Whoever says that Toyotas (and Japanese cars in general) don’t break down is a liar. This was all too obvious as we were pushing a 2-and-a-half-ton Land Cruiser at the highest point of a four-day tour around the incredible landscapes of south-western Bolivia. Exerting this much energy at over 5,000m above sea-level was a killer, and the only part of the trip that nearly blew my lungs, rather than my mind.
It’s crazy how much natural beauty is squeezed into the bottom left corner of this landlocked South American nation. Over roughly 1,200km, four of us took in unusual rock formations, snow-capped mountains over 6,000m, and a plethora of differently coloured lakes.
Starting from the town of Tupiza, we spent our first day travelling across the altiplano, ascending up to almost 5,000m, first passing volcanic sillar stones outside of the city, a red limestone landscape dotted with hardy and unusually shaped cacti. The only sound for miles was the roar of Land Cruiser engines, practically the only cars seen on the dirt tracks that criss-cross the landscape.
The stops throughout the day were only short, but pretty impressive. Next up was Awanapampa, which seemed to just be a huge field, surrounded by mountains where at least half of Bolivia’s llamas lived. Walking across the marshy field and feeling the cold water splashing against my legs (which I’d finally managed to outstretch after being bundled into the back row) was such a relief from the hours spent in the sun-baked jeep. One particularly demonic looking llama reminded me that getting to close was a bad idea as I heard it hawk up some spit…
The highlight of day one however, was visiting a genuine ghost town. San Antonio de Lipez (also known as San Antonio del Nuevo Mundo – Lipez is the name of the mountain range in which it’s situated) was completely abandoned by the Spanish who came here to mine for silver. The 400 Spaniards who lived here took all the spoils, treating the local indigenous population as slaves.
In the ghost town were remains of a brothel, homes, and 2 churches – one Catholic and one traditional, on which you could still see the markings. When the silver ran out, the Spaniards left, and the town was left to crumble into what you can see today. Even going there in the midday sun was eerie – although the churches were discernible, the rest was little more than piles of rocks. I wouldn’t have liked to have been here at night. Not only would it have been spooky, but without the sun, absolutely freezing. After all, it was 4,700m above sea level.
After that, it was onto our lodgings for the night in the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, watching the sun slowly retreat behind the snow-capped mountains.
I don’t know if day two was an early start because our guide already had an idea the car was fucked, but the first 3 stops ended with the bonnet up. With little information, this was worrying. The middle of a Bolivian national park is not a place you want to break down. Yes, at first you can make the best of the situation by thinking about how beautiful the scenery is, but when you start thinking how far you are from civilisation, and how inhospitable the landscape is, you may start to panic. Especially when you’re constantly told everything is okay and it’s quite obvious that it’s not.
We stopped at a few lakes in the morning where we got our first glimpse of flamingos and heard their unusual chattering sound from close by. A particular highlight was Lago Hedionda, more mirror than lake, where the mountain reflections were looking at an upside-down HD TV.
Further on, we stopped at some hot springs right by another of the seemingly millions of lakes in the national park. They extended over the side like an infinity pool – with the endless blue sky above. As soon as I dipped into the pool, I felt utterly relaxed with only one thing nagging the back of my head – I’d probably be burned to a crisp in minutes there. Other than that, watching the gulls bob on the lake brought a feeling of total tranquillity and peace.
The landscapes only got more bizarre, yet impressive after spending time at the lake. The Salvador Dalí desert, so called because it looks like many of his surrealist paintings was next on the list. Unusual rock formations dot a vast bowl of red sand, dyed by the minerals and the sulphur present in the dormant and extinct volcanoes. Dalí certainly never visited the desert, and it’s possible he’d never even seen pictures. However, it was eerily reflective of some of his masterpieces.
Traversing the Dalí desert brought us to Laguna Verde, one of the few lakes where hundreds of flamingos weren’t feeding. This was because the lake was filled with cyanide and magnesium, giving it its green tinge. Inviting as it was, you wouldn’t want to swim in it! Although deadly, the backdrop of the sacred Incan Licancabur volcano made for a truly spectacular view.
After a spot of lunch, we headed higher again. Vicuñas grazed at the side of the road before we reached a completely inhospitable and barren wasteland, also the highest point of the tour at over 5,000m, where steam billowed across the ground. Outside of the jeep, the overpowering stench of sulphur made us gag and we were desperate to get back in. However, this was where we were required to give the jeep a push. I’m pretty sure at this point, all sorts of bad things were happening to our lungs.
After a lot of work to get the car started again, we slowly edged toward our final destination of the day; Laguna Colorada. One of the most popular attractions in the national park, this blood-red lake was home to scores of flamingos, feeding on the lakes micro-organisms. Somewhat predictably, we broke down again about 500 metres from the lake, meaning we had to walk across black volcanic sand being whipped up by a forceful wind, making it hard to see anything. By the lakeshore, the wind was slightly calmer, but still enough to blow my hat into the lake, which I rescued from being lost, but not from being covered in flamingo shit. Like my shoes.
There was a light show at the lake too, with forks of lightning striking the mountain, which once again was conveniently placed as the backdrop, making it even more photogenic.
I don’t understand why countries play down their natural beauty by naming them after other better-known tourist attractions, usually found in western countries. Or sometimes they are just simply named after something they vaguely resemble, which requires a lot of work to see. This is definitely the case with Bolivia’s Italia Perdida, lost Italy in English.
There truly is no need to compare this to the ruins of ancient Rome (which is what are guide explained) because 1. They’re natural rock formations, 2. They look nothing like Rome, and 3. They are pretty incredible all on their own. Vizcachas (Andean mountain rabbits with long tails) skipped through them, before our guide told us we’d be following the rabbits right up to the top.
Although not a climber, I found it really enjoyable getting up, and the views were spectacular. However, catching a glimpse over the side made me feel a little (okay, a lot) of fear in the pit of my stomach. From here, you could see other rock formations including a camel (debatable) and the World Cup (Bolivia haven’t qualified since 1994, and I think since then they may have forgotten what the trophy looks like). But it was still a pretty beautiful sight.
The last stop before we would reach the town of Uyuni, where Bolivia’s famous salt flats are located, was Laguna Negra. By this point, we’d seen a blue lake, a green lake, a red lake, and a standard clear lake. By this point, I was fed up of lakes. Especially since Laguna Negra was the same colour as most British lakes. However, the rock formations behind it were especially un-British, as were the vizcachas skipping among the rocks and the llamas grazing by the waters. It actually ended up being one of my favourite places on the trip, as it was quiet, peaceful, and serene.
Taking the tour from Tupiza is something I was unsure about at first – I thought it would be expensive (it wasn’t) and although we spent a large chunk of 3 days in the car (you can get to Uyuni from Tupiza in 4 hours if you’re pressed for time), I saw landscapes that I’d never even dreamed of, let alone seen. This part of Bolivia was truly beautiful and taking a tour from Tupiza is something you won’t forget in a hurry. Read on to find out about Uyuni and the salt flats…