Back in time in the Silver Mines

Cerro Rico – The Silver Mine, Potossi

I could have torn up every unsatisfied memory, erased every written complaint, rewound and taken back any voiced disdain in my past about any previous job or working condition I thought myself “slaving away in”. The truth is, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t complain about their work at least once ever now and the. But crawling across blasted rock, breathing life threatening mineral dust, dodging tonnes of rock pushed in metal wagons by young men with cheeks full of cocoa leaves is a humiliating slap in the face as to what “slaving away” to make a buck really could mean.

A bit of history if you will: in 1825 when Bolivia won over their independence, the mountain mines throughout the Bolivian Altiplano  were almost exhausted, having been extensively mined and exported to Europe under the Spanish empire since 1545. To exacerbate the bleakness of the once ridiculous natural richness of the Bolivian mountain, was the crash of silver prices leaving the once incredibly rich city of Potosi to quite literally continue digging into the dirt for a chance at “wealth”. Now Potosi is by no means a rich city, but you can see semblances of her old wealth simply from the city streets.

The Cerro Rico, [Rich Hill], is Potosi’s main mine and probably one of the cities biggest tourist attractions. The mountain of once unimaginable riches, now nicknamed the Mountain that Eats Men, towers over the city of Potosi, a looming icon of both bountiful wealth and abysmal suffering due to antiquated and appalling working conditions. She still yields tin, zinc, lead and silver, however our Koala guide (an ex-minor himself called Milton) reckons the mountain had 7 years left. You can imagine things get pretty desperate in her cold tunnels, digging ever deeper for the remaining mineral lines. Today there are around 12,000 workers who mine her everyday. Working for 100 – 150 bolivianos ($20 – $30 NZD) a day, or 27 bolivianos ($5.50NZD) per kilo of “good minerals” in working conditions that most I imagine would need to be tortured in order to submit into working here. Yet these men (men only) volunteer 7-9 hours a day, 6 days a week, in an environment where there is no sunlight, no food, and a toxic air that will kill you before you turn 55 ( and those are the lucky ones). Every month, around 14 men are killed in “accidents”. Give me a mundane desk job any day thanks!

Of course this is my easily offended, western precious perspective on things. For some minors this is a family a business, a lifestyle, a profession to be proud of. Yet still, the thought of working  in these mines, where things are probably as good as they ever were in 1545, I feel sick, and I feel humbled, and I want to buy these men all the soda water they could ever ask for.

Tour info: Potosi silver mines are a must do if you manage to make a stop in this high altitude Bolivian city! As part of the tour experience you are required to buy gifts for the minors to help them out with essentials that they don’t have to buy themselves. We took a tour with Koala tours who had a good price (110 bolivianos) and a good rating on line. The experience was very real, our guide Milton was super chill and a bit of a legend. We climbed mine shafts (legit need some balls for this one), met some of the characters who work in the Cerro Rico tunnels, and got to sit under a dynamite blast, counting the booms. I know two people who chose to back out early, but i guarantee if you keep calm and trust your guide you’ll be right as rain. Well…. as long as they don’t accidentally bomb between tunnels…anywho, i would recommend them!

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Jungle Fantasy

Rurrenabaque – Bolivian Amazon

Being woken up to the roaring of the howler monkey harmonising awkwardly with the snores of my boyfriend is not a morning alarm call I expect to have the pleasure of waking up to again.

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The Love Shack

Again, who would have thought that I was to have two of the best sleeps I’ve had in days, in the middle of the jungle. Or that I was to be exhilarated by the hunt for giant worms, crane my neck to see monkeys dancing in the trees above me, develop an egg-sized lump from carelessly stumbling into a low hanging vine as thick as my wrist, spy Caiman eyes in torch light on a returning to camp after a failed fishing trip or be sat on the cliff edge of a jungle mountain watching rainbow maccaws showing off their brilliance with the partners over the leafy tree tops. I liked the jungle and stalking across her leafy, mulchy paths past larger than life tree monsters, walking pines, spiky, web coated flora. For two days I got to feel like an adventurer traipsing the weird and wonderful worlds that existed between my favourite fantasy novels and reality. I KNOW. That’s just the ultimate geek speak. But that’s what a taste of the bolivian amazon felt like to me. Besides our guide was pretty stoicly silent the entire time so my mind had no excuse not to run free.

