We had celebrated the arrival of the new millennium in the Bolivian capital of La Paz and we’d thoroughly enjoyed a few days here. However, it was time to move on and we’d decided to head down to the town of Uyuni in the south of Bolivia. The region around Uyuni was known for its salt flats – the largest in the world – with volcanoes, sulphur lakes and much more which was supposed to be quite beautiful.
The 4pm coach left La Paz’s central terminus and made its way through the chaotic city traffic, slowly up the side of the canyon until it reached the altiplano and headed south on the 16 hour journey to Uyuni. Like with all such bus rides, we’d prepared in advance with a supply of bread, nibbles, fruit, water and toilet paper to avoid having to find anything at the stops on route. The bus was mostly full of locals who joined or left at various stops and apart from each other and we passed the time chatting, reading and games of chess.
It stopped occasionally in the middle of nowhere where small restaurants intended only for the passengers charged high prices for goodness knows what food. Only when desperately required – the toilets were guarded by some poor guy whose job it was to charge a few sols for our chance to use a hole in the ground surrounded by misdirected shit.
The altiplano is the high Andean plateau at about 4,000m above sea level. Despite the hot sun and high temperature during the day, the nights would get very cold. We sat in pairs, Mum and Dad, Mark and Jono and me with Irinia who would fidget all night in the seat next to me as we struggled to keep warm, get comfortable and fall asleep.
4th January 2000: Uyuni, Bolivia (Day 167 overall)
After the long, cold night, the endless desert scrub that had served as our view since dawn finally ended as a few buildings began to appear and a short while later, the bus pulled into the dusty town of Uyuni.
A high wind was blowing with dust and bits of garbage flying everywhere. I noticed an elderly man slowly sweeping the street as if he thought that might make a difference. Irinia and I went off in search of a hotel and found a placed called ‘Arienda‘ which had been recommended by our LP [Lonely Planet]. Bs18 (~£1.80) was expensive for what it was but there was little else to choose from. I was feeling unwell with stomach cramps that had been bugging me since the food poisoning. They’d been getting worse lately and after breakfast in a local cafe, I was struggling to carry on. I went back to the hotel and collapsed into bed whilst the others took a walk around town looking for options for tours to the salt flats.
The others returned in the evening and I was pleased to hear they had chosen and booked a tour with AS Ltd. Mum had also found a chemist and purchased some pain killers for me which helped a bit and I was able join the others at local pizza place even though I couldn’t eat anything. Unfortunately, the place was terrible and after two hours of waiting and back and forth with the owner, only two small starters had arrived so we gave up and left. Coincidentally, we then bumped into Susan and her Kumaka crew (an over-lander tour group) who we’d first met in Quito and then a few other places along the way, so we joined them and the others were finally able to eat. It was no surprise to us that the Kumaka crew were also doing the salt flats tomorrow – we had been following a roughly similar route and pace since Quito. We felt slightly pleased with ourselves that we’d kept up with their private bus whilst doing everything via local transport and we guessed we might keep bumping into them all the way to Chile!
After the previous night’s sleepless bus journey and despite sleeping most of the day – I still retired the hotel bed feeling drained and exhausted! I hope I feel a bit better for tomorrow’s tour!
5th January 2000: South West Circuit Day 1, Bolivia (Day 168 overall)
Our vehicle for the next few days was a big red Toyota 4×4 which we packed into and our journey begun. We’d read in the LP about a walk from Uyuni that it recommended and our jeep seemed to follow it quite closely. I was pleased we weren’t on foot since it would have been the longest most boring walk I could have imagined! We travelled for nearly an hour over flat, sandy wasteland with only far off misty hills to break the monotony until finally, to our far right the bright, unending whiteness of the salt flat appeared in the distance.
Up ahead was Chuyumi where the ‘walk’ (which we drove) ended and we parked up to visit some traditional salt processing works. Flat-bed trucks were dotted around being loaded with salt and a couple of houses built of salt bricks contained tools and souvenirs. Nearby pools of saline water caused a weird, drying sensation on our skins when we dipped our hands in but we didn’t stop long here and jumped back in the jeep to drive onto the salt flats.
At first, near the edge of the flats, the ground was a muddy brown mush but after a few hundred meters, it hardened into a continuous bright white surface. The dried-out salt had crystallised into large hexagon or pentagonal shapes combined like a huge white jig-saw stretching as far as the horizon. We drove for many miles across the flats eventually arriving at a small building which was a hotel made entirely of salt where we enjoyed a cup of coffee.
