Touring Tupiza to Uyuni
Southern Bolivia contains landscape that must be seen to be believed. You want some crazy diversity, the mountainous terrain from Tupiza to Uyuni has got it. Lakes of emerald green and crimson red, jagged mountains, sandy deserts, plains of quinoa and flats made entirely of salt. To experience these freaks of nature firsthand I booked a 4 day jeep tour from the company Valle Hermosa.
We embarked the first morning with our guide Arturo manning the wheel. Joining me were some friends I met at the hospital in Tupiza: Manu (the 18 year old German baby), Estefania y Mariel (Argentines from Rosario), and Frederica (an Italian completing an internship in Cordoba).
The jeep grooved its way down the bumpy unpaved roads, steadily gaining altitude until we stopped at the first mirador. Cactus stood squat at the edge of a cliff overlooking the mountains with jagged edges. An impressive view in its own right, but just a primer compared to what awaited us. Once we started to level out our altitude, at this point well above 4,000 meters, fields of dry beige grass lined the pathways. Llamas grazed amongst the fields, the multicolored fabric markings tagged to their eyes making them easy to spot. Every time that we got close, the llamas decided to give us a little show, spreading wide and dropping a pile of pellets to the ground. Just nature taking its course or the llamas expressing their extreme disinterest in us, I’m not entirely sure. But the llamas were certainly interesting with their jaws working sideways below their faces filled with expression.
For lunch we stopped at a very small town, if you can call a collection of 20 enclosures a town. Our cook was Mama Dolores, the most adorable and agreeable Bolivian woman you can possibly imagine. She is short like most Bolivians (and mountainous people in general) with a motherly love for everyone that is only matched by her skill in the kitchen. Throughout the trip we looked forward to each and every meal, cooked with basic ingredients like lentils and vegetable soup. The basic meal reflected the feeling of the town which survives entirely off of the land. The llamas and the vegetables that they are able to grow are imperative to their livelihood and the excess of a city must be a foreign concept to these people. Three adorable little girls greeted us and demonstrated their English skills. It took me a second to realize that the smallest one was saying “Mother, Father, Dog” instead of “mothafucking dog”. Either way I was impressed.
Later that day we stopped at some ancient ruins that have barely resemble the small structures they once were. Judging by how low the supports were built you get a sense of the short indigenous people who once called them home. The remnants of an old church stood, demonstrating the effects of colonization in ancient times.
That night, and every night thereafter, was bitter cold in the basic hotels where we stayed. Being the beginning of winter, and that high up in the mountains, the temperature plummets during the night. I was accustomed to the cold of Patagonia and the south but everyone else on the tour swaddled themselves in layers of clothes even while covered by multiple blankets to sleep.
The next day was devoted to two spectacular lakes. First up was the Lago Verde, a gorgeous lake set in front of a mountain on the left hand side and a volcano on the right hand side. When we first arrived the water was clear, reflecting the mountain and volcano with incredible clarity. A small fox lurked around the edges of the lake, ignoring the harassing birds overhead. We waited patiently as the winds picked up, blowing minerals across the lake to turn the water a luminescent shade of green. The extreme transformation was complete in less than 10 minutes, creating a drastic difference from before. The background was no longer reflected in the darker water which had taken on the color of Frederica’s jacket.
The second spectacular lake is the Lago Colorado, the crimson red brother to the green lake. The lake gets its red color from the high concentration of colored algae that is indigenous to the lake. The algae attracts large colonies of flamingos whose feathers are a few shades brighter than the water itself. Young flamingos are actually white and turn pink as they get older. The color of the spirulina (the algea they consume, coincidentally the most highly concentrated form of protein in the natural world which makes it a popular superfood added to health smoothies) is leached out of their feathers as a waste product, making them pink. (I actually learned this fact in the science museum in London. It never ceases to amaze me how experiences coincide to build greater understanding.) The flamingos turn their bills upside down when they feed, making them appear very inquisitive. The entire scene is very surreal, resembling one of the biblical seas of blood, only in this case exceedingly beautiful and serene.
The visits to the lakes was broken up by a dip in the natural thermal pools a few kilometers away. The area is home to many geysers and hot springs, slowly releasing 30 degree water from beneath the soil. We donned our bathing suits and lounged in the welcoming water, enjoying the contrast of the refreshing brisk air and the comfortingly warm water. At this point a celebratory shot of whisky was in order, capping off the level of relaxing. Damn, life in Bolivia is tough.
Day three started off with a stop at some volcanic rocks, perfect for climbing. No better way to start the day then a scamper up some rock formations to take in the moon overtop of the mountains. We eventually made our way to an ancient mummy museum. I had the ancient tombs of the Egyptian sarcophagi adorned in gold pictured in my mind, something straight out of Hollywood. Swing and a miss. In actuality the tombs are small circular enclosures made of corral that has been fossilized by volcanic activity. Inside lie the original skeletons of people from hundreds of years before, undisturbed for centuries.
Our last night on the tour was spent on the outskirts of the Uyuni salt flats, in a hotel made entirely of salt. The large chunks of white salt reflect the light brilliantly. But the salt is no where near as brilliant as the stars in the unmarred sky. Our group braced the chill wind, huddled close for warmth, our eyes slowly scanning the sky. With no light pollution, no smoke from cars and factories trapped in the atmosphere, the sight was unmarred. Being thousands of meters above sea level you feel closer than ever to the stars, so many stars that the most distant clusters shimmer faintly like dust passing through a beam of light. In moments like these I always feel a strong dichotomy. That sense of being totally and completely insignificant, a drop in the ocean, yet omnipotent, capable of creating a ripple throughout the entirety of the cosmos. A fitting surreal feeling to have before heading to the surreal Salar de Uyuni the next day.