Thru South Bolivia to Argentina

Out of Uyuni to the formerly richest town in South America: Potosi. There a visit to 1 of the most infamous mines in the world. On to beautiful Tarija and to Argentina’s Tilcara.

Uyuni 2 Tilcara

Potosi, 18th October

After our tour to Salar de Uyuni, the next morning it’s time to leave western-style Uyuni for Potosi. 

As usual in Bolivia, the 1st thing to check are all the rumors about roadblocks. Today they say that all roads to Potosi are closed. To the police station. After some searching to find 1 of these guys, we learn that there should be nothing. Probably and maybe there’s really nothing. We decide to cross-check with a more reliable source – the bus station. They also confirm that everything is ok – at least at night. The last check with the government’s site to roadblocks – looks like only the road from La Paz to Potosi is closed. Ok, we’re ready to go.

Of course, 1st Prado has to get enough sunshine to start the engine. Well, around 10.30 it’s ok. Some packing and storing to return from our backpacky- to overlander-life, then we’re on the road. To Potosi. About 200km, roughly 4h.

Arriving in Potosi we think Prado needs a little more diesel. So, we head for 1 of these state-owned gas stations – YPFB.  True, normally they just sell foreigners gas at the international price, and they have the obligation to deliver it to them. The friendly guy explains clearly, that we have to pay full price – or, we may just ask the truck driver buying fuel next to us if we could get fuel on his account and fix a price with him. Of course, we opt for the truck driver. Immediately we could see his struggle between a nice profit and the obligation to explain the story to his boss. Finally, he’s convinced his boss would kill him immediately if making a deal with us. And what the hell should he do with the extra money as a dead man?

Ok, let’s pay full price. The manager of the station arrives, explaining to us, that he can’t find all these codes to enter into the computer to sell anything to foreigners. At least he knows another station we could try.

Arriving there, the poor girl has to work 1/2h to get all information into the computer – fortunately we remember the date when Monika’s maternal granny kissed her 1st boyfriend. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work. Then we get a few liters, pay the international price and we’re off. Anyway, we shouldn’t need to buy any more fuel until we leave Bolivia.

A short drive to the town center where we quickly find a sleepery with parking. And meet the 2 Austrian bikers, Robert’n’Manfred again. Looks like there are not that many places to stay in Potosi.

Potosi – many years ago the richest town in South America. All thanks to its enormously profitable silver mine in Cerro Rico. Nowadays, most of the silver is excavated, the wealth has fizzled out, and just some sumptuous buildings remain – slowly decaying.  The mine still exists. It’s no longer silver, but zinc. But even that just in small quantities. Therefore, nowadays no international company would invest in Cerro Rico. The whole mining business is in the hands of more than 200 cooperatives. Working under the worst conditions imaginable some 15 000 people still find their income. Surely, you’ve read about these cases – they’re regularly in the press. Tomorrow we’ll enter a mine to have a look at it.

What else do they produce in Potosi – the world’s highest brewery sells its excellent beer all over Bolivia.

Next morning: getting ready for the tour, Robert’n’Manfred join as well. and of course, a few more guys interested to see Bolivian reality.  To start with we need appropriate equipment: overalls, rubber boots, a helmet, and light.

To start with a visit to the miner’s supply shop. Specialized in selling coca leaves, 85% proof alcohol for Mamapacha‘n’miners, dynamite to open the mine, etc. We get a few items for the guys in the mountain. Finally, we decide to renounce buying dynamite. Even if it might be pretty useful, should we ever have to socialize with some unruly policewoman doing her best to compete with Central Asian corruption. Whatever, we surely wouldn’t remember where we stowed the dynamite once we’ll need it.

Then we enter the mine. Well, the part belonging to 1 of the cooperatives. We’re at the place where the lorries with the ore arrive. To separate pieces of zinc from ordinary stone. Of course, that all is done manually – by checking each’n’every stone.

We’re ready to enter the mine’s gallery. We’ll follow the rails of the lorries for about 2km into the mountain. When lorries pass, we’ll have to jump at the wall – always hoping that there’s enough space for lorries’n’people in the narrow gallery.

We arrive at a shaft. More than 100m deep. Of course, not secured. Just a hole at the end of a side gallery. Connecting lower galleries. The ore is lifted with an electric winch, then loaded into the lorries. 

In 1 side gallery that is no longer productive – a visit to Tio. The patron saints of the miners. To make sure he remains kind every Friday the miners sacrifice coca leaves, cigarettes, and alcohol. Well, the sacrifices are shared between Tio, Pachamama, and the miners. Each one gets his share.

We sneak further into the mountain. It’s getting hotter and more humid. Somehow, we have the feeling there’s a certain lack of oxygen. No wonder, there’s no aeration installed. 

