We took three days for this on a private tour with driver and guide stopping in the Tayka Hotels (see separate reviews). We had made the original booking through an agent in UK who had used Crillon Tours to make all the bookings in Bolivia. we understand they used an agent in Sucre to book the trip from San Pedro de Atacama across the Salar de Uyuni to Potosi and then Sucre. This is not a cheap option but guarantees you a comfortable journey with en suite accommodation. We were very lucky with our driver and guide who gave us a memorable trip. Apart from a railway and road built for mine traffic there are no roads across the Salar. Drivers navigate using the mountains to find their way. Each driver has his own preferred route and there are many tracks criss crossing over the desert. We often saw the dust from other vehicles in the distance but actually saw few other vehicles close to. There are no signs and GPS doesn’t work up here. It would be very easy to lose your way and the Bolivian Government recommends all excursions have an official driver .
We had spent 4 nights in San Pedro de Atacama to acclimatise to the altitude and apart from Michael having problems sleeping at night we weren’t affected by the altitude - as long as we remembered to TAKE IT SLOWLY and in our excitement not to set off at our usual speed.
We had an early start to be first in the queue at the border control in San Pedro. It was a steady climb up the side of a deep river valley to the border crossing, a small shed in the middle of nowhere at 4480m. The customs official stamped our passport and exchanged our remaining Chilean Money into Bolivianos. Toilet facilities are behind an old bus dumped in the middle of the desert. Unless you are desperate, wait until the admin office of Eduardo Avoroa National Park which does have proper toilets.
This is desert country surrounded by the peaks of volcanoes. None are active although some have fumaroles which ‘steam’ gently. The colours were amazing from white (borax), yellow (sulphur) Red (iron) to blue green (copper) with shades of orange and brown between. It was a short drive to the LAGUNA BLANCA (White Lagoon). The water was a pale blue grey colour from all the borax and there were large white deposits of borax along the shore. The edges of the lagoon were still frozen from low overnight temperatures. The track crossed the frozen outlet which flowed into the LAGUNA VERDE (Green Lagoon) on the other side. There are high concentrations of copper salts giving it its colour. Most of the lagoon was still in the shade of the volcanoes so there were only small patches of colour in the sunlight.
We gradually climbed to the DALI DESERT, so called because of its surreal colours and remains of eroded stones from old lava flows now isolated in sand. Our lunchtime stop was at CHALBERI LAGOON, another borax lagoon which had a small hot pool at the edge of the lagoon which is popular with tourists and backpackers. There is a small building providing basic accommodation, showers and toilet facilities for backpackers and tours. We continued to climb to 5000m (the highest point of the day and in fact the whole trip) before crossing a pass where the sign proclaimed 4885m. We stopped for the cauldera of the SOLDE MANANA VOLCANO with its fumaroles and bubbling mud pools. There was a strong smell hydrogen sulphide everywhere. We were told we couldn’t stop long as carbon monoxide present.
It was then on to LAGUNA COLORADO (Red Lagoon) which gets its colour from algae in the water. This is a U shaped lagoon and we drove to the top bit between the two arms for view. There were borax deposits round edge and the water was a deep salmon pink on one side and deep red on other. There were lots of flamingos. The final stop of the day was the SILOTHI DESERT, a flat area of stone with lots eroded rocks. Everyone stops to take a picture of the ‘Stone Tree’ . This is now surrounded by fence to stop people climbing over it. In fact we thought some of the other eroded rocks were more impressive and were much larger. We saw huge clumps of YARETA growing on rocks. This is only found growing in South America at altitudes between 3200-4500m. It is very slow growing; an estimated 1mm a year. It forms very dense hard clumps which are firm to the touch. It has a high resin content which makes it combustible. It was used for heating and cooking, but is now a protected species. We were very sad to see vandals had carved their names on several clumps which were beginning to die.
We continued over bare sand and rock desert with little vegetation to Quetena Grande with HOTEL DESIERTO built in middle nowhere surrounded by desert and mountains where we stopped the night. We were told different altitudes - some were over 4800m others a more reasonable 4500m (perhaps so as not to frighten the tourists too much) so altitude could be a problem if you haven’t acclimatised.
Next day we headed to San Pedro de Quemez. This was a much shorter drive although it lacked the variety and jaw dropping splendour of yesterday. We left Quetena Grande and drove across across sandy/stony desert with little of no vegetation following an old water course through a narrow, steep sided gorge. We followed the line of the Chilean/Bolivian border past a series of small lagoons, backed by volcanoes and with huge white deposits of borax round them. The lagoons gradually got smaller as there is less rainfall on this part of the Salar. There were still a few flamingos around but most had now left for the summer. We drove past CANAPA LAGOON, the last lagoon we would see on the Salar with our final views of flamingos, Andean duck and avocets. It was a beautiful view across the pale blue grey water to the red, pink and orange mountains catching the sunlight. There was green vegetation round the edge of the lagoon as well as large deposits of borax. We went past several dried up lagoons with just borax deposits - all blamed on global warming... We began to see more and more borax flats as far as the eye could see.
After bumping along on tracks for the last 36 hours we had the luxury of driving along a short stretch of paved road, built to carry silver from the mines to the Chile coast before taking to unmarked tracks again. We also crossed the railway line which has one train at night.
The borax flats were broken up by an area of lava flows forming rocky ridges across the landscape and later on by a coral desert with sharp jagged rocks.
We eventually reached SAN PADRE DE QUEMEZ, a small village in middle nowhere where we stopped the night in HOTEL DE PIEDRA. The area around here is good for growing quince and there were large square fields. Families are given land by the government. They don’t own the land and it reverts to to the government when they no longer want to cultivate it. Quince is a seed which can be cooked like rice and thrives in dry conditions at altitude. The flower heads are red when young and turn yellow as the seeds ripen. The whole plant is pulled out and left to dry in rows. The dry stem and leaves are dug back into soil as fertilisers well as llama dung. The seed is winnowed like wheat. The village have a communal plough.
The old town was built on a bluff above the plateau. It was destroyed when Chileans set fire to it in 1920s. The remains of the stone houses with narrow paved streets between them can still be seen as it would be disrespectful to pull them down. The new settlement grew up later and was built below bluff so it couldn’t be seen. It has a small square surrounded by low adobe houses. Traditionally these had grass roofs but many now have corrugated iron. Many of the houses are no longer lived in and are shut up. On one side of the square was a courtyard with a small white washed church with separate bell tower. In the corners of the courtyard were small adobe chapels where candles are lit when someone dies. The school was on edge town and there was a large football pitch of bare earth. Football is very important in Bolivia. Above the new village were some small terraced fields with a large ‘pond’ to collect any rainwater.
Leaving San Pedro de Quemez a behind we lost the quinoa fields and drove through scrubby vegetation before the borax flats took over again. Very little vegetation can survive these conditions. Salt gradually began to appear among the borax and could be recognised by the way it glistened as sunlight was reflected by the salt crystals. We drove along the edge of the salt salt flats. To one side was a low ridge of hills to the other salt and borax as far as the eye could see. bottom of a low ridge of hills.
We stopped to visit Galaxia and Devil’s Caves in a scarp of the hillside covered with columnar stromalite growths which look like cacti. DEVIL’S CAVE is a pre Incan cemetery from about 500-800A. A narrow entrance leads into the cave with the graves which were either dug into the bedrock or else built up from coral. Each grave had a small square entrance and could contain several bodies. The bodies were buried in the foetal position wrapped in a blanket with jewellery. The remains of skeletons or mummified bodies can still be seen in some of the graves. GALAXIA CAVE was discovered in 2002 when two locals dug into the cliff face looking for another pre Incan cemetery. Instead they found a cave with fossilised algae hanging down from the roof. Many looked like thin plates, others like fossilised leaf skeletons. They put in electric lights and opened as a tourist attraction. The cave is still privately run by the families. It receives no government aid and is not in the guide books or on the typical tourist trail. It is well worth visiting.
By now we had lost the borax and were driving across pure salt. It may sound silly but the salt flats are completely flat and stretch to the horizon - a mass of gleaming white. The rainy season had finished and by mid April the flats were beginning to dry out and crack into the typical hexagonal shapes. Remains of old volcanoes stand up as islands above the salt. The mirage effect makes distant islands appear to float.
It was a surreal drive across the salt flat with a few isolated cairns marking route to ISLA INCA HUASI (fish Island). We saw no other vehicles on the drive - there was just us in the massive landscape. We now understood how easy it would be to get lost....and die in the salt flats. We had lunch in the restaurant (good) and went up the steps to a viewpoint across the Salar. A rough track continued over the top of the island. We were warned this involved scrambling over lumps of coral and would not be not good for my knees. The island is covered with tall columnar cactus, some 3m high and 30cm diameter. They only start to produce branches when 100-150years old. The top spines are softer and paler to absorb moisture. Older spines are long and harder. By the time we left all the tours had arrived from Uyuni and the island was getting very busy.
We had another 30-40min drive across Salar. Gradually the hills around Uyuni began to appear as a thin line on the horizon. We saw the building of the original salt hotel in the middle of the Salar surrounded by nothing but salt. This is now closed because of environmental concerns. We stopped to see the “EYES OF SALT” Mineraliferous water draining off volcanoes meets salt water and produces a chemical reaction. Oxygen is produced which bubbles up through the brine.
We had a brief stop to see the salt extraction at COLCHANI. Once the rainy season has finished the surface of the Salar is soft and locals rake the surface of the salt to break it up. The salt is collected into piles surrounded by a square area which was still damp. The salt is harvested until the surface is too hard and dry to be raked. The salt is collected in trucks and taken to the village where it is ground, dried and bagged. There is no attempt to purify or add iodine. 50kg salt sells for £1 - a small return for the hard manual work.
Colchani is a small settlement of scruffy houses made from blocks of salt. Several stalls were set up outside the houses selling souvenirs made of salt - ash trays, candle holders, llamas.... There were also small animals carved from marble and a range of hand made craft items all very reasonably priced.
By now we had left the Salar behind and drove across scrubby desert through Uyuni to the TRAIN CEMETERY. Uyuni had been a major railway junction with workshops and locos and rolling stock had been brought here awaiting repair....and are still waiting. It was a sad place with lots of locos and rolling stock just left to rot and become covered with graffiti.
UYUNI is a sprawling settlement with a lot of haphazard new development around the outskirts made from local brick. It is designed on a grid pattern with wide streets. In the centre is the clock tower and large civic offices surrounded by small shops selling water, craft work, post cards as well as lots of backpackers looking for tours of the Salar.
All in all an amazing 3 days.