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Published: August 8th 2011
Crossing the Salar de Uyuni was one of the things I was most looking forward to in South America and it is one of the renowned trips of the backpacking world. Much like Machu Picchu and Foz do Iguaçu, if you are South America and anywhere near to them, it is compulsory to go.
We arrived early on the morning of 28th June, at the office of La Torre Tours and were quickly introduced and left in the care of our guide and driver for the trip, Franco, and his wife, Ancelma, who was our chef. Lots of tour groups leave every day from Tupiza and as such, we there was a long line of 4x4’s being prepared and we noticed that ours was several years older than any of the vehicles present. It was a minor concern at the time, more of an observation than anything else. We were amused by that fact that our vehicles was a Toyosa
We set off from Tupiza; Franco and Ancelma up front and it was not long before we made our first stop at Quebrada
de Palala, the first photo opportunity of the trip, a pretty awesome rock formation. I will let the photo describe it for you.
The journey from here was incredibly steep. The jeep bit hard at the rocky dirt track that followed the edge of a mountain, whilst the altitude increased rapidly. Passing vehicles travelling in either direction was a pretty hairy ordeal, the limited space provided by the road forcing us to the edge of numerous precipices. We stopped briefly at Sillar, a superb viewpoint over a brutally jagged drop; the stop was brief as the cutting winds made it a very dangerous to be outside.
After some time the landscape changed, levelling out and the volume of foliage increased. We began to see more and more llamas, especially in Awanapampa. Across the salt flats, llamas form the backbone of transport, shifting salt, soap and charke (dehydrated llama meat) from the Salt Flats to Tupiza, Tarija and other locations to trade. This journey takes anywhere between 15 and 20 days, which is damn good indication of just how monstrous the landscape of South West Bolivia is.
We stopped for lunch, the first meal of the trip. Bolivian food has a reputation for being terrible amongst the travelling community and so we were surprised when Ancelma laid out a tasty lentil curry. We ate, sheltered inside a derelict building, presumably used by the llama herders to shelter from the brutal winds, and it was here we first witnessed Franco climb inside the engine of his vehicle to perform some maintenance. It was a comical sight seeing the feet of our stocky driver dangling in the air as her upper torso was lost to the vehicle. The landscape surrounding our derelict lunch spot appeared to have had the colour sucked from it, everything was a bland yellowish green or brown and it was the first of many strange places we were to find ourselves in during the trip. After lunch we continued on, passing the time playing various games and listening to Sarah’s extensive collection of music from Manchester based bands and Ciaran’s extensive volumes of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. We stopped for a toilet break in a brown dusty town, San Pablo de Lipéz, which seemed entirely devoid of
life until a young boy appeared from the tumbleweed with a football. We kicked it around with him in the semi-finished plaza, enjoying the opportunity to stretch our legs and to test how our lungs were coping with the altitude. Eventually we moved on and reached San Antonio de Lipéz, our final destination for the day at 4260m.
We had travelled up almost 1300 vertical metres during the day and we felt every one of those as we attempted to play headers and volleys in a school playground. The dropping temperature as the sun set did not aid our efforts. We ate soup and llama meat in a small stone hut along with another tour group, recounting the first day, everyone speaking sadly about the prospect of a 4:30am start the follow morning and doing so in temperatures way below zero. In turn, everyone stopped outside after dinner for as long as the cold would permit to see the stars. At this altitude, even higher than Gunung Kinabalu, which I climbed in Borneo, the stars were unbelievable. The light pale smear of the Milky Way dragged itself across the millions of stars on
show and rounded off a great first day. We settled coldly into our beds and attempted to sleep. Day Two
We rose in the early hours of the morning, way before sunrise, all still wearing our clothes from the previous day. We ate breakfast in the freezing stone hut before leaving the town in the 4x4 to begin day two. After a few minutes on the track all the windows of the vehicle were completely frozen, inside and outside, our collective breath freezing in the -15°C air. Everyone’s feet were frozen stiff and despite the varied methods people used (extra socks, massaging, more socks), our smelly toes didn’t thaw. At a crippling 4690m (more than four times as height of Snowdon) we stopped in the darkness of an abandoned town, San Antonio. I had looked forward to seeing these ruins, belonging to a village once famous for gold. The ghost town concept appealed, especially alongside its legend which claimed that the devil had ruled the village, forcing the villagers to flee. Sadly, in the pitch black of a place with zero light pollution and a sinking moon it was hard to see
anything, even with torches. This combined with ridiculously shivering hands meant that there was no chance of taking decent photos and we quickly retreated back to the Landcruiser and huddled pathetically.
