Peru & Bolivia

Summer 2006

Part 5: South West Bolivia


<< Part 4: Into Bolivia    -   Back to Index   -    Part 6: La Paz & Cañon de Palca >>

August 5th-7th (days 11-13): South West Bolivia circuit

Uyuni (3500m)

I arrived in Uyuni by night bus at 4am and together with two French guys I didn't even know checked into a hostel room to get some sleep. I woke up at 8am and set out to arrange a three-day jeep tour. There are dozens of agencies offering such tours from Uyuni, and since they mostly compete on price the quality is often horrible, so it was crucial to find a spot with a reputable agency. I quickly found one that had one spot left, while the two French guys didn't and had to settle for a shorter tour.

My jeep left at 11am so I first got a shower, bought drinks and cookies, and already reserved a train ticket back to Oruro - there was no way I was gonna make that terrible bus ride again. The Bolivian holiday was the next day so Uyuni was having a parade.
Soldiers in front of Uyuni`s church
Some kind of special forces with their faces painted in the colours of the Bolivian flag
Cool statue in front of the station
The first stop was at a train graveyard near Uyuni, where a dozen or so trains like this are rusting.

Salar de Uyuni (3650m)

West of Uyuni lies the world's largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. It was created when a prehistoric lake dried up 40000 years ago and measures 10582 square km, roughly the size of Flanders. See how it looks from space!
Driving through the Salar de Uyuni. These little heaps of salt are made to let the salt dry before being hauled off.

We spent several hours driving through the endless white plain, making a stop at the Isla Pescado, an 'island' covered by huge cactusses. When the Incas crossed the Salar they did so during the night to avoid 'snow' blindness, camping on this island during the day. I ran into the Slovakian I'd met on the border and he gave me the idea for the optical illusion picture below.
The Isla Pescado
Cactusses against a white background, a fantastic sight.
The tallest of these cactusses were easily 5m high.
Holding Rob on my hand. The shadow gives it away but on the camera screen the illusion looked perfect and we had a good laugh making pictures like this.

Now when it rains on the Salar it turns into one gigantic mirror, and this is considered to be the most spectacular sight in the world by many. It was seeing a picture like the one below that made me decide to come to the Salar de Uyuni - and hence to Bolivia - on what was originally supposed to be a Peru-only trip.
The Salar after rainfall (picture found on the web)

The weather was dry now so I didn't get to see this sight, but I wasn't disappointed since the Salar was fantastic anyway. Now I started this three-day tour without having any clue what other things we were going to see - the Salar alone had been enough reason for me to come here so I'd never researched it further. Hence all the other fantastic landscapes I'd see during the next two days came as a series of wonderful surprises to me. These three days were definitely the highlight of this trip.

They were also among the most fun. I shared a jeep with three Americans (Rob, a New York lawyer, and Glenn and Emily, a couple from Colorado) and three Chinese guys (whose names I bravely used but forgot meanwhile). I didn't expect it at first, but this bunch soon turned out to be very fun and interesting. During our stops we met another group that included a Flemish couple (Jan and Cathy) I'd already met in Oruro, and an American girl (Nicole) who Rob had already met in Peru, and by the first evening our groups had essentially merged.
Dinner during the first night. On the left: Rob, Chinese guy I, Glenn, Emily and Cathy. On the right Chinese guy II, me and Nicole.

Going South

Day 2 was a very long day during which we drove southwards through ever more unreal landscapes as we gradually went higher and higher.
Some llamas along the way
They kindly posed for a picture
My jeep, holding 7 passengers and driver/cook/guide Ramon
And there`s the other group`s jeep right behind us
Looks like someone tried to break this rock in two

Lagoons

We passed many lagoons, most of them coloured by minerals. White patches are usually concentrations of the mineral borax, which is heavily mined in this region.
Moi
Standing in the borax, looking back at the jeeps.
Borax beach
Strange mud

Many of these lagoons are also breeding grounds for various types of flamingos. At one lagoon we got particularly close to them.
Another lagoon
There are the flamingos. The background wasn`t bad either
Hello flamingos
Fltr: Leo, Rob, me, Glenn and Emily
Nicole wading back after a flamingo safari.
We had lunch by the shore

Here's a panoramic picture (stitched together) of yet another lagoon.


Siloli Desert (4600m)

In the afternoon we drove through what I thought was the most amazing landscape of all: the Siloli Desert, a brown-red rocky desert that looks a lot like Mars as seen by the Mars rovers. I never knew any country other than Tibet had such high plains - the following pictures were taken at an altitude of 4685m! Needless to say, it was cold and windy up there.
Life on Mars!


The plain gradually got sandier...

Arbol de Piedra

The desert here is nicknamed the Dali Desert because Salvador Dali took inspiration from it for the landscapes in his paintings - this will be clearer from the pictures I made on day 3. The wind-carved rock below, called el Arbol de Piedra (the Tree of Stone), is featured in one of Dali's paintings. I immediately recognised it but can't find the painting, tell me if you know its name.
El Arbol de Piedra
To give you some scale
More eroded rocks
Alien landscape

Laguna Colorada (4300m)

If you don't fancy deserts and rocks, then your favourite landscape will probably be the Laguna Colorada, which lies at an altitude of 4300m. It is coloured a deep bloody red by micro-organisms, while a huge white patch of borax adds great contrast - yet another awesome, surreal landscape.




