Andean High Plains and Salt Flats, Bolivia

High in the Andes is the Altiplano Plateau at an average altitude of 3750m above sea level. There are many attractions on the Altiplano, the most popular of which is the Salar de Uyuni, a massive salt flat where an inland salt lake drained leaving only salt. While some people just come here for the salt flats, many do the longer tour along the length of the plateau with the Salar as the first day.

I decided to do a 3 day tour, not including the overnight bus to and from Uyuni…

Day 1
The bus from La Paz to Uyuni was comfortable, but the road wasn’t. The ride is 10 hours, the last 7 being over a rocky dirt road. This was an overnight bus, so the last 7 hours were when we were trying to sleep. Strangely enough, plentiful sleep was had by all.

Once the bus arrived in the town of Uyuni, there was over an hour before the tour started, so a quick look around town and half an hour later I’d seen most of it.

There were six of us on the tour and we were packed into a Land Cruiser and taken to our first stop, the train graveyard.

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Trains were used for many years as a major goods transport means around this area of South America and Bolivia, but most stopped over 40 years ago. There is still a line running from Bolivia to Chile, however. The graveyard is not that large and is definitely a tourist stop around the old rusting trains. In the car park I counted 30 4WD vehicles. If each had 6 tourists then that’s 180 people starting tours today, plus drivers. This was not counting the 4WDs we saw leaving as we arrived or the ones arriving as we left. It’s the middle of the high season, after all…

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Next was a quick stop off at Colchani for some markets, selling things made out of hardened salt and Llama wool. Colchani is right on the edge of the salt flats and is a major refining town.

Then we were onto the Salar themselves, stopping just inside where workers from Colchani were scraping patches of unrefined salt into piles. There are plentiful piles there already and they’re not as sandy as they look but very hard. I stood on one and it was solid. We even tasted the salt but it only had a faint salty taste.

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Another 30 minutes away, we stopped at a hotel made completely from blocks of salt. We then drove 80km across the flats to Incahuasi Island, a large rocky outcrop in the middle of the flats. From different places on the island you can see where water would lap at the beaches during wet season when it’s surrounded by several centimetres of water.
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We stopped for lunch before exploring the rocky structure of the island with its huge old cacti, some of which have been dated as being more than 900 years old.

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Leaving the island, we drove for a couple of hours across the flats, stopping briefly for some photos of the open salt flats…

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…before leaving the flats and coming to our overnight destination, Hostel Samarikuna in the town of Villa Candelaria, another building made from salt bricks. Llama chops for dinner!

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Day 2
We left Salar de Uyuni early in the morning and drove across the vasty smaller Salar de Chinguana which is less white than the Uyuni salt flats. We stopped under a series of volcanos along the Chilean border on a patch of very white and very strong tasting salt.

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Next we drove to the lava fields under Volcan Ollague to look at various rock structures made by dried lava.

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The road became rockier as we made out way past several lagoons most of them with their own flocks of Flamingos, some pink and others not so pink.

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We stopped at a vantage point over one of the lagunas for lunch.

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After lunch, we drove for a couple of hours through the Siloli Desert where no vegetation grew.
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The barren landscape is nothing but rocks and sand under the ever present volcanoes, of which there are more than 50 along the plateau. We travelled along the Andes Ranges wall for some time, stopping only to climb a rocky embarkment where I spied an Andean rock rabbit, but it was too quick to get on camera.

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Next, we stopped at a large stone forest with the famous Stone Tree. It’s very much like the Remarkable Rocks in Australia, formed by a lava bubble that came up through the surface, hardened and eroded over time.

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Lastly for the day, our trip took us cross country another hour to Laguna Colorado, a lake where sediment has turned it a milky red, with patches of floating snow.

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Flamingos stand in its waters sifting for food. We were dropped off at a mirador on the lake and walked around it to our accommodations for the night.

Day 3
The temperature dropped to -15°C overnight. We were up at 4.45am and getting ready for the day. After breakfast we were off into the icy darkness along a road which looked to have been plowed. The road itself was clear but on either side a wall of snow sometimes up to two metres tall.

We drove through the icy mountains landscape as the sun began to rise, stopping at a man-made geyser…
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…then to a field of natural geysers.
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It was so icy we only got out long enough to take a photo before getting back into the warmth of the vehicle.

We then drove to an aguas caliente – a hot pool fed by a natural spring at nearly 5000m above sea level. Three of us stripped down in the icy weather and threw ourselves in. Most people refrained from getting in, but the heat of the water in the cool air was amazing! We finally got out after about 30 minutes when some of the other vehicles had arrived and other travellers had braved the water. Getting out was not as cold as expected, the hot water having lifted our core temperatures enough that the skin chill was not enough to cool us.

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Once dressed, we were off again and an hour later was at Laguna Verde – Green Lake. We didn’t stay long in the freezing winds before heading to the tri-border of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. It was here I said goodbye to my five travelling companions who were heading into Chile, me alone with our driver who didn’t speak any english, for an 8 hour trip back to Uyuni.

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We took an alternative route back to the Laguna Colorado through a frozen wilderness and a rugged but more direct route towards Uyuni. About ten minutes before we were due to stop for lunch the passenger steering stabilising hinge snapped leaving the wheel hanging at an odd angle. The driver began taking it apart and after an hour had it in pieces. It was going to take him a lot longer to fix so I was squeezed into another 4WD that had stopped and was off again.

The next stop with my new crew was a place called Valle de Rocas with some impressive rocky outcrops and spires.

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On our way again, we were 20 minutes from Uyuni when the 4WD got a flat tire on the same wheel as the previous vehicle!! Argh! They didn’t have a spare either, having already had a flat tire on their adventure. We flagged down another vehicle and borrowed one.

We eventually made it back to the Uyuni ready for the overnight bus back to La Paz.

Overall, it was another great experience along an amazing mountainous landscape. Next, after a brief stop off in La Paz, I’m off to Lake Titicaca.

The Trail Wanderer

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