Arrival in the Apolobamba was something of a shock. We were expecting quiet towns but Ulla Ulla was something else. Sat in the middle of a high altitude plain, the main industry is llama herding, which takes the vast majority of the village away for days at a time. Unused to visting gringos (people on the bus seemed most concerned that we had chosen to alight there), we got stares and holas in equal measure from the four people using the afternoon sun as an excuse to drowse in the village square. We cheered ourselves with the thought that real exploration is about towns like this. From this new perspective we realised how fortunate we were that Ulla Ulla’s undiscovered gem status had left it unspoilt by international hotel chains, or indeed hostelries of any form. Which didn´t mean that we wanted to sleep outside. Attempts to locate a ´hospedaje´ (lodging) found us at the hospital. A bemused doctor interrupted his afternoon surgery to run around the town trying to find somebody who would take us in. And so we spent the night lying on the floor of a (permanently) disused bar, watching the cold breath of the night lift the tarpaulin that served as a roof.
On our return to the same village after 10 days in the hills perceptions changed. Emaciated by excessive exertion and insufficient nutrition, what had seemed a dead end town on a Bolivian road to nowhere became the beating heart of western civilisation. Shops (3 of them! And how could we have overlooked their significance on our initial visit!) could supply the saturated fat and concentrated sugar that our bodies craved. We made the most of it, buying biscuits and sweets in every form possible. In a glucose crazed state we almost overlooked the need for shelter. As night fell we realised our mistake and returned to beg help from our previous landlady. Unfortunately, flushed by the success of her first foray into the hospitality industry, she was away on business. We have no doubt that Ulla Ulla will not remain a backwater for long.
Not to be put off by such a minor setback we returned to the shop, bought more biscuits and asked the kindly woman owner (who had already provided us with a jeep to drive in and out of the mountains) if she could help. With a thoughtful frown, the glimmer of a smile and a hurried ‘momentito’, she ran from the shop. True to her word literally a moment later she returned, obviously keen to show us to our quarters. And they were only going to cost 5Bs each (about 40p)! What could go wrong!
She proudly showed us to her garden shed. Bicycles lay across one wall, assorted junk across most of the other three, but the piece de resistance was a llama skeleton lay in one corner of the room. Recently deceased enough to have flesh on the bones and a certain perfume in it´s fleece. In the middle of the room was a small area of mud, and with a small amount of contortion we could all just about fit into it. Tom spent the night with his feet stuck through the spokes of a bicycle, but nobody touched the dead llama.
Toilet facilities were obviously a concern, and I asked the owners kids where we could relieve ourself. They showed us to a small mud brick toilet in the yard, just next to their dog´s kennel. I thanked them, but explained I didn´t need it right away, maybe later. All this time I was vaguely aware that one child had been guarding the kennel. ´No Utiliza los baño mas tarde´ they warned me, ´Porque?´ I cautiously responded. ´the dog is ill´ came the reply (in spanish). ´Ill and dangerous?´ I even more cautiously responded. ´Si´. So we didn´t use the toilet that night. Unfortunately the alternative was pissing on the other side of the road. Which was right next to an army base. And the army didn´t like seeing headtorches wandering back and forth across the road. So they shone torches at us every time we went. Which was most disconcerting.
What followed was an apalling nights sleep. The army base was conducting an exercise that involved blowing whistles repeatedly throughout the night, which gave me weird dreams about herding llama. Then in the middle of the night Graeme woke and announced that he was about to vomit due to excessive biscuit consumtption. This was of particular concern to me as the cramped sleeping conditions meant that in lieu of a suitable receptacle, my head was likely to receive most of the impact. Fortunately we found him a saucepan nestled amongst the junk, but then he decided it had been a false alarm anyway.
The night came to an end as the early sun hit the roof of the shack. Glad of this warmth we started to emerge from our sleeping bags. At which point the nights condensation started to melt off the tin and pour onto our heads. We retreated until all had melted
Needless to say getting back to La Paz was a real relief. We were upset to find that our ‘tans’ were nothing more than ingrained dirt, but being able to eat pizza more than made up for it.
News of deserts, lakes of salt and deserts to follow. In the meantime we’re heading back into the mountains for the last time. No snow or ice this time, just big granite towers.