In this journal…
flamingoes wade in lakes
an alpine fox
a damn good view
The next morning I was woken up by the lady from the agency, and I walked with her all the way to a local restaurant. I was served local hot breakfast with of course, tea made from coca leaves locally referred to as mate(mah-teh). I devoured the entire breakfast like there was no tomorrow. I walked back with her to the agency, and joined another group doing the entire thing backwards. This allowed me to see everything without wasting two days of my time doing the first part of the trip all over again, brilliant move, lady.
passing the local church, Uyuni town
As I walked past the town square, I saw a young girl selling breakfast. The smell of those empanadas made me physically unable to move. I had to buy three of them for the whopping price of 20 Bolivianos/3 dollars, and after that was I able to move past the square and continue with my life. These empanadas seem to have very strong attraction towards me.
empanada es la vida
We first ventured south past a little town called San Cristobal. Almost all tour vans stop here for refueling and food, so naturally a lot of souvenir/artesenia vendors congregated on the square. Then the journey continued down until we suddenly made a sharp left turn out of the highway and into the unknown wilds. The only things left behind us were a trail of dust, the highway, and the entire human civilization. The road meandered south, and more south, with nothing but rolling high mountains in sight.
beware of llamas? no never!
The roads became narrower and narrower. Within 2 hours, we were so far away from other humans that there was not a single trace of human activity that we could find. A lake popped into our vision, with its greenish grey color simmering under the altiplano sunlight. A small “hotel” stood beside it, and it was merely a small piece of land with a roof on top and walls on its sides. No electricity, no restaurant, and the best facility it could offer was an outhouse with functional toilets. If they can call it a hotel, I can call myself handsome!
lake on the sky
We had our lunch in front of the “hotel”, but I was in no mood of eating, despite food is probably the only thing I am willing to spend 40% of my life on. Flocks of flamingoes roamed the lake looking for their favorite algae in this mineral rich lake. One may usually associate flamingo with hot tropic ocean climate like the famous Aruba Islands, however, a lot of flamingoes actually reside on this cold, frigid side of Earth.
do you know a group of flamingo is called a flamboyance?
There are three types of flamingoes that live in this region. The one I saw here was the rarest kind called James Flamingo. The iconic yellow beak cannot be mistaken. These birds filter through algae in these mineral rich lakes. The lakes are extremely shallow, averaging less than a meter deep, making the ideal wading area for the flamingos extremely large, and that made such sheer numbers possible.
lunch time for them as well!
The group I was travelling with was also awesome. A German brother-sister pair Cathrin and Florian were amongst these lovely people. I got to talk to them a lot since we were crammed into the same row in the back. Lunch went very well as everything was made fresh early in the morning, and was definitely an improvement from the dry foods in the salt hotel in the last episode.
wading through the lake
The journey continued after lunch. The first stop came after another solid hour of journey south. It was the famous rock tree, a strange piece of rock that some guys insisted it looks like a tree. To me, it looked more like a giant caramel flavored candy floss.
The area was just filled with bizarre rock formations, as if they were some kind of alien monuments pointing into the distant stars. Right next to the rock tree was a huge pile of jagged stones, piled on top of each other. The extreme cold and wind were likely the creators of these otherworldly contours. The sand carried by 150km/hr wind on this highland pass can easily carve into rock beds, and that is why a lot of these unfortunate terrains have such incredible shapes.
Some of these rocks have tons of stone “plates” sitting on top of it precariously, as if a strong gust would bring them down tumbling. I climbed to the top of one, almost killing myself in the process. But hey, anything for a picture, right?
After another hour south, we were approaching the national reserve at the furthest southwest corner of Bolivia called Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. Before we could enter the park proper, we found ourselves in front of a large lake glowing a dangerous red hue.
the lake filled with the blood of my enemies
In fact, the lake itself supported a large number of minerals, and a specific kind of algae thrives in this kind of environment. Again, a shallow lake with algae, like the previous one, attracted thousands of flamingoes to the area. The flamingoes here were the more abundant Andean Flamingo, a close cousin to the previous James Flamingo. The tiny dots you see in the above picture are all flamingoes eating and resting.
no caption for this one
The lake is supersaturated with all kinds of minerals, and a lot of them eventually cannot dissolve in the water anymore, accumulating on the shore. The most abundant of those was borax/sodium tetraborate (Na2[B4O5(OH)4]·8H2O). This compound is a key ingredient of detergent and cosmetics, and the white portions in the lakes are all borax deposited on top of each other, forming small borax islands.
