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Uyuni - Train Cemetery - Colchani - Crystal Cave - Cuemes

What an amazing day!


View High Altitude Landscapes Tour - Bolivia, Chile & Argentina 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Driving through Uyuni town this morning, we find it deserted, flat, and dusty. The only thing that is required to turn it into a wild-west film set, is some tumbleweed blowing down the road. The only creatures we see are a number of street dogs. Away from the main area, the town looks scruffy and uninviting.

We have a new driver today – Roger – and a more rugged expedition vehicle – complete with extra fuel cans on the roof - to take us across the Altiplano over the next few days.

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Train Cemetery

Uyuni has long been known as an important transportation hub in South America and it connects several major cities. There is still a train station in town, but these decaying metal structures tell their own story.

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Trains were the favoured means of transport by the mining companies, but when the industry collapsed in the 1940s, they were abandoned where they stopped, and that is where they still are today.

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There are talks to build a museum to house the train skeletons, but today they are just sitting in a dusty field outside town, gathering graffiti, with the strong winds that blow in from the salt fields slowly eroding what is left of these once valued workhorses.

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Most of the trains we see in the Graveyard date back to the early 20th century and were imported from Britain.

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Outdoor Sculpture Park

Next to the train cemetery is a series of sculptures created from recycled mechanical parts.

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Juanito Salt Processing Plant

On the edge of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats lies the small salt-processing village of Colchani, which, despite its diminutive size (just 600 inhabitants), is Bolivia’s largest salt-processing cooperative.

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Juan takes us inside one of the factories, where everything is still done by hand, and explains the simple process to us.

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The first step involves collecting the salt, which is then piled up on the floor.

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It is then 'fried' in a huge pan...

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… before iodine is added via this machine.

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It is then either bagged up and exported as it is, or they might add herbs or spices to it. We purchase a couple of small bags of the latter, one with garlic and the other chilli. The salt is said to have a stronger flavour and be purer than the stuff we buy at Tesco. I certainly find the salt to be strong when I use it back home – I only need a small amount.

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Salt bricks

Sodium fluoride has a melting point of 993 °C, so does not melt when heated in the pan.

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The grains are similar in size to sea salt.

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An impressive 25,000 tonnes of salt is excavated and processed at Colchani annually – don't worry, there is plenty of salt left here for the foreseeable future: it is estimated that Salar de Uyuni contains 10 billion tonnes of the stuff!

Salar de Uyuni Salt Flat

This is what I came for: this whole trip was based around these salt flats – which I have wanted to see for the longest time - the rest is just an added bonus.

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Initially, there is as much soil as there is salt, and I am somewhat baffled when we stop in an area that has a much more 'dirty' look to it, rather than the pristine white surface I have seen in photos.

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Then I spot the small 'puddles' which are, in fact, hot springs.

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They are said to be very good for the skin on your feet. I take Juan's word for it.

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These springs are known as the “eyes” of the salt flat, and can be dangerous for vehicles if the driver does not spot them in time.

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From here on, everything is all white as we make our way across the enormous flats.

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During the rainy season, the surface can be covered by as much as 50cm of water. Today, Roger struggles to find the last wet patch that is still on the flat.

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In two weeks, this too will be gone until the next rain.

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Thank goodness for waterproof boots!

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We continue our journey, traversing the endless white plains of the salt flats.

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About 40,000 years ago, a lake formed when water from the nearby mountains collected here as there was no drainage outlet. A rise in temperatures coupled with a change in climate from wet to dry caused the water to slowly evaporate over the years. High salinity levels caused a thick salt crust to form, leaving behind the impressive salt flat that we see today. Water underneath the salt flat continues to evaporate under the heat of the sun, leaving behind more salt on the surface. The rate of evaporation is ten times more than precipitation, meaning that Salar de Uyuni is a never-ending salt source!

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In the distance we see what looks like a car – is it a mirage? No, it's a monument to celebrate the fact that the Dakar rally came through here in 2014, 15, 16, and 17.

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I can't see a British nor a Norwegian flag here.

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Picnic

Roger stops the car in a spot with nothing and no-one around. Just white salt. I take the opportunity to take some photos of the fantastic patterns on the ground, caused by the constant freezing, moving, and cracking of the surface water.

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The salt flat itself is 120 metres thick (deep). Scientists believe there are actually 11 layers of salt, each between 2 and 10 meters in depth.

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This seems a good place to test out my new drone, too.

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While David and I have been busy photographing and filming, Roger and Juan have set up a picnic buffet out of the back of the car, as well as a table and some stylishly decorated little stools, plus a parasol to shield us from the strong high altitude sun.

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Coca Tea, said to help with altitude sickness and increase stamina

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Cheers!

This is totally surreal.

Juan has brought a toy dinosaur with him – as you do – and after lunch we set up to take some trick photos with compacted perspective.

