Bolivia: An otherworldly wander

By Derek Cheng

Laguna  Verde, or Green Lake, gets its colour from high concentrations of lead, sulphur and arsenic. Photo / Derek Cheng
Laguna Verde, or Green Lake, gets its colour from high concentrations of lead, sulphur and arsenic. Photo / Derek Cheng

It was an odd place to go for a stroll. The high-plains of Bolivia can be a harsh environment at the best of times but at sunset - plummeting temperatures at 4300m above sea level and a wind firing dust into our eyes - the comfort of the car seemed an age away.

As the sun dropped behind a mountain, we trudged through a vast and arid landscape that felt like a different planet.

But the sight of the full moon seemed to warm our souls, rising above a mountainside of soft peaches, whites and reds, dancing in the sun's fading spotlight.

It was a rejuvenating sight in a barren place, and one example of the stunning scenery during a tour of more than 1000km of south-western Bolivia, where nature takes on unusual forms - giant rock columns in the desert, lakes of red and bright green, and the white infinity of the Uyuni salt plain, the world's largest at more than 12,000 sq km. That's 20 Lake Taupos.

Our trip had started in Tupiza, a small town in which Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had taken refuge in 1908 before their last stand.

Seven of us piled into a decrepit Landrover that took us through canyons of sharp rock towers near the town of San Vicente, where the remains of Cassidy and Sundance are allegedly buried. Though there is still much speculation, the common view is that they met their end in the a gunfight with locals trying to reclaim stolen loot.

The outlaws had robbed a mine-company manager of US$90,000 ($135,000) and fled to San Vicente, unaware that authorities were already on to them.

When a foursome entered a courtyard where the outlaws were, Cassidy opened fire, killing one. Sundance was critically injured as the bullets flew and Cassidy, realising the game was up, put him out of his misery before shooting himself in the temple.

Nowadays San Vicente resembles other small towns in the area - dry, brown and offering little but grubby children playing in the streets.

We followed the road to San Antonio de Lipez and pulled up next to a mudbrick house.

One of our passengers, Daniel, went straight to bed complaining of altitude sickness, while the rest of us tested the patience of the local llamas.

The curious camel-like animals always have a relaxed expression that suggests an alertness akin to an unplugged toaster.

The following day we were supposed to be on the road by 5am, but Daniel refused to move anywhere except back to Tupiza.

"This has never happened before," our driver Segundido said as he drove off, leaving us to spend a day in a sleepy dustbowl.

Surrounded by frozen streams and little vegetation, altitude 4200m, it was easy to see how the wind could cut the town to shreds and drop temperatures to minus 20C in winter. So why would someone choose to live here?

"These are perfect conditions for llamas," explained Segundido's wife, Porfidia, the cook.

"Do the people here grow crops?" I asked her in hesitant Spanish.

"It's too cold. They go into Tupiza and trade meat for vegetables and maize."

Porfidia's dark, leathery skin, round face and short stature typified the look of the indigenous Quechua people. Her dark, knee-length dress bulged over several layers of petticoats and her black hair, hanging in two plaits, reached halfway down her back.

This has been the rural look since the 18th century, when the conquering Spanish imposed strict rules of attire. Apparently no one told them that once liberated, they could give their conquerors the proverbial finger by reverting to their original threads.

As we conversed, a pair of eyes peeked over a fence. A giggle. Then the eyes disappeared, only to re-appear moments later alongside another set.

Mari and Maria, 10 and 12, spent the day with us, riding across town on a bike so tall it seemed fit for a giraffe and constantly tried to sell us hand-woven bracelets.

They proved to be both convincing and cunning. We bought bracelets and, when we invited them for tea, they surreptitiously stuffed their pockets with whatever food was in reach.

That evening, a tired Segundido returned with defeated eyes. Daniel, after promising to cover extra expenses, had done a runner under the pretence of going to the hospital.

At least there was more space in the jeep when we rose in the cold and dark the next morning and drove to Lake Chalviri. The thermal pool at the head of the lake and the foot of a mountain must qualify as one of the world's most picturesque; at 4400m, it surely must be one of the highest.

In cosy 30C waters, we lazed in serene privacy before three tourist-flooded Landrovers pulled up, their doors opening with a loud gaggle of competing accents.

As they hopped in, we went south to the aptly named Green Lake, its intense colour due to lead, sulphur and arsenic. To reach it we had driven through the Desert of Salvador Dali, named after the Spanish surrealist painter.

