Melting glaciers, llama love and hanging effigies

PampalaramaA little while ago I took a hike up to Glacial Khuno Tinkuta, which is situated in Pampalarama, an hour and a half`s drive from La Paz.  Sitting at 5000m above sea level, the glacier was a short hike but a strenuous one nonetheless due to the altitude.  Almost immediately I was out of breath (which I initially attributed to over-consumption of potatoes) and developed a persistent headache, which meant for a slow climb. The landscape was fairly barren and except for a lone shepherd, my friend and I did not encounter a single person on the trails.  Herds of llama and alpaca grazed in the lower slopes, generously obliging my frenzy of photo-taking.

According to recent studies, Andean glaciers have shrunk by as much as 50% since the 1970s.  The nearby peak of Chacaltaya used to be home to the world`s highest ski resort, before its glacier rapidly melted over the years, disappearing entirely in 2009.  Glaciers act as a vital source of water for thousands of Bolivia`s inhabitants in El Alto and the Altiplano, as well as supplying hydro-power.  As a poor, landlocked country, the impact of climate change is felt more than ever and sadly the future looks bleak with Bolivia`s few remaining glaciers receding fast.

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Journeying back into La Paz, we wove our way along steeply sloping cobbled streets in the outskirts of the city.  Several Guy Fawkes-like effigies were strung up on telegraph poles, a sight I was curious about, having noticed them often in El Alto.  As it turns out, these hanging dummies are warnings for rateros (thieves) and potential criminals, in areas where crime is rife.  Often they are hung with accompanying signs, macabre messages professing that captured thieves will be lynched and/or burned alive.  It is perhaps indicative of a lack of faith in the judicial system and local police force (considered to be somewhat corrupt and inefficient), that residents claim to resort to `community justice`, prepared to take matters into their own hands.

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Stay tuned for an upcoming coffee-related post, before I head to Buenos Aires on holiday next week!


Spectacular Salt Flats

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Earlier this month, I took a trip to Salar de Uyuni with three Bolivian friends.  At a whopping 12,106 square km (3653m above sea level), the Salar is the world`s largest salt flat and contains more than half the world`s supply of lithium.  It is estimated that 20,000 tons of salt are extracted and processed each year, for sale in Bolivia as well as international export.

Lonely Planet describes the twelve hour ($14/£9) bus ride from La Paz as `bone-shaking` and it was no exaggeration.  The final third of the journey was over dirt road which proved to be a rude awakening at 4am.  Picture the roughest aeroplane landing you have ever experienced (sans seatbelt) and then imagine it lasting for four solid hours.  Suffice to say, I emerged bleary-eyed and more than mildly grumpy after two such overnight journeys (especially on the way back when my window was scotch-taped together and rattling incessantly).  The only upside of the turbulent ride was being awake to witness the sunrise, the sky slowly turning pink as our double-decker bus barrelled through the desert.

Uyuni itself is a fairly uninspiring town, with tour agencies, pizzerias and little else.  Just outside the town is an ancient train cemetery, an eerie and desolate place where the wind whips around rusted shells of abandoned trains dating back to the 19th century.

Uyuni's train cemetery

Uyuni’s train cemetery

Train cemetery

Visiting the Salar requires an organized tour, and unfortunately guide books and the internet are rife with horror stories about drunk-drivers, poorly maintained vehicles and accidents, claiming `it is impossible to recommend operators with any confidence`.  Perfecto.  Dubious agencies reputedly squeeze up to seven people into their jeeps – gas canisters, food and rucksacks strapped to the tops of the vehicles – with little regard for either safety or the environment.  Fortunately one of our group works for a travel agency and had a somewhat reliable contact, and I was instructed to stay quiet (and pretend to be half-Bolivian, if anyone asked) as my friends negotiated a private, made-to-measure tour for the four of us at a `national` price.

We set off with our guide and driver, José, and his 9 year old son, also José.  I waited until we were sufficiently far into the wilderness before attempting to make conversation, thus revealing my non-Bolivian identity.  José senior was a man of few words, but a taciturn driver was preferable to a drunk one, and he admirably doubled as a mechanic when our jeep broke down on day two.

It is difficult to describe just how stunning the scenery is, nor do my photos do the landscape justice.  It felt as though we were crossing through different planets, as we sped across the vast white expanse of salt and bounced our way through the desert.  At times bleak and eerie, the desolate desert plains stretched for miles, turning from arid cactus-laden hills to rust red sand.  Volcanoes tower above the sands, some of them active, while Andean peaks as far as Chile are visible in the distance.

