A JOURNEY ACROSS THE ALTIPLANO OF SOUTHERN BOLIVIA

High above the mountain town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, just across the frontier lies the Altiplano of Bolivia. Meaning “high plains,”  the region is characterized by a stark and colorful wilderness stretching hundreds of miles.  Access is by high clearance 4WD jeep, as there arefew permanent roads in the region.   

High above the mountain town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, just across the frontier lies the Altiplano of Bolivia. Meaning “high plains,”  the region is characterized by a stark and colorful wilderness stretching hundreds of miles.  Access is by high clearance 4WD jeep, as there arefew permanent roads in the region. 

 

Above me is a deep blue and cloudless sky. There’s not another human in sight. My shoes arecovered in a salty brine. I’m standing on the blindingly white salt flats. Far off in the distance are massive dark red colored mountains. I’m miles from any permanent road. The elevation is nearly 13,000’ above sea level. The time is 6:30 a.m.  and I’m watching my shadow shrink as the sun rises above the horizon. This has to be one of the most stunning optical experiences of my life. Welcome to the Altiplano of Bolivia!

Migrating Flamingos scratch around for food in the waters near Laguna Colorado. The animals that inhabit the Altiplano face harsh environmental stresses: little rain,  relentless sun and thin air.

Migrating Flamingos scratch around for food in the waters near Laguna Colorado. The animals that inhabit the Altiplano face harsh environmental stresses: little rain,  relentless sun and thin air.

Just a few days ago, while hiking around in thedesert in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, I ran into two Australian couples. “We’re thinking of hiring a Jeep to explore the Altiplano, wanna join us? We can split the costs 5 ways.” Prior to this offer, I had planned to take a bus and the paved highway.  The 4WD Jeep is sounding pretty good. Far superior really. 

 They too had been traveling by bus all the way from Quito, Ecuador over the past month, just like me. We’re all sick of bus travel. “Yeah, lets get our own wheels!” I said, and decided to join them.  The rest of our hike we talked out the details. They had already negotiated with a agency and a driver. The driver even promised avocados at lunchtime. I’m skeptical. When they found out I can speak Spanish, they were excited. “You can translate for us!”

In the early morning I meet up with the Australians at their hostel and walk over to the agency. We meet our new crew.  I start chatting with Miguel, our driver and his wife Sandra, the cook. Looks like a baby girl is also coming with us. I ask Sandra if that’s her daughter, she says yes. We take a look at the map and pack the inside of Jeep with the essentials. The rest of our gear goes on the roof to save space for the seven passengers. We’re on the road before 7:00 a.m

Leaving San Pedro behind, we followed about 10 kilometers of paved road until we hit the Customs and Immigration outpost for departing Chile.  Formalities take less than 15 minutes and we’re on our way. The paved highway to Bolivia climbs steeply and we gain 12,000 feet in less than 2 hours to reach the Altiplano. We pass through a gap in the mountains, and pull off the main road. I suddenly get the impression we were headed to the middle of no where.

The immigration office offered a hint of the rudimentary world in which we were about to enter.  The insides of the outpost featured a simple table, two chairs and a few instruments of writing.  We all stamp our passports and continued out into the wilderness.  From the other side of the immigration building, no roads or villages are visible as far as the eye could see in all directions. 

Soon after clearing immigration, I’m not feeling so well. Normally an ascent to 13,000 feet above sea level would be done gradually over the course of a few days. To make matters worse, I’ve been at sea level for almost two weeks. We stop for lunch near a beautiful lake and hot springs.

I spend the break sleeping most of the time in the back of the Jeep while the rest ate and enjoyed the hot springs. By the time lunch break is over and we’re ready to go, I’m feeling a little better.  

We pass a few marshy areas where flamingos are scratching around for food. Finally we retire in a basic travelers lodge with comfortable beds and a nice simple room. A nice dinner and early sleep.  Feels good to lie down and chill out.

