The Salar de Uyuni is the most bizarre landscape I’ve ever stepped foot on, wresting the title away from South Dakota’s Badlands, which I visited when I was nine. (That’s a long run, Badlands, nothing to hang your head about!) Absolutely level as far as the eye can see, the salt flat becomes one of the world’s largest mirrors when covered with water, and serves as an important orientation point from space. But we were visiting during winter, when the ground is cracked and dry.
Also called the Isla del Pescado thanks to its fish-like profile, the island of Incahuasi is situated smack in the middle of the enormous Salar de Uyuni. We arrived there midway through the first day of our tour. Covered by millennial cacti and composed of coral, the island is a stunning reminder that the salt flats used to be part of a gigantic lake.
Desolate, dusty Uyuni in the sparsely populated southwest of Bolivia feels like a town abandoned to the march of history. Founded in 1889, it was once a bustling railway hub connecting Bolivia’s mines with the world beyond the Pacific. But the mines eventually dried up, and the trains stopped running. Rather than decommissioning and selling them as scrap, depressed Uyuni left the useless locomotives to rot in a fascinating “train cemetery” just a few kilometers outside the city.
We were introduced to Sucre’s general cemetery by Roger, a kid who works there as an informal guide, during a half-day tour of the city we wrote about earlier. The beauty of the cemetery surprised us, and we soon went back for more pictures and to explore at our own pace.
It’s no secret that Bolivians love their hats. Especially among campesinos, a smart hat is an essential part of the wardrobe, and every region in the country has a particular style. Decorated, thin black caps covering the ears for the Tarabuqueños, round bowler hats for the people in Sucre, shallow pale-colored hats for those from Tarjia.
Disillusioned by the horrors of Cerro Rico’s mines and the callous greed of their families, a number of Potosí’s young women renounced the world by entering into the Convent of Santa Teresa. They would never again step outside its walls.
We were pressed for time, and told our guide that we wanted just a quick tour. But the convent’s history was simply too fascinating, and we ended up spending about two hours inside. Santa Teresa was established in 1685, providing a home to a sisterhood of Carmelite nuns. It’s still active today, but its numbers have dwindled significantly, and most of the immense complex is now a museum.
By far the most popular tourist activity in Potosí is a visit to the mines of Cerro Rico. They’re still active, so a tour entails walking past soot-covered miners hard at work in conditions that could be straight out of the 18th century.
We weren’t especially excited about taking a tour, since gawking at people working in such a dangerous profession is more than a bit unseemly. Between accidents and the inevitable lung diseases, it’s still rare for a Potosí miner to reach the age of 50. But we couldn’t skip out on the city’s most famous experience.
By bus, a trip from Sucre to Potosí takes just a few hours, and it’s even faster by taxi. But if you’re more interested in scenery than speed, check out the ultra slow bus-train, which winds its wobbly way around mountains, lakes and valleys, offering spectacular views every inch of the way.
On the second day of our hike, we woke at sunrise with aching shoulders, backs and legs, but possessed by a strange energy. The Crater of Maragua was within sight, and the promise of restorative thermal baths at hike’s end made us eager to get moving. But breakfast and packing up the campsite took longer than anticipated: a delay which would later haunt us…
This past weekend, Jürgen and I embarked on a three-day hike offered by Condor Trekkers: a relatively new, non-profit tour operator in Sucre. Starting at 5am on Saturday morning, our hike led us into the heart of the Andes, along the Inca Trail, into the Maragua Crater, past dinosaur footprints, through waterfalls, into the houses of Quechua-speaking campesinos, and over mountains, before depositing us into steaming hot thermal baths. Three days of spectacular scenery, unexpected adventure, sore shoulders, and starrier night skies than I’ve ever seen.