We flew to Rurrenabaque, heeding the warnings of travel blogs and travellers past about the bus from La Paz, toted to be nothing less than the stuff of nightmares. So a small, 18 seater plane it was. She was a bumpy ride, and to break the clouds and see mountain peaks at your window level, well… thank the clouds you’re flying next to them and not straight into them. On landing, the warm, oozy, thick air welcomes you back to earth and is a relief from the sharp dry altitude of La Paz.

Rurrenabaque is small. You could walk around it all in an hour or two – keeping your eyes on the haphazard, uneven, hole-filled and patched up paths. But just because she’s small doesn’t mean she can’t throw one hell of a party. From 8pm until 8am when we left for our jungle tour the next day – and probably, according to our hostel receptionist, continuing on to at least noon regardless of if there are only 2 drunken Bolivians still left standing or more. Between the top 50 pop hits, the Latino big 5, Karaoke, emotional speeches, jazz bands and a deejay, you name it they had it. Inappropriate for anyone with an early start the next day (the entire guest population at El Curichal), but at least the message was clear – nothing gets in the way of a Bolivian jungle party, especially one in celebration of 50 years of having a football team. Yep.

Rurrenabaque is also expensive, both to get to and to hang out in. So if you find that you’re a bit low on cash when it’s time to leave and you’re frantically calculating how many nights you’ll be eating bread and jam for in order to fly back to La Paz…RELAX. The 70 boliviano bus ride from Rurrenabaque back to La Paz is completely legit. Well, a bit windy, but nothing like the feared bumpy, cliff riding journey on the way there. The ladies I bussed back with happened to have caught the bus both ways and agreed it was almost a different road leaving. I slept most of the way (with the help of a sleeping pill). So there you go. Take the cheap bus, enjoy the hooliganesque style of Bolivian bus drivers and treat yo self at the end of the ride to a nice dinner and bed.

Must eat: Any pastries from the French bakery. Find it, consume it, bathe in the buttery glutinous glory of it all.

Tour info. Just as an FYI, we chose to jungle tour with Max adventures who have rave reviews all around. However I have to admit I was underwhelmed by the Max Adventure team. I feel the company is deceptive in their drive to retain a bulk amount of the competition and I was potentially cheated out of a more authentic experience. Of course, maybe I am playing the blame game and my own folly should be placed the chair to be judged as well so I will try not to get personal. The main issue, that was shared by many in my group, is that we were promised an English speaking guide, who from the get go quite clearly did not speak English. So it was three days of quite empty silence, or awkward struggles to try and ask a question/interpret an answer. I refuse to blame the guide as he was an animal finding guru and in all honesty, we was probably roped into the game just as badly as me and my English speaking tourists were. I mean if someone had asked me to take a Spanish group, knowing that I could say a few basic spansih phrases, well I’d be freaking the fuck out about it and I’d be awkwardly silent too. He tried and that I appreciate. Yet, everyone I know that just went with the Spanish guide and had an interpreter in the group had a much more free, open and real experience. A win-win for guide and tourist. Max adventures, I suggest you just admit your guides speak basic English but provide an interpreter and watch a more consistently positive outcome from your customers.

 

Playing Mountaineers – Huayna Potosi

Huayna Potosi – Bolivia

I am not a bad ass bitch. But sometimes I like to think I’m a bad ass bitch. So when my boyfriend suggested it would be a cool idea to mission up above 6000m on Bolivias third highest mountain I was like Oh hell yeah. Challenge accepted.

Day 1

Huayna Potosi schooled me better then a 50s principal with a mad cane.

The day was unbelievably full of sun. Our group (two Swiss, one German and us two kiwis) were arrogantly full of cheer…4 hours later I was stomping and sliding down from the glacier. I could barely keep my eyes open or keep my big clumpy moonboots from lifting high enough off the ground not to trip me over a rock and smash my raggedy body into the Llama chomped dirt.
That was just the practise day. We had finished 2-3 hours of crampons on ice and a 90 degree climb to get us ready for day 3…
The fucking practise.

The law enforcement of my body had been activated in protest. My arms and calves were having mini muscular aftershocks, trembling constantly. My only comfort found deep in a murky brown blend of instant hot chocolate and instant coffee. Self-doubt steamed down my throat with every gulp. This was not good. For the first time I can remember the idea that I was quite possibly out of my depth and not going to make it crossed my mind. I told my adventure man of a boyfriend I don’t think I can do this.

