The Chile Adventure Begins – La Serena and Coquimbo

Following the Salar de Uyuni tour, in early April I crossed the Bolivian border and took a bus down to San Pedro de Atacama. Chilean border procedures are conducted in San Pedro, not at the isolated border itself.

Chile’s quarantine regulations reminded me of Australia’s with no fresh fruit, vegetables, meat or plant products allowed in. After immigration formalities, incoming passenger bags were lined up for a quarantine dog to enter and sniff. On this occasion the dog didn’t find anything suspicious although it did pick out a bag planted later by the customs officer.

Desert town San Pedro de Atacama is a major backpacker destination and outdoor activity base. After seeing many amazing landscapes on the Salar de Uyuni tour, I wanted a change of scenery and travelled onto La Serena via Calama. On the overnight Calama-La Serena bus I slept my best in four days as previous nights were spent at sleep-disrupting high altitude (~4,000 metres).

Founded in 1544 La Serena is Chile’s second oldest city (after Santiago). The existing buildings are however newer as the original city was destroyed by a 1730 earthquake.

Chile is noticeably wealthier, tidier and more organised than Bolivia. Chile also has some of Bolivia’s former coastline, won in a 19th century war between the two nations. The lack of coastline is controversial in Bolivia and subject to dispute. After being landlocked for two months, I was ready for seafood!

One evening I visited Jack Fish, a Peruvian inspired ceviche and sushi restaurant with fellow hostel guest and Pearl Jam fan Natalia. The restaurant owner was also a rock music fan, naming different menu combinations after bands and that night playing music from Touring Band 2000.

La Serena and Coquimbo, Chile

Rocking on with pisco sours and ceviche at Jack Fish, La Serena Continue reading

The Uyuni Salt Flats and Other Amazing South-Western Bolivian Scenery

Unlike the journey to Potosi, travelling to Uyuni was a straightforward bus ride. Uyuni the town is a dusty place with little to note except for one thing – it is a major starting point for tours to the giant Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni). Salar de Uyuni and other landscapes in Bolivia’s south west are must-sees on the South American tourist trail.

I wanted to take the same Red Planet 3 day tour as Aubrey (and her friend Jenn), one of several friends I met at the wonderful Beehive Hostel in Sucre. I arrived to Uyuni on the evening of the 1st of April and, after checking in to my accommodation, looked for a restaurant. At a chicken restaurant, upon asking for a menu, I was told in Spanish, we have fried chicken. Obviously no menu was needed. Every local in the restaurant (all other patrons were locals) ate their chicken, chips and fried plantain with knives and forks – no finger-licking-good here.

The next morning I visited the immigration office to receive my post-dated Bolivian exit stamp, saving the need to queue at the border. Checking in at Red Planet’s office, I was delighted to be placed in the same vehicle as Jenn and Aubrey, along with a British couple. We travelled together in convoys of two Landcruisers. The five of us along with six women in the other car made for a great tour group.

The first tour stop was the Uyuni train cemetery, where trains built in the late 19th century lay abandoned.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

Posing on one of the old locomotives at Uyuni’s train cemetery Continue reading

The Silver Mine and Colonial City that Funded an Empire – Potosi, Bolivia

In late March I arrived to Potosi from Sucre. Founded in 1545, Potosi, Bolivia is famous for its world heritage listed colonial city centre and its mine. The silver production from Potosi’s mine was so prolific that it financed a large part of the Spanish empire.

During Spanish colonial times, Potosi’s silver was mined by a combination of paid and slave labour. Local indigenous and imported African slaves performed much of the most dangerous work. One estimate has 8,000,000 people dying from mining or related work over the centuries.

The Potosi Mint was first established in 1572. Although the current mint museum is based in a later building, it tells a very impressive and depressing story.

Potosi, Bolivia

A display in the Potosi Mint Museum showing indigenous and African labour working in dangerous conditions to process silver ore Continue reading

Travelling from Sucre to Potosi, Bolivia by Taxi, Train, Minibus, Foot and Bus

From Sucre in late March I wanted to visit Potosi, home of the silver mine that financed an empire. My original plan was to take the ‘train’. The train between Sucre and Potosi more closely resembled a bus-on-tracks. People asked why I wanted to take the train instead of the bus or shared taxi as the train is slower and runs less regularly (three times per week versus several departures per day). I’ve always enjoyed train travel and views from rail are generally better than from road. The novelty of the single-carriage Sucre-Potosi train also attracted me.

The service to Potosi, Sucre’s only train, departs from El Tejar Terminal. I wished to catch the Wednesday, 30 March train, scheduled to depart at 8am. Waking up early, I farewelled the wonderful Beehive Hostel and hailed a taxi to what I hoped would be El Tejar Terminal. Instead, the driver left me in front of a semi-grand building that was formerly another train station. Realising I was in the wrong place, I took a second taxi. The second driver also didn’t know where El Tejar Terminal was, needing to ask other people. Eventually, I made it to the station, only to be confronted with an empty railway siding.

Sucre to Potosi, Bolivia

El Tejar train station building, Sucre, Bolivia Continue reading

Pujillay Festival 2016 in Tarabuco, Bolivia

I was lucky enough to be in Sucre for the third weekend of March. On this weekend, Tarabuco hosts the Pujllay Festival commemorating the defeat of the Spanish in the 12 March, 2016 Battle of Cumbate. Tarabuco is a town located 65 kilometres from Sucre, making a very pleasant day trip.

On Sunday the 20th of March I caught a bus from Sucre’s Plaza 25 de Maya to Tarabuco for the 2016 Pujllay Festival. In Tarabuco groups of locals, many wearing outrageous costumes, paraded from the town centre to an open field for further celebrations.

Pujllay Festival, Tarabuco, Bolivia

The 2016 Pujllay Festival parade in Tarabuco’s main square (the multicoloured flag is Bolivia’s second national flag and represents Bolivia’s indigenous) Continue reading

Sucre, Bolivia’s Constitutional Capital

Founded by the Spanish almost 500 years ago, Sucre’s historic rise and decline was linked to theĀ  Potosi silver mine. With its year’s round mild climate and lower altitude (2,800 metres), Sucre was the preferred place of residence for the wealthy involved with Potosi’s silver trade.

Sucre is Bolivia’s constitutional capital and home of the high court (La Paz is Bolivia’s seat of government). Sucre is also the capital of Chuquisaca Department. With its historic buildings, museums, good restaurants and pleasant climate, Sucre is a popular place to visit and stay. After Santa Cruz, Sucre became my home for four weeks this March as I took Spanish lessons (gracias Faby!) and enjoyed the atmosphere of the city in general and The Beehive Hostel in particular.

Sucre’s Mercado Central (Central Market) was a regular destination with its fruit and vegetable, general produce and juice stalls.

Sucre, Bolivia

One of many juice stalls lined up next to each other at Mercado Central Continue reading

Tropical Relief in Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Being bedridden with altitude sickness in La Paz, I knew I had to escape to a lower altitude. My chosen destination was Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia’s second largest metropolitan area and home to the country’s largest international airport. Viru Viru International Airport lies away from city centre and on the taxi ride in, I saw several rhea, large flightless birds related to the emu and ostrich.

Santa Cruz is in Bolivia’s tropical lowlands and shares the same climate classification as Darwin, Australia. Although Bolivia is famous for its high altitude, two-thirds of Bolivia’s land mass is actually lowland.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

The city of Santa Cruz as seen from my approaching plane Continue reading

Bolivia’s Constitutional Referendum, 21 February 2016 and the Evo Morales Personality Cult

On Sunday the 21st of February, Bolivia held a constitutional referendum. The referendum determined if the 2009 constitution should be modified to allow the president and vice president to serve third terms. President Evo Morales, after winning the 2015 election, could then nominate for the 2020 election and serve until 2025 should he win. Although Morales was serving his third term at referendum time, his first term did not count as it began in 2006, prior to the 2009 constitution.

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

An advert promoting referendum participation on the back page of the BoA airline magazine Continue reading