2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Where trains go to rust, Uyuni’s train cemetery

The one man-made must-see in Uyuni is an extraordinary collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century steam trains slowly (very slowly in the arid climate of this region) rusting on the outskirts of the town. A train version of those elephant graveyards that I once saw on a BBC documentary.

These monsters of the steam age make this a poignant and atmospheric place, or it would be were it not a compulsory stop for the hundreds of 4×4 tours doing the Bolivian South West Circuit – these once proud locomotives have now become a playground for snap-happy tourists. Large numbers of people can be seen clambering all over the trains posing for identikit photos – as if some strange force compels people to sheepishly copy what they have seen others do in photos.

I know I’m being a killjoy, kids just want to have fun after all, but the sight that greeted us at Uyuni’s great train cemetery made me rather melancholy. Perhaps in future this once legendary industrial heritage will be properly preserved and treated with more dignity.

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain over the Salar de Uyuni

Driving into the middle of the world’s largest salt flat is like entering a hostile alien world – the Salar de Uyuni really does beggar belief. There is little that can rival it for sheer visual impact as the brilliant white of the salt reflects the intense Andean sun like a giant salty mirror – sun glasses and sun block are vital.

My visit to the Salar de Uyuni in 2012 was made under perfect blue skies, coming back early in 2013 for a day trip was to experience a very different salar. Summer rains had left patches of water on the surface, clouds created endlessly fascinating skies, while all around the the edge of the salar thunderstorms formed a dramatic backdrop to the luminous white of the salar…and that was before the red rain swept in.

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

At the edge of the salar, near to the salt mining and processing village of Colchani, people mine the salt much as they have done for centuries. The great llama trains that used to leave the Salar de Uyuni taking salt across the Inca empire may have been replaced by the combustion engine, but mining techniques haven’t changed much.

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Children walk through a salt mining area, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Children walk through a salt mining area, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Also close to the edge of the salar are strange looking pools of water that bubble away thanks to volcanic activity. They create an intense colour contrast with the white of the salar.

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Driving further into the Salar de Uyuni, with the final destination of lunch at the bizarre, cactus-covered Isla Incahuasi, we passed several small holes in the salt crust until finally our driver, Milton, stopped by a much larger hole (big enough for one of the wheels of the 4×4 to go fully into).

The holes become very dangerous when the salar is covered in water later in the rainy season, drivers can’t see them and there is a very real risk of wheels plunging into the holes. Vehicles often can’t venture too far into the salar as a consequence. We also passed a now defunct salt hotel which sports a large collection of international flags.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Large hole in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Large hole in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Flags in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Flags in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salt crust, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salt crust, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

As we approached the Isla Incahausi we saw a bus speeding across the salt flats, it looked utterly insignificant against the vastness of the salar. An odd sight in this strange place but a lifeline for the communities that survive around the edge of the salar.

A bus speeds across the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

A bus speeds across the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Our return back to Uyuni involved a 100km drive across the salt flat, but it looked like we would have to drive through an oncoming storm. The storm clouds looked a strange colour, a sort of rusty red, which Milton called ‘Red Rain’.

This was no normal storm, there was no actual rain, and we found ourselves driving for 20km through an immense dust storm with limited visibility and the windows firmly rolled up. When we emerged out the other side the whole car was covered in a fine red dust.

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Uyuni: tourists, trains and trash

No one, not even wearing the rosiest of rose tinted spectacles, could describe Uyuni as an attractive town. Sitting on a windswept plain at over 3600m, Uyuni seems solely composed of low unattractive buildings, dusty streets and piles of rubbish. To the untrained eye the main feature of parts of the town is the inordinate number of plastic bags that are scattered everywhere, as if Uyuni is a giant plastic bag graveyard.

Visitors from another planet, arriving in Uyuni for the first time, would be well within their rights to question the sanity of the thousands of human tourists from the four corners of planet earth who are packed into the town. The answer, of course, lies not in Uyuni itself  but in the region surrounding the city. Not 30km outside the city limits is one of the natural wonders of the world, the Salar de Uyuni, and beyond that the other-worldly landscapes of the Bolivian South West.

