Published: May 2nd 2006March 29th 2006
After nearly 6 weeks in Bolivia we were in our final destination before heading to Chile. Bolivia is right up there with Peru in the great experiences department as far as we are concerned, but it had one more up it's sleeve: the huge salt flats of Uyuni.
We arrived from Potosi on what could only be described as a cosy bus, no insignificant thing as the journey takes pretty much all day. After hastily checking into our hostel of choice, the vastly overpriced Magia de Uyuni, Em and I literally dumped our bags and headed out of town. The sun was setting on the local train graveyard, and with it was fleeting an opportunity to take some interesting photos.... We made it, although you can be the judge of whether we succeeded!
A wander around town later and we were booked on a tour of the salt flats, eating in a rather superb pizza place (Minuteman, on the edge of town, really the best pizzas we've had the whole time we've been away), and generally feeling quite happy with ourselves. We had slightly differing opinions on leaving Bolivia; Em was sad to be leaving, having had so much
fun and met so many great people there. I wasn't sad to be leaving as such, as although we'd had a great time, I was looking forward to what lay ahead, and to being in a slightly more developed country. I was sure the novelty would wear off, but I yearned for a place where you can safely assume that the person behind the counter has some change!
In the morning it was time to get together with the tour. Now, a word about tours from Uyuni. I'm no expert, but I don't reckon it makes much difference who you book with in one, crucial respect: the car is going to be knackered. Now, of course, there's knackered and there's knackered - as a result we chose Reli Tours, who were recommended by the guide book, and who seemed decent people, with reasonable Land Cruisers. That was before I saw the wiring, but that's another story! A second point to note about the tours is that we were lucky, Reli "only" send 6 passengers in their Land Cruisers. Plus the driver of course..... oh and the cook. "Only" 8 people then, in the fairly standard sized 4x4? It's true
though, we were lucky - we subsequently saw identical cars with up to.... wait for it... 11 people in them! In fairness and against the odds, we were reasonaly comfortable, although the view from the last row of seats wasn't that great.
First stop on the tour was, predictably, the train graveyard that we'd been to on our own the night before. We justified the double visit on the grounds that the light was much better the night before, and so it hadn't been a waste of time, oh no.... Some bumping around later, and we were at a village where they earn their money, what little they can earn, from processing the salt from the flats and selling it as table salt. As you can imagine there's not much money in that business, so they have a sideline in selling tourist gifts carved from rock salt - Em bought a nice little pot. We also took a little tour of one of the salt processing operations. We were shown where they dry the salt using big fires, where they grind the salt, where they bag the salt.... I clearly missed the bit where they clean the salt (that
The group on the last day, before leaving us at the Chilean border
From left to right: Em, me, Chris (looking grumpy cos he's not well), Ubi, Yonni, the cook (doh! can't remember her name), Cathy, and Renato our driver. A good bunch, all said!
after all gets driven over by cars every day!), think I'll be avoiding Bolivian village brand table salt if I ever see it on the shelf!
While we were browsing the stalls, Renato (our driver) was busy fiddling with the electrics of the car, although it was never clear quite what was amiss..... Suspicious! Can't have been too bad though as a little later we were on the salt flats proper, and what a place. I had to keep mentally slapping myself and reminding myself that it was salt and not snow - I think it has to be the wierdest landscape I've ever been driven across, and certainly one of the most beautiful. The stunning scenery was made all the more bizarre and interesting by the layer of water that had collected - normal at that time of year - which created the most fascinating reflections, and really made it difficult if not impossible to tell where sky stopped and ground started. I don't know if all salt flats look like that, but this one had us all speechless....
Next stop was the Salt Hotel, a tourist trap but interesting nonetheless. It's exactly what it sounds like
- a hotel made entirely of salt: the walls, furniture, everything. That salt can be put to a variety of uses!
By the time we arrived at the Isla de los Pescadores, we started to appreciate that this was going to be a tour of jaw dropping sites. I still don't understand why they call it the Isla de los Pescadores (Island of Fishermen) as it is in fact covered in giant cactii, but there you go. They grow at around 1cm per year, so the one next to me in the photo is around 1200 years old. Pretty amazing...
Another electrical fault later (had to hotwire the headlights, seems to be standard practise!) we were at our accomodation for the night, and being fed generously. Reli Tours 1, competition 0!
The second day was all about lakes and rocks. We saw coloured lakes (red, blue, green), lakes with flamingoes, you name it. We were a bit worried when we booked the tour that aside from the salt flats, there wasn't much else of interest to see - by the end of day 2 we were sure this wasn't the case. That evening we ate yet more
Oooh that's a big one!
This badboy's over 1200 years old...
top grub (and were even given a bottle of wine, not a bad one either! reli tours 2, competition 0!) before retiring with the rest of the group to our shared room.
The final day of the tour for Em and I was day 3. Although the jeep was returning to Uyuni, we were being dropped off near the Chilean border and from there heading by bus to San Pedro de Atacama. Before that though there were yet more fascinating sites for us to see, the first of which were the geisers, which also necessitated a 4.30am start so as to see them at sunrise - ouch! They were incredible though, the sun rising through the steam and sulphur clouds rising from the geisers is not a sight easily forgotten. Next were the thermal baths, and by far the nicest ones I've ever been in (most natural hot pools in my experience smell of farts, thankfully this one didn't!). Em had unfortunately packed her swimming gear in her main bag and so wasn't able to jump in with us, a real shame as she loves ultra-hot showers and this would have been right up her street. Getting out wasn't
nice though, we were after all at about 4000m above sea level, in most countries there'd be snow all around at that attitude! We were treated to yet another tasty meal and then it was time to head to the border. We said goodbye to the group, who we'd got on very well with, and were soon on a bus to San Pedro. Chile was the second to last country on the trip, so we were very aware of the need to make the most of it. We sadly didn't have the time to hang about there, and were straight on a bus to Santiago that night. We had another capital city to explore, and had arranged to meet up with Ruth & Jono before they continued their round-the-world journey. We would all live to regret quite how much we celebrated their sendoff, but that's another blog......
There are more photos below