Published: May 26th 2012May 5th 2012
I love vast open spaces.
With no people.
Preferably with some wildlife, though that’s negotiable.
When Jo and I first looked into overland trips in South America in the chill grey of late December, Dragoman’s JQB120312 expedition jumped off the screen at me because of the big emptinesses it offered. Patagonia was one; the Bolivian Altiplano another. Yes, sorry Mum, you know I’m a culture-cretin at times, but these beat Machu Picchu hands-down on my wish-list. I reckoned I could always visit an Inca ruin or two under my own steam, but how often would I get the chance to drive across this extraordinary landscape? As I had found with the Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Plateau, the Altiplano is something which can really only best be tackled by overlanding.
(It’s paradoxical, but the thing I find hardest about overlanding is the constant people-ing, the very limited options to escape from my co-travellers and get out on my own. Yet only by adopting this enforcedly sociable mode of travel can I get to the emptiness that I love so much.)
After our snow-kyboshed first effort to cross into Bolivia from San Pedro de Atacama, the travel
at last, a niece in the hand...
me and Jo on the Salar de Uyuni
gods were kind to us the next day… at least for a while. We queued patiently in the early morning light to exit Chile, and then scrambled back into the trucks for the ascent back up the Paso de Jama, turning left this time to bump across to the Bolivian border. There we met the diligent and delightful Braulio who would guide us across the Altiplano as far as Uyuni. This is no route for the unwary, with road conditions – and exact location – changing in the seasons. For some reason, Mamacita’s guide hadn’t made it to the border post, so we drove in convoy, a companionable pair of white-and-orange trucks slowly making their way through the massive and imperious landscape of the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa.
Altitude was to continue to be very much a factor in our lives and healths for at least the next three weeks. The extra day in San Pedro had helped a little in the acclimatisation process, but the first day in Bolivia was always going to be challenging. The border itself is at around 3,500m asl but, for reasons that what I can only imagine boil down to
sheer perversity, the Bolivian Customs Office, several hours further on, announces happily that it is at 5,020m and the altimeter on my watch didn’t disagree. We moved around in a dreamy light-headed manner, wondering just how far we could push ourselves.
Whatever I might have expected of this extraordinary landscape, it was much more and much less. More dramatic, more strange, more remote; less vegetation (it would be more than ten days before we saw lush greenery again), less traffic, fewer animals, fewer signs of life. The Reserva Nacional initially seems devoid of plant-life, compensating in colour with its spectacular lagunas, white, green and red, thanks to their various mineral components and/or the algae that inhabit their waters. Instead, patches of snow broke up the desert around us for the first hour or two. At Polques – little more than a car-park, with toilets that redefine “basic”, for the local thermal springs – we stopped for a dust-enhanced truck lunch, and found ourselves in the company of a small fleet of 4x4s, a popular way of crossing this intimidating terrain, and the only other vehicular life we would see that day.
Just beyond the milky red waters of
Laguna Colorado, the travel gods decided our luck had run out… or at least Mamacita’s had. The four Drago staff conferred and contemplated and scratched their heads. I went for a walk, intrigued at how far across totally flat and seemingly featureless landscape I could walk in fifteen minutes, before turning round and coming back to the trucks. Probably not the best idea given my brush with altitude sickness the day before, but it felt great to be stretching my legs and to be briefly on my own in this emptiness. When I got back, Yana was looking full-to-bursting. Mamacita wasn’t going to be fixed anytime soon, so we’d be leaving Juan and Nadia to tinker further – an unenviable task in the chill of the Altiplano night – while Ross and Anki took both sets of punters on to the hospedaje in Villamer. When we finally reached our destination – a hiccup of scattered buildings in equally lifeless landscape, as we’d see when the sun rose the next day – it was late, but that evening’s cook group got to work making dinner and managed to stretch it round the extra mouths. Meantime, Ross and Braulio hired a 4x4
and, equipped with thermoses of soup and extra blankets, returned to the Reserva on a mercy mission.
It was to be another week before Mamacita rejoined us, fully repaired (though I must admit that the cynics amongst us touched a lot of wood when we heard this). Meantime, Yana paid her debt for Mamacita’s looking after us ten days’ earlier, squeezing everyone on as far as Potosí a few days’ later, at which point the Mamacita folks would take to public transport for the final day’s journey to La Paz. When Anki and Ross came to write up their diary for the Santiago to La Paz leg, they headed it “We are family – I’ve got all my sisters with me! Sisters Mamacita and Yana take on the Andes together”. It had been very much a team effort by the Drago staff and we had all rubbed along remarkably well, despite the uncertainty, frustrations and often-cramped conditions.
Meantime, back in Villamer, we were only a day into Bolivia. The next morning, we drove to the curious petrified lava formations in the Valley of Rocks, wondering just how many coca leaves we should have been chewing in order to
make sense of some of rocks’ shape-names. In Uyuni, we drew breath. We would be at the delightful Hotel Toñito for the next two nights – a degree of permanence and certainty that we hadn’t had since leaving Salta a week earlier – and celebrated by tucking into its legendary pizza, courtesy of what might well be the world’s highest pizza oven, thanks to its American owner.
