Marg and Leigh's travels around the world

We are two retired women from New Zealand, busy travelling the world. Our quest is to experience other cultures before they are changed beyond recognition, and see endangered animals and environments before they disappear. We hope you like our blog and enjoy our exploits. We sure have had fun getting here.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Desert & Salt flats to Bolivia (Bolivia)

After our stay in San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), we headed off on a tour of deserts, lakes and the amazing Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flats) that would also take us out of Chile, across the border into Bolivia.

We bought the tour online from New Zealand, so it was a bit hit and miss. However, we visited our chosen tour company, Cordillera Travel, when we were in San Pedro and they were very helpful and efficient.

Bolivian border
Cordillera picked us up from our hotel at 8 am on the tour day and drove us to the Chilean customs stop where we were stamped out of Chile.

Driving another hour or so took us to the border where we disembarked and joined a queue at Bolivian customs. This was an extremely cold windy spot, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, where we paid our Bolivianos and got a stamp in our passport that let us into Bolivia (no visas needed). 

Bolivian border with driver 

Fifteen of us assembled at our 4WD jeeps and were split into three groups. We were to share our vehicle with three young German women; all varsity students. Our luggage was put on the roof under a tarpaulin alongside several big containers of petrol (no petrol stations in the desert), and we piled aboard to start our adventure.

Our driver was Izak, a Bolivian who spoke no English, but luckily for us, our three companions spoke Spanish and were able to translate for us.  Finally, we drove off, in convoy, toward the Dali Desert.

Laguna Verde 
Our first stop was Laguna Blanca (White Lake) on the Bolivian high plain (altiplano). The Laguna gets its name from the white look created by the high amount of minerals suspended in the water.

A little further on, we stopped at Laguna Verde (Green Lake), at the base of the Licancabur Volcano – it is quite a stunner. 

This lake is also full of minerals, but of a different type, turning the water various shades of green.

Sol de Mañana geysers 4,900m
The Dali Desert was an amazing landscape of stony sand, surrounded by bare hills, giant volcanic rocks and volcanoes, all showing a stunning array of colour. 

We stopped next at the Sol de Mañana geysers which sit at 4,900 metres above sea level – quite high!  Close by the geysers, was a thermal pool with very hot water. We chose not to have a dip in the pool - while it was lovely and warm in the water, the air out of it was absolutely freezing!
Laguna Colorado 

At this stage, with the desert wind and the high altitude, our eyes were streaming, noses running and lungs heaving every time we got out of the 4WD to walk anywhere.

It was a tough terrain and tough going, but oh so beautiful – like nothing else we have ever seen.

Finally, after a day of fantastic sights, we came across a sight that became a highlight for us – Laguna Colorado. 

Laguna Colorado
Sitting at 4,370 metres above sea level, this lagoon is the main nesting place for more than 30,000 flamingos of 3 different species. As with the flamingos we saw in Chile, they get their pink colour from eating the red algae and plankton in the water.

They were a stunning, sight wading through the red coloured water as they fed. Their colours were quite beautiful in different shades of pink.

Laguna Colorado 
As well as flamingos we saw lots of vicuña and llamas grazing in the sparse vegetation.

The scenery was spectacular; reds and blacks of the mountains, brown earth scattered with little bunches of yellow grasses, and some grey-green shrubs. Most of the mountains were volcanoes and the soil was sand and scoria. 

We passed one active volcano with a steady stream of smoke coming out of it.

Our hostel 
It was bitterly cold and windy, but we were snug inside our transport. However, every time we stopped to view a sight we emerged like little Michelin men wrapped in puffer jackets, scarfs, hats and gloves.

At the end of our first day, we staggered into a hostel in the middle of nowhere, sharing a room with the others from our 4WD. We were able to hire sleeping bags, thank goodness as it was bitterly cold inside at -10 with no heating, as well as out, at -26 degrees.

We had dinner in a very cold dining room and then, because it was too cold to stay up, we were all in bed by 8 pm.

Arbol de Piedra rocks
We each had a sleeping bag, 3 blankets and most of our clothes on, and it was frigid. No showers in the morning either, but that was ok as it was too cold to take any clothes off. However, we had lots of fun, and looked forward to the sights of day two.

