South America is chock full of places which fill you with awe at the sheer beauty of nature. For me, however, none comes close to the lure of Bolivia's altiplano, that harsh, unforgiving, high-altitude land of salt flats, smoking volcanos, multicoloured flamingo-filled lakes and painted deserts in a thousand shades of yellows, ochres, reds and browns - the land which has come to represent Bolivia itself. This is a place with no equal anywhere on Earth.
For all its remoteness and brutal conditions - heat, cold, ferocious wind, burning Sun, sparse oxygen - the altiplano is surprisingly easy to visit. Most people visit the area on a three-day circuit by 4x4 - no other vehicles can deal with the terrain - from the freezing and windblown town of Uyuni. My mind swirling with National Geographic photographs of this fabled land, I have opted to visit the area for a full week, and from the friendlier town of Tupiza, located five or so hours south of Potosí in Bolivia's extreme southwestern corner, and not far from the border with Argentina. Week-long jeep tours are not the norm and do not come cheap, but thanks to an incredible stroke of luck I've
managed to team up with a Belgian couple I met in Potosí - they are as eager as I am to get a closer look at Bolivia's incredible altiplano
After a rather exhausting journey from Potosí, arrangements are quickly made for us to leave the next day - pretty impressive when you consider the logistics of organising a self-contained week-long trip in such a harsh environment. Our journey through Bolivia's southwest is to take us through the canyons and badlands surrounding Tupiza - strongly reminiscent of the western United States - to the mountains and lakes of the Cordillera de Los Lípez, all the way to Bolivia's border with Argentina and Chile. From there we will turn north through the deserts of Dalí and Siloli before reaching one of South America's most famous sights - the Salar de Uyuni. From there, northwards through the Salar de Coipasa and along the Chilean border with its string of snowcapped,smoking volcanos, before reading the Parque Nacional Sajama, with its centrepiece Volcán Sajama, at 6,542 metres Bolivia's highest peak, beore finishing off in La Paz.
We wake up the following morning in Tupiza to find a sparkly new Toyota Landcruiser waiting for
us outside the hotel, seemingly loaded with enough supplied to feed an army for a month. There we meet our driver-cum-guide Raul and our delightful cocinera
Isabel, a formidable Bolivian matriarch, long black plaits and all. On the roof of the vehicle are three huge petrol drums, a reminder that we will be travelling through some extremely landscapes!
This is one of those adventures where the pictures do most of the talking. Suffice to say that the altiplano was everything I had dreamt it to be, and much, much, much more. Landscapes so jaw-droppingly beautiful that tears come to your eyes. Landscapes which, at times, barely look like they belong on Earth - Mars or the Moon seem more appropriate. Those seven days were to be an endless succession of profoundly wondrous sights - huge flocks of flamingos feeding quietly in blood-red lagoons while volcanos smoked broodingly in the background; geothermal fields with bubbling mud pools and screaming steam vents where the earth itself seemed alive; multicoloured rocks sculpted by millennia of winds into the most outlandish shapes. And of course that salt flat of a million photos - the Salar de Uyuni, a place which really does live
up to the intense hype surrounding it. Where brilliant white salt and brilliant blue sky meet in a landscape of utter strangeness.
Well fed (Isabel would serve the three of us enough food for six and tell us off for not finishing our plates - "if you don't eat the wind will carry you away" was one o her catchphrases), well watered (even in these far-flung corners Bolivian beer and wine are thankfully easy to come by), with excellent company and superb guiding and driving by Raul, this really was a tour to remember.
The altiplano -
absolutely and utterly unforgettable.
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