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After stopping to pay our 150 Boliviano entrance fee to Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, to we continued on to our first stop of the day, the absolutely breathtaking Laguna Blanca. A lake lined with the mineral borax, it's white base creates magnificent reflections of the surrounding mountains, its resident flamingoes didn't seem interested in their visitors and stayed away from the shore but our driver assured us over the course of the day there would be plenty of opportunities to photograph and see the vivid pink birds. Moving on from Laguna Blanca, our next stop not much further along was Laguna Verde, this lake is lined with arsenic so not home to any wildlife although we did spot some Vicunas not far from its shore. Over the last months I have learnt the iconic llama has several relatives. Patagonia being much lower, often not more than 1000m in altitude is full of Guanacos who prefer lower plains. Then you have Alapacas and Llamas and finally Vicunas, Vicunas are usually found above 3000m and are quite elegant and petite in comparison to the goofy Llamas we would spend time with later in the trip.
hot springs. Paying another small entrance fee of 6 bolivianos, I swapped my hiking boots for swimsuit and took a dip in the toasty 38 degree waters. Though the area where the hot springs are is a little built up the views from the water to the lake ahead were amazing and I was awed by the many colours that seemed to form on its shores.
Everyone reacts to altitude differently and until you are in the situation it is very hard to know how your body will react. In the run up to the salt flats trip I silently prayed that I would be ok and for the most part, I'd like to think I handled it pretty well. One of the ways they combat the altitude here in South America is to chew coca leaves. These are said to help by giving more energy, reducing hunger and and easing all effects of altitude. On embarking on the trip I had been assured the driver would have a stash of the leaves if necessary and after lunch as we made our way even higher, we got our first taste. They say you shouldn't exactly chew them but rather 'masticate' likened to chewing tobacco, this wasn't helpful as I've never tried that either! It felt a little strange at first go, to put a handful of leaves into my mouth and try to turn them into a pulp that would hang around in my mouth. The leaves themselves taste quite bitter and I can't really say whether they were good or bad. It's not a taste I liked but also wouldn't be up there with Brussels sprouts either... I think it did help with the slight headache and pressure I was feeling in my forehead but I don't think I'll be hooked on them alike our driver anytime soon.
We had been offered the coca leaves as our next destination Sol de Mañana geyser was the highest altitude we would get to and for me the highest altitude I've been. At 4890m above sea level, it is also higher than the highest peak in Europe, Mont Blanc. Up here I was expecting to see geysers spouting fountains of boiling water alike those I'd seen in Iceland, however, Sol de Mañana are actually a set of fumaroles which means they smoke and boil the liquids that fill them but do spout like geysers. All the same it was a pretty special sight, made even better when it started to snow! Our final stop of the day was Laguna Colorada a red coloured lake where we had been told we would see thousands of flamencos, unfortunately for us as we descended from Sol de Mañana what had been snow turned to rain and the clouds closed in. By the time we reached the Laguna it was essentially whiteout aside for the faint pink glow in the distance. Knowing this might be the only time I pass this way I decided to chance it anyway and ran the 100metres from the car to the lakes shore. Some of the car decided to stay put and avoid the rain but even with a cloud covered lake I could still make out some flamencos and it was worth the breathless run there and back!
From Laguna Colorada we headed for the small town of Viña Mar where we would spend the night before continuing our journey. The road there was a river bed so very rugged but spotted with our first llama sightings which we got pretty excited about. Arriving to Viña Mar we settled in to a bolognese dinner of sorts and a cold nights sleep. With the climate being mainly warm, I'm finding none of the houses in South America have heating, which when at high altitude during an altiplanic winter, seems a little odd.
On our final day we were up at 4am ready for a 4.30am departure in order to see the sunrise over the salt flats. Unfortunately for us things still seemed to be on Bolivian time and our driver was 45minutes late, anxious we'd miss the sunrise he drove like a bat out of hell to get us there. Thankfully we arrived in one piece and just in time to see the magical sunrise colours reflect on the waterlogged salt flats, the views truly were breathtaking and I feel super lucky to have seen this natural wonder come to life. Although freezing I stuck out the whole sunrise whilst the rest of the group hid away in the car saying they were too cold. For me, the temperature was tolerable as the views were so spectacular. As the sun reached higher we moved from the waterlogged area we had first stopped at to another drier patch where we had breakfast and continued to photograph the mind blowing scenery. Our next stop was Playa Blanca, a salt hotel situated further into the flats and home to a star shaped platform flying the flags of many travellers who have passed through and left a token of their home country behind.
Our final and most anticipated stop was the last, driving us even further into the salty desert our driver then got to work takin photos of the entire group at varying perspectives. Some of the outcomes really are fun although I expect there would have been more had the rest of the group been as enthusiastic as me! After the salt flats we stopped at the town of Colchani for lunch where we browsed the local market and ate a traditional Bolivian lunch of Quinoa and Llama, it was rather bland and the Llama very tough. Fun to try but I can't say it compared with Argentinas legendary steaks! From Colchani we stopped at Uyunis famed train cemetery where we had time to explore the trains left stranded from the days Bolivia had trains that ran from the mines through to Chile and beyond. It seemed crazy that such an integral piece of infrastructure can be left to rust and crumble, but still had hundreds of trains made for a great adventure playgrounds and last stop of the tour. From here we returned to Uyuni where the group split, some returning to San Pedro and others moving on to other parts of Bolivia, having seen Uyuni town the night before I had little reason to stay so hopped a bus out of town to Potosí, my next destination.
All in all the tour was everything I imagined and more. My mind still feels overloaded by the crazy and varied landscapes we saw. It is true that the group you travel with can make or break the experience and I imagine doing it with friends would be the best way but as a solo traveller you have to keep your fingers crossed that luck will prevail. I was neither lucky nor unlucky, I made some great friends on the trip and it's only a shame the other half of our group weren't as enthusiastic and excitable as the rest. It would have been great to have some more team photos on the salt flats, experimenting with perspective and having a giggle. But you can't force people to have fun! I had a great time, and regardless of weather or temperature tried to make the best of every location and opportunity I had. The longer I travel the more I realise I may not pass these places again so am trying to make the most of every situation I find myself in.