The Bolivian government has restricted the access of Chilean tour companies operating in Bolivia, presumably to keep money flowing into their tourist economy. This meant that our 12-strong group took a mini-bus to the border, before splitting into two groups of six and clambering into our 4×4 wheel drives – an absolute necessity for the terrain we would encounter on our tour. Having not taken normal steps to prepare myself the night before for getting up so early, I slept for most of the ride to the border. At one point when peeking out of the curtains I was treated to another incredible South American sunrise, something I don't think I'll ever become tired of. However, trying to take a photograph of the official at the Control Point proved to be a bad idea – I've never heard so many threats in one Spanish sentence. Welcome to Bolivia!
Our driver introduced himself as Edgar and explained that he would be our host for the next three days – driving the 4×4, explaining the sights, preparing our meals – you name it, he would be doing it. Little did we know that we would later come to know Edgar as Capitan Rapido, a name I bestowed on him after the first five hair-raising minutes of the capsule of speed that our four wheel-drive had become. As we hurtled along plains where roads didn't exist (but big rocks, potholes and Llamas certainly do) Edgar grinned madly as we brushed the sound-barrier and rolled over blind crests, praying that there would be no machine or animal on the other side.
Despite his enthusiasm for near-death experiences, Capitan Rapido was a skilled driver and led the rest of the 4×4's across the difficult terrain with confidence. He spoke no English but joked with us in Spanish and told us about his history as a tour guide in Peru, his time living in Brazil and his work driving Gringos around Bolivia's south. His family lived in Potosi, just over four hours away from our tour's last stop in Uyuni, making it difficult for him to see his two young children very often. Upon realising that Edgar had just one week of holiday each year from such a routine job made me appreciate how fortunate we are elsewhere in the world.
One puncture later, fixed partly (and intriguingly) by the Capitan's call of nature, we started making our various stops for Day 1. As the Capitan served the lunch he had so lovingly prepared, I tried to push earlier events from my mind and focus on the beauty of the surrounding volcanoes, lagunas, desert, flamingoes and so much more. Looking back through my photographs is a whirlwind of incredible scenery but I'll do my best to annotate them below.
Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde and some Flamingoes:
Tired from an early start followed by a day sightseeing, our group of 12 was reunited upon arrival at our first hostal, Huayllajara. Hundreds of kilometers from anywhere and isolated in the middle of the Bolivian desert we were denied the luxuries of Wifi or showers. Thankfully, a German surgeon called Jan encouraged us to warm up with a game of Charades, resulting in an evening of hilarity and inappropriateness. The altitude, combined with the fact that we were in the desert in a hostal with no wired electricity, made for a very cold night indeed. We woke up to a fine carpet of snow covering the sand and the sun stretching over the mountains on the horizon. Packed into our 4×4's we set off for Day 2 of the tour.
First stop was the Geyser Sol de la Mañana, which the entire group was excited for. Unfortunately, nothing was guaranteed as the extra snow at higher altitude made for dangerous conditions. After 30 minutes of careful scouting, Capitan Rapido blazed a path through the deep snow and got us to the bubbling, steaming and incredibly loud geysers. Although skeptical of any real danger at the time, our group later learned that another tour's 4×4 had rolled over in the snow and its occupants had been flown to hospital in La Paz. Another reminder for travellers to always be on watch for safe tour companies who put lives before cash.
That evening after another day packed with ghost towns, never-ending desert sand and Llamas we checked into the Hotel De Sal, otherwise known as the Salt Hotel. One of many similar hotels built for tourists visiting the Salt Flats, the entire structure is built with salt. Salt bricks, salt chairs, even the ground inside the hotel is a fine layer of salt crystals! After a spot of wall-licking and some dinner, followed by a few sneaky whiskeys, our group was ready for an early night. We gazed out from the hotel's front windows across the Salt Flats themselves, the highlight of our three-day tour and our last scheduled stop the following day before arriving in the town of Uyuni.
The Salt Flats of Uyuni or Salar De Uyuni is the largest Salt Lake in the world, covering over 10,000 square kilometers. Its formation is the result of the evaporation of several prehistoric lakes and it contains over 50% of the world's lithium reserves, which Bolivia is currently in the process of extracting. Our group spent an hour watching the sunrise before making our way to the Isla Incahuasi in the centre of the flats, dotted with cactuses up to 900 years old. Not only is the Salar an incredibly beautiful sight to behold, but its extraordinary flatness and pure white surface make it indistinguishable from the sky and clouds above. It is therefore perfect for taking photos with a play on perspective making objects and people look a lot bigger or smaller than they are. Making our way back out to the Salt Flats, the bright morning conditions were perfect for these photos and we spent a couple of hours making various ridiculous poses with different props. We reluctantly left the Salt Flats and after a brief stop at the eerie Cementario de Trenes we arrived in the small town of Uyuni.
Photos from the Salt Flats and Isla Incahuasi:
Having decided to make our way directly to the mining town of Potosi, we said goodbye to our guides and spent a few hours in Uyuni acclimatising to civilization once more before taking a cold, four hour bus north-west. For some of the group it was goodbye as some headed back to San Pedro and others made their way directly to Bolivia's capital, La Paz.
Keep an eye out for a short video I'm putting together with some footage from this incredible adventure. Until then, enjoy the photographs and leave any thoughts or feedback in the comments section below, I reply to them all!