Hopefully you’re still reading this blog and we haven’t bored you yet! We have seen so much on this tour and are so lucky to have spent it with a great group of like-minded travellers. The number one thing Andrea wanted to do in South America was the Salt Flats and that was still to come! Please keep reading to see what days three and four were like…
Today we woke to a great sunrise after hearing all the drivers noisily preparing their vehicles in preparation for the hours of driving ahead. As usual it was a very fresh morning but with such impressive skies who cares! We had been told to expect the coldest night so far with temperatures down to –18’C but the four of us who shared the room experienced the warmest and ditched most of the bedding – maybe having plastic water bottles filled with hot water at our feet helped.
We left Huaylljara at 8am destined for the precariously balanced rock known as ‘Arbol de Piedra” or tree of rock. There were many interesting formations here but the tree of rock stood out. There were five more lagoons ahead of us on the ‘Ruta de las Joyas Altoandinas’ with a guarantee of many more flamingos, supposedly less fearful of humans unlike the ones at Laguna Colorado. The first three, Lagunas Ramaditas, Honda and Charcota were pretty mundane and then we arrived at Hedionda with Flamingo Hotel on its shore. There were many James’s flamingos scattered all across the lagoon, many close to shore that were in no way phased by human presence. Also on the shore were a couple of interesting signs, one of a flamingo in flight with a line through it indicating that this is a no-fly zone, and another with various dos and don’ts, including no peeing or pooping – the associated pictures were very comical.
We promise, no more flamingos! We did get to see other non-pink animals including the Culpeo, or Andean fox, and many Vicuñas whilst driving too.
One more Lagoon to go, Cañapa, then we were on our way to have lunch. Instead of being inside a clay brick house we pulled over at Valle de Rocas, a huge area covered in boulders sprouting from the altiplano. Seems like every other SUV in the area is on the same schedule and we are soon accompanied by perhaps a hundred other tourists! Sylvia prepared lunch on the rear door of the Landcruiser, neatly serving us with chicken, rice and plenty of veggies, something we don’t get enough of at times. We devoured her great cooking with ease – must be something to do with the altitude, and were on our way towards Salar de Chiguana, a far smaller salt flat than the mac daddy, Salar de Uyuni.
From the distance Salar de Chiguana seemed small and irrelevant on the vast altiplano but the moment we started driving across it the sheer size at 415 square kilometers became apparent. We crossed the Uyuni to Chilean San Pedro de Atacama railroad tracks which run right through the middle of the salt flats, and then on to San Juan. This was a welcome break and gave us the chance to relieve ourselves and stock up on beer and wine to celebrate our arrival at Salar de Uyuni later that afternoon. There wasn’t much to do so we sat around drinking beer for half an hour!
Chuvica, at a lowly altitude of 3660m, was set right on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats and was to be our final night’s resting place. Our accommodation was far classier than previous nights and made entirely of salt, from the walls and bed foundations to the dining room tables. We arrived mid afternoon with sunlight and heat still in abundance and to top it off we got to shower, woohoo! Tomorrow was going to be an early start so as we could get to Isla Incahuasi, or Isla del Pescado in time for sunrise over the salt flats.
Marco, as usual was ready for our backpacks to be loaded on the roof of the SUV well before our agreed time, something we were used to now. We made a quick 6.30am departure racing across the salt flats as breakfast was to be served after seeing sunrise this morning. For untrained eyes we were heading no where in the dark. Fortunately Marco must have a built in GPS and knew exactly where to go even turning off the lights for a few minutes as we raced on. Luckily for us no one was coming the other direction with the same bright idea!
Isla Incahuasi, covered in the giant Trichoreus cactus and surrounded by a flat white sea of hexagonal salt tiles hosts a tourist center with toilets and a small museum. The main attraction is the ten minute walk up to the high point where in the cold we waited for the sun to emerge above the horizon.
A few days prior whilst in Tupiza we had bought a metal mousetrap and a toy Captain America, not as gifts but for the next stop we were going to be making. This would involve the infinite perspective of the salt flats that made very interesting poses for people and everyday items. Marco found a suitable location with white almost as far as the eye could see and left us to use trial and error in creating some of the obligatory photos – I thought I’d nailed the first few until Andrea looked and we realized we were far too big, and the toys far too small. If at first you don’t succeed! Here are some of our better efforts…
We were almost the lone vehicle snapping away until our Tupiza Tours friends arrived in the other SUV sometime later – we found out after that their driver was wasted from the previous night and had fallen asleep at the wheel as they were crossing the salt flats ahead of us for 20 minutes. Because the salt flats are so vast, he was now lost and had to head back to cactus island to start again! Guess he messed up any chance of getting a tip!
Our final destination before arriving in Colchani, one stop away from Uyuni was the illegally built Hotel de Sal Playa Blanca, the only hotel located directly on the salt, and made almost entirely of salt. Not sure of the purpose of the flags that are blowing in the wind outside of the hotel but they do make for pretty cool photos. The Salar de Uyuni covers some 4,086 square miles, sitting on top of an ocean of brine that contains between 50 and 70 percent of the worlds lithium. Of the approximately ten billion tons of salt that make up this salar 25,000 tons are harvested annually by salt cooperatives such as the one in Colchani. Colchani also provides the closest access to the salt flats for visitors not utilizing a tour.
We could now tell that we had arrived in tourist land and were close to Uyuni as there were crowds of people, some arriving from tours and some on day trips. It would have been nice to hang around longer but our driver/guide seemed to be in a rush, understandably to get home to Tupiza and see his family, but prior to our final meal we were allowed a brief chance to look around the many stalls selling locally made salt products, typical knitted clothing and other gifts. We purchased a couple of salt cups with die inside them, not realizing how fragile they are and of course one broke before we even got to La Paz!
The drive to Uyuni wasn’t long, but before being dropped at the tourist office we made a quick stop at the quirky train cemetery, located some 3km from town. The trains were mostly used by mining companies that had been abandoned after the industry collapsed, and now made for the towns biggest tourist attraction. Other than the trains the area was a dump with trash covering large areas on the outskirts of town. We were very pleased that we had not spent any time here before the trip and also that we would be leaving without having to find a hotel!
All we had to do now was hopefully purchase tickets for the overnight bus to La Paz. We were going to head to Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama but had decided in the last hour to instead stay in Bolivia for the next eight weeks. A quick farewell to Marco, Sylvia and our new friends and we got to slob out in a local pizza joint for the next few hours…
July 5th – July 8th