the Bolivian Altiplano
01.12.2008 - 03.12.2008 22 °C
Although 3 days 4WD driving through the Bolivian desert may not appeal to all, it was an exhilarating experience. We thoroughly enjoyed the magnificent scenery,wildlife and a 4WD tour like no other.
After making a naive choice of tour companies we were pleasantly surprised. Arriving at their door step at 8am to find out that three other passengers on our booked tour have had to cancel for various reasons. Usually the tour is for minimum of 4 people and max 6, but all other scheduled passengers canceled without asking for a refund so we were in for a private tour. Yep just the two of us and a local Bolivian guide in Toyota Land cruiser.
The border between Chile and Bolivia is separated by a vast mountain range, so our three day trip included most of the environmental phenomenons located on the Bolivian Altiplano. After completing the formalities of immigration into Bolivia in a small shack between two volcanoes, we began our tour. Our tour guide Noel spoke little English but this was no barrier, as my Spanish comprehension keeps improving and it was a chance to really stretch my speaking skills. Our first stop was at the Laguna Blanca (white). The lagoon presented us with the first opportunity to observe the three varieties of flamingo native to Latin America. Beautiful birds who live in some of the most desilate landscapes. In contrast to the abundant life in the white Laguna, across the way there was Laguna Verde (green), its dramatic color is due to the high copper, arsenic and other mineral sediment on the floor of the lake. These two Laguna are set amongst the adjacent volcanoes in the southwest point of Bolivian national park at 4300 meters altitude. This landscape is absolutely foreign and surreal.
After a short drive we stopping off to enjoy a thermal pool which overlooks another big lagoon. Along the way we witnessed a few small tornadoes, which stir up the loose salt and clay sediments to form the funnel. A site we could t capture in photo it appears almost transparent. This tour of the national park is very popular with all the tourists so there were plenty of other 4WD making the journey, but most were packed to the brim with 6 passengers while we enjoyed the comforts of the entire back seat.
Real altitude sickness set in when we were approaching the highest point in our journey of 4900 meters, another small stop of view some geysers. Our head was feeling the pressure, its a strange feeling, having to of consciously take deeper breaths more frequently to relieve the anxiety. Tim had tingling sensations in his fingers and toes from the reduction of oxygen in the blood. What we felt before was nothing to the discomfort of feeling weak and a bit nauseous at this hight. Where even the physical movement of a taking a short walk or jumping up into the cabin of the truck leaves you a bit breathless and exhausted. Gladly we had some medication with us, which started to help as we began to descend.
The most spectacular site was Laguna Colorada, a lagoon that has a high algae count so it changes color according to the amount of light available. We arrived to witness it transcending between purple, orange and deep red, depending on the angle of the view. White salt sediments are also visible on the lagoona, creating a delicious effect of alternating swirls of red and white, like a giant pool of strawberries and cream.
At 2pm we arrived in our accommodation, with the view of the lake, the flamingos and llamas. The accommodation is very simple, dorm rooms for 6 with no running water. Here the temperature dropped to 3 degrees, forcing us to layer up and dig out the sleeping bags. The Bolivia hospitality offered us some Coca tea to releave the symptoms of altitude sickness, it tastes like a green tea and really does helps to reduce the headache. The next morning we woke up without any symptoms.
Day 2 had fewer highlights as the main agenda was to cover the distance of the national park and finish the day on the edge of Salar de Uyuni. : after an early rise we took off in our truck to cover the length of the various desert landscapes. Dali desert was the painted surreal landscape seen in dreams. We tried to climb the rocks but even small psychical exercise was still a challenge.
On this day our guide Nole showed us the serious nature of four wheel driving in Bolivia. There are no roads here only tracks left by other vehicles, but most of the time he chose to make his own way. Same of the more hairy moments was when we climbed a steep rocky hill, just to catch a glimpse of a native possum rabbit cross. We also had to drive through a narrow ravine with giant boulders only centimeters away from the truck. But the true test of skill was descending a serpentine rocky track, where some trucks were stopping to let the passengers out to walk it. But we celebrated the relief of getting down without injuring the truck, and seeing a more pleasant dessert road ahead.
That night Tim and I got to stay in a Salt Hotel as the only guests. It got a bit lonely as we watched other 4WD pass our window to other places. The hotel is made up of giant salt blocks carved out of the Salar it overlooked. All the furniture was also created out of the salt blocks, the chairs tables and even our bed was a mattress on top of salt blocks. Although this was not the original salt hotel, which is located in the middle of the salar, we still enjoyed the novelty of being able to lick the walls.
Day 3 we headed out onto the salar de Uyuni, the largest and highest salar in the world. We drove for 50 min north towards a small island in the middle. As you can see it provides a great view of the mountain, the white landscape of the salar and is densely populated by very old cacti. Some as old as 1200 years!
After the 4WD tour we got dropped off in a small desert town of Uyuni, which we needed to leave as soon as possible. We bought tickets for the train and successfully killed 12 hours waiting for our departure. The night train was slow but got us to our destination Oruro promptly, arriving at 7.30am and jumping on the bus to La Paz. The capital city is a indescribable site, red brick houses clinch to the walls of the mountains enclosing the city like a giant arena, with a not so distant snow capped mountain towering over its people.