We´ve never been so high as we were during our four day tour of southwestern Bolivia, physically, reaching heights of over 5,000 meters (over 16,000 feet!), and emotionally, experiencing otherworldly landscapes that resembled nothing we´d ever seen before.
We began our journey in Tupiza, Bolivia, a dusty town surrounded by red and purple mountains, cacti and horses ready for tourists to ride (pictures attached). I rode my first horse (yes, I realize the irony of growing up in Red Bluff and never riding a horse until Bolivia), which required overcoming some fear and trusting completely in my horse to keep me safe. We mostly trotted slowly through wild landscapes- spears of red earth shooting up from the ground, shaped by centuries of wind and rain, blooming cacti and canyons with rivers flowing softly through them- but for the 30 seconds we galloped, I was exhilerated and terrified all at once. Horses are powerful animals.
After a couple days in Tupiza, we set out on our journey through the southwest which would wind through high deserts, pass colored lagoons filled with flamingos, take us over passes at heights we never imagined and would end at the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world (covering 10,582 square kilometers, or 4,086 square miles).
Our first day, we climbed up past Tupiza´s dramatic red mountains and continued south, passing secluded gold mines and wide open fields of lamas, grazing happily. During my favorite stop of the day, we climbed a large red sand dune (the first I´ve ever seen) that looked out on choppy hills, partially shaded by white clouds. Even though I had to stop and rest every few steps (we were already fairly high and physical activity at that altitude is draining), it was worth the breathlessness. We stopped in a small village to sleep, where we watched some local teenage boys play soccer on pavement, played frisbee with the little chicititos, caught a pink sunset with a breathtaking mountain as a backdrop, and were in bed by 9:00 in time for our 5 AM wake-up call.
Our second day began with car drama. There were three jeeps in our carivan, one of which died directly after leaving the pueblo. While our guides ripped things apart, climbed into the hood of the car and eventually replaced the fuel pump, we sat and watched the sunrise with sleepy eyes. After 20 more minutes of driving once the jeep was fixed, it broke down again. We were lucky enough to be stuck near a river in a canyon with the same breathtaking mountain on the horizon. We built rock offerings to Pachamama (mother earth), meditated and listening to our friend play his little flutes. These couple hours were some of my favorite during the whole four days; unplanned, secluded, peaceful and full of complete surrender to the situation.
After a few hours, we were on the road again, without the dead jeep and the passengers it carried (they caught up with us the next day). We spent time at Spanish colonial ruins, filled with little animals resembling a squirl/rabbit hybrid that lived in the rocks. After stopping for lunch, we came to an area filled with natural springs emmerging from the ground, creating lush green oasis valleys admist the dry desert. Lamas flocked there, grazing and drinking the fresh water. We arrived at my favorite destination of the entire trip around early evening, a natural thermal bath (soothing near 100 degrees) that overlooked a light blue lagoon with light purplish mountains as a backdrop. In this moment, sitting in the bath and looking out on Bolivia, I felt completely at peace, as if nothing beyond that minute mattered. I cherish moments like those, they don´t happen every day.
We finished the day seeing a field of geysers before arriving at our lodging for the night (not much more than a wall of adobe bricks and beds sitting on cement). A couple of us helped our cook with dinner since the other cook had been stranded with the broken-down jeep, although we soon realized she was better off alone (her peeling and dicing skills put us to shame). Chris and I watched a sky full of stars and a lightening storm in the distance while sipping on hot totties (the best medicine for a cough- which I was dealing with) as a nearly full moon rose. My fourth full moon on this trip reminded me how long I´ve been away.
Our third day began at 6 AM with the Lago Colorado, a red lake filled with 3 different spieces of flamingos. After marveling at the scene, we drove on to discover the most otherwordly landscapes of the journey, we felt as if we´d left earth and stumbled upon mars. We played upon giant rocks that looked as if they´d fallen from the sky, seeming completely out of place in the middle of a desert. We passed between rainbow colored mountains, with snow just barely dusting their tops. We arrived at a few different lagoons, mostly white in color because they were filled with borax. We had lunch near another flamingo-filled lagoon then headed on towards Uyuni, where we´d be sleeping. Along the way, we discovered the colorful quinua crops, which surprised us with their shades of lime green and deep maroon. We passed more huge, wild rock formations and a black lagoon that apparently eats people but sustains a duck population.
Our fourth day, we rose around 4:30 AM, skipped breakfast and headed straight for the Salar to watch the sunrise. We were lucky enough to have a vivid show, full of deep yellows, rosy pinks and a minute of red. After eating breakfast in a building made completely of salt, we played with perspective shots on the Salar, easy to make because the landscpae is so flat and seems to go on forever. We were upset by how little time we actually had on the salt flats, given that the whole tour is based on that experience, but since the Salar is flooded this time of year, it´s impossible to cross through the middle like the tours usually do.
Overall, regardless of our tour company´s complete lack of communication and organization (we do NOT recommend going with La Torre, if you´re looking for an agency), we had an amazing few days that will be impossible to forget.
We made our way to northern Chile, where a whole new set of unexpected adventure was awaiting us, much of which we are still waiting to discover. As of this moment, we are in Calama, waiting on a new carbarator for the car we bought off another traveler yesterday. Adventure, most definitely, even before the actual journey begins! To be continued…
Riding horses near Tupiza
Sunset in the village we slept in our first night
Sunrise while waiting for the jeep to be fixed
Making offerings to Pachamama
Spanish colonial ruins
Oasis in the desert- lamas in the natural springs
Sunrise on the Salar
Playing on the Salar