19th to 22nd March

Wednesday 19 March

Today is our rest day in Uyuni. We enjoy to clean the bikes (in half an hour, they did it for us, for an amazing result, and 1€ per bike! For cleaning the chain, they used a king of Karcher throwing diesel at high pressure, wonderful), visit the city, try some typical food, work on the computer. In the afternoon, there is an event celebrating the quinua. Some politicians came here to make a speech about this historical cereal, also the famous Bolivian band Arawi came to sing a few songs. It brings animation and happiness to this little town.

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Now that we are back to the civilisation, we quite often see the Bolivian TV, and the least we can say is that it seems pretty boring and stupid for us. The news only speak of useless facts: a car stolen, a baby killed by the mother, an old man attempting to suicide! but nothing of international, or of politics! it’s a show, it’s no more news. There is also a real-TV concept I had never seen in Europe. It’s called “Cuestión de Peso”, and it’s about obese people closed in the studio, and they have to lose weight. Every now and then, they prepare a show for the weekly live broadcast! I don’t know if ethically such a program could be accepted in France. Also, the TV channel broadcast very often a spot from the government reclaiming an access to the sea for Bolivia (Bolivia is still under shock of having lost its access to the sea following the Pacific war in 1884 against Chile), with images of Evo Morales (the president of Bolivia) being welcomed in Chile by demonstrators who are in favour of Chile giving such a territory to Bolivia.

Thursday 20 March

Today, we plan to go to the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt desert in the world. It’s not just in the border of the city, but we have to ride 15km to arrive near, on a road full of bumpers. The limit is not very clear between the normal floor, and the Salar. On the shore, it’s a mixture of salt and mud or sand. And it’s still a little wet, so the bikes tend to sink a few centimetres. And then, to our big surprise, we see water. Yes, real water this time, it’s not a mirage. In fact, the salar is not totally dry. But the water is very shallow, maximum 5 centimetres deep. So we go with the bikes! and will have to go to clean them again when we are back. And soon, we are on a drier part of the salar. In fact, under the first crust of salt, there is still a little of water.

We stay a long moment taking surrealistic pictures. With this floor totally white, it’s easy to play with the perspectives, putting one item closer to make it seem giant.

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Back to Uyuni, we go for cleaning the bikes, but the place is closed. In the evening, we go to a restaurant for tourists, in order to try the meat of llama. It’s very good! It’s a red meat, quite similar to beef, and with something special in the taste, like an aromatic herb. We also drink a local beer, made from quinua, the Lipeña. This beer does not have much taste. It’s blond, quite light, and with a lot of foam.

Friday 21 March

Already, our rest in Uyuni ends today. We will go this afternoon to Potosí (by bus, not that we are afraid of the 200km and passes at 4000m, but unfortunately we don’t have time to cycle till there). The first thing we do this morning is to go to wash the bikes, because they are still white from the salt of yesterday. The washing place is open, and full of SUV getting ready for the tourists. The little girl of the owners loves to play with her cat.

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We go to eat lunch, some typical food: Pique Macho. It’s a dish with French fries, sausages, meat, onions, green peppers (slightly spicy) and egg. All cooked together. It’s delicious! Just thinking of it while writing the blog, my mouth is producing saliva!

In the afternoon, before going for the bus, we have some time for visiting the museums of the city. First the “museo abierto del ferrocarril”. In fact it’s not really a museum, but a landfill site where they abandoned many trains, wagons, rails, locomotives! It’s all rusted and it has become an attraction for the tourists now.

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Afterwards, we visit a small archeological museum about the people who lived here. There are a couple of mummies (in huddled up position, as in Tintin), and also some deformed skulls! It was a tradition here for some peoples to deform the skulls of the babies and children, making them more oblong, round, angular! maybe in order to distinguish from other peoples, or for aesthetic reasons.

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We take the bus for Potosí. There is absolutely no problem to put the bikes, although the bus is more than full (many people standing in the alley). The road is always going up or down (maybe the bus is not so bad after all), but the landscapes wonderful!

In Potosí, we go to the casa de huespedes Las Vicuñas. After dinner, we meet three young champions of table tennis. They are from Villazón, in the South of the department of Potosí­, near Argentina, and come here for the weekend in order to train. They are very impressed by our travel.

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Saturday 22 March

We take breakfast in the hostel, and then go to visit the mines of the Cerro Rico.

