A Travellerspoint blog

June 2008

A lot of salt, but where is the tequila?

Loving Bolivia, where lunacy still roams


View MAP OF THE JOURNEY on AnnaMickus's travel map.

We have just come back from one of our best trips ever. We have just done a 3 day journey from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia.

On Monday morning we jumped in a jeep with our driver, Carlos, and 4 new friends to become. We were in for some amazing 3 days. As soon as we left San Pedro, we started driving up, up, up and up. When we looked backwards from the car we could see the amazing landscapes that we had ascended.

We had climbed over 4000m when we reached the border crossing to Bolivia. When we stepped out from the car I could really feel it in my head that we were at such a high altitude, my head was spinning and confused somehow. While getting used to the altitude we had breakfast together with some foxes, which I must say was the first time I’ve done so.

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After breakfast we jumped back into the car and started driving. Our first stop was Laguna Verde, a green lake at an altitude of 4300m, which covers an area of 17 square meters. Its amazing green colour comes from arsenic and other minerals in the water that are stirred up by the wind. The colour was fascinating as we have never seen water like that. The volcano behind the lake, Volcán Licancabur, 5868m, made beautiful reflections in the green water.

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Our next stop was Laguna Polques, a lake that is surrounded by many hot springs. We jumped in our bathing suites and jumped into the water. It was wonderful.

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After hesitantly getting out from the lovely warm water we continued our journey to the Sol de Mañana geyser at an altitude of 5000m. The geyser was surrounded by pools of boiling mud and sulphur that had an ’interesting’ smell. The pools were surrounded by hot vapour and the mud kept flying up on the edges around. Wouldn’t have wanted to fall into one of those pools, could’ve been a bit hotter than the hot springs before...

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Our final stop for the day was Laguna Colorada set at an altitude of about 4300m. As the name suggests, it too, had a special colour. This time it was a strong pink colour. The colour is due to algae that live in the water. And because of the algae the lake has some interesting and beautiful inhabitants that like to eat the algae: flamingos. And lots of them. The lake was crawling with them, and it was such an amazing sight. We spent a long time walking around the lake watching the wonderful flamingos wading in the water and flying with their huge wings from shore to shore.

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Close to the Laguna Colorada there was a refuge where we would spend our first night. Just a few families lived at the refuge, which consisted of a few badly isolated stone houses. Yeehaa! We had been warned, though; the nights there get as cold as -20 degrees, so we were mentally prepared. As it happened, this night was the longest one this year, and as Bolivians take any excuse for making a party, this was no exception. So when the dark fell, they set up a fire outside our house and started drinking the local spirit, Singani, a white grape brandy. Of course the two of us wouldn’t miss an opportunity to party with the locals (as the rest of our group did), so we wrapped ourselves in blankets and spent half the night partying with them totally not caring about the fact that you shouldn’t drink alcohol or smoke the first few days at an altitude this high. Well, it didn’t seem to have affected us that much because after going to bed we had the same troubles everybody else had: insomnia and very hard to breathe. It felt like you couldn’t get any air although you were breathing heavily. It’s insane how the altitude can affect you that much.

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The building we slept in

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Some local kids had a small concert to us

So after a few minutes’ ”sleep” together with the warm water bottles we were perky and ready for a new day. Our first stop was an interesting place. In the middle of a huge area of just sand there were suddenly rocks of different sizes and shapes formed by the sand and the wind, the most interesting of which was the Arbol de Piedra that was a huge oddly shaped rock standing on a thin leg.

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The day continued with the awing of the only active volcano in Bolivia, Ollagüe, which was smoking away in the distance. After that we visited a bunch of other beautiful lagoons, one of which was filled with pink flamingos. We stopped for lunch at one of the lagoons. The people from the refuge where we had stayed the night before had prepared a delicious casserole for us. Rarely do you get to eat such a delicious lunch at such a fantastic location.

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The volcano

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Lunch at the lagoon

It seemed like the longest day of the year was celebrated more than just one night, because our next stop was a little town where the celebrations were still going strong. At the central plaza they had set up a party with a band and food- and drink stands, and people were dancing and drinking beer on the streets. It was a fantastic experience to see this little village letting loose from the hard daily life and let the beer and music lead the way.

