A Travellerspoint blog

May 2019

Salar de Uyuni

Fun on the world’s largest salt flat


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After our long stays in Chile and Argentina, it was time to move on to a new country. Our bus brought us across the border to Bolivia and over a bumpy unpaved road to Uyuni. Bolivia immediately felt different from previous countries. The Andean culture and traditions are strong here, compared to the westernized Chile. Many women in Uyuni wore traditional colorful clothing and a dark skin color was the norm among the local population. Uyuni is a fix point of most tourist itineraries through Bolivia because of its proximity to the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. After one night’s rest in town, we also departed on a two-day tour of the awesome salt flat.

All tours have more or less the same itinerary, so despite the fact we booked a private tour, our first stops were full of people. The first stop was at the train cemetery a few kilometers outside of Uyuni, where trains were discarded in the middle of the 20th century when the local mining industry collapsed. After that, we stopped in Colchani where the salt extracted from the salt flat is processed. All these stops were so crowded that it was hard to enjoy.

Sam standing on an old train outside of Uyuni

Sam standing on an old train outside of Uyuni

Train cemetery outside of Uyuni

Train cemetery outside of Uyuni

It all changed as we drove out on the salt flat. The place is so enormous, that we quickly lost sight of anyone else and found ourselves alone, surrounded by nothing but whiteness below and the blue sky above. The Salar the Uyuni spans more than 10’500 square kilometers (more than a quarter of the area of Switzerland) and is still growing every year. It is estimated to contain 10 billion tons of salt, among with roughly half of the world’s known lithium reserves (the stuff in the battery of the device on which you are probably reading this), though there are currently no large-scale mining efforts. We spent half an hour biking on the Salar, before we stopped for our private lunch in the middle of the salt flat. A truly awesome place to eat lunch.

Marta riding a bike on the Salar de Uyuni

Marta riding a bike on the Salar de Uyuni

Sam and Marta eating lunch on the Salar de Uyuni

Sam and Marta eating lunch on the Salar de Uyuni

A must when on the Salar de Uyuni is to make some funny photos, as the uniform whiteness of the surrounding make it easy to play with perspective. Here are some of our favorite photos:

Marta shooting small Sam with a slingshot

Marta shooting small Sam with a slingshot

Sam and Marta sitting on a giant wine bottle

Sam and Marta sitting on a giant wine bottle

Sam and Marta on the Salar de Uyuni

Sam and Marta on the Salar de Uyuni

The next stop was Incahuasi island, which had again more people. The small island in the middle of the salt flat is notable for the giant cacti that grow there. They grow only around one centimeter per year, so they are not just very tall (many are over 10 meters), but also incredibly old. Besides the cacti, it is also the best place to grasp the size of the Salar de Uyuni, as we could see far away in all directions.

Sam looking at a giant cactus on Incahuasi Island

Sam looking at a giant cactus on Incahuasi Island

Incahuasi Island

Incahuasi Island

Incahuasi Island

Incahuasi Island

The Salar de Uyuni has two very distinct appearances depending on the season. We visited right at the start of the dry season and saw most of the salt flat dry and white. However, we were very lucky to also see the salt flat in its other state, as one area was still covered with up to 10 centimeters of water. When the Salar de Uyuni is covered with water, it turns into the world’s largest mirror. For the end of the day, we drove through this wet part of the Salar de Uyuni and witnessed possibly the most beautiful sunset of this trip.

Sam and Marta on the wet Salar de Uyuni in front of the setting sun

Sam and Marta on the wet Salar de Uyuni in front of the setting sun

Sunset reflecting in the wet Salar de Uyuni

Sunset reflecting in the wet Salar de Uyuni

Perfect reflection of the colorful sky in the wet Salar de Uyuni after sunset

Perfect reflection of the colorful sky in the wet Salar de Uyuni after sunset

We spent the night in a hotel built mostly out of salt. The walls and even the bed frame were made completely of salt, as were the chairs and tables in the restaurant where we ate dinner. The next morning we started very early and drove almost three hours to some hot springs in the middle of the Bolivian altiplano. It was great to have the place all to ourselves and we did not see another soul the entire morning. After the hot bath our guide served us breakfast there surrounded by nature.

