Latin America…14 months in 14 photographs

Its almost impossible to sum up our experiences in fourteen photographs, but these represent some of our favourite places and events from our time in Latin America.

Bolivia’s most colourful and unusual fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos

San Ignacio is a small town, little more than a village really, in the Bolivian Amazon. Today it is a sleepy place, largely inaccessible during the rains, which acts as a hub for cattle ranches in the surrounding countryside. Its Amazonian history plays an important part in the fiesta, and combines traditional Amazonian beliefs and dress with Catholic beliefs. One of the more extraordinary elements of the fiesta are characters known as Achus who bring mayhem to the village during the fiesta. One trick they play is to attach fireworks to their hats and then run wildly through the crowds. This photo is of an Achus doing just that.

The Bolivian South West

Its almost impossible to imagine the raw beauty of this region in the south west corner of Bolivia. High mountains streaked with colour are reflected in lakes, that themselves range from turquoise to blood red, where flamingos make their home and Andean foxes roam. Set at altitudes that rarely drop below 4000 metres, it is a region that leaves you breathless. In the north lies the vast salt flats of Uyuni, and in the south, Laguna Verde, tinged blue-green by chemical reaction. In-between lie hundreds of kilometres of the most dazzling landscape. It has to be seen to be believed.

Parque Nacional Sajama, Bolivia

Bolivia’s oldest national park is home to herds of llama, alpaca and vicuna, which roam this barren region and have provided a livelihood for generations of people living here. The park is also home to several volcanoes, including the highest mountain in Bolivia, Vulcan Sajama, which can be climbed during the dry season. It is also home to some amazing colonial-era adobe churches and numerous chulpas, pre-hispanic funerary towers that are fascinating in their own right.

The Virgen de Guadalupe festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Three days and nights of dancing, singing, music and costumed parades…not to mention delicious street food and drinking with wild abandon. The Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe is one of Bolivia’s most important. It winds its way around the streets of Sucre from early morning to late night. Performers spend several hours dancing their way towards the city centre before the dance troupe routines come to a climax in the Plaza 25 de Mayo. The culmination of festivities is at the cathedral where the statue of the Virgen de la Guadalupe, resplendent in silver and semi-precious stones, awaits the tired performers.

Trekking in the Corillera Real, Bolivia

A multi-day trek through this vast Andean wilderness, passing glacier fed lakes and tiny llama farming villages, all the time overshadowed by giant, snow-capped mountains, is an extraordinary experience. At the end of a hard day’s walking, wrapping up warm and watching the galaxies appear in a night sky untouched by neon makes all the effort worth it. You’re more likely to see llamas than other human beings, but that’s what wilderness trekking is all about.

Watching the sun rise from the summit of Huyana Potosi, Bolivia

At 6088 metres in altitude, Huyana Potosi is considered to be one of the easiest 6000m mountains in the world to climb. ‘Easy’ is a relative word when it comes to mountains, and reaching the summit of Huyana Potosi was an endurance test like none I’ve experienced before, particularly since the last 300m of the climb is along a narrow ice ledge with sheer drops off both sides. The exhausting climb and freezing temperatures were rewarded with absolutely stunning views over the Cordillera Real as the sun rose to illuminate a world wreathed in snow and mist.

Driving through the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile

Without really understanding the immensity of the Atacama Desert, we decided to hire a car and drive ourselves around this amazing region. The photograph is of the Mano del Desierto, a sculpture that suddenly appears in the midst of the sun-bleached desert like a beacon of hope to weary drivers. The Atacama is the driest place on earth, some areas haven’t received rain in thousands of years, yet humans have also eked out an existence in this region for millennia. Today that tradition continues with miners working in some of the most inhospitable conditions known to humankind.

Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Northern Chile is dominated by the Atacama Desert, yet dotted throughout it are desert oases, abandoned nitrate towns, cosmopolitan ocean-side cities and pristine beaches formed along the mighty Pacific Ocean. Head away from the ocean and you suddenly find yourself climbing into a high altitude world where mountains and lakes are brightly coloured by chemicals in the soil. It is here you’ll find the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, a place of exceptional beauty, and the chances are that you’ll have it to yourselves – hardly anyone makes the journey to reach this remote area.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Perhaps the best known archeological site in the world, I was worried Machu Picchu would be something of a disappointment. I needn’t have feared. Set high on a plateau and overlooked by towering mountains, this lost city of the Inca is a magical place. The photo below is taken from the Sun Gate which forms part of the Inca Trail. Even if you can’t do the trail itself, its worth walking to the Sun Gate to get the view most Incas would have had as they approached the city.

Nazca cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Nazca is known for its monumental pre-Hispanic lines in the desert, yet they form only one (albeit stunning) remnant of the former civilisation that lived in this inhospitable region for thousands of years prior to the emergence of the Inca empire. Drive south of Nazca into the desert and you will come to a huge site where the Nazca culture buried their dead. What makes the cemetery so poignant and moving, is that the remains of the dead are so well preserved and yet surrounded by nothing but desolate desert.

The San Blas Islands, Panama

Picture perfect islands floating in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. There has been little development on the islands because they are controlled and governed by the indigenous peoples who inhabit them. Don’t expect luxury hotels and all-inclusive spa packages, do expect peace and quiet, good seafood, white sand beaches without anyone else and bathwater warm sea in which to swim and snorkel. A small slice of paradise.

Cartagena des Indias, Colombia

It is difficult to describe just how lovely Cartagena des Indias on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is, but after a few hours of strolling around the city it had captured our hearts. Cartagena is an extraordinarily well preserved colonial city, with a history as long as Europeans have been involved in the Americas. It has been the scene of pirate attacks, terrible torture under the Spanish Inquisition and suffered at the hands of colonial Spain for declaring its independence long before the rest of Colombia. Walk its beautiful streets, day and night, and absorb the atmosphere and history as you go.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

We fell in love with Nicaragua, and if we could spend a year abroad again I suspect Nicaragua would be very high on the list of places we wanted to go. We visited the delightful colonial city of Granada, perched on Lago Nicaragua; time stopped and so did we in Pearl Lagoon; El Castillo and the Reserva Biologico Indio-Maiz were wonderful places to spend time. In the end though, Little Corn Island was paradise itself – delicious fresh seafood, incredible beaches, relaxed locals and, best of all, not a single motor vehicle anywhere.

The Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

I agonised over having another photo from Nicaragua, but in the end you can’t leave out one of the natural wonders of the world. The Uyuni salt flats are simply amazing. A vast salt pan burned white under the intense Andean sun, it scorches your eyes just to look at it. It is impossible to truly imagine what the salt flats look like unless you’ve been there, an endless alien landscape that is like nothing else on earth.

Bolivian landscapes

Living in Bolivia feels, at times, like living in several different countries all at once. I’ve touched on this before, but the diversity of landscapes, cultures and peoples constantly surprises, and it makes Bolivia one of the most interesting countries in the Americas.

It is possible to be in the Amazon rainforest one day at an altitude close to sea level, and in the high Andes at altitudes of over 6500m the next (although this isn’t advisable). In between there is just about every type of landscape, and a mind-boggling degree of biodiversity, imaginable. In fact, the only thing missing from Bolivia’s kaleidoscope of landscapes is a coastline. Bolivia used to have a large chunk of the Pacific coast, but it lost this to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883). There is little evidence that Chile will be giving it back any time soon.

Moving from the Amazon to the Cordillera Real, this is a selection of some of my favourite Bolivian landscape shots…

Bolivian Amazon, Trinidad, Bolivia

Early morning in the Bolivian Amazon, Trinidad, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Mamore, Bolivian Amazon

Sunset over the Rio Mamore, Bolivian Amazon

Rolling wooded hills and deep valleys, Samaipata, Bolivia

Rolling wooded hills and deep valleys, Samaipata, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

View of La Paz from Chacaltaya, Bolivia

View of La Paz from Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Lake in the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Lake in the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Vulcans Pomarape and Parinacota, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Vulcans Pomarape and Parinacota, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over a lake, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset over a lake, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real looms over Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real looms over Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real en route to La Paz, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real en route to La Paz, Bolivia

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The Siloli Desert, Bolivia

The Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Flamingos in the Bolivian South West, Bolivia

Flamingos in the Bolivian South West, Bolivia

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

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.