Rolling through llamas, volcanoes and lagoons: a journey to the Uyuni Salt Flats

I am in Tupiza, in the middle of a big crowd of people, mainly pupils with their teachers holding posters claiming the sea back from Chile. The adults were holding a flag I have never seen before – the Naval Flag of Bolivia, symbolising the wish of this country to have access to the Ocean, which was taken from them in 1884, after the War of the Pacific. The slogan #MarParaBolivia can now be found everywhere in Bolivia, and the issue is gaining more and more attention in the region.

I am here to start a 4 days tour to the Uyuni Salt Flats with an agency called Tupiza Tours, recommended by the staff of Tilcara hostel. The excellent reviews, compared to the nightmarish task of choosing an agency in Uyuni, and the fact that starting the tour from Tupiza would mean going the opposite direction of all the crowds starting in Uyuni, made this choice a no-brainer.

Day 1 – After an early start in the morning, to collect the sleeping bags and put all the rucksacks on top of the Jeep, we will spend most of the first day in the car, driving through stunning landscapes which change so much along the way. We start with far west like of Tupiza, admiring the beautiful rock formations of the Sillar and stop for a break in a grazing land full of llamas with their babies. Llamas are domestic animals and used by the local people for meat and wool. For living at such high altitudes and in such remote villages, where nothing grows and no business can exist, the only source of income for locals are llamas – or spending the week to work in Tupiza, leaving your children at home, as we are sadly told by the kids themselves.

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El Sillar

In the afternoon we visit the ruins of San Antonio de Lipez, a former Spanish silver mining town, abandoned due to the hard life conditions, and the appearances of ghosts, after lots of miners lost their lives. Soon after, we arrive at the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa where our mountain shelter is. Here tea and biscuits are waiting for us to warm us up, before having a nicely cooked dinner. The night is freezing cold, thus I have to sleep both with my jumper and my jacket on, together with a few blankets and a sleeping bag. There is no heating system, no hot water, and no electricity because the generator burnt down. And we’re sleeping at almost 4500 metres above sea level, which certainly doesn’t help.

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San Antonio de Lipez

Day 2 – I wake up with a very strong nausea, most likely caused by the altitude, but luckily I have with me some Sorojchi pills which are the best solution to altitude sickness, along with coca leaves – make sure you always carry them with you when in Bolivia! The first three hours in the car I am just too sick to even look outside the window, but after the Sorojchi pill kicks in I finally feel better, and start enjoying the majestic views around me.

The National Park Eduardo Avaroa opened in 1973 to preserve the local fauna, characterised mainly by flamingos, vicuñas and Darwin’s rhea, commonly known as suris, ostrich like birds. The park borders with Chile and Argentina. We drive through the Dali Desert until we reach our first stop of the day, the Laguna Verde, the green lagoon, which owes its colour to arsenic. Because of this extremely toxic chemical there is no form of life in these waters. Just behind it, stands the breathtaking Volcano Licancabur (5950 metres high), the holy mountain of the Atacama people.

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Laguna Verde

The day continues with a lunch break at the nearby hot springs, after the quite suffered morning I couldn’t ask for anything better than a relaxing bath with such a mind-blowing view.

We then visit the Geysers Sol de mañana at 5000 metres of altitude, where there are these massive holes filled with boiling water. It is quite scary and dangerous to stand too close to them, and it’s no surprise hearing about a tourist slipping into one.

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Geysers Sol de Mañana

Our afternoon ends with a walk along the lakeside of the Laguna Colorada. This place is just magical, and to me really embodies the idea of paradise. Pink waters filled with flamingos, surrounded by snow-peaked mountains and green shores, and llamas munching on grass to complete the idyllic picture.

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Laguna Colorada

Day 3 – Another iced cold night has gone, and we start the morning by exploring the Siloli Desert, famous for its Arbol de Piedra, and other rock formations in this desolate, yet incredible, place.

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In the Siloli Desert

We then start visiting a series of lagoons (Laguna Honda, Laguna Hedionda), where snowy volcanos reflects like on a spotless mirror. What I was used to seeing only in pictures, I am now finally seeing with my own eyes.

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Later on, when crossing the Salar de Chiguana, a smaller and less purer salt flat compared to the Salar de Uyuni, where the railway to the Pacific Coast runs, we get a flat tire. The team of drivers deal with the problem so efficiently that it ends up being a nice chance to enjoy the views and have a laugh.

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Once this problem is solved, and we drive for a few more hours passing by fields of quinoa plantations, we finally reach the Uyuni Salt Flats and our salt hotel – hot shower I missed you so much!

Day 4 – It is still pitch black outside, and we are driving across the water which covers a big part of the Salar de Uyuni. The sun is starting to rise, and we are now approaching Isla Incahuasi, one of the many islands on the salt flats, famous for its countless cacti. The views from the top, admiring the start of a new day over what truly seems to be a sea, are simply overwhelming. The silence and the vastness of this place is surreal, while I am standing on the biggest lithium reserve in the world, thinking about how the exploitation of this richness could affect this beauty.

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Isla Incahuasi

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After having breakfast in this unusual, and surprisingly not so crowded place, we head to deepest parts of the salt desert, to take the typical silly pictures everyone knows about.

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The train cemetery just outside Uyuni is our last stop. Definitely nothing compared to what we have seen in these amazing four days. However, what’s most shocking to me is the ridiculous amount of trash in the surrounding area – ‘the flowers of Uyuni’, as our tour guide ironically renamed it. After having visited such wonderful places, this kind of view is pretty disturbing and really makes me think about our duty, as human beings, to protect our planet.

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“They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it!”

 

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