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Day 41 – The Altiplano Brings the Cousin of Death (Leaving Bolivia)

November 20, 2010

Location: Southwest Altiplano, Bolivia and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Date: Saturday, November 20, 2010

Last night, a man tending a local store was screaming at someone in La Paz over a crackling radio that the town had run out of coca leaves. “La Paz! La Paz! Necesitamos coca. No tenemos nada! La Paz! La Paz!” The edges of his mouth were stained with a green crust of his last wad of chew. We had a good laugh about his coca craze.

This morning I feel for the man. I think Bolivia’s altiplano is trying to kill me. It is at least succeeding at making me miserable. Between the deep freeze, blasting winds, blazing sun, toxic lakes, and barren land, this is the most punishing place I’ve ever been. Mr. Coca Crazy has it right. A couple weeks here and I’d be desperate for any plant, animal, or additive that took the edge off.

Everyone’s wiped out. For one thing, we were up at 4 a.m. so that the 4×4 could make the seven hour drive back to Uyuni in time for the night bus back to La Paz. For another, we’d all spent a freezing night at 14,000 feet (4,400 m). Crawling out of bed into predawn air with a pounding altitude headache is the opposite of raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens. On the other hand it does make you appreciate warm woolen mittens.

As if we weren’t high enough, our first stop was a set of geysers and thermal vents at what the guide says is 5,500 m (18,000 ft). The altiplano blasts us with sulfuric steam from giant cracks in the ground. It’s still freezing, though. The driver gave us twenty minutes to take pictures. The altiplano got the best of us and we only took ten.

The next stop was supposed to be a set of hot springs. (Was the altiplano trying to boil us alive?) It’s fantastic, in theory: soak your cold and altitude ailments away in nature’s hot tub. In reality, it was cold. Very cold. Getting into the water might be nice, but what about getting back out into the cold?

Everyone in the water seemed to be of Nordic or Germanic descent. The exceptions were two Japanese guys. In other words, everyone in the water was either bred for harsh winters or for whom self preservation was culturally questionable (one word: kamikaze). Me, well I can’t stand anything chillier than a light breeze on a white sand beach. My people are a tropical people. I can get hypothermia holding a glass of ice water.

In fact, the only two of our party who braved the waters were the two Danish girls. The Irish couple, the Canadian, and my equatorially inclined self stood around with the Bolivian drivers and watched the madness of the crowd.

When the Danes emerged, they raved about the relaxing waters. Their frozen hair told a different story.

The final stop–the emerald Laguna Verde–was the most punishing of all. We had to fight to get the Land Cruiser’s doors open against the wind. Exhausted, cold, sleepy, and feeling the altitude we lasted all of five minutes. Two of my mine were spent hiking down a ridge out of sight of our vehicle so I could pee with (not into) the gale force winds. Every man took their turn.

My head was pounding. My fingers were freezing. Our breakfast of rubbery pancakes and mate tea did nothing to give us energy. As we raced over the bumpy road to our drop off for the Chilean border, we all passed out. The altiplano might not kill us, but it was doing a good job putting us to sleep (which Nas knows is the cousin of death).

At a lonely building by the next laguna, we said goodbye to the two Danish girls who were headed back with our driver to Uyuni. The rest of us clambered onto a bus with a 25 person French tour group to cross the Chilean border to San Pedro de Atacama.

As the bus descended to an altitude of 2,400 m (7,900 ft), we again passed out from exhaustion. We slipped across the Chilean border and left the altiplano. Miles into Chilean country, the border checkpoint in San Pedro de Atacama was warm. The air was thick. My skull no longer felt like the head of a snare drum. Standing in warm sunshine (warm for the first time in three days) was like being reborn.

The altiplano was like a fling with a crazy, hot girl—beautiful, loads of fun, but stick around too long and you too will go insane in the membrane. Two weeks on altiplano otherworld and I’d be stuffing coca leaves in every orifice and screaming into static that La Paz better send a tropical beach otherwise expect a reenactment of The Shining. “La Paz! La Paz! La Paaaaz!!

Throw a pair of flip flops on this Flip. Put some white sand between these toes. Pull up a warm ocean and a palm tree or three. Find me a drink with an umbrella and a beach with some women wearing less than they should.

Or just give me a place where I can breathe and where the wind doesn’t try to cut me in half.

Guess Chile will have to do.

GALLERY: No bonus pics today. Too cold to take more than the bare minimum.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2010 9:20 am

    “The altiplano was like a fling with a crazy, hot girl—beautiful, loads of fun, but stick around too long and you too will go insane in the membrane. Two weeks on altiplano otherworld and I’d be stuffing coca leaves in every orifice…”

    Hehehe…… Great description!

    Don’t leave with the impression that the altiplano *is* Bolivia……before forming your impression of *Bolivia*, you have to go back and spend a week in the Cochabamba valley. Go out to our school just up the road from Vinto and visit Patino’s mansion, climb Mt. Tunari, and enjoy the open market on Wednesday.

    We never got to Sucre, but its reputation is of a colonial city, still….. Tarija is also said to be fabulous.

    Then go down to Santa Cruz, and on into Amazonas – Trinidad for sure.

    Bolivia is an incredibly diverse country – worth more of your time.

    • December 6, 2010 9:41 am

      Yeah. Saw pictures from fellow travelers of the jungles of Bolivia. Lots of great wildlife, apparently.

      Once again, I’ve learned that there’s just not enough time in this world to see everything I want to see. I definitely have to spend more time in South America. All the benefits of going overseas but without the crippling jet lag you get from going to Europe or Asia.

  2. December 6, 2010 8:45 pm

    Besides the ring on my finger and my well-deserved respect for (read: fear of) my wife, there is very little that would keep me out of a hot spring with two unaccompanied danish women. you bring shame on your sex.

    • December 13, 2010 2:48 pm

      I will add this shame to the time I chose wrestle a bear because I might break a nail and the time I didn’t join two Playboy bunnies for ice cream because it has lactose.

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