The symmetrical Volcan Licancabur, rising to almost 5,500m, dominates the arid landscape around the town. The crater sits entirely in Chile, while the lower slopes belong to Bolivia.
The desert border between Bolivia and Chile, sitting at 4,100m – is the most stunning border crossing I have ever been to. Immigration was a rather simple process – walk into a shack, pay 150 Bolivianos ($21) and get stamped. Why can’t all immigration formalities be like this? Then it was out of the minibus and into the 4x4s for the start of the trip into the Atacama desert towards Uyuni.
Sitting at 4,350m, Laguna Blanca was the first stop of the high-altitude lakes. The characteristic white colour of the water, that gave the lake its name, is caused by the high amount of minerals.
We drive further, and arrive at Laguna Verde. Sitting at the foot of Volcan Licancabur, at 4,300m is this aqua green lake. You may be able to find the odd flamingo, this time we weren’t too lucky.
Just around the corner from Laguna Verde, we stop to have a quick dip in hot springs; the water temp about 38º.
The deep-russet red of Laguna Colorada, sits at 4,500m. The lake contains borax islands, whose white colour contrasts nicely with the reddish color of its waters, which is caused by red sediments and pigmentation of some algae.
The lagoon is also a breeding ground for the rare James Flamingo. At this point I was starting to suffer from mild altitude sickness, how these survive in this altitude, with the extreme weather is mind-boggling to me.
Our refugio for the first night sat at 4,800m. Not only was there no electricity or showers, I also suffered altitude sickness the entire time and despite trying coca tea, coca lollies and chewing coca leaves, my thumping headaches persisted and I didn’t get a wink of sleep.
Day 2, we started to come down in altitude (thank god) and after a long drive we stopped off at the famous Arbol de piedra (Stone Tree), at about 4,600m.
We stopped off at another impressive lake, Laguna Honda, this time a more bearable 4,200m.
And the sun sets on another day in the Bolivian altiplano, at the front our refugio on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, approx. 3,800m.
The salar’s reputation lived up to the hype. These salt flats are the world’s biggest, stretching over 10,000 square km, elevation 3,600m. The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes and is covered by a few meters of salt crust.
The Salar isn’t just a tourist attraction – they do actually harvest the salt for commercial production. Under the crust is a pool of brine, which is rich in lithium – so this tourist attraction actually contains 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves. The Bolivian government is currently developing a production site for lithium to be in operation by 2012. I only hope they develop it with conservation in mind so that future generations can still enjoy the Salar as I have.
The island sits in the middle of the salar and is full of thousand-year old cacti. A walk to the top offers excellent views of the surrounding salar. It’s also called Isla de pescadores because it looks like a fish when approached from afar.
Last stop on the tour was the train cemetery just outside of Uyuni, which sat at normal elevation of 3,500m. The cemetery was relatively unimpressive, dirty, full of graffiti and rubbish-strewn. We made it to Uyuni just before the heavens opened up with thunder, lightening and rain.
All photos in this post were taken by the author and subject to copyright.