Sam in a natural hot pool in the middle of the Bolivian altiplano

Sam in a natural hot pool in the middle of the Bolivian altiplano

Landscape of the Bolivian altiplano

Landscape of the Bolivian altiplano

For the rest of the day, we stopped at multiple volcanoes and lagoons, many of which were filled with flamingos. Overall, the second day was less worthwhile than the first, as we have already seen very similar landscapes in Chile. It was also quite tiring since we spent in total 10 hours sitting in the car on very bumpy dirt roads. There are also four-day tours from Uyuni that visit even more sights of the altiplano, but we were happy to have chosen against that. For the salt flat itself, no more than one day is needed.

Two flamingos in Laguna Hedionda

Two flamingos in Laguna Hedionda

Hundreds of flamingos in Laguna Hedionda

Hundreds of flamingos in Laguna Hedionda

During the second day of the tour, we saw numerous herds of llamas. The llama is Bolivia’s most common camelid. Unlike vicuñas and guanacos, llamas are domesticated animals, so they are never wild. They are used for their wool and their meat, which we found quite tasty.

Llamas

Llamas

Llama

Llama

Posted by samandmarta 15:18 Archived in Bolivia Comments (2)

The Atacama Desert

Otherworldly landscapes in the North of Chile


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We arrived in the Chilean mining town Calama after a 12-hour bus ride from Salta, but our day was not over yet. We picked up our rental car at the airport to drive to San Pedro de Atacama, our base for the next three nights. Since many of the sights in this area are only accessible by rocky or sandy dirt roads, we chose to book a larger car. Still, we did not expect the giant 4x4 they gave us in Calama, though it definitely proved very useful over the next days.

Sam sitting on top of our giant rental car in the Valle de la Luna

Sam sitting on top of our giant rental car in the Valle de la Luna

The North of Chile is the location of the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on the planet. In some places here, rainfall has never been recorded. The arid, rocky landscape is the closest one can get to feel like walking on Mars or on the moon. NASA even tests equipment for Mars missions here. One especially stunning place is the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). We spent a morning hiking around this place and admiring the large sand dunes and otherworldly rock formations.

View over the Valle de la Luna from the highway

View over the Valle de la Luna from the highway

Sand dune in the Valle de la Luna

Sand dune in the Valle de la Luna

Marta looking out over the rocky landscape of the Valle de la Luna

Marta looking out over the rocky landscape of the Valle de la Luna

Landscape of rock and sand in the Valle de la Luna

Landscape of rock and sand in the Valle de la Luna

Highway cutting through the rock formations of the Atacama desert

Highway cutting through the rock formations of the Atacama desert

Because of the clear skies and the high altitudes, many of the world’s most advanced observatories are located in the Atacama desert. Unfortunately, visits to the observatories near San Pedro were booked out months ahead, but for stargazing, it was enough to just look up at the sky at our accommodation. Our lodge was located some way out of the village, which meant that there was very little light pollution. We could see the Milky Way and even a stellar nebula with the naked eye. The sky was even clearer here than at Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Milky Way, stars and nebula from our accommodation outside of San Pedro de Atacama

Milky Way, stars and nebula from our accommodation outside of San Pedro de Atacama

On a sunny afternoon, we drove up to the altiplano near the Argentinian border. Many nice lagoons and salt flats cover this area which is above 4000 meters in altitude. Surrounding the scenery were several snow-capped mountains and volcanoes.

Laguna Miscanti in front of Cerro Miscanti (5622m) and Cerro Chiliques (5778m)

Laguna Miscanti in front of Cerro Miscanti (5622m) and Cerro Chiliques (5778m)

Laguna Miñiques

Laguna Miñiques

Salar de Talar

Salar de Talar

In the high altitudes, we saw lots of vicuñas by the side of the road. Vicuñas are closely related to the guanacos that we have seen in the South of Argentina, but they are slightly smaller. Since they are related to camels, they can survive up to a week without water. We also learnt that the vicuña wool is one of the most valuable wools in the world. For example, a scarf made from vicuña wool costs at least $1000.

