Flying into La Paz must be one of the most dramatic introductions to a city anywhere! On the short flight from Sucre we looked out of the window at large dusty plain of the Altiplano below us and slowly the outskirts of El Alto, the La Paz suburb which has become a city in it's own right, began to appear. Then the massive peak of Illumani, the highest mountain in Bolivia, the top of which seemed to reach to the same altitude as our plane, loomed into view. Then, below us, the streets and buildings of El Alto seemed to disappear over the edge of a cliff beneath the peaks of the mountains and a valley which resembled a crater or a bowl appeared. Lining the sides of the crater and tumbling all the way to the bottom is the city of La Paz, or Cidade da Nuestra Señora La Paz (City of Our Lady of Peace) to give it it's full name.
Salar de Uyuni seemed to appear around us almost unexpectedly. One moment we were driving through a valley, and then the peaks to either side of us seemed to start receding into the distance at the same time as the sand and mud below the wheels gradually gave way to salt. All of a sudden we realised we were crossing the Salar, an ocean of flat whiteness that disappeared into the distance on all sides.
At first the salt plain felt and looked dirty and grubby, but as we got further and further into it, it became more and more pristine in it's whiteness, the sun reflecting brilliantly from the salt crystals.
We woke up early and dropped off the jeep off at the car rental in San Pedro before meeting a driver who would take us across the border to meet our guide in Bolivia. Chilean guides aren't allowed to operate in Boliva and vice versa, so there's always this system of being picked up in a van or minibus, taken though Chilean border control (just outside San Pedro) and then into Bolivia through their border control at the foot of Licancabur Volcano. Here, people meet their guides and continue the rest of the way in very sturdy 4x4s.
We'd gone through an agency called Ruta Verde to organise a private trip. Usually the jeeps are crammed with 4 to 6 people, but I knew that would make it much more difficult for me to stop where I wanted for how long I wanted to take photos, so we'd managed to arrange a tour and pretty much specified where we wanted to go and for how long (for example, I wanted to spend 2 nights at Salar de Uyuni). Our guide was Raul, a native of Uyuni, who'd been guiding people around this part of Bolivia for 10 years.
It's been about two months now since we returned from South America, and our trip across the Altiplano from San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. As I wrote in my previous blog about the trip, it's a place I've wanted to see for about as long as I've been interested in photography. It's a genuinely remote and extreme part of the planet with landscapes that look like they belong on Mars rather than our own green and blue planet.
We flew to Santiago de Chile via Madrid, one of the longest single flights I've ever done. Not only do you cross the Atlantic Ocean, but also the whole of the south American continent and move from the northern hemisphere to the south. We flew overnight, arriving in Santiago early in the morning and caught the bus to the centre of the city. It's always said that Santiago is South America's most European city, and although I can see why people say that, to us it really didn't feel particularly European. It's incredibly wide streets have all the signs of a city that was built for cars like most of the cities I've seen in both North and South America. Still, we'd decided to stay for a night, and soon found our room in the Lastarria district. We spent the afternoon wandering around the city, trying the food and enjoying the atmosphere before having a great meal in the evening.
On Sunday we're going to the airport to head off on another adventure. This time we'll be flying to Santiago do Chile, before heading to Calama in northern Chile and then on to San Pedro de Atacama, our base for the beginning of a trip across the Altiplano which will take us all the way to Lake Titicaka
This trip has been on the agenda for a long time now, I can well remember sitting in a bookshop in Brazil after we'd just left the Amazon about 7 years ago, reading the Footprint Guide to Bolivia and trying to find out information on crossing the Altiplano from San Pedro de Atacama to the Salar de Uyuni. Since then, I've kept returning to the document on my computer with an outline of a dream itinerary for this trip and researched the area a little more, and then finally last summer we took the plunge and decided to make serious plans to actually do it.