Four totally amazing days at below zero temperatures in the Salar de Uyuni...


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Published: August 18th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Our first day in Tupiza - set at 2950 meters above sea level and surrounded by an amazing landscape of rainbow coloured rocks, hills and canyons - was spent recovering from our night of no sleep. It was near this town that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed after robbing a payroll from a small settlement 40 klms away from Tupiza. The colours in the hills really were vibrant and it was easy to appreciate them as we explored the town in the late afternoon as they were very close - Tupiza is only tiny. Jerry climbed to a hill above the town and had a great view of the surrounding countryside but that seemed too hard for me - I stayed in the hotel with my book! Next day we visited three of the recommended tour agencies to inquire about our trip across to salt flats surrounding Uyuni. The prices and trips on offer were all virtually identical so we booked with ‘La Torre” as they had a trip leaving the next day with two vacancies. We only wanted 4 people in our jeep and the young Dutch couple (Sarah and Pho) in their mid twenties sounded ideal travel companions.
Next morning loaded down with snacks (we had heard that the food on offer can be a bit hit and miss on these tours and there were no corner shops in that part of the world) we piled into the heavily loaded jeep and set off on what was to be the highlight of our entire six month trip. The Dutch couple were lovely - both law students - and great company. Our driver Nicko, was accompanied by Sylvia, an indigenous lady, who was to be our cook. We actually were late leaving Tupiza because Sylvia went to the shops and didn’t return at the expected time - she had forgotten to buy something she needed and then couldn’t find it so started to do a round of all the tiny grocery shops in the town. Eventually we caught up with her and we set off. A stunning days travel followed - a bright blue sky above and a vibrantly coloured lunar landscape of the weirdest rock formations. The road was very dusty - though at least we had a road to follow - during the next three days of travelling there wasn’t really one at all.
Even though there were a lot of other jeeps following the same route most of the day we barely saw another one. We got a flat tyre and a couple of jeeps stopped to check if we were ok but after that we didn’t see any more until lunch time when they all stopped to eat in the shelter of ruined building. It was very cold out of the jeep and as the day progressed we started to see a lot of icy rivers and even waterfalls. The ground was covered with a spiky grassy plant which the local people use to thatch the roofs of their mud brick houses. Lunch was lovely - a traditional dish of dried shredded llama meat, potatoes, corn, cheese and boiled eggs. with a lovely freshly made tomato salsa. All set out as a picnic on pretty tablecloths. Most unexpected. The food was excellent - except for breakfast the first morning (dry rolls and coffee) and one odd combination of food one evening when we probably were too tired and cold to even enjoy anything.
It is impossible to describe just how stunning the scenery was -and the photos certainly don’t do it justice. Also as for the first three days we would have no electricity I had to be very careful not to take too many photos and use up my camera batteries as we had no way of recharging them. We saw dozens of vicuna and herds of llama spread across the high altitude desert country. We also saw emus like birds running across the plains. By mid afternoon it was freezing and all the puddles, streams etc were white - totally iced over. We arrived at out first overnight stop - a small specially built house for the tourists on the edge of a tiny village (San Antonia de Lipez at 4260 meters) - very basic, mud brick, dirt floors, weak solar lights, no showers but there were toilets (with cardboard doors). I think the villagers had built the houses as a form of income because when we drove into the village we were directed to this one a kilometre or so away - we passed another one in the village with jeeps around it - so they were operated on a ‘first in’ basis. After a two minute viewing of the stars - no light at all so they were incredible but it was well below freezing we had early night buried in a sleeping bag that we had thankfully hired and under half a dozen heavy wool blankets (I dream of doonas - the bed covers are really heavy in most places we stay) before we were woken up before dawn next morning for our very unexciting breakfast of dry rolls and tea. The snacks came in handy that morning!
