Thursday, February 21, 2013

Riding the highs of the Bolivian Altiplano

Perspective altering amongst the sacred geometry of the salt flats.
Wow! I'm on such a high! Returning from 3 days of pure beauty and adventure. Feeling so in my groove and the swing of things. My perspective has completely shifted (and very literally after the salt flats!), my Spanish is better than ever, I've shared light and positivity through what yoga is to me, I've learned so much of myself, and I've revived my mind, body, heart, and spirit. All in all, I'd say the missions of my trip and ventures cumulated on my epic journey through the Bolivian salt flats and altiplano over the last several days.

Landscape nearby to El Ojo del Inca.
Before I get into what my Uyuni, Southwest Bolivian experience was, I want to finish with the rest of my time in Potosí, where I left off. I mentioned going to some hot springs nearby, las Termas de Tarapaya. I wanted a relaxing time full of nature and the wonderful healing energies of some thermal waters. For all you Montanans, feel LUCKY because Montana has many of the best hot springs I've ever been to! But every place has its charm and I was immensely pleased to tirarme (throw myself) into the waters of El Ojo del Inca, another name for the Tarapaya Springs.

Soaking with the lovely Gabriela.

As expected, as soon as I began travelling solo I found myself making friends with other South American travellers, native Spanish speakers, and wound up being adopted into a group of 3 lovely Chileans (who were more like 3 beautiful sirens!). We journeyed together to El Ojo del Inca where Incan emperor Túpac Amaru went to revitalize and heal mind, body, and spirit. It's actually an inactive volcano that has water coming up through it, heated along the way. Up to 72 feet deep in the center! It was like a lovely hot springs lake surrounded by stunning, calming scenery and a very mellow and relaxed vibe. One of my new favorite places in South America.

Speaking of the best things to do in South America (in my opinion of course), now I'll go into my 3 day tour starting from Uyuni, Bolivia. I'm going to have more pictures on this blog than any other, because they seem to do more justice to the majesty of these lands than any words could do.

Salt Flat optical illusions, eating my Chilean friends!
I found myself travelling with yet another group of Chileans, this time a wonderful couple that I met in my hostel from Potosí. I heard they were going to Uyuni and we managed to share a cab to the bus station, a hostel in Uyuni, and even the same tour, all full of wonderful memories and exchanges. Uyuni is a less than spectacular town but now survives primarily off of the hoards of people that frequent it in order to visit the nearby Salt Flats (Las Salinas de Uyuni). Most every country has its own salt flats, but this one happens to be the largest in the world. Around 7,500 square miles to be exact! And about 25 to 30 feet deep in the center, all salt! Pretty hard to imagine. I have seen pictures of it since my time in Argentina but until you are there in person it is really just impossible to wrap your head around.

Salt Piles for sale!
The Salt Flats receive about 600 visitors a day, but with the enormity of it you can easily get away from all others if you ask your guide to go a bit further out, past the Salt Hotel (yes, made completely of salt! No longer a functioning hotel but a nice museum). Luckily for us our guide, Román, was the best guide we could've asked for! He took us way beyond where most go, with hardly another person or vehicle in sight. Made for a pretty epic lunch spot indeed. So it's currently wet season in the salt flats, which provides for an amazing mirror-like illusion. The worst of the wet seasons were over though, and due to this we were able to observe the workers from the nearby town, making enormous piles of salt to transport and sell. The salt is used for winter roads, cattle supplementation, as well as the salt hotel. In another section of the flats is a location that no jeeps and vehicles are allowed to go and here they take out salt for human consumption as well. I must say, beyond the stunning optical illusions, this place just blows your mind! It is a palpable living, breathing part of Earth. The salt and humidity from below are constantly emitted and refreshed, making for mile upon mile of sacred geometry hexagrams. As our guide said, the flats are actually breathing. I put my hand into a hole to extract a salt crystal and it felt like I was putting my hand into the mouth of Earth. So bizarre yet so beautiful!

In El Valle de las Rocas, snow capped volcano in the background.
The following three days were spent visiting abandoned train cemeteries and the spectacular scenery of the Bolivian altiplano (places so high, nothing grows there). We saw llama, alpaca, and vicuña. Llama are like cows in the United States, alpaca are a bit more rare and are mainly used for their wool, and vicuña are an elegant and intriguing creature that are protected by the state and remind me of antelope in their grace. I also learned that donkeys are actually called Toyotas Bolivianas... Our guide's sense of humor was priceless. One of my favorite moments was when he decided to eat a lollipop and said 'voy a endulcar a la vida.' I am going to sweeten up life! And that he did.

How many Bolivians to fix a Toyota?
All of these guides amaze me. Their lifestyle reminds me of the first time I went skydiving and couldn't believe the lives of the jumpers and the camera men. I was blown away that this was their life, that they jumped out of airplanes on a daily basis, providing people with the thrills of a lifetime, and found a way to live on it happily. It was a pinnacle moment for me and on my first adventure abroad and changed my life in many ways. Well I was 17 and in Switzerland then and I am 26 and in South America now, but I am equally stunned. Granted the guides of the Bolivian altiplano live long days and work hard, they provide people from far and wide with the purest of adventure and memories of a lifetime. It felt truly badass! And they are not only the guides but the drivers, the cooks, the mechanics, and the all around adventure providers. There are no holidays for them, they take no days off, they are in constant go mode and from what I gathered they do it with aplomb. When a jeep breaks down, which happens often enough in what are some of the harshest conditions in the world, they come together like brothers and make sure to take care of each other.