Tree Rock

Tree Rock

Today we’re up early. I slept pretty well considering the lack of appetite at lunchtime. I am the only Spanish speaker in this group of Gringos and therefore have become the informal translator between our husband-and-wife crew and the five passengers.  I’m enhancing the Australian’s experience by sharing some of the rich details given to us from Miguel.  He knows a good chunk of the history and lots of facts about the landscape we see in front of us. 

We leave our guesthouse under headlights and take out over rough terrain. We’re packed into a 4WD Jeep driven by our trusty driver who I learn is from Bolivia. Sandra has been cooking us great meals in the traditional Bolivian style and their one year old baby girl has bounced along with us since the get-go.

Soon after leaving, the engine stops. Miguel and I jump out. I’m curious, and know a little about mechanics. Maybe I can help him fix something! He gets back into the car and pulls out a beat up metal gasoline jerry can with “Gasolina” painted crudely on the side. Pours some gas into the rig and we’re on our way.  False alarm!

Miguel tells us we’re heading to the “Tree Rock.“ We don’t really have any idea what to expect. However, when we arrive, we instantly know what he means. Its a massive boulder that tapers to the bottom. I’m not sure it looks like a tree, more like a wine glass. Either way, its impressive. I want to climb around on it, but after consulting Miguel, he doesn’t think it is a great idea. We make photographs of the dark shadows and blue skies.

Abandon village on the Altiplano

Abandon village on the Altiplano

Cactus and the edge of the Salar

Cactus and the edge of the Salar

For lunch we stop in a small village. While the meal is being prepared, we explore around the cactus that grows in the nearby hills.  The stone work here is quite impressive on the old walls. Around dusk we make our way to the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. Tomorrow morning Miguel says he’s going to take us to a special place to watch the sunrise on the salt flats. He tells me this is the largest salt flat in the world. When we arrive at our guesthouse for the night, we learn everything is made of salt. The chairs, the tables, walls, beds, etc. I think this is the first time I’ve fallen asleep on a pile of salt.

On the third day of our journey we awoke very early and drove out onto the infamous Salar de Uyuni. 

On the third day of our journey we awoke very early and drove out onto the infamous Salar de Uyuni. 

Up real early. The stars are still out. Sun is no where in sight. Someone says its 3:30 a.m. We all pile into the Jeep. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Miguel has been building the image in my head. White floor, blue sky, sunrise, I’ve got it memorized. I’ve translated it three times from Spanish to English. Lets go! We take off, and although its dark, I can sense the ground is flat below our tires. Its quiet and there’s no bumps. I ask Miguel, are we already on the Salar? “Sí, David.”

Morning horizons on the Salar

Suddenly,  a loud noise! I know this sound. We’re driving through water. The Australians want information. I ask Miguel. He says recent rains had left deep water on the surface of the salt flat. He seems confident in his estimation of the depth of the water. His wife did not share his confidence and she urged him to slow down. As the waters rose closer to the bottom of the doors, Ibecame concerned. What if we get stranded out here?

Miguel told me no to worry, and even pointed to another Jeep far out on the horizon heading in the same direction as us. I tried to photograph the other Jeep to take my mind off the rising water. The Australians didn’t seem to mind, as they didn’t understand the dialogue between the driver and his wife.

By the time we had made it to dry land on the other side of the waters Sandra and I had a good laugh. A laugh of relief really.  We got out of the Jeep and began exploring around. The sun was about to rise. We got ready, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Blue sky, white floor, red mountains. Go!

When the sun appeared on the horizon the ensuing light was spectacular.   In the following few moments we watch our shadows shrink as the sun rises in the sky.  Many photographs later, Miguel reminds us we still haven’t eaten breakfast.  It is a good call, because the bright light is coming down hard on the reflective white surface and I’m squinting.  Where are my sunglasses? Miguelpurposes we eat on a distant island of cactus in the middle of the Salar.  None of us are opposed.

Driving through deep water pointed towards an island in the Salar

Driving through deep water pointed towards an island in the Salar

Another Jeep navigates the deep water before sunrise en route to the special sunrise spot.  

Another Jeep navigates the deep water before sunrise en route to the special sunrise spot.  

