Jupapina, nr Mallasa, Bolivia
Not for the first time, I was sorely tempted to get down on all fours and lick the ground.
Could it really be a 12,000sq km blindingly-white desert of salt we saw before us? It was reminiscent of one of those movies where they try to depict ‘heaven’ by making everything all white and floaty and unreal.
Along with my brother Derek – who was visiting for a few weeks – we were taking a three-day 4×4 tour of Bolivia’s south west corner. For countless reasons, it’s one of the most popular trips to do in the country. It’s typically described as a tour of the salt flats, with one of the main draws being the largest salt ‘lake’ in the world, Salar de Uyuni. But it is so much more than that.
This region of Bolivia is a smorgasbord of ever-changing landscapes, of unfeasibly luminescent colours, that it looks for all the world as if someone’s created the whole thing in Photoshop.
Each time we claimed we’d ‘never seen anything so incredible’, we’d drive for a little while, then happen upon a scene more mind-blowing than the last.
There was the suspended reality of the salt flats, which are so uniform and vast that tourists love to play with the lack of perspective and take comedy photos that portray them as huge or tiny. It’s a rite of passage that would have been churlish to deny ourselves.
Then, just as we thought the salar would never end, we arrived at Isla Incahuasi, a whopping great pre-historic island in the middle of the encrusted lake, which is blanketed in giant cacti. From the top we had an amazing view of the flats, much of which has crusted into surreal hexagonal tiles.
After an incredible sunset on the flats, and dinner at our hostal – which was entirely made of salt, what else? (the hostal, not the dinner) – we wrapped up against the cold and went out to gaze at the stars, and our own moon-shadows.
The next day was a feast of rock forests, altiplano lakes, pink flamingos and a procession of incredible snow-capped mountains to top off the scene. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we arrived at Laguna Colorada, which is turned red by natural algae.
We were agreed that the trip so far was one of the best things we’d done on all of our travels. It’s not necessarily a cakewalk though. It can be very cold at times, the accommodation on most tours is communal and fairly basic, and both nights are spent sleeping at very high altitudes, of up to 4,300m – which often means, at best, sleeplessness and headaches and sometimes worse symptoms of altitude sickness.
On the second night, Derek was suffering pretty badly and – to top it off – had had zero sleep before our wake-up call for a 5am start. He was feeling fairly shitty, and needed to get to a lower elevation.
Problem was, we had 12 hours of driving at altitude ahead of us, followed immediately by a 12-hour overnight bus journey to La Paz, one of the highest cities in the world. A couple of nights before we’d made this crazy last-minute plan to try to make it to Peru within Derek’s short trip – more trekking at altitude! Not good.
We quickly decided it wasn’t worth putting his holiday in jeopardy by overdoing it, and cancelled the plan to go to Peru. That morning the tour skirted the Chilean border and, luckily, Derek had the chance to skip the last few hours (mostly just involving the drive back to Uyuni) and head quickly back over the border to San Pedro de Atacama, at a mere 2,500m.
Before he departed we saw sunrise at the one of the highest geyser fields in the world – Sol de Mañana, at a gasping 5,000m. We then warmed our chilled early-morning bones at the sublime natural hot springs at Laguna Polques. The reaction of every single person who sank into that hot steaming pool was identical – aaaahhhhhhhhhhoooooohuhhhyes!
The (almost) final stop was the strikingly green Laguna Verde. Saving the best for last!? It’s hard to choose a ‘best’ from this trip, but that was one hell of a green, shiny, not-completely-real-looking lake. When you look at photos of this famous laguna, you just assume they’ve been enhanced. They haven’t.
It was lovely having so much time with Derek, whom we rarely see for more than a few days at a time. Now suddenly he was gone! Jeremy and I had no option but to continue back to Uyuni, as we’d left half of our gear there. After a final, gorgeous, stop-off at a hidden oasis, and a brief pause to let some wild ostriches cross our path, we dug in for the long drive back.
After a long, remarkably unpleasant, bus journey from Uyuni to San Pedro the next day we were reunited.
With Peru off the table, all we had to do now was make a new plan for Derek’s final week. North, south, east or west?
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 7,259
Things we now know to be true: Sometimes table salt really is a table made of salt.
PHOTO GALLERY BELOW!
NOTE: We were delighted with the company we chose for the tour. There are many disreputable firms in Uyuni, so choose carefully if you go. To date there are nearly 1,000 reviews on Trip Advisor.
We would happily recommend family-run Quechua Connection, based in the centre of Uyuni. Email Jose at firstname.lastname@example.org – he can speak English if you need that.
Great guys, safe drivers, food very good and nutritional – Jose is also a nifty photographer for those tricky salt flats pics.
PHOTOS! PHOTOS! PHOTOS! Click on the gallery below for a taster of south-west Bolivia.