Spectacular sights in the Bolivian saltflats
13.11.2008 0 °C
We left San Pedro that morning bound for Bolivia.Our tourbus picked up the other tourists we`d be spending the next couple of days with; two Kiwi girls, and a Dutch couple who were travelling with an Irish girl.We made for the outskirts of town where the Chilean border crossing was and had our passports stamped, then headed east climbing steadily upwards, passing by the volcano of Licancabur on our left.About an hour later we reached the Bolivian border; an almost derelict shack straddling the dirt road between two rising summits.We filed in, paid our fee in Bolivianos (which we`d gotten the day before in San Pedro) and got our stamp.We were now officially in Bolivia!
The area that we would be traveling through was known as the Bolivian Altiplano (spanish for high plain).Its the area where the Andes are at their widest and averages an altitude of abut 3,300 masl, though we would be ascending to well over 4,000 masl at times.The term also encompasses the terrain and climate of the region, including as it does the volcanoes, dry deserts and salt flats.Our journey was almost entirely through his high altitude region and would take us through all of these fascinating features and more.
Our guides and 4WD jeeps were waiting for us at the border, and we made our way over and made introductions.Whilst they laid out a modest but tasty breakfast on a makeshift table I inspected the 3 vehicles that were lined up for us.Specifically I was looking for seatbelts; apparently the recent accidents wouldn´t have been so tragic had the jeeps been equipped with them.But no, they were all without, though I wasn`t all that surprised.I picked out the least beat up jeep that looked at least somewhat comfortable and laid our backpacks beside it.While we finished breakfast I wandered around the site, snapping a few pics and managed to spot a cupelo fox skulking about, an animal indiginous to the region.I got a few shots as he sneaked past, looking for scraps of food no doubt.
Breakfast finished we loaded up our jeep with the help of the gude/driver, who had only a small bit of English.This is not uncommon on these treks, though it was somewhat frustrating of course.Luckily one of the Kiwis who we were to share the jeep with had decent Spanish, the only one among us, and she was invaluable as our translator in the coming days.
We threw our packs up to the guide who fastened them to the rack atop the jeep, along with a gas container and other food supplies for the trip.Once it was safely enclosed within a tarp, we jumped in and set off.
Our first stop was a small group of recent looking buildings that were the entrance point to the national park that protected the entire area.Again we filed off, paid our small fee in Bolivianos, received our pass and got back into the jeep.We then drove a small distance to our first proper sight, Laguna Blanco, a wonderfully pristine, almost white coloured lake that lay before some imposing mountains.Pink flamingoes lined the shores, standing on their one leg, while birds that resembled seagulls flew just over the surface in formation.The contrast between the reddish dust of the altiplano with the white lake in front and the blue sky overhead was incredible.We had just 20mins to enjoy the sight before we climbed back in to the jeep and set off again, the 4WD throwing up clouds of dust behind us as we sped away.
Not too far from Laguna Blanca was Laguna Verde, another lake of stunning beauty that was this time, you guessed it, green in nature.It sits at an altitude of 5,000 masl, and is that beautiful turquoise colour you see in picture postcards of caribbean seas.We stopped off a bit away high on a rocky outcrop to get a classic panoramic shot, and found ourselves surrounded by literally hundreds of small piles of stones, some maybe a couple of feet high.These were apachetas, offerings to the gods of the mountains all around us, made by the few locals but more recently by the tourists who pass by here daily.They are similar in nature to the Inukshuks made by the Inuit of northern Canada as markers to identify paths out in the wilderness, though those are shaped more like a person.They make for a nice focal point in photographs anyhow.
By this time we were all a bit hot and sweaty and as luck would have it our next destination was an area of natural hot springs that are a highlight of the first day of the trek.We joined a few other tour groups and peeled off our already grubby clothes and leapt into the warming waters.At this altitude it can be quite cold during the day, despite the scorching sun in the sky, and it was a very great pleasure to be able to rest there in perfect comfort.The springs are at the foot of another giant lake, and its this view that we had from the clear warm water.Just the thing to soothe our aching bones.
