Expedition to the end of the earth in the South Lipez
Fabrice pawlak, Extract from the book "sommets incas", Editions glénat

We are at the end of the earth: the most hostile, the most fascinating, the most attractive of ends, like a dream. However, a sign, on which is written with a clumsy hand "CHILE", brings us back to reality; this place is none other than the southern limit of Bolivia, reached after days of trekking through a deserted and arid landscapeswept by icy winds and devoid of life except for the rare oasis scattered here and there. Only thousand-year-old volcanoes disturb the peace of this mineral world. We are in the Laguna Verde in the South Lipez region, at the foot of the Licancabur volcano. Here we find mixed deserts of salt and mountains ofochre and black that are magnified by the sunlight, intense and burning unless broken up by a storm. Before reaching this true masterpiece, it is inevitable to go to the meeting of other fabulous landscapes and unusual men. Here is one of the roads to follow.

From La Paz, the way is easy

You just need to head south towards the mining city of Oruro. First,, you will cross a good portion of the immense plateau that is the Altiplano, at more than 4000 meters of altitude and the heart of Bolivia. Towards the east, the horizon is blocked by successive cordilleras: first the Royal Cordillera, then the Cordillera of Quimsa Cruz. Since the revolution of 1952, here, the land here belongs to the one who works it: the "campesinos" work their fields of quinoa or chuño, the "potato" which will then be dehydrated and preserved for up to ten years. Other farmers accompany their herds of sheep or llamas. After Oruro, the asphalt very quickly disappears and the adventure can really begin.

Then we go along the Popoo lake

The Popoo Lake, connected on the south to the Coipasa salt flat, is the only spillway of the Lake Titicaca - however, most of the waters will have evaporated well before reaching their supposed destination. The Chipaya Indians are among the few inhabitants of this region. They form the oldest Amerindian community onthe continent and have never been colonised, not by the Incas, nor the Aymaras or the Spaniards. Their village is scattered over a large plain with only a few thousand inhabitants. Access is difficult because of the rare and often muddy tracks which lead to it, but if achieved it allows unprecedented encounters.

The day before our visit, the celebration of the dead took place. The dead are dug up in order for the living to make offerings to them, a unique custom in the Amerindian culture. The Chipayas still wear their traditional clothing, a long gray poncho with black stripes. The womenstill wear long braids in their hair. Their houses are huts of dried mud covered with rush and straw, in a circular form to better trap the heat released by its occupants.

We asked one of the Chipaya what time period the few funerary houses, or Chullpas, were from were from. The response:"These are the houses of our ancestors, when there was only the Moon. When the Sun arrived, it dazzled all the men. Only the houses survived." Intrigued, we then asked him how he explained the total eclipse of the sun. His explanation was as clear as that of a Western astronomer.

Our way to the south is marked by volcanoes

After this fascinating stop, our southbound journey is marked by volcanoes. We are, without any doubt, close to the South Lipez. The villages are rare, and they are often deserted, swept by the dust, settings worthy of a Sergio Leone film. To the west, towards Chile, we can see the crater-shaped peaks that mark the border. The most beautiful of them is certainly the Tatasabaya, which forms a fine, almost perfect cone. In front of us, towards the south, stands another strange volcano, the Tunupa. Behind it hides the jewel of Bolivia, the great salt desert, or salar, of Uyuni.

The Tunupa volcano is the "lighthouse" of the salar that guides the caravanner or the truck driver during their desert crossing. Standing at 1800 meters above the salar, its enormous cratercan be seen from far away, and indicates the North of the salar or Jirira, a village wedged between the sides of the volcano and the white expanse. The inhabitants of this village have long attributed a legend to it. Don Carlos, a very active character in the community, tells us about his memories of the Tunupa:

"My grandparents used to talk about mountains that walked and fell in love. The Tunupa was the most beautiful mountain in the area, courted by the Gods. One day it gave birth to a child who died very quickly. Nurturing mother, with her enormous breasts, let her milk spill out. It crystallized forever into salt... Thus was born the salar, a milky expanse with the crater of the volcano, which is empty today. To tell the truth, we don't really know anymore if this legend is true or false. I can't say that I don't believe it, but neither can I say the contrary... Here, our church is in ruins and the priest comes only once every 6 months... and even then, only if the road allows! ... He visits us about as much as the deputy of the province! ... So, between the beliefs of the ancestors and those of our generation, we believe in a little bit of everything and we get by like that!” He bursts out laughing.

