Friday morning we departed Uyuni for three days in the salt flats of Bolivia before crossing into Chile. The two groups and all of our gear was crammed into, and on to, four Toyota Land Cruisers – judging by the number of them that we saw this is obviously the preferred vehicle in the salt flats.
We departed mid-morning from Uyuni and headed for our first stop, only about 10-15 mins out of town. Our driver, Pablo, spoke two words of English the entire three days – ‘Let’s go’ as we pulled away from our hotel. Following that Pablo became a little bit of a liability – constantly breaking convoy and taking detours, sometimes in search of flatter roads, sometimes it seemed in search of bumpier roads. A bit of a renegade was our Pablo.
Kerry and I were paired up with an English couple from the other tour group, Michael and Suzanne, who were actually on their honeymoon – they were nice people and we got along well with them.
As the four cars left Uyuni, we were the tail-end Charlie, a position we would frustratingly keep for most of the trip, continually being left behind as Pablo broke convoy in search of who knows what.
Our first stop was the train cemetery just outside of Uyuni – a graveyard of old steam trains that used to ply the rail lines across the salt flats and desert, shipping salt and minerals to the Chilean coast for export. It also included the train that was robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It was actually quite cool to be able to jump up on the big hulking rusting relics and pretend to be in charge of a steaming locomotive as it rumbled across the salt flats.
From the train cemetery it was back through Uyuni and then a short drive to the small salt mining hamlet of Colchani. Colchani itself is really just a small collection of huts – no more than a few dozen in total – that are used for processing salt mined from the salt flats. We received an explanation and demonstration of the manual processes that are still used to dry, refine and package the salt. It was a real surprise to see a woman on her knees in front of a large pile of refined salt, packaging it into kilogram bags by hand – apparently up to eight women have to package 5,000 bags of salt per day, every day.
From the demonstration of the salt processing at Colchani it was off to the salt flats themselves, the edges of which were no more than 10 minutes outside the village. The salt flats of Bolivia – the Salar de Uyuni – are the world’s largest salt flats; 12,100 sq km in size, lying some 3,650m above sea level. The vastness of the white plain is incredible, stretching out to the horizon in every direction, with only the surrounding mountains in the distance to help separate the salt from the sky. As we arrived at the edge of the salt flats we could see a handful of salt miners busy at work, surrounded by hundreds of conical mounds of salt, all piled up neatly to begin the drying process, before being transported back to Colchani for further processing. While there were many hundreds of salt mounds all dotted around a relatively small area – at most a couple square km’s – there seemed to me to be very few miners around. From our vantage point there seemed to be more tourists than there were salt miners!
After 5-10 minutes taking photos of the salt mining, and of ourselves amongst all of the salt mounds, we jumped back in the jeeps ready for our trip to the island of Incahuasi in the middle of the salt flats where we would have lunch
Within a couple of minutes though, we realised we were on our way back to Colchani. Our driver had decided, without telling us, or asking us if we wanted to go, to return to Colchani in search of the fourth vehicle in our convoy that hadn’t arrived at the salt flats. Back in Colchani we found the missing vehicle more or less where we had last seen it – though this time with the bonnet up, and the driver and tour guide hunched over the engine. Apparently it didn’t want to start!
After more than half an hour sitting watching various people attempt to fix the broken-down jeep, the frustration was rising, both in our vehicle – for the fact we were now unnecessarily stuck back in Colchani – and within the other vehicle – at being stuck in Colchani and not being able to see the salt flats. Finally after a lot of frustration and aggravation, it took the fourth driver to return into town to discover that the driver of the problem vehicle had actually engaged an engine kill-switch, and that there was nothing wrong with the jeep. It was such an annoying waste of time, made even more so when we arrived back at the salt flats to find the two groups left behind goofing around and trying out some of their salt flat photo ideas – argh! Little did we know at the time, but this vehicle would prove to be a problem child for the rest of the journey.
Now back in convoy, and also behind schedule, it was straight into the jeeps as we headed to Incahuasi Island where we would stop for lunch and could have some fun taking photos using the optical illusions that can be created in the salt flats. After seeing a number of photos from the salt flats in Uyuni, we had heaps of ideas for our photos, and just as many props – a beer bottle, peanut butter jar, hats and a hackie sack to name a few.
