Normally group tours are not our thing, too many factors on the tour that could ruin the experience. So we had some trepidations when we signed up for a 3-day group trek outside of Sucre. Thankfully we had an absolutely amazing time hiking through the Bolivian countryside and learning about the Quechua culture. The Quechua are thought to be the descendants of the Incas, they speak their own language and many still live rural lives of subsistence farming. Our guides, who spent their youth in small rural villages before heading to the city for school, were able to explain much about the Quechua culture while helping us to speak with and interact with the villagers. Our experience to date had been waiting for translations from Spanish to English. It was a pretty cool experience to be relying on our Spanish skills as our guides translated from Quechua.
Captions will be under the photos if you click on them.
 
 
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Protest speeches
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Delicious dinner
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Spicy lunch
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Folkloric dancing from Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile
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The best public telephone ever
The beautiful white city of Sucre, one of Bolivia's capitals, kept us entertained for far longer than we had anticipated. Between the food, protests and celebrations we had a very full few days. I think we had spent 3 days in Sucre enjoying the festivities before we stepped foot inside a church or museum.

We had conveniently timed our visit, by no planning on our part, to coincide with the huge 25th of May celebration. The 25th of May is important in Bolivia because it is the day that the first cry for independence from Spain was made. As Sucre was the epicenter of the rebellion from Spain in all of South America, they dedicated the entire month to celebrations! We had been told that there are at least 300 celebrations in Bolivia each year and we got to experience 5 of them in Sucre. In the evening we spent a whopping $4 each and got a box seat at the theater for an evening of traditional dancing. Other days there were free music festivals in the various plazas, more folkloric dancing in the main square, military bands playing while people danced in the street, and of course the big parade, in which we thought there were more participants than observers. The vice-president even showed up to admire the spectacle.

To add to the chaos, there were also almost daily protests with marching supporters, chants, and firecrackers. From what we could gather the teachers and nurses were protesting so their pensions would not be cut. This was happening all over Bolivia and made some transportation difficult as they blockaded the streets for days on end.

And of course we can not forget to mention the food. We found our way to the central mercado for lunch and dinner most days. They meals were huge, delicious and cheap. For a plate laden down with food we paid less than $2 USD. And we also had our fill of fresh fruit, something lacking in our diet through most of the trip.
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Enjoying beer while listening to PK Dos, a popular Bolivian band
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The end of the parade route
 
 
“Soy el rico Potosí, del mundo soy el tesoro; soy el rey de los montes, envidia soy de los reyes”

I am rich Potosi; the treasure of the world; the king of mountains; the envy of kings.
Inscribed on the official shield of the city.
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The entrance to the former mint of Spanish coins
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Awesome chest. With the turn of the correct key the 12 locks would unlatch. I thought this was only the stuff of movies!
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Original Bolivianos
Located at over 4000m above sea level, Potosi had us gasping for breath and chewing on gobs of coca leaves in an attempt to ease the symptoms of high altitude. This city has an incredible history; at one point in the late 16th Century rivaling London, Paris and Seville for size and prosperity. This was due to the huge amounts of almost pure silver being extracted from Cerro Rico. In Spanish there is a saying "Vale un Potosi" ("It is worth a Potosi") for something really valuable. For Spain Potosi was a fountain of wealth, for the indigenous and slaves it was a guarantee of a short and hard life. It is a fascinating UNESCO city, though its past, present and by all accounts its future are under-toned with tragedy and sadness.
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Lunch: chicken and 3 starches
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The beautiful streets of Potosi with a backdrop of Cerro Rico, riddled with tunnels from centuries of silver mining.
We were uncertain whether or not we wanted to visit the working mines; where entire families work under atrocious conditions and too often perish, either in the mine itself or from ailments associated with it. We opted to join the tour for its initial visit to the Miner Market, where one could buy gifts for the miners such as coca leaves, dynamite ($3.50 a stick) and alcohol (96%!!!), and to visit the place where the Ore is initially processed (I would call it a factory but it does not qualify, it barely held on to the roof). We entered the mine for a brief scout around, met with some miners and left in a hurry when we felt 5 explosions that literally had the earth falling from the walls around us. The miner said that it was an adjacent shaft about 50 meters below us. Enough said. Spent the rest of the tour sitting on the side of the hill watching the comings and goings of the miners pushing the ore carts and poking around the discarded pilings for pyrite.
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Big bags of coca leaves
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14 year old boy working his family´s silver mine
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El Tio the god of the mines. Miners make offerings to El Tio every Friday for safety and prosperity.
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Dale happily fossicking for fool´s gold.
 
 
Abashedly we admit that we did not know much about Bolivia before starting our trip. A large swath of southwest Bolivia is desert. Not just any desert but altiplano, some of the highest in the world at around 3500 meters in elevation. We got to know this region on an amazing 3-day 4x4 tour. We saw volcanoes, lakes, thermals and geysers, flamingos, llamas, viscacha and vicuna. We visited an island of cactus in the middle of the salt flat, and got to have some fun taking pictures without perspective, more challenging than we imagined. Click on a photo to see a caption.
 
 
After moving slowly through Patagonia it feels like we have been absolutely flying through the northern section of Chile. But when we reached San Pedro (a town located in the world´s driest desert) we had to take some time, there was just so much to do. Instead of booking onto a tour, we decided to go the more adventurous route and rent a car. After some serious haggling we managed to get the car price down 40% and we got to cruise around in Big Red. This really left us feeling local as all the cars in town... well in all the towns we visited north of Santiago, are red 4X4 trucks - something to do with mining towns and visibility.

First stop a little town of Chiu Chiu where the oldest church in Chile is located. True to experience the Church was not open during the posted opening hours, but we did get to enjoy the view from outside. Crazy to think that this church was built before the USA or Australia were even close to becoming countries. Next stop Pukara de Lasana a 12th century native fortress, there were ruins and petryglyphs all through the valley but we still were not prepared for the size of this site, and we had it all to ourselves. And finally we ended the day in a tiny village of Caspana. It felt like we had been transported back in time, the villagers were still using the terraced farming sites utilized hundreds of years ago by the Incas! Plus all the houses were made of stone or mud and straw, it made for quite the cold night!

We were up before dawn to make it up to 4500 meters (close to 15,000 feet) to visit the El Tatio Geyser field. The highest geyser field in the world. Up that high, before sunrise it was freezing, literally. If the water wasn’t boling it was ice! It was a beautiful sight with all the qeysers sending up huge plumes of steam. It was a tad concerning how unregulated it was. Where ´walkways´were established they were most often pockmarked with little bubbling pots of trouble. Our interpretation of the words of advice given in Spanish when entering the area: “walk where you like, just be careful because the ground might break below you feet and you could be badly burnt.”

Once the sun rose and lit up the valley all the tourist trucks left and we were the only people in the park!!! Within 15 minutes we saw a beautiful fox, dozens of vicuna, and to top it off we spent close to 2 hours watching the antics of the viscacha. (In our Chicago days we spent a lot of time watching Planet Earth and this was where I first learned about these little creatures). They look a bit like a rabbit or a kangroo  but are actually rodents! And they can only live between 3500 and 4500m in elevation, amazing little creatures. After finally tearing ourselves away from our private wildlife show we explored the surrounding area, found some flamingoes, and had lunch looking at over a dozen volcanoes, some still smoking!

As if that weren´t enough we also visited the beautiful Valley of the Dead in the Salt Mountains and found a wonderful spot to watch the sunset over the Valley of the Moon. (It sounds like we are living life in some sort of story book!)

Subsequent days were also highly enjoyable and included an early morning with more flamingoes, they are the funniest creatures when they fly, all legs and wings. An afternoon with more vicuna (Bek almost got trampled by a few) and a sunset swim in a salt lagoon (well it wasn’t so much a swim as a float since the super salty water propped us up).

Our final day we visited Chuquicamata the largest open pit copper mine in the world! 5km long, 3km wide and 1km deep. It was an impressive sight and difficult to really comprehend the size, in the photo the little toy dump trucks are actually massive – they can each hold 300 to 400 tons of rock!!!!

Overall it was an amazing few days in the desert. What struck us the most was the quantity and diversity of the wildlife in this desert. We saw more animals in one day in the desert than we had in 1 month in the forest! The world is an amazing place.

 
 
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Ater 16 cumulative hours of overnight buses we were rather surpised when we awoke amidst arid, cactus-covered hills. What happened to the lush green we have been used to for the last few months?

What drew us to the Elqui valley is difficult to determine; was it the powerful magnetic energy of this mystical valley (apparently the Elqui valley is where the earth´s magnetic center is located and has much significance in the spiritual world); perhaps it was the chance to see a UFO (the most reported UFO sitings in the world happen in the Elqui Valey); or maybe it is the fact that the Elqui Valley is the center of pisco production in Chile (Pisco is a type of grape brandy that is extremely popular in Chile)?

Though tempting, we declined an opportunity to have our auras cleansed despite the bargin price, and failed to see a UFO, but we did sample the pisco during our stay. We had a wonderful day cruising around the valley checking out the small towns, watching the workers pick grapes whilst chomping on bucketloads straight off the vine, and finally watching the beginning of the pisco making process at Los Nichos, the oldest pisco distillery in Chile.