4 Days of stunning scenery to the Salt Flats

Trip Start Apr 12, 2011
Trip End Apr 01, 2012

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, June 23, 2011

Next morning we meet Richard and Uline, a British and German couple that we will be sharing our Land Rover and accommodation with for our next four days as we drive across the Bolivian altiplano towards the Uyuni Salt Flats. We also meet our driver Felix and cook Flora who will be looking after us – they only speak Spanish so we're also handed an English information sheet to describe everything we will be seeing.  With our bags loaded on to the roof, we’re off!

Just to warn you that there are hundreds of photos from this part of trip as the scenery was stunning and otherworldly, hard to believe such varying landscapes exist in this one part of Bolivia. 

Our first stop is Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley – and yes it looks like it could be the moon), which is large canyon with large rock shards caused by water erosion.  Bolivia suffers pretty badly from flooding during the wet season and a lot of roads are unpassable, so we’re lucky enough to be travelling in the dry months.  It’s hard to imagine the canyons and river beds being full with water as the landscape is so dry at the moment.  Next stop is at the plains where the llamas graze while being transported to markets – they are used for their wool and meat here.  At this stop it begins to dawn on us that there isn’t going to be too many public bathrooms around and so we learn to as well as appreciate the landscape, look out for a good bathroom spot.  This theme is present throughout the next four days – wow that’s an amazing view, where can I go to the toilet??? (Well in my mind anyway!)

We stop for lunch at what can be described as a small farm holding, two small huts with some goats and other animals running around.  We’re told to walk around for 15 minutes and then lunch will be ready.  When we’re called for lunch, we go into one of the huts and are immediately surprised by the standard of food available – we have salad, fruit, pasta and chicken, all pretty tasty.  We then have a look around the small room that is the bedroom for this family and we realise that there are in fact llama carcases hanging from the ceiling to dry.  Despite looking a bit odd, they don’t smell and this is how they store their meat.  It was really interesting to see how this family live, very isolated, they are happy to chat to us to find out why we’re here.  We’ve since been told that Bolivians don’t really travel unless to work or trade and so don’t really understand why so many tourists are here and how they can afford it – so we’re trying to be discreet about our trip while we’re here.  In the afternoon drive we don’t come across so many sights as such but pass through many old mining towns that are now deserted and so the area feels quite bleak at this point.

It’s getting dark and we’re still driving, plus our driver is looking concerned at the water level when we drive through the many rivers that we need to cross.  We even have to stop to pump up the tyres of a rival tour company – they all seem to look out for each other here.  At about 8pm we reach the entrance to the national park called Parque Nacional Eduardo Avaroa and are immediately struck by the clarity of the stars and the milky way, this might beat the view of the sky at Cabo Polonio.  Finally we get to our accommodation in a small town called Quetena Chica, a small gold mining settlement of about 720 people whose language is quechua rather than spanish.  Our driver Felix explains that we’ve driven a whole lot further that we were meant to as he was concerned about the water levels (they are usually higher in the mornings) and so we have diverted off schedule and are onto day 2.  We are a bit relieved as the altitude is hitting us with headaches and dehydration and so we’re not feeling great – I think we’re at 4km above sea level.  But we get onto the coca tea (traditional remedy for altitude) and biscuits which appears to do the trick.  The other thing is it’s freezing, we’re all wearing as many layers as possible and are still cold.  The accommodation is basic (as we were warned), there is no heating and no showers but the beds are comfy with plenty of blankets.  Dinner is surprisingly good – we have no idea how she did it but Flora made us good meal after good meal despite the fact that we only saw a shop on the 4th day and it didn’t sell anything fresh! My favourite thing is each dinner is started by a good soup – perfect for this temperature.  It’s off to bed as we have an early start the next day.

