Tuesday, March 1, 2011

La Adventura de Bolivia Pt. 1 - The Desert of the Real

We have been in Bolivia four days now and it feels so much longer than that. Much like Antarctica, this has been a place without time to me. We crossed La Frontera on the 26th of February. The driver, whose name I have shamefully forgotten, spoke a little English and explained that the trip to the border would take about an hour or so from San Pedro de Atacama. We got our documents examined by Chilean passport control in town, then made our way down the road to Bolivia. We stopped for a few minutes to take pictures of Volcan Licancabur from the Chilean side and the driver pointed out a few other mountains, such as Toco which looked like another volcano to me. As we progressed further up the road, occasionally passing tanker trucks labeled "Acido Sulfurico - Peligroso" on double lines, the road started to get a thin sheen of snow on it. The driver pointed out the road to the Argentine border, which is nearby. Almost immediately after we commented on how nice the road was and how we had worried that it might be a bit sketchy, we turned off to go to the Bolivian checkpoint onto a dirt road covered with snow. Actually, there were a number of dirt tracks to choose from. It turns out that this is not actually uncommon in Bolivia, at least the part we're traveling through. Roads through the desert are often a path worn by previous drivers, sometimes multiple paths, sometimes a general free for all. Anyway, we drove about 4km in this fashion, according to the driver when we arrived at the Bolivian immigration office at Hito Cajones, which was a small building covered in snow at 4200 meters. We've been taking the generic version of Diamox to fight altitude sickness, but I still felt a bit of Rocky Mountain High at the checkpoint. There we met our driver Frans* and our guide Daniel. After filling out the basic immigration forms we found out that the checkpoint didn't have any visas to issue us, so Frans had to hold onto our passports until we get to Uyuni, where the Uyuni office would process our visa paperwork. We had been warned by the tour organizer that this might happen, so it wasn't really a surprise.

* - Our driver's name has variously been interpreted as Frans, Franz, and France. His full name is Francisco. I'm running with Frans for now.

After that, our bags got transferred to our new vehicle, which I was pleased to see is a Lexus 450. Most people doing the Uyuni circuit are in Toyota Land Cruisers, so I think we got a more comfortable ride and possibly a more reliable one. It's really nice to do a private tour instead of being packed into a car with 3-5 other people. The package tours, as I understand it are also less flexible in terms of how long you can stay at a site, which is annoying to me personally because I often want to take a lot of pictures. Also I have heard a number of horror stories about vehicle breakdowns, drunken drivers, bait and switch on guides, so I was willing to spend a bit more than most to get a private tour from a company that I'd heard good things about. Well, as it turned out we got a great experience from Frans and Daniel. Frans owns the car he drives and he was constantly looking it over to make sure nothing was wrong. He also drove it through places that I wouldn't have considered, but he has a lot of experience and we always felt comfortable with him as our driver. Daniel was always patiently answering our questions, no matter how many times we might ask them (altitude plays with your head). They would stop whenever we asked to take a picture or go to the bathroom (This was usually behind a rock, the Altiplano doesn't have a lot of standard baños to go to, which is a problem, because you're probably experiencing a diuretic effect from the altitude.) Daniel also had a lot of knowledge about the local area, which was great because we were always curious about various things. These guys were really, really helpful for this trip and made it incredibly enjoyable.

After we left the border, the first place we went to was Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde. Laguna Blanca is a lagoon which is white from borax and other salts. Laguna Blanca feeds Laguna Verde. Laguna Verde gets its name from copper and arsenic sediments which give it a greenish color. It was pretty green, but Daniel said the color is best when the wind blows, raising the sediments. We waited around for a while, but the color never really changed much. The weather did improve a bit, though, as the sun came out and shone down on the ridge where we were parked with a number of other tours. It was really exciting to finally be in mysterious Bolivia and to have the weather look up. We took a bunch of pictures (this would generally happen at each stop) and eventually headed out to the next stop. The road was pretty rough, so jokes about La Adventura de Bolivia became kind of a running gag.

We made a quick stop at Valle de las Damas (Valley of the Ladies) aka Valle de Picasso. Some large weathered volcanic rocks stood in a sand dune of at a distance, remnants of volcanic ejecta that can be found all over the region. I wish we could have gotten a little closer, but for some reason I've forgotten we had to be content with our remote view. The next stop was the Termas de Polques hot springs. We got to use the loo and then soak our feet in the hot springs, which was quite pleasant.

