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I’d been in Bolivia for a couple of weeks and it was every bit as grand as I’d dreamed. Admittedly, I was very nervous about how I’d handle the high altitude there. Much of what I read about what happens to some people at high altitude was sketchy and inconsistent. Some of it was downright terrifying. I mean, your brain swelling inside your skull and shutting down vital organs and such. Scary.
At the same time I knew that Bolivia was a popular country to visit and that if the altitude reactions were really all that dangerous I likely would’ve heard more about it.
I had seen an English doctor on a previous trip, turn white as a ghost and go down hard at Machu Picchu in Peru, so I knew high altitude was definitely something you have to watch out for. Most of what I read said that if you have certain symptoms that you must get yourself down to lower altitude immediately. What are you supposed to do if your brain is swelling, you’re traveling alone and have just stepped off the plane in La Paz, Bolivia at 12,500 feet above sea level… how are you supposed to get yourself down to lower altitude while your brain is swelling and being crushed inside your skull? Seems like under those conditions you might not exactly have your wits about you.
I read all I could, took all the recommended precautions and hoped for the best.
As soon as the plane landed there were several people on the plane having severe problems. Many were throwing up all over the place and there were Bolivian airline employees rushing onto the plane with small oxygen tanks. I was seated toward the front of the plane so I was able to make my way off the plane after the emergency staff had passed.
I stood up and put one foot in front of the other… fully expecting that I’d likely be going down too. Evidently I’m one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have a problem with altitude. I kept waiting to feel faint or sick, but all I got was a mild headache that lasted a couple of days. I didn’t even have to take any of the altitude pills that you can easily find anywhere in La Paz.
After about 5 days of acclimating myself, I even went up even higher to over 18,000 feet with a small group. Young and fit climbers were having trouble at that altitude, but I was still going strong. A little slower perhaps and breathing hard, but mostly unfazed.
One of the main destinations I wanted to see was the Salar de Uyuni area. It’s a vast area of salt plains that stretch into infinity as far as you can see. This area is also high altitude and called the Altiplano.
I took a couple of busses and then a train to a small town almost all the way to the Argentine border. I’d read that if you do the Salar de Uyuni tour from the opposite direction, you end up getting a whole extra day of exploring. And, because most people start from Uyuni and going the opposite direction, you end up not seeing as many of the other tours.
This turned out to be an excellent choice. There were two vehicles in my group. A driver for each and one cook for the group. Eight backpacker tourists (including myself) and that was it. For four days we hardly saw anyone else. Just llamas, alpacas, all sorts of exotic altiplano animals, massive flocks of flamingos, and poisonous lakes of arsenic.
There were some incredibly active thermal geysers you could walk right up to the edge of. Though, it turns out they’re very dangerous as well. At one point I was standing at the edge of one and the crust broke off. I got my balance quickly, but the driver told me that it’s extremely risky getting that close and that people often burn to death from falling into one. He told me that’s what the little white ropes were for, to keep you from getting too close. Good to know! Might’ve mentioned that to me before I pranced right up to the edge of one!
There was an abandoned train graveyard that was surreal. And all throughout the region the landscapes were like no other I’ve ever seen on this planet.
It’s hard to pinpoint a highlight of this tour, because if that complete four days was all I got out of this trip and I had to head home early, I’d have been satisfied with just that tour. That four days was everything I imagined Bolivia to be and then some.
One of my favorite moments during that tour was going to this strange island in the middle of the infinite salt flats. It looks like a small island covered in boulders and cactus surrounded by an endless plateau of white salt flats for as far as the eye can see. Incidentally, underneath all that salt is supposed to be one of the largest deposits of lithium in the world.
When our transport vehicles arrived about a half hour or so before dawn, our little backpacker caravan sleepily made our way up craggy paths with our flashlights. Pitch black and we were all looking for the one spot to get that one unique photo no one else has ever managed. Truth is, there’s likely been millions of images made from this little island over the years and not likely there are any truly unique angles left. We all still tried though.
I thought I’d found a nice spot, but then noticed there was someone else who moved right in front of me. I moved to another spot and the same thing happened. By that time dozens of transport vehicles had arrived at the island and the lookout spots were starting to get crowded.
Frustrated, I moved as far away from the rest of the group as I could. Everyone else tried to get as high up on the island as they possible, so I decided to move a bit lower down the slope instead.
It was hard to figure out where a good spot would be because it was so dark and hard to tell what the scene might look like as soon as the sun began to rise. As the dawn light started to increase, someone else moved in front of me. Again I scrambled over some cacti and boulders to find a good last minute spot.
The air was crisp and the sky was clear. You could finally see where the sun would rise and I could start to make out the lines of cracks creating a patchwork pattern over the sea salt plains surrounding us.
I grabbed a few shots but it was still a little too dark. Then I heard some rustling around me and just in front of me. Not again! Another backpacker blocking my view? No! It was a pack of dogs. They didn’t seem like they were domesticated pets, but they also didn’t growl or appear to be aggressive at all. The light was coming up fast now and there was no time left to move again.
This one dog positioned himself right in front of me and just sat there. I tried to get him to leave but he just sat motionless. Finally, I just gave up and took a few images of the dog silhouette next to a cactus. I was hoping the sound of my camera shutter would scare him off and out of my view. He didn’t budge and stayed put long enough for me to take a few shots. Then he sort of gave me one of those doggy smiles before he headed off with the rest of the pack. The sun now had that golden color and I was able to get a few more landscapes of the incredible vista before it became too bright.
Later, when everyone shared their photos—I noticed most of them looked pretty much the same. My landscapes looked similar to the other photos I saw as well.
Until I got to the throw-away shots I’d made of that dog who insisted on posing right in front of me right at the break of dawn. I then realized that I’d actually succeeded and got one of the most unique shots of that location I’d seen, unlike anyone else. The way that dog became perfectly still in the brisk Altiplano morning air and waited patiently to welcome the rising sun, mirrors exactly how I felt standing there waiting for the same.
Thank you amigo.
I don’t get to order that many prints for myself unless I’m getting something as a gift or a new photo for my portfolio.
Every time I order a new print for myself, or anyone else for that matter… from the second I submit the order I get a tingle on the back of my neck anticipating opening it up. And, no matter how fast the printer can get it completed and delivered, it’s never fast enough. That feeling when you see it for the first time after you’ve carefully removed it from the shipping container is magnificent. It is for me at least.
I’ve decided to try something a little different than what I’ve done in the past. I’m going to have a little flash sale. It’s my very first one so I’m going to keep it simple. It’s just one image, one size, and luster paper finish. The shipping is included if it’s delivered in the U.S. (for international orders, message me and I’ll see what I can do)
This one will be discounted significantly from my normal pricing and you’ll be ordering it directly from me. I’ll fill the order and have it shipped to whichever address you provide on the form. Since I haven’t done this before, and because it is a “flash sale”, it’s only going to be available for a few days.
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