Articles tagged with "bolivia"

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

The journey to Peru was easy, with the border being just a few miles from Copacabana. I got another stamp in my passport, filled my wallet with more new currency, and got a bus to Puno. I killed a few hours there sheltering from heavy rain in cafes and restaurants, and then got an overnight bus to Cuzco, for just 25 soles. And it was an extremely comfortable bus, with the fantastic Cruz del Sur company. The strangest part of the journey was the game of bingo which happened just after dinner. Everyone on the bus was given a card, and the stewardess started reading out numbers. The prize, apparently, was two free return tickets on any Cruz del Sur route, which sounded very useful to me. Not entirely understanding whether I needed just a row, a column or everything to win, I came dangerously close to making a fool of myself, but luckily managed to avoid it. But I didn’t win.

We arrived at Cuzco at 3am, and I slept on the bus until 6am. The city has a reputation for sometimes violent robbery so on the whole I was a bit nervous when I got a taxi into the centre. But the taxi driver didn’t rob me, and I made it unscathed to the hostel I wanted to stay at. My whole Cuzco experience was pretty much trouble free, except for the extraordinary difficulty I had trying to get to Machu Picchu without going on a tour. After a day and a half of trying to buy just a train ticket and nothing else, I finally discovered the train ticket office opening times – 5am to 9am. Exasperated and pressured for time, I was forced to buy a train/hostel/entry ticket combination from a tour operator.

The train journey to Aguas Calientes was very impressive, along the valley of the raging Urubamba river and surrounded by towering mountains. Aguas Calientes is a pure tourist town, but not as much of a rip-off as I’d expected, and quite relaxed. After a couple of hours, though, it gets boring, and I killed an afternoon by walking down the river valley for a while.

The following morning I caught the first bus to the ruins, at 5.30am. It was still dark, and I was pleased to see that the bus was not full. It’s only a short drive to Machu Picchu, up a dramatic switchback road, and so before 6am we were at the site. I hurried up to the Caretaker’s Hut, which gives the classic view of the ruins with Huayna Picchu rising behind, and watched as mist drifted over the ruins while the sun rose. It was a beautiful sunrise, and there were only a couple of other people around.

I wandered down to the main ruins. They are spectacularly well preserved, and it’s incredible to think that they were completely unknown less than a hundred years before I was there. But I thought that actually, they were nothing like as spectacular as the temples at Tikal, which I’d visited five years previously. One of Tikal’s pyramids was the tallest building in the Americas when Columbus landed; Machu Picchu’s buildings are far more modest, albeit much more spectacularly situated. Tikal is in the jungle, while Machu Picchu is sat on a narrow ridge, surrounded by a bend in the Urubamba river, and with beautiful Andean peaks stretching away into the distance.

I walked through the main square, and then to the base of Huayna Picchu, the dramatic hill which towers over the site. It’s a tough and very steep climb, especially if you got up at 5am, but I made it to the top without too many rest breaks, only to find myself deep in cloud. I waited around for a long while, and eventually the clouds started to break up and move away, and I was rewarded with breathtaking views of the ruins and the mountains. To top it all off, a single condor flew by, just inches above my head, showing off his huge wingspan before flying around over the ruins for a while.

At midday, I came back down, and found the ruins far busier than they had been. I decided I’d seen enough here and it was time to move on again. I was thirsty enough to pay an outrageous price for a drink at the entrance to the ruins, but still tight enough to deeply resent the commercialism of it all. Back at Aguas Calientes I got on the train again, had another magnificent journey up the river valley in blazing evening sunshine, and then after another night in Cuzco I got a bus to Arequipa.

Island of the Sun

Island of the Sun

I spent a few days in La Paz recovering from my ride. The weather was pretty miserable, with frequent heavy thunderstorms. I took refuge from one in a cafe, where I met an extremely drunk Bolivian businessman who turned out to have gone to the same university in London as I had. But conversation was difficult – half the time I was not sure whether he was speaking english or spanish.

As the end of December neared, I had less than five weeks left before my flight home, and I still had two countries left to see. So I headed north again, back to Lake Titicaca. It was quite strange to arrive at Copacabana again – I normally try to avoid backtracking while travelling. But I wasn’t staying here this time – I jumped straight on a boat to Isla del Sol. It was a sunny day, for once, and the boat journey across the lake was a lot of fun.

Isla del Sol is, according to Inca legend, where the world began. The Sun formed right here, and the Inca people followed. Ancient Inca sights dot the island, and it has an atmosphere of mystery about it. Getting off the boat, I met Lisa and Ryan, who I’d previously met 2000 miles further south at Chile Chico on the shores of Lago General Carrera, the second-largest lake in South America after the one we were now standing on an island in the middle of. They were heading back from the island to the mainland. After saying goodbye to them, a young boy convinced me to stay in his parents’ hostel, and we set off up the hill to the village of Yumani, on top of the island. Despite my acclimatisation I was still destroyed by the time we reached the top of the spectacular Inca staircase that leads from the shore to Yumani, and the barefooted child was perplexed every time I asked him to wait a few seconds.

The island proved to be far quieter than I had expected it to be, and my new year was a quiet one. After recovering from my exertions I went for a walk along the spine of the island, and then as night fell I watched some thunderstorms brewing. When I went out for my evening meal, everywhere was almost empty, apart from one restaurant in which I met a French couple, who apparently recognised me from San Pedro. We seemed to be the only people out, and I got the feeling they’d had an argument, because they were definitely not in a jovial mood. After a meal in which there were many awkward pauses in the conversation, they left, and I went to a nearby bar. But that was empty as well, so I walked back along the dark track to the place I was staying.

The thunderstorms were now spectacular, and I watched them from my balcony. Midnight came and went with a couple of small firecrackers let off nearby but no great celebration. Great flashes of forked lightning lit up the clouds, and as it began to rain I decided to head for bed. It was 12.15am, and the new year had begun.

The next day I did more walking around the island. I wrote some postcards while sat on the very peak of the island, just under 4000m above sea level. It was a grey day, but warm enough that it didn’t feel like it could be January. I tried to think of some worthy new years resolutions but my main aspiration was to spend as much of the year as possible travelling.

During the afternoon I got a boat back to Copacabana, which strangely was incredibly busy. I had extreme trouble finding a room for the night, with everywhere being completely full. I had one insulting offer of a filthy mattress in a store room, another more friendly offer of a sofa if I couldn’t find anywhere else, and then finally after some negotiation I got a triple room to myself, for which I paid the price of a double room. Much relieved, I slept well, and in the morning I got up early to go to Peru.

The most dangerous road in the world

The most dangerous road in the world

In the middle of the Salar de Uyuni, I’d met a traveller from Manchester who said that by far the most exciting thing he’d done in South America was cycling from La Paz to Coroico. I like mountain biking a lot, and this ride, which would actually involve mountains, sounded like a lot of fun. So when I arrived in La Paz on Boxing Day my first priority was to book onto a tour.

The ride doesn’t actually start in La Paz, which is a mere 3600 metres above sea level. It starts at La Cumbre, a pass high, high in the Andes at 4700m above sea level. Coroico is 64km away horizontally, and three and a half kilometres vertically. It’s downhill all the way, but the catch is that the road is just a narrow ledge cut into breathtakingly steep mountainsides. Sadly, it’s a road with a reputation for tragedy – buses and trucks fall with horrible frequency into the valley, and it is frequently described as the most dangerous road in the world.

So I was slightly nervous when I got up at 6am to get ready for the tour. I was also extremely tired, having made a tactical error by choosing a room in my hostel which had a balcony overlooking Calle Sagarnaga. The balcony was nice but Calle Sagarnaga does not sleep, and neither did I thanks to the continuous rumbling of traffic and noise of people throughout the night. I got a strong coffee and then went to the offices of the bike company. We drove up to La Cumbre, where clouds whipped by in a bitterly cold wind, and snow lay on the ground. Here we had a safety briefing, and we all rode around a little bit to get used to our bikes. And then, it was time to set off.

The route began on smooth, well-paved roads, which meant that we could go very fast. However, it was below freezing, and before long I couldn’t feel my fingers and my eyes were watering so much I could hardly see. Things took a turn for the worse the very first time I had to brake at all hard, when my bike started fishtailing and before I knew what was happening I was crashing down onto the tarmac. I was pretty shaken and my right shoulder had taken a hard knock, but I was OK to carry on. But now I lacked confidence in my bike, and found myself propping up the rear of the group, with even a timid Swiss girl easily able to outpace me. This was very disappointing for me.

We descended through a police checkpoint. Coroico lies in the Yungas, a region of Bolivia which produces large quantities of coca leaf. The leaf itself is used widely for chewing and brewing, as it has been for centuries, but it can also be used to produce cocaine, of course, and so movements of large amounts of coca leaf are monitored intensively. We passed through and carried on down. Soon we reached a short uphill section, which would have been a great workout as we were still only just under 4000m above sea level. I was hoping to win the informal contest, having been so slow on the downhill, but as soon as I put the power down, my entire rear derailleur collapsed into the rear wheel with a horrific crunch. It was game over for my bike.

Luckily it was not game over for my ride. The company had spares, which were in a support vehicle following us. They drove me to the top of the uphill section, past my fellow cyclists, and prepared a new bike for me. I was genuinely disappointed not to have done the uphill section, but no-one believed me when I said this. The new bike instantly felt enormously better, and when we set off again I was able to lead the pack. Soon we were at the end of the tarmac and the start of the tricky part of the road, and here we split into two groups. I decided to try the faster group, and this proved to be the right decision.

It was the rainy season, and this part of the road was pretty rutted and muddy. Occasionally waterfalls fell right onto it. But the ride was becoming extremely good fun, as we twisted and turned through breathtaking mountain scenery, all the while with dizzy drops just a few feet to our left. We stopped fairly frequently for snack breaks and equipment tuning – brakes needed constant checking, as the consequence of a failure didn’t bear thinking about. The lower we got, the thicker the air got and the faster we went. I had my own personal favourite moment of the tour on this muddy section when the guide overtook a bus just before a bend. I decided to follow, passing the bus at speed on the outside, just a few inches from the edge of the road, with my shoulder still killing me from my earlier tumble.

As we got lower, the temperature rose and it became humid. We were now in the coca, coffee and banana-growing regions and the air smelt earthy and fertile. The road was dusty now, but having spent the last two weeks more than 3000m above sea level, I could breathe through my nose and still cycle as hard as I could. I was amazed at how acclimatised I was, and understood why athletes train so much at altitude. Now I was really hitting my stride, and the guide and I led the pack by a long way.

Eventually we saw Coroico on the hillside ahead of us. I was disappointed; I would have been happy with hours more cycling. But our cycle was to end at a small lodge in the jungle, at the end of an extremely steep trail. This was a final flourish which I enjoyed hugely, even though I set off far too enthusiastically and took my second fall of the day. I jumped back on and raced through the tree with my enthusiasm undimmed, and got to the end with bleeding elbows, a shoulder I could hardly move, and a huge grin on my face.

At the lodge, there were hot showers, and a huge amount of food. We had a fantastic couple of hours there, refuelling, and it was good to finally have a chance to talk to the people I’d cycled with: during the ride, everyone was pretty focussed on the road ahead. It was strange to find myself in hot jungle, when only hours before I’d been on a windswept pass high in the mountains.

And then it was time to head back to La Paz. This proved to be more frightening than the cycle down, because the weather had deteriorated and we had to negotiate the road in thick fog and heavy rain, as night was falling. We went much too fast for my liking, but we got back to the top unscathed. I was in an incredibly good mood. The guy from Manchester was right – this had been one of the most exciting things I’d done in South America.

Christmas by the lake

Christmas by the lake

On the bus to Copacabana I met Victoria, a traveller from Alaska who I’d previously met in Potosí, and her friend Amanda from Vermont. None of us had booked a place to stay, but luckily things didn’t seem too busy and we got rooms at the second place we asked at. It was overcast and cool here, and it didn’t seem very christmassy. We were going to climb Cerro Calvario, a large hill overlooking town, but it was beginning to rain so we decided to save that until later. So we spent the afternoon looking around town, buying the occasional bag of giant popcorn which is a local speciality, and relaxing.

On Christmas Day I got up at 5am to see if the weather was nice enough to make a climb of the hill worthwhile, but it was raining so I went back to bed. Eventually I got up at 9am, and we went out to a cafe with a lake view for breakfast. After a morning drinking coffees and relaxing, I went to call home. If I’d been anywhere else in Bolivia it would have been very cheap, but for some reason, all communications in Copacabana are about ten times the price they are elsewhere. I spent 122 Bolivianos on a twenty minute phone call, which was a whole day’s budget at normal times, but was still less than ten pounds. And it was great to speak to my family for the first time in more than two months. I could see the lake out of the window of the call centre, and it was very strange to think that back in the UK it was dark and cold and wintry.