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Cerro Rico means reach mountain, and it was called like this because the mountain is full of silver. The legend tells that in 1545 the indigenous Huallpa was running after a llama, and it got late, and he had to spend the night on the mountain. As it was cold, he lit a fire, and recognized at the light of the fire the white shiny reflection of pure silver. Soon after, the Spanish arrived and started the exploitation of the silver: they used the indigenous workforce to extract the silver. Soon after, in 1561, the king of Spain gave Potosí the title of imperial city. At its apogee of silver mining, the city was home of some 160 000 people (more than any city in Spain at that time!) and tens of thousands of indigenous were forced to work in the mine (leading to up to 8 million indigenous dying in the mine during the Spanish exploitation!). But in the middle of the 17th century, the silver veins started to be finished, and the city declined. The city remained moribund till the independence of Bolivia in 1825. At that time, tin started to be exploited, still in Cerro Rico, and produced several extra-rich proprietaries, the barons of tin. But one century later, again, the prices of tin decreased a lot, and the city got into crisis. Nowadays, the Cerro Rico is exploited by cooperatives of miners. The money they make does not go to private company nor the state, but it is for them. One kilo of silver ore is bought to them 25 bolivianos (2.5€). And the money they get on an average day allows them to feed their whole family (wife and 5-6 children), better than the average job, but at which cost? Among the many minerals that can be found in the Cerro, 5 are separated and of some value: silver, tin, zinc, copper and lead (during the visit, we saw an enormous quantity of sulphur, and also some mercury). Being like this in cooperatives, the miners can choose when they want to go to work, how long, ! Generally, they go in group of 4 to 6 miners, for some 10-12 hours in a row. They dig where they want (there’s no map, no registration), but with always the risk if collapsing the galleries. For this reason, only experienced miners start exploring new veins, while the newbies start with other tasks like carrying up the stones. In order to spend such a long time in the mine, the miners use to chew coca leaves: like this they don’t get hungry, don’t feel the tiredness from altitude, and get extra energy for their physical job. But such a practice shortens their life.

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The Cerro Rico is now a big conic mountain, totally shaped by 500 years of exploitation. There are around 5000 entries to the galleries, and as many galleries, of several kilometres each. It’s a real Swiss cheese! So here we are, ready to enter one of these galleries, and totally suit up: a yellow overalls, helmet, heavy lamps, and plastic boots (because the galleries have several centimetres of water). As we enter the gallery, we feel quite cold, since we are at 4300m high. But very soon, walking in the guts of the Earth, it gets warmer, till a temperature of 35ºC where the miners now work, some 500m under the surface. The galleries are generaly quite small, we have to walk bending. And there are some more spacious rooms, that are rests of former exploitation of a silver vein. Sometimes, the walls become yellow from pure sulphur, till deep blue that are crystals of copper sulphate (remember your chemistry experiments, with the precipitate of CuSO4). There are also dark brown crystals of mercury, and golden cubes of pyrite. And sill many veins containing a little proportion of silver, mixed with zinc, or tin or copper. The galleries are a real labyrinth, with forks, places to climb up or down a level. We pass in front of the Tio, the god of the miners.

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At the end of the visit, we are allowed to grab some stones, looking for the ones containing silver among the leftovers of the miners. What a wonderful visit!

After a couple of hours underground, with the atmosphere containing much sulphur, we are more than happy to get some fresh air. And go to eat, it’s already quite late! In the afternoon, we go to buy the bus ticket for tonight and we visit the city of Potosí. Thanks to the silver mine, the city was very opulent in the 17th century, with many churches richly decorated, gambling houses, and so on. Now, most of the opulent houses and churches have been destroyed, abandoned, or replaced by modern buildings (like theatre, bank, shops, !). From the top of the San Francisco church, we have a breath-taking view on the city and on the Cerro Rico.

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In the church, the most decorated small chapel is the one for Judas Thaddaeus (not Judas Iscariot, the traitor). There are plates of people thanking him, and even a model of how to make a prayer asking Judas something.

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We also walk by the “boulevard”, a paved street, full of shops and cafés, that is the heart of the social life of Potosi.

After dinner, we go to the bus station for taking the bus for La Paz. All the bus are leaving more or less at the same time for La Paz, so that you sleep during the route, and don’t lose your time. We don’t have any problem for putting the bikes in the bus (and the many panniers). We are in a “Cama” (bed) seat, so we have a good night of sleep.

And here comes the video of these days: