The great Bolivian landscape
27.07.2011 - 02.08.2011 2 °C
Little does it take to spark the intrepid adventurer within me into life, even in the most mundane of locations, so imagine my excitement upon reaching the stunning landscapes surrounding the small and dusty town of Tupiza, with its rugged mountain setting, multi-coloured rock formations and deep canyons.
Unfortunately, before I could begin my exploration of the many faces of Tupiza´s surroundings, there were a few issues to contend with. Firstly, the plan of spending a couple of days in Tupiza, followed by a bus to Uyuni, in order to do the popular tour of the Bolivian salt flats and finally ending up in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, had to be scapped when I found out from a fellow traveller that the border crossing was closed due to heavy snow and extreme weather. As a result, I decided that I would do the tour of the salt flats from Tupiza to Uyuni, and then arrange seperate transport, via a different border crossing, to Chile. This however threw up another problem, mainly that I hadn´t planned on booking an expensive tour in Tupiza, a town that has no international ATMs and only changes US dollars (when all I had was UK pounds), and therefore didn´t have enough money to cover the cost. There is the option of a cash advance at two banks and a few local hotels, however, never having done a cash advance before, I didn´t particularly want to risk the possible charges and problems with bank communication (which other travellers had spoken about). Luckily, the tour agency was willing to allow me to pay a small deposit, with the remainder being paid to the guide in Uyuni, at the end of the 4 day trip.
Finally, with my tour organised, I was able to get out into the surrounding mountains and begin my exploration. Armed with a bottle of water, a pack of biscuits, sunscreen, a very rough map, and very little else, I quickly headed for the red rock mountains behind the town, with their vast network of gulleys and gorges. I was soon passing the last few houses on the outskirts of town, receiving perplexed looks from the locals and getting chased by overprotective dogs (who presumably don´t encounter many tourists passing into the remote mountain canyons bordering their properties). Finding a dried out river bed, I followed the sandy and dusty natural pathway into the mountains, and was immediately swallowed up by incredible towering rock formations, looming over me on the ever narrowing trail.
With a seemingly endless array of avenues to follow, I quickly got overrun by my need for adventure and soon found myself following the dried up waterways further and further into the mountains. When these waterways stopped winding their way on level ground and began climbing up the steep (and very loose) rocks, I had no choice but to follow. Like a man possessed, it wasn´t long before I was climbing over great boulders, and up steep ravines, in an attempt to get a view over the towering spires of red rock.
After one failed attempt, which led to a complete dead-end, I found my resolve to reach the top growing ever stronger with each passing step. What followed, has to be described as the single most nerve-wracking and heart stopping experience (not to mention unquestionably reckless decision) I have ever made. Forced to lay almost flat on my stomach, on nothing more than dried dirt and loose rock, scrambling up an almost vertical mountainside, with sheer drops on either side, when even the larges and firmest of surfaces simply crumble underhand, was nothing short of terrifying. What made the experience all the more distressing was the knowledge that once at the top, I would then have to return, without the small security of being able to test the stability of the ground with my hands before placing all my weight (and hopes) on what could end up being my final step in this world.
Needless to say, I wasn´t about to be defeated and would certainly not have faced such a climb without reward, and eventually reached the summit of the highest peak. The views from the top were incredible, and the sense of achievement, looking down of the far away town of Tupiza in all its surrounding glory, was more than I could have asked for.
With the exception of a few slips and scrapes, two bruised elbows, one bleeding finger, one grazed knee, one scratched shoulder, one split nail (which actually hurt more than all the rest combined), and some ruined clothing, I made it back down unscathed! To say that not many tourists would have followed my trail, even with Bolivia´s almost non-existent safety regulations, is without question. I would hazard a guess that no-one (not in possession of climbing equipment) would have been foolish enough to attempt that climb.
The following day started as any pre-booked tour would begin, and that was with the inevitable apprehention and anticipation of finding out who your fellow jeep occupants are going to be, and who you will be stuck with for the next four days. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised (not to mention relieved) by the two other Brits, one Australian, and one German who would be sharing the Bolivian salt flats experience with me. In addition, we would also be travelling with another jeep (who, un-beknownst to them, we would be stealing the cook from every night) which was full of over-enthusiastic Canadians, who turned out to be great fun on the bitterly cold nights to follow.
The first day was spent mostly in the jeep, watching some outstanding and ever changing landscapes pass by the window, with the occasional stop for photo-taking, lunch, llama chasing (in the most respectful manner possible of course), and the inevitable cold and windy rushed pee break behind anything large enough to cover at least some semblance of modesty from people you were getting to know better by the minute. The first night was spent shuddering and shivering in an extremely basic family run house, waiting for a briefly warming meal, before quickly heading to the comfort and heat of a rented sleeping bag, at the embarrassing time of 9pm.
