An egg sandwich and three hours on the road later, we finally reach the park, at the foot of mount Sajama. As soon as I exit the bus, I am ushered by an elderly lady who, having asked who had or hadn’t booked accommodation, informed me I was to sleep at her homestay. Fair enough
I have travelled the shore of Titi Kaka and entered Bolivian territories, all the way to La Paz where I stop for an overnight stay. In the morning, I take an early bus to Patacamaya, where I try to find the bus to Sajama National Park. “In front of the Capitol restaurant” -they told me. Eventually, I find the empty restaurant under renovations and browse the countless minivans parked along the sidewalks and onto the road. Happy lively mess.
An egg sandwich and three hours on the road later, we finally reach the park, at the foot of mount Sajama. As soon as I exit the bus, I am ushered by an elderly lady who, having asked who had or hadn’t booked accommodation, informed me I was to sleep at her homestay. Fair enough.
The room, with its metal door and thin window glass, promises a cold night here on the plateau. I was told the temperature usually drops to zero. The lady on the other hand, she is confident I will not be cold. She shows me the numerous layers of covers on the bed and gives me a good deal. I drop my bag and go for a walk around the desolate village. It doesn’t take long for a local to strike a conversation. We talk about the hot springs, which according to him are a half hour walk away. He doubts I can make it and back before nightfall but I have already made my calculations. I have a good two hours ahead of me!
I exit Pueblo Sajama in the middle of golden bushes and the countless Lamas/Alpacas raising a head to observe who’s passing. I can catch breathtaking views of the park, surrounded by snowy mountains and volcanoes. I haven’t been here for an hour but I already know Sajama will count amongst the most beautiful sceneries I have had a chance to see this year.
It is beautiful, and I could truly contemplate it for hours, but I have been walking for over an hour and the terms finally appear, in the distance. “No way I am going to make it today” -I think, and decide to return to the village where I start a conversation with the homestay lady, Constancia. She explains how hard a living they have in the village, and how life has not always been kind to her. She is a devout woman, and insists she has a lot of faith in God. The people of the village, she explains, either believe in Pachamama, the mother goddess of the Andes, or are Christian.
The following morning, on the advice of Constancia, I set out for an hour-and-some hike to the geysers. I know better than to give myself the ambition to walk as fast as the locals, who are used to an altitude of four-thousand and two-hundred meters above sea level. It will take what it takes.
The walk is strenuous, for even if I haven’t suffered altitude sickness, I do feel that physical efforts are more demanding. I find myself out of breath for simply walking, and I have to keep thinking: “breathe more.” When I sit down, getting up makes my head spin. And stranger yet, as I walk my body is suddenly taken over with waves of pins and needles. “Breathe, breathe.”
Eventually, I arrive at the geysers, which aliment the valley with volcanic water. The natural pools are boiling with hot water, which flows into the river and cool down before they reach the village. I enjoy the place for a while, careful not to breathe too much sulfur, and decide to head back for the hour-and-a-half walk to the village. Hey, they weren’t so far from the truth this time!
My return to the village will allow me to visit the hot springs in the afternoon. I grab the little snacks I can find in a small shop, for lack of any lunch opportunity, and set off for a hike in the blazing sun. Thirty degree over the night temperatures or more. I walk and walk, for what turns out to be another hour-and-a-half, not a half hour, and finally reach the terms where I treat myself to a well-earned rest.
On my way back, I notice something that had eluded me before, perhaps for my struggle with oxygen. Most of the bushes near the road are filled with trash. What a shame. And in a National Park no less! I think back on a stop we made with the bus, on the Bolivian shores of Titi Kaka. I read a sign that said “Please do not throw trash on the floor” and, failing to find a bin anywhere around, I wondered if Bolivia was going to be another country facing waste-related challenges.
On the way to Sajama village, I pick up the little my hands allow me to carry and discard it properly at the homestay. Constancia shares my concern. She explains that Bolivian tourists still need to adopt a better approach to discarding trash. The fault of locals, she says. I am not sure I would acquit my fellow foreigners so easily but I can see her point. So I might be right and the country struggles with its people’s behavior when it comes to trash? One thing is sure, whether she is right or wrong, at least with Constancia I do not have to feel embarrassed. It’s a welcome change.
