Sky-high in Bolivia: A three day jeep tour across the Altiplano

August 02, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Salar de Uyuni, BoliviaSalar de Uyuni, BoliviaSpeeding through the world's largest salt flat on a 3-day jeep tour

 

The White World of the Salar

I'm convinced I can hear gunshots as I'm rudely jolted awake just after sunrise. For one moment panic floods through me until I hear the out of tune brass band accompanied by pounding drums from the street below our hotel room. This is the second day in a row that a din has ripped me from the arms of Morpheus: yesterday was May Day, a good enough reason in socialist Bolivia for a major knees up. But it seems that the people of the dust bowl town of Uyuni find any excuse to have a parade: national holidays, saints’ days, strikes… The 'gunshots' are the startling bangs of fire crackers that ricochet round the street, not gunshots in a coup d'etat! The street below is choked with a long procession of teenage schoolchildren marching behind a garishly decorated statue of what looks like the Virgin Mary which is held aloft by poles resting on the shoulders of four boys. Well at least there's no need for an alarm clock in Bolivia…

A few hours later we are standing in one of the dusty side streets of this one horse town outside our hotel, the Magia de Uyuni, (which is decidedly short on the ‘magic’), waiting for a jeep to arrive. Uyuni is sited in a bleak southwestern corner of Bolivia and on most days an icy wind blows in from the surrounding badlands of the Altiplano, coating shops and half-finished concrete block buildings in a fine white dust which lends the place an almost ghostly pallor. Cholitas clad in enormous garishly coloured pleated skirts, clashing sweaters and bowler style hats, hawk their goods in the marketplace, while umpteen stray dogs sleep in the shade of the dusty unpaved streets fringed with rubbish. Few civic buildings grace the skyline of this place, an exception is the reloj (clock tower), and the pace of life is slow - along with the internet, the hotel check-in, the service in the bars…

Uyuni grew up in the late nineteenth century at a major junction of four railways built by the British to export the region’s vast mineral wealth. But the demise of the railways almost condemned Uyuni to ghost town status as the rusting hulks in the aptly named  ‘train cemetery’ (Cementario des Trenes) on the outskirts of town attest. That is until tourism came along. For this town is the ideal starting point for adventure tours into the nearby vast Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on the planet, and the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa high on the Altiplano, famous for its luridly coloured lakes, spluttering mud pots and candy-pink flamingos. We are among the 60,000 or so international tourists who visit Uyuni each year to take a jeep tour into this remarkable landscape.

We have booked a three-day, two night trip that will take us south through some of the most bizarre and inspiring landscapes on earth before crossing the border into Chile. There are four others in our group: a middle aged couple from France and a young Chilean couple. We all fit comfortably into a rather battered looking jeep driven by Julio, a quiet man with a broad toothy smile and a shock of black hair barely contained beneath his baseball cap.

With all our luggage and a couple of barrels of fuel safely stowed on the roof rack, our tour kicks off with a stop at the Cementario des Trenes which we have already visited. The day we arrived in Uyuni we walked along the parallel train tracks out of town as the sun slid low in the sky. The shattered shells of abandoned train carriages, barely recognisable rolling stock and old steam engines stare forlornly over an immense dusty plain littered with plastic bags that glare livid white in the low sun angle. Caught on the stunted vegetation and jagged rocks, they have been reduced to shreds by the relentless wind. Wandering alone amid this wreckage from the past, with the wind whistling through the skeletal rusty remains turned almost blood red in the setting sun made the place strangely unnerving. The sudden desire to return quickly to town became overwhelming.

Cementario des Trenes, UyuniCementario des Trenes, UyuniOld steam engines stare forlornly over an immense dusty plain on the outskirts of the town

From here we progress at bumpy, breakneck speed across a dirt road to Colchani, a scruffy frontier-type settlement bisected by a railway right on the very edge of the Salar. Here salt most definitely rules. Huge heaps of it awaiting export are piled up everywhere and even the houses are constructed of neatly cut blocks of it. A colourful array of shops catering to the passing tourist trade line the main street. Here is a last chance to buy Alpaca hats, gloves and scarves, not a bad idea as it is impossible to describe how cold it can get on the altiplano.

