Reflected glory

Traveling among the snow-capped mountains and volcanos at the top of the world in Bolivia's Altiplano.

bolivia laguna verde 88 (photo credit: )
bolivia laguna verde 88
(photo credit: )
While waiting in line to pass through passport control and enter Bolivia from Chile, I thought to myself, this is the country in South America that I know the least about. On getting to the counter, imagine my surprise when the clerk, on seeing my Israeli passport, addressed me in Hebrew. This is the route taken by many young Israelis touring South America. My wife and I booked our four-day trip to the southwestern corner of Bolivia in San Pedro de Atacama, a town in the Andean foothills in Chile. Juan, our travel agent of local Indian extraction, also spoke a pretty good Hebrew. The price tag of $95 per person for the trip sounded very cheap, as it included lodging, all meals and a jeep with a driver/guide. It did not take us long to realize that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. An hour's drive by bus from San Pedro, climbing up the Andes, took us to the Bolivian border, and then on to the Laguna Blanco, or White Lake. There we transferred to jeeps, with a Swiss lady, who could translate the driver's Spanish, and three South Korean students making up the six passengers. Before setting off we relaxed in a natural thermal pool next to the lake. We were traveling at an altitude of between 3,500 and 5,000 meters above sea level, in an area known as the altiplano, and were fortunate that we had come from areas of high altitude. The Koreans were not so lucky and they soon began showing the effects of altitude sickness: severe headaches and nausea. The area we drove through was uninhabited and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, some volcanoes. The vegetation was sparse due to the altitude and near-desert climate. After a while, we reached the Laguna Verde, or Green Lake. The color has been attributed to various factors, including magnesium, calcium carbonate, lead and arsenic. It was distinctly eerie being the only people in the middle of this vast area. A short drive took us to the Geiser de Sol de Manyana, a valley of bubbling cauldrons of mud and lava, hissing and letting off steam. We were warned not to go too near as sometimes the edges collapsed, and tourists had been killed by falling into the cauldrons. Our next stop was the refuge next to Laguna Colorada, a 60 sq. km. red lake with a variety of bird life. We had a late lunch at the refuge, then went for a walk to the lake. The red hue is a result of the microorganisms in the lake, which are eaten by the flamingos, which in turn develop a pink color. We were immediately struck by the thousands of flamingos patiently standing in the shallow water. They are very infuriating birds, as you can never get near them. If you take even one step toward them, they will move, ever so slowly, one step away from you. We remained till sundown, watching the color of the water change to various shades of red, while an Indian woman, with the help of a small black dog, herded her flock of llamas to the corral. Back at the refuge, our Korean companions were in a bad way. We were 4,300 meters above sea level, and what they needed was oxygen, which was not available. It was a very basic building in which we slept six people to a room. There were cold showers and only two toilets for the whole refuge. The generator was switched off early, and the predominant sound was the moaning and wailing of the Koreans. Altitude sickness can be fatal, but we were the only ones who appeared to be worried about them. In the morning we continued, driving through barren valleys and rocky outcrops of varying shapes and sizes, sculpted by the strong winds blowing particles of sand. It was very reminiscent of Salvador Dali landscapes. There weren't really roads in this area, just tracks, sometimes three or four running parallel. We reached the highest point, 5,000 meters, where, in spite of the fact that it was midsummer, it was snowing. We had lunch at a refuge in the small town of Villa Alota, where the dirt roads were so filled with rainwater that it was almost impossible to walk anywhere. A kilometer before the town of Uyuni we stopped to look at the "railway cemetery." These steam locomotives had been used on the line going to the port of Antofagasta in Chile which had been part of Bolivia until the War of the Pacific in 1879. The line is still operational and used by freight trains. We then continued to Uyuni, where we were deposited at a very basic but adequate hotel, sharing a room with our Swiss companion. It was market day and the main road was filled with stalls selling everything from clothing to spices to small electrical appliances. At first glance the Indian women looked rather strange with their brightly colored short skirts and small bowler hats. They objected strongly to being photographed. The following morning we were taken to the Salar de Uyuni. At 3,650 meters, it is the highest and largest salt pan in the world. It is absolutely flat and covers an area of about 10,000 sq. km., about half the size of Israel. The layer of salt is two to 20 meters deep and there is an estimated 10 billion tons of salt under the surface. It was the rainy season, the surface was covered by about 10 centimeters of water. This did not prevent vehicles from traveling on the salt pan. It was, however, extremely weird seeing jeeps and the odd bus seemingly driving on water. The conditions created magnificent reflections, especially of the distant mountains and clouds, and it was difficult to figure out where the water ended and the reflection began. All around us people were photographing the amazing reflections, and among them were three Israeli girls, the only Israelis we encountered. They explained to us that it "wasn't the season" for young Israelis in this area. Our driver stopped near the small Hotel de la Playa. Except for the roof, the entire hotel is built from blocks of salt, including the tables and benches inside. We took off our shoes and walked in the shallow water. Because of the weather, we could not go to Fish Island, where there are 10 meter high cacti, reputedly 1,200 years old. However, we were taken to a hillside near Uyuni where we saw cacti at least five meters tall. We started our return journey at dusk with four French tourists, as our previous companions, now recovered from the altitude sickness, were remaining in Bolivia. It soon started raining hard, and for three hours our valiant driver pushed on, in spite of extremely poor visibility and treacherous roads. We reached the refuge in Villa Alota, where we had lunched two days previously, and slept there. There was no electricity and the courtyard between our room and the toilets were under water. At 4:30 a.m., the driver shone the headlights of the jeep into our room, and we were on our way again. This is the part of Bolivia where in 1908 Butch Cassidy, being followed by a posse from Uyuni after a mine payroll heist, shot and killed his partner, the Sundance Kid, and then committed suicide. Uyuni is close to Potosi, the highest city in the world, which at the end of the 16th century was the biggest and wealthiest city in the Americas due its fabulous silver mines. We covered nearly 1,000 km. in Bolivia and, apart from a few streets in Uyuni, there were no paved roads. In spite of being bounced around in a jeep for four days and the poor facilities, it is a trip not to be missed. One really has the feeling of being alone on the roof of the world.