Southwest Bolivia – Salar De Uyuni and the Andean Altiplano
“Kid – the next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia’,
let’s go someplace like Bolivia.”
– Butch Cassidy
We spend an afternoon riding a couple of poorly-fed nags through the area’s canyons, and regret for the horseback tour. However, we didn’t come here to retrace the footsteps of these infamous outlaws. We came to arrange a trip through the Salar de Uyuni and the Andean Altiplano of southwestern Bolivia.
We share the cost of a car, driver, cook and food with another couple, and drive the dirt tracks through the desert to Uyuni. There, following some final negotiations with the tour company and a brief visit to the locomotive graveyard, we set off for the Salar de Uyuni.
It is the beginning of the rainy season, so the salt flat offers two very different personalities. At one end the dried surface, honeycombed with hexagons, is blindingly white under the glaring sun. The other end is covered in a few inches of water, producing mirror images of the horizon and surrounding altiplano.
Salt Salt Salt
The salt is harvested and brought to nearby refineries, from where it is shipped to various parts of the continent. Our first stop is the salt refineries at Colchani where we watch the refining and packaging process. Next are the salt hotels. These buildings, made entirely of salt blocks, are no longer operational due to the pollution they create.
The sewage from the hotels was jeopardizing this industry, and they were consequently shut down. This concept is lost on one backpacker, as he decides to relieve himself behind one of the buildings. He quickly draws the attention of an angry, stone-wielding local woman’s wrath.
In the middle of the Salar de Uyuni is the cactus-studded Isla de los Pescadores. The cacti here grow about 1cm/year, and some of the plants are over ten meters tall. These are some very odd and very old plants.
Como Se Llamas?
We have lunch nearby and leave the salar for higher ground. By late afternoon, we reach San Juan where we will spend the night. Before dinner, we have an opportunity to walk among the herds of llamas and alpacas that graze on the high plateau. The looming mountains, bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, provide a stunning backdrop for these curious looking creatures.
The next day is flamingo day. We lunch at a lake populated by hundreds of pink flamingos and other birds feeding on the algae and various microorganisms in the water. The beauty and graceful nature of these birds is intermittently overshadowed by the beauty of the surrounding mountains and the vivid colors of the lake.
Continuing through the desert, we stop to explore the various wind-carved rocks and photograph the elegant but elusive vicunas. Occasionally we see small dusty volcanic puffs rising from a mountain ridge.
We spend the night at a lodge on the banks of Laguna Colorada. Before dinner, we hike above and along the shore of the flamingo-speckled and rainbow-colored lake. On the opposite side of the lake stands Volcan Uturuncu, watching over the entire scene.
Cool Morning, Warm Springs
Early the next morning we set out to visit the steam geysers and bubbling mud-pits for sunrise. Unfortunately, it is overcast and the dawn sun fails to create the colorful effect it is rumored to. Nonetheless, it is an eerily beautiful setting, despite the hordes of tourists.
We have breakfast at some thermal hot springs. They are more like lukewarm springs, and since it was such a cool morning, we decide to not go for a dip in the already crowded pool.
Our last stop of our trip across the altiplano is the pristine Laguna Verde, where we pause to take some final photos. At the end, we found ourselves at the Chilean border where we transfer to a minivan that takes us to the dusty backpacker chill-out of San Pedro de Atacama.
Straddling the rugged Andean mountains and the desolate Atacama Desert, southwestern Bolivia affords access to a unique and diverse geography, and a rich culture. It is a highlight of any trip through South America.