Be warned – there are quite a few pictures of flamingos on this post. There is some sandboarding action and the biggest salt flat on Earth. But who cares. Yes, flamingos!!
Board the sand
Stories of chamanes – wizards – and hallucinogenic cactus come from the other side of the border. We are heading to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Back in the days, a quiet village home to little more than a few hundred people. Now, a dusty desert town whose only purpose is tourism and where bizarrely, party bars are banned. There is always someone watching they say…
The volcanic surroundings reminded us of New Zealand and the Tongariro Crossing. Except that we are roughly two or three thousand metres higher which means that breathing can sometimes pose a big challenge. Especially when one has to deal with steep slopes while carrying a snowboard.
It is called sandboarding, and it is a lot of fun. Of course each person has its own style and while I was more focused on nailing the falls, Paula insisted in that a clean descent was way more glamorous. Whatever.
The surroundings are called the Death Valley. Although it was meant to be called Mars Valley according to the frenchman who spent time researching this landscape. Mars translates to “Marte” in Spanish. Which is terribly similar to “Muerte”, death. His thick accent did the rest. And I guess that after all, Death Valley has more punch. Time for another go at it?
But sandboarding was not the reason for us to come here. Nope. The reason was much further, a few million light years away to be precise. At night, the conditions are perfect for stargazing in one of the observatories – provided that it is not full moon. Through the lenses of the telescopes, we watched the sky, the Moon, the stars and a few constellations. The most beautiful thing? Saturn, there it was, with its rings and all, surreal.
A red lagoon and a great crew
The day had finally come: the Uyuni Salt Flat tour, starting from San Pedro de Atacama. Many people come to Bolivia for this sole reason. No matter how cold, how high or how rough the tours are, it is always the highlight of everybody’s travels in this part of the world.
First, you get split into groups and each group gets assigned to a car. We got lucky – a great bunch of people, all long term travellers, from the entrepreneur who changed his office for a backpack, to a couple on their way from New Zealand to Holland – the long way around – and a finally a young kid on a mission to learn Spanish and meet the world. Notice the Kiwi guy on the right of the picture – everyone else was freezing but him, typical 🙂
From the very first stop in the tour we realised a couple of things. First, we were not going to be alone, there were easily another ten to fifteen cars all following the same route and pace. Second, it mattered not. This was truly a very special place, regardless of everything else.
After lunch, we arrived at Laguna Colorada to finally meet them for the first time, flamingos. Now, flamingos are not actually pink. They are born with grey and white feathers and they look pretty much like this guy.
However, as they grow older, they develop their distinctive pink colour thanks to their diet, based on shrimp and algae, which is high in certain pigments called carotenoids. And what do these carotenoids do? They turn flamingos into this.
So gentle, so cool. So freaking awesome. We just could not believe our eyes when a group of four or five of these fellows came close to the shore where we were and started doing their thing: head down, get some water, head up, repeat. And all of the sudden, some action. Was it a kiss or a fight?
Back at the sleeping quarters, our group was in such a good mood that we ate our dinner and the other group’s as well. Or perhaps it was the altitude, after all we were about to spend the night at more than four thousand metres. Great if you want to feel a bit tipsy without a single drop of alcohol.
Cloudy with a chance of cloudiness
This part of the altiplano sits on a highly active geothermal area. There are a few hot springs here and there and mud pools too. The latter are not to be enjoyed though as the mud is so hot that it would melt your skin within seconds. Well, maybe not that hot, but I would not risk it just in case.
Smoke and hot mud. The landscape kept on getting more surreal with each stop. I have no clue how Mars’ surface may be like, but I could picture something like this. With Matt Damon growing potatoes in the background.
On the next stop there were plenty of volcanic rocks that had been eroded by the wind into some really odd shapes. But I found the lagoons more interesting. They are drying out due to draught brought by El Nino, and they can only rely on water coming from underground rivers which is not enough. Each one of them comes with its own story, minerals and, of course, flamingos!
In the afternoon, the weather changed… for worse. Low clouds meant we missed out on the sighting of an actual active volcano and a bit of rain forced the drivers to push on towards the hotel. But we are having a great time with the guys so it does not matter, as long as tomorrow we get blue skies. At night we shared a couple of bottles of Bolivian red – hmmm, we should probably stick to the Malbec.
The biggest salt flat on Earth
The group agreed to wake up at 4.45 am with the hope of clear skies and a gorgeous sunset. We got none of that. By the time we arrived at Isla del Pescado, an unlikely hill in the middle of the salt flat, our beloved star was nowhere to be found.
We were finally in the middle of the Uyuni Salt Flat, the biggest of its kind. The main reason for the tour to exist and I would even say it is probably responsible for most of Bolivia’s tourist influx.
As we finished breakfast, our driver, Reinaldo, told us that his wife was giving birth. Great news of course. Understandably, he had to leave us. He also asked us to come up with a name for the baby and that he was going to drive us to the edge of the salt flat, so that his brother could pick us up and continue with the tour. Fair enough. Do you think he will like “flamingo” as a name for his baby??
Yes, the sun was finally up, but only for a few seconds at a time. After a quick change of drivers and saying good bye to Reinaldo, we set our cameras loose in the search for the perfect picture. We fail, a combination of lack of sun, altitude and let’s be honest, poor skills!
After a few hours of trial and error and hundreds of pictures we finally gave up, much to the relief of our new driver, who just wanted to finish the tour and go home. Can’t blame him, it was his day off, his sister-in-law was having a baby and he was there, having to wait for six gringos to take “one last picture”.
The last stop was the popular train cemetery of Uyuni. It is, well, a train cemetery really. Machines from the 20th century that used to work on coal and yumata – a green plant that magically grows on this arid terrains and which, we got told, burns very well. We were exhausted, it has all happened so fast and now the tour was over.
Exhausted yes, thirsty too. We finished the day with beers at the ugliest and most expensive square in all of South America. It was to be expected though, Uyuni is after all, a well known tourist trap. There are better things to come though, but first, another night bus.
Did you think Bolivia was just the Salt Flats and little else? Think twice.