We come to a place where they fill the lorries. A pretty dusty affair. The ore is falling from somewhere above into the lorry. It’s so dusty -hard to see anything. And the very reason why most miners suffer from silicosis after 10 – 15 years in the mine. Despite their Chinese dust masks.

We meet 1 of the miners: Francisco. He’s the boss of 3 or 4 laborers. They’ve been following a rather small deposit of zinc for the last 15 years. Just producing enough to guarantee the survival of their families. Currently, Francisco’s waiting till night for compressed air to drill the holes for the next blasting. 

Finally, we’re on our way back. To the sunlight. Probably all of us more than happy that we’ve just spent some 3h in the underground. Not 15 years.

Ok, that’s the reality. Probably the same you already read in the newspapers complaining about working conditions in Bolivia’s mines. Of course, remains the question of why there’s no improvement. 

Well, there are no bad girls in the management of huge international mining companies who are responsible for this. They have left a long time ago.  By now the mine is in the hand of some 200 cooperatives organized and run by the miners.

Still, why the hell don’t they make life a bit simpler for themselves? It’s pretty easy: Every improvement of the conditions costs money. Considering the very low yield of the mine, independent miners could no longer gain enough to survive if production costs rise. And where else should they find alternatives to their current job?  Probably a situation that will not change in a near future.

Afternoon. We’re in urgent need of a change. Sneak thru the town, and climb the church tower. To see how rich Potosi has been in the past.

In the evening we learn, that tomorrow Bolivia’s bad girls plan to establish roadblocks everywhere in Potosi. Thus, no way to leave the town – at least after the girls’ breakfast somewhen at 6 am. We quickly have to replan. Decide to skip Sucre – as there are more’n’more roadblocks coming up in the area – and to drive tomorrow early morning to Tarija. After a nice meal and some beers we very quickly have to say goodbye to our Austrian friends. We wish you all the best on your trip!

Tarija, 22nd October

4.30 am next morning. We’re getting up, trying to start Prado. No way, outside temperature is around 0 degrees. Finally, we have the very best idea ever: we have a small electric heater. Maybe just perfect to get the engine a little warmer. So, quite a long search for electricity. Finally, we discover a plug in the sleepery’s laundry. With the help of our extension cable we finally start heating Prado’s fuel filter and diesel pump. Indeed, 15′ later we’re ready to leave. Before 5.30 am.

In town, it’s still very quiet. Visibly no bad girls blocking any roads. Probably they’re still recovering from yesterday’s many beers when planning their victory over Bolivia’s government.

Some 20′ later we’re out of town – on the main road to Tarija. Some 6h, 350km on an excellent road with next to no traffic.

By noon we arrive in Tarija. The city makes a wealthy impression. Well-preserved colonial buildings, posh shops, many restaurants, no garbage on the streets, and a lot of folk sneaking around. Looks much more like a town in Argentina, than Bolivia. Maybe also, because it’s the center of Bolivia’s vine production.

We decide to stay a few days. To recover from Bolivia’s highlands and to organize our trip to Argentina’n’Chile.

Eg. we’re busy organizing the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales in Chile. Not an easy task as you cannot book online for the car.   Contacting Navimag, the ferry company, is absolutely hopeless. They never ever reply. Visibly, there’s no need for any customer service. Therefore, we’ve asked a few days ago in a fb-group about experiences with these stubborn guys. We only get 1 reply. But exactly the 1 we need. Thanx, Kristin’n’Casey for your help. 

Finally, if you need to book with Navimag, simply avoid the guys. Book with an agency in Pucon, Chile called TravelAid. Contact them in any language you like – except Mandarin. They reply within hours, book your tickets within hours and help you if your credit cards are all rejected by Chile’s extraordinary banking system. What else do you want?

We quickly get our reservation. By now, we just need to pay. It looks easy. They send you a link and you can transfer the amount with any credit card you have. 2h later, we still do not have paid. Instead, we’ve tried all our cards – and Chile’s banking system rejected them all. Thus, no way to outsmart their strange regulations. Another contact to TravelAid. Alternatively, we can transfer the amount to an account in Miami. The old-fashioned way – but working even for payments to Chile.

After sneaking thru Tarija’s elegant streets, surely, you’re keen on something to munch. Don’t even think about looking for McDonald’s famous diet coke with extra sugar and a vegan cheeseburger with 4 greasy beef patties. Better go to 1 of these street cafes at the main plaza. Time to sip a beer or a glass of local vine. Before heading to a decent meal in 1 of the grand restaurants nearby.

Tilcara, 25th October

Enough of beautiful Tarija. Enough of Bolivia. We’re on our way to Argentina. A stopover in Tupiza, some 200km, and 4h to the west. Mostly on a good gravel road over the mountains. Pretty nice landscape.

