We’ve spent the last three days touring the picturesque south west of Bolivia. We wanted to see the Salt Plains of Uyuni and hadn’t really thought about anything else the tour might offer – we also went into the Eduardo Avaroa national park where the scenery was spectacular!
We left La Paz late on Monday night by bus, travelling about 300km south through the night to arrive in the small railway town of Uyuni at 7am on Tuesday morning. This time we remembered to keep some ear plugs handy so slept for most of the journey. We then went and found the tour company we had the tour booked with. Bolivian organisation is NOT similar to our own! There’s no such thing as a job for one person, at least three people have to get involved and have a heated discussion about things! We were supposed to start the tour at 10.30, but by the time they found a driver it was 11.30! We undertook the tour in a clapped out Toyota 4×4 that most definitely would not be road legal back home! There was Russ and I, an American lad, a German lass who spoke no English, an Argentinean who spoke extremely loudly, and a cool Swiss chap who had travelled to most places in the world! Everyone was a bit annoyed due to the late start, the American lad especially so as he had paid for an English speaking guide when the driver (and tour guide) couldn’t speak a word – expect nothing in Bolivia!
Firstly we went to a train grave yard just outside the town, not sure why, lots of rusting Steam trains – Dad you would of loved it! After that we headed out onto the salt plain about 20km north of Uyuni. Absolutely amazing, never seen anything like it! It looked like ice, there we pools of water in places, but it was boiling hot! Salt is one of Bolivia’s biggest exports and its ‘harvested’ here, there were lots of piles of salt that had been scraped up awaiting a lorry to come along and collect them. It was seriously bright too, sunglasses were essential! Apparently the Salt Lakes were once Saltwater Lakes that have dried up over time to leave the salt in place. Of course there were the usual sellers trying to get you to buy tack made of salt, no where is safe from these people!
The scenery was amazing, the brightness of the lake reflected the surrounding mountains and the salt plain spanned as far as the eye could see. We visited one of the only Islands in the world to be surrounded by salt – Island de Pescardo (Fish Island). Somehow in the barren landscape it supports an ecosystem of gargantuan Cactus, some around 10m tall! Growing at a rate of 5cm a year they are hundreds of years old.
The Salt Plain is so massive, and it took us several hours to cross it. Once we got back to ‘normal’ land we headed to a ‘Salt Hotel’, which as the name suggests is entirely built of salt. Something a bit different, even the beds and tables were made of salt.
Day two started early as we headed south about 160km to the entrance of the national park. On the way we passed the snow capped volcano of Ollague, standing 5865m tall (although it didn’t look like it as we were already at 4000m+) its Bolivia’s only active volcano – there was a small plume of smoke rising from its peak. The sun was out and it was pretty hot, so we took the chance to get our shorts and flip flops out – whoohoo!
The journey through the national park took us through deserts of volcanic ash and gravel scattered with rocky outcrops of surreal shapes. Most of the trails only a 4×4 could transverse and we were getting bumped around all the time! The terrain was at times like that of another world, lots of strange rock formations. The highlight of these was the Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree), which is a massive rock about 8m high that somehow balances on a very narrow stem!
We then headed to Laguna Colorado, which has strangely red water! Something to do with algae and minerals apparently! The lake was home to hundreds of flamingos. Bright pink birds that seemed to constantly have their heads in the water feeding, pretty cool to see! We were lucky enough to see a load of them take off and fly around the lake a few times! Russ was in the right place at the right time to take this photo.
From the lake we headed to our accommodation for the night, a very basic building where we all slept in a dorm style room. We were warned that the temperature would drop to sub zero and we weren’t let down, it was freakin freezin! Worst still we had to get up at 5am! I had plenty of layers on, woolly hat and scarf appreciated greatly, but my toes were hurting! But it was worth enduring it to view the spectacle of the Sol de Manana geyser. A bit like what I saw in New Zealand’s north Island, there were lots of boiling mud pools and stinky sulphur smells! At 5000m the geyser is best seen in the cold of the morning (hence we were up so early!) as it loses pressure when the temperature rises.
Once we had taken all the cold we could take we headed down to the Laguna Polques where there are some Hot Springs. I took the chance to get the feeling back in my toes but had forgotten my towel unfortunately, but Russ bravely stripped to his swim shorts and went all the way in – I was jealous, it was really cold!
After breakfast, our driver not only our guide but also our cook, we headed 30km south to the Laguna Verde (Green Lake), another spectacular scene with its green waters – something to do with Arsenic and minerals! The lake reflected the surrounding mountains superbly, making it an almost spiritual place! In South America the locals build piles of stones in such places for good luck so I took the opportunity and built a small one!
The border of Chile is only 7km away from the Lake and we headed to what must be one of the remotest manned border posts in the world to drop of the America lad and German girl who were crossing there. We were at the border at 10am and from there we drove 360km back to Uyuni, arriving about 6pm. A long bumpy day in the car, and we had to stop a few times to help broken down vehicles – not a place to get stuck! But it was great to stick the iPod on and sit back and enjoy the spectacular views on the way. Russ had the back seat to himself and took a siesta much to the drivers amusement!
Last night we had a much needed shower, we and all our gear was covered in dust! Then we went to an American owned Pizzeria for a tasty meat feast and a beer – a good way to round off the trip! Today’s a lazy day, we are catching a train tonight that will take us to the Argentine border about 300km south of here. So we are just killing time today, but its nice to have a day of rest after 3 busy days, and a much needed liein!
We are headed to the northern Argentine town of Salta, where we will spend a few days before catching a flight to the party capital of South America – Buenos Aires!