After phoning home I went for a walk along the beach. Families were out on the lake in pedalos and canoes, and the public table football tables were doing great business. I don’t think I’d ever previously wondered what people do on the Altiplano for Christmas, but if I had I doubt I would have thought it would be boating and table football.

At 4pm I met up with Victoria and Amanda and we climbed Cerro Calvario. The skies were heavy, in the distance we could see rain over the lake, and a thunderstorm was raging several miles away inland. We watched the spectacular lightning until the edge of the storm reached us. As the rain got heavier we hurried back to the hostel, and then for the rest of the afternoon we played cards while the rain battered down outside.

Later, in a brief pause in the rain, we headed out for an evening meal. I had a very Andean meal of cheese and potatoes, and we had a fun evening meeting travellers from all over the world. I thought there was a hint of sadness in it all, though, that all of us had decided to spend Christmas so far away from our friends and families, and spend it instead with a bunch of travellers who in all likelihood we would never see again. As we walked back to the hostel at midnight the rain was torrential again. The hostel owners had gone to bed, and we had to bang on the door to wake them up. Luckily they didn’t seem at all angry when they let us in.

The next morning I decided to head back to La Paz – there was a cycle ride in the mountains that I wanted to do. I bought a couple of bags of giant popcorn, got on a bus and headed back south. The sun came out on the way and we had a great crossing of the Straits of Tiquina. In La Paz it was a hot afternoon. I booked myself onto a mountain biking trip for the following day, and then went out for a meal with some travellers I met in my hostel. Christmas already seemed like a distant memory.

The two capitals

The two capitals

In the end, to get from Potosí to Sucre I had to get a taxi, because buses were on strike indefinitely. I was sharing it with a traveller from the US, two Bolivian women, two babies and a dog, which made for a cramped journey. After about an hour and a half of good running on smooth roads through the mountains, our driver stopped to talk to someone, and got word that there was a roadblock of striking bus drivers ahead. We took to a side road to avoid it, and before long the side road became an axle-crunching bone-jarring mess of rock and gravel. Our driver was careful but the road was appalling. We bumped violently along it, occasionally hearing horrific grinding noises and once almost getting grounded on a large boulder, but after half an hour we suddenly rejoined the main road again, and arrived in Sucre about an hour after that, slightly bruised but happy to have made it.

Sucre was a great place – a striking colonial centre, a friendly vibe, nice bars and restaurants and lots to see. Having fallen in love with api in Potosí, I found another Bolivian treat here – buñuelos, a deep-fried doughy snack, which I ate in considerable quantities at an excellent cafe near where I was staying. Although we were still 2800m above sea level, it was much warmer here than it had been in Potosí, and so api was less important to my general well being.

The main thing I went to see in Sucre was a quarry. I’m not normally one to seek out heavy industry while travelling but the attraction here is a huge area of dinosaur footprints which were uncovered just a few years ago. An almost sheer rock face at the quarry was, millions of years ago, a flat muddy area, through which a whole bunch of dinosaurs walked. Their tracks criss-cross the rock face, and it’s extremely impressive to see imprints left by many different types of foot, inconceivably long ago. But it’s also slightly depressing that quarrying work continues, and even while I was there I could see trickles of dust coming off the rock face. Quarrying continues right up to the layer with the footprints on, and it’s surely possible that the footprints won’t be there for very much longer.

It was the 22nd of December when I saw the dinosaur footprints, and I fancied spending Christmas at Lake Titicaca. The bus strike, luckily, was coming to an end, and I bought a ticket to La Paz for the night of the 23rd. While Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia, La Paz is a far bigger city and is the de facto capital. I was looking forward to seeing it. My bus left Sucre at about 6pm, and after a meal stop at about 7pm, we passed through Potosí at about 11pm. We stopped for a bit, and as the bus door opened a blast of freezing air whistled down the aisle. After that, I fell asleep – the bus was comfortable and had plenty of leg room. Early on Christmas Eve, I arrived in La Paz. I managed to get rapidly onto a bus heading for Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and we wound up the side of the valley that La Paz sits in, through the vast sprawl of El Alto on the valley edge, and then through populous farmlands to the lake.

