“By travelling, we discover not only this beautiful, awe-inspiring earth; we also discover our humanity, and that of others.”
– Dana Snyman, ‘On the Back Roads’
Somewhere along the trip I sat overlooking a white mineral lake in the remote south-west Bolivia. The space was immense, the temperature uncomfortably cold, and the sun harsh. This environment cannot tolerate the weak. I only saw one wild animal species during the four day tour – an antelope named vekunas. Fortunately, they have enough hair to keep them warm. They are a close relative to the alpaca and llama, and are sadly now endangered. The domesticated sheep and llamas roaming the countryside do so with frost-bitten hooves. It is a harsh place to live, but unforgivably beautiful.
We left Tupiza early on the first morning after some warm mate and tamales. Climbing up mountains of craggy pinnacles, we felt a pang of danger sitting in the Land Cruiser. The views continued to get increasingly magnificent. That night we stayed with a local Quechua family in a small village. It was the coldest I have ever been. The water in the toilet froze, so it’s not hard to imagine what the streams looked like.
Waking up at four in the morning to negative fifteen degrees celcius is no joke, but we all pilled into the vehicles and watched the stars float past our windows as the driver took us into the semi-dessert. We stopped at a view point just after sunrise at 4855 meter above sea level. It was high, it was cold, we were out of breath. Every time we got out of the vehicle to take photographs or find a rock to go to the loo behind, we almost froze. Our fingertips and toes were constantly numb, even inside the vehicle. But excitement and amazement made it bearable as we walked amongst geysers, steaming and boiling. The warm ground and sulphuric air were made the landscape even more foreign.
On the third day I sat on gorgeous forms of larva rock looking at a smoking volcano. Lunch was prepared by our driver’s wife while we played amongst the curious shapes of the larva field. “Amigos,” we were called to eat. The sun had at least warmed us up a bit after unbearably cold start to the morning. The water in the basin had frozen the previous night, making the teeth-brushing episode quite a challenge as we were forced to brace the air outside. As the day ages, we drove into a Salvador Dahli painting where huge rocks were strewn on sand-dune foothills.
The sheer beauty of the country amazed me, despite it’s challenging temperatures. We drove past several lakes, all frozen. The dessert and blue skies emphasised the white borax mineral on the water’s edge. The famous green and red lakes, however, took my breathe away, especially as the sun set and the afterglow from the day’s cold and windy sun gave rise to intense pinks and blues on the horizon.
On the third and final night we stayed in a salt house on the edge of the world’s largest salt pan. Driving from the quaint setting over the salt flats in the early hours of the following morning, I wrote to the light of the moon through my window. We huddled close together for the drive over the white salt to our sunrise breakfast spot. It looked as though we were driving through a vast isolated landscape of snow, the road never changing … and never ending.
It was truly an amazing trip through dramatic semi-dessert and dessert scenery. The altitude, ridiculously cold temperatures and eventual stench after four days of no showering was insignificant compared to the beauty I saw. As the moon gradually sank into the western horizon on that final morning, I smiled to myself, knowing I have experienced the untamed Bolivia.