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vocabulary La Rochefoucauld: "We lack the strength of character to obediently follow all the dictates of reason."
South America's Attic - Traveler's Notes - Amazon, Iquitos, Lima, La Paz, Potosi, Uyuni, Altiplano - Chile

South America's Attic - Traveler's Notes - Amazon, Iquitos, Lima, La Paz, Potosi, Uyuni, Altiplano - Chile


I didn't plan any specific goals between these points in advance,
I only had some wishes for myself: to visit the Galapagos Islands once again, travel through Peru, and, most importantly, reach the South American "Attic" - the Altiplano Highlands.

Everything has long been eaten in the Amazon


The easiest way to get to the Amazon is to fly for 100 dollars on a plane from Lima to Iquitos - the capital, so to speak, of the Amazon region. In just a couple of hours, you will be transported from the desert on the coast, where Lima is located, through the Andes ridge to the real "green hell" of the Amazon jungle. I put these words in quotes for the simple reason that the surroundings of Iquitos have long had nothing in common with the Amazon that our imagination paints. The numerous population has already eaten everything that "moved" in the vicinity of the city - crocodiles, monkeys, sloths. And the jungle itself is quite polluted. To see truly wild nature, you need to travel about two hundred kilometers. The most abundant wildlife found near Iquitos is piranhas.

Piranhas in South America - fishing

 Fishing for these generally harmless but notoriously ill-reputed fish is an essential part of tour trips to the Peruvian Amazon. Piranhas are best caught in low water - fish shoals get cut off from the river in small lakes, where they ended up during the flood. Gradually they get hungrier, and then they attack everything they see - exactly as shown in the movies. At other times, piranhas are just fish. Quite edible, although toothy!

Toothy piranha of Iquitos

The second, no less exotic "delicacy" of Iquitos is the larvae of certain insects. They inhabit rotten wood. At first, this food is definitely unpleasant to taste, but you quickly get used to it. And even start to understand that the larvae need to be cooked properly. Otherwise, they become rubbery - you chew and chew them, but there's no taste at all.

 But I wouldn't want to reduce my story about Iquitos exclusively to the "national cuisine." The city has other charms, for example, architectural ones. They can be especially observed in the neighborhoods standing directly... in the water. There, you can do laundry, wash dishes, and fish right from the doorstep - everything is convenient and close. And there's no need for sewage - as they say, "The Amazon washes everything away...". In these neighborhoods, people start swimming before they can walk. But what amazed me most was a dog rushing for some important business of its own - it wasn't just swimming across the street, but along it!

The Attic of South AmericaAfter five days in Iquitos, I returned to Lima. The first stage of the journey was over, and it was time to head to the mountains, that is, to La Paz, which is in Bolivia.

The airfare cost me 350 dollars.

I couldn't resist: by South American standards, this is almost next door! Mountain serpentines near La PazThe travel agency workers offered me an alternative: "Take a flight to Titicaca, then a transfer to the border, and then you can get on a plane in Bolivia again." I should note that local airlines (actually, they're not even planes, but some kind of minibuses with wings) fly in those areas either between volcanoes or right over them. In one of my trips, I experienced turbulence on such an airplane during a storm. The impressions were intense: the plane was shaking, lightning was flashing in the distance, and the red glow of the volcano's crater was barely visible through the window...

 In La Paz, I finally felt that I had indeed reached the "attic" of the continent. This city is located at an altitude of 3800 meters above sea level, and the surrounding hills are even higher. Local residents claim that over several centuries, their bodies have adapted - La Paz inhabitants have larger lung volume and higher levels of hemoglobin in their blood. To invigorate themselves, Bolivians chew coca leaves - they have a good tonic effect. But when highlanders descend to the plains, they become very sleepy: the excess oxygen takes its toll. By the way, coca is sold here quite freely, unlike in Ecuador, for example.

La Paz city on the plateau

In general, La Paz is a colorful town. One of its attractions is the shaman market, where they sell dried embryos of llamas, frogs, and other magical "inventory." In short, it's not a market, but a "DIY magic" shop.

La Paz Market

The next stop on my journey was the city of Potosi - a Bolivian city famous for its mining. By the way, I traveled from La Paz to Potosi in a jeep. Renting it along with a driver and including the cost of gasoline came to 350 dollars for 4 days.


The first thing I noticed when entering the city was the streetlights located in the middle of the streets, rather than on the edges of the road as they should be. However, Potosi is not famous for its streetlights. The city is quite ancient and was once the center for minting silver coins for Spain: the depths of the towering mountain looming over Potosi are filled with silver ore. More precisely - they were filled, as the Spaniards had mined all the "cream of the crop" in the form of rich ore several centuries ago.

Potosi Miners

Nevertheless, silver is still being mined in Potosi. As mentioned earlier, rich ores have long been depleted, and working alone became unprofitable, so laborers began to form cooperatives. One clever guy took control of four dozen such teams and has now become the city's main tycoon with a weekly income of ten thousand US dollars.

By the way: this is exactly how "platinum" is translated from Spanish - an ancient derogatory name for an incomprehensible and useless metal that somewhat resembles silver.

However, working conditions in the mines remain at a level that has hardly changed since the time of the conquistadors - a miner makes a hole (a long narrow opening for placing explosives) using just a hammer and chisel. He always brings more coca leaves and a bottle of alcohol to work in the mine - many hours of intense labor are required before the hole reaches the necessary depth...

