The title of this post is from the Bond film, "Quantum of Solace", which I borrowed from the well-stocked library in Stanley, after hearing some of it was set in Bolivia. Like James Bond, I knew very little about the country, so thought it would be interesting to see how it was portrayed. We've just returned from this fascinating and beautiful country......
|Licancabur, border of Chile and Bolivia|
|The Chilean-Bolivian border (the snowy ditch), with the Bolivian border post on the other side.|
|Bolivians! With bottles of water for the effects of altitude.|
Within minutes we were on our way, and spotting herds of vicuna loping across the plain. Vicuna are valued for their fine wool, and are related to the Llama, guanaco and alpaca. These camelids live at different levels in the mountains, each adapted to the different eco-systems that the altitude and tiny rainfall confer.
But apart from the odd vicuna, we saw very few signs of life that day.
The "road" was simply one of many parallel tracks ploughing across the gravel of the Altiplano. Whereas, on the Chilean side of the Andes, we climbed from about 9,000 feet to 13,000 in less than 30 minutes, it was going to take us 3 days of gradual descent to get back down to that height, as we crossed this vast plateau.
|Salty lagoons of various colours - green, white and red...|
The mountains and salt plans are very rich in minerals. Chile has a copper mine that has about 30% of the world's supply. There were salt flats we would pass which contained about 40% of the world's Lithium - a vital component in high-tech industry. Much of it is exported to China.
|Colourful mineral-rich mountains|
|Fast ore truck.|
|The gravel road ahead|
|Being overtaken on the Altiplano......|
|The Altiplano is about 5 miles wide here, so lane discipline is not that crucial.|
After a couple of hours driving in straight line, we came upon the very remote outpost of Polques - a roadside restaurant for the truckers and tourists, a toilet, and a thermal pool. What more could you want in a lunch-stop?
|Thermal pool at 4,500 metres.|
|Not a place to loiter|
Within an hour, we descended another 1,000 metres, and caught sight of the famous Colorado Lagoon, coloured deep red, as the name suggests. (My Spanish was slowly improving!).
|Laguna Colorado - Red Lagoon|
|Pink flamingoes in the Red Lagoon|
After about another 4 hours of driving, we arrived at our stop for the night - the isolated hamlet of Villa Mar.
|Grapefruit juice, Orange juice, or Oxygen for breakfast at 4km asl!|
The hotel had only recently been built - offering a stopping place for visitors, and also earning some cash for the locals, who were mainly subsistence farmers. Its name meant "Cave of the Condor" in English, and it had a couple of unusual bedrooms built in to a natural rockface. In an attempt to take the chill off the room, however, the bottled gas heaters had caused a bit of condensation, so we had to move to a more conventional room, and leave the cave to the Condors.
|The rabbit-like Viscacha, enjoying the morning sun.|
We dined on traditional spicy quinoa soup, and stewed llama with pureed potatoes. In this region, llama are the equivalent of sheep or cattle in most countries - ubiquitous, and used for food and clothing, plus a pack animal. Quinoa was enjoying a surge in export demand, and farmers were being encouraged to plant more of it. As we descended the Altiplano, we saw more and more fields cleared of rocks and planted with the nutritious crop - one of the few to grow at this altitude.
|Bolivian icons - Volcano and llamas|
The next morning, we awoke just in time to see the sun appear over the mountains. In fact, despite it always being overcast in Chile during our visit, we were not to see another cloud for the next fortnight while in Bolivia! However, the stream outside had frozen overnight, reminding us of the altitude.
After some "huevos revueltos" (scrambled eggs - although the waitress may have understood my mime more easily than my Spanish...), we headed down the road again. Our destination that night was to be on the edge of a huge salt flat. But first, some more Altiplano scenery, more lagoons, and many more flamingos!
|Near the Hotel de Flamencos!|
|Jame's Flamingo - one of 3 species here.|
We also saw Andean and Chilean flamingos, which have different coloured legs, making it a bit easier to identify them!
Our driver, Ricardo, claimed to have driven in this area about 200 times, over 10 years. But this was the first time he'd seen flamingos in this particular lagoon. We were lucky. We had only diverted here to use the toilets at the Hotel de Flamencos, another very remote outpost.
|The Chile-Bolivia main line. No manned level crossings here!|
After looking both ways to make sure no trains were coming, we drove alongside the railway for about 15 miles, across what we thought was a big salt flat. But we were to discover it was the size of an olive compared to the pizza-sized salt flat we would see tomorrow! We were staying at another San Pedro - San Pedro de Quemez (St Peter the "Burned", so-called after the village was torched by marauding Chileans. Neighbours, eh?!).
|Identity tags for the llama|
|"For sale. One careful owner. Low mileage"|
|Petrified Cacti, Salar de Uyuni|
|About half the size of Wales. Visible from space.|
|Looking for the toilets...|
|The oldest and biggest cacti, about 900 years old.|
The local Aymara Indians (here long before the Spanish and the Incas arrived) have a legend which describes how the salt flat was created. All the characters are famous volcanoes in Bolivia. One volcano which dominates the Salar - Tunupa - took the form of a beautiful princess. Two gods / mountains fought over her, and after their armies reached stalemate, they engaged in single combat. The Great god, Illyama (a mountain that dominates La Paz), intervened and separated them; they shook hands, then Huayna stabbed Saraja in the back as he turned away. As he lay dying, Saraja swung his sling and fired his sharpest rock at Huayna. The rock hit so hard, it decapitated him. Miraculously, Sajara survived, and Tunupa had his baby. However, the child died at a few weeks old. Tunupa was grief-stricken, and her breast milk flowed unchecked - creating the vast white lake of Salar de Tunupa or Uyuni. (c. 4,000 square miles - slightly smaller than the Falkland Islands.)
|Most bikers travel in convoy to avoid getting lost|
|A salt crystal|
|A local bus takes a shortcut across the flats|
|Hexagonal patterns emerge, as the moisture evaporates..|
|Salt is collected by hand, then packed and distributed by local co-operatives.|
|Salt Hotel - table, chairs, floor, walls - all made of salt. Don't spill your soup here!|
|Bedside table and walls - all made of salt.|
We've stayed at an Ice Hotel in Sweden, and this was almost as cold: just above freezing. Although the beds had electric blankets, we were now getting used to "dressing for dinner" - putting on some more layers!
|Where steam trains come to die - Uyuni|
|Nice to see some well-travelled Manchester United fans have been here....|
We had now crossed the massive salt flats - Salar de Uyuni - and were heading east. We would find more old trains, including one attacked by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; and one of the world's biggest silver mines. Not to mention, the remains of ancient civilisations and cities, the exploration of which left us breathless!