Bolivia can make you dizzy. The speed with which you can be spun around from despair at the infrastructure, facilities, occasional attitudes and cleanliness, to sheer awe at the scenery and natural wonder, can leave even the most hardy traveller reeling somewhat. Just over a week earlier, we had been in a warm, sticky jungle environment, teeming with life. In the same country, on our three-day tour of South-West Bolivia from Uyuni, the amazement often came from the inherent lack of living things in the environment. Nothingness can be stunning too.

We took a trundling but comfortable train from Oruro to Uyuni, arriving to the dusty and freezing cold little town in the evening. It is a place that, according to most sources, would be dead were it not for the many gringos, keen for some Bolivian wonder and – if the local restaurant economy is anything to go by – pizza after pizza. After a morning searching for a decent tour company (no drunk-drivers, thanks), an afternoon kicking our heels and an evening eating…pizza, we arose on Helen’s birthday to find ourselves quickly bundled into a four-wheel-drive and we were off.

Our companions, alongside our Spanish-speaking driver Marcel, were a couple from Ecuador, Pablo and Isobel. Much as this could have caused linguistic issues, we were relieved to find that they were great English speakers and very laid back and friendly. So, with some of our survival Spanish thrown in, we made our first brief stop in a train graveyard just outside Uyuni, where skeletons of old locomotives lined the edge of the desert, marking a rusty and slightly eerie border to the town.



Next we bumped down a rough sandy road, heading for the Salar de Uyuni. The world’s largest salt flat was dazzling.Standing at nearly 12,000 feet and measuring over 4,000 square miles, this other-worldly flat expanse is the remains of an enormous prehistoric lake. After the dust and brown of the rugged mountains, it was a truly stunning place. The sheer size is incomprehensible, the lack of significant features other than the blinding whiteness and distant mountains does not distract from its wonder, and skimming across this honeycombed moonscape in a jeep was a both weird and exciting.

R-L...Matthieu, Marie, Helen, Paul, Isobel and Pablo

 

By now we had been joined by Marcel’s wife Hilda, who had cooked us a lunch of llama chops, and by two French firefighters, Mathieu and Marie, who had spent the morning scaling one of the mountains on the edge of the Salar. Now we were in three languages. We visited an island in the middle of the salt lake and, after some walking, some photos and another skim across the moon, we headed to our resting place for the evening, a salt hotel on the edge of the Salar.

Staying here was strange for more than one reason. First, after a short walk to a nearby pre-Inca archeological site, we found that we had some interesting neighbours. Second, sleeping on a bed of salt, with walls made of salt bricks tends to leave you with, at the very least, something of a dry mouth!

Day two was spent largely in the jeep, riding roughly over desert tracks and, on may occasions, entirely away from any sort of road. It was time to enter volcano country. Giant mountains smoked around us. The scenery shifted from the moonscape of the desert to something altogether more Martian. It was as if we’d reached the Earth’s crucible.

 

At lunch we reached a lagoon, where hundreds of pink flamingos dipped and waded across the sulphurous water. Mostly oblivious to our presence, they happily grazed in the mineral rich water while we ate, took pictures and prepared for more rough jeep riding.

Further stops on our way to our evening’s resting place included formations of cake icing snow, lonely volcanic rocks carved by the biting wind, and a stunning deep-red lagoon, complete with more flamingos and a distinct lack of human beings. Only stopping to gape at these other-worldly sights, we bumped along to a bleak and cold hostel where dinner, and shivering card games awaited us before the electricity and the lights disappeared at 9pm. Almost fully clothed, and complete with hats and scarves, we hunkered down in bed.

 

Brrrrrrrr!

 

A rude awakening at 5am was the beginning of our final morning. Bleary-eyed and still shivering, we again boarded the jeep and, after more cross-country driving, we arrived at yet another truly spectacular sight. Steam poured into the early sunlight as geysers flooded the morning with volcanic energy. It is hard to describe the amazing power and spectacle of these outlets from deep in the Earth.

The heat of the volcanos provided us with a much-needed warm-up in the shape of hot springs at our next stop. Whilst some were reluctant to get down to their swimming gear in the cold of the morning on the Altiplano, we took the plunge and in doing so felt both revived and cleansed after the freezing cold of the previous night. Furthermore, an early morning al-fresco hot bath in the shadows of volcanic mountains was yet another first! From here we made our way towards the Chilean border, where Pablo and Isobel were due to leave us to cross it. On the way we were greeted with our last amazing site, as we reached the beautiful Laguna Verde. A giant mirror under a mountain, the green of the lagoon is variable depending on its chemical makeup on the day. It’s tranquility and grandeur made a fitting end to the main sights on a fantastic tour. It was just a pity we were due to head back to the dizzying pizzaria-filled potential calamity that is daily Bolivian life.

2 Comments to “Dizzy Whites – Southwest Bolivia”

  • More brilliant photographs….has Paul shrunk a bit from lack of food?

  • The photos are amazing and the writing very evocative. You should be on ‘From our own correspondent’ R4! It will feel a very little island here when you return.