It was 5am, and I was bouncing across a pitch black, freezing cold desert, crammed with six other passengers into a 4X4 with our Bolivian driver, who had 2 Unlimited’s No Limits pounding on the stereo. It was a surreal moment, and as I often do when travelling, I marvelled at how I had come to be there.
I had arrived in Bolivia 9 days earlier by plane from Sao Paulo in Brazil, via Cochabamba, a small town in the lowlands. From above, Bolivia’s red earth looked spectacular. The city of La Paz is set in a deep, steep crevice high in the Andes, with its roads and buildings stretching up the hills on both sides. On the drive from the airport to my hotel, the roadside scenes of traffic, market stalls and pollution reminded me of both Kampala and Varanasi, metropolitan areas on two other continents.
The altitude hit me quickly. It’s said that some people are lucky and others aren’t, and that it’s impossible to tell who will be affected by altitude sickness. I was one of the unlucky ones for whom even the preventative medication had no effect. I woke up the first morning in La Paz with a heavy nosebleed. Twelve hours after arrival, I was looking round the Coca Museum, which tells an interesting story of the history of the use of the coca plant by ancient civilisations in Peru and Bolivia, until it was comandeered by foreign governments, by the Coca Cola corporation, and finally by drug lords. Those three entities still control coca production, and none of them is from Peru or Bolivia, but these countries have been largely blamed for a global cocaine problem. But cocaine only came into existence when white authorities got their hands on coca, which is commonly chewed in Bolivia to treat and prevent altitude sickness. I quickly realised that I needed some, since when I was looking round the museum I suddenly became very light-headed and dizzy, my head began to pound and within thirty seconds I could barely see. It happened out of nowhere, and I had to sit down for quite a while and drink lots of water. I was immediately out of breath anytime I began to walk uphill, and everything in La Paz is on a hill. This continued to plague me throughout my time in Bolivia, but when I did buy some coca it greatly reduced the symptoms.
The cobbled streets lined with handicraft stores around the Rosario district of La Paz are quaint, but once out of the area, this could be any developing world city, congested and polluted. My roommate and I took the cable car that La Paz uses as a mode of public transport, from the top of the city to the bottom, getting excellent panoramic views and a real sense of the size and shape of the city in the mountains.
For visitors to La Paz I have to highly recommend the excellent and travel-themed Cafe Del Mundo, with its walls covered in photos of destinations around the world, for wonderful and brilliantly priced South American and global food, free wifi access and English speaking staff.
After an overnight bus journey we arrived in Sucre, a pretty, colonial city with lots of whitewashed colonial buildings and bright blue skies. At a lower altitude than La Paz, it was hot in the daytime and only a little chilly at night. Highlights of three days here include a wonderful sunset on the roof of a convent and a visit to actual dinosaur footprints at a working quarry.
Our next stop was Potosi, a mining town a good deal higher up. Although I slept through most of the 4 hour bus trip there, each time I awoke I felt in my nose and throat the dryness of the air. The skyline of this town is dominated by the red, cone-shaped mountain of Cerro Rico against the bright blue of the sky.
Inside it are the enormous silver mines that support the town’s economy. I avoided the mine tours, which are by all accounts dangerous and suffocating. My altitude sickness was at its worst here, and I almost fell over with dizziness while coughing after a short walk. Once again, I awoke with a heavy nosebleed, and became out of breath just walking around my hotel room. The four hour bus journey from here to Uyuni town, 500m lower, took us through the remote Andes, with clay-red peaks and then khaki ones standing out against the clear sky.
Uyuni is a tiny, cold town in the middle of nowhere, and was our starting point for a three day 4WD tour of the Bolivian salt flats and desert. Our driver drove fully off-road in our 4X4 onto the salt flats. There was once and inland sea, which has now dried up, leaving hundreds of miles of white salt. The salt forms hexagonal shapes on the ground and messes with depth perception, meaning lots of fun photo opportunities.
We visited the cacti-covered island of Incahuasi Isla and hiked to the top for a 360 degree view of the white plains.
That night we slept in a salt lodge – a building made entirely of salt. Six women shared a room, and the last shower available for the next few days was that night.
The following day was a long day driving in the land rovers, with no roads at all for most of the day and only dirt tracks where there were any. The desert became more and more barren as the day progressed, and we eventually swapped the photo stops at fabulous mountain lakes for harsh, bare, hilly earth with nothing other than rocks to punctuate it. The wind was strong and extremely cold, and the sun was burning. The landscape was so harsh, it didn’t surprise me that no one lives there, and this was the only part of the world I’ve visited where I felt it would be possible to get third degree sunburn and freeze to death on the same day.
Around 5pm we arrived at our accommodation for the night:a bare, basic concrete brick building with cold, hard floors, no heating or hot water, and only two hours of generator electricity for light in the evening. Again, we slept in a room with six beds, which were just concrete slabs with mattresses and heavy blankets on top. For the whole lodge there were just two toilets, two sinks with very cold water and one cold shower that no one used. The dining room contained wooden tables and benches and a stove in the centre of the room.
After dinner, I lay on my back on the ground outside to stare at an incredible night sky, uncorrupted by any light pollution. Stars and planets beamed brightly everywhere with the Milky Way sprayed across the sky, and the Plough upside down, since we were in the Southern hemisphere. That night I slept in two pairs of thick socks, thermal leggings under tracksuit bottoms and a thermal vest under a fleece top, inside my sleeping bag, underneath both heavy blankets. I was quite warm despite the air temperature, until the 4.30am alarm when I had to emerge from my cocoon. I kept my clothes on, and simply added on top a waterproof layer and a hat, scarf and gloves, and soon we were off in the land rovers across the desert. The early 90s music and the unfamiliar, remote surroundings blended to create a feeling that was slightly hyprer-real, as we bounced across the highest ground on which we had slept yet.
We continued onward as the sun slowly rose, and were rewarded at 7am when we reached natural hot springs, which were wonderful to swim in and felt like a hot bath to my unwashed body. This was at an altitude of almost 5000m, and light-headedness struck again in the hot water. My skin was like sandpaper to touch when I dried off, and flaked off my legs like white snow.
Soon after this we hurried onward to the Chilean border, where Bolivian immigration staff are available only at 9.30am. This is the most remote international border I’ve crossed, and consisted only of a building, small and brick built, with “Migracion Bolivia” on one side, and a road sign about 50m away saying “Republic de Chile”. This was followed by a fast descent into Chile, on a better road that led steadily downhill. I don’t know why the border ended up where it is, but the mountains ended with Bolivia, and an hour later we were at normal altitudes in warmer temperatures, looking forward to Chilean wine.
Although my body paid for my experiences along the way, these three days in the remotest parts of Bolivia are among my best travel memories. This was the most remote area of the world I’ve visited and it felt intrepid and adventurous to be there. Despite the isolation, early 90s dance music still made it there, and made my early morning journey seem almost illusory. This was one of the moments, like gazing at Iguassu Falls, that became an iconic memoy of my trip to South America.