Tourists don't know where they've been, travellers don't know where they're going.

Paul Theroux

The Salar de Uyuni and the High Altiplano 🇧🇴

Salar de Uyuni

The journey from Potosi took us through some dramatic Andean scenery, mountainsides becoming increasingly barren and the rocks changing colour through brown and black and red due to the mineral deposits. We passed huge wetlands surrounding lakes high in the hills with herds of llama and vicuña grazing on the vegetation growing on the drying lake shores. It’s amazing that these animals can survive in areas with so little water and vegetation.

Dropping down slightly from the mountains we ended up on the plain where the salt flats start and where the town of Uyuni where we were staying for the night was located.

The salt plains actually started life as part of the ocean. As the continents were formed millions of years ago, part of what is now the Pacific ocean became land locked in what is now South America. As the land pushed together and the Andes rose, this gigantic salt water lake rose with them finally becoming a series of lakes, including lake Titicaca, and the lakes and flats of the Salar de Uyuni. Over time the lakes have drained leaving the salt from the ocean water behind. Today, the area fills with water running down from the peaks around becoming a shallow salt water lake during the wet season, with the water draining and evaporating to leave vast gleaming plains of brilliant white salt crystals spanning an area greater than the size of Jamaica. More of that later however, back to Uyuni.

The road that we’d been driving on was relatively new, sealed tarmac in good condition, that had halved the journey time from Potosi. As we entered thee town however tarmac turned to dust and sand. Roads were wide (and sandy) and laid out in a grid system. Uyuni has no colonial architecture, it’s a working town, historically the centre of a mineral mining industry with a railway line linking landlocked Bolivia to the coast in Chile where minerals were exported. Much of the traditional mining has now died out, but Uyuni sits on a vast reserve of lithium. Apparently there are enough reserves here to power our devices for the next hundred years and to buoy up the Bolivian economy for a similar length of time. It does make you think about the sustainability of the continual mining of our planet though, the damage that we are doing, and the need to recycle and reuse everything that we possibly can, including batteries, to safeguard our planet.

There is little else in Uyuni really, except that now a number of hotels have sprung up as the tourist industry has grown with Uyuni being the gateway to the salt flats.

It was dark when we arrived, but Julia took us out to see the sights of the town. It didn’t take long as there really is not much of interest, but we passed a posh looking restaurant, completely out of place, on the way to the central plaza. On the corner were a series of local barbecue stalls stacked high with sizzling meat; llama ribs, steak, chicken and chorizo sausage. Whilst the others carried on to a pizza restaurant, a few of us headed into the one Julia suggested was a good one. I think we were slightly over ambitious with our ordering. Each of us ordered some kind of mixed BBQ plate with combinations of beef steak, chicken, llama and chorizo all accompanied by rice (two varieties, one plan and one mixed with cheese and milk) and chips. We skipped the salad on hygiene grounds… When the food arrived it was about the size of the surrounding mountain peaks. It was vast, the steak itself filled a dinner plate, add a quarter of a chicken then a sausage and each of us had enough meat to feed a small family for about a week! However, we did our best and left not needing to eat any protein for days. The others had a great pizza, but it was good to try the local food, and eat with the local people, we were the only travellers there.

In the morning we packed our things (again) and loaded them onto one of the three four wheel drive vehicles that would be our transport for the next three days on our journey across the high Andes and back into Chile.

Our driver was called Gonzalo, from near the Argentine border in the south he was a happy, smiley chap who quickly became known as speedy. This was initially due to his name, but he did live up to it to some extent over the next few days as he was always keen to be at the front and overtake the others cars. He also played us a variety of music from Bolivian folk music to easy listening AOR to Eminem. The format for the next couple of nights was that we would stay in basic accommodation, dorm rooms, and with the families of the drivers preparing the food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All this food was packed onto the vehicles alongside jerry cans of petrol, water and our luggage. We needed to be self sufficient as there would be nowhere to stock up out in the wilderness.

