June 2003

Bolivian update (it's a big one)

Having enjoyed seeing Lake Titicaca from the Peruvian side, we decided to check out the Bolivian side as well. First stop: Copacabana. It was a friendly small town, and the lake was even better on this side--much cleaner. We took a one day trip to Isla del Sol to see a few more ruins and just enjoy the walk from the north end of the island to the south. Afterwards I ate sugared corn pops--which are sold in big bags at every store in town--until I felt a bit ill.

Lake Titicaca from Copacabana Ruins on La Isla del Sol

Next we caught a bus to La Paz. It was slightly surprising when everyone got off the bus after a little while, and it was even more surprising when they said we had to buy a boat ticket. But the most surprising was to see our bus pull onto a boat and follow our little boat. Fifteen minutes later we were back on our boat and on our way to La Paz again.

We got off the bus, into a taxi, and we were on our way to a hotel. The taxi driver asked if we were in town for the big festival.

"What big festival?"

"You haven't booked a hotel ahead?!"

"Er, we should have?"

After that slight scare we ended up having no trouble at all finding a room, and then we read up on the festival. Apparently the Gran Poder is the biggest annual festival in La Paz, and we arrived the day before. So the next day we got front row seats for the parade and made a whole day of it. The costumes are elaborate, the dances are intricate, and the beers are cold (though they fizz more than usual at 4000 meters above sea level). All was going well until we struck up a conversation with the family next to us. Before I knew what happened they'd given us a plate of fried chicken, roast potatoes, and some other veggie for lunch. We thanked them and then got a round of beers for them. They reciprocated. We felt obliged to return the favor. They treated us to a round of a different beer. Eventually we had to excuse ourselves even though we'd only managed to see the first ten hours of the parade. We went home, had a nap, and then caught the last few hours.

Bus trip from Copacabana to La Paz (that's our bus!) Dancers in the Festival of the Gran Poder parade More dancers More dancers More dancers More dancers Even more dancers Still more dancers One of the 30 bands Us with our adopted local family for the day

After a few more days of exploring the city--it's a great place other than the dumpy park--we headed off into the jungle. Well, we actually decided on the pampas instead of the jungle. In the jungle there are more animals, but in the pampas (a sort of sub-tropical wetland area) you see more animals. And true to the promise we saw alligators, pink river dolphins, alligators, snakes, capybaras, alligators, monkeys, and lots and lots of birds. At night we also saw alligators. The squirrel monkeys came right up to us to eat the bananas we brought. I know, I know; you shouldn't feed the animals. But we just couldn't help ourselves. They only left when the larger capuchin monkeys scared them off and ate the rest of the bananas.

We also got to go piranha fishing. Angela joked that we'd probably use raw meat to attract them. And we did. I caught a total of zero piranha... but did manage a baby catfish. Angela snagged three of the carnivores. But we eventually tired of the mosquitoes, so from there we went back to the highlands.

Heron First (of several hundred) alligator sighting Heron on the riverbank Good trip even in the rain Sunset over the river First capybara sighting Feeding the squirrel monkeys Nervous squirrel  monkey Greedy capuchin monkey Capybara family More capybaras Angela's big piranha catch Pampas scenery

We caught an overnight bus to Potosí, an old silver mining town. At one point it was the biggest city in the world due to the mining of silver and other minerals. Now it's a fairly small town, but there's still mining. We arrived at 9:00 and I booked a tour of the mines for 10:00. But it had an unexpected twist.

"You're here for the llamas, right?"

"Er, what?"

"This is the day of the special festival out here when they sacrifice the llamas."

"It's included in the price of the tour?"

"Yes, but today is the only day."

"I'm here for the llamas."

So I got the standard tour: we went to the little shops that sell Coke, water, juice, candy, coca leaves, 96% alcohol, and dynamite. We went up to the mines and walked about half a kilometer inside. And we got to meet some hard drinking coca-chewing miners. But as a special bonus we got to see the sacrificing of the llamas for a safe and productive year. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I'll just say that we got the see the sacrifices a little closer than I expected and leave it at that.

View of the town from the mine entrance Miners have fun: black powder fuse, unknown blasting powder (nitro gylcerin?), 192 proof alcohol, coca leaves, dynamite stick Miners Unsuspecting llamas Recently sacrificed llama Unsuspecting tourists Unsuspecting tourist after llama sacrifice Four post-sacrifice llamas A half km into the tunnels

Finally, from Potosí (by the way, the stress is on the last syllable no matter how much you might want to put it on the penultimate one) we went to Uyuni. From here we took the three day tour of the Salar de Uyuni. The salar (salt flats) are like no where I've ever been. It was great to drive across it--our driver was falling asleep, but there was nothing to run into. And the "island" in the middle really felt like an island in the middle of a big white lake. We also got to see strange lagoons partially covered with llamas, flamingos, and borax*.

At the end of the tour, we were deposited in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile--thus ending the Bolivian portion of our tour.

* What is borax?

It's Na2B4O7-10H2O.

Thanks, but what is borax in English?

It's a naturally occuring form of Boron in a salt form. It occurs in very arid locations (like Death Valley or the Andes Mountains) where mountain rivers rich in boron run into lagoons that evaporate quickly (because it's so arid) leaving behind the borax salts.

What is borax good for?

Making heat resistant glass, detergents, agricultural micronutrients, and lots of other not-so-interesting stuff. It's also good for running around on and pretending that you're on snow that isn't cold. And for breaking into small pieces that you throw into the reddish lagoons.

Train graveyard Salt mounds and salt flats More mounds and flats Salt table and chair outside the salt hotel Claiming the salt flats for Bolivia Cactus island in the middle That's a big cactus Angela on the island More cactus, salt, and mountains Lava arch Borax covered lake Stone tree Llamas grazing on the Laguna Colorada Borax mountain Matt on the borax Matt and Angela with red lagoon, white borax, and blue sky Hot springs Laguna Verde Tour group in front of the Laguna Verde

Last modified: 13 Sept 2003