Bolivia takes visitors to new heights

By BILL BRUBAKER, Washington Post

Our guide reached into the glove compartment of his Toyota Land Cruiser and pulled out a green plastic bag. Having traveled in the Bolivian Andes before, I had a good hunch what Faustino was reaching for.

“We’ll be going higher,” he said, no pun intended, as he grabbed a fistful of leaves from the bag and stuffed them into his mouth. “These coca leaves will help me with the higher altitude, and they’ll keep me awake.”

It wasn’t even 11 a.m. on a deserted gravel road in the spectacularly beautiful southern Bolivian highlands, but I wasn’t going to argue with Faustino’s rationale, at least not on the first day of our tour. I start the day with several mugs of strong coffee. Faustino prefers coca leaves, which in Bolivia are cheap (less than $1 a bag), legal and widely available.

Our plan over the next three days was to visit the famous Salar de Uyuni salt flats (12,000 feet above sea level), lagoons populated with rare flamingos, geysers that shoot sulfur steam into the crisp Andean air, a graveyard for vintage train cars and — the only part of the trip I truly wasn’t looking forward to — a hotel where we’d spend the night at 14,343 feet.

“Yes, tomorrow night we’ll be staying at the Hotel Tayka del Desierto,” Faustino said as he chewed away. “Some people have a hard time breathing up there. And since it’s so high up, it can also get very, very cold.”

When I’d booked this tour several months earlier, the idea of staying at the Desierto left me, well, short of breath. It would be mid-winter in the Southern Hemisphere (summer in the United States). Although I had spent many nights in the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes at 12,000 feet or so, I was queasy about sleeping at a much higher altitude.

Still, I’m always ready for an adventure, and our travel agent in the Bolivian capital of La Paz (at 12,000 feet, the world’s highest capital city) had assured me that the Desierto would be heated and far superior to the one alternative: a bare-bones, unheated shelter. I was also comforted by a secret weapon: the prescription medication acetazolamide (Diamox) that supposedly wards off altitude sickness.

So with Faustino at the wheel, I set off with my wife, Freddi, our teenage daughter, Gabriela, and her pal Christina on a three-day, two-night, 600-mile excursion to a remote corner of South America that until the 1990s had seen relatively few tourists.

Faustino had met us the night before in Uyuni, a dusty, bitterly cold town of less than 15,000, more than 300 miles south of La Paz. Getting there from La Paz involved a 3 1/2-hour bus ride across the Andes’ high plateau to Oruro, a bleak town known for its world-class carnival, followed by a seven-hour train ride. The journey offers glimpses of isolated villages and Andean wildlife, especially llamas, alpacas and typically hard-to-see vicuñas.

From trains to a salt mecca

Our first stop the next morning was the train cemetery, a collection of graffiti-desecrated 19th-century railcars and engines only a few minutes outside town, yet eerily isolated. The British-built steam trains once hauled minerals such as silver and tin to ports on the Pacific Coast but were abandoned after the decline of the Bolivian mining industry in the 1940s.

We posed for goofy pictures on these rusting relics, then headed for Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at 4,000 square miles, roughly twice the size of Delaware.

“Put your sunglasses on,” Faustino said as we approached the white, seemingly endless desert, where the glare from the sun’s reflection can be intense.

Sitting atop an ancient seabed, the flats are more than one of the world’s tourist wonders; they provide jobs for thousands of people in one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries. In addition to ferrying foreigners around the region, locals work on the flats, extracting salt and lithium, the mineral used in mood-stabilizing drugs and in batteries that power electric cars and devices such as the BlackBerry.

Stepping out of our vehicle, we felt positively puny as we split up to walk in different directions, ready to experience what it’s like to take a stroll to nowhere. Scanning the horizon in each direction, we realized that we were the only signs of life. The salt flats make Easter Island look like the Las Vegas Strip.

Hotels have opened on the edges of the flats, including the 47-room Tayka Hotel de Sal, where we would spend our first night. These hotels are typically furnished with chairs, tables and even beds made from blocks of salt.

Our hotel was built on the outskirts of a village named Tahua, which was nothing less than ghostly. We drove around for several minutes and spotted a couple of dozen llamas but not a single human — and there were no signs of anyone inside the stone houses. Cue “Twilight Zone” music.

“Most everyone is out working in the countryside, herding llamas,” Faustino said.

The Diamox seemed to be working wondrously. We had climbed the hill at Incahuasi with minimal difficulty and had no breathing problems at the hotel.

No heat at the inn

In the morning, we bade the salt flats goodbye and found ourselves in the midst of the majestic Andes. We visited the Galaxy cave, discovered less than 10 years ago with some prehistoric human remains inside, and picnicked at a site known as the Army of Rocks — petrified boulders, some of which resemble the giant Easter Island statues known as Moai. We also made a quick stop at the frosty Laguna Colorada, a reddish-colored lake that gets its hue from algae that grow on the bottom.

Just before dark, as the temperature dipped into (I’m guessing) the teens, we arrived at the rustic Desierto, eager to warm up in our rooms. But alas, the electrical heaters emitted barely any heat. The hotel managers apologized, but there was nothing we could do. The Desierto was the only game in town in a corner of Bolivia where there are no towns.

The fireplace in the dining room worked fine, though, so Freddi and I found a cozy table and ordered a bottle of Bolivian cabernet. Meanwhile, Gabriela and Christina bonded with three 20-something Canadian guys, one of whom had developed a bad case of altitude sickness.

We left the hotel at dawn, happy to be on the road after a fitful, cold night of sleep.

“Do you want to see an illegal road used by drug traffickers?” Faustino asked us. Of course we did!

The road led to a signpost with “BOLIVIA” written on one side and “CHILE” on the other.

“This is the border,” Faustino announced, opening a fresh bag of coca leaves. We posed for photos with one foot in Bolivia and the other in Chile.

We spent the day soaking up more spectacular scenery on the way back to Uyuni, stopping at the blue-green Laguna Verde, admiring a dozen of the rare James flamingos and watching as steam spewed from several geysers at the highest point on our trip: 16,000 feet. All around us were wind-whipped mountains, most devoid of trees or vegetation, some covered partly by snow and ice. By early evening, we were back on the dusty streets of Uyuni, ready for a pizza and a toasty hotel room.

We didn’t bid Faustino goodbye, because we had hired him to drive us the next day to Potosi, which at 13,400 feet is considered the highest city in the world. But I was no longer fretting. I’m no Edmund Hillary, but I’m eagerly planning my next miles-high Andean adventure.

Source: Washington Post


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