He just smiled reassuringly.
Mandy the bad ass bitch was no where in sight.

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Made it…Just

Day 2
I woke up to the news that two of our 5 person group were going back to La Paz because of a stomach bug. The third guy,  the suave German with great chat, was considering catching a lift with them because the altitude was fucking with him too much. That would have left Ollie and I. His mountaineering experience, Mount Killimanjaro (5900m) circa 5 years ago. My mountaineering experience, trekking Salkantay (4600m) one month ago. It struck me that I was currently eating breakfast at low camp standing at 4700m above sea level. I was already on top of Salkantay. I could not breathe. My bad ass bitch ego was shrinking to nothing faster then cotton in a hot wash.
It gets better. The German decided to commit to a try (the kiwi charm).

Day 2 was supposed to be easy. Just a two hour walk to high camp they said. Then we relax they said.
They missed the part about clamboring up 500m of straight high altitude, following pathways carved out of what looked suspiciously like rock slides that happen on the regular.
Now, I struggle with my backpack on the flat. I’m like a fucking turtle whose eyes were too big for its head and over grew it’s home shell. As usual I over packed. So this 500m up to high camp was pure, back aching, leg straining undignified torture on my part. Suckling throat lozenges desperate for any kind of comfort (perfect timing for a head cold and throat infection to dig it’s viral little hands into me) i decided this certainly wasn’t easy. But I was soon to learn that the words “easy” and “not technical” translated completely differently from Boliviano to gringo. At least the views were pretty.

Blissfully content to be done with it and lazing on the warm rocks waiting for lunch lead to an almost false sense of security. Yet the peak was nowhere to be seen. Tomorrow D-day meant 1000m of steady upwards climbing through ice to get to Huayna Potosi summit.
The nausea set in. Fear or altitude? you take a stab. I slept and ate for the rest of the day trying to conserve every ounce of energy I could.
Badass me, little but a figment of the imagination.

Day 3
If they tell you it’s not technical imma tell you what they mean. You will be tied to a guide for at least 5 hours. Why? Because at any fucking second you could slip on that ice and be a goddam goner (maybe i exaggerate but thats how i felt at the time so…). You better hope to hell that guide has got your back because between yawning ice cravaces, slippery inclines, and rocky valleys it is not a box of teddies that meets a fall.

It’s not technical
but you will need ice boots and crampons for 95% of the climb. Again to stick you to the ice, insurance against the high risk of fall.

It’s easy,
but be prepared to use/cling to a rope and rely on the sharpness of your crampons to haul yourself up almost vertical icy slopes. If I’d had known I would have done some bloody pressups to get some arm strength happening.

You don’t have to have any experience mountaineering
but you better have a strong head for heights. Because the last 200m will have you scaling the side of a 6000m high mountain. At some point you might find yourself hanging on with the edge of a crampon and the ice pick as you swung yourself through the air to the next landing point.

I gave that mountain everything I had. Or rather she took everything I had to give. But Huayna is like one of those sublime woman who walk around breaking hearts and stealing boyfriends but never receive any hate because they’re so ethereally beautiful. Even after being totally rolled, broken and tested by her, at the top i was still so in love and  grateful to just have been able to experience her.

5 and a half hours of gruelingly slow upwards slog, are already such a blur. I remember; barely noticing my breathlessness from trying to control the empty vomit from spilling out of me…Pacha mama would not appreciate; all the moments that made me burst into tears out of fear of failure and fear for my life – which I really didn’t want to lose on a fricken  “easy” mountain; falling asleep and dreaming of walking to remember i was…ON ICE (that will wake you up); When the sky began to lighten and I collapsed exhausted against the ice , done, and Ollie comes up, his big brown eyes peeking out at me harping on about how epic this is and how we were gonna make it while I’m looking back like fuck this shit; our guides singing the last 300ms; the words, chicos, we have 30m left to go, YOU CAN DO IT; laughing and crying at the same time st the summit causing a great hiccup at the top.
These memories at least will stick, little treasures clear as day.
It was an emotional time getting to that final peak. For the third time I bawled. This time not because I was sure I was fucking dying but because I was so jubilantly shocked that there was no more left to climb. That I was actually up Huayna Potisi. That I had made it. THAT BAD ASS MANDY DID EXIST. The view was more then I could have ever imagined and that I could ever describe.

