Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sucre’s pretty sweet

A view of the city from an excellent plaza.
A view of the city from an excellent plaza.

Sucre’s got it:

  • Sunshine in spades and an all round spring like climate
  • A calmness that is unmatched by any other South American city we’ve visited
  • A warm terracota brick red colour when looking down from above, and uniform white washed facades on the streets
  • Pretty colonial buildings and cobbled streets
  • A highly developed ice cream culture
  • Enough wealth and tourism to seem cosmopolitan
  • A feeling of having fewer people than it actually does (300,000) and therefore seeming a bit like a village

For all that Sucre earns a place in our list of places we would happily live (along with Medellin and Arequipa).

La Paz feels like an indigenous city, but Sucre feels more European. With the climate and buildings you could easily think you were somewhere in the Mediterranean. The Bolivians look more European, and the city is also richer. It’s no surprise that Sucre draws an over representation of foreign volunteers and Spanish language learners.

Cathedral. central city.
Cathedral. central city.

Sucre is also Bolivia’s constitutional capital. It houses the supreme court and used to house all the other stuff of government until it moved up the hill to La Paz. This is conspicuously de-emphasised when Bolivians lay claim to the world’s highest capital.

On a barely related note, having two capitals also means Bolivia does very well on this approximation of what the world map would look like if it were laid out by Voroni diagrams centering on capitals. As good a reason to place borders as any, I say. The commentary on the map is also excellent.

Is it a train? Is it a bus? No it’s the buscarril

We found a way to travel from Potosí to Sucre that would satisfy any Thomas the Tank Engine enthusiast.


Three times a week a buscarril plies an otherwise forgotten railway route that services communities with no road connections. I’d say it seats about thirty. It looks and feels a lot like a bus. But it goes along the rails.

We were the only tourists, and it was clear when they escorted Fiona to the front of the ticket queue that there are seldom any foreigners along for the trip. Instead, the buscarril was ferrying local Bolivians too and from the ‘big’ cities at either end of the line.

It cost about $5NZD for a journey of nearly seven hours. Taking the bus would have been cheaper and a lot faster, but it was a great and often comical experience, like when:

  • The driver stopped the train on the edge of town at a stall selling fresh juice.
  • Every dog we passed tried to chase us down with determination and delight.
  • A cholita appeared in the middle of nowhere and flagged down the train.
  • We had to stop while a farmer tried to get his donkey away from the line.
  • The driver jumped out of the cab and used a massive spanner to change the points on the rails and make sure we went in the right direction.
  • A toot of the horn sent a squeal of guinea pigs bounding off the line.
  • We routinely stopped to let people off where the only man made structure you could see was the railway line. They must have had some walk ahead of them.

On top of all of that the scenery was excellent. The trip meandered through valleys and over dusty mountain passes. The buscarril didn’t seem especially stable, and some of the views were a little vertigo inducing, but overall pleasing. We descended about 1500 from Potosí to Sucre, off the altiplano and in to a much more pleasant and spring like climate, which we hope to enjoy for our last five days in Bolivia.


Vicuñas won’t be farmed

We saw many a vicuña on our tour through southwestern Bolivia. But they're really only common in very inaccessible places.
We saw many a vicuña on our tour through southwestern Bolivia. But they’re really only common in very inaccessible places.

In Arequipa we were shopping for quality alpaca goods and were shown a vicuña jersey. Vicuñas are, like llamas and alpacas, part of the camelid family. They live on the high Andean plains and they produce excellent wool. Its incredibly soft and durable. And exceptionally expensive. Like $1,000NZD plus for a jersey.

The big driver of cost is that vicuñas fur is tough to get. It mostly comes from wild animals which are not easy to find, and have, at times, faced extinction. No one could really give me a satisfactory explanation of why you couldn’t farm them. So I went looking for one and found several:

  • First, you can only shear them once every two years, and when you do you’ll only get about 150 grams of wool. And vicuñas need a lot of space including a separate range to sleep and to eat. So the economics are super challenging.
  • Second, they don’t do captivity well. They have long and elaborate courtship rituals which are inhibited in captivity, so they don’t breed (incidentally this is also true for cheetahs). And male vicuñas are super pissy with each other and can’t be in close proximity.

As a result farming isn’t a goer. You need to hunt them, wild, or herd them across massive areas. For example, one range in Argentina has 330 square miles on land (85,000 hectares) and about 6,000 vicuñas within it. Really what this means is just owning a large tract of alpine land, leaving it be, and then looking for vicuñas every once in a while.

There’s an argument that no animal that is farmed will ever become extinct. And it does seem that the herding process has been good for the vicuña stock. We could take a similar approach with tigers and elephants. But vicuñas show that ‘farming’ isn’t always a goer. Vicuñas will not be farmed.

Silver mining and a little devil worship

The mines of Cerro Rico are still in operation. We took a tour to take a look.

The mines are dark, dirty, smelly, cramped and dangerous. Our tour was much more physically demanding than we were expecting. We found ourselves constantly ducking, abseiling down and climbing up steep tunnels that stretched many metres into the earth.

