Weak and watery

Uyuni, Bolivia

We’ve reached Bolivia – have a feeling things are going to get a lot more disorganised from here on in.

For reasons not worth discussing (but revolving around the distinct lack of traffic on many of the roads round here) we have crossed international borders 4 times in the last 2 weeks, jumping back and forwards between the rainy eastern side of the Andes and the dry west.

In the temperate south, weather comes from the west, and the Chilean fjords get a soaking while the Andes rain shadow leaves Patagonia parched. In the tropical north everything is reversed and the eastern Pampas gets all the rain while the Atacama gets precisely none.

We began in Jujuy, Argentina on the edge of the Pampas. Jujuy is difficult to pronounce for an English speaker. Try saying ‘Huhuj’ but rasping both the ‘h’s and lisping the ‘j’ and you’ll be some way there. It’s where Argentina abruptly changes from the European south to the Andean north. From here on you begin to see women in bowler hats. It is incredibly difficult to reconcile this Argentina with the one we have become familiar with.

Three days lazing in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile was ample opportunity to explore the incredible wastes of brown sand that are the result. You may question our sanity for travelling from Patagonia (southeast, desert) to Atacama (northwest, desert) but it seemed like fun at the time. The contrast between Chile’s south and north is even more extreme than Argentina’s. I’ll be honest – after over a month there I still don’t really have any feel for what ‘Chile’ really means.

Since then, we’ve come back over the Andes to Bolivia. In the process we ploughed through one of the world’s weirdest sets of landscapes. First there were geysers at over 4000m above sea level, then a series of bizarrely coloured soda lakes. The best of these, ‘Laguna colorado’, is so chocka with flamingo food that the water itself is bright pink. And it’s surrounded by huge hills of white borax (so popular at advertising agency Christmas parties).

Just up from there is a place called ‘sol de manana’ (what a great name) where the volcanic activity is really intense – steaming and smoking and mud pools in every imaginable shade.

For the piece de resistance we entered the Bolivian Altiplano and crossed the Salar de Uyuni – 12000sqkm of salt flat (that’s a third as big as Belgium apparently, but then everything in South America can be measured in multiples of Belgium). It’s a landscape of pure white, the final remnants of a long dried sea, quite extraordinary.

The Bolivian Altiplano has 2 seasons: winter is cold and summer is wet. I pointed out to someone I met that this doesn’t make a very appealing climate, but they pointed out that it only differs from the UK in that English winters are both cold and wet – which is a fair point. Anyway, at the moment it’s wet.

This means the salt flats are a few centimetres under water, and the water-salt combination creates a perfect mirror. The horizon simply disappears. We had the bizarre sensation of driving through space. It’s the kind of place that keeps Kodak in business.

So now we’re in Bolivia. This afternoon it is warm, sunny and rather gorgeous.

Last week, (in amongst the transport convolutions) we went horseriding in the region of Bolivia where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are alleged to have died. It was beautiful – cactuses like the ones in Wily Coyote cartoons and bright red canyons. I learnt to gallop. The next lesson is how to gallop without getting such a sore backside!

In the afternoon as we rode for home it began to rain. Soon the streets were about a foot deep in water – flowing in torrents. Dismounting our horses became a major hazard.

High Bolivia only gets 300mm of rain each year – the problem is not quantity but the complete absence of drains. It says a lot about the difference between Chile and Bolivia that San Pedro de Atacama (no rain, remember) has drains and Bolivian towns don’t.

In the process we’ve spent a lot of time over 4000m above the sea. At the highest we reached 4915m, and we have slept at 4600m. Marisa and I both escaped any serious altitude sickness – and having watched others be less fortunate, I’m mighty glad.

But doing any exercise at this height is enough to make you instantly exhausted. Sounds like a perfect excuse to sit around and drink beer, which, once I’ve had a shower to wash the salt from me, is exactly what I intend to do next.

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