Following our spell-binding day on the salar, we drove higher into the mountainous desert to the little town where we were to stay that night, with a stop first in San Cristóbal. A mining town which had long ago seen its boom and bust, San Cristobal was re-born a number of years ago when a new body of zinc, lead and silver was discovered – right under the town site. The Japanese-American company offered to move the residents to a new town site nearby and build them nice new facilities (school, marketplace, health clinic etc). The people were happy to accept the offer. The only problem was the 350-year-old stone church: they liked it exactly the way it was. So the company said, no problem, we’ll move that too. And they did, putting it all back together, every stone in the same place, or so it is said. It took 14 months to do it and it is quite pleasing to look at. (Photo shows view from back side.)
A couple of hours farther down the road we arrived at our “shelter” in Villa Alota, a very very small town (think Bridesville, BC). Liz Rojas, our host and tour agent in Sucre had described this as a place she wouldn’t take her own kids but it really wasn’t so bad. Basic, yes, but we’ve suffered more going camping. These shelters exist to serve tour groups passing through all doing exactly the same thing. Each group gets a room with six beds and there are two bathrooms for everybody to share. There is a common room for taking supper and breakfast, and meals are made in the adjoining kitchen by the drivers, using food they have brought, and assisted by the owners of the shelter. You wouldn’t want to stay long in a shelter, but the beds were satisfactory (real mattresses, not straw, and no bed bugs) and the bathroom – well, we’ve seen worse.
The dusty main street of Villa Alota was almost a full block wide, dressed up by a boulevard running down the centre featuring stone-capped pillars of piled-up rocks held in place by wire cages (see photo). You gotta admire the people’s creativity and determination to add visual structure to their main street; the unique aesthetic does work (just imagine the street without anything running down the centre).
Walking that street the next morning I encountered no fewer than three young boys playing pan pipes as they walked to school. What an ethereal sound it was, so complementary to the tranquility of the early morning. (Photo on right shows Felix atop the stone “gate” at the end of Villa Alota’s main street.)
For most of the next day we off-roaded, following tracks made by other Land Cruisers, some of them just very deep ruts in the gravely sand. Given that the magical southwest corner (including the salar) is one of the top attractions in the country, with hardly any people living here, no public transit and no rental vehicles (not that you’d want to drive it yourself!) there’s no avoiding being part of mass-production tourism: although not officially having anything to do with the other tour groups, we couldn’t help but be a part of the convoy of 11-12 Land Cruisers making the circuit. It’s probably like this every single day.
As we trundled along, our driver, Flavio, explained everything in slow, clear language, which meant that instead of understanding about 10% of what was being said, we were catching about 90%. We noticed he spoke much more quickly with other Spanish-speakers, so this was definitely conscious on his part, one of the many facets of his manner that we appreciated. Other qualities that endeared him to us were his professionalism, care, good humour and attention to safety. He told us that of the 12 guides staying at the shelter the previous night, only three of them (himself included) did not get drunk and actually made an effort to get a good night’s sleep. Some reported having slept only two or three hours, and one group’s guide was still drinking beer at breakfast.
Flavio, bless him, drove a clean, well-maintained vehicle, wore a seatbelt and had made sure that all the passenger seatbelts were available and functioning (this a first for us since our arrival in Bolivia). He even stopped the vehicle to check his brake fluid before going down a hill where an accident had occurred last year. At one point Flavio noticed that one of the other vehicles (one of the ones with a drinking driver) was leaking radiator fluid, so he drove ahead to cut in front of said vehicle and alert the driver to the problem. Driver: “Está bien! Está bien!” (It’s fine! It’s fine!) Flavio: “No, your engine is about to be fried. You need to stop.” Naturally, said driver – let’s call him DUI – had no tools aboard his vehicle, but Flavio did (not only tools but coveralls too), so we and the passengers of two other vehicles sat and waited for about 90 minutes while Flavio and another conscientious driver fixed DUI’s vehicle for him. One shudders to think of worst-case scenarios here, but on the flip side is a lesson for budget-conscious travelers: where safety is important (as in, you’re taking your kids into The Middle of the Middle of Nowhere for three days), go with the most reputable company you can find. Spend a bit more; you won’t regret it.
The main attraction along this part of the route was a series of small alpine lakes (“lagunas altiplanicos”) where flamingos are often seen. Indeed we saw MANY! We have about 180 photos of flamingos now, most of them taken from considerable distance. Wanna see them? A few turned out well.
There are actually three kinds of flamingos: Andino, Chileno, and “Jututu” (a variety known as ‘James’ in English). Mostly we saw the Andino and Jututu kinds, which are both pink and have similar black and yellow bills but different coloured legs (yellow on the former and dark red on the latter).
