The spectacular landscapes of Bolivia drew us to travel throughout the country to vast salt flats, numberless volcanoes and multi-coloured lakes. Unforgettably spectacular.
Over four hours drive from Potosi we had our first glimpse of the Uyuni Salt Flats in the far distance - one of the main reasons for venturing this far into Bolivia.
The drive had been quite arduous, with much of it on dirt roads, so we were glad to reach the town, though it isn't particularly attractive. While our driver filled up the car we stretched our legs, investigating an illegal car lot, where cars without number plates were openly sold, and the train station which has some old rolling stock. Then on to the Salt Hotel. The view from the hotel is magnificent: from the middle distance vast expanses of salt flats stretch as far as the eye can see.
The Salt Hotel itself, though, is definitely an experience, but not one I'd wish to repeat. Completely made of salt it is quite remarkable: salt benches, night tables, walls and crunchy salt floors. It was freezing - really freezing! The long corridor from reception is lined with alcoves with fireplaces and huge windows from which to look at the salt flats, but far too cold to sit in and none of the fires were lit. At dinner I chose a table right next to one of the heaters and huddled close to it all the time we ate.
Thankfully the bedrooms have heaters, and lots of duvets - we slept under three and I was practically fully clothed with thermals and socks and even a woolly hat for the first part of the night as well! The bathrooms are better, with hot showers and no crunchy salt floor.
Before dinner we bundled ourselves into warm jackets and went out to watch the sunset over the salt flats. The vast expanse of salt turned pink as the sun sank and the sky deepened to an orange glow. An amazing sight which augured well for the days to come.
The next morning we drove out onto the fantastical landscape of the salt flats, the largest in the world at over 10,000 sq km of salt, fringed with mountains and volcanoes. We saw men working the salt into conical piles for drying before taking it away.
There had been rain and in some areas there was quite a bit of shallow standing water.
It is absolutely dazzling out on the salt flats and sunglasses are essential.
There are warm bubbling saline springs in the area where we entered the salt flats, called the Eyes of the Salt Flats, but thereafter just salt as far as the eye can see and Fish Island marooned in the salt.
We were taken to a salt museum marooned on the salt flats. It had an obligatory entrance fee for which you can also choose a small gift and a small selection of unimpressive salt sculptures. We didn't want to visit this but it almost seemed compulsory!
As we got further into the centre of the salt flats it was much drier and the surface took on a cellular structure, though not as regular as I would have expected.
It is amazingly quiet, literally nothing to be heard.
Apparently Fish Island gets its name from the illusion created when there is a lot of standing water on the salt flats and the reflection of the island makes it look like a fish.
We spent some time on Fish Island, walking right to the top then back down the other side and having lunch at the small restaurant there - not the greatest lunch we've ever had!
The views from the top are just amazing: salt as far as the eye can see to the horizon in every direction.
The island is covered in huge cacti, the whole effect is truly surreal. One of the most amazing places we've ever been.
After lunch we ventured north on the salt towards Coquesa but soon we could see expanses of water which barred the way. We started south heading across the salt flats for our next destination, San Pedro de Quemez. Our guide and driver had wanted to do this with another vehicle for company but they didn't turn up so we went on our own. It soon became apparent why they'd wanted a bit of back-up available - the water began to appear in pools but soon in a continuous shallow lake that we were driving through. There were very few landmarks to navigate by and the guide and driver were looking for cairns of stones which mark the way off the salt flats. We drove for quite some time just heading in the right general direction, our binoculars came in very useful, eventually showing a cairn in the distance. It was quite nerve-racking for a while and we were grateful we had such a good driver.
On this side we met a husband and wife who were collecting salt to build a hostel in the nearby settlement. A tough life.
We skirted the salt flats for a while, spotting beautiful vicuña on the way, before heading inland on the dirt track which was to be our lot for the next few hundreds of miles.
As we'd been unable to see the mummies at Colquesa our guide took us to two ancient grave sites on our route.
The first was actually set up as a small museum inside a burial cave. Alongside 10,000 year old mummies with their grave goods were a wealth of artefacts. This was, by many thousands of years, a pre-Inca Aymara community. Apparently they used the caves as homes as well as burial places. One of the groups looked to be two adults and a child. All the mummies, little more than skeletons, were upright in a kind of squatting position and looked to be wrapped in dark cloth. The edges of the rectangular cavities in which the bodies were placed were decorated with broken pieces of painted pottery. Among the artefacts were pots, some with primitive decorations, bows and arrows, axes, many flints, small round stones and a number of mummified armadillos attached to the ceiling of the cave. What significance any of this had we don't know - perhaps some of it was just created to enhance the look of the museum.
There was no-one in attendance - it was in the middle of nowhere - so we left a donation.