Finally the sun rose and the windows slowly melted on the left side of the vehicle. At this altitude anything in the sun is hot, whilst anything in the shade freezes, it is hugely contrasting and so I was glad to be on the left side as we careered onwards towards our second stop of the day, Laguna Morejón. Another superb landscape, the lagoon looked almost alien, with a heavy contrast between the colours of the yellow scrub grass, the red dust, the greyish-blue frozen lagoon and the white snow-capped volcanic Uturuncu in the background. I could have stayed in this place for a long time, simply admiring the view, but eventually we had to drive on. Numerous 4x4’s carrying other tour groups passed us, we guessed this was to be expected considering the age of our vehicle, but the comfort that our slower pace gave us a better chance of taking good photographs was an excellent one. Franco’s driving was as
fantastic as the landscapes and despite being on perilous ground for much of the time, we felt completely safe with him behind the wheel.
Despite the slower pace we caught up the other vehicles, we had reached a frozen river and the drivers were scattered up one of the banks, trying to scout a location safe enough to cross. Franco only took a couple of minutes to make a decision and we were the second 4x4 to plough through the ice into a couple of feet of water. Buttocks were firmly clenched as the elderly engine revved up through the river and up the opposite bank to victory. After a lengthy drive we reached the town of Quetena Chico, back down at 4150m. This is the entrance to the Reserva Nacional De Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, the overly long name given to the park containing the salt flats themselves. We paid our fees, ate a yoghurt each and watched Sarah feed and get slightly mauled by a cat before heading in.
The road delightfully widened on entry into the park and we drove on for a
long time in the shadows of snow-capped mountains. We stopped in a couple of places for a healthy combination of taking photos and urinating. One of the many odd effects of being at altitude is a requirement to urinate much more than normal. Another strange effect was only felt by Sarah, whose hands and feet had swollen greatly. This made wearing her boots uncomfortable and so she stayed in the vehicle during a couple of the stops, admiring the views sheltered from the wind.
In the early afternoon we reached a truly unique and odd sight, Laguna Kollpa, a soap lake. In the middle of the blandly coloured landscape lay a perfectly white oval shaped basin. This lagoon produces a large amount of a raw material which is extracted to produce soap; this explained both the white surface and the familiar scent in the air. A raised walkway led some way into the white to a mound where we posed for photos of this white beauty, compete with yet another snow-capped peak in the background. I can’t imagine seeing a sight such as this anywhere else in the world, which had fast become
a reoccurring theme during this trip.
The next stop continued this theme, in this unimaginably vast flat landscape with a snow-capped border sat a formed concrete tub with steam rising temptingly from the water within, we had arrived at Polques Hot Springs. It did not take long for us to join the other backpackers in this naturally hot pool where we enjoyed the notion of being clean, before realising that it was probably full of grot from many, many other people as well. Far too soon we were called out of the pool into the freezing cold air for lunch and so began an incredibly fast spree of feet moving towards towels which were quickly thrown away in exchange for clothes and followed by a sprint to the warmth where out lunch was waiting. Inside everyone seemed to struggle for a while; a combination of bodies in hot water, with our heads in freezing air, at high altitude had given everyone strange and painful headaches, but fortunately they subsided within a couple of hours. Our clothes which had been left outside to dry had frozen by the time we returned to them.
The next stop after a long drive through what appeared to be desert was Laguna Verde at 4350m. This beautiful lagoon gains its amazing emerald colour from an elevated content of magnesium, arsenic, lead and calcium carbonate; to top off the beauty it presents itself with, it sat marvellously at the foot of the Licancabur volcano, making for another fantastic photo. This location is regarded as part of the not clearly defined border with Chile.