Day 1

I mentioned that Uyuni had a railway line connecting it with Chile. Back in the day when copper and other minerals were exported from the area trains were brought over in abundance to get these raw materials to their markets around the world. When the industry started to die down however, these trains fell into disuse. The last trains were brought over in the 1950s but as they became redundant they were left abandoned, stripped of engines and anything of use or value and  left together in what is now known as the train cemetery. A couple of old train lines, a hundred meters or so long, is now their final resting place. A place where there is no regard for health or safety, where you can climb up, on and in the rusty hulks. The current rail line runs past, long and arrow straight from the town to where it disappears into the hills in the distance.

Back in our cars, and a quick stop later to pick up our lunch, we finally headed out to the edge of the flats. In a town called Colchani we stopped at the home of a family who pack salt. It gets collected, dried, mixed with iodine and packed. By hand. No measures are used, the owner just scoops up the salt and knows, by heart, how much is needed to fill the half kilo bags that are then sealed over an open gas flame.

Back on the street where we’d parked, more and more 4x4s had arrived. It felt like there were about fifty in all. An artisanal market lined the street with the stalls all selling the usual selection of alpaca sweaters, knitted hats, gloves, bags and llama souvenirs. And salt! It’s clear that trips across the flats are now big business and a major source of income for the locals. Once more escaping the market without parting with any money, we finally head out onto the salt flats themselves.

As we drove out of the town we were part of a melee of 4x4s, but as the ground turned white, the vehicles seemed to disappear like the colour from the ground, and soon our three 4x4s felt very small and alone in the vast, flat, and dazzlingly white expanse. On the horizon all around were peaks of varying altitude, and below them the land gleamed like a mirror. A mirage? We flew along the flat surface for a few kilometres, then suddenly slowed, the surface had turned from a hard, dry surface to one with water lying in shallow pools on top of the salt. A couple of minutes later, Speedy stopped and said ‘ok, we’re stopping here’. This was something I hadn’t really expected, and we stepped out into maybe one centimetre of water. In places the rough salt crystals poked above the surface. But everywhere the water was absolutely still. Like a mirror, which is what we’d seen from a distance, reflecting the surrounding mountains. Standing in the middle of this ocean of salt and water was a surreal experience. Walking further from the vehicles, the water became deeper, maybe two centimetres, and now no salt peaked above the surface. It was like walking in a shallow lake. People walking around about thirty meters away seemed to be walking on water, and everything from that distance and beyond was reflected, crystal clear, in the mirror like surface. Add to this the cloudless cobalt blue sky and you end up with one of the most spectacular places we’ve seen so far on our journey. It’s really hard to describe the panorama. And it is a panorama, a vast vista with distant horizons and a huge sky. Photographs don’t really do it justice either. And whilst it wasn’t hot, the sun was strong and the wind light, so for me, shorts and t-shirt weather. As it had reached lunchtime, we splashed our way back to the cars, and stood in the shallow water and filled ourselves on a kind of rice lasagne and vegetables that the families had cooked earlier that morning all the time gazing around, still with a bit of disbelief in what was all about us.

After lunch (and yet more photographs, the tally for the day ended up in the hundreds) we headed deeper into the salt flats to find a dry area.

Until that day, I was largely unaware of this, at least of the scale of this trend, but when you’re in Salar de Uyuni you have to do two things. First take lots of props with you (Coke bottles, toy dinosaurs, bags, shoes, anything really) and then use them to take crazy, weird perspective photographs and videos of you and all your friends. And what a laugh it is. Jump in with both feet, and you end up feeling like part actor and part circus performer. Julia and all the drivers were expert at setting up these shots (I guess they had done it before) and were great at getting the angles and perspectives just right. The pictures speak for themselves, and it was a great hour or so’s entertainment and I’m sure we could have spent the rest of the day messing about, laughing and creating more and more outlandish and contrived scenarios.

Still only half way through the afternoon we continued driving through the salt Mats, our next destination the small island of Incahuasi. In the wet season it really is an island, and apparently it had only recently dried up enough for the 4x4s to get there. 