We again pack into the Jeep and take off. Soon we plow into deep water again. In the front seat dialogue, Sandra is voicing concern for her baby girl’s life. I hang out the window and make a few photographs of this memorable moment. It looks like we’re going to drive the car into a lake. Well actually it looks like we’re driving on a lake. Everything is blue except the Jeep which is white. Salt water is splashing up on the bottom of my arms from below. Are we driving on the ocean?

To take Sandra’s mind off the rising water, I ask her what’s for breakfast. She says fried bread. I share this information with Australians, they are stoked. She turns around in English, grinning, and says “Breakfast we eat doughnuts!” All around smiles and laughter. My distraction is working, I look out the window and see the salty water is at the level of the axle. 

We reach the island after about thirty minutes of intense driving.  While Sandra prepares breakfast, we take a short hike to the summit of the island-in-the-salt-sea. The view from the top is spectacular.  The doughnuts are even better.  We thank Sandra for an excellent breakfast and Miguel for getting us to this spectacular place.

Cactus and the surrounding landscape from on the island in the Salar

Our journey is coming to an end. From the cactus island, Miguel points the Jeep in the direction of Uyuni, the town on the edge of the salt frontier. 

On the way to town I ask Miguel about the vehicles. He says a new Toyota Jeep might last three years doing these trips everyday.  I can only imagine how much the undercarriage suffers from the daily salt bath. He confirms this suspicion. “The chassis is often the first thing to fail.” Under the vehicle I notice a robust looking improvised protective plastic shield. Additionally Miguel adds that high import taxes make the vehicles prohibitively expensive. I had assumed up until now that Miguel was the owner, however, I was wrong. He told me the owner of the Jeep is a business man from Santiago Chile, over a thousand miles from here.

I ask him where he will head tonight. He says he has a friend in Uyuni, and if he’s lucky, the agency we booked our tour with will send him back across the Salar back to Chile tomorrow.  Before we pull off the salt onto the dirt roads, we stop at one of the small commercial salt extraction operations. Piles of salt await men with shovels to load into rusty trucks. Miguel says the salt will be taken as far as La Paz by road and then sold to an international broker. 

Salt extraction business at the Salar de Uyuni

Salt extraction business at the Salar de Uyuni

Before we go our separate ways, Miguel has one last and final photo stop. As soon as we step out of the Jeep we know why Miguel wanted to stop here. In this location there is a fantastic illusion. Miguel is smiling. He knows all of the best spots. The blue of the ground fades into the blue of the sky. The horizon is invisible. Its amazing! This is my last memory of the stark blue and white wilderness.  

After many more photos, we pack back into the Jeep for one last time.  One final chat with our husband-wife-crew. Sandra tells me they’ve been doing this trip back and forth almost non stop for three years. Except when its low season. I ask her if she prefers to spend time in Bolivia or Chile. Easy answer, Bolivia. I ask Sandra if she considers her baby a Bolivian or a Chilean. She laughs, Bolivian of course. As we approach the market town of Uyuni, we thank Miguel and Sandra for their amazing service. The Jeep stops and we don our backpacks and head to the market area.

 Distant peaks reflected in the Salar

 Distant peaks reflected in the Salar

This is my first visit to Bolivia. I can tell things are a bit different here than in Chile. I’m trying to figure out the new accent and words. We’ve been transported to a new world! We find a place to share a simple meal. Then change money and get some information about onward transport. At the bus station none of the busses appear to be moving. I ask one of the drivers. He says there’s a major protest which has closed down the highway to La Paz, the capital. Protests? I haven’t encountered this yet in South America. Cool!

The Australians are trying to head to the jungle. We all look at a map. The only road out of here passes through La Paz.  I help translate with a private Jeep driver and negotiate a ride. In the end we find a driver speaks who English. The roads are bad. The distance is far. Sounds like a high price to me. 

I decide to avoid the nonsense and take an overnight train to Oruru. I post up in the train station and read my travel book about Oruru. Although my journey continues tonight on rails, I won’t forget where we’ve come from. The visual impact from the Altiplano will likely remain with me for years.

~ Dave Katz, March 2006 ~