What an incredible, incredible, incredible journey! There is nothing like it on the planet. And I remember way back when saying something like "I hope we get to see Bolivia" when we were heading off to Australia for the second time, and so far, the country does not disappoint. The landscapes are absolutely stunning, the people friendly, and the services surprisingly decent for what the world classifies as a third world country. So far, we love it.
It was a really tough first day though from an altitude point of view. San Pedro in Chile sits at about 2500 m, and in the space of only 1 and a half hour's driving, we were standing at the Bolivian border check point at over 4300 m. It was dizzying. One girl fell down and nearly passed out due to lack of oxygen. It was hard for everyone; a gain of over 1500 m in one day is just plain silly, but there is no other way to get into Bolivia from the south really - you have to face at least one day of altitude hell.
The border was the coolest we've ever been to. Just a shack with a guy inside who takes your money and stamps your passport. It sits in the shadow of the massive Lincancabur volcano. Once through the border post, you pass and pay a national park fee, and you are then at the side of Laguna Blanca, a high salt lake where a sign greets you into Bolivia. A little beyond here, and at 5000 m, is Laguna Verde, and arsenic and lead laced green lake sitting in the col between Lincancabur and the neighbouring mountain. Man, 5000 m on day 1??? This is crazy! Fortunately, that is the highest point we will see before we come home. And the lake is well worth it. It's beautiful.
After the lake, the track meanders in and amongst the most spectacular volcanic scenery in the world. There are so many volcanoes in Bolivia's south west corner that the entire landscape is full of colour from all the minerals that have been strewn about from ancient eruptions. There is nothing alive on the ground. There is no rain. Just blistering high altitude sun on some of the most stunning scenes you have ever set eyes on. That night, we eventually made it to Laguna Colorado, a strange looking red water lake rimmed with salt pans and full of flamingo colonies. It was surreal. The lodge was not surreal though - it was real - real basic that is.
We were in for a tough night, and after they fed us, the temperature started to drop pretty quickly. And at 4370 m, we were pretty sure that nobody would sleep. Sure enough, it was a tough night for all of us, but especially Kristine. True to form, and just like at Lake Namtso in Tibet (4700 m), at about midnight she started to get a headache and then started vomiting. These are classic altitude sickness signs. Normally, we try to get away without the acetylzolamide so that we can recognize the symptoms if we get altitude sickness. That's better than masking it with the drugs ahead of time, but it makes for several rough hours. Anyway, she managed to keep the pill down, and by later in the night, say 4 am; she was sleeping and feeling better. By morning, she had adjusted fully to the change. I seem to do a little better. I get the headaches, but not the nausea, and usually I can adjust in 24 hours or so. It suffices to say that by noon the next day, we were both glad to have acclimatized sufficiently to keep going forward and not having to turn back to San Pedro. That would have been the option, because there is nothing below 3600 m ahead of us for the next two weeks...
The next day we awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the laguna, and after a very simple breakfast we were on our way again. The second day involved all kinds of scenery and elevation changes, up and down, and you eventually reach some of Bolivia's outermost towns. These basic, dusty, and deserted settlements look like they are right out of some old spaghetti western, or maybe like some of the planets in Star Wars, with very few people around. You almost expect a gunfight in the street when you round the next corner. In between the towns, the spectacular salt lakes and volcanoes eventually give way to very strange windswept rock formations and finally more grazeable land where lamas and sheep can be seen everywhere. There are also flower growers in very strange places where one would not expect flowers to be grown (like on very steep rocky slopes).
Eventually, we reached the railway that runs from Uyuni in Bolivia to Calama in Chile. You'd think there would be a sign of civilization, but it was not to be. The "town" as our guide called it, was nothing but a broken down collection of mud brick huts with a water tank loading facility for the trains, a small cemetery out back, and a lone woman doing her washing near the tracks. Nearby, her three children played with the water dripping from the storage tank. It was a great otherworldly scene. We loved it. Finally, after another couple of hours, we arrived in the late afternoon to the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, where we spent the night in a much better motel style place at 3670 m.
The sunrise the next morning was even more spectacular than the day before, as the early morning rays bounced off the sparkling salts of the plain. We drove out on to the salt, and immediately we felt like we were on another planet. It is blindingly white, and in places, there is a very thin layer of water which makes an almost perfect reflecting surface for the distant mountains. The Salar is huge. It is not only the largest, but it is also the highest salt flat in the world. The second largest is in Utah, and the third is the Atacama back in Chile near San Pedro where we started this journey. However, the Salar is the most spectacular owing to the purity of it's salt, and the unique ecosystem that exists on one of the islands out on the plain. The island is full of cactuses, and it is covered in old coral bases. It is hard to imagine, but you have to think of the place millions of years ago as a giant sea. The island you are standing on and the salt plain itself were once the bottom of a great sea, several hundred metres deep. Today, the magnitude of such a change is very difficult to understand, but the evidence geologically is extremely clear and easy to access. When you are standing on top of the island, you have to imagine yourself several hundred metres under water. Even though you can see for miles and miles! Freaky!
Once off the island, we went out on to the plain to take some funky horizon pictures. You know, the kind where one person can be teeny weenie and the other is a monster. The horizon line on the Salar is perfect for this. Later, we stopped where there was a little water so we could get some more reflection type shots. It was so cool! There is even a basic hotel out there made entirely of salt bricks. Eventually, we climbed off the plain and into the town of Uyuni, not far from the edge, where there is an old train cemetery that contains all of the locomotives used in the mining industry in the past. It was really just a collection of rust buckets, but fun to see. Uyuni itself is a neat town. Having once been an important rail junction for the mining industry, it is now a full on tourist town servicing the Salar. There is really nothing else going on except the comings and goings for the Salar. But that's OK, the people are friendly, and the food is not that bad, and Bolivia? Well, hey, it just keeps on getting better...