Revisiting the Bolivian Altiplano

We left San Pedro in Chile at 8.15 and made our way to what might be one of the highest  border posts in the world.   It was a 90 minute wait – so long in fact, several of the neighbouring vans got out tables and thermos and made breakfast.   After finally leaving Chile we drove a few km to enter Bolivia.
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Road to Bolivia after the check point

It took five minutes to clear Bolivian immigration, we didn’t even see the immigration people – someone took our passports to get stamped while we transferred our bags into Don Emilios lovely 4×4 Lexus which we had for the two of us.  Last time I was here I was squished in with six tourists like sardines – the joys of having a full time job mean that I spend a bit more these days.

Last time I was in Bolivia, it really was a bit like the Wild West.  I have vivid memories of Potosi – where you could buy sticks of dynamite to blow up in the desert, and Tupiza where butch and the sundance kid made their final stand.  I was hopeful that these traits had stood the test of time and we weren’t going to be inundated with WiFi :-).   I guess importantly last time I was here, I was unaware that in a few short weeks I would meet a lovely French dude on a bus in Peru and end up marrying him.  I quite like the symmetry in us returning here on holiday.   Hubby has always meant to come in any case as 25 years ago he worked in the Bolivian embassy in Paris.  Anyway, enough with the reminiscing….

Lagunas in Eduardo Alvarez park….

Five minutes after leaving the border we checked into the Eduardo Alvarez national park.  First stop the stunning Laguna blanca – white with Borax and fed from subterranean springs.  The reflections of the surrounding volcanoes were amazing.

 

 

We meandered a bit further, passing some hardy motorcyclists who were getting a great arm work out on the rough road to Laguna verde.  Perhaps more aptly names ‘once was verde’, as given some volcanic activity she is more brown these days with the majestic Licancabur volcano towering behind.

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Laguna Verde with Licancabur in the background
We drove on through the amazing high plains landscape, steep mountains wit swirls of red, white and black from the minerals and passed the Dali desert – largely man made as these are remnants of former buildings.
We passed a few hardy solo Cyclists.  That’s gotta be a tough gig, Cycling in this terrain would be tough enough, but combine the altitude and the infrequent access to water, I don’t know how they do it!

Steaming at 4200m in the hot springs

We stopped at Laguna salada for a dip in the hot springs of Termas de polces, which I had blissfully to myself for 15 minutes before the horses arrived and then we had and a pretty decent lunch of chicken, pasta and veges.
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In the hot springs
After that we went to check out the geysers and fumaroles at Sol de Manana at 4900m – it was headache time!
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Sol de Manana

Vivid red (the lake) and out of breath (me) at Laguna Colorada

We descended a little to the Laguna Colorada – a place that I still had vivid memories of 20 years later.  There are less flamingos than before but the colour of the water is still a stunning vivid red.   Strolling was challenging and I was having to take extra deep breathes to try and get some oxygen in….. at least we walked some, lots of people barely struggled past the first mirador.

 

 

And then we went to check out the rocks at Arbol de piedra, which was overrun by tourists, including some lovely Japanese tourists in dresses and prada flats – an excellent outfit for downtown London, a bit less excellent for the windy freezing altiplano.

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Arbol de Piedra

Headaches in the desert – humans weren’t designed for this altitude

We got to the Tayka Desert hotel around five – it was actually quite nice, and had WiFi and a hot shower.  Both hubby and I were struggling with the headaches!   I don’t normally suffer from altitude and hubby is allergic to diamox (the pill you take to avoid altitude sickness) so that is not ideal either.  Oh well, we had a nice but fast dinner watching the sun go down and we were in bed by 8pm.   Neither of us had a great night sleep.  I kept waking up struggling for air and feeling like my head was in a vice grip.   We survived but it wasn’t pleasant.   It was exactly like a terrible hangover – horrible head, nauseous and very dry mouth –  a good reminder of why I barely drink these days.   Neither of us could even get much food down the next morning (and everyone knows how much I can eat).  Others had suffered as well and apparently a couple of the guests had gotten oxygen in the middle of the night!   We probably should have…..next time!   We were looking forward to sleeping at a lower altitude the next night!
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View from Tayka Desert Hotel

Descending through the lakes

We set off around 8, and the light on the desert and mountains was lovely.  It was a lazy morning driving through some lovely altiplano lagunas –  Honda, Chiakota, Hedionda and Canapa  -all of which had lovely flocks of flamingos!   We really are in the middle of nowhere… just a bunch of dirt tracks which the locals know well enough to navigate.   The only thing out here is 4x4s with tourists…. and you can see them in the distance with the dust rising up behind them.

 

 

We headed over to the Chilean border to take a look at the ollaygue volcano but the clouds had rolled in so we couldn’t see anything.   Next up rock valley, which was the final straw in my toilet paper annoyance for this trip.   I won’t rant mid blog, but feel free to see my rant at the bottom.  Almost every bush had dirty toilet paper on it – bloody tourists!

