Saturday, June 12, 2010

Today, we woke up closer to actual sunrise, about 6:30. The sunrise was nice, but did not get the big "reveal" as in the day before. While watching the sunrise, we watched some of the nearby llamas, and they watched us right back.

We were the only people there for breakfast, but they gave us enough food for 6-8 people. It was too bad that we couldn't come close to eating it all. We left the hotel a little before 8:30, going back into the Salar, towards Incahuasi, but a little more to the west. There were more hills than we had seen the day before, small islands similar to Incahuasi. There are a decent number of them near the edges, but Incahuasi is fairly unique in that it is far from the edges.

We stopped to take some last photos of the Salar, including some more "silly" photos, and then exited the Salar on its south side.

Our first stop thereafter was the Cementrio de los Chullpas and the Galaxy caves. Both were pretty nice, but probably would not show up on too many itineraries but for the fact that they are the only items of interest for quite awhile around. The view from atop the caves was pretty nice, looking out on the Andes all around, with the Salar to the north. We saw a couple of vicunas from up there, and walked towards them when we got to the bottom. If they were afraid of humans, they certainly didn't show it.

We continued to head south, and stopped to see coral "trees." Here, unlike in the Salar and on Incahuasi, the water receded rather quickly, leaving the coral exposed. On the trip south, we saw several more vicunas. We stopped at San Pedro de Quemiz, and had lunch at Hotel de la Piedra. This hotel was run by the same company as our hotel the night before, and again was "owned" by the local people. We had a nice view of another, different, salt flat, which was fairly large in its own right. For the first time in awhile, we did not have any quinoa soup for lunch. Instead, we got a cream soup with vegetables and beans, and then some spaghetti, both of which were excellent. After lunch, we hung out for a bit, sitting out on the balcony, and also wandering around the grounds. While wandering the grounds and taking pictures of the mountains, Justin got yelled at by an old lady who apparently thought he was taking a picture of her. If that's correct, she can request that this picture be taken down from our site.

Silveria told us that right near San Pedro de Quemiz, there will eventually be a large highway going into Chile. This large highway is part of a plan to build a road from coast to coast, starting from Sao Paulo on the east, heading through Brazil and into Bolivia, going just south of Salar de Uyuni, passing into Chile right near San Pedro de Quemiz, and ending at Iquique on the Chilean coast. After lunch, we continued heading south, and stopped at a coral "forest," where got out to walk for a bit. We went through one last salt flat (Chiguana), and then headed up into the mountains right around Mount Tomasamil. The mountains became increasingly more reddish in color, due to the outer layer of sandstone oxidizing, and Tomasamil in particular caught our attention. When we got out to admire it, Silveria pointed us to Mt. Ollague, on the Chilean Border, which is an active volcano. We were able to see some steam leaving the vent when we looked at the mountain.

Around Mount Tomasamil, the road got very bumpy, but then got smooth for a short while when we were on the "main road" that heads more or less directly from the Chilean border to Uyuni, but we quickly diverged off of the main road to head for some of the lagoons. There are several lagoons in southwest Bolivia, pooling water from the miniscule yearly rainfall and also the snowfall runoff. These lagoons are usually very shallow (less than a foot deep), and attract thousands of flamingos. But because they are so shallow, during winter the lagoons freeze over, and the flamingos go elsewhere, so we were told not to expect very many (if any flamingos).

The first lagoon we got to was Cañapa, which was very nice, and we were on the correct side of the lagoon to see (since the sun was very low on the horizon, so late in the afternoon), but there were no flamingos. The second lagoon, Laguna Hedionda, was also nice, and had some flamingos, but they were between us and the sun, making them nearly impossible to see. There are three types of flamingos in the area, Chilean (pinker and with no black tail), James (with a bit of a black tail, yellow bill), and Andean (largest, even more black on the tail, yellow legs). Unbeknownst to us until we saw the pictures later in the evening, Laguna Hedionda had all three - Chilean, James, and Andean.

We did what amounted to "drive bys" of the last three lagoons (Chiarkota, Honda and Ramaditas), probably because it was getting close to sunset and driving at night in this area would be very unsafe. We were increasing in elevation, and when we got to 4600-4700 meters (15,100-15,400 feet) we began to see snow and ice on the side of road. Also, the mountains were even more red than earlier, and there were many more mountains, clustered closer together. Soon, the terrain itself - the "road" that the we were driving on and the flat area on either side of it - began to turn red itself, and its like we were on Mars.

We arrived at the Hotel del Desierto, which could not be more in the middle of nowhere. The sun was going down, so we dropped our stuff and quickly went outside to catch the last rays of sunlight on the Andes. It reminded us of the sunsets we saw in Atacama, but from a much closer vantage point. When the sun disappeared behind the Andes, it got only better, as nearly every color of the rainbow, but especially pinks, reds, and oranges, filled the landscape. It was one of the best sunset displays we've ever, with over 180 degrees of views, each phenomenal in their own way. Crystal watched this part from the heated dining room, Justin foolishly went outside and froze his hands (again).

After the sunset was finally over, we looked at the pictures with Silveria and Hilario, who told us what we were seeing (since in many cases we'd already forgotten). We also showed them some pictures we took from the top of Cerro Toco in 2008. From there, we could see into Bolivia, and in fact the area we would be going the next day. Except tomorrow, we'd be on the ground, looking up at Cerro Toco, rather than the other way around. We had dinner with Silveria and Hilario, and then we went outside so Crystal could look at the stars. That didn't last too long, since it was frigid outside. We knew we'd have an early wakeup call, so we packed and then went to sleep.