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Bolivia - Land Of Extremes

A Short Overview Of South America's Poorest Nation


BOLIVIA is a country of extremes. It is rich in natural resources such as tin and silver, as well as oil and natural gas but the majority live in poverty or near poverty. It is officially South America's poorest country.
It has some of the highest cities in the world, windy Potosi in the south west being some 4,100 metres above sea level, and low-lying forests and pampas where temperatures of 40 degrees centigrade plus conspire with a humidity which has to be felt to be believed.


Bolivia also has the highest concentration of indigenous people in South America at 80 per cent.
Politically, it is said that conflicts in Bolivia are not so much drawn out on class lines but on regional ones but in recent years huge struggles have been waged against the effects of capitalist globalisation.
In 2005 the IMF and World Bank forced a large increase in the price of fuel directly hurting the poor. An uprising exploded on the streets resulting in violent clashes.
On the back of this, current president Evo Morales came to power in 2006, the first president from a native background and who claims to represent them.
In the city of Santa Cruz, home to the economic elite, the middle- and upper classes despise him. They claim that La Paz, the principle city (Sucre is the capital) is sucking the life blood from them, economically speaking, where it is used to fund an overwhelming administrative bureaucracy.
Some right-wing political parties are openly calling for independence for Santa Cruz and some surrounding departments effectively wanting to split the country or at least have more autonomy. A couple of years ago this anger bolied over on the streets of Santa Cruz where much blood was spilled.
Whether or not some new state is realistic, its political expression has a large sympathy from the well-to-do's who are doubly frustarated that Morales is certain to win the next election in December, 2009 - after all he has the native vote in the bag.
That said, there is also anger at Morales but from another direction.
The silver mines of Potosi represent a working class block who were organinsed and campaigned for the current political administation but now many feel betrayed that the government has not changed anything for their lives.
The conditions in the mines are appaling and the slump in the price of silver has ruined many livlihoods in recent years.


Of course as an outsider who has no previous knowledge of the country, it is difficult to say what the future holds.
Bolivia is no stranger to revolutions and dictators, so democrary can never be fully taken for granted, although it has held firm since the early 1980s.
Interestingly, I sense that the middle class which in most countries may be expected to be "moderate" in times of prosperity would not shed too many tears should a military leader attempt to come to power.
On that subject, one previous dictator is worth mentioning.
Mariano Melgarejo may have ruled in the 1860s but the stories are still in circulation today. This man, who was illiterate, brutal and corrupt gives even George W. Bush a run for his money.
He famously wanted a pure bred white horse in the possesion of the neighbouring Brazilians, and in exchange he had the horse's hoof stamped on a map of Bolivia and handed that area of land over. The map was not the largest, and in total he ceded over 100,000 square kilometres of national territory. (To put this in context, the total surface area of my own country, Ireland, is some 70,000 square kilometres.)
He was also seen "reading" a newspaper upside down and when prompted by an aide, he angrily replied that those who can read can read anyway they wish.
But probably the highlight was his proposed defence of France during the Franco Prussian war of 1870. He admired all things French as they represented elegance and sophistication, although he was not able to point out France on the map.
He duly ordered his cavelry to ride to the defence of Paris, and when it was pointed out that there was an ocean in between, namely the Atlantic, he responded by saying they should take a short cut!


Posted by donncha 11:20 Archived in Bolivia Tagged educational Comments (0)

It's Worth A Potosi

The Rise and Fall of a Silver City


SHOPPING in markets is always cheaper and the stick of Bolivian dynamite and fuse I purchased in Potosi came at the reasonable price tag of 15 bolivianos - about one euro fifty.
Welcome to the miners' market, at the foothill of Cerro Rico, an enormous silver mine in the south west of Bolivia.
We were stocking up on provisions before entering the mine, our tour guide Willie recommending that we buy presents for the miners inside.
Standard staples for the miners include a large bag of coca leaves which they chew before entering the mines to give them enegy, suppress their need to eat as well as filtering a remarkable amount of toxic dust which fills the tunnels.
Our gifts bought, it was time to move to the mine, but not before I splashed out and bought two small bottles of pure alcohol (96 degrees) and 60 filterless fags which set me back a euro.
Religion, both native and Christian, as well as superstion are all part and parcel of life in the mines and on entering offerings must be given to the gods.
The most important is to the tio, a corruption of a native word meaning "friend". The friend in question is the devil, represented by a horned statue placed in a recess inside the mine.