Some our ideas were quite ambitious and didn’t really come off, but some worked really well. The hard part about taking the photos wasn’t the ideas, the props, or the placement – it was literally the hard rock. Creating the optical illusion involved getting as close to the surface of the salt flats as humanly possible, i.e. lying flat on the ground. Contrary to what everyone, including myself expected, the salt flats are not loose and grainy. When the salt flats dry, they form a hard crust – a very hard crust – which isn’t comfortable at all to lie on for long periods of time. Needless to say my chest and stomach were very sore after spending the better part of an hour or so, lying face down on the rock-hard salt.
With the afternoon sun starting to go down, we moved on to another location to take some more photos and see the sunset. To our dismay the salt here was even harder and sharper than at Incahuasi Island. Putting ourselves through significant pain with each photo, we got back to work creating further photographic marvels. With a strong wind whipping across the salt flats, and nothing to shelter us, it was funny to see a couple of people (including Kerry) having to chase runaway plastic bags and the like. I joined in the chase for Kerry’s sail-away shopping bag, and I have to say it was much easier chasing with the strong wind behind you, than slogging all the way back to the jeeps into the breeze.
It wasn’t long before we were fighting a losing battle against the late afternoon sun which was creating ever lengthening shadows across the salt flats, and making the photography ever more difficult.
As the sun set behind the distant mountains we headed off to our night’s accommodation, about an hour’s drive away. We had mistakenly believed that we would be staying in the renowned salt hotel, Hotel de Sal – believing that there could only possibly be one salt hotel in the salt flats – but what had been lost in translation with our tour leader was that we were staying in ‘a’ salt hotel, not ‘the’ salt hotel. This distinction became very obvious to us as we rolled into a small village nearing dusk. At first glance the town seemed to have everything – including a sign directing us to the nearest internet kiosk. The only thing that was missing… people; it appeared totally deserted – spooky! Our salt hotel though was very nice – basic but comfortable and warm. Considering where we were it was perfect, despite having to pay to use the showers, though thankfully they were warm.
Saturday morning we hadn’t gone very far before the trouble started – our problem child vehicle had an issue with its roof rack.
Solution – let’s belt it with a wrench and see what happens. Somehow that seemed to help the situation, because in a few minutes the problem was solved and we were moving again. Along with our impromptu stop to deal with our problem child, we were able to get a couple of brief periods of co-operation from Pablo, as he stopped just long enough to allow us to take some photos of vicuna, and to let a herd of llama cross our path.
During a brief bathroom/snack stop mid-morning our earlier complaints about the pathetic speakers in our car were answered. In the 10 mins or so that we were stopped a mini-system speaker miraculously appeared – from where I’m not really sure – and was wired into the dash of our car by one of the other drivers. Excellent! Service with a smile, and some music finally!
The first real stop of the day was at a viewpoint overlooking Volcan Ollague. On the way across a salt flat, our problem child struck again – this time, a flat tyre. By now we were all ready to abandon the problem child where it had stopped, but Pablo insisted on helping – Pablo liked to help.
Half an hour more and we were at the viewpoint. It was much needed relief from the jeep, and a chance to stretch our legs and take some photos. Unfortunately I got myself into a bit of trouble for not being back at the jeeps by the agreed time, after climbing a ridge to get a better vantage point. Kerry wasn’t very happy with me as I’d kept everyone else waiting – ugh!
Before lunch we had one more stop at Laguna Edionda – our first chance to see the many flamingos that inhabit the altiplano.
After our experience in the Galapagos where we only got to see four, it was interesting to see a whole lagoon peppered with flamingos feeding away. I recognised the lagoon as the location of the promotional picture used for the tour in the GAP brochure and on their website – a lagoon full of flamingos overlooked by a volcano – and set about trying to recreate it. Unfortunately my photos aren’t quite as good as the professional ones, but it was an impressive scene.
As we were leaving the lagoon to head to our lunch stop, Pablo spotted a couple of desert foxes, and obligingly pulled over for some photos. The foxes were surprisingly shy, even shying away from the bread being hurled out of the window in their direction, by the cook in the front seat of our jeep.
As we were eating lunch at Laguna Capana, the problem child had yet another tyre changed as it had what appeared to be a slow puncture, as well as a broken rear suspension which made it an uncomfortable ride for those in the back. Almost immediately after lunch, we were one vehicle down again as the jeep with our tour leader Zaida had to turn back to our lunch stop to rescue her handbag – which had her passport, and the funds required for all of us to cross the border into Chile in it.
