Friday, March 4, 2011

Salty Sky (24-27 February 2011, Days 77-80 of 127)

La Salar De Uyuni (The Salt Flat of Uyuni) is the world's largest AND highest salt lake at 12,106 sq km and 3,653m elevation. This is a geographical marvel in the catgeory of Antarctica, Patagonia and Machu Picchu. It was a pivotal highlight of my great South American adventure! A Landscape beyond imagination. The other spectacular surprise in the vein of Patagonia was the Siloli Desert which borders the Atacama Desert and is geographically the same. More on these below.
The journey from the tragedy of Potosi to the town of Uyuni took 6hrs on the bus just to travel approx 200km. This is because it took place over the mountains of the Andean Altiplano and over gravel road. The scenary was spectacular. Long wide treeless valleys with distant snow-capped volcanos and deep blue skies with whispy clouds. The bus got bogged about 2hrs out from Uyuni and we all had to get off. We left Potosi at midday and walked into the Mexican looking outpost town hotel in Uyuni shortly after 6pm. After a lengthy briefing of our 3-day, 4-wheel drive desert adventure starting tomorrow, I made out for the internet cafe in town for the post before this one. Then it was off to bed.
Uyuni (Pop 20,000. Elev 3,669m) is not much to sing about. From my run at the half-way 5km mark, it looks like Moonbase Alpha from Space 1999 and is isolated, muddy, unkept, sloppy and full of garbage. Uyuni means "Refuge for Lliamas" and believe me there are lots of them. After my morning run on 24FEB, we left Uyuni in a convoy of three Landcruisers together with some other Gringos, (18 in all) for what would turn out to be a spectacular 3-day excursion to the salt lake in the clouds and the amazing desert with coloured lagoons, thermal geysers and hot springs.

Our first stop was the "Locomotive Cemetery", 2km from Uyuni, which contains the rusting relics of 13 steam locomotives and some carriages that epitomised travel and salt freight in Bolivia in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The locals are quite proud of it since train travel is closely associated with Bolivian Heritage.

The world famous "Salar De Uyuni" (Uyuni Salt Flat) is located just 25km south-west of Uyuni. There is a small setttlement called Colchani at the edge of the flat where approx 1,500 locals live, who are involved in mining the salt from the flat. All they do is add 5% iodine to kill any germs and then pack it and sell it. The salt flat itself is located in the middle of the 7,000km plus Andean Mountain Chain and expanding at a rate of 0.5m per year. The salt flat comprises alternate layers of salt, water and salt again - the top layer averages 2m thickness and you can see holes in parts where it is thin with water below - just like an frozen water lake. It is the largest and highest salt flat (or lake) in the world. The look of the salt flat is remarkable. It reminded me of Antarctica. This is because the sun was out, the sky was deep blue and the salt flat shimmered in the sun like snow. The first thing that hits you is the lack of perspective. The sky and salt flat simply mingle together eliminating a horizon and the feeling of distance. It is like you are an aircraft flying between layers of cloud, one below you and the other above you. Our 4-wheel drives took us 4km into the flat and let us out to walk around and take photos. Being the wet season, it had rained and their was a 1 inch layer of water, so we walked barefoot or in thongs on the crystally salt. Some bits were soft, others a bit more pointier. The most common photos involve people taking toys or other props and pretending to hold them in their hands since there is no perspective. We took many group shots - frankly any photo on the flat looks great. We spent almost an hour out on the flat before having lunch in a cafe on the flat that is made entirely of salt bricks. Lunch involved grilled Llama - with Uyuni salt, of course!

The drive from the Uyuni Salt Flat to our overnight hostel stay in Alota (Pop 1,500. Elev 3,900m) took 4 hours. Alota is named after Spanish Game, played by miners en route to the cities with their minerals - this place was used as a stopover. Bolivia has the largest known reserve of Lithium in the world and 63% of it comes from the Uyuni area. Alota is now a mining town and very rough and isolated. Our overnight accommodation here was the worst to-date: mud-brick dwelling, 4 to a room and one bathroom for 18 people! The bed sagged so much that I put the matress on the ground. We were determined not to let our spartan rooms get the better of us so that night we celebrated our fabulous Salar De Uyuni encounter with spaghetti, beer and of course, wine. We had driven approx 200km this day. The convoy includes a cook who carries gas and all food.