The penultimate stop of the day found us at a head throbbing 5000 metres above sea level looking at a wide series of natural sulphur geysers, Sol de Manana. We wandered around these powerful pumps appreciating the earth’s ability to fart so effectively, the smell of sulphur is a respectably eggy one. Ignoring the eggy whiff, this was yet another awesome location to find ourselves and we were only two days into the tour. Yet another location that made me feel like I was on a different planet.
The day finished in a settlement that appeared to be so far from anything that the first
people who settled there must have been at least a little insane. Inside the stone building we were incredible happy to find a roaring fire, fuelled by a dried fungus. I scoffed a pair of Twix’s aggressively and me and the other guys drank a couple of expensive beers, during which a procession of kids in turn entered the room and played music and sang for us. We donated a little money to each, theoretically for their schooling and went too bed early. This was the longest day of the tour and though it had been incredible, it had been exhausting and I fell asleep quickly. Day Three
The third day was my personal favourite and it started in style at Laguna Colorado. It was in this lagoon, backed by the mountains Colorado and Negro that we spotted our first flamingos. We felt extremely lucky to see these peculiar pink birds, standing in the red water, for we had been told that we would see none during the tour as it was during their migration period. The dark red lake is coloured so by clorofitas bacteria and sediment in the water, tiny
particles of which end up caught in the feathers of the flamingos, giving them their pinkish colour. Laguna Colorado is one of the only places in the world where every type of flamingo nests.
The landscape gradually changed colour as we drove, becoming increasingly red. We passed the time with various games like 20 Questions and Who Am I? We next stopped at a series of slightly randomly located wind weathered rocks in the middle of a valley, one of which, Arbol de Piedra, stands despite looking gravitationally unstable. The top part of this rock contains hard materials such as iron, whilst the bottom contains softer materials such as Biotitic quartz crystals, explaining its strange bizarrely top heavy shape.
We arrived at another lagoon, Laguna Hedionda. This one is one being famous for being highly sulphuric and as a result, very smelly. The surrounding air was cruelly dank, despite the lake being frozen and as we walked along the bank we spent a good amount of time jumping on the shallower ice which flexed instead of cracking and released puffs of fresh bile into the air.
During the summer months, when not frozen, the lake can be smelt from several kilometres away!
The final destination of the day was San Juan and en-route we passed numerous deer like animals, vicunas. The introduction of more varied wildlife is definitely what made the third my favourite of the five days. We passed a hotel next to another toxic lake which contained more flamingos. Next to the lake was a skull and crossbones sign warning against going into the water, its point exaggerated nicely by a llama foetus that was nailed to the post. We stopped for lunch by another lagoon at the base of Ollague, but just before we arrived we were treated by the sight of a fox like creature, a culpeo. Franco stopped the vehicle and we lured this beautiful animal to us using cake that was left over from breakfast. That reminds me; we had cake for breakfast, awesome.
Whilst we waiting for lunch to be prepared (which was some decent chicken), Liz and I climbed above the lake on a pile of crumbled rocks. Near the top a vicuna appeared,
The soap lake.
backed by a snow-cap. It waited a while, unsure of whether it should advance, before casually passing close to Liz. Two superb moments with nature in quick succession.
I wrote earlier about our concerns over Franco’s vehicle, but was simply a better driver than others we encountered and he knew the landscape well. When we stopped for lunch on this day, the other 4x4’s were already there and the tourists were eating next to the sulphuric eggy lake. Franco parked further away, sensibly keeping away from the terrible smell and wind. To compound our faith in him, almost every single photo stop we made, Franco was checking and performing maintenance on his vehicle, constantly ensuring that everything was in working order. He was our rock star and after seeing several other vehicles post accident, we began to appreciate just how lucky we were to have him as our driver.