At first sight, the edges of the salar seem very hostile to any form of life

However, as soon as you stay and speak with the natives (half Aymara, half Quechua), you realize that here, as elsewhere, life is possible. Communities have strong family ties and find their cultural identity in the importance of quinoa, in the artisanal exploitation of salt, in traditions, and in the predominance of the llama. Quinoa is called "semilla madre”, the mother of seeds. Cultivated for more than 5000 years, this plant (not a cereal as many believe but a seed of the spinach family) can grow in altitudes of more than 4000 meters and requires little water. It is a halophyte (or salt-loving) plant, hence its strong presence in the region. We also owe to it the numerous bright colors (yellow, green, purple, white, sometimes red) that adorn this part of the Altiplano just before the harvest in April.

The scene, in the end, is astonishing: the pure blue sky, the white salar, the ochre nuances of the earth, and finally the multicoloured fields of quinoa - a colourful backdrop to the colours of the cholitas’ skirts..

The Uyuni salt flat cuts the Bolivian Altiplano in two

To continue our trip, we inevitably need to cross the100 km of white desert, heading south. What an unforgettable experience! After crossing the entire salar on its length, the road becomes uncertain, signifying a rarely frequented part of the Altiplano. At times we meet other men organized in small hamlets of a few dozen inhabitants at most. They live from the sale of llama wool and the exploitation of ore, and are the real inhabitants of the South Lipez; rough as their environment, they’ve been around for too long to still be amazed by the colours of the morning. Most of them have never gone further than a few dozen kilometers from their village, but the most entrepreneurial sometimes go as far as Uyuni, the ciudad del Este, on the edge of the salar.

Uyuni is a Western city, organized in a grid system of streets. A few bars offer simple comforts to the tired traveler: food, drink and a little entertainment. A group of Frenchmen have set up a bar here, the "Loco Loca" (the crazy locomotive), as a replica of one of the old trains that now litter the "loco cemetery" just outside the town. This cemetery stands as proof of Uyuni’s glorious past as an important railway junction in the beginning of the 20th century, where infamous bandits Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kidrobbed their last train What were these robbers doing around here, you ask? On the run in the Wild West, they they learned about the riches of Peru and crossed South America with their dream of fortune. In the end, they were caught and executed in the South Lipez, north of the village of Tupiza. Still, here, in this bar at the end of the world, you can drink pastis,ask for a steak with roquefort salsa, and harken back to old American cowboys…globalization can sometimes be good!

We pass by the enigmatic village of San Cristobald

Not all good, though. On our way south again, we pass by the village of San Cristobald where, in 1998, a mining consortium bought the concession rights for the exploitation of the silver deposit at a high price. Rumor had it that this deposit was one of the most important ever discovered, more important than the famous Cerro Rico of Potosí. The only problem was that the village and its 350 inhabitants were located on the site of the deposit. After a great seduction operation by the mining company, the community of villagers agreed to the complete transfer of the village to a place 17 km away, in the windiest place of this corner of the Altiplano, to allow for mining to begin.

The colonial church, one of the oldest and most sumptuous in the region, was dismantled and rebuilt stone by stone. The cemetery was transferred, which aroused great emotion in the inhabitants of the village. Of course, all this was done in return for a strong "compensation" from the foreign company: construction from scratch of new modern houses aligned in a perfect grid, a generous distribution of household appliances,and guaranteed salaried work for life in the future mine. However, for more than 3 years since the company has held the exploitation rights, no work has been undertaken to start the mine. It is said that the villagers called upon the witch doctors, as is often the case in such scenarios . They explained that the deposit had suddenly disappeared, by order of the Pachamama. For what reason? The reason was a mystery, but the remedy was known: a sacrifice, which would bring proof of the respect of the Indians towards the Gods. So it was done: a man, dressed as richly as possible and accompanied by a llama, was sent as an offering to the mountain, and perhaps sacrificed there. The truth probably lies elsewhere; this company is listed on the Vancouver Stock Exchange, a kind of world stock exchange headquarters for the mining market. The value of the shares, as elsewhere when it comes to stock market speculation, depends heavily on rumors about the health of this or that company. In this case, the acquisition of the San Cristobald concession would be no more than a psychological manoeuvre, a kind of announcement effect, aimed at boosting demand for shares. There is a good chance that the San Cristobald mine will never come into production.

