I kept wanting to say ‘beam me up Scotty’. Not because I wanted to leave but because it was all so other-worldly. From the moment we left Tupiza to the moment we returned, four days later, it was just one amazing landscape after another. Totally out of this world.
Tupiza is red rock country. The place where Butch and Sundance spent their last days. Deep canyons, cactus-strewn ravines, dust, and rust-orange rock that turns from red, to ochre, to bruised purple as the sun hits it. Once silver, lead, tin, antimony and bismuth were found here, and it was the home-base of Carlos Aramayo, one of Bolivia’s biggest mining barons. In 1908, the lure of a payroll of half a million proved to be too great a temptation for the outlaws and they ambushed a mule train carrying the loot. The alarm against them was quickly raised, and Butch and Sundance holed up in San Vicente, unaware that a four-man military patrol were also spending the night in the village. After a shoot-out, all went quiet. The next morning, the gunslingers were found dead; Butch apparently having shot his wounded partner before killing himself.
From wild west, ride ’em cowboy country, we headed further into the desert and the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. Vast empty space and rock-strewn mountains; a few llama-herding hamlets and mining camps the only evidence that man inhabited the earth. Desolate, high-altitude, and utterly breathtaking beauty. Snow-capped volcanoes, glacial lakes with surreal red or green waters, rock formations blasted by the wind into twisted and haunting shapes, the earth rent by cracks and fissures. At 5,000 m the mud literally boiled, and at Laguna Polques, as the sun shone, we braved the wind to bathe in natural hot-water springs as flamingos looked on. Elsewhere vicuna seemingly grazing on nothing but grit and gravel, and rabbit-like viscachas skittered over boulders.
On the morning of the fourth day, we rose before dawn, and drove out onto the biggest salt flats in the world to watch as the rising sun stained the sky rose pink, and cast a cold blue shimmer onto the flat white salt. The horizon broken only by mountain peaks, and hazy islands that appeared to have no root in reality. All illusion, for the island Inca Wasi is covered by giant cacti, some more than ten metres tall and hundreds of years old. We ate our final lunch sitting on the strange polygonal lines of the surface of the Salar; sitting on nothing more than a crust of salt. In places we encountered ojos de sal or salt eyes, holes where the water beneath was visible and we could hold beautiful newly formed crystals between our fingers.
‘Beam me up Scotty’.