Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia
Friday July 10, 2015
I accidentally get up at 6 not knowing there is a time change in Bolivia after Chile. It is absurdly cold. There is ice on the inside of the windows. Two of our travel companions tell me last night was the worst night of their lives. Drama queens, haha. I cannot face breakfast as my altitude-induced headache has worsened considerably. Felix encourages me to neck a giant mug of coca leaves tea. It is strangely pleasant.
Our 4WD passes Lake Colarado again but instead of appearing red it shimmers like a giant white mirage in the distance.
The national park check point operates as a second border post for Bolivia as this porous border is used for trafficking of drugs and people and almost anything else.
My head is getting worse. I feel sick and exhausted. I don't want to let on to Katya quite how dodgy I'm beginning to feel.
Today's weird and wonderful delights include a stone forest and three lagoons. It is almost as if God got stoned when he was creating this part of the world. Now there are vicuna and llama regularly dotting the terrain.
We stop for an amazing lunch beside the jeep in the middle of one particularly epic setting. There is a heavily smoking volcano in the distance above another oddly beautiful lake. We meet a gorgeous wild fox, who clearly has never seen human kind before. The pink flamingos are now so common that there are no longer gasps of appreciation each time we see them.
And late in the day we see the first stretch of Salar de Uyuni salt lake shimmering in distance. This is just a taster of the world's greatest salt lake which is brilliantly white. A simple two-track train line connecting the Chilean coast passes through here. It makes me think of Butch and Sundance.
All in all this is incredibly tough driving terrain. It constantly changes and thank heavens Felix is a fantastic driver.
This whole 520-kilometre journey is all so absurdly unreal and off the scale. It is primeval. You half expect dinosaurs to pop up. It is truly epic and hard to compare to anything or anywhere that most of us have seen or know in our lives. Up here in the heavens there are just so many different weird and wonderful landscapes.
I have thought a lot about life today. It is futile. Pointless. None of it; none of this makes sense. And yet the exhilaration I have felt today makes that same futile, pointless life we all have seem boundless.
Tonight we are staying in a salt hotel on the edge of Salar de Uyuni. The walls are made from salt, salt covering the floors like Santa's grotto filled with pretend snow. It is silly mixed with brilliant.
Tanned, pink chubby cheeked kids that look almost Mongolian occasionally run into the chilly dining area. My altitude sickness was cured by the coca leaves and to celebrate most of us are drinking far more red wine than we should at altitude.
I stumble outside into the freezing darkness and stare up at the brilliantly clear Milky Way stretching across the heavens. It makes me feel incredibly minute and reminds me of my earlier thoughts of futility and pointlessness. I feel a long long long way from home. I feel a universe away from anywhere. And it comforts me.
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.
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
San Pedro de Atacama - El Tatio, Chile
We are in the Tropics and it is Minus 15 degrees Celsius. My god it feels shockingly cold up here at 4300 metres. This is the world's third largest geyser field and the highest on the planet.
We set off at 4am to make it here for the apocalyptic looking sunrise; steam spiralling up into the thin air from dozens and dozens of bubbling geysers. I've spent plenty of years living in and visiting some extremely cold places but strolling around this geyser field at 6am with the temperature still only pushing towards minus ten, feels particularly testing.
But it is well worth the discomfort. There is something intangibly primeval about El Tatio. Americans terribly overuse the word 'awesome' but that is certainly an apt seven-letter description of these geyser fields.
On the route back we pass an active volcano, smoke billowing into the azure sky. We also spot our first vicuna - an alpha male and five females. Sounds brilliant but can you imagine what it would be like living with five women?
Other memorable tit bits on the road back to SPDA include some weird wetlands, and a green rabbit, almost perfectly camouflaged from us in the desert terrain.