The journey back down (with the exception of having to reverse-climb some of the sketchy edges on slippery melting ice) was glorious. Ploughing down the glaciar in the early morning light we could finally see the magnificent mountain we’d conquered.  Massive ice walls, the peaks of neighboring mountains, cloud animals and shapes – Clouds look way better at eye level I promise you that! (I saw a cloud Shrek,  a giant penis and the best cloud  rabbit I’ve ever seen).

Credit has to be given to my fantastic little guide who whispered encouragement in my ear everytime I fell. And my adventure loving boyfriend who knew I was going to make it and would never have let me turn around.

If you feel like taking on the challenge I’ve included an info links from our mates Lonely Planet (because an overly dramatic personal recount of an amateur doesn’t count) and a link to the company we went with who did a supremely great job of looking after us all.

Huayna Potosi – Lonely Planet

Climbing South America – Huayna Potosi 

If you choose to tackle her I swear the pain and challenge makes the reward so much sweeter. It’s a law of the Quest really.
If you’ve already been up Huayna Potosi would love to hear about it as well.

Until then il just be kicking around South America, being a mother fucking baddass – though I might give climbing Mountains a break.

[Ps please forgive lack of photos, currently struggling with jungle Internet HA! Coming soon… ]
M.

Walking on the Moon – Valle de Luna

Bolivia – La Paz

La Paz is a weird fucking place man. Where taxi drivers sell cocaine, people pay to live in a prison, people are paid to dress as zebras to encourage cars to actually STOP at the pedestrian crossings (an interesting persuasive  tactic to make cars actually stop, and people actually cross, at pedestrian safe zones) and you can drive 10 minutes out of the city centre to experience a landscape quite literally out-of-this-world.

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Here’s an urban legend for ya…

Not sure if you’ve heard but some giant Bolivian monster took on the moon one day and bit a chunk right out of her spitting it out in disgust to land just 10kms out of the La Paz city center.
They’ll tell you it was actually a geographical phenomenon, something to do with erosion from wind and rains (heard that before) and colours formed by the varying mineral content of the valley mountains (yawn).

But nah mate. Totally some alien voodoo happening over here.

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Though missing the zero gravity the Valle de la Lune is a quirky little attraction giving you a small escape from the hectic traffic blocked streets of the Centre. A 40 bolivianao taxi each way split between a few of us was no hassle. It is after all, only one small step for mankind.

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A step off the Gringo trail

Chinchero to Urquillos – In Cusco, Peru

The Gringo trail, the typically tread path throughout the South American continent. Worn in by soul searching travellers, adventure yearning backpackers, exploring couples and letsbehonest…ravers. When someone or something has a name, it is because it deserves to be known. The Gringo Trail is no exception. Hitting up on the wonders and highlights from the tip of Columbia, to the tip of Argentina, across the great massive that is Brazil, daring a venture into Venezuela, bouncing between Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, wondering into Uruguay and Paraguay and tasting the best that Argentina has to offer. There is something for everyone, for any budget, for any adventure. For these reasons, I am not one to shy away from the Gringo trail, even when the tourist mob forces me to make tracks out of there faster than you can say “selfie”.

A very basic lacklustre fact of the Gringo Trail is that you’re most likely never going to be the first, or only one on one of the most iconic wonders that South America has to offer. For this reason, it is when you step off the gringo trail, that the frustrations of being part of the tourist mob become easier to swallow and In my humble opinion, your appreciation for both the tourist popular sites and the lesser walked areas becomes that much better.

While in Peru, I had the fantastic opportunity to spend the day with a local woman (who had hosted us for a week before) and go on a surprise hike. I had no idea that it would be a highlight of our stay in the Cusco area.

Starting off behind the ruins of Chinchero, we found ourselves on a little known track towards Urquillos (a small local village, where the women where top hats and the chickens are fat AF, and everyone looks almost taken aback at the gringos strolling through). In an almost entirely downhill direction we passed into a valley surrounded by lush greenery, towered over by grand mountains on all sides, followed by rivers below. Four hours we spent trekking down rocky passes, stopping to enjoy choclo (giant corn) and sandwiches in a shady glade and finishing off by sipping on Cerveza in a small Peruvian township.

