Bolivia's Southwest, December 2-5

The Bolivia excursion was fantastic. Everyone in the family agrees it was the highlight of our time in South America so far. We spent 3½ days traveling by 4-wheel-drive among stunning sights. Our driver and vehicle were excellent, the organization was smooth, we had good food, acceptable accommodations, and the weather cooperated. We met a bunch of nice people and the total cost was very modest. Who could ask for more? Details follow.

It's remarkable just how many different things we saw in such a short time. Normally we're not fans of spending our days driving from one stop to another, but in this case it was impossible to complain -- each place was so impressive. There's really no other way to see the area, anyway. Except for a few masochistic bicyclists, everyone visits on a tour like ours.

We spent the entire trip in the Altiplano, literally "high plain," traveling from12,000' elevation to above 16,000'.
Photos 1-5 give an idea of the captivating scenery. Volcanoes loomed on the horizon at all times, mostly inactive although one was smoking. The desert was dotted with numerous lagoons, each with a distinctive color varying from white to green to purple. Most lagoons boasted a large population of high-altitude flamingos -- three different species -- along with a variety of other aquatic birds. Vicuñas and llamas were sighted frequently throughout the trip.

Our favorite stop on the first day was a large area of geysers, bubbling mud pits, and other geothermal features. We've visited similar areas elsewhere in the world, but this one seemed extra-special, perhaps because we were able to walk right in amongst the activity with few other people around
(photo 6) -- or maybe it was just the mind-altering altitude. Other stops included a number of unusual rock formations (e.g., photo 7), swim-able hot springs (not that we actually swam), and a few small villages.

The zenith of the trip, without a doubt, was the half-day we spent driving across the famous Salar de Uyuni. It's a little hard to explain how 10,000 square kilometers of salt (roughly one-third the size of Belgium) can be so captivating. A portion of the salt flats was covered with a thin layer of water, creating an incredibly smooth and reflective lake that one simply drives right through (photos 8 and 9). Those areas without water were an endless assembly of shining white geometric crystal blocks (photo 10). Either way the vista stretches forever, or at least up to the mountains and volcanoes in the far distance. Once again, photos can't capture this truly remarkable place.

We entered the salt flats before sunrise, stopped at an "island" for a short hike, breakfast, and an impromptu soccer game (photo 11) that grew from Tim and Emily borrowing a ball to kick around, then we continued across to the salt-mining town of Uyuni. On the edge of the flats, salt souvenirs, sculptures, furniture, and buildings are prevalent -- we even stayed in a small hotel in which nearly everything, from the floors and walls to the bed-frames (though thankfully not the toilets), was made from salt. It's a bit gimmicky considering that the major draw is the pure beauty of the flats, but we still enjoyed the novelty.

On the other two nights, we stayed in the only accommodations in the area: very basic dorm rooms (though we got our own), with beds on a cement floor and not much to speak of in terms of water and electricity. We'd been forewarned, so we weren't expecting much, and the places were sufficiently clean and comfortable. Our food, provided by the tour company
(Estrella del Sur, highly recommended), was unexceptional but certainly good enough, nicely served, and most important clean and well-prepared -- something one can't necessarily count on in Bolivia. The bottle of Bolivian wine that appeared on our table each evening was welcome and surprisingly good.

In the previous travelog, we mentioned the brand-new regulations concerning U.S. citizens entering Bolivia. (Note we can't call ourselves "Americans." For starters, everyone who lives here is American.) Everything worked out as we'd hoped: We were granted an exception because our round-trip tour guaranteed we'd be in Bolivia for just a few days, and more importantly our tour company seems to be well-versed in matters of the border; they negotiated a modest fee for our entry while we waited quietly outside. It certainly was a relief when that aspect of the trip was taken care of. Whether U.S citizens can continue to enter in this fashion is yet to be seen -- we were the pioneers.

Our "tour group" consisted of three SUVs traveling loosely together. We had one to ourselves, and there were a total of 11 tourists in the other two, hailing from Germany, Australia, Korea, Norway, and Brazil. It was a perfect combination of private and group experience: We moved at our own pace, but we also got to know some interesting people during meals and other "down" time. (Emily in particular has shown a very strong interest recently in chatting with people outside of our family. The rest of us are trying not be insulted.) Many of the people we've been meeting lately are traveling long-term -- perhaps it's the time of year, or how off-the-beaten-track we are now. On the Bolivia tour, nobody was traveling for less than a month, the average was several months, and the longest a whopping three years. The fact that we're traveling with children is unique, but the length of our trip doesn't seem to be.

As anticipated from the information we'd gleaned in advance, a great deal of our experience was in the hands of our driver, guide, and immigration facilitator, Carlos (photo 12). Carlos has done this trip literally hundreds of times and his experience shows -- in his driving skills, interpersonal skills, and general knowledge of the area. Although Carlos spoke no English, he made a point of talking slowly and clearly. Alex rode in front and had a field day practicing his Spanish. We were also fortunate that Carlos appeared to be the head guide, and he certainly drove the best vehicle. Our relatively new, modified Toyota Landcruiser (also seen in photo 12) handled the variety of rough terrain extraordinarily well. We were quite comfortable most of the time, even though Carlos often drove at highway speeds -- that's without a highway, in fact without an inch of pavement the entire trip, and occasionally no dirt road or track at all.

Our previous travelog suggested that traveler experiences on Bolivia tours are "uneven," to put it nicely. Even in our little convoy the variability was clear. Three tourists in one of the vehicles suffered significant altitude problems for much of the trip (including a variety of rather unpleasant digestive issues), necessitating late starts and numerous stops for everyone in that group. Adding insult to injury, their aging vehicle had several failures. During one of the breakdowns -- in the middle of the salt flats -- the uncommunicative driver appropriated everyone's personal water bottles for the radiator, then added a liter of Coke for good measure. Upon hearing their stories each evening, we thanked our lucky stars for Carlos and our sturdy Landcruiser. That's not to say the trip was easy even for us -- the kids in particular are to be commended for how chipper they remained throughout this fairly rigorous adventure.

Next: Back in Chile and back in the camper, we'll start to make our way south. It's a narrow country, so there won't be many route decisions to contend with.

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