2. Bolivian Altiplano & Salar de Uyuni

Day 2: Laguna Colorada -> Siloli Desert -> Laguna Hedionda -> Salar de Chiguana

The sun had barely risen as we departed the village to a nearby mirador overlooking Laguna Colorada. The familiar flamingos were now joined by llamas grazing on the edge of the lake.

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The lagoons are surrounded by tufts of the straw-like Jarava ichu, the rare plant capable of withstanding the utter lack of precipitation. Ichu, as it is more commonly known, is mostly used as livestock feed for the villages dotted around the austere Altiplano.

Another fascinating type of vegetation is the yareta, which, from afar, looks like nothing more than a moss-covered rock. In fact, they are a type of flowering plant with very dense leaves, thus resembling a compact mat of moss.

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Growing extremely slowly at around 1cm a year, some yareta plants are thought to be over thousands of years old. Being dry and dense, yareta was traditionally harvested as fuel, but its slow growth makes this practice extremely unsustainable.

From there, we sped back into the Siloli Desert, famed for the surrounding rainbow-tinted mountains and bizarre collection of rock formations. Climbing some of the more stable rock formations proved to be exhausting due not to our collective lack of fitness, but to the breathlessness that accompanies the extreme altitudes.

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Particularly striking among the rock formations is the Ãrbol de Piedra, or tree of stone, with a broad and blistered upper section balancing precariously on its narrow trunk. The shape, in particular the thin stem, is due to wind erosion and abrasion from sand.

Speeding along, we next visited a string of lagoons along the Bolivia-Chile border, including Laguna HondaLaguna Cañapa, and most notably, Laguna HediondaThese lagoons all sit in the shadow of the majestic Ollagüe Volcano. The pungently sulphuric Laguna Hedionda is populated by tens if not hundreds of flamingos.

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The extravagant flamingos become stuck in the lake as it freezes overnight while they sleep; they are only freed as the desert sun warmed the air. Occasionally, the flocks would take flight, the sound of flapping wings temporarily distracting from the howling desert winds.

Of the six flamingo species in the world, three (the Chilean, Andean and James’s Flamingos) are endemic to the Altiplano and can be found in large numbers around the lakes and lagoons of the reserve. They have adapted to the extreme conditions in the region, feeding primarily on algae which thrive in these lakes.

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Flamingos’ habitats are constantly under threat from human activity. The birds and their breeding habits are exquisitely sensitive to the environment. Subtle changes due to mining as well as more imminent threats such as egg harvesting have detrimentally affected their population.

Having been deceived by a sign promising Wi-Fi (which, as it turns out, is only available for guests of a hotel), we veered away from the Bolivia-Chile border, reaching Salar de Chiguana. A salt flat in its own right, Salar de Chiguana borders the much larger and more impressive Salar de Uyuni. A lone railway cuts through the salt flat and is used for transporting mined salt from Uyuni to the Chilean border.

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Regardless of the impracticalities of having a lone railway on which only one carriage transports salt at any time, the elevated railway still makes for a unique photo opportunity. We did have to hurriedly leave the tracks as an angry train carriage driver sped past!

A brief detour brought us to Gruta de las Galaxias, a prehistoric cave formed of fossilised algae. We also visited a nearby pre-Incan grave, dug from the bedrock of a natural cave. Sadly, colonial graverobbers had removed all of the treasure and mummified bodies from these graves.

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Fossilised algae lines the walls of the cavern. It boggles the mind to think that a cave which is today 3500m above sea level once resided at the bottom of the ocean.

As dusk drew near, we ended the day by travelling to a salt hotel, which was thankfully warmer and more comfortable than our previous night’s accommodation. Imagine our joy when we found out that warm water showers were available!

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The salt hotel is almost entirely constructed out of blocks of compacted salt. The arid climate means that the salt constructions can last indefinitely.

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