Fiona begins an abseiling descent further into the mine.
Fiona begins an abseiling descent further into the mine.

Of course if we found our tour tough, we’ve got nothing on the miners who toil in this challenging environment. Some guidebooks warn of a feeling of voyeurism when touring the mines. But in our experience the miners were pleased to see us and tell us about their work and lives, and they were certainly grateful for the gifts we’d bought them at the miners’ market: dynamite, coca leaves to chew and ridiculously sugary soft drink.

The cooperatives in the mines

We’ve heard estimates of between eleven and fifteen thousand working in the Cerro Rico mines. A minority work for companies who pay them a steady salary and may offer benefits like health and pension. The vast majority work for one of thirty nine cooperatives each allocated permits to mine different parts of the mountain by the government.

Miner pay within the cooperative depends on the quality and quantity of mineral that their team extracts. It can vary from about $85NZD to $1700NZD a month. For reference the Bolivian minimum wage is about $250NZD a month. Continue reading Silver mining and a little devil worship

Cololmbian elections into run off

You might recall us writing about the impending Colombian presidential elections.

The initial voting was completed a couple of days ago. None of the candidates got an outright majority and so the two with the most votes progress through to a run off on 15 June.

The two top candidates were the incumbent, President Juan Manual Santos, and the challenger from Centro Democratico, the party of former President and security hardliner Alvador Uribe, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. We saw Zuluaga speak when he came to Santa Marta, and at the time we noted that his name recognition was super low, so he’s done well to wiggle himself into the run off. He narrowly topped the poll with 29% compared to Santos’ 26%.

What does this mean?

Even more than before you could now interpret this election as a referendum on ongoing relations with the FARC rebel group and the peace talks with them. Santos was Uribe’s defence Minister, but as President has been more conciliatory towards the rebels than Urbie thinks is appropriate. That’s basically why he formed a new party and put Zuluaga at the head of  it (he couldn’t run himself because of term limits). Zuluaga is pledging to end the peace process if he’s elected.

While Zuluaga has done well to get this far, it’s reasonably hard to see him winning this competition. He’s further to the right of Santos, who is a more centrist candidate. So you’d expect the folks that voted for other relatively centrist or left wing candidates (not that there are many of the latter) to throw their votes to Santos giving him the win.

The x factor though will be how many of the almost 60% of voters who didn’t participate in the first round of voting turn out to vote in the run off. Both Santos and Zuluaga will be keen on their support.

We’ll be watching with interest to see how things turn out.

Rich mountain and the city beneath it


If you’re going to build a city at 4,100m above sea level, high on the Bolivian altiplano and with no fresh water source in sight, you’d better have a compelling reason. For Potosí that reason is Cerro Rico, literally, rich mountain.

Riches from the mountain

In 1534 an indigenous farmer was surprised to find a trickle of silver emerging from a campfire he’d built. News of silver around Potosí was like music to the ears of the conquering Spanish who arrived in their thousands. They mined Cerro Rico for silver leaving its modern form barren and scared with mine entrances.

The mining was incredibly hazardous. One estimate is that eight million people died in the mines. Most of them were indigenous peoples who were required to provide service to the Crown (following an Incan tradition), or African slaves. But the mines were also very successful. At one point in the seventeenth century Potosí was larger than Madrid and London, and the richest city in the Americas. The Spanish poured money into local churches and buildings (perhaps to assuage their guilt), leaving Potosí a surprisingly charming and enigmatic city.

Potosí today

Cerro Rico still casts and actual and a figurative shadow over Potosí. Of the 400,000 inhabitants 70,000 work in mines and surely many more support them. You might call it a company town except that most of the miners work in cooperatives. More on that later.

The product from the mines is exported in a pretty unrefined form, essentially silver dust. This is a lost opportunity insofar as the product isn’t especially valuable when it leaves Potosí. Our refining centre tour guide was happy enough to smear us with it for effect. The refining process itself looks like something out of Dickens, all pulleys and wheels and grit and dirt. There’s also cyanide.

DSC00762 DSC00758

There’s a good dose of colonial architecture left, and some of the churches are supposed to be spectacular, but overall it is hard to imagine Potosí as a city with riches and population to rival European capitals. Its is ultimately a tragic story underscored by the hazardous and back breaking work that many of its citizens still undertake in the mines.Potosí is a fascinating place to visit. Its lament – both historic and contemporary – is a story worth telling.

Geothermal fun

One of the great things about being a tourist in the developing world is what they let you do, that you would never be allowed to do at home. Case in point, here I am (following the lead of a gregarious Chilean) jumping through a geyser.

DSC00651Our final day touring south of Uyuni had a bit of a geothermal theme. We enjoyed visiting some powerful geysers. There seems a real prospect for Bolivia to use geothermal power. And we were much warmed by steaming hot pools that, at 37.5 degrees, were about forty degrees warmer than the spectacular surrounding landscape. Somewhere beneath the foreground steam in the picture below, Fiona is bathing.



