Volcanoes, flamingos and the world’s largest salt flats

We have spent the last four days on a trip to visit the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flats at over 12000 sq km. The trip included amazing scenery, winds so strong that it was difficult to stand up, sun so strong that you burn in ten minutes, snow drifts that caused our Toyota Land Cruiser to get stuck and temperatures down to -20 centigrade at night in buildings that have no heating! Last, but not least, we saw a huge array of animals including llamas, vicuñas, ostriches, andean condors, vizcachas, flamingos and lots of unidentified birds.

Our transport loaded up and ready to go!

We left Tupiza on a tour with La Torre tours on Saturday, with warnings of very cold temperatures and snow that might cause us an issue. We piled in to our Toyota Land Cruiser with José, our driver, Ana, our cook, and Cynthia and Rejanna, two French travellers, and set off. Immediately after leaving Tupiza we were treated to scenery that wouldn’t be out of place in an old western movie as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. The first time we got out of the car to take photos we were shocked at just how strong the wind was – little were we to know that we hadn’t seen anything yet! The landscape was shaped by the rain and wind causing erosion of the relatively soft, red rock. From here we continued onwards and upwards, observing a broken down Land Cruiser and lots of llamas, en route to our lunch stop. Getting out of the car at lunch caused us to almost be blown over in the strong wind that was whipping up anything in its path, causing mini dust storms that made it difficult to keep your eyes open. The food at lunch was very tasty and plentiful, but we were all glad to get on the road again, in the warm protection of our car. The afternoon continued in much the same fashion as the morning had been, ticking down the distance until we got to the entrance of the national park we would be spending the next two days in. During the afternoon we were fortunate enough to see ostriches before we climbed past the snow line, above which we were to spend the majority of the afternoon. We stopped at a long-abandoned town which was used by the Spanish during colonial times in order to reap the rewards of a nearby silver mine. The entire town was covered by snow so I can’t imagine it was a comfortable place to live all those years ago. From here we continued to climb and it wasn’t long before we it our first occurance of our car getting stuck in the snow. I should point out that only the first three kilometers, as we left Tupiza, was metalled road and we had been on dirt tracks since! After numerous attempts reversing back down the slope for a run-up our driver asked us to all get out in order to make the car lighter. He had a few more attempts at the run-up, getting a few more metres up the hill with each attempt. We all had to help clear a path by clearing as much snow as possible. Adding to the mix that we were over 4500 metres made a challenging task that much harder as we all fought for breath. We eventually made it up the slope and piled back in to the car to catch our breath and attempt to warm up. By this time we had caused a bit of a queue, with two other cars waiting behind us. Only a few minutes later we were stuck again, this time unable to go forwards or backwards. We all got out again and helped push our car backwards, which was no mean feat seeing as we were almost 5000m above sea level, so that it was able to reverse down the slope. As our driver tried to get to the top of the slope, one of the other cars waiting behind us managed to make it up by going ‘off-road’ (even more off-road than we already were!). Our driver managed to make it across to the new tracks and finally reached the top. We now let the other cars clear a path for us through the snow as we all felt that we had done enough route clearing! From here to our accommodation for the night the journey was relatively uneventful – we entered the national park, paying our B$150 each to do so, and then witnessed one of the cars ahead of us take a descent too fast and fail to make the bend at the bottom. Fortunately for them there was plenty of run-off space, once they had bounced across the small pile of dirt that marked the edge of the road. After checking that they were all OK and their car was able to continue we drove the final ten minutes to our accommodation at 4200m. After unloading the bags from the car, and choosing a bed each in our dorm room, it was time to enjoy a much-needed warm drink. By now the temperature was below freezing and it was continuing to plummet. By the time we were eating dinner at 8pm, the temperature was already in the region of -10 centigrade and we were in a building that had plastic sheeting for windows, corrugated tin for a roof and no heating… it was going to be a cold night! After a dinner of soup followed by meatballs and mash it wasn’t long before we were all tucked up in bed trying to get warm enough to feel our feet again!

Sunday started before dawn, when the local church broadcast its sermon over loudspeakers at 0430! We stared to rouse properly not long after 0600, as our room filled with the dawn sunlight. A delayed pack-up (due to the cold) led to a breakfast of bread, jam and hot drinks and we were on our way not long after 0800. Not long into our journey we stopped by a pen containing hundreds of llamas where we were able to take photos. We continued then past a few lagoons and mineral mines to a thermal bath. It felt surreal walking past snow as we climbed into the hot pool, where the water is around 35 centigrade! Due to the combination of altitude and hot water you weren’t able to spend long in the pool before you started to feel light headed. It was with some trepidation that we set of towards Laguna Verde, as we had heard reports that the snow might make the track impassable. As it turned out the road was impassable, so we just drove alongside the normal track – which was fine! Laguna Verde is a lake normally azul in colour and lies in front of the 5916m Licancabur volcano. As we are now in the middle of winter here the lake was mostly frozen and not its usual colour. Despite this, it was still a stunning vista. After taking plenty of photos we headed back to the thermal bath where Ana had been busy preparing our lunch. After lunch we visited an area containing lots of geysers. You had to be careful where you walked as there was no safety fencing – just a sign saying “Pelligro!” (Danger!). Our next stop was our hostel, where we unloaded our car and left Ana to prepare dinner while we went to visit Laguna Colorada. It is difficult to put into words how beautiful this lake is, especially in the late afternoon sun which we were fortunate enough to see it in. The lake has a natural red colour and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. In the lake were hundreds of flamingos that were happy to pose for us and there were llamas walking along the lake shore in front of us. We stayed at the lake until he sun went down behind the mountain, dropping the lake into shadow. As soon as the sun had gone, the temperature immediately started to drop quickly. Back at the hostel we had our now customary got drink and biscuits, followed by our dinner. Because we were the first group to reach the hostel in the afternoon we had the pick of the tables in the dining corridor – we went for the one next to the log burner! It was lit before our dinner and was rekindled once during the evening. Despite this, we still got very cold and, after a few card games while the burner was still giving off heat, we called it a night. I was warm-ish when I climbed into bed but quickly became cold. The sleeping bag I had hired for the trip would be small for a child, and only came up to my waist. I slept in thermal trousers, thermal top, t-shirt, fleecy jumper, down gilet, two pairs of socks, the sleeping bag, my silk sleeping bag liner, a sheet, three blankets and a thin quilt, my fleece hat and was still freezing cold. During the the night the temperate dropped to -20 centigrade – no wonder we were so cold!

