Salar de Uyuni (3 May 2012)

Our Salar de Uyuni Jeep tour organised by Turistur Los Salares started between 7 and 8 am on the 3rd of May. Our group consisted of 6 people, namely the guide and his wife who was the cook (Segundino and Porfidia), a French couple we met that morning (Mattieu and Sonia), and Cobus and I. From Tupiza, the salt flats and lagoons tour takes 4 days to Uyuni. If you do the salt flats and lagoons tour from Uyuni, most of the companies do 3 day tours (since you don’t see the landscape covered on the first day from Tupiza). Our Jeep was fairly comfortable, accept for the 2 seats in the back, and Cobus had some difficulty to sit there with his long legs. Other than that, the Jeep was perfect for the tour. It was also clear from the start that Segundino was a very responsible driver, for which we were grateful.

The first day’s drive took us through dry but beautiful mountainous landscapes, a lot of altitude gain, small isolated towns, deserted towns, llama herds and extreme temperatures from warm to cold. The first day was a long day in the Jeep – we were trying to cover as much ground as possible in order to take it more easy the following days, when there were more to see. We stopped in a small isolated town for lunch, where Porfidia provided us with a nice cold meal. The inhabitants of the town was not as curious as we expected and no one came to greet us, probably because so many tours stop there. The children seemed more curious, but once they saw a camera, they turned their faces and walked away. The Bolivian people didn’t seem to be very fond of having their pictures taken – according to a guide book some of them believe that a photo captures their spirit.

From top left to bottom right. 1. Our Jeep. 2. Santos 3. The dramatic landscapes of the first day. 4. The llama herd. 5 – 8. The town and surroundings where we had lunch.

After lunch, we passed by a big llama herd (cool!!) and through the ghost town San Antonio, which some tourists refer to as “small Machu Picchu” at a very high altitude of 4690 metres. According to legend, the town was famous for its wealth of gold, but the devil ruled there and forced the suffering villagers to flee. Here we had our first encounter with a strange animal, the Viscacha, which looks like a cross between a squirrel and a rabbit and hops like a kangaroo. Further along the way, we also saw Vicuñas, a relative of the Llama. Vicuñas are wild animals and look similar to the llama with less wool. Later we saw a beautiful sunset, got our first sighting of one of the high altitude lagoons, and arrived at Quetena Chico between 8 and 9 pm in freezing temperature. The hostel where we stayed was basic as they told us, with no showers, cold water and uncomfortable dorm rooms beds. All the hostels in these small isolated towns provide similar facilities. Porfidia quickly supplied us with warm coffee, hot chocolate and cookies, and started preparing dinner in the kitchen. It felt so strange having a cook and guide doing everything for us – I guess that it is part of what you pay for, but still not something we are used to. A second group from the same company stayed over in the same hostel. When dinner was served, we realised that we definitely got the better cook of the two, in fact, we had a great cook! Her vegetable soup was DELICIOUS with lots of flavour. After dinner, we went to bed with almost all our clothes on (it was so cold) including our beanies, thermals, gloves and socks.

Top left to bottom right: Our first sight of the snow covered Andes peaks; passing out from lack of oxygen in the ghost town; a viscacha; the first high altitude lake we saw; sunset

The next morning we were back in the Jeep again at 8h30, with an eventful day ahead. There was lots of lagoons on the list of sights, and it included visiting the Polques hot springs (which sounded great considering the cold weather).  On the way to the first lagoon, we passed through a type of marshland with all the water frozen. What amazed us was that the llamas were grazing in these icy cold frozen “grassland” and did not seem to be affected by the cold at all.

Ice cold

Continuing our journey, we arrived at the first lagoon, Laguna Kollpa. The lagoon was still frozen half, however, 5 flamingos dared standing in the water. The surrounding landscape is desert area, which makes the water such a special sight. The second lagoon was home to more flamingos, and were less frozen. It was also a little more beautiful with a nicer setting, but very similar.

Laguna Kollpa and a random giraffe walking on water.