The departure from Sajama was a real challenge. The bus left in the freezing temperatures of a cruel five-thirty in the morning, with no heating. I watched the horizon for every second until I saw my bright yellow friend arrive to warm me up. A day of travel later, by way of Patacamaya and Oruro, on roads which edges were decorated with more trash, I arrive in the crisp air of evening Uyuni. I waste no time and find a place to take refuge. Besides, I have to catch an agency before they all close and arrange a tour of the salt desert for the next day.
The next morning, I am waiting in front of the agency when a jeep pulls up. I hop on to meet four other travelers: three are from South Korea, one is from Taiwan. Off we go towards the famous Salar de Uyuni. On the edge of the desert, we stop quickly in the last village, where we will have a chance to “discover the artisanal culture.” At this point, I know to recognize a tourist factory when I see one, and I know that I will see the exact same products in every artisanal shop I have a chance to come across in the whole country, so I decide to venture further into the village instead. On the living side, where abandoned buses and trucks will one day be repaired but until then, children play around them. I talk to a woman washing laundry. Around the corner, people are preparing a barbecue. And Miguel, little boy with Bolivian hat, wanders around the village in search of playmates. I mingle for a short while and return to my more oblivious tour.
After stopping for lunch in the middle of what seems like an infinite flat of white, we drive to Isla Incahuasi. The island, made of brown rock and overtaken with cactuses, is a nice stop for a while, until we drive to our next destination: a hotel made of salt. I was told a night at this hotel might be the coldest you ever experience, but the construction is interesting to see. The bricks, made of salt, are brown. Surprisingly. Their surface is rough and they seem to be sweating. A few meters away from the hotel, we pay a visit to a monument sculpted in salt bricks as well. It is a tribute to the two-thousand sixteen Dakar rally, which crossed through Bolivia.
The day comes to an end in the part of the desert which still carries water. Under a layer of water that must not exceed five centimeters, the salt has taken the form of beautiful crystal. And when I look up, this part of the desert appears like a giant mirror. Not one jeep awaits us anymore, but two. One is upside down. “What a special view” -I think, looking around at the other cars, the people, the mountains and the horizon. An horizon which eventually holds a gift for us: the most beautiful of sunsets. Or shall I say, two sunsets. One is upside down.
Off we go towards the famous Salar de Uyuni. On the edge of the desert, we stop quickly in the last village, where we will have a chance to “discover the artisanal culture.”
The sixth most populated city in Bolivia has taken me back down to two-thousand and eight-hundred meters above sea level. As an important Spanish city during the colonial era, it has been organized in a grid. Unsurprisingly
I have battled the cold of a night bus for a good eight hours when I finally arrive in Sucre, the constitutional capital of the country. It doesn’t take long to find a place to stay: a decent hotel located right across the street from the market. I have been told of the market and its delicious chorizo sandwiches. I cannot wait to try them. As for the hotel, it gives me a first taste of the Bolivian hospitality I have been told about. The staff does not seem to know anything about the city. Or rather, I suspect they cannot be bothered trying to find any answers to my questions. But hey, I have been lucky so far. I can just explore the city on my own. Surely I will meet other nice locals along the way.
I spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the market, eating the famous chorizo sandwiches and drinking delicious fruit juices. The following day, I decide to explore more of the city but unfortunately, I learn that most of the monuments are closed on that specific day. Regardless, I will make the most of it. I walk the streets of that colonial town, which might very well be the prettiest I have had a chance to see. Later, I make my way up to the mirador, where school children on a break play around the square. I rest a little and enjoy the view over the city. I eat some fruits and eventually I walk back to the center, stopping to chat with an elderly lady selling mandarins, and ending up on the main plaza to for some coffee.
Later on, I decide to make some research and learn some of the things I couldn’t learn because of Monday-shutdown. The sixth most populated city in Bolivia has taken me back down to two-thousand and eight-hundred meters above sea level. As an important Spanish city during the colonial era, it has been organized in a grid. Unsurprisingly. Later, it was renamed after Antonio Jose de Sucre, the Venezuelan man who has led the campaign for independence in the southern part of South America, reaching his ally Simon Bolivar in Ecuador.
