Day Sixty Seven – Seventy (9th- 12th Nov) – Salt Flats, Lagoons & Volcanoes

14 11 2010

We started our 4 day tour with a very reasonable 9am pick up. Our driver, Angel, and cook, Sylvia, as we would later find out were very nice, and other than the stunning scenery, made the trip.

Starting from Tupiza, our first day was always going to be tough, almost completely comprising of a bone rattling 10.5 hour jeep ride through Bolivias back country. This was perfectly ok with us however, as the scenery was beyond words. Not many other places on the planet could possibly compare.

The quality of food and it’s ultimate evacuation were our two main concerns when travelling through Bolivia. However, Sylvia’s consistently good and plentiful food help immensely.

We made several short stops at places like Quebrada de Palala – a spectacular jagged rock formation, Sillar – great panoramic views and hundreds of old cactus’ and San Antonio, an 18th century gold mining town with a sad history.  At sunset we passed our first lagoon – laguna Morejon, a great taster for what would come over the following 3 days.

Finally, at the end of a long days driving on what no Western person would describe as a road, we made it to our first night’s accommodation. We knew the accommodation was going to be basic, with it being at almost 4500m and on the side of a mountain. Basic it was….our first experience of shared accommodation, no heating and no showers. Fortunately fatigue and 3 other bodies in the room meant we had a good night’s sleep.

As we were now in the national park our second day had even more the see, like Laguna Kolip, Salur de Chaivir, Polques hot springs and Laguna Verde at the foot of Licancabur volcano. Laguna Verde is a large salt water lagoon with an elevated content of magnesium, lead and calcium carbonate, giving it a brilliant emerald colour.

We also visited El Desierto de Dali which contained rock formations of petrified lava that if you squint a bit, look like a Salvador Dali painting. This busy day took us onto one of dozens of active volcanoes to see geysers, steaming gases and boiling mud.

We then made our way to Laguna Colorada at the foot of the Colorado and Negro mountains for our second night.

The less said about this accommodation the better…..I don’t think we have ever stayed anywhere so bad, and hope never to repeat it. However at 4300m, and at the foot of a volcano on the shore of a lagoon, there wasn’t much else.

It was another night with no heating, hot water or shower. Furthermore, this dump only provided power between 7pm and 9pm. So with a gale blowing outside, and minus 7 on the thermometer, we tried to bed down for the night. Needless to say, not a lot of sleeping was achieved. Instead, lots of shivering!

It is also hard to comprehend just how great a temperature variation there is from day to night. In the desert and salt flats, temperatures can range from +30C in the day to -45C at night (with wind chill).

Morning came very slowly and gave us the opportunity to see Laguna Colorado in the warm morning light. The lagoon receives its name from the reddish coloured waters which are caused by the presences of Plankton and microscopic flagellate algae (Dungliella Salina) which contain red colour pigment. The lagoon is also home to hundreds of lovely pink flamingos: the Andean, James and Chilean flamingo.

We travelled through Desierto de Siloli, the closest we would get to the Atacama desert, which is the driest place on the planet. In the desert we stopped at Arbol de Piedra, a rock formation of ignimbrite volcanic rock that again if you squint a bit, looks like a tree. We continued on to Lagunas Chlarkata, Hedionda and Canapa, all home to hundreds more flamingos.

Passing through San Juan we made our way to a salt hotel on the edge of the salt flats which was almost exclusively constructed of salt (bathroom and roof excluded). We liked to think of it as the ice hotel for the poor and those that hate the cold. This was actually a nice place to stay, and it had hot water, but another shared room!

What we went to see of Bolivia was incredible and we could probably go ahead and say one of the  top half dozen things we will see on our year away. Everything else was a borderline rubbish dump. Litter is visible everywhere, dogs roam the streets in packs, kids even urinate into the road from the pavement.

How anyone can spend any length of time in the towns we have seen is beyond us, however many backpackers do. It has been almost impossible to find soap and toilet paper in restaurant or bar toilets. Public toilets are like something from Trainspotting, if not just a hole in the ground.

It’s the universal lack of hygiene that has had us leave immediately after our tour. It makes you wonder where the Top Gear team stayed when they filmed in Bolivia!

Sleep was short and sweet, which was a nice way of saying we were up at 4.30am in order to get out on to the salt flats for a stunning sunrise. This Bolivian salt flat is the largest in the world, measuring 12,500km2. It was formerly a sea bed that was pushed up to over 3500m when the South American and Nazca plates collided to form the Andes. The salty sea water was trapped by the surrounding igneous volcanoes and mountains. Then slowly over the years the sea dried to form the largest salt flat in the world, and a really cool place to take photos that mess with perspective.

After another top class lunch in the middle of nowhere, it was time to make the long journey back to Tupiza.

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