As a child I saw the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and watched, enthralled as my heroes arrived in Bolivia. It seemed to be the wildest, most exciting place on the planet, I didn’t know where it was but I knew I wanted to go there. Twenty years later I found myself in Tupiza, surrounded by forests of cacti, wide gaping canyons and the rainbow coloured hills where Butch and Sundance carried out their daring raids.
Inhabiting an extremely remote region of South America, Bolivia is the highest of the Latin American countries, sweeping from the soaring peaks of the Andes in the north, down to the lush Amazonian basin in the east and across to the barren plains of the south.The dreary town of Uyuni in the southwest is the gateway to the Salar de Uyuni, the remains of a giant salt lake stretching 12,600 kilometres.We drive for hours across the blinding white plain. The glare creates optical illusions, volcanoes loom up on the horizon and appear to hover above the ground. We lunch on Isla dePescadores, a small island in a dazzling white sea, covered with tall and spindly cacti.
Our journey across the salt pans continues for much of the day, finally giving way to a dry and baron altiplano. A great deal of volcanic and geothermal activity occurs in the region, which is vividly reflected in the raw landscape. Its beauty lies in its harshness, this is nature at its most extreme and pristine. Thousands of years ago cataclysms beneath the earth’s surface resulted in tumultuous upheavals, rocks spewed out, volcanoes thrust through the earth’s surface, a process we watched, on a small scale at Sol de Manana… where geysers belched bubbling mud and sulphur fumes high into the air and we bathed in the blissfully warm waters of thermal springs. The sun was fiercely hot but the cold wind cut through everything and served as a constant reminder of the altitude. Few plants or animals can with stand the climate. Apart from occasional birds, llamas seemed to be the only wildlife, impervious to the cold with their thick woolen fleeces. The burnt, golden earth of the Siloli desert glows from the minerals within and the rocky barren landscape is broken up with splashes of colour in the form of lakes, which gleam like gem stones.The fiery red Laguna Colorado is stained by the plankton and algae within. Hundreds of pink and white flamingos frolick in the shallows and families oflLlama graze on tufts of grass at the waters edge.
Climbing up the mountains near the border with Chile, we fmd Laguna Verde, a lead and sulphur infused lake, which constantly changes colour as the wind whips across its surface. The snow covered peak of Volcano Licancaber looms ominously behind the lake, its icy summit was once used by the Inca as a place of sacrifice.
Many describe this area as being out of the world, to me, it just seems to confirm how amazing the world is that we live in. At4800 meters above sea level we find a sign post with Bolivia on one side and Chile on the other. That’s it….. the jeep drops us off – the rest of the group is staying in Bolivia but Danny and I are adventure bound and headed into the Atacama desert. It feels like we have travelled to the ends of the earth, especially when hours pass and not one truck passes our way. At this altitude and without proper equipment it is unlikely that we will survive the night, but it is a 45 kilometer walk to the nearest village and the air is so thin its hard to breathe, let alone walk. A stunning sunset mocks us, with darkness comes the bitter cold and we shuffle along the rocky path. Late in the night when i feel like I can’t take another step, but know that I cannot stop, a truck appears in the darkness and we have been saved.