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Published: November 27th 2009
Our final stop in Bolivia was, a more or less compulsory, visit to the Salar de Uyuni and the surrounding area. This salt flat, which was once a giant lake, is the largest in the world and roughly the size of Lebanon. Admittedly Lebanon isn’t perhaps the most impressive country for size comparison purposes, but you get the picture, it’s big. As well as a tourist destination, the area is also, perhaps not surprisingly, prime mineral extraction territory. It is estimated that the area contains something like half of the world’s lithium. If, in years to come we’re all driving cars with batteries, this will become a highly prized commodity and could potentially provide a much needed boost to Bolivia’s economy. However, from what little we have learnt of Bolivia, we can’t help but suspect that they are unlikely to manage to organise themselves sufficiently, to enable this opportunity to be maximised.
We arrived in the town of Uyuni on the least comfortable bus we have taken in South America, with the “heating” we had been promised, transpiring to consist of a thin blanket. We had nothing organised for our stay in the area, but we were confident that there
was likely to be little in the town other than tour operators. Despite arriving at around 6am, as predicted, we were met by a hoard of pamphlet waving touts. Therefore, within a very short space of time we left the town in a veritable armada of identical vehicles all embarking at the identical time on identical tours. We were joined by a Spanish couple, a couple of Brazilians and our guide who doubled up as the driver of our Land Cruiser. The plan was to take three days to pass across the salt flat, then through the adjacent Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve and conclude the tour at the border with Chile, our next destination.
Our first stop was the so called Train Cemetery
the final resting place of a number of deceased trains, which, unsurprisingly, given that they have been left next to the worlds largest expanse of salt, have got a little rusty. They were once used to transport minerals away from the area and now provide something of a mediocre tourist attraction. However, the rusting machinery did provide us with reasonable photo ops, but nothing compared to what was about to come.
The salt flat itself
is a seemingly endless expanse of white and, as the name suggests, is almost perfectly flat. Being flat and white results in it being very hard to judge distances and this lack of perspective avails the opportunity for some creative photography. The white expanse is only broken up by the occasional island
formed from coral, which it seems impossible to imagine once thrived in the area when it was submerged. Another testimony to the fact that it was once considerably damper in the area is the crops of fossilised algae, some the size of trees.
We then spent the night in one of the many Salt Hotels in the area. Despite, as you may have guessed, it being constructed almost entirely from salt, it was one of the nicer places we’ve stayed this year. Although this statement is perhaps more of a reflection on the standard of accommodation to which we’ve become accustomed, rather than the luxury status of the hotel.
The next day we left the salt flat and moved south west to the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. Here we found a beautiful landscape of volcanoes and coloured lakes. Although undeniably stunning, it was a shame not
to be able to explore at our own pace and our day mostly consisted of driving, stopping to take a few pictures, back in the Land Cruiser, drive some more, take some more pictures, back in the Land Cruiser etc.
The next day, before heading to Chile, we visited the ubiquitous tourist attractions of volcanic landscapes, geysers and thermal baths. The later being so busy and the air temperature so low, that we gave it a miss. We were then dropped at the Chilean border, where we boarded a bus to the nearest town, San Pedro de Atacama. The transition to arguably the most developed country in South America was immediately apparent, with gravel roads giving way to immaculate surfaces. Sadly this acted as a stark reminder that things were about to get a lot more expensive. San Pedro is a pleasant enough, but touristy, desert town. Here we experienced the pleasant sensation of being hot for the first time in many a week.
After only one night here we boarded a comfortable bus for the long journey, some 1000 miles south to Santiago. We found Santiago to be a refreshingly European feeling city, complete with elegant parks
and modern shopping malls. Although arriving on a Sunday, in common with all other South American cities on this day of the week, it felt a little like the Mary Celeste
From here we took a short bus journey to the coast and the busy port of Valparaiso. The city consists of a patchwork of colourful, ramshackle houses tumbling down the steep hillsides to the sea. Depending on your point of view, the city is either charmingly bohemian and characterful or tatty and covered in graffiti. We are of the former opinion and found it a great place to wander around.
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