The immense Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The immense Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

At over 1000km sq, the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. To describe it as vast is to understate reality – it can be seen from the moon. It is the biggest draw in Bolivia’s tourist pack of cards and Uyuni is the main gateway to access the Salar and the South West. The town is full of travel agencies, 4×4 vehicles, restaurants serving dubious ‘international’ cuisine, dozens of hostals and one of the highest concentrations of souvenir shops anywhere in Bolivia.

Yet for its lack of charm, Uyuni is a frontier town full of history – a pioneering history that is proudly displayed in the centre of town. Founded in 1889, Uyuni was perhaps the most important mining and railway centre in Bolivia, and evidence of this is everywhere. Even today trains rumble through Uyuni on their narrow-gauge tracks carrying ore to the coast in Chile or south to Argentina, twice a week there are even rarer passenger trains – one of the last remnants of Bolivia’s once extensive railway network.

Uyuni railway station with old carriage, Uyuni, Bolivia

Uyuni railway station with old carriage, Uyuni, Bolivia

Typical street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Typical street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train made in Yorkshire, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train made in Yorkshire, Uyuni, Bolivia

Statue to Uyuni's industrial past, Bolivia

Statue to Uyuni’s industrial past, Bolivia

Typical Street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Typical Street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Sculpture, Unyuni, Bolivia

Sculpture, Unyuni, Bolivia

Wall art, Uyuni, Bolivia

Wall art, Uyuni, Bolivia

Railway relic of Uyuni's golden age, Uyuni, Bolivia

Railway relic of Uyuni’s golden age, Uyuni, Bolivia

Monument to the Chaco War, Uyuni, Bolivia

Monument to the Chaco War, Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over Uyuni, Bolivia

In one of those twists of fate, tourism may yet prove that Uyuni’s golden-age is still to come and did not end with the decline of mining in the area or the destruction of Bolivia’s railways. So far the tourist infrastructure is geared towards backpackers looking for cheap deals and cheap places to stay, but the hotel we stayed in points towards a possible different future for Uyuni – a more demanding set of tourists seeking more from their day or two in Uyuni.

The Hotel Petite Porte is an oasis of calm and relaxation in the Uyuni desert, and if you want a more comfortable stay this is definitely the place to head. English, French and Spanish are spoken, the hospitality is great and the rooms are very cosy – perfect for relaxing after a few days in a 4×4 on rough dirt tracks.

Hotel Petite Porte, Uyuni, Bolivia

Hotel Petite Porte, Uyuni, Bolivia

Bolivian Southwest: Reserva Eduardo Avaroa

Getting up before dawn, and with hot cups of tea barely able to hold the fantastically cold morning at bay, we were treated to a ringside seat of the sunrise over the Siloli Desert. As the colours of the mountains sprang back to life and some of the sun’s warmth finally penetrated the four layers of clothing I was wearing, we clambered back into the car and headed towards the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and the border with Chile.

First stop in this bewildering landscape was the wind sculpted Arbol de Piedra, the Stone Tree, a huge lump of rock that over millennia has been carved by wind and sand into its current tree-like shape. That would be reason enough to stop and marvel at it, but it also stands in a vast desert plain surrounded by mountains streaked with colour making it one of the most surreal sights of our trip. Our early start was rewarded with having the whole desert to ourselves.

Heading towards the Arbol de Piedra, Reserva de Fauna Andina Avaroa, Bolivia

Arbol de Piedra, Reserva de Fauna Andina Avaroa, Bolivia

Even with the sun rising in the sky, at this time of day and at this altitude the temperatures were freezing and it was impossible to stand still for long without the cold piercing through clothing and footwear. It truly is an inhospitable place, but one an estimated 50,000+ tourists travel through every year.

A short journey to the south of the Arbol de Piedra lies one of the wonders of the whole region, Laguna Colorada, whose striking red waters contrasted against the deep blue sky are an extraordinary sight to behold. Although it looks like the scene of a toxic spill, the red colour is the result of algae in the water – the main source of food for the flamingos that thrive in the region, including the rare James flamingo which breeds in Laguna Colorada.

