To catch up on part 1 please click here
The evening before had been extremely cold, we slept at just under 16,000 ft in every piece of clothing we had with us and just about managed to stay warm. So it was with great relief that we saw the sun coming up on day 3. It’s not every day you get to sleep on top of the world on a vast tundra with a fair few flamingos toughing it out in a nearby pink lake so it was all worth it!
We set off in good spirits to tackle a series of beautiful lakes and do a bit of wildlife spotting. There are 5 huge lakes all in a long row as we headed north in the direction of the Salar de Uyuni. One thing that I’d been warned about was to expect to listen to Bolivian folk music on the stereo for 4 days straight. This is where our driver Alvaro was the best, we switched up between all of our iPods so we had the most eclectic road trip music ever and spent the day rocking to everything from 80s big hair rock to Florence and the Machine. So much fun as we sped along the dusty tracks.
The sun was out in full and as we arrived at the lakes the snowcapped mountains were reflected absolutely perfectly in the water below. Best of all, they were all full of chirping flamingos going about their business. I never expected to get within 6ft of a flamingo in the wild so it was a magical experience.
After spending most of the morning admiring the wildlife, Paul and Kate are huge wildlife buffs and we must have taken at least 1000 photos between us, we headed for a picnic with a view. We settled in to have lunch and admire the dazzling mountains when an adorable little critter arrived to take a look at what we were eating. The viscacha is from the chinchilla family but looks a bit like a rabbit with kangaroo feet and a monkey’s tail, he was bizarre and cute and made for a great lunch companion.
After lunch we stopped to check out a nearby active volcano which our driver/guide said he’d climbed. It was immense with steam venting very clearly from the top, every time we visited something else on the tour we had to pinch ourselves that it was actually happening. After driving across our first salt flat of the trip and Paul getting to pretend he was in a western movie we started to hit civilisation for the first time in days. Villages in the middle of the desert appeared and as the sun started to set on day 3 we arrived at one of the most memorable hostels I’ve stayed in.
A huge attraction of this tour is that there are a number of hostels made entirely from salt that the groups stay in on the last evening. We ended up in a gorgeous example of this construction where our beds, tables, chairs… everything is made from salt. It was such a fun experience and felt like a little bit of luxury after our days on the road.
The last day and it was going to be a good one! We were the final group to leave the hostel and for once this actually ended up being of benefit. The plan for day 4 was to head to the Isla Del Pescado, an island in the middle of the giant 10,582 sq. km Salar de Uyuni, to watch the sunrise over the salt. As we were so late we had to stop in the middle of the Salar and it was incredible to watch the sunrise by ourselves as the sky turned from blue to pink to burning orange.
It’s difficult to describe the Salar, imagine a landscape flatter than anything you’ve seen before. On the ground is a honeycomb network of salt crystals stretching off into every direction for as far as you can see. The area is absolutely silent unless you hear a jeep like your own racing off into the distance. It’s bizarre and lovely and a whole heap of fun.
We’d seen the comedy photos of the Salar and had come armed with a load of props. We spent 90 minutes running around like we were in a photo shoot with a deadline trying to get hilarious photos using the skewed perspective of the salt flats. We initially thought you would have to run way off into the distance to achieve the shots but it’s literally a few metres, crazy place.
After the fun of the salt flats we had one last stop in the town of Uyuni, the train graveyard. First thing to say about Uyuni is it’s an absolute dump with rubbish piled up everywhere, if you finish your tour here please don’t hang around. Our driver Alvaro said he always gets sad arriving back in Uyuni after spending days in the immaculate mountains. The train graveyard is exactly what it says on the tin, steam engines have been left there when they were no longer needed with some trains dating back to the 19th Century. It’s a cool place to take photos but I have to agree with Alvaro, after the previous days it was just a little bit sad.
The thing that struck me about this particular trip is the absolute pristine quality to the landscape. One thing that has seriously bothered me when we’ve been travelling is that some of the stunning places we’ve been to are gradually being destroyed by pollution and a ridiculous level of rubbish/litter. Bolivia is no exception to this so it was a wonderful surprise to find the national parks on the South West Circuit managed properly and preserved for everyone to enjoy. It really hit us when we arrived in Uyuni and realised once again what can happen to landscapes when humans are allowed to run rampage with rubbish.
It’s funny that everyone that does this trip (including us) will inevitably call it the salt flat tour, but what we didn’t expect is for the actual salt flats to be eclipsed entirely by the landscapes and experiences we had on other days. There is so much more to this area of Bolivia than just the salt flats and I’d urge anyone who has the opportunity to visit to grab it with both hands.
To check out Part 1 of this post please click here
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