At this point, I am well used to sleeping on a bus, and yet I managed to miss my stop. I have been waiting a good two hours at the bus terminal, for the sun to come out and allow me to walk to the center without freezing to death, when I realize I am not in Tupiza. Where am I? Someone informs me I have missed the stop and I am in Villazon, on the border with Argentina. “I am supposed to be here,” I think, “only not today.”
I grab a minivan to Tupiza and, a little over an hour later, I reach my destination: a little town in the middle of red canyons. I do not really know what to expect of this lesser known place, but as soon as I have left my bags at a hotel run by a lovely lady, I am decided to discover more. I do not have to walk very far to be surprised. The streets of Tupiza are holding a parade, which I learn are a celebration of the Saint Santiago. The sights and sounds of parades seem to be invading every corner of the small town, people are celebrating.
I decide to walk along the main road, and reach a part of the town hidden between two red mountains. What really strikes me here is the amount of stray dogs. It would appear that at last I will experience the “Latin America crawling with stray dogs” I was told about so often. So far it has really not been so bad, but time to walk with a rock in hand.
After having explored this side of town, I walk passed a gathering at a small church, and further out of the dusty streets. I pass farming fields and make my way up to a grey hill, where I can enjoy a viewpoint over Tupiza. I take the opportunity of a break here, to end my day on a sweet note. At this point of the trip, I have stepped up my consumption of granadillas. I know that soon I will head back and there won’t be any more of this delicious cousin of the passion fruit.
The following days, I take a bus to the edge of town, in the other direction. From there, I find the little path leading into the canyons. As I walk in the strong morning sun, I can observe condors circling in the sky. I pass the Puerta del Diablo -a gap between two sharp rocks- and reach the depth of the Inca Canyon. The red canyon reminds me of some of my childhood landscapes, I suppose you’re never far from home. Here however, rocks seem to be arranged with a well-studied equilibrium.
I leave the canyon to explore more of the typical town. Everywhere, I can see women with the typical round hat, which is often worn too small for the head, but I know better than to approach them. The few that have seen me approaching with my camera were so obviously cautious and uneasy. Unsurprisingly, the seldom requests I have dared to make for a picture were turned down, more or less gently, and I quickly understood Tupiza would not be that kind of place. I will have to make sure the pictures I take do not capture anybody’s face.
As I walk in the strong morning sun, I can observe condors circling in the sky. I pass the Puerta del Diablo -a gap between two sharp rocks- and reach the depth of the Inca Canyon
I cannot claim to know much of Bolivia’s culture beyond the people I have witnessed. I have eaten their food, admired their outfits and observed them carrying babies in the famous hawayos. Sometimes they gave me a smile, sometimes not. In any case, nothing could ever been too big a price to pay for the treasures of Bolivia
On my last day in Tupiza, I stop by a pizzeria for internet and coffee. As I sip the beverage, the owner comes to sit down at the next table. He is minding his one year old and strikes a conversation with me. “How fascinating,” I think, “just when I thought Tupiza had overall been another experience of the infamous Bolivian hospitality, here comes this kind man.”
It is true that my Bolivian interactions have not all been easy. I have often failed to hear a “please," a “thank you" or a “sorry.” I have been pushed, shooed, ignored, and I definitely had to exhibit the best of my skills at competitive queueing. Just like I found India “pushes you from side to side,” I would say Bolivia can make you cringe on a few occasions. Until you meet a pizzeria owner, a lady running a hotel, a man making a joke at the back of a minivan, or whoever it will be for you, that makes it all worth the struggle.
I cannot claim to know much of Bolivia’s culture beyond the people I have witnessed. I have eaten their food, admired their outfits and observed them carrying babies in the famous hawayos. Sometimes they gave me a smile, sometimes not. In any case, nothing could ever be too big a price to pay for the treasures of Bolivia.
If there is too big a price to pay for the land of landscapes, it is Bolivians who are paying it. The country knows little rain. It is bathed with almost constant light, as if destiny had made it a point that these views were too beautiful to be overcast. But little rain means little water, and what a cruel price is that to pay for relentless blue.