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    Monday, 24 May 2010

    A Unique Border Crossing into Bolivia

    It was time to cross the border into Bolivia. Having spoken to a few people about it, this journey across the Andes was one of the highlights of their trip. We were both excited and nervous as we were now in the hands of Estrella Del Sur, the tour agency we had picked to take us across. It had been recommended to us by fellow travellers, and from the reviews of all the agencies on line it seemed pot luck as to whether you would get a good trip or not. There were horror stories about drivers being drunk, the 4x4’s breaking down, and shockingly, not enough food or water being provided.

    We’d spent 4 days in San Pedro de Atacama and we hoped that it was enough to acclimatise to the high altitude. Our next stop was going to be over 4000m and we would be getting as high as 4800m during our trip and there was a real possibility of altitude sickness.

    The night before the tour we had to confirm if the pass between Chile and Bolivia was open as it had been snowing and for the last three days it had been closed. Lucky for us it was open and we were good to go. The tour was 2 nights/ 3 days and on the first day we were picked up at our hotel at 8. We then headed off around San Pedro to pick up the others that we would be sharing the tour with - Marcus and Andrea who were from Switzerland and Rebecca who was Australia but had been living the UK for a number of years and now was returning home on a slightly circuitous route.

    The first part of the journey was on a bus to the Bolivian border at 4300m. We raced up to the border in about an hour which was totally against any advice we’d read, which says you should only go up 300m a day once you get to 2500m. Here we checked out of Chile and got stamped into Bolivia for 90 days. A good result for us as there was a chance we would only get 30 days on our stamp, but our trip in Bolivia was going to last 31 days. I have to say out of all the border crossings we’ve done over the last 11 months, this was by far the easiest.

    At the border crossing we met our driver Alberto a 21 year old Bolivian and had a bit of breakfast. We’d already had breakfast at out hostel and all the advice was to eat lightly to avoid altitude sickness, so both of us settled for a hot Milo. A good start as it was pretty cold at the border, due to the high altitude. It was also the first chance to get to know our companions for the next 3 days and I had a good feeling that we would all get on.

    We packed up the 4x4 and set off on our adventure, it soon became apparent that it was going to be pretty cold as we were surrounded by snow. It was also going to be a thrilling ride as Alberto had a heavy foot, zipping along at breakneck speeds. The speedometer was broken so I never really knew how fast we were going during the tour but it felt FAST!

    The first stop was at Laguna Blanca (White Lake). With the recent snow fall it definitely looked white and was the start of some of the most dramatic landscape I’ve ever seen.

    On our trip we saw many lakes, the next was supposed to be one of the most impressive, Laguna Verde ( Green Lake). Again due to the snowfall it was less green, however with a backdrop of Volcan Licancabur it still made for a very imposing view

    We’d been going a few hours on the first day and about midday we arrived at Polques Hot Springs. This was a chance for us to take a dip, partly because they were there at 4400m above sea level and partly because our first nights accommodation was described as basic with no chance of a shower. I was really reluctant to strip off and get in as it was so cold. However as our fellow companions eased themselves in and gushed about how wonderful it was I was persuaded to get in. It was really like stepping into a hot bath and was a wonderful experience, once in though it was much harder to step back out into the cold!

    Our next stop, after having dried off really quickly and gotten back in the 4X4 was Geyser Sol de Manana, which would be the highest point of our trip at 4800m. I’d already started to notice that even the slightest bit of effort would make my heart pound and breathing was becoming more laboured as the air thinned at altitude. At the geyser I made sure I walked around slowly trying not to exert myself. Another tip is to take it easy at altitude to avoid sickness. One of the things I’ve been doing on our trip around the world is having a jumping picture at different locations. Being at probably the highest point on our entire trip I couldn’t resist. Not the best thing to do at high altitude but as our timing has got pretty good, it only took one go.

    Our final stop of the day was at Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon). Before we headed there we stopped off at our very basic accommodation for the night at Hostal Hualla Jara at 4300m. Taking one look we all knew we were going to be in for a cold night. It was freezing and the sun was still high in the sky. I did also notice the beds were made out of concrete – interesting.

    Laguna Colorada was our first chance to see some of the wildlife of the area. It wasn’t ‘peak season’ if you like as most of the Flamingos had migrated to warmer climes for the winter but we got to see some hardy flamingos and Vicuñas. The latter are like Llamas but smaller and can survive at higher altitudes.

