Saturday, 18 June 2011

Rosario - A city to live in

I have less than three weeks left before I fly back home and Rosario is my next stop. Another 18h bus trip down south from Iguazu. Other than the fact that I had my headphones stolen the day before, I am feeling great, with my memories from the falls still fresh in my head.
Rosario is the 3rd largest city in Argentina, after Buenos Aires & Cordoba with a growing population of just over 1m people.


I was planning to stay in Rosario for a couple of days, before heading to Uruguay & Montevideo, but the city was so nice and relaxing that after 4 days, I wanted to stay even more. Great food, spacious surroundings and a beautiful river side. Down here, the weather is significantly cooler compared to Iguazu and even more to Bolivia and is pretty obvious that winter is just around the corner. Perhaps I should be heading north instead :)

A beautiful city park

and right next to it the Hippodrome.

This is the house where Che was born and lived until the age of 4
...I think so, because there is no evidence or any visible sign

except this thundercats-like portrait of him a few blocks down :)

This is the Monumento a la Bandera.
At this place, in 1812, the first Argentinian flag was raised by Manuel Belgrano;
a mythical figure in Argentinian history

Another view of the flag monument

River Parana. Its width at this point is about 2,5km...

...and eventually meets Rio de la Plata and Atlantic ocean close to Buenos Aires, after approx. 400km.
Northbound, it stretches for another 4.500km and gets to Paraguay and Brasil

Rosario and its port play a strategic role in Argentina's agricultural commerce.
Exporting goods like soya, corn, wheat, meat, etc are being transported to Rosario from all over Argentina
Cargo ships reach Rosario through Parana river from Atlantic ocean

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Falls de Iguazu !!!

Iguazu falls are one of Argentina's most advertised attractions. And rightly so. After leaving Potosi and Bolivia behind, my next destination would be Puerto de Iguazu. That involved a little bit of excessive travelling :)

almost 2.400km, which translates into 40h spent in buses during 3 days...hope Iguazu is worth it

Puerto de Iguazu, the town that is close to the falls, is really nothing special.....apart from the huge mosquitoes it has :) The climate is tropical, humidity is high and the altitude is nearly at sea level....quite the opposite from Bolivia's altiplano cities.
Now, pictures cannot really describe in words how spectacular these falls are. I have been to Niagara falls some years ago and was amazed, but when you face Iguazu, you remain speechless with the energy and the beauty you face right in front of you !!

if you want your name to remain in history, all you have to do is.....jump :)))

going to the Garganta de Diablo...
.the 3rd one in Argentina :)  the other two are in Cafayate & Tilcara

you take a nice shower just from the spray....refreshing i must say

Next, I am heading down south to Rosario, another 18h on the bus :(

Friday, 3 June 2011

Potosi - The silver city !!!

"I am rich Potosi,
Treasure of the world.
The king of all mountains,
And the envy of all kings"

To be honest, I had never heard of the city of Potosi, until the moment that I decided to extend my trip and visit Bolivia. It was only then, that I started reading about this glorious altiplano city right in the heart of Bolivia, at 4.060m above sea lever, which makes it the highest city in the world. You will have to excuse me for the lengthy post, but I really feel that the story of this city is equally outstanding and dramatic, and possibly all of us owe something small or large to this place, even if we are unaware of it.

Cerro Rico: The rich mountain. It's peak is at 4.824m

In the pre-hispanic period, the area of Potosi was part of the Incas empire, who seemed to know of the silver hidden in the area, and had developed some primitive techniques of extracting the silver from the mines of Porco, a nearby mountain, but still Cerro Rico was mainly untouched. Even when the Spaniards colonized the area, after defeating the Incas, and Gonzalo Pizarro was assigned to become the first governor of the area, they did not immediately discover the well hidden secret of Cero Rico, despite their efforts in the mountain. 

The locals say: If you are a miner, you will either die at the mines or at the hospital 

It was only after 3 years or so, around 1544, that a local named Diego Huallpa accidentally discovered a vein of silver in the mountain. When the secret leaked to the Spaniards through a friend of Diego, a new era started for Potosi.
There was so much silver in Cerro Rico, that it funded the whole operations of the Spanish empire and consecutively a large part of Europe, for over 200 years. During the same period, Potosi became the worlds wealthiest city with a population exceeding 200.000 people. The silver just seemed to be endless.
Of course there is the other side of the story....

