On our second day in Bolivia’s Wild West town, Tupiza, we got up early and headed out to find the Quebrada de Palmira. Preferring to hike alone, without paying for a tour guide, means that we often get lost; especially as maps and helpful directions are hard to come by in a town that thrives on tourism, where everyone wants you to sign up for one of their tours. Still, we were determined to go it alone, especially as the hikes around Tupiza, like El Cañon and the Quebrada de Palmira, are really easy and definitely don’t call for a guide.
We headed out of town, following the railway lines along a dirt road lined with stray dogs lazing in the sunshine, where the constant wind threw up swirls of dust into our faces and we had a fantastic view of the distant, rocky mountain wall, the colour of dried blood, which surrounds Tupiza. Before long, we came across a dried riverbed which had to be the Quebrada de Palmira, and followed it away from the road towards the west.
Although we took a wrong turning at a fork in the river, which led us past a huge, smelly rubbish dump and missed the more pleasant scenic route into the valley, both turns led to the same place, so we arrived at the back of the valley and found ourselves facing an enormous wall of orangey-red rock, blazing in the sunshine, towering above the dried, swirling riverbed and the stumpy, wind-swept green trees which filled the valley.
We headed into the canyon through an enormous gap between the cliffs, and followed the riverbed past (and over) huge pinkish boulders, around enormous clumps of cacti coated in a yellow haze of sharp spikes, and into the Valle de los Machos, also colloquially known as Valle de los Penes (Penis Valley). So called because of the strikingly phallic shapes of the rocks lining it, Valle de los Penes was formed by water and wind affecting the relatively soft rock of the canyon, creating small, cylindrical towers of rock with slightly larger, bulbous tops. The overall effect is a little bizarre – and according to the locals, decidedly macho.
After a picnic lunch in Macho Valley, we headed back out into the main, sweeping valley and followed a second path round to a different gap in the rock wall, leading into another canyon. Passing a shepherd with a huge herd of goats, many of whom were stood on their back legs to stretch up and eat the leaves from tree branches, we followed the trail of horse hoof prints (this is a popular area for horseriding tours) to the back of the canyon entrance, where we discovered the Cañon del Inca.
At first glance, we seemed to be in a dead-end; a small clearing between the towering cliffs and huge, fallen boulders. But we saw riderless horses waiting patiently around a watering hole, and decided there had to be a way forward. A lot of climbing was involved! Up and over the huge boulders, we peeked into the canyon beyond – making jokes about hunting cattle rustlers and attempting Wild West accents – then scrabbled down a narrow, rubble-strewn path, between, over and even under huge slabs of pink and orange rock, into the canyon itself.
The walk was a fantastic one, involving quite a bit of jumping and climbing, and took us through a deserted crevice between two huge rocky cliffs, right into the canyon. Eventually, we reached a small waterfall trickling weakly over a short cliff, which was really tricky to climb even with Sam hauling me up. I made it though, and we were able to press on for about fifteen minutes more, until we reached a place where an enormous rockfall seemed to have blocked off the rest of the canyon. It looked as though we might have been able to climb it – with difficulty – and carry on, but neither of us wanted to risk a broken neck, or getting stuck on the other side, so we turned back and headed out the way we’d come. Getting back down the waterfall – where the steep rocks were damp and slippery, and the top of the six foot cliff jutted out further than the lower rocks, making it seem much higher than it was – was even harder than getting up, and Sam had to essentially catch me as I slid down the rockface.
Back outside the Canyon del Inca, we made our way back through the valley along the riverbed, this time following the right path away from the dump. This also took us past one of the other famous sights in the area, the Puerta del Diablo, or Devil’s Gate: a huge, long wall of rock just a few foot wide with nothing on either side, which looks as though it’s been dropped into the centre of the valley. The gate is a large, craggy gap in the centre of the red wall, strewn with rocks and cacti, and looking for all the world like an entrance to something. We climbed up a sloping dirt path along the wall for an incredible view across the tree-filled valley, it’s sandy floor laced with the swirls of the river which flows in summer, towards Tupiza and the dark red mountain wall beyond.
Tupiza, with it’s beautiful, John Wayne film-set scenery and quiet, rustic feel, was yet another of my favourite stops in Bolivia and a great place to spend a couple of days adventuring! It also makes a brilliant starting point for an extended version of the traditional Salar de Uyuni tour – which is exactly what we did!