Salar and Lagunas - Another World

Trip Start Jun 12, 2008
Trip End Nov 19, 2008

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

We had heard from the word on the street and from people who we had met that a trip to the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) and surrounding countryside was not to be missed. I had even overheard one traveler refusing to go into the detail of his trip so as not to spoil it for the other! We had always intended to go but now I felt even more definite about it!
Having hurriedly booked with Colque tours the night before, George having asked all the sensible questions that I had forgotten, we turned up to the office with our bags and water in tow. Here we met up with the other 4 people who would be joining us on the 3 day trip. A French couple in their 50īs who couldnīt (or refused) to speak any English and a couple of Swiss Med students who seemed to speak all languages! At this point we also got the first sight of the Toyota Landcruiser that would be transporting us across the rough terrain for the next 3 days. It seemed in fairly good nick and encouragingly there was tread on all the tyres, although it was lacking any numberplates or seatbelts!

The bags, petrol and lunch securely strapped to the roof and us not securely fastened, we set off to our first stop, The Train Cemetery. On the way our guide and 4X4 (Rally) driver introduced himself as Pedro. He was a scruffy chap, unshaven , with a couple of teeth missing, unkempt hair and dressed in his mechanicīs, oil stained jumpsuit.

The train cemetery is a funny place and, as you might imagine, is full of the rusting shells of steam trains from a bygone age when Uyuni was an important rail hub for which Bolivia exported its minerals to Argentina and Chile. It was quite an atmospheric place and it was amazing to see trains made in Britain which had been shipped all the way over to Bolivia. I didnīt know how much fun you could have clambering over rusty, hulking engines: turns out it is about 10 minutes if you are interested!


The first of the trip photos taken, climbing done and serious injury avoided we jumped back into the 4X4 and set out to the next stop, the salt mining village of Colchani. Forty minutes out of Uyuni and on the edge of the Salar, Colchani is a bleak village of around 100 people who work to harvest the salt. This salt supplies Bolivia and is exported to Argentina and Chile. It seemed like a thankless job and I can only imagine that the going rate for salt is not that high. It was another reminder of the harsh conditions that people have to work under! We had a quick look around the place and I asked a group of lads if I could take their picture shoveling salt onto a truck. Disappointingly they said no. Fair enough I guess I would get pretty pissed off with Gringos asking for photos and ogling me doing my job. Shame though, it was a good photo.


Village seen it was back into the jeep (sorry for this repetition of getting into the jeep but there was a lot of driving on the trip) and off we went again. Very soon we entered the Salar. The Salar is 11000 sqkm salt flat that was formed millions of years ago when a huge salt lagoon that covered much of Bolivia dried up.
Just outside the village we had a couple of stops. The first to see some harvested piles of salt and to take more photos. The second was to see the first of many mineral-induced weirdnesses. This particular one was a small lake in the salt with bubbling pools of salt water. The bubbling was caused by a huge lithium deposit way under the salt, apparently the biggest in the world.  

Suitably impressed with the first of many otherworldly oddities we hopped back into our transport and drove on. Before long we reached the first and only building left on the salt flat. A salt hotel that was built illegally and is likely to be relocated due to environmental concerns. We had a quick look around and were disappointed by the lack of a UK flag on the hotel. It was ok I guess, a little grey though.
Hotel seen it was back on the road (salt) again. It wasnīt long before the blinding white of the salt contrasting with the bright blue of the sky began to have a hypnotising effect on me. Within 15 minutes it was virtually all you could see. Occasionally the white was interrupted by other jeeps. Volcanoes and mountains lined the very outer edges of the vast whiteness but in the gaps between the volcanoes, perspective was completely redundant and the blue sky and white salt merged into a distanceless blur. It began to make me a little dizzy. It seemed to have a sedative effect on the other passengers and most seemed to just fall asleep! It was easy to see how, despite the openness, accidents have happened. I hoped that Pedro was felling perky and wished that we had seatbelts!

We drove for about and hour and a half, and Iīm glad to say Pedro and myself managed to remain awake, until we approached the Isla del Pescado (apparently looks like a fish) of Incahuasi (Inca House) in Quechua. This was our lunch stop. Incahuasi is quite a stunning place. A coral island in the middle of this vast whiteness covered in huge, ancient cactuses some of which are thousands of years old. We had a tasty lunch and then went for a walk over the island. As we climbed the views of the cactuses with the white Salar back drop were stunning. The coral island was a clear reminder of the fact that this was once a great lake and before that the ocean. Amazing!

Lunch fully digested, off we went again in our trusty vehicle. We asked Pedro if it would be possible to drive a bit further out into the middle of the Salar so that we were able to indulge in some amusing photo taking! The plane and perspectiveless salt flat landscape lends itself to this pursuit no end and as you can see we got some funny, if a little clichéd, photos. (And, it seems, I have George just where I want her!) 

Well that was pretty much it for day one. We headed off to our lodging for the night which turned out to be the only slightly disappointing thing of the whole trip. Although there was nothing really wrong with the place that we stayed we had hoped that we were going to stay in one of the many salt hotels on the edge of the Salar. It just wasnīt quite what we had expected. One particularly annoying aspect, although also slightly amusing, was that the hot water that the company touted was only available between seven and eight in the evening, the precise time that dinner was served. Classic planning! It sent one other guest apoplectic, which was also amusing to watch! It didnīt really bother us, we had prepared ourselves for 3 days of hygienically compromised travelling. Supper over, the darkness and cold setting in, we decided to head to our 6 person dorm. We thought we would have a room to ourselves but on the up side when it is cold 6 bodies are better than one! I had a really good nightīs sleep that night, probably assisted by the couple of drams of rum the Swiss guys gave me!

We awoke a 7 am and I felt refreshed and was looking forward to day two. I will do my best to describe day two but it was such an assault on the senses that my mind has blurred everything together and I am no longer sure whether the chronology is quite correct. Never mind I will give it a go. As we set off Pedro, as is customary in South America, crossed himself profusely before setting off at breakneck speeds along dirt tracks! At least give Him a chance to look out for us I thought to myself!

Our first stop on day two was at a small village call San Juan.  We stopped here for supplies and I took the opportunity to have a high altitude kick around with a 5 year old local. Although I would be the first to admit my football skills are somewhat limited, the boy seemed fairly impressed with my limited repertoire of tricks and he looked suitably perplexed with a particular one. I am sure he is practicing as I write this.

Bobby Charltonīs Soccer School South America over and done off we drove waving goodbye to the kids as we went. The morning itself was taken up by lots of driving. However, the spectacular but treeless, desolate landscape of small mountains, deserts and endless volcano cones more than made up for the time spent in the car. Llamas and vicuņas would come into view occasionally, the Llamas stubbornly refusing to move from the 'road'. I wondered whether these animals were wild or if some hardy souls farmed them. I found it hard to believe that anyone lived here. We drove on crossing the railway lines to Chile and climbing steadily all the time. 

One of our hopes on the trip was to see a smoking volcano and finally our hopes had come true. The semi active and snow capped Volcan Ollague at 5863m was in the distance smoking away. Little did I know at this point that by the end of the trip I would have thought this sight insignificant. At the time though it made us both really happy. We stopped in strange valley filled with volcanic rock, lava and ash to take a better look at the smoking giant. Even at a distance of 15km the smoking volcano was enough to make you appreciate the power under the Earthīs surface.

We climbed steeply after this, really putting the jeep through its paces. Pedro was even forced to engage the special super-traction gear! After much engine noise and great deals of torque we arrived at the first of the lakes. As it turned out it wasnīt as spectacular as those that followed but it was beautiful nonetheless. It was fairly normal except for the vast, white beds of borax (a white mineral deposit, something to do with sulphuric acid) that lined its shores and created mini islands in the lake, and that it was our first encounter with the pink flamingos that the area is famed for. They were everywhere. The flamingos pink colour, the lakes blueness and the white of the borax was another amazing contrast of colours. It was incredible to see Flamingos in the wild. As we left the lake we spotted an injured Andean fox, it was slightly lame. It seemed fairly healthy though and it must have realised that the only way to survive was to beg from passing gringos. We obliged and got some good photos for our bread! 

Our next stop was for lunch at another lake, Laguna Hedionda. This one was more spectacular, very pale but bright blue, again with white borax deposits and flocks of pink flamingos set in a valley beautiful volcanoes. Another stunning lunch location to rival any on our trip. We had a lovely lunch of tuna, rice, tomatoes, cucumber and picked vegetables all the time taking in the beautiful view. We also visited the most expensive toilets in Bolivia, 5 Bs! I decided to make full use of the facilities!

We had a quick walk along the lake, took yet more snaps and we were on our way again. Again the scenery was breathtaking. More volcanoes lined the route, some dullish but some beautifully coloured. A particularly beautiful one was the Volcan de Siete Colores. It appeared to have been coloured by a child holding seven different coloured crayons and running them across the side of the mountain. Occasionally the empty valley floor would be filled with volcanic rock ejected with great force from one of the now dormant volcanoes. Another reminder of the power of the Earth!

Our next stop was at one such example of these volcanic rocks, the Arbol de Piedra or stone forest. Huge rocks that had been spewed from the volcanoes which, over a great time, had been carved into strange shapes by the wind and dust. We had fun clambering over the rocks for a while before heading for the last stop of the day and our camp for the night.

We arrived at the Laguna Colorada at about 4 pm. Iīm sorry at this point to sound a bit like a broken record, but this was another truly surreal and beautiful sight. I had no idea such things existed on this planet. The lake was red. Not just slightly reddish, but acutally strongly red. Apparently caused by the wind mixing sea algae and micro-organismstogether. Who cares?! It was amazing! Bright white borax and pink flamingos added to colours and again volcanoes surrounded the lake. We went for a walk to the mirador hill alnogside the lake and just stared down in amazement. As the sun began to fall behind the mountians the redness of the lake deepened. It was like nothing on Earth!

We walked back to our refuge and as the sun set the temperature began to drop rapidly. We had heard stories of the temperature falling to -15C or lower. Pedro assured us that this wouldnīt happen as it was now spring. The refuge itself was very basic and after a supper of soup, clacky pasta and lots of camomile tea there was nothing to do but head to our dorm, wrap up warm and cover ourselves in as many blankets as we could! Pedro informed us that we would have to be up for 4.30am and as usual when I have to get up early I couldnīt sleep.. The cold wanīt too bad but the multi layered bed covering wasnt that comfy!

Normally I wouldnīt be too happy having to be up at 4.30am for a 5 am start but on this occasion I am so glad we did it. We bundled, bleary eyed and freezing cold, into the jeep and drove off into the darkness. I actually hadnīt read the internery that closely so wasnīt fully briefed on what the day was all about. I knew we were visiting some geysers and a hot spring and that was about it. Iīm not sure if it was the cold, the time, or the fact that I didnīt sleep that well, but the next 2 or 3 hours were the most surreal experience.

Getting up at this ungodly hour meant that we were ahead of all the other groups for the final, and as it turned out, most amazing part of the trip. The first stop was the geysers. For some reason when I think of geysers I think of steaming things in the ice of Iceland and I wasnīt really all that excited about them. It wasnīt until I realised that we were climbing the side of a volcano that it finally dawned on me (an appropriate time of day for this to happen!) that these geysers were on top of the Sol de Manaņa Vocano. We levelled off and drove on, still in darkness. The sun was just beggining to rise over the aptly name volacano. Suddenly the headlights of the jeep picked out the first geyser. This one was a man-made geyser created by Swiss scientists investigatin geothermal energy. It was a high pressured geyser that shot sulphorous steam 40ft into the air with an amazing hissing? sound that puncuated the silence. Pedro informed us that this one was actually cool and you could touch it. Cool, apart from the smell of eggs that lingered on my hand for days after! 

The sun continued to rise and as it did so other geysers became visible in the distance. They were a whole different kettle of fish from the first. They were natural geysers and whilst they didnīt hiss or shoot high into the air, they were much more brooding and sinister. Pedro told us something in Spanish about the volcano still being active but I didnīt really understand. In my dreamlike state I followed Pedro towards the geysers. George told me a couple of days later that we walked straight past a sign saying to go no further! Not sure which is worse me not noticing it or George noticing it and walking straight past it! The steam rose from between the deep chasms, and the smell of sulphur was overwhelming. Not a place you want to fall over though, as between the smoking chasms were pools of boiling lava! It is quite Lord of the Rings more like bubbling mud really, but very intimidating and hot! It is difficult for me to fully explain the feeling of standing on top of an active volcano at sunrise and the photos were hard to take (the freezing conditions do nothing for camera electronics!). It was a strange feeling, the time and the lack of sleep made it feel very other worldly and dreamlike. Now, not only had we seen a smoking volcano at 15km but we had stood on top of one and looked down at its boiling innards!

We drove on and the sun continued to rise lighting the silhouettes of volcano cones in the distance. Next stop was the thermal springs. We approached the the lake that housed the pools at 6.45am the sun now lighting the tops of the volcanos with a beautiful, soft yellow light. The lake was perfectly still and pure reflections were visible in it. I wouldnīt normally be so keen on getting stripped down to my swimming shorts when it is -10C outside but I wasnīt going to come so far, be in such an incredible setting, and miss out on this. Plus I hadnīt had a wash for two days!

We got to the spring at 6.50am still ahead of the other groups. The bath would be ours for 10 minutes whilst the others caught up. We rushed down to the pool and attempted the fatest changing ever, prudishness put to one side to avoid exposure. Stripped down to my shorts I quickly headed down to the steaming water. The temperature outside around -10C and the temperature of the water 36C! Now normally 36C is nothing but getting in from such cold meant that it took a good couple of seconds for your feet to stop burning! Valuable seconds when the rest of you is getting freezing! After those seconds though......oh yes! It was one of the best feelings ever!  I laid back in the steamy, warm water and just looked up at the sky. Bliss!

It wasnīt long before the other groups began to arrive and soon our private pool had become crowded. It was a pity but it was also funny to watch the others getting changed, hot (cold) footing it across the ground and listening to the funny, whimpering noises they made as they dipped their feet in! After twenty minutes of so of soaking  it was time to head off again and if getting in was cold getting out would be literally freezing! I got out and scampered to my towel and clothes. As I dried my hair I noticed that it had actually frozen. That is how cold it was. A record breaking dressing later we were ready to head off. The thermal pool ahd been a revitalising 20 minutes and I felt totally refreshed!

We had two more lakes to visit before our tour was over but on the way to the lakes we had to drive through Daliīs Valley, so-named beacuse it resembles one of his paintings although the man himself never visited the place. It was, unsurprisingly given the name, another surreal place and if anyone wanted to fake a moon landing (Jen G!) then this would be as good a place as any to do it!

The last two lakes were the Laguna Blanco and the Laguna Verde. The first named was not all that spectacular but probably only becuase what had gone before it. The Laguna Verde however, was something else. It was notas green as it sometimes due to the calm conditions, but this meant the towering Volcan Lirancaber was reflected perfectly in the water and we were able to take some great photos. No flamingos in this lake though, the water here very toxic due arsenic and other poisonous metals!

We had breakfast at another refuge overlooking the Laguna Blanca and then set out to the Chilean to drop off the the Swiss guys. This was essentially the end of the trip and only a 7 hour drive back to Uyuni lay ahead of us. However, the only dodgy and sad note to the trip occurred when Pedro decided to buy himself a beer at oune of our stops. Luckily it was the only one he had and it was a small one. I was glad it didnīt develop as I wasnīt keen on having to confront him in Spanish and ask/tell him to stop!

The drive back was beautiful and Pedroīs driving outstanding, if not a little too fast at points. If there was a 4X4  rally cahmpioship for Land cruisers then he would surely stand a chance of winning! It was probably pretty dangerous but, hey, Iīm still here! We stopped in a desserted village for our final lunch, and made it back to Uyuni for just after five am hour ahead on schedule. The electricity havnig been turned back on the afternoon before.

It was an epic journey and an assault on my senses. It was the most beutiful and epic landscape of our trip so far. Empty and desolate yet full of colour and contrasts. Iīm not sure if there is anywhere else quite like it on the planet and to me it truly seemed to be another world!
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