The southwest corner of Bolivia is dry, high, and sparsely populated, with volcanos, geysers, deserts, lakes of various colors, salt flats, and no paved roads in sight. The standard way to see it is by Jeep tour, either from Uyuni, the “city” nearest the salt flats, or from Tupiza, farther away but prettier, with mountains and canyons. It is not far from Tupiza that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ended their careers, a fact that local tour agencies have caught on to, and they offer tours related to that too. The tourists that we crossed paths with in Potosi all said that a tour of the salar was one of the coolest things they had done in Bolivia, so on arrival in Tupiza we made the rounds of the different agencies. There must be ten or fifteen of them, with about the same prices, same itinerary, even the same way of diagramming who sits where in the Jeep. At the one we eventually chose, though, the agent (Sylvia) talked about Jaime and Sara, a husband and wife with two daughters who would be our driver and cook, respectively, if we left in the next few days. Our main question had been “How would it be to spend four days with someone we didn’t like being around?”, but Sylvia’s talk about Jaime and Sara eased our minds. We elected to pay a little more than otherwise necessary to have just the 6 of us in the van (adding an unknown fellow traveller could have saved us about 20%.) As it happened, the night before we left, we were leaving a park with a giant slide when we saw a Land Cruiser that said “Natural Adventures” (our tour agency) with two parents and two girls getting in. So we ran over and said hello, and, as expected, it was Jaime, Sara, and their daughters Lucero and Daniela.
We left on Monday morning of Holy Week, driving out of Tupiza on a road that turned to dirt at the edge of town. This was a day of 10 1/2 hours of travel (including many stops for photos, walks, lunch, bathroom…) over single lane mountain roads with occasional dropoffs to either side, too many creek crossings to count (Zeke loved these- the more water, the better, the best being when the Land Cruiser actually makes waves), and incredible vistas of canyons of multicolored rock. Also, lots of llamas, alpacas, and cactus, which sometimes resemble llamas and alpacas. We spent the night in Quetena Chica, a cold, dusty, windswept settlement of concrete block and adobe buildings at 4300m altitude at the foot of Uturuncu, a snowcapped volcano. Anna and Zeke fretted some over the notion of an “active” volcano, but we got that calmed down in time for bed. The hostel compound had a courtyard which the Land Cruiser (I’m just going to call it a Jeep from now on, even though it is really a Toyota (question from Zeke: “How can it be a both a Jeep and a Toyota?)) pulled into, joining a truck that was up on blocks, with about four basic rooms (ours with 5 cots, unheated, bathroom down the hall) and a room for a kitchen and dining room. The kitched only had a sink, and Sara, like most of the cooks, carried food, dishes, and propane stove in the Jeep. One great surprise of the trip was how Sara kept making great meals (with lots of vegetables, not always the case with vegetarian food) that all of us liked – a surprise since eating in Bolivia wasn’t always easy. We ate well and the kids fell asleep almost right away. We had covered 175 miles, most of it at about 20 mph.
Day two had less driving and more activities. We were now out of canyonlands and into a sandy landscape with wide valleys and snowcapped mountains in the distance in many directions. In the morning we stopped to visit Kollpa Laguna, where we saw flamingos for the first time, to bathe in hot springs, and to have lunch at laguna verde, a lake made green by mineral content. Laguna Verde is as far southwest as you can go in Bolivia. Above it is the volcano Licancabur, and the far slope is in Chile. Straight south (and in sight) is Chile as well, and heading east you would cross into Argentina. This was an amazing landscape to sit and look around in any direction.
We spent the night at another basic hostel – this one where you flush by pouring water down the toilet (a skill all Loomis cousins learned at the Bass Lake cabin) and instead of one cold-water shower, there is no shower. Another cold windy night at 4270m altitude, another yummy supper, this time with some llama meat for L,Z, and A, and a bit of talking with fellow travellers (3 jeeps spent the night there) from Holland and Israel, and again our basic room made warm by the heat of four. We arrived at 3pm, time enough for a good walk in strong wind along the edge of laguna colorada, a lake made red by algae and with huge islands of borax that look like snow from a distance. Oh, and flamingos. A bit surreal, all told. All the electricity here came from solar panels, and I paid 5 bolivianos (about 75 cents) to charge my camera for 90 minutes at a nearby store.
Day 3 began with a trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night. But the bathrooms seemed to be in use, so I went outside the wind gone, the desert quiet, and an incredible sky of stars above. After breakfast we started walking north and Jaime and Sara picked us up 20 minutes down the road. At some point you might wonder “Could I just rent a jeep and see all this for cheaper?” And maybe you could, but most likely you would end up lost in vast expanses of sand with tracks going many different ways. Jaime said the first few times he did this trip he followed another jeep, and after three or four he was ready to go on his own. But nothing is signed or posted, and one knows by memory how to connect the dots. We stopped at the arbol de piedra (tree of stone) in the desert of Siloli, a great playground for relatively easy rock climbing that Anna and Zeke wanted to stay at for hours. But we went on, stopping at geysers and steam vents, belching sulfury air at high pressure, and then a series of lakes, some with flamingos, some of strange colors, some smelling of sulfur, some with snowcapped peaks reflected in them. The last of these was Laguna Negra, a black lake (algae again) with ducks and more fun stones to climb on. Then a push northward on roads that were better maintained (but still dirt) used by trucks from the mining companies. Actual towns with electric lines appeared, and then a long incredibly straight road as we headed northeast toward Uyuni and the salar. Uyuni itself is an unprepossessing flat town of concrete buildings, and I was fine not staying there. We had elected to spend the night in Colchani, a smaller town with more basic accomodations, but closer to the salt flats. Colchani was cold, windy, and barren-seeming, a little like Quetena Chica two nights before, but after a little rain passed Jaime drove us out onto the salar to see the sunset. The pictures that come do a better job than words of describing the salar – it is, in the middle, almost featureless, save the mountains around the edges and the hexagons on the ground. On the edge are lots of mounds of salt piled that way to dry, and – this may be a surprise – water. Much of the salar isn’t accessible until later in the year, and we drove through a bit of water onto a little island for sunset. Cold and windy but incredible.
The next day we got up at about 5 to be on the salar for sunrise, which, as one would imagine, was spectacular. With us were maybe 12 other jeeps full of tourists, all waiting for the sun like one would on new years or the solstice. We had breakfast inside a hotel made of salt blocks, again prepared by Sara (we should note that Sara was often up at 3 to prepare the day’s food, and spent a lot of time in the car playing with Anna and Zeke). Then time on the salar, playing soccer with Jaime, looking at salt crystals, walking, taking silly pictures made possible by the lack of perspective. We had a long way to go to get back to Tupiza, so we reluctantly left after a few hours. More stops – at the train graveyard outside Uyuni, then for lunch – and the long ride back to Tupiza, again over those slow mountain passes. I grew to truly appreciate chewing coca on this trip – Jaime says it would be impossible to do his job without it, and it helps with attentiveness, digestion, headaches, and altitude. A big bit in the cheek can give a feeling a little like novocaine after half an hour, but (from what I have heard) coca is nothing like the nightmare of chewing tobacco.
All of us, but especially Anna and Zeke, were sorry to part with Jaime and Sara, but we wanted to let them get home to their own kids. We compromised by hiking with all 4 of them two days later – but perhaps that is another post.