Crossing Southern Bolivia in a Chelsea Tractor

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Uyuni
February 5th 2008
Published: February 7th 2008
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From San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile, the easiest way to head north is on a 3 day journey across the high altitude altiplano of Bolivia to arrive in Uyuni, Bolivia, on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the largest and highest salt flats in the world.

Day 1: Crossing into Bolivia and the Multi-Coloured Lakes

After leaving San Pedro at 8am on Friday morning, we quickly arrived at the Chilean exit border post for the obligatory stand around for a while before being let out of the country. Following a further 30 min drive then through no mans land (With signs along the edge of the road warning not to stray off the road, as there are still land mines around, dating from the Pinochet regime!), we arrived at the Bolivian border post. This was up at a pretty high altitude around 4,000m, with snow all around.

It really has to be the most remote border crossing point i have ever seen, there was nothing to be seen for miles around, except one hut with a border crossing guard in it, and an old rusting, glassless windowed bus nearby which acted as the toilet! Yes,
Welcome to BoliviaWelcome to BoliviaWelcome to Bolivia

The remote border crossing into Bolivia. Not even a welcome party waiting for us of dancing, pom pom waving girls!
Bolivia was certainly going to be different from Chile or Argentina! However, a quick stamp in the passport and i was in.

The 11 in our group then transferred to 4x4´s in preparation for the rough roads of Bolivia. These Chelsea Tractors i don´t think had seen a tarred road in their fairly long lives. I was in a jeep with 4 others (2 Swiss (Martin and Jasimne), a Pole (Wojtek) and a Swede (Anna)), along with our driver, who despite telling us he was 18, looked around 15. We still don´t know if he actually had a licence to drive, nevermind permits to drive tourists around!

The first few hours in Bolivia involved generally racing across dirt tracks (because there was no real road!). This was a lot of fun and our boy driver turned out to be fairly proficient behind the wheel.

The drive on day 1 was punctuated with a number of stops. Many of these involved lakes of different colours. There was the White lake, so called due to the amount of Borax in the water making the water white. Then followed the Green Lake. This colour is due to it containing arsenic,
Our Chelsea TractorsOur Chelsea TractorsOur Chelsea Tractors

Perfect to run the kids from San Pedro to Uyuni!
giving it a bright green colour. Due to the arsenic, its also completely lifeless. However, its in a great setting, with the volcan Licancabur sitting behind it at 5,870m. We also passed some more geysers (although not as impressive as the ones at San Pedro), stopped at some really nice hot srpings on the edge of another white lake, before arriving at our stop for the night, on the edge of Laguna Colorada.

This was really a fantastic place to stop as the lake is bright red in colour (due to algae which colours the waters). It also has a number of bright white salt islands within it, composed of more Borax. The lake is also the home to large number of flamingoes which can be seen really close up at the lake edge. Most of the afternoon was spent walking around the lake, which was pretty exhausting due to it being at 4,270m altitude. This led to a pretty difficult nights sleep.

Day 2: Rock Valleys and the water fight - Part 1

We set off on day 2 hoping to see more of the stunning scenery we had seen on the previous day, and weren´t
Now line up nice and straight while i take your pictureNow line up nice and straight while i take your pictureNow line up nice and straight while i take your picture

Flamingoes on the red Laguna Colorada
dissapointed. There were a few more lakes that we stopped at, each one spectacularly unique in its setting (I have a lot of pictures of lakes now!) and the numbers of flamingoes wading across them.

Much of the scenery between the lakes is very desert like, with no visible water around. Despite this, Llamas seem to live in abundance up here. There are also a number of areas of very strangely eroded out rock formations that we stopped at. Due to the strong winds at the high altitudes, the rocks get worn away at their weak points, creating lots of bowls of eroded out rock, leaving pretty impressive formations, like the stone tree (Arbol de Piedra).

We arrived later in the afternoon at the very small town of Culpina K, near the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The town had about 9 streets in it, and as we drove through it appeared they were setting up for Bolivian Carnaval (The less internationally famous version of its Brazilian brother).

