The day started beautifully. As I got into the grey 4×4, I got acquainted with my travel companions: Eva, a Dutch girl, Laura and Claudius, two young Germans who were working as volunteers in Paraguay and, as a last minute addition to the group, Michel, a retired French teacher. That meant our cook couldn’t come with us, as there was no space left for her in the car. Therefore, Rubén, our driver, had to take care of the meals on top of driving us. Rather long and tiring days for our guide. But he never made us feel anything was too much for him.
The salt flats are not that extended that it takes several days to get through them. Rather that you take the opportunity of the trip to discover many other gorgeous landscapes on your way there. We would make regular stops to discover many other things in this rough but incredibly beautiful environment.
Our first halt came rather fast, just outside the city of Tupiza. In front of us, we could see a forest of long and sharp rocks. It reminded me a little, though not exactly the same, of the Quebrada de las Flechas, which I had discovered not so far from there – in South American terms. Not Belgian ones -, in Argentina, in July. We made another stop to observe a herd of llamas in a prairie. Did I mention already that Peruvians and Bolivians actually eat llama? I always thought the animals were raised above all for their wool. But, as it appears, what is under the furry coat is perfectly edible. I’d say more: it is good! Although I am trying to eat less meat. But it is really difficult to be a vegetarian in that part of the world. Llamas are also funny to observe, although we weren’t able to get very close to them.
The third halt was a forced one. We got stuck in the mud with our vehicle. I was already imagining the worst case scenario, having to sleep in the car during a cold desert night. But, luckily, our fantastic driver-cook-mechanic got the situation under control and managed to free our car. Just in time for lunch.
In the afternoon, we discovered the ghost village of San Antonio de Lipez. It was built as early as the 16th century as a result of the gold and silver mines that were discovered there. Much as in Potosí, the precious metals held by the hill nearby made San Antonio de Lípez a very wealthy place. For Spanish people at least, as the ones working in the mines, the Bolivians, were mostly enslaved. I guess that the place got deserted by its inhabitants the same time as it ran out of its source of income. However, there is a legend telling a whole other story. It says that when the village was at its peak of production and glory, blinded by the money coming from the silver, the inhabitants committed sexual sins, tempted by the devil, who presented himself to them disguised as a priest. At the same time, they were wasting a lot of food. A priest coming from elsewhere would have managed to fool the devil and to fasten him with a golden chain to a stone at the top of the hill. However, the latter succeeded in sending a woman to the village, a cursed lady who caused the death of the people whose house she was visiting. They say it is she who made the remaining inhabitants flee.
Another characteristic of San Antonio de Lípez is that it is situated very high. A sign indicated 4855 meters above sea level. However, this was something I had become quite accustomed to by now. Before setting a foot in South America, I think the highest point I ever got to was 2300 meters. By now, I had been higher than the Mont Blanc, France’s best known summit, at least three or four times.
We spent the night in one of the little villages we crossed along the way. There weren’t a lot though. And the infrastructure was very basic. Actually, we weren’t able to take a shower before the fourth night. But the cold doesn’t really make you eager to take your clothes off anyway. Also, not all the inhabitants of those villages are very eager to host tourists. And although these were numerous, sometimes we would arrive in one of the rest points where we knew many other tourists stayed for the night, and only notice quietness. Perhaps because of the tiredness. Perhaps because of the altitude. Or because of the fact that the nature impresses and imposes respect and silence. Either way, it was rather enjoyable.