Bolivia seems to have many records, for better or for worse.
It is the poorest country in South America, boasts the highest city in the world (Potosi), the largest salt desert in the world, the highest navigable lake on earth (Titicaca), place that is also considered the "navel of the world" and the colder climate all year round in the Latin Continent.
In this country during the winter nights temperatures easily reach -20 degrees, the average altitude is 4000 meters, to withstand low temperatures and altitude sucking coca leaves mixed with bicarbonate, in order to make the taste more sweet, helps, women tie theis hair in long braids and wear a bowler hat type, wide skirts and on their shoulders they alway wear "las mantas" used as a kind of bags to be filled with things or children.
Pearl nestled between Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Chile where there are no amenities but rural life and nature gives its best show in many forms.
A must for those traveling in Bolivia is the tour of the Salar and the lagoons, a path that goes from the southwest of the country to the border with Chile.
Cheapest tours start from Uyuni (about 700 bolivianos for a 3-day tour in 2012), the destination is easy to reach if you come from San Pedro Atacama (Chile) or from La Paz, alternatively for those arriving from Argentina the best choice is to cross the border La Quiaca-Villazon and then go to to Tupiza by bus.
The tour from Tupiza are more expensive than the ones starting from Uyuni and require at least 4 days and 3 nights. It is also true that agencies in this area are renowned for a very good organization and care of the tourist.
The tour we chose was an alternative tour that costs a few hundred bolivianos more than other offered but does not follow the tourist route by diverting the third day to the Laguna negra.
We have paid: 1,250 bolivianos (143 euro) per person (for a car with 5 people)
The price includes the rental of the sleeping bag (necessary, given the night temperatures) for a 4-day tour in 4x4, with driver (Ilario) and cook (Modesta), hotels.
The tour from Tupiza took to Uyuni and here is how it went.
The departure from Tupiza is fixed at 8 am. Once loaded into Jeap our backpacks we begin the trip and we slowly get into theBolivian desert. The scene is reminiscent of the first day in the north of Argentina.
High rocks filed by wind and precipitation less, canyons and "pueblitos" (little villages) where it seems not living anyone anymore since long time.
We cross gold mines, still active where some enterprise is working, fields in which the blade with colored plumes graze peacefully, we pass to the Pueblo invisble an ancient inhabited city inhabited Spanish colonizers and where now there are only ruins.
We reach the height of 4500 meters above sea level. To not falling asleep we all had to chew coca leaves, even none of us really like that bitter taste.
We then enter into the National Park (150 bolivianos cost not included in the tour cost). The park is so large that it takes a whole day to get out.
Here are the fantastic colorful ponds where despite the freezing water dozens of pink flamingos wander undisturbed.
After spending the first night in a small Pueblito within the national park the next day we wake up at 7 am. After a hearty breakfast made of bread, dulce de leche, jam, mate of coca and coffee at 8 we are back in the car to continue our trip.
This time the scenario becomes incredibly varied. We pass several lagoons that for the cold these days are frozen. So the streets!
We arrive at the hotspring. The surrounding volcanoes in fact produce hot water where I don't think twice to get into. I was freezing and after wearing the bikini I entered into the hot pool surrounded by snow.
Outside there are -10 and into the pool about 35. A kind of warm mirage in a cold desert!
Back in the car and the drive take us through the desert Dali (called like this because the scenario is reminiscent of some of Salvador Dali's works, despite his never came).
We get to the green lagoon. Unfortunately because the frost and the lack of wind the lagoon isn't green, but the show is still amazing . The mountains are reflected in the water and, while Modesta prepares lunch, we start playing with snowballs try to take pictures that require physical effort. We are almost frozen!
After eating a lot great food as Modesta was able to do breakfast, lunch and dinner, we get to another "warm" place: the geysers.
We reached the 5000 meters a.s.l.
And the landscape changes again. From the yellow desert, everything becomes white and there is only snow around us.
We are ready to get down a of few hundred meters to get to the spectacular Laguna Colorada.
The water is red due to the high number of algae and above all there are hundreds of flamingos walk undisturbed.
Besides us there is none, we stay about 30 minutes, the grandeur and purity of the mountains overlooking this lagoon have something mystical.
We reach the refuge where we will spend the night.
We reach Valle del Mar, a small village just outside the National Park. Despite the cold, and the wrong clothes I am wearing, I like spend some time looking at the starry sky. I'm in the middle of nowhere, at more than 4000 meters above the sea level. I am here, where the sky is always blue, not even the clouds can get so high, where the sun warm shyly during the day and the night freezes and force to sleep with clothes on.
During my tour of patrol I met a few people in the street.
People in Bolivia are shy, don't talk much and sometimes seem to be disturbed by my presence.
Yet these small figures walk the streets dragging their burdens on their backs. Women wear wool tights, large tiered skirts sometimes laced, 2 or 3 sweaters, keeping their hair collected in long braids wearing an hat that looks like a bowler.
Sometimes they have a blanket around their waist.
Children are toothless and covered from the head to the toe, have the skin of the face and hands marked by cold. Only 10 minutes without gloves and I realize I had the same skin too.
The third day is what brings us to the doors of the Salar .
Before getting there, we have crossed deserts with rocks worn down by the wind, and Ilario asked us to interpret the figures. We climbed mountains till a point where we have reached a delightful hidden lagoon and then, here it is: Negro lagoon where the water is black because of the dark seaweed.
In front of us the salar and a salty hotel! Tables, walls, chandeliers, bed bases, everything is made of salt. How exciting!
It's our last night together and I like the idea of celebrating our adventure in this 12,000 square kilometers salar, one of the most unique places I have been to.
Rise early to see the sun rise. It is very cold but the show is worth the early wake up.
4 days have passes, I shared more than 72 hours with 6 other people, I discovered this corner of Bolivia that itself would be a good reason to decide to fly here right now. I feel I'd love to have more time to dedicate to this country. Cold included.