Potosi MinesWhy am I telling this story about the difficult fate of the Bolivian miner?

Well, people often come here for two, so to speak, "attractions". First - to visit the belly of the famous mountain, which is full of tunnels. There are spacious mining areas inside, as well as narrow "rat holes" connecting them. The latter are the most impressive for an unprepared person. After all, at an altitude of 4200 meters, it is already difficult to breathe. And when you voluntarily agree to crawl into a narrow passage where there is no oxygen, it becomes a real extreme experience. Firstly, there is asbestos in the depths of the mountain, which, when interacting with water, raises the temperature in the mines to 45 degrees Celsius. Secondly, the dust from human footsteps is so thick that no flashlight helps. Thirdly - Bolivians, being small people, make the "passages" very narrow. Twists and turns only exacerbate the situation. After a while, you don't know where you are or where you're going. And that's when your nerves begin to fail...

The second tourist attraction in Potosi is the local market, where they sell dynamite, ammonium nitrate, coca leaves, fuse wire, helmets, flashlights - in short, "everything for the miner". Prices for all these goods are affordable, and no one is interested in why you need them. However, other travelers have mentioned that sometimes they don't give more than a couple of sticks of dynamite per person. If you need more, you can persuade several scruffy-looking locals to buy the missing explosives for you. But tourists buy explosives not as souvenirs. They usually use them to make a small "boom" somewhere outside the city. It seems that no visiting foreigner misses this ancient Bolivian pastime. What can you do, the boyish passion for explosive packs, pistons, and similar toys lives on in men until their hair turns gray.

Of course, I also bought some dynamite and ammonium nitrate (in other words, saltpeter). Right there - at the market - I took a young demolitionist's course. I always thought that you simply insert a stick of dynamite into a hole and detonate it. In reality, it's not like that at all. First, you mold a bomb from dynamite, then you put ammonium nitrate in a cellophane bag on top of it. Such a thing produces a powerful explosion - rocks fly a hundred meters away. In general, in Potosi, you have the opportunity to feel like a real miner - either a miner or a blaster.


Salt flat

From Potosi, I went to Uyuni - a lake covered with a multi-meter layer of salt. To get there, you need to cross the long axis of the same Altiplano plateau, which was the main goal of my voyage.

It seems to be the second-largest after Tibet: stretching from southern Peru all the way to Argentina.

The borders of the Altiplano are defined by mountain ranges with active volcanoes, which together with salt lakes and deserts create a Martian-like landscape. I must admit, I have been to South America before, but no other local scenery has made such a strong impression on me. Despite the highlands, cold and winds, these areas are far from lifeless. For those who know a thing or two about cacti, it's fascinating to see how plants that Europeans lovingly keep in small pots on the windowsills of city apartments can reach heights of 10-15 meters on the Altiplano.

Altiplano cacti

There are numerous llamas along the roads. How they manage to find food in this desert is known only to God.

Uyuni Lake itself, as well as the famous Laguna Colorado and Laguna Verde, were formed as a result of a gigantic tectonic cataclysm.

Tens of thousands of years ago, this area was either a lake or a shallow sea. Then the collision of two blocks of the Earth's crust lifted this region to a multi-kilometer altitude. All that remains of the sea are the heavily salted lakes. Some microorganisms have taken a liking to the "brine," which has colored the water in various shades.

Uyuni salt flat

It is a must to drive across the salt crust of Uyuni. The local landscape can only be compared to Antarctica. There is nothing but dormant whiteness to the horizon, and above that, only the saturated blue of the sky. On the lake, the sense of distance is lost: there is nothing for the eye to latch onto.

Train cemetery, Uyuni Bolivia

Despite the harsh conditions, people have long settled on the Altiplano. So much so that there is even a "train cemetery" near Uyuni. Steam engines and wagons, which once transported salt, are now left to delight visiting photographers.

A wonderful subject for shooting. Something similar can only be found in Nevada, where Americans have gathered old airplanes in the desert, and in our Chernobyl zone, where radioactive equipment is stored.

Uyuni salt flat in South America

CHILE, the end of my journey

From Uyuni, my path to the Chilean border passed by the lagoons. Thousands of flamingos graze in their shallow waters. Apparently, these birds have thicker feathers than their African counterparts, and their legs don't get as cold. Otherwise, it's unclear - how do they withstand such a harsh climate?

Flamingos at Colorado and Verde in Bolivia

The end of the journey across the Altiplano was marked by the contrast in the locations of the two connected countries. The border checkpoint between Chile and Bolivia is at an altitude of 4500 meters, while the nearest Chilean town is at 2000 meters. There are no winding roads on the way; the road simply goes downhill. The driver of the battered minibus, which I barely squeezed into, stopped from time to time to let the overheated brakes cool down.

But this, so to speak, is a geographical contrast. The level of development of the two countries is already noticeable near the border guard's booth. Unlike in Bolivia, the paved road on the Chilean territory begins immediately. I don't know what contributes to this - the large number of German settlers in Chile or the fact that Pinochet, in his time, accustomed his fellow citizens to some sort of order?

Author:  Vladimir Minakov

vocabulary La Rochefoucauld: "We lack the strength of character to obediently follow all the dictates of reason."

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