Argentina Stories and Tips

Southwards to the Highest Mountain

Empty Fountain Photo, Sucre, Bolivia

Southwards from La Paz, things become rather simple from the traveler’s perspective. Oruro, maybe Sucre, Potosi and then back to Argentina.

Oruro

Carnival is the main - and some say the only - attraction in Oruro. UNESCO recognized it as a Human Heritage event and since then the city is called the Folkloric Capital of Bolivia. La Diablada - (The Devilish) as the event is usually called - takes place on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and is a huge parade of devils performed by dancers in elaborate masks and customs, which attracts crowds from the whole country.

Plaza 10 de Febrero is the town's focal point. It features less important buildings that its counterparts in La Paz or Sucre, but that creates a good opportunity for enjoying the stylish Spaniard plaza itself. Beyond that and the fact nowadays Oruro is the northernmost stop of the Altiplano railway, there is one more site worth visiting: Socavon. If the traveler has time to see only one attraction in Bolivia, then the Socavon should be it. In this small enclave, the visitor can get a pretty good view of the Bolivian society: an extraordinary church, a mine turned into a museum, a museum of local sacred art, a monument to Bolivian miners and comprehensive views of the downtown area. All in one; reviewing this demands an entire journal.

Sucre

Many sources on Bolivia claim the country has two capitals. Most Bolivians would be surprise to hear that. The city of Sucre is the constitutional and only capital of the country and the seat of the Supreme Court. For various reasons, the government moved to La Paz during the early 20th Century, since then, this city is called the "Sede de Govierno," the "Government Seat."

The White City - as it is known in Bolivia - was founded in 1538 as La Plata (The Silver); the city was the capital of the Charcas, an extensive territory stretching from the Rio de la Plata to Peru. In 1776, the Spaniards created new administrative divisions and the city name was changed to Chuquisaca. On August 6, 1825 the Bolivian independence was declared here and its name was changed to Sucre, honoring in such a way a general involved in the independence process. Its wide sidewalks and pleasantly empty streets allow a full appreciation of its colonial white houses with beautiful wood balconies. The colonial center of Sucre is apparently void of inhabitants; most houses have been transformed into hotels, internet kiosks or restaurants. Thus, booking places in advance is not necessary. See the dedicated journal for more details on its sights.

Potosi

Three hours by bus from Sucre is Potosi; this is the best option for traveling between these two cities. Literally sitting on a silver mountain, Potosi was the largest and richest city in the Americas; nowadays, it’s a memorial to the slaves who died mining. With the downtown at an altitude of 4070 meters above the seal level, Potosi is – amazingly – almost four hundred meters above Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, and thus probably is the highest city in the world (El Alto shares similar statistics); the miners’ neighborhoods climb Cerro Rico well above the 4200 meters line.

Yet, the position of the city is unclear. Is it on the Andean High Plateau, or high on the Andes mountains, just south of the plateau? Potosinos (people from Potosi) claim they are on the Andes; people from the Altiplano claim Potosi is the southern part of the plateau. Reality is tricky; yet it is safe to claim Potosi is on the southern border of the plateau. The terrain is too broken to give an exact definition.

Potosi was founded in 1545 following the discovery of silver in Cerro Rico by the Spaniards and by the end of the eighteenth century, more than a million people lived there; it was the largest and most glamorous city in the Americas. At the 19th century silver production waned and decline began. Nowadays, hardly 120 thousand Quechua people live in poverty, trying to scratch out enough minerals to live a miserable life. Little of the former splendor is left, since most of the old structures were made of adobe and melted back to earth once they were abandoned. However, over two thousand colonial buildings still exist in the city, including twenty-two artificial lakes constructed to make the mills used in the silver processing work.

The almost only visible hint to the former splendor is the churches; sixteen major churches survive in the downtown area. Mostly built in Baroque style with Mestizo influences, they provide the best views of Potosi at its peak. Around the city center, live the poor miners neighborhoods and beyond them are the huts belonging to farmers that run away from the countryside poverty, exchanging it by a worse fate.
Potosi’s main attractions are the silver mines and the Casa de la Moneda (The Coining House). The mines are operated nowadays by cooperatives and it is possible to visit them and see the miners in work; their idols – plastic representations of Satan, the ruler of the depths – and the daily offerings the miners give them, provide a fascinating view into their spiritual world. The Casa de la Moneda is the best museum in Bolivia, and maybe in the whole continent; it hosts a significant art collection beyond the obvious collection of coins and the machinery for their production. All these attractions make of Potosi a must destination not only while in Bolivia, but while in South America.

Potosi is surrounded by many attractions. The Uyuni’s Salt Lake is a major one and can be reached in two or three-day trips. A two days one costs forty dollars and includes little more than a drive over the salt plains. The three days trip includes the "Laguna Colorada" (Red Lake) and the "Laguna Verde" (Green Lake); two geothermic formations who offer strange landscapes and a colony of flamingos that arrived from the Pacific Ocean coast and got trapped here due to unfavorable air currents. The last option costs eighty-five dollars. See the dedicated Potosi journal for more details.

If leaving Potosi towards Argentina; it is worthwhile to plan a stop at Tupiza, halfway to the border. The little town is placed in a narrow alley amidst gorgeous red mountains. It offers a reasonable tourism infrastructure and local agents can help to arrange treks in the area. It is worth remembering that the Villazon-La Quiaca is the friendliest border cross between these two countries.

Northern Argentina

Back in Argentina, three main towns are along the way to the America’s highest mountain: La Quiaca – which is the border cross – Jujuy and Salta.

In the Argentinean mythology, La Quiaca is a synonym for the world’s end, rather than that, I found it to be a crossroads between that country and Bolivia. Interface points between cultures are of special interest for travelers; in no other place the essence of traveling is so distilled, nowhere else the little local nuisances are so mighty and bold. In these, La Quiaca excels.

Jujuy is the northernmost and one of the most beautiful provinces in Argentina, providing the local contact with Andean cultures. Beyond the beautiful town, the traveler can enjoy fabulous sights, like the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

Salta is the biggest city in northwestern Argentina and doubles as the area's travel hub. Beyond the obvious international airport, it is possible to reach three countries from here with the help of comfortable buses. Resembling other colonial Argentinean towns, Salta was built in a perfect rectangular grid of streets surrounding a central plaza; that plaza was bounded by the town's main buildings and churches. Still a small town, its colonial ambience is pretty much untouched. Cerro San Bernardo provides an unforgettable hiking experience and great views of the area.

From this town is possible to take a bus to Mendoza, where the highest mountain in the Americas awaits the eager traveler.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip