Fuel (Petrol and Diesel) is very cheap in Bolivia as it is subsidized by the government (as in, the opposite to taxing it!). The government however, do not wish to subsidize it for foreign vehicles, so there are 2 prices at every fuel station, the tourist price (9 Bolivians) and the local price (3.27 Bolivians). Remote cameras force the attendants to be sure they give the right fuel to everyone. With a little bit of gentle negotiation, the actual price paid often ends up between 6 and 7 Bolivianos, which is well under a Euro per litre so that’s fine for us. They are not allowed to charge over the tourist price either which is good . The negotiation usually involves explaining that we do not actually need an invoice, and it all takes its own course from that point on. There are however some fuel stations that are not allowed to sell fuel to foreign registered vehicles, and they will direct you on to another station.
Salar de Uyuni is Bolivia’s largest salt pan, 12,106-sq-km. It is a center of salt extraction and processing mainly for human consumption, a small percentage is for livestock. There were no roads, if you were lucky you might spot another vehicles track, but most times we made our own.
The surface was dry when we drove and camped on it and it was like a blinding white expanse of nothing really, but its like you are flying through the clouds, hard to describe but fantastic. In a few spots you could see where cold underground water rose to the surface up through the salt layer and created eruptions of the salt. Sometimes these can be quite big and if there is water on the Salar it can be dangerous for vehicles to drive across them, yes , you guessed , you might get ‘stuck’. Mostly driving on the Salar is not dangerous, the most important thing is when you are exiting to visit an island, or to exit altogether is to make sure that you follow a track that has many tyre marks, as then you know it is pretty solid, so you won’t get stuck. The silence at night on the Salar is unreal, you would hear a pin drop, nobody next or near to you for miles, and oh my god the sky, so so so many stars , no air pollution whatsoever! Yes it was cold, but once you are wrapped up warm you can watch the sky for quite some time, mind you a little warm Jameson also helped! One of the bigger islands that we visited called Isla de los Pescadores is a hilly spot in the middle of the Salar covered in Cactus, with a walking track to reach caves at the summit, and from here we got a great view over the Salar. That same day we went to visit a smaller island, and as we ate our lunch sitting with a clear blue sky, not a cloud to be seen, we had the entire island to ourselves, what more could you ask for, Robinson Crusoe , here I come.
As we left the Salar and headed South we encountered some bleak but wonderful scenery . Some days the terrain was rough and slow, our slowest was probably 3.5 kms per hour but you were never bored as there was so much to see. We went from being surrounded by volcanoes (one semi-active called Volcan Ollague at 5865 m) to driving across the desert, to great Laguna’s with Flamingoes were we spent the night.We also spent nights at Laguna Colorado and Laguna Verde. It was pretty cold at night, the lowest temperature we encountered was -14. One disadvantage of an old truck like ours is that it has no glow plugs. This basically means it’s not so keen to start when it’s much below freezing! To prepare for the night we used to make sure that we parked facing east so as to have the sun heat the engine in the morning. We also put our boots up close to the windscreen so as the sun would warm them too, and we always make sure to fill the kettle with water for the coffee in the morning as on two nights our water froze. As we were prepared for all this in advance, and knew what to expect it was no big deal. Instead of driving at 9ish each morning, it was 10.30 ish, we were in no rush. During the day we had loads of sunshine, the temperature rose to about 6 degrees, not too bad.
Laguna Colorado is red in colour and this is derived from the algae and plankton that live in this mineral rich water, Flamingoes also breed here. Whereas Laguna Verde is a stunning blue-green lake due to the high concentration of lead and sulfur, and behind this Laguna you have a great view of Volcan Licancabur standing at 5960m. Here at this lake was really icy cold, our coldest night but we parked on a height (facing east as usual) with stunning views both in the evening and morning. Mind you I didn’t venture out until the sun was well up, after all I didn’t need to take pictures, that’s why I brought a photographer, lol.
We also saw some great unusual rock formations, Stone City I guess you would call it. One in particular was Arbol de Piedra ‘ stone tree’ which really does look like a tree, is made of wind-eroded igneous rock. Apparently climbing competitions used to take part here, but very few people made it to the top, I did try but unsuccessfully.
Another cool spot we stopped at was the 4850m high geyser basins with bubbling mud fumaroles which had a great aroma of sulfer fumes. The sounds were amazing, I guess a good way to describe it was like thick soup boiling like mad. Also close to here were many hot pools of mineral rich water suitable for bathing , and to see the steam rising from them, with the air so cold was just fascinating. The water was warm as we tested it , about 28 degrees incredible really.
As we entered the national park we asked about the Paso San Pedro de Atacama, as we had heard it had been closed due to the snow, we could see that for ourselves now, plus we were hoping it was open as our diesel was getting low, but we had made sure that we still had enough to return a slightly different route back to Uyuni if needed be, (not that we really wanted to) so we were delighted to hear that it was open and could continue on as planned to the Atacama desert in Chile. At 5023 m.a.s.l is a mining operation that extracts borax and it was here that we did the paper work to take our truck out of Bolivia , just for a few days I might add ! . We then had 24 hours to have ourselves stamped out of Bolivia (this rule is not enforced) as we took our time to enjoy every last-minute of this wonderful environment.
We did this route during July, which is winter here. Winter is colder, but it is also the dry season. It is possible to make this trip year round, but I would not like to drive my vehicle across the salar when it is flooded with water as you are driving through a few hundred KM of salt water! We would do this drive again in a heartbeat, it was an amazing spin.
And a map for those who really want a good look!
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