Just outside Colchani we see the salt being recovered from the Ojos de Sal (‘eyes of salt’), pools in the surface of the salt flat. Hundreds of small conical heaps piled up in the sun to dry are lined up like a vast army, their reflections cast in the shallow pools of water surrounding them creating perfect diamonds. Beyond lies an almost infinite expanse of whiteness gleaming like ice and patterned by a never ending series of hexagonal shapes, formed by the evaporation of a prehistoric lake. Just below the crust, less than a metre thick in places, is a pool of mineral rich brine harbouring the world's largest reserves of lithium which have, as yet, been virtually untouched. Volcán Tunupa, a dormant volcano which gives the salt flat its indigenous name - Salar de Tunupa – rides the horizon to the north. Aymara legend relates how the volcanoes Tunupa, Kusku and Kusina were giants. Tunupa married Kusku, but he abandoned her for Kusina. Grieving Tunupa started to cry while breast-feeding her son and her tears mixed with milk to form the Salar.

Ojos de Sal, ColchaniOjos de Sal, ColchaniThe reflections cast by the conical heaps of salt in the shallow pools of water create perfect diamonds

Our jeep speeds effortlessly across the crunchy surface of the salt as if it is gliding. A dark smudge appears on the horizon and we’re headed straight for it. This island, once the top of a volcano, is now trapped like an insect in amber in this prehistoric lake. It is called the Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) because during the rainy season the salar is covered by a film of water and the reflection cast by it resembles a fish. Here we stop for lunch, and judging by the number of jeeps lined up on the island’s shoreline as if in a car salesroom, so do most of the other tour groups!

Islands in the Salar de UyuniIslands in the Salar de UyuniIslands that were once volcanoes are now trapped like insects in amber in this prehistoric sea

Regaled with a delicious meal of alpaca steaks, salad and quinoa, we spend a leisurely hour exploring the island. We climb to the highest point. This is an environment as strange and bizarre as any you are ever likely to see. A forest of enormous prickly pipe-like cacti, some up to 12 metres in height, cover the island whose rocky slopes tumble down to the petrified sea which appears to lap at its shores in a series of tiny bays. The vast, gleaming salar contrasts with the impossibly blue sky and a series of volcanic peaks in endless shades of smoky-grey recede into the distance. Judging distance here becomes confusing, and the camera can play tricks...

Isla del PescadoIsla del PescadoA forest of enormous prickly pipe-like cacti, some up to 12 metres in height, cover the rocky slopes of the island

Salar de UyuniSalar de UyuniThe camera can play tricks!

We continue inland after leaving the salt flat past herds of wild vicuñas and small farming settlements of adobe and thatch where campesinos herd llamas and coax crops of quinoa from the arid, saline soils. We stop for the night in the remote settlement of San Juan. Everything at its ‘hotel’ is constructed of salt. It is basic, but comfortable enough and the food is tasty. As the electricity only comes on for a few hours each evening, as soon as the lights go out we retire to our beds, with bases built, quite naturally, of blocks of salt!

 

Lurid Lakes and Fancy Flamingos 

After the delicate operation of refuelling the jeep, which consists of Julio standing on its roof and sucking on a pipe which runs from a fuel barrel into the tank, we set off into the semi-arid desert landscape of the high altiplano. We carefully cross the railway tracks that run from Uyuni to the border with Argentina. The parallel lines tail away to a shimmering point far in the distance. The jeep lurches this way and that to the tune of some very dubious 1980s disco music as it travels at what feels like breakneck speed across the dirt tracks of the Chuguana Desert. Every so often a large rig thunders past in the opposite direction creating a huge vortex of choking dust. Sensing our nervousness, Julio throws his head back and laughs, accelerating deliberately as if to show that he is totally in control. Doubtless he knows the terrain well, but I have seen him quietly checking one of the front tyres on more than one occasion; a blow out miles from anywhere does not bear thinking about…

We are now passing brooding snow capped volcanoes in vivid shades of ochre, sulphur, vermillion, magenta and burnt sienna, all of which are boldly etched against the deepest blue sky imaginable. At this altitude all colours seem to be amplified. We stop to witness the splendour of Ollagüe, an active stratovolcano on the border with Chile. For the time being it is but a slumbering giant emitting only small puffs of smoke and ash that drift languidly away across an unblemished blue sky. Then the fun begins as we race other jeeps to be the first up a rocky road leading to a plateau, where the next amazing part of the tour unfolds: a series of stunning lakes, home to some of the rarest flamingos in the world.

