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Day 40 – Pelicans of the Altiplano

November 19, 2010

Location: The Altiplano, southwest Bolivia

Date: Friday, November 19, 2010

I am not on earth. This is someplace else. Mars. Maybe a Jupiter moon. It’s the kind of place that makes you realize that there’s nothing new under the sun. That Salvador Dali was a copycat hack. That it can be both freezing cold and sweltering hot at the same time. A place where a lake bed looks like a starry night sky.

The Salar de Uyuni was supposed to be highlight of Bolivia. It was surreal. Today, I discovered that the rest of the altiplano is also surreal but with a dash of unreal, surprising, weird, unimaginable, and goddamn cold.

First hint that we were in the strange: in the midst of blistering wind and cold, we came upon Laguna Hedionda and a huge flock of flamingos. Aren’t flamingos tropical? Turns out they feast on algae and god knows what else (their own poop?).

We passed Laguna Chiar Khota with signs warning us not to walk through the borax infused water. This lake was also filled with flamingos. If borax is used to clean toilets and kill bugs and acid, how can the flamingos stomach the stuff? The altiplano is the kind of place that turns birds’ stomachs to steel.

At 4,600 m (15,000 ft) we hit the Siloli Desert, a huge expanse of red rocks that stretch out to the base of what look like painted mountains. The “road” is nothing more than slight indentations where you can see other 4×4’s have passed before. Horizon to horizon, there wasn’t another car in sight. In fact, the desert is so obscure that there’s not even a Wikipedia entry for it. Does this place even exist?

Driving up through the thin, altitude air, stopping every couple of hours to take in another sight it felt like we should be in spacesuits. Topping out at 4,600 m (15,000 ft) that oxygen tank would come in handy. If NASA decides to fake a Mars landing, they should do it here. Their opening shot would be at the rock formations surrounding the famous Arbol de Piedra (“rock tree”). How weird are the giant, wind eroded rocks and the surrounding expanse of empty land and distant mountains? Seems Salvador Dali used this area as inspiration for a number of his paintings. So there you have it. Being here is like wandering through a painting of melting clocks and severed animal heads.

Last stop: the gigantic Laguna Colorado. It was freezing and windy. That combined with the altitude made it feel like you were always walking uphill in a hurricane. After some debate, a small party of us decided to brave the elements and hike out to a hillside viewpoint.

It didn’t disappoint. The dark water is tinted red in spots because of microorganisms and algae. It’s that kind of place, where the flamingos are white and the water is pink. It’s as if the sky has flipped into the lake–the flamingos like moving, shifting stars and the crust of borax like clouds in the night sky. You’ll occasionally stumble across yareta, a plant that looks like a ball of soft, green moss but has the texture of Courtney Love’s head (thick rock). Keeping with the space theme, the walk back to our accommodations was through a field of tribbles. If you weren’t mad before, you are now for sure.

We froze our way through a dinner of spaghetti, bread, and a bottle of wine. We shivered our way back to our one room with six beds, every one of us piled under blankets, feeling the altitude in our own ways (me: a headache and dry mouth). It’s beautiful here, but it will be nice tomorrow when we return to earth. I hear they have running water there.

GALLERY: Click through to see a mess of bonus pictures including more of Mervyn acting a fool, more flamingos, and lots of colorful lakes and rocks.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2010 10:13 am


    Don’t you love it!?

    Having seen all this….even KNOWING about it, really….makes you special. So few people have even THOUGHT of Bolivia, much less the “altiplano”!

    It’s almost painful that such a wonderful and special place is so little known.

    The train trip from Oruro to Antofagasta was amazing — I couldn’t pull myself away from the window until it was too dark to see anything at all.

    Have you seen a vizcacha, yet? We saw them from the train only:

    Loving these posts!!


    • December 4, 2010 1:34 pm

      Didn’t see one. Have to admit, I was not looking. I was mostly doing things like “trying cover all my skin with two layers of clothing” and “wishing my ancestry were bred to withstand environments more rigorous than a white sand beach.”

      Love the antiplano, even if it didn’t love me back.

  2. December 4, 2010 9:10 am

    Yeah, and you got a photo of “Earl’s” train tracks! We spent a few hours there one night huddled in our sleeping bag, waiting for the train to come through, along with a Bolivian family who looked liked they would kill us, and keep our down bag, if both of us slept at the same time. (Though as I recall, Earl didn’t sleep much–was mostly squatting by the tracks every few minutes, poor guy). I absolutely loved the immensity of the altiplano. One can drive for HOURS and the mountains don’t seem to come any closer, and the colors are fabulous and change every minute. Love seeing these photos and remembering all of this after forty years. 🙂

    • December 4, 2010 1:36 pm

      It’s amazing. There are supposedly quite a few tourists out there these days and we’d still almost never see another car when we were driving around.

      It’s a strange place. I’d like to go back some day. Perhaps hire a private car and take a more leisurely trip.

      • Doug permalink
        December 5, 2010 12:46 am

        I would love to go! Let’s train for some race up there. We’d be unstoppable! If we survived.

  3. David permalink
    December 5, 2010 12:14 pm

    Awesome photos and commentary, Merv!

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