    One of our fears was that there was not going to be enough food on the trip but there was no problem of that sort. Both at lunch and then dinner that evening food was plentiful. Being full didn’t make it any easier though as it was hard to see the sun go down and, as predicted, for the cold to take over. After dinner we did not hang around for long, all of us were tucked in by 9. Luckily Jono and I had hired sleeping bags as without them I think it would have been twice as cold as it was. The night was long with not much sleep for any of us. I discovered the next day we mostly had the same experience – we were all really cold and wide awake for most of the night. It could have been the cold but we had our suspicions that it may have been something to do with the coca tea we had. The locals use coca to help with altitude sickness as before we went to bed we were nearly all suffering from throbbing headaches which was one of the early symptoms of altitude sickness. The next day I ‘awoke’ to the worst headache I’ve had in ages. As soon as there was a glimpse of light I was up. A couple of neurofen and a hot chocolate later (caffeine is also bad at altitude) I started to feel better. I was so pleased to see the sun.

    The second day was another packed day of sightseeing as we continued on our way into Bolivia. We started off by having a look at some rock formations named Arbol De Piedra (Stone Tree).

    On our way to the next sites we helped another 4x4 which had got stuck in the snow. We saw more wildlife with the most interesting being a very curious fox..

    We had lunch at the picture perfect Laguna Hedionda..

    The flora was interesting along the way too.

    And generally got time to enjoy the dramatic landscape.

    That night we arrived at what Jono and I thought would be a salt hotel to stay in. Somewhere, either we got our wires crossed or we were lied to by the tour company but we ended up at a village called Villa Martin at a little homestead. My disappointment was soon forgotten as I got a warm shower and some more decent food. That and with the prospect of a much warmer night at only 3600m and being able to breath just a little easier I was content.

    The next morning was an early start as we were on the road by 5am to get to our destination of Salar De Uyuni, the salt flats, for sunrise. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the last 11 months for me. The salt flats were an ethereal place. As we ventured onto the salt flat in the 4X4 it was the smoothest ride we’d had for a while. Alberto also turned off the headlights and it felt like we were gliding along at high speed into the twilight. We eventually stopped somewhere on the salt flats and got a chance to get out and watch one of the most memorable sunrises I have ever seen.

    The following are set of pictures I wanted to share with you from that morning.

    Sun shines out of my ..., Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia

    Contemplation, Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia.

    Jump, Salar De Uyuni,Bolivia

    After the sunrise we went off the nearby ‘island’, Isla Incahuasi, which was covered by a cacti forest. We wandered around for a while to have a look and then tucked into another great breakfast

    While tucking into breakfast I wasn’t expecting to see an ostrich.

    Leaving the island and the ostrich behind us we were off to our next destination – the first salt hotel to be built in the area.

    The hotel is pretty much in the middle of nowhere and is made entirely out of salt and is also surrounded by salt

    Further on we saw that the salt is still collected and sold for what I think is household use.

    I was really sorry to leave the salt flat as I thought it was a magical place. The landscape started to change again and there was noticeable more evidence of life. We made a pit stop at a little village which was very used to seeing tourists.

    It was a chance to get a few souvenirs for those of us who had space in our backpacks and for me to people watch. It was the first glimpse for me of life in Bolivia.

    As the third day was coming to an end we were on our way to Uyuni, our first real town in Bolivia at 3600m. There was one last thing to see before we got there, a railway cemetery, where forgotten locomotives from the first railway in South America had been abandoned. For me it wasn’t the locomotives that will be memorable but the amount of rubbish strewn over the parched desert landscape. I have to say it’s the worst I’ve seen anywhere on our travels. I think I must have been too shocked to take a picture.

    That was it, we made our way into the centre of Uyuni and checked into a hostel for the night. We still had some daylight left so we took a look around Uyuni, which in comparison to what I had seen around the outskirts was a pleasant surprise. It was relatively clean and pretty lively but nothing to keep us there for more than one night.

    The trip was at an end and the 3 days had been amazing, the scenery was gorgeous and we had really lucked out with the company of Marcus, Andrea and Rebecca. That final evening we tucked into some of the best pizza we’ve come across with our new friends. It had been a great start to our time in Bolivia. Next, waiting for us was our first taste of the notoriously bad Bolivian roads by bus.


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