The old Mint (Casa de la Moneda) has been converted into a magnificent museum.
This was the room where the metal was melted and formed into bars to be transfered to Spain.

in order to extract and process the valuable metal, lots and lots of hands were needed, and the Spaniards would use every indigenous man available and then some. In the terrible conditions of the mines, life expectancy was extremely short and workers would die either because of the brutal working conditions or by poisoning of mercury and other chemicals and gases. In addition, slaves would be brought from Africa who they would usually work at the mint and replace the mules that couldn't survive the high altitude for more than a couple of months. Historians estimate that over 8 million people (indigenous Bolivians & Africans) died in pretty much slavery conditions from 1545 and for the next 300 years at the mines of Potosi.

More than 2.000 mules per year were brought from the regions of Cordoba & Salta to operate the huge machinery at the mint.
They wouldn't live for more than two months though at this altitude.

Today, Cerro Rico has been left pretty much dried up. There is just not enough silver for any company to invest in extracting the remaining metal. However, the mines are still active to a large extend. There are several co-operativas each one consisting of a small or large number of miners, who are still trying to extract the left overs. The conditions inside the mines have not improved from the old times, with the exception of some electric motors that are being used to carry the soil from one level to the next. The miners themselves are still exposed to the very same health hazards like 200 years ago.

There are many semi-modern processing plants around the mountain. The miners are selling by the tone the extract from the mountain. Lots of chemicals in there....

This is about 25-35% pure silver. According to the miners, Bolivia, for various reasons, does not have the technology to further process it, so they send it to Chile or Peru.

Inside the mines
In case someone wants to visit the mines, there are two ways. One is to visit a private mines museum, which although is an old mine, not in operation anymore, which has been converted into a museum, and the other is to visit a "live" mine, where miners are still working. The first option is nice and safe, the second one not so much, as I discovered. Below is a text copied from Lonely planet guide, referring to the visits at the mines:

"The cooperatives are not museums but working mines that are fairly nightmarish places. Anyone planning to take a tour needs to realize that there are risks involved.....While medical experts note that limited exposure is extremely unlikely to cause any lasting health impacts, if you have any concerns whatsoever about exposure to asbestos and silica dust, you should not enter the mines. Accidents can also happen -explosions, falling rocks, runaway trolleys, etc. For all these reasons, all tour companies make visitors sign a disclaimer absolving them completely from any responsibility for injury, illness or death...."

You know, when I first read this passage, I though: "Usual lonely planet bullshitting, to scare people off", and so, I signed the disclaimer.

Our clothes, including shoes, don't stand a chance in the mines. Hard plastic overcoats, helmets with lamps, boots and ready to go

The first part of the tour includes a visit to the miners market, to get some presents for the miners. They are not particularly annoyed by the tourists, but they are expecting something small in return from the outer world.

Dynamite!! is one of the presents they are particularly happy about. However there is an effort to stop the explosions at the mountain
so we did not buy any. Water, softdrinks, a few pairs of clothes and.....

......coca !!
The miners live with coca. They eat nothing all day. Instead, they chew coca all day.
Chewing coca apparently makes you not feeling hungry, and gives them all the energy they need

After a short drive with a small minivan, we reached the entrance. Up until that point, everything was happy and nice....i did not have the slightest idea of what was coming.....

At the entrance....this is the first level. We are just following the rails...

starts getting a bit cramped and the air thinner....breathing is getting harder
Kara, the American girl that we did the tour together is 1.70m and she hardly fits

we need to crawl to get down to level 2.....its getting harder and harder and the dust makes things much worse.
We removed the masks we had to be able to breath

the first miner we met....bare-handed, like most them; he was 20 years old and working for 4 years already.
a bag of coca leaves and some water made him extremely happy

wagons come and go all the time....timing can be life-saving here because they don't stop and the pull-out points are not that many

this is the entrance to go down to level 3. at this point i can hardly hold the camera to take pictures. we stop every 100m to take some breaths. at times, i thought i would faint from the lack of oxygen....and yes, some rocks were falling, not on our heads thankfully 

but people have to work down here....chewing coca !!!
This group was part of one of the largest cooperatives. They were extracting 40 tons per day.
On a monthly basis, this translates to 4.000 Bolivianos per month ($500), when the salary of an educated person is around 2.000 Bolivianos. Of course, small cooperatives make half of this.
I really feel bad taking pictures of them while they are working so hard, so i took only this one

We continued to the 3rd level through some tunnels that were so narrow that I could hardly fit...suddenly it started getting hot and moist, the air was even less and we were both really struggling to stand still....this place is really hell.
Didn't even think of taking pictures....i have never felt more uncomfortable in my life....and all the gases and the dust from the mine, made things unbearable. We really had to get back....i've had enough

At some point, on the way back, we were at level 2 i think, we suddenly heard out guide shouting from behind "RUN, trolley coming....!!!!".....there was no point to pull-off, so we starting running in the tunnel, which was no higher than 1.20m, to find a bit of was a nightmare!!! At that point I realized how dangerous this place is, especially for visitors and also how moderate the lonely planet description was.

we glued ourselves of the rocks on the left, to let the trolley pass...

the cables that run across the tunnel are for compressed air. there is no electricity or additional air supply in the mines

Finally, we made it out safe and sound, but both shocked from what we saw and experienced during the last 2 hours in the mines. Maybe a little bit wiser too.....
The mountain has been so much excavated that there are fears that could anytime collapse. They all recognize that, but all miners live with the hope that they will discover a big vein of silver that will allow them to stop working in that hellish place.
Until then, they will continue to live a life that did not give them a lot of choices....

Hasta luego!

Sunday, 29 May 2011

La Paz & the Death Road

La Paz is the largest city in Bolivia and administrative capital of the country, in contrast to Sucre which is the juridical capital. It's a strange distinction, but this way both cities get their share of governmental attention.
Didn't have too much time to spend in La Paz though. One day would go for the Death Road downhill mountain bike ride and another day to walk around the city and its famous markets.

The legendary Death Road
There are a lot of stories about accidents that have happened on this road that connects La Paz with Coroico and the surrounding area and most of them are true. For many years it was the only road connecting the two regions and the only way for the farmers to get their products to the markets of La Paz. If you search on YouTube you'll came across a very big number of videos on what is known as "The world's most dangerous road". With no doubt, one of the most entertaining ones is the one below from TopGear:

Gravity Bolivia is probably the oldest, for sure the most reputable and slightly more expensive of the agencies that organise those downhill trips at the very same route. 
I chose to go with them because they had the best bikes :))

The day started early with a good breakfast and after a short 1h ride with Gravity's bus, we reached the point where the descent would start....La Cumbre, at 4.700m !!!
First 12km or so was on paved road, so it was a good opportunity to get to know our bikes and enjoy the nice landscapes.

Off we go....!!!

After successfully crossing the security check-point for drugs trafficking, there was an uphill part for about 8km which due to the altitude and the the very plush suspension of the bikes, was sooo hard to get over with it....oxygen, oxygen lungs are exploding!!!

After a short break for instructions we got to the off-road part...what we have all been expecting. 

what a breathtaking start :)

it might look scary in the pictures, but as long as you don't look down, you are fine

Starting at 4.700m and getting down to 1.200m

Officially, the traffic in this specific road, switches from the conventional right-hand side to what the British consider correct :) So everybody drives on the left; and the reason for this is that this way, the driver on the left, can look out of his window and see how much space the outer tire has (measured in centimeters) from the....drop!!

And this road is really narrow; just wide enough for one big car or truck. If you happen to meet another vehicle from the opposite direction, you have to reverse to the closest pull-out point. And during the rain season things get much more worse. Mountain biking was fairly easy without any dangerous points, but driving in that road is an altogether different story. Maybe a picture will help you get my point...

El camino de la muerte.
When it was in full traffic, more than 200 people were dying every year on accidents

After having a shower, lunch and some rest at Coroico, it was time to return to La Paz....yes, from the same road, but inside the bus this time...
.... I have to admit that I was feeling much much more comfortable on the bike going down, especially when started getting dark and wasn't the most relaxing part of the day.

Nuestra Senora de La Paz
After the mountain bike day, I stayed another two days in La Paz, during which I tried to discover as much of the city as possible. 

The Witches' Market: Those are llama fetuses that local Aymara people bury in the foundations of new buildings and houses, as an offering to Pachamama (mother earth). Also you'll find there several other nice things like frog parts, insects, etc :))

At the local market, a really nice sandwich and a large mug of coffee for 5 Bolivianos.
Divide that by 7 if you live in the U.S. and by 10 for Europe !!!

The Zebras of La Paz. An idea of the city council in order to bring a spell of humor to the not so good relationship between drivers and pedestrians. They have proven quite successful and they receive all the respect they deserve as crossings guards.

The climate is really dry. At nearly 4.000m and they rarely get any snow. 

Next ---> Potosi, the Silver city. I had to squeeze my schedule quite a bit to find a few days to visit this truly special place. More in the next come soon

Hasta luego !