We woke up early and dropped off the jeep off at the car rental in San Pedro before meeting a driver who would take us across the border to meet our guide in Bolivia. Chilean guides aren't allowed to operate in Boliva and vice versa, so there's always this system of being picked up in a van or minibus, taken though Chilean border control (just outside San Pedro) and then into Bolivia through their border control at the foot of Licancabur Volcano. Here, people meet their guides and continue the rest of the way in very sturdy 4x4s.
We'd gone through an agency called Ruta Verde to organise a private trip. Usually the jeeps are crammed with 4 to 6 people, but I knew that would make it much more difficult for me to stop where I wanted for how long I wanted to take photos, so we'd managed to arrange a tour and pretty much specified where we wanted to go and for how long (for example, I wanted to spend 2 nights at Salar de Uyuni). Our guide was Raul, a native of Uyuni, who'd been guiding people around this part of Bolivia for 10 years.
The first part of the trip was to two lakes immediately across the border on the other side of Licancabur volcano, the peak that had been looming above us in San Pedro for the previous four days. The first of the lakes is Laguna Branca, the white lake, so called because of the beautiful white crystalline structures that line the edge of the water. At this point it felt as though we were travelling in a convey, as the 20 or so other jeeps that had picked people up at the Bolivian border at the same time as us all stopped alongside the edge of the lake.
The lake was beautiful in an eerie kind of way. It's surface is actually multicoloured from the different algae and minerals and nothing can live in the water. It was our first experience of this barren part of the Altiplano, and it felt almost like being on the surface of another planet. The sun was so strong, the landscape so relentlessly lifeless, but there's an incredibly austere beauty in the red and ochre rocks and peaks, interspersed with splashes of intense blue and green in the lakes.
After photographing Laguna Branca, we hopped back in the jeep and headed over to the adjacent Laguna Verde, the green lake, which sits directly under the peak of Licancabur Volcano. The lake is aptly named, because although it can often be a muddy brown colour, when the breeze comes in the afternoon, it stirs up the bacteria and algae in the lake turning it a vivid green colour. It's an amazing sight, the emerald green water beneath a towering volcano in the midst of this incredibly stark, barren landscape.
After that we travelled across the desert-like landscape between stunning mountain peaks passing through the Desierto de Dali, a vast expanse of sand named after the painter because of it's abstract rock patterns. Everything we saw looked and felt alien, and we were started to be aware of the harshness of the climate. We were above 4500m, and there was a constant low pressure pushing against our heads, which combined with the extremely strong sun made us feel a little woozy. We stopped for lunch at the colouful Salar de Chalviri, which has the Termas de Polques, a small hot spring next to it. We decided not to bathe as the weather really was cold and the thought of stripping down to our bathing costumes and then having to dry off in such cold wasn't all that appealing.
After lunch we headed back out into the desert and continued up and up to the Sol de Mañana geyser field, which sits a little above 5000m in the crater of what used to be a massive volcano. It's another stark and eerie place, with geysers blowing from the earth and pools of different coloured mud bubbling away. It was similar to geyser fields we'd seen in Iceland a few years ago, but whereas they were fenced off with lots of notices warning people of the dangers and making sure you kept away, here there was nothing to stop you walking right to the edge of the sulphur smelling pools (and falling right in if you weren't careful).
We respectfully tried to keep our distance before climbing back into our jeep with Raul and heading off back down to Laguna Colorada. Even from a distance it's a stunning place. The deep red of the lake is caused by different sediment and algae, and this contrasts incredibly with the yellow vegetation and white salt crystals that surround the water. And then of course there are the thousands of flamingoes.
As you get closer to the lake the spots of pink begin to take on the form of the birds and we realised that there are thousands and thousands here, different groups and colonies, taking off and landing, wandering around the lake and filtering the toxic water with their upturned bills to get at the algae.
We stopped here for an hour or so and stood watching the flamingoes whilst walking around the lake and taking in the incredible atmosphere. Photographing flamingoes proved harder than expected as there were so many that getting a clean shot where all the elements felt balanced and uncluttered was an interesting challenge.
By the time we left Laguna Colorada the sun was getting lower and Raul was starting to get a little concerned about getting to our accommodation before dark. The temperatures drop dramatically after the sun has gone down, and also in the middle of nowhere with no roads and no light navigating is difficult. We really didn't want to be stuck in the jeep after dark so we headed away from the lake back up to the peaks and the deserts. The light was stunning, painting everything golden and red, and after an hour or so, passing through the strange rock formations of the Desierto de Soliol, we arrived at our accommodation, the Hotel Tayka del Desierto in Ojo de Perdiz. It's the only building, quite literally in the middle of nowhere, over 5000m above sea level and surrounded by towering peaks.
It was far from the most comfortable night I've spent, the strong smell of butane heaters and paint combined with the altitude and cold made it hard to sleep well. Obviously, in the middle of the desert everything is difficult to obtain, so water and energy are extremely limited, but in places like this you don't expect 5 star comfort. We departed early the next morning, driving through pathways that the Incas used to use, seeing viscacha and llamas wandering the desert, and pondering what they found to eat here. We soon descended to a couple more colourful lagoons, Laguna Honda and Laguna Hedionda, which were also full of flamingoes. Once again, we spent some time here photographing the amazing birds as they fed and walked through the colourful algae infested water.
After an hour or so we continued north, glimpsing the massive volcano Ollague in the distance and crossing huge swathes of desert and passed through yet another area of fascinating rock formations before stopping for lunch in the tiny village of Alota. After sitting watching a local festival we crossed more mountains heading towards the southern part of Salar de Uyuni. Over the space of the afternoon we saw wild rheas (South American ostriches), llamas and more vicuna, all of which proved to be incredibly tricky to photograph.
Late in the afternoon we arrived at the town of San Pedro de Quemaz, which sits at the foot of a volcano on the southern fringes of the massive salt lake. The hotel here was the Hotel Tayka de Piedra, owned by the same local cooperative that owned the place we'd slept in the previous night, but the lower altitude and less extreme climate made this place much more comfortable to stay in. As always in Bolivia we ate incredibly well, food here really is great, and had a really good night's sleep. The next morning we crossed barren plains and slowly the ground started to get whiter and whiter until it became obvious that we were now driving across the beginnings of the biggest salt lake in the world, Salar de Uyuni.