Stage 4: Sud Lipez y Las Lagunas (~175m)
I entered the maze of rock coulees, washes, slots, and basins atop a high plateau. The rock resembled elephant skin except the pink color of the rock. Calloused and stacked together, the sand dunes hardened and shaped by water and wind, warmth exuded from the rock, the sun pounding down its rays. The wind reverberated through the narrow gullies and would erupt into the air as a basin opened up. Then, the wind would plunge back into the slots blowing down the sand that covered the narrow channels. The lichen and the crazy-unique Llareta, a bulging bulb of giant green resembling cauliflower on a large scale, dappled and hung on the rock that stacked on top of each layer plied together with hardened mud. Life found a way here despite its harshness. Life found a maze here, twisting and turning, each ravine different, a unique experience with a million ways to solve or go. One could easily get lost here, but that might be the point. I guess life can be a maze meant to wander and lose yourself without thinking about the end.
Down one sandy wash, before the narrows became cramped, I found cat prints. Almost all the dogs I have seen don’t stray too far from humans or the villages. Plus, the prints I found were twice the size of any dog print and had the retractable claw look. This maze had a sense of isolation like no other on this traverse of the Altiplano. The only other footprints I saw were of the occasional vicuña or the plentiful viscacha. I found a camp high up on pink platform out in the open and away from the drainages and the sinking cold. I woke up at one point during the dark night after dreaming of mountain lions. I startled awake after one of the lions screeched frighteningly loud in my dream. It took some time for me to fall back asleep as I definitely worked myself up a little. But that didn’t take away that feeling that a big cat was nearby.
I spent close to two hours figuring out an exit to the maze the next morning. Climbing over rocks and ridges, choke stones and boulders, meandering and backtracking, even picking my way through the gorge and the boggy bottom until I found an old cairned trail up on the bluffs that eventually had me back down in the drainage following another wide tributary. Beautifully lonesome, I relished in the walking. Right before my morning break in the upper drainage I spotted 3 cats, all way bigger than a bobcat. The pumas bolted away from me and bounced and hopped, zigged and zagged, through the tall tufts of grass to disappear into the thicket of brush, most likely crouched down somewhere under rocks or the brush. I admit, I stood with my mouth agape in astonishment. This sighting was the last thing I thought I would see.
At Laguna Canapa, nestled in a basin surrounded by conical volcanoes, I told my puma encounter to the checkpoint. The man there laughed and told me that I just saw him and his two buddies earlier that day. He definitely was a comedian of sorts, but in the end he wanted to know where I spotted the pumas. We all shared a good laugh, then I walked on down to see up close the pink flamingoes. A tour group stopped by and offered me a coke to which I eagerly accepted. I told them, too, about the puma sightings. I really couldn’t hold my excitement. And now I had pink flamingoes to boot, looking all weird and strange, giant wings and skinny little legs with a body shaped like a decorative couch pillow. I continued on walking amid a volcano alley.
Basin after basin held a colorful lake. Each laguna has its own unique color and shape with a volcano that filled the shallow lakes with water and mineral deposits. Huge flocks of flamingoes brightened up the lagunas with their fluorescence which highlighted the scene among the still and reflective waters. After the series of lagunas a long and gradual ascent ensued. Hues of reds and pinks held the horizon firm against a strikingly blue sky. After plodding up a perpetual sand dune the climb topped out onto an enormous expanse of even more sand. Stark and barren, this area seemed like where all the sand accumulated and mounded up had been destined, all within the conical cerros surrounding the massive area.
I arrived to a welcoming salt hotel that night. Fortunately for me, they put me up with the guides at an economic price. The real value came with my conversation with a guide named Alan. He spoke better English than my Spanish which really made me feel pretty good after not having very many conversations in English. The conversation themed in the out-of-doors, from camping, to wildlife, to different environments, to the Altiplano. I gathered that my timing during this trek had been rather fortuitous. Turns out, the previous month had been rather wet. Snow hit the Sud Lipez region hard and for the first time in a century the Salar de Uyuni received an amount of snow. That explained the sudden puddles in some areas during my salar crossings. Global warming may be the culprit, in Alan’s opinion. It’s interesting to hear or see a hot topic on a global scale when you’re in the boonies.
I am meeting friendly strangers now. Up rolls a tour blowing dust in the air and we briefly talk of travels and they offer assistance. They tell me I am crazy and I tell them I know but I am only walking. I get it; why walk when you can drive? At Laguna Colorada a Brazilian group invited me to their table for dinner which despite my homeliness brought out some energetic sociableness from me. I had been feeling a minor stomach bug, so the conversation took me away from the grumbling of the stomach. Transportation in our modern times enables every kind of folk to visit and explore such faraway places, and, in turn, the faraway folk to efficiently travel and utilize the bigger towns and cities. I am fascinated by this because I work in the transportation industry, a contradiction to my credo and action of walking that is something almost archaic. At the same time I am humbled by the industry and laborers who do the same thing as I do or as my compadres. Except the pay is so different. The responsibility the same, the pay drastically different. Point blank, I am pretty lucky.
I spent the next morning strolling along the blood red lake yet dodging the swarm of the gulls that squawked a warning to me that I was too close for niceness. In and out of gorges, a high sandy plateau with snowcapped peaks, windy, but this was a day of reflection, of planning, organizing thoughts and feelings, putting a theme together of ideas and dreams, of being in a big empty while clearing out my head, reflecting on this trip of roughly 3 weeks with no distraction while in isolation, a time needed to be alone. One thing that always crossed my mind out here while encountering tours and locals: I wanted to, yes, I am stringing it all together. That’s what I wanted to say. Yet, it has me thinking, visualizing something I have ignored for so long. But there’s been a letting go of sorts, of trusting the unknown. I never truly know sometimes. As long as my feet carry me...that I know, though, that leads me to the unknown a bit more bolder. And, some particular events and meanings have curtailed my ignorance and weakness to encourage and bolster what I have always envisioned. Maybe this crossing did do something to me besides give me more wrinkles.
Sol de Manana, the basin, the end of the day, in the cold wind feeling the heat from the fumaroles, the redolent air of sulphur and stinky gases all put the newness on things, of something different that compels me, that figuratively smells different. Then, one of the windiest evenings yet, I ducked down a drainage to find a wind break. Eventually I found one on a bench behind a rocky outcrop. Sulphur rang up my nose that the wind blew in from Laguna Chalviri and the hot springs a few miles away. As long as my feet carry me, which they will.
In the morning I helped a road crew of two older guys move some boulders, one of which needed at least the 3 of us. I saw them struggling with the large boulder with a couple of wooden props as fulcrums. We flip-flopped the boulder over after a few minutes of exertion. Soon, I ambled my way through the Dali Desert, which has random small islands of rock placed randomly in the huge angled sand dune. I can say for sure the Altiplano has no shortage of strange places, the scenery so unique and otherworldly. And, no road crew or artist can replace the sublime invention of wind, cold, and precipitation.
The pellucid waters of Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca rippled in the hard wind blurring the reflections of the peaks and sky around. The gusts whipped up a salty froth and spindrift spritzed into the dry air. Volcan Licancabur posed a stunning sight to end the route. The last half of the afternoon the wind stifled my hearing and sand blasted my clothing covering my skin and the slivers of exposed skin. Tiny parts chafed, like my nose and a part of my right cheek. The wind, even heavier this afternoon than the previous, roared my ears and head into an inescapable echoing cave. The wind was so loud I didn’t hear the French motorcyclist who rumbled up from behind me. We briefly spoke in muffled tones and hoarse voices. His motorbike was caked in sand and his face looked as covered as you would expect a desert wayfarer. We agreed on having dinner together that night at the refuge near the lakes. Unfortunately for me, I had had small stomach woes a few days back that had delayed me about a half a day or so. Couple that with my traveling time left, I had to pass climbing the volcano, which Swami had poised as the southern terminus of the route. I felt disappointed; my time was short. But, hearing the tales and feeling the exuberant courage exuding from the young Frenchman had me inspired. His tales of his South American journey joyed me. Even more so his future and current adventure. The encounter only reinforced what had been through my mind recently. That seemed to matter most, the groundwork for future plans. And those were only emboldened by meeting another fellow adventurer.
I cannot end this trek with a simple ending, for the adventure seems non-ending. This one has me yearning for more. As long as my feet carry me, which they will continue to do so...