Expedition to the Bolivian Altiplano

Few places remain in the world like Bolivia, a quite isolated country facing enormous socioeconomic challenges that have impaired its development. As a result of the country’s feeble growth, most of its natural environment remains unexploited. Here, it is still possible to experience Earth, as it might have been ages before human intervention. The geography of the country exhibits a great variety of terrains and climates and embodies one of the highest biodiversity in the world. The country is divided into a mountainous western area, with extraordinary altitude, and eastern lowlands, covered by extensive rainforests reaching out to the Amazon. The Bolivian region has been occupied for over 2,000 years and is believed to be the cradle of the Inca. Today, there are about three-dozen native groups and nearly 30 different languages are spoken.

I’ve wanted to visit Bolivia for several years as part of my ongoing interest in visiting extreme natural environments but, for years, I had concentrated my attention on Saharan Africa, a region of expansive immaculate environments traveled by few other than nomadic tribes. In the last several years, the Sahara has fallen hostage to radical Islamic militants making travel in the area very dangerous and uninspiring. Bolivia’s Altiplano appealed to me as an alternative of such extreme environments.

From the beginning, I had a good idea of what areas I wanted to explore but I recognized the importance of traveling with a guide that knows the region and can handle the complex logistics required in expeditions of this kind. My research led to a Bolivian landscape photographer who had vast experience taking geologists and film crews to the most isolated areas of the Altiplano, Sergio Ballivian, who helped plan the itinerary, built the team and conducted the fifteen-day expedition with professionalism and efficiency. Traveling in the area proved to be difficult and unpredictable due to a massive strike of miner workers that had blocked the few available roads in the region. We adjusted our intended route using only primitive four-wheel trails leading to the main areas we had originally planned to visit, this worked for the North-South section of the trip, but the return route to La Paz was blocked by the strike and forced us to fly out from the small town of Uyuni.

Our group arrived to La Paz a couple of days before the intended departure date to adapt our bodies to the extreme altitude of the Altiplano, averaging 16,000 feet. We landed in the El Alto airport at 13,000 feet, but descended promptly to lower La Paz at 10,000. I found the geography of the city to be interesting to the eye, but experiencing it was disappointing. The city runs in chaos and anarchy. Other than a few sites, La Paz is a forgettable city nestled in a valley framed by striking mountains. There are only a few sites worth visiting, such as the Witches Market, where herbs, remedies and ingredients for Ayamara rituals and traditions are sold in picturesque stands. I was also stroke by the San Francisco church, a beautifully preserved colonial building with fascinating interior altars bursting with lively worshippers.

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 2.34.18 PMOnce we had our lungs accustomed to the altitude, we took a couple of one-day excursions to nearby sites. The first one was to a high-section of the Yungas, a transitional region that links the eastern slopes of the Andes with the Amazonia tropical rainforest in the north of the country, dropping nearly 11,000 feet in one day. The road we traveled on, known as the Death Road, is a legendary single-lane dirt route that winds through steep hillsides flanked by steep lush slopes, bathed by waterfalls and fog. We travelled as far as the town of Coroico and returned to La Paz that night.


The next morning we headed to our second one-day excursion to Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, at 12,000 feet. The lake was an obligated visit, but not the central reason for our trip to that area. Our main destination that day was Tiahuanaco, an archeological site regarded as the place of origin of one of the most important civilizations prior to the Inca Empire. Among the ruins of the ancient city there is a megalithic stone arch, called the “Gate of the Sun”, built over 1500 years ago. What brought us to this Gate was the will and mandate of

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 2.44.34 PMour dear friend David Quintero, who had pledged to his Bolivian father-in-law that, someday, he would spread his ashes through the gate. With profound love and ceremonial protocol, David fulfilled his father-in-law’s wish in a ritual that will forever remain in my memory. That night we returned once again to La Paz in preparation for an early departure to the Altiplano.

Bolivia MapThe magnificence of the Altiplano landscape became quickly clear shortly after leaving La Paz. The road to Sajama displays spectacular volcanoes and vast pampas sMG_3869_Illimani.jpgcattered with llama and isolated rural dwellings. Mt. Sajama is the highest peak in Bolivia at 21,500 feet and, it dominates the landscape with its beautiful volcanic crest and snow-covered skirt. The mountain is a perfect subject for sunset, offering a spectacular display of rolling clouds that blend the warm colors of the setting sun with the golden patina of the surrounding landscape. We spent the night at the foot of the volcano in a small Aymara village called Tomarapi.

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 3.31.32 PMWe got an early start the next day heading south towards the village of Tahua, at the northern shore of the great Uyuni salt sea. The road had very interesting natural and archeological features. We saw a series of chullpas, ancient funerary towers, some dating back 1,000 years. Some chullpas are unadorned and others have perfectly preserved color adornments on the façade. In all cases, the openings of the tomb faces the rising sun and continue to hold the corpse of the deceased and their belongings after many centuries. The Altiplano is an area of inland drainage similar to the Tibetan Plateau only dominated by massive active volcanoes and regarded as one of the driest areas on the planet. Regardless of its dryness and altitude, The Altiplano boasts an enormous variety of flora and fauna. Among the most interesting ones is Llareta, an ancient evergreen that grows only 1 cm per year and lives as long as 3,000 years.

Chorisodontium aciphyllum_Altiplano

Tahua is an agricultural village on the north shore of the salt sea at the foot of a massive volcano crowned by a multi-colored crest. What we found appealing about this village was the site of the bright red quinoa fields contrasting against the vast white landscape of the Uyuni Sea. From Tahua we entered the Salar de Uyuni, the main destination in our expedition itinerary.

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The Salar de Uyuni is a unique spectacle. This massive 4,000 square-mile prehistoric lake, now covered with a few meters of salt crust, is so flat that most Earth-observation satellites use it to calibrate their altimeters. It can only be explored in four-wheel vehicles with experienced drivers. One may travel for days surrounded with nothing other than salt and small remnants of coral reefs that use to be in the bottom of the ocean millennia ago and now serve as isolated bio-systems housing endemic flora and fauna. These islands rise in a stark oxide-color from an elegant carpet of pristine white salt. We camped at Isla Pescador, one of the most remote of the islands, we arrived at the end of the day just before the sunset lid up the expansive landscape in violet and orange colors laced in the intricate polygonal patterns formed on the salt surface. Camping in the middle of this extraordinary landscape is a profound experience, especially at Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 3.40.54 PMnight, when the southern star dome shines in exquisite brightness and detail. During the night, I took a three-mile walk away from the campground to enjoy the solitude and awe that one can only experience in the most extreme of natural environments, such as floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or walking on the ephemeral sands of the Saharan Ténéré. The Salar de Uyuni can be visited at different times of the year for completely varying effects, but we chose to explore the area at the very end of the rain season when a thin layer of water extending for several miles reflects, in pristine detail, everything that happens in the sky. This fantastical symmetries are dramatically painted in the colors of sunrise and sunset, but astonishingly, it is at night when the effect is unimaginable – the Milky Way is neatly displayed above and bellow as if there was no horizon.

_MG_3871_Driving over stars_2

The southern area of the Altiplano is mostly a rocky plateau displaying dramatic rock formations. The landscape is staged by iconic volcano cones painted in every shade of mineral colors, from a deep burnt sienna to a pale yellow. There is hardly any vegetation in this expansive region other than Llareta, that grows like emerald-green jewels delineating boulders and crevices. In route to the south, we stayed at a small hotel located Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 3.45.59 PMin a striking valley isolated from absolutely everything or everyone. From the porch of the hotel we had a view of the great mountain range in the northwestern region of Sud Lipez, a perfect view to enjoy the sunrise. The trail led us through active volcanic vents that continually splatter gas and mud rich in sulfur. This stretch is at an average height of 14,000 ft and some of us had symptoms of hypoxia due to the lack of oxygen.


The arrival to Laguna Colorada is breathtaking. From a distance the immense lagoon looks like a gigantic colorful painting in shades of red and silver. Its name refers to the color of the water, a deep pink color caused by pigmentation of algae and rich minerals that flow into the lake. This Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 3.56.29 PMis home for the Andean flamingo, one of the rarest in the world. This southernmost region features another spectacular lake, Laguna Verde, painted in crisp turquoise green framed by a dry salt shore. The water gets its intense color from chemicals and minerals that flow from the surrounding mountains, such as Mt. Llicancabur, a towering volcanic cone rising to 19,000 feet above sea level.

Visiting this region of Bolivia is not for the weary kind. There is little travel infrastructure and travel distances are very significant. The lack of adequate oxygen increases fatigue and causes a bit of a temperament edge. Yet, those who venture into it are treated to some of the most powerful spectacles offered by Mother Nature, from the reflective symmetries in the Uyuni landscape, to the luminous stars in the southern night sky, Bolivia has a deserved place among the ten most beautiful places to visit on Earth.

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It was a pleasure traveling with a group of dear friends with whom I share a profound appreciation of extreme natural environments: David Quintero, Benito Martínez, Rene Goiffon, Adrian Velicescu and Nacho Prado. I’m grateful for their friendship.


Grid Music

I’ve always been interested in grids and patterns. I often stare at the night sky looking for consistent configurations between groups of stars. I look for textural regularities on the surface of the ocean or in desert sand. Random street noises fascinate me and I tend to organize them in my imagination as sounds that relate to one another in some cohesive form. Jackson Pollock’s random motion patterns mesmerize me as much as Piet Mondrian’s strict vertical-horizontal scapes.


Not surprisingly, I’ve always been interested in music that is highly repetitive. The first vinyl I ever owned was J.S. Bach’s Fuge in G Minor, BWV 578, also known as the “Little Fuge”. I would follow the sound pattern as it kept repeating itself at different pitches, as it were a mantra or a never-ending echo. I could follow the notes by projecting imaginary dots and lines in space and watch them interlace to create an exquisite geometric pattern. It amazed me to see how independent sounds could produce such a harmonious result. By age 17, I had amassed a reasonably large collection of what I refer to as “grid music”, in particular polyphony of the Middle Ages, where melodic voices, or instruments, create a similar hypnotizing pattern effect. Of course, I also loved rock, folk and pop music, but I always had a special regard for my Early Music collection that included dozens of extraordinary recordings by the Harmonia Mundi label.

John Cage During my college years I became interested in John Cage’s approach to composing. His experimental process inspired me to look at music in new ways, leading me to discover music made by Robert Moog on voltage-controlled analogue synthesizers, as well as works with analogue and electronic synthesizers by artists like Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Brian Eno, Hans Joachim Roedelius and, my favorite in the genre, Klaus Schulze, a German music composer who I consider among the most important pioneers of electronic music.

KlausI first became aware of Schulze in 1975 at a California College of Arts party in Oakland, CA. One of his first albums, Timewind, was playing in the background acting as unifying musical texture to the loud noise and random conversations going on in the room – hard to tell where the music ended and the noise began. Curious, I asked for headphones to appreciate in more detail the complex, multi-layered rhythmical patterns of the music. I had never listened to anything like it.

Klaus Schulze was born in Germany in 1947. With over 60 albums released in five decades, he remains among the most prolific electronic music artist today. In his early years, Schulze had brief collaborations with bands like Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Temple. In 1972 he released his first album Irrilicht, a rather unconventional experiment played with a conventional electric organ backed by a recording of a classical music composition played backward, beyond recognition, then mixed on tape into a three movement symphony. While Irrilicht was recorded without a synthesizer, the album is regarded as a milestone in ambient electronic music. Among many extraordinary recordings that followed, three stand out among the finest synthesizer music albums ever produced; Timewind (1975), Mirage (1977) and X (1978), this last one I regard as Schulze’s greatest masterpiece. X is a biographical musical album celebrating a selective group of intellectuals that influenced Schulze: Friedrich Nietzsche, George Trakl, Frank Herbert, Friedemann Bach, Ludwig von Bayern and Henrich von Kleist. These recordings mix classical string orchestra instruments looped on tape, percussion music, and lush synthesizer sounds that result in a highly elaborate instrumental composition of grand proportion. While X may have been more influenced by Schulze’s interest in Richard Wagner, his early focus on sequencing and sound patterning shine through and give structure to the emotional dissonant sounds present throughout the composition.

For those of us who enjoy deconstructing music into basic sound patterns and grids, Mirage is a most listen. Here Schulze creates a multi-layered rhythmical framework where each sound moves in parallel, oscillating, other sounds collide with each other to form an ever-growing crescendo of notes traveling in space. This is sequencer music at its best.

Klaus Schulze, like most experimental artists, resists any association with a particular music category. His influence runs deep in ambient music, trance, techno and new age, including many current styles like rave, electro house and downtempo. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Schulze did not stay in the Oort Cloud of electronic music. With an indomitable experimental spirit he has continued to take creative risks and explore new ways of channeling his music to different audiences, such as The Dark Side of the Moog, a collaboration with Pete Namlook and Bill Laswell performing a variety of Pink Floyd covers, as well as his recent collaboration with singer Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance).


Klaus Schulze playing live 1977

Electronic music today has become mainstream and is intrinsic in many music categories, from film scores and Musak, to edgy contemporary artists like Mousehead and Radiohead among hundreds. But nothing is more satisfying than listening to the original pure compositions of experimental music pioneers who struggle with the unknown and take extraordinary artistic risks. Perhaps not always producing agreeable work, but always pushing the boundaries of convention. The exceptional music produced by artists like Bach, Reich, Cage and Schulze that I’ve followed since my early years remains current in my music preferences and continues to grace my imagination with magnificent patterns of sound in space.

The White Rim Trail

White Rim Trail is among the most beautiful trails in the Southwest. It is also one of the most remote. The Trail follows the contour of a secondary mesa 1,200 feet below the surface edge ofLucas On the White Rim the Island in the Sky, taking visitors deep into the guts of our planet. At every turn, the trail reveals grand-scale geological formations, from buttes and towering walls, to capriciously carved rock formations, arches and the windblown sandstone layers that give the trail its name. Wherever one looks, there is nothing but impassable wilderness that meanders down through cliffs and canyons to the most isolated sections of the Green and Colorado rivers.

Trail turn near Lathrop Canyon

Trail turn near Lathrop Canyon

The Trail today is part of Canyonlands National park, but the history of the trail precedes the establishment of the area in 1964 as a National Park. The White Rim area was pioneered by cattle herders in the mid 1800’s and later explored by John Wesley Powell. A mining boom in the 1950’s brought uranium prospectors to the region that created a network of roads and mines that, ultimately, did not produce much ore. The Trail is a product of this period.

White Rim Trail is about 100 miles long and is considered moderately difficult for high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles. The trail offers a superb mountain biking experience. There are two very steep sections, Shafer Trail, which provides access from the East, and Mineral Bottom, which provides access from the West. Both trails are often closed during the winter season as a result of ice buildup and mud. When these access sections are closed, one can enter the Trail through a much safer route, Potash Road, a 13 mile high-clearance road that merges with the White Rim trail at the foot of Shafer trail.

Shafer Trail. Impassable in January due to icing conditions.

Shafer Trail. Impassable in January due to icing conditions.

IMG_7039I have traveled the trail twice during winter in unfavorable weather conditions. My most recent visit was on January 2013, when the area suffered one of the coldest winters on record. Both access points were closed. Other sections of the trail that do not get enough direct sunlight to melt surface ice, such as Murphy Basin and Hardscrabble, forced us to turn around and not risk the possibility of losing the vehicles. As a general rule, the eastern part of the trail gets more sunlight than the western section making icing conditions less critical all the way up to Murphy Basin. It is possible to take the Murphy Basin trail section heading on an eastern direction, but climbing Hardscrabble thereafter may not be possible forcing a return to Murphy Basin heading west, a considerable difficult road climb under slippery conditions.

Camping along the trail is highly regulated and permits are required. One must reserve campgrounds and stick to an itinerary. The strict rules and regulations imposed on visitors traveling the Trail makes the experience a bit restrictive, considering the extreme isolation of the area. The “leave no trace behind” practice is taken to the limits. However, I appreciate the fact that, to preserve this exceptional place, exceptional measures are required. It is likely that one can spend 3 days on the trail without seeing a single visitor. This place is an isolated, precious piece of heaven on Earth and provides an opportunity for the preservation of a pristine desert environment for future generations to enjoy and study.

Sunbathed Airport Tower.

Sunbathed Airport Tower.

If you are mountain-biking or off-roading, the Trail needs a minimum of three days to be best experienced. The scale of the landscape, the color of the rocks and the orientation of the trail create an unequalled stage to enjoy the sunrise and sunset. Everyday is a color feast. It is also a place for exploration. There are a few primitive trails that take you into geological pages dating back 300 million years, when Utah sat close to the Equator. Perhaps, the most memorable place along the trail is the Lower Basin overlook, just 500 feet south of White Crack, a set of gold-colored sandstone boulders clinging on to the edge of a 1,000 foot cliff with a view in every direction.


View of Lower Basin from the White Crack overlook.

Another memorable spot is Monument Basin, four miles northeast of White Crack. This fantastical landscape resembles the architecture of Antonio Gaudi’s Sacred Family, or a set of a science fiction movie. I triedSanti On the White Rim to find a trailhead to get down to the bottom of the canyon to get closer to the towering columns below, but apparently there is no access to the basin from this point.

The thing that strikes me as disappointing about White Rim is the poor quality of the campgrounds. This is an area of development for the Park to resolve. The campgrounds are mere parking lots with little, if any, aesthetic regard for the visitor experience. It is hard to believe that the four or five campgrounds along the trail couldn’t be located in more suitable (and beautiful) locations. Other than White Crack, the campgrounds are ugly. Having said that, the bathrooms are impeccably clean and so are the grounds.

Overview of the Lower Basin, just south of White Crack

Overview of the Lower Basin, just south of White Crack

Don’t underestimate Potash Road. The views along the road to the evaporation ponds include breathtaking views of Pyramid Butte, the Colorado River and the La Sal Mountains. The road back to Moab is pleasant and offers a few attractions worth checking out. The Corona arch is a beautiful site easily reached by a short trail. This arch rises over 140 feet high with a huge opening.

Corona Arch

Corona Arch.

I’ve seen the town of Moab grow through the years, but on my last visit I sensed that it has come into its own. New boutique hotels and restaurants have opened and are doing a great job. We stayed at a small B&B called Cali Cochitta, ran by two lovely people who understand hospitality and comfort. This was a great place to arrive to after a few days camping on the White Rim Trail in freezing temperatures.

Unforgivable to be in the area and not pay a visit to Delicate Arch, one of the most iconic geological objects in the world. As much as it is seen on postcards and editorial features, nothing compares to seeing it live. The freezing temperatures kept me from climbing to its base, it was dangerously slippery, but I got close enough to recognize what keeps me coming back over and over again to this part of the world.

Delicate Arch. Arches National Park.

Delicate Arch. Arches National Park.