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Published: November 4th 2013
Getting to the PointThursday 20 June to Sunday 23 June
My detour walk in Tupiza
The trip to La Quiaca (Argentina) took around 2.5 hours through more arid landscapes, spotted with Stipa Grass (or Needle Grass) and a few parched looking bushes. La Quiaca itself was very plain – made up of straight roads, residential property, restaurants, a bus station and truck parks. I got the impression it existed predominantly as a border town.
Finding a taxi, I took the short journey across the bridge to the Bolivian border. Despite warnings it could take a while to get through passport control, I crossed into Villazon (Bolivia) about 10 minutes later – simplez! The next priority was changing some money and searching out the bus station to travel on to Tupiza.
Bolivia felt immediately different to what I’d left behind. It seemed more authentic and less tourism driven, with a definite shift towards a more indigenous looking population. Everything also became more chaotic. At the bus station I had about 20 people descend on me, shouting out different destinations. I tried ignoring this, attempting to shop around for a good price and standard of bus. However, I somehow ended up being ordered on to a bus by
Escarpments on my detour walk in Tupiza
one woman after she asked me where I was heading and I responded “Tupiza”. On giving my destination she started writing my ticket out, asked for payment and pointed at the bus saying it would leave in ten minutes. I decided to just go with it rather than argue, as the bus looked decent enough and it meant I wouldn't have to wait around.
The queue for putting luggage down below was the next experience, getting stuck behind a local lady. Now, the bus tickets are quite clear that each person is allowed to transport up to 20kg in the baggage space, plus hand luggage on board. Apparently this rule was not enforced in Bolivia, as the lady appeared to be moving house! About ten boxes wrapped in coloured textile blankets were hoisted on board, followed by a sack of potatoes, bags bursting with blankets and clothes, and god knows what else.
When she’d finally finished and my bag was safely stored we set off on the 2 hour trip to Tupiza. After driving through some pretty flat and bland landscapes the surroundings began to change. We entered the hills and passed farms, where the land became greener
View of the escarpments from the railway track walk, Tupiza
and more cared for. There seemed to be more irrigation, with small streams and rivers flowing through the fields and a greater concentration of trees, their leaves dancing in the breeze. The trees themselves were very different to those I’d seen in Argentina and Chile too - this included Willow Trees.
As we approached Tupiza the scenery was beautiful. The area is characterised by red escarpments, creating two distinct levels to the landscape. The Tupiza River also means that green agricultural lands are plentiful, providing a nice contrast to the otherwise grey terrain. The town itself was situated at the base of a number of rocky hills – red, brown and grey in colour. These surrounded the town, protecting it from all sides.
Tupiza struck me as a very quiet and charming wee town, despite having a population of around 25,000. At an elevation of 3,160m you could also feel the difference in oxygen levels just walking down the street. I was huffing and puffing like a true gringo.
In the town itself there were a number of attractive plazas and squares. Despite being a mainly arid place, there was a lot of tree planting and flowerbeds
Cradled by Mountains
Tupiza from the town's lookout point
along the roadsides; in the plazas and squares; and on the hillsides within the urbanised areas. These were watered and cared for daily. There was also a mirador (lookout point) – which seem to be part and parcel of every South American town and city – topped with a statue of Jesus at its highest point.
The majority of travellers appeared to be in Tupiza to start the Salar de Uyuni tour. This meant you didn't tend to see the same person from one day to the next. Staying in a hotel rather than a hostel also made it harder to meet people, so I spent a lot of time kicking back, relaxing and catching up with emails.
I also found time to get out and explore the surrounding area, though sadly couldn't find any walking treks. Everything seemed to be by horse or jeep. This included a trip to the place where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reportedly met their end at the hands of the Bolivian army. Despite being curious about this I decided not to go – being told at the hotel that it wasn't really worth it and I’d see better sites elsewhere.
Puerto del Diablo from Afar
Approaching Puerto del Diablo, Tupiza
I therefore got a local map and some advice on where I could walk safely alone.
I took a local bus to an area called Palama. Asking the bus driver for directions from the bus stop, I ended up doing a different walk to the one I was aiming for – I was supposed to be following the railway track, but this was nowhere to be seen. Despite this the route I took was pretty impressive. Red cliff faces towered above me – very closely to the left and further away on the right. I also saw a local farmer out herding llamas and goats. It was incredibly peaceful, though I was passed by the odd local on a bike and a stray dog or two. After a time a number of jeeps passed in the other direction, so I worked out I must be heading in the direction of the Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid site. As I knew I couldn't make it there and back by foot, I decided to turn round after an hour or so to see if I could find the other path.
