[Bolivia] 23 Days in South America II: Salar de Uyuni

 Day 2: Laguna Colorada -> Siloli Desert -> Laguna Hedionda -> Salar de Chiguana
The sun had barely risen as we departed the village to a nearby mirador overlooking Laguna Colorada. The familiar flamingos were now joined by llamas grazing on the edge of the lake. The lagoons are mostly surrounded by tufts of the straw-like Jarava ichu, the rare plant capable of withstanding the utter lack of precipitation. Ichu, as it is more commonly known, is mostly used as livestock feed for the villages dotted around the austere Altiplano.

Another fascinating type of vegetation is the yareta, which, from afar, looks like nothing more than a moss-covered rock. In fact, they are a type of flowering plant with very dense leaves, thus resembling a compact mat of moss. Growing extremely slowly at around 1cm a year, some yareta plants are thought to be over thousands of years old. Being dry and dense, yareta was traditionally harvested as fuel, but its slow growth makes this practice extremely unsustainable.

From there, we sped back into the Siloli Desert, famed for the surrounding rainbow-tinted mountains and bizarre collection of rock formations. Climbing some of the more stable rock formations proved to be exhausting due not to our collective lack of fitness, but to the breathlessness that accompanies the extreme altitudes. Particularly striking among these is the Ãrbol de Piedra, or tree of stone, with a broad and blistered upper section balancing precariously on its narrow trunk. The shape, in particular the thin stem, is due to wind erosion and abrasion from sand carried by the strong winds. Indeed, in the vast expanse of the Altiplano, there is little to obstruct sweeping winds.

Speeding along, we next visited a string of lagoons along the Bolivia-Chile border, including Laguna Honda, Laguna Cañapa, and most notably, Laguna Hedionda. These lagoons all sit in the shadow of the majestic Ollagüe Volcano. The pungently sulphuric Laguna Hedionda is populated by tens if not hundreds of flamingos. These extravagant birds become stuck in the lake as it freezes overnight while they sleep; they are only freed as the desert sun warmed the air. Occasionally, the flocks would take flight, the sound of flapping wings temporarily distracting from the howling desert winds.

Of the six flamingo species in the world, three (the Chilean, Andean and James’s Flamingos) are endemic to the Altiplano and can be found in large numbers around the lakes and lagoons of the reserve. They have adapted to the extreme conditions in the region, feeding primarily on algae which thrive in these lakes. Sadly, their habitats are constantly under threat from human activity. Flamingos and their breeding habits are exquisitely sensitive to the environment. Subtle changes due to mining, as well as more imminent threats such as egg harvesting and unregulated tourism, have detrimentally affected their population.

Having been deceived by a sign promising Wi-Fi (which, as it turns out, is only available for guests of a hotel), we veered away from the Bolivia-Chile border, reaching Salar de Chiguana. A salt flat in its own right, Salar de Chiguana borders the much larger and more impressive Salar de Uyuni. A lone railway cuts through the salt flat and is used for transporting mined salt from Uyuni to the Chilean border. Regardless of the impracticalities of having a lone railway on which only one carriage transports salt at any time, the elevated railway still makes for a unique photo opportunity. We did have to hurriedly leave the tracks as an angry train carriage driver sped past!

A brief detour brought us to Gruta de las Galaxias, a prehistoric cave formed of fossilised algae. It boggles the mind to think that a cave which is today 3500m above sea level once resided at the bottom of the ocean. We also visited a nearby pre-Incan grave, dug from the bedrock of a natural cave. Sadly, colonial graverobbers had removed all of the treasure and mummified bodies from these graves.

As dusk drew near, we ended the day by travelling to a salt hotel constructed entirely out of large bricks of compacted salt. The hotel was thankfully warmer and more comfortable than our previous night’s accommodation. Imagine our joy when we found out that warm water showers were available!

Day 3: Salar de Uyuni, Incahuasi Island -> Uyuni
The final day of our tour started as we sleepily boarded our 4×4s in the dark at 5 a.m. The sandy gravel of the desert gradually transformed into crystalline salt, crunching underneath our tyres as the jeeps relentlessly rolled along. We had finally bid farewell to the Altiplano desert, entering the immense Salar de Uyuni. While we departed the hostel with several other tour groups, the noises from other engines soon grew distant as our jeeps parted ways.

After finding an unobstructed view of the horizon, our vehicles came to a halt. We braved the cold to watch the spectacular vermillion sunrise over the salt flats, witnessing the blush spread like wildfire across the horizon.

Soaking in the serenity of the sunrise, we advanced to the nearby Incahuasi Island, the remnants of a prehistoric submerged volcano in the centre of the Salar. The island is also a centre of religious significance, especially during the summer solstice, when massive festivities on the island attract surrounding locals. During these festivities, various tributes and sacrifices are made to Pachamama (Mother Earth), seeking her blessing.

Strikingly, the island is populated by massive cacti; in turn, dried cacti are used to build structures on the island, given that the surroundings are completely devoid of any usable vegetation. We climbed Incahausi Island as the sun rose over the Salar, accompanied by the resident dog Luna, who apparently ascends to the summit with the first tourist and descends with the last. The summit provides spectacular views of surrounding volcanoes and the vast Salar, marked by jeep tracks radiating outwards from the island.

