20-21 Dec 2013. We were trip-planning during our stay in Mendoza. We read about a three-day 4×4 overland trip from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia. The more we read the more we wanted to do it, but we were worried about how Don would deal with the altitude. Most people do this journey in reverse, starting in Peru and adjusting to altitudes of 3000 metres or more before heading into Bolivia and facing altitudes of 4000 or more. We would be going from 2400 to 5000 in one day – that’s pretty extreme.
Interestingly enough age has little to do with how well you adjust to altitude; in fact it can even become easier with age. We knew I wouldn’t have any problems with it because last time I was in South America I’d adjusted well and hiked the Inca Trail with no problems. We just didn’t know how Don would do. Some people are just not genetically disposed to adjust. If you want to read a riveting tale about what can happen if you get serious altitude sickness read Danny Breslin’s Me and Gus on the Roof of the World. It seriously affects both mental and physical functioning and it’s a wonder he survived.
We decided to wait until we got to San Pedro de Atacama at 2400 metres to see how well we adjusted before booking any onward travel. We also didn’t want to do the backpackers’ tour, partly because when travelling with a larger group of people you can’t stop just whenever you want to; things are more regimented. Also because we like our comforts. And mostly because we’d read that although some tours say they carry oxygen, it is often just compressed air, which is useless for relieving the symptoms of altitude sickness.
We talked it back and forth for a few days. Slept on it. Don felt into his resistance and fears. His intuition told him that travelling at altitude, beginning with San Pedro de Atacama and then the trip through the High Desert of Bolivia, would be about courage, about being closer to spirit, about pushing beyond fears, above all about attitude, not altitude.
Then Don found a “luxury” tour for a price that made us gasp. Literally. We couldn’t conceive how a three-day tour could possibly cost so much. Then he found another one at half that price. We were hooked. We completely forgot that we were going to wait until San Pedro to see how we adjusted. Because paying by credit card is complicated and antiquated in Bolivia we even sent copies of our passports and credit card front and back by email to effect payment – something we would normally never do. We stepped way out of our monetary comfort zone. It was one of those times where the message was loud and clear – just do it. Two things allayed our fears; they carried oxygen, and we felt confident it would actually be oxygen, not just compressed air, and they also carried a radiophone so if there was a real emergency they could radio for help. The first two days of the tour would be through one of the most remote parts of the world. Forget about cell phones. Forget about roads even.
It was worth every penny. Those three days were one of the great highlights of our tour through South America, and I believe will remain so no matter where we go from here on.
We were collected from our San Pedro hotel early on the first morning and within less than one hour arrived at the border into Bolivia.
This is the Customs and Immigration Office at the border: a lone building in the largely uninhabited Bolivian High Desert.
This is the bathroom at the border – go hide behind the old bus. Everyone else does.
We were met at the border by Juan, our English-speaking guide, and Wilson, our driver. Yes Wilson. Apparently it’s quite a common name for boys in Bolivia. At one point we all had a laugh about Wilson the volleyball in the movie Cast Away. We loaded our gear and set off across country.
Our first long stop of the day was at a natural hot spring. Unlike the natural hot spring at Geysers del Tatio, this was a hot tub worth hanging out in – so we did. Heaven. Hot hot water and an exquisite etherial view.
At some point during the day we stopped by one of the many beautiful lagoons and Juan and Wilson, by magic it seemed, produced from the back of the 4×4 some stools to sit on, and on the tail gate proceeded to prepare for us a delicious lunch.
There is a huge geothermal field at high altitude in Bolivia just across the border from the geysers in Chile. It’s a very restless part of the earth that also includes 150 active volcanoes on the Chilean side. At Sol de Mañana (morning sun) the earth is alive, steaming and bubbling. It’s an enormous field of sulfurous boiling mud.
The steam gushes out at 200 degrees centigrade and at 120 kilometers per hour: a small example of earth’s roiling core.
And here we are at the highest point of our journey – 5000 metres or 16,500 feet – not much lower than the Everest base camps.
Sometimes the “road” looked like this
Sometimes it looked like this
There were flamingoes in every lagoon we came to. Except one. Juan told us about it and why there were no flamingoes there – probably no algae in that particular lagoon, but I don’t remember. This lagoon is red because of the red algae and it is the reason for the colour of the pink-and-red flamingoes. If you eat enough carrots your skin will turn orange. Really. I guess the flamingoes of South America eat a lot of red algae.