Waking up (I say waking up, but I was so cold that sleep only came in short visits) the condensation on the inside of our dorm window was frozen solid. A bottle of drinking water left in the car overnight had also frozen solid. Needless to say we were slow getting or of bed! After packing up and a breakfast of pancakes we set off just after 0800 again. Our first stop was Arbol de Piedra – a collection of volcanic rocks which had been shaped by the weather over many years. One of the rocks looked highly unbalanced and we had fun posing for photos whilst pretending to hold the rock up! We then drove past four lagunas, including Laguna Hedienda. At this lake we were able to get to within a few metres of the flamingos as they carried on with their day. We were able to get some beautiful photos – you just had to be careful of the overpowering smell of sulphur! Our lunch stop was at some more volcanic rocks at the foot of a still-active volcano – Ollague. Looking at the top you were able to see a constant column of steam being let out. This volcano sits on the border between Bolivia and Chile. The afternoon was mostly spent driving onwards towards the Salar and our hostel for night, with only a brief stop at a shop in San Juan where we were able to stock up on wine for the evening. One more hour driving and we reached our hostel on he edge of the Salar. Everything in the hostel is made out of salt – the bricks, the tables, the chairs, the beds. Even the floor was covered in salt crystals! Electricity at the hostel is provided by a generator that only rums between 1900 and 2200. After dropping our bags in our dorm room and and sorting ourselves out we made our way to the dining room where we were able to play cards, drink our hot drinks and watch the sunset over the Salar. Dinner of soup and vegetable lasagne was swiftly followed by a couple of bottles of Bolivian wine and a few more card games until the generator was switched off and the lights went out – signalling that it was time for bed.

The last day of the tour started earlier than the previous days (apart from being women up on day two by the sermon over loudspeaker) with a planned departure time of 0600. There were two main factors which helped us to achieve this: firstly, we were having breakfast out on the Salar and, secondly, it was much, much warmer than the previous two mornings (primarily due to the lower altitude of only 3600m). After loading our car up in the dark we set out across the Salar towards Isla Incahuasi – the only island in the middle of the Salar. As we were getting closer to the island we stopped to watch the sunrise on the far side of the Salar. With the sun getting ever higher in the sky we continued on to the island, which is covered with hundreds of cacti and the island itself largely formed from coral. After a brief wander across the island, suffering with the cold out in the Salar, it was time for breakfast on another salt table. Ana had somehow managed to prepare a delicious cake on the two burner gas stove last night, which went down very well! After breakfast we continued out into the middle of the Salar, where it was time to take advantage of the vast emptiness and make lots of photos playing with perspective, such as climbing into wine bottles and Lindsay sitting on a spoon that I was about to eat (we’ll be putting up photo evidence shortly). We then paid a visit to the original salt hotel, in the middle of the Salar. It has now been closed down for environmental reasons as it polluted the Salar. Today it houses a museum but we didn’t go in. As we drove across the Salar, its expanse is very difficult to comprehend as the salt stretches to the horizon in most directions! As we reached the edge of the Salar we went through a salt mine, where salt was put into lots of little piles (about 75cm high). The piles are left to dry in the sun for a day before the salt is collected by trucks for processing. We stopped in Colchani, a small town on the edge of the Salar, for a visit to the tourist market and lunch before continuing the final 30 minutes to Uyuni which was the official end point for our tour. We, however, were doing a full loop back to Tupiza so we dropped Cynthia and Rejanna in town so that they could organise their onward travel to La Paz and then set off for Tupiza. It is only 208km from Uyuni to Tupuza but the journey takes approximately five hours due to the road being a dirt track. The only mark on the map along this road is a small mining town called Atocha. We also passed the place which saw the end of Butch Cassidy, the sun dance kid, approx 40km from Tupiza. Apart from that we enjoyed a further variety of countryside and mountain views, including lots more llamas, all the way back to our hostel in Tupiza. Just as we reached the edge of Tupiza we came across our first Bolivian blockade. We have no idea what it was about so José turned around and we went a cross-country route into town!

After four days in the same clothes and no shower we are now off to shower, put on some fresh clothes and head out for dinner.

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