On to the Galaxy Cave which apparently has stalagmites and stalactites. However, as it was Sunday, it was closed and there was no-one in attendance. Of far greater interest to us was a nearby cave burial site of the same age as that at Aguaquiza.
This, however, was in its natural state, within a huge cave set in a hillside above the plain. The burials were made in walled-in enclosures or cavities in the floor. It's a very eerie and atmospheric place with a fantastic view from the cave mouth.
The land here is very poor, with an awful lot of salt. Yet some extremely hardy plants manage to survive. These seemed to be either low, very thorny bushes, or yaretilla which looks like a lichen but is actually composed of thousands of tiny plants. This is a favourite food of the vicuñas and we saw a number of them grazing here.
San Pedro de Quemez is known as the Burnt Village because the original village was burned down by the Chilean army during the War of the Pacific1879-1883 when Chile was fighting Bolivia and Peru over mineral resources. There isn't really much to see, just standing stone walls of the various buildings. The surrounding landscape is quite desolate: a huge flat plain ringed with mountains and volcanoes.
We were staying at the Tayka Hotel Pedra which, for the area, is more than adequate. We had a huge room with a surprisingly good, hot shower - the water is solar heated and only hot until about 6:30pm. It became extremely cold in the evening, though the room was heated you really had to be right next to the heaters to feel any warmth. Plenty of blankets to keep out the cold overnight, though, and the very friendly owner had placed pedestal heaters in the dining room so we could be warm over dinner. By this stage we were getting a little tired of the evening meals which seem always to be of the same format: usually an excellent home made soup but then meat of some description invariably served with cold vegetables. Here, true to form, the soup was very good with the added bonus of home made bread rolls.
Overnight I woke to see millions of stars in the night sky and two shooting stars.
Breakfast was good, including home made rolls and fried eggs setting us up nicely for a walk down through the village via the llama enclosures to meet our driver.
They are funny creatures, very curious about us, and with comical facial expressions.
Many were "decorated" with lengths of coloured wool and pompoms - I think some kind of identification device.
We were making our way deep into south western Bolivia with gallons of water on board just in case. Our first scheduled halt was Ollague volcano but we stopped several times before reaching it.
We passed through an area of sculptured stone - whether frozen lava or weathered by wind I don't know, but the intricate shapes extended over a vast area. Our guide called it a "stone army".
The landscape is utterly strange, the track passing through arid desert, salt flats - the Salar de Chuguana - and weird rock formations, always shadowed by huge mountains and volcanoes - none of which appeared to be active.
Even here plants manage to survive. Lots of scrubby thorny bushes and Yareta, a plant looking like a green brain, made up of many thousands of tiny plants which spread over rocky surfaces.
Approaching the Ollague Volcano we were travelling through red desert. The volcano was visible from miles away and we circled to come to the best vantage point. Volcanoes are one of my favourite landscape features, along with deserts and winter alpine peaks.
It's an amazing sight, this smoking volcano in the midst of a vast wilderness.
We were scheduled to go to Laguna Hedionda and Laguna Canapa, where flamingos can be seen. However, our driver wanted to eat lunch at San Cristobal (even though a packed lunch was on our itinerary), so our guide substituted these two lagunas, which usually have lots of flamingos, and the Siloli desert, with its rock "tree" which we weren't so bothered about, with several more remote sites. Fortunately we saw lots of flamingos elsewhere.
A hidden lagoon (not Hedionda as our guide tried to persuade us!) in a deep hollow in the mountains was a beautiful, peaceful spot with no-one else around. We'd travelled a good distance off the main track to reach it.
The surrounding landscape was dotted with wind-sculpted rocks and only the tough yareta and a few small thorny plants seem to grow here. The lagoon itself was covered with curious plant or algae pads; down by its shores there was more vegetation than up above.
I think the birds we saw here were Giant Coot - pitch black feathers with an orange and white bill and reddish legs. There were small mounds in the shallow water near the shore where the birds might have been nesting.
Then it was rather a long drive, maybe 60km, through the Altiplano Sur to San Cristobal for lunch. The plus side, of course, was that we were way off the usual tourist track (if there can be such a thing in this remote wilderness) and saw no-one else at the places we visited.
Bolivia is super-rich in minerals, not least in silver. Originally the town of San Cristobal was located a few miles away, right on a major ore deposit. The mining company paid to have the town relocated, moving the historic church and cemetery too, so that it could exploit the deposits. The church is rather picturesque - I believe it is 16th century, certainly colonial in style.
The lunch was good. Having become thoroughly tired of the standard fare offered to tourists, this was much better. Called "Pique Macho" it is traditional Bolivian food, the version here widely renowned - obviously sufficiently so to draw our driver many kilometres out of our way! It was a mixture of sliced onions, green peppers, hard-boiled eggs, tomato, strips of meat in a gravy served on a bed of chips - very good indeed. With Huari beer on the side. I was the only female in the place, felt a bit like entering "The Slaughtered Lamb" in "An American Werewolf in London"! After lunch we wandered down through the town and past the church with its thatched roof and tiered bell towers to where our driver met us for the drive back down the dusty road.