Fortunately the handbag was recovered and nothing was missing – lucky! It would have been embarrassing had she lost her passport and not been able to cross into Chile, and lost the money for all of us to cross the border after telling us to make sure that we got rid of all of our Bolivian currency.
After about an hour and a half of racing through, around, and over different desert hill landscapes we arrived at a cluster of rocky outcrops. Immediately recognisable at the edge of the rocky outcrop was the world famous Tree stone. From the jeep it looked an inviting scene but as soon as we opened the door to get out we were enveloped in a cold, blustery wind. This was another one of those unique places that looks so out of place with the surrounding landscape, but at the same time is also strangely fitting. Despite the cool breeze a few of us battled the winds to climb to the top of some of the rock formations – if I had thought it cold down by the jeeps, the wind was twice as strong, and twice as cold, on top of the rock formations.
Having got our photographs of the Tree stone, we headed off in the direction of our camp for the night. The sun was already beginning to go down and the wind starting to pick up even more as we made one final stop for the day at Laguna Colorada (the Red Lagoon).
The Red Lagoon takes its name from the red-brown muddy waters of the lagoon, which are coloured by the copper and other various mineral deposits in the lagoon bed. The Red Lagoon is also one of the places where the South American flamingos get a lot of their pink colour from. Born naturally white, flamingos begin to develop their renowned pink colour by eating crustaceans which contain certain minerals – and for the South American flamingos a lot of their colour comes from eating crustaceans from the Red Lagoon. Having said that though, there were surprisingly few flamingos at the Red Lagoon in comparison with the two lagoons we had stopped at earlier in the day. With a strong, and bitingly cold wind blowing we only stopped long enough to get out and take a couple of photos, before taking refuge from the cold wind back in the jeeps.
A matter of only a few minutes later and we came across a ramshackle building in the middle of nowhere – Campamento Ende, and our home for the night. Luxurious it certainly wasn’t, but it was bearable for one night. Space was at a premium so Kerry and I had to share a room with Michael and Suzanne – a room with four concrete beds, dilapidated mattresses, and a window with a sheet over it to keep a bit of light out (though that may have been a little hopeful). Fortunately the window seemed to be sealed properly and the room didn’t get too cold during the night, although I don’t think I slept particularly well – if at all – continuously fighting against my sleeping bag and trying to get comfortable.
Sunday morning we had an early start – a 5am departure to see the Sol de Manana geysers at dawn. It was still dark as we left the camp, but fortunately not as bitingly cold as it could have been.
An hour later and the sun was beginning to rise as we arrive at the geysers. It was an outer-worldly scene that appeared below us – a valley of shooting steam filling up the cool morning sky, all being illuminated from behind by the rising sun. Again there was a chance to stop for photos, and to wander amongst the geysers – no fences or other restrictions here; you could get as close as you wanted, or felt comfortable getting. We had up close views of the pot-marked landscape – the pools of bubbling mud, and the columns of hot steam venting out of fissures in the earth’s surface, all the while listening to the superheated water boiling away below us.
From the geysers it was off to the Termas de Polques natural hot springs for breakfast and a soak in the hot water. Breakfast was simple and uninspiring, but by the time we had finished it, the morning sun was beginning to warm the cool high-altitude morning air. The air temperature still wasn’t challenging double figures, but the water temperature by contrast was in the mid-30s C – enough to send the heart racing. The warm waters were relaxing, and a welcome relief after a couple of hard days driving across the salt flats.
After a brief soak in the thermal springs we had to get out and say goodbye to the other GAP tour group – they were headed back to Uyuni and La Paz, while we were carrying on to the Green and White Lagoons before crossing into Chile.
After saying our goodbyes, forty-five minutes later across the Bolivian dust we arrived at the Green and White Lagoons. From my perspective you needed a bit of imagination to consider these ‘Green’ and ‘White’ lagoons, but the Green Lagoon was a bit more convincing than the White Lagoon, which didn’t look particularly white to me at all. The Green Lagoon had a slight teal/turquoise tinge to it, but was made to look far more spectacular by the Volcan Licancabur towering over it. Again just time enough for some photos and then we were on our way.
From the Green Lagoon it was only another 20 minutes to the Bolivian border station, which was literally a hut in the middle of nowhere, and the only building for miles. After clearing the Bolivian border, it was onto Chile, and the beginning of our journey to the south of the continent.
The next stop for us is San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, a small oasis town sitting on the northern edge of the Salar de Atacama and the Atacama Desert.