I eventually found the railway track, joined by a
Enter the Devil
Puerto del Diablo, Tupiza
small dog that I passed en route. He was a little round in the middle and had a poorly foot, but seemed pretty chirpy. He followed me so far, but his breathing started to get a bit heavy and he eventually turned back. Perhaps he was finding the altitude hard too, or maybe he was just a bit old, bless him!
Along this route I passed many farms and experienced a different view of the red cliff faces. Another hour and a half passed and things didn't seem to be changing in appearance much, so I headed back to town.
Once back I decided to climb the mirador, passing a game of five-a-side football, which I stopped to watch for a few minutes. No different to watching guys play the game back home - much shouting, barging, throwing of hands into the air and laughter.
The walk to the top of the mirador took about 10 minutes and hurt a bit, as I was finding the altitude difficult to adjust to. Luckily I was distracted from the challenge of this by witnessing locals of all ages engaged in some tree planting along the path. Once at the
My guide Orlando who could tell I wasn't the most comfortable on a horse
summit I was then treated to a 360 degree view of Tupiza and its surrounding hills.
Also on advice from the hotel I went to see some more special rock formations on a half day horse trek, led by a young man called Orlando. My nervousness in getting on a horse had sadly returned, resulting in wide eyes and a somewhat rigid posture. This wasn't helped by the fact the horse kept swinging his head about. Orlando was very patient with me and talked me through how to better hold the reins so the horse (called Gaucho) relaxed. It was the complete opposite to Argentina, where I’d been told to keep the reins quite short – here I just needed to give him more slack.
Leaving the stables we walked alongside the railway track in town for around 10 minutes, before turning off into the surrounding countryside. More red escarpments towered up in the distance, fronted by a mass of open space. It felt a bit like being in the Wild West.
Orlando didn't speak any English, so I got in some more Spanish practice. We managed to chat a bit about football and what other work
Valle de los Machos
Viewed from Gaucho during my horse trek in Tupiza
he did. I also found out he was about to turn 21 in a few days time, so was able to wish him a Happy Birthday.
The first stop on the trek was a rock formation called Puerto del Diablo (The Devil’s Door), where we got off the horses and I had some time to walk around and take pictures. It was an incredible site – nature creating a wall of red rock with an opening that looked through to further red coloured jagged rock faces.
Afterwards, I climbed back on to Gaucho and we headed to the Canon del Inca (Canyon of the Incas). Having relaxed into the horse riding by this point, Orlando suggested we try a trot. I decided to go for it, though felt very sorry for Gaucho. I’ve not quite mastered the gentle rise and fall technique needed for a trot, so kept slamming back down into the saddle. I’m sure he was pretty used to novice tourists though, as he seemed to cope with it.
At Canon del Inca I had half an hour to scramble about. More red coloured rocks opened up to create a gorge, filled with boulders and
Break Time for the Horses
Horses from the other group resting at the entrance to Canon del Inca, Tupiza
rocks and the odd green bush. There were also a number of small waterfalls working their way down the gorge and creating a lovely sound track to the adventure. Orlando was waiting for me back at the entrance, so I was going it alone. At one point I thought I might have to turn back, as I couldn't find a route up. However, I was joined by another group who were out on a full day horse trek and we managed to scramble further along together.
My final day in Tupiza ended up being slightly longer than planned. I’d originally got a ticket for the 1pm bus to Cochabamba, understanding the trip duration was 3 hours in response to my question. On chatting to the hotel staff, it turned out it was 15 hours! As I didn't want to arrive in Cochabamba in the middle of the night, based on Lonely Planet saying it was ‘positively dangerous’, I ended up with a new bus ticket for 5:30pm.
On leaving Tupiza, we were stopped by the army for a bus search – not the most relaxing start to the trip, especially as there was no explanation about what they
Enter the Canyon
At the top of my ascent in Canon de Incas, Tupiza
were looking for. Then we were on the move.
I was very glad to have my sleeping bag on board later that night – it turns out there’s no air-con or heating on the Bolivian buses and it gets very very very cold!
Reflecting on my time in Tupiza during the drive, I felt very excited about the time ahead in Bolivia. It certainly felt a lot less familiar to me - not having the European feel of Argentina and Chile. It seemed I'd truly arrived in South America! The variety of scenery I'd witnessed in the small area seen so far also made me full of anticipation for what was to come.
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