Suitably refreshed, we all got dressed and once again set off.The scenery changed gradually, from dry rocky dirt to more sandy plains.We drove on a long straight stretch of road surrounded by desert, and drew near a series of strange rock formations that lay up ahead on our right.This was the Dali Desert, so called because of the surreal shapes of these immesnse rocks that stand out for miles around against the flat desert surface.We got our driver to stop and a few of us preceeded over to them to get a closer look.But out here in the endless sands distances are deceiving, and we hadn`t even made it half way before we turned back, exhausted and thirsty.Our driver explained that they are over ten kilometres away and laughed at us for thinking we`d get near them.We fell back into the jeep and took long draughts from our water bottles to cool ourselves, cursing our naiviety.
Our next stop was down a reasonably steep track off the main road and before long we smelled the sulpur that signalled the presence of geysers.We pulled up beside pools of bubbling hot grey mud, the edges of which were blackened with the heat or else yellow with crystallised sulphur.The smell in the air was strong and malodorous, like rotten eggs, as hot steam bellowed from each pit.The pools were fascinating to watch, as bubbles slowly formed in the viscious mud before bursting their rotten contents.We were warned not to get too close though; people have been known to fall in and scald themselves very badly.
The last part took a few hours, as we headed toward what was to be our final sight for the day, Laguna Colorado.Not too far from it was our lodging for the night, but to get there we drove over more sand, rocks and dust then we had up til that point.At times the `road`was just a trail, or even invisible to us in the jeep, as our driver took us through short cuts and routes that only he knew.Down steep hillsides and through fields of rubble we drove, the jeep`s suspension taking a serious pounding.We later learned these vehicles have a life expectancy of only two years on average.
We eventually reached our accomodation for the evening, a series of newly built concrete buildings with corrogated metal for roofing.In fact, half of the area still looked like a construction site, with cement mixers completing the scene.The land was backed into the side of an adjacent hillside, for obvious shelter, and was staffed by a family of hardy locals.Even the children had tough leathery brown skin from living in such extreme conditions, though they were still playful and mischievous as only kids can be.
By this stage we were at an altitude of maybe 4,300 masl, and even walking around was hard work on our lungs.We were all of us exhausted, but first there was lunch to be had.A serious spread was laid out for us;hotdogs, salad, crunchy breads, fruits, coke....it was really something, considering we were in the middle of nowhere.We ate like starving orphans and then one by one disappeared off to collapse into our beds for a late siesta.Since crossing over in to Bolivia we`d gained an hour, so it felt much later than it was.We dozed fitfully before our guide gently woke us up and insisted on taking us over to the lake before darkness fell.We complied and headed over in the jeep, though it wasn`t more than 5kms away.
An absolutely breathtaking sight lay before us; a lake of pure rust red that had dotted through it islands of the purest white, like giant icebergs in a sea of blood.The islands are formed from borax, while the lake`s surreal red colour comes from sediments and the colouration of some algae that reside in it.And feeding on these algae were flocks of James`s Flamingoes, their pink colour derived directly from their unique diet.It really was the strangest sight, out here in the empty altiplano where there was just rocks and sand and dust and more rocks.We crowded down onto the shore, snapping away with our cameras like mad, disturbing the flamingoes that had been feeding nearby.They rose up into the air awkwardly but managed to fly quite gracefully to a safe distance away.I spotted a few natural springs near the edge, the water rising up from the bottom a deep blue colour but changing to red as it flowed down to the lake.The contrast was spectacular.
We headed back to the jeep, and, getting in, I noticed the driver swigging from a suspicious bottle.We`d had no problems or anything with him so far.In fact, he`d been a very safe driver for the most part although at times he did drive very fast when the notion took him.But we were still cautious after all the horror stories we`d heard and it was only prudent to be careful.But then again, it was the end of the day and he probably deserved it.I took it upon myself to only mention it if he started drinking first thing in the morning or something, which thankfully he never did.
