Travelling is freedom - Basti´s global journeys

Unforgettable Days in the Altiplanos of Uyuni – the Land of Fire

Hola viejos,

the last time i wrote to you, I had gotten lost in the Valle de la Muerte in the Atacama Desert. Now I am back to civilization! I just took my first shower in 5 days and finally changed clothes! The last 4 days have been insane, I had to endure extreme cold, but was rewarded with some of the most amazing landscapes I have ever seen. Because these 4 days have been so intense, I decided to split the News up into two bits, otherwise it would get too long.

Crossing a border at 4200m of altitude

As I told you I didn’t even plan on going to Bolivia. I wanted to do some tours around San Pedro de Atacama and then had back to Santiago. Then I met a couple of people who had done the trip from Uyuni in Bolivia to San Pedro and they all agreed that it had been the best tour in their lives, although a couple of them suffered serious health problems.

So I went to book it and it seemed quite expensive, as I had to pay 150 euros upfront. At the end of the day, I got 4 nights, 13 meals and more than 1000km in a jeep for that. I was a bit worried about the altitude, as San Pedro is at 2400m and the tour goes up to 5100m on the first day, sleeping at 4200m. They lost Juancho´s sleeping bag on the flight here and the agency I booked with assured me that they would provide me with one at the “accommodation”. Also the tour is carried out in groups of 6 and I didn’t know anyone who would be with me for that time. Moreover, you hear very bad stories about the drivers in San Pedro and I have to say that I didn’t sleep a lot the night before we took off.

A bus that didn´t make it across the border

The next day it started! First we made our way up in quite a big bus to 4200m where the incredible border between Chile and Bolivia lies in between huge volcanoes. The moment we arrived on Bolivian territory the asphalted road turned into a dirt track, and I didn’t see any asphalt in 4 days… The immigration post was completely surreal: a little hut with two freezing people in it. I realized how high we were when I had to lift up my bag onto the jeep and felt really dizzy afterwards.

A quite unique border crossing at 4200m

The Desert Gang

Then I met the people who I would spend the next 4 days with. We were three Germans (all solo travelers) and a Dutch couple. It was just such a good match and I was very lucky compared to the second jeep that came along all the way, where 5 very childish and annoying Chilean girls did not give a shit about any of the other people or the amazing nature for 4 days.

Our guide was Carlos, a Bolivian who was just the best guide ever and who became our friend. He studied history and then economics in La Paz and speaks English really well. This makes him one of the most educated people in Bolivia I reckon. The other guides simply tell you where you are and some very basic information at most. Carlos, on the other hand, because he loves history, speaking English and talking to people in general, told us everything about his country: history, religion, nature, climate, everything. He also spent time with us when he didn’t even need to and really wanted us to get a comprehensive impression of his country. Amazing tour guide, 100% recommended!

And then our driver, Ramiro. He didn’t really speak, but we think that he understood English. He had a black glove on his left hand only and a hat turned 90 degrees to the left, absolute gangster look! And what a driver he was! The entire tour was in the dessert, with dirt tracks at best, but usually just rocks and sand. He could easily take on the Paris-Dakar. Top guy!

So we spent 3 days in the jeep like this, with the luggage on the top (I didn’t see a single cloud anyway) bouncing against the ceiling while listening to Carlos absolutely stunning playlist. He told us that here in the clubs they play Western 80s and 90s music and he had a playlist which included everything you could wish for. The 3 Germans were on fire during the 80s playlist (Modern Talking came twice) while the Dutch loved the 90s trance. Good stuff!

Coya Suyu – the land of fire

The itinerary of the tour saw us cruising through the high plains of south-western Bolivia for 2 days before arriving in Uyuni to visit the biggest salt desert in the world. All of Bolivia, and especially the south, it characterized by volcanoes. For this reason the Aymara, who lived here until the Incas invaded them in the 13th century, called it Coya Suyu – land of fire. Around 10 000 years ago all of these volcanoes erupted and the ashes filled up the valleys and created the high plains. Even though they might not be active anymore, the area is still full of geysers (water which hits lava underground and then evaporates and reaches the surface at high speed) and rich in all sorts of different minerals. Moreover, people of Bolivia regard volcanoes as a source of life, as it makes the land more fertile.

The mighty volcanoes of the Coya Suyu

We went to a site in 5100m which is full of active geysers. The air was extremely thin up there and some people, not in my tour though, started throwing up because of the altitude. We just walked around (slowly) and looked at all these holes in the ground where boiling soil is sent to the surface from more than 2000km deep down in the earth. It really looked like walking on Mars and all of this amid desert valleys located between 4000-5100m with these snowcapped volcanoes everywhere. Incredible.

One of the highlights of the first day were the hot springs. Because the volcanoes are still semi-active (that is to say they do not emit any lava but do still have boiling substance underneath the crust) this area is full of 37 degrees hot springs. Imagine driving in the freezing cold around these desert valleys and Hot springs at 4200m, just so nice, until we had to get out then Carlos suggests to go swimming. Undressing and getting out of the pool was the worst bit, but it was totally worth it as it has definitely been the most scenic bath I ever took.