The next day (Sat 26FEB) was one of the best days of my journey. The weather was perfect and the scenery simply breathtaking. Even my morning run was admist volcanos and coloured algae and lichen at the crack of dawn and in mind-numbing silence - I have never felt so alive and at the same time completely alone!

Today we entered the "Siloli Desert" in Bolivia which is next to the "Atacama Desert" in Chile and is even more spectacular. Siloli is full of huge, treeless, open valleys, bordered by snow-capped volcanoes with simply stunning lagoons.

Words are inadequate to descibe them so I defer to the photos in this post to do the talking! We visited a total of 4 lakes and 2 rock formations today.

The first stop in Siloli was "Rock Valley" comprising huge orange basalt bolders, many in the shape of animals.

From here we journeyed to our first lake: "Laguna Chuluncani (4,150m)" which contained a number of Pink Flamingos which can grow to a metre tall! In flight they look spectacular, brandishing their trademark hot pink and black stripped wings.

Lake number two was "Laguna Kachi (4,195m)" where we had a picnic lunch overlooking the lake in front of us with the stoney red Atacama like soil behind us.

Siloli contains the same stoney landscape of the Atacama, where NASA test all their terrain vehicles bound for Mars since the terrain there most resembles the Martian surface (the two rovers currently on Mars for the last 6yrs were tested in the Atacama).

Lake number three was "Lago Kara (4,220m)" which contained calcium carbonate making it very tourquoise. Next stop was the "Arbol De Pedra (Stone Tree)" which is a rock formation weathered to look like an umbrella tree. It is surrounded by other strange, shapely rock formations, that look like aliens put them there for a reason.

Our fourth and last lake was "Laguna Colorada (4,278m)" which is the largest of all Siloli lakes at 7 sq km. It is red in colour from algae in it and also has islands of Borax mineral which look like icebergs. Laguna Colorada is ony 25km from the Chilean border and is also home to the largest flock of Pink Flamingos in Siloli. We got a chance to get up close and personal - pink birds in a red lake - what a site!

Our overnight accommodation was only 5km away with distant views of the lake and was somewhat better than the night before - it was like a snow refuge with 4-wheel drives coming and going. Even though rooms were dorm-style with 10 to a room, the beds were comfortable and the recreation areas huge. We all enjoyed a great dinner of Bolivian soup and lasagne washed down with Chilean 2006 Cab Sav. A fitting end to a marvelous day, so full of different scenery that it made our heads spin! This day saw us drive approx 180km. Tonight was also our highest sleep to-date at 4,278m.

Our Sunday (27FEB) began at 4am since we had a sun-rise rendezvous with thermal geysers and a hot spring! It was still dark when we got to the "Sol De Manana" geyser basin, the highest geysers in the world. The silence of the 4,950m plataeu (the highest point in our 3-day expedition) was broken by the hissing and whooshing of the steam of the geysers. Only one was able to be touched, the others were boiling.

30min further down was the hot spring, ready for bathing in the warm 30C water but there were too many other gringos so we decided to push ahead to Laguna Verde and come back later when it was empty.

We passed the huge "Laguna Blanca" on our way to the main event: "Laguna Verde (4,350m)". What a lake. It was the best of all. Full of minerals (mainly Calcium, Sulphur and Copper based elements) that give it a stunning texture and colour. But wait - there is more! Looming in the background is the massive "Volcano Licancabur (5,930m)", complete with summit-hugging cloud and reflection in the lake! Our driver was a champ and walked us out onto the lake to take the fabulous photo in this post.There are so many minerals that have precipitated in the lake that you can walk on them! Anything after this site would be hard to talk-up!

On our way back to the hot spring we stopped at the "Salvador Dali Rocks" - strangely shaped, huge boulders, that look like they have been strategically placed by aliens along a wide open valley. These rocks featured in many Dali paintings, hence the name.

Once back at the "Termas De Polques (4,200m)" hot spring we had a quick breakfast and jumped into the steaming pool to wake us up. The 30C water, full off minerals, did the trick. From here we departed 10am for our long drive back to Uyuni.

On the way we made several stops. The first was Laguna Colorada (the last lake we visited yesterday) for another photo shoot with thousands of Pink Flamingos! It was the best one since the flamingos and mountains were reflected in the still waters.

At 12:30pm we arrived in the small farming community of Billa Mar (Pop 100) where we had lunch at the only cafe. Outside potatoes and cechuan grew and Iliamas grazed. From here it was another 3-4hrs to get back to Uyuni.

Our final visit was the "Rocky Canyon (3,800m)", another enclave of massive orange basalt boulders, again some shaped like animals. After a brief stop in San Cristobal, we arrived at "Minuteman Pizzeria" in Uyuni at 6pm and farewelled our guide, Jamie and his great crew of 2 drivers and our cook. Our final day covered approx 470km. This pizzeria is famous as it is run by an American from Boston and the pizzas are the real deal, made in a wood-fired oven. It was a fitting end to a grand 4-wheel drive adventure.

What an expedition! A total of 3 days covering 850km, on dirt roads a-la Ozzie outback-style, through mud, rivers and tree-log bridges but with scenery so fabulous, it makes Australia look very ordinary!

Bolivia is literally "a country in the sky"' with a large chunk of the country above 3,000m (that's around 10,000ft - bloody Nora!).
In particular, Uyuni and Siloli are up there with Machu Picchu and an absolute "must-see" in South America!

I reckon the Siloli Desert is a sleeping giant from a tourist point of view and will one day become more famous than Machu Picchu because of its sheer beauty and grandeur!

Go Siloli! It is the surprise pick of my adventure to date.

NEXT BLOG: covers the exit from Bolivia and journey through Argentinian wine country (Salta and Mendoza) due 7MAR.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: 1) Again, well done Poonan! A fine job capturing the mad-cap, fluoro-blue, ozzie-Bondi-cozzie on the shores of what has to be one of the world's greatest geographical locations - the Salt Plain of Uyuni. 2) Thanks to Saul, our driver who made the fabulous "Double Volcano Photo" at Laguna Verde possible. 3) Thanks to Jamie for his info and accurate stats on all the sights in the Siloli Desert.

NOTES TO SELF: 1) I accidentally dropped my camera on the concrete floor of our dorm on the night of the 26FEB and discovered a black spec appearing in my finder (and photos) at certain zoom points when I started shooting the following morning. I died. I then proceeded to pray and tap the camera against my head just in case it was a loose fragment that I could dislodge - thank God it worked and the black spec disappeared shortly before I took the Laguna Verde photos - saved again! 2) Unfortunately my SD07, USB07, USB08, USB09 and my 4GB data stick all have a benign virus that appears as an "executable folder" and reproduces itself inside every other valid folder. When you reformat the USB it appears all over again. My laptop must have the original virus since when I stuck a brand new USB into it, the virus folder appeared on the new USB! The data on my laptop is clean but I cannot back it up or clean it with my AVAST virus software because AVAST quarantines the data as well as the virus file and I cannot get my data back. I will get someone to clean my laptop and USBs in the next big city. Fingers crossed. 3) Fresh milk is like gold in Bolivia. It simply is rare. I am sick of powered milk and the condensed crap! Cannot wait to get to Argentina. Vegies are also hard to get with potatoes and rice or cechuan (cereal) dominating every meal. Brown bread is also non-existant. 4) Bolivia is probably the best example of the Andes but it is a tough country to visit. They are early in the cycle of tourist friendly facilities. Public toilets are smelly, hostel and 2/3-start hotel accommodation is spartan and hot water is not always available. For the backpacker or adventure traveller it is tough. Upgrade if you can.

STOP PRESS: A very "Happy Birthday" to you Johnny Ioannou for 25FEB - I had no access to internet or phone to call you!