After our first contact with altitude and Andean culture, we left Salta with a night bus and aimed for the border between Argentina and Bolivia. We arrived there in very early morning, and were among the first ones to cross the customs check. New stamp on the passport and we are officially welcomed in a new country! We change our last Argentine pesos for fresh new Bolivian bolivianos (yes the currency here is the boliviano, true story), and we try to find a way to leave the border town with little interest to go to Tupiza. While walking in town with our backpacks we are stopped by a policeman that ask us and everybody else in the street to stand still for the time the local band plays the anthem and the Bolivian flag is raised on the main square. Funny.
We team up with a couple of French met earlier in Salta, and we find an old man, owner of an old car, full of a load of flour that is going to Tupiza. For much less money than the taxi drivers he takes us for the two hours scenic drive.
We aimed for Tupiza because we want to start a 4 days Jeep tour into remote parts of the south western Bolivia called the Lipez. There are three ways to discover it, all by jeep with guide. Two of them are very popular with tourists: three days, from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia, or three days from Uyuni to Uyuni. A third option is from Tupiza, popular still, but much less frequented route.
Once arrived in Tupiza we drop our bags at the hotel, and go out in town. We lost nearly two hours trying to get our hands on more Bolivianos, in the (one) local bank because the ATM was out of order so we had to queue inside and witness the slow Bolivian administrative pace. And once we got some more bolivianos we headed to the market to spend them.
Bolivian markets are the best place to be during day time. You can just walk around the different stalls, admires all the colours and smell of fruits, veggies, meat, flowers or other things. And when you are hungry, there is always an area with benches and tables where you can sit and some lady will offer you freshly cooked food in a minute for a ridiculous amount of money if you convert it to Europe currency. All the locals do that and it is a great way to meet people and try out new dishes at the same time. We will have time to talk about it later.
After that snack, we started to tour the travel agencies in town to see the difference between their packages (when there was any). One thing that we did not expect was snow. Yes snow. Apparently, just a few days earlier it had snowed quite a lot in some parts of the tour and access is impossible and in other places, it is accessible, but still completely covered in white. That is a setback for us as we really wanted to do the full tour, and enjoy it under its “normal”weather. Now the most impressive and coloured part of it is under a white cover. But because we have time we decide to not rush it, and wait a bit.
So we spent the following day walking around Tupiza, in landscapes that reminded us more of cowboy movies than Bolivia.
As the snow did not cleare enough yet, we decided to wait more and to go for a couple of days to Potosi, some 6 hours of bus away.
Potosi is a crazy place, a crazy city. It is built around the top of one mountain that culminates at 4753 meters above sea level. The road to reach Potosi is once again very very scenic, and going up all the time. And only at the last moment, after passing a last little bump on the road can you discover the extent of the city at the foot of the mountain. It seems huge and spread in all directions, no matter the steepness of the terrain. And when you think of the altitude at which everything is located it is even crazier. The city center is at 4100 meters, and simply walking a few meters with the backpacks on the shoulders is hard and breathtaking.
When the Spanish people came in South America, the never really found El Dorado, the golden city. In Potosi however, they did find El Silverado, the silver city. The very reason for the presence of the town, is the richness of it’s soil. The mountain is a silver mine, and provided silver and wealth for the whole Spanish empire during centuries. The Spaniards took over the Inca silver business and turned it into a real enterprise. They used more and more indigenous slaves to go deeper down the mines and work in terrible conditions to extract the precious mineral. We visited the excellent Palacio de la Moneda, where the silver minerals used to be turned into coins and ingots before being shipped back to Spain, and it was an extremely good way to realise the importance of Potosi for the Spanish colonial empire. The city was even the richest one in the world during its time. And want to know a fun fact? The universal symbol for money, the dollar sign itself has its origin in Potosi city, true story, check it out!
Today, the mines are still very active and miners still go underground in terrible conditions to try to extract silver. It is not as rich in minerals as it used to be but nonetheless the harshness of the working conditions and environment remains the same. It is possible to immerge oneself into the mines and visit them, witnessing the miners into labour but we decided not to. It felt a bit like a pervert or voyeur way of doing tourism, taking selfies with people working so hard, for so little pay.
We instead spent a good amount of time between the market, the colonial center and another good part of the time trying to recover our breath!
Two days later, we went back to Tupiza, and good news, most of the snow had cleared!