11/5/07

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia


Day One

"Dyan-dya-ran", croons Placido as he steps on the brake and our Toyota Land Cruiser comes to a halt. Before us lies Laguna Verde, one of the many lakes that dot this otherworldly, desolate, bleak, inhospitable but gorgeously beautiful landscape in southwestern Bolivia. Placido is our driver for the next 3 days on this off-road expedition. I'm sharing the car with Marnie, Andrew, Kara and Eric. Anne had me sit at the front passenger seat because she thinks I speak Spanish fluently but "Perdon SeƱora Anne, mi hablo poquito Espanol solamente!"

The remote Bolivian immigration outpost

Right after clearing Bolivian immigration formalities on our first day, our group got into the waiting 4WD Land Cruisers, three of them to be shared by 14 of us travellers. Backpacks, sleeping bags, 5-gallon water bottles, food, gasoline and other necessities were neatly bundled up and secured in a tarpaulin on the car's roof rack. We only had our daypacks with us plus our surging enthusiasm for what lies ahead. Our first foray would be into Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, a 1.8 million-acre national park right after entering Bolivia from the Chilean border.


Laguna Verde, shining turquoise with the looming Mt. Licancabur behind it, is stunning at once. Placido explained that the winds - strong at this time to increase the windchill at the altitude of almost 5000 meters above sea level - help in keeping that color intense by stirring up mineral deposits in its lakebed. Flamingos were everywhere, giving a pinkish hue to the bluish green water. We're told to spot for the three species: Andean, James and Chilean.

Our convoy passed by Laguna Blanca, also colored as such because of mineral sediments. Flamingos were busy scouring the lakebed for their daily routine of finding food. By midmorning, we stopped for another hotspot literally: the geysers, boiling mudpools and fumaroles at the lunar landscape called Sol de Manana. I walked carefully on top of this intense volcanic activity beneath my feet for fear of being boiled live by a boiling lava.

Boiling mudpools
Blowing off some hot air
Soaking on some hot water

Evidently, the whole southwest Bolivia has had its share of volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago and what we see now - besides Sol de Manana - are the many inactive volcanoes that dot the Bolivian altiplano. It felt eeirie and so surreal to see many conical mountains at this altitude - we're actually moving anywhere between 4,000 to almost 5,000 meters above sea level. After lunch, we soaked our weary bodies at the Termas de Polques hotspring. It's a lovely warm indulgence amidst the stark beauty all around us but the moment we stepped off the pool, the biting cold at 4,400 meters above sea level set in...brrr!!!

Laguna Colorada

Laguna Colorada,or Red Lagoon, is another salt lake with dramatic appearance due to the sediments of abundant algae. The presence of Borax (a mineral) and flocks of flamingos - I couldn't even distinguish the specie - added to a riot of red, white and pink colors. The mountains in the background truly complete a very unforgettable sight, especially so when the flamingos were in flight. Packs of llama were grazing by the lakeshore, unmindful of the 2-legged visitors snapping photos of them.

Our lodging for the night - a bitterly cold night - was at Hospedaje Huayllahara, a few minutes ride from Laguna Colorada. The dorm-style accommodation was very basic with clean, shared toilets. It was so cold as Anne had warned us - all I wanted was to snuggle up in my sleeping bag and doze off. But we were served dinner first and I thought the entree was good until someone whispered afterwards that it was llama meat we just ate! Oh, didn't we just snapped photos of llamas by the lakeshore? By the time I slipped into my sleeping bag, I soon forgot that I'm sharing a room with possible snorers: could it be Anne, Helen, Linda, Gary, Jacinta or Allister?

Hospedaje Huayllahara

Day Two 

This is the part of the trip where no bathing is actually involved - unless I'm so brave enough to even sprinkle my face with frigidly cold water. To illustrate how cold it's been, Allister left a bottle of water outside only to find it completely frozen the morning after. As Anne had recommended, I brought out baby wipes bought in San Pedro de Atacama. They're good not just for cleaning smoother baby butts but for grimy, oily faces of adults as well.

The Rock Tree
The Rock Tree
Andean fox
Llareta clinging to an ancient lava flow

Our long day heading in a northeasterly direction was more of volcanic landscapes in the Bolivian altiplano again. We stopped by an ancient lava flow that was overgrown with llareta, a very slow growing moss-like plant native to the altiplano and oftentimes used as fuel. There's the famous "stone tree" after we passed by Dali-esque rock formations in the desert. It's life truly imitating abstract art here, surely Salvador Dali hasn't even been to this remote area of the planet. We clambered up some huge slabs of rock jutting out from the desert and just enjoying the serene splendour of it all.

There's a couple more of saltlakes we encountered - Laguna Honda and Laguna Hedionda. We had succulent al fresco lunch at the latter after seeing more flamingos in the lake. Seeing that we had chicken for lunch, I almost thought our cook must have killed some flamingos and fed us these. For a glimpse of wildlife besides flamingos, at least we saw plenty of wild vicunas and a couple of Andean fox.

Our 4WD was a beast of burden in this harsh environment. Placido must be proud as we're the only car that hasn't had any flat tire yet. With his mouth full of coca leaves, Placido steered the wheels efficiently while navigating the unusual terrain we're on. Coca leaves, as is the tradition among Andean people, is chewed to keep them going and going, like Energizer batteries. He remained upbeat all day, helped probably also from the music belting out from the shuffled selections of Andrew's iPod. We sang along with familiar tunes and poor Placido could only mutter "muy bien, muy bien!".

Another flat tire

Our convoy finally arrived at San Juan del Rosario, a small settlement of adobe houses and our accommodation is just outside the village center - a one-month old Salt Hotel. Yes, you read it right, the walls, tables and chairs are made from blocks of salt harvested from the Salar. Even the floor is made entirely of grainy salt. This is definitely the most unique hotel I've stayed at. There's solar-powered electricity and even solar-heated shower for 10 Bolivianos. Having not showered for two days, I grabbed the opportunity before we start dinner and sit on the chair made from salt and eating off a table made from salt. I don't think one needs salt shaker on the table anymore.

My room at the Salt Hotel - even the bed frame and table is made from salt!
Salt Hotel dining room

Day Three
Placido and the other two drivers have cleaned the cars well - getting rid of that sand and dirt that has accumulated from the last two days we're in the road (road? what road?). Backpacks and all our bulky provisions went back to the roof rack to be covered by tarp. Our itinerary today is the highlight of them all: crossing the vast Salar de Uyuni.

Considered the world's largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni is massive at 10,000 sq. kms. It used to be part of a prehistoric inland sea which later dried up and left this geological wonder for modern man to marvel. One thinks of a lake as a body of water but this one here is nothing but pure white salt. Something that I could walk on, or our Land Cruiser could drive on. As we're still at the Bolivian altiplano, the elevation remains high at 3,675 meters above sea level.


What a highly contrasting scene indeed it is to see a vast whiteness stretching for miles around and the radiant blueness of the sky above. There's nothing like this I've seen before, a landscape that is all at once hallucinogenic. My perception of time and distance seem to be warped as though I'm in a different planet.

When one thinks of a lake, one imagines an island. Incahuasi, or Fish island, isn't your typical island with swaying coconut trees but this is right there in the middle of the salar, looking like an oasis in the middle of a desert. Usually busy with day-trippers from Uyuni, Incahuasi juts out from the salt lake filled with cacti and jagged rocks that historically became a shelter for the Incas (thus the name Incahuasi or "house of the Incas").

Incahuasi or Fish island
Our drivers and cook had set up al fresco lunch just next to the island. As usual, our food was scrumptious. It's time for us to compliment them for a job well done the past three days so the group gave them generous tips. Placido is grinning. We're being driven for the last time this afternoon on our way to Uyuni, after passing by Colchani where salt from the salar is being refined into table salt.

8 comments:

  1. You've just inspired me to go to Bolivia! And it's not because of all the bums I see!

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    Replies
    1. hahaha! my travel mates suggested that we do the moon shot :)

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  2. miserikordia8:32:00 PM

    Sir ang ganda! Wala akong masabi sa trips mo... Astig.

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    Replies
    1. Maraming salamat. One surreal destination!

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  3. Replies
    1. from some creative minds :) :)

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  4. your pictures made me laugh.. hahahaha very creative!

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    Replies
    1. I couldn't believe till now that I was convinced to do a moon shot!

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