We also spotted vicuñas, the smallest and most dainty-looking of the New World camelids. Unlike the more familiar llamas and alpacas, vicuñas are always wild and are, unfortunately, sometimes poached for their highly-valued wool. Llamas (shown in photo) are the largest and are generally domesticated, more for meat than wool, though their wool is used for coarser things, like rugs and rope. Alpacas are in between llamas and vicuñas in size, are rarely found in the wild, and are mostly raised for their fine, fine fleece, though I’ve read that people sometimes eat them too.
Animal sightings were a thrill for all of us, and we never tired of looking out the window. When there weren’t cool animals to see, there were bizarre and twisted rock forms, many of them giant droppings from ancient volcanoes. (Guess who is hiding in the photo on the left.) One especially cool rock form has become a regular stop on the tour because it resembles a venerable old tree. It is called the “Arbol de Piedra” (Stone Tree) and it marks the beginning of a national park, though the only indication to that effect is a sign announcing the first bathroom in probably 100 km, the very existence of which seems almost comically incongruous, given its remote location (see photo below).
It is the vastness of this high-altitude desert that most takes your breath away (that and the fact that you are at 4000-5000 metres above sea level). Almost nothing grows here. One could call it harsh, and certainly it is harsh in winter when there’s nothing to temper the bitterly cold wind save the contours of the hills. (Laguna Colorado is the coldest place in Bolivia. Temperatures here can plunge to -25 degrees Celsius in winter, and there is no insulation and no heating to speak of except for fires, but not much to burn except the smallest of shrubs and some animal dung.) But at this time of year – summer’s end – a better descriptor might be ‘stark’.
The destination that marks the end of Day Two on the circuit is the Laguna Colorada, a rust-blood coloured lake chock full of algae and plankton – the main food of the flamingos. Like the other lagunas, Laguna Colorada also contains high levels of minerals, primarily borax, deposited in piles resembling snow banks. Other minerals in this lake include sodium, magnesium and gypsum.
Day Three took us over a 5000 metre pass to the ‘fumaroles’ – not quite geysers, but more like steaming, bubbling pits of boiling mud, 4850 metres above sea level , which emit an overpoweringly strong odour of sulphur. We were invited to walk close enough to look down on the bubbling pits, but advised not to get too close as the wet, cracked earth can sometimes give way, causing serious burns. Indeed, looking down we saw some footprints we took be those of a tourist more foolish than us: one print, two prints, one big concave depression (no shoes or clothing visible). We joked around, morbidly imagining what might have happened, in the process coming up with some alternate names for the fumaroles: The Pits of Despair; The Tar Pits of Troubled Times; Death Can’t Wait, etc. Photo on left shows Jennie and the boys trying not to choke on sulphur fumes. Photo on right is of Flavio.
Next we had a one-hour stop at a small, minimally developed hot springs with a sandy bottom through which the naturally heated water bubbled up. No ugly smell of sulfur here, thankfully.
Laguna Verde (4400 metres) was the southernmost point on the tour, only a few kilometres from the border crossing into Chile. The lake, which lies at the base of a volcano (Vulcan Llicancahúr), used to be much more green but now really only shows its true colours when a strong wind whips up the water, bringing the minerals responsible for its coloration (arsenic, lead, sulfur and calcium carbonates) closer to the surface. The minerals are so concentrated that at -21 degrees Celsius the lake still does not freeze! (No flamingos here)
If we our understood our guide’s explanation correctly, some years ago a helicopter carrying tourists from Chile crashed somewhere on Llicancahúr. High winds made it impossible to search for survivors on foot and too dangerous to do in a helicopter (at 5,868 metres the thin atmosphere makes it terribly hard for helicopters to get enough lift). Somehow NASA got involved and in the process of searching for crash victims discovered a small, very green lake in the crater at the top of the volcano, while also taking note of Laguna Verde below. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, NASA returned three times to study Laguna Verde, and the people say they took away some large very green rocks, leaving the lake more brown than green. A recent earthquake in Chile also caused rocks and soil to tumble into the lake and dirty it. Consequently, it was less than spectacular in colour, but the landscape around it was striking nonetheless. (Photo shows Llicancahúr with Laguna Verde below.)
For the remainder of the third day we high-tailed it back to Uyuni, exhausted from some very early starts and fully satiated by the remarkable sights we had seen. One final highlight en route was seeing fields of beautiful quinoa growing in the colours of the Bolivian flag. But that merits a blog post of its own…