In the mines

In the mines

Early on the first day of Bolivia’s new era, I got a bus to Potosí, a city two and a half miles above sea level, at the foot of a hill containing such extraordinary quantities of mineral wealth that the city was once the largest and richest in South America, and in Don Quixote, Cervantes used the ‘riches of Potosí’ to signify incalculable fortune. The hill is called Cerro Rico (the Rich Hill), and it towers over the town. The sun was shining but the streets were wet as I walked slowly and breathlessly to a hostel. I was definitely getting slightly more used to the altitude, but for some reason in Potosí I got nosebleeds every time I sneezed.

The main thing I wanted to do here was have a look around the mines, and so early one morning I picked a random company of the several that offer tours, and headed off to Cerro Rico. It was just me and a Japanese traveller on the tour, which was conducted only in Spanish. Luckily we both spoke it, and I was having a good day and understood pretty much everything. We started by heading to the miner’s market to buy some gifts for the miners we’d meet – coca leaves, 96% proof alcohol, and dynamite. While we were there a violent hailstorm started. We got a bus up to the mine entrance in wild conditions, and headed underground.

Cerro Rico must be about as much mine shaft as rock these days. We entered a mine called La Poderosa, and headed deep into the mountain. The shaft was narrow and low, so that I had to stoop, and it was dry and quite cool. This was clearly no hi-tech mining operation, and as we headed deeper we could see that conditions were primitive. People passed us wheeling barrows full of rock, and when we met miners, they were digging into hand-cut pits. We donated our coca leaves and alcohol, and talked a bit to the miners. One, Don Julian, had worked in the mines for 15 years and was one of the oldest miners at 49. Another, Don Paulino, had been in the job for nine years. Apparently, the average life expectancy for a miner is just 40 years. The typical wage is between 200 and 550 Bolivianos a week – equivalent to £15 – £40 at the time I was there.

The mines are no place for a claustrophobe. At times we had to crawl through particularly narrow tunnels, and just once I got suddenly spooked out by the thought that I was deep underground with no idea of the way out, in a tunnel I couldn’t even stand up in. We visited one of the most fascinating parts of the mine, a shrine to El Tío. El Tío is the miner’s god, and each shaft has a shrine to him. His image owes much to European depictions of the devil – he is horned and normally painted red. He also is clearly indigenous, with a wodge of coca leaves in his cheek. Miners make daily offerings to him, and believe that he will ensure that their dig is prosperous. We left offerings too, so that El Tío would look kindly on our invasion of his turf.

I asked the guide about earthquakes. If one were to strike here, I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire hill fell in on itself. But the guide claimed that this part of Bolivia was completely tectonically stable. We were far from volcanoes, and no earthquakes had ever happened here. The day Potosí experienced one would be the day the world ended, apparently. I hoped he was right as we slowly made our way back to the surface, via a different shaft to the one we’d entered by. When we finally emerged into fresh air and sunshine it was hard to believe what a different world lay beneath our feet. Children were selling chunks of brightly coloured minerals, and I bought a couple before we got a bus back down into town.

That evening I experience a true Bolivian wonder: api. I don’t know what it is made of, but it’s a thick purple drink served hot, and at 4000m above sea level, on a bitterly cold rainy night, it’s incredible. I sat in a cafe, chatting to some other travellers I’d met, drinking api and playing cards until they closed. I was planning to make an early start in the morning, having found out that there was some sort of bus strike happening and that onward movement might be difficult.

Train cemetery

Train cemetery

Uyuni is a dusty town surrounded by desert and salt plains in the middle of the Altiplano. There’s not a whole lot to do there. My immediate problem was that it was a Saturday, all the banks were closed, and none of the cash machines would accept my card. For a while I thought I would be sleeping on the streets, but after much asking around I found one exchange place that would give me Bolivianos in exchange for my debit card and a fearsome 10 per cent commission. Money sorted, I checked into a hostel, ran up the two flights of stairs to my room, remembered that I was at 3500m above sea level and collapsed on to the bed wheezing, while everything turned purple and starry for a bit.