We got back our lodging and went back to bed, if only to rest.Janelle and I had brewed some mate de coca, or coca tea, early that morning and brought it with us in a flask.Made from the leaves of the coca plant, the tea is widely drank around South America but especially in the higher Altiplano, where its thought to combat the effects of altitude sickness (which the locals know as soroche).We had been drinking it since San Pedro and had noticed some benefits, so we brought a supply with us.The leaves contain small amounts of the alkaloids that become cocaine, though you`d have to drink maybe 500 cups to get high.Another way to use the leaves is by chewing them, which is probably the more common method used by the locals.A batch of leaves is procured, the greener the better, and the veins are taken out by hand.The leaves are then put into the pouch of the mouth between the cheek and the jaw, and masticated slowly until they become a juicy wad.At this stage the leaves are bitter and nasty!After 45 mins or so, a pinch of llipta is added, which is the ashes of a plant known as quinoa.What this does is help release the alkaloids from the coca leaves.Once this happens, your face turns a bit numb and a mild sensation of alertness and a reduction of appetite is felt.Coca is chewed almost constantly by the farmers in the region to help in their day to day work.We tried it and found it a bit nasty.Plus we didn`t use any llipta so we only got a slight sensation from it.The tea was much easier to make and quite pleasant to drink actually.Tastes a little like weak green tea.
Not long after arriving back we were fed dinner, extremely tasty pieces of roasted chicken with chips and rice.Nice!While we ate our hosts`two children played some Bolivian music on their pan pipes and single drum, singing along in their native tongue.It should have been hokey but wasn´t, the somewhat sad music reflecting our tired minds.We all dutifully handed over some Bolivianos and they scarpered off into the night, still playing their instruments.
We settled down quickly after dinner.Some of the group drank wine or beers but at this altitude alcohol can hit you very hard and is generally a bad idea.Plus we had a very probable long night ahead of us.Along with the extreme cold (we each had around eight blankets made from warm alpaca fur), the altitude at 4,300 masl was not exactly conducive to a good night`s sleep.Most of us had had bad headaches all day and were swallowing pills like candy, though if that was the worst we`d be lucky.We tucked in as best we could and tried to sleep.
I awoke a few times during the night, but otherwise had no problems.Janelle however didn`t sleep at all, or if she did she got maybe 2 hours tops.The air at this altitude is very thin and your breathing becomes very shallow, which makes it hard to fall into the natural rhythm needed to sleep.She was in bits the next day, extremely tired and with a near constant ache in her chest, and quite panicked.But worse was to come; just after breakfast while we were packing up her nose exploded in a torrent of blood and she started to vomit.This was bad!Very bad!We rushed her to the toilet and as she retched into the bowl I mopped the blood from her face.I got one of the girls to look after her while I found our guide and explained the situation.He said we would be descending much lower once we got on our way so we all loaded up quickly.Meanwhile Janelles`nose had stopped bleeding and her vomiting was under control but just in case we strapped an oxygen mask to her face and had her breathe deeply until she felt better.One of the other drivers with us gave her a soroche pill he had for such emergencies which proved to be quite effective.We climbed aboard our 4WD and took off.Luckily enough she recovered quite quickly and by noon she was feeling much better, by which time we were at about 3000 masl.
Crisis averted we resumed our trek.We drove for some time over long stretches of sun baked sand and stopped at another collection of unusual rock formations that are so out of place in the flat desert they look like they were carved by some giant hand and placed there.One of the rocks here is famous for its treelike shape and is suitably known as Piedra Arbol, or The Rock Tree.A few pics later we were back on the road.
By this time everyone in the group had gotten to know each other well.We joked around and told backpacking stories to kill time between the sometimes long distances we had to travel.Our guide had a habit of playing the same song over and over (at least we thought it was the same song), a type of popular local music known as Reggatron, which is essentially a mix of reggae, electonica and dance.It nearly drove us mad, so we played music from our mp3 players through the jeep`s stereo when we could.He didn`t mind too much.He seemed to dig the Chili Peppers anyway.
We passed a few more lakes that day, some of which were of interest, but nothing compared to the sights of the day before.We still took photos though.One lake had a huge population of flamingoes, which were much tamer than those of Laguna Colorado allowing us to get that much nearer and obtain some great shots.We headed for lunch to an area of yet more (sigh) unusual geological features, this time a cooled lava field that had smooth slabs of stone punctuated with holes where bubbles had formed.Our driver laid out a picnic blanket and took out bowls of fresh salad and bread, along with fruits and Coke.We ate a leisurely lunch and lay in the sun, which by this time had gone behind some clouds.
Once we were fed and happy we were on our way again.We had a fair bit of distance to cover so our driver kept a steady speed while we enjoyed the scenery.The road had again changed, this time to more mountainous terrain which at one point got so bad we all had to abandon ship for ten mins or so while our driver negotiated through a really rocky patch of dirt.We eventually came to the edge of our first salt flat, Salar de Coipasa, and hurtled down onto its white dusty surface.This is the smaller of the two salt plains we had come to see,the other being the larger and more visually impressive Salar de Uyuni.We only stopped once we were about halfway across at some railway tracks, the remnants of a service that had long ago ceased to operate.We took our pics and headed on.
We reached our destination a few hours later, a small town of no great importance that lay not far from the Salar de Uyuni.It was a real one horse town, with dusty cobbled streets and litter strewn hillsides.Our driver initially seemed unsure as to where we were staying, but he eventually found our spot for the night, a basic but clean lodging with creaky, sagging beds.While our kindly hosts prepared dinner we took the opportunity to explore, but beyond a reasonably presentable chuch in the town square found nothing of any real interest.We came back to a simple meal of spaghetti bolognese with bread, preceeded by a delicious broth of fresh local vegetables, which we obligingly devoured.We settled in for the night not long after, most of us tired after a day spent in the confined space of the 4WD.
The next morning we were woken at 4am, an ungodly hour but necessary if we were to catch the sunrise.We dressed quickly and loaded up, the jeep taking maybe 15 mins to start in the cold air.We had all of us slept better the second night, presumably due to the lower altitude to which by now we were surely acclimatised.We sped off into the darkness amid yawns and the occasional snore.The sun`s first rays were visible just over the horizon as we left the dirt road and crossed onto the flat salt plains 40 mins later, the suspension getting a well earned break.We stopped maybe 10 mins after that and jumped out of the jeep, cameras at the ready.The sun finally broke through some clouds and like a fiery globe threw down its rays and lit up the world.We were standing upon a vast white desert floor, solid rock salt, that stretched off literally as far as the eye can see.The mountains behind us, initially in shadow, were bathed in the fantastic red colours of dawn, while the salt floor at our feet seemed to pulse with blazing whiteness.Our jeep and even ourselves lay down some immensely long shadows behind us, which contrasted nicely with the prevailing white.As the sun rose higher the sheer spectacle of it unfolded before us.Bright orange sun, clear perfect blue sky, pure white desert and red hued mountains.Absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful.We stood agape and simply stared.
At nearly 11,000 km squared Salar de Uyuni is the world`s largest salt flat, and at an altitude of 3,650 masl, the highest too.It, along with Salar de Coipasa, Poopo Lake and Uru Uru Lake were formed when the giant prehistoric Lake Minchin dried up some 40,000 years ago.It contains over 10 billion tons of salt with some 25,000 tons extracted annually.It is also the site of half of the world`s lithium reserves, which is an obvious component of modern batteries.Due to its unnatural flatness the Salar is also a major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano.Its role as a source of raw minerals aswell as its tourist status is of vital importance to the relatively underdeveloped Bolivian economy.