To the south again, we get to the heart of the South Lipez

The South Lipez is ne of the two highest deserts on the planet. Here, there are only abandoned villages in the middle of which remains most often a church. Other men live in this region but only stay for the borax, sulfur, and silver mining season.. Some of them work in open-air mines on top of volcanoes, sometimes at an altitude of more than 5000 meters. The Ollague volcano even has a track leading to more than 5500 meters of altitude! If you climb this volcano, beware of the sulfur fumes and don't forget to bring beers for the miners!

This area often sees, insmall numbers, adventurers, gold diggers, scientists, and curious travelers. Each one has his or her own story and own truth. Then there are the poor soldiers who, against their will, border the southern part of the country, already delimited by its volcanoes. Grouped in camps of 5 to 15 men, they wait impatiently for release, stuck in their spherical huts. The government fears a Chilean attack, but the soldiers know that the Chileans will not come. They can't stand the altitude.

It is by continuing south that we find the wondrously colourful lagoons of the South Lipez, known by all the Bolivians regardless of having gone there themselves. Around these islands of life encircled by an irritable volcanic subsoil, the fauna that symbolizes the region is revealed: hundreds of pink flamingos, their legs soaked in icy water, feeding on the crustaceans that cover and color the bottom of the waters. We also meet herds of vicuñas or "nandus" (small ostriches). We will need to go east towards the Uturuncu volcano, after the villages of Quetena and San Pablo de Lipez, to see condors around the splendid Celeste (blue) and Amarilla (yellow) lagoons. . Don’t forget updated maps, GPS and water reserves!

Despite the difficult conditions, the lagoons are like paradises on earth

The Laguna Colorada is endowed with vivid, intertwined colours: immense expanses of red and white with the dotted pink lines of flamingos and mountains the colour of sulfur. Herds of llamas have also chosen this place to live.

Then there’s the desert of Dali, named because of the astonishing similarities between these eternal landscapes and the paintings of the Spanish genius: infinite shades of ochre with multicoloured lagoons and bubbling geysers. Truly, even the most clumsy of photographers takes fabulous pictures here.

The forces of the earth are clearly visible here, and sometimes even "domesticated" by men. In this region almost devoid of human presence, a man chose to build the work of a lifetime: Apacheta, the highest factory in the world, at an altitude of more than 5000 meters! Belgian nuclear engineer Guillaume Roelands discovered the potential of this isolated region’s geothermal springs, huge jets of boiling water which today constitute the main source of energy for Roelands’ boric acid plant. The steam heats the chemical reactors, and the sacks of boric acid are transported by truck across the Altiplano and the Atacama Desert to Chilean ports. Unfortunately,Roelands' dream has recently turned into a nightmare; accused of drug trafficking, he faces many years in prison while awaiting a hypothetical review of his trial, apparently a prank designed to keep him out of a lucrative market.

Finally, we reach this end of the earth

The Laguna Verde is an emerald lake, its color changing according to the time of the day. In the morning, when the wind rises brutally, the light green of the lagoon is transformed into a bright and bewitching emerald.

At the edge of the lagoon stands the Licancabur volcano, reaching nearly 6000 meters of altitude. It overlooks the entire Atacama desert, thousands of meters below. Up to 1000 meters beneath the summit, we can still see vestiges of Inca sites. They had, long ago, been bewitched by the magic of the place: The volcano’s crater hosts in its center a small lagoon where Inca priests came to deposit their offerings and practice human sacrifice, assuring the benevolence of their deities for the harvests to come. An English anthropologist, who came at the beginning of the century to excavate the lagoon, would have left with bags full of gold objects...

These lands make the traveler rediscover the simple things in life

The warmth of a sleeping bag on a -15 degree night, the simplicity of shared bread or a conversation by a fire of yareta, the big green moss that clings to the rocks. This is perhaps the magic of South Lipez. As for the Altiplano, this immense expanse falsely called a plateau, it ends here. Beyond, very close, there is the Chilean desert of Atacama and the vertiginous descent towards the Pacific. But this is another trip altogether, a Bolivia-Chile-Argentina expedition on the Great Altiplano…does it tempt you?

Extract from the book "Sommets Incas: Les plus belles courses des Andes centrales", by Patrick Wagnon and Fabrice Pawlak, editions Glénat.