It Came From The Desert

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Uyuni
November 28th 2014
Published: November 29th 2014
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Monday was the last day in Peru. We were picked up at the hotel by the guy who was going to drive us to the border. For some reason his wife was there too. The drive to the border only took a couple of hours, but of course we had to stop along the way and look at another church or two. I think I have been to more churches on this trip than I have in the total of my life up to this point. You’ll be surprised to know that there was nothing special. At one of the churches there were absolutely no other tourists around so the security guards said we could take photos – normally you can’t.

By late morning we reached the border with Bolivia. I was expecting a tightly controlled border but it almost seemed like people could come and go as they pleased. The thing is, though, that without the immigration card you can’t do anything in the other country so I guess that works. They’re fine with Peruvian locals just crossing over to buy something from a Bolivian shop, and vice versa. We did have to take part in a minor subversion, however. Because our tour leader, Cristina, wouldn’t have a work visa for Bolivia, she had to cross separate to us and pretend to be a regular Peruvian tourist. We also had to pretend not to know her. It all went smoothly and we were soon in Bolivia.

Unsurprisingly, the countryside looked pretty much the same as Peru. Once we got away from the border, however, it was noticeable that things looked a bit poorer. Our first stop was a fairly new restaurant for lunch. We also had a new Bolivian guide to show us around. Near to the restaurant was our main attraction for the day – Tiwanaku. This was an archaeological site for a pre-Incan civilisation that had an empire that stretched into Peru and Chile. Tiwanaku is most famous because the stonework is so straight and precise – a lot of it looks like it was cut with modern tools. Unfortunately, the Spanish had also noticed the quality of the stones and much of the site is now located in various churches in Peru and Bolivia. I had been really looking forward to seeing Tiwanaku, but to be honest it was a little disappointing. We had a wander around, took a couple of photos but then it was on to La Paz.

La Paz is kind of like two cities. Up on the plateau is El Alto, while La Paz proper exists in a bowl-shaped depression. They are massive. We drove into El Alto and I realised I had to phone the company that was doing my tour of Bolivia. As I finally got things confirmed, our minibus stopped and everyone got off. I asked what we were doing and someone said something about a lookout that was going to cost us 3 Bolivianos (50 Australiano cents). That turned out to not be quite accurate. It did cost 3 Bolivianos, but what it turned out to be was one of the best public transport systems ever. Due to the topography of La Paz, subways wouldn’t work. And due to the craziness of La Paz traffic, buses aren’t that great. So what they’ve done is a cable car! And it was great! It’s a fantastic view, it got us into the centre of La Paz in a short time, and it’s affordable for local people to commute. The downside to the quickness is we had to stand around waiting for our minibus to drive all the way down.

We then headed off to our hotel. La Paz seemed pretty hectic and crazy, but the hotel was nice. I will be seeing more of La Paz later. And then we had our final dinner together as a tour group. All in all it was a pretty good group, I think, and the others were at least polite enough to say the same. The tour was technically due to finish in the morning, but I was leaving at 4:45am and Cristina had to head back to Peru at 8am. By coincidence Carol and Barry were flying back to Lima on the same flight, but while Barry was heading off into the jungle, Carol was heading home.

So at stupid o’clock the next morning I was awake and feeling pretty crappy… literally! My stomach problems were back again and it was obvious that while the Gastro-Stop was able to keep them at bay for a couple of days, it wasn’t solving the problem. I decided I would need to visit a pharmacy at some point to buy some over-the-counter anti-biotics… you’d be surprised what you can get over the counter here. I was also running out of Gastro-Stop. Anyway, with all that going on I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the day ahead.

I boarded a small jet plane to Uyuni at 6:20am and after 45 minute flight (including seeing the salt flats as we were coming in to land) I arrived. I was met at the airport by my tour guide, Alvaro. He was a couple of years younger than me and seemed pretty cool. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this part of the trip. My travel agent had organised a private tour because the group tour didn’t have enough people to go ahead. I was unable to get confirmation as to what a private tour was exactly. It turns out it was me, Alvaro my guide and a driver named David (pronounced Dah-vid here). So it was certainly a private tour. This was mostly good and tiny bit bad. It made the tour great because I was literally the boss. The only downside was mealtimes – Alvaro and I could speak English but David couldn’t, and the two of them could speak Spanish but I couldn’t. So it was a little bit awkward… I would have preferred to eat on my own to be honest – at least then I could read a book. But it’s a minor complaint about what turned out to be a fantastic tour.

But that was all ahead of me. I was just off the plane, after an early start and a disrupted night’s sleep, hadn’t had breakfast and was expecting to have a crappy day. Alvaro surprised me by saying that the tour would actually start at 9:30 and they were going to take me somewhere to have breakfast and then I would have some time to do some shopping. For breakfast I just ordered some toast because of my stomach, and then I walked around Uyuni to find a pharmacy. I had to kill some time until they opened at 9, but it seemed like a pretty nice little town. Once everything was sorted, I met up with Alvaro again and we headed off to our first destination.

That was the train cemetery. I wasn’t particularly excited by the sound of it, but it turned out to be a pretty cool photography opportunity. The steam trains that were used to carry the various minerals (gold, silver, copper, etc.) to the coast for export had been left at the cemetery. Unfortunately there was a lot of graffiti and rubbish, but I still managed to get some good shots.

We then headed off towards the town of San Cristobal, the site of the largest open cut mine in Bolivia. There wasn’t much in town and we were really only stopping there for lunch. But what was interesting was that the town was originally located where the mine is and the mining company built a new town for the residents. The only problem was the old church, so they dismantled it stone by stone, numbering each, and then reassembled it in the new town. After lunch, we continued on, heading into the Soleil desert – the highest desert in the world.

The next stop was just short of the desert, in the Valley of the Rocks. This is a really large rock formation where lava apparently met a glacier or something like that. The result is some really impressive shaped rocks; some of them look like waves because the lava cooled so quickly. The rock we stopped at is called the Condor because it kind of looks like a condor spreading its wings.

Then it was into the desert proper. We stopped at a couple of places on the way but Alvaro was insistent that they weren’t as good as what we would see later. One place was a lagoon with some flamingos – we were lucky to see all three types of flamingos found in South America there: The James, the Andean and the Chilean. Another site was an abandoned sulphur mine, which gave me another good photo opportunity.

From there it was into the desert proper and soon we came to our hotel for the next 2 nights. It is literally in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but desert around. A few kilometres away were some mountains which constitute the border with Chile. Alvaro told me that as the water is solar heated, it is best to go and have a shower straight away, before more guests arrive. He also said the generators provide power between 5:30 and 10, and that’s it. I took his advice and while I was having a shower I couldn’t help but think how awesome the day had been considering how bad I was expecting. I relaxed for the evening, had dinner and had a look outside at the stars. It was freezing cold (apparently it would be about -10 overnight) and I was really tired so I didn’t bother taking any photos, but resolved to do so the next night.

We hit the road at seven on Wednesday morning. I use the term “road” very loosely because there were no roads around. At best you could say there were tracks of other four-wheel-drives that we followed. Not long after we left the hotel we saw one of the other cars stopped in the desert. I noticed that the people were waving to us, so I told Alvaro and he told the driver and we went to see what the problem was. We were soon joined by other four-wheel-drive tours. Apparently a cable had been cut by a stone and between them, the drivers all sorted it out. That’s definitely a key skill for those guys because it was so isolated.

Our first scheduled stop was the Tree of Stone. It was a rock that is sort of shaped like a tree. There were a lot of other rocks around in the desert and Alvaro said that they came from an exploding volcano nearby. Apparently they are softer at the bottom and therefore wear away. The Tree of Stone was a particularly good example of this and is apparently one of the famous sites in the area. I took some photos of it and some of the nearby rocks and then we continued on.

Next scheduled stop was the Red Lagoon (Laguna Colorada) but Alvaro said we would stop there on the way back. Apparently the colour is partly caused by the algae in the lagoon and they get redder as the sun shines on them. We stopped briefly to drop off our lunch at one of the hostels near the lagoon, which we would eat on our way back. Then we continued.

We climbed up towards Sol de Manana. Just before we reached there, we hit the highest altitude of the trip – 5,000 metres. We stopped so I could get my photo taken before continuing on
The CondorThe CondorThe Condor

Valley of Rocks
to the geysers. The geysers are probably not the match of ones in Iceland or New Zealand, but they are the only ones I’ve seen. They stank from the sulphur and were very steamy and noisy. It was really cool though… well, not really that cool – apparently it’s over 300 degrees inside. Alvaro said they will probably not be visitable for much longer because they are building a geothermal power plant there. We couldn’t stay long because it’s not good for us and we hit the proverbial road again.

Next we headed to the hot springs. I could have gone for a swim there but I declined. We did stop for a while because our driver David was having second breakfast. This gave me a chance to walk around and take some photos. Unfortunately the only decent ones I took were ruined because people had thrown rubbish away in the water. Rubbish is definitely a downside to Bolivia, but Alvaro assures me that attitudes are slowly changing. Our next stop was Salvador Dali desert. Apparently the stones look like some in one of his paintings. I had to take Alvaro’s word for it, but I definitely didn’t see any melting clocks.

The end of the proverbial road was the Green Lagoon. It looked stunning, but as soon as I got out of the car a freezing wind hit me. Even if it had been warm, it’s still not a good place to swim. The colour is caused by toxic chemicals (I can’t remember which ones) and most animals know to stay away from it. We did see four flamingos in there and Alvaro assured me they would be dead by the next day. Our departure was delayed as we tried to help out some idiot Americans who left a Go-Pro on a tripod while they walked down to the shore of the lagoon (hundreds of metres away). It wasn’t there when we arrived, so no doubt one of the other tourists nicked it. I’m not sure what they were thinking, but we helped them look around in case it was the wind.

We thus retraced our steps back towards the hotel, stopping for lunch and then at the red lagoon. It was amazing to see the colour difference compared to the morning. The lagoon was now a dark blood red colour. It was also full of flamingos. I walked along the shore taking photos and ended up talking with an older couple from Cairns when two of the flamingos decided to start their mating season in front of us.

It was soon time to return to the hotel. It was the same procedure, early shower, dinner and this time I braved the cold to take some photos of the stars. The thing that impressed me the most was that as soon as I walked outside I could see both the large and the small Magellanic Clouds very clearly. In Australia, I usually needed to get my night vision and even then they aren’t necessarily easy to see. With my ultra-wide angle lens I was able to get them and the constellation of Orion in the one shot. Once I was sure I had captured it with the correct settings I headed inside before my hands fell off.

Thursday was another early start because we had a lot of ground to cover. About 1,000km according to Alvaro, but I’m not sure it was quite that far. There was a lot of driving though. We headed north to visit a couple of the smaller lagoons. Only one of them had a distinctive name that I can remember though – it was the stinky lagoon. It sure lived up to its name because of the sulphur. Along with the red lagoon, the stinky lagoon was the most popular with the flamingos.

We continued on, and even re-joined the road for a bit. We stopped for a photo of a volcano from the end of the valley of rocks. I wanted to take more photos of the rocks, but once again there was a lot of rubbish around the place. It’s a real shame. We continued driving until we reached the Chilean border. We stopped for a bit, I suspect David the driver was having second breakfast again, before turning north and heading towards the Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni). Along the way we were supposed to visit a cave with a really cool rock formation. Unfortunately, the person we were supposed to get the key from was in Uyuni so we had to skip it.

And soon we were on the salt flat. I’d seen plenty of pictures but it’s quite another thing to be out there on it. White in every direction! In the distance you could see mountains, but most of them appeared to be floating because of the heat mirages. It was a long drive out to an island in the middle, but for the first time in days we had a nice smooth ride and could drive at 100 km/hour.

We arrived at Incahuasi Island right in the middle of the lunchtime rush. So Alvaro decided we would go for the walk around the island first. The island has cactuses up to nine metres in height. That is more impressive when you find out they only grow about 1cm a year! Apparently one died recently that was 12m high. The walk around the island also included a climb to the top at a height of about 90m. That was pretty tough at high altitude, but I survived (barely). We returned back to the restaurant for lunch before heading back out on the flats.

My hotel for the night was a salt hotel on the edge of the lake. But before we got there, we had a few stops on the way. Alvaro and David insisted on putting their hands into holes of water to collect some salt crystals for me. They were pretty cool, but the guys cut themselves in the process so I’m not sure it was worth it. We also took the opportunity to do one of those silly false-perspective photos which are easy to do on the salt flat. We stopped near another salt hotel that is actually on the flats, but only to take a photo of the nearby monument to the Paris-Dakar rally (which is in South America now). Next year they are hoping to actually race on the flats, instead of around it. Alvaro isn’t sure how that will go seeing as it will be the middle of the wet season.

The penultimate stop was in one part of the salt flat that had water. We had to drive slowly because it’s easy to get stuck there, but the reason to visit is that the water reflects the sky perfectly. It wasn’t quite perfect when we got there because there was a bit of a wind disturbing the water, but it still looked pretty cool.

And then we headed off to the hotel. It’s all pretty clever to have a hotel made of salt (except the roof, the furniture, etc) but I think people would prefer to not have crushed rock salt as a floor. I know I would have. Other than that it was a really nice hotel.

Additional photos below
Photos: 31, Displayed: 31


8th December 2014
Uyuni Salt Flats

Uyuni Salt Flats
Mr. Vincent, I love your photo of the Uyuni Salt Flats. I have been around the Bonneville Salt Flats, and you captured the relief that sometimes appears in the salt, which Hollywood does not always portray. Good luck to you in your Castle Quest! Best, Monique
22nd February 2015
Monument for the Dakar rally

Dakar Rally
Oh the memories. We were lucky enough to follow the route of the 2014 Dakar Rally this month using bits from the 2015 Rally as well. Yes they crossed the salt flats in the 2015 rally which led to many getting lost and one died. The message is do not cross the salt flats when flooded...or risk peril!!!

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