After another very cold night ( -18c) another early start as we head off to the Piedra de Arbol a “forest” of stone carved into some impossible shapes by the desert wind and ice.
These monoliths are very imposing, almost like a set from one of the Star Wars movies. There is just so much to see on this plateau!
We drive on, running parallel to the mountains along the border between Bolivia and Chile when Alfredo insists we stop so Carolyn and I can “jump over the Andes into Chile”. In other words he wants to take one of the freaky photographs that are de rigueur on these trips. We oblige and sure enough he manages to capture us jumping over the mountains ( or in my case, almost!).
Back in the jeep and we continue across the altiplano to the series of three soda lakes and famed their resident flamingo populations. Along the way we drive along a dry riverbed which is now solid ice because the recent snowfalls which prevent travellers taking this route only last week have thawed and refrozen. The snow in parts is still quite deep and, driving along a mini canyon we get to examine some giant icicles.
The lakes are stunning as are the thousands of flamingos. We arrive so early in the morning that the flamingoes have yet to wake up and are mostly standing, huddled together in the centre of the lake.
After 20 minutes or so they magically wake up, stretch their wings and fly off to a different part of the lake. By the time we get to the third lake they are all well awake and feeding around the edges of the algae and plankton rich lake. Even in Africa, I don’t think I have seen so many flamingoes.
Leaving the lakes and the flamingoes we head to the “Dali desert” and its otherworldly rock formations. Basically huge chunks of of lava and rock erupting from the volcano and blown miles away then carved by the desert winds. We park the jeep under one of these formations and wander off into the desert whilst Liboria prepares lunch of a delicious chicken salad. We eat lunch whilst looking out over the desert and its surreal rock formations and to the still active volcano puffing away a couple of miles distant.
The distances here are simply vast and we drive for several hours without seeing a soul. Somewhat bizarrely we pass through and army checkpoint which must be hundreds of kilometres from any town or village. Quite what they are checking for I really don’t know until we pass over the railway line. Even more bizarrely, there is a large stop sign across the track. This must be the most redundant stop sign in the world bearing in mind that you can see for 50 miles in any direction and trains only pass a couple of times a week!
As we passed through the army checkpoint a pack of dogs appear and start chasing the jeep, barking their heads off! We stop and get out to take photos and to feed our leftover lunch to dogs which have left the comfort of the army buildings in search of some light relief from what must be a pretty boring existence, even for a dog.
Dogs fed, we continue on to the petrified coral forest. This was quite something. Being keen divers we could easily recognise the reefs and various types of coral covering a vast area. About 60 million years ago this place was once a sea before the continental plates collided to create the Andes, leaving behind the coral which, after the water evaporated. It really is like diving off of a massive reef, except that there is no water and of course, no fish!
Driving onwards towards the Salar de Uyuni we hit civilisation again in the form of a very nice lady in a hut on top of a small coral hill. She is the keeper to the coral caves which were discovered in the 1970s by a couple of Bolivian guys. This is one of the few hills on the altiplano around and as we climb up to the hut we can see for miles and miles. The lady invites us in and sits us down whilst she gives ten minute presentation on how the caves were discovered and the history behind them. All in Spanish, we we quite pleased that we understood most of it!
Inside the caves, it is much like diving in a coral cave with the different corals all clearly identifiable and, sadly, in much better condition than some undersea dive sites we have seen. On the floor of the caves are dozens of holes which have been dug out and used as burial chambers. All still contain bones and skulls.
Our next stop is our home for the night, a “salt hotel” built entirely of salt right on the edge of the Salar. Almost everything is built of salt, the rooms, the beds, the tables and benches. The first thing most people seem to do on arrival is to lick the walls, just to check I suppose?
This place does have the added luxury of hot water which we are assured is both very hot and plentiful. Everyone is desperate to avail themselves of the supposedly copious hot water and immediately jump in as soon as the hot water is switched on. I am naturally cynical of such claims and decide to wait and sure enough, people emerge complaining of the lukewarm water. Oh well, what is one more day without a shower!
An early dinner and and early night as we are to rise at 5.00 am tomorrow to drive on to the Salar to watch dawn break.Before retiring we take one last stroll outside into the darkness to take a peek at the stars. Sure enough the Milky Way is still as incredible as it was yesterday and tonight we get the added bonus of a few meteors streaking across the sky.