The next day, the weirdnesses of Bolivian landscape took a new turn. This time, our destination was the blinding and endless expanse of the Salar de Uyuni, the largest and highest salt lake in the world, otherwise known as an oversized playground for active imaginations and perspective-bending photographs. The Hotel even stocks an assortment of props for its guests to borrow. Silliness ruled, and we played like kids. Mollie and Kim battled toy dinosaurs, Stuart whispered sweet nothings in Sarah’s ear from the palm of her hand, I relished having a niece half my height, Zoe stood on top of Mollie’s treasured Marmite jar, Anki stirred us all up in a pot, Kim blew us away with her hairdryer, Jo and I alternately lent against a bar of Cadburys and emerged from
bottle of wine, and everyone rode on Mollie’s inflatable orca.
Things would get serious again in Potosí. Once one of the richest cities in the world thanks to the Cerro Rico silver mine, it is now less than a ghost of its former self, but the colonial architecture of the centre is gorgeous, and the narrow streets endlessly enticing. The mine now has a ghoulish attraction for tourists, a window into the unchanging medieval conditions in which the remaining miners still work. But I’d long since decided that it wouldn’t be on my list. While it would, undeniably, fascinate me, I am too prone to claustrophobia these days to be prepared to take the risk. Meantime, Fi had banned Jo from going anywhere near it – stories of trapped Chilean miners being too fresh in her mind – so we had some rare aunt/niece quality time and spent the afternoon together exploring the old town, giggling at random shop-signs, grimacing at our first sight of llama foetuses, and relishing a “bombom coffee” with the happy memories it brought us of Yamil’s place in Nicaragua’s El Castillo.
That evening we walked up the road and straight into a
demonstration. Complete with explosions that were everso slightly more dramatic than firecrackers. One man held the end of his cigarette to a stick of dynamite, before flinging the dynamite down only feet away from Mollie. Further up the street, the rest of us jumped at the noise. My heart didn’t feel as if it was quite where nature had intended. In the bar not long after, with sporadic bangs still going off outside, Sabine asked the waitress what was going on. Apparently, hospital doctors were having new hours imposed on them, without extra pay for the 25% increase in their workload, and had been on the streets protesting about this for the preceding five weeks. In sympathy, other workers were now coming out as well, including the miners whom we’d seen (and heard) exploding their dynamite in the street. We ruefully joked that those who had been to visit the mine that afternoon had – in stopping at the miners’ market beforehand to buy provisions and equipment for the miners – inadvertently armed the protesters. A week later, Jeremy and Sarah would struggle to get to the airport through the roadblocks in La Paz as minibus drivers, facing the prospect
of losing their jobs if proposals for a more formalised city bus service went through, joined the protest and brought the city close to a halt. Meanwhile, this was 30 April, and if we had had problems leaving Potosí the next day, it wouldn’t have been the first time Anki had been stranded there in the wake of May Day protests. We went to bed with bated breath…
…but the travel gods were back on our side, and we left town the next morning without hitch.
This time our destination was the weaving village of Livichuco where we’d be guests under its homestay programme. In the just-warm sunshine of 4,200m asl, we were taken through the thirteen stages in their textile process, from taking the wool off a sheep, llama or alpaca skin, through to the sewing up and finishing of the individual product. If our attempts at spinning had had the village women giggling, we didn’t hold it against them and needed little coaxing to buy some of their fabulous wares. That evening, we were treated to a Pachamama ceremony where a chain-smoking and gaudily-dressed celebrant asked the Andean mother Earth goddess to grant our wishes, the
improved healths of Juri’s and my mothers, new boyfriends for Kat and Di (“but make him a rich one this time,” Di added fervently), and “buen viaje” at Ross’s request for all of us. We then tucked into a fabulous repast of corn’n’llama soup – further warmed by putting a fire-heated rock into the soup tureen – and BBQ’d llama, steamed vegetables and quinoa, before being introduced to Bolivian music and dancing, courtesy of a local band. I’d wimped out by this stage, and only watched events from the snug comfort of my sleeping bag and several blankets in the girls’ dorm. We would wake to -10˚C in the morning…
La Paz is a gorgeous city. Admittedly, my view is now even more exaggerated by comparing it to my current location, Lima, but nothing can really detract from the first view of Bolivia’s capital from the outskirts of El Alto which lead you to the valley’s edge and the dramatic view of the city trickling down the hillsides below, with a backdrop of stunning snow-capped mountains. I would have loved more time to explore here. Fortunately and unfortunately, we were in the centre of the tourist district – great
from the point-of-view of shopping, sightseeing and nightlife, but not that great from the point-of-view of getting to know the city. Nevertheless, I pottered happily around the city on the day I was awake (capital cities, on this trip, tend to induce in me a degree of catch-up somnia as I compensate for previous days’ and weeks’ excitements).
A couple of days’ later, and only slightly less hungover than I had been the day before, we set off, lumps in throats for the friends we were leaving behind in La Paz, for the mysteries of Lake Titicaca. This must rank up with “Mongolia”, “Patagonia” and even the as-yet unseen “Timbuktoo” in terms of sheer evocativeness of name. I had to pinch ourselves when I first saw its glorious blueness: yes, I really was here…
The next day, we set sail for the Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the Inca civilisation, the sun and the moon. For us, it would only be a day-trip, but we were enchanted to discover the possibilities of staying on the island, at least in the form of the numerous pizza places and hostels which pepper the crest of the hill above the
island’s southern landing area. Here we tested our fitness for the Inca-trail treks that were waiting for us over the border in Peru: how would we fare walking for several hours up and down over rolling landscape at 3,800m? We nervously compared notes on the boat on the way back.
Next time would be for real, only a few days’ later…
There are more photos below