Bolivia: A Land of Extremes

Desert and mountainous landscape in Altiplano, Bolivia

Gary Allen spends seven nights trekking from one of the highest cities in the world through the vast salt plains of the Bolivian Altiplano and into the driest desert on earth, the Atacama.

Day One

I was picked up from my hotel by our guide Javier and Felix, our driver and cook, on a beautiful winter day. Our group was small, a total of six guests as well as Javier and Felix. Not a cloud in the sky. We began our journey from Potosi, a quaint little Bolivian town known for its historic mining of silver and tin. At over 4,000 metres above sea level we could feel the altitude. According to the plan I should have spent a few days in Sucre, a nearby and lower town, to acclimatise to the altitude before meeting up with the group for the trek to Potosi. But that’s not the way things turned out. I got there late with not enough time in my schedule to acclimatise. On the first morning of the trek I woke with a crushing headache that lasted for a couple of hours.

I have never been on a trek or a travesia before and wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m more into quicker modes of transport to see a country; biking, horse riding, even driving. But a travesia is not just straight trekking; it’s a combination of driving and exploring.

So, we start off with a 200-kilometre drive to the city of Uyuni which is where the famous salt flats are. As we drive down from the mountains we see a vast sea of white; the salt flats stretching a massive 12,000 square kilometres. The story goes that the astronaut Neil Armstrong actually saw a white dot on the Earth as he was orbiting in space. Wonder- ing what it was, he returned to earth to find that what he saw was the Salaar de Uyuni or Uyuni Salt Flats. As far as the eye can see, it is a white surface of pure salt.

Similar to walking on hard-pressed snow and ice, the flats are actually a lake up to six metres deep in places. When we drive our van on the flats we are on our own in inhospitable terrain. It’s eerily quiet with not another living thing in sight. Even the birds don’t venture out.

After a 30-minute walk out on the flats we arrived to table and chairs with a buffet lunch of salads, cold cuts, wine and beer laid out for us. It was amazing to pause and think that we were in Bolivia having lunch in the middle of this natural wonder, so far from life back home.

Javier told me that later we were going to take the van out toward the volcano which I could clearly see in the distance, but before then I headed off on my own. After 30 minutes walking fast I was to- tally alone. I stopped and stood still. Not a sound, no movement, air as pure as possible. To be all alone without sound or an- other living thing in sight is eerie. I was rescued by Javier waving from the car. We needed to travel over 60 kilometres on the flats to get to the volcano.

On our way there we entered the village of Chantani (population four) famous for its museum owned and run by Santos, a handsome Bolivian farmer. He has painstakingly built a sculpture garden of creative statues made with natural materials including llama skulls. Pride of place is his genuine Inca mummy that is over 1,500 years old.

A short drive and we arrive at our first campsite in the town of Tahua (population 250; 50 families). We see our digs for the night; authentic rock buildings with just three rooms, all with two single beds and comfy down sleeping bags and fluffy down pillows. A separate building houses the kitchen and a dining table. Each of the bedrooms has its own bathroom in a separate building across the courtyard five steps away. Each has a toilet and shower and of course hot and cold water.

8pm is dinner. Salmon, quinoa and peanut soup. Delicious. Headlamps are used for reading and just seeing your way around in the dark. It’s early to bed as there’s no TV or Wi-Fi. The temperature overnight drops to freezing.

Day Two

We wake early to a bright, crisp day. The sun is just rising over the volcano we’re planning to climb. After a light breakfast of fruit, toast and coffee we set off.

At our first stop we saw 1,700 year- old chullpas mummies. The dry air up there preserved these bodies so that you can see a lot of detail all the way down to some skin and hair.

The trek up the volcano to 4,500 metres is not easy but not too difficult either. If you take your time with frequent stops, anyone can do it. There’s a monument of rocks piled for a stop and we were rewarded with amazing views and colours to the volcano up higher but also the expansive salt plains below. Be- fore we took out the cameras we just sat and looked out and took it all in.

Lunch was ready when we got back to our digs and a much needed rest followed. Afterwards we took a walk to town for a visit to the primary school to hand out the chocolate that we’d brought from Australia. Lots of happy, friendly children crowded around and posed for pictures. It was a nice experience.

