Next we moved on to Potosi, which was the largest city in all of South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, due to the enormous silver deposits in the nearby ´Cerro Rico´, which translates to ´rich mountain´
. As you would expect, they have raped the mountain ever since but there are still some hardy locals who spend days at a time working in pitiful and dangerous conditions. We visited the Money House, where all of Bolivia´s and Spain´s coins were produced until the 1950´s. Now that there is not much silver left, it was interesting to learn that Bolivia´s coins are currently made in Spain and their notes are made in Canada! While La Paz is the world´s highest capital city, Potosi takes the title of world´s highest city (4,060m) and we felt every bit of the cold that night.
Seven hours of more excellent unpaved roads and we were in Uyuni, gateway to the amazing Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats). The town of Uyuni gets our vote for arse end of the world and we were more than excited to pile into the jeep for a three day tour of the Salt Flats and surrounding volcanoes and lagoons. The Salar de Uyuni has to be the most bizarre and impressive landscape we have seen. Twelve thousand square km of blindingly white salt and dotted with a few cactus-covered islands. We had such a fun day driving all over the place, eating at a restaurant made of salt, taking stupid pictures and at the end of the day going to bed in a hotel constructed entirely of salt bricks. The photos will do more justice than words can.
The second day of the trip we left the salt and headed into the desert in the 4WD
. Harsh terrain but also beautiful, with so many minerals in the earth turning the surrounding volcanic mountains into a sea of colour. We visited coloured lagoons (red and green water in some of them), most of which were home to hundreds of pink flamingoes, which added to the visual effect. It was a long day of driving and unfortunately the accomodation in the middle of nowhere was terrible. Being high on the altiplano, once the sun goes down the temperature plummets and we endured our second night of -10C to -15C conditions rugged up in four layers, inside sleeping bags and under two blankets.
After rising at 5am to see geysers at sunrise, our driver remembered that he neglected to cover the engine the night before and the fuel lines had frozen. The car thawed out before we did and after visiting the smelly sulphur geysers we were headed for a drop off point on the Chile border, while the rest of the group headed back to Uyuni. Our Bolivian visa had expired two days earlier and we were prepared and ready to put corrupt immigration officials to the test but luckily they were busy and just waved us through. One hour later, with a hint of relief, we were resting easy in San Pedro de Atacama. If you think there is a drought in Australia, you should see this place - it is the driest desert in the world.
Out of the green rolling hills of Samaipata and nine hours drive through the dusty cactus forests, we arrived in Sucre, the judicial capital of Bolivia and a town steeped in history. From our beautiful homestay on the hill in the suburb of Recoleta we had great views over the city, which we spent a day exploring. The architecture in Sucre is cool, with white buildings and terracota rooves being the norm. We think Sucre has the cleanest and best market for fruit and veg in Bolivia, so we indulged in the fruit juice stands and made use of the kitchen in the homestay to cook up a veggie lasagna - having the facilities to cook in South America is a rare event. The following day we hiked through Maragua Crater just outside Sucre, a beautiful valley full of coloured rock walls in unusual patterns. Our guide ensured that we were up for the altitude and the walking by liberally distributing coca leaves for us to chew.