Vicuñas in front of Cerro Lejía (5793m)

Vicuñas in front of Cerro Lejía (5793m)

Vicuña

Vicuña

Vicuñas crossing the road

Vicuñas crossing the road

On Sam’s birthday, we woke up at 4am to drive up to the world’s highest geyser field, the El Tatio Geysers. It took us around 2 hours to ascend the decent gravel road to the geysers at 4300 meters above the sea. Dawn just begun when we arrived and the geysers started to become more active. The time between one hour before and one hour after sunrise is the most active, due to the sharp rise in air temperature. There are about 60 geysers in this area and while they do not erupt as high as other geysers we have seen, they do so almost constantly. It was beautiful to watch the sunrise in this surreal scenery and it was definitely worth the early start. After the spectacle was over, we drove down to Calama, where we relaxed for the rest of the day. We gave back our rental car, surely the last one of this trip, as Sam would not dare to drive in countries like Bolivia or Peru. We are very happy that we never had any rental car problems along the way.

El Tatio Geysers at dawn

El Tatio Geysers at dawn

El Tatio Geysers at dawn

El Tatio Geysers at dawn

Geyser at the El Tatio Geysers at dawn

Geyser at the El Tatio Geysers at dawn

Textured ground at the El Tatio Geysers

Textured ground at the El Tatio Geysers

Marta standing next to a fuming stream at the El Tatio Geysers at sunrise

Marta standing next to a fuming stream at the El Tatio Geysers at sunrise

The next morning at 6am, we took a bus to Uyuni in Bolivia. The end of April marks the start of the dry season in Bolivia so it’s a good time to move on. We left the Chilean territory for the 5th and last time, after spending 50 days in this country. Nowhere else did we spend more time on our trip. From the glaciers in the South to the deserts in the North, Chile has it all.

Posted by samandmarta 22:20 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Salta & Quebrada de Humahuaca

Cacti and colorful mountains in Argentina’s Northwest


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From Asunción in Paraguay, we took our longest bus trip yet. It took us a full 24 hours to reach Salta in Argentina’s Northwest, including a change in Resistencia. It was not as bad as it sounds though. There are very high-quality buses in South America and it usually pays off to go with the more expensive companies. Our overnight bus to Salta had almost fully reclining seats and lots of leg space.

We spent the Easter weekend in Salta, which has a lot of nice colonial era architecture and some of the most beautiful churches we have seen on this trip. On Easter morning we went to Salta’s cathedral for the mass. The cathedral is especially stunning inside with columns of pink marble and decorated with plenty of gold. We also visited Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña to see the mummies of children sacrificed by Incas in their festive rituals at the peak of Volcán Llullaillaco (6739m).

Plaza 9 de Julio in Salta

Plaza 9 de Julio in Salta

Inside of Catedral Basílica de Salta

Inside of Catedral Basílica de Salta

Iglesia San Francisco

Iglesia San Francisco

View over Salta from Cerro San Bernardo

View over Salta from Cerro San Bernardo

We did not really come back to Argentina for Salta, but for the Quebrada de Humahuaca. This spectacular canyon starts North of Salta and continues all the way up to the highlands at the Bolivian border. We rented a car in Salta to explore this region and drove up to Tilcara, where we stayed for two nights. The weather in Salta was very cloudy, but Tilcara was already above those clouds at an altitude of almost 2500 meters. For the first time in Argentina, a majority of people in the village were indigenous.

Colorful mountain in the Quebrada de Humahuaca

Colorful mountain in the Quebrada de Humahuaca

On our first day in the Quebrada, we tortured our rental car by driving a rough gravel road over a 4000 meter pass to the remote village Iruya. This town is surrounded by steep canyon walls in all directions, which makes it quite an impressive sight. It is questionable though weather it was worth the four-hour roundtrip. However, we had a delicious local meal of mote with goat cheese.

Iruya

Iruya

View over Iruya

View over Iruya

The landscape in the Quebrada is filled with colorful mountains and cacti. One of the most spectacular sights is the Serranía del Hornocal, a jagged mountain landscape consisting of many colorful layers. A good gravel road brought us to a lookout at 4300 meters altitude. On our last day in the Quebrada, we hiked around the Cerro de los Siete Colores, right next to the village Purmamarca.

