Days: 319-320 (10 May 2015 – 11 May 2015)
Total distance travelled: 60,697.86 kilometres (37,700.53 miles)
The previous night (spent on the fringes of the Salar de Uyuni in the tiny community of Atulcha), we’d asked our guide what time we could expect the sunrise, to which he confidently responded with 6am.
With half of our party having retired early feeling a little unwell, that left three crazy fools (Myself and Sarah, along with our new Swedish friend Johan) to emerge around 5:40am, in the hope of watching the new days Sun emerge in a blaze of glory.
A little surprisingly, the horizon remained very dark, a suggestion that the sunrise remained some time away. The sky above, ridiculously clear, was almost as bright as a dull day, with the Moon the brightest of bright orbs you will see at this hour.
It was also fucking cold!
We’d all layered up as best we could, but Sarah would often retreat back indoors, only emerging for the odd update.
Johan and I took to running around on the spot, or he, in an effort to keep warm even resorted to sets of push ups!
After we’d braved the freezing cold for almost an hour, our 6:30am breakfast hit the table, so we abandoned the outdoors for the warmth and food within.
By the time we’d dined and re-emerged, the Sun had risen and our morning’s vigil had been for naught…
Time to pack our vehicle and get back on the road!
The landscape away from the salt flats was mainly rugged terrain, low scrub and the ever present mountains usually visible in at least one direction.
Occasionally we’d pass the odd small posse of Vicuñas, but otherwise there wasn’t a whole lot to see.
We’d turned away from Salar de Uyuni, and unbeknownst to us, our first real stop for the morning (we had stopped a little earlier in the last town in which we could buy snacks… the bathroom was popular, but nobody bought anything) found us right on the Chilean border.
Here, in the small town of Avaroa we were again on the railway line (there was also a land border crossing), which ran all the way through to the Pacific coast, terminating at the once Bolivian, now Chilean city of Antofagasta (Bolivia lost the territory in a war which concluded back in 1884).
This also made two mornings in a row that we’d begun proceedings with an exploration of rusted railway goods, and just like back at the Cemetario de Trenes, this was equally as interesting.
It was also a good example of the effects altitude apparently has on the bladder system, as every single member of our party again needed to devote some time here to the act of relieving themselves… however with no facilitrees, or lavatrees available, we used whatever cover we could find.
The pattern for the day had been set.
Long periods of driving through Martian like landscapes, followed by stops in some quite stunning locations, although the time between Avaroa and our next location, was probably the shortest trip for the day.
With a pockmarked, red rock terrain, and even the moon still present overhead (despite it being late morning), it really did feel like we could be on Mars, although the beautiful blue sky probably dispelled the illusion fairly quickly.
From where we were, we could even see across the border into Chile, and up towards the Volcan Ollague (volcano) with its smoking cone.
Bouncing along the unsealed road a little ways onwards, we startled another herd of Vicuñas and despite us spotting many other groups on, or near the road, this was probably the close we got to any single pack.
Believed to be the wild, parent species of either the Llama or the Alpaca (I forget which), this national animal of Peru is protected, and highly prized for the softness of its fur (worth ridiculously more than most other wool you will ever find).
Our next halt came at around 1pm, also serving as the location for our picnic lunch (where I again had to empty my bladder as a first priority).
It was another stunning spot, with more snow-capped mountains as our backdrop, and it was also where my eagle eyes spotted an Andean Hare with its Squirrel like bushy tail, nestled amongst the rocks.
We had expectations of sandwiches, or other travel fare, but when we were dished up a vegetable salad, some more Pollo Milanesa (crumbed chicken), potatoes and pasta, we were suitably impressed!
Oh, of course there was also more Coca-Cola…
And of course, the view wasn’t half bad either!
With a few of our posse still recovering from a variety of ailments, appetites remained a little thin, so it was left up to Johan and myself to pick up the slack (as in eat like pigs) to ensure the group continued to hold some level of respectability (in an excessive, western indulgence kind of way)!
Soon it was time to go, so as we munched on apples and sucked on some provided lolly pops (which had a heart of tough as it gets chewing gum), we went from one lake to another.
This other location however, despite the elevation and frigid waters, was home to a few species of Flamingos which were unfortunately not as pink as some of us had hoped (given that we’d spied some in wonderful pink hues back in Galapagos, it wasn’t as devastating for us)…
By the afternoon of this, our longest day on the road, the landscape again took on an alien feel, vast swathes of nothingness reminding us that this truly is a remote part of the world.
Occasionally a dust plume would be spied in the distance, as another vehicle, likely full of people just like us made its way, ferrying different people to the same places.
