To cross from Chile to Bolivia we decided to take a three day 4WD jeep tour across the mountainous terrain of the high Andes up to the Salar de Uyuni, looping round to end in the Bolivian town of Uyuni.
We rocked up at 7:45am and were bussed (very slowly in an old minibus with 11 of us in it) to the border, where instantly the paved roads of Chile are replaced with bumpy dirt /gravel track. Our driver chirpily cried “welcome to Bolivia” with a laugh. The border sits high amongst the mountains with a shed as immigration office and a rusty abandoned bus which you go behind for a pee whilst the wild foxes look on. The process was quick as we filled in the hand-drawn table ourselves and after Emma exchanged some money with a policeman there and a quick outside brekkie we loaded the 1985 jeep that was to be our transport for the trip. We shared our banger jeep with Ben an Australian geologist and Soo and Yong two brothers from South Korea who proved to like our sense of humour and were great company and amazing martial artists.
Generally we were surprised how good the route was, we were expecting rougher terrain, which meant that the biggest challenges were the cold and the altitude – more on that below. The road wove its way through mountainous volcanic terrain with Vicunas against clear blue skies.
The first sight on the trip was Laguna Verde which is normally a vivid green due to the sulphur, arsenic and calcium carbonate deposits and even in winter temperatures below freezing the lake doesn´t freeze due to the high mineral content. Its colour was somewhat muted but set against a warm backdrop with the mountain breeze creating small waves it was an exciting introduction to the next few days.
Aguas Termales was the next stop where Soo and Yong decided to have a dip in the thermal pool set against another stunning landscape. We weren’t so enthused about the getting out part as the temperature was still very cold requiring two thermal layers a thick fleece and hats and gloves so we watched slightly bemused as a few others got out and our decision was endorsed.
Next was the geysers Sol de Manana. Even though you would think we were totally geothermalled out living in NZ we found these to be different to what we had seen before – still freezing cold we were able to see the thick black steam oozing from the furmaroles and the liquid was neither mud nor water. This geyser basin is at 4850m which puts us almost in the extreme altitude category and the air was thin, although Emma seemed to notice it much more than Marie.
What’s good in South America is that they let you wander wherever you like on these geothermal fields so you can get dangerously close and personal to them. Due to the freezing cold and thin air we weren’t inclined to walk that far and neither did anyone else but the jeep drivers basically drove around the small holes to within a few metres of the most dramatic holes so we didn’t need to walk that far anyway to get a good look.
After more boneshaking we arrived at Laguna Colorada around 3pm where we were fed an average meal involving Smash and then dumped our stuff in the 6 person dorms before heading out on a group adventure. There were two jeeps on our tour that went out together making our group a total of 10. We had a real mix – Ben, the Koreans, a Spanish couple a bit older than the rest of us, a French girl called Maud and another Aussie Carrie and her Brazilian fiancé Marcus and we were all doing slightly different trips for different lengths of time so that was interesting and everyone was really positive and excited about the trip so we were relieved not to get any moaners.
We all went for a walk at Laguna Colorado which at 4278m is a fiery red coloured lake covering 60sq km and is only 80cm deep. In contrast to the ice and salt around it there were many photo opportunities and a few flamingos. After the walk a few people got back and were quite ill from the altitude so went straight to bed whilst we drank hot chocolate and tea to warm up, had food and tucked up in our sleeping bags with 4 blankets over the top.
After a bad night’s sleep (Emma had a pounding headache all night so took Panadol as she refused to take the diamox we were carrying as she wasn’t sick enough). Yong had spent the night with a bad head and being sick, but was a great source of humour for the rest of us all the previous evening and into the day as we tried to keep his morale high.
The jeeps get a hammering from the constant vibration off the corrugated roads but even our retro 1985 jeep (that incidentally was the oldest we saw) fared well and the journey although bumpy and shaky was ok. But this morning we had significant jeep issues as ours just refused to start. The group opted to help push to see if we could get it going, then there was a tow from the other jeep (thank god we were in a convey of 2 vehicles otherwise we might still be stuck there), much faffing around and an hour and a half later the thing finally started. We got quite used to the bonnet being lifted and the spanner coming out at every photo stop – believing that this is more of a drivers hobby than a significant problem so were quite surprised to see that this time we really did have issues. Several of the group tried to offer help as our driver clearly didn’t know how to jump start a vehicle but the drivers said they were fine so we watched bemused and took photos.
Once we finally got going we visited four lagunas which are very close together. The feeling of being on the top of the world remained with the surreal landscapes and continued backdrop of volcanoes. We visited Laguna Chiarcota, Laguna Honda and Laguna Hediona – which is home to Andean flamingos. At 5,000m with icy lakes it was quite weird to see these beautiful pink birds mooching around, needless to say our photo crazy group were there for ages. We were also lucky in that everyone took in the sights at a relaxed pace, quietly and with awe meaning the birds didn’t scare and fly away. We had lunch around the corner at Laguna Canapa before heading to see the steaming active Volcan Ollague (5,865m high) – not as spectacular as we were expecting but another reminder of how live the earth is here along the Pacific Ring. That night we arrived in the dark to Hotel del Sal (Salt Hotel) in San Juan where there were hot showers and a terrible foursome of small boys trying to play the Sol de Mañana Geysers
panpipes and a drum for money – they were awful, but they were only about 6 years old.
The final day was really the aim of the trip – to see the Salar de Uyuni.
It’s the world’s largest salt flat (by a long lead) and sits at 3653m. Think blue sky and white expanse underfoot and that’s all for as far as the eye can see. Amazing. We were really excited and loved the dramatic landscape and the optical illusions it creates. We visited the Isla Incahuasi covered in cactus in the middle of the Salar which is weird and a short climb up to the top is like sticking your head in a plastic bag and trying to breathe. It was stunning against the white and gave a good elevated photo opportunity or two…three…four… While stopped at the Isla we all did the mandatory silly Salar photo thing as the UV light and expanse of white really allows you to play with perspective and composition. We then headed across the expanse further to the Salt Museum and some mounds of salt which are collected before being processed and then to the outskirts of Uyuni to Cementeno de Trennes (a train cemetery) which is actually a haunting and sad site for a traveller to experience.
With our bodies shaken and our minds blown we arrived in Uyuni where our well bonded group split – Ben was heading the same way as us so together we found somewhere to stay, got money, food, the usual routine and planned our next adventures in Bolivia.
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