There were three highlights to the trip I booked in South America; crossing the Bolivian salt flats, the Inca trail and visiting the Amazon rainforest. The day had finally arrived to cross over into Bolivia and the excitement of a 3 day, two night 4x4 crossing over the flats. It certainly lived up to expectation.
We hired a bus which would take us 20 minutes to the Chilean border so we could exit out. It then took 30 minutes of crossing no man´s land to reach the Bolivian border. Immediately the difference was noticeable. There was no sign of human inhabitance, but a vast landscape of coloured rock, mountains and sand. The road was just a path etched into brown small rocks but making a noticeable track across what the eye could see. We had three cars transporting the 15 of us, plus our tour guide and a cook and her small daughter. The 4x4s were capable of tackling the landscape and meant only minimal discomfort for us. The main problem was that the road created so much dust we could not open the windows and so the heat built up to some uncomfortable levels in the car!
The start of the tour took us through mountains swirled with red coloured rock. It was an immense sight. We were also able to see the volcano which highlighted the split between Chile and Bolivia.Then we saw the Laguna Verde or the Blue Lake. The colour was stunning, a gorgeous blue set off perfectly by the coloured mountains set behind. Truly beautiful. We then passed through a place called Salvador Rocks, named as such for their odd shape reminiscent of the Dali paintings. Then onto the Termas de Polques or hot springs. At 4200m above sea level, we started to notice the altitude height. Trying to ignore the impact we stripped off and went into the hot springs. Perfectly clear water at a beautiful temperature, with the most amazing sight to look out over. Imagine a swirl of turquoise blue, white, red and golden sand all mixing together to form the most perfect picture. It was pure bliss.
After a quick bite (and an interesting toilet, split into a part for pee and a part for poo) it was onto the highest part of our tour, the geysers. Unlike the plumes of San pedro, these were of bubbling mud and huge craters. It was certainly different and quite a contrast to the light blue lake and hot springs. Leaving this surreal landscape we carried on through vast rocky landscapes, completely unihabitated. Occassionally we saw the odd llama but basically it was just nature. In the distance a lake appeared with a bright red colour around the side. The red was an outstanding colour and again a contrast to the nature around. Bacteria is apparently the cause of it and certainly it was nature in it´s finest. It was near here we were to spend the night.
Our accomodation was apparently basic, but on arrival was a lot nicer than expected. Made of breeze blocks, it was being developed to be a nice place for tourists to visit. There was evidence of a shower being built and extra additions. Unfortunately the increase in altitude had affected people quite badly. Luckily for me the only symptoms was a bad headache. I tried to sleep it off but it did not make a massive difference. Others were extremly sick and had diarrohea. We ate a nice dinner consisting of soup and cold chips (a regularity in Bolivia) and llama main course. With the intensity of the headache I headed to bed early and tried to deal with being at high altitude. We were warned that at night the temperature could drop dramatically but luckily as the accomodation had improved they also provided more blankets to protect us from the cold air.
The next day I was feeling fine, unlike some of the group. We ploughed on to visit Laguna Colorada. On the way we passed a vast lagoon filled with flamingos. It was impossible to count how many. The pink and white of the birds offset the blue of the water and the reflection of the red and brown swirls of the mountain rock. It was a fabulous sight. The birds were in their natural habitat, either feeding, sleeping or just generally standing around. It really made me wish for a better camera, but as we all concluded, photography could not do justice to this place. This feeling continued onto Laguna Colorada where the mix of colours nature provided could not be replicated. Red water mixed into turquoise which met white. The stillness of the lagoon gave a perfect reflection of the moutains surrounding. Across the lake, flamingos interrupted the purity of the scenary. It was a sight hard to describe.
Carrying on, the landscape changed from the greyish rock we experienced yesterday to more of a brown colour. We stopped at Tree Rocks, where wind and rain had carved out fabulous shapes in the rocks. The rocks just seemed to loom out of the sand and seemed completely alien to the near landscape of soft sand. Again a contrast to what we had seen. The drive continued for the rest of the day in this amazing place. We stopped to see, hidden in the rocks, vizcachas - very similar to rabbits, they were quite shy and soon bounded away. Our last stop was to see Volcano Ollague, an active volcano and true enough we could see a puff of smoke to indicate it´s activity. We stopped at a village in the middle of the landscape but it was like a ghost town. Very few people were about and all you could see was the ever looming rocks.
Our nights stay was in a salt hotel- a hotel where literally everything is made of salt. The walls were salt, the bed salt, the floor salt and even the lighting. It was awesome. We had been advised to bring wine with us and in order to make sure we had enough we had bought 7 litres between five. This was split into a 2 litre bottle and a 5 litre bottle. We had tried to start on the 5 litre the night before but had stopped very soon due to altitude sickness. As most people were feeling better, we decided that the 5 litre at least needed to be finished. A big mistake. The drinking carried on for most of the night, but as we were to be up at 4 am to watch the sunrise, I decided to call it a night at 11.30pm. Probably my best decision ever. Those who carried on were extremely sick the next morning. Some others who had not drunk were too, so we are not sure whether it was a mixture of alcohol, altitude or food poisioning. Whatever, the reason a car stayed behind to transport the sick ones later to meet us at 9am.
Those who were feeling fine set off to see the sunrise over the salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni. This amazing place was created when the sea used to reach this part, before the land gradually sealed it off. As the water from the sea ran down to the flats, it evaporated to leave the vast salt flats. In some parts it was up to 8 metres deep of pure salt. The sunrise whilst not the most spectular certainly gave a feeling of pure white brilliance as far as the eye could see. As we carried on through it, hexagonal shapes appeared as the salt evaporated and cracked. Again this went on for miles. The landscape was also perfectly flat giving uninterrupted views. It was also perfect for creating optical illusions and we spent most of the morning playing around with different objects to photograph.
Finally we carried on the flats to the Isla de Los Pescadores- a coral island left in the middle of the flats. Completely made of dead coral, it is now a mass of catcus. You could climb up the island and have this spectular view of white to the never ending eye. It was totally surreal. The rest of our group caught us up, but unfortuantely more were struck down with altitude sickness. A car departed to take them straight to Uyuni and the rest of us continued to visit a salt factory.
With all the salt around it had to be used. In fact it is one of Bolivia´s biggest productions. It only exports to neigbouring countries however. The process was remarkably simple from dyring out the salt to grinding it, to adding things to assist in purity before bagging. Very simple but effective. Near to this factory was the town of Uyuni which ended our trip across the flats. But before this we visited a train cemetary. Old locomotives were left here to rust away in the deserted landscape. Stunning in design, it was a photographers dream but also a little bit eerie.
The trip overall was an outstanding experience. Over the three days the landscape constantly changed but without sight of man except of course the odd nomadic group. The colours and brilliance of what nature put together was hard to photograph and even harder to explain. It was an experience without parallel and one I will never forget. I thoroughly recommend it. A brilliant start to Boliva and to set the tone for things to come.