Sorata and the Yungas
After a night back in La Paz, I went northwest to the village of Sorata, which was surrounded by beautiful terraces. First day I just strolled around, the second day I went to see the Gruta de San Pedro. It is a large, extensive cave, full of bats, which I only got to see for 10 minutes as the lady didn't want to turn the lights on longer for just one person although I had paid the full admission. From there I tried to walk to a lookout point but didn't find the way. Next day, I walked a long way towards the road back to La Paz. Didn't get lost but took the wrong trail which doubled the distance to get back. Had interesting talk to owner of the hotel where I was staying who came from Quebec, Canada. The colonial style building had been a trade store and warehouse for quinine and later rubber. But as these markets disappeared the area lost its viability. Although it was beautiful there, he said that the locals were often jealous of an outsider's success and made life difficult for him although he married a Bolivian. Slashed tires and a poisoned dog were on the list if I remember correctly. Had another day just hanging out in hotel and reading due to rain and following day walked along a nearby river to San Pedro and followed some landslide scarred trails which became so narrow that I finally turned when I realized that I could easily slip and fall to a certain death. Next day, I went to La Paz where I spent the night and had to go to get a visa extension since I realized my 30 days were nearly up. Took half of the day, as office was not where I expected it to be, the other half was wasted unsuccessfully trying to get a bus ticket on to Coroico.
Trip to Coroico
Got up early and found no bus but a van headed northeast to the village of Coroico in a area known as the Yungas. Here the Andes dramatically drop off into lush, green subtropical lowlands. One had a feeling of being at the edge of the earth and I had the illusion to actually sense the heat of the Amazonian jungle festering to the east. Fact is that the Amazon is still a long way off and there are more mountains in between. On the road to Coroico, pictured below, if you go off the side of a mountain you'll fall a loooong way down like something out of an old roadrunner cartoon. Vehicles headed uphill always had the right away and drove on the cliff side of the road, vehicles headed downwards on the outside lane. This has some logic but strange to think that the side of the road one drives on is variable! In 2007, I read an article about this road, which labeled it "the highway of death" due to the amount of traffic fatalities that have occurred there. More recently, I read that a safer route has replaced this road and the old one is closed to vehicles but well used by tourists on mountain bikes looking for a thrill. It was impossible to get photos from the window of the van during the trip as one was constantly moving and being bounced around. I believe the following 2 shots are actually from around Sorata and they don't really do justice to the sheerness of the Coroico route but they give one a bit of an idea.
Along the side of the road were many such crosses marking the spot of fatalities, often whole vans or buses that took the plunge. This is common throughout the Andes but here one could still see many of the wrecks below. I assume the corpses get recovered but such places were too inaccessible to bother removing the flattened vehicles. One has to wonder why so many drivers are still went so fast and reckless despite the dangers.
Not only was the landscape spectacular but the village of Coroico was also very quaint, just run down enough to add character without looking dirty.
Stuck in La Paz and finally on to Uyuni.
Despite its beauty, there wasn't much to do around Coroico but walk around which was difficult because of the biting flies. And if you dressed heavily enough to protect yourself from the insects, then you sweated to death. So I only stayed 2 nights and then went back to La Paz where I hung out for a few days. There were public strikes throughout the country, closing the museums and stopping all public transportation. A bunch of other tourists and I wanted to get to Uyuni and got tired of waiting around. Through a travel agency, we arranged for a private bus to pick us up outside of town and to bribe the local striker organizers to let us leave peacefully. Unfortunately, some locals didn't go along with the plan. Before we could board, they started throwing stones and the bus driver, not wanting to get the windows broken, kept driving out of their reach. They ended up chasing the bus for kilometers, with us running across the desert with our heavy backpacks trying to catch up and board it. It was surreal since we were generally twice their size and had them outnumbered as well. Half of the tourists were young Israelis fresh from the military. A good run through the desert with a heavy load and stones flying was probably just routine for them but it was ball breaking for me. It would have been easier just to punch one of them out as an example and send them on their way but nobody wanted to use violence since we basically had nothing against their goal of striking for fairer conditions.
From Uyuni, I booked a 4-day tour with 7 other backpackers, which visited the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni salt-flats) including places where the salt is dug up for commercial purposes.
There was even a hotel out on the flats constructed totally of blocks of salt. Outside they sold souvenirs like table and chairs in the shape of lamas carved from salt. Problem was that the tourists all came on tours and most were backpackers; like how was someone going to buy a single chair, non-the-less a set with table and be able to transport it home? My tour was low budget and we spent the nights all crowded together into one-room hovels.
I found this photo of a mining operation with the others from my trip to Uyuni but don't remember the details. If it was not actually on the edge of the salt flat then it must have been nearby but possibly in northern Chile where I went next. In addition to salt, lots of different minerals and rare metals are obtained almost exclusively in the high desert regions of southern Bolivia and northern Chile. Many of the newest high-tech equipment and electronics are dependent on them. I wonder if they will be the source of future wealth to the region as oil has been to the Middle East, or maybe the harbinger of similar conflicts as well.
This high altitude lake is one of a few small remnants of a large sea and much saltier than the ocean yet it supports microscopic life which hundreds of thousands of flamingos there thrive on. Was amazing to see so much life in such an inhospitable environment.
Along the banks were also some alpacas. I wondered if there could have been a more barren place to graze them and still find a few tufts of dry grass? One still sees many visuñas, which are the wild forbearers of lamas, in this part of the Andes. Much closer related to viscuñas are the alpaca which are domesticated but smaller than lamas and bred for their wool rather than used as pack animals.
Rocky outcrops with big cacti characterized both the edges of the salt flat and some virtual islands within it.
Some huge snow capped peaks many of which were formed volcanically dot the altiplano. We visited one area that has a lot of thermal activity including steam vents and geysers. We were there shortly after sunrise and it was an almost magical sight as we wandered around these steam vents with the sunlight coming across the horizon. We swam in a thermal spring, which was a challenge because it was a cold morning and there were crusts of ice around.
Our tour was private transportation and there was nobody around on the salt flat, so we had no further problems with strikes. But as further travel in the country was questionable, most of us arranged to be taken across the border to San Pedro de Atacamas, Chile. I had been there just the year before and I eventually had to return north to Lima for my return flight but it was easier to take this swing south and from there down to the coast and go north from there.