Salt Flat Tour (MW)

Trip Start May 14, 2011
Trip End May 14, 2012

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Flag of Bolivia  , Potosí,
Thursday, May 26, 2011

This has been the highlight of our trip so far. From Tupiza we decided to take a 5 day tour to Uyuni which would take us to the Bolivian atliplano - a section of the country all higher than 4000 meters. David Attenborough fans will know this part of the world has some of the driest deserts on the planet, red lakes where flamingos turn pink, and of course the largest salt lake in the world.

The tour lasts for 4 days but we chose to add one more day and climb a volcano on the edge of the lake (seemed like a good idea at the time). We hooked up with a German girl and a French couple who were keen to do the same trip and set off with a cool little Bolivian guide and his wife for 5 days in some eerie and isolated areas.

When you're at this height the land seems to go forever - a mountain that looks like a 10 minute drive takes 45 minutes to reach. Surprisingly there were communities living in these freezing areas who are almost completely living off off what the Llamas can provide. They were living in stone and mud houses with no electricity, while we slept in two thermals, a fleece and a beanie inside a down sleeping bag.

After being amazed for three days by snow capped peaks in the sand desert, active volcanos, and thermal mud geizers we reached Laguna Colorado. The minerals and micro-organisms in the lake turn the water red. Flamingos walk in ankle deep water and have turned pink from filtering the water as they eat. This was a scene I had been waiting to see for three days and I think Iona has been waiting since we decided to head to Bolivia. The lake sits below some large mountains covered in snow and is in the middle of a desert. There are of course a few tourist jeeps like ours around, but it feels like you’re in one of the really special places in the world that has to be seen to be believed.

An advantage of being at this altitude in the desert with no pollution is the sky at night. The stars from here had everyone outside in temperatures that would freeze important parts off a brass monkey.

I think the Salar de Uyuni  is pretty well known. Around 220 kms long and 190 kms wide. It is 100% salt and awesome. The lake is made up of layers of salt and then layers of water which is about 13 meters thick and sits on top of a 45 meter thick mud bed. The mud continually produces more salt so they wont be running out any time soon. We stopped off for photo sessions and got our trick shots on the salt. We also dropped in at an island in the middle of the lake which is covered in huge cacti and has some beautiful lookout points. From the top you get some perspective of the size of the place - the horizon is like looking to sea in Australia... endless salt. It’s freezing on the lake. No wind, just cold and bright.

The volcano was meant to be a reasonably easy climb to 5600 meters. Easy apart from the fact that at this height breathing was really difficult. We didn’t have enough time to acclimatise but didn’t think the affects would be too bad. Things went south when the road was closed by the farmers so we had to walk to the volcano instead of drive (a 10 km walk from 4000 meters) up a steady climb to the foot of the hill. By the time we reached the foot we were stuffed, I couldn’t breathe, had eaten all the chocolate and energy foods and was wondering why it looked so steep.

Our guide then let slip the next vital piece of information - he had never taken this route before but we had to keep going because the easy route was at the back of the volcano where we should have driven to. We set off for the summit with the effects of altitude really having some fun with us. Every step was like a 100 meter race - we were entirely out of breath and not recovering. Of course the headaches and nausea are little bonuses to remind us we were doing this for fun. Iona held up better than I did and she was a long way in front, but waited for me along the way.

Eventually light (or lack of it) won the day and we had to stop 200 meters from the summit. 200 meters sounds like nothing, but with the gradient of the mountain it would have taken around an hour or more to make the last little piece. We guessed we were at 5400 meters and stopped for 10 minutes on the ridge of the volcano with steep sides to look out over 220 kms of the salt lake from 1.5 kms above it.  This time there were no other tourists, just our little group (dressed in hiking gear and carrying packs of water and food while our Bolivian guide did it with a bottle of water in his hand, $20 sneakers and never once puffed).

The salt lakes were a serious highlight. In 10 months when we are cutting around in China or somewhere similar I know we will still be talking about this trip.
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