Thursday, July 9, 2015
We've climbed from 2500 metres to 4000 metres in an hour. The Chilean/Bolivian border is full of 4 wheel drives. Customs is surprisingly straightforward but we are stung for $60 for Katya's visa as Russian citizens need to cough up for the privilege of spending a couple of weeks in South America's poorest country (ranked 113th in the UN's Human Development index). However, there is none of the Yellow Fever certificate and passport photos need-to-be-provided malarkey we were told about before we flew out to the continent.
There is a tangible sense of an adventure about to begin. A temporary camping table has been set up with breakfast laid out as formalities are finished and we transfer all our stuff from the minivan to the 4wd. Cheese sandwiches and coffee at 4000 metres at the crack of dawn on a Thursday morning. You've got to love it.
There are 14 of us and we are divided up into three jeeps. A couple of Brummie English ladies coming the other way warn us they have just spent the two coldest nights of their lives in Bolivia. I think I'm just about prepared for what high altitude Bolivia has to throw at me but I'm not sure about some of my travel mates.
Our crew is Felix, our driver, plus me, Katya, 3 Brazilian girls plus one of their teenage brothers. In the other cars are three Chilean 20-something lads, fresh from Copa victory, another three Brazilian girls and an affable Aussie couple.
High altitude Bolivia is quite a place. In fact, I'm rather stuck for adjectives and metaphors to describe its roar beauty and 'strangeness'. As you might well expect, nobody really resides up here at the roof of South America. Our first stop at Laguna Blanco allows all of us to walk on a frozen high altitude lake, noticeably out of breath and giggling like excited school kids at the majesty of it all.
Countless volcanoes dot the altaplana including 6000 metre Volcan Licanabur. Mind you by the time we reach the greenish blue Laguna Verde we ourselves have hit 4960 metres. That is an astounding 16, 273 feet above sea level. And yet there is no headache.
Our 4WD speeds off through the high altitude wilderness and as if to emphasise to us what we all are feeling at that moment, Felix sticks on his jeep stereo and Coldplay's 'We live in a beautiful world' plays. Goosebumps aplenty, I feel consumed by the moment. I don't feel like we are away from it all in South America; it's more like we are on Mars or one of Saturn's weird moons. Or I am simply having a rather nice, weird dream, which I will shortly be sad to have awoken from.
We visit scarily strange geysers, wonderfully soothing thermal springs and also pass a bizarre otherworldly landscape which puts one in mind of Estonian surrealist Navitrolla.
And as if the terrain couldn't feel anymore alien, a blood red lake suddenly comes into view on the horizon. It goes by the rather unimaginative name of Lake Colarado yet everything else about it is off the scale. This is the stuff of science fiction novels as a red tide washes up on a bright white shoreline, surrounded by volcanoes and strange mountainous rock formations. And, by the way, there are also flocks of pink flamingos chilling here. My head is spinning but, it is from the surreal beauty of it all, not the altitude sickness. I lose everyone in sight, including Katya, and stroll off to a desolate flamingo-filled spot, muttering to myself the whole time like a madman.
Our 'hotel' is the only sign of life we have seen all day aside from the other 4wds. Even before the sun sets on an absurdly azure sky it is already Baltic. Starry skies appear almost instantly, so clear as to make one think this is all one big cartoon; some sort of 'the Matrix' for kids.
Think of the coldest place you have ever slept in your life...then times it by 23. It is something like minus 20 up here at 4000 metres. It wouldn't be so bad of course if there were decent heating but in fact there is absolutely no heating at all! Mental. No wonder the family living here have cheeks redder than Father Christmas.
It is a group dinner but nobody lingers long after the pasta and eggs and mini sausages have gone.
I've put two blankets under Katya and my bed. We both have a sleeping bag, bed sheets, a duvet and four blankets over us...and I, for example, am wearing base layers, three pairs of socks, jeans, a t-shirt, two jumpers, gloves, a hat, a hoodie....and... it is still stupidly cold.
I wake up short of breath struggling to breathe, panicking for a moment or two as I try to suck in CO2 from the sub-zero air. I've got a headache which feels a little akin to someone constantly giving you a low level electrical shock.