From San Pedro heading towards Bolivia, we joined what seemed like a thousand tourists at the border. This many people but only one little man at the immigration desk made for quite a wait, but the moment Bolivia started unfolding before our eyes we saw it had all been worth the wait. First stops on day one were the Laguna blanca (white lagoon), Laguna verde (green lagoon) and Laguna colorada (the one that is red in all the pictures). Even though we have put the photos on here for you to see, it is impossible to describe the sheer scale and beauty of these high plateaus. The sky was clear and bright and the air was thin around the rows of volcanoes stretching as far as the eye could see. Time really does seem to have forgotten these areas and they have just been left to carry on as they always will, completely untouched and awash with colour. Beauty however, belies the toxicity of some of these lagoons, with a mixture of arsenic and borax frequently being present and the river connecting the lagoons providing the only fresh water in the area. At Laguna colorada, it was easy to see how flamingos get their colour, eating all of the red algae that gives the lagoon its colour, and despite the increasingly high altitude leaving us breathless just jumping out of the car, we persevered and were rewarded with some incredible panoramas.
Waking up on day 2 was difficult to say the least. The altitude had seriously got to us overnight, at a handsome 4800m above sea level. With our breathing slowing as we went to sleep our bodies struggled to get the oxygen they needed, leaving us sleeping badly and waking up with absolutely splitting headaches. The locals recommend coca tea, which we dutifully tried, whilst sneakily scoffing nurofen and syndol to get us through the early start and allow us to still enjoy our amazing surroundings. Yet again, the scale of the landscapes and vistas was astonishing and reminded us what a tiny part of the world we are; a hugely humbling experience, but then it was a really long drive to our salt hotel in Uyuni. When we say salt hotel we mean it - everything was made of salt; the walls, the floors, the bed frames, the tables, the chairs, the frightening Christmas statues in the hallways, everything! It was, however, strangely beautiful and extremely well done and it the biggest point in its favour was that it was warm! We had not been warm without the aid of a hairdryer since arriving in South America three weeks previously so we were loving the huge blankets and convector heaters in our room! It was also at a far lower altitude, allowing us to walk more than 3 steps without needing a sit down, which we enjoyed to the max by heading on to the very edge of the salt flat near our hotel to watch the sun set. At this point, we were already impressed, but little did we know that what we had seen was like comparing a slight bump in the road to scaling Mount Everest. The salt flats we saw the next day, as experienced by driving almost 60 miles into them, just to reach the centre point, were quite easily one of the most spectacular things we are ever likely to see. They stretched so far that, as we started our trip, we could see the tiny peaks of mountains in the distance, the bases of which were hidden below the curvature of the earth. As we got closer, the lower parts of the mountains came into view, then the whole stretch of the mountain ranges. The photos may give you some idea of what it looked like to see nothing but pure white salt stretching out as far as the eye could see in every single direction. The only oasis in the middle of what was once a salt lake, was a small island made of coral. You could really see from the formation of the ground how the whole thing would once have been submerged beneath the lake with little Nemo's swimming around in it. Hundreds of thousands of years later however, it is now a prime breeding ground for cacti and small rodents (that look like rabbits with long tails!?), the likes of which we saw plenty!
After staying overnight in Uyuni, whose only claim to fame was 'being the town next to the salt flats' and offered nothing else to do, other than get drunk on local beer, we headed north to Potosi. Although Potosi is a mining town, like Uyuni, it is a lot easier on the eye than its salty southern neighbour. The town square is very pretty and much more vibrant, with cafes and museums on every corner. We had planned to head out on one of the town's many mine visits, to see the conditions in the silver mines of the hills around the city. This is pretty much all there is to do in Potosi, and it is certainly what the town is marketed on, but having read about the trips in a bit more detail and realised it would involve scrabbling around in very tight tunnels, many many feet under the ground, where they use dynamite to shift the rock, we decided against it and opted for a couple of afternoons spent in cafes drinking juice and eating cake, watching the world go by (see photos).
From Potosi to Sucre, the chocolate capital of Bolivia! After a long trek from the street corner where the bus dropped us, encountering our first anti-tourist Bolivian shouting 'go home' from a passing car (imaginative), it seemed only polite to hit the nearest chocolate shop and wile away the afternoon in yet another café, coming up with our plan of attack for Sucre which included, amongst other things…..yes, that's right…….more cafes and more chocolate! We did however, punctuate the chocolate feast with a visit to a mediocre modern art gallery and a trip up a very big hill to see a beautiful sunset, only to be disappointed when we ordered a bottle of bubbly which would have been better matched to a plate of chips than a romantic sunset. An afternoon in the pub watching England vs Belgium (life as we know it has not been lost, people) brought back a sense of normality to the world though, as we chatted to a guy who grew up in Southgate and went to school at Winchmore - a small world indeed - and got our ducks in a row for the next leg of our journey, onward to Santa Cruz on the edge of the Amazon Basin.
Once more however, our efforts to return to our active traveller-type ways were thwarted in Santa Cruz, by the truly awful weather. We arrived in high spirits to find hot and humid weather, reminiscent of our Asian experiences several months ago, and were enthusiastic that, despite sweating profusely, we would see the amazon as it had looked on TV. However, that night the rain started. It rained, and rained, and rained for two solid days. Thankfully (in some respects) Nick got ill so we couldn't go out anyway, so whilst he lay asleep in bed for 24 hours, Nat used the time very foolishly indeed…..mmmmm hmmmmm……she spent the day researching the new A-Level Law course she is going to have to teach next year! She may not have learnt a thing about the amazon in those 2 days but she does now have a very clear picture of how she is going to drag ten good-for-nothing Bishops sixth formers through their A-level next year!! When Nick awoke from his man-coma it was off to the zoo on our last day. Making the most of a break in the rain, and deciding the zoo would give us the best insight into the region's wildlife in double quick time, we hot-footed it down there and were very pleasantly surprised by what we found. Pleasingly similar to the conditions found in western zoos (however pleasing captivity can be), we were treated to walks through giant aviaries full of stunning tropical birds, encounters with a range of mammals which we have subsequently congratulated ourselves on identifying in the wild, and best of all…..sloths. If you have never seen a sloth either awake or moving, you have missed one of life's defining experiences. To actually see where the term 'sloth-like' comes from is a privilege indeed and we shamelessy spent a considerable amount of time just watching and following the vvvvvveeeeeeerrrrrrrrryyyyyyyyy sssssssslllllllllllloooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwww sloth that was loose in the park make his way around in prehistoric fashion (see the amazing video on here).
With our preparation for the amazon proper complete, we look forward to hopping up to Trinidad tomorrow (probably on a very tiny plane as there is no land access due to yet another Bolivian road block) and catching our first glimpse of one of the most amazing habitats on earth.