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Published: April 20th 2013
Crossing the border just after sunrise, immediately Bolivia is strikingly different from Argentina where we'd spent the past month. Many buildings in the border town of Villazon (and every other town since) remain unfinished, there's a faint odour of sewage in the air and the people look very different - aged and almost worn down from the toils of day-to-day life in South America's poorest country. The traditional dress of the local women is another contrast; long, layered skirts, embroidered cardigans, shawls over their shoulders which double as bags and pork-pie hats. No mini-skirts insight. Without doubt, the most challenging aspect of our arrival in Bolivia was dealing with the dizzyingly high-altitude. Villazon sits at over 3,400 metres (over 11,000 feet) above sea level so just walking is tough, not to mention lugging your backpack around with you. A few steps and your breathless.
We took a shared taxi to Tupiza with some travellers we'd met at the bus station. Here we'd planned to arrange a tour to one of Bolivia's most popular tourist attractions, Salar de Uyuni, the worlds largest salt lake. We decided to take the four day, three night Jeep safari around the south west of Bolivia
with the final day spent at the salt flats. We formed a group with the guys we'd taken a taxi from the border with. Along with us there was two Swedish guys; Tor and Freddie, an English girl; Julia, a Scottish lass; Lisa and our Kiwi friend from Salta; Devon. We booked with Tupiza tours and had a full day to prepare and by supplies before we left. Sonya and I took the opportunity to stock up on essentials; toilet roll (lots of), layers, snacks and water. I also spent the afternoon searching for trainers but it seems people in Bolivia have smaller feet as every time I asked for a pair in size 10, my request was greeted with shock or laughter!
Thursday morning, the day before Good Friday, we set out from our hostel with Tupiza tours. Our drivers were wise and mellow Nelson, and David, younger and more adventurous (this should probably just read, who drove much faster!) We also had a our own cook for the four days, Gladys. Within minutes of setting off from Tupiza we were off-road, we first stop in valley which perhaps long ago had a river running through it. It's
very dry and there's little greenery around, instead the earth is a dark red and brown in colour. There are lots of cacti and to our right a cluster of sharp, jagged peaks which rise up out of nowhere. In front of us only vast hills and mountains, it soon became clear we were going to be driving up these. We zig-zag up and up, our ears popping and the air getting thinner every minute. When we reach the flat the drivers let us get out to take pictures, the views were amazing across the vast mountainous landscape. We then stop for lunch at an old abandoned stone building. Gladys had cooked us a tasty vegetable curry served with rice, salad and a selection of soft drinks. I think we were all pleasantly surprised. After lunch we got to see some Llamas up close before some loud, obnoxious Israelis scared them off. We stopped briefly in a tiny, remote settlement to take pictures of the red, mud brick buildings then at about 4pm we arrived at our base for the night, a small village at the foot of a mountain range. We were shown to our bedrooms in a building
that resembled a village hall, after going outside to explore we returned to tea, coffee and biscuits. An added extra to this civilised afternoon tea was cocoa leaves. They are everywhere in Bolivia, the locals chew them and have them with hot water to combat altitude sickness. We were now at nearly 4,000 metres above sea level and so we all dully obliged. We passed the time playing cards and at 7pm, Gladys bought in our dinner; vegetable soup, breadcrumbed meat, polenta and salad. It was delicious - she'd done us proud. After dinner, our driver David explained what we'd be doing the next day and delivered some appalling news, we'd be getting up at 4:30am to leave at 5am. Before bed a group of local children came and performed a couple of songs on the drums and pan pipes, while a young girl touted homemade bracelets. She made a killing, almost everyone now had a woven bracelet! We went to bed early and just as we were settling down we heard this horrendous roar. Right outside the door, there was sick everywhere. Devon had been feeling the affects of the high altitude and his projectile vomit explained the loud
retching sound. Altitude sickness can be really serious - we'd read a lot about it and we were all taking pills to try to prevent it but luckily for Devon once he'd thrown up he felt a lot better. Gladys wasn't so lucky though, the sick was right outside her bedroom and she cleaned it up! It was a cold night, fully clothed Sonya and I snuggled up under our six blankets.
Day two - our alarms go off, it's pitch black outside. A quick breakfast and were on the road again. Our first stop at sunrise was the remains of an abandoned town which was said to be haunted. The Spanish conquerors put the indigenous people of Bolivia to work in the mines here for weeks on end until their bodies gave in. It was quite a gruesome tale and the place certainly made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. We continued our drive through the desolate landscape, all the time climbing and climbing. There's a brief stop at a lake with a stunning reflection of the snowcapped mountains it sits beneath shimmering off the shallow waters. Here scrawled on a large stone is
the number 4.855, indicating our ever increasing altitude in metres. From there we continue on our way, stopping at a Llama farm and another lake, this time teeming with Flamingos. There's hundreds of them mincing across the waters eating algae. I imagine there's only algae for them to eat, the water is sulphuric and smells of bad eggs. We make another stop at the impressive Laguna Verde or green lake and then head to some hot springs for a quick dip before lunch. By this time my stomach is feeling unsettled and have to visit, what can only be described as, 'the worst toilet in the world.' It's a long-drop, no sewerage system just a massive hole in the ground to collect all the fesses. Making matters worse, there's no toilet per se, no seat, no. It's a squatter. The smell is rancid, I cover my nose and mouth but it still penetrates. Suffocating I have a serious bout of diarrhoea. 'Welcome to Bolivia!!' I thought. We visit some steaming geysers after lunch and see boiling hot, bubbling mud before making our way to our last stop for the day, Laguna Colorada or the red lake. As the name suggests,
it's a lake with red water. Almost blood red, it is like nothing I've ever seen before. It could be the scene of a brutal massacre or Jaws' high altitude feeding ground. The drivers explain the reason for colour, it comes from the minerals in the lakes bed. That night things go from bad to worse for me. I manage to eat dinner but immediately feel unwell, it was bitterly cold and I'm up most of the night with chronic shits. At one point I wake up shaking uncontrollably, this time I reach for a couple of plastic bags Sonya had laid out and I fill them with frothy, pungent vomit. Nice!
Part two coming right up. Jon
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