A High Altitude Birthday

The Bolivian altiplano is wild and uncompromising, a high altitude treeless plateau with an endless cobalt blue sky pierced with the odd snow capped volcanos. It is hauntingly beautiful and almost flat apart from tussocks of scrubby golden grass. It stretches between the Andean mountain chains of Cordillera Real to the east, Cordillera Occidental in the west, Lake Titicaca in the north and down to the Chilean border in the south. You couldn’t get an environment so different from where we were last week in the hot steamy jungle, yet they are just 200km away from each other. It is here we are planning to spend most of the rest of the time we are in Bolivia.
20140806-091724-33444348.jpgBefore heading off to the wilds we headed off to the supermarket in La Paz to stock up. To our surprise it was full of goods imported from the UK, this meant the shopping bill was a bit higher than expected! However we came away delighted with our purchases of salad cream, tetley tea, robertsons squash, heinz beans and bisto gravy granules amongst others!!!! After a year on the road, we were thrilled with these tastes of home (Megacenter for anyone coming after us).

The Bolivia government heavily subsidises fuel but not for foreigners. A shame for us but I understand the politics behind it, quite how many foreign vehicles there are in Bolivia to make this anything else but a vote pleaser is another matter. The other problem for us is getting a petrol station to sell the fuel at the two and a half times more than the local rate, most can’t or won’t due to the extra paperwork involved. Many travellers have ended up coming to a deal with pump attendant with a mutually beneficial deal for both sides without the paperwork at out of the way places but we wanted fuel in La Paz, so that was out for us. Eventually we found a place on the main road south that were willing to do the extra paperwork and sell it to us for the inflated price although they couldn’t find the UK in their computer system, so we are now officially Irish.

Sajama National Park is a pristine part of the Altiplano, shadowed by three classically shaped cone volcanos topped by glaciers. We could see Sajama volcano from over 150km away, high above the flat plateau. At 4300m it is perishingly cold at night, down to -8°C when we were there, but the sun at this altitude is hot during the day. Everyone there wears a hat to protect themselves from the sun, it is easy to be freezing cold but get sunburnt at the same time. The high winds often make the temperature drop even further too, luckily it wasn’t windy when we were there. There is a tiny village with a few hostels and a smart new medical centre, so it looks like some of the park entrance fees are at least being used to improve local facilities. It also has a pretty stone and mud church thatched with sods of grass. There is a scattering of tiny farmsteads is the park. Llamas and alpacas are about the only life stock that can survive there eating the tough dry grass.

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20140806-092034-33634111.jpgWe parked up near to some remote hot thermal pools. The owner was very pleased to see us, as he had managed to drain his truck batteries trying to start his truck in the cold the preceding evening. He was now almost 24 hours later considering walking the 8km back to the village with the two heavy batteries in a wheel barrow to see if anyone could charge them. We gave him a pull start along the bumpy dust track which got him going eventually. The cold starts at high altitude is something that has been worrying us a lot too, they don’t sell winter diesel here and we’ve already had problems in Peru getting going when it is still cold. The good thing here is that once the sun rises the temperature rises rapidly. We just have to work out where to park the truck, so we get those all important rays on the engine and fuel tank.

The following day was Alisha’s 9th birthday, I can’t believe our “baby” has got so big. A truly international girl, this is the 9th country she has celebrated her birthday in (it helps that her birthday was in the summer holidays when she went to school). Snuggling in the warm truck opening presents and relaxing was a lovely way to spend the morning, especially for me after going out before dawn to take photos. One of the side affects of altitude is increased need to pee to get out the alkali that builds up in the blood and we lost most of our acclimatisation by going down to the Amazon Basin. Once up it was hard to ignore the raw beauty of the early light or the lure of llamas with bright ear tufts backdropped by stunning volcanos.

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20140806-094418-35058325.jpgThe thermal pools were a delightful way to thoroughly warm through. Steve and I wallowed enjoying the view, while the girls collected the slimy green algae off of the bottom…. everyone was happy.

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20140806-092513-33913300.jpgWe took a short drive in the afternoon to take a wander around some geysers before parking up facing where we thought the sun would rise on the side of the track.

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The following day was a long driving day south towards Potosi, our Garmin satnav has totally given up in Bolivia, even with its South American chip inserted. She now just periodically mutters like a crazy person almost to herself: “Drive”. Luckily Steve has his trusty backup navigator to tell him the way, unluckily for him, unlike the satnav the backup shouts back!

We spent the night on the way in a quiet spot parked up beside a reservoir before heading on to Potosi the following morning.