Dusty Roads

28th October 2016

Can't wait to get out and explore!We say goodbye to the (un)glamorous Hotel Kukuli and start by retracing our steps from yesterday along the road to Bolivia. After an hour we turn off and although we are happy to avoid that huge queue of trucks, the downside is that the road is unmade and lumpy, almost corrugated. Even worse, it is very dusty and despite us closing the windows, the car still seems to slowly fill with dust.

I'm a lama, OK?First we head through the Reserva Nacional las Vicuñas, set up in the 1970s to help stop the decline in numbers of vicuñas. Apparently, a kilo of vicuña wool is worth US$1,000 to the farmer and so the animals were being poached. Our lessons on the differences between guanacos, alpacas, vicuñas and lamas continues – and we’re now getting quite good at all but the alpaca. These cuddly fellows are lamas.

Isolated churchThe altiplano lives up to its name of being high and flat but even without the wildlife who insist on standing beside the road and posing, there is much to see and photograph as the scenery is just stunning with dramatic volcanoes in the background. The villages are now really small and we even pass by one which Benjamin tells us is now uninhabited after the last resident died a couple of years ago. There’s always a church though. It may not be big or grand – other than in comparison to the rest of the houses – but it is there and in this landscape it is striking.

In the village of GuallatireWe have a brief stop in the village of Guallatire at the base of an eponymous volcano which we can see smoking away amongst the clouds. Tucked away, up high, in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by a landscape of scrubby bushes (and a smoking volcano) we wonder why anyone would want to live here. Fortunately (amazingly) there is a sign in the village (with an English translation) explaining that this was a lodging point on the mule trail carrying silver from Bolivia to the coast and was set up by the Spanish.

Flamingos!As if the road we were on was of too high a standard, we turn off on to a dirt track as we head toward the Salar de Surire. Soon Benjamin starts counting down on his fingers and at 1, we crest a hill and there it is laid out below us. One of the reasons that I wanted to come here was to see the flamingos that this area is famous for – of the five types of flamingo in the world, three are found here. However, other than the flamingos, we weren’t really sure what to expect.

Someone took a lot of photographs!My understanding is that salar means salt flats – that was certainly our previous experience in Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. This time, though, as well as the expanse of white borax – being actively mined judging by the trucks that can be seen in the distance – there is what must be a shallow lake. This is good news for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the wished for flamingos are here, not in huge numbers and not too close to the shore but sufficient to bring some colour to the landscape.

On the shore of Salar de SurireReflection in the lake

Secondly, the wind has dropped and the mountains reflect in the still water. Combined with the bushes and rocks along the lake shore, wildlife (vicuñas and viscachas as well as the flamingos) and dramatic skies, there are plenty of photographs to be taken. We are at 4,200m here and so are not doing anything quickly especially when it comes to walking. But there is no rush, the scenery is there to be appreciated and we are happy to stroll along the lake shore and try to find new views and new compositions.

Hot spring pools with mountains in the backgroundThe circumference of the lake is 62km and we continue around it on the bouncy dusty track stopping every now and again for yet more photos. We’re keeping an eye out for what Benjamin says are ostriches but I suspect (and LP confirms) are actually rheas. Whichever, we are out of luck and so get to save some space on the rapidly filling memory card in our cameras.

Just us at Salar de SurireOur lunch stop is at a natural hot-spring pool where fortunately the wind is blowing the sulphury fumes away from our picnic spot. Astonishingly, for all the dramatic scenery, we have the place to ourselves. In fact, in all of our circumnavigation of the salt flats, I don’t think we saw anyone else at all. The girls are all feeling the effects of the altitude and so although the temperature of the water is very temptingly warm, we pass on having a dip. It doesn’t stop us taking yet more pictures though!

Steam rising at the hot springsWe still have some 100km or so to go to our overnight stop in Colchane and on these roads it is slow going. The road is badly rutted in places and there are some streams and dried up river beds to cross. We’ve heard that in the summer wet season the roads become very treacherous and we can see why. Its only a bit reassuring when Benjamin stops and pulls a big jerry can of diesel out of the back of the minibus and fills up the tank. Nevertheless, we keep bouncing along and cross through the Parque Nacional Volcan Isluga (guess what the distinguishing feature of this park is).

Our luxury accommodation for tonightAt last we hit tarmacked road and a cheer goes up from everyone. Its not far now to Colchane and everyone just wants to stop travelling, stretch their legs and take a shower to get the dust off. If Putre was a two horse town, that would be an aspirational goal for Colchane. Indeed the whole village only has electricity from 7pm to 11pm each day and our hotel is basic, basic, basic. However, just as we think we have been toughing it, I get chatting to the other guests – Peter, an American who (voluntarily) spent last night sleeping in his truck at the army checkpoint at Salar de Surire; and Nuño and Antonia, Chileans who have spent the last week cycling the route that we have done over the last 3 days. How fit would you need to be to do that??

[PS – Thanks to Léa for the pick of me at the Salar de Surire]

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