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Incahuasi Island

As with many lakes, Salar de Uyuni has around 13 islands, with Incahuasi being the largest. It is in fact the top of what was once a submerged volcano. These days it is a rocky formation of basalt and regolith that contains remains of unusual and fragile coral-like structures, seashells, and deposits that consist of fossils and algae: proof that the vast salt sea was once a sea full of life.

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The Island is covered by giant cacti (Echinopsis atacamensis), some of which reach 10 metres in height. As these cacti grow at a rate of 1 cm per year, that means these prickly poles are anything up to 700 years old.

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More drone photos:

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We continue for another 1½ hours across the salt flat, before we hit a dirt track the other side.

Crystal Galaxy Cave

The cave entrance is situated at the top of a small hill. Looking back on the images now as I write this, the slope doesn't seem at all difficult, whereas, at the time, it felt like a mountain to climb. I guess that is what having a chest infection at high altitude does for you.

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Pycnophyllum molle – a known life-saver for its ability to burn smokelessly all night, helping with the survival for anyone who is lost in the wilderness.

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Calcerous rock was formed when Thunpa volcano erupted some 225 million years ago, and when the volcano came into contact with the sea, bizarre formations were created. The caves contain amazing geological formations, with pieces of rock separating from the walls of the cave in web-like structures, akin to deteriorated tree leaves.

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Completely white, it is a combination of petrified coral, and what looks to be petrified seaweed or some form of sea plant. I liken it to delicate and sought after filigree jewellery.

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The road from here is rutted like a wash-board (Bolivian massage), so Roger leaves the track and heads off-road instead. We see some llamas and vicuñas along the side of the lane, but no other vehicles.

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San Pedro de Cuemes

The inhabitants of this small settlement of less than 600 people, are dedicated to the breeding of camelids and the plantation of quinoa.

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Ruins of a pre-Colombian village, which was burned to the ground by the Chilean army in 1879 during the Pacific War. It is known as Pueblo Quemado, meaning 'burnt village' in English.

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Hotel Tayka de Piedra (Hotel of the Rocks)

Named after, and constructed from the local Tayka sandstone and volcanic materials, this hotel sits atop a hill on the outskirts of town. A steep slope leads from the car park to the entrance, and I feel totally out of breath at 3,800 metres above sea level.

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We are the only guests staying this evening, and Nancy, a girl half my size, carries all my luggage to the room (which is the furthest away from the reception and restaurant) and later brings us coca tea. She even offers to bring us dinner to the room, but we decline.

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Dinner
Spinach soup to start.

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The main course is a dish with some very tender beef in a sauce, with sweet potato, rice, and vegetables.

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This is all followed by a delicious chocolate mousse.

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We've brought some cappuccino sachets with us, which we share with Juan and Roger after dinner.

Yet again many thanks go to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this adventurous and spectacular journey across the Andes.

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Posted by Grete Howard 19:04 Archived in Bolivia Tagged trains reflections cactus island train_station cave flags transport graveyard seashells railway picnic bolivia salt erosion algae coral south_america rust mirage andes altiplano salt_flats uyuni cacti dinosaur quinoa filigree salar_de_uyuni train_graveyard coca_tea iodine train_cemetery vicuñas drone undiscovered_destinations locomotives salt_bricks wild_west rusting_trains train_skeletons train_carriages juanito salt_processing colchani cooperative salt_factory waterproof_boots dakar_rally drone_photography drone_images inchahuasi incahuasi_island submerged_volcano crystal_galaxy_cave cristals_galaxy coral_cave wash_board_effect llalmas san_pedro_de_cuemes cuemes pueblo_quemado pre-colombian burnt_village tayka tayka_de_piedra

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Comments

Wow, like you I have always wanted to visit those salt flats and it seems they lived up to your expectations 😮 What a fabulous day, despite the chest infection! I was fascinated by the train graveyard too, and did I spot some sculptures there, including an incongruous giraffe, in the background of one of your shots? And talking of incongruous, that picnic with the fancy stools and glass of wine ...!!

by ToonSarah

They certainly did, Sarah! I would recommend this tour (Undiscovered Destinations do a trip that takes in just Bolivia), it is amazing!

I don't know why I forgot to include the sculptures in the blog, I have rectified that now! Well done eagle Eyes! :)

by Grete Howard

This brings back fond memories for me, but you guys had an incredible good day at the flats, we had more clouds than anything else and lunch on the flats ... my gosh, this is just heaven!
When I was there I wished I had more time to see the cemetery, we passed it while it was already getting dark, so no time to see it properly. Now that I see your pictures, I regret not having more time. I myself loved the incahuasi island and also wanted to stay longer, but we didn't do the cave ... I guess this gives me a reason to go back one day! :) :) :)

by Ils1976

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