the wildest landscapes I have ever seen
18.11.2008 15 °C
So first off I must say the Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni) and the whole south east circuit of Bolivia is a must see. Wild otherworldly landscapes and coloured lakes makes for an amazing experience. Not much in the way of roads though so 4x4 all the way. So we started bright and early on our tour with Estrella del Sur - they escort us to the Chilian exit border and then the Bolivian border - if you can call it thus. It really only consists of a shack in the middle of a high altitude desertscape. At this stage I think we were already over 4000 meters so you could feel the altitude. At the "border" we met up with our driver whose named was spelled Ronald but somehow ended up being pronounced like Zonal or something weird like that. He was fairly young - 22 I think and had already been in the business 3-4 years. The jeep was a 4WD landcruiser built for serious travelling. Apparently normal cars only last 2-5 years in that dry dusty and salty region of Bolivia but jeeps and 4WD trucks last up to 10 years. Also worth noting, only 5% of Bolivian roads are actually paved. However to quote Doc Brown "Roads? Where we´re going we don´t need roads."
Anyway back to the scenery. Day 1. The mountains we started to drive by were coloured in ways I had never seen. Light browns, reds, whites even green sometimes make up the striated textures. Our first stops were coloured lakes. The white lake - laguna blanco. It really was white - some mineral in the water. Green - laguna verde. Looked like a turquoise caribbean sea. Next we passed by a chunk of desert aptly named the Dali desert. Both stark and with unusual rock formations it very much reminded me of one of Dali's many surrealist paintings. The weather though extremely sunny was also fairly cold because of the altitude. We stopped at Polques hot spring after. Steve and I only waded but the others in our group got on the bathing suits and hopped in. It was a very nice temperature and sat on the edge of a lake. We then headed to the Sol de Mañana geysers. There are a smattering of sometimes large smoky holes coloured yellows and browns with bubbling grey liquid. You would not want to fall in that. Really interesting to see though. We then made our way to the hostel we would be spending the night in. It didn´t have showers and was very spartan and was also at an altitude of 4200 meters. That is a serious height. To put that into perspective - the worlds highest city, Potosi (also in Bolivia) is a mere 4090 mts. Two of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on the 7 continents) are not far off; Carstensz Pyramid in Australia-New Guinea is 4884mts and Vinson Massif in Antarctica 4892 mts. There were points on the first day were we were at an altitude of 5100 mts. Not for too long though. So the "hostel" was well known for giving people altitude sickness - the guides carry oxygen with them. Even though we were literally in the middle of no where they still had beer for sale. Anyway nearby was the spectacular Laguna Colorado - the Red Lake. It was actually red, pink in some areas and white in others. It was also a popular spot for flamingos who get their pink coloured feathers from a certain red organism that they eat in the water. Amazing lake combined with the bright blue sky and the dark brown-red mountain in the background and you get quite the array of colours. Amazing. We went back to the hostel and had lunch - salads and hot dogs - and later dinner - soup, rotisserie chicken and rice. All decent meals. Apparently it gets very very cold at night. Our beds had probably 3 blankets on them and we pilfered blankets from the other empty beds. Most of us had two pairs of socks, several layers and no less than 5 blankets. It wasn´t that cold though. We heard rumours of -10 but I never even saw my breath at any point at night which means it couldn´t have below zero. This night did not go well for me. I was hit with some seroius altitude sickness. I couldn´t sleep at all and I had chest discomfort. If I did manage to fall asleep I would wake up 5 minutes later gasping for air. That´s not uncommon for altitude sickness. Anyway by morning I was in bits and really freaked out because i had no sleep and was pretty well paniced the whole night. Then I got a nosebleed and vomited. That was the worst of it though. The guide from the second jeep gave me a sorojche (altitude sicknes) pill and they gave me oxygen. Happily we were decending altitude that day and they assured me the symptoms would abate. I felt much better after we started heading down.
Day 2. We headed first to the Arbol de piedra, the stone tree which i suppose looks like a tree but to me just looked like an interesting rock formation. We passed by more lakes that were more plainly coloured but often reflective, more desert and otherworldly landscape. We had lunch near Ollague volcano which was surrounding by volcanic rock formations. We also passed a small salt flat then ventured to our next hostel which was in a small town somewhere...It did have showers but none of us partook. Dinner was soup to start and spaghetti with a lovely sauce. We were now at an altitude of about 3400 mts. I slept fine that night and we had to get up at 4am to get to the salt flats by sunrise.
Day 3. The Uyuni Salt flats. We got there as the dawn colours were marking the sky. The salt flats are mainly just a white layer of crystallized salt on the ground that is apparently 5 meters thick. It goes as far as the eye can see. Dawn colours of light blue, purple, oranges all looked amazing against the distant black mountains and the white ground. It was so beautiful. After sunrise we headed to fisherman´s island in the middle of the flats. A cactus oasis that used to be an ancient coral bed. We had breakfast there and wandered around the island. Some of the cactus there were 900 years old. The rock that composed the island was obviously coral formations. Then to be surrounded by a flat white sea of salt. Really cool. Steve and I then engaged in the time old practice of perspective flexing pictures. This has always been done on the salt flats since young backpackers realized the could be made to look like they drinking beers the size of houses or shrink themselves to seem to fit in their friend's hand. The best one we did I think was a giant me about to step on our jeep. I named it "Janzilla". Another good one was Steve leaning on a giant beer can, and me holding a tiny Steve in my hand. All the fun of having an endless horizon of white nothingness. Anyway on the way out of the salt flats we visited the salt hotel wihch was made out of salt bricks and held many salt figures and tables and stuff. We then began to pass into real Bolivia, what could be described as a dry dusty ghost town or as impoverished desolation. There weren´t many people. We headed onto Uyuni after lunch. Just outside Uyuni is a train cemetery. Old trains are literally dumped there and though interesting in some respects was not the highlight of the trip. Uyuni, another dry town, but with more people and activity just made me want to run. We went to a hostel only to take a shower and paid for it then we got an overnight bus to La Paz.
My first impressions of Bolivia did indeed live up to it being the poorest country in South America as well as the cheapest. The scenery is amazing, the service unreliable at best - fatally dangerous at worst, an extreme adventure really. Just traveling by even up-standard public transit can be seriously dangerous especially if you´re traveling at night. Apparently it is not uncommon for Bolivian bus drivers to fall asleep at the wheel and either crash or go right off a cliff. The bumpy, unpaved roads don´t help. The highest city in the world is in Bolivia, the largest salt flat, they also have one of the most ecological diverse chunks of the Amazon rainforest. Travelling there can be done amazingly cheaply. I would probably recommend Bolivia as the country where you can see the most for less in South America. Next onto the capital of Bolivia, high rising La Paz. The highest capital in the world at 3600 mtrs. Famous for the incredible number of markets and having the World´s Most Dangerous Road.
For more pics of Uyuni Salt Flats check out: