Gonna take your brains to another dimension...!

Trip Start Mar 16, 2009
Trip End May 29, 2009

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, April 12, 2009

Friday 10th April - Sunday 12th April

Here begins the recount of one of the most amazing experiences we've had on this continent. I've done this ten years before too, but to see it again was a dream come true for me as the experience is truly surreal.

The plan was to take a 3-day 4WD jeep tour from San Pedro de Atacama into the Bolivian Altiplano and all the way north to Uyuni, seeing a cluster of some of the most awesome other-dimensional places along the way. It is not an exaggeration when I say that the sights here are of places you cannot find elsewhere on this planet, or would even believe might exist...

Firstly, a crossing into Bolivia with our tour company, Estrella del Sur. We were in jeeps of 6 people. We had to undergo the usual administration that goes with border crossings and without much surprise, it was harder to leave Chile than it was to enter Bolivia. Bathroom breaks were not the best, behind the jeep for quickies and an abandoned bus had been lovingly placed at the border crossing for those who need a longer break! Our ascent was steep that morning; from San Pedro's 2500 m doubling to a ground level of 5000 m.

The gallery of weird and wonderful sights began with visits to Laguna Verde and Blanca (Green and White Lakes), coloured this way due to deadly Arsenic (Green) mineral deposits. We made our way to another thermal pool where people were taking the opportunity for a dip. Unlike ten years ago, this was no longer just a simple natural pool, a man-made pool had been constructed with a nearby restaurant and paying toilets and changing rooms nearby, all very efficient and a sign of pervading tourism in the region taking effect! Our altitude climbed steeply towards the 5000 m mark as we hit the Sol de Manana geysers; which are spores of sulphuric pools, with a palatte of blends of sulphur colours. We'd been well-advised to carry and drink lots of water during these days as dehydration at high altitude was common; and here was a prime example of how headaches can set in. Angela was feeling worse for the wear at this point; I was worried about the altitude effects on her, but there is no way of effectively knowing in advance how badly someone can be affected. Fitness, age, health - none of these are relevant to determining how sick you become, if at all.

We made it to our accommodation for the night; set at 4,700 m altitude. On my last visit here, this is where the altitude sickness really kicks in. Sleeping and resting at high altitude (when you're not acclimatised) is difficult as the air is thinner, causing natural discomfort in the form of headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, dehydration, respiration difficulty and sickness. The best weapons against this were plenty of fluids, light meals and coca leaves, which Angela did not take well to. We had lunch here, with plans to head towards Laguna Colorado afterwards before returning to spend the night.

The lake has a dramatic burnt red colour to it, caused by the Borax mineral deposits in the region. It is populated by swathes of pink flamingoes wandering and walking on these waters in packs. We indulged in beautiful scenic photography and filming of the lakes, nearby mountains and the flamingoes themselves as they waded and flew across the landscape. The impending sunset helped to redden our view of things. Angela's condition deteriorated as nausea kicked in, a sign of things to come...

Back at the accommodation; we had dinner, but we were all starting to feel crap in one way or another - mostly via headaches, the pills were coming out an Ibuprofen and Paracetamol were part of the diet alongside the food (or whatever we could eat of it). Poor Angela started to develop all of the aforementioned symptoms, culminating in her being sick quite a lot. Luckily we had a doctor amongst us who prescribed a course of anti-sickness drugs and electrolyte drinks to restore Angela's stomach balance, as she couldn't hold food down at this point.

Day two - after a night which was mostly restless for many of us with night-time toilet stops and many others being sick too, we emerged and headed off after a light breakfast. Angela was exhausted, but able to keep some food down, which was a good sign. Onto 5 more lagoons on this day; but after the wonder of the preceding days, you got a sense of deja vu from these visits - fantastic colours, reflections, flamingoes and Vicunas along these landscapes. We did come across some fantastic rock formations via the Arbol del Piedra, forming unusual Dali-esque shapes. We were able to get some good views of the volcanoes in this region, especially Licancabur, memorable due to its symmetrical shape. By lunch, I was feeling the loss of appetite myself. The effects were more delayed on me this time, than 10 years ago. We eventually made it to our next night's accommodation after some long driving across the rocky and bumpy landscape - this is what these vehicles are made for, and it's important to understand why the vehicles need to be in such good condition. Our driver Mario explained that the vehicles were never replaced, but the parts for them were in plentiful supply, as all the companies bought the same make and model of vehicle in order to economise on part replacement.

Only a single hot shower cubicle here with a boy ready to collect some Bolivianos for this privilege. I'd decided early on to be smelly rather than use the cold showers in the cold climate, and this shower looked lukewarm at best. Sleeping here was better, as we had lowered our altitude, and our appetites were coming back.

Day three - a good day, for the reasons that most of the altitude sickness symptoms were going, and the climax of this trip lay ahead. Today we were due to visit the Salar de Uyuni, the highest and largest salt desert in the world. Surreal is the best adjective I can supply here. We began early, in order to catch the sunrise at the Isla del Pescado, an unusual island in the middle of this white expanse of salt desert, shaped like a fish. The island is also unusual as it houses Cacti, some of which are 1000's of years old. We made it to the top of the island in the nick of time to catch the sunrise.

Then began the fun and the silly photo opportunities. When you're in a place where sheets of white meet the horizon, you can take silly distance photos that look well, just silly (but fun!). With white salt flats as far around as the eye can see, you'd feel as if you'd reached the twilight zone. We drove onwards through this salt plain, learning that it was about 70 cm deep on average, until we came to liquid deposits in the salt itself, where Mario attempted to mine salt crystals from the trapped deposits. Some of us managed to put a foot right in it as the thin ice crust cracked under their feet with amusing results. One brave photographer in our group chose to tie himself onto the roof of our 4WD as we drove along the flats and snap some funny pictures in the process.

The touristy sights resumed, as we encountered an ex-hotel made of salt (I'd been here ten years ago when the hotel was active and played pool here) - it had now been turned into a museum depicting furniture and animals all made of salt. As we drove on we saw the mounds of salt mines littering the increasingly crowded landscape, and stopped at the nearby town selling salt crystals, amongst other handicrafts. Final stop was an abondoned railway cemtery on the outskirts of Uyuni, with rusting hulks of train on the tracks. This railway had been popular until the 1950's until Uyuni's prominence as a communications centre lost way to neighbouring towns.

And so ended our 4WD adventure, as we pulled into Uyuni itself. We'd endured the altitude - you might ask why go through all that; the answer is the Inca trail itself, which goes at high altitude. Spending time at high altitude early would be the best preparation for combating the trail; and give Angela the best chance to do it successfully, as the symptoms would largely have disappeared by the time we did it.

[Next chapter involves Uyuni and La Paz... and the reason these blogs are running so late!]
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