Southern Bolivia and the Salt Flats

On our last day in Salta, we met up with Hannah and Scott, our friends from Sydney and travel buddies for the next week. We enjoyed a night catching up on what we were missing back home and sharing some of our stories from the road over huge Argentinian steaks and delicious red wine.

The next day we made our way to Tupiza, Bolivia via a 7 hour bus and the most relaxed border crossing I’ve ever experienced, before jumping in a taxi which would take us the final hour to Butch Cassidy Hostal – our surprisingly luxurious lodgings for the night.

Tupiza truly is the Wild West of Bolivia, with dirt roads, towering red hills surrounding the town and a unique blend of Mexican and terrible American-style food joints. This was the location for my 28th birthday. To officially ring in the big 2-8, we celebrated with some delicious Torrontes white we’d brought with us from Cafayate for the occasion and the four of us watched the sun set over the town.

Rising bright and early the next day, we were ready to set off on our four day journey from Tupiza to Uyuni. The trip would take us from Bolivia’s border with Argentina right across almost to Chile and San Pedro de Atacama before heading north towards flamingo-filled lagoons and Bolivia’s famous Salt Flats.

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Our 4X4 hits the road as we explore Southern Bolivia

By car, Bolivia is HUGE so it took a massive 14 hour day to get from Tupiza to our first nights accommodation. Along the way we drove through winding gorges that took us up more than 1000m in altitude in less than a couple of hours. We lunched in the shadow is soaring rock formations that looked like something from another planet – or at the very least, a fantasy film set. Our last stop for the day was at a ghost town, abandoned by the locals and now used mainly for tourist photo opportunities.

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These amazing rock formations appeared almost out of nowhere and seem like they belong on another planet

Around 9pm we finally arrived at our accommodations and gratefully fell out of our 4×4 to stretch our very stiff legs. Our day wasn’t over yet though, as the stars came out to show off for us shortly after nightfall. The boys were in photography heaven, capturing perfect shot after perfect shot of the Milky Way in all its glory, without the usual city lights to interfere.

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Endless starry skies

The second day was to be our biggest in terms of ‘sights’ so we set off early to make sure we had plenty of time to take in Bolivia’s natural beauty. Only a few kilometres away, we hit a roadblock as dozens of llamas casually strolled across our path and gave us our first impromptu stop of the day. Beautiful blue-tinged mountains and lush green grass provided the perfect backdrop for the animals to lazily munched on their breakfast while we ran around as calmly as we could, trying to get just that little bit closer.

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Getting up close with the ubiquitous llama

Eventually we reluctantly said goodbye to our new four-legged friends (who really didn’t seem bothered either way) and headed on to explore Bolivia’s beautiful lagoons. Our route took us to five stunning lagoons, each more beautiful than the last, including Laguna Helionda and Laguna Koloa where we got our first glimpses of flamingos (and lost hours trying to get the perfect pink-feathered shot).

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Flamingos enjoying Bolivia’s lakes almost as much as we did

What followed were the three coloured lagoons – the White Lagoon, perfectly positioned against creamy marble-toned mountains and the gorgeous but deadly Green Lagoon which looks pretty but gets its colour from arsenic.

Our final (and best) stop for the day was the Laguna Colorada or Red Lagoon, aptly named for the reddish hues the water takes on in the afternoon sun. Here we had to resist the urge to delete all of the flamingo photos we’d taken throughout the day as we hit the jackpot. Here, thousands of flamingos were scattered across the lake, adding pink polka dots to the Lagoon’s already picturesque shores.

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Laguna Colorada with its pink accents

Undisturbed by visitors (or perhaps just hungry enough to ignore us), we managed to get within metres of these amazing colourful creatures and observe them in their natural environment. We’d been hopefully of seeing flamingos but knew the notoriously-shy birds would go out of their way to avoid us. We were never expecting to be able to get so close or stay for so long enjoying being near them.

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These guys were unfazed by our arrival (and excitement)

Eventually the dropping sun and temperatures forced us back to the 4×4 so we could warm up and recharge ready for Day 3 of our epic overland adventure.

Our third day was all about flamingos.After a quick stop off at the arbour rock and some other cool rock formations we headed towards four lagoons filled with flamingos. Jumping out of the car, we slowly followed the shoreline of each lagoon, admiring the flamingos as  they picked their way across the shallows. Afterwards we stopped off for lunch in a lava field, climbing in and amongst the unique rock formations and admiring the volcano responsible with awe.

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Chilling in the lava fields 

We arrived at our final night’s accommodation at a salt hotel and dove gratefully into the first shower we’d come across in our three days on the road. We enjoyed a delicious dinner on furniture also made from salt bricks before turning in early in preparation for our 4am start to catch sunrise on the Salt Flats.

We awoke with the sky on our final day, and set out across the Salt Flats for sunrise. As we drove, our tour guide Raul told us that we’d come at the wrong time of year for truly amazing sunrises. ‘Is no good’ he said, in his broken English, ‘is better in wet season’, before showing us an envy-inducing shot on his crappy cellphone, with the Salt Flats covered in water and the sunrise above reflected below.

Trying to stay positive, we focused on the inky blacks and blues along the horizon, which slowly brightened to muted pinks and oranges. We followed the lead of the other 4x4s ahead of us and found our own little patch of salt. Jumping out of the car, we were happy Raul had been proved wrong (or at least a pessimist) and settled in to watch the sun’s daily routine as it broke over the horizon.

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The start of our day on the Salt Flats

Seeing the sun slowly emerge and spread across the Salt Flats was mesmerising. The endless white plains slowly changed from grey to orange, pink to brilliant white before our eyes, lighting up the surrounding mountains and revealing previously hidden islands scattered across the Salt Flats.

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We were still pretty stoked with our sunrise

Once the sun was well and truly up, we headed towards one of these islands, Isla Incahuasi for a different perspective on the Salt Flats. The Isla was scattered with hundreds of cacti and a handful of friendly llamas, so we wandered slowly, enjoying the landscape as it stretched before us.

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Views across the Salt Flats from Isla Incahuasi

Eventually it was time for a few token perspective photos (and then a few more) before piling back into the car for our final destination, Uyuni. Driving across the Salt Flats and back to town gave us a glimpse of just how huge and how stark the landscape truly is. It gave us time to reflect on some of the amazing sights we’d enjoyed over the four days of our journey and how rich Southern Bolivia’s desert actually is.

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Playing with perspectives on the Salt Flats

Arriving in Uyuni, we were sad to see the end of our four day adventure and say goodbye to our travel buddies, Scott and Hannah (although, it turned out, only until the next day in La Paz) but any sadness was quickly forgotten the moment we could fall gratefully into our hotel beds for some much needed sleep.

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