[This article was written by Fran Siebrits and was published in Toast, 2010]

Bolivia is a land-locked country in the heart of South America. The desert areas are particularly unforgiving, but unbelievably beautiful. A few days are needed to explore this vast area. A self-sufficiently stocked, hardy vehicle and the correct equipment are essential to survive.

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 overland tour, an antelope named vikuñas. Fortunately, they have enough hair to keep them warm. They are a close relative to the alpaca and llama, and sadly are 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.

Two 4x4s, seated with excited gringos (tourists), left the small town of Tupiza early on the first morning. After some warm local mate (sweet tea made from coca leaves) and tamales (crushed corn boiled in its sheath), we bade farewell to civilization. As the Land Cruisers climb continuously up mountains of craggy pinnacles, pangs of danger pinched us all. But the eagle-eye views increased in magnificence.

That night we stayed with a local Quechua family in a small village. These rural Bolivian people have hardened to the harsh environment over the centuries. As for us gringos, though, it was the coldest I have ever been. The water in the toilet froze, so it’s not hard to imagine what the streams outside looked like.

Waking up at four in the morning to negative fifteen degrees celcius is no joke, but we all piled into the vehicles and watched the stars float past our windows as the driver took us further into the semi-desert suspense. We stopped at a view-point just after sunrise at 4855 metres above sea level (msl). It was high, it was cold, and we were out of breath! For the duration of the trip, our fingertips and toes were constantly numb … even inside the vehicle.

But excitement and amazement made the biting cold bearable as we later walked amongst geysers, steaming and boiling. The warm ground and sulphuric air made the landscape even more foreign.

At one point on the third day we 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, complimented by the comforting local rice dish, thawed us out a bit after an unbearably cold start to the morning. This time, the water in the basin had frozen overnight. it made the teeth-brushing episode quite challenging as we were forced to brace the air outside, expecting to return with our toothbrushes frozen to our gums.

By now we were used to speaking to each other through mouthfuls of coca leaves. By slowly masticating, chemicals are released which dilate the blood vessels, allowing oxygen to be pumped through the body faster. This helps with the high altitude and relatively low levels of oxygen which cause altitude sickness. So by day we abused the leaves, and by night sipped endless cups of mate tea.

As the day aged, we drove into a Salvador Dali painting where huge rocks were strewn on sand-dune foothills. We continued past several lakes, all frozen. The caramel desert and blue skies emphasised the white borax minerals on the water’s edge. The famous green and red lakes were breath-taking. As the sun set, an after-glow from the day’s cold and windy sun gave rise to intense pinks and blues on the horizon.

On the final night we stayed in a house made entirely of salt on the edge of the world’s largest salt pan, the Salar de Uyuni. It encompasses approximately 10 000 square kilometres at an altitude of 3656 msl in this desolate and beautiful environment. That night we dreamt in a land fit for Snow White.

Driving from the quaint salty setting in the early hours of the following morning, sleepy heads nodded to the light of the full moon through the vehicle’s frosted windows. We huddled close together for the drive over the salt flats, arriving at our breakfast spot for sunrise. It looked as though we were driving through a vast isolated landscape of snow, the road never changing … and never ending.

The altitude, ridiculously cold temperatures and eventual stench after four days without a shower was insignificant compared to the serene beauty. The crisp contrasts of the landscape amazed me, despite it’s challenging temperatures.

Four days spent in dramatic desert scenery is enough to haunt a yearning soul for a lifetime. As the moon gradually sank into the western horizon on that final morning, I smiled to myself, knowing I have experienced the untamed Bolivia.

“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