5 Day jeep tour through the remote backcountry of southwestern Bolivia
07.28.2012 - 07.02.2012 52 °F
Lagunas and Salar tour June 28 – July 2
At 8:30 am we met our guide Milton, who speaks pretty good English, and Josephina, a classic Bolivian Chollita, complete with boler hat, long black braids, ten children and a warm easy smile.Over the next 5 days we covered 1200 Km of back roads in the southwestern corner of Bolivia ending in the town of Uyuni.
The first day we wound our way up through the desert into the mountains and over a pass at 5,000 meters. Small herds of wild Vicunas peppered the hillsides along with larger herds of llamas. At one time, the Vicuna, prized for their super soft fur, were reduced to less than 5,000 animals. They now estimate that approximately 70,000 live in southwest Bolivia. Milton informed us that shooting a Vicuna carries a mandatory 5 year prison sentence and if you can’t afford an attorney something more like 25. At about 4:00 we pulled into the town of San Pablo de Lipez, a tiny collection of mud brick houses and our hotel, Los Volcanes, one of two nights of deluxe accommodations. We were the only guests in this 4 star hotel in a town of 300 people nearly 100 miles from a town of any size. The service and food were easily the best we’d had in Bolivia.
The next day we bounced our way over semi-improved roads and rough two-track stopping for lunch at Laguna Celeste, a large lake fed by springs and sparse run-off at the base of Utrunucu Volcano. That evening we pulled into QuetenaChica, a small town populated mostly by llama farmers. Our guide Milton is friends with Miguel, the proprietor of the small hostel, that amounted to a collection of small rooms with no heat, no hot water, and much to Bridget’s dismay a shared bathroom. We arrived early enough to go on a side excursion out to Miguel’s farm to look at some very ancient pictographs and a large cave that had clearly been used by the pre-Incan tribes that peopled the area. Aidan was carrying a set of small binoculars that Miguel thought were just the best thing ever for looking at his llamas. At dinner that evening he approached our table to ask if he could buy them. They weren’t expensive, but with most of are trip still ahead of us, we declined and committed to the proposition that we would send him a pair when we returned to the states. By morning, Aidan had fessed up that he really wasn’t that crazy about the binocs anyway so he sold them at a substantial discount to a very pleased Miguel for 300 bvs or about $40.
The next morning we were on the road by 6:00 and caught the first light as we wound our way through the mountains. We stopped to look around San Antonio de Lipez, an abandoned mining town that once supported 3,000 miners. Walking through the ruins we came upon a human skull tucked in the corner of a fallen down house, another reminder that Bolivia remains very rough around the edges. Around noon we crossed the boundary into EdwardAvaroa National Park which is a huge park that surrounds the principal Volcanoes and Lagunas of southwestern Bolivia.
The day was filled with immense vistas and surreal landscapes. We saw rayas, a large ground bird the locals call kiwi, as well as several suri, a medium sized ostrich native to Bolivia.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the countryside was the amount of water available in nearly every drainage of any size that we crossed. Most of the country we travelled receives not more than 30 millimeters of rain annually and some areas as little as 10 millimeters yet there were creeks, ponds and lakes in relative abundance considering the sparse precipitation. Laguna Colorado was the highlight of the day, a large lake turned deep red by the algae that flourish there framed by several large volcanoes. A thousand or so flamingoes were scattered in bunches around the large lake. Anne and I made a pact to return sometime in November when upwards of 30,000 flamingos are typically found there. Unfortunately, we only spent a couple of hours at the lake. Between the red water, the red volcanoes, and the pink flamingos it is one of the most surreal, and utterly confounding landscapes I have ever had the good fortune of experiencing.
For our third night we were supposed to have deluxe accommodations at El Desierto another 4 star hotel constructed at the base of a mountain with the nearest town of any size more than 100 miles away. Considering our stay the first night at Los Volcanes, we were eagerly awaiting the creature comforts of El Desierto. Unfortunately, the hotel messed up and was over-booked and we were turned away. We were informed that another similar hotel was situated about another 1 ½ hours down the road. It was only about 4 and with no other choice we trundled our way down the 2 track that is the road. Los Flamencos Hotel was situated beneath a large peak with a good sized lake and 500 or so unhappy flamingoes. With the light fading fast I went straight to the lake to photograph the flamingoes in the evening light. You may wonder why a flamingo would be hanging out in a lake half covered with ice at 13,000 feet in the middle of the Bolivian winter. In the summer, there are thousands of birds there but only the strongest ones make the migration to lower altitudes and warmer climes. The weak ones remain in those lakes that are spring fed and don’t completely freeze over.
Once the light was gone, I made my way into the hotel for a hot shower and a 4 star meal. Turns out the four stars were from a bygone era, and there was no hot water, no heat, and composting toilets that had given up their eco-ways some time ago, hence pit toilets. Not that I have anything against a well-constructed out-house. They’re really some of my favorite habitations in the right locale, however, inside my sleeping quarters is not my location of choice. Turns out that once again we were the only ones staying at the hotel, but not because it was undiscovered gem. Miguel’s basic set-up was far superior, but with a roof, and four walls to keep out the winter chill we all did just fine.
We pulled out of town early, catching the sunrise on the road. As we emerged from the mountains and came upon the edge of the Salar, our guide suddenly stopped and took us a short distance off the road. He told us to look closely at the basalt scattered over the desert floor and that we might find some arrow heads from a pre-Incan tribe that lived in the area. Walking randomly about, eyes trained on the many chips that littered the ground we all began finding arrowheads and worked chips. They were everywhere. In less than an hour we had found a couple dozen good quality arrowheads with many others cast off along the way.
That evening we spent our last night in small hostel on the edge of the Salar constructed completely out of salt blocks. All of the furniture was made from salt and even the floors were covered with heavy salt crystals. We arrived early enough to catch the final game of the Euro-Cup, Spain and Italy, which required a contribution of gasoline to the proprietors to get them to turn on the generator at 2:30 instead of the typical 5:00.
We left the Hostal at 5:15 am to catch the sunrise over Incahausi Island, an island made entirely of ancient corral and covered with cactus. As the sun came up there were too many gringos for my liking and I would have rather been out on the salt flat alone but that is the trouble with covering so much ground in so little time. It is difficult to know where a person should spend their time the first go around. 10 days would have been more appropriate for the ground that we covered with a lot more time hiking and less time in the Landcruiser. Next time.
We ended our day in Uyuni, a nothing town on the edge of the Salar dominated by pizzerias and trinket shops for the many gringos that start their tour of the Salarthere. We got a cheap hotel for the shower and a place to hang out for the evening, and bought an overnight train ticket to Ururo leaving the next morning at 1:45 am.
There were too many cosmic photos to scatter amongst the words so here are some of the others from the 5 day trip in no particular order.