Everything was made from salt bricks and it was odd to sit on salt chairs at a salt table that even had salt ash-trays on top! Several miles further on we stopped again where a small rocky island was raised above the surface of the salt plane. It was called ‘Isla del Pescada’ but instead of any fish – there were hundreds of giant cacti growing all over the island in the middle of the salt sea. We climbed to the top and the views were incredible. On the horizon, snow-capped volcanoes dominated the smaller hills and yet between us and them was the vast expanse of whiteness.
As we drove south, the hard surface began to get slushy again from excess water but we made it through and back to dry land. Here the road was no more than tyre tracks over a plain of loose stones and boulders. The terrain remained like this for several hours and we stopped only once when a nearby field of lava rock with deep gullies provided a great opportunity for a game of hide and seek!
The landscape was generally barren and harsh yet there were many llamas grazing on the few hardy grasses that remained on a odd patches of land which had been cultivated. Apart from the grasses, we never saw anything growing that looked as though it might be of benefit to humans but every now and then, a tiny stone hut appeared to suggest some people did live here.
That night, we stopped in a tiny village called San Juan which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but our rooms were much better than we expected. After a short explore around the village and a very tasty dinner, we played cards until tiredness overcame us all. An amazing first day on the circuit!
6th January 2000: South West Circuit Day 2, Bolivia (Day 167 overall)
After a surprisingly good continental style breakfast, we were quickly back on the ‘road’ and heading further south. It is difficult to get to grips with the sheer size of the emptiness around here. However, there is a certain magnificence to its scale and the beauty of the landscape.
The long morning drive took us all the way through to lunch when we stopped at the first proper sign of water that we’d seen for several days – a small lake covered in a variety of flamingos and other wild fowl. The birds were roaming the shallow shores of the mineral rich lake the turquoise colour of which was stark contrast to the white salty edges. Irinia couldn’t resist a little mud wade herself which resulted in marge mud clots covering her feet! A couple of similar lakes were nearby but there were no more flamingos at those.
The next section of the journey was again very long and took as over many coloured plains – white, peppery, red and sandy. We stropped off at another dried remains of lava flow where strange long tailed rabbit like creatures hopping around (again we wondered what they could eat out here).
The dust trail from the jeep hung in the air as we sped on and we slowly climbed higher into low hills. The hills became more numerous to create pretty valleys and then finally we arrived at tonight’s destination – Laguna Colorada. This large lake was filled with colour – salty white strips and patches of burgundy red filled most of the lake but in small pockets were bright greens, blues, purples and tints of black and grey. Around the shore, hundreds of flamingos waded and on the far side – a volcano in the perfect triangular shape as if from a child’s drawing, silhouetted with the setting sun.
Our accommodation was basic and we had to share one room between six of us. Before the sun set completely, we went for a walk to find more photo opportunities and to stretch our legs after having been cooped in the jeep for many hours. From a rocky hillock about 50m above the lake, the whole lake was visible with all its rich colours and abundant wildlife. We took many photos even though we knew they wouldn’t do justice to the beautiful scene. The onset of darkness brought a bitterly cold wind so we turned back for supper which was a brothy soup which was tasty enough. How could we be so tired after sitting in a car all day – but somehow we were and by 9:30, the lights were off and we’d all fallen asleep.
7th January 2000: South West Circuit Day 3, Bolivia (Day 168 overall)
There is apparently a ‘right time’ to see the geysers and Laguna Verde so we awoke at 4am, skipped breakfast and were quickly on the move in the 4×4. It took a couple of hours over mostly scrub terrain before a dropped down into a small valley. All about us were steaming vents and pools of boiling mud. There were several sheer sided pits which looked like the very ground in these places had been sucked down to some chasm below. Walking around was quite scary since I couldn’t help wonder when the next bit of the ground might give way and I’d find myself in some underground pit of molten lava!
Powerful flumes of stream erupted from some geyser vents straight up and high into the air, while other geysers would just gently puff as if someone was doing some cooking. Mud pools bubbled away and flicked boiling mud – much onto the sloped edges of these pools to then start oozing its way back. A sulphurous smell lingered and the early morning sun created shafts of light through the steam which heightened the whole mysteriousness of the place. The area of geysers and mud pools continued down to the edge of a lake where there were a number of flamingos wading further out. Hot streams bubbled up through the ground creating pools of water that were deep enough to sit in. There were several people already down to their swimming clothes and bathing in these small pools and with the thought of all the people before them who would have done the same, I felt no desire to join them! This didn’t put off Irinia, Mark and Jono who stripped and duly jumped in!
