Bolivia – Springs, Steam, Sickness and Salt

From San Pedro in Chile we would be whisked over the border to Bolivia as part of our three-day tour of the Bolivian salt-flats.  

Day One

It was an early start and our first task was to go through the formalities at the rather informal Bolivian border crossing.

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Then we transferred from our Chilean minibus into our Bolivian 4×4. The driver welcomed us to Bolivia “Land of the Potato” (unless my Spanish comprehension was letting me down). We had already organised ourselves into a little group; Stefan and Rebecca from Germany, Willie and Annabel from New Zealand, and us representing the UK.

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Our first stops were a couple of lakes, full of minerals that give them distinctive colours. The unimaginatively titled Laguna Blanca (White Lake) is full of borax and Laguna Verde (Green Lake) is full of copper.

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Next we whizzed past Dali’s Desert, so-called because the rock formations here are in surreal, melted-candle-wax shapes. We only saw it from a distance though.

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We were in a rush because we wanted to get to the hot springs. At this altitude (4,500m+) it was hats, coats and gloves weather, especially early in the morning. But it was lovely in the hot water.

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The highest point of our trip (4,900m) was next as we went to see some geysers. They were pretty eggy-smelly, but very impressive.

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Final stop for the first day was the bright red Laguna Colorada. The colour comes from millions of algae in the water. Crabs eat the algae, and turn pink themselves, then flamingos eat the crabs and turn pink in turn. I assume that if I ate a lot of flamingo I would also turn pink!

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As we were busy taking dozens of flamingo photos, we turned around and saw a herd of llamas coming over the ridge towards us.

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Wow! The Laguna Colorada was the most spectacular in what had been a pretty full day of natural wonders. But now the sun had gone down the temperature was dropping rapidly as we were still at 4,600m. Our accommodation was nice but didn’t have much by way of insulation or heating, so it was chilly. We hired sleeping bags, which when added to three blankets, leggings, woolly socks, three t-shirts and a fleece, made us cosy enough.

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Day Two

Day two was off to a bad start as Mr Beet had become unwell over night. A dicky tummy, plus the effects of the altitude and the cold meant he was in a bad way. We dosed him up with all sorts of tablets and he spent most of the day in the car being chatted to by our driver Richard (who was having none of Mr Beet’s “not speaking Spanish” nonsense and was merrily having a one-sided conversation).

So Mr Beet missed out on the delights of day two, which began with more rock formations, including the impressively precarious Stone Tree.

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Lots more high-altitude frozen lakes, with plenty of flamingos feeding in the non-frozen sections.

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After lunch, Mr Beet had managed a banana and was feeling a bit better for our trip to a volcano and the old lava flows.

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Everyone else was scurrying over the lava rocks for photos, but Mr Beet was still a bit delicate so he just found himself a nice little spot for a rest.

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We also spotted a vizcacha, a bit like a hare but with a long tail.

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Finally we went to the “little salar” which looked pretty big to us, which was bisected by the Chile-Bolivia train line.

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One of the other 4X4s in our convoy had a mechanical problem here. We thought Richard was going to stop and help, but he just sped by leaving them eating our dust. Richard liked to get everywhere first. But this was good for us as it meant we arrived at our hotel first and got first dibs on the rooms – a double room for me and Mr Beet, which was appreciated as he was still sick and very cold. Our hotel was right on the edge of the big salt-flat. It was built entirely of salt, including chairs, tables and bed frame. Plus it was surrounded by great big cacti.

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After a dinner of what may or may not have been llama meat, we headed to bed. We already knew that we weren’t going to be getting up at 5.30am to watch the sunrise as some people were planning to.

Day Three

This was the big one – heading out onto the salt flat itself. At first there was a salt road and it was flooded on either side. The mountains in the distance are reflected, so they look unreal and you feel like you are in the middle of the sky with cloud underfoot.

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The salt here is in big crystals shaped like pyramids.

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We wanted to do a classic group jump shot, but it took a few attempts.

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We then drove out into the middle of the salar, where you get the perfect frosted salt hexagons and nothing else for miles around.

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This is where we played around with the “hilarious” perspective shots that everyone does in the salt-flats, but we didn’t have the imagination or the patience for anything very elaborate.

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We were getting better at the jumping shots though – cracked it first time!

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After we have exhausted ourselves with all the jumping, we go to another part of the salt-flat where they harvest the salt. This involves making lots of little piles, to be scooped onto the back of a van at a later date.

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That’s almost the end of the tour. All that’s left is to drive to Uyuni, which is not as much of a dive as everyone says and boasts its own “Train Graveyard” full of extremely rusty trains, which all the tourists clamber over like kids in a playground.

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More pictures of salt, lakes, flamingos, trains etc on Mr Beet’s flickr page.

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