My south-west circuit was just amazing, the scenery was unlike anything I'd ever seen before and possibly some of the best I've seen in the world. It's certainly in the top five things I've seen on my trip.
The first day of our four day trip first involved group introductions; our little party consisted of two Argentinians, four Aussies, two Danes and me as well as our cook and two drivers. We covered a lot of miles on the first day (as we did on most days to be fair) passing through rust coloured fin formations of Sud Lipez, stopping to see the great views back to Tupiza
as we journeyed towards our first stop of the village of San Pablo de Lipez. Already the scenery was incredible, the sky, the colour of the ground unusual plants (one of which, called Angry Grass resembles the tufts of spiky green hair at top the submerged army of angry warriors), it was all so alien.
I'd braced myself for a lack of shower for 4 days potentially but had not quite grasped how cold it would be as well as the feriosity of the wind and harsh sunlight and the temperature worsened as soon as the sun went down it dropped like a stone in an icy cold lake. Thankfully to assist we had hot drinks and biscuits everyday to warm our cockles before some incredibly good soup, our cook Lydia was amazing, we never had the same thing twice and a particular highlight of day one were the Llama Saltenas, mmmmm!
We were up at some unsociable hour to drive further on to see the sun rise over the eerie old town of San Antonio de Lipez, now just ruins as it was deserted by the villagers. No one knows why the inhabitants deserted the village to set up the new (and significantly smaller) village a stones throw away.
We had climbed at this point to around 4200m above sea level and the wind cut like a knife, full warm gear ensued! It was pretty jam packed at this sign and after snaps in front of it we headed off to Largo Morejon (the first of many stunning lakes on the trip), we drove past Volcano Uturmou (6800m asl), through the villages of Quetena Chico, Quentena Grande (this name is meant to be slightly ironic as it is a small village in a large territory), onto the Kollpa lagun and the Sallar de Chariri ('dirty' salt flats) before entering the national park to take a dip in the hot springs. After no shower that day and the freezing temperatures I was going in no matter what (even though with the blustering wind earlier I'd had second thoughts, a tentative test of the springs made me change my mind).
I'd not been feeling the best all day and had been stuck in a catch-22 scenario of being sweltering in the 4WD and feeling incredibly uncomfortable to feeling less uncomfortable outside but freezing cold. The pinnacle of which came after getting out of the hot springs to be hit by an icy wind, the temperature change knocked me for six and I almost passed out. However with the help of my lovely group and our brilliant guides they helped me walk across to where we were having lunch. Glasses of coke and an altitude sickness tablet later I was as right as rain. After lunch we went to see two of the bigger lakes, Laguna Verde and Blanca. All the lakes in th region gain their colour from the various minerals they contain, blue-green Laguna Verde gains its colour from lead, sulfur, arsenic and calcium carbonates and the almost constant icy wind whips the water into the green and white toxic frothy milkshake.
As the surface of the lake is almost constantly moving and due to its high mineral content the liquid in the lake can stay at temperatures as low as -21 degrees Celsius! Brrrrrrr! Not going for a swim there anytime soon. Behind the lake sits Volcan Licanbur at 5960m asl, thankfully we were only marvelling at this impressive height not actually trying to climb it!
Next on the list of jaw-dropping sights was the Desierto de Dali, as series of rock formations that look as though they've been put there by the great artist himself, it made me wonder if Dali had been there and painted those rocks into his work, some internet research is required I feel.
To finish the day we stopped off at the geysers Sol de Manana (still at a whopping 5000m asl) where we rather foolishly tramped around the site without much thought for our own safety (a slip into one of those high temperature chemical hell holes would have resulted in some serious chemical burns).
The sulfuric smell wasn't too bad compared to Rotorua in New Zealand and being able to get so close was rather mesmerising as the holes steamed and slurped away. We camped down for the night near Laguna Colorado to face yet more bitter temperatures after the suns disappearance and endless hot drinks arrived until the warming soup of dinner. We also attempted to warm ourselves around the tiny oven but I think we kept annoying our cook by getting in her way. Dinner was once again top drawer however with limited generator power where we were staying and it not being all that comfortable to sit around in the cold meant we all sloped off to bed fairly early (about 9pm I think, I haven't been in bed that early since I was about 9 years old!) to cocoon ourselves into our sleeping bags and blankets.
Day three was a marginally later start and we awoke to find our swimming gear from the hot springs frozen to the line! After slightly defrosting as the sun came up we headed off to see the pinkish delights of Laguna Colorado and hopefully spot a flamingo or two. Milton and Julio had already prepared us for the fact that most of these sensible creatures had flown away for the winter, wise choice!
The lake gets its colour from the algae and plankton that thrive off the minerals in the lake and hence attract the flamingos as a source of food. At the edge of the lake there are deposits of sodium, magnesium, borax (which Julio told us is exported to Chile to be used in the manufacture of car windshields) and gypsum. Also I found out that flamingos are born white and turn pink due to their diet of plankton and algae from the lake - mental!
Back in the jeep after the icy photoshoot at Laguna Colorado we went to see more mad cap rock formations, one of which resembled a tree.
We'd driven through this rock canyon (think of pod racing in the first of the new Starwars films) to get to the stone tree only to have to wait for this irritating tourist (whose nationality I shall not mention for fear of reprisals), who had decided in his wisdom to engage in some rock climbing, to get off the rocks so that anyone else who was there could take a photo. It managed to take even longer owing to the fact the berk couldn't get down again - we were hoping a quick fall would do the trick as it was pretty stupid and reckless as well as inconsiderate the the local people to be up there in the first place. I was having visions of running into Sir Knobhead and his troop for the rest of our trip but thankfully someone was smiling down on us from above.
We then went onto visit a series of five lakes, the best of which was Laguna Honda and I actually thought this was more impressive than Laguna Colorado as the colours on display were just incredible.
After two freezing nights and no hot showers the group had unanimously decided to upgrade for the last night to stay in one of the salt hotels near the town of San Pedro at the edge of the Salar. The prospect of a hot shower was enough to sway everyone but it was also infinitely warmer inside the hotel than our previous two residences. It was a bit of novelty factor to say that we'd stayed there even it it wasn't quite as good value as my hotel in Tupiza.
We'd also stocked up on red wine and Anabelle had soem cheese she'd bought from a winery in Argentina so we attempted to be semi-sophisticated while playing cards as we waited for dinner, needless to say we all slept like babies and awoke excited at the prospect of seeing sunrise over the Salar.
The sunrise had to be oen of the best on certaintly most surreal I think I've ever seen; half of teh sky was filled with reds and oranges as the sun rose and the other was sahdes of violet with the moon still hanging in the sky, it was as though someone had taken a knife to the sky and split night and day vertically. After taking countless photos of this wonderous image we were off to visit the Isla Pescado (so nicknamed as it looks like a fish from the air, its real name is Isla Incahuasi), it was a fascinating place with breattaking views across the Salar and ancient cactuses dotted across the trails on the island, one of which was almost 1000 years old. After our tour of the island we stoped to have breakfast before we set off to find our own bit of piece and quiet on the Salar and get our dose of optically boggling photos.
The Salar is the worlds biggest salt flat and covers nearly the entire province. There is water beneath the thick salty crust and looking through a break in the this salty topping is just bizarre, its like being a frozen lake except its salt obviously not ice. The blue of the Antiplano sky and the white of the salt surafce is just so suurreal as it appears to go on forever. After our first feeble attempts at taking comedy photos we had to admit to defeat and get our guide Milton on the case and boy did the quality step up a notch or two! He was directing us where to stand, what props were best to use and who was going to be in each photo doing what. As a result we had us being sprayed with bug spray, eaten on spoons, riding cucumbers, coming out of tea cups and pringles tubes and pushing the jeep to name but a few - just brilliant! We must've been there at least two hours and everyone was enjoying themselves and in the end were reluctant to leave but leave we did.
After saying our goodbyes to the rest of the group we faced hanging around in Uyuni
for an afternoon waiting for our nightbus to La Paz
freezing our arses off. I'm glad I did the trip from Tupiza, for a start off we had a really great group of people, Tupiza Tours and their staff were fantastic and it meant I spent a day in Tupiza rather than Uyuni, a place I have to say I wasn't overly fond of; it's bleak, cold, desolate, in fact all that was missing were tumble weeds to complete that wind swept town straight out of a Western look. Things weren't helped by the fact the 'best bus in Bolivia' we shelled out for had broken down and we had to make do with one of the usual skips, actually it wasn't as bad as previous night buses as it was heated and they gave out blankets to the tourists (Wayne & Sarah had kindly let me borrow one of their sleeping bags so I didn't need one of the mangy looking things), I actually managed to sleep a decent amount for once. It was as most bus journeys are, as it seems it South America anyway, eventful with tourists accusing locals of theft and over zealous staff man-handling the gringos convinced they were blanket stealers, much more entertaining than some crappy movie I can assure you!