After the first two lagoons, we passed through more arid landscapes and the Salar de Chalviri (salt flat). We reached the hot springs at noon, where we stopped for lunch. The number of other Jeep tours increased exponentially at the hot springs as the tours starting from Uyuni joined the scene. While we were warming ourselves in the hot water, Porfidia prepared another delicious meal for us. After lunch we continued to Laguna Blanco (white lagoon) and Laguna Verde (green lagoon) at an elevation of 4300 metres. The colour of the water of Laguna Verde is different shades of blue/green, depending on the time of the day. Its colour is caused by sediments, containing copper minerals. The Licancabur volcano in the background makes a beautiful picture. We arrived at the lagoon a bit late, as the colour of the water wasn’t so bright as just before noon.

The salt plains, hot springs (with Matthieu and Sonia) and Laguna Verde

It was freezing cold at Laguna Verde, so we didn’t stay for too long and continued our journey north to the Sol de Mañana geysers at an altitude of 5000 metres. The geysers were an interesting and great smelling site (just joking). Needless to say, at 5000 metres it was even colder than at Laguna Verde. Added to that we were all struggling to get enough oxygen at the high altitude. However, it was definitely worth seeing the surreal landscape of steam and boiling mud.

The geysers

Our last stop for the day was Laguna Colorada (red lagoon). It turned out to be our favourite Laguna. The lagoon is a shallow salt water lake containing red sediments and algae whose pigmentation result in the reddish colour of the lagoon’s water. The lagoon also contains white borax islands and blue water areas, contrasting with the red coloured water. Hundreds of flamingos feed on the algae in the water. It is really a spectacular but unusual sight.

Laguna Colorada

Our day ended at a nearby hostel in Wayllajara, which was even more basic than the previous one. It was also much colder than the previous night, but luckily there was a fireplace where we could warm ourselves. We played a card game, and in true Potgieter tradition we taught Sonia and Matthieu the game “poepkop”. Porfidia supplied us with hot water bottles for the night, for which we were very grateful. Despite the hot water bottle, I woke up in the middle of the night struggling to stay warm. Luckily there were extra blankets I could use.

Top left to bottom right: Facing the below zero temperatures outside; getting warm around the fire; the poepkoppe; the dorm rooms in the hostels; early morning; kersvader

The first stop on the third day of the tour was the petrified volcanic rock formation called Arbol de Piedra. The surrounding landscape was dry desert with no water or anything green in sight (the Desierto de Siloli). We saw some vegetation returning after a few kilometres. The higher peaks of the Andes in the far distance were covered with snow.

The petrified tree (Arbol de piedra) and surrounding desert. After a few kilometres some vegetation returned.

We reached some more high altitude lagoons with the mountains reflecting in the water and lots of flamingos – great for photos!

Stunning reflections in the high altitude lakes

One of the last lagoons we passed by – there was lost of flamingos. Absolutely gorgeous scenery.

After enjoying the scenery at the lagoons, we had lunch further along the route with the semi-active Ollague volcano in the background. One could see smoke rising from the volcano.

Extreme sports near the volcano: 1. Eating 2. Looking over the edge 3. Push-ups 4. Jumping over the volcano

We continued to the town San Juan de Rosaria and visited the necropolis (mummy graveyard) and museum. It felt a bit creepy looking at all the skeletons, but it was still interesting. The oval shaped tombs were constructed from volcanic rock. They believe royalty was buried in this graveyard (due to the elongated skulls). The royalty were buried in the fetal position according to their believes of being born into a new life after death together with personal items and offerings. Continuing from the necropolis we passed some of the farms where they cultivated quinoa. They don’t have a lot a machinery, so farming is on a small scale. The communities living in these harsh conditions amazed us – it’s a lifestyle based on simplicity, hard work and day to day reliance on the land.

After San Juan we reached the Salar de Chiguana salt flats. The train route from Chile to Bolivia passes through here.

