Published: September 2nd 2009April 30th 2009
"Excuse me, are you Max??" Loitering on the street whilst trying not to look tooo dodgy we'd already accosted two or three likely targets, each guy looking slightly bemused before making a hasty retreat down the road. Our target was a 19 year old Scottish bloke by the name of Max and our reason for stalking him, to suss out how much Spanish he spoke and whether he'd mind translating on a Salar de Uyuni tour. You see we'd found a tour leaving the next day and whilst the price was right the driver didn't speak English. With the three of us (me, Marika and Will) more at "survival Spanish" level we were keen to see if the other person already booked on, Max, spoke Spanish as the agency claimed and if so whether he'd mind translating occasionally - experience suggested my mini-muppet Spanish really wasn't up to the challenge of geological terminology!! So with the clock ticking and no real idea of what Max looked like Marika and I contrived a plan to track him down..... hanging outside his hotel (cunningly positioned next to the travel agents) accosting every western bloke who walked by! OK so it was a fairly
simple plan, but it worked! Poor Max looked slightly freaked when stopped by two strangers and asked if he was Max, but he turned out to be a really nice guy who saw the funny side and better still, spoke Spanish! Of course he never let us forget the fact that the only reason we wanted him along was his linguistic skills ;0)
I've been in South America for a while now so the start to our tour was fairly predictable... i.e. we, turned up on time to find no sign of jeep, driver, cook or anything approaching organisation or indeed the remote possibility that we would depart on time. Ahh well, plenty of time to stock up on extra snacks and water then! Eventually we were off, along a bustling road lined with vegetable stalls and through back streets that took us out of town. The road wound up, and up, increasingly resembling something more akin to a dust blown track than a 'road', a feature that was to become very familiar over the next few days. The scenery was stunning yet completely mad with hundreds of weird tall reddish spiky cones
covering the steep slopes of the landscape, interspersed every now and then with grayish green of tall slim cacti that had almost cottonwooll ball like ends. We had plenty of opportunity to appreciate it all, both at scheduled stops and the unscheduled ones, for it seemed that we were in the vehicle destined to breakdown a lot. Our driver was a star though, picking up on a problem before we'd noticed it, jumping out, quickly donning his overalls and diving on under the vehicle to fix the problem with what seemed like not much in the way of spare parts!
I'd been keen to do a 4 day Salar trip from Tupiza rather than a 3 day one from Uyuni mostly because I'd heard the tours tend to be less packed - we only had 4 'tourists' in our jeep, as recommended by the travel agency, whereas some we met coming out from Uyuni had 6 squashed in (we spent a while trying to work out how we'd squeeze an extra two people in ours.... on the roof maybe??). For me the extra cost was well worth it - only 5 other jeeps left Tupiza on the day we
did and for most of the first day we didn't see anyone else. Except it seemed whenever we broke down when suddenly another jeep would magically appear on the horizon and whoever was driving would jump out and help!
We lunched with the llamas, although they didn't seem to bothered by us, sat on a lush green plateau with peaks rising in the distance and the llamas grazing a little way off. The llamas actually proved rather better company than the other jeep we ate with - a French Canadian guy, an English guy and two Californian girls with really, really really, annoying voices. Or perhaps it was as much what they said as their voices as we sat through an epic whinge on how totally awful Venice is..... because of the pigeons. Huh?!! But it's Venice!?! Back in the jeep we took one look at each other and all agreed we most definitely didn't have group envy!! That said the Venice comment did give us miles of amusement over the next few days.
We passed through a number of small villages before finally stopping in one for what proved to be a very, very cold night! Built
using bricks made from the surrounding sandy/grayish dusty landscape some villages consisted of just a few small, box like single storey constructions. With no paint to add a splash of colour and without the green cacti of the morning they seemed part of the desert itself. And they were deathly quiet - no cars combing the streets horns blaring, no radios or TV playing, in fact, it seemed no people at all. Except, what was that?? As we stopped, piled out of the jeep and started walking along an empty street a head appeared to shyly peer at us from around a corner, a young boy perhaps dared on by his mates to go see what had arrived. Then a football appeared, bouncing towards us, shortly followed by a group of young terrors eager to test our skills and suddenly the silence was broken. It was almost dusk by the time we reached 'our' village and as we sat chatting over the day the cook headed off to prepare an amazing 3 course meal for us - not having enough food clearly wasn't going to be a problem!
