Monday, 17 December 2012

Salt flats and the SW circuit

After a very stressful and basically terrible time in Bolivia  it was about time we had some fun, and the best way to do that was to vistit the world famous Salar de Uyuni (world´s largest salt flats).  The tour was far more than seeing the salt flats (that was only on the last day), the tour consisted of rainbow mountains, crystal lakes, geisers, hot springs and seeing unique wildlife native to the Andes. We took the 4-day tour starting in Tupiza and ending in Uyuni and it was a one of the most unque experiences anyone could have.

Enjoying the festive season

DAY 1: (14/12/12) 

We set off from Tupiza around 9am (meant to be 8.30am) in a 5 person jeep. There was only four of us plus our driver, Santo, who was pretty cool and had a tape ful of 80´s classics, fun start to the long drive ahead. The first hour we drove through the dramatic, vertical moon-like rock formations until we reach the mirador (look out point) on the sallar (saddle) of the nearby hills to see the Valley of the Moon.

Valley of the Moon near Tupìza
 The majority of the day was filled with a scenic drive through the mountians of all the colours of the rainbow, we saw some spectacualr scenery! Reds, blues, greens, yellows, deep purples and varying shades. Interdespirsed in all these colours were fields and fields of llamas!

Rolling green hills with brightly coloured exposed rocks.

At around 12.30pm we stopped to have a chilly lunch in a field with no possible spot for any of the girls to go to te toilet. Lunch was surprisingly good for food that had been packed into the back of the car. Our cook, from the other car, opened the boot and turned both jeeps into a kitchen and serving tables.
Harry and our friend Billy hungry from the drive

A few more hours of driving after lunch led us to the eerie town of San Pablo de Lipez. It looked completely abandoned and the church looked like the perfect setting for a murder....creepy! We arrived in San Antonio de Lipez around 5pm which was our stop for the night. The accomodation was basic but had an unbeatable view!
View from San Antonio de Lipez
 We had time to kill befor dinner so to stretch our legs Harry and I climbed up an adjacent hill that had a cross to get a view of the (extremely small) town. The clouds began to roll in so we hurried down the hill for some card games and dinner.

We went straight to bed after dinner at around 8.30pm as we had an early start the next day. The night was very cold. I slept in 3 layers, a wolly hat and gloves; it still wasn´t enough so Harry and I crambed ourselves into a single bed for extra warmth.

DAY 2: (15/12/12) 

We were abruptely woken at 5.10am, having slept through our alarms. We had a quick breakfast and left the town at 6am. We took a short drive to the abandoned town of San Antonio where we shivered whilst taking photos of the ruins and the weird alpine rabbit/chinchila mammal (Visachas) that appeared to have a squirrels tail. 

The highlight of the morning was when we encountered a llama farm. There were hundreds of llamas in a pen and each one had a funky coloured tassle attached to its ears. They were quite restless and there was definitely a risk of being spat on and after last time, I decided not to get too close. 

We drove through the national park of Quetena Chico and thankfully we didn´t have to pay the additional fee of B150. In the park we managed to spot a lone ostrich. Very interesting animals they had there. The next stop was to see the flamingos in a beautiful lake with near-perfect reflections; the flamingoes made the photos.

Flamingos chillin in the lake.
The lake may have been beauitiful but the surrounding shore was disgusting. It was white and spongly with a crust. We guessed it was made up of flamingo poo. Any pressure put on the land made you sink into a pile of dung! and it smelt awful too!

Revolting shore line surroundng the lake!
We had a fairly long drive to our lunch spot at the Agua Caliente (hot spring) so we took ashort break at the side of the road with a melted chocolate snack. We arrived at the hot spring around 12.15pm and had 45mins to relax in the perfect temperature water and marvel at the glorious scenery.

Harry enjoying the hot spring.

It was rather chilly getting out but we warmed up with lunch and then went to see the Laguna Verde (Green Lake), Via the Desierto de Dali, which was extremely windy but very picturesque. The last stop of the day was at the natural geisers that were spewing with seriously dangerous poisonous sulphur gases! It was incredible! The land was stained yellow and we could see the bubbling mud pools in the craters; what a noise they made!
Harry standing far too close to the toxic fumes

We finished the day at the town of Huaylljara around 5pm, where we spent the night in more basic accomodation. We again had more time to kill before dinner so we drove out to Laguna Colorada which was an impressive red lake with even more flamigos. Thankfully the next day was a later start so we stayed up later playing Uno and drinking red wine.