Around 5:30 in the afternoon we drove out to the salt flats again to watch the sun go down and see the colours of the mountain and volcano. While we were driving out we could see another vehicle parked out on the flats. As we approached we realised that they were waiting for our arrival. There was a table set up with cheese and champagne and a local Bolivian band for entertainment. As the sun set over the flats it created a surreal setting for our gathering. Because there’s so much iron in the soil, the colours of the volcano are amazing at sunset. Reds, yellows, gold, orange. Incredible. No words could describe how beautiful it was.

Dinner back at the campsite was light with a hearty lamb soup. Two bowls and we were full.


Day Three

We wake to another beautiful blue sky and crisp cool morning. Breakfast was at 8 and departure at 9. After break- fast, we drove to one of the many islands in the salt flats for a hike. Very large cactus’ populate the island and it’s like being in the desert where the land is dry with sharp rocks and cactus everywhere reach the peak and look out across the salt flats. We could see so many of these islands dotting the flats.

Dinner that night at our new digs was roast duck with rice, avocado and tomato. Fantastic. The sky at night is filled with stars.

Day Four

We departed to another campsite by car but stop for a two and a half hour hike around one of the Andes lakes on the way. It was another fantastic day, bright and clear and a perfect temperature for hiking. This time the topography on our hike was very different. Moderately flat with all types of rock configurations as well as incredible looking bright green moss on some of the rocks. The colours were mesmerising and I just stood amazed at where I was. The mountains in the background with this incredible lake filled with all types of waterfowl of various colours and herds of llamas in the distance.

Lunch was waiting for us as we came around a turn. Felix had brought the van around and set up tables and chairs for us next to the lake. Day four dinner was light: a hearty soup and salad.

Day Five

We woke up to a freezing -18 celsius and the sun shining. Everything was frozen, including the toilet water. I took a walk before we drove off for the day out of the mountains and on into Chile. The roads are rough for an hour and a half. We needed to go slow. On our way we stopped off to see some unusual lakes. At the green lake nothing lives because of the arsenic and magnesium in water. Strange looking. At times it seems like we’re on another planet. Red coloured earth, snow capped mountains, bright blue sky and hundreds of flamingos. We went for a hike around a portion of one of the lakes and lunch was ready when we ended. Cold sliced turkey breast, pasta salad, avocado and tomato.

After lunch we took another ride to our highest point yet, 4,950 metres, where we enter the area of geysers, the smell letting us know we were close. An- other surreal environment. Mounds and crevices with boiling bubbling mud all blowing steam and hissing up air.

We leave the national park and the next stop is the Chilean border crossing which is supposed to be very strict as it’s a main cocaine route; from Uyuni, at the salt flats in Bolivia to San Pedro, Chile on the other side of Andes.

We arrived at the Hotel de Larache in Chile after customs and immigration at about 7pm. The rooms looked great and the king size bed even better. Great shower head, a giant hot rain shower. Dinner was fantastic. Ready for bed early.

Day Six

I woke up at the lower altitude of 2,500 metres, warmer temperature and in a big comfortable bed. My body says “thank you”. The Hotel de Larache is comfortable enough to just sit back and relax, but if you’re inclined there’s horse riding, hiking or mountain biking on offer. After a fantastic breakfast, I went with one of the guides on a 45-kilometre mountain bike ride to a place called Valle de la Luna or Moon Valley. It’s more absolutely incredible scenery. We relaxed around the pool for the rest of the day and met up with other guests at the lodge’s common area bar on comfortable chairs beside a blazing fire. The food at the lodge is really special; very healthy and there’s a fantastic wine selection as you would expect from Chile. Another great dinner.

Day Seven

Blue skies again and after break- fast I went off to the horse barn. Explora takes a lot of pride in the quality of its horses and experienced guides. The horses are indeed beautiful and seem eager for a ride. We set off for a two- hour ride and needed to walk our horses through a town along the way. I felt like Clint Eastwood walking my horse through the streets of Mexico and could hear the whistle from the theme of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ in the back of my mind. The horses are well mannered and are ready for whatever you are.

Day Eight

My days with Explora came to an end this morning. What a fantastic experience I’ve had journeying through the Andes and staying at the lodge. The trip is one of those unforgettable journeys that would be great with family or good friends.

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