Laguna Colorada, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Flamingos in Laguna Colorada, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Flamingos in the mist, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Flamingos take flight, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

It’s a little like “Ten Amazing Things to Do Before Breakfast”, but climbing in altitude to a whopping 5000m we drove on towards the hellish looking and smelling Sol de Manana geyser. As you approach these boiling pools of mud and steaming fumaroles the nauseating stench of sulphur is overwhelming, but even that can’t take away from the wonder of the volcanic activity that is all around.

The first thing you see when you arrive is a jet of highly pressurised steam shooting out of the brown earth and making a screaming noise not dissimilar to the sound of a steam train whistle. The jet is probably about 15 metres high and the steam is hot!

Steam jet at Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Walking around the site is a bit like doing a day-trip to Hell and you have to be careful, the cracked earth can give way and collapse into bubbling mud underneath – as the sign says it’s Peligro. And did I mention the smell? Awful.

Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Sol de Manana geyser, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Leaving the fire and brimstone behind we set off for the furthest reaches of Bolivia to where the Laguna Verde and Volcan Licancabur nestle on the border with Chile. The drive passes a stretch of barren landscape that suddenly takes on the look of a sculpture park combined with a Japanese garden. Known as the Rocas de Dali, it is a peculiar sight.

Rocas de dali, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Rocas de Dali, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

I must confess that the one thing I’d really been looking forward to seeing was the last thing we’d see on the Bolivian side of the border – Laguna Verde. I’d seen photos of the stunning green water – created by chemical reaction – with the backdrop of the towering Volcan Licancabur and was excited to be finally able to see it in person.

As with much of life, it was something of a disappointment. There was little water and the green colour was, at best, subdued. Still you can’t hold that against the Bolivian Southwest, it is a privilege to spend time there. Next stop Chile.

Laguna Verde, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

The Bolivian Southwest, into Los Lipez

Leaving the bright light of the Salar de Uyuni behind, and after a night well spent in the Tayka Hotel de Piedra (www.taykahoteles.com) in San Pedro de Quemez, we woke early for yet another dramatic drive through the stunning scenery of Bolivia’s Lipez region.

We were headed for the high altitude Siloli Desert, a sight which literally takes your breath away by its magnificence. If at times during the journey it feels like you may have inadvertently landed on the moon when not paying attention, arriving in the Siloli Desert is like being on another planet…most probably Mars. Nothing can prepare you for it and it is truly one of the most outlandish and extraordinary places on earth.

Rough dirt track into Los Lipez, Bolivia

Extinct volcano in the Lipez Region of Bolivia

For a region famed for being desolate and inhospitable, the Lipez region of Bolivia is one of the most colourful in the country. There are lakes coloured by minerals full of pink flamingos and volcanos that have exploded eons ago that sport an array of reds and purples. All the geothermal activity has given rise to an active mining industry that has been exploited for centuries and is still being exploited today.

Proof of this came when we found ourselves driving alongside a narrow gauge railway that is still used to export Bolivian minerals to the coast in Chile. Ringed by volcanic peaks, the railway cut across a vast flat plain that seemed to be comprised entirely of grey volcanic dust. A more desolate location for a railway is unimaginable and in the background, looming over everything, is the active Ollague volcano.

Railway to Chile, Lipez region, Bolivia

The still active Vulcan Ollague, Lipez region, Bolivia

Thanks to the mines it is possible to find yourself on the occasional well maintained road large enough to take trucks and buses, although there is so little traffic that when another vehicle does appear on the road you can see it from miles away thanks to the dust cloud it throws up.

Bus heading across the Lipez region of Bolivia

Eventually you leave the ‘main’ road and head back across country on rough tracks that take you to the Siloli Desert, via a string of beautiful high altitude lakes that are home to three different varieties of flamingo. Because there are only a few roads in the region, and it is popular with tourists, you tend to bump into a lot of other travellers in this area…and people attract other wildlife!

