Bolivian Altiplano

Saturday 13 to Monday 15 January

We had an early morning flight from La Paz to Uyuni. We were up at 4am and picked up at 5am for 7:05am flight. The flight was short, about 45 minutes to cover the 450km. It was cloudy so there was not much to see.

Uyuni was grey and damp when we arrived – we are used to that. We were found and delivered to the old town. Our driver struggled to meet our guide, Lillian, as most thoroughfares in town were blocked for the Dakar Rally. In fact our first tourist site was too hard to get to, so it was delayed until tomorrow.

It was circuitous route, via the original dirt road to La Paz, to get to our destination of the salt flats, once again because of the Dakar Rally.

We visited the tiny village of Colchani where houses are built of salt bricks. Here salt is packaged up for sale around the world and of course the tourist shop offered it packaged as souvenirs.

We then checked into our hotel and got settled before going to the famous Palacio de Sal, the world’s first salt hotel built in 1993-1995, for lunch. The views were amazing, a confusing horizon over the salt flats with people and vehicles that seemed to be suspended in air.

Salar de Uyuni or Salar de Tunupa (Uyuni Salt Flats) is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometres and sits at an elevation of 3,656m. It is part of the giant pre-historic Lake Minchin in the Bolivian Altiplano and contains 50% to 70% of the world’s known lithium reserves.

We stopped to see fresh water bubbling up through the crusty salt surface at Ojos de Sal.

To our amazement, our driver took the four-wheel drive right into the water and we were given gumboots to wear.

There was an island, or at least a bit of the salt flat that was not under water called Playa Blanca (white beach). Here there was a monument to the Dakar Rally which in the past has driven across the salt flats. That is now banned as it is causing too much damage to the environment.

The original Palacio de Sal was erected here, but it created sanitation problems. It now houses a coffee shop and a small museum with a forest of flags outside – a great selfie drawcard.

We stopped where the water was about 20cm deep and our guide, Lillian and our driver collected salt crystals for us. They were fragile, however I managed to bring a few back to our hotel to photograph.

The next tourist event was a photo opportunity with some toy dinosaurs. Perched on a small piece of dry land, Lillian directed us to look afraid of the dinosaurs, stand on a water bottle and lean over a Pringles tube. If you were to google Uyuni Salt Flats you will find lots of other people have used the endless horizon to create crazy photos.

By now we were noticing that Lillian was concerned about exposing her skin to the sun. At each stop she applied copious amounts of block out and wrapped herself up, with a scarf covering her face and a large floppy hat for further protection.

We drove to an edge of the lake to see how the villagers from Colchani make the salt bricks. The water level is currently too high to cut out the bricks, it is an activity that occurs during the dry season.

The Bolivian government will not allow foreign corporations to mine the site but plans to extract a modest amount of lithium itself.

There is a cactus forest on the lake, but we were not able to visit it as the level of water was unusually high.

We then waited 1½ hours for the sunset. It was a long tedious wait, and we really wondered if it was worth the time sitting and waiting. The wind blew so strongly that we found it difficult to stand up straight in a few centimetres of water. But after the long wait, the sun finally dropped below the lake and it was spectacular. Lillian told is it was the first sunset she had seen in her 3 months as a guide – we were lucky!

We returned to our hotel, with many other tourists making their way across the salt flats. Our accommodation was in a salt hotel called Hotel de Sal Cristal Samaña. It was a very nice concept. The floor was covered in salt in the main areas. Much of the furniture was carved out of salt, couches and tables, the TV shelf and the bedhead.

We were told that the bricks last for years, but the ‘mortar’ is salt and water and needs to be replaced as often as weekly or monthly.

Unfortunately, the staff were poorly trained. A smorgasbord was laid out and served by the staff, but they offered very small servings, especially of the meat. Even I was forced to go back for seconds.

Our first stop the next morning was the Cemetery of Trains just outside Uyuni. The town was a major point in transporting minerals to the Pacific Ocean and rail lines were first built in the 1842. A number of factors led to its demise such as the local Aymara indigenous Indians who saw it as an intrusion, the Guerra del Pacífico (War of the Pacific) 1879 to 1884 where Bolivia lost access to the Pacific coast to Chile and the collapse of the mining industry in the 1940s. Many trains were abandoned and are now left to rust.

Lillian told us we had a 400km drive today, but about 20 minutes out of Uyuni the fun started. A road block was in place for the Dakar Rally. The vehicles were due at 1pm but the road was closed for 24 hours prior. There was no alternate road so we had to take the little side roads that ran alongside the major road, through mud, across creek beds and along back roads through villages. Fortunately another vehicle was travelling the same route for some time, so we didn’t feel totally alone.

How we ended up in the middle of a rally where tourists are not permitted – surely that was bad planning?

At one stage we came close to a road where the rally was held and someone yelled at us ‘abiomente’ so our driver stopped. What we didn’t realise was at this point the rally was going off road, and there was a truck bearing down on us. It left me with a feeling of excitement and of imminent danger, I really didn’t know where to stand for fear the truck would run off track.

