Salt flats, geysers and lagoons far above the sea

After almost two months living in La Paz, I decided I needed to keep travelling. My time for this trip was running out and things in Bolivia were moving very slowly. So very very slowly. I had a rough plan of what I wanted to do before I made my way back to London – go to Uyuni, see some of Chile and see some more of Argentina, a country I’d loved so much when I visited it back in 2012 on my first solo adventure.

I booked myself on a three day tour of the southern Bolivian salt flats and said my goodbyes to the lovely people I’d befriended in La Paz and by Thursday I was on a night bus heading down to Uyuni.

I got to the town around 9am and had an hour to kill before leaving on the tour – I wandered around the centre, admiring the streetart and the wondering about the handmade signs up everywhere, and the smoking stacks of leaves and rubbish in the middle of the main roads. There had been a demonstration the night before, although I couldn’t get to the bottom of why, so I made my way back to the tour company, met my fellow passengers – two Brazilian boys and three French friends – and we set off in the 4WD with Beto our Bolivian guide.

Our first stop was the train cemetery and my interest in industrial art was piqued. The remains of the working trains for the salt were there, in their rusty, damaged glory for the crowds of other tourists to play on and take photos. Set against the deep, unending blue of the sky and the piercing whites of the flats, it was gorgeous to behold, even with the crowds of tourists – of which, of course, I was one.

We then went onto the salt flats itself, our group getting to know each other on the two hour trip. Everyone was so lovely – the three French friends had grown up together in Normandy, although they were now spread out across the country studying medicine and chiropratic. The brasillian guys were also friends from youth and bursting with life and joviality. All together, we made a great team, chatting, dancing in the backseat to songs from our iphones and snoozing. We had lunch that Beto prepared out the back of the 4WD and took our photos of saltflats, with the white ground meeting the blue sky makes for all sorts of photo opportunities.

Our next stop was the cactus garden in the middle of the flats – we decided to find a nice spot to chill out, take more photos and play card games, which all of us knew all the rules of, regardless of where we from. A little later, we ventured forth again, taking pictures at various beautiful spots along the way. We were heading towards our home made of salt for the night when our car got stuck in the mud. We started digging it out, but to no avail: we weren’t going anywhere and the sun was going down. We started putting layer upon layer of clothes on - it was heading down into the minuses - and gathering cactus wood to try and make a base for the 4WD to roll on. When that didn’t work, we tried to make a bonfire, using paper from my Spanish classes as tinder. Nothing worked but as the light began to fade, another tour group came to our rescue and took us to our hostel for the night. It was indeed, all made of salt and while it did have electricity, it only had freezing cold running water. I’ve never been so cold but we had a lovely warm meal of soup and roast llama meat washed down with Bolivian red wine and piled multiple sleeping bags on our beds, layered up in all our clothes and fell asleep quite toasty. 

We woke up early the next morning and looking outside, I imagined what it would have been like at the beginning of the world – for miles and miles around, there was nothing but the earth and the sky and the sun slowly rising before me. And our little hostel made from salt. By 8am we set off again, this time to visit all the many lagoons high above sea level. I was in the front seat this day and had an unencumbered view of our road – simply a path in the middle of valleys and peaks we went over. We saw no one for miles, except other 4WDs carrying tourists, occasionally passing us. And the views, the views: so completely beautiful. Driving along, viewing such beauty was meditative – with every mile we covered, the weight of La Paz melted away. I was able to see things more clearly and let them go – the immensity of the nature around me: the mountains, the sky, the absence of human life, seemed to help put things into perspective. 

We stopped at the various lagoons, each unique and each unendingly gorgeous. Flamingoes fed at most, seemingly undisturbed by their almost unreal surroundings. We sat, in silence, in reverence, viewing them, taking it all in.

Our tour continued, from lagoon, to mountain, to national park and we finally stopped again for the evening. We’d been in the car so long that we put music on really loudly and danced around the vehicle, sharing some of the rum that the Brazilian guys had bought and them teaching us all some new dance moves.

Other groups had joined us by that stage and we all went for dinner in our hostel. This one only had electricity for three hours. And that was fine. We ate and Beto taught us a new card game – a variation on snap – and at one point, we were calling out the cards in each of our respective languages: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Japanese and German. Ah cards, the great uniting force.

We started at 5am the next morning and reached the Solar de Manaña geysers just before dawn. The earth was bubbling up before us, with heat and life and sulfur fumes and, with a  slight warning from Beto to not go too close to the edge, we jumped out and examined them, getting as close as we dared. We stopped at some thermal baths and even though it was even colder than any of the previous few days, I changed into my bikinis and jumped in – it was amazing and warm and the steam from the baths was rising up and the dawn was breaking and it felt a little like heaven. And not just because none of us had been able to have a bath in two days. The joy.

It was one of our last stops before we went our separate ways – at the Bolivian border, we took a few more pictures, hugged, and said our goodbyes. The Brazilians were going back to Uyuni and the French friends were on a different bus to me headed towards Chile. Such a wonderful team – and again, I felt so lucky to have met great people.

I jumped on my bus and bumped into the two English girls I’d met in Uyuni – Lisa and Lara – and started chatting to another girl, Gisele, who was also from London. As we travelled from the mountains of Bolivia, down to the border and into San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, the weather began to change dramatically – it started becoming warm again and there was a tangible shift to the way things were to Bolivia. The air was lighter, it felt safer, the sun was warming. It was good to have left it, even despite everything I’d gained there.  

I had less than two weeks to go and two countries to cover and the journey continued...