Legen... Wait For It... Dary!

Trip Start Jan 09, 2012
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Trip End Jul 31, 2012


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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The money we paid for the tour was definitely worth it. The last three days have been fantastic.  We have been exploring the altiplano, which, as the name suggests, is a high-altitude plain.  It lies between the east and west branches of the Andes and stretches from southern Peru down to northern Argentina.  The altitude varies between 3000m and 5000m.  The area is a photographer's dream with spectacular rock formations surrounding desert plains, high-altitude lagoons full of flamingos and immense salt pans, including the largest in the world, Salar de Uyuni.

We started early on Monday morning.  There were 18 people going with Estrella del Sur on the tour, which meant that there would be three four-wheel-drive vehicles to take us, six in each.  But first, we all went in the same minibus to the border with Bolivia.  We stopped five minutes outside San Pedro to complete Chilean formalities and get stamped out of the country.  We had to queue for almost an hour as this border post controls entry and exit for three borders passes, two to Argentina and the one to Bolivia that we would be taking.

From here it was then a 45 minute drive up and around Licankabur Volcano.  That was the volcano that we could constantly see from San Pedro and it lies exactly on the border.  The Bolivian customs building was a little less sophisticated, being as it was a concrete building with a single room inside housing a desk and a couple of officials.

After clearing Bolivian immigration we had breakfast before boarding the Jeeps and entering a national park set up to protect the wildlife of the high Andes.  It was called Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa.  It cost us 150 bolivianos each to get in, which was in addition to the tour cost.  The first stop after the park entrance was at Laguna Blanca (White Lagoon), a  lake whose shore was covered in ice.  Next stop was Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon), although when we arrived it wasn’t particularly green but it offered amazing views of the surrounding mountains.  However, as we stood and watched the surface of the lake began to change colour.  It started on the far bank and slowly a turquoise colour began heading towards us on the near bank until the entire lake was brilliant green.  It was amazing to watch.

From here we drove through the desert – aptly named Dali’s Desert due to the scenery around us – to a natural hot spring where we had the opportunity to bathe, but we decided against it.  Instead we admired the surrounding thermal lake and the hot springs bubbling up in to it.  It was a shame that it was spoilt by previous tourists who had found the need to throw empty beer cans in to the springs.

Following the springs, we then drove to the highest point we would be hitting on the tour.  It was a geyser field located at 4950m above sea level.  There were several large geysers venting their steam as well as numerous bubbling mud pools which offered fantastic exploration time.

It was downhill from the geyser field.  We passed over a ridge and then heading down in to a valley where we settled in to our dormitory-style accommodation on the banks of Laguna Colorada.  Here, we had lunch before setting out to explore the lagoon, which is home to all three species of South American flamingo: the Andean flamingo, the Chilean flamingo and James’ flamingo.  The brick-red water was unbelievable and the sheer number of flamingos was amazing; they didn’t seem too bothered by our approaches to the shore line where they were feeding.  There was also a heard of vicunas feeding beside the lake, though they were a little more nervous of us.

Returning to the hostel, we had coffee and biscuits and chatted until tea time.  Now is perhaps a good time to describe the other members of the tour group.  Our 4WD consisted of us two, a really nice Aussie couple called Stef and Niccy who we got on with well and an older French couple who were quieter but still really nice and who did a great job in translating what our Bolivian driver/guide was telling us.  The other two vehicles were filled mostly with younger French people and they were really annoying and arrogantly French.  They also had a bizarre and irritating habit of jumping for every photograph, though their coordination of this was appalling so they would have to take several photos of each other before they were happy.  We thought that this was just a one off to start with, but at every stop along the tour, beginning to end, this was what they did.  Weird!

On the second day, after breakfast, we headed back out in to the desert, stopping to photograph some llamas along the way.  Quick geek fact: there are four species of camel in South America, two completely wild (and both endangered) and two that exist only in a domesticated form; the guanaco and the vicuna are the two wild species; the llama is a  domesticated species descended from the guanaco; the alpaca is a species resulting from domestication of the vicuna.  The alpaca is the only one we haven’t seen thus far.