I have topped Mount Salkantay, reached Machu Picchu, hiked Rainbow Mountain, walked the ancient ruins, and cobbled streets that Cusco had to offer, but nothing has made me feel more connected with the nature and the beauty of this part of Peru until this point. It could be the simple element of being the only ones out there (oh yeah, WE OUT HERE), but you can really feel the heart, soul and power of the Pacha Mama, Mother Nature. Taking a moment with an offering of cocoa leaves , I felt connected, I felt humbled and I felt hopeful – which was an unexpected sensation. Our friend and guide told us that sometimes, when you are connected enough, the mountains can have a voice and they can speak to you. It sounds crazy, but I have unwavering faith that there is a spiritual truth here.

The pass is actually a UNESCO heritage site as of not so long ago, so I don’t expect that word of it will always be a little known thing. Perhaps one day it will find itself as one of the spots to hit on our famously well stomped Gringo trail. Whether that happens or not, my god am I grateful for having the opportunity to be one of the only gringos in sight on this track on this day.

The gringo trail is a good thing, but don’t forget how much it pays to sometimes take a step off, even if for a moment, even for a second, you might just hear the mountains speak.

Climbing Machu Picchu

It’s 3.30am. The walls are still reverberating with the same beat that’s been belting out of the street party conveniently being held right outside you’re window since 10pm. Your alarm is joining the musical fray. It was time. After 5 days of hiking, a few sleepless nights and one mighty hangover (stay AWAY from inka tequila), we were here at the bottom of Machu Picchu, the final destination for our Salkantay team.

My legs were on their last…well legs. Shaking out the stiffness of around 1ookms clocked, doing a final check of vitals in the day pack (snacks, raincoat, water) and yawning away the delirium left by lack of sleep, out I stepped into the darkness, following the torch lights of my trekking team to try be first in line for the Machu Picchu gates.

The entire journey our guides had reassured (see – fibbed to us) by letting us know when approached said “hardest part” of the trek. Each time we passed this most difficult leg we were met by an even greater, lung gasping, muscle roaring, bitch of a hike to get through. Machu Picchu was no exception. As the sky lightened and the gates opened, there was not even a second of reprieve before that familiar sensation of straining out tight, fatigued muscles set in. 40-50 minutes of straight up, stair climbing to the top. Talk about total zone out. After 20 minutes all that was left was the single thought, un poco un poco. A bit after a bit. Left foot, right foot.

I arrived at the top sweaty and stoked. Scowling judgmentally at the first arrivals by bus to the top, we hopped into the line and were some of the firsts to enter El Ciudad de Incas on this day. I tell you what. Nothing i can say will prepare you for the impact those first few steps into an empty, mist covered ancient city will have on you. To me the whole thing felt vaguely surreal, an air of reverence settles in our awe and then suddenly Llamas are running towards you with their gangly, dorky gaits and laughter ripples out across the cool, sacred air.

The wonders of the Andean civilisations, their traditions, technologies and culture can be felt in the workmanship of every aspect of the ruins. So marvellously maintained despite the heavy traffic of tourist to this spectacular wonder of the world.

Still, it was not time to rest them weary legs. The Machu Picchu mountain, whose summit was not visible from our vantage point in the ruins towered unconquered above us. While my body screamed no, i had bought the additional entrance ticket…ain’t nothing getting wasted on my watch. Besides, wasn’t i like totally a real live mountain climber now?

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I won’t lie. It was kind of like torture, scaling that monstrous mountain particularly in the wake of 5 days of solid walking. Several times i could have turned back. Around each corner lay another staircase. Impossibly steep, narrow and typically unsafe (south america, seriously).

But after an hour of some heavy breathing, hand crawling, shaky legged steps, the top flattened out and for the third time on my trek that familiar celebratory high boosted me to my feet. I have just found myself on top of the world, i think.  From up here, Machu Picchu City is a thumbnail on a map.20161024_0941351

It was plain crazy.

It would also be plain crazy to have missed it.

Conquer, savour, gather your strength. You will need it for the hellishly steep descent.

As for the throngs of tourists that coming back down to earth in the late morning will throw you into… try not to let that blur the unspoiled vision of the ancient city at first light roamed only by her Llamas, her misty clouds and her keepers.

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