Saturday, December 24, 2011
Bolivia's Southern Altiplano
Bolivia is truly an extraordinary place. Despite reading about the extremes of the country in our Lonely Planet guide, I really didn't get the extent of those extremes until touring the country's southern altiplano. The entire area sits above 3,500 meters and during the trip we reached heights of over 5,000 meters. Our guide was an affable Quechuan with a beautiful smile who very naturally produced the name of every volcano and mountain range and pointed out various flora and fauna while navigating the challenging terrain. In addition to Mathilde, our friend from Sucre, we traveled with an Australian couple and a South Korean college student on break from studying abroad in Mississippi. The first day we visited the 'train cemetery' where abandoned trains from the 19th century sit slowly sinking and rusting in the desert environs. We then spent the rest of the day driving through the very impressive Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, stopping for lunch at an 'island', Isla Inkahuasi. That night we stayed in a hotel made of salt. The next day we entered the national reserve where we got to observe three of the world's five species of flamingos dining non-stop on algae, the Laguna Colorado (a lagoon colored red by a kind of algae which also happens to be where the flamingos get their color from), and curious petrified lava formations. The second night we stayed in a rustic camp at 4,700 meters but only until 4:30am the next morning when we proceeded to a field of steaming geysers and holes of bubbling sulphuric mud. By 6:30 we were having breakfast and bathing in hot springs. Finally we visited the Laguna Verde colored not by micro-organisms but by a toxic mix of lead, sulphur, arsenic and calcium deposits. We then proceeded to the Chilean border, passing desert hills dotted with smooth rocks that are said to have inspired certain works by Salvador Dali. We dropped off three of our traveling companions at the border before heading back to Uyuni, a 7 hour stretch.