First night´s camp
Day two turned out to be far better than anticipated, after we were told in the tour agency that most of the lakes and geysers were closed due to heavy snowfall, we were then informed by the guide that he would attempt to reach all of them. Heading out across the barren and frozen landscape of white capped mountains, towering volcanoes and icy plains, we first stopped at the inapproriately named "Yellow Lake", which due to the shockingly low temperatures was almost entirely frozen over and therefore more "White Lake" than any other colour.
This was soon followed by a lunch break at the amazingly warming hot-springs, which maintain a temperature of over 35 degrees, a perfect respite from the mind numbing winds and artic temperatures. Watching how quickly people can strip off and jump into the steaming waters before their limbs loose function, is also highly amusing.
The day then ended with a trip to "Green Lake" which lies on the border of Chile, so much so that the volcano at whose base it sits is considered to be half Chilean. The fact that we could make it so close to the border without actually being able to cross it was quite annoying, however, having booked the 4 day tour from Tupiza, I was now glad that I had not gone for the 3 day tour from Uyuni (which I later heard from many angry travellers was extremely disappointing as they weren´t allowed to do half the things we got to do, due to the extreme weather).
That night we stopped at yet another extremely basic hostal, with no running water at all (just a tank of murky liquid, which later froze solid overnight), on the shores of the "Coloured Lake". Due to a high consentration of fine algae in the water, the lake turns an intense red colour and attracts flocks of flamingoes, who feed on the said algae, and gives the lake its unimaginative name. Unfortunately there were no flamingoes by the shores of the lake, however we spotted some in the distance, which the guide was happy to allow us to hike to. The desceptive perspective around the lake meant that the 2 minute stroll we had anticipated ended up turning into a 20 minute trek over frozen shores, only to have the ice crack just as we were approaching the flamingoes causing all but four of them to fly away.
That night temperatures dropped to -20 degrees (not accounting for the gale force winds outside), and so a quick meal huddles around the smallest fire in Bolivia was very quickly followed by a hasty retreat to bed. The howling winds and cracked windows of our dorm room meant it was not the most peaceful night imaginable. Waking up to even stronger winds, and ever falling temperatures, we loaded the jeep as quickly as we could and huddled in for warmth as the sun weakly rose above the snowy mountains.
The third day would have to be described as nothing short of a write off. Travelling into the dry desert landscape, with winds that can pick up sand and strip the paint from nearby buildings, it was a painful experience even stepping out of the jeep. Despite this we did venture out once or twice to view some interesting rock formations, all the while shielding ourselves from the stinging sandy gusts.
Shortly after this however, we found ourselves having to creep through a full on sand storm, stopping only briefly in the shelter of a couple of deserted ghost towns.
Broken down jeeps
After a long day of driving, having to endure the guides fanatical obsession with awful 80´s music and musical theatre songs, we arrived at our third and final hostal. Entirely made of salt (walls, tables, chairs, etc), and with hot showers and warmer rooms, it was luxury. The fact that you had to pay to use the hot shower meant that none of us actually bothered anyway (what´s a fourth day when you´re already covered in three days worth of dirt). I also have to point out that when I say the hostal is entirely made of salt, I just mean the tourist areas. If you happen to venture into the areas where the guides stay or where the kitchens are, you´ll notice it´s just bricks like the rest of the buildings.
The final day began with an early morning drive into the heart of the salt flats, for a spectacular sun-rise. Fighting off the intense chill running right through to the bone, we stood and watched as the sun slowly appeared over the horizon, casting pale purple shadows over the surrounding mountains, and shimmering the white blanket of salt within.
We then followed a convoy of other jeeps to the cactus island, where we were fortunate enough to witness an important Bolivian festival. August the 1st is the day the Bolivians pay their respects to Pachamama (Mother Earth), and celebrate it by sacrificing a llama at the top of the island. They also lay out several offerings and sprinkle them with alcohol, before skinning the llama and cutting out its heart and lungs. One of the worshippers will then inflate the lungs so that they can be inspected carefully, to ensure they are suitable as an offering. In addition, there is also music and ritual sayings involved in the ceremony.
The final part of the day, the part I wasn´t particularly looking forward to, was the famous salt-flat perspective photoshoot. Being a tourist tradition, and featured in every blog of the salt flats, this cliche had really bugged me since first researching the trip. Having said that, once there, I have to admit that it is impossible not to take part. Unfortunately, the other people in my group didn´t seem to undertand the principles of perspective, so the best photos were ones I took with their cameras. The ones with me in them, I later found out, were all slightly off, but still good fun to be involved in. Therefore, I swallow my synicism, and grudgingly fall in line with every other blog to present a few Bolivian salt flat perspective photos.
The day finally ended with a farewell lunch on the salt flats, a quick visit to the salt mining mounds, and a short drive to Uyuni. Having always been so anti-tours, I have to admit, that the past four days have been amazing. With unbelievable scenery, fascinating landscapes, unbearable temperatures, great company, and no hassle, it´s probably the best tour I could have hoped for. Bear in mind that much of the trip is spent in the confines of a cramped jeep, so fellow travellers will make or break the journey, but for the experience it comes highly recommended.