A few of us went for a walk around town to check out what there was to see. It seemed, other than a strange cross in the main
Strange Rock formations - Arbol de Piedra (Rock Tree)Strange Rock formations - Arbol de Piedra (Rock Tree)Strange Rock formations - Arbol de Piedra (Rock Tree)

Found in the just as imagnitavely titled "Valley of the Rocks"
square, and lots of women in traditional dress, there were lots of kids walking around with water balloons. Getting more confident to approach the strange gringos as time went on, eventually one lobbed a water balloon at us. This seemed to trigger a bombardment from the local kids, causing us to retreat back to our hotel.

Determined not to be outdone by a bunch of kids, we sneaked to the nearest shop to stock up on water balloons. Once we were armed to the teeth, we ventured out into town to hunt down the vicious 7 year olds who had bombarded us! This initiated a huge water fight! Word had spread around town quickly that stupid gringos were in town, who needed soaking, so every kid came out to join in. For the next hour it was 11 of us against all the kids in town in a huge water fight (Remember, in one of the driest deserts in the world!). I am pretty sure though that we came off worse as we ran out of balloons and therefore got well and truly soaked.

Aparently, as we later found out, water bombs are an integral part of Carnaval
Flamingoes on Laguna ColoradaFlamingoes on Laguna ColoradaFlamingoes on Laguna Colorada

The red colour of the lake is due to algae in the water. Probably not a great idea to drink the water!
in Bolivia.

Later that night, carnaval was in full swing around the weird home made cross, with lots of men playing home made recorders, and women doing weird dancing. As well as occassional drunks waving flags. All quite surreal for the second night in Bolivia.

Day 3: The Water fight part 2, aka "Its lucky we didn´t wear the underpants!"

Day 3 and we left Culpina K, bound for Uyuni and the salt flats. Before getting there, we were taken to a train graveyard on the egde of town. This contains lots of old steam trains, left to rust and die in the desert air. They are mostly all old mine trains, used to transport silver and lots of other minerals, rich in the earth in this area. However, mining has mostly dried up now, leaving the trains redundant.

However, like anything strange, it then becomes a tourist attraction that people can climb over and take odd pictures on, which i did.

We then went on to the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni. At this time of year, away from the desert, its wet season in most of Bolivia. This leads to a 10
The lifeless Green Lake in BoliviaThe lifeless Green Lake in BoliviaThe lifeless Green Lake in Bolivia

Due to it containing levels of Arsenic. Creme de menthe anyone? Volcan Licancabur (5,870m) sits behind the lake.
cm deep layer of water across most of the salt flats. However, this didn´t deter our intrepid 15/18 year old and we ventured across in our 4x4´s to a salt hotel, 30 mins drive out onto the lake.

Its weird being on the salt flats. Due to their sheer size, its really hard to distinguish the horizion and it really feels like you are floating. This is enhanced by the reflection off the flat surface of water of the sky above, giving a very strange feeling. Below the water layer is pure salt, formed by the evaporation of the water. When the current water on the Salar evaporates, a new salt layer will be formed. But it is actually walking on pure grains of salt, not sand or silt. Much of this salt will end up on people tables for dinner.

But the Bolivians also find uses for the salt in making building blocks, so many of the houses around the Salar and constructed entirely of salt.

After some messing around with pictures on the strange horizion, and a beer at the salt hotel, on a salt table with salt chairs, we returned to Uyuni for the
Salt Islands on Laguna ColoradaSalt Islands on Laguna ColoradaSalt Islands on Laguna Colorada

Bright white islands of Borax and salt set in the red Laguna Colorada.
end of our trip. All of us found a hotel (made out of bricks, not salt!) and then we made our way to the bus station to book onward transport.

On the way there, crossing the main street, lots of people were lining up along the street. We asked and found out there was a big parade there that day for Carnaval (of course). Then, on the way back to the hotel, we see people walking to the street with bins, filled with water balloons, kids with water we go again. Except this time its a much bigger town, surely we couldn´t be targets again!

Anticipating what was to come, we all got changed into our swimmers (minus underwear) and old T-shirts and, rather stupidly, unarmed, we went to watch the parade.