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Desert sunset

Desert sunset

Desert sunrise

Desert sunrise

Herds of llama and vicuña (a wild relative of the llama) graze in the brush, scattering as jeeps approach.  As we lurched along, I was lucky to spot two rare rheas – Bolivia`s version of the ostrich – bounding through the dusty plains with their feathered middles fluttering like tutus.  Everyone but the driver was asleep and we were moving too fast for a photo, so it was a surreal moment that I half-wondered if I`d imagined (I was heartened when I later Googled ‘ostriches in Bolivia’).

We stopped at various lagunas, where flocks of flamingoes gather to feed on minerals in icy, rose-coloured water.  After a lunch of llama steaks, we piled back into the jeep to visit surreal rock formations and geysers, spouting clouds of sulphuric-smelling steam from their depths.  José senior broke his silence to make a wry comment that the odd feckless tourist has been known to slip and fall to their death in the geysers while posing for photos.  (I chose to believe him, though that particular Google search came up empty).

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La Laguna Colorada

La Laguna Colorada



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Arbol de piedra (Stone Tree)

Arbol de piedra (Stone Tree)

Bubbling geysers (they look fascinating and smell revolting)

Bubbling geysers (they look fascinating but smell revolting)

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Salt hotels have sprung up to accommodate visiting tourists, but we stayed in cheaper, basic accommodation (beds of stone rather than salt) in the middle of the desert.  The weather is extreme in the Salar, switching from burning hot during the day to freezing cold at night.  Breakfast was served at 5am, and we set off on the long and bumpy ride back to the Salar, with a brief mechanical failure and lunch at an island that looked like a pincushion of cactuses.

One week prior to our trip, a group of five Australian tourists and their guide became lost in the Salar for five days before being found safe and sound.  Since returning two weeks ago, two more groups have survived being missing for several days.  Rain obliterates the trails of other vehicles and plays havoc with visibility, and in these vast salt flats, an inexperienced guide can easily become disoriented.  Guides rely upon the distant volcanoes as navigational markers, but when heavy rains strike, there is nothing to be done but come to a standstill and wait.

The salt makes for a blinding surface, akin to driving across an enormous mirror.  It is a breath-taking, brilliant white expanse that seems to be endless.  At some points the surface is slick and smooth, at others there are cone-shaped mounds of extracted salt, and yet further, hexagonal salt tiles spread as far as the eye can see.  We had fun taking some obligatory cliched perspective shots and later watched the Josés demonstrate salt extraction with a hammer, locating cracks in the tiles that conceal deep, salty pools.  After chiselling and banging away, they unearthed glistening mounds of crystallised salt.


Cecilia with her beloved Kermit (Rana René in Latin America)

Cecilia with her beloved Kermit (Rana René in Latin America)

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José & José, extracting salt

José & José, extracting salt

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This post is coming a little late since I`ve been busy with work, travelling to attend FONCRESOL`s three day AGM (where I presented to the five regional offices, causing a predictably disproportionate amount of anxiety).  The meeting took place seven hours away, just outside Cochabamba, a city renowned for its abundance of food (five hearty meals a day) and whose inhabitants possess possibly the greatest name ever: Cochabambinos.

Burning brakes and bat caves

Gruta de San Pedro

I escaped the hustle and bustle of La Paz for a weekend sojourn to Sorata just before New Year.  Sorata is a picturesque town perched in the valley beneath Mount llampu and Ancohuma, in the Las Yungas region (where Caranavi is also located).  Back in colonial days it provided access to the Amazon Basin, as well as the goldmines and rubber plantations of the Alto Beni.  These days, Sorata is a popular retreat for Bolivians and travellers alike, the idyllic setting acting as a base camp for hiking and mountain-biking trails.

The 3.5hr journey involved yet more hair-raising twisting trails with steep drops.  As we wound our way down the valley towards the town, the minibus I was travelling in began to emit a strong smell of burning (I suspect from overworked brakes) and I breathed a big sigh of relief when we arrived.

La Gruta de San Pedro (San Pedro cave) is a 5-6 hr round-trip hike from the town and is approximately 400m deep.  It houses bats as well as a large enclosed lagoon that can be crossed by pedal boat.  I`m quite fond of bats, and thus endured the oppressive humidity to watch them flitting and squeaking above, while unsuccessfully trying to photograph them.