High altitude lake with flamingos, Lipez region, Bolivia

Bolivian fox, Lipez region, Bolivia

High altitude lake, Lipez region, Bolivia

Flamingos, Lipez region, Bolivia

High altitude lake with flamingos, Lipez region, Bolivia

After a leisurely lunch overlooking a lake full of feeding flamingos, and a quick stop to refuel the car, we were on our way to the Siloli Desert, one of the more extraordinary places anyone could find themselves.

Refuelling en route to the Siloli Desert, Lipes region, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Lipez region, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Lipez region, Bolivia

The desert is made up of volcanic ash and gravel that has been contoured by wind (and very occasional rains) to look like a surrealist painting; also dotted about the desert are rock outcrops that have been sculpted by centuries of wind into peculiar shapes (the most famous we’d see the following day). Perhaps the most amazing feature of the whole desert, however, is the Tayka Hotel del Desierto (www.taykahoteles.com) where we were to spend the night.

The Tayka Hotel del Desierto is one of a kind, its location in the middle of the desert is made possible only because of the Ojo del Perdiz, or Eye of the Partridge, a natural spring that provide water to the hotel. I think the photos speak for themselves, but I’d add that the night sky in the Siloli Desert is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Hotel del Desierto in the Siloli Desert, Lipez region, Bolivia

Hotel del Desierto in the Siloli Desert, Lipez region, Bolivia

Cueva del Diablo

On the south side of the Salar de Uyuni is the infrequently visited site of Cueva del Diablo, a pre-Inca burial site situated in a cave part way up a cliff. Inside the cave are a series burial sites that, when they were discovered, didn’t contain any of the remains or artefacts to give a clue to who was buried there or the culture they came from.

The site is covered in mystery as a consequence, although one theory is that the mummified bodies and artefacts were removed as the Spanish conquered the region. To add to the myth and mystique of the site it is also said that a young woman shepherdess was found dead in the cave in mysterious circumstances when taking shelter from a storm.

Site of the Cueva del Diablo, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Entrance to the Cueva del Diablo, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Inside the cave there are a couple of dozen graves, known as chullpas, a style of construction common to the altiplano region but normally seen out in the open as large square or rectangular structures painted in natural colours.

Cueva del Diablo, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cueva del Diablo, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Skulls and coca leaves, Cueva del Diablo, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The view back to the cave entrance presented a good photo opportunity…all very Indiana Jones.

Cueva del Diablo, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cueva del Diablo, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

As seen from space, the Salar de Uyuni

Arriving in the tiny village of Tahua on the edge of the great Salar de Uyuni as the sun sets is to be treated to one of the natural wonders of Latin America – watching the Salar de Uyuni’s dazzlingly white salt crust transformed into brilliant oranges, reds, purples and blues. It was a magical experience – although at these altitudes it was also freezing cold.

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

If you ask someone to name one thing they know about Bolivia chances are they’ll say the Salar de Uyuni (although Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Che Guevara provide stiff competition). The salar is one of the natural wonders of the world, the largest salt flat on the planet, so enormous and so bright white that it is easily seen from space. Neil Armstrong is said to have seen the salar when stood on the moon and mistakenly thought it to be an enormous glacier.

I’d seen photos of the Salar de Uyuni before, but nothing really prepares you for the real thing. It is amazing and beautiful, and even today is mined for salt by local communities as it has been for thousands of years. In Inca times great llama trains would transport the salt across the empire, although iodine needs to be added to the salt to prevent thyroid problems and cretinism.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Beneath the salt crust the salar contains approximately half of the world’s reserves of lithium, a critical component in modern batteries, making it Bolivia’s most important natural resource. Lithium hasn’t blossomed into a major industry as it is currently hard and expensive to extract, and under the Morales government Bolivia is reluctant to just export its raw materials to industrial nations. How long this will last is uncertain, but once mining starts it may sound the death-knell of tourism.

Starting early the following day, we visited a small adobe church in an abandoned village on the edge of the salar, abandoned due to water sources drying up – fresh water is a serious problem in such a parched landscape so hostile to human habitation. The church looked pretty typical from the outside, but inside it was decorated with beautiful naive paintings.