The parade is a strange one to say the least. Groups of around 50 people at a time, all dressed in a particular costume (arabs, kings and Queens, Rastas, miners etc) come down the street , one after the other. Each group is accompanied by a 7 or 8 person brass orchestra. The band play some tunes, and the dancers in front dance across the street.

However, as they come down the street, the are totally bombarded by the crowd with water bombs, buckets of water, weird foam spray stuff and anything else to make them look ridiculous and feel cold. And its not just the kids, adults and everyone joins in. I think the dancers must need a few stiff drinks before setting off to help them endure the bombardment. Its loads of fun and if you can´t beat 'em, join 'em, so we all bought foam sprays too. By the end of the route, all the dancers are absolutely soaked.

I have managed to upload a couple of videos of the parade that i shot to give you an idea of Bolivian Carnaval.

However, sometimes there were gaps betwen the dancers, and the crowd get a little bored. So they start foaming and spraying each other, this getting more and more as the parade goes on.

Then came our bad mistake. Myself and the 4 others from my 4x4 on the trip decided it was sunnier on the other side of the road, so we crossed over to watch the parade from there. It was as if everyone
If only we could find some chips to have with all this salt!If only we could find some chips to have with all this salt!If only we could find some chips to have with all this salt!

I guess beer will do instead then! The group I crossed the altiplano with - chilling at the salt hotel. (Wojtek, Anna, Martin & Jasmine)
watching thought...."gringos, and they look a bit dry". We became the centre of the parade for around 10 minutes. Everyone turned on us. We were getting hit from all sides. Our foam sprays only went so far to stop the water assault. Like the brave warriors we were, we turned and ran!

Checking for casualties down the next street, we stood dripping from head to toe, covered in foam and water. Its then that Jasmine came out with the classic line "Its lucky we didn´t wear the underpants!". We all go from feeling sorry for our soaking-selves to rolling around laughing.

Stuff getting wet! We went back to watch the parade, spray the dancers and continued to get soaked ourselves. Great craic all round, and we didn´t even know it was happening in Uyuni that day, but so much fun. I think this kind of parade as an alternative to Orange Marches could have helped Northern Ireland along leaps and bounds!

So after the parade and a good nights sleep, the 5 of us have headed on to Potosi, away from the salt flats and water bombing kids of Carnaval.....surely?

Additional photos below
Photos: 15, Displayed: 15


Salar de Uyuni salt LakeSalar de Uyuni salt Lake
Salar de Uyuni salt Lake

It feels like flying and walking (or driving) on water, at the same time!
The ambush!The ambush!
The ambush!

The kids waiting for us, armed and ready, at water fight No. 1 in Culpina K
I´ve got a great idea for a musical....I´ve got a great idea for a musical....
I´ve got a great idea for a musical....

Its set in a train graveyard...and we can have dancers hanging out of driver cabins and everything! The weird place where trains go to rust and die!
Sunday afternoon of Carnaval in UyuniSunday afternoon of Carnaval in Uyuni
Sunday afternoon of Carnaval in Uyuni

"I´ve got a great idea, lets all dress up in silly costumes and dance down the main street, while everyone else throws water at us!"
Everyone looking well foamed up at CarnavalEveryone looking well foamed up at Carnaval
Everyone looking well foamed up at Carnaval

It only got a lot worse after this picture!

8th February 2008

Stunning Pictures
Mike your turning into a right David Bailey .... stunning pictures and would love to know how you got the floating lake picture. Stop having all this fun when we are working and its miserable outside!
8th February 2008

Flamingoes - sad fact
Good shots of the flamingoes, good enough to identify they aren't the more common Andean Flamingo but the rarer James' Flamingo (not much black in the wings, but bill colour is the clincher). Like anyone cares...
10th February 2008

Jon, I am very impressed at your flamingo related facts. You are indeed correct! One extra large James´ flamingo burger for you i think! Mike
10th February 2008

Re: Stunning Pictures
Thanks Tony, Glad to hear the weather in Aberdeen is still miserable! The floating picture is a bit of clever timing between photographer and me. I certainly am not light enough to float after all i have eaten the last 2 months! Mike

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