The western reaches of the Andes, on the border of Bolivia and Chile, is home to a number of large and sometimes active volcanoes. Many of these peaks exist in the rarefied air above 6000m and have molded the surrounding landscape in varied and often breathtaking ways. These peaks sit in the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna which was created to protect the migrational area of three types of flamingoes and many other species of wetland birds. Lagunas are dotted across the barren landscape, and display a splendid array of colours and textures, thanks to the abundance of minerals spewed up from the volcanic earth. From the startling white of the Laguna Blanca (here, as in many other places is an abundance of borax) , the mesmerising green of the Laguna Verde (thanks to a healthy does of arsenic!) and the deep red of the, you guessed it, Laguna Colorada. These mineral waters offer a feast for the eyes of the thousands of tourists who are drawn here each year. Rather conveniently (for the us as well as the tour operators) only a couple of hundred km to the north lies the Salar de Uyuni, the largest single deposit of salts, including lithium, in the word. Covering some 10,000 square km and reaching to depths of 30m, the Salar is a vast, blindingly white landscape and with little to offer in perspective, an erie and captivating place.
Perhaps then it’s easy to see why this area was on our ‘must do list’ from the very start. Naturally, we wanted to ‘do it right’ and so after hours of agonising research of where to start the tour and with which company to travel with (horror stories of drunk tour drivers and skipped over itineraries abound), we finally decided to start from the less popular town of Tupiza. This meant that we would begin with the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna and culminateon the 4th day with the Salar, the main drawcard for many people. It also meant a 4 day tour instead of the traditional 3 days from Uyuni, which allowed us to take in some little visited sights and to avoid the crowds of tour groups following the same path from Uyuni. Having settled on this, our next task was choosing a tour operator. There is much less choice in Tupiza but this has meant that the established companies are very serious about their reputations, which means only 6 people into each 4WD(hooray, window seats for all!) and a ban on drivers drinking while on tour. In the end we were tossing up between 2 companies and after negotiating we decided that a 100 BOB discount ($AUD 16) and the guarantee of other guests who were spanish/english bilingual was enough for us to choose Tupiza Tours.
As we hurled our rather large pack onto the roof of our Landcruiser we were introduced to our driver and guide Sebastian. A cursory inspection of the car showed that it was old (1994 we later found out) but obviously well cared for, with many ingenious tricks to keep it in one piece (a favourite being the Bolviano coins stuck to the windscreen to prevent a crack from widening, it seemed to have worked!). As the other guests arrived we were introduced to Fatima and Andres from Uruguay and Thomas from Germany. Happily strapped in we began our tour in the moon like landscapes of the surrounding hills, red dirt and cactus abounds here. As we climbed higher the cactus gave way to tufts of highland grasses and llamas. Our choice in Tupiza Tours was vindicated as we passed the other tour operator’s car with a wheel missing and bored looking tourists sitting around (not for the last time).
A quick lunch stop introduced us to our cook and fellow travellers in a separate car and the wonders of the ‘natural toilet’ that was to be our main ablution option for the next 4 days. We were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm from all directions for most of the afternoon and as the icy rain came down we were introduced to the special Bolivian optional features of the car, in that we could either have the windscreen wipers or power windows. Unfortunately as it really started to come down the windscreen wiper option was withdrawn and we were forced to crawl along blind. At this point we realised how lucky we were to have Sebastian as our driver. I suspect he could have driven the whole trip blind. Thankfully the storm subsided in time for us to explore the ruins of an old spanish mining town and to enjoy the evening light.
We awoke early and hastened out the door to the sound of the 4WD’s revving and shouts of ‘vamos, vamos, THOMAS!!’ from Sebastian. Today we were promised a bath, of sorts, in a naturally heated thermal pool, as well as many lagunas, llamas and even some boiling mud and sulfer pits. We had noticed the previous day that Sebastian was a very careful driver and were heartened by his dismay and tut tuts of ‘loco’ as other 4WDs zoomed passed us on the rough and often washed out roads. Other times however he took great joy in choosing the smoother or quicker path than other cars, often with a shout of ‘DAKAR!’ as we zoomed off-road to avoid some hazard ahead. We later learnt that Sebastian was to be a driver in the upcoming Dakar rally that will taking in northern Argentina, Chile and this area of Bolivia.
The day ended at the Laguna Colorada. A giant lake coloured deep red by algae and a favourite of the Flamingoes (giving them their resplendent pink hue). It was very exciting to get so close to these majestic birds. I’ve named them my power bird.
That evening was New Years Eve and the group was buoyed by a Tienda, a little shop offering beer and chocolates to celebrate. In our usual fashion, the two of us were in bed long before the new year was rung in, though the sounds of fireworks smuggled in by an exuberant Brazilian from another group let us know that 2014 had arrived.
We were woken much too early, given it was January 1st and the 4700m elevation had ensured for a frosty morning. By the time Sebastian had finished impressing upon us on how this was a long and tough day there was a soft snoring emanating from most seats. Awoken from our slumber once again, we woke to a Dali-esque landscape of rock formations cut from volcanic rock through years of sand storms and frigid winds. Much of the day was spent crossing this dessert landscape with short stops at a series of lagunas displaying more types of flamingos and minerals. As the day was drawing to a close we stopped at a strange petrified forrest full of sharp shapes, sometimes grotesque and sometimes rather llama like. It was the final stop, at our accommodation for the night, that we got the best surprise. The entire building from the walls, tables, chairs and beds were made out of salt. The bricks cut from the Salar itself. I made sure to lick a wall to check.
Barely having slept we were wrenched out of bed at 4am, the novelty of sleeping in a salt hotel had certainly worn off as we struggled to form words with our now desiccated tongues. We barely had time to rehydrate before being shooed into the 4WD once again with the promise of a sunrise and breakfast from the awesome vantage point of the Incahuasi island One of the 24 islands in the Salar, this island, 30km from the nearest edge, it is home to hundreds of giant cactus which cast a ghostly shadow over the rocky viewpoint from which we watch the sun crest.The spectacular oranges and pinks of the new morning light bounced across the vast white landscape and reflected in the hazy mountains in the distance.
Having enjoyed the beauty of the Salar from one its most flattering views we were allowed to indulge in the second most popular activity, the novelty photo. Thanks to a handy lack of perspective, one is able to craft amusing photos that belie reason. however these photos come at a cost, requiring the photographer the lie directly on the salt, ensuring a healthy layer of crust and a certain degree of absurdity for all involved.
As the tour drew to a close Sebastian had some finals tricks up his sleeve. We stopped at the first salt hotel on the Salar, this one is illegal as it was built on the national reserve with no safe way to dispose of waste. Nevertheless, it was being rebuilt for paying guests of the Dakar rally. It didn’t look like it would be finished in time for happy customers in 10 days time though we were assured that thus was just 'Latin timing'. The rather large hole in the toilet wall had us doubting this...
For our last glimpse of the Salar we were sent to the salt mines. Not as bad as it sounds! Here salt is collected by shovels into pyramids, about 1m high, and left to dry. After 2 weeks this can be collected onto a truck for export.
We saw almost nothing of Uyuni town except the Train Cemetery where old steam trains had been left to rust after the mining industry collapsed in the 1940’s. Behind it a new graveyard of thousands of plastic bags scattered across the dusty landscape gave us a final and sobering reminder of the knock on effects of tourism in these amazing environments.