The Altiplano

From San Pedro de Atacama we followed the well-trodden tourist path up into the Andes and over the border to Bolivia.  One of the benefits of going via this route is that you can take in the beauty of the Bolivian high country (Altiplano) as part of your transit.  However, stories of dodgy operators are rife both online and amongst backpackers in San Pedro de Atacama so we ensured our expectations were set very low.

We were taken by bus to the Bolivian border early one morning.  The border crossing comprised of a single building halfway up an icy mountainside.  We must have been high as it was very cold, snow from several weeks ago still surrounded us, showing no sign of melting.  Immigration was quick to clear, no one wanted to stay outside longer than they had to.  Also, the fact that no one really cared what you brought into Bolivia from Chile helped the process.

“Welcome to Bolivia! Where nothing is safe and anything is possible” our bus driver gestured to the nothingness in front of us as he dropped us at our Landcruiser convoy.

Although our tour company is regarded as one of the best, the one downfall was that is was a tour solely in Spanish. While our Spanish skills were improving, we only picked up a small amount of the safety briefing as we headed up to the national park entry. However, we had the good fortune of sharing the journey with a group of Europeans, all with similar Spanish skills to ours.  Through our combined translation abilities and a very patient driver, we managed to get the general gist of what was being said.

Our first stop for the day was at the stunning Laguna Blanca.  Being so used to hot desserts it took a while to grasp that the surface of the lagoon was not salt crusted, but frozen.  The reflective surface made for stunning pictures.

As we continued further into the mountains, what began as a road, turned into a dirt trail and then into nothing at all.  I have no idea how our driver navigated, with barely any landmarks to warn of the dry river beds full of ice that would open up in front of you at a moments notice. We were extremely glad that he was both experienced and cautious with his driving.

Our next major site was the Dali Valley.  The landscape of this valley had inspired Salvador Dali on his journey through Bolivia and you could see how much he borrowed from this desolate scenery.  Distance and perspective were blurred by the sheer scope.  It was equally beautiful and eerie with only the sound of wind when the car was parked.

We continued to our next stop at some thermal springs.  We did question whether it was worth going into the water given the air temperature was barely above freezing.  Luckily, we decided to brave it.  It was our warmest bath for the next two weeks.  Bolivia doesn’t really do hot water well.

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That afternoon we continued to the highest point of our journey near the Sol de Manana geysers.  We got a firsthand taste of the effects of altitude as we crested the 5km high point.  Cass maintains she was napping at this point, however, it was a fine line between napping and passing out.  We only descended to 4700m when we stopped for the night at the famous red lagoon (Laguna Colorada).  There was time before sunset to go and see the incredible flocks of flamingos feeding on the red algae. It was one of the moments where you feel like you are in an Attenborough documentary.

Once back at our accommodation, we braved the approaching cold of night to watch the sunset from a hill overlooking the town.  Although calling the lakeside community a town was a bit of a stretch given the 2 hostels and handful of local buildings that huddled together at the foot of the surrounding hills.  That night wasn’t exactly the greatest sleep of our trip.  Altitude sickness took hold of both of us in the form of throbbing headaches and insomnia.  Safe to say, we were glad to begin the journey to lower altitude the next morning.

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Our first stop on the second day was at a natural rock formation in the Siloli desert.  After the before dawn (and freezing) wake up, the sun was very welcome in warming us up. We then continued up again to another high point in the Siloli desert. Fortunately, not as high as the first day.  We stopped to take in the empty expanse of sand plains with literally nothing but mountains surrounding us.  Our driver decided that the best match for this serenity was some doof-doof played as loud as his car speakers would handle.  When the music finally stopped ready for our next leg of the journey, we were again reminded of the vastness and emptiness of this place.

On our descent down a dry creek bed, we were lucky enough to encounter two Viscacha, rabbit-like rodents that inhabit rocky alpine areas in South America.  These two seemed to have an existing business arrangement with our driver as they approached the car boldly and waited patiently until he produced two carrots from the boot of the car.  We all had turns of feeding them which was pretty cool. It was a bit of a Disney princess moment.

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A series of lagoons lead us to our lunchtime stop at Laguna Canapa where we were treated to more flamingos and a plethora of other tourists.  Unfortunately, many tourists ignored the plentiful warnings from tour guides and clear signage of where not to walk past.  It never fails to amaze us how little regard some travellers have for wildlife and delicate ecosystems.  We did hope that a flock of flamingos would decide to take down one of these aforementioned tourists. Unfortunately, they seemed to be fairly placid in nature.

After lunch, we continued onto the Chiguana Salt Flats.  The train line that crossed this salt flat made for some good photography opportunities.  It was then onto a second nights accommodation of the tour at a “salt hostel” on the edge of the salt flat.  We were curious to what made a hostel a “salt hostel”.  We soon discovered the building to be comprised of bricks mined from the salt flats and a floor of crushed salt flakes.  Apparently, the salt had healing powers, however, we both found the fact that our feet got crusted in salt flakes wherever we walked to be a bit of a downside.

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The next day we all woke just before 4am to make it to the highlight of the trip for sunrise; the Salar de Uyuni.  Despite initially grizzling about the early wake-up, as the sun crested the horizon we understood why it was necessary.  The salt flats were beautiful in the early morning sunrays.  The only thing that stopped us from taking more photos was the biting cold outside the car.

We continued onto a stop at a “salt island” for breakfast.  These natural formations rose above the expanse of the salt flats, dotted with cacti and home to a range of lizards and birds.  I did have to keep a close eye on Cass who was very close to stealing a cactus for her home collection.  Our next stop on the salt flats was for some perspective shots much to the delight of our group members.  I have to admit it was more fun than I thought but harder than I expected to get the angles right.

After a short stop at a local tourist market and a trainwreck yard, we finished our tour in Uyuni.  We were extremely glad to arrive at our hotel for the night and discover they had both hot water and internet.  We had one more day in Uyuni before travelling onto Sucre by night bus.  In this time we discovered that there is very, very little to do in Uyuni.  We managed to eat reasonably good pizza at a local café owned by an American and visited the “Extreme Fun Pub”.  The Extreme Fun Pub could have easily been renamed “Backpackers for Binge Drinking” with some absolutely absurd drinking challenges that I have no doubt would have left us unconscious or vomiting… or both.  Unsurprisingly, Australians did feature frequently in the list of record holders that lined the wall.

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