DAY 3: (16/12/12)

A 6am wake up, followed by a pancake breakfast, and we were off at 7.30am. Stop 1 was at Arbol de Piedra to visit the tree rock...a rock in the shape of a tree.

Arbol de Piedra (Tree Rock)
That stop was one of my favourites, it was full of perfectly climbable rock faces (all except the Tree Rock), basically an adults playground. After about an hour we had climbed most of the rocks and were ready to go but not before admiring the stunning landscape just behind us.

The climbing master!
The beautiful mountains just kept coming
Day 3 was mainly a tour to all the remaining lakes on the way to the salt flats (day 4). Our next stop was to my favourite lake on the tour, Laguna Honda. This lake had crystal clear water and a perfect reflection and the photo did not do it justice. We took a very short drive to the next lake, Laguna Charcota, another beatuiful lake with hundreds of flamingos that we were told were more "tranquilo" than the others.

The perfect Laguna Honda
We had a bit of engine trouble at this point but it was fixed within half an hour, then we drove off, passed two more lakes in the jeep and made it to another glorious lunch stop in the desert with more cool rocks and a backdrop of the smoking Volcano Ollague (apparently it only recently began active, good timing!). We had a great lunch but sadly we ran into all the other tour groups here and all the good spots in the shade were gone. It was pretty hot!

The smoking Volcan Ollague. Can you spot me?

After lunch we had another long drive along and part of the journey was along side the mountain range that borders Bolivia and Chile. We all got texts welcoming us to Chile. We were due to drive through a smaller salt flat (Salar de Chiguana) but there was too much water so we had to take an alternative route via the town San Juan (beer stop). We were all worried that we may not get a chance to go on the main salt flats the next day.

The final part of the drive was through, what I would call, catus country. Hundreds and hundreds of cacti all over the hills. Very cool, but no as cool as our hotel, Chuvica, which was made of salt! The walls, tables, chairs and beds. I even saw people licking the walls like it was Willy Wonka´s lickable wallpaper!

The dining area where all the tour groups met.

DAY 4: (17/12/12): Salar de Uyuni!

The final day was what we had all been waiting for, to take those ridiculously cool photos on the world´s largest salt flats. We woke up at 4.30am and left at 5am as to attempt to catch the sunset over the perfectly white horizon. Sadly it was too cloudy but we were just grateful it didn´t rain the night before!

We stopped at Isla de Incahuasi, an island in the middle of the 10km sq of salt (B30 entry). Hundreds more cacti on the island that had a well established route for us to explore the island for 30mins while breakfast was being prepared.

A brief explanation of the salt flats, they were once high altitude lakes in the Andean Plateau whos water evaporated and left behind vast (halite) salt deposits and other valuable minerals.

We had a large breakfast on the salt flats and the drove across the massive expansive surface, that stretched out as far as the eye could see, to find a good spot to take all our imaginative photos, though some were not so original.

We took photos for about 2 full hours. The guides were very patient and helped us take some group shots. At about 10.30am we drove to the official salt hotel on the flats what had some sculptures carved out of pure halite salt. From there we drove to the parimeter of the flats which was a bit lower than the centre so water had accumulated and we could easily make our our reflections.

We had lunch in a nearby town that had a wonderful craft market. We shopped for a while then ate around 12pm. The tour pretty much ended there but we still had a bit of time to go to Uyuni to see the train cemetary, which was surprisingly very cool.

Harry the train driver
We were back in Uyuni town for 2.30pm where everyone bought a ticket to their next destinations and we said goodbye to the group. Harry and I got a ride back to Tupiza with our driver. There was a high chance the roads could have been flooded had there been rain but thankfully luck was now on our side and we made it back by about 7pm.
It was a brilliant 4 days and we highly recommend it to anyone that visits Bolivia as there really is no other place like it. We have some information and advice below for anyone who is thinking of doing the tour.

For useful information on how to organise a tour of Salar de Uyuni, where to stay and how to get there,
click here

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