Potosi, World's Highest City + Uyuni Salt Flats

Trip Start Jan 20, 2010
Trip End Jun 16, 2010

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, April 16, 2010

We were warned that the trip into Bolivia would be cold, as the border was at well over 3000m (the highest in the world I believe) and we had also gone for the cheaper option of travelling overnight, which included waiting at the border for 6 hours in the morning for it to open! Perhaps, therefore, we should have been more prepared but it was absolutely FREEZING and we did not have nearly enough clothes. We made it though and arrived mid-morning in the town of Oruro which, it seemed, was almost entirely under construction and more than half the houses we passed we still being built. From Oruro the plan was to go south to Uyuni and the salt flats before heading north again to Potosi and then La Paz. However, there were no convenient buses from Oruro to Uyuni when we arrived so we went first to Potosi instead and arrived there late on Friday evening.

Potosi is officially the world's highest city and as a result I spent the night with a pretty horrible altitude sickness, namely a splitting headache and it took us all a few slow days to get our breath back! I woke up to see Paul Scholes score an amazing winner against Man City and entertained the hostal with my celebration before we headed into the city centre and the market where we bought a blender and a few kilos of oranges (we later blended these oranges without much success). We had an amazing-value three-course lunch for 14 Bolivianos, which equates to about 1.40 before walking to the main square and taking another well-deserved breather outside the cathedral.

Over the weekend we visited the city’s Casa de Moneda (Mint) and went to a Real Potosi Football match which was a great experience, despite more poor-quality football and a 0-0 result! To play at that altitude is nevertheless very impressive! We also took the famous tour of the city’s Silver Mines which, as we had been warned, was an experience but not really great fun. The mines were very low, wet, hot, dusty and lacking in oxygen but obviously a great insight into the working lives of the miners that still work there to this day. We saw the factory where the silver was refined and an action show of the dynamite they use to create tunnels as well as the main trip down to the third tier of the labyrinth of principal collective mine. The conditions were incredibly intense and I think it must be one of the hardest jobs there is. The miners who work for companies have a wage but for most their only pay is the reward of finding the occasional stash of pure silver, which can earn at best a few thousand American dollars and doesn’t realistically sustain a family for many months. I was pleased to get out of there but glad I visited.

We moved from Potosi to Uyuni in a day and booked a day-tour of the salt-flats, with the intention of leaving the same evening to La Paz. Uyuni, the town, is not very nice at all so fortunately we managed to book both the tour and bus successfully. The salt-flats, on the other hand, were very impressive, never-ending and I don’t know how the driver of our 4x4 found the landmarks we were looking for when there were no signs and no way of knowing we were approaching any of the mountains in the distance. However, we did see the piles of salt that would be refined and sold and the highlight which was the Isla de Pescado (Fish Island); a completely out-of-place island of cactuses and a solitary ostrich, in the middle of a endless stretching desert of salt. We took loads and loads of perspective photos (some shown on here) and also visited the Cemetario de trenes (Train cemetery) before our returning to the town and on to our overnight bus north to the capital, La Paz.
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