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Salar de Uyuni Tour, Day Three – Rocks and Bones

  • Bolivia

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Salar Day Three

After the fiasco with Sam falling through the ice the day before, we woke up on the third morning of our Salar de Uyuni trip to find his wet hiking boots frozen solid and stained white from the minerals in the hot springs we’d washed them in. As if icicle boots weren’t enough, as we set off into the weak morning sunshine, our jeep got stuck in a frozen river and had to be dug out by the other driver. It looked set to be another day of disasters, but luckily, after the initial ice-related problems, things started to go smoothly.

Salar Day Three

We rolled and bounced over a dusty dirt road cutting through a sandy plain dotted with thick yellow-green shrubs. The sun on our right was still rising, lukewarm and pale gold, over the plain, backlighting the swirling dust clouds sent up by our jeeps, catching on the blueish mist still settled in the long shadows of distant hills, and wrapping the silent, grazing llamas in furry halos of light. I thought we’d left the ‘Wild West’ behind in Tupiza, but with the red rocks lining the sandy valley and the stubby cacti dotted across the landscape, we found ourselves right back there. As the jeep lurched through the rocks and the rising sun, I was staggered at how much a landscape could change in just three days; from a hot, rocky valley, to snowy mountains and frozen lakes, to sunshine and grassy plains.

Salar Day Three, Copa del Mundo

We toured the Valle de las Rocas, stopping at rock formations which have been named after things they supposedly resemble. First up was the Copa del Mundo. Strikingly orange against the now bright blue sky, this lumpy rock shape maybe slightly looked like a world cup – or more precisely, a badly made and slightly wonky cup – but it was huge and the scenery around it, with the blue and yellow smoky plain behind us, was stunning.

Salar Day Three, El Camel

The second formation looked a lot more like it was supposed to. Although at first glance I saw a teapot, once we’d parked up at the right angle El Camel really did look like a camel! Hump-backed, with a spout-like appendage jutting out the front like a camel’s neck and head, it stood next to other, perfectly ordinary rocks, as though it had been carved into shape. The boys all immediately climbed up onto its back for photos, but with the first proper foothold way above my head I couldn’t join in.

Salar Day Three, Ciudad Italia Perdida

We also stopped in the Ciudad Italia Perdida, the lost Italian city, where none of us could help climbing up the various formations and cliffs, exploring the intricate, rocky valley. According to our driver, the area is so named because it resembles the winding streets of an Italian town, but I’ve also heard a story that it’s named after an Italian tourist who was left behind there by a tour company once. Who knows?

Salar Day Three, Laguna Pinta

Laguna Pinta, a beautiful, flat lake with frosted edges and perfect reflections, was full of flamingoes, much closer than they’d been at Laguna Colorada the day before. We were able to get near enough for some great shots, ignoring the tourist from another group who called us ‘amateurs’ for frightening off what was probably the 100th llama she had photographed in Bolivia.

Salar Day Three, Laguna Negra

One of the best stops of the day was the Canyon del condor. We approached along a narrow road between high rock walls, where we spotted huge, chinchilla-like viscachas twitching their drooping whiskers, and parked next to a grassy valley swamped by shallow, frozen rivers, a lacy pattern of green-white-blue. It was sunny and hot, and as we walked through the valley, cracking ice sheets and hopping over gurgling streams, we finally pulled off the layers we’d been wearing for the past two days. We walked to the Laguna Negra, a dark grey lake frozen completely solid between pale orange rock walls. A flock of ducks sat puzzled on the icy surface, and the picturesque setting was easily one of the best we’d seen.

Salar Day Three, Llama

We stopped for lunch – a picnic of potato cakes, tuna, rice, and salad served from the back of the jeep – in a sunny, green valley filled with grazing llamas, then pressed on, driving through the small town of San Augustin. On the outskirts were ladies carrying huge bundles of quinoa on their backs, wiry red sticks which are a coloured variety of the usual, wheat coloured quinoa stalks.

Salar Day Three, Salar de Chiguana

From green valleys and gentle hills, we found ourselves crossing the white desert of Salar de Chiguana, a smaller salt flat not far from Salar de Uyuni. Cutting the ghostly pale landscape in two was the railway track heading for Chile with exported salt and minerals from Parque Eduardo Alvaroa; a beautiful, weirdly empty spot with purple volcanoes in the distance and almost nothing in between.

Salar Day Three, San Juan Cemetery

The last stop was at the cemetery in San Juan, an 800 year old burial site where we wandered into the deserted, unguarded space without needing to pay the entry fee, because the ticketman was out to lunch. It’s hard to imagine a site like this left completely unguarded and unfenced in any other part of the world, but these bones and relics have been left untouched for centuries, so Bolivians seem to trust in this continuing. Peeping into the squat, rocky mounds built into the earth as tombs, we came face to face with complete, largely undamaged skeletons, still sitting in the foetal or resting positions they’d been buried in. With almost no information in sight, and the museum closed along with the ticket office (meaning we missed the mummy), we left a little bemused by the cemetery; who was this tribe, and why were their skeletons still sitting patiently in their tombs, grinning up at curious tourists through holes in the dried earth? It was a pretty strange experience, but a very cool way to end the tour.

Salar Day Three, Salt Hotel

We spent the last night in the best accommodation of the trip; a hotel build almost entirely from salt. The exposed, white-brick walls were salt (I tasted to check!), the tables and chairs were salt, even our bed (not the mattress) was made from salt. The floor was a crunchy carpet of gravel-like salt chips. Only the bathroom, where I had my first hot shower in days, wasn’t salty! When we spilled a little hot coffee on one of the chairs, the salt actually started to melt and crumbled away. Surrounded by salt, we had definitely arrived at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni.

Want to know more about travelling in Bolivia? Check out the Bolivia section on my sister site, Backpack South America – and get in touch if you have a question. 

10 thoughts on “Salar de Uyuni Tour, Day Three – Rocks and Bones”

      1. I visited the Salar a little over a year ago and it’s one of my favorite spots on the planet. Your post unleashed a flood of very nice memories and images. Thanks. :)

      2. Altough you really had a tough time out there I am sure the landscape and your pictures were worth it. Great article. I saw a documentation about the Salt Hotel and the Salar de Uyuni recently and it´s a great wish to be there one (altough I don´t want to see dead people).

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