During the afternoon we crossed a railway which borders Chile and drove near the border of the Salt Flat itself. The blue silhouettes of the mountains over the Salar de Uyuni looked physically impossible as they never
The soap lake.
appeared to reach the earth. The day ended in San Juan, a tired looking town on the border of the Salar de Uyuni. We took a walk around and enjoyed the sunset. Our hostel this night was entirely constructed from salt, which Ciaran chose to prove by licking a wall. The tables, chairs, floors, walls and beds were all made from salt in various forms, making for an interesting and cosy novelty. During dinner we shared a bottle of wine and after a lengthy conversation about what the best term for a fart is, we went to bed. In case you are wondering, the best term is ‘trouser ghost’. Day Four
The fourth day we were treated to a slightly later start than usual; because ours was a five day tour instead of the traditional four (in order to climb volcanic Tunupa on the last day) the only place we were going to see on this fourth day was the Salar de Uyuni itself.
We hit the Salt Flat in hardly any time after leaving the hotel, a crude track taking us deeper into the
flat which turned a pure white colour. Carlos stopped the 4x4 before long and everyone jumped out to investigate this colossal expanse of white nothingness and I read a little about the local ecosystem which I will try not to bore too much with now.
The salt plains are located at 3650m and are the largest in the world; it literally is a giant expanse of salt covering a tremendous 12,500km². Due to the altitude there is a very particular eco-system, the air is thin and the suns heat is almost entirely transmitted by radiation which is why it is incredibly hot in the open and brutally cold in the shade. The temperate varies from over 30°C in the summer to below -25°C in the winter, -45°C if the wind is strong. The rainfall is less than a pitiful 300mm per year. Historically, the salt flats were formed 25 million years ago when the Andes were raised; the altiplano which was formerly at sea level became a huge depression between two mountain ranges and salt deposits throughout the former sea gradually made their way from the mountains into the basin through waterways. A
series of flooding and drying cycles followed which filled the salt lake at Uyuni before drying, leaving it as it is today. Drillings have revealed successive layers of salt and clay 120m although geological studies suggest that the salt could reach as far down as 500m.
So that is where we were, the seven of us standing in a pure white expanse stretching as far as the eye can see. Large hard crystals of salt covered the ground beneath us with a thin layer of water surrounding their base. We took some photos and marvelled at this insane place before hopping back into our Toyosa and heading to the middle of the salt plain and Inca Huasi Island.
Inca Huasi Island is a truly bizarre place, like a mirage it rises from the middle of the white expanse. It appears much in the way an oasis might if you were suffering from thirst in the desert, springing from nowhere, with potential to disappear at any time.
These islands, along with the others on the salt plain, were the tops
of the ancient mountains that existed before the salt flat was formed. I thought the surface of the island was a bit strange on arrival and was fascinated to discover that the reason for this is due to the surface being covered in a layer of fossilised algae about 10cm thick. These algae grew during the periods when the plains were flooded and fossilised once the water had evaporated. We began walking around the island, followed the set path and heading steeply uphill, admiring the incredible volume of cacti present before stopping at the sight of a strange animal. Another of the things that was hard to grasp on this day was the presence of rabbit like animals which hopped like wallabies, vizcacha. We watched them for a long period, wondering how on earth they ended up here, before continuing to the top, to take more photos and to marvel at the larger cacti which were many hundreds of years old. We were amused to see Ancelma squatting out in the middle of the salt plain; we couldn’t believe that she would go to the bathroom in the middle of the open where we could obviously see her, especially when
there was a bathroom on the island.
Back down at the base of the island lunch was being prepared and our group split in different directions to pass the preparation time. Liz went on a wander around the island, I walked some distance out to take photos of the island and the other three stayed close to the 4x4. I amused myself in this superb expanse by taking many photos of the volcano Tunupa in the distance, loving the sun and heat. Beneath me, the salt flat carpet was formed into clear hexagonal shapes. This is due to some complicated chemistry and the local geographical conditions; the dissociation and temperature variation on the Salar causes the top layer of salt to contract and fracture. These fractures form small capillaries in polygonal shapes through which the low density salt water raises to the surface, crystallizing into polygonal figures.
I spotted several holes called Ojos de Agua del Salar, which translates as ‘eyes of water’. These are effectively the pores of the salt plain where the salt water brine located under the superficial crust bubbles up. This brine
comes from the fresh water flowing in the salt flat, where the radiation from the sun eventually causes it to heat, bubble and reach the surface through these pores which are where the freshest and most stunning salt crystals that I saw were found.
