Here's what a day in the Bolivian desert's like
From Atulcha we drove south of the flats to the volcano studded Chiguana desert. Most of the surrounding volcanoes are dormant or extinct, but Ollague is semi active.
From the look out point we watched the steam rising out from the top of it’s 5,840m height, before heading further south towards the Andean lagoons.
The flamingos hang around there in the hundreds, looking fantastically bizarre stalking around the lagoon, surrounded by the desert on all sides.
From there, we drove further south towards Silolo desert (4550m high) the highest, driest desert in the world.
On the other side of Silolo, there's a seven metre high tree shaped rock made of cooled lava, named Árbol de Piedra - aka The Salvador Dali rock. It sits isolated out in the middle of the Bolivian desert, looking just like you'd imagine a surrealists' inspiration would.
My favourite stop that second day was the shallow waters of Laguna Colorada, The Red Lagoon. Legend has it that the deep, clay red waters are the blood of the gods, but science says it’s because of the algae that live in the mineral rich water. It’s the same algae that give the flamingos their pink colouring.
Watching the flamingos eat that algae is hilarious. I saw four of them line themselves up in a row, toe deep in the red waters of the lagoon. (Fun fact: What you think is a flamingos knee is really its’ ankle. Their knees are hidden way up underneath their feathers. So really, half their legs are their feet).
Standing in a row, the first one dipped it’s curved beak into the water for a beat, then popped back up just as the one behind it was lowering his, while the the third, then the fourth followed suit. The synchronised quartet never missed a beat for over ten minutes.
Our last stop was over 5000m high, at the top of Sol de Mañana volcano. We drove around the bumpy crater where steam was being let loose in all directions, before parking up.
The wind was strong when we got out of the jeep, so I pulled my beanie down over my ears to keep walking towards the boiling mud pits we were being guided towards. Hot steam was rising out of the pits in clouds so thick I couldn’t see through them. The steam pouring from the fumaroles was over 100 degrees celsius.
Our accommodation that night was basic compared to the first. It was every single wooly llama accessory plus the thick sleeping bags provided for us. There was a hot spring down the front of the lodging, that in ordinary weather would of been an easy 100 metre stroll.
In the freezing night time temperature of the open desert, its was more of a mad dash down the path, before I made an unbearable transition from thermals into togs, then sunk into the 35 degree Celsius water to let my goosebumps melt away. When I looked up, the stars were diamond bright against the velvet sky.
The willpower needed to emerge into the grasping cold fingers of the night time, before running back to the lodging was immense. Sunrise from the hot springs takes the same effort, but it’s worth it.
On the last day of the tour we visited the Salvador Dali Desert, which is like stepping inside a surrealists imagination. From there we drove to the foot of Licancahur (6000m) volcano, to see the copper filled waters of Green Lake.
We were basically sitting on the border at this point, so half the crew departed from there to cross over into Chile. For the rest of us, it was a long journey back to Uyuni.
I left Uyuni that night, but not before getting swindled at the ticket office.
Gazing over at the gringos who’d pre-booked online, I boarded a tired local bus that made one toilet stop the entire night. I was looking around for the bathroom when I saw the little old Bolivian lady who’d been sitting opposite me, hike up her masses of skirts to pop a squat on the side of the road.
The sight haunted me all the way to Sucre.