Bolivia´s Wild Wild West
Jun 21, 2003
David Rich 1600 Words
B o l i v i a ' s W i l d W i l d W e s t
You can see the wild and remote southwest of Bolivia on a four-day tour (unless you have your own four wheel drive vehicle, which I don't) with highlights you'll never forget: volcanoes in a rainbow of colors to a glacial lagoon in rustic red and another in emerald green and another crammed with flamingos and much, much more. Deserts dotted with strange rock formations, Andean condor and viscachas (rabbit-like rodents with long curly tails), tiny villages higher than the top of any mountain in the continental United States, thermal springs to warm you up, geysers roaring like runaway trains spewing steam in billowing sheets, and the highlight of the highlights, the Salar de Uyuni.
The Salar is the highest and largest salt flats on the planet, the size of Lebanon, stretching forever to snowcapped mountains sixty miles in every direction on the very far horizons, blinding in the blazing sun screaming from a deep blue sky, and not a cloud in sight. When the astronauts first saw the Salar from space they asked Houston in unison, "What the heck is that big, ole, white thing?" Obviously, American astronauts are not expected to be that up on Bolivia. Whether from space or on site, the Salar is surely one of the most impressive sights you'll ever see, which is why, like idiots, our little group of five voted to get up before 4 a.m. to see the Salar at sunrise, day four of our four-day trip.
When at altitudes of between 12,000 and 16,500 feet, always skip sunrise. Never get out of bed before 10 a.m., when the sun has had a few hours to melt the icicles from the frozen air. Plus our four-wheel drive vehicle had no heater. Notwithstanding being wrapped in polypropylene, heavy gloves and socks, down jackets, baklavas and blankets, our feet and fingers were numb as we rolled to a halt in the dastardly dark, a faint glow just appearing above the faint eastern mountains. We piled out and stamped unfeeling feet, jogging, slapping our arms around us, chattering chins unable to form a single articulate word. We hugged steaming coffee mugs and thought positive thoughts. Wow, we were on the Salar, one of the most impressive sights on the orb, and damn it was cold.
The sun flipped over the mountains blazing without heat, and our shadows shot a mile across the salt flats. I snapped dozens of photos, all looking like they'd been taken by a camera with palsy. But two hours later we were thawed out and enthralled, having swept without a single jolt or bump (quite dissimilar from the previous three days) to Isla de Pescadores, a jutting hill covered with giant cactus, perfect for carefully climbing, incredible views of white-coned volcanoes shimmering in the elongated distances across the salt flats.
We ate lunch in the shimmer, playing hopscotch across hexagonal, pentagonal, heptagonal and other agonal-geometries of salt ridges, strumming guitar, posing on the roof of the four-wheel drive, turning cartwheels, taking artsy photos, running in slow motion, screeching to a stop after a hundred yards that looked a mile away, the rest of the group like dots in infinity. We inspected the ojos de sal where the saltpan had been worn away above underground wells of water crowded with perfect crystals of salt, pink hued by iron-rich deposits. We meandered through the Hotel Playa Blanca, made entirely of salt, apparently the reason the hotel insists on visitors using their bathrooms (at eighty cents a relief) avoiding the ever present risk of some fool melting the outside walls. For twenty dollars a night you can stay warm, the blocks of salt absorbing the daytime heat for insulation against the 12,000-foot high nighttime temperatures, quite a low elevation for us by then.
At the edge of the Salar stood pyramids of crystal, scraped up by the residents of Colchani, the small entrance village whose inhabitants are the only ones allowed to mine and sell salt, netting the grand price of one cent a pound. We were back to reality, the bumpy corduroyed road snaking us toward the tour's normal final destination at the crossroads town of Uyuni. What a relief it'd been cruising a hundred miles on perfectly smooth salt instead of bouncing around the other five hundred miles—but what a five hundred miles.
We began four days earlier from Tupiza near San Vicente, the location of the final demise of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their end far from that depicted by Hollywood. Instead of crashing out of hiding to confront a Bolivian army of thousands, Butch and Sundance were downed in a gunfight by a posse of four Bolivians from Uyuni.
