Southern Altiplano, Bolivia

May 8-17, 2007



The high desert expanse of the altiplano at Valle de Rocas, 14,000'+ (note jeep and figure, lower right).






We boarded the 00:30 am bus out of Salta for the journey to the border. It was surprisingly cold and dark at 6:30 am when the young Israeli next to us prodded us to wake up: Hey, time to get off! We stepped out into the thin air (12,500') in a sleepy haze, picked up our packs from the pavement, stepped over all the huddled and sleeping people waiting for their bus south, and took a taxi to the Argentine customs for the necessary stamps. It was a short walk over the bridge, then through Bolivian customs for more stamps. We managed to get the last two seats on the morning bus north. Bouncing along the rutted dirt roads in the back of an old rusty bus with shock absorbers that had worn out a decade ago, we were reminded that we had crossed from the first world back into the third world again. Out the window, between the open expanse of rock and cactus, were a succession of dusty adobe villages and people living close to the earth.

We stopped for a few days in Tupiza, a wonderful little town, all adobe in the midst of the surrounding redrock quebradas. This is the backdoor jumping off point for jeep tours through the desolate altiplano of southern Bolivia.

We're still trying to figure out what's up with all the bowler hats...

The adobe streets of Tupiza...







Riding through the redrock quebradas around Tupiza, we had delusions of being on the run from the law and hiding out deep in Bolivia's canyon country. After all, this is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid territory, near where they met their maker after robbing the mining company payroll from Tupiza, in 1908. It was my first time on a horse, and my trusty steed was muy tranquilo. That is until we headed home and he started to gallop ...yikes!









After much trepidation and many committee meetings, we decided to sign up for a Lagunas y Salares Tour, exploring the high desert (altiplano) of southern Bolivia, starting in Tupiza and ending at the Salar de Uyuni. The standard program involves hiring a jeep, a driver, a cook, and to save costs, teaming up with unknown compadres for a four day, three night adventure. The brochure promised: Shapes like a moon landscape; the Dali Desert, a fantastic landcape and forests of erosion stones of ignimbritas and petrified lava (huh?); craters of lava which are always in volcanic activity, burning and smoking at 5000 m; many geysers; three kinds of flamingos (small ones and bog ones); lagoons with internal ice and borax islands; and the world's largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni, with amazing 'eatersheds' (never figured that one out...) in the salt bed. We signed up.

Early Sunday morning, Marco (our driver) hoisted our backpacks on top of the jeep, tiny Celia (our cook) climbed into the jump seat way in the back, surrounded by coolers and cookware, and Aurélie, Nicolas (our wonderful French companions), Mark and I settled into our respective seats. We drove off wondering what lay ahead, and as we climbed 4100' up a bumpy dusty track into the altiplano, the adventure began.

We quickly realized the program involved driving, driving, and driving, a few quick stops, then more driving, driving and driving, up and over rocky passes, through dusty deserts, past a-m-a-z-i-n-g landscapes, to another quick stop, then back in the bouncy jeep for more driving. We did indeed see everything promised -- brilliantly colored lagoons filled with flamingos feeding while a freezing wind whipped by; gently rolling multicolored hills set against a blue, blue sky; geysers that roared like giant steam engines; and finally, the brilliant white Salar de Uyuni -- so bright I could never figure out whether I had my sunglasses on or not. What was completely unexpected and absolutely delightful, were the on-going, wide-ranging conversations with Aurélie and Nicolas, where we discovered our common interests in art, music, and film. Each night, as the temperature dropped below freezing, we bundled up and stood together beneath the Milky Way, arcing from horizon to horizon, and for the first time in many months, gazed at the Big Dipper, hanging upside down, low in the northern sky.


Our first night at 13,800' San Antonio de Lipez.



At every stop, the drivers huddle around the Land Cruisers, changing flat tires, cleaning fuel filters, and generally theorizing on possible fixes for the latest mechanical crisis.






Our traveling companions, Aurélie & Nicolas.




Desierto de Dali.





Surprisingly, three species of flamingo breed in the high altitude brackish lakes of Bolivia's altiplano.





Standing on the surface of the world's largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, during a cold morning sunrise really throws some perspective on our position in the universe. The brilliant white surface falls away to the horizon, and a line of 20,000' peaks stick up over the edge like hulls of sailing ships on the open ocean.


















Eight-exposure composite of Liza and a new moon Milky Way over Atullcha (12,000').



Salta (bus) ► La Quiaca, Argentina (taxi) ► Villazón, Bolivia (bus) ► Tupiza (jeep) ► San Antonio de Lipez (jeep) ► Laguna Colorado (jeep) ► Atullcha (jeep) ► Uyuni