Where can you see flamingos standing in a red sea, herds of llama grazing on green grass, ostriches running along dusty plains, and an armadillo crossing the road, all in the same place? On the Lagunas Route in Bolivia, that’s where.
Leaving San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, we rode in a tourist van for an hour on good tarmac, arriving at the barren border crossing of Hito Cajones, an altitude of 4700 meters. There the tarmac ended.
Although remote, this western circuit is no stranger to tourists. We stood in a long line of mostly twenty year olds, slowly shuffling up to the Bolivian aduana doorway, where 2 at a time, we were allowed to enter the tiny office.
Passports now stamped, we scrunched into a Toyota Land Rover, 6 passengers per vehicle. Luggage wrapped in blue tarp went up top, alongside four 10-gallon containers of gasoline. And gallons of water.
For the next 4 days Bob and I travelled the tracks to Uyuni and back with friends Ray and Sue from Britain, Yugi from Japan, Joost from the Netherlands and our Bolivian born driver Roger. Another vehicle overstuffed with 6 boisterous twenty-something Europeans, travelled in tandem with us. The young people kept us laughing each evening.
Roger expressed surprise when he learned that this new group of passengers was spanish challenged. Blessed with an ever smiling face, his only english phrase was “Let’s go Chico’s”. He also knew 3 numbers, with the result that every “proxima parada” (next stop) was either 5, 10 or 45 minutes away regardless of the actual time. But by the end of the trip Roger had learned 3 new words from us. “Lunch”, “breakfast” and one he chuckled over “chilly Chile”. Although I suspected that he thought the English word for “frio” (cold) was “chilly-chilly”.
This is desolate country. We travelled for hours through mountainous desert rock and sand. No towns, no people, no gas stations. Roads are multiple crisscrossing tracks in the desert.
We rattled and bounced over the bumps, slipped and swerved through the soft sand. At least once we were headed for a roll over. Dust seeped into the vehicle assaulting our nostrils, the altitude hovered over 4000 meters making us dizzy, and the direct sun burned our skin at every stop.
Interspersed amongst this barrenness is a picturesque array of salty lagunas, each a different colour depending on the mineral content. We stopped at a white one, then a green one and a red one, where 3 types of flamingos felt at home.
We soaked in a natural pool of clear hot water. Then stopped to walk around the bubbling mud and steam at the geysers.
After a rough day of dust, wind and sun we stayed at a hostel in a village that had 4 dirt streets. We walked to the plaza. Bordered by a cement curb, it was adorned with more grey dirt. All the doors on the streets were padlocked shut. A soccer field and a few kids with a ball was our only hint that perhaps this bleak place had some type of community.
An 8 year old girl came running. She had a key to the tienda in one hand and a plastic baggie of coins in the other. Unlocking the store she sold us cans of warm beer, confidently counting out prices and change. With her black hair, bright pink sweater and feisty manner, she won our hearts.
Breakfast at 630 AM consisted of the driest buns on the planet and cold tasteless pancakes with marmalade. After a sleepless night due to the high altitude, this did nothing to revive our spirits. Our heads hung. But as we encountered more breakdowns, the non existence of shops, the poor roads, and the dribbles of water excused as a shower, we acknowledged that in this undernourished environment it is difficult to provide a consistent supply of decent food, laundered sheets and working toilets.
That same morning Bob and I spoke with a woman dressed in skirt and blouse, sitting in a tiny room off the hallway. I recognized her as the cook from the kitchen the night before. She was perched on a wooden stool in front of a low metal stove. Orange flames flickered through cracks on one side, purporting to heat the oven on the other side. She was anxiously watching the oven, encouraging it to cook what we later learned was our lunch for that day. A pan of layered potatoes and ground meat, topped with tomato slices, had to be ready for packing into the back of the Toyota before we left at 7 AM.
On day two, deep canyons and unique rock formations enticed us to explore.
We began to notice occasional greenery. Small grassy oasis with grazing herds of llama surrounded by huge rock outcroppings. And a surprise for all of us were the huge ostriches running in the desert. Endangered, the Andean ostrich is known as Suri.
The only cultivation we saw were fenced fields of quinoa. Planted in hilled rows, the growth was patchy as no watering is done. “It won’t rain until next month”, Roger told us.
The second night we slept in a hostel made of salt. Cool! The bed sat in the middle of a thick layer of floor salt. Walls were stacks of salt bricks.
Not so cool though because there was nowhere to put our clothes. No chair. No hook in the wall. Everything had to sit on the salt. And our doorknob kept falling off making it a struggle to leave our room. Then the entire men’s and woman’s bathroom somehow flooded before dinner. So management locked the door, leaving 50 guests with one working toilet.
Just outside the hotel entrance, two men with a spade and a wheelbarrow, dug down to the pipes, working for hours to make a repair. When Bob stepped outdoors in the dark for a pee, the men told him everything would be fixed in 30 minutes. Well, not sure that was true, but at least the bathrooms reopened before morning.
By the third day, we had reached the edge of the Salar. At around 11000 square kilometres, the Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flats and the inspiration for our trek into Bolivia. In order to watch the sunrise over this extraordinary plain, we left the hotel at 4:30 AM. Driving in the dark, Roger tried to entertain us by turning off the headlights. Surrounded by white, you could kind of see to drive, but not that well. “What if another car turns off it’s lights Roger?” He seemed confused that we were nervous. We were confused that he thought this was fun.
Still dark, we parked in the middle of the Salar, and climbed Incahuasi, a cactus covered island, to catch the first rays of day. The light slowly revealed the Salar, an amazing expanse of flat white salt surrounded by a rim of blue mountain peaks. Incredible. Beautiful.
Later, walking on the hard packed salt reminded us of walking on a frozen snow covered lake. Except that our boots didn’t make that squeaky crunch.
At ground level there is a loss of perspective. This strange phenomenon provides a unique opportunity to take amusing photos. Sue, Ray, Bob and I spent well over an hour trying different poses using some props. The photographer (one of us) had to lie down on the salt to obtain the correct angle. The others had to pose, then adjust their distance, trying for an interesting photo. There was a knack to it that we didn’t quite master.
But we had fun.
Next stops were a few artisans, where we bought ….you guessed it …salt. Then a train graveyard, and then the dusty city of Uyuni where we spent a few hours of the afternoon. At about 4 pm, we started the long trek back, crossing into Chile around noon the next day. Oh ya, and somewhere in there, the armadillo crossed the road.
Tough life, hostile environment, painted landscape. Is there more to Bolivia? We intend to return and find out.