The blindingly white expanse of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is one of South America’s most spectacular sights, but few travellers venture beyond the classic tour circuit. Shafik Meghji hadn’t planned to either until violent snowstorms and gale force winds forced him off course. He was rewarded with ancient tombs, hidden lagoons, surreal rock formations – and some “extreme birdwatching”.
They may not look it, but flamingos are some of the toughest birds of earth. Sat at an altitude of almost 4300m in the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, the blood-red, ice-frosted Laguna Colorada was buffeted by gale force, bitingly cold winds. Even though the temperature was well below zero, the midday sun gave off a fierce glare, necessitating sunglasses and high-factor sun cream, all the while, the lake’s colony of James’s and Chilean flamingos – two of the three species found in the far southwest of Bolivia; the other is the Andean – seemed oblivious to the harsh conditions, picking contentedly through the reeds for algae and insects. Clad in several layers of Gore-Tex and alpaca-wool garments, we struggled out of our jeep, and through the whipped up waves of dust and grit and were able to get within a few feet of them, though our gloved fingers were so numb from the cold that it was struggle to use our cameras.
“Flamingos are strong birds – they have to be to survive here,” our guide, Alvaro, told us back in the jeep, which gently rocked in the wind. “They can regulate their body temperature. Sometimes the lakes here freezes overnight, trapping their legs in the ice. But the flamingos just wait calmly for the ice to melt and then get back to their feeding.”
Severe weather meant that we reached Laguna Colorada a day later – and from the opposite direction – than our original itinerary for the Salar de Uyuni and Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa intended. Everything had started so well. On the first day my friend Nick and I were picked up early from Uyuni, a bleak town in the far southwest of Bolivia, and taken across the Salar, the world’s largest salt flat, a blindingly white, otherworldly, high-altitude landscape flanked by mountains and volcanoes. We visited an “island” in its centre populated by freakish giant cacti and a few grazing llamas, and stayed a night in the comfortable Palacio del Sal, one of several hotels in the region constructed from salt.
From the second day on, however, the weather deteriorated dramatically, shifting from menacing grey clouds to light snow flurries to golf ball-sized hailstones to heavy snowfall and an almost complete white-out in the space of just a few hours. Continuing on the classic Salar route – continuing over a 4000-metre-high pass to the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa – was impossible, so we missed out on some high-powered geysers, a series of hot springs and the strikingly green Laguna Verde. Most other tour groups gave up and headed back to Uyuni, but Alvaro was not so easily deterred and used the extreme weather as an opportunity to visit some less heralded attractions.
The first stop on our revised schedule was a cave a short drive from the salt-mining town of Colchani. After ducking inside, we found the 900-year-old remains of eight figures. Many of the ancient graves in the region have been robbed, but this one remained largely intact. Among the remains were three full skeletons, including a mother holding a baby, and a mummified puma hanging disconcertingly above the cave entrance. All of the human skulls had been intentionally deformed, giving them a distended, bulbous appearance.
“There are three theories about why they did this,” said Alvaro. “They did it to make themselves stand out, as religious and royal leaders; so that they were closer to the gods – the heads protruding up into the sky; or that they were aliens.” The tomb remained of local religious importance and the remnants of recent ceremonies were all around: coca leaves, miniature banknotes, coins, coloured streamers, and bottles of spirits and beer. One of the skulls even had a cigarette in its mouth, which is not the offensive gesture it might appear to non-Bolivians.
Our revised schedule meant an unexpected stay on the second night in the remote village of Mallca Villar Mar, where the guesthouse was rather more rudimentary than anticipated. Our spartan, heater-free room was freezing at 5pm, something not helped by a hole in the wall that had been bunged up ineffectually with a wodge of (thankfully unused) toilet paper. Temperatures plunged to minus 21 degrees celcius overnight, but we survived by wearing all of our clothes, burrowing down in heavy sleeping bags and wrapping ourselves in a couple of emergency blankets brought along by the ever-resourceful Nick, a veteran of New England’s frigid winters.
The following day we visited the Laguna Negra, west of the Eduardo Avaroa reserve, and accessed by a winding narrow path, hemmed in by jagged, overhanging cliffs. Surrounded by rocky crags, with gravity-defying boulders balanced ominously on one another and bogs populated by ibis and vizcachas (rabbit-like rodents), the lake felt like a Game of Thrones set. Once again the site was devoid of travellers – and indeed any sign of humanity. Enclosed from the wind, it was also wonderfully still and silent, save from the calls of a resident family of coots, which Alvaro told us give the lake its other name, “the laughing lagoon”.
On our final morning, after a more comfortable night in a heated hotel, we drove to the Lost City, a cluster of surreal rock formations that looked like skyscrapers and amphitheatres. It was an easy place to lose yourself in for a few hours.
A few hazards remained – including a semi-frozen river, which we crossed bumper deep – but the weather steadily improved and by the time we reached Uyuni it was a sunny, balmy day. After an eventful, unexpected trip I was left with some great experiences, an appreciation of emergency blankets, and a new found respect for those hardy flamingos.
Shafik Meghji co-authors The Rough Guide to Bolivia. He blogs at www.unmappedroutes.com and tweets @ShafikMeghji. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.