Freshly arrived in Bolivia, I went to discover one of the regions that I was the most looking for during my trip: the Sud Lipez and Uyuni Salt Flats. Incredible landscapes, huge deserts, multi-coloured lagoons, geysers, flamingos and lamas at every corner… I used the camera too much and will probably use too many superlatives in this post!
An epic arrival in Tupiza
Friday 27th April
I left Tarija at the beginning of the evening, arrived again in the middle of the night (2h30) after a tiring bus trip on sinuous mountain roads (people that suffer from motion sickness, be careful!). I was supposed to be able to sleep for a few hours in a hostel before starting the tour but there was a misunderstanding with the agency and I was not allowed to access to it… luckily it was finally possible to take shelter in the neighbour hostel, where I tried to get some rest after all these adventures.
3h later, I went to the agency Tupiza Natural Adventures, which I had chosen – once again – following the good tips of Gros Sacs. There I met Giny, Yohan and Léo, three Swiss with who I would share these 4 days, as well as our super guide, Hernan. Just some time to buy a bag of coca leaves – essential to fight altitude sickness and my tiredness after such a short night – and we were off!
As soon as we left, we started driving through amazing landscapes. We went up to the Quebrada de Palala and had our first stop at El Sillar, a viewpoint on the valley that set the tonefor the rest of the trip. We had another stop as we met our first lamas, in front of which we were all amazed!
We then went on to Ciudad del Encanto, where we had our lunch break. And what a unique place for that! We were at the feet of impressive rocks formations, which made us think we were in another world. The white rocks were contrasting with the perfectly blue sky, their height was vertiginous… it made me want to stroll and get lost for hours there.
Unfortunately it was already time to drive again as we still had a lot of kilometres to do on that first day. We went on to Pueblo Fantasma, the ruins of a village located 4 690 m high. The Spanish colonists had been exploiting the local populations there to extract copper, silver and other richness from the soil. However they were all decimated by huge epidemics, now leaving this strange ghost village atmosphere.
Our next step was facing Laguna Morejón, a viewpoint culminating 4 855 m high. I was not even suffering from headache (thanks to the coca) but could feel the lack of oxygen to breathe. But whatever, the view was splendid, illuminated by the end of the afternoon’s light. This same light would then be with us for the last kilometres leading to the refuge, giving a golden aura on the volcanoes o-in the background and the short vegetation in the foreground.
First night 4 200 m high
We arrived in our refuge at nightfall, helped our guides unpacking the cars and had a highly appreciated tea break to warm us up (temperatures get quickly cold at this altitude!) followed by an excellent dinner, while getting to know our travel mates (we were travelling with another car): 2 Americans, one Belgian and a French girl leaving in Montreal since 12 years; a nice multicultural team.
I literally collapsed in my bed after such a short night and long day, and did not even suffer from the cold – happily protected by my sleeping bag and the three blankets.
Lagoons, pink flamingos, lamas & co
Saturday 28th April 2018
A good night sleep and everything was going better! We had our breakfast and left early to explore the National Reserve of Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, which we had just entered the evening before. We had a first stop close to a lama pen (contrary to the vicuñas, the lamas are never wild), where we could watch them close and take as many pictures as we wanted. It was also the occasion to notice that they systematically chew from one side and then another, which definitely gives them this very amusing look (have a look at the short video below and you will immediately understand ;))
We then head up to the Hedionda Lagoon, a lagoon with the unpleasant smell of sulphurate but with an amazing reflection. We then went to the Kollpa Lagoon, where I could at last see my first flamingos. Once again I could have stayed hours long, observing their gracious way to fly and their swaying tread. Not even talking about the lagoons themselves, so beautiful! Unfortunately it was already time to leave, as the program of the day was really full.
We crossed the Chalviri Salt Flats and then went to bathe at the long-waited Aguas Termales de Polques. Two pools with a 35-degree hot water and an incredible view: pure happiness. The only problem was to get out of water, as we were feeling so great there!
We then did a short loop to discover the Desierto de Salvador Dalí, thus named for its landscapes that remind of the painter’s work of art. Once again, huge and breath-taking landscapes…
We then discovered the Laguna Verde, at the feet of Llicancabur volcano, which I had seen from the other side in San Pedro de Atacama. The lagoon was unfortunately not as green as it should have been (we had various explanations for this phenomenon, one being the lack of wind, another the pollution… how can we know!). It may not have been as colourful as it used to be but it was nonetheless amazing. Its smooth turquoise green colour, the volcanoes all around… such a wonderful scenery.
We went back to the Aguas Termales to have our lunch and then went on to geysers located almost 5 000 m high. They were even more impressive that we could really get close to them (at our own risks as they were no security measures), see the bubbles boiling, get lost in the steam… it was fascinating!
We finished our day as a climax at the Laguna Colorada, one of the places that stroke me the most during this tour. A huge burning red lagoon, the high mountains in the background, and most of all, hundreds of pink flamingos all around… it was magic. This day would definitely have impressed us a lot, but it is begrudgingly that we left; we could have stayed for hours contemplating this incredible place.
We ended up in a refuge located in the village of Villa Mar, where we could warm up with a most welcomed shower and another of these nice dinners prepared by Marise, our excellent cook. We were really spoiled and my vegetarian diet was always taken into account, which I appreciated a lot. Giny and me also spent a while chatting with our guide Hernan, who made us understand better how hard life is in Bolivia.
Rocks of all shapes
Sunday 25th April 2018
A day for the most imaginative minds was waiting for us: we went to discover various sites of more or less inspiring rock formations – it all depends on your imagination capacity. We started with a high rock reminding of the shape of the world cup, then a camel… and even the head of a warthog, which I found in Ciudad italia Perdida, a huge canyon where we could take some time stroll to explore the different sides.
Our road went on to Laguna Vinto where we had a short stop, before going to discover the gorgeous Laguna Negra. Another crush during this tour! Accessible after a short walk through some peat, this lagoon can be admired from high rocks where we could stay trudging for at least an hour. Lamas, numerous bird species, vizcachas (a kind of rabbit with rather small ears, a long tail and big back legs, almost reminding of the kangaroo) leave there and the mirror in the water was absolutely perfect. A real treasure!
After this wonderful stop, we went to discover the Cañon de la Anaconda, named like this for the sinuous river that is flows in this huge abyss. A vertiginous and quite impressive viewpoint! We then drove down through quinoa fields until the place where we had our lunch break, along a nice river in a beautiful green valley… such a variety of landscapes since three days!
As we were heading to the Salt flats, we had a stop at the village of Julaca, where there was a striking contrast between a ghost village and touristic oasis. Indeed, it is an old railway station that used to serve for the trains carrying borat between Chile and the Salt flats. An abandoned wagon, some industrial ruins and desert streets… and in the middle of this a small kiosk where some local beers (made with quinoa, coca…) are being sold and where all the 4×4 of the agencies offering tours in the region make a stop.
We finally finished the day at the highly awaited salt hostal, which walls, floors, tables and even beds are made out of salt. We didn’t have time to stay long, for we had asked to see the sunset in the salt flats and would certainly not miss this moment!
Sunset vs. full moonrise
The hostel was at the doors of the salt flats so we arrived very quickly there. And what a scenery was waiting for us! There was still water left at the entrance of the salt flats following to the rain season (January – February), reflecting the sun getting progressively down behind the mountains. Once the sun disappeared, we then admired the full moon rising on the other side, with a smooth pink sky… and unforgettable moment. Our feet were all frozen and in pain from the walk in the salt but we were all speechless after such a magic moment.
We had our last dinner around vegetarian lasagnes and Bolivian wine and then got some rest, in prevision of a very early morning wake-up (but for a good reason!).
The long waited Salt Flats
Monday 30th April 2018
Warmly equipped, we left our hostel at 5.15 a.m. to go to Isla Incahuasi, or Cactus island. As it is the only island at the heart of the salt flats, it is the ideal viewpoint to admire the sunrise. Another of these moments that one can never forget, with the sun slowly appearing, warming our frozen hands and illuminating the giant cactus all around us.