Every time we saw wildlife we stopped to look, to take in the magic of our surroundings, and of course to photograph. These are vicuña, a little smaller than the guanacos of Patagonia. Guanacos and llamas are both of the lama genus though different species. Vicuñas and alpacas are both of the vicugna genus. All are related to camels. Guanacos and vicuñas are wild because they cannot be domesticated. Apparently they become very depressed when penned. Llamas and alpacas are completely domesticated. We saw quite a few llamas on our journey, loose and foraging. All had tags on their ears.
Towards the end of the day we came to a surprising collection of strange and elegant rock formations, standing surrounded by the flat desert sand. This is the most iconic, and unusual.
People were climbing them. It looked like fun. I wanted to climb too. Juan was clearly worried about this idea. In the end common sense won for three reasons – the strong wind, I’d never tested the boots I was wearing for grip, and I didn’t know how much stamina I really had at that altitude. I’d been fine all day, getting out of the car at every stop, no dizziness or headaches or nausea. I didn’t try actually running, but for walking around I was fine. For Don it was a little more difficult. He took some oxygen at one point, and was generally a little slower and sat more than wandering around, but was still able to take in all we were experiencing even if he did feel a little spacey.
That first day Don chewed great wads of coca leaves all day, under instructions from Juan, with the small piece of alkali wrapped in the middle to give maximum effect. He also took headache meds. By the second day we were both doing better, feeling more aware and alert as we travelled along. The four of us got on extremely well. Juan was a fountain of information and all round good guy, and Wilson seemed joyful and openhearted and was an excellent driver. Lots of conversation, about them, about us, about Bolivia. Juan would translate for Wilson so he was included. Don and I would both also sometimes talk in our tourist Spanish. We all laughed quite a lot. At the end of the first day we said “Best day ever!”
This was our hotel for the first night. It exists solely because there is a natural spring nearby. It runs on a combination of a generator and solar panels. It is at 4500 metres, and is one of the most isolated hotels in the world. There is nothing else there. Miles and miles of high desert, and this hotel. Don asked for the oxygen cylinder to be put in our room for the night. We both felt safer that way.
Vizcachas! The next day, driving through a rocky part of the desert we saw vizcachas. We couldn’t believe it. And they just hung around for us to look at them and take photos. I think some tourist sometime came up with the word squabbit – a cross between a squirrel and a rabbit, but I like their real name better. We’d seen one before, on the day we went to the geysers in Chile, but it was nestled in between some rocks so we couldn’t see its tail. Well, that was no good. It just looked like a brown rabbit. Vizcachas are all about the tail! They are closely related to chinchillas, and although unable to rival capybaras they also are rodents of unusual size.
And then we came to the best flamingo lagoon ever. We could sit on the shore right up close and watch them, hundreds of them, doing their elegant flamingo thing. We sat there for a very long time.
I sang a lot as we travelled! I sang along with the music Wilson had playing. It was on his MP3 player but seemed to be on a continuous loop. I don’t know where the music came from. In Uyuni we heard the same songs in restaurants, and again in Copacabana. All over Bolivia it seems they were playing the music of our youth. It was all music from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The first ever Beatles’ songs – I was only 14 when they came out and I still remembered all the words. The Beatles, Roberta Flack (I’m about 23 by now), Dire Straits (now I’m late 20’s), Sting, Simon and Garfunkel, Tracy Chapman (into my 30’s now), Whitney Houston and much more. So much fun as we travelled through the ever-changing landscape.
We ended the day at the famous train graveyard. Railways were built between 1888 and 1892 and mainly used by the mining companies. With the collapse of the mining industry in the 1940’s the trains were abandoned, and there they sit to this day. I loved the trains, but was first captivated by the kids playing there. I learned all their names, and that they live nearby in Uyuni. At first they were shy, but soon started playing hide and seek amongst the trains as I photographed them. I so love being able to speak even just a little of the local language so I can ask what is your name and where do you live to break the ice.
At the end of the day our cry was, yet again, “Best day ever!”
Next post: That night we stayed at a luxury hotel situated at the edge of the great Salar de Uyuni, one of the largest salt flats in the world. The hotel is made of salt. Yes, bricks made of salt. We spent the next day on the salt flats. UnBoliviable!
In the interests of full disclosure I wish I could claim that I had come up with the word unBoliviable, but I first heard it from Juan. It turns out that the word was coined by Frederic Savariau. He first used and published it in a magazine called The Lama Express on the cover of the October 2005 issue with the title: Trekking the UNBOLIVIABLE !!! He also used it at the same time on the front page of a tourism web site called bolivia-guide.com.
You can book this tour at Ruta Verde Tours. We highly recommend it, and we have not been paid to say so.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.