By the time we descended the island, bidding our farewell to Luna, morning had well and truly broken. The overcast evaporated to reveal an azure sky and the brilliant sun. The brightness of the Salar, reflecting the unrelenting desert sun, turns out to be just as striking as the blinding effect of snow. We ventured even deeper into the lifeless Salar.

The Salar is stunning. Nothing quite prepares you for the interminable whiteness stretching to the horizon. Salar de Uyuni is the biggest salt flat in the world and is covered by a few metres of salt crust most of the year. Also impressively flat, the salt flat’s altitude varies by no more than a metre over its entirety. The lack of any drainage outlets meant that the salt remained after evaporation of the large prehistoric lagoon, forming satisfyingly regular hexagonal honeycombs. With no visible point of reference, cruising along the Salar was disorienting and almost hallucinogenic; in fact, it is so big that certain landmarks would not be visible because they would be below the curvature of the Earth! In a region where even GPS does not function properly, it was a minor miracle that our drivers had an intuitive sense of our direction of travel.

The salt flats become even more incredible when it rains. Several centimetres of rain suffice to transform the salt flats into the world’s largest mirror, with its near-perfect flatness giving rise to incredible reflections of the surrounding mountains. We were unlucky to travel through the Salar during the dry season, preventing us from observing the famed mirror effect. Nonetheless, the flatness and lack of background allowed us to take forced perspective photos. Even the drivers joined in with the fun!

After a gruelling brainstorm session of photo ideas, and what felt like hours setting up for the photos, we were again on our way. For our victory stretch, we even rode on top of the jeeps! Moving further from the barren interior of the Salar, the bleak whiteness of the salt flats is gradually terraformed back into the familiar desert vegetation. On the edge of the Salar, we stopped for our farewell lunch and a brief shopping detour in a street market.

Finally reaching paved roads, we journeyed towards Uyuni, a small and frankly unclean town bordering the Salar. The amount of rubbish we saw on the streets was in stark contrast to the untainted purity of the Salar and the surrounding lagoons. We finally finished our tour with a visit to the Cemeterio de Trenes (cemetery of trains), an area with numerous rusted locomotives, together forming a steampunk dream. These trains were once used by mining companies but were abandoned as minerals in the area were depleted. Returning to Uyuni, we bid farewell to our guides, and left for La Paz the same afternoon.

The Bolivian Altiplano is home to some of the most incredible natural attractions on the planet, and we were sad to leave the amazing scenery behind. Unencumbered by worldly troubles and devoid of tourist encounters, the high plains afford the rare chance to truly immerse in the natural backdrop. Departing Uyuni, we are about to swap natural beauty for the hustle and bustle awaiting us in La Paz.

Accommodation: included in the price of the tour. Hostel-like, with very basic toilet and sleeping facilities. The first night was particularly cold, and the discomfort was augmented by the effects of altitude sickness. Sleeping bags were definitely necessary during the night. For extra money, a more luxurious hotel option is available.
Food: also included in the price of the tour and provided by the cook who travelled with us. Simple and far from luxurious, the food provided was nonetheless hearty and well-balanced. For instance, meals included spaghetti bolognese with vegetable soup or schnitzel with mixed salad. In addition to the ample food provided for each meal, we were also provided tea and coffee prior to dinner.
Tour Price: Tours cost approximately 1800 Bolivianos / 200 GBP / 2000 HKD per person. Tour agencies normally charge extra for an English-speaking guide, as well as add-ons such as sleeping bags and oxygen. Warm clothing, hiking boots, sun protection, extra water, and a flashlight are required. For our particular tour, a deposit was required upon booking; the rest of the payment was done at the end of the tour. While tipping is not strictly required, we felt it was appropriate to tip 10% of the tour fee, to be split between the drivers, cook, and tour guide.

General tips

– The main advantage of beginning a tour in Hito Cajon is that this itinerary ends at the Salar on the final morning with a sunrise over the salt flats. Tours are also possible from Tupiza (near the Argentinian border) or Uyuni.
– We recommend booking the Salar tour in advance. Before booking, ensure that the tour agency is reputable by doing ample research online, and that the agency replies with confirmation of receiving the deposit. Additionally, insist on details such as starting time and place. While cheaper last-minute tour options from San Pedro are available, it is hard to determine the quality of such tours.

– If you are keen to visit the Salar during the rainy season to see the famous mirror effect, February or March would be your best bet, though there is no guarantee of rain. Be aware that during the wet season, some regions of the Salar are inaccessible and the chances of your jeep breaking down are also higher.
– There are several potential destinations following the Salar tour. These include Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia, noted for swathes of chalk-white colonial buildings; Potosí, a relic of Bolivia’s silver-mining past, where tours to cooperative mines can be arranged; and La Paz, the sprawling capital of Bolivia.

Click here for the next part of our itinerary in La Paz.

This post is contributed by Terence and edited by LonKonger.
Photo Credits: Yinnie Tong, Catherine Yuen, and Keith Chan




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