I hadn’t wanted to spend any time in Uyuni, but the following day was the presidential election and for reasons I couldn’t entirely understand, this meant that no long-distance buses were running. I bought a ticket to Potosí for the day afterwards, and spent the day of the election at the Cementerio de Trenes, Uyuni’s one famous sight. It’s an incredible place – about a mile out of town along the rusting railway tracks, a huge area covered by decaying trains. I walked to the Cementerio with a few other travellers I’d met, and as we started out the weather was hot and the sun fierce. In the distance we could see what looked like very heavy rain, which was slowly moving towards us. As it got closer we could see it was not rain but a sandstorm, and it was actually coming quite fast. We wondered whether we should head back to Uyuni, but I thought it would not reach us, because there was a warm wind blowing from behind us towards the storm. But even as I was saying the words, the warm wind suddenly dropped to nothing. A few seconds later, a strong cold wind came at us from the direction of the storm, and it was clear we’d be in it in a few minutes time.

We were closer to the trains than to Uyuni, and with the dust storm just a few metres away we decided to find some shelter in the trains. We rushed to an old carriage, got inside, and watched as the cementerio became an apocalyptic scene, with bits of debris flying about in a bizarre brown half-light. I’d never seen a dust storm before, and now I found myself right in the middle of one. After a while the wind dropped and we headed out to look around, but we had to take refuge again when it got stronger. Eventually the storm thinned out and we headed back to Uyuni, against the strong cold wind that was still blowing.

That evening, the town was lively as the election results came in, showing Evo Morales in a decisive lead. Evo would be the country’s first indigenous president, and his victory was popular in Uyuni. The owners of my hotel were in a good mood when I chatted to them briefly, and on the streets of the town, brass bands were leading noisy parades. I was pleased to be here at this time, to feel the atmosphere of change and hope that was just part of a much wider Latin American shift to the left. A few weeks later, the elections in Chile saw a left-wing victory, and during the following year, six years after I’d been in Nicaragua during a campaign that saw them fail narrowly, the Sandinistas returned to power after 16 years in opposition.

As the bands played and the people partied, we went out for a meal in a busy restaurant. I tried llama, an essential Andean cultural experience, but it was extremely tough and didn’t have much flavour. I chewed on the leathery meat watching the street parties, and decided that if I was going to try llama again, I’d probably want to pay just a little bit more for it than I had done.

Days of salt

Days of salt

I got up at 5am the next day to watch a beautiful sunrise over the Salar. Then, after a quick breakfast we got onto the highlight of the journey which was seeing the Salar itself close up. We drove straight out onto it, which was oddly disconcerting, and followed vague trails marked on it. It struck me that it would be extremely easy to get lost if the weather wasn’t ideal, but today it was and the Sun beat down. After an hour or so we stopped in the middle of nowhere, to have a look. Having learnt my lesson at Villarrica, I put plenty of sunblock everywhere, including underneath my nose, and got out into the the shining white. The surface was just slightly crunchy to walk on, and for my own satisfaction I verified by taste that it really was salt. I thought of taking a lump home as some kind of souvenir but imagined it would soon crumble into a really lame souvenir.

Further across the Salar we came to Isla Incahuasi, rising weirdly from the salt ocean and covered in cactuses. We climbed up to the top of the island, and also walked out a little way from the island into the Salar. The endless salt on all sides made me feel very thirsty just looking at it, and I was glad we were carrying huge amounts of water. After taking some panoramic shots of the island, we drove on, and after a brief commercial stop at a hotel made out of blocks of salt, we came to the end of our journey at Uyuni.

Altiplano crossing

Altiplano crossing

The early start was not too brutal – I slept well even in the thin air, and woke feeling fine at 5.30am. The others felt better too, and more up for a day of sightseeing than they had been yesterday. The lake, so red the previous day, was now more or less all blue. We breakfasted on mate de coca, crusty bread and scrambled flamingo eggs and left Laguna Colorada at 7am.

Our first stop was a group of stones sculpted into weird and wonderful shapes by the winds of the high Altiplano. The centrepiece is the Arbol de Piedra, a stone ‘tree’ which stands on an implausibly thin base and looks as if it could be toppled with a light push. A few other vehicles were there, and a few people were trying to topple it, but all found it impossible. We spent half an hour or so scrambling over the rocks, looking around at the desert and the mountains and the wilderness, before setting off. There were no roads here, just dusty tracks which we almost seemed to glide along in the 4WD. Victor had a CD of reggaeton music, and was becoming worryingly fond of one particular track as we ploughed through the thick sand. It was beginning to drive us slightly mad, but would become the almost constant soundtrack to our Altiplano journey.

