Sunday, January 14, 2018

We Visited ‘SALAR DE UYUNI’ salt flats of Bolivia 11 to 13 May

Back to blogging after a long time ……..

After a very relaxing stay in Lake Titicaca we drove back to La Paz and spent a delightful evening at the hotel. Very early next morning we took a flight to Uyuni, located 410 Km South of La Paz. Uyuni is a small town situated in the middle of nowhere which acts as a staging post for tourists visiting the salt flats. Tourism is the main source of income.
We booked with the ‘Red Planet Expeditions’ for our three days tour of the salt flats. Salar de Uyuni is part of the Altiplano of Bolivia. The Altiplano is a high plateau, which was formed during uplift of the Andes Mountains. The plateau includes fresh and saltwater lakes as well as salt flats and is surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlets.

Figure 1 - Fascinating trip

Visiting salt flat was a major item in our must do list. Friends who had visited the Salt flats had cautioned us about the extreme conditions under which we have to travel. Uyuni is located at a height of 12,000 ft and the tour reaches a height of 16,600 ft. In addition to the omnipresent altitude sickness we had to face sub zero temperature and extremely strong wind. Due to its desolate and remote location, the Red Planet had warned us in advance about our extremely basic accommodation and food.

Four of us and two youngsters from Netherlands travelled together in a Toyota land cruiser. After an extensive briefing we departed Uyuni. The salt flats are one endless sea of salt covering a mind blogging 10,582 square kilometers. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average elevation variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in Lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world's known lithium reserves. The Salar is virtually devoid of any wildlife or vegetation. The only vegetation that can be seen is the giant cacti reaching up to 40 feet.  On a still day, the thin layer of water covering the salt forms a giant mirror reflecting the sky.

Travelling endlessly from one attraction to another was an integral part of our visit. In all we covered 1400Km of salt flats in three days. We stayed in houses entirely built with salt bricks, including the dining tables, chairs and beds. We chewed lots of coca leaves to overcome high altitude sickness, drank endless amount of water and ate very frugally throughout our stay. Sleeping was yet another big issue. In spite of four layers of clothing, blanket and a sleeping bag, nights were unbearable. The mirror like flat surface gave us unlimited opportunity for trick photography.  The temperature varied from +5 to – 4 deg C. The strong wind tears into your body. One must always park your car facing the wind or risk your door being blown away with the wind as one tries to get out of the car. I endured a bit of gum bleeding at 16,600 ft on top of an extinct volcano. We were able to frequently sight the local animal life – James Flamingo, Culpeo. Llama and Alpaca. Incidentally James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” was extensively filmed in the Salt Flats.

The most fascinating aspect of our trip was the images of snow capped mountains, hills in various hues of colours entrapped between clear blue skies and the salt flats. Watching sunset and gazing at the star filled night sky also kept us busy.

In spite of all the hardship, visit to the salt flats was a rare and memorable experience.

Day 1

Figure 2 The companions

“Great Train Graveyard” 

Uyuni has long been known as an important transportation hub in South America and it connects several major cities. In the early 19th century, big plans were made to build an even bigger network of trains out of Uyuni, but the project was abandoned because of a combination of technical difficulties and tension with neighboring countries. The trains and other equipment were left to rust and fade out of memory.

Figure 3 At the graveyard

Figure 4 Getting Cozy

Figure 5 Sushama all excited

Figure 6 - Rail tracks to nowhere

Figure 7 - Futile attempt

Figure 8 – Alpacas grazing

Colchani to witness how the salt is processed. 

Colchani is a tiny, one street town situated on the edge of the Tunupa Salt Flat, 80 km (50 miles) northwest of Uyuni. The only salt-making facilities using salt from the Salar de Uyuni are located in Colchani – a cooperative joint-owned by all salt workers. There is an estimated 10 billion tonnes of salt contained in the Salar de Uyuni, with around 25,000 tonnes excavated and processed at Colchani annually.

Figure 9 - A typical salt house

Figure 10 - Colorful market place

Figure 11 - At the factory

Figure 12 - Mine owner busy with his work

Figure 13 - A salt monument

Playa Blanca salt hotel 

Figure 14 - Posing after a good lunch

Figure 15 - Flags on display outside the hotel

At the Salt Flats and crazy photography

Figure 16 - Evolution of humans

Figure 17 - Carrying my travel companions

Figure 18 - Jurassic experience

Figure 19 - Wine break

Figure 20 - Lifting Rita

Figure 21 – It can’t get any better - a roll on the bottle

Figure 22 - A spoonful of lunch

Trichocereus cactus

For most Salar de Uyuni tours, the main destination is the spectacular Isla Incahuasi, otherwise known as Inkawasi, in the heart of the Salar 80km west of Colchani. This hilly outpost is covered in Trichocereus cactus and surrounded by a flat white sea of hexagonal salt tiles.

Figure 23 – Amazing growth of cacti

Night view

Figure 24 - Jumping with joy

Figure 25 – Chances of confusing the plains with sea

Day 2

 Chiguana desert- We visited Sol de Mañana

This desert is surrounded for many volcanoes…like dormant ones, extinct ones . We visited Sol de Mañana, meaning Morning Sun in Spanish, which is a geothermal field in south-western Bolivia. It stands at a height of 16,600ft. The short stay was punctuated for me when I started to bleed in the gums. The guide had to rush me down to lower altitude to stop the bleeding.

Figure 26 - At a distance

Figure 27 - Photo op

Figure 28 - The geyser point

Figure 29 - Incredible sights of the Andes

Andean lagoons

Flamingos gather here by the hundreds to drink the mineral rich water

Figure 30 - A lovely sight

Lunch at the Echo Hotel

Figure 31 - Very colorful to contrast the desert

Figure 32 - Beautiful Bolivian Lady

Figure 33 - Very basic and frugal lunch

Figure 34 - A lonely Culpeo

Figure 35 - Captivating beauty

Figure 36 - Unforgettable sights

Figure 37 - Sharing a quiet moment

Figure 38 - A memorable trip. drive back