The lagoon measures 52km in circumferene and is home to an estimated 30 000 flamingos. A bit further we spotted a bunch of them.
This time I got a movie of the flamingos taking off together, which is an amazing sight because they all act simultaneously and suddenly look like completely different creatures when they start flapping their wings. The camera is very shaky because I was still walking towards them, sorry for that.


After driving around the Laguna Colorada we arrived in the village where we spent the second night. The night was extremely cold and windy, but since I couldn't sleep much anyway I went out at 3am to gaze at the stars of the southern hemisphere. The moon hadn't set yet but even so watching the stars from the desert is always amazing.
Our lodge
The same lodge at night - I froze my fingers to make this pic so I had to include it :)

Sol del Mañana (4870m)

On day 3 we left very early, when it was still dark, and started driving up and up. At dawn we reached a site called Sol del Mañana where cracks in the earth let out hot steam that smells very strongly of sulphur. In some places the ground was boiling, which you can see in the movie. Yet another fantastic place!
Sol del Mañana
Boiling mud
Scorched earth

Make sure to listen to the sound of this movie...


Sol del Mañana is at an altitude of 4870m, the highest point of our trip. I kept thinking about how long and hard I had had to trek to get this high in Nepal, while here I was just being driven around in a jeep.

Laguna Challviri (4400m)

A short ride past Sol del Mañana we reached the Laguna Challviri, where there is a hot spring. I thought it'd be too cumbersome to swim here, but when several of the others did it I had to go too.
The steam of the hot spring
A little pool was made around the spring
Aaaaah this felt great!
Group pic in the hot tub

Well I never thought I'd ever swim in the open air at well over 4000m altitude, but the water was superbly hot and it felt so good that I never wanted to get out again.
All refreshed after my swim. You can`t see it but I`m sure I was letting off steam myself now!

While we were having breakfast by the lake I got this great pic of some very stylish black&white birds who were fighting for our crumbs.
Birdies

Laguna Verde (4260m)

This lagoon lies in the very southern tip of Bolivia, against the border with Chili and Argentina. The mountain on the right is the Volcan Lincancahur, 5920m high.


Volcan Lincancahur (5920m)


Dali's desert

While driving to and from the Laguna Verde we drove through the beautifully coloured Dali desert again. I just adore those pictures on the middle row - they actually look like paintings, but I didn't do anything to them!
One of my favourite pics

Laguna Colorada bis

On our way back to Uyuni we passed the Laguna Colorado again, this time on the other side. This time I got some pictures of flamingos taking flight that show the black undersides of their wings.

Villages

It was a very long ride back to Uyuni. Along the way we stopped in two villages. In the second we were supposed to visit a market, but I heard music coming from a big building and went inside to have a look. There was some kind of school festival going on with the boys and girls all participating in a big dance. The boys were all dressed as miners - the job most men do here in this mineral-rich region - while the girls wore traditional clothes. While dancing the boys made gestures typical of miners - including wiping their forehead and lighting a sigarette - while the girls pretended to be nurturing babies in the blankets around their necks. It may say something about role patterns etc, but I just thought it was immensely cute.
Cute village square
School dance

We reached Uyuni in the early evening. Nicole, Rob and me would be taking the night train of 1:45am back to Oruro and on to La Paz, so after dinner we checked into a hotel to get a few hours of sleep.
The shadow of our jeep during the final stretch of our three-day tour.


<< Part 4: Into Bolivia    -   Back to Index   -    Part 6: La Paz & Cañon de Palca >>




Cy Mon 12 Feb 2007 @ 15:58
I enjoyed your photos, especially of Arbor de Piedra! How fragile it looks. Thanks for your tips on traveling to Machu Pichu on LonelyPlanet.com.

Daria Thu 07 Dec 2006 @ 00:20
Ammmazing photos and exciting views!!! :)
I can't find the right words!

I bet in real life these views were much more breathtaking :) At some point I envy you - you had a chance to see all this beauty by your own eyes!
But the same time thank you very much for sharing this beauty with us :) This way it is also very nice ;)

Looking forward to seeing new pics and reading new reports ;)

Godsmurf Thu 30 Nov 2006 @ 00:11
It'll be 90% nature pics in the rest of the report. You ain't seen nothing yet :)

Well apart from some really wild desert llamas I saw penguins, condors, flamingos, pelicans, other birds, and sealions!

Fia Wed 29 Nov 2006 @ 15:07
Excellent pictures! Very beautiful sceneries! As usual I prefer mountain pics before buildings. ;-) I especially like the green colours of the mountains and the blue colours of the lakes that you visited.

By the way, you didn't happen to see any wildlife? Apart from that creepy millipede I mean. (And lamas don't count as wild.) :-)


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