We stopped at the village of San Cristóbal for lunch. Much improved on last night’s dinner with carrot, tomato and a tiny piece of sausage, soup, minced beef with potatoes and rice and a bright pink dessert and a fresh drink made from kernel (pepita) which I enjoyed. Turns out it is made from pumpkin seeds.

Nearby is the San Cristóbal mine, one of the largest silver and zinc mines in the world. In fact the original village was on the mining site but was relocated in the 1990s.

The church, built by the Jesuits 350 years ago, was moved stone by stone and rebuilt on the site of the new town, whilst new houses were built for the villagers.

The town was deserted. Everyone was sitting beside the road waiting for the rally to go by. It’s a slow process as the competitors drive solo on time trails.

We stopped by Stone Valley, an area where rocks had been formed by petrified lava. The scenery around about was sparse and stunning, surrounded by volcanoes and at an altitude of 4144m. After a short photo stop we were on the road again, passing quinoa plantations, a luxurious green in the dry desert.

We drove on past Cerro Nelly, a beautifully coloured mountain. I have to keep those colours in my head, the photos simply didn’t do it justice. Then there was the Lake Hedionda with its population of flamingos. It is a favourite nesting place for flamingos, who build a small mound on the ground.

Because of the detours we were late arriving at our hotel, Hotel Tayka del Desierto Ojo de Perdiz, which was in the desert. We were briefed about facilities in the hotel, poor if any internet, short showers and power is supplied by solar cells and is turned off at 10pm.

The restaurant overlooked the desert and was the only option for dinner. There was a fixed menu of soup, meat potatoes and rice and a dessert of chantilly cream with a piece of apricot to look like an egg.

There was a marked difference in the service of last night’s hotel and this one. Staff were trained to wait tables properly and were happy. It was a sit down meal rather than a buffet.

I struggled enormously at this hotel, we had been travelling all day at altitudes between 4000m and 4,800m and the hotel itself was at an altitude of 4,600m. That evening my chest was tight and I was craving a big breath of fresh air.

The hotel is partly owned by the local community of Zoniquera Tucuypaj Allin and has added income and medical services to the community.

Lillian suggested 9 am start and insisted there was plenty of time to reach the border by midday. By now our frustration of her lack of guiding and her own self-centredness was becoming a issue.

We left the hotel and were racing across the desert, making our own tracks. Other vehicles were running parallel to us, perhaps a kilometre away.

Our first stop for the morning was the Stone Tree geomorphological formation caused by the erosion of the wind in the volcanic rocks.

Unfortunately, the only indication we had arrived was Lillian applying sunblock and covering her face with a Zorro like scarf. I had spoken to her the previous evening about her lack of engaging us and giving us information about our next stop. Although she appeared to understand what my complaint was, she certainly didn’t improve her behaviour.

From there we drove to Laguna Colorada with its magical pink water and flocks of flamingos. There was the same group of young Asian girls who had been at our hotel the previous evening. I am not sure how many flamingos they saw, as their prime purpose seemed to be taking selfies of themselves singularly and in groups at the lake. We stopped long enough to walk up to the lookout and get a breathtaking view over the pink waters and green moss of the lagoon.

Once again, we were in the land of the Vicuña, and that means high altitude. These amazing animals relish the high plains. I wonder how they find enough food.

Our next stop was the geysers of Sol de Mañana (Sun of Tomorrow), where mud of different colours was boiling and spitting. Of course, the sulphur smell in the area is obnoxious, so we were glad the stay was short.

We made a quick stop at the Thermal Springs of Polques which is literally in the middle of the desert. It is a favourite stop off point to recharge the body during the fairly strenuous drive, however by this time Lillian seemed to be getting anxious and only allowed us a toilet stop.

We crossed the Pampas de Dalí. I don’t know if Salvador Dalí ever visited the Bolivian High Plains, but his works of deserts certainly reflects the colours and textures of the desert.

Now we were racing along the sandy, slippery desert tracks, reaching 150kph. Bruce asked what the hurry was? He asked the driver to slow down, so we would at least arrive alive. Lillian had left our start this morning until 9am and we assumed she had allowed plenty of time to reach the Chilean border. Not so.

The scenery in the land of Dalí was amazing and we were flying through it. We arrived at the Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) with the mighty Licancabur Volcano which rises to nearly 6,000m, behind it and stopped for a minute.

The green lake varies in colour from turquoise to dark green due to how the arsenic and other minerals have been disturbed by the winds in the high desert. Today it was a beautiful grey green.

A short while later we arrived at the Chilean border, and now understood the rush – they closed at 13:00h (just 10 minutes from now) for lunch. If we were late, Lillian and our driver would have had to wait with us for two hours before we could cross the border. Our Chilean driver was also waiting for us.

Such very bad planning.

And the driver – Lillian never properly introduced us, so I never did learn his name, but I have a lot of respect for his patience with her.

As we travel the world we come across good guides and bad guides. Sad to say, Lillian has been the worst – self-centred, unplanned, immature, over-indulged.

But Chile was to be another adventure.