The desert's mountains of twisting colours rise over plains that are home to giant, scattered rock structures, as if the gods had used them in a game of divine yahtzee and neglected to clean up.

About 50km north was a reminder of the region's volcanic past; at 4900m, the highest point of our trip. The Sol de Manana (Sun of Tomorrow) geysers boiled and steamed at up to 100C.

By the time we reached the Laguna Colorada (Coloured Lake) we had been sitting idle in the jeep for hours. Maybe the sight of hundreds of elegant flamingos, red waters and a white shoreline gave us the impression of a friendlier environment.

"We'll walk back to the hostel," we told Segundido.

"It'll be nice to watch the sunset." Such optimism.

The lake supported the overwhelming feeling that Mother Nature was high on something when she designed this part of the world; crimson with the algae and plankton that thrive here.

The scene also shattered the illusion that flamingos were elitists who socialised only in tropical settings. But they were certainly snobby; any approach within 20m stirred them to turn their backs or simply fly off.

We had been snubbed several times by the time we started walking the m to our lodgings.

Before long, it was dark. And freezing. We wrapped ourselves tightly in our beanies and jackets as the wind tried to dig into our flesh. The soundscape was equally dispiriting: the sniff of runny noses, the crunch of sand, the droning wind. But the full moon guided us, breathing light on to the black terrain.

The next day crops of quinoa emerged by the road as the altitude dropped. As we drove north of the town of San Juan (see side story, "Boning up on history"), the horizon turned blurry white - the Chiguana salt flat.

"No one cares about this place," Segundido said. It was hardly inspiring next to its big brother, and so had become something to drive through to get somewhere else. Bolivia's own Palmerston North.

The first view of the Uyuni salt flat is unforgettable - a horizontal strip of white that slowly expands as if reproducing at an alarming rate, soon becoming a vast plain as far as the eye can see. The white is scarred by streaks of black: tyre-tracks from an endless stream of jeeps.

We stopped at the edge at a hostel made of hard bricks of salt and sat, staring silently at its immensity. The plain, at 3653m high, is the remains of a lake that once filled most of south-west Bolivia, but evaporated 13,000 years ago.

Along the old shoreline is a rock wall of once underwater coral; within lies a cave of salt crystals, formed by the continued battering of waves centuries ago.

It was still dark the following morning when we drove to the centre of the salt flat. Gradually the sky grew pink, illuminating the hexagonal panels that tile the surface. We headed for Isla Incahuasi, an old coral reef that is now an island of rock covered in cacti, some 1200 years old.

The salt flat is also an area of commercial activity; every year about 20,000 tonnes of salt are extracted. Some locals have worked the salt for 55 years, like Juan Calizayer, whose wrinkled hands betray a lifetime of manual labour.

Teams of workers - one with a pick-axe, the other with a shovel - loosen the salt on the surface and pile it into small mounds for trucks to transport.

In the nearby town of Colchani, the salt is dried by placing it on a metal tray over a fire, ground, iodined and bagged.

We spent the morning wandering the bleached surface and posing for perspective photos; such a featureless landscape gives a two-dimensional illusion.

It took all afternoon to drive to the salar's eastern edge, devouring metre after metre of salty road.

Even off the salt the white still dominated the landscape. Leaving it was as surreal as the first glimpse, and arriving in the town of Uyuni we had the feeling of having been to another world.

CHECKLIST

* There are two main options to see the Salar de Uyuni - a three-day tour from Uyuni or a four-day tour from Tupiza. Both provide food, water and lodgings.

* The trip from Uyuni costs about 600 bolivianos ($146). Expect to have at least eight people in your Landrover. The trip visits the salar on the first day. You see the geysers and thermal pool at dawn, and the Valley of Rocks on a different road back to Uyuni.

There are more tour groups in Uyuni, so expect to share the sights with dozens of others.

* The trip from Tupiza costs about 1050 bolivianos ($256) - more if there are less people in the jeep. Expect six or seven in the vehicle. You get to see the rock canyons out of Tupiza, and you visit the salar at dawn. With the extra day you are more likely to see other sights such as the cave by the salar and the San Juan cemetery. The trip finishes in Uyuni, but you can get a ride back to Tupiza at no extra cost.

* Both trips take in the salar, lakes, flamingo colonies, geysers and thermal pool.

* Ask to see the vehicle before you sign up. This is also a good way to choose which of the dozens of tour companies to choose from.

* Take a sleeping bag (you can hire them), warm clothes, sunscreen and sunhat, and your camera.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf01 at 22 Oct 2014 13:25:28 Processing Time: 662ms