Waiting for the train…

On our way to our final destination next to Salar de Uyuni, we arrived at the scene of an accident – 6 girls in a Jeep with their two guides. We assumed the driver was in a hurry since it was getting dark, and saw the deep ditch in the road too late. Luckily there was only a few broken noses, possible broken arm, scratches, and a few stiff necks where it could so easily have been fatal. Seeing the accident and how easy it could happen on these roads, we were immensely thankful for our very responsible driver/guide.

Our final destination for the day was the salt hostel at Puerto Chuvica, on the border of Salar de Uyuni, where we spent the night. The entire hostel is built from salt – very impressive! We were privileged to get our own private room for a change, and for 10 bolivianos we could take a warm shower – at last! After 3 days of extreme weather and few comforts, the warm shower felt like heaven on earth 🙂 The salt hostel was the most comfortable of the three we stayed in. When chatting to other travellers, it turned out that we definitely had one of the best accomodations next to Salar de Uyuni. For dinner we were treated to a bottle of wine and lasagna. After dinner the four of us along with the other group went for a stroll on the edge of Salar de Uyuni. It was sooooo cold. After a while Cobus and I ran back to the hostel in an attempt to warm ourselves. It turned out to be a bad idea, as I ended up coughing and wheezing and struggling to breathe for 2 hours due to the cold dry air. Why I developed asthma at 29 is still a mystery to me, I’ve never had any problems before.

The hostel built with salt bricks – Cobus valitdated it 🙂 The picture at the bottom right was taken late at night on the salt flat.

The following morning we had to get up at 5 am to be on time for sunrise on Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, where we would also have breakfast. The first section of the salt flat was still covered with water. When reaching the dried up parts of the salt flat, we were just in time for sunrise. Wow! The Afrikaans idiom “Die oggendstond het goud in the mond” are certainly true! We entertained ourselves by taking loads of pictures.

Sunrise on the salt flats.

The salt flats provide an excellent backdrop for having fun with perspetive.

All the things you can do with a giant bottle :).

Oh what fun it is to jump…

My favourite husband 😉 (and me of course)

After an hour of pictures and breakfast we continued to the salt hotel in the middle of the salt flat. Due to the environmental issues caused by the hotel, it is no longer in use.  Reaching the edge of the salt plain, we were able to see how locals “farm” and extract salt. We also saw the Ojos de Agua del salar (eyes of water), which are holes on the surface of the salt plain from where bubbles escape.

Salt farming, the salt hotel, ” ‘n uil op ‘n kluit”, climbing a salt mountain, and our little Jeep on the BIG salt lake

We had our last lunch in the town next to the salt plain, where Porfidia treated us to another of her delicious Bolivian meals (quinoa, chicken, different types of potatoes and sweet potato). We finished our tour at the train cemetary next to Uyuni.

The train cemetary

Segundino dropped us at the bus station in Uyuni where the four of us booked an overnight bus to Sucre. Uyuni itself was nothing special – it’s not a pretty town. We had to spend the rest of the day there, which felt too long for the dull town.

In retrospect we think starting the trip from Tupiza instead of Uyuni was the best decision. Ending the last day with Salar de Uyuni is a highlight, and afterwards you can immediately continue your journey to another town instead of staying in Uyuni. Tupiza is great to start the tour, since you can also enjoy the town for a few days. The 4 day tour was an amazing adventure – although there were very few luxuries, seeing the variety of strange and beautiful landscapes made up for the discomfort. We liked Segundino and Porfidia a lot. Segundino being very responsible, Porfidia with a gentle spirit and being extremely thoughtful. They are a great couple and treats everyone around them with a lot of respect. We also enjoyed getting to know Matthieu and Sonia. We decided to stick together for our journey to Sucre by bus.

The arid landscapes in Southwest Bolivia holds a vast amount of unexpected treasures. It’s a place seemingly harsh and without any life, yet in the midst of all the “nothing” it holds a beauty difficult to comprehend. It’s a place where you are brought to silence and appreciation. As for the communities living there – such harsh conditions must surely build character and teach one to appreciate a simple yet rich lifestyle.