Salt, flamingos and funny coloured lakes

Trip Start Dec 30, 2007
Trip End Jun 22, 2008

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, March 24, 2008

Bolivia at last
we crossed to Bolivia at a tiny border post about an hour out of San Pedro. Rather than changing countries, I felt that we had changed centuries. This as not unexpected as Chile is the powerhouse economy of South America, and Bolivia the poorest. This was illustrated graphically even before we reached the border. The  highway continued to Argentina - flat smooth tar-seal. The turn-off to Bolivia was a rutted dirt track.

This route traverses the altiplano by jeep and eventually arrives in Uyuni, via high altitude lakes, thermal fields and countless flamingos.

Day one - lakes and flamingos
Our first stop was at Laguna Blanco, a lake in the shadow of towering Volcan Licancabur (almost 6000 m) but which isn't quite white. It does have a whitish hue, though, and reflects the surrounding mountains and feeding flamingos very well. It was my first decent look at flamingos outside a zoo, and I was so impressed by how pretty they are as they stalk through the shallow water scooping up micro-organisms .

Our next stop was at Laguna Verde, very close to the last lake. But the change is dramatic. Although the two lakes almost flow into each other, flamingos feed right to the edge of Blanco and are totally absent from Verde. The reason is that Verde gets its green/blue tint from toxic levels of copper and arsenic.

All of this lies above 4000m and the environment is obviously harsh.  In many places nothing grows at all, and the landscape is a dusty or gravelly brown or grey. In some places tussock perseveres or other small green plants survive like four inch high flax. Whenever this plant life exists, animal life seems to follow in the form of small groups of vicuña, and occasionally llamas. Once we saw a ñandu with four chicks, stalking across a perfectly barren stretch of fine volcanic rubble.

We paused at a hot spring where most people could have a dip at a refreshing 4200m, next to an extensive shallow depression, offering more reflections of the mountains. I skipped the bath, figuring that the last thing I needed was to expose my still vulnerable toe injuries to a seething bath of bacteria. So that made two high altitude hot pools I have missed out on. I had made a bet that this spring, like all the others, would be called aguas calientes (hot water), but I was wrong, it was Aguas Termales (thermal waters).

Next we stopped at a thermal field with fumaroles, boiling water and some bubbling mud.  The water sloshed around as if it was the edge of a river, and sulfur was definitely present. I believe this field was at an amazing 4,900m.

We finished day one at one of the most amazing sights I can imagine ever seeing. So much of this trip I have been comparing the landscapes to what I could have seen so much more easily in New Zealand, but Laguna Colorado has no comparator. It is extraordinary. It is a large lake. It looks like a giant painter has taken two colours out of his collection and squirted them at random on the lake bed. The two colours chosen are a deep clay red, and white and they swirl together almost hallucinogenically. At times it looks like white icebergs rising from a red sea.

The red is liquid - simply water coloured by algae. The white is formed from mineral deposits - sodium, bauxite and something else (calcium?).

The combination is extraordinary even before you add the backdrop of mountains, swirling white twisters and thousands of bright pink flamingos. Picture this - llamas grazing on the edge of a red lake, with a white shore and flamingos in the background.

The only downside is that it is at 4278m and with a freezing wind so strong that I wondered how the flamingos could stand up in it on their needle thin legs.  As it was they all seemed keen to face into the wind.

Stupidly, the altitude caught most of the group unprepared. Everyone had headaches and we had at least one case of authentic alcohol (a Freudian slip? I meant to write altitude) sickness.

Day two - rocks and lakes
There was more ground to cover today, and much of the way was over a landscape empty of any kind of vegetation. It was not sandy, rather a bed of small volcanic rubble.

We stopped first at a bizarre copse of large boulders that appear out of nowhere against a backdrop of a yellow, fawn, tan, grey and white volcano.  The most famous rock here vaguely resembles a tree, but the likeness is strained.

Next came another lake, again offering beautiful reflections and flamingos, and simply named Lago Alto (High Lake). This was interesting because the high-tide line of the lake was  marked by thousands of flamingo feathers.

Then we came through the Valle de Rocas, an enormous boulder field stretching to the horizon. We had lunch at a depressing little township called Allota. But the drive out was very interesting as we followed a fertile valley where llamas and sheep grazed happily and the hillsides were traced with dry stone walls and pens (mostly I think) to keep llamas out of food crops (potato and quinua). Some walls were very extensive, covering kilometers of steep hillside, and the labour involved must have been enormous.

Day three -  salt
we spent the night at quite a nice hotel on the edge of the enormous salt flat Salar Uyuni, which covers 12,000 sq km. This is a landscape of pure salt which runs 15m deep in places. Where water lies it generates flawless reflections of the sky that are quite disorientating, because the horizon disappears and you appear to be traveling through the sky. Unfortunately, mountains in several directions provide solid reference points and ruin the illusion.

Isla Incahuasi (or Pescadores) is a rock with some earth that rises above the salt, providing a home for giant cactuses. The tallest is  said to be 15m, and the species grows at just 3 to 10 mm a year. Tabletops here are blocks of salt.

Finally, we stopped at a salt hotel - a building made entirely of blocks of salt (except for a thatched roof). Although the surface of the salt flat is fairly loose, about 10 cm down it is compacted into a solid which can be cut in blocks and used as bricks, table tops etc.

I was surprised to learn that the salt flat is really full of water. You need only scratch at the surface for a few centimeters before striking water, and it is this water that replenishes the salt. Thus, in mining the salt, it is necessary to pile it in pyramids allowing  the water to drain, and leaving pyramids of salt sitting in puddles of water. The salt is taken from the edge of the flat and has been for 50 years. Augustino, our driver, assured me that in that time the level of the worked area has not dropped at all, because the water replenishes the salt every wet season.

We arrived in Uyuni in the early afternoon.  This is not really place to write home about. It is packed with tourists and tourist infrastructure (tour companies, pizza places, accommodation). The biggest impression I got was of all the Bolivian women, although wearing stylish bowler hats, rugged up thoroughly in wool against the heat until they resemble dumplings and missing front teeth.

We spent the night and got a bus the next morning to Potosí.
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