In Bolivia, both the landscapes and the locals know how to put on a good show. Travel off-beat and off-season for the finest performance, says Gemma Bowes
"You know how to tell the difference between a llama and an alpaca?” our guide Javier asked with a grin. “Llamas have dreadlocks, like Bob Marley, but alpacas have afros, like a young Michael Jackson.”
It was a useful detail for our afternoon hike across the high-altitude plain, where springy moss, peaty streams and porcupine-shaped bushes were ringed by the snowcapped Southern Altiplano volcanoes. Small herds of brown, black and pure-white llamas and alpacas frequently scampered by; the babies tucking their wobbly walking-stick limbs behind their mothers as we passed.
Though the landscape was almost flat, we huffed and puffed like 40-a-day asthmatics, our half-empty daypacks weighing heavily on our shoulders. Even here on the lower terrain of Sajama – Bolivia’s first national park, which abuts the Chilean border – the altitude exceeded 4,000m. My friend Anna and I were still feeling the effects despite having spent two weeks adjusting – even the country’s commercial capital, La Paz, sits at 3,660m.
The sunlight was just beginning to dwindle as we turned heel on a spot of no particular importance to head back towards Sajama village. As we did, we were faced once more with the isolated cone of snowy Volcán Sajama at 6,542m, the region’s colossal mountain overlord and Bolivia’s highest peak. In a landscape of extreme beauty, the extinct stratovolcano that gave this 800 sq km park its name stood out a perfect pyramid – a physical come-on to climbers and conquerers.
Plenty of mountaineers do come to tackle the crevasse-riddled monster; La Paz agencies offer organised two- or three-day ascents. In 2001, the highest football match in history was played on top, between Sajama locals and Bolivian mountain guides.
But I was happy to just wander around the flanks instead, to flirt with eyelash-fluttering llamas, to hike to the steamy geyser field of bubbling yellow-red potholes, to amble through knee-high dwarf queñua trees (the world’s highest ‘forest’) and swim down tea-hot channels of dark spring water.
Incredible landscapes are what draw most travellers to Bolivia. The nation is blessed: from the Andean mountains near Chile to the Cordilleras Real and Apolobamba near Peru, the canyons around Tupiza (former haunt of Butch and Sundance), the low-lying tropical Amazon and the dazzling salt flats at Uyuni, all are examples of the earth’s finest work.
Our plan was to spend three weeks exploring some of this Bolivian wilderness, visiting its lesser-known reaches – such as Sajama – as well as seeing a different side to its bigger sites. Most people visit during the winter dry season, when travel is easier, but we wanted to see the famed Salar de Uyuni salt flats during the wet.
Today, however, it wasn’t just Mother Nature putting on a performance. We were visiting in February – Carnival time – and every place we went to was preparing for, throwing or recovering from a party.
A few days before reaching Sajama we’d witnessed the crazed spectacle of Oruro Carnival, a Rio-style procession of folk-costumed dancers, drummers and staggeringly drunk marching bands who perform for several sleepless days in the otherwise sleepy mining town. However, we wanted to see how tiny rural villages celebrated too.
On the long 4WD journey from La Paz with our guide, Javier, we had stopped off in the village of Curahuara de Carangas, just missing the annual llama sacrifice, but in time to see the traditional cha’lla. During this ceremony, homes and workplaces are blessed, and sprinkled with blood and alcohol; firecrackers are set off and special sayings are spoken to give thanks to Pachamama, goddess of the earth.
In the walled grounds of the mayor’s home, dozens of women prepared mounds of spuds and vegetables, tossing them into bath-sized tubs to later feed the whole village at the annual feast. We were proudly shown inside a shed piled with 15 llama carcasses, 12 slaughtered lambs and vats of blood and organs. We were then invited to follow the mayor and his wife, dressed in their fine embroidered cloaks, down the dusty streets and into a council meeting, called to decide the punishment for a man who’d drunk too much at the celebrations and beaten his wife.
“Probably he will have to make some bricks for the village,” whispered Javier, “they are deciding how many.”
The dead-eyed heads of 30 llamas, each gifted to the mayor by a local family, had been arranged in neat bloody lines on a ceremonial table. We tried not to stare too much when it was our turn to step up to accept a pinch of coca leaves from a great bowl beside them.
Back in Sajama we feared we’d missed the main event. No one hands out flyers for cha’lla parties – it’s not Ibiza. You just have to aim for February and hope. But coming into the tiny silent village after our walk, we suddenly sensed – like there was static in the air – that something was about to happen.
People began to emerge from their homes, form little groups and wander down a shabby lane. Following them, we found laughing boys trying to mount wild-looking ponies; women dressed in traditional bowler hats and layered skirts, bright and shiny as sweet wrappers, gathered to dance and sing.
We followed this procession around the village as the people blessed each corner of it, scattering their thanks and prayers into the gritty earth, the ponies stomping out the year’s miseries. We followed until they disappeared into private parties, taking the unreachable truth of their rituals with them. We were left out in the bitter cold to watch the red-and-gold sunset clash with the volcanoes’ stark, icy white.
Sajama is spectacular, but ignored by most travellers. Not so for the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat, and the jewel in the country’s tourism crown.
You’ve probably seen the postcard shots of the Salar: a pure-white expanse of salt, once a prehistoric lake, that covers 12,106 sq km. There is little doubt that it is Bolivia’s prize possession – and in more ways than one. As well as salt it contains other minerals, including the world’s largest stash of lithium, a valuable soft metal that could create the equivalent of an oil boom for Bolivia.