The island gave us an opportunity to try a bit of light hiking at 3,600m as it involved about an hours walk around and up the small island to a height of 50m above the Mats. The path was rocky and without any form of barrier for safety. It was also surrounded by cacti. In fact the whole island was covered with them, and some were enormous. The tallest was 9m 8cm, and as cacti grow at 1cm per year, this makes it 908 years old. Apart from the spectacular scenery and the cacti, there was little to see on the island (I did catch a Meeting glimpse of a small rodent, a viscacha I think) but believe me the scenery is enough. It was actually quite difficult at times to take it all in.

Now getting to the end of the afternoon we had one more photo opportunity, sunset. And as we started to head out of the plains we happened across one more area of water to reflect the last of the orange sky as we drove past.

So it seems we (inadvertently) timed our trip across Salar de Uyuni to perfection. Dry enough to drive across, but with enough water left for us to see the beautiful and sometimes dramatic reflections cast by everything around it and
anything that travels across it.

Experiences on our trip have been many and varied, and tonight we would get another. 

Briefly though I want to talk about temperature. As we all know it gets colder when you go higher, and we were still at 3,600m (over 11,000 feet). The temperature also drops after sunset, particularly when the sky is clear as there is no cloud cover to insulate the surface and it was very clear. So what we were looking forward to was a nice cosy hostel. We knew it wouldn’t be luxurious and that there were limited shower facilities, but we were getting home cooked food.

But that night we stayed in a hostel built from salt. I guess that given the abundance of the stuff it makes some sense. The walls were built from salt blocks, and where there were wooden supports they were made from the dried hulks of large cacti. On the floor there were a few small rugs scattered about, but primarily the floor surface was, yup, you guessed it, salt. This time however it was the coarse, granular type. Like a coarse sand. It was in the bedrooms, the internal corridor and the dining area. And whilst it was basic and a bit odd, it was quirky and not without character. 

What it really lacked though was any kind of heating. It was bloody cold. There was a gas fire, and a patio burner. But neither were working. It was especially cold in the dining room as it was quite big and the heat from our bodies and hot air from the chatter weren’t enough to make any real impact. In fairness, once you got settled in, the bedrooms actually weren’t too bad during the night, as long as you stayed under the covers that is.

Day 2

Morning broke, and we donned our warmest clothes and woollen socks. Julia had told us it would be the coldest day of the three, high altitude (4,700m) and the likelihood of biting winds blasting across the high altiplano. We actually needed thermals for breakfast too, but at least the food was warm (scrambled eggs) and filling washed down by coca tea.

In the Andes, the local tribes chew coca leaves to help them at altitude. Many
westerners visiting the Andes suffer with altitude sickness as the body just isn’t adapted to the reduced levels of oxygen in the air at high altitudes. Chewing leaves isn’t recommended for us for two reasons. Hygiene (possibility of getting stomach bugs) and also because coca leaves do contain traces of cocaine, and continual use can lead to a residual trace of cocaine in your blood that can be picked up in random blood tests (should you need to have one of these for your job, it would be bad…). But drinking coca tea is also supposed to help altitude sickness, or prevent it anyway, so breakfast was accompanied by coca tea. It actually doesn’t taste too bad. If you like green tea.

And more importantly that morning, it was hot.

Outside it was even colder than in the dining room. It was an early start and we were outside  at 7:00am with bags packed and
the cars loaded. There was a definite temptation to jog up and down the road (well, dirt track) to warm up.

We drove back to the edge of the salt pan, but today we were to leave it far behind.
Whilst we did cross another smaller salt pan it was nothing like the scale of the day before. For the large part though we were still driving across vast open plains, this time instead of salt we were driving over dirt, gravel, sand and rocks. And generally the roads, well tracks, through the desert (although many routes are actually marked on the Google Maps if you zoom in) were much rougher, giving those in the back of the 4x4s a particularly bumpy ride.