Breakfast of scrambled eggs and bread and more coca tea and we’re good to go.  We drive through the Salar de Chalviri, another lake that naturally produces a detergent product, and the Desierto de Dali (which has rock formations of petrified lava).  We’re all taken back by the constantly changing scenery from the flatness of the salt flat (a welcome flatness after a lot of hours of driving over very bumping tracks), the strange rock formations and the desert plains at this altitude.  Next stop is Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) which is a stunningly beautiful turquoise but at the same time pretty dangerous as the colour comes from the natural chemicals found in the lake, one of which is arsenic.  Bolivia appears to be a very mineral rich country and if these minerals are extracted in the right way, it could be a prosperous country.  Unfortunately this doesn’t look like it will be the case for many reasons, one of which being that it’s foreign companies that have the resources and expertise to extract the minerals.  Anyway, the view is amazing, as if a bright green lake wasn’t enough, we are at the foot of a volcano called Licancabur and at 4.3km above sea level. Incredible.  From one natural wonder to another, next we go to the thermal springs for a bathe which was a welcome chance to warm up in the water and feel a bit cleaner! After lunch we go to Sol de Manana geysers – I really don’t think there is anywhere else you could see so many natural wonders in one day.  The geysers smell pretty bad (the sulphur) but it’s so interesting to see grey sludge just bubbling away.  It’s also interesting to see the lack of health and safety – no ropes, no paths, just wander around the holes in the ground spouting out hot steam and grey sludge....We’re also at our highest point – thankfully – 5km above sea level.  Our final stop of the day is at the Laguna Colorada (Coloured lake) where we see the elusive flamingos in a lake that looks red.  The red comes from the minerals present in the water reacting with the algae and the sunlight – an impressive sight.  A walk around this lake rounds up one of our most amazing days in terms of scenery.

Next day, pancakes for breakfast – it keeps getting better!  First stop is the viewpoint of the Laguna Colorada which isn’t quite as impressive in the morning as the sun hasn’t hit it yet.  Felix made sure he took us last night to see the colour despite it not being on our schedule – he is really enthusiastic about the landscape even though he has been doing the same tour for eight years and this just one of the examples how he puts our experience first.  Next is Desierto de Siloli where we see the Arbol de Piedra
(Stone tree), strange to drive through a desert to come across rock formations caused by the strong desert wind.  We then visit a few lakes each with beautiful settings but the one that stands out is the one that smells.  Again sulphur is to blame for this.  Our lunch stop is another space like rock formation overlooking Volcan Ollague, a semi active volcano where we can see the smoke coming from it.  We then start to drive over the salt flat to stay in the Hotel de Sal (Salt hotel) – the salt flat seems to last forever.  In the salt hotel, everything is made from salt, the walls, chairs, tables, bed bases and it looks pretty quirky.  Most importantly, it has a hot shower! So we all get showers and have our final dinner, where a bottle of Bolivian wine is provided and we even get custard pudding.  We ask Felix and Flora to join us for a glass but they maintain their professional stance and decline – they have been fantastic as a driver and cook, but have been keen to keep their distance which seems a little bit of shame as after four days we don’t know much about them and that is the most interesting part of travelling.  I think it shows how Bolivians still aren’t sure how to feel about tourists visiting... tourism is still very much in its infancy but this makes it all the more interesting to travel.        

Very early start the next morning (5am) as Felix is keen to get to the salt flats for sunrise, 'Spectaculare’ he exclaims!  He takes us to the island in the middle of the salt flat where we are totally by ourselves despite several jeeps leaving the town at the same time. We climb the island (slowly) and watch as sunrise changes the colour of the sky behind the mountains and the great expanse of the salt flats – a truly magnificent view.  We spend the morning taking photos and exploring the island and come down to breakfast on the salt flat where Flora has somehow managed to bake us a cake in the shape of a love heart!  Next onto the Ojos de Sal (Eyes of salt), which are holes in the salt flat which show the water beneath (a little worrying) and the crystallised salt (all in perfect squares).  We’re then left to play around with several props and our cameras as you will see.  A quick visit to the old salt hotel which is built on the salt flat, a bit of a dump as it is to be knocked down soon as building on the salt flat is prohibited to try to stop pollution of the salt flat.  Our final lunch spot where all our veg and food is still amazingly fresh (maybe the cold temperatures help) and then the final drive to Uyuni where we are dropped off and left to say our awkward goodbyes. 

Next up is a brief stop in Uyuni as we were told it was a bit of a dump – might be a bit harsh as we managed to find a good hostel (Piedra Blanca) with hot showers, a very good pizza place (Minuteman pizza, randomly run by an American who has moved to Bolivia) where we tried llama pizza – a bit like lamb and tasty and most importantly we were very relieved to be back down to under 3km altitude. Jonny managed to get pesto with his llama (something he has missed for the past 2 months), a slightly strange combination with llama but all worked well!

Next day we take a six hour bus to Potosi and then a 3 hour bus to Sucre where we’re going to chill out for a bit and finally do some Spanish lessons!

We have had a truly amazing time in Bolivia so far – it is an intriguing country that we have only just begun to explore. It is a country of contrasts, but with stunning scenery waiting to be explored. As we move onto our next stop, we look to further explore this country and perhaps even start to understand the people. 
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dmillar1952 on

Salt flats look amazing!!

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