Altiplano - Lagunas, Deserts and Salares

Trip Start Aug 16, 2003
Trip End Apr 21, 2004

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Monday, March 29, 2004

Dragging ourselves out of bed once more, we only just managed to report to the Colque Tours Office in San Pedro at the allotted time of 8am. Together with a considerable number of other backpackers from a host of different countries, we were packed into three mini-buses and set off on our three-day trip. A couple of hours later, having duly completed the border control formalities, we entered Bolivia and ascended up to the altiplano, as flat sandy deserts gave way to steep hillsides.

When we reached the pretty Laguna Blanco, we all had breakfast together and were then split into groups of six and assigned to a 4WD jeep for the rest of the trip. Our fellow passengers were two Germans, Sabina and Klaus, and two French lads, Jean-Pasqual and Christophe. Our humorous driver, who spoke only in Spanish but who still managed to make himself understood, was called Augustino.

First stop after breakfast was the emerald green waters of the aptly named Laguna Verde. Set against the dramatic cone of the 5,930m Volcan Lincancabur, it was indeed an impressive sight. Dan, however, was in no fit state to marvel at the scenery...

As we got higher and higher, reaching over 4,000m above sea level, he began to get terrible pains in a tooth that has given him trouble in the past. It got so bad that I simply had to watch helplessly as he sat clutching his jaw in his hand, almost jumping out of his seat in agony and trying very hard to focus on not passing out!

He had to endure the pain as we continued to relentlessly climb up to the Sol de Manana at a dizzying altitude of 5,000m. It was a bit of a shame that neither of us was really able to fully appreciate the area of geothermal activity that included bubbling mud pools, hissing steam vents and fumaroles, boiling pools of water and spurting geysers. For a moment we felt as if we were back in the sulphurous atmosphere of the many geothermal parks we'd looked around in New Zealand.

Luckily for Dan, we didn't stay too long at the Sol de Manana before descending a few hundred metres down to the stunning Laguna Colorada. His tooth ache thankfully abated to a dull ache as we began to take in the tremendous spectacle of the beautiful bright pink lake scattered with hundreds of flamingoes and fringed with cakey white minerals. It really was a breathtaking sight and we enjoyed drinking in the view as we ate a snack lunch. I really couldn't have asked for a better, or more memorable, birthday present!

We proceeded to drive around the laguna, pausing for photos at various different vistas as well as every time we came across another pocket of 'mucho flamingoes' (Augustino's favourite catch phrase).

By about 4pm we were delivered to our modest lodgings for the evening - and I mean MODEST. All six of us shared a room containing tiny, rickety old bunk beds and unfortunately the 'bathroom', which was shared by about another ten groups of six, was nothing short of completely disgusting with no running water at all (thank god for clean-up wipes!). Feeling a long way out of our comfort zones, Dan and I decided to go out for a walk. However we were literally in the middle of nowhere and the biting cold wind soon made us retreat back to our dormitory.

The effects of the altitude were beginning to kick in and we both felt a little dizzy and breathless every time we even mildly physically exerted ourselves. Nevertheless, I was quite relieved that neither of us suffered anything more serious than slight headaches and vague feelings of nausea - all of which ceased after a couple of days once we had acclimatised.

That evening the six of us had a simple meal of soup and pasta, which we decided would be improved with a bottle of red wine. Unfortunately the Bolivian tipple tasted more like a sweet port, nevertheless, it helped to bond us as a group and certainly helped to 'take the edge off'.

With the electricity shutting off completely at 9pm, we had little choice but to have an early night. The combination of feeling quite sick and being in a strange room full of relative strangers meant that I literally did not sleep a wink all night - it felt like one of the longest nights of my life. Over breakfast the following morning I discovered that no-one else had managed to sleep much better (although the assorted snoring I'd heard throughout the night seemed to indicate otherwise!).

Once the jeep had been packed up, we headed off to our first stop of the day at a series of weird and wonderful volcanic rock formations - debris from the nearby volcanoes (Dan reliably informs me that the correct term is pyroclasts!!).

As we drove onwards it seemed very hard to believe that we were still at an altitude of around 4,000m due to the fact that we were surrounded by very flat, desert like scenery. Next stop was to view some really cute little long-tailed rodents called Vizcachas, which are relatives of the chinchilla. We watched, amused, as they scrambled up and down the rocks to get hold of the fruit and vegetables that the tour guides offered them.

We continued our, by now familiar, routine of driving for a while and then stopping to get more photographs or to go for a walk at a particular point of interest. Photo opportunities abound when the combination of sunlight and an array of different rocks and minerals led to superbly coloured distant mountain faces ranging from browns, maroons, purples and reds, to oranges, yellows and greens.

The flat desert scenery began to give way to rolling hills and we soon caught a glimpse of our first salar (salt flat, or lake in the rainy season). We had a good walk around a couple of the salares, which were both lakes, marvelling at the perfect reflection of the snowy mountains and trying as best we could to get a decent photo of the resident flamingoes.

As our surroundings grew increasingly more rocky and hilly, we were thrown all over the place in the 4WD as Augustino did his best to negotiate the bumpy tracks. It was a welcome relief to stop for lunch at another area of incredible rock formations - many of which resembled huge waves.

The bumpy ride resumed as we wound our way down to the tiny town of San Juan where we had time to take a wander around the streets. It struck me that there was an incredible lack of colour with all the houses and buildings made out of dirty brown salt bricks and absolutely no greenery to speak of. San Juan could certainly never be described as a particularly inviting town, so we were quite relieved when we were driven an hour or so further down the road to our accommodation for the evening.

After the previous night we were all more than slightly anxious about where we would end up. Our fears were allayed however, when we pulled up to a purpose-built, modern building, situated on a hillside overlooking the vast Salar de Uyuni (it was very hard to believe that you weren't looking out across to the horizon of a great white sea). Although we still had to share a dorm room, the beds were at least decent and we had a clean bathroom complete with hot shower - luxury!

We had a few moments of panic later that evening when Dan emerged from the shower and declared that he didn't wish to worry me, but he was bleeding from his ear. Both knowing that this is a very serious symptom, we worried that the altitude might have brought on a terribly dangerous reaction...a few minutes later when we went outside into the light (our room was very dark with no electricity) and I checked his ear, we discovered that he'd simply nicked his inner ear and was not dying from a brain haemmorhage after all!

We all slept a lot better in a our new accommodation and were off on our travels again early the next morning. As we drove across the amazing Salar de Uyuni, it felt as if someone was playing a trick on our senses as we struggled to come to terms with the fact that we were in fact travelling across salt and not tightly packed snow (particularly when we could see snowy mountain peaks on the horizon). This is the world's largest salt flat blanketing an area of 12,000km at an altitude of 3,650m. It was a really weird feeling to simply view white as far as the eye could see in any direction. When we stopped to take photos and walked across the salt, we realised how incredibly small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. The feeling of vast size and space was pretty impressive. Moreover, it was fascinating to see the almost perfect hexagonal shapes that the salt crystals had formed. A truly amazing experience!

Several islands pepper the vast salt flat and we stopped to explore the Isla de Pescadores which is home to hundreds of huge cactus plants. It was a wonderful sight to view the cacti against the white background of what looked like snow. Once again the photo opportunities were endless as we walked up to the summit of the small island.

Continuing our trip across the Salar, we broke our journey again to have a look around a small hotel located in the middle of the flat which is made entirely of salt.

After travelling across a seemingly endless expanse of white, we eventually arrived at Colchani, a small town on the other side of the flat. After a quick look around a couple of very basic touristy gift shops, we waited in the jeep for our driver and were kept amused by the local children who didn't miss a trick when it came to parting our fellow passengers from their snacks, loose change etc!

The town of Uyuni, where our trip was to end, was only an hour away from Colchani by jeep. Unfortunately, however, the final leg of our trip ended up taking closer to three hours as we ran out of petrol and were carrying no spare fuel. We ended up having to wait for another couple of vehicles to pass us and then watched with amusement as our driver proceeded to use an assortment of our plastic water bottles to funnel off fuel from them. Eventually we were on our way once again and completed a fantastic 3-day trip.

Both Dan and I agreed that this excursion was one of the highlights of our trip to date. We will certainly never forget the many amazing sights which were so alien to anything we had previously experienced in the course of our lives. Superb!

Andrea and Dan
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