Once we`d recovered our senses we snapped away like mad, the surreal landscape providing ample opportunity for some unique photographs.As the white desert floor stretches away to the horizon all perspective is lost, and with some clever positioning of props it can seem like you`re lifting a jeep on your shoulders or drinking from the world`s largest beercan.It makes for some funny pics.We all took our share of these before our guide urged us back into the jeep.It was time for breakfast!
Breakfast was another 20 mins away in the strangest location yet; Isla de los Pescadores (Fishermans` Island).This is the only elevated piece of land for miles around, in an area of unbroken white flatness.Its actually the remains of a ancient coral reef from when this entire area was under water, although now its the home of hundreds of giant cactii.
We went off exploring a well marked path that took us all around the island while our driver cooked pancakes and brewed coffee.The cactii here are huge and look every bit the stereotype of the tall, green man with curved, spiney arms.Some of them are over 900 years old!We climbed to the islands` peak where we were afforded an unbelievable view of the surrounding desert, all white surface and blue horizon.So surreal!Another part of the island consisted of a coral cave which made for a nice picture though I later discovered it was also the basis for a popular postcard so I was a bit miffed at being unoriginal.Anyways...
With the island explored, pics taken and breakfast eaten we again piled into the 4WD and drove off into the white.At this point our driver decided he could trust us enough and offered to let one of us drive.Bored of being in the back I jumped at the chance and settled into the driver`s seat, adjusting the mirrors etc. to my tall build.Traffic here keeps to the right and even out here in the desert the same rules apply.Of course this means gear stick and handbrake to your right hand, which just feels plain wrong to an Irishman.But it did feel great to get up to 90kph and cruise along the desert, enjoying the sun on your face and wind in your hair (heh).I guess our driver was tired `cos he let me drive for quite a bit and I didn`t mind at all handing the wheel over to the only other male backpacker there, the Dutchman whose name I can`t recall.
After the fun and games of driving uninsured in a beat up 4WD we finally handed the controls back to the driver, who took us to our next port of call; the famous salt hotel.Situated in the middle of nowhere, the hotel is constructed almost entirely from solid rock salt from the surrounding flats.From the walls supporting the roof to the beds in each of the rooms - pure crystal salt.Even the dining table and its chairs are made from the abundant mineral.Of course the beds have mattresses while the toilets are made from porcelain but apart from that its all white and salty.Some of the tours that go through this region (and there are many) stay overnight here, but since the entire building is officially an illegal construction that contravenes local ecological regulations we were only visiting.It is quite a sight
all the same, similar I suppose to the famous ice hotels in Norway, the difference of course being that this doesn`t have to be rebuilt each season.We took our pics, bought some sweets from the local girl on duty, and pushed on.
The rest of the day was pretty tame compared to the start I suppose.We lunched in yet another nameless dusty town at the tail end of the flats, a town that was remarkable only for being wholly unremarkable.Another two hours of driving later we were at the end of our journey; we`d finally arrived in Uyuni.But first our driver took us to the outskirts of town where a collection of ruins was to be the unusual finale of the trip; a train graveyard.Huge hulking wrecks of rusting iron and steel lay beneath the scorching sun on oil stained sand; some still on upright on their tracks while others lay on their sides like giant beached whales destined never to see the sea again.We played around inside the cabins and engine rooms of the wrecks, before becoming bored and returning to the jeep for the last time.The driver dropped us off at the company offices in town and we tipped him generously for not killing us and said our goodbyes.Myself and Janelle left the others, found the nearest hostel we could, checked in, and fell into bed.But not before we`d each had long, steaming hot showers.Our first experience of Bolivia had been spectacularly unforgettable, and we fell asleep dreaming of what more wonders this wild country had in store for us.We`d seen
little of her towns and none of her major cities but that was about to change with our next destination; La Paz.The country`s capital, and the highest on the planet.But first, of course, we had another long bus journey ahead of us.And this one would prove to be the worst we`d experienced yet.