Leaving Tarija, we 1st need to pass a police cum army checkpoint. A few, days ago on our arrival, the police seemed to us rather suspicious – even if we passed without any trouble. Then searching for whatever most drivers don’t have – 1st-aid-kits, fire extinguishers, a dozen big branches from a tree, and 5 big stones to secure the place of an eventual breakdown, etc.  Thus, they were mainly interested in some additional income to forgive poor sinners’ inadequate equipment.

Today, they’re rather correct and let us pass without any hassle.

Tupiza: nothing to speak about. Rundown, dirty, few facilities.  Just ok for a night.

After some search, we even discover a restaurant serving parillas. Interestingly it belongs to a Chinese who settled in this village of lost souls a few years ago. And the Chinese parilla? Medium ok, the meat rather tough to chew. Looks like the place serves mainly customers interested in heavy beer drinking.

The next morning we’re on the way to Argentina. Along Tupiza’s fantastic, colorful landscape, and later thru flat land. Again, on an excellent and lonely road.

By noon we reach the border at Villazon. A rather chaotic village. Beside the border post down at the river, there’s a footbridge crossing into Argentina. On it a constant stream of people carrying goods from Argentina to Bolivia. Looks like nobody checks them at all. Whatever maybe it works differently.

Of course, we have to cross officially.  For that, we have to park Prado on the Bolivian side and get a control slip on which we have to collect about 1/2 dozen of stamps. A little bit like a game. The challenge is just to find out the correct sequence of the stamp collection. We start with Bolivian immigration. Fast’n’easy even if there are a few guys in front of us. We get our 1st stamp and we may advance. Next, we head for Bolivian customs. My dear, what a mistake. We’re called back immediately. We’re trapped in the confusion of this border post. Finally, we get a 2nd chance. Go to the Argies’ immigration. Great, it works. Then again to the Bolivian customs. With a catastrophic result. 

Again, we’re immediately called back by the Argies. We’re afraid of being deported to their Arctic possession for unruly behavior at the border post. They give us a very last chance. To their customs. We receive a TIP for Prado. Then we can’t imagine anything else than heading again to the Bolivian customs. And by now it works. What a relief – after some chaotic scenes in front of their counter we even get Prado stamped out. And thus, we receive our last stamp on the slip.

Now we’re allowed to enter Prado into the customs area. The Bolivies are just interested in the stamps on the slip, they even don’t care if we export the car they just stamped out. The Argies seem to be slightly more serious. Also, they don’t care about the car. They just want to inspect the slips in our bags. Ok, they have the correct color for Argentina. So, we’re released. Game over – after a little more than 1 1/2h. We’re in Argentina.

A short stop in Argentina’s border village – La Quiaca. A lousy place. But they’re supposed to pay out some money in their Western Union Agency in the post office. As Western Union is the best way to get Argentinian Pesos at a reasonable exchange rate we go there. It all starts promising until the guy disappears. After some waiting, we learn that we should come back tomorrow or after tomorrow. Once the system works again – or the guy knows how to handle it, or whatever. 

We drive on. The 100 km to Humahuaca without money.

There, Western Union has closed until late afternoon. Thanx to iOverlander we quickly find a souvenir shop changing dollars. Just a few % below Buenos Aires’ blue-dollar rate. What else do you want?

On to Tilcara – just a few km to the south.

There, we quickly find a sleepery with decent parking for Prado and a shop where we finally could get our funds from Western Union. Looks like getting money in Argentina is not an easy task – even if the rate you get just cuts all expenses by half.

And Tilcara? Probably the village wouldn’t exist without the tourist industry. Just hotels, restaurants, and shops with all kinds of tourist rubbish and a few houses where the locals live. The streets full of Argies in desperate need of some authentic desert life experiences.

Time for a beer. It’s not the smallest 1 available, but we share it.

The next morning, we have to visit the main attraction of the area: the colorful mountains of Hornocal. While 10 000s of visitors make their pilgrimage to these Rainbow Mountains with 7 or 8 colors south of Cusco, the mountains of Hornocal are said to have even 14 colors – and just a few visitors sneaking around.

So, we drive northwards to Humahuaca, then some 25km on a gravel road to reach the viewpoint at 4200m altitude. Well, there are some colorful mountains, but pretty far away. And it’s definitely not easy to proof the 14 different colors.

Whatever. We’re on our way back. A stop in Humahuaca. To visit the cobblestoned alleys. Said to be 1 of the nicest villages in northern Argentina. Probably true, even if no longer too authentic.

So guys, that’s it for this post. Tomorrow we’ll leave Argentina. After 2 days. For Chile. You know – new country, new post.

Thanx for reading this post so carefully and for waiting impatiently for the next 1. No worries, it will be released somewhen in the near future.



Bolivia - Lake Titicaca to Salar de Uyuni
Crossing Atacama Desert, North Chile