Off we set next morning, into the beautiful Siloli Desert.  We soon came across ‘Arbol de Piedra’, a series of amazing rock formations which had been formed over millennia by the -35 degree windy conditions.

While there, we saw a very cute animal called a viscacha. These are rodents that look like a cross between a rabbit, wallaby, and squirrel.

Not much further on, we came across a group of coloured lagoons: Laguna Honda, Chiarcota, Cañapa and Hedionda.

This last is a salt lake sitting at 4,121 meters where we saw another wonderful collection of graceful pink and white flamingos. 

We also saw more vicuña.

Hediona Laguna 
Leaving the lagunas, we drove across the Chiguana salt flat, to San Juan town. Here we had our second nights’ accommodation in a salt hostel. The salt hostel is made of…..well…..salt. Its whole structure, outside and in, is comprised of blocks of salt – the walls, bedframe, furniture etc are all blocks of, or carved out of salt.

Another early night here, as everyone was too cold to sit and talk much. Unfortunately, there we no sleeping bags.

We can categorically tell you that salt does not retain heat when you sit or sleep on it!

Sunrise on the Salar
The next morning we were up at 4 am, heading off to see the sun rise over the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni salt flats). It was really worth the early start to see the rising sun reflecting on the white salt.

The Salar seemed to go on forever, just white and more white – broken only by the hexagonal shapes that are formed by the salt in the salt crust. The Sala de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, covering more than 10,000 sq. km. It sits at 3,656 meters above sea level and can be seen from outer space.

Fun photo on the Salar
It was formed through changes in several prehistoric lakes which have resulted in a salt crust that is very thick (up to several metres in places). Beneath the crust, are huge quantities of lithium – in fact the Salar provides almost 70% of the world’s lithium.

The Salar is so flat, it is used for calibrating the distance measurement equipment of satellites. This also make it great for a fun photo. It really is a truly amazing place.

Incahuasi Island 
Our next stop was Incahuasi Island, located in the middle of the Salar. This is believed to be an old volcano that was not quite covered by the salt but which is now covered in hundreds of 1000 year old cacti, many of them up to 9 or 10 metres tall. 

After walking around the island, we had a great breakfast prepared by Izak before going to a salt museum, and Colchani, a small salt mining town selling all sorts of traditional and handmade items made from cactus wood, Llama wool etc.

Leigh on derelict steam train
Our last stop was in the town of Uyuni, with a stop at the train graveyard, full of derelict steam trains that had been used for carrying salt and workers. The ground around was littered with masses of rubbish which made the area look quite forlorn.

This stop completed our tour. We were dropped off at the tour office and said our farewells to Izak, our fantastic driver and our three travelling companions.

We then headed around the corner to find our hotel - but couldn’t find it for some reason!

Uyuni town at night 
A family in a car stopped to help and said we had walked right past it (we were too tired to notice).

These lovely people loaded our bags in their car and drove us back there. Such kind and friendly people, and a lovely introduction to Bolivia.

We then went to the bus station to book a seat to get to Potosi, the next stop on our trip.

Everywhere women were shouting "Potosiiiiii, Potosiiiiiii" as well as other destinations, at the tops of their voices, to get you to buy a ticket. An amazing combination of vaguely melodic sounds!

We found the Trans Diana bus company looked ok and booked our seats for the next morning, happy to know we had our transport sorted.

While we found the freezing cold, and at times the altitude quite hard to cope with, we made it; and with some amazing memories to take home with us. The sights throughout the tour were stunning, and more than made up for the more difficult patches. There is nowhere in our travels to date, that compares with the scenery and natural beauty that we have seen on this trip.

Let’s see what else Bolivia can deliver - next stop, the very high altitude city of Potosi. 

1 comment:

  1. It sounds and looks amazing, thank you for sharing your awesome experience. Sleeping in salt hotels sounds 'cool. Holiday in Nelson doesn't really cuy the mustard in comparison. Off to nieces school concert. Ski fields sadly closing. Keep inspiring :-)