I am happy to admit I was somewhat nervous about this trip. Those of you who know me personally will be well aware I like to be in control, and this time I was putting my and my daughter’s well-being into the hands of a travel agency to get us across some very remote territory with extreme conditions. I had done as much research as I could and thought I’d chosen a decent agency, but still, given my dodgy lungs and previous problems with altitude (and we would be going far higher) and given I had Lauren along, I was anxious it go well.
The agency assured me that the driver was experienced, the jeep had proper seatbelts (I was still carting Lauren’s booster seat around), and they would carry oxygen in case of altitude sickness.
We were picked up at 0630 by a minibus that took us and a number of other people to the border with Bolivia, where we would transfer to the 4 by 4’s required for Bolivia. We climbed and climbed for around 45 minutes, in the pre-dawn darkness, everyone a bit quiet until we reached the small building that housed Chilean immigration.
The contrast between two countries can hardly be greater than when crossing from Chile to Bolivia. On the Chilean side, decent tarmacked road, polite immigration officials, clean toilets, even a ping pong table that some of the members of our group made use of, challenging the immigration officers to a game.
Then, a few Km later on, a dirt track and a stone hut with brusque Bolivian border guards.
We had breakfast in the searing cold wind – we were high, the sun was hiding behind a cloud, someone said it was below freezing. As far as the eye could see was just flat brown earth and snow-capped mountains. It couldn’t have looked less appealing. What had we signed up for?
It turned out that there were three vehicles that would be travelling roughly together, which was reassuring. We had all heard horror stories of breakdowns on the rough terrain. We were fortunately assigned to a jeep driven by Paul, an experienced and careful driver who seemed to be the most responsible of the three.
We were also lucky in our fellow travelers – after all, we would spend three whole days with these people, at close quarters, sharing the car, a bedroom and all meals. We were joined by a trio of mid 20s Dublin lads, Sebastian, Connor and Guy, much to Lauren’s delight, as half the time she thinks she’s Irish, and a Czech woman, Katerina. I was by far the oldest of the group, and Lauren by far the youngest.
The day passed in a blur of mountains, stunning lakes, thermal springs and geysers. Nature at its harshest. Arsenic in the ground, sulphur from the geysers, salt in the water, intense heat and cold at different times, and of course the ever present reminder of the altitude. Tracks varied from rough to non-existent, we saw the odd fox and vicuna (a wild deer related to the guanaco we’d seen in Argentina), a few birds and not much else in terms of wildlife.
We ended with a wonderful (if rather breathless), walk around laguna colorada, possibly my favourite of the whole day, as it was pink, full of flamingos, and just beautiful.
Lauren was by now in full hero-worship mode and firm friends with the Irish lads. When I tried to intervene (not all mid-20’s lads want a 9 year old girl tagging along) I was firmly told that she was now ‘one of their crew’ so left well alone.
The evening saw us arriving at a very basic lodge – electricity for a couple of hours in the evening, no heating (we were at 4,600 metres), no showers, and 2 shared toilets without paper or soap. For Lauren, at least, none of this mattered, as she made firm friends with this filthy orphaned Llama, which at least twice had to be ushered from the kitchen…. where our dinner was being prepared…
All 6 of us shared the same room. The food was basic – boiled chicken, salad, and smash (reconstituted dehydrated potato). Lauren taught everyone how to play Uno, and an Irish guy from another group brought out a guitar and entertained us with songs.
By just after 9 everyone headed off to bed, many feeling some effect of the altitude and the grueling but amazing day.