Toilets. Toilets in Bolivia can be, well let’s just say third world. Often, even the local guides would recommend against using them. And whilst the term for doing your absolutions al fresco in Africa was a ‘wild wee’, in Bolivia the term was to use the ‘Inca toilet’. So our first stop of the day was for an ‘Inca toilet’ stop amongst a strange sea of rocks that turned out to have once been a massive
coral reef, once a sea bed, now pushed nearly 4,000m into the air. 

Shortly after, we were driving across another open expanse when we neared the Bolivia to Chile train line again, in one direction Uyuni and the other, and not too far away, the Chilean border. Another photo stop, and as with everywhere we stopped over those three days there was something unforgettable about it. This time it was the rails, gleaming in the sun and stretching arrow like into the distance. Shortly after we actually reached the Chilean border post, only to turn away and head up into the mountains.

Starting to climb a little, we passed another massive peak. It still seems incredible that we were driving across vast plains at the altitude we were. In Europe, you normally associate high altitudes with rugged peaks and narrow valleys. Not in the Andes. Vast plains open out with peaks, many volcanic and some snow capped, surrounding you every which way. Except that they aren’t crowding in on you like they are in the Alps. As with the salt pans, it is a vast and open panorama wherever you look. This particular volcano, sitting on the border between Bolivia and Chile (there are actually a number of mountain and volcano peaks that are used to mark the Bolivian border with Chile) is still semi active, and as we rounded it, you could see the smoke rising from within the creator near its summit. The other notable thing about the volcanic peaks in the area is that the tops are streaked with colour from minerals and different coloured rocks and debris from eruptions across the eons, and this is clear and unobscured as there is absolutely no foliage of any kind to cover the ground.

Cue another stop. This time not in complete isolation, there were shops and baùo (bathrooms in Spanish). More photos. Sorry, I know it gets boring, but really they say so more than any words, and even when I was there in the midst of this dramatic landscape words failed me. I think the rest of the group felt the same way too.

Anyway, back to the shops. Outside this one was a sign saying llama sausages, 15 Bob. Well you have to don’t you? Cooked on a barbecue, they were very good. Very meaty, no added meal or fat here, and slightly spicy. And a good late morning snack.

The other thing they have up in these deserts are lakes. Many lakes. All rich in minerals and salt but each different. Many have white crusts of salt or bauxite over
part of their surface and many of their surfaces are coloured from salt deposits, from the colour of the algae that grows on the surface or from the minerals in them. Many also have colonies of flamingo living and breeding there. There are three types living in this area, the Andean, the Chilean and the James’s flamingos. The main (easiest) way to differentiate is by the legs. One has pink legs, one pink knees and the other yellow legs (we didn’t see that one). They get the colour in their feathers from the minerals in the water. When they’re young they are actually white, they only start to pick up their distinctive pink colouring as they get older and the depth of the colour of their plumage depends on the concentration of minerals in the lakes in which they live and feed. As I alluded to, each lake is very different. But again, each is spectacular in its own way with perfect reflections of the surrounding landscapes and that’s even without the flamingos. 

I’d not really thought much about seeing flamingos but they are slightly mesmerising to stand and watch. I’d seen them in zoos before, but as usual with wildlife seeing them in their natural habitats is so much more rewarding. Seeing flamingos in their habitat took me back to the Chobe river, when we first started our journey through Africa. It would have been easy to imagine that you could see these images in a documentary but here we were, again, standing in the middle of one.

One of the things I found notable in the high Andes was the absence of any sound. There are no animal or insect noises, no city or traffic noise either and virtually no air traffic passing overhead. You just get the wind noise and the sounds you make yourself.

Which makes the calls of the flamingos almost seem of of place as they go about their business of filtering their food from the lakes. Occasionally some kind of fight breaks out between rivals, creating a bit more noise, and sometime you see them flying in formation or gliding gracefully across the surface.

Before the sun went down we visited one last lake, it’s surface a dark burgundy due to the red algae living on it. More mountains, more reflections, and more flamingos.

