Friday, 10 June 2011

Into Obolivian

Seven of us decided to mount a mountainerring expedition within the rock climbing expedition and so headed off independently from the truck to make their own way to La Paz, from where they would attempt Pequeño Alpamayo and perhaps something else afterwards. Meanwhile the remainder of us, delayed in crossing the border out of Chile by the day trip to Calama (perhaps better named Calamaty, it being a shithole), camped out on the Salar de Atacama about 10 km from San Pedro, with the intention to return to the immigration office as soon as it opened, and thence head up to the Bolivian border. But the Salar was having none of that, giving way under the wheels of the truck on our departure as it did; a team effort of digging, stone collecting (these being needed to increase traction in the flour-like mixture of salt and dust in which the truck was now partly buried), and pushing eventually loosed the truck after two hours effort.

The road to Bolivia is the same as that into Argentina for 30 km uphill, then heads left. The road to Argentina continues into the distance, paved and smooth and comfortable. The road to Bolivia ceases to be a road some 20m after the junction and degenerates quickly into a rough, bone-jarring track that leads one to the border outpost. Which is a desolate place, windswept, under the slopes of the disputed volcanic cone of Linkankabur. How one can argue over who owns a volcano I'm not sure. Perhaps it will only erupt on the owner's side - or perhaps better still on the other.

Never mind the ramshackle outpost with its ruined bus, tattered flag and two Bolivian women in traditional dress in the building's lee practising the national sport of sitting. The crossing was quick and painless, the border guard pleasant and helpful. And this time no confiscation of lentils - which was a bad thing, probably.

What a place is southwestern Bolivia. A large part of it forms the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Flora and Fauna Reserve, home to vicuña, vizcacha, andean gulls, flamingos and the very rare Andean cat, which is possibly on the verge of extinction. There is almost no habitable land here, there being volcanos, high salinity lakes, almost no fresh water and virtually no rainfall. It is indeed like driving into oblivion. And yet, after a drive to some hot springs where we bathed in the warm pools and were told off for drinking beers whilst in the water, and a further drive in increasingly heavy snow to 5020m where, bizarrely, the Bolivian Customs post is in the middle of sodding nowhere, we arrived at the Laguna Colorada hostal, big enough to accommodate 400 people (apparently) in several buildings, some of which are caves with windows and front doors. Here we spent an unexpectedly comfortable night, having expected a bone-splittingly cold bush camp.

Laguna Colorada is aptly named. Getting very excited by the sight of 5 flamingos, we stopped the truck and all dashed down to the lake, the waters of which were turquoise green with pink tinges here and there. Much frenzied camera activity. We returned later in the day after a detour (during which we suffered a puncture to one of the front wheels) to see the árbol de piedra (a rock in the middle of sodding nowehere - not worth the effort) to see the lake almost totally red, with more flamingos in sight than you could shake a stick at. More rushing about with the cameras.

Uyuni is a dusty town of 20,000 people with no apparent reason for being. But it did have a restaurant in which some of us lunched on Pique a lo Macho, a bizzare dish of beef, onions, sliced hot-dog sausages and chips all mixed together, served by the most laidback waiter I have ever seen. He followed the admirable policy of never clearing a table unless a new customer wanted to eat, and everything he did appeared to happen in slow motion. Welcome to Bolivia, where I read in a newspaper than Bolivian time officially has a built-in delay.

Uyuni has, for the visitor, two main attractions. The first, and by far the smallest, is the railway graveyard, a collection of rusting locomotive hulks and containers surreally and inexplicably abandoned in the desert just outside of town. We caught a dramatic sunset here, boilers and stacks sillouetted against a firey sky. The second, and somewhat larger, reason for Uyuni is that it is the gateway to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world, some 12,500 sq km. of salt. And nothing but salt. In all directions. For miles.

The crossing of the Salar de Uyuni is an amazing journey, surreal, awe-inspiring, impossible to describe. And threatened by the fact that the salt is part of Bolivia's immense lithium reserves, reserves that are beginning to be exploited to satisfy the world demand for lithium in batteries, particularly those in electric cars. So go soon, before it's too late, and see if the waiter has speeded up his performance, and don't forget to ask the price of the pollo a la brasa (spit-roast chicken) in Uyuni before buying otherwise you too will be stung as a dumb gringo by the 'ladron de los pollos', as Ee Fu and I were. £8.00 for a chicken in Bolivia, I ask you. He's probably now enjoying an early retirement.


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