Salt Flats and coloured lagoons

Trip Start Apr 05, 2008
Trip End Mar 20, 2009

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, October 27, 2008

Setting out on a six day, five night adventure of the Salt Flats we've all got a good feeling that this time we've gotten the tour company right. Our guide Alfredo speaks English, our driver Jorge is an excellent driver and we're in a private Nissan Patrol 4x4; it can only get better from here on in. Our first day was a long drive covering only 220km, but with rough roads it was a seven hour journey, one which was far from monotonous. With the interesting mix of Jorge's driving music and the ever changing dramatic scenery we were all kept enthralled. Kingsley developed a Llama fascination which was perhaps just one way to release all his excited energy. The highlight of the day was having a picnic in the middle of nowhere by a stream surrounded by mountainous red rocks. It was such a picturesque setting and so tranquil that at the time I felt this would be hard to top. Arriving into Uyuni we mistook it for a pile of rocks within the dusty desert landscape. A few houses hastily constructed of brick and mud in the middle of nowhere with a barren landscape where it seems nothing grows and is constantly in a haze of dust with dust tornadoes sprouting up everywhere. With only a population of 11,000 there wasn't much to it and yet in a way it felt more alive than Potosi. Our hotel was a rustic style hotel that exuded charm with fantastic hosts. After a few drinks and a mooch round the town we called it a night ready for more fun tomorrow.
Day 2: After a leisurely start to the day we set out to visit a local family who use traditional methods to extract salt. With 12,000 sq km of salt flats it's easy to find yet only a small area of the salt flats is actually used. It's a long hard process to dry the salt out over a wood fired oven as noxious gases are released. Each adult processes about 2,000kg of salt per day. We're soon cruising over the vast Salt Flats where the white desert plains seem to stretch endlessly with the glare from the Salt as harsh on the eyes as snow made more intense by the blazing sun and bright blue sky. In the distance the islands on the Salt Flats give the optical illusion of appearing to be floating. We arrive at Incahuasi Island where we're treated to yet another picnic lunch with yet another breathtaking setting. Incahuasi Island is a unique and isolated ecosystem with 14 varieties of cactus on the Island, the oldest being 1,214 years old. The island not only is covered in cactus but also coral as it was once part of the sea floor. After lunch we head to the caves at the foot of the volcano Tunapa, in the village of Coquesa, where mummies were found only 15 years ago that date between 300-400 years BC. Due to the climate they are incredibly well preserved and it's an eerie experience when one of the mummies just won't photograph on any of our cameras. We retire for the evening at the Salt Palace, a hotel built predominately of salt. Originally it was located in the middle of the Salt Flats but for environmental reasons now perches on the edge. It's an incredibly unique hotel which didn't inspire us from the outside but is stunning within (never judge a book by it's cover). After watching a picture perfect sunset over the Salt Flats we head to the bar room to enjoy the fire and play some pool whilst drinking them out of red wine. My pool skills surprised both myself and Gareth as I won, I think the red wine improved my co-ordination! Keeping to the salt theme we had dinner in the dining room where the tables, chairs, floor and walls were all made of salt completed with a dinner of chicken baked in salt. Every day just keeps surprising us and exceeding all expectations.
Day 3: Our first stop for the day was just on the outskirts of Uyuni to see the train cemetery where the old steam engines used in the 19th and 20th centuries have been left to rust as a reminder of the town's history and today as a tourist attraction. Uyuni was built after the British constructed the train tracks connecting the mining industry of Potosi to Chile and Argentina. Trains still operate today transporting the minerals from the mines. Now a combination of this and tourism as hundreds of 4x4 Jeeps flood through the city on a daily basis to visit the salt flats keep the town going; in high season over 500 tourists a day sweep through. On the fringes of town there suddenly appears what are seemingly exotic bushes but upon closer inspection you find that it's plastic bags as far as the eye can see grasping round scraggly bushes, not everything is picturesque. After lunch in San Cristobal where it wasn't immediately apparent what the big draw card to this village was, and still a bit puzzling after, it was worth it just to stock up on Bolivian red wine. The village was moved from it's original location due to the mine, the most impressive move being the church rebuilt by hand literally stone by stone. Never a dull moment on this trip with the landscape ever changing and so completely amazing it's almost indescribable. The canyon known as Valley of the Frogs where the porous rocks make it feel as if you could stumble to the bottom before you've had time to register what's happening, the Valley of the Giants, freakish rock formations that have been created by wind erosion and an area where the rocks can actually be seen from space. To top it off the hotel for that night was built into a massive rock face so it had the feeling of staying in a cave in such a tranquil location with no city lights so we were given an unspoiled view of the stars.
Day 4: Visiting the world renowned colored lagoons that are vying for a space on the 7 wonders of the world list and it's hard to believe that there is any debate on this. Laguna Colorada, the red lagoon, set beneath imposing mountains and teeming with Flamingos is unable to be truly captured in a photo. The red colour of the water is due to the red algae and is truly a unique sight. Driving through the Valley of Dali towards the Laguna Verde (green lagoon) you can see Dali's inspiration for his paintings. With dry dessert landscape, large mountains layered in colour and eerie rock formations it's like looking at one of his paintings. Over the hill we set eyes on what we believed to be the green lagoon only to find out that this is the Laguna Blanco (white lagoon). On turning a corner it becomes obvious that this so called white lagoon has earned this name as the magnificence of the emerald green waters of Laguna Verde leave it looking pale in comparison. We finish our day off in the tiny village of Quena, set at 4200m and on sight we're all expecting to be staying in a house made of mud bricks. Instead it's a basic building on the edge of the village with welcoming hosts but a shower that is worth avoiding unless you are keen to be awoken with a shock, literally.
Day 5/6: A road trip lay ahead of us as we neared the end of our trip. The town of Tupiza was a long 7 hour drive over the Andean mountains with rocky roads where sometimes when we reached a fork in the road it was a game of chance; there are no signs for anything in any direction. Playing the song 'Road to Nowhere' seemed fitting as there is nothing for miles but mountains, as far as the eye can see, it's just magnificent. Hopefully some of our photos can do this wondrous colorful landscape justice. Just outside of Tupiza we got our first flat tyre of the trip and you can see how punishing the roads have been by the state of the tyre where there's little left to it. I'm sure Jorge could change a tyre with his eyes shut so it's obviously a common part of every trip. Spending two nights in the charming town of Tupiza Bolivia's oldest city, is a great way to complete our trip. At the lower altitude of 2,990m it's a relief on the lungs and with it's warmer climate we enjoy the sun and even a dip in the pool. We say goodbye to Jorge and Alfredo over a typical country lunch and it's the perfect ending to an indescribable experience, the trip of a lifetime, 6 days of WOW!
A Bolivian lady we met in Arequipa said to us that Bolivia was so incredibly beautiful that it would make us cry. At the time we took that sentiment with a grain of salt but after this wondrous tour I completely understand what she meant. Bolivia is a country that has surprised us by it's rough untouched and diverse beauty and has been a pleasure to experience.
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