Continuing…  The first official stop this morning was at a mass of wind-carved rocks sitting in the middle of the desert, presumably carried here by glaciation.  The main highlight of the rocks is Įrbol de Piedre (Tree of Rock) which has been intricately carved by the forces of nature in to a tree-shaped structure.  It was definitely a photogenic rock, but some of the others were equally impressive, though photographs were hard to come by due to French people climbing all over them and ruining the shots!
 
From here, we continued through the high-altitude desert passing several flamingo-filled lagoons, stopping to photograph a couple of viscacha (a type of chinchilla) and crossing over a 'small’ salt pan called Salar de Chiguana.  It was actually mostly borax, apparently, and despite its small size it took over an hour to cross it driving at some speed.  We witnessed some spectacular mirages whilst crossing it, as well.

After more desert driving, we finally reached Salar de Uyuni and we settled in to a salt hotel on its western bank.  The hotel was constructed entirely from bricks of salt, including the bed bases and all the furniture.  Even the chandeliers were made by growing salt crystals.  And the views across the salt pan were awe-inspiring.

Today was the third and final day of the tour.  We set out early and began crossing the salt pan, reaching a part that was still covered by a surface layer of water.  It was here that we watched the sun rise and with the reflection on the water it offered a remarkable spectacle; one of the best sunrises ever!

With daylight upon us we drove further across the salt before stopping to take photographs.  The sheer uniformity of the salt removes any sense of depth-perception and the place is famous for travellers taking bizarre-looking photographs.  And we weren’t going to be the exception to the rule!  So, whilst the French jumped up and down, we and the Aussies choreographed intricate scenes that took advantage of the location.

The next stop was an illegal salt hotel in the middle of the salt pan.  Salt hotels, like the one we stayed in, are allowed around the edge of the salar but they are not permitted to be built on the pan itself due to the pollution caused by their waste.  Yet the one hotel that is on the salt is bizarrely included in most tour itineraries.  Despite us both being desperate for the toilet, we refrained from entering it and instead we and the Aussies took some more fancy depth-perception photographs outside.

 Continuing on, we reached the far side of the salt pan after a total of a few hours of driving.  Here we got to see the process of salt mining.  The edge of the salar is from where all of Bolivia’s salt comes.

The final stop on the tour was just outside the town of Uyuni itself.  Here, 3km south of the town, there is a place called the Train Cemetery.  It is a place where old locomotives and carriages have been left to rust.  They are now graffiti-laden, but offer a great place to climb and explore and photograph. 

We finally got to Uyuni around 12.00 and we had a final group meal in a local restaurant (included in the tour price) before we went our separate ways.  The two of us headed with Stef and Niccy, the Aussies, to a hotel called Hotel Avenida (literally ‘Avenue Hotel’).  We already like Bolivia!  The hotel cost 60 bolivianos for a double room.  That’s about £6.  And that evening we all went out for a meal in a local restaurant.  Avoiding the touristy places that all sold pizza, instead we had a huge chunk of beef steak with chips, rice, salad and a litre of Coke for only £2 each.  We are hoping that we can make up some of the losses we incurred whilst travelling through the expensive countries of Australia, New Zealand and Chile.  Although we did finish the night off with a couple of beers and cocktails!

The last few days have been amazing.  There are so many tour agencies offering trips in to the salar and there are so many negative reviews online and in the tourist information offices.  They include drunk drivers and drivers who don’t interact with their clientele.  We knew that whoever we went with we would be taking a gamble and whilst there were a couple of things that annoyed us about the company itself (like charging us £10 more than everyone else in our vehicle), our guide was outstanding.  And the things we saw were just phenomenal.  Anyone going out this way should definitely get themselves on a tour of the salar.
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Comments

Caroline Adams on

These photos are unbelievable! I was laughing so hard I think I got some strange looks! You guys look like you are having a fab time and these have made me desperate to go to South America.

On anther topic, a good time to have left school as we got Ofsted-ed this week!

Becs on

This posting is full of some fabulous pics!x

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