Lonely Planet calls Bolivia a land of superlatives, and boy, are they right.
The two weeks that carried me from La Paz through to Buenos Aires were full of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever taken in, the most expansive and driest deserts, the hottest and coldest bus rides of my life, and more stars in the night sky that I ever thought possible.
Grumpy from a rough start in La Paz, I took an overnight bus to the small city of Potosi. The journey began well enough, with me tucked under a heavy blanket provided by the bus company. I couldn’t sleep, which is fairly normal for me on any form of transportation or surface other than a bed (because I am the modern day star of the Princess and the Pea), so I remained acutely aware of the shift in temperature as the sun set and all warmth fled the desert. The window beside my face was open and stubbornly refused to be shut, letting in a constant stream of icey air. I shivered and shook for nine hours, watching with intrigue as we were stopped at 2:30 by a road block of protesters (who a few days before had thrown rocks at the buses, I was told). We were lucky enough to be allowed passage, which is more than can be said for the other trucks halted beside us.
By the time we reached the quiet town of Potosi, I was a little Bolivian popsicle, blue toes and all. I matched the landscape, which at sunrise was various shades of pastel: blue, pink, beige sand and hills everywhere. The next day in the city was unremarkable (mostly because I spent half of it catching up on sleep and trying to regain feeling in my feet), but I was glad to be there. The calmness was welcome and the people were nothing but warm. There were a few comments made about how we’d just die if we had to live in a town like this. Where were the bars? The restaurants? The cinemas? How do you ever clean the dust off of yourself? What do people do here?
We were shut up by a trip down into the silver mines.
At a small market, I purchased a stick of dynamite and a small plastic baggy of ammonium nitrate for 20 Bolivianos (about $3 USD) at the recommendation of our guide, Claudia. It would later be a gift for a miner. We were warned that this trip into the mines, which would last about an hour, was worthwhile but extremely challenging, both physically and emotionally. Itś thought that up to eight million miners have died in these tunnels, from sickness, entrapment, collapses, fatigue, and explosions since their inception. The journey through the mines is deserving of its own separate post, which will follow this one. I hate to ruin the surprise, but the warning was very accurate.
From Potosi we traveled another six hours to Uyuni, a town that, at least according to its online presence, seems to exist only as an outpost before the Salt Flats. If Potosi is quiet, Uyuni is silent. I kept thinking about what it would be like to grow up in a town like that as I watched a small boy at our hotel, the son of an employee. He watched me back intently with dark brown almond eyes, never cracking a smile, but persistently causing quiet mischieve in his plastic Tyco car.
Early on our second day in Uyuni, we met the guide and drivers with whom we’d spend the next three days exploring the deserts. They wore cowboy hats and smiles, and tossed our luggage onto the tops of the jeeps like they were bags of marshmallows. We set off to our first stop of the journey, the train cemetary. It was an iron garden of love declarations and political statements, which made me beam.
From there, we drove several hours across barren land until the dust turned to sand and then to salt. And there it was.
We played and took pictures and laughed with our guide. I felt giddy and buzzed, both from the altitude and the trippiness of being sandwiched by a white earth and a Pixar-blue sky. None of us wanted to leave.
We stopped at an island called Incahuasi in the middle of the dry sea. Abel, our guide, told us about the sacrificial rituals that still take place here every first of August. Two llamas are given over to Pachamama (mother earth), sliced open with a knife. A shaman pulls the still-beating heart from the chest of the firs llama and eats it whole. The blood is scattered around the altar by the bowl-full. The second llama is cooked up in a feast for all attendants, and they eat and drink for days.
We slept in a hotel made entirely of salt that night. There were hot cocoas, card games, cervezas, and a tilted pool table with which to amuse ourselves, but only three hours of electricity in the evening. Once the lights went out, we used out headlamps to find our way around, our feet crunching on the salt rocks, and fumbled into our sleeping bags.
The morning found us with chalky white skin and dry mouths. We set off early for more unearthly beauty.
I enjoyed my time in the Jeep almost as much as the time spent exploring outside. Marin, the driver, and I chatted in Spanish, joking about our taste in music and asking questions about our families back home. He was the youngest of five children, I the oldest of three. We both liked Calle 13, Bruce Springsteen, and Huari beer. The talk was simple and fluid until he asked me, “how is life in the United States?” I couldn’t think of anything to say back but, “easy.” I felt unsure of my answer and how it would be received. I tried to explain further, but my sentences trailed off and I found myself again thinking about his home, these small Bolivian towns, and the jokes that we made about how boring and desolate they were. I felt embarrassed and remained quiet for a while.
The lagoons came next. Four or five lakes of warm water and algae in impossible colors, usually at the base of volcanoes, filled with hot pink flamingoes. I was speechless at the time, and nearly still am. I sat and stared at the water and the mountains so long that our guide had to call out for me to return to the Jeeps with everyone else.
The beauty just doesn’t quit in Bolivia. Around every bend, something shocked me.
Our last night was quiet, but none of us slept well for several reasons. We were 4,500 meters above sea level, an altitude uncomfortable enough to send your body into a near panic about the low levels of oxygen. A rogue driver (from another tour company) backed his Jeep into the wall of our hotel, sending some of it down with a small crash at 12:30 AM. But perhaps worst of all was the dead-serious insistence by each member of the tour group that the hotel was haunted. It was indisputable to them. Each had a story, or several, about people being touched by bodiless hands in their beds, or seeing a strange Aymara woman with gold teeth (or, in a different version, headless) wandering in the desert around the building at night. Since the hotel had no electricity after 9:00 PM and the hallways were eerily long, we all slept (or tried to sleep) with very full bladders that night.
We departed the haunted hotel at 4:30 in the morning (prime time for ghosts). We drove an hour to a cluster of geisers and watched the sun rise in temperatures of 10 degrees below zero, Celsius. Numb with cold and still tired, we shivered out way into our bathing suits and then into the hot springs. Our bodies and tongues thawed out and soon we were laughing and joking again with our guides, neck-deep in a natural hot tub.
We were very close to the border with Chile and I found myself not wanting to cross over. I thought back to La Paz and felt sorry about how much I disliked Bolivia in my first few days. I felt, and still feel, transformed by the trip.
Next: The journey continues to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina