July 21, 2010 – July 23, 2010
Tupiza was a rather drab cold and dusty town. The hotel Mitru was the best stay in town. A concrete block with a redundant computer in the corner for decoration. Quite a lot of the furniture was made out of cactus wood including our bed. It looked like cheap pine with holes where the spikes of plant had been, giving it an almost swiss cheese appearance or that Alcapone had paid a visit. The food in town was okish but very samey. In one street they had 5 pizza restaurants (all the tourist food places in town), all called "Pizza Italiano" bizarrely all with the same sign,decor and menu. Edible pizza twice a day but always with a wonderful jug of freshly made lemonade which we had got addicted to. Prostatically slow internet. It took 5 to 10 minutes to change one page on the computer the kids tell me. Why Tupiza(sounds like Pizza) you might ask? We were here to start a five day trip around the the south west of Bolivia on the Chilean border. While preparations were made we hired horses for the day and ended out of town on the "5 hour tour". This is canyon country like the wild west in the U.S. of A. We were soon heading up a dry river bed with eroded red cliffs and rock formations. Lyn and I tried not to point out to the kids why it was called the "Valley of the males", luckily it had been given a spanish name. The canyon sides closed in and we had to dismount and climb into the upper reaches of the canyon. Tinitus producing silence except for the children's barking echoes. It was all very atmospherical; ancient red rock, blue skies, hot sun and the fact that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid had robbed their last bank nearby (remember the film). Over a steep sandy ridge with cowboy style cacti we ventured up a second canyon passing through a natural hole in a wall of rock laid vertical millions of years ago.The kids were getting tired now in the heat of the day so I had to go it alone when we dismounted. Silence apart from the slight echo of a few displaced rocks as I scrambled up the now dry watercourse. I needed 8 hours and Chris Rea to get through to the other side. Entering back into the outskirts of tupiza along an old railway track, we arrived into a page from a Dr Zeus book. We were surrounded by Tuffela trees. Hundreds of thin plastic bags had been blown by the winds and stuck in patterns to the leafless thorny trees. Thoughts of a worldwide ban passed my mind.
Wed 21st July We got up really early in the morning and got on a bus then on a overnight train to Tupizavwere they put a 18 on as a film! then anouther 18!! Tur 22nd July Woke up on rthe train and had breakfast on the restaurant carriage. Looking out side to the changed scenery with a wild west feal to it. Only a couple of miles away from where Butch Cassidy and the sun dance kid were killed! Gone to an internet cafe the slowest thing the world it takes 5mins to scroll down!
Fri 23rd July went out on horse back into the desert where i felt so much like a cowgirl! The cacti and the red rocksmakes it feel like your in a caowboy film. One of the horses ran away so our guide hadto chasse it with a lasso!
Lyn had booked this up months ago after reaserching what she felt the best company would be ie reliability of the 4WD. We headed off a bit late as we had insisted on a English speaking guide/driver. Lyn had asked that it would be just our family in the 4WD which could take 5 or 6 at a push. We could have been lucky with the other 1-2 persons but for 5 days 24/7 it could have gone really wrong. The guide called Milton could speak understandable English so we headed out of Tupiza in a 15 year old Toyota Landcruiser that sounded very healthy. After climbing out of the wild west tupiza country we passed through barren rolling hills and far away volcanoes. Occaional ostriches ran passed and herds of llamas muched away and stared at us . Ten miles a way was San Vincent where Butch and Sundance had their final shootout. As evening approached the llamas collect themselves in long lines passing back to unseen farms. We arrived in the dark at a small one dog village of San Antonio de Lipez at 4200 meters. No heat , no electric and very very cold. May be minus 20c outside and inside the hut of adobe (mud and straw ) and corrugated iron roof a couple of degrees less. Had a quick meal meal and tea , except harry who had still some sort of infection. ( The day before he was much worse and I pilled him full of paracetamol and ibuprofen. I got a little worried initially when he said he felt really ill and had the worst headache and his neck ached. We were in Tupiza then and miles, may be countries away from good medical care. What would I do if he developed meningitis ? I slept in the same room waking him regulary to reasure me and ply him with his timed medication. By the morning he was much better . It was probably a virus or sinusitis as he still had a green discharge form his nose after his cold 2 weeks ago .Should we go on our 5 day trip into the near wilderness? "Yes Dad . I am much better." Sorry where was I? Ah yes, a quick meal and into bed. It was freezing , and we were really glad of our sleeping bags. The man in the shop back in the UK had talked about the certain catergories of bag . Comfort at - 10c , ok at -15 and survival at -25c. Lisa's eyes had glazed over and had chosen one as it was her favourite colour. Milton poured boiling water into our metal drinking bottles and we slipped these into the bottom of our sleeping bags. We had all our clothes on, thermals and Apaca hats. Finially we pulled the hoods of the sleeping bags over our heads so only noses were cold.
Milton woke us up at 4.30am. A hot tea and we were off. Outside a familiar friend of Orion was up in the Northern sky. We were the other side of the equator now so he has been lain on his side and evan turned upside down slightly. Sirius his dog, a bit confused at being turned up side down and over his masters head. The man on the moon was up side down and at an angle and he was setting, while far in the East a faint glow of dawn. The stars in that side of the hemisphere above us gradually faded from east to west just as it did on Google World. An hour later the sun appeared lighting up the inside of the Toyota with its horizontal rays and the moon finially ducked behind the volcanoes. No wonder civilisations worshipped these natural things. Predictable and come up like magic every day. The trouble with the big 3 monotheistic religions is that forget about nature a bit, evan despise it and may be thats why "western peoples" have lost some of their respect for it. We passed through a "ghost" village high up at 4,800m built by the Spanish to mine gold and silver but abandoned after the metals ran dry. All the rivers were frozen and so one 4WD would go first at crossing and if got stuck in the ice could be towed out by the others. The drivers all loved this real boys stuff. The week before Milton had helped another driver who's Transmission and propshaft had broken somehow after gearing stuck in the ice. This had delayed the tour by 10 hours. Cold pissed off tourists. Our handle for our "low revs 4WD" was a little stiff and to engage it, the cook had to open the door, get out, and pull the lever hard, when ever we wanted to engage in this gear on any particular difficult piece of track. It felt like the "real Top-gear" as we crashed through ice and accelerated up slopes. Harry was looking much better and now mentioned climbing the volcano Uturunco. I had dismissed this out of hand the night before as he was still not feeling well and not eating. I had told Milton this. But now he was fooling arround with Lisa in the back saying "lets go for it". I crawled and sheepishly asked Lyn if their was any chance if we could climb this volcano, our only chance to go over 6,000 meters. We were about 4800m now and an old mining road went up to 5,500m and so a breathless 3 hours to over 6,000 , a cheat really but Chris Rea would not know that. Lyn and Milton said yes and we all got very excited every time the Volcano came into view. But Milton seem to delay here and there and by the time we could not find a guide needed for the climb it was too late to set off. Air of disappointment filled the Landcruiser as we silently continued with spectacular views outside. I later asked in La Paz about Harry and I climbing a 6,000 meter peak. Here it would take 3 days as the starting point would be lower. Thirty % of groups don't make it due to altitude , often individuals dragging the whole group back down due to vomiting and headache. By then we only had 1 day ...don't be greedy coppock. We stopped and had a beautiful sighted lunch . Rice and some sort of meat stew at 4,800m overlooking a heard of llamas being chased by Harry and Lisa with our volcano as a backdrop. In-between stops we often spent one to three hours which whizzed along sort of in a day dream watching the landscape zoom past. Milton would sometimes bring us out of our trance by pointing out something, a mine,famous volcano or rare animal. The deep blue sky and now volcanoes everywhere , near , in the distance , round the corner. At the early afternoon we arrived at eh Thermas de Polques. A small pool of hot mineral water bubbling out of the ground. We quickly took our smelly clothes off and jumped into the steaming water and slipped down up to our necks. it was difficult to take it all in now. The view of a frozen lake, salt flats and a steaming stream winding down and melting the ice. Here pink flamingos waded and fed. Some boiling mud and a geyser and it was dark and evan colder than the night before.
We soon found a Toyota stuck in the ice. The tourists were freezing as they has starts very early and been in the frozen river for two and a half hours. The driver was trying to break the ice with a pick axe , but it all looked pretty pointless. We knew the procedure by now and milton and another driver sprang into action. Finding a safe point to cross the river further downstream a tow wire was placed on the back of the stuck vehicle. High revs everywhere and the previously stuck 4WD shuddered then cracking and splintering ice he accelerated back out of the river out of control and into the back of the towing Toyota. For about one to two hours there were heated descussions and the long and short of it was that, the driver in the hot spot has no insurance (not uncommon in Bolvivia),he had no money, the damaged 4WD claimed the "Tour company" that had hired him for this journey would not recompneace him, so he wanted the 6 tourists in the blamed Toyota to pay instead. They understandably refused so the damaged Toyotas driver unsrewed the number plates and was about to drive off when the panicked tourists paid up so they continue their tour with 4 blauld tyres and a driver with seemingly no papers. Within ten minutes there was another Toyota with steam pouring out of the front of the 4 WD. "Frozen engine. Antifreeze is frozen " Milton told us. as he climbed back in . Souonded a bit fatal I thought as we sped off leaving a trail of fine dust behind us. It was a little like early mornings over Heathrow with the sun just coming up with dots of 4 WD speeding over this dust plain sending up "vapour trails" criss crossing the volcanic landscape. Laguna Colorada was our first port of call A pink red lake due to a certain red algae.Mostly frozen over, but the white of the salt blending in with the same colour ice. At one edge , steam puffed up from hot springs and here again pink flammingos paddled and stepped arround. Auresome backdrops of volcanos. It was impossible to take too many photos before putting the camera away and reallly enjoying the vista. Milton seemed to love and breath four wheel drives. He was proud of his and knew every squeak and rattle. He seemed to love it when someone was stuck in the ice or a new diagnostic mechanical problem meant he "had to"stop due to the "Drivers code" and spend an afternoon repairing someone elses broken down Toyota. There seemed a huge camerardary between the the drivers. Requests for an isolated lunchtime scenic spot were mainly declined by some sort of hard to fathom excuse so he could join twenty other 4 WD at the designated spot. The cook would prepare the food while Milton and the other drivers would go off to some "driver only area" and bond like the "HGV/Truckers area at a motorway service station . "How does your wife cope with you on the road so much ?" I asked him . He didn't have a wife, he replied , as he gazzed out to a stationary 4 wd out on the plain , wondering if they needed help. Lisa and Harry stayed cacooned in their sleeping bags in the back of the Toyota till midday watching the world fly by or having puppy horseplay or occasionally having to crawl out and put their boots on at a place of interest. Lyns and my feet would remain cold until 12.30. We day dreamed as the volcanos and sand zoomed past. But now , up ahead, large megalithic rocks, shaped figures on the horizon of sand. A sheet of lava had been erroded years ago by the wind leaving werried , monolithic petrified figures, across between a dessert scene from Star Wars and the" Colosus of Menmon " in accient Eygpt. I could spend a day exploring and climbing over them - but we were off again, passed a smoking volcano and moe flamingo lakes and wondering at what temperature does salt water freeze.
We had slept in a "hotel de Salt". A building made of cut blocks of salt that looked a bit like breeze blocks but had a crystalline appearance and tasted of salt if you licked them. WE were now on the edge of the "Salar de Uyuni". A great lake had once been here but had shrunk and then evaporated 20,000 yearars ago leaving salt 10 meters thick and creating the worlds largest salt flats. Accient dead corral framed the rim of the "lake" and and any islands of rock that pierced the salt. We drove out onto the salt plain in the dark of the morning to wait for the sun. Whe moon fell quickly and the faint colour of dawn arrived. The sun rises quicker at the equator and soon the golden globe sprung from the whiteness. Getting up early for "sunrise over the ..." seems something that tourists do on holiday, but this was something else. The silence of salt spreading over infinity with the glow of orange catching the mathematical corners of their hexagonical shapes. We fooled arround on the salt, as children on ice as it looked,felt and sounded as if it were. Our playful images created shadows that stretched like rubber . After half an hour of awe we realised how cold it was . Milton had driven off , arranging to meet us for breakfast on the other side of " Isla del Pescado" . Still revelling the dramatic morning we walked arround the island of rock and dead corral to find a football match on the ice (sorry salt) between the drivers and tourists all wrapped up in warm fleeces , jackets and wooly alpaca hats. It was like a modern version of a Dutch seventeenth centurary winter painting of town life on the frozen cannals. Lyn and I walked uup to the top of this island full of specular images of cacti, dead corral and salt plain stretching to the horizon. One cactus measured nine meters and at 1 cm a year thats 900 years ..whow! We now sped off over the salt to Volcan Tunupa, a classically shaped volcano climbing to 5,500m. We left Lisa with the cook and started to climb. A quick gap to visit some mummies in a cave and up and onward. We now found it ever increasing difficult to catch our breath. Lyn lagged behind mentioning things about " You go on without me" I could walk 25 paces then 10 seconds to catch my breath. We got to the crater at 5,100 meters but needed ropes and climbing equipment to continue right to the top. Eating our lunch we had views of the salt plains stretching out before us looking like ice or evan a sheet of cloud with islands or small peaks popping through. I now had a wonderful mediative walk down finding it wonderfully easy to breath . Thoughts of all the changes to my life on the way down, things that I right down that make so much sense at the time but never get done due to the usual pressures of life. We overnighted it at the base of the volcano then headed back to Uyuni. Wild mirages of upside-down islands came and went , entertaining us as we guested what shapes they would make next. I think it was about a three hour drive hurtling over the Salar de Uyuni's salt flats. No pot holes , 90 degrees bends , parked cars or general Bolivian bustle to hold us back . Harry said he would write to the organisers of the World land speed record, as we whizzed along. Milton overheard and mentioned reasons why it would not happen evan though they were the worlds largest salt flats. Such a wild , unspoilt area , I had loved the five days in the back of an old Toyota Landcruser. Hours of quiet introspective thought in between dramatic scenery and exciting mishaps. It would have been not the same in seat 31 of a luxury tourist couch on a smooth tarmac road. The thought shocked me but would probably happen sooner or later if Bolivian /US relations improved and the government organised the building of some infrastructure down here. On second thoughts may it's all safe down here.
