Wary after the Peru trek group experience, I had Claudia, the 'Tupiza Tours' saleswoman, chuckling as I explained that I was happy to wait around for a few days for a decent group for the 4 day jeep tour, but that on no account was I to be lumped in with any young gap-year kids...! The next morning I found I had got lucky, and it would have been hard to find 3 better jeep-mates: Catherine, a talented musician and bike tour leader from Dublin (and a mere 5 years my junior!); Julien, a young French fella, with a great accent, who had lived in Dublin for year; and George, from the U.S. (but subtle with it!), a carpenter by trade, but a musician by nature, with his guitar and harmonicas in tow.
And so we set off, marveling at the red rock formations and cactus-studded mountain sides surrounding us even as we left the town. And we continued in much the same vein for the entire trip... the road deteriorated and became a track before becoming just miles of gravel or sand, through which our skilled driver/guide
Martin picked a course, but the scenery just kept getting more and more impressive. By lunchtime on day one we were high on the altiplano, picnicking on the grass alongside herds of lama, who appeared to be dressed for a party, with bright-coloured ribbons on their ears, though these were, of course, just as a form of I.D, tag. The
picnic was excellent: Martin's wife, Giovanna, was our cook and she managed to prepare the most imaginative
vegetarian tour food I've yet tasted - usually the veggie option is an egg but our taste buds were tickled with lentil burgers, salads, cheese balls, curried veg, pasta and fresh sauce... it was delicious. Between Giovanna's meals and Martin's expert driving and mechanical maintenance, along with their lovely personalities, I felt we had a great team leading us.
The blue skies clouded over as we bounced along in the jeep towards our first stopover, in the village of San Antonio de Lipez, at over 4,000 m, with the bulk of a snow
capped volcano looming over us. George and I got hauled into a game of football by a group of local kids and, while George ran around, panting in the thin air, I disgraced myself in goal by missing every save I attempted. Enough! It was getting cold and it was time to tuck into Giovanna's hearty soup and crawl under the covers. Though sleep time was short, as we were to get up at 5am, it seemed to be a very long night... Poor Julien got sick, either from the food or the altitude, while the rest of us struggled to sleep on board-like mattresses, and when I did manage it, I would wake gasping for air, unable to take a deep breath at this height.
Falling into the jeep on morning two, we all dozed on and off, while Julien spent most of the day asleep, still suffering badly. Our first stop was an abandoned village, known as the ghost village, whose population deserted, believing the Devil to be resident, as they could see no other explanation for the deaths of so many groups of their people... it turned out that the strong poisonous gases in local mines were responsible, but the locals, now settled in our stopover of last night, still hold the superstition that the strange noises heard at night in the old village are the music of the Devil. It certainly had an eerie feel to it as we walked through the ruined buildings in the dawn, watching the snowy peak illuminated by the early rays, and the sunlight spill down the orange slopes.
Several mineral lagoons were on our route, and we caught strange smells wafting through the air as the blues, greens and reds of these lakes emitted their pungent gases... the contents of these waters make them unsuitable for bathing: the beautiful delicate green of the Laguna Verde, for example, is a result of its high arsenic content! But the effect of the wind whipping up a green and white froth around its edges gave it a live quality which was fabulous to watch. While lunch was knocked up, we took a dip in some safe
hot springs, relaxing our muscles which were jarred from the jolting of the jeep, while observing the shapes of the conical Volcan Licanbur and the other mountains dotting the horizon.
The afternoon's main attractions were the bizarre rock formations spread across the sand, reminiscent of the Dali paintings, after which the area is named - El Desierto de Dali - and the bubbling, steaming volcanic geysers at Sol de Manana - but again, the bright blue skies of morning had left us and at this point the hail began, in the freezing 5,000m temperatures, so I stuck an arm and a leg out into the driving hail and sulfur stink, and then decided to appreciate the sight through the window! Sleep came easily that night, after our twelve hour drive, as we descended to an easier altitude, and I slept like the dead.
The glowing shades of the rust-toned Laguna Colorada were our first stop on day three, coloured by algae and plankton, with contrasting white surface deposits of sodium, magnesium, borax and gypsum. Again we saw large flocks of flamingos, feeding in the water, filtering their meal from the water with their large beaks. Yesterday's birds had been at a greater distance but we had clear views here of these stunning pink creatures, whose gangly legs are swept up
when they take flight, spreading their huge wings. We continued through the Desierto de Siloli, taking photos of the weird rock formations, the 'arboles de piedras' (trees of stone), created long ago by volcanic activity. And then we sat in the wonderful tranquility and peacefulness as we waited for the return of Martin, who had driven
back to fix another jeep - it seems he is the only driver in the area with mechanic's training and he delights in the opportunity to use his skills. When the two jeeps showed up, I spoke with a couple of the other group, who were fairly fed up at this point, on their second jeep in as many days due to technical problems... I was mightily glad we were in Martin's capable hands - beautiful as this dry, barren landscape is, it would not be a great place to get stuck!
