Flamingoes, fumeroles and wide open spaces

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Friday, February 3, 2006

We'd survived a bus accident pretty much unscathed, and we weren´t going to let it ruin our plans.

Having finally arrived in Uyuni at about 7.30pm on Sunday 29 January, we shopped around for a four-day tour of the Salt Flats and Laguna Colorada. We´d heard that the scenery south of town, towards the border with Chile, was absolutely spectacular and not to be missed. All tours are by 4x4, with maximum seven passengers, and we found the prices and quality of tours on offer were all 'much of a muchness'. We ended up paying US$65 (all inclusive) each for four days.

At 10.30am on Monday morning, we met up with our fellow passengers: Alejo and Laura from Argentina; Chris, Vibeke and Marethe from Denmark; our guide Valerio and cook Isa. First stop was the massive salt pan, Salar de Uyuni, about 40 minutes north-east of town.

Salar de Uyuni (altitude 3,700m) is the biggest salt bed in the world, covering an incredible 12,000 square km. It´s a completely flat white plain of encrusted salt, stretching as far as the eye can see. At least, that´s what it is most of the year. We arrived at the edge of the Salar to find a shallow lake. Yes, even this high-altitude desert had received unusual amounts of rain over the last months, turning the unsually bone-dry flats into a super-saline sea.

With no wind, blue skies and fluffy white clouds overhead, the reflections of the sky on the mirror-like surface of the endless lake were spectacular. The horizon simply vanished!

Our first stop was Colchani, a small village whose inhabitants harvest the salt and process it to make iodised table salt. The shovelling, crushing and packing is all done by hand, yet they receive only 7 bolivianos (under one USD) per 50kg of packaged salt. They also cut salt blocks for construction of buildings in the area, and make naff little salt souvenirs. However, with the Salar flooded, they have had to stop all mining.

From Colchani, we drove 10km or so through the shallow water to the Salt Hotel, constructed entirely of salt blocks and furnished with seats, tables, beds etc all carved from salt blocks too. We took our time with photographs outside, posing in the ankle-deep water and trying in vain to capture the spectacular shimmering reflections.

From the Salar, we headed south via Uyuni and into the arid, high-altitude hinterland bordering the Atacama Desert. Our first night was spent at a pleasant homestay in the village of Alota. I was feeling a little sore and feverish after the accident, so headed to bed early. Wine, beer and spirits were on sale at the 'alojamiento' so the others had a few drinks and got to know one another.

Day two, we continued south through landscapes of wonderful orange volcanic rock formations. Around us, the majestic, snow-covered peaks of extinct volcanoes rose in the distance. At about 11am we reached the first of four small lakes, all inhabited by flamingoes. We stopped for lunch at the second one, named Chiar Kota (I think!) and had plenty of time to sneak up on the feeding flamingoes for some excellent photos and film footage. As we were about to drive off, it started to hail (talk about four seasons in one day!) and we watched as hundreds of flamingoes flocked together and huddled against the chilly onslaught.

The next two hours took us through the truly barren, sandy Siloli desert (though paradoxically it was still hailing!) to the Arbol de Piedra, a fingerlike rock formation. At about 3pm we reached the entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve (entrance fee 30 bolivianos) and made our way to the shores of the magnificent Laguna Colorada, one of the undisputed highlights of the trip.

The lake covers an area of 60 square km and is situated at an altitude of 4,270m; a cocktail of minerals and algae give it a pinkish-red tint (though the colour seems to swirl and change with different light conditions). The most amazing thing about the Laguna, though, is the number of feathered inhabitants... an astonishing 70,000 flamingoes are said to live here! There are three species: the Andean (largest, with very bright colouring and yellow legs), Chilean (smaller, paler, blue legs) and James (smallest).

We drove to a viewpoint on a peninsula and spent a good hour-and-a half marvelling at the unique sight - graceful birds as far as the eye can see, wading, feeding or simply strutting their stuff; flying overhead in small flocks and coming in to land with pink wings spread wide and long legs stretched before them. Just astonishing!

Before sunset, we made our way to a large hostel near the shores of the lake. Eight or so other groups were spending the night there too, so the atmosphere was festive as we drank beer, played cards and stumbled around in the dark after the generator had been turned off!

Wake-up calls came too soon on day three - we set out at 5am, well before dawn, to visit Sol de Mañana (meaning 'morning sun'), a volcanically active zone of geysers, pools of bubbling mud and fumeroles spewing out sulphurous gases. Thick fog enveloped the area (due to the volcanic vapors) and it was bitterly cold so early in the morning (we were at altitude 4,850m!). It reminded us of our visit to Wai-O-Topa on the North Island of New Zealand, though here, no wooden walkways or barriers separated gawking tourists from boiling mud and hellish-hot steam!

Before breakfast, we bathed in a milder manifestation of the earth´s powerful geothermic forces - a natural hot spring beside a lake. No cement pools in sight, this one was the genuine article: pleasantly warm water bubbled out from a hole in the ground into a sandy pool.

Then it was on to Laguna Verde, a lake of sparkling turquoise beneath the perfect cone of the extinct Licancabur volcano. A magnificent sight, and so photogenic. On the way back from Laguna Verde, we saw small herds of vicuña, the smallest and most endangered of the four South American camelids. We´d spotted a few here and there earlier in the trip, but these were close to the road and suprisingly tolerant of our presence.

Laguna Verde had been the furthest point of our trip. At lunch we said farewell to our Argentinian friends Laura and Alejo - they were heading back to Uyuni a day earlier, and so transferred to another vehicle. In the afternoon, drove two hours or so north-east, through some stunning wild mountain scenery.

Just before reaching the small village where we´d spend the night, our guide made a stop at a valley with dramatic rock formations, where he showed us some ancient rock paintings. I'd heard about the paintings and had asked him whether we could see them; they aren´t usually included on the itinerary. The paintings consisted of some interesting animal and human forms, all painted in red (iron oxide) like South African rock paintings. Much mystery surrounds the makers of the paintings; suffice to say they were made a good few thousand years ago!

The village where we spent our third and final night was pleasant and quaint indeed, with a big herd of llamas grazing on the 'football pitch'. Only one other group shared our lodgings, so in the evening all nine of us sat around the same table. Not suprisingly, it turned into quite a big night of playing cards and drinking wine!

The fourth and final day was finally upon us, though, having seen sooooo much, it felt like we´d been on the road for ages! First stop was the Valle de las Rocas (valley of the rocks), a wild-west type landscape of rock formations. Here, we spent about 20 minutes or so watching and stalking vizcachas, rabbit-like creatures with long tails, apparently related to the chinchilla. These guys are usually very alert and quick, but the two we came across in Valle de las Rocas were dozing in the sun and pretty docile.

We made our way back to Uyuni via a few pretty little villages (where buidlings had been refurbed to look 'authentic' in the name of tourism) and the train cemetery at the outskirts of town. This is where British-built locomotives come to die. Uyuni was once a transport hub - the area is rich in minerals, and earlier this century, foreign mining companies transported their booty out of the area by rail. However, Bolivian train travel is way past its heyday, as we were to discover later that evening...

In the late afternoon, after collecting bags and arranging onward travel, everyone gathered in Minuteman (the best pizza place in the world, let alone Bolivia!) for a farewell drink and a bite to eat. We´d bought tickets for the 1.45am train to Oruro (from where we would catch a bus to Cochabamba, then Santa Cruz). The damn thing eventually left at 4.30am!
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