Passing another dozen mountain passes, we finally reached the entrance to the national reserve. A tiny hut stood beside a lake full of blue-green algae, and a small bike was carelessly parked in front of it. No need to lock it when you are hundreds of miles away from the outside world, right? We had to pay a foreigner entrance fee and in turn, we all got a piece of pink paper as our souvenir.
entrance to the national reserve
Right around the corner was a tiny village composed of 3 houses. One is extremely large compared to the other two, and would be the place to spend the night for everyone passing here. The other two both had “ALCOHOL” written on top of it. Even this place cannot escape the western drunkenness tourism industry. Just as we moved inside the house for the night, two white blokes around 25 from another tour group stumbled in with more beer than girls who had rejected me. For us, we just had a late dinner and talked nonstop. The other four French in our group were more excited in alcohol than the German siblings and me, despite the fact that they were almost double of our age.
selfie~! (it is common courtesy to ignore ugly Young in pictures)
We talked until late, but everyone was exhausted, and we all dozed off on our beds in the incredibly cold night. While I was still dreaming about those cute cream puffs with strawberry jelly on top, we were all woken up by the loud “morning call” of our guide: it was time to leave. It was 4 a.m., and the temperature outside my bed was -15°C/5°F. If you think waking up on a Monday morning is difficult, imagine how excruciatingly painful I had to struggle… We had our breakfast and headed out to see the sunrise on top of a volcanic spring formation. We arrived at the site just as the sun was peeking out, and the first light was mysteriously obscured by sulfur-infused steam seeping through the numerous holes on the surface.
looks nice, smells horrible
The large pits all had boiling mud inside, bubbling incessantly like it was a pot of dark grey rotten egg porridge. However, they were very warm in comparison to the freezing weather, so I was thinking about the possibility of a mud bath. The tour continued, and we ended up in another geologically active area within the hour, and it was a natural hot spring that is actually suitable for baths! However, it was clogged with other tourists that there was likely more human than water by volume. I did not really feel like today was the day to make intimate contact with 20 other human beings (it was not my bachelor party yet!), so I did not jump in even though I had been thinking about similar things for the past hour.
natural hot spring? more like human soup pot!
Florian, Cathrin and I took a walk in the floodplain of the springs, and it felt like we were walking in the pit of doom. Steam kept erupting from the ground beneath us, making it an eerie yet surreal experience.
scorched earth tactics
After the four Frenchmen finished their hot spring dip, it was time for me to say goodbye to others. Florian, Cathrin and the Frenchmen would continue to the salar, which I had already been through. I would instead join another group returning back to Uyuni. I hugged Cathrin and Florian and bid my farewell. I don’t know what is worse, having never met these wonderful people or saying goodbye to them, knowing that it might be years before you can see each other again. I should stop being emotional, as I still had a long day to go! The other group was all Spanish speakers: 3 Chilean, 3 Ecuadorian, and 1 Colombian, with a Bolivian driver Miguel. They were incredibly warm to me, and there was no better time to practice my Spanish!
the furthest corner of Bolivia
The three Chileans would get off at the border to Chile, and transfer to San Pedro de Atacama, another town that I would love to pay a visit, with its alien Atacama desert right on the side (and I later did). We arrived at the frontier, and there was nothing. A large lake, a few 6000m volcanoes, and the other cars waiting to pick them up, that was it. There was no formalities, or any other person as a matter of fact. I stood by the lake reflecting the sky’s deep blue, somehow lost myself inside in this furthest corner of Bolivia.
strange, enormous rocks dotting a smooth sandy slope
We, as in the Colombian, 3 Ecuadorians and me, began our long journey back. We talked about almost everything, completely exhausting my Spanish vocabulary. One of the Ecuadorian called Maria actually spoke excellent English, and helped me when I was really unable to express my feelings. Before I could even start asking their names, however, suddenly something showed up on the road in front of us.
an Andean fox!
Now that is a rare animal to spot. It is called a culpeo, and is the scavenger/hunter of this ecosystem. I had not seen a single moving non-human thing ever since the flamingoes, and to be honest, I had become quite tired of them because no matter how many of them I see I will never be able to flaMINGLE. (hahahahahahaha, wait, I am supposed to cry in this part) Its fluffy hair brushed against the harsh highland winds, and it slithered back and forth, examining us and evaluating our threat level.
look at the big round eyes!
