Michelle Sole, a former safari guide for Marataba Safari Lodge, is spending a year traveling the world and sharing her experiences with us. Today we’re making our way to Uyuni through the salt flats of Bolivia. To read more of her travels, click here.
Say the word ‘Bolivia’ and my mind immediately conjures up images of pristine salt flats and sparkling lagoons full of pink flamingos. A recent three day tour with Ker & Downey, starting at the Hito Cajon Bolivian border and finishing in Uyuni was far beyond any expectations I had. The varied landscape in this area completely took my breath away.
Our first stop was Laguna Blanca (White Lagoon). During the winter months this lagoon is frozen but this doesn’t stop a variety of birds from milling around it’s outskirts. As a wildlife enthusiast, I was excited to add several birds to my life list.
Next up was Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon). The impressive color of this lagoon is made all the more dramatic by the presence of the Lincancabur volcano which towers over it. A mixture of arsenic and minerals causes this unique coloration. Birds and animals avoid this lagoon due to the toxic water.
The Polques hot springs were next on the list. It’s a bizarre sight, a small pool of naturally warm water (30-40 degrees Celsius) at the edge of a large lagoon. Those not put off by the sub zero air temperature can sit in this warm pool and look out over the lagoon and desert.
At 4900 meters Geysers de Sol de Mañana are a spectacular sight. Here your senses are alive. You can hear the bubbling mud. You stand on the scorched red earth and plumes of thick white steam rise from the ground filling the air with the smell of sulphur.
We stopped for lunch in a quaint village called Huayllajara. Our guide and driver prepared a delicious hot lunch, followed by a cup of coco tea, which we enjoyed together inside the shelter of a hostel.
The highlight of my first day was Laguna Colorada. Thanks to the ever persistent wind during our stay, the water and algae within the lagoon were churned with oxygen in the air causing it to turn bright red. This fantastic sight coupled with the presence of hundreds of bright pink flamingos flying in flocks, was akin to something from a David Attenborough documentary.
The rugged landscape never ceases to amaze. Late in the afternoon we turned a corner and the desert was suddenly gone! A green valley with a river of fresh water welcomed us. We followed the river and arrived in Villa Mar. Our first evening’s accommodation was Hotel Jardines de Mallku Cueva, a charming hotel built into a giant rock. During dinner some of the local children joined us to perform a few traditional songs; the perfect end to a brilliant day.
We were collected at our hotel at 7.30. Our early departure meant we beat the other jeeps and had the spectacular scenery to ourselves. Jose, our driver, had a wicked sense of humor and took us to some ‘surpresa’ (surprise) spots that he had discovered during his 15 years of experience in the area. He giggled as he showed us different rock formations shaped like animals.
We stopped the car regularly for the wildlife we encountered. Llamas and vicunas scattered the horizon and the bird life was plentiful. Jose had a good eye for wildlife and photographic spots and Jhanira, our guide, knew the names of all of the birds. Having been a guide myself for over five years I am very critical of other guides. Jhanira’s knowledge of the wildlife and the geology of the area was second to none. We even learnt the traditional uses for several plants.
We arrived at Hedionda Lagoon. Despite being high in sulphur, there were flamingos feeding and a herd of llama that came to drink. We later stopped for a warm lunch in Alota, a village reliant on tourism and the local silver mine. We looked around San Cristobal, a small town in turn dependent on the silver mine. Enroute to Uyuni we visited the famous ‘train cemetery’ and then headed into town where we were shown around the local market with numerous dried fruits and vegetables.
Our accommodation for the night was the exquisite Palacio de Sal, the world’s first hotel made entirely from salt! The walls of our suite glistened and sparkled. The base of my bed was a giant block of salt and the delicious piece of salted chocolate on my pillow was the icing on the cake!
The day began with a tour of a small local salt factory in nearby Colchani. From here we went to the Eyes of Uyuni where salt water bubbles up from the ground.
Unlike other salt flats I have visited, from Uyuni Salt flat you can see a number of small elevated islands and a volcano. We climbed to the top of Incahuasi island, a place where the Inca’s used to take refuge whilst traversing the salt flat. The island is full of coral and large cacti. It’s difficult to imagine a harsher existence. When we returned, Jose and our private chef for the day had been busy and cooked up a storm for our lunch! What a treat to eat a hot meal in the middle of one of the world’s most famous salt flats!
Our last visit was to a small village called Chantani at the base of Tunupa Volcano. Here the residents are fighting to keep their traditions alive. The houses are built of stone and the locals work hard. We visited a small museum here and walked around a garden full of animal shaped rocks known as the Rock Zoo. In the garden our guide showed us a cave like shelter that had several human skeletons that apparently date back to the time of the Incas. Due to the dry environment the remains were very intact and the clothing was still visible on some of them.
We finished off the day by watching the sun set over the salt, each crystal of salt shimmering in the dying light.
A three day Uyuni tour offers a different perspective to our world. It is an enchanting place where snow capped volcanoes meet red desserts. Flamingos gather around vibrantly colored lagoons and the sun sets over seemingly never ending pristine salt flats. Photographs do not do any of these places justice, it is something you have to see with your own eyes. Ker & Downey succeed here in providing a unique travel experience. There is a lot to be said for having a private vehicle on this tour,enabling freedom to stop and spend time in places of your choosing. With an accomplished guide you learn more about the wildlife, your surroundings and the history of this very special place.