It was actually difficult to tear myself away when it was time to walk back to the cars, not knowing if I’d ever be back there again. It was a feeling I had several times over the three days travelling the high altiplano. I found myself just gazing around in wonder at it all, trying desperately to take it all in and to capture the moment in my memory. I said it before, but pictures really
don’t capture the scale of the landscape and it’s vastness. I’ve never seen mile upon mile of dry earth and sand look so spectacular with the coloured peaks of the volcanos adding some variety to the varying hues of brown of the land around.

But we had to leave to get to our hostal for the night. (incidentally, hostals in Bolivia are really just small hotels, not the typical backpacker lodgings you might think about). The previous night we needed heaters, tonight we had some. In the dining area anyway. And close by outside, there was also a bottle shop! Ever since we been in the Andes we’d been avoiding alcohol in the main, but tonight fancied a glass or two. Amazingly, considering its location, the bottle shop was selling beer and wine at a similar price as shops in the cities (less than £5 for a bottle of red). When dinner arrived, the crew also provided a bottle per table, so with several bottles to go around, a quiet drink escalated into something a bit more raucous. Which would have been fine, except we had to be awake at 4:30 the next morning (to leave at 5:00). So back in the dining area, we had wine, a wood burner (lit) and food. A fun evening was had involving Sully’s magic tricks and cards games. Then we needed to turn in.

Tonight however we were in dorm rooms, one for the boys and two for the girls. The rooms themselves were probably big enough for three single beds, so with six in there was hardly room to squeeze between them. There was no lock. Well in truth there was a lock, but no key. Just a piece of string threaded through a hole in the door which you pulled to open the lock. Secure… Add one male and one female toilet for the whole building (we were not the only ones there), a noisy group of Dutch travellers and some world class snoring from my left meant that comfort and sleep were in short supply.

I’d just gone back to sleep after a long night when one of the drivers knocked on the door. 4:25. Great.

With my bag packed and ready I went outside. Well before sunrise, it was still pitch black. Only the lights from the cars outside, running to warm up, disturbed the darkness. The sky was clear, with the Milky Way clear as a bell up above. Every time I see it I wonder about the immensity of everything, and even though the land we were travelling through was vast, the universe dwarfs it, and seeing the Milky Way so bright and clear is still a humbling sight and one of the highlights of the whole year for me.

Day 3

So started the last day of our expedition across the Atacama Desert which would see us back in Chile for another night.

Even though we were due at the border crossing into Chile at around 9:30am we still had a lot more to pack in. Hence the early start.

Altitude sickness hadn’t been a problem for us after the first couple of days in La Paz. Some of the group were taking Diamox, but we’d not taken anything. We’d just tried to follow advice; drink lots of water, don’t over exert yourself and avoid alcohol. Well the last bit hadn’t gone well the night before. The first leg of our journey that day would take us to the highest point of the trip, and I wasn’t quite sure if the altitude would finally get to me this time. We were to drive up, and into, a semi active volcano. It wasn’t a steep drive, but it was still dark when Speedy said we had reached 4,925 metres. This was the highest point. Ahead, in the dark, the lights of a plethora of vehicles could be seen in the crater. The sun was just starting to light up the pre dawn sky, and jets of steam could just be picked out below in the gloom.

Apparently, we would be able to get out and walk about around steaming vents and bubbling mud pools, so Speedy drove us slowly down to join the rest of the tours parked up in the crater.

Back to Rotorua for a minute. When we visited the geothermal parks and areas in New Zealand the visits were accompanied by lots of fences and railings preventing you getting too close to anything too dangerous. And warnings that the ground itself could be unstable, and not to stand on any yellow ground or ground emitting and steam, just in case it collapsed beneath you!

When we got out of the cars it was still dark. Dawn was breaking but the main light was from the headlights of all the tourist vehicles. Steam vents were all around, steam shooting up four or five metres into the air and the sound of bubbling mud pools was ever present.