It did not run, however, and just wandered around, ignored our existence after determining that we were neither food nor predator. We continued our journey back to town with loud music, crazy dance moves, and beautiful scenery. A mountain pass after another, we started to lose altitude, and vegetation started reclaiming its dominance. When grass appeared on the side of the road, llamas should not be far away. In a really fertile stretch of a riverbank, we found hundreds of them gathering around and eating their lives away. I would totally do the same if I found myself in a valley made of fries~!
llamas, llamas everywhere!
The descent continued, and we reached a very rugged area like a plateau that had been shot by thousands of giant shotguns. Every square inch of the surface here is ridiculed with “bullet holes” by water and the merciless time. We drove in through a small valley barely wide enough for a jeep, and we ended up in a ravine full of animals tucked away under the disguise of this barren wasteland. Birds, llamas and more llamas congregated by the side of the stream, and we could hear frogs chiming in the distance.
the broken canyon
Of course, for there being life, there is death. As we wandered in this truly tortured landscape, I found a small teeth fragment from a dead llama lying on the ground, and later I found more bones and remains of the unfortunate creatures. I felt like I was some kind of archaeologist, and happily demonstrated it to the horrified others.
llama teeth and bone fragments
As we climbed onto the stone walls carved by this stream, we heard a little thing scurrying away from the sun into the shaded rock cleavages. I walked closer, and the sound moved to another place. After playing hide and seek with it for almost a solid minute, finally we saw what was causing all this commotion. It was a strange animal with rabbit-like ears, chinchilla-like whisks, and monkey-like tails. Boy is it weird! I thought the coca leaves had got the better of me!
This is a rodent called vizcacha, and it is significantly cuter than anything else in the family, even its giant distant cousin I saw in the valley a few days ago after I finished my Death Road trail. These little critters were numerous here, and now I knew what to look for, I suddenly started spotting dozens of them around me, hiding in plain sight with just their near-perfect camouflage.
it seems like I am always on the road, offroad
On our way out, we saw two giant flightless birds running across the altiplano. I had a brief moment of déjà vu of my African Masai Maara days, and thought there would be ostriches in South America. After a closer inspection, though, I found out it was the rare Darwin’s rhea.
We sprinted down the dirt road towards our lunch spot, a tiny cozy village with a few households of amicable Andean natives. I had the best meal ever since I came to Bolivia, and I suspect this entire group that I was mashed into likely paid much more than what I had paid. The car itself was amazing because it had functional windows (seriously all the other 3 I had taken did not have working windows) and the only meal I had with these guys were phenomenal. I had not seen vegetables in a long while I might as well thought carrots had been extinct.
lunch lunch yum yum
The final stop after lunch was back at the town of San Cristobal. This time we had a little bit of energy after our afternoon siesta, and explored around the tiny village. The church was very unique in its style here in San Cristobal. It has two large towers that held large bells in the front. It was more of the typical churches you would see in Greece than your widespread latino ones.
San Cristobal church
We arrived back in Uyuni just past 4 in the afternoon, and we bid farewell to Miguel and others in the agency. I picked up my bags and went to a restaurant with the fellas. There was a soccer game going on between Colombia and Ecuador, making the dinner table especially tense as all guys stared at the TV as if their eyes were super-glued onto the screen. We eventually had a great dinner together, and the group gathered and talked about each one of our plans to continue our journeys.
llama steak~! (already covered in my strange food list)
For me, I had to continue south after all my Bolivian bucket list items had now been ticked off. I must continue down until I reach the final destination of Antarctica. Before that, however, I had another 5000km to cover in Argentina. I bought myself a bus ticket to the southern border town of Villazon, and I hugged Maria and others goodbye. This is undoubtedly the most otherworldly place I had ever been to, and the strange fauna and flora, along with brain-damagingly bizarre geological formations, and an unholy amount of dust that I had ingested throughout the course, all made this trip an indelible stroke of my 7 Continents Plan. If you would be so happy seeing a lettuce after a trip, that trip is likely freaking awesome.
Villazon frontier, the other side is Argentina
The bus pulled into Villazon around 4 a.m., and I walked the rest kilometer to the border. It would not open until 6, and I was the first one to stupidly stood in front of the gate in the slightly cold Andean air. I bide my time waiting to cross, and I knew it would all be worth it. In the next segment, I would cross into Argentina and venture into the famous Quebrada de Humahuaca valley, continue down this long strip of amazing territory filled with seven-colored mountain steppes, strange local festivities, and a whole load of fun! Not many people dare to enter this remote northeastern corner of this brilliant country, but I happened to be one of the more adventurous ones out there…