Beautiful colored lagoons

When I started this tour I did not expect anything to be honest. I just heard that it would have been amazing and went for it. The best part of it was that all Ice skating on the white lagoon the natural wonders I saw came completely out of the blue, and most of them I didn’t even know existed.

The first stop was the white lagoon. The difference between a lagoon and a lake is their depth. The former is very shallow and usually not more than 1 meter deep. Because it was so cold the whole site was frozen and we had some fun skating around this surreal lagoon.

Right afterwards we headed to the nearby green lagoon. Because of the richness in minerals and toxins, the water can be colored in a way that looks completely artificial and unreal. This one is located right at the bottom of the Licancabur volcano (hill of the people – 6000m). I could just gaze at it all day and not expecting any of this beauty it really struck me just how incredible nature can be.

The green lagoon with the Licancabur (6000m) in the background

The last lagoon we reached on the first day was the red lagoonhere is the a video of the red lagoon with its flamingos, which gets its color from the algae which nurture on the mineral-rich water. This attracts The red lagoon, turned red by the algae which the beautiful flamencos eat huge schools of flamingos which eat the algae and come to nest around the lagoon. Out of the 4 species of flamingos that exist worldwide, 3 can be found in this lagoon. They are mostly distinguishable by the color of their neck. At this time of the year we also got a glimpse on their babies, which are gray until they reach adulthood. Just imagine a lagoon with a dark ruby color full of pink and red flamingos and all of this in a scenery characterized by 6500m high volcanoes.

The roughest night of my life

Not everything was brilliant though… The first night we slept right at the red lagoon. The accommodation was a very basic house with thin concrete walls. When I booked the tour, they promised me a sleeping bag and enough blankets, well, we had 3 blankets each and no sleeping bags (everyone but me had one with them though). During the day the temperature at these altitudes reaches around 5 degrees while the nights are teeth-shattering and temperatures This is how I slept, 12 layers on top, 3 at the bottom, altitude sickness, worst night of my life go as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius.

Another problem is the altitude. I reached around 5000m from 2400m in the morning. They usually suggest not rising more than 300m daily when higher than 3500m. I was aware of all of this but I was feeling great and took all precautions you could take, such as drinking lots (no alcohol) and eating light. In the evening, however, it started.

Basically altitude sickness means that your blood does not get enough oxygen. As a result, the brain needs more blood than usually to function. It starts to Chacha Koma, which saved my life. A bush that grows between 4000-5000m swell and gives you a very unpleasant and strong headache. So by the time I went to bed I already knew it would have been an awful night. I put on every layer I had, 12 in total, and got under the blankets, literally covering my whole body with everything I had. It was minus 22 degrees that night and I cannot describe the cold I felt. I have never felt anything similar and only the body heat of the 5 of us made it more bearable after around 4 hours.

To make things worse, the altitude sickness reached a new level: I couldn’t think properly anymore. Whenever I tried to form any sort of normal thought, I stopped after 2 seconds due to the pain. Moreover, I started feeling really sick and needed to puke. I forced myself not to, as you have to drink a lot of liquid (which was quite difficult considering that the only liquid we had was a semi-frozen bottle of water) and I didn’t want to waste all the precious soup and water I had for dinner. So I lied there in this condition with -22 degrees. It was the worst night of my life.

The historical roots of Bolivia´s culture

I somehow made it to the morning when we finally got hot tea. Once Carlos learned about how I felt, he gave me Chacha Coma, a plant that grows at these high altitudes and is used by the locals against altitude sickness. After a couple of mugs and 2 more hours it was gone, although I still had to be careful for the entire trip and during most nights a slight headache came back.

To explain the whole herb medicine, I would like to give a concise history of Bolivia: until the 13th century the Aymaras lived in this area. They believed in four natural gods: sun, wind, rain and sky. When the Incas invaded today´s Bolivia, they introduced irrigation methods that are still in place today and reduced the amount of gods to two, namely Pacha Kuti (of the sky) and Pacha Mama (of the earth). The Spanish reached Peru in the 16th century and saw that many people where wearing gold and silver and when they asked where it came from they were directed to Bolivia. For the following 300 years the colonizers exploited the natural resources and people and tried to impose Catholicism.

Catholicism vs Pacha Mama - this is the interesting mix of Bolivia´s religion

Today, all Bolivians are Catholics and churches stand at the center of every village. However, the people do not believe in god. They did not pick up western ideals and views of life and still today everything is centered on Pacha Mama. As a result, they do not want to use any machinery, because it would hurt the earth and everything needs to be done in a sustainable way. Bolivians are not interested in increasing material wealth or exporting. They just want to have enough for their community and most of them trade goods against goods, while every village is specialized in one product (Lama, corn, salt, wheat, etc.). This might sound nice in principle, however, we saw the horrible consequences of this anachronistic method of production, namely arduous work and child labor.