Desolate Pueblos in the desert

We stopped in a small place in Alota for lunch – again way too much food.   The highlight was seeing a Japanese tourist in high heels and a shawl….not sure how she was walking around the rocks in those shoes.  Alota really feels like the arse end of nowhere – completely desolate, with mud constructed houses.  It feels bleak now, and it is mid summer, I can’t imagine what it is like in the winter.  We were cheered up though by some of the ‘graffiti’ on the houses reminding us not to ruin the planet

 

 

After that it was a long drive to Uyuni.  We stopped in the small pueblo of San Cristobal and had a wander around.  It was very traditional with lots of little ladies in traditional hats and skirts.  But  what warmed my heart was when we saw a bunch of young girls in smart soccer uniforms.   We followed them and watched a petty aggressive girls five a side game that almost the whole village was watching!   Excellent !!!  I love seeing young women given the opportunity to play sport.

The cemetery of trains

Fortunately we were descending all day, and by the time we arrived in uyuni we were at 3600m and we were feeling energetic enough to clamber all over the old trains at the train cemetery, which is a fun place to visit.

 

 

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Uyuni train cemetery

On the moonscape of the Salar de uyuni

We made it to our exceptionally nice hotel by 5 – the Luna Salada – which is made out of salt, and more importantlyis lovely  and  had pretty decent WiFi until the power went out.  Dinner was a decent buffet of spicy chicken and llama.  We were entertained by an incredible thunder and lightening storm outside.  The down side of this means we might not be able to drive over the Salar the next day.  Fingers crossed 🙂

 

 

after another enormous breakfast, Don Emilio collected us and we headed towards the Salar. The Salar is apparently best visited in the dry season. However, it can be spectacular in the rainy season as there is a thin layer of water on the salt which reflects perfectly like a mirror. The worst scenario is if there has been a lot of rain, and in our case it had rained all night. It didn’t start off well, it was grey and gloomy and the Salar appeared to be more muddy brown than white, but the sun came out eventually and we were half blinded by the glare. It’s hard to describe but being on the Salar is quite otherwordly…. we stopped for lunch (an elegant affair that Emilio put together) and it was like being alone in the universe with nothing as far as the eye could see apart from the vague shadows of the mountain ranges in the far distance. It was definitely worth a revisit even if the weather wasn’t optimal.

 

 

Warning – wear sunscreen, as neither of us realised how burnt we were getting, until we saw our faces that evening

Next up, the obligatory visit to the artisan market. I genuinely don’t know who buys woolly hats with llamas or jewellery boxes carved out of salt, but I did support the local commerce by buying some bath salts, which at least I will use.

Checking out the sights of uyuni

In many ways uyuni is still a pretty small town…. and it hasn’t changed much over the years apart from a couple of streets squarely aimed at tourists, restaurants with prominent WiFi signs and pretty uniform menus of Mexican, omelettes and variants of meat and chips. We wandered around town, marvelling at the goods on display in the market, and eventually retreated to the ‘best cafe in town’ for a truly awful coffee! We made it to the airport with time to spare, billed as an international airport, it’s truly tiny. But 45 minutes flying to la Paz beats 12 hours on a freezing night bus with no heating and broken windows, which was how I did it last time.

 

Quick tour of la Paz

Amaszonas had helpfully moved our flight to Asuncion forward several hours, so my planned day of wandering around la Paz went out the window. But we got up early and managed to see the major sights in town for a few hours before heading the airport.

 

 

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La Paz street art

Our favourite was the Mercado Rodriguez, bustling at 7am on a rainy Saturday morning….with many of the cholitas protecting their bowler hats with plastic bags. We also popped in for a quick mass at San Francisco. A lovely way to spend the morning. Next stop Paraguay

La Paz, December 30, 2018

CREDIT TO HUBBY FOR MOST OF THESE PHOTOS!

Additional notes

* you can book a cheap and rough version of this trip for 150-200usd locally, and can go in either direction (San Pedro to uyuni or vice versa ), and there is always space, tonnes of tours leave every day (there are literally swarms of 4wds at the main sites) – expect it to be basic.

* We paid considerably more than that for a private comfortable four wheel drive with Ruta verde and the nice hotels – the taykas which have hot water and proper rooms and decent food. Having done both versions, I was happy I paid more

* Getting there – You can drive to uyuni from la Paz in four hours or fly in 45 minutes. And you can get to San Pedro from Calama in an hour (shuttles at the airport), and calama is a two hour flight from Santiago.

* We were only briefly in la Paz, so opted for a very cheap hotel – the Rosario which was all we needed

* Bolivia is a great place to visit, and I spent a lot more time when I was last here, and would recommend coroico, (cycling the death road to get there), flying down to rurrenabaque to see the Amazon (I saw a jaguar), tupiza, potosi and of course heading overland to Peru via Titicaca. It is worth noting that while there are 100 time more tourists than 20 years ago, it is still relatively quiet compared to other tourist hotspots, so don’t be put off

Toilet paper rant – to be clear, I have no beef with people going to the toilet in the wilderness, nature calls and all that. But, why on earth do people think it is acceptable to leave toilet paper behind – it’s disgusting, it’s bad for the animals, and it ruins places. The altiplano was littered with toilet paper in ever place we went. It’s high and dry on the altiplano so that paper is NOT going to biodegrade any time soon. If you need to go to the loo, go ahead, but please stay 50m away from any water, and if you use paper, then take it with you. A ziplock bag is perfect. Or you can skip the paper and just shake dry. It’s not hard. If you need to poop, then either hold it or dig a proper hole and bury it. Travelling around west Africa on a truck with 10 women, we all got off the truck to pee in the bush, and we all bought our paper back to the truck to chuck in the trash to get burnt – it’s easy. Ok, rant over!!!