Our picnic spot today was just magnificent, on the shores of a lake, fringed with snow-dusted rocky cones and slopes, salt deposits colouring the water, and with great numbers of flamingos, even closer for viewing than before. Strolling along the water's edge, I stood and watched these elegant birds, with their long legs and graceful
necks, as they curved their beaks under the surface to probe for food. And then I followed their example and headed towards the food myself, back at the picnic table, where I enjoyed a bellyfull of Giovannaīs best, while watching a wee fox with an injured leg, prowling around for scraps.
A few more lagunas, the semi-active Volcan Ollague, straddling the Chilean border, and a small salt flat, and then we were settling into our room in the salt hotel, in which beds, tables and floor are all made from salt, and were perfectly functional, despite their odd medium. Another early night was on the cards, after another long drive, and with a very early start the next morning.
Rising at the hideously early hour of 4.30, we were soon in the jeep and driving across the Salar de Uyuni under an inky blue-black sky, bright with stars. It was not quite light when we parked and walked up the path to the top of the 'mirador' on the 'Isla de Pescadoes', for the climax of the trip, a magical sunrise over the largest salt flat
in the world. The silence and utter stillness at the top created a powerful energy, and I sat and watched the colours change as the day broke: cold blues changed to cool mauves and pinks, and the shadows of the huge cacti grew to immense proportions on the salt, as the sun appeared on the horizon and the cacti glowed orange, while the salt, stretching for miles around us, became whiter and whiter, reflecting the light under the intense blue of the sky. I was totally engrossed and
enchanted by this play of light, and fluid progression of colour, as I sat on my rock, trying to absorb the sensations. It was simply perfect. On the walk back down, I took more time to study the mighty cacti, their solid spiny trunks and the arms which gradually grow out and up to from that famous 'Mexican bandit cactus' shape. George noticed
the oldest one, at an impressive 900 years of age.
In the same way as the boabs in N.W. Australia, these plants appear to have individual personalities, with their variations in sizes and shapes, and look to be very friendly... but friendly they are not, as I discovered when I accidentally leaned against one for a photo... ouch!
Back on the salt, we munched on breakfast, and then set off for a walk around the base of this island of rock on salt, before Martin collected us and drove us off to a totally deserted area in the middle of this vast salt-scape which covers 12,106 sq. km, at an altitude of 3653m asbove sea level. And it was here that things began to get a little silly... there is
something about being in such a surreal, vast, flat, empty space of gleaming white, under brilliant blue, that has a strange effect... as Catherine said, it's a very sensual place, and when you get over that, it seems like a massive stage and you start to play on it, until you realise you are acting like one of those Japanese tourists taking silly photos of themselves 'holding' the sun... but you just can't help yourself and it's so much fun!
Extended photo shoot over, we cruised over the salt, past small mounds of the mineral and a couple of trucks collecting it for processing, after which they will sell it for a paltry amount. And before we knew it we were in the town of Uyuni, on a real road again, heading for the first cold beers in days, and a farewell as our trip ended. The others were heading north, while I had another 6 hours of jeep time, returning to Tupiza with Martin and Giovanna, on a spectacular road through high desert sand dunes, down into riverbed of brightly-coloured mineral rocks, and then twisting through Butch Cassidyīs territory, among every imaginable shade of rocky mountainside. Finally we descended into the
valley of the Rio Tupiza, where it seemed odd to see so much green, after 4 days of dust and desert. But the sky was still blue and I had great plans for the next day: to sit by the pool of my hotel with a good book and maybe even another icy cerveza, and do very little at all.
Wow! I am blown away by the beauty of Bolivia. Limited time has had me scuttling south at speed, missing the variety on offer in the rest of the country, but this south west corner has long been a goal and I was absolutely not going to miss it. It didn't disapoint. Wild, dusty, rocky, desert landscapes peppered with cacti, volcanoes, stunning coloured mineral lakes in which the elegant pink flamingos feed... itīs like a different planet to the hustle and bustle of much of South America. Itīs also one of the few places I have been on this trip that hasnīt had me thinking " I wish I had made it here 20 years ago..." It was much less developed and touristed than I had anticipated - definitely a highlight of my two years away.