Back in SPDA, an afternoon of chilling turns into a day of preparing for tomorrow's 4WD three-day trip to Bolivia. Withdrawing money, changing currencies and getting ripped off by the locals, organising meals, buying water and toilet paper, Bolivian currency for permits, USD for Katya's visa, packing warm stuff and before you know it the chill part of the day has gone.
Late on, we wander around SPDA's cool streets. It's pricey, a gringo trap and a bit faux-naff but somehow it is still a cool and enjoyable place to hang out for a day or two, particularly as at 2500 metres it does allow for some minimal acclimatisation. Well, it cannot fail to be a decent place to base yourself, with the world-class backdrop and a dozen or more epic adventures that can be had from here.
Street dogs are chilling by the fire place in the town's only beer bar. I have really enjoyed my month in Chile but I won't miss its dogs when we depart tomorrow.
Tuesday, July 7, 2015
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Already the Copa America seems like a distant memory, so removed is the terrain and environment of the Atacama Desert from what went before.
We take a half-day tour to the Valley of the Moon, Death Valley and salt caves. Incredible sunset, absurd scenery....I will probably do all of this more justice with a photo montage rather than words....
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Monday, July 6, 2015
I have awoken to sunrise in the Atacama Desert. It is one of those disorientating but very special moments when, in the space of one journey, the terrain and weather has so drastically changed as to make one feel like one has just been beamed down here like a character from Star Trek. Except Star Trek characters don't wake up on double-decker buses with blankets over their heads and dribble running down their chin of course. To the east, the sun light just breaks above the Andes, while to the west it turns the sand a strange colour of red I don't recall seeing before.
The first place of note we stop off at is Antofagusta, the road dropping several hundred metres from the desert down to the Pacific. It is a rough looking place with nothing apart from perhaps its location on the shores of the Pacific to give it any plus marks. This far north in Chile it is all about heavy industry, especially the extremely profitable copper mines that have been so vital to Chile's break neck economic development in the past couple of decades. Consequently the towns and cities up here are more geared up for miners than anything with dive bars, overpriced restaurants, three-hour-hotels, and touch-the-walls-and-they-might-fall-down-shopping-malls the most common sight.
Further north and we pass several large industrial sites, smoke billowing into the atmosphere, as well as a number of industrial cemeteries, some stretching for miles, full of rusting truck parts and mega tyres.
It seems like an eternity before we reach Calama, the largest city in this area of the Atacama and home for many of the thousands of hard-working miners who work at the world's largest open cast mine at Chuquicamata. Che Guevara detested those mines and the sub-human way in which the men and their families who worked there worked and lived. Many Chileans have told me Calama is the most god forsaken city in Chile but with a change of bus needed here I must confess its town centre has a decent amount of character and it is also apparent that a lot of new money is going into the city in an attempt to improve its quality of life.
90 minutes to the south east and we reach San Pedro de Atacama, having driven through some quite incredible desert terrain, which resembles NASA images of the surface of Mars. This is one of the driest places on Earth but storm clouds fill the sky and obscure many of the volcanic peaks it is possible to see in this region.
The streets adjacent to San Pedro de Atacama bus station resemble a Mexican spaghetti western. On first impressions and with dust blowing down the streets this does not look very inviting. Katya is suffering from culture shock. She has never been anywhere like this before. Four days out of Europe for the first time in her life, everywhere to her looks dirty, dusty and cold. The dozens of barking wild dogs wandering the streets doesn't exactly help. In fact, so shocked by it all is Katya that she breaks down in tears.
A couple of hours later, blue skies have replaced dusty ones as we sit next to a roaring courtyard fire. Katya has come through the other side of her culture shock. We have found a basic room for the night nearby and enjoy empanadas and tea before turning in for the night. Curiously, the darker it gets in San Pedro, the more inviting it seems to become, as courtyard and restaurant fires give the town a new warmth and cosiness. It is quite amusing how somewhere can appear at first like an absolute shite hole but end up feeling like a cosy little escape from civilisation.
Sunday July 5, 2015
Santiago - San Pedro, Chile
It is fair to say I have rarely seen a place where so many people are suffering from shocking hangovers - New Year's Eve and summer festivals included. The streets are almost deserted, shops are closed and many of those either making their way home or venturing back out are clutching at cans of Red Bull. Chile, Campeones de America! Each time we pass a restaurant or cafe we see them replaying Alexis Sanchez decisive penalty in the shoot-out, or we hear golllllllllllllllllllllll, Chile, Chile, Alexis, Chile campeonas!!! coming from some half open window or side street. As predicted there were deaths last night. At least three people died during the wild celebrations.
Unbelievably i manage to bump into German Charles in downtown Santiago, a couple of hours before leaving the city for good. Charles, veteran of five Copa Americas is the meister blagger and managed to get into the final yesterday despite having no ticket in advance of the game. The head honcho who knocked me back yesterday two hours before kick off, took sympathy on Charles and gave him stadium access one hour before kick off. I am really happy for Charles. He certainly deserved it more than me. He is so devoted he even went to the third place play off in Concepcion. I mean who in their right mind goes to the bronze medal game? Haha. Anyway, like i said I am really chuffed for Charles, who I exchange a man hug with before promising to meet up with him at Copa America 2019 in Brasil.
Anybody who knows me knows what i am going to say next: I spend the whole of the day extremely pissed with myself that I gave up so easily trying to get into the final yesterday. I have been to several World Cup, European Championships and two Copas but i have only ever managed to get into one cup final: Copa 2011 at the River Plate in Argentina. Had I stuck around for an hour longer yesterday, I would no doubt have bumped into Charles and also managed to blag-beg my way in. Yesterday was still amazing: the unforgettable atmosphere in the city before and after the match, and being with Chileanos for the game. And of course attending eight matches during the Copa, seeing 11 of the 12 teams play, including the champions three times. But if only I'd managed to get into that final yesterday!!!
With the Copa over it is clearly time to boost out of Santiago and start heading for Bolivia. The weather is crap today; pollution levels extremely high as a thick smog hangs over the Chilean capital. I had planned to head back to Valparaiso for a day but the end of Copa America 2015 feels like the end of a chapter in this adventure.
Now it is time to begin chapter two, starting with a 23-hour bus journey north into the Atacama desert.
Thursday, July 2, 2015
Castro, Chiloe Island, Chile
With dawn breaking over Castro, it is a morning breakfast of scrambled egg and coffee by a burning wooden fire, admiring the class views from the water's edge. This £13 hostel feels like a cosy five-star hotel and despite the temptation to try and run around the island this afternoon and explore some wooden churches and virgin forest before my overnight bus leaves for Santiago, it would be madness with my current near-zero energy levels to not take advantage of this chill pad for a few hours.
In town it is quite apparent that the good folk of Chiloe are rather more rough and ready working class than in those parts of Chile i previously visited. Many people here, judging by their weathered faces, look like they've had pretty hard lives, not helped I am sure by the stormy climate of this archipelago. The majority of blokes work out at sea and aside from a few drunken rioters in Santiago, it is the first time I have felt a little wary of the locals. No, there is nothing threatening about the place but I wouldn't fancy being in a bar near kick out time.
It's not a bad town. It is even sunny today! It has got plenty of character and streets that resemble San Francisco as they drop down to the water at perilously steep angles. The central church - bright yellow and huge - looks like it has been dropped here from Belarus or Russia, while many of the houses are built using wood shingles, which also have an almost Belarusian vibe to them.
Pride of place are definitely the palafitos (houses on stilts), and as well as the Gamboa district where i am staying, there is another long stretch of palafitos in the Costanera area, close to the port. Years ago this is the kind of town i would have had romantic ideas about staying and living in for six months; far away from it all and with lots of character. These days I see these kinds of places as great places to visit and explore, but also places I am happy to get on the bus out from a day or two later.