In the dry season, the Salar’s a desert. The salt forms hexagonal patterns and photographers play around with perspective, making one person appear giant, another Lego-sized, though they’re only a metre apart. It’s a great visual trick. But actually, the greatest optical illusion occurs in the rainy season. Then, when it’s covered by a couple of inches of water, the entire flat becomes a mirror.
We approached the Salar as most travellers do, from the east, on a 4WD trip out of the scruffy bare-brick gateway town of Uyuni. En route we called at Pulacayo’s ‘train cemetery’, where travellers – like toddlers in an adventure playground – clambered over the rusty skeletons of steam locomotives that once transported ore from the town’s silver mines.
Eventually the shimmering white line on the horizon became a vast lake. After paddling at the edges at first, our driver Lula steered us out into the water, away from the shore. Then the surreal effect took hold.
Suddenly the ground became sky, pure blue flecked with clouds. We didn’t know if we were flying, sailing or driving. Other cars a distance away looked like little bi-planes, scudding through the heavens; some passengers rode on the roofs, like futuristic warriors. We leaned out of the windows, giggling and gasping at the illusion. When we stopped, and I stepped out into the warm shallow water, it was almost like stepping into thin air. Walking away on my own, until I couldn’t see anyone else, was the most moving experience of my life.
As it was the rainy season it wasn’t possible to visit Isla Incahuasi, the island in the middle of the lake, but we did stop for a picnic of grilled llama and avocado salad, whipped up by our guide and cook Nadina. We ate in the cool interior of the only building on the lake – a café made from salt. We sat on salt chairs at a salt table, surrounded by poorly executed sculptures of animals, made from salt. The food was delicious except that, seriously, it could have done with a bit of salt.
We slept in a salt hotel too, the stylish Palacio del Sal, one of a number on the edge of the flats. It is the only hotel where I have been tempted to lick the walls.
The next day our surreal roadtrip through the Southern Altiplano continued. We followed the well-travelled Southwest Circuit, past more volcanoes to the desert landscapes of the Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa reserve. We also passed several brightly coloured lakes, tinged red, blue and green by minerals and the algae that feed on them, and which are the breeding sites of thousands of flamingos. This was not the sort of drive where you needed a game of I Spy to keep you entertained.
Crimson mud fields met us shortly beyond Uyuni, and after crossing the Rio Colorado the scenery changed so dramatically every 30 minutes or so it was like passing through a series of different coloured rooms. The dioramas ranged from snowy mountains to rocky escarpments, giant red boulders, piles of natural rubble and bizarre monoliths like swollen bones.
And then the world became a giant chocolate brownie, crumble-cracked and puffy. We spotted rhea ‘the local giant flightless birds’, deer-like vicuñas and llamas with pink ribbons pinned to their ears. We stopped to buy crisp empanadas and sweet, meaty salteñas (both spiced, filled pastries) in mining towns, and swigged from a bottle of rough red wine. All the while the car filled with the composty scent of chewed coca, as Lula furiously munched away.
At Lago Canapa, flamingo footprints covered the biscuity shores, and thousands of the birds strutted through the brackish water. Their frivolous pink feathers seemed ridiculous against the backdrop of snow-covered mountains, as silly as Scott of the Antarctic drinking a sparkly piña colada.
Three species of flamingo breed at the lakes of the south-western Bolivian high country. We took in several more of these, at higher and higher altitudes, as we drove, first through a blizzard of hailstones that turned the red landscape white, just for a few miles, and then a thunderstorm. I wasn’t sure our brains and eyes could take in any more, but Lula had a few more miles in him yet, forcing the 4WD up an old Inca road that had turned into a river, fighting the current with coca-fuelled concentration.
Finally, around ten hours after setting off, we were at our destination, the Hotel Tayka del Desierto, one of the most remote places to stay on the planet. I took one look at it, leaned forward to Lula and Nadina and joked, “I don’t like it, can we try somewhere else?”
The ecolodge was part of the Tayka group, which has several other remote community-run lodges in the wildest parts of Bolivia. It was charming, and managed (this week at least; community members take turns) by a lovely couple who made us right at home – easy perhaps, as we were the only guests.
At 4,600m, the altitude and freezing cold was doing us in a bit. But just before dinner we went outside for sunset, and saw the most astonishingly intense palette: the orangiest orange of the earth, against bright-blue sky, with red clouds one way, lilac and gold the other. It could have been an image beamed down from the Mars Rover; photographer Anna almost lost her fingers to frostbite trying to capture it.
The final day of the circuit began in the dark, and I saw several shooting stars before we’d even set off. We made it to Lago Colorado, a massive red lake again patrolled by thousands of flamingos. But it was there our adventure came to an abrupt end.
The 4WD’s fan belt was beaten, and there was nothing Lula could do but pack us into a car with a kind Bolivian family to be dropped at a better-used road to try to hitch a ride back to Uyuni.
We missed the Laguna Celeste, some petrified algae, some hot springs. But having been warned that, in the wet season, 4WDs often get stuck soon after leaving Uyuni, we felt lucky to have gone so far, to have seen so much – to have been invited to the party at all.
When not exploring South America, Gemma Bowes is editor of the Guardian Travel section.
The author travelled with High Lives, a new tour operator that specialises in Latin American travel, especially Bolivia. Its 11-day Sublime Summits itinerary, taking in La Paz, Lake Titicaca, Sajama and Uyuni, and including transfers and 4WD trips, costs from £1,450pp, excluding flights.