We began the four-day tour by cruising steadily up and up and up from 9500 to 13,000 feet and were never lower for three days. In the first ten miles we passed a canyon studded with orange and red pinnacles reminiscent of Bryce National Park, dodged trucks laden with silver and tin ores and mounted the seeming top of the world. Spread out in front of us were mountains in burnt sienna, cobalt blue, and egg-yolk yellow, and after ten hours of hard driving, fording feral streams, we landed in the almost nonexistent town of San Antonio, perhaps a hundred families huddled against the cold near 15,000 feet.
Our host family herded us into dorm style rooms where we unrolled our down sleeping bags and stacked blankets on top, happy to roll in after a dinner of too large and chewy steaks amplified by pureed potatoes. The five of us tourees exchanged life histories, learning of the World Health Organization's current projects in Mexico from the daughter of a family of French diplomats, the intricacies of the biophysics of ovulation, cartography in New Zealand, and the practice of pediatrics in Wellington, New Zealand's capitol on North Island.
Day two saw us scampering around a volcano towering on the Bolivian-Chilean border above Laguna Verde, which is colored by cobalt. There we changed into bathing suits for a dip in nearby thermal pools, feeling like there couldn't be anyone else for a hundred miles around, except the occasional llama. As the sun slid down and we turned frosty, our driver saved us with a stop at the steamy geysers of Sol de Man~ana at 16,500 feet, roaring so loud we had to keep fingers in our ears, stifling opportunities for photography. We bedded down near Laguna Colorado, the most revered of the high glacial lakes because of its eerie, blood-red color and the steam that naturally rises along its edge, making the tasseled llamas look like phantoms of the lambs with funny long necks.
We entered the Desert of Ciloli with its impressively wind-carved rock formations, which ranged from gnarly giant tree look-alikes to stacks of climbable plates for views of far-ranging volcanoes, later lunching with viscachas that sniffed at us curiously while a lone condor ranged high overhead, we hoped prophetic of nothing. The afternoon was whiled away at various high glacial lagoons full of bird life and uncanny beauty, all nestled below striking multihued mountains. That night we bedded down in the fanciest hospedaje of them all, in minuscule San Juan, private rooms and hot showers available. But it was too cold to get undressed, so no one took a hot shower. Instead, we purchased interior warming wine from a small store, the first store in three days. Perhaps it was the wine that birthed our screwball vote to leave the next morning at 4 a.m., anxious to see the sunrise on the Salar.
We thought our gallivant through the Salar and arrival in Uyuni would end the adventure, but another immediately began. My fellow tourees were headed north on the train that evening, a train that failed to arrive for three days. The very late train was caused by the same series of events that almost ambushed my return to Tupiza, a trip over six hours of bad road southeast of Uyuni.
Two hours out of Uyuni my driver, Javier, sped around a curve where we encountered a hundred men roiling about, blocking the road, stopping the huge mining trucks, and speaking Spanish with rapidity. Somehow Javier talked us through that blockade. We were the only vehicle allowed to proceed. As we entered the near town of Atocha, another blockade appeared, and this one was having no conversation or reasoning, the group apparently drunk and intent on fracturing our windshield with clubs and chains. Javier whipped the four-wheel drive around on a dime, and we backtracked a mile to fiord a river and emerge on the other side of the second blockade, waving and making rude gestures as we sailed by.
Then appeared the last and final blockade, the one that had removed the train tracks and was peopled by several dozen men hoisting what looked like short, squat firecrackers but turned out to be about a third of a stick of TNT. Boom. We were waved to a stop while a miniature stick of dynamite detonated in the road immediately ahead, and I was shaking, probably from having been up since before 4 a.m. The Bolivian miners had gone on strike, apparently unsatisfied with their generous wages of three dollars a day, threatening anyone daring to run their blockade or proceed down the road to anywhere else. But Javier came through again, emerging as the only vehicle allowed through, mining trucks and buses lined up for miles. At 9:30 p.m. on day four, I arrived back into Tupiza, exhausted. I can assure you there was no happier person in Bolivia's wild, wild West.