This is his world after all. Lit cigarettes are placed in his mouth, coca leaves scattered on him and periodically fresh llama blood is splatered on the walls in his honour.
Permission is sought for us to enter, once in we are part of the mining family. This is not some claptrap or exagerated ritual for the gringos, they take this seriously; tempting faith and collapsing tunnels are linked in this world.
Days before I arrived a student from a Bolivian school broke one of the horns from the Tio. Willy told us that the coming weekend the miners using this section would gather to ask forgiveness and repair the horn in an elaborate ritual before inevitably getting toatlly wasted (Willy didn't use that term but the implication was there).
Offerings are also made to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, while elsewhere in the mine will be a statue of Jesus Christ, where miners can pray at both the high and low points of their lives underground.
Women do not work in the mines, they are considered bad fortune although with the onset of mass tourism women visitors are allowed. This seeming contradiction has been explained away in that it is only the wives and girlfriends of the miners who are not allowed - as the Pachamama would be jealous.
Don Adrian (55), who has worked some 35 years underground is one of the oldest miners around, and really should be dead by now.
The number one death is mines not accidents, although these happen all too often, but silicosis, a slow debilitating lung disease caused by continual inhalation of silica dust which normally kills after about 15 years.
Part of Don Adrian's secret is that he is old school - hammering holes in the rockface by hand, hours of work just to place one stick of dynamite. This way, there is less dust emitted than by machinery, which anyway costs a lot to hire.
The mine is divided up between workers who form part of various co-operatives and they can sub-contract parts to others who pay a percentage of what they find.
Down here no silver means no money, and with a slump in world prices these days earnings are scant.


While Don Adrian sub contracts part of his plot to other younger miners, after costs, he makes no more than US$70 a month.
Willie explained how the mines were nationalised in the 1950s but were closed in the mid 1980s during a world recession.
Instead, these co-operatives of workers started to run the mines, paying taxes to the government in turn. The socialistic nature of the mine ownership is in name only though, the terms "co-operatives of workers" is Soviet style double speak, in reality the top dogs are armong the richest men in the country.

Potosi, the city which has grown around the mine, has passed its sell by date by a couple of hundred years. Once it was the grandest of all cities on earth - bigger than London and Paris and certainly richer. It's worth a Potosi was the expression used then and still today to show how valuble something is.
The contribution to the Spanish was such that should a ship laden with silver be sunk or robbed a national crisis ensued and at one Corpus Christi celebration in the 1600s the streets were paved with silver bars.
Today, little of its former glory remains but for the colonial architechture at every corner, although it still has a certain charm, with steep winding roads laden with street vendors selling every snack conceivable.


Posted by donncha 09:56 Archived in Bolivia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

A Mine Of Its Own

A Visit To The World's Largest Open Pit Copper Mine


CALAMA in northern Chile may have little to offer for travellers, as I've written previously, but to be fair every cloud has a silver lining even if in this case the lining is copper.
That's because Calama is home to Chuquicamata, the world's largest open pit copper mine which is definitely worth a visit.
Chuquicamata, meaning tip of the spear, is really home to Calama, the city itself having grown from humble beginnings ever since large scale exploitation began in 1911 by copper company Codelco.
My reasons to stay a few days in Calama were administration related although on one of the long waits to see a public official I spoke to an ex-miner who remembered Calama as no more than a large village surrounded by ranches - now long gone.
In those days many miners were driven the 14km out to the mine in "long, narrow cars", as he put it, six men in each, which would topple over in the fierce crosswinds the desert could whip up!
And so a tour of the mine, organised by Codelco, Monday to Friday (free, but book in advance at the tourist office) was on the cards.
The tour begins with a drive around the town built by the company inside the factory gates. It has become a ghost town to the 20,000 workers and their families since early 2008 when they were moved to Calama for health reasons.
The main square, overlooked by the church, and once the communal focus on a Sunday afternoon, now stands deserted while the schools, shops and bars are likewise earily silent.
Behind the town is a range of tall hills, all artificial, the mineral-stripped rubble piled up after almost a century of excavation. A reminder that not just the miners' homes but their natural environment was created by the company.
Following the dust up the road for about a kilometre and you get to the mines themselves, the largest being an enormous hole in the ground extending to a depth of 1km, stretching 3km wide and almost 5km in length.
As if this wasn't big enough it will be joined up with the "South" pit in 2010 guaranteeing itself a place in the Guinness Book of Records for years to come.
As you can imagine the sides of the pit do not drop vertically but slope inward allowing the 330 tonnes trucks to meander their way up and down. And so it is expected that by 2017, Codelco will have mined and processed the remaining 200 metres left of the open pit at which point they will change gear and start mining underground.