The New Zealand advice seemed sensible, but here in Bolivia health and safety had taken a holiday. You could walk anywhere. Right up to the vents and you could lean over and peer into the holes where the mud bubbled and boiled. Julia was clearly worried about safety though, apparently someone had recently stepped back while taking a photo (or something), fallen into a vent or mud pool and died!. In fact, as the light became stronger, you could see steam rising from the ground you were walking on. Knowing that the land on which we were standing was generally unstable did make me feel a little uncomfortable. And after our relatively short stroll around these geothermal features when we got back in the cars and drove off Speedy drove past one vent so closely that you could have reached out of the window and touched he steam. It made me wonder if, and how often, they test the stability and strength of the ground around these geological features. I suspect that they probably don’t. It was an interesting experience. Personally I would have preferred to have been there a few minutes later when it would have been possible to see more. Also, as the sky grew orange, the rising steam and warm orange light created a very atmospheric and beautiful spectacle.

Our next stop was only twenty minutes drive back down the mountain on the way to the Chilean border. At the foot of the volcano are some geothermal hot springs. These are warm springs, crystal clear, bubbling up from the earth. As we arrived the sun was just peeking above the horizon, and with steam rising from the pools and a lake stretching out toward the horizon it looked incredible. The air was cold however, so there was a bit of debate as to whether we would get changed and go in.

We finally decided to take the plunge. The water at about 39 degrees felt wonderful and sitting in the pool, with steam all around and the sun rising in the background felt amazing. Particularly as we’d not showered for two days! We were going to have our final breakfast in Bolivia there, in a building overlooking the lake, but that meant getting out of the water into the still
near freezing air. Those who hadn’t taken the plunge were standing about taking photographs, and they were cold. But it actually wasn’t too bad, getting dried off quickly and dressed, I was warmer than I’d been all morning, and pancakes (with dulce de leche) and coffee topped it all off nicely.

Two more stops to go. The valley known as the Salvador Dali Valley due to its strange rock formations is said to have been an inspiration for some of Dali’s work, and was another surreal desert landscape.

The Green Lake is named for its minerals that colour the lake green. They are brought up from the bottom of the lake by the wind. Except it wasn’t windy, so it wasn’t green. It was just a lake. But as with everything we’d seen over the past couple of days it was still beautiful in that stark and barren way that we’d grown accustomed to.

We were driving past two huge volcanos, the highest, Licancabur, just a shade under 6,000m high. The border with
Chile was just on the other side of the mountain and only another ten minutes
drive.

I don’t really understand why, but land borders seem to be so much more bureaucratic and take much longer to negotiate than airport borders. At this one, we had to go through Bolivian immigration where we said our final farewell to Julia (we would have a new guide in Chile) then jump on a bus and drive 5km to the Chilean customs and immigration. There we had to  have both hand baggage and main luggage searched, by hand, for any drugs or plant and animal products. This meant that every vehicle queued up and took 15 to 20 minutes to get through customs. Fortunately there were relatively few vehicles there, (probably a half a dozen minibuses), so we actually cleared customs in less than an hour.

And that ended our journey through Bolivia. It was one of the countries that I most wanted to see in South America. La Paz is a unique city, with a unique culture, but the salt flats and the desert are a completely different experience. The opportunity to travel through a wilderness still unspoilt and pristine (apart from some 4×4 tracks). That is what visiting this part of Bolivia is really about I think. Spectacular scenery, and the privilege of travelling through it off the beaten track. We hadn’t driven on a sealed tarmac road from the time we left Colchani to the time we reached the Chilean border. We’d been across salt and through water. Across desert tracks, through sand and over rocks.

It had taken us through some of the most barren but spectacular landscape I’ve ever seen, and am probably ever likely to see. Despite the basic accommodation and early starts, (or maybe because of those things), these three days are up there with the best days of our trip so far.

Unforgettable…..

For those of you who aren’t bored with all the photos, you guessed it, there are even more…

First Day: Click here for the Day 1 Gallery
Second Day: Click here for the Day 2 Gallery
Third Day: Click here for the Day 3 Gallery

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