Whilst out in this area alone I witnessed the three by the 4x4 make amusing and ridiculous poses as a trio and on returning I found out that they were keeping themselves amused by making comical shadows on the white surface. We walked back towards the spot where lunch was waiting, en-route spotting a series of stones spelling out ‘Ancelma’ which made us feel very bad for thinking that she had been going to the bathroom. This guilt wasn’t helped by the fact that our lunch was yet another fantastic one.
After lunch was it was time to take the same obligatory salt plain photographs that every tourist that comes here takes, the perspective photos. Some metres from the island, the polygonal shapes in the salt become less consistent and the surface smoother. Here the pure white surface can prevent many cameras
from being able to read distance clearly and as such it is possible to take great photos where the perspective is messed with for comedic results. This is why we had purchased novelty toys in Tupiza. We spent a good couple of hours working out the best way to do this and took a vast amount of photos; Sarah appeared to have practiced her poses in advance and well on top off what almost seemed like a list of different poses to do. Unfortunately the toys we had brought were too small for the photos to work especially well and towards the end us guys got became somewhat juvenile in our boredom of endless photo taking. What began as a photo of the three of us modelling our poo pants ended with me posing naked except for my cowboy hat over my groin.
We completed the crossing of the salt plain and arrived at Coqueza and unpacked for the final night of the trip. On leaving the salt plain we had passed through some water and spotted flamingos, so left quickly to try for some improved photos of these glorious birds. We managed
this relatively successfully, but the birds are shy creatures and kept walking away, which led to my solo sprint after a group, camera in hand, hoping to catch them off guard. It wasn’t successful, unsurprisingly. We returned to the town, which is located at the base of Tunupa, a stunning volcano with a beautiful red and snow covered broken rim. Our group went to bed early, despite the day involving little exertion, we had all had a huge level of exposure to the sun and I, despite having worn a hat all day was massively sunburnt due to the radiation reflecting off the surface of the salt flats. My face felt like a crisp packet. Day Five
Waking prior to sunrise to climb Tunupa hurt, I hadn’t slept well and Liz was feeling sick. The volcano stood in the dark ahead of us at a peak of 5435m. This was slightly higher than my previous altitude record of 5416m which was made at Thorung La during the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal. We had a climb of approximately 2000m to make, a tall task if we were starting at a low-level, an
even taller one starting at this altitude, in already limited oxygen. Liz had to turn round shortly after leaving town, not feeling at all well. We felt guilty about leaving her to walk back this distance on her own, but none of us wanted to miss the climb. Our guide led us uphill on a good path, only slightly rocky, to a door in the side of some sheet rock. Having unlocked the door we walked inside the cave to horror, inside several mummies were housed, left in the positions that they were found. There was no light and as such, they were only lit by our head torches and camera flashes. Amongst them was one that was missing a jawbone, one still with hair which was especially creepy and a trio close together, a mother with two tiny children. It was interesting, but not a pleasant place and it was a relief to leave and go back into the sub-zero wind outdoors.
The climb continued as the sun rose optimistically from behind the mountain splashing us with some well needed warmth. Sarah was feeling the effects of the altitude considerably and took
some pure oxygen from our guide’s canister. Everyone bar me had been taking Diamox, the drug manufactured specifically to relieve some of the effects felt from the lack of oxygen at altitude. Led by our guide, Ciaran followed, with me further back and then some way behind me some way was Mark and Sarah. We were all tired and our legs ached as we left the better surface of the volcano and began a brutally steep climb up a tremendous scree slope.
It was a hard hike, every step up the rocks slid beneath our feet and we fell a little backwards. For every few steps taken it felt as if we lost one sliding back down. I finally succumbed for the first time ever and took half a Diamox to ease my headache and aid my breathing. My chest felt like my lungs had expanded to several times their normal volume to cope. Stopping often to catch our breath and to allow everyone to regroup, we drank hot coca mate which also eases the altitude effects a little.