The cave`s guide was 15 year old Janet, who explained she was taking her turn in the local community giving guided tours and that it was helpful she could add to her mother`s income.  In flip flops and armed with a small torch, she admitted to finding it spooky when alone in between visits, particularly when the string of electric lightbulbs fail, leaving her in complete darkness.  Children seem to be well and truly incorporated into family and community labour here.  During dinner in the town`s market-place, my waiter was 11 year old Imanol, who single-handedly served the restaurant in between watching cartoons.



Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Blurry bats

Blurry bats

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Sorata in the distance

Sorata in the distance

Look out for Bolivia in the media over the next couple of days:

UK folks:
‘World`s Most Dangerous Roads’ – Wednesday 9th January, 9.30pm on BBC Two

Canadian friends:
David Suzuki`s ‘The Nature of Things’- Thursday 10th January, 8pm on CBC-TV

Both shows feature the spectacular Salt Flats of Salar de Uyuni.  I just spent the weekend visiting the Salar – stay tuned for a full report!

Hiking up Devil`s Tooth

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La Muela del Diablo

I recently took a hike up La Muela del Diablo (Devil`s Tooth), the craggy peak that features to the far right of my home page image of La Paz.  An extinct volcano, La Muela sits at 3825m above sea level and is a foreboding sight.  Legend has it that La Muela del Diablo and Mount Illimani once fought against one another, sending bolts of lightning across the valley.

Located high above the city`s most affluent neighbourhood, la Zona Sur, La Muela is a pleasant, if slightly breathless from the altitude, half-day hike that begins with winding dusty trails to the grassy base and becomes a rocky scramble to the peak.  I made it to the V-shaped point between the two right-hand pinnacles, beyond which point technical climbing gear and nerves of steel are required.  The daunting climb up the rocky outcrop was well worth it, with magnificent views of the bowl-shaped city of La Paz and the surrounding valleys as a reward.

La Muela is known to attract brujería (witchcraft) and I was warned against touching any evidence of this, such as the small piles of rocks scattered at intervals along the trail, remains of campfires and especially the abundant knotted grasses closer to the peak.  It definitely adds an element of fear, when scrambling up a slope of scree, to know that any deliberate or accidental contact with knotted grass might have ominous consequences.  I was somewhat relieved to leave the witchcraft behind and be picking my way through potato fields and clusters of cacti on the descent.

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Unexpected outdoor restaurant

Unexpected outdoor mini-restaurant

Outdoor oven in the middle of nowhere

Outdoor oven in the middle of nowhere

Knotted grass, evidence of witchcraft

Knotted grass

Knotted grass, evidence of witchcraft

…evidence of witchcraft

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The distant skyscrapers in the top left of the photo indicate La Paz`s city centre

The distant skyscrapers in the top left of the photo indicate La Paz`s city centre

With that, I wish you all happy and peaceful holidays!  ¡Feliz Navidad a todos!

Cemetery celebrations on La Isla del Sol

* monster post – you might want to put the kettle on…

November 1st was Todos Santos/El Dia de los Muertos (All Saints Day/Day of the Dead).  That meant a long weekend and I seized the opportunity to travel to La Isla del Sol.  This is an island on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest altitude lake, which borders both Bolivia and Peru.

By incredible luck, I travelled with a delightful Bolivian family, who took me entirely under their wing and ensured I had an experience vastly different than travelling as a lone tourist.  After daily greetings with Rosa, the office cleaning lady and her 8 yr old son, José Luis, it transpired we were all heading to La Isla del Sol for the holiday weekend and suddenly I had instant travel companions.

We left at 4am (not my ideal departure time but well worth it for the good company) and travelled by taxi, minibus, boat, another minibus and finally another boat.  The final stretch of the journey involved catching a lancha (motorboat) from the town of Copacabana to the island.  As I was about to pay the tourist fee of 20 Bolivianos ($3) for the 2hr journey, Rosa intervened and sternly told the boatman “No es turista!  Es familia!”, ensuring I paid the half-price ‘community’ fee.  We were only just becoming acquainted at this point, but it was one of many remarkably generous gestures on the family`s part.  They insisted upon hosting me at Rosa`s father’s house and shared absolutely everything with me – I truly couldn’t have wished for a warmer welcome.

The family

Our group consisted of Rosa and her children Patricia and José Luis, Rosa`s sister Marcela and her children Omar and Monica (who is one of my colleagues, a nice surprise discovered en route), another sister Ericka and myself.

Marcela and Rosa, in their traditional Cholita dress

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