The volcanoes are seen as the source of live and everything is cured with traditional herbs. I tried the one for the altitude, but Carlos showed us some for flu, headaches, everything. Moreover, the national symbols of Bolivia are the Lama (of course) and the coca leaves. You put them in your mouth and extract the coca with your saliva for around 15 minutes. It has nothing to do with cocaine, as you need 100kg of leaves to produce 1 gram of the drug. I tried it in Bolivia, but it only made my mouth numb. However, if you take it for one week or longer you can avoid sleeping and do not feel hungry, which the hard The yellow lagoon, slightly frozen, created this amazing reflection working people of Bolivia use to work all day. Even their current president, Evo Morales, was a coca farmer before being elected the first indigena president of Bolivia.

The fauna of the altiplanos

One hour after drinking this weird brew I felt better, thanks to the Chacha Coma, and I was ready for the second day. We visited lagoons, which looked A group of flamencos in the red lagoon amazing but didn’t astonish us as much as the first day apart of the yellow lagoon, which was frozen and created an incredible reflection with the volcanoes in the background.

The second day was also time for wildlife watching! As you can imagine, it is not very easy for animals to survive in these extremely arid areas. As a result, only few mammals exist. One of these is the desert fox, which we saw, but I could not take a picture. This fox waits until the flamingos go to sleep. When they do so, they stand on one leg. However, to start flying they need to walk at least 3 steps on both feet. The fox approaches them and takes advantage of these few seconds to get a nice, tasty meal!

When you think about Bolivia what comes to your mind? Of course, the national symbol: the lama. There are four kinds of animals belonging to the family, namely Bicunas, Apacas, Huanacus and Lamas. The lama is the only one that humans managed to tame. We ate it too, it´s very tasty. It is similar to beef with a hint of game such as deer.

More frequent in the wild are the becunas, which live in groups of 5-10 animals. We saw plenty and Carlos showed us how they manage to survive. In the Us posing in front of Yarcta plants, which the animals use to drink in the desert middle of the desert, amid weird beautiful rock formations, a plant called Yarcta sucks up all the water when it rains once or twice a year. This brain shaped plant then emits a kind of glue throughout the year which the becunas then lick off instead of drinking.

The locals do not kill these animals, because there are only few of them. Instead they catch them and shave off the fur in summer, which is very warm and precious. Then they release them again. In these same regions there is a kind of rabbit, called Biskacha which lives in the rock formations hiding from the The desert rabit - Biskatcha, hiding from the fox in the rocks desert fox. Just look at how cute it is.

Last but not least we drove past a very different animal, the Sury. This is a kind of ostrich, slightly smaller and lives in these high altitudes too. They can run very fast but are not hunted by the locals, as they are quite happy with eating lama meat only.

The principles of Bolivian societies

After these two amazing days in nature we reached civilization. It was very interesting because Carlos explained a lot about how society works in these areas. To me it seemed as if all these communities have very strong social bonds, that is to say material and natural wealth is not accumulated by individuals but rather distributed throughout the community. Every village has one task, and then they exchange their product for the neighbor’s one. Foreign investment is usually frowned upon and the only place we saw where they allowed it was a huge copper mine southwest of Uyuni. The Mexicans who are exploiting these grounds moved an entire village to another sector to start digging in the hill where it stood. They now offer education and sanitary systems in San Christobal and Carlos told us that these people are among the top earners in Bolivia, making around 400 dollars per month with very hard mining work.

The train cemetery next to Uyuni We spent the night in Uyuni, which used to be a very important town in the days when Bolivia still had sea access. After the Chileans took over the copper rich territories, Uyuni kind of decayed and today you can visit the train cemetery which is composed by all the vehicles which were no longer required after the copper mines fell in the hands of the Chileans.

We slept in a nice hotel, no hot shower, still minus degrees in the bedroom, but a good meal and 600m less of altitude, so basically paradise after the night before.

Soon I will write about the second half of this trip, which saw us spending a whole day at one of the world´s most awesome natural wonders, the great salt desert of Uyuni.

Speak to you soon

Hasta luego viejos


3 Responses to Unforgettable Days in the Altiplanos of Uyuni – the Land of Fire

  1. fiorella de lotto says:

    Fantastico !!!!!

  2. I love this entry! I am planning on doing this trip in less then a week and am worried about drivers. Do you happen to still have Carlos information so I can look him up when I get to San Pedro in the next few days?

    • Basti says:

      Hello Kim,
      thank you! Unfortunately, I do not have any contact details and if you ask for Carlos there will be at least 20 people pretending to be him. It is a bit of a gamble anyway: ignore what the agencies say, it does not reflect how it actually is. So maybe try to get to know some people that you would like to spend a few days with in San Pedro and do the trip with them. On a good note: the roads in the high plains are wide, usually sand, and not exposed at all.
      Hope this helps and great work on your blog, just had a look at it!
      Good luck and enjoy, it is the favourite tour I ever made.

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