Monday, March 28, 2011

Stopover in Oruro

In order to avoid the overnight buses out of Sucre, we decided to go north from Potosi to Oruro. At 3700m/12000ft, tourists seem to ascend solely for the Carnival celebration which is supposed be second only to Rio.

Like Potosi, Oruro was founded as a mining town and is still a mining town. Walking around, it is evident that Oruro's fortune is only a fraction of Potosi. At the central plaza we came across a very big march of the miners, followed by their womenfolk at the rear. It made John nervous. Marches can lead to blockades which means no buses and no travel. We walked away from the march. By the time we circled back to the plaza, there was yet another march. This time kids of various ages were marching for vitamin awareness. That made us relax, especially seeing toddlers dressed in fruit costumes. By the time we walked back to our hotel to catch our bus, there was a third group staging and heading to the plaza. This was a small pro-life march with mostly elderly folks.

By now we did not know what to think. We could see how this town can turn up a Carnival second only to Rio. Considering it was a regular Friday, we started to wonder what happens other days. Bolivia is supposed to be the poorest country in South America. Shouldn't they be engaged in more productive time? We also noticed that there are a lot of person-hours minding market stalls selling Chinese-made (75%), Brazilian-made (15%), and US-charity (10%) goods. We also seemed to come across disproportionally large number of lawyer's offices. Development issues fascinate me.

Miners and families march.
Protest March - Oruro, Bolivia

Toddler's march for Vitamin Awareness.
Parade - Oruro, Bolivia

Pro-Life march.
Oruro, Bolivia

Witches brew for sale in the Fermin Lopez Mercado.
Witches Brew -  Mercado Fermin Lopez - Oruro, Bolivia

Memorial Faro de Conchupata where Bolivia's red, gold and green flag was first raised.
Memorial Faro de Conchupata - Oruro, Bolivia

Dizzying Potosi

At 4090m/13400ft Potosi is the highest city in the world. The altitude is unmistakable. It is cold everywhere unless the sun is shining directly. The air is thin, but not enough for our hard drive to give out (new geeky knowledge for us). We went around at about 80% of our normal pace, sucking air. It would not have been so bad, except the air was full of vehicle exhaust from retired Japanese minibuses that clog the narrow downtown streets. They were probably retired because they could not pass emission controls in Japan.

Potosi was never an indigenous town, but founded on silver mining. It was the largest town in the Americas in the 17th century with all the working miners. The wealth of the town, however diminished, is still evident in the numerous churches and colonial houses in a fairly small downtown area. We decided to skip the popular tour of the mines that are still operating today, mostly tin, because of potential safety issues. I was worried enough about altitude, John, blockades; we could do without the poisonous gas and dynamites in the mines.

Potosi sits in the shadow of Cerro Rico, the site of one of the richest silver mines in the world; now kaput.
Cerro Rico - Potosi, Bolivia

For over 300 years, the Casa de Moneda, was the site of a mint. It's now a museum.
Casa de Moneda - Potosi, BoliviaCasa de Moneda - Potosi, Bolivia

We toured the Potosi Cathedral which was under renovation and had some good views from the bell tower.
Cathedral - Potosi, Bolivia

Cathedral - Potosi, Bolivia

View from Cathedral Bell Tower - Potosi, Bolivia

Cathedral Rooftop - Potosi, Bolivia

View of Plaza from Cathedral Bell Tower - Potosi, Bolivia

The elaborate carved stone doorways on decaying buildings are a sign of better days in the past.
Doorway - Potosi, Bolivia

The more quiet back streets were not full of exhaust fumes.
Potosi, Bolivia

The miners and their families march in protest in downtown Potosi.
Protest March - Potosi, BoliviaProtest March - Potosi, Bolivia

We were only in Potosi for one day but managed to find the Manzana Magica Vegetarian Restaurant (Oruro 239) for a very tasty dinner.

Plate - Manzana Magica - Potosi, Bolivia

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Busy Sucre

Since we had quite a few traveling/touring days in a row, we decided to take it easy for a couple of days in Sucre. Sucre is actually the political capital of Bolivia and has a couple of hundred thousand people. It may just be the most relaxed city of its size in the whole continent. The downtown does not have so many stores, but a lot of schools. So when schools let out in the evening, the tranquil atmosphere takes on an amazing transformation. The squares and sidewalks swarm with kids of all ages, their hubbub floating in the air. Not to mention the parades.

Even though we were not deliberate with our sightseeing in Sucre. We came upon awesome views of the city with its orange tiled roofs. Why have we not seen a movie chase scene upon those roofs?!

The Sucre cemetery may yet be the most atmospheric of our grand tour. There were two funerals going on and lots of people were visiting even though it was a regular weekday afternoon; in fact, we had to think hard to make sure that we were not missing some major holiday.

Some rooftop views from the Church of San Felipe Neri in Sucre, Bolivia.

San Felipe Neri - Sucre, Bolivia

View from San Felipe Neri - Sucre, Bolivia

San Felipe Neri - Sucre, Bolivia

San Felipe Neri - Sucre, Bolivia

San Felipe Neri - Sucre, Bolivia

San Felipe Neri - Sucre, Bolivia

Day of the Sea parade near our hotel. Solemn and poignant as Bolivia has been a landlocked country for 120 years.
Parade - Sucre, Bolivia

Parade - Sucre, Bolivia

The garden-like Sucre Cementerio.
Cementerio - Sucre, Bolivia

And not to forget the stuffed potatoes at Snack Vegetariano Dona Franca.
Stuffed Potato - Sucre, Bolivia

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tarabuco festival: Pujllay

Tarabuco is known for its Sunday indigenous market. Since we really liked the markets in Ecuador, we decided to push onto Sucre from Uyuni, even though it means backtracking to Potosi. A closer look showed that this Sunday was to be the annual Pujllay festival. We had to think for a second. Festival means probably no large animal market. While we did not expect this one to be a drunken party, we were not sure whether it would feel authentic.

Considering the crowd situation of a festival, we took the easy route via a tourist bus. There was much security on the road. When we arrived in town, we found out that the President and Vice President of Bolivia were going to be there. A viewing stand was set up in the town square -- clues of a parade. Many of the indigenous people were dressed in traditional costumes, men and women. There were several distinct styles of headgear, ponchos, and skirts, indicative of different groups.

After some browsing various souvenir stalls and sampling tasty street food, the parade started. Some of the costumes were very impressive. The most unusual were the ones with special footwear with cymbals. After the parade, we continued to wander through town, not bothering to follow the parade to the grandstand. Much later we remembered that we were missing the main symbol of the celebration, the Pukara (altar with offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth). We started to make our way to it. The VIPs were leaving just as we arrived. More dancing ensued around the Pukara and all over, with gusto.

As magnificent as Pujllay was, it took me a while to warm to it. The presence of the politicians was a turnoff for me. Parading in front of the grandstand made it seem like a pageantry. But in the end I was convinced at heart it was a true festival.

Here are some shots from the festival in Tarabuco.

Locals in their traditional festive clothes. Check out the head gear.
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A hard boiled egg, "wrapped" in mashed potatoes, coated with egg then deep fried and served with a spicy onion salsa. Yummy!
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Heel cymbals!
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Various shots of the local groups in the parade. All groups consisted of marchers/dancers plus muscians.
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The Pukara surrounded by dancers and musicians.
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And a few more shots.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Surreal Uyuni salt flats

Uyuni is a top destination in Bolivia. The huge salt flats, Salar de Uyuni, extend thousands of square miles. In dry season it is solid white; in raining season, a layer of water sits on top. I thought I would like the salt flats in raining season. I was NOT disappointed. The photos will have to speak for me.

Our original plan was to take a 4-day tour which seemed the thing everyone does. When we were in Tupiza, John and I independently realized that 4 days in a jeep, frigid nights, and no washing is too high a cost when all we wanted to see is the salt flats. The 1-day tour worked well for us. We got to wade in the water and feel immersed by the amazing landscape, and picked up a few salt crystals along the way.

At the edge of the Uyuni Salt Flats.
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The locals harvest salt by hand, first raking it into mounds, then shoveling the salt into trucks.
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Sun-Ling picked up these newly formed NaCl crystals from the surface of the flats, just under the water.
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These next photos were all taken near the Salt Hotel, which is in the midst of the Salar de Uyuni.

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Playa del Carmen, Mexico

From Aguascalientes, there is a very convenient direct flight to Cancun.  Since the wedding is at a private beach south of Playa del Carmen,...