We stopped at a lovely river, winding through a plain, which was teaming with birdlife. Another (inactive) brooding volcano loomed above the landscape,capped with snow. Yet another, a little further off, may have been smoking... There were what looked like abandoned adobe houses here - only half a dozen but most without roofs.
There were several different types of duck here and some beautiful fat white Andean Geese.
We went on to the Canyon de Villa Alota - an impressive gash in the landscape.
It was a bit windy in this exposed spot but we walked out on a spur into the canyon for photographs.
In this area there are many fields of valuable quinoa - two years harvest and the farmer can buy his vehicle! Piles of red straw are evidence of the harvest; apparently cars drive over the piles to separate out the grain.
We stopped at the Valley of the Rocks which was on our original itinerary but we didn't find this particularly impressive. It is a collection of weathered rock formations, clefts and natural walls, some many tens of metres high. The sky was putting on a fantastic display of whispy clouds against a deep blue backdrop though.
The final stop of the day, however, was much more impressive. Perhaps because of the natural layout of towering rocks rising from flat ground and the quality of the light. This was the so-called "Lost City of the Lagoon" - at least by our guide! He had created a whole fantasy scenario for the canyons and amphitheatres of soaring, glowing rock. We were able to climb up one of the outcrops quite safely.
An added bonus was the Mountain (Southern) Viscacha that we saw, crouched high on a rock watching us intently. Looking a bit like a huge rabbit but with a long tail, these rodents can grow upto 3kg in weight and 50cm long - the one we saw was fairly hefty!
That night we stayed at the Hotel Jardines de Mallku Cueva in Villa Mar - one night too many! A terrible place: freezing cold, awful cold food and insecure rooms. The less said the better!
The following morning we left on our final day in Bolivia, we were to cross into Chile later in the afternoon. However, Bolivia wasn't letting us go without a few more stunning landscapes to see us on our way!
We passed the aeroplane on top of a rock in Villa Mar, a gruesome relic of a crash, before starting to climb even higher. It was very cold - a river, with very little water, had ice floating in it! This morning we were to reach the highest point of our journey.
The landscape became increasingly desolate until we were once more passing through desert, the only life forms to be seen were small clumps of tough grass.
We came upon a vast borax-laden lake, the Salar Capina, looking very other-worldly. All around were volcanoes, and still we were climbing.
Laguna Colorada was one of the highlights of our trip. This most amazing red lake with its hundreds of flamingos and surrounded by volcanoes is one of the most stunning landscapes we've seen. The amazing red colour is from algae.
We are now at 4278m.
The flamingos seemed to be all James's flamingos, with a good proportion of yellow to their bills. Very beautiful but rather wary so we didn't go too close.
We spent some time here just taking in the fantastic scenery and enjoying watching the fabulous flamingos. Then we climbed to the highest point of our travels, 4923m, before dropping slightly to the Sol de Manana geothermal field of sulphurous fumaroles and mud pots.
Over about 50 square km the ground is littered with craters belching sulphurous fumes and boiling, bubbling mud.
Between the mud pots the earth is coloured red and yellow - there must be high mineral content here.
Lunch, made by our guide and driver, was at Laguna Salada. They did well to provide a baked stuffed chicken - prepared yesterday - and cold vegetables, potato and pasta, with Huari beer for us.
The laguna is another colourful place: blue skies, green algae, white salt flats, pink snow-capped mountains, though quite cold as it's at an altitude of 4400m. There are hot springs here which intrepid travellers can bathe in. Birdlife was limited to gulls.
Facilities here are extremely basic but I'd rather that than a hotel in the middle of the wilderness. We'd burst a tyre on the way here so the driver changed that before we set off once more.
We continued to pass through stunning landscape, mostly desert edged with brooding volcanoes, stopping to take photographs. We were en route to Laguna Blanca and Laguna Salada which lie side by side at the foot of the 5920m Licancabur Volcano. We'd been travelling through wilderness all day but out here there truly was no-one else around, the road was nothing more than twin tyre tracks over the desert as we approached the lagunas.
Both lagunas get their colours from minerals in the water. Laguna Blanca looked virtually dry. Laguna Verde was a bright turquoise green and a deep green where there was no cloud reflection. Apparently Laguna Verde is lifeless as it is full of arsenic.
And so to the Chilean border post - a couple of Bolivian border guards in a hut. We were on time but our Chilean transport was over an hour late - the driver said he'd had car trouble but we think he forgot about the time difference! While waiting a number of Andean foxes made an appearance, no doubt looking for food!
Bolivia has a huge variety of attractions but it is the spectacular landscapes which stay most vividly in the memory.