Bolivia’s on lithium


Somewhere below the salt plains in this picture is seventy percent of the world’s known lithium resource. Lithium is the world’s lightest metal. You’ll find it in the battery for your ipod, cellphone and laptop. It is also the basis for batteries for hybrid and electric cars which could be in hot demand in the coming decades. The recent discovery of Bolivia’s deposits have led some to call it the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium“.

This isn’t at all the first time that massive natural resources have been discovered in Bolivia. There’s been silver and guano and yet Bolivia hasn’t got rich. In fact it is the poorest country in South America. We’ve written before, in the context of Venezuela, about the ‘resource curse’ – the economic idea, and reasoning behind resource rich countries staying poor. In Bolivia’s case there’s an added colonial dimension: resources were pillaged and sent back to Spain.

Current Bolivian President Evo Morales is all over this. He’s determined that average Bolivians profit from its lithium resource and not fall prey to any neo-colonialism. He wants the processing of the lithium done in Bolivia right through to battery stage, so the country gets itself higher up the value chain. And he wants it done by government companies. He’s also claimed that Bolivia will end up producing hybrid cars itself, though that’s probably mostly aspirational. A pilot plant for lithium processing was set up near Uyuni last year.

Morales’ thinking is laudable in a lot of ways, but making lithium mining work for Bolivia is a massive ask because:

  • Success involves hitting a moving target. No one really knows how big the electric car market will be, and when it will peak. Bolivia looks set to take a big gamble on it.
  • Lithium processing is complicated. Bolivia has no experience in doing it, and lacks the highly educated workforce that could get to grips with it quickly. Instead Bolivia is looking to partner with another country, likely China, and it isn’t clear how they feel about Bolivia getting up the value chain…
  • Processing lithium requires lots of water, something that, funnily enough, isn’t common in a salt plain or surrounding deserts. Water would need to be taken from indigenous communities who, you know, need it.
  • There are serious environmental concerns about ripping up the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest slat flats and home to some of the most dramatic landscapes we’ve ever seen.
  • And here’s maybe the biggest problem: corruption tends to concentrate around big point sources of wealth. There’s rent seeking and nepotism and inefficiency. That’s a big part of the resource curse after all.

For Bolivia to pull itself up by lithium bootstraps it’ll have to thread a pretty difficult needle. But good luck to it – it’s hard to argue with a poor country hoping to get richer while decreasing global carbon emissions.

A train graveyard


The railways brought development to Bolivia, and carried many of its natural riches away.

Silver from the Potosi mine was tracked out to Chilean ports, boated up to Cuba (through the Panama canal) and on to Spain in flotillas. About 20% stayed in Spain and the rest went on to Germany to pay off debts. It also helped the Spanish monarch was from the Austria-hungarian empire.

These days the train route to Chile is barely used and there are no passenger services. The tracks remain, curling off into the never ending desert, and the trains that used to ply them are gathered together in a train graveyard outside Uyuni. It’s a pretty eerie place. Great to clamber on the old engines; a health and safety hazard at home makes a tourist attraction in Bolivia.

Operation desert storm and other misadventures

As much as we enjoyed the startling landscapes we spent three days traveling through by jeep, there were a range of logistical issues which punctuated our progress which bare recollection.

Desert storm

Not long after we left the serenity of the salt plains a storm began to roll in from the horizon. Its clouds swept up an almighty amount of dust. It massively reduced visibility and was, at times, enough to halt our progress completely.


More worrying was when our driver, trying to navigate with a blurry brown windscreen, lost the track entirely. He reported that it was important we stay on the right track as there was quicksand about, which is not really what you want for your Toyota landcruiser and six passengers. He tried turning off the lights to get a better view but just got an eerie blackness. Eventually he got out of the car and wandered around for about ten minutes before settling on a direction of choice. Once back on track the rest of our journey that night was without incident. Well, except for when we careered off the road and barely hung on to the edge of the ditch.

Assessing the snow conditions


We knew our tour was going to be curtailed because of a massive snow storm that had closed the southern parts of our route. But no one really knew how serious the snow was. Our driver, to whom we give credit, kept us well informed and gave us lots of options. So we pushed on further south than most other tours. He then chose the valley floor route rather than the plateau route to our destination for which we take away his credit. It took an hour and a half to dig ourselves out of the snow we got stuck in. The rest of our journey to our second night’s accommodation was without incident. Well, except when we got stuck in the snow, again.

A night in an ice box

Our first night was spent in a hotel made of salt. That was atmospheric and just on the acceptable side of temperatures. The second night was freezing. We arrived to a hostel of sorts made exclusively of concrete blocks that barely made an effort to dampen the howling wind. Inside a Bolivian toddler ambled about in a gangsta beanie and half open jacket as the rest of us shivered. After some grumbling heating was provided. The first we heard of it was the banging on the roof. In the dark someone was clambering about removing enough roof tiles to insert a metal pipe as a chimney. A box was attached at the bottom for a small fire.

I’m very sympathetic to the proposition that New Zealand homes, and especially rental properties,  are inadequately heated and insulated. But the next time a university student complains about frost on their windows I will exile them to southern Bolivia. Another group with a thermometer reported sub zero temperatures in their room when they woke, and negative 19 outside the door.