Adobe church, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Adobe church, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Painting in adobe church, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Leaving the church we drove out onto the salt flats and headed for the Isla Incahuasi, an island in the middle of the salt flats covered in cacti, some of them thousands of years old. The car dropped us 2 kilometres from the island and we walked through the amazing landscape of the salar to reach it.

The honeycombed Salar de Uyuni, Boliv

Walking on the Salar de Uyuni towards Isla Incahuasi, Bolivia

Isla Incahuasi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Car on the salar, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The Isla Incahuasi is home to a number of rabbit-like viscachas, while the shores of the salt flats are home to herds of llamas and their wild relatives, vicunas. Only camelids could survive in this harsh landscape.

Viscacha, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Llamas, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Vicunas, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

An Altiplano Adventure: Sajama to the Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia is one of the most geographically diverse countries on earth, a land of contrasts and extremes. You can travel by boat deep into the Amazon basin (see previous posts) or you can climb high into the Andes north of La Paz in the Cordillera Real (see more previous posts). In between these two extremes lie dozens of different eco-zones as well as indigenous peoples and cultures.

If there is one landscape above all others that Bolivia is famous for, it is the Altiplano. A vast swath of breathtaking high plateau (up to 4500m in altitude) that extends from northern Argentina and Chile across the whole of Bolivia and into southern Peru, the Altiplano defines people’s perceptions of Bolivia. It is a seemingly barren and inhospitable place, but on closer inspection it is home to many animal and plant species and some of the most beautiful landscapes imaginable.

Typical Altiplano scenery, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Alpacas being herded, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Travelling south from Sajama National Park close to the border with northern Chile, it is possible to drive on dirt tracks that run parallel to the border, and which follow a beautiful chain of volcanos (some still active) that stretch 4000km south to Tierra del Fuego. Eventually you’ll reach the south-western tip of Bolivia where it borders Chile and Argentina, from where you can head into either of those two countries at remote boarder posts.

It is an incredible journey into some of the wildest places in Bolivia, a journey that has few rivals in Latin America. The route passes through remote communities of Aymara llama and alpaca herders; past abandoned villages and beautiful adobe churches; along the shores of brightly coloured lakes that are home to hundreds of flamingos; bubbling geysers and hot springs and the enormous salt flats of Coipasa and Uyuni (so huge they can be seen from space) also await exploration.

Altiplano geyser, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Navigating the car down a riverbed, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Starting the journey in Sajama National Park in the north west of Bolivia you drive through a vast landscape and under near-permanently cloudless skies. At times the sense of isolation is overwhelming. We spent a night at the lovely community run Albergue Ecoturistico Tomarapi in the small settlement of Tomarapi, about 10km from Sajama village, where we were lucky enough to witness a sunset that seemed to set the sky on fire.

Sunset strikes Vulcan Sajama, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

The following day we headed south on bumpy dirt roads, past several high altitude lakes with flamingos and a number of small villages en route to the Salar de Coipasa.

Adobe church at Tomarapi, Vulcan Sajama in the background, Bolivia

A flamingo takes flight, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Abandoned village near the Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

Emerging out of this arid landscape the sheer brilliance of the Salar de Coipasa is a shock to the system – dazzlingly white under the intense altiplano sun. Once a large lake that fed Lake Titicaca, the Salar de Coipasa is now a huge salt flat covered in a salt crust made up of hexagonal shapes that seems to stretch to the horizon.

Smaller, less well known and with only a fraction of the tourists who visit the nearby Salar de Uyuni, Coipasa is none-the-less an amazing place where you can stand in absolute silence and not see another soul.

The dazzlingly white Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

The dazzlingly white Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

Car on the salar, Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

Heading south again we made for the small village of Tahua, which nestles under Volcano Thunupa, where the lovely Tayka Hotel de Sal (www.taykahoteles.com) awaited our arrival. The Tayka chain of hotels are run on sustainable principles and are located in some of the most dramatic places you’re likely to ever find a hotel. They are probably the most luxurious accommodations in the region, which comes at a price but one worth paying.

The Hotel de Sal is located just on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni and we arrived just in time to watch the sun set with a cold beer in hand…of which more later.