A really, really early start
(even earlier for our driver who seemed to spend half the night out fixing the jeep) saw us on road by sunrise, stopping briefly at a ruined old ghost town just as the light began to crawl it's way over the Altiplano - that and the silence of it all made for an eery but quite stunning start to the day! In fact today's drive was one amazing view after another - snow capped peaks rising from Altiplano planes covered with grazing llama, cacti and other strange low level shrubs adding a splash of vivid colour to the increasingly dry, rocky landscape and crystal clear streams almost sparkling in the early light, still part frozen from the nights chill, the ice slowly cracking and melting away in the morning sun. We didn't see anyone else, except of course when we inevitably broke down again and for me it was one of the best parts of the trip. Except then of course we arrived at the hot springs to discover my idea of hell. I've learnt a lot about myself in the last year, not least that I'm perhaps a little anti-social because I prefer my scenery to be without other
people (OK, just not lots of them!). So when we reached the hot springs to find at least 20, maybe 30, jeeps already parked up, with more still arriving... ughhhhhh. The springs themselves weren't huge, more like the size of a large paddling pool - squeeze into that some 15 plus people and... but we jumped in nevertheless and there was something rather surreal about being in a hot pool in such an amazing setting. As soon as you got out of the water. Serious brrrrrrrr.
Our drive after lunch took us along increasingly dust blown tracks, any suggestion of a proper 'road' having long since disappeared, moving ever closer to the majestic Licancabur Volcano, a cone with steep smooth sides and summit @5920m. Fortunately we didn't need to get that high, rather we were heading for the equally beautiful Laguna Verde which at just 4300m nestles right at its base. The spearmint greenish colour of the lake comes from sediments containing copper minerals.
Our last stop was the thermal vents of Sol de Mañana. This was the highest point we would reach but as we piled out of the jeep it wasn't so much the altitude that
hit me as the smell of rotting eggs from the sulphur - yuk! A few signs had been erected warning visitors to keep well back although the area itself was open and you were free to wonder where you wanted. With bubbling mud and super heated steam rising from the vents I had no intention of getting too close though! This barren, rather otherworldly landscape was full of the pastel shades I'd come to expect from the Altiplano - a dash of yellow from sulphur deposited around the edges of vents, the bluish-grey of gloopy mud pools, ripples slowly spreading across the surface as more pushed up from beneath, reddish tinges to the underlying rocks and a haze of rising, billowing steam covering it all. A great last stop of the day!
The jeep broke down again just as we pulled alongside Laguna Colorada so we probably had more time here than planned, but I can't imagine a more beautiful place to break down! We sat, walked and watched as the early morning mist rose slowly off the sparkling water, gradually exposing the hundreds of flamingo's and other birds feeding in its still
waters. The rest of the day took us by more stunning lakes and strange massive rock structures, shaped over time by erosion yet plonked right in the middle of a flat expanse of desert. Finally we skirted the edge of the salt pan to reach home for the night - a salt hotel where the walls, tables and chairs were all made from salt! Mad but so cool!
We were on the salt plain in time for sunrise, the early start so worth it as we watched the sky over this massive expanse of flat salt slowly change through a range of pastel pinks and blues, the shadows we created gradually appearing and changing length on the increasingly brilliant white surface. At 3650m the 10,582 km² Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt lake. In appearance it's quite different from the Salar I'd visited recently near San Pedro de Atacama in Chile - that one sees very little/no rain and as a result the surface is contracted and craggy. Here the annual flooding covers the Salar with a thin layer of water at certain times of year which acts to flatten the
surface. The narrow raised ridges of salt left behind as water evaporates give it an almost jigsaw like appearance and the flat, white surface is perfect for silly perspective and jumping photo's - great fun!
We squeezed in one more stop before breakfast, Isla des Pescadores. Apparently named because it has the shape of a fish this rocky outcrop in the middle of a white 'sea' of salt is covered with tall spiky cacti. We stopped briefly at the 'original' salt hotel, built completely (including the beds!) out of blocks of salt. Unlike the place we'd stayed at last night this one is located in the middle of the salt plain so for environmental reasons you can't actually stay here. But it makes for a nice stop. With all the amazing scenery we'd seen over the last few days our last 'sight' was more of a cultural one - miners, completely covered up to protect against the burning effects of sun and a white surface, harvesting salt on the very edge of the plane. Miners produce a massive 25,000 tons of salt here every year, only a small fraction of the 10 billion tons that the Salar de Uyuni
has to offer. Harvesting is done in the traditional way and we watched men armed only with pick axes and shovels pile salt up into small mounds to encourage any water to evaporate. Dried and enriched with iodine the harvested salt is later taken elsewhere for packaging. The process creates a landscape covered with neat rows of small white cones, striking both visually and to see the manual conditions people work in... which, I was to discover, are nothing compared to the miners in Potosi.....
Next up heading down the mines, Bolivan nightclubs and the rather bizarre Cholita wrestling!
A quick aside - here's some more photo's from India that weren't displaying properly first time... http://www.travelblog.org/Asia/India/Karnataka/Hampi/blog-430453.html
There are more photos below