Ollagüe volcanoOllagüe volcanoThis active stratovolcano is on the border with Chile

The first encountered is Laguna Cañapa, an unimaginably serene and beautiful spot. Here, flocks of James’s flamingos lift their long legs gracefully as they feed on the algae contained in the shallow water. Their sugar-pink bodies pierce the reflections of the surrounding snow crested mountains that are cast in the vivid blue water. As they lower their heads to feed, they seem to be kissing their reflections, emitting a low cackling sound that must equate in flamingo-speak to an expression of unbridled happiness. One comes in to land, bearing the distinctive black feathers on the underside of its wings, performing a graceful dance across the water as it touches down. This place is so tranquil I want to stay here for hours watching these beautiful birds that were once thought to be extinct.

Laguna CañapaLaguna CañapaThis lake is a breeding place for rare James's Flamingos

James flamingoJames flamingoThis bird was once thought to be extinct

The next lake, Laguna Hedionda, lives up to its name alright, as it means ‘stinking’ in Spanish. It reeks of sulphur and the flamingos trudge heavily through the sludgy waters close to its shore. If you forget the smell and concentrate on the scenery you won’t be disappointed, as the place is picture postcard-pretty. A swathe of sandy coloured ground cuts through the turquoise lake fringed by yellow reeds, behind which rise the purple-brown slopes of yet more snow-capped volcanoes.

Laguna HediondaLaguna HediondaMeaning stinking in Spanish, this lake reeks of sulphur!

After a hearty lunch of chicken, potato and pasta, we press on passing the milky-green Laguna Honda and on to a vast, empty plain scoured by dust devils. We then ascend a rocky quebrada following its sinuous route, at times a broad flat plain filled with deep deposits of yellow sand, at others a deep gorge surrounded by precariously perched car-sized boulders.

Laguna HondaLaguna HondaThe colours of the lakes on the altiplano are created by algae and minerals

Beyond lies the Desert of Sololi, a vast expanse of orange-red sand which resembles the desolate surface of Mars. Here herds of wild vicuñas graze on the sparsest of vegetation and the rocky outcrops at its extremity harbour populations of viscachas. Resembling a cross between a giant rodent and a rabbit, these cute furry creatures the size of a cat put on quite a display for us hoping that Julio would throw them some bread.

Vicuñas grazing in the Desert of SololiVicuñas grazing in the Desert of SololiIt's hard to believe any animal can live in a landscape as desolate as the surface of Mars

ViscachaViscachaThe rocky outcrops at the extremity of the Desert of Sololi harbour populations of these cute creatures

It stands alone, the Árbol de Piedra, a bizarre rock formation rising from the surrounding sandy desert, looking for all the world like a stunted, petrified tree. A real photographic treat, it was formed by the erosive action of the relentless winds that howl across the Altiplano. As we speed on, Julio inserts some coca leaves into his mouth, carefully nibbling each one down to the stalk before packing them between his teeth and cheek. The bag of aromatic leaves is passed between us. What the heck! I take my share of the pale green leaves and a pinch of ilucta (a substance made from the ashes of the quinoa plant that is used to break down the alkaloids in the leaves) and chew contentedly until my tongue gives out a tingling numb sensation. In its natural form the humble coca leaf is no more harmful than coffee and has been used by the indigenous people of the Andes from time out of mind for all manner of things, including staving off altitude sickness.

Árbol de PiedraÁrbol de PiedraThe stone tree, a wind ablated feature

Indeed, we are rising ever higher in the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and that coca is welcome! Named after a colonel killed during the late-nineteenth century War of the Pacific in which Bolivia lost its entire Pacific coastline to Chile, an event that still collectively traumatises the nation, the reserve is doing its landlocked best to assuage that loss. Bolivia no longer has an Océano Pacífico, but it does have the Laguna Colorada. This incredible lake which starts out blue and fades to ox-blood red, is mottled with gleaming white islands of borax. It's Technicolor brilliance is due to mineral sediments and algae, and it provides a breeding habitat for Andean, James's and Chilean flamingos which stand out as pink dots studding its surface. The wind is bitterly cold by now and by nightfall it is well below freezing.