Serranía del Hornocal

Serranía del Hornocal

Lonely cactus in the Quebrada de Humahuaca

Lonely cactus in the Quebrada de Humahuaca

Cerro de los Siete Colores near Purmamarca

Cerro de los Siete Colores near Purmamarca

Colorful mountains near Purmamarca

Colorful mountains near Purmamarca

Marta hiking near Purmamarca

Marta hiking near Purmamarca

After returning the car in Salta, we stayed for one more night before taking an early bus to Chile. The bus route was incredibly scenic. We passed large salt flats, flamingo-filled lagoons and snow-capped volcanoes above 6000 meters in height. We also saw vicuñas and lamas along the road. At the 4300 meters high Paso de Jama, we left the Argentine territory for the 6th and last time on this trip. In total, we spent 48 days in this beautiful and diverse country and have travelled to every corner, from Ushuaia to Puerto Iguazú.

Salinas Grandes

Salinas Grandes

Laguna Quisquiro after the Chilean border

Laguna Quisquiro after the Chilean border

Posted by samandmarta 19:31 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Paraguay

Encarnación and Asunción


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We entered Paraguay, the fifth country on our journey through South America, by a short train ride from the Argentinian border town Posadas. The train seemed to be filled mostly with Argentinian shopping tourists. When we arrived in Encarnación on the Paraguayan side, the area around the train station was full of stores selling laptops, smartphones and cameras. Especially electronics are very expensive in Argentina due to high import taxes and it can therefore be a big saving to buy this stuff across the border. Paraguay’s currency, the Guaraní, is the lowest valued currency we have encountered so far. One million Guaraní are worth around 160$, so if you want to become a millionaire, visit Paraguay!

Paddle boats on Playa San José in Encarnación with Posadas, Argentina in the background

Paddle boats on Playa San José in Encarnación with Posadas, Argentina in the background

Encarnación is a pleasant town, but doesn’t have a lot of sights to offer. There are a few nice beaches at the Río Paraná, but they were very empty this time of the year. Instead, we visited two historic sites one hour North of town. In the small villages of Trinidad and Jesús de Tavarangue are ruins of Jesuit missions from the early 18th century. The Jesuits did not only try to evangelize the native people, but they also taught them many skills, studied the local Guaraní language and created a written language for them. Today, most Paraguayans are bilingual. Both Spanish and Guaraní are thought in school. In practice, they speak a mix of both languages, which made them pretty hard for us to understand. The ruins are quite large and well preserved and it was nice to explore them in peace with hardly any other tourists around. There was even a German speaking guide to show us around.

Main church at the Jesuit ruins in Trinidad

Main church at the Jesuit ruins in Trinidad

Fortification tower at the Jesuit ruins in Trinidad

Fortification tower at the Jesuit ruins in Trinidad

Decorative ornaments at the Jesuit ruins in Trinidad

Decorative ornaments at the Jesuit ruins in Trinidad

Unfinished church at the Jesuit ruins in Jesús de Tavarangue

Unfinished church at the Jesuit ruins in Jesús de Tavarangue

Inside of the unfinished church at the Jesuit ruins in Jesús de Tavarangue

Inside of the unfinished church at the Jesuit ruins in Jesús de Tavarangue

After two nights in Encarnación, we took the bus to Asunción, Paraguay’s capital. We stayed in the historic center of the town, which has a few nice buildings, but besides did not impress us very much. Despite the fact that the seat of the government is here, many shops looked like they are permanently closed. To be fair to Asunción, we were there just some days before Easter so maybe people were on holiday. Also, we did not visit the more posh neighborhoods, which might have been more lively.

Palacio López (presidential palace) in Asunción

Palacio López (presidential palace) in Asunción

Panteón de los Héroes in Asunción

Panteón de los Héroes in Asunción

Cathedral of Asunción

Cathedral of Asunción

Some low lying parts of the capital were flooded by the Río Paraguay at the time of our visit. Because of that, many of the parks in the city center were full of temporary housings built for the displaced inhabitants. As we learned, this happens every single year, but for some reason people keep coming back to live there.

Parts of Asunción flooded by the Río Paraguay

Parts of Asunción flooded by the Río Paraguay

It was an interesting short visit to Paraguay and we learnt a lot about the culture and history of this country. There would be a lot more to explore, but Paraguay lacks the touristic infrastructure to make anything but the major cities accessible. On the upside, little tourism means that the country is very cheap and we were able to afford great restaurants and accommodations with a small budget.

Posted by samandmarta 20:20 Archived in Paraguay Comments (0)

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