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The Bolivian Highlands

BOLIVIA | Wednesday, 18 April 2012 | Views [453]

The Atacama Desert

San Pedro de Atacama is a small town in Chile, the tourist access point to the most accessible parts of the Atacama desert. It was a very touristy town, and all the restaurants did fixed price 3 course meals, and those not on the main road included a free drink too, llama stew and a pisco sour? The village is at the end of a canyon, a small river supporting the community and irrigating the few fields nearby.

In the last month the town had received as much rain in 3 days as it had in the previous 7 years. It rains so little the buildings have mud roofs and in the recent rain the mud roof had smeared down the white washed walls. The desert wasn´t a riot of colour...it's been so long without rain that there were no seeds to grow.

We did an afternoon tour out into the desert, standing on top of the canyon, then running down steep dunes. For sunset we went to another Moon Valley (every country needs a tourist attraction called moon valley!) and climbed up a ridge to watch the changing colours of the surrounding hills. The next morning it was up at early o´clock to go up to the Tatio geyser fields. From 2,500m to over 4,000m in a single bus journey, one poor girl spent the trip curled up asleep on the bus struggling with the altitude. We´d done one high pass and were ok with the altitude (as long as I didn´t have to walk up hill/up stairs). It was freezing up there but that didn´t stop us, and a few other hardy tourists from stripping down to our swim wear and having a dip in a pool fed from the bubbling geysers...getting out and getting dry was the worst part.

On another day we cycled up to some Inca ruins (much better than expected) and the plan was then to cycle to the "Devil's throat". The bike hire place reckoned it was 60mins each way from the ruins, then a further 8km to the Devil's Throat. We´d seen a picture with a nice track running parallel to the river up the canyon, the map showed a couple of river crossings too. However the bike hire place hadn't been up there since the rain. The road and riverbed were impossible to distinguish. At points the sign posts just faced the river and a new track went behind, past the sign, several meters away. The track we were on was deep sand and there were several knee deep river crossings. We gave up after more than 2 hours and 10 river crossings, it was far too hot for this sort of excursion!

Trip to Bolivia's Salt Flats

From San Pedro de Atacama, Chile we booked a 3 day 4 wheel drive tour across the high plateau to Uyuni, Bolivia. The scenery was sublime, travelling across desert like landscape dotted with snow-capped volcanoes (4000m above sea level). There were plenty of brightly coloured lakes, some of which even had flamingos....one of them had thousands of flamingoes. See photos, Phil took plenty of them!

The last morning we went out to the Uyuni Salt Flats for sun rise. It was not possible to traverse the whole salt flat as large sections were still under water following the wet season. Although half of it was still under water we still had endless white for the obligatory perspective-trick photos. It's amazing how much time you can waste trying to take the perfect perspective photo. We hadn't taken a plastic dinosaur so we had to do make do with the dulce de leche container (imagine spreadable fudge for your morning bread, rather than jam) and each other (I do have Phil in the palm of my hand).

The salt is apparently 10 metres deep. There were no roads, you just drive out across the salt. They still mine salt from the flats, manually piling it into cones for the water to drain out, then manually shovel it onto flat-bed trucks. They also mine Lithium here (and the salt flats in Chile) for batteries.


From Uyuni we went down to Tupiza. Our first bus experience in Bolivia was a local bus on a dirt road. The bus departed at 6:30 in the morning and it was cold, and I fought a continuous battle with my window as it kept bouncing open, and I kept shutting it. Although the bags were safely locked away in the under carriage they still came out covered in dust. Locals came on and off the bus at all points along the road, in some places there were no houses visible at all. We also had an inexplicable 90 minute stop in a town along the road, and with help from a local lady off the bus, we found the market in the town, and the food court (always upstairs of the main market building) and got a cup of tea and a banana sandwich for breakfast.

Tupiza was a pleasant little town nestled in multi coloured canyons, and at only 3,000m it was much warmer in the evening! We did the 'standard' triathlon tour, 4WD and walking to some of the main sites around the town. Then we were transferred to the top of the surrounding canyons and rock formations and then drove to 800m above the town, at the edge of the canyon, and got on mountain bikes and cycled (more like free wheeled) straight back down the mountain track (for 18km, with hardly any pedalling). There were plenty of sharp switchbacks at the top so you couldn't really go too fast (plus stops for obligatory photos).

