Chile to Bolivia across the Altiplano
Aug 27, 2008
On sunrise we set off to meet with the rest of our tour group who were crossing into Bolivia with us. It was quite a big group of people from 3 different companies and we all got a bus across the desert to the border crossing with Bolivia. On the bus we met a Australian Anthony and his fiance Britt from Holland, really great people who later became our good friends and travelling buddies. At the crossing into Bolivia it was a sunny day but freezing cold and windy at over 4500m on the edge of the Altiplano. As we were eating a quick breakfast we noticed a group of people who were loading into the bus we had taken to the border. They looked tired and a bit worse for wear and we realised they were just finishing their salt flat experience but the reverse route to ours. If people could look more grey and cold we would be surprised and we thought it was possible that we had a few tough days ahead of us.
Our tour group had three 4WD´s and we sneakily positioned ourselves next to the better one thinking it would give us the best chance of a better vehicle considering that one of them looked ready for scrap metal. But you know which car was ours. We looked at each other and then to the old beast a Toyota land cruiser circa 1970. There it was- a french guy Damien, 2 Aussie girls Kristy and Kate, the 2 of us and our driver Zonal. After loading our backpacks on the roof and took off, Ryan in shotgun position being the tallest and Damien in the dicky seat in the very back with the rest of the gear. Quickly we noticed how derelict this vehicle was, windows that didn't open, no seatbelts and no radio for the long ride ahead. As we looked out at another vehicle passing us we noticed our new friends Britt and Anthony waving at us from the comfort of a brand new black landcruiser. We were sure then and there it had all the comforts needed for the trip. Air conditioning, tinted windows, seatbelts, and a stereo, we tried to stay confident about our vehicle and we new that if we had a fighting chance of making it we needed to give her a name. We named our rusty, held together with tape and pure will 4WD ´JESSY´.
All cars were now fully loaded with volatile flammable liquids atop, and racing at an ass-tearing pace across the highlands. The plumes of dust made it impossible to see the car in front but this didn't slow any of the 4WD's down. There were no actual roads just tracks in the dust from where the 4WD's had been before. At this point we wished we had seatbelts but were happy that our old girl was unable to keep up with the rest of them.
We stopped at some amazing highland lakes in surreal colours, from brilliant turquoise blue, to white, red and yellow, the rich minerals in the soil gave colour to the waters. At midday we arrived at a natural thermal spring where we bathed in the hot steaming water. It was really cold but the water was lovely and warm and there is a chance that Ryan might even be famous somewhere in Korea after being interviewed by a couple of Korean movie makers whilst bathing in the pool. Our next stop was some sulphuric smelling geysers, we didn´t hang around too long as the smell was terrible, but seeing these bubbling jets high in the altiplano was quite a sight.
Within 10 minutes of leaving the geysers we got our first flat tyre. Thinking it was a bit of a novelty we got out to take photos while Ryan helped the driver change the tyre. The wind was absolutely blowing a gale but we were soon moving again. In the afternoon we arrived at the first resting spot. After warming up with some hot drinks and food we looked at our accommodation. No electricity, no running water and beds made of concrete. We knew we were in for a long cold night and went about stealing extra blankets from the empty room next door. To our surprise Britt and Anthony's group pulled up and were staying in the same place we were.
With not much to do everyone decided we should have a few drinks for later to keep us warm so we went to a tiny shop and bought a cheap bottle of something, we think it might have been whisky or rum. We also collected firewood and got some candles ready as the sun was fading. The fire was the centre of attention as we all huddled around sipping drinks and telling stories. We only needed a couple of drinks then it was time for bed and we all tried to be positive about the sleep ahead.
For warmth we shared a single bed as it gets well below minus 20 degrees Celsius at night here. We must have had 6 blankets and 2 sleeping bags plus all the clothes we could put on and we were still cold. The concrete bed didnt help and was very uncomfortable as we tried for hours to fall asleep. Someone in our room mentioned that at these temperatures and altitudes people can have a lot of difficulty breathing in their sleep. Eventually we got a few hours rest before Alison awoke to find Ryan barely breathing. He was taking the tiniest wisps of breath, falling in and out of consciousness. After hours of making sure he was alright we finally got a few hours of sleep.
No one had slept well and 3 other people had similar nights to Ryan's, but poor Britt must have had the worst. She didn't get a wink of sleep and had an excruciating migraine. She had a serious bout of altitude sickness and said it was one of the worst nights of her life. It wasn't till the morning we realised we probably shouldn't have had any alcohol as it probably made matters worse while our bodies were trying to cope at an altitude over 4500m.
At sunrise we were up for an early breakfast, huddling round the fire trying to warm up. It was a beautiful clear sunny day even though it was cold and the intense blue of the sky was a stark contrast to the mountains surrounding us. We set off and stopped at a close by lagoon. When we arrived there were dozens of flamingos gathered there. They were an intense pink colour and it was a beautiful sight to see these long graceful birds seen only previously in zoo's. Alongside the flamingos was a large herd of llamas eating and drinking in the shallows. We spent some time taking photos and watching the flamingos circling above then coming into land on the water, it was amusing to see them running with their longs legs on their approach to land.
Back in the 4WD and flying across the desert we went past some incredible rock formations and several other lagoons, some with thousands of flamingos gathered in large flocks. We saw the beautiful Lago Colorado a rich red colour because of the dense plankton colonies and thousands of Flamingoes feeding on them- What a site!! well over 4000m and masses of elegant birds gathering to feed and breed.
On our way to the lunch site we had another flat tyre, luckily we had a spare and again we were quite amused taking photos thinking of how this was a real adventure. Little did we realise that the afternoon would become one of the longest and craziest experiences on our trip.
Numerous car troubles and the ever looming sub zero temperatures of nightfall quickly approaching we were very lucky to make it off the salt lakes unscathed. There is far too much to say in such a little space so make sure we tell you about this epic afternoon when we get back. At nine at night we finally arrived to the salt hotel, not just by name the whole hotel was made of salt bricks and the floors were crushed rock salt. We were over 5 hours later then the other groups and must have looked a sight when we entered the dinning room and everyone looked shocked as we walked through the door. So tired and hungry we almost felt like it must have been a dream, as none of us really thought we were going to make it. We had visions of spending the night in JESSY, shivering together for warmth and to have a hot dinner and shower waiting for us was seriously a joy. Exhausted we went straight to bed.