Laguna ColoradaLaguna ColoradaThis lake is home to Andean, James and Chilean flamingos

We stay in a rather grim single storey accommodation block in a dormitory that accommodates the six of us in uncomfortable metal framed beds with wafer thin mattresses. After this experience, I truly understand the meaning of the words, ‘chilled to the bone’. Unable to sleep, Martin and I don our extreme mountaineering down jackets and alpaca hats to sneak outside for a look at the night sky. It is incredible, infinite and misty with stars, including the constellations of Scorpio and Sagittarius, and the Magellanic Clouds, none of which can be seen from our home in Ireland. Beneath this heavenly mantle I suddenly feel very small and vulnerable and I quickly turn tail for our accommodation block.

 

Dante’s ‘Inferno’

We are up before sunrise on our final day. The old adage, ‘the coldest hour is before the dawn’, holds true as we pile into our jeep to begin the race with numerous other 4x4s to the Geysers Sol de Mañana sited at 5,000 metres above sea level. In sub-zero temperatures this geothermal field of wonders boasting geysers, fumaroles and bubbling mud pots is at its very best. The golden orb of the sun erupts from behind a ridge just as we arrive at this incredible site. We alight to witness a geyser shooting its white steam vertically into the deep blue sky for what seems like miles. The long shadows of the curious seem to dance on the ground in wonderment all around it and the hiss it creates is almost deafening.

Geysers Sol de MañanaGeysers Sol de MañanaThe hiss from this geyser is deafening!

Beyond lies a scene transposed straight from Dante’s Inferno: a series of hissing, gurgling, bubbling, spluttering fumaroles and mud pots, sending their rank smelling steam and gases wafting high into the atmosphere. Silhouettes of people move amid this surreal landscape, momentarily obscured by thick clouds of vapour only to reappear seconds later etched in vivid detail against a background of brilliant steamy whiteness. As we walk by the churning chasms of boiling steam and evil-smelling spitting mud pits, we can hear and feel the very vibrations of Mother Earth as she heaves and sighs.

Geysers Sol de MañanaGeysers Sol de MañanaThis remarkable area resembles a scene from Dante's Inferno

Geysers Sol de MañanaGeysers Sol de MañanaA bubbling, evil smelling mud pot

We then proceed to Laguna Chalviri. In the early morning light steam drifts like silken scarves above its mirror flat surface. Nearby there are some hot springs that are driven by the same geological process that uplifted the South American continent to form the altiplano and the Andes Mountains, and that also fuels the geothermal field we have just visited. It is cold, bitterly cold. Ice lies inches thick around a steaming pool in which intrepid bathers are clearly enjoying the warm waters. Common sense tells me not to remove any of my clothing in the icy cold atmosphere, but the once-in-a lifetime-chance of bathing in a hot spring at a sky high altitude in Bolivia gets the better of me. I strip off and dart across the icy ground before I have time to feel the cold. The instant warmth as I plunge onto the pool is incredible. It seeps into my frozen bones, finally banishing the bitter cold of the altiplano morning! Martin and I languish in the balmy warm waters for as long as we can. But a jeep is leaving for the Chilean border, so reluctantly we wrench ourselves away, bidding farewell to our fellow travellers from France and Chile.

Hot springs near Laguna ChalviriHot springs near Laguna ChalviriBathing in the warm water banishes the bitter cold of the altiplano morning!

Our new driver speeds through the remote and dusty Salvador Dalí desert, an endless expanse of sand fading into dusty nothingness and fringed with impressive multi-coloured mountains. He pauses briefly to refuel à la Julio (fuel pipe in mouth) before driving us towards Laguna Blanca, overlooked by the conical volcanoes of Juriques and Licancabur, after which we approach the Bolivian border post with Chile.

Salvador Dalí DesertSalvador Dalí DesertRefuelling the jeep en route to the Chilean border

I am sad to leave Bolivia with its hard working, silently strong people who are proud of their indigenous culture and welcome strangers to their midst with a smile. Passport stamped and with a lump in my throat, I board the Chilean registered bus to San Pedro de Atacama. But my heart remains firmly in the land of eternal snows, where the penetrating, awe-inspiring silence, the preserve of high places, reigns supreme; a land where clear and starry skies arc above mountains that have been towering for countless ages above Technicolor lakes where pink flamingos dance. Bolivia has truly touched my soul.


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