Breakfast was served from the back of the jeep whilst we were relaxing by the hot springs before we got back on the road and headed south to the famous (as famous as green lakes in the south of Bolivia go) Laguna Verde. By now, we were in the far south western corner of Bolivia with Chile only a couple of klicks away. This was considered the bottom of the loop called the ‘south west circuit’ and from onwards, we would be heading north again.
Laguna Verde was a large dark coloured lake with a large cone shaped volcano just behind. The waters were perfectly still creating a perfect and wonderful reflection of the volcano. We waited there on top the hill leading down to the lake shore for a long time by which a few other trucks, who were also on the circuit, had moved on. But it was then that the real magic happened. At about 11am each morning, the wind picks up which stirs the lake creating small ripples which in turn reflect the sunlight with a brilliant turquoise glow! At first, it was just a faint glimmer on the other side but over the course of half an hour, the light spread to cover the entire lake until it was one big surface glowing greeny turquoise!
It was time to turn back and for many hours we drove through what seemed like dessert sand. We stopped once at some interesting shaped rocks in the dessert – sand blasted over the centuries into weird mushroom shapes. However, for the most part, this part of the drive was completely desolate.
Our sleeping camp that night was in the hostel of Alota which was very basic but it provided a bed which was really all we wanted – and even had a cute puppy to play with and tease!
8th January 2000: South West Circuit Day 4, Bolivia (Day 167 overall)
There was no rush today, so we didn’t leave until late. The drive was bumpy, and the scenery desolate to the extreme. Small bushes provided the only distraction as far as the eye could see but even this was beautiful in its own way. The weather was very changeable with lovely sunshine turning to large hailstones; to heavy rain with thunder and lightning and then back to sun. During the storms, with the large jeep being the only thing in the desert around us and definitely the highest point – we wondered if that made us more likely to be struck by the lightning that was all around us!
During a sunny spell, a sudden smell of burning rubber filled the jeep and we stopped to investigate. We let the jeep cool off, but we couldn’t find anything obviously wrong and after a few more miles, the smell subsided.
After we’d been driving for five hours and having seen nothing but the bushy scrub-land, we arrived at a small gorge that cut into the desert floor. At the bottom, a man and his wife were shepherding a few llamas who were grazing beside a small stream trickling through. The couple looked as though they were growing some crops in a small flattened area next to the stream and we wondered if they lived here in the middle of the desert. We stopped and ate some lunch and stretched our legs beside the stream before jumping back in the jeep, drove through the stream and back onto the flat, desert scrub.
The next four hours were as bleak and empty as before the drive before stream but then we came across a much larger river. It was about 50 yards wide and quite fast flowing with reddy-brown water the colour of the land either side. Stopping on the nearside, Rodolpho our driver opened up the engine compartment and proceeded to ‘water-proof’ it by tucking rubber floor-mats down the sides and even stuffing his trousers into one of the holes. With us all on board, he drove the jeep forward and plunged into the river which came up the sides of the vehicle and started pouring into where we were sitting. Rodolpho was able to keep the engine running just long enough to get us up the bank on the far side before it cut out completely and we had to wait for it to drain and dry out. Over the next hour, we watched a couple of other jeeps cross the river with similar difficulties to us. A Bolivian man on a motorcycle and separately a cyclist turned up but just stopped by the edge without trying to cross – I thought perhaps this was just flood water from the heavy rains and they were waiting for it to subside.
Finally, back on track, we carried on and stopped at a couple of remote villages for a quick look around but there was nothing except a few little pigs. Just outside Uyuni, we arrived at a train graveyard which was interesting as it was a mix of very old steam trains as well as some more recent ones all piled up and left to rust. We explored and clambered around pleased to be out of the vehicle again before the final short hop back again to the Amerida hotel in Uyuni.
After a long shower to wash off the thick layer of sand from the drive, we headed out for pizza. We tried to avoid going back to the slow place again but everywhere else was full so resigned ourselves – but for whatever reason, the service this time was much better and we enjoyed a great meal! That was until Dad suddenly felt very unwell and Mum had to take him back to the hotel as he was suffering from dizziness and nausea. They returned a little while later feeling a bit better but we didn’t last much longer – after four days of hard travelling, we were knackered and headed off to bed. Another Saturday night in which we were in bed and fast asleep by 9pm!