We stopped at Villa Alota for lunch. It was a strange place, just a few dozen houses in the middle of nowhere and more or less deserted. Victor left us eating lunch while he gave someone a lift somewhere, which took an hour or so, and then for reasons we couldn’t work out he drained all the fuel from the car into a large tub, before refilling it. Then we had a pretty boring afternoon of driving through the desert to the village of Chuvica, which sits right on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar looked strange in the evening light as we arrived, glistening in the sun and stretching away as far as the eye could see.

Breathless heights

Breathless heights

We headed on to Laguna Colorada. We arrived in the mid-afternoon and the lake was bright red, with flamingoes dotted all across the waters. What looked like steam rising from the lake in the distance was apparently salt water whirlwinds, a common site here. We were staying here for the night, at Campamento Ende, a meteorological station on the south-western shore of the lake, and we were all now feeling the altitude. My trip to El Tatio had definitely done me some good, acclimatisation-wise, as had the trip up to Sol de Mañana and back down to here, and I went for a walk while the others rested, but I was still totally exhausted if I walked even a few metres uphill. I took a lot of photos of the lake, which was getting redder and redder due to mineral reactions in the sunlight, and the thousands of flamingoes strutting about in the shallow waters.

Night fell not long after 6pm, and the temperature plummeted. I stood on the shores of the lake, breathing the thin cold air and watching a thunderstorm in the distance, until 9pm when the generator at Campamento Ende was shut off, and the only light was coming from the moon. I went to bed exhausted by the altitude and slightly dreading the 6am start we were apparently planning for the morning.

Higher and higher

Higher and higher

Over the previous month I’d travelled from the ice-bound fjords of Patagonia more than two thousand miles away, all the way to here. From northern Scotland to Timbuktu is about the same distance. Chile had been an amazing place but I had less than two months left until I needed to be in Quito so I had to move on. Sprawling across thousands of square miles of southern Bolivia between San Pedro and the nearest Bolivian town of Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, and I hooked up with Sebastian from Germany and Pia and Signe from Denmark to cross it. We would travel across in a 4WD driven by Victor from Bolivia.

The Bolivian border is only thirty miles from San Pedro but it’s more than 2 kilometres higher, and the rapid ascent was a bit risky from the point of view of altitude sickness. My trip to El Tatio had been good for acclimatisation, though, and I felt OK as we waited in the thin air to get our passports stamped. Near by, an old bus was decaying into the desert sands. It seemed a strange place to have a border, and I wondered just how boring it must get here on a slow day, with absolutely nothing here but the border itself – no town, no shops, no scenery.

Our first stop was Laguna Blanca, just a short distance from the border. It’s a deep green mineral lake, which sits at the base of Volcán Licancabur. San Pedro was just on the other side of the mountain, hardly any distance at all, but it felt like we were in a different world, here in the thin air and harsh terrain. I walked down to the chalky muddy shores of the lake to take some photographs before we drove on to Laguna Verde, a little bit higher up and further on. Here we found hot springs, and we took a warm bath in the hot Altiplano sunshine. I made a huge tactical error in not putting on more sun cream – somehow, although I’ve spent a lifetime getting sunburnt even in the Arctic, I thought I would not get burnt in the midday sun 4,000m above sea level in the tropics. Within twenty minutes my shoulders were a terrifying red, and I knew I was in for an uncomfortable few days.

It was a great place for a dip, though, in fantastically warm water and surrounding by vast wild high-altitude desert and a horizon dotted with volcanoes. None of us were yet feeling the effects of the altitude and the mood was good as we headed yet higher, to Sol de Mañana, 5,000m above sea level and apparently the highest geothermal area in the world. A few roaring holes in the ground were spattering mud, and steam was rising from everywhere. At this altitude there is barely half the amount of oxygen you get at sea level, and I was beginning to feel a bit spaced out. I tried to take some video footage of the mud geysers, but didn’t even notice until later that I was taking stills by mistake. I was glad that our destination for the day was 700m lower than here.