It was amazing given how many operators there are just in Uyuni (something like eighty tour offices), that despite the route being essentially the same, we really didn’t encounter that many other groups!
The aforementioned regularity with which our bladders needed to be emptied, combined with the bumpy terrain over which we drove saw me clinging on fear dear life as we finally pulled to a halt on a rise that overlooked a vast lake down below.
A collection of stone cairns, possibly built by tourists eager to feel intrepid immediately caught my eye, although my interest extended purely as far as which was most suitable for some privacy as I attended to business.
I felt a little less crude when again, all of our companions made the most of the same opportunity!
Our long day continued, and our next stop had us all intrigued, with descriptions roughly being translated as a rock tree.
We began to throw around ideas as to what it may be, and I clung to the hope with some excitement that we were actually about to visit a petrified tree!
Reality delivered probably the most disappointing moment of the whole tour, as instead we were presented with a jumble of rocks amidst the desert sands, one of which resembled the shape of a tree, but in fact, had never been one…
The afternoon wore on and the shadows lengthened, and we eventually came to a National Parks office where we were asked to pay our park entrance fee.
With this done, it was back aboard for another ten minutes or so as we made our way around the shores of the Laguna Colorado, a bright red (or pink) lake!
And for those disappointed earlier, this was their moment of redemption, as the Flamingos here, were most certainly pink!
The second red (or pink) lake that Sarah and I have seen (the Laguna Colorado was immense) was a pretty impressive way to finish up our second day.
After a warm dinner, a shared bottle of wine and many rounds of cards we retired early, as the mercury rapidly plummeted in our non-heated, dormitory style accommodation.
If we thought it was cold the previous morning, when we rose before sunrise for our third and final day, we knew it was cold.
Really fucking cold!
To our surprise (and joy), as we all sat shaking in the cold interior of our 4WD, suddenly our guide arrived and started handing out plastics bottles for each of us, filled to the brim with boiling water!
Oh how we all clung to those hot water bottles with relish!
Thankfully things were set to heat up pretty quickly today, and although there was none served up at breakfast, we can throw a bit of an eggy scent into the mix as well.
Our first stop as some of you may have guessed, was the Sol de Manana Geyser Basin, a collection of thermal geysers where the sulfurous scent was particularly unpopular with Sarah!
The fissures pouring steam into the air and the bubbling mud pits, they were pretty impressive, especially as the rising Sun’s rays began to filter through.
We hung around for a bit in the chill morning air, I managed to get a nice splash of thermal mud on my jeans, and then we were off, headed not too far to somewhere even hotter still.
Nope, this wasn’t a lava filled volcano.
Instead, up next was the Termas de Polques, an open aired thermal bath sat on the edge of a large lake.
Given the frigid morning air, everybody on board was a little tentative at first, but then we all though stuff it, how often do you get this sort of an opportunity?
No time for sugar coating, but as we got changed into our swimming gear, it wasn’t cold, it was fucking cold!
Suddenly, wearing almost nothing despite the cold morning (it had been -15 celsius when we rose), this was what confronted us.
It was hard to tell if there was more steam simply due to the cold air, or if the waters ahead were going to boil our skin off…
The first contact of skin with water suggested the latter.
But in time, we got ourselves under, and it was suddenly a morning of warming bliss.
Not to mention the first wash we’d had in a few days!
We hung for a bit, let our skin get a little wrinkly, then when it was time to get out, felt a little light headed!
That’s how hot it had been.
But as we donned our clothing again and suddenly found our previously essential coats too hot to bear, we realised how good it had been for warming our core as well.
That left one final stop on the itinerary before our group would be torn apart.
Four of us, ourselves and our two new Swedish friends would be transferring on to Chile, whilst our guide and the Dutch couple would be heading back to Uyuni.
But first came the Laguna Verde (Green Lake).
It was a pretty scenic finale.
This time however it was hard to dodge the tour groups, as with a much smaller morning window, it felt like we were jostling for position with other groups, each trying to take their last group photos.
Still, we managed to find enough space to get some in of our own.
From here it was to the border, which admittedly was one of the most picturesque we’ve seen (and most likely the highest we’ve crossed), whilst the remnants of our group disappeared into the dusty distance.
We think we got ridiculously lucky.
We had a great group who all got along and a wonderful guide (Saul was his name and although he didn’t speak much English, we all got by).
* Our 3 day/2 night salt flats tour cost us $800.00 Bolivianos per person, including transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
* The Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa entrance fee was $150.00 Bolivianos per person.
* There was a $6.00 Boliviano fee per person, for use of the bathrooms and changing facilities at the Termas de Polques.