Bolivia the Beautiful

Words and photographs by Kate McAuley.

Frozen fingers. Lonely flamingoes. Tufty scrubland. A dome of blue sky. Pastel lakes. Slow trains with white tablecloths and real china. Cheap beer. Hand-knitted alpaca wool socks. Salty pentagonals. And a light case of high altitude pulmonary oedema. These are just a handful of memories of Bolivia in late May.

I crossed the border on foot – from La Quiaca (Argentina) to Villazon (Bolivia) – and jumped on a leisurely train to Tupiza. From there, along with a guide called Elvis and an evangelical traveller preaching a new religion, we drove into the mountains.

For four days we travelled across stark plains and Martian desert scapes. We climbed high and gazed at geysers and braved the biting wind to paddle in geothermal pools. At night, while the the King of Rock practiced walking on his hands, my travelling companion did his best to convince me that God exists simply because so many people believe in her. In bed, with the temperatures plummeting to -10ºC, I tried (and failed) to keep warm under a pile of slippery sleeping bags.

In spite of their beauty and vast horizons, Bolivia’s Andean Highlands are sparsely populated – by humans and animals alike. A few small towns exist here and there – the locals who brave the weather are mostly employed to serve tourists or to farm. Infrastructure is minimal: hot showers are synonymous with luxury, WiFi is practically non-existent, and it’s lights out at 10pm. But what need did I have for these extraneous things in an environment where every twist and turn brought some new marvel to keep my curiosity, and cravings for my creature comforts, at bay?

The annual flamingo migration was coming to an end, so it was only a lazy few that we saw wading ankle deep through the many lakes we passed, scooping up algae with their hooked beaks while pondering where their hundreds of thousands of friends had gone. The only other animals we saw were the ubiquitous alpacas, replete with ear streamers and expressions of complete indifference.

After three nights spent at air-gulping altitudes, we got got up before sunset and dropped down onto the vast plateau of the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat. In all honesty, I thought this would be somewhat of an anti-climax, but as the sun rose and the crackly pentagonals began to appear, my wonder grew. Stark white in all directions, our colourful clothes, even my pale skin, in full contrast. If you ever want to feel both small and inconsequential, but so utterly connected to our earth, this is the place to visit.

Kate joined the basic four-day Tupiza-Uyuni tour with La Torre Tours.

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