OK, but not much alternative in Tupiza
A park bench in the main square of the wild west town of Tupiza. It's pretty breezy in the sunshine and dusty in gusts. We asked around but most of the shops, internet cafes and even restaurants seem to be closed for lunch! A lot of people were sitting at little stalls upstairs in the market eating meat stew, but we didn't fancy it so we just ate a pastry in the sunshine. I know Tupiza isn't a one-horse town because the hotel patron has told me they personally own 15! We're all feeling a bit dozy today after our overnight journey on the train from Oruro. We all huddled in our sleeping bags on the train except Harry who slept in Tshirt, jeans and the provided official train blanket. He woke in the dark to find snow on the window and his bare arm stuck fast to the glass and numb with cold. Our hotel in Tupiza has cactus furniture with shelves, bedside lamps and even chandeliers made of cactus! It looks like light wood with lots of irregular knots. Will and Lisa have bought almost identical black and white llama hats and Will now wears his constantly, even in bed! Lisa prefers to wear her earflaps tied up behind so she doesn't look like a surprized spaniel. Today we hired horses and rode for 5 hours around the countryside. They lent us thick leather squares that velcroed on to our calves to protect them from the stirrups and big stetsun hats for the sunshine. I reckon we all looked quite convincing as we rode out! My horse was piebald like a red indian's pony and his name was "Apache". We rode along a railway track out of town and into canyon country where we picked our way along dry river beds between spiky bushes and tall fingered cactus. As we got nearer to the great red rocks they towered up higher and higher in slabs. The shade was welcome between them and we left our horses at the entrance to climb further up on foot, where only a trickle of water showed us the path that a torrent will once more take the next time it rains. The climbing was too steep for me so I rested on the cool rock while my family climbed on up inside the canyon. It was so silent there alone, and then a tiny humming bird came to drink at the small stream. Sometimes the horses would trot or canter, but it was clear that the timing was more to do with their usual practice than any influence we had over them as riders. Each time we trotted Harry would whoop and try to overtake the leader, while Will would be screaming out in pain for his scrotum and trying to rein in his horse. It must have been very comical for our guide who had looked pretty dissappointed when at the beginning we had told him we were novices. On the way home we were absolutely exhausted and Lisa, Harry and I had to go to bed for several hours before our pizza supper.
We took the bus to Oruro and caught the overnight train(we had reserved the tickets by e-mail in spanish ). Shame about being a night train with no view but to my delight it had a dinning carriage on the train. I don't know why but its a real delight dinning on a train. Not sure why, may be be its eating while the world goes by, a different version of a T.V. dinner. We had four different chicken dishes and a bottle of beer served by the Bolivian version of British Rail. The whole area of Southwest Bolivia is a cold desolate wilderness on a high plateau. The reason the train is here is minerals. For centuries foreign mining companies having been paying the Bolivian government a fee to dig out copper,tin,silver,gold and now lithium. Hence the train. Most of the ex mining tracks have fallen into disrepair and privately owned bus companies have taken over needing no serious Bolivian organisation. Out side the temperature dropped as we tried not to watch two badly dubbed American B movie "soft" violent movies. By 2am Harrys arm had stuck to the ice formed on the outside window. The guard and conductor had settled in a spare chair in front of Lisa and snoring quietly not expecting any action until breakfast. Breakfast was eggs and dried biscuits. I was in heaven evan with out tomato sause and a second mug of tea, as outside the train was now twisting and turning down a steep sided valley. Tall cacti clung on to the sandy rock and what little water in the stream far below was frozen. Before I knew it I was being ushered back to my carriage as we arriving in Tupiza.