Jan 19, 2006

An Absence of Air and An Admission to Argentina

    I mentioned before that Potosi is high. In Denver, Colorado people gloat about their "Mile High" city, which is actually closer to sea level than it is to Potosi (which is at 4082m, or about 2½ miles up.) It's too high for trees or much water so it is a high altitude barren dessert. Gasping as we walked around this bustling city we puzzled what would inspire humans to build a city there.

    The answer is surprisingly easy. Under the rule of the Conquistadors an Indian farmer brought his "owner" a shiny rock that he had found. That rock turned out to be silver and when they looked a little more they discovered that Mt Potosi was made of the precious metal (not one penny of, incidentally, did it's discoverer ever get). It was the biggest find of silver in history and the Spanish were quick to take advantage. They used Indian slaves and some imported from Africa to pull wealth out of the earth and ship it back to Spain. Almost immediately, and for about a hundred years, the city they founded became one of the largest, and wealthiest, in the whole world. For many money came ridiculously easy. If they didn't have a mine of their own they just imported something on the long hard road up, charged an obscene price for it and got paid in freshly mined silver. Which, not coincidentally, made it the biggest and flashiest party center in the world for almost a century (at one time there were over 200 world famous prostitutes living there). Thats why the face of Bacchus (The roman God of wine and merrymaking) shows up all over town (thank you Alison, for the pic)

    But those who did the digging didn't have time to celebrate, between long hours of work and dying young. The conditions were, and are, terrible. Between black lung and mining accidents more than 8 Million have died since it's discovery (The Holocaust in WWII, for comparison, killed 6 Million people). The conditions then were hard, but they aren't too much better today. Today the mines are collectively owned by the miners and their pension goes to their relatives if they die young. Which is important, because even today statistically Potosi miners will probably die within ten years of stepping foot underground the for first time. This is a kind of heroism that they don't make Bruce Willis movies about. Imagine an 18 year old boy walking to work for the first time. He knows that he'll likely die before reaching thirty but he does it anyway because his family will get a small pension after he is gone.

    The next stop was Salar de Uyuni (The salt flats of Uyuni) one of the most psychedelic landscapes I've ever seen. The salt flats is a "lake" that extends for about 12,000 square kilometers only there is more salt than there is water. In the dry season you can stand ankle deep in pure white salt. In the summer (like it is now, here) there is just enough water to reflect the sky and surrounding mountains like a perfect mirror. Tyler, Andy, Io and I signed on to a 4 day jeep tour of the area which is where we met Hans Peter and Nick; two other adventurers in our jeep which. We visited a hotel made out of pure salt, cut from the ground in brick-like blocks and even visited an island in this sea of salt. Looking out from the island it looked like we were back on a Carribean but the ocean had frozen. We spent much of our time in the jeep, riding, but never really got bored. We were entertained by HPs Norwegian theories on how much people should work (as little as possible), American 70s music (driving through such a psychedelic place, listening to "YMCA" was more surreal than can be described) and a landscape quite unlike any other. On the second day they offered us Saltine crackers for a snack, but ironically... they weren´t salted. We all had a great time, but Io had a strange reaction to the hot and cold salty climate. She shrunk. A lot.
Tyler holding Io, our pocket sized friend
Io, our pocket-sized German.

    The salt sea was only the first day, and we spent another three traversing this exotic land. We saw geysers where the earth belched up thick clouds of sulfur and steam. We grinned as we saw white flamingos standing ankle deep in a brilliantly red lake. In some wild twist of erosion rocks were shaped like God was trying too see what gravity would let him get away with.

    Sadly, one morning we lost both Io and Nick. They both had flights to catch from Santiago, Chile and this tour took them close to the border so they hopped off at a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. The Latin American leg of Io's trip is finally over, but I don't feel too bad for her because the second part of her adventure has just begun. She is now in New Zealand, and plans to make it to Australia in time to see Andys triumphant return. We love you Io, and are looking forward to when you visit the MacAllen Bros!

    Unfortunately our time in Bolvia also quickly drew to a close. From Uyuni we took an all night train to Tupiza on the worst train ever invented (I believe it was designed by ergonomic engineers with the goal of making it an utterly miserable experience for those too cheap to pay for first class). We passed, on a sleepless cramped night, the little town where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were finally gunned down. Andy stuck around long enough to hike around Tupiza, but then got on a bus bound North. We hope to see our staff botanist again on this trip, but he's gotta check out Venezuela first.

    From there it was a hop skip and a jump to the border where Tyler and I both took a deep breath and got ready for another horrendous border battle. We bought tickets, careful to pay little attention when they tried to confuse us by talking about time in Argentina and Bolivia. We didn´t want to be distracted by details and focused on getting the right price before we walked across the border. We had a few hours before the bus so we did some internet, spent the last of our Bolivars, and strolled to the border. They rushed us through the process, with several people in the long line telling us to cut ahead of them and 20 other patiently waiting latinos. It was uncomfortable to cut ahead, as the preferential treatment likely came due to our light skin, but it is also uncomfortable to tell people you don´t want the favor they are offering.

    Having rushed through the border we casually walked up to the bus and arrived half an hour early. We checked in to see where the bus would arrive and the woman only shook her head and pointed at the clock above her. Argentinian time is an hour ahead. Despite the fact that everyone we encountered at this border town giving us every possible break we still missed our bus. Doh!

Onward to Argentina!


  1. Anonymous5:19 PM

    Very nice post! In the north of Argentina you can also extreme high altitudes like in bolivia. The key to move in those places in to move slowly.- In salta for example you can find one of the highest wineyards of the world, at more than 2,800 meters about sea level (region of Yacochuya). People work in altitudes that a nomal person can just barely breathe...

  2. Ok, so I found this post 4 years after you wrote it, but I'm glad you found a use for my photo. Happy travels!