At some point 4 - 5 hours
after starting, Ciaran and the guide stopped maybe 20 metres up in front of me. I made the regrettable decision to attempt to run to where they were, ignoring the altitude. I made it, but not well. I fell over on arrival and I black my eyes black out as my body struggled to catch up with the lack of oxygen. By running up I had basically asphyxiated myself to a borderline point of passing out. You will not read of me attempting to run up a mountain at altitude again.
What I had not realised at the time of beginning my ill fated run was that the two had stopped because they had reached the end of the trek. When hiking Tunupa you do not reach the top of the volcano, it’s far too dangerous. Instead we had climbed to the edge of the lowest part of the crater giving us amazing views of its remainder and its snowy ridge. Due to my run it took me a while to really appreciate having made it, unlike Wellington, Kinabalu and Thorung La in the pass when I had made it to the top
broken, but on my feet at least! Once Mark and Sarah joined us we took photos and I climbed some rocks a little higher in a vain attempt to break my altitude record which, sadly for me, was not possible. Even though the peak of Tunupa is higher than the 5416m I reached in Nepal, we did not reach the top and I would guess we were 20-40m below my record. I will have to break it elsewhere, perhaps on Huani Potosi near La Paz or Cotopaxi in Ecuador. It was a great hike none the less and I had walked up more vertical metres during the day than I ever had before.
The walk back down was easy to begin with, although it was dangerous. The sliding scree allowed fast movement down the mountain whilst also providing a little suspension on my weak knees, the sliding preventing too much direct impact. As with all trips where you walk back along the same path, it seemed so much further than when we first walked it and the hours back down passed slowly. This concept makes sense until you remember just how hard walking
uphill, at altitude is.
The views on the way back down were spectacular, the Salar looked like a sea, and the islands in it looked, well, like islands. It really is a stunning place. The sight of numerous vizcacha on the way down was also a good distraction, although at this point we were all suffering incredible headaches. I had previously understood and experienced an increasing headache as I have climbed at high altitude, the air thins and so the lack of oxygen flowing through you gradually affects a person more and more, given rise to a worsening headache. The opposite is supposed to happen on the way back down but instead as we walked back our heads grew more and more painful. I still don’t understand why this happened but eventually Sarah was suffering too much, her head combined with her swollen feet was too much and we asked out guide to call Carlos on his mobile to pick her up.
Instead of using his phone, he picked up some long grass, set it on fire and waved it in the air before leaving a
pile of burning grass in the corner of a wall. It seemed optimistic and after some drama and frustration (Sarah was walking slowly and didn’t want to take another Diamox), Carlos appeared as if from nowhere in the 4x4. He had somehow spotted the smoke. It was not a huge distance back to the hostel from where he was able to reach us on the road, but Ciaran and I jumped in the 4x4 as well anyway, figuring it would save some valuable time, and we had done enough exercise already.
Ciaran’s headache was especially bad when we got back and he described some symptoms which were familiar to me and so I told him to simply equalise his ears. He did so and his headache which had been located primarily behind his ears disappeared almost completely and instantly, the human body is a strange system, as are the effects of altitude.
We packed and left, crossing Salar de Uyuni again, Sarah feeling much better, and stopped for lunch in Colchani, a small town where the prime employment comes from extracting the salt from the flats
using rudimentary tools. This was our final meal of the trip and we joined what was almost a proper road for the first time in days and arrived in Uyuni for the end of an exhausting five day tour. We gave our thanks and tips to Carlos and Ancelma before wishing them well on their long drive back to Tupiza which they were going to do that evening so they could get back to their young son.
The tour had been an extremely long one and I was glad that it had reached its conclusion. It was fantastic and had so many highlights through a massively varied and hugely fascinating, often incomprehensible landscape. The climb on the final day was a difficult and energy sapping experience to close the tour, which easily made up for the laziness of the previous four days which primarily consisted of sitting in the 4x4 and walked occasionally to take photos. We had played a huge amount of games and for the most part bonded closely as a group. It will remain as one of my personal highlights throughout all of the travelling I have done to date
and I would recommend to anyone to undertake the trip.
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