In the morning, we reluctantly pulled our fully-layered bodies out of our fully-zipped sleeping bags, adjusted the hats we’d worn through the night, and looked out upon a still-dark morning tinted in white. Snow. Two inches or more of snow. This was scheduled to be one of the longest days of the tour, and so we were up early. The cooks and drivers were up even earlier, and were already together and discussing the weather.
As we sipped our coca tea, the word came from Victor… because of the weather, we were going to avoid the high country and the normal road, and take a new road, lower in elevation, that would get us to Laguna Colorada. We began to worry a little… would we still be able to see everything we were scheduled to see? … two lagunas, some glaciers… Victor said he wasn’t sure. There was a good chance that the road to Laguna Verde would be impassable, but we would have to wait and see.
And so, with daylight just bringing a gray light to the spitting snow and Landcruisers, we pulled out of the little town with the ten or so other Landcruisers we had been at lunch with the day before. With Ema repeatedly wiping the windshield so that Victor could see, we set off on our adventure. It was still snowing hard.
What followed was a slow morning. The Landcruisers were in pretty good shape, but there seems to be a dearth of tires with treads inBolivia. Ours had good tires in the front, but one of the back tires was bald… the state of tires in our little entourage was a mixed bag. And so things got a little slippery and there was the occasional sideways slip. And on descents and climbs the whole line stopped and worked on the road a bit before attempting to pass. Denis and I joined the others in kicking snow off the road and exposing secure ground for the iffy tires. By the end of the morning I was glad to have waterproof boots and Denis was wishing for dry socks.
Throughout the morning the clouds hovered low and the snow kept spitting. But by noon or so we began to see breaks in the clouds and started to anticipate what this landscape might look like painted in white under a blue sky. Even as it was, there was a sparse, rugged beauty to the clouded-in world. But it could definitely get better.
We learned from Victor that none of the drivers had ever been on the route we were now on. One of the Landcruisers was carrying a local from the village where we had slept, and he was showing the group how to get where we were going. And the plan seemed to be working. Before long a wan sun was beginning to melt away some of the snow cover, and we had descended enough that we were often on firm ground looking up at heights baptized in snow.
There were occasional stops where the drivers got together and discussed where we were and where we were headed. Sometimes this was accompanied by tinkering with the vehicles. Raoul seemed to have an electrical trouble of some sort and occasionally had to fiddle with some wires a bit before his ‘cruiser would start up. One such stopping point was on a wide, flat, dry riverbed covered in a few inches of snow. Someone in our group reached down and gathered a ball-sized bit of snow in his hand. Another member of our group was promptly pegged in the back with a snowball. This, of course, developed into a minor skirmish which eventually involved our group of four, a couple of other French tourists, as well as Victor and Ema. One of my favorite memories of the trip was Ema, braids and skirt flapping, chasing me down with a large snowball in her hand. It was a welcome break from being in the rig. For us at least. Our lunch companions in Raoul’s Landcruiser never exited their vehicle.
At this point our guide from the village turned back, since we now had a riverbed to follow to the road that our drivers knew, and the sun began to come out. Although we were barely on a road (sometimes creating a road through the brush) and we weren’t exactly doing what was scheduled, there was something promising about being here.
There were some stops… lunch, a small village. And then we started climbing back up into the clouds a bit. We stopped at Laguna Capina for a look. On a good day I imagine it would have been quite beautiful, but the colors were muted by the gray sky and the surrounding mountains were a bit clouded in.
This laguna was being worked as a source of borax. Heavy equipment was at work scouring the flat… digging holes and collecting the borax. The edges were tinged in yellow, which Victor explained was sulfur. He also explained that, although many Bolivians were working at Capina, for the most part they were the grunts, while the bosses and executives were Chilean. And we all suspected that most of the profit was headed to Chile.
As the day began waning, we continued our climb to Laguna Colorada. And eventually, down below us, we made out a reddish lake. It became more and more beautiful as we got closer.
Unfortunately, there was a gate and a ranger station in the way. We stopped, and a discussion began about paying for entry into the park. On a normal tour, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. The park encompasses the high country that holds many sights for eager tourists, and it is one of the major draws for choosing a 4-day tour instead of just paying to see the salt flats themselves out of Uyuni. But this was no normal tour, and the necessity of us paying the full price for entering the park was a valid question.
While we huddled in the lee of the tiny ranger station (the wind was quite cold), the drivers and rangers engaged in a quiet, reserved discussion about the subject. A few of the tourists paid and got back into the vehicles, while the rest of us waited outside to see the outcome of the congress. It was taking quite a while.
And that’s when Ema stepped in. Running out of patience, she pushed her way through the throng of men and into the ranger shack, and began dressing the parkies down about charging us. A second-hand account indicated that her arguments ranged from the practical (we’re just going in for Laguna Colorada and spending one night, not even seeing most of the park) to the somewhat personal (besides, you guys don’t do anything anyway, the roads aren’t even graded or plowed… why should we pay?), but throughout was quite animated. It didn’t take her too long to say her piece and return to the Landcruiser, but it did seem to be the tipping point in the discussion. We were allowed to enter the park without paying, and would negotiate a price on our way back out. This only increased out appreciation for Ema.
And Laguna Colorada was beautiful and amazing.
Yes, those are flamingoes. Forget your image of flamingoes hanging out in warm, tropical climes. These guys are forging in food-rich waters at about 15,000 feet or higher on the edge of the Bolivian altiplano. Tough birds, and very pretty. As I understand, during the summer there are many, many more of them. And flamingo babies…
And so, after some last looks at the red waters of Laguna Colorada, we drove the final mile or so to the tourist compound. In the middle of nowhere, but within striking distance of the laguna, is a sprawling complex that exists, I imagine, only to serve the tourists seeing the park. We drove around to the side and found our niche with other familiar Landcruisers from our group, and settled in for the night.
The first night was just us and our companion foursome, but tonight there was a communal dining area where the occupants of eight or more vehicles gathered together for a meal and socialization. Not far away was a tienda that sold rum and whiskey. So after a good meal, a guitar came out and people gathered around the pitiful wood stove in the middle of the room. Fun was had by all.
And during this evening, over drinks, we raised the possibility with Victor of getting an early start to see some glaciers that Anne really wanted to see. Victor seemed uncomfortable at this. We’d already heard that Laguna Verde was out of the question, and our next day of touring seemed a little thin. There was discussion of simply heading to Uyuni and seeing the salt flats from there. None of this sounded very promising. But Victor was open to possibilities. Still, wisely, he adopted a “let’s see in the morning” attitude. Smart guy.
Eventually we zipped into our sleeping bags wearing all the clothes we owned. As it turned out, the night was fairly warm… as it often is when clouds come in (again) and snow is falling…