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Unfortunately we didn’t have that much time to party in the village, because we needed to head for our next destination; a hotel made out of salt. Well I must say, this was the first time I have ever seen a hotel made out of salt, let alone slept in one. And it was not only the walls that were made of salt, but the beds, the tables, chairs; almost everything was made out of salt. How cool is that? Another cool thing about it was that the salt seemed to be a good isolator, because although there was no heating, it was considerably warmer than the night before. So after a nice three course meal and a few glasses of wine we fell into a deep sleep in our awesome salt beds.

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The dining room in the salt hotel

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Our room at the salt hotel

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The third day we were supposed to leave at 5.30 in the morning in order to get to the salt flat and watch the sunrise, but 5.30 came and went and the driver and the car was nowhere to be seen. Well obviously the midwinter celebrations had dragged out a bit late for our driver... As we were getting really nervous about not getting to the salt flat on time, one of the hotel staff women ran to the nearby village where our driver was spending the night and soon returned with Carlos who looked a bit worn out. It took what felt forever for him to prepare the car with all the luggage and gear for the day, and when we finally got going we thought we could almost see the sun peeking at the horizon.

Lucky as we were, we made it just in time. We got out of the car and found ourselves in the middle of a huge white flat. It was like being on an enormous lake of ice covered with hardened snow. In the distance you could see mountains and small islands. It was totally quiet. And then the sun started to rise in the horizon creating beautiful colours in the sky. It was an amazing moment. We all got crazy and started photographing this remarkable experience.

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The Uyuni salt lake is the biggest in the world. It used to be a huge lake, Lago Tacua, until 12 000 years ago when the water from the lake evaporated and only the salt that had been washed down from the mountains was left. At some parts the salt is as thick as 120m, but underneath the hard surface there is some wet salt blended with water. At places there are cracks in the salt and you can see the water underneath. One in our group managed to step in one of these holes and had to change shoes afterwards. During the wet season when it rains a lot some parts of the lake is covered with water, and during that time I guess it is easier to comprehend that it actually is a lake.

After watching the sunrise we jumped into the car and drove over the salt to an island, Isla de Pescado, or Inca Wasi (Inca house) as the locals call it in Quechua. The island is covered with cactuses of different sizes and shapes, some of them being hundreds of years old. The island used to be underneath the water, which we could surely tell from the ground that looked like dried corals at some points. We hiked up to the top from where we had a good view of the surrounding Salar and the mountains around it. Then we had breakfast out on the salt next to the island. I guess you don’t get a chance to do that many times in your lifetime.

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After breakfast we continued further out on the salt to an even more open space where you couldn’t almost see anything else than just white all around. We were the only ones there and it was remarkably quiet. We spent an eternity taking funny pictures and gawking at the amazing scenery. Then we had a picnic right there in the middle of the salt. Pretty cool, huh?

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Our last stop on the salt flat was another salt hotel, Hotel de Sal Playa Blanca. It doesn’t actually function as a hotel anymore, but inside there was a weird museum showing different kinds of strange sculptures made out of salt. The sad thing about this place was that just next to it there had been a terrible accident just a few months ago. We don’t understand how it was possible, but there, at the flat where there are no roads, just miles and miles of open space to drive on, two cars had had a head on collision. One of the cars had had a container of gasoline on the roof, so there had been a major explosion so that there was almost nothing left of the cars. Everybody died. Of course since no one survived nobody actually knows what happened, but there are theories that one of the drivers fell asleep or that they were competing who would flinch first and neither did. Who knows? And the amazing thing is that this is not the only time this has happened. Of some weird reason the cars manage to collide in the middle of nowhere where there is heaps of empty space all around.

Well, luckily we had a good driver and nothing happened to us. Although the driving was a bit shaky after the morning incident...

Our last stop for the day and the tour was a train graveyard. Just outside Uyuni there is a huge area where they have left old trains for display. It was pretty cool to walk around and check out old rusting steam locomotives and wagons that used to carry stuff from the old mines. Actually, come to think of it, this was a good place to end the journey, because our next destination will be the mining town, Potosí.

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Posted by AnnaMickus 14:55 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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