Our guide, Román, in front of altiplano high desert 'roads'.

Among backgrounds of snow capped volcanoes, we visited lagoon after breathtaking lagoon, where minerals change the color of the water and flamingos grace the surface. Flamingos have been one of my favorite animals for years (along with the quote 'I am the pink flamingo in the yard called life), and it was thrilling to see them here in the wild. There are 3 different species of flamingo in these parts- andino, chilense, and james. In winter they migrate to nearby Chile or Venezuela as the temperature can drop down to about -10, without windchill. Their young are not mature enough to fly and about 30% of the ones who are left behind will die. The flamingos seem to live peacefully here, a bright opposition to the surrounding harshness and contrasts. Predators vary from the fox, the Andean cat, and the rare puma. As I stood there shivering in the wind, watching their harmonious ways, I gained a whole new respect for flamingos and a bravery I never knew they had.

Would you expect to see this in the Bolivian Andes? I didn't!
Other attractions included volcanic rock structures blown into shape by the extremely high velocity winds. Mirrored lakes, mineral explosions, volcanoes everywhere you turn. The whole area actually is volcanic and was formed by volcanic eruptions from thousands of years ago, however only one volcano in the area is still active. The geysers were also mighty impressive and I was happy to learn that a Bolivian electric company has come into the National Park in an attempt to harness the enormous power of the thermal activity into providing electricity for the humble lodging and ranger stations within the area.

Volcanic rock carved entirely by high speed winds.
Harnessing geyser energy power.

 Altitudes ranged from 12,800 feet to 16,000 feet, with the geysers being at the highest point. I tried doing some alternate nostril breathwork on the second night, at about 14,500 ft, and let's just say holding your breath in, or out, at that altitude provides an entirely new challenge and awareness. Getting some practice in and coming back to my mat while travelling has been so lovely. I've also rekindled my love for my meditation practice and its never felt better, more rewarding, relaxing, and worthwhile every single day I and moment I decide to go inward and just CALM.

Doing the flamingo!

Headstands where the Chilean, Argentine, & Bolivian borders meet.
And speaking of that high i was talking about earlier, well a lot of that of course has to do with yoga. It feels so so good to be back to communicating fluidly in my favorite language, but it feels even better to share the ways of yoga, my favorite way of life. From expressing what yoga means to me to a Belgian clown in Potosí... to sharing insight, practices, and ways of life to the Chilean sirens... to showing Brazilians how to do a headstand... to breaking barriers, misconceptions and limitations to people of all walks of life and parts of the world... it feels like I am leaving little seeds of positivity (and crystals) every place I go. Explaining the roots, benefits, and varieties of a 5,000 year old healthcare system through every meaningful encounter I have... for that I am eternally grateful.

Love all of YOU, far and wide.

 We ended the tour with a soak in some wonderfully hot hot springs and a drop off at the Bolivian/Chilean border. I am currently in San Pedro de Atacama, the driest place in the world. A place that also has toilet seat covers and decent internet once again. Tomorrow I'll teach some yoga in the morning and in the afternoon I'll explore a valley that NASA has studied as it mimics the exact terrain of the planet Mars. From there I'll head north back to Peru, making my way up for my flight from Lima in about 10 days time. Only onwards and northwards from here on out!

Hot springs enjoyment.
I leave you with simply a suggestion to embrace whatever you are passionate about. Whether it be clipping your toenails, learning Mandarin, making someone's day, or radically changing your life to do whatever it is you've always dreamed of doing, JUST DO IT ALREADY! Because you deserve it, no matter how big or small. This life is a precious one, take the reins, make the most of it, and enjoy the ride you've created for yourself.
Mirrored spectacles, I will miss Bolivia dearly!
··If any of you are ever considering doing a trip like this for yourself, check out my boyfriend Alex's site Your Expedition South. He's done it twice, on a motorcycle, and is the reason I created this Bolivian adventure for myself, absolutely enabling me to make the most of it. In fact, I did it by far cheaper than anyone else I talked to, knew the best of what there was to do, and ended up being the 'guide' for most anyone I traveled with during my time in Bolivia. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU Alex!!! Your vision is stupendous.··


  1. Great narrative of a spectacular place Jessica! I love the sparse landscapes that really focus one's attention. It looks like you found a great one. When you are in the salt hotel do you hold up your corn on the cob in the wind to get it salted? That must be an incredibly toxic environment to all things man made. Or a great preservative. Does the salt taste like salt??

    Is that a land cruiser in the photo? What types of vehicles do they use? I cannot believe that flamigos can survive there. What in the world do they eat? It looks like you should stay in the headstand pose at the border to be a photo op for the tourists.

    Thanks to Alex for being such a good tour guide, without even being there! I am glad that you were so helpful with your suggestions to Jessica to help make her visit much richer and more rewarding.


    1. why yes it most certainly does taste like salt! because of course one of the first things I did was try it! they do often use land cruisers or the like. and the flamingoes eat plankton or micronutrients that live in the waters! only one of the lagoons, la laguna colorada, actually has enough nutrients in it to leave their young in when the adults escape to warmer climates in the winter. touch cookies indeed!