In Argentina and Chile we´d been staying in hostels. In Tupiza we found ourselves in a twee bed and breakfast for 10 GBP a night. The dining room had white leather sofas and the breakfast tables were decorated with lace table cloths, and cutesy little photos, and a goldfish tank, with unhealthy looking goldfish. Like a few other places it seems to have Christmas decorations up still...just a bit of tinsel around the banister. We´d seen a Santa up in one of the restaurants too.


From Tupiza it was up to Potosi. This is the highest city in the world but I don't know where they measure it from as the town tumbles down the hillside from Cerro Rico. According to one measurement its 4,060m above sea level, which we think is at the main plaza. You notice the altitude here, especially walking up hill, local little old ladies overtook us carrying bags as big as they were. The sun is hot, but as soon as the sun disappears (or you go inside, or night time falls) the temperature plummets. Luckily the hostel had provided us with 4 blankets and a duvet on the bed (but no heating).

Cerro Rico, towering above Potosi, is in fact the sole reason that the city exists. It translates as the 'rich hill' - the silver in this hill bankrolled the Spanish empire for 300+ years. In the quest for silver approximately 8,000,000 people died working in these mines in forced labour. The Spanish killed off so many locals that they shipped in slaves from Africa. Apparently the hill was 'made' of silver, and is now several hundred metres shorter than it used to be. People still work in the mines, using techniques that have changed little in 500 years.

At its peak Potosi was the biggest city in South America and one of the richest in the world. It´s centre was full of old colonial buildings and grand churches. The main plaza was lovely but as there were protests going on we thought it best not to take photos! There were also parades, the local school, led by the school marching band. We were lucky enough to witness the dry run the night before, and the real thing in full uniform  - I didn't know a brass section could be out of tune!

We went into the old mint where the silver was turned into coins for the Spanish colonies. As the coins were solid silver it was the weight that was important and they came in the following sizes: 0.1, 1, 2, 4, 8...so that´s where the phrase ´pieces of 8´ comes from, as that was the most valuable coin.


From Potosi it was a short distance to Sucre, the capital of the first Bolivian republic. The signed document that declares the independence of the South American (Alto-Peru) states from Spain is displayed here, just in a locked cabinet, no guards in the room. It´s all very relaxed given its one of the most important documents in the history of South America.

Sucre is full of white washed low rise building. It's a university town and is considered forward thinking and liberal. The hotel here doesn't include breakfast so we went to the local market, and no one really seemed to mind the gringos joining them at the canteen tables for cups of tea (15p each), and watching the most recent Mission Impossible film on the flat screen TV (in the market!). Then it was down to the 'Jugos Naturales' section for a huge fruit salad (80p), big enough to share, with cereal (local sugar puffs) and strawberry yogurt. The speciality is freshly squeezed and blended fruit juices, a choice of about 20 fruits, blended with milk or water (your choice) for 40p. We don't know what all the fruits are and we've tried a few random ones but they've resulted in a couple of sour experiences. There's a reason that banana and strawberry became the international milkshakes of choice!

From Sucre we did a 2 day walk in the nearby mountains. We got a local bus (departure time: when its full) to the top of the pass to the next valley. We took an old Inca trail down the mountain side, then along the river, before at the end of the day climbing up the opposite side of the valley into Mahagua Crater. We stayed in little cabins, run as a community project, run by a 13 year old girl (it was a little random/crazy). Dinner was rice, a few chips and fried egg, with copious amounts of salt. Tourism isn't really an industry in Bolivia here yet. Our 'walking guide' was doing French and English at University as that's the way to get a job in tourism, although at the moment his English was pretty rubbish! The next morning we woke up to a thick fog, this was just a heavy mist that hung in the valley, it had almost burned off by the time we'd climbed up to the crater rim. We walked to some dinosaur footprints (there's a dinosaur footprint theme park near to Sucre, but we had these to ourselves).

Next: night bus to La Paz, a bit more hiking and some jungle fun.

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