Southwest Bolivia tour

Post written by Mark

People often describe the tour of Southwest Bolivia as the “salt flats tour”, but this is a misnomer, as the salt flats themselves are but one of an array of incredible sights on a three or four day jeep excursion. Indeed, at present the Bolivian tourist agency is trying to get one of the other landmarks, the Laguna Colorado (more below) listed as one of the new seven natural wonders of the world. The reality is that the real wonder is the range of incredible natural sceneries, each appearing one after the other in the front window of our Land Cruiser.

We chose to do a four day tour starting in Tupiza, a real Wild West kind of town, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stayed for a short time before being reputedly gunned down a few miles away by the Bolivian army.

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Very quickly the car ascended out of Tupiza (already 3,000 metres above sea level) to pass strange rock formations…

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…marsh land…

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…several llama estancias (the colourful earrings are to help identify the owner of each llama)…

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…and rare wild vicuñas…

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…before coming across a series of beautiful lakes, teeming with flamingos. These photos are from lagunas Cerillos and Polulas.

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(By the way, there are no fish up here – the flamingos eat algae growing in the lake).

First stop on the second day was the Desierto de Dali, a Martian-like landscape, the rocks stained by sulphur from the volcanoes, so named as it resembles the backdrop of a painting by Dali. In fact, some think that Dali must have visited the site as a child, though this has not been proven.

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Before lunch we stopped at an idyllic hot spring for a bath. Our driver was always keen to leave slightly earlier than other tour groups and drove faster, so we had the pools virtually to ourselves.

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We then continued climbing to 5,000 metres (chewing great wads of coca to ward off the altitude sickness) to see some geysers and bubbling mud pools. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. The heat of the earth was intense beneath our feet and it was possible to stand directly over the boiling mud pools watching the splatter and steam.

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The day finished at the potential “natural wonder of the world” site, the Laguna Colorado. This lake has, as a result of the mix of volcanic minerals in its water, developed a rare algal bloom that turns the water rust red. Borax in the water solidifies and forms structures that look like ice shelves on the water. Together with the flamingos that enjoyed showing off in front of our camera, the effect was magical.

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Day three contained the Desierto de Siloli with wind carved volcanic boulders and more beautiful lagoons, including the Laguna Negro, named after the black fungal growths.

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Also at the Laguna Negro were these rabbit-like creatures that could climb! This one was about eight metres up!

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The final day was spent on the salt flats themselves. The salt flats are vast, 10,582km square in area, but is the remnant of a much larger prehistoric saline lake, which dried and deposited the salt as it did so. The old lake remains, hidden under a thick crust of salt.

We awoke before dawn in order to see the sun rise over the plains. This is our tour group enjoying the experience but getting very cold in the process!

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Breakfast was had on one of the “islands” in the salt flats. These cacti are several hundred years old and up to 12 metres high.

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We then took the obligatory trompe l’oeil photos. They are surprisingly hard to perfect, but these are our best attempts.

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One of the surprising things to me about the tour was the amount of agriculture and industry that we saw along the route. One would think that in such a harsh environment, where the days are hot and the nights below freezing it would be tough to get anything done. But there were estancias herding llamas for their fur and meat (dried and made into charqui), settlements collecting the minerals from the lakes for export to Chile (borax for porcelain and toughened glass, and another mineral for shampoo), a geothermal power station, mines, and of course the collection of salt for Bolivian and Chilean tables and chemical industries. The salt flats also contain something like 50-70% of the worlds lithium reserves. These photos are of one of the early silver mine settlements (with reputedly the oldest Catholic Church) and of the old railway, which brought salt to Chilean markets.

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Our food was cooked by Reyna (who, bless her, burnt her face on the second night when a dodgy gas oven blew up on her). Bolivian food is definitely not the country’s strong point; it is usually very simple, stodgy and bland, although the produce in the markets is often fresh and excellent. While Leila goes crazy for the fruit, a highlight for me was the potatoes. I love a good spud, and in Bolivia there are hundreds of varieties.

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Pique a la macho is a classic Bolivian dish and a good example of the typically rustic cuisine. Onions, peppers, tomatoes, llama meat, garlic and chillies are all bunged into a pot together, then served with hard boiled eggs, frankfurters and chips. Leila was reminded of the kind of “splodge” her father likes to make after scouring the reduced items shelf at supermarket.

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One of the highlights of Reyna’s repertoire was this cute heart-shaped cake – especially since baking is very difficult at altitude!

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She also made us llama lasagne; we began to develop a taste for llama meat, which is like a cross between beef and lamb but much leaner – actually quite tasty. When we arrived in the town of Uyuni after the end of the tour, we couldn’t resist a llama and pesto pizza from the famous Boston outpost, Minuteman Pizza.

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Overall an incredible and unforgettable trip in a beautiful and underrated country.

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One response to “Southwest Bolivia tour

  1. Mark, you are a very expressive writer. Good stuff! The photos are amazing and some are incredibly creative and clever!

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