Posted by donncha 14:49 Archived in Chile Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Knowing Your Place...In The Universe

Understanding The Night Sky From The Atacama Desert

STANDING in the middle of the Atacama desert on a cold night staring at the stars I finally understood something.
That we are all one, how each and every one of us is the centre of the universe, and at the same time an almost insignificant speck of energy forever being converted to different forms.
Drug induced hippy nonsense? Far from it. Modern physics folks.
Or so I learned in probably the best astronomical tour on offer in Chile, itself one of the best countries to view the night sky.
This tour, leaving nightly from San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile is the work of French astronomer Alain Maury who provides an amazing overview of the constellations, planets with a self-mocking humour of the arrogant Frenchman.
Highly entertaining and informative, this tour is a must for travellers to the Chilean desert and for once I am not complaining about the heafty 15,000 Chilean peso entry fee.
Alain points out the main features of the sky, explaining how groups of stars or constellations were culturally grouped depending on what the particular society thought they could see, be it a sausepan or a big bear. (Or a 4x4 landcruiser - it's there, believe me.)
As he put it, "Some constellations are easy to see, some are easy to see with imagination and some are easy to see with hallucination.
"Every culture has its vision of the universe based on observation with superstition filling in the parts they don't understand," he said, noting that that was just about everything.
For example, the Eqyptians believed that the earth was flat so therefore the sun every night had to take a magic boat running straight under the earth to be back in position in the east the next morning.
However, despite only using the naked eye, the ancients had some amazing insights into the movements of the stars.
"They were watching black and white TV with the same thing on every night so after a while they knew the movie," he said.
As well as the brilliant lecture at his desert home over a hot mug of chocolate, Alain also allows use of the largest tourist telescope in the country along with seven others to see various marvels.
Some of the night wonders on view are a group of stars in the shape of a butterfly, the rabbit on the moon, a nebula, a "globula" of over 3 million stars and planets such as Jupiter.
Bookings from Astronomical Tours, Caracoles, San Pedro de Atacama. Best time to go is when the moon is at its smallest. Bring your wollies!

Posted by donncha 14:12 Archived in Chile Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

The Real Wild West - But Tamed for Tourists

San Pedro De Atacama - A Desert Oasis

CHILE has two main tourist destinations - the glaciers and stark mountains of the south and the dusty desert of the north.
San Pedro de Atacama is the northern mecca, a small one-horse oasis village in the heart of the Atacama desert which is one of the driest places on earth. It rains so little here that a footprint made in the rain will likely survive hundreds of years.
The village is a haven for backpackers, mainly European, who use it as a base to explore some of the most beautiful desert sights imaginable (that is until you cross over into neighbouring Bolivia).
The village's main road, Caracoles, is lined with plenty of tour agencies and restaurants offering the gambit of mostly half-day and one-day trips, although multi-day trips are on offer too.
This time around, I mainly lounged around the village, because having been here twice before I had done most of the popular tours and wanted to save my money for neighbouring Bolivia where prices drop by half.
The mainstream tours include a trip to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) to see the sunset on what is the closest terrain to the moon here on earth and where NASA in the past tested their equipment before the real thing.
Another is Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) so named because nothing grows there and not as I overheard an English girl tell her mother in an internet cafe, "because someone died there or somethng". Great spot to sandboard if you're up to it.
The other attractions are the Salar or salt flats and the Geysers del Tatio, dozens of small geysers best seen in the freezing morning (you leave the village at 4am) due to better condensation of the water vapor.
Other trips include visits to lagoons at high altitude, where new shades of blue can be discovered.
On the cultural side, the local museum is a good start as well as tours to various Inca settlements and pre-Inca forts called pucaras.
In these you can still find fragments of Inca pottery and even stone arrow tips if you keep your eyes open, although be discreet in pocketing them as it is considered theft.
Trips around the pueblos or villages, dotted around the desert, are invariably dissapointing, as you do not get the opportunity to meet locals. Generally the alloted ten minutes means a few pictures of the local church and a trip to the toilet.
However, on a previous visit here I got to spend a couple of hours in one of these villages as our bus suffered a double puncture.
Being the hot dry day it is every day, a beer was in order.
To my horror the local restaurant/shop didn't sell beer but a group of friendly locals sent me up the hill, around the corner to the third house of the right. Great! I didn't need to knock as the door was open and on entering I sensed something was not quite right. The dark corridor and musty smell of neglect with rags lying on the floor gave that one away.
The silence at my "holas" was suddenly interupted by a screeming woman of undecernible age coming out of the dark in a fight not flight mode.
So the locals sent me to the local nutter's house. Redfaced, not including the sunburn, I returned to the plaza empty-handed.
Next our guide Pablo, a decent chap from Santiago, explained it really wasn't my fault, it was that the locals hate the tourists and strongly dislike people from the capital, but if anyone could get a beer it was him.
He returned, canless, explaining that there was no beer - the closest pace was 15km away in the next village.
Resigned, we sat in the shade waiting for the replaciment bus, when the group of locals who misdirected me appearted and called me over.
With Pablo looking nervously on I approached them. It was all in good jest, they explained, producing a six pack for me. In the meantime they had driven to the nearest village and bought beer for me. And they wouldn't take money for them. Hats off to the Irish that day!
Going to the desert can be expensive, everthing costs more but don't bring the tent, it was cheaper to hostel it.
Off season look for deals and avoid going around the Chilean national festival (September 18). For the cheapest and best eats in town go to the kiosks near the bus station close to the main plaza.


Posted by donncha 08:49 Archived in Chile Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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