I’m anxiously waiting for the bus, they said they’d be here by 7.30 and it’s almost 8. Two of the other girls that were waiting around have since been picked up and I’m starting to wonder if I gave the wrong hostel name. One of the ladies at the hostel is about to ring the tour agency when the bus comes round the corner and I breathe a heavy sigh of relief. We spend a couple hours going through the Chilean and Bolivian side of immigration control. Our tour group consists of a German couple, a Spanish girl and yours truly. We wait around for half an hour or so, as all the other jeeps speed off over the horizon, but are finally greeted by Mario, our guide for the next few days.
Our first stop is the “Laguna Verde”, which when we pull up, appears to be a normal blue lake. I’m about to ask Mario if he’s taken a wrong turn somewhere, when he tells us all to just watch the lake for 10 minutes. As we stand there curious, a turquoise colour starts emanating from the back of the lake, creeping slowly but surely towards us, enveloping the entire area. The change is happening right in front of our eyes and yet I cant’t perceive how the colour is changing, only that it is. Mario explains that the wind causes the lake to change colour and after a bit more research, I find there are a number of minerals stored within the lake and many others within the national park, that can appear in different colours when the sediment is disturbed by the wind. As we’re about to head to the next destination, a fox appears out of nowhere, staring at our Jeep in hopes of food, long enough for us to get a picture or two. His modelling work goes unpaid and we say goodbye to our new furry acquaintance.
We pass some cyclists and I feel very grateful to be in a 4×4, as we’re travelling through desert like terrain, with no shade and with the sun furiously beating down from above. I do admire their tenacity in this harsh climate, but can’t imagine it being the most of pleasant of journeys. A few twists and turns later we emerge in the Siloli Desert, a vast expanse of sand and coloured mountains, made more beautiful by the minerals buried within, such as copper and borax.
We take a quick stop by a thermal bath and although we don’t indulge ourselves, the scenery nearby more than makes up for it. We’re on the move again, this time stopping at some geysers, with an almost overwhelming stench of rotten eggs, thanks to the sulphur they’re spewing out. I manage to get in close enough for a few quick pictures, but we’re now 4900 meters above sea level and I don’t want my brain getting scrambled, I’ve had enough of eggs for today.
When we arrive at the hotel we’ll be staying the night, I’m pleasantly surprised by the quality of the rooms, although they’re very basic, consisting solely of beds, they’re at least clean. After lunch we’re on the way to the last attraction of the day, a huge reddish lake, filled with flamingos, the most I’ve seen so far this trip. We walk around of the perimeter and I get very lucky when one of them comes very close to the shore, within about 10 metres. When we’d seen the fox before this encounter I had wondered how it ever manages to catch the flamingos, but now observing how long they keep their heads underwater, the fox has time to sneak up on them.
In the evening, after a hearty dinner, we stroll a couple minutes away from the little town we’re staying in to get a good view of the night’s sky and it’s spectacular, the clearest I’ve ever seen it, even better than what I’d seen in La Serena. I try again to get a good snap of the stars and thankfully it comes out better than my previous attempt.
We wake up early and have got a lot of driving ahead of us. Our first stop is the “Stone Tree”, an aptly named rock structure in the form of a tree. It seems like a bit of a gimmick so I’m glad when we’re back on the “road” again, passing by seemingly endless mountains, deserts and rocky outcrops. We enter a valley and Mario tells us that there are lots of viscachas (hare-like animals) that live in the area. We go deeper down the trail, until a group of these animals suddenly come into view, hopping around near the rocks. Mario baits one of them out with a tomato and the little furball sits there nonchalantly chewing as we all gather round, trying to get as close as we can without frightening him. He seems to not mind our peering eyes and I manage to take a few snaps before he scurries away to his pals.
We stop by a couple more flamingo laden lakes and a few random pit stops as we continue on our long journey towards the hotel we’ll be staying at this evening, made of salt. I’m hoping the beds wont be made of salt, unless they’ve made salt bean bags or something, that’d be cool. The evening is drawing in and the clouds above are starting to look angry, the perfect time for a puncture! I look on nervously as Mario goes about replacing the tyre, all calm and collected. I offer a hand but feel like one of the spare tools he’s not using. One of the nuts on the original tyre is putting up a hell of a fight as Mario lashes out at the lug wrench with his foot, to no avail. I give a quick wide eyes glance to the other guys in the group, trying to push away the thoughts of having to walk to find help. Mario goes at the tyre once again, this time the nut yields and we all breathe a heavy sigh of relief. With the new tyre fitted, we head on to the salty hotel. It’s a pretty cool set up, the walls, tables, floors, bases of the beds, all made from salt. Again I’m impressed with how clean and well set up it is, considering that it’s in quite a remote location.
Mario tell us he’s saved the best till last and I begin to believe him as the Jeep powers onto the Uyuni salt flats. It rained the night before and so the ground’s still wet, with a thin layer of water covering the land as far as the eye can see. The clouds are still hovering overhead, so the mood is quite dull as we head to one of the many islands that are found here, this one happens to be chock full of cactuses. The island seems to not get any closer as we drive towards it, constantly just on the horizon. Mario tells us a reassuring story about a family with young children that decided to go out on the salt flats by themselves, only to get lost and not reach help in time. With our spirits heightened, we stroll around the island, which also resembles a fish (it’s called Isla del Pescado) when viewed from a distance if there’s water on the flats. The views as we walk around are really stunning, with the flats stretching out far beyond the horizon in all directions, it feels like we’ve come to another world, where cactuses rule and humans are the prey. The clouds begin to clear as we join back up with Mario at the Jeep and he tells us that now would be a good time to do some perspective photography! We try out a few different poses and one suggestion is to get each of us doing a press up on the person below. I draw the short straw of being closest to the camera, meaning I have to get very low to the ground, face touching the dirt low. My physical endurance isn’t what it once was, so trying to hold a press up centimetres off the ground for a minute or so just isn’t possible. I end up getting my front side completely soaked and the picture doesn’t work at all, suffering for our art I suppose.
We drive for many miles more, to another salt hotel, but this one is unique as it’s the only one to exist in the middle of the salt flat. The hotel was made in the early 90s and was the first of its kind, although no longer functioning, it still serves as a popular tourist destination. The Dakar rally recently passed through the salt flats and a huge salt statue was made to welcome them, which also helped increase tourism to Bolivia, so everyone wins.
The hotel is our last real stop before heading to the city of Uyuni, where the tour ends and we all say our farewells. Mario tells me that the day after he’ll be heading back towards Chile, to do the tour but in reverse. After all the horror stories I’d heard before booking the tour, relating to drivers getting drunk and sometimes crashing their vehicles, I couldn’t have been happier with how Mario guided us and I’m really glad I did it.