Day 19 Atulcha - Uyuni - La Paz
An early breakfast and on the road by 7:30. It was a clear, cool morning and it seemed to be a contest among the drivers of each 4WD to find the fastest track as there must have been at least ten ways to go.
After about 30 mins driving we visited the railway town of Julaca (3625m). It looked like a ghost town, but people seemed to appear occasionally. It had a dirt soccer pitch that appeared to be used.
The next stop was the tidy town of St Augustin (3836m), which was on a small stream and surrounded by agricultural. We climbed the hill over a suspension bridge to a lookout which gave a good view of town and valley. To our amazement further over the hill was a full size soccer pitch, surfaced with AstroTurf. It looked so out of place in an isolated agricultural community, but does show the priority of soccer in Bolivia.
The twisty, narrow dirt road continued south up through a high mountain pass at 4210m. There were lots of lamas and river crossings.
Eventually we arrived at a canyon lookout at 4144m. This was a very narrow dirt road hanging on the edge with a long drop to the bottom. Crossing oncoming vehicles required the downhill one to stop and pull over as far as possible, whilst the uphill one carefully crawled past.
At the bottom of the canyon (3882m) we watch a heard of lamas and sheep. There was a baby lama that thought it was a sheep.
At midday we turned into the "main" dirt road (3825m) and headed west for another 20km before turning off south onto a narrowing dirt road. We had lunch at a scenic spot above the Black Lake (4273m), named for it colour. We climbed down a steep, shale embankment to watch the ducks. This lake is very shallow and the birds eat the micro-organisms.
As we headed south towards the Chilean border and between a number of snow capped volcanos, the track became very rutted and rough. Eventually we arrived at the Borax Lake (4454m) which was also smelly and had a strong smell. There were a few flamingos in the distance, and the last 20km (over pass at 4726m) took us to a lake surrounded by stunning volcanos and the lake (4508m) was full of bright pink flamingos. It was a photographer paradise and the remaining MBs on the camera was chewed up was the motor-drive. It was bitterly cold and windy and felt as isolated as the middle of the salt flats, and was about 20km from the Chilean border.
It was 185km back to Uyuni for our 2 day tour whilst the 3 day tour continued on to a national park and hot springs. Once back on the main road to Uyuni, the 4WD sat on 100km/hr, so it was only a few hours trip back.
About 100km from Uyuni we stopped at the interesting silver mining town of San Christobal (3758m). The whole town had been moved from the hills for the open cut mine to operate. It is the second largest silver mine in Bolivia. There is also tin, borax and lithium mined in the area. The government has taken ownership of the gas wells and most of the mines pay a high royalty to improve roads, electricity and education. In the past there have been many Bolivian citizen protest against big mining companies taking all the profits, thus the government introduction of a mining tax to benefit the communities.
Upon arrival in Uyuni, we bid farewell to the Red Planet team, had an walk around the town and then took a taxi to the airport (about 10 mins). We had plenty of time and use the cell phone to chat with Pat and compare notes of his trip in Jan2015. He had water on the flats to make it look like a mirror, and as a result got covered in salt. Our trip was dry and we didn't need to worry about removing salt.
The Amazonia flight to La Paz was about 45mins, compared to 16 hrs on the bus that most people we had met had done.
We were into our hotel in La Paz by 22:00, with the heavier traffic a reminders this was a city of almost 1million people in the inner city. We shared a taxi with a young American couple who had been to La Paz on way to Uyuni and then were going to Machu Picchu.