen


The time has come for visiting a part of the world that I have always longed to explore. I always promised myself that I would only set foot in South America once I had the basics of the language. The last academic year, teaching English in Spain, gave me just that! The natural path to take was when I was offered an opportunity to tour lead in the continent that had been whispering my name for almost a decade!

The mesmerising scenery that presented itself on the last leg of my journey to Bolivia, made me jump up and down in my seat, clapping my hands, as I kept repeating ´wow´ over and over again. Thank God no-one was sitting next to me!!!! The Andes below - a rugged chain of volcanoes, grassland, desert, high altitude lakes, gorges and snow-capped peaks – one of the longest and highest mountain ranges in the world, showed off its ever-changing rock formations beneath me. A barren, harsh undulating landscape dotted with subtle hues of brown, orange, and pink with the occasional vivid red streaked across mountain faces. Touch down in El Alto (the fastest growing city in Bolivia) where the airport is situated at a mere 4,000m above sea level. The journey in a taxi to La Paz (the highest capital city in the world) took me along the edge of a basin where the city lies. Filling the whole canyon and crawling up the sides – the sprawl of buildings is amazing. The triple peaked Mt Illamani that towers behind and looks down on La Paz is a still, desolate snow-covered reminder of the bleakness of this part of the land. I loved it!

A maze of narrow cobbled alleys seething with traffic (combi vans, cars, buses), women in traditional dress (big colourful voluminous skirts, bowler hats and shawls), men, children, street sellers, electricity wires, plazas, cathedrals and markets. Anything and everything you could want to buy can be purchased in La Paz. From food, souvenirs and clown outfits to dead cats, llama foetuses’ and magic potions. The last items available at the witch´s market where locals go to buy goods and try and solve their problems or troubles and also to bring them luck and success.

Salar de Uyuni

A vast, blinding calm white sea of nothing. Not a wave – not a ripple. The largest and highest salt lake in the world is interrupted by only a misty mountain range, a distant blue skyline or rocky island. The disorientating expanse of the Salar de Uyuni extends for 12,000 square kilometres and contains 64.000 million tonnes of salt. The visit to this mesmerising place was liberating, therapeutic and soul lifting. The landscape is so unique and impressive. Only slightly more impressive than the fact that I managed to burn both my thumbs and my right elbow during the walk across the bizarre emptiness. I was so busy crunching and kicking the ground sending small chards of salt tinkling along the surface with the sound of broken glass that I forgot how vicious the sun can be at altitude!!!

Potosi mine

Founded in 1545 following the discovery of silver – Potosi became the largest and wealthiest city in Latin America and possibly the world. Cerro Rica (Rich Hill) is situated where 46,000 tonnes of silver was found and 8 million miners died. The mines are still worked in exactly the same way as they were when mining began. Visiting a mine is the main activity in Potosi. The whole experience is fascinating yet heartbreaking. First stop is where you get kitted up. Yellow trousers, yellow jacket, yellow hard hat, black wellies and a head lamp with battery pack………………looking suitably sexy you’re ready to go! Before entering the mine you stop off to buy presents for the miners. Coca leaves (chewed to dull hunger, exhaustion, pain and diabolically bad conditions), dynamite, 96% proof alcohol (!) and cigarettes are the most sought after gifts! The first part of the adventure is fairly painless – trudging through the muddy passageways with only your head torch to guide you, flattening yourself against the side of the tunnel whenever a trolley pushed by 2 miners comes past ……and after about half an hour arriving at a shrine to the devil known as El Tio (Uncle!) or Supay. As God is believed to be in heaven and the devil is thought to control the world beneath the earth, El Tio is God of the minerals in the mine.

The next section of the mine is not for the faint-hearted. The icy air circulating through the main tunnel begins to thin as you scramble, stumble, slide, crawl and squeeze through tiny crevasses and hunch your way into parts of the mine where temperatures rise and humidity intensifies. A dawning realisation as to what the miners go through as the atmosphere becomes worryingly similar to a type of hell! The dust was thick and the tunnels claustrophobic. I watched miners work, gave them their presents and wished them luck.

The miners work 6 days a week, 10 hour shifts for a mere 3 dollars a day. Children as young as 12 years old go into the mines and it is not uncommon for people to die within 10-15 years of entering…….. not surprising as they are exposed to silica dust, trapped mine gases, chemicals, asbestos and very little oxygen. When you’re having a bad day and hate your job – just remember life could be a lot worse!!??

Travel in 2004