Opting to leave Peru for Bolivia the day before Peruvian Independence Day was perhaps not one of my smartest decisions. It appeared that the entire Peruvian Population who reside in Bolivia were making their way back over the boarder to get ready for the celebrations. After resolving some issues with departure papers myself and my friend Clair were finally given the go ahead to cross the border on what should have been a quick three minute walk, however as soon as we stepped out of the immigration office we were engulfed in a rabble of people carrying all kinds of commodities. Huge planks of wood, cow carcasses, masses of vegetables and dried Llama foetuses to mention only a few. There were people on pedal bikes and people pushing carts stacked high with furniture. Now, generally speaking the Peruvians and Bolivians are not the tallest of nations, but when there is a sea of bowler hats ahead of you, it doesn’t make for particularly great visibility. It was utter chaos; there was a lot of pushing and shoving, and the rambunctious sound of Spanish Lingo rang out. To make things a little more arduous I was baring the load of my big backpack which acted as a bumper from the continuous knocks. As you can imagine this crossing took some time, but despite the mayhem – I was loving it!! I chose to embrace the moment and submerge myself in the culture. This being my first experience of Bolivia, I knew I was going to have a great time!
Bolivia is a fascinating place offering so much diversity. From the street parades, ‘witches’ markets and Death Road mountain biking in La Paz to the UNESCO World Heritage ‘White City’ of Sucre and the horse riding tours through the Andes. Oh wait.. I must also add the dodgy karaoke bars and Silver Mines of Cerro Rico in Potosi where you find yourself buying dynamite for the miners and sharing in their Andean Rituals to ‘Panchamama’ (Mother Earth) by drinking locally brewed spirits and witnessing the habitual Llama sacrifices (not for the faint hearted)!
You may be wowed and at times astounded by the cultural variance of such a country but Bolivia is more than just a cultural eye opener, it’s a place of spectacular landscape too. Much of Western Bolivia lies across the Altiplano, the widest part of the Andes and the highest plateau outside of Tibet, which in itself suggests that the scenery would be second to none.
I recall being on a seven hour bus journey from Potosi to the town of Uyuni. The bus made a brief stop at the side of the road where there was a broken down car. Myself and Phil (a fellow traveller) decided to offer a helping hand and push the car, foolishly not taking into consideration that we were at high altitude. Wow… Talk about hard work, I was almost passing out!
Pulling into Uyuni feels a little like you have reached the end of the road. This small dusty town in the middle of nowhere sits on the edge of the high altiplano with its primary purpose being to provide a gateway to largest salt flats in the world. It’s a bit of a strange town really, almost like being on a movie set where you are expecting to bump into John Wayne or see tumble weed come rolling by.
After arriving at our hotel my friend Jo realised that she had left her i-phone on the bus. Now let’s face it the chances of her ever seeing it again was pretty none existent right? But… Our honest and trusty bus driver had found the phone and was able to return it to her. Top marks Bolivia!!
The next morning we were up with the sun and away on our 3-day, 4WD expedition into Salar de Uyuni. This 4,086 square miles of salty residue is one the most surreal places I have ever been fortunate enough to see.
Our first stop was a train cemetery which lies on the outskirts of an old trading post in Uyuni. A resting place for old 20th century locomotives which have reached the end of the line. The fascinating but corroding and disintegrating shells provide an adventure playground for the many tourists passing through.
Without doubt our next stop provided us with a sizeable amount of amusement as we became competitive with one another to see who could obtain the best perspective–defying photographs. Anything from plastic toy dinosaurs and beer cans to pringle tubes and brimmed hats were being used to create these bazar illusions.
Inkawasi Island was a pretty amazing place to stop for lunch. It’s a hilly island of gigantic cacti which really emphasises the vastness of this region! Looking out from the top of the island gives you an infinite view of hexagonal shaped salt deposits.
This trip can be pretty tough going with some long travel days but the rewards are endless. As your 4WD speeds across the ivory like ocean you look to the horizon where the endless white salt meets the crystal blue skies. It’s just incredible!
Spending the night in a salt hotel was somewhat of a novelty. It’s exactly what the name suggests, a hotel built out of salt blocks, with salt tables, salt chairs, salt beds and salt ‘carpets’! The nights can be extremely cold in Salar de Uyuni so we were sure to layer up and drink a few pečenás (a local beer) to lock in the warmth! Beverage induced dancing on the salt tables was an optional extra but it isn’t for everyone!
Electricity is run off a generator and its lights out around 9:00pm, ‘if’ the generator lasts out that long of course! With no artificial light to taint your view a stroll outside into pitch black is essential, giving you a perfect and unobstructed view of the Milky Way. It’s really quite overwhelming being stood there in complete silence, just gazing up into the clear night sky.
The remainder of our journey saw us driving through yet more amazing landscapes, spotting Llamas, foxes and vizcachas.
Another fantastic stop – ‘Laguna Colorado’ (The Red lake). This picture perfect sight looks like it has been photo- shopped with the vividly coloured reds and whites created by the algae and rich minerals which lie within.
I thought that it would be hard to top Laguna Colorado but we made an equally amazing stop for lunch alongside Laguna Hedionda – another picturesque lake with a stunning backdrop of volcanoes. Hundreds if not thousands of pink flamingos line the shores of this lake. It’s a photographers dream!
Our last day in Salar de Uyuni had us up and on the road early, allowing us to arrive at the Solar de Manaña geyser basin while the sun was rising. There was a truly majestic ambiance as the sun began to penetrate the huge plumes of geyser steam. The lighting was spectacular.
If not fully awake by this point you soon would be with intense roar from the geysers as they release the pressure which lies beneath the ground. I was astounded as I walked around the boiling pools and watched the mud being thrust three or so metres into the air.
A perfect way to reflect on the sights and experiences that Salar de Uyuni had given to us was to submerge ourselves in the Termas de Polques hot springs. After a couple of full on days crossing the world’s largest salt flats it was a chance to relax and take it all in!
Bidding farewell to this inconceivable land of wonder we headed across the Border to Chile and into the Atacama Desert.
Anyone wanting to travel to Bolivia, I would urge you to visit this astonishing region. I guarantee you will not be left feeling disappointed.
An overnight excursion on to the salt flats are included on Tucan Travel’s Adventure and Overland Tours. Click here to browse tours to Bolivia.