After we dried off our feet and hopped back in the truck we drove a ways to Geysers of Sol Mañana, a bunch of mudpots, more than true geysers. We got to walk around very close to the fumeroles, far closer than we would be allowed to go in the States. This was when we had the realization that you could do a lot more in Bolivia than back home. It was really cool to see the mudpots up close, although I was worried a lot about breaking through the surface like Kendall Bumpass. This evidently is not a completely unreasonable concern, as there have been accidents. As we drove off we saw a small group of Vicuña and we stopped to take some pictures. I even got out to get a better angle to photograph them. After we had gone up the road a few hundred yards I couldn't find my sunglasses and thought I might have dropped them at the location where we'd been watching the vicuñas, so I asked if we could stop and take a look for them. For some reason I decided it'd be a good idea to jog back to that spot to get them. By the time I had gotten a ways down the road, I stopped, my heart pounding. At that point I thought a little better of exerting myself so much after having come up so far in altitude so fast. I later learned from Daniel that that particular location was the highest spot we'd be at during the whole tour, roughly 5000 meters (over 16000 feet), far higher than I've ever been before. The sunglasses, as it turned out, were in my bag. D'oh.

After the geyser adventure we drove to the beautiful Laguna Colorada which is a deep red from plankton that live in its salty walters. Flamingos come to feed on the plankton. The older the flamingo, the pinker they get. We had a nice lunch there and then wandered down to the beach to get a closer look at some llamas there (the third species of camelid we'd seen in South America). We got some good pictures because a couple of randy llamas were chasing a third llama right towards us. After we finished photographing, we huffed and puffed up the hill back to the truck. The Diamox makes your hands tingle and the altitude was making us sluggish and causing headaches, so we took it slow. There was a park ranger at the top and he had a conversation with Daniel for a while, apparently making extra sure our papers were in order and that we didn't drive too close to the shore on the other side of the lagoon. After that discussion ended, we drove down the other side of the hill to the other side of the lagoon and spent a while getting more shots of the flamingos.

Our final scheduled stop was at Arbol de Piedra, a large volcanic rock that has been has been weathered into a shape roughly of a tree. It and other fantastic rock structures in the area are really kind of mind blowing. The intense blue sky and the rocks made me recall the expression from The Matrix about the desert of the real. I think that nicely encapsulates the high desert of the Altiplano that we drove through. So many things in our lives back home are illusory, but the desert feels real.

We had a bit of a surprise on our way from the stone tree: Frans and Daniel had heard that we were eager to see some Viscacha, although we'd been assured that that was unlikely. Sure enough, they found some in a cluster of rocks by the road. They are super cute! Kind of a cross between a chinchilla and a rabbit. Noelle and I were so excited that we got to see some.

After our surprise, we drove through the desert roads taking in the scenery. I was feeling a bit unwell at this point, my sinuses were killing me and I was feeling a bit run down (although it had been a really long day). We drove past a mountain that Daniel told us was a way point to Hotel del Desierto, the Tayka hotel we were staying at for the night and into a long, wide, empty valley. Eventually a building came into view and we were there. We got our stuff unloaded into the huge room we'd be occupying for the night and got ready for dinner. We had a couple of small problems, though. Problem #1: the heater didn't work, which was a problem because we were at 4700 meters and it can get cold at night. Problem #2: My headache and wooziness had clearly become altitude sickness. At this point I was feeling kind of queasy, too. I went to dinner, thinking I should try to get some food to feel better. This did not pay off, as during the soup course I felt so nauseous I had to return to the room where I promptly threw up. The up side was I felt much, much better after I had done it, although cleaning up was a pain. I found that a gas heater had been added to our room to provide heat for the evening, so I figured that solved the other problem too.

We had to get our batteries charged by 10pm, because they have to run power off a generator and it only runs 6-10. Some people have evidently complained about the Tayka hotels as being too basic. Certainly it's not a five star hotel, but the rooms were clean and the staff was great. In the end, you get a hot meal, a hot shower, and a warm bed, which is really what we wanted out of a hotel in our grand adventure. I felt especially lucky in that we saw some of the other tours bunking up in hotels that I've read do not provide much in the way of heat at night. That's no way to spend life above 4000 meters, especially if you're coming from San Pedro de Atacama and its relatively lush air.

After lights out, we went out to see and photograph the stars. It'd been somewhat cloudy all day, so I was worried that that would be case at night, but the skies were nice and clear. And the stars! So many stars! You could clearly see the Southern Cross and Orion and a bunch of stars we've never seen before. I took a bunch of pictures which I have high hopes will turn out really cool. I had wanted to do a long, long exposure, but decided against it. After an hour or so, we headed back in to sleep.

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