We left cuddled up in our sleeping bags in the jeep which our driver had spent hours underneath the previous evening as he worked in the cold and by torchlight to repair our punctured tyre, We were thankful not to be driving on the spare tyre as it was shiny - it had no tread left on it all!. Our first little adventure that morning was when the jeep in front of us got caught in a stream after the ice cover broke underneath it. Next we had another puncture - back to the baldy spare again - but we were on a high from the scenery so didn’t even give the surface of the spare tyre a second thought again. Snow capped mountains streaked with rows of vibrant colours and a desert floor covered with gravel and rock surrounded us the entire day. At one stage we had a great view of the Andes mountain range. It was rough driving and Nicko just seemed to find his own way over the terrain as there were no real roads. We visited many lakes that morning - all had iced at least partly over - before we arrived at Laguna Verde (4350 meters above sea level). This lake is at the base of a extinct volcano and in summer glows a vibrant green colour. We have a photo of Devin taken in 1996 so we’ve seen the colour it is in summer but it was a much paler colour when we saw it. The wind was horrendous - we could barely stand upright and the plan to eat our lunch there was quickly abandoned. We did however let the wind take some more of David’s ashes out over the water of Laguna Verde before we retreated to the relative warmth of the jeep. Laguna Verde is actually on the border of Chile and Bolivia and was the highest point of our trip at 5000 meters.
Lunch was eventually eaten in a building next to some hot springs where we watched other tourists strip off into swimming costumes in below zero temperatures for a dip in the very tiny hot springs pool. We thought that they were all totally mad and I certainly didn’t feel any desire to follow them - I hadn’t missed my shower that much the evening before! After lunch (Sylvia surpassed herself and was forgiven for our bad breakfast) we drove the surreal sight of geysers spurting steam and boiling mud pools in the snow covered surroundings at 4855 meters.
We were surprised when late that afternoon the jeep drove to Laguna Colorado as we were not due to visit it till next morning. It was absolutely beautiful - red in colour from the plankton in the water (it is quite dark red around the edges though it looks pink in the middle) and the first place that we saw flamingos. We were all very excited and even happier when we saw a herd of llamas grazing at the edge of the lake. We spent a long time there despite the cold and were sad to leave such a beautiful spot. However we were only in the jeep for a few minutes when it stopped at our accommodation for the second night - on the opposite shores of the lake! It was in slightly better - as in warmer but this time with no running water in the toilets (still no showers) - lodging operated by the national park. We shared a room with Sarah and Pho that night and enjoyed watching the sun go down over the pink waters of the lake. A freezing night followed - the temperature dropped to a scary minus 20 degrees - and I went to bed wearing everything (including scarf, gloves and beanie) under a pile of woollen blankets. We woke next morning to a white landscape (from overnight snow falls) and a worried (and probably tired driver after another late night repairing the puncture) driver who obviously knew more then we did re the weather situation as we were quickly bundled into the jeep. First stop that morning was just down the road - the oft photographed ‘stone tree’ - a rock formation which resembles a petrified tree. It actually was very photogenic - it’s shape was actually accentuated by the snow which surrounded it. Over the surrounding mountains we could see blizzards and as the day progressed the blizzards blocked out more of the horizon.
The weather didn’t spoil our day though - we spent it going from one amazing lake to the next - each one was a different colour from the different minerals in them. We saw yellow, white, pale blue - all had ice over them though and we saw heaps more flamingos much closer to the shore line than those that we had seen at Laguna Colorado. At one stage we had a rather frightening trip along a river bed (it was the only way through) where the water had frozen completely - it was only the banks of the river which kept us ‘on the road’ as we were sliding from one side to the other. We lunched in an area of strange red rock formations and spent a happy hour clambering over them. We were lucky enough to see the cone of the active volcano Ollague (nearly 6000 meters high) when the clouds lifted for a short time. Usually you can see the smoke coming from it’s crater - that day the smoke was all blended in with the cloud cover. Our afternoon adventure was getting bogged in the snow. Nikko was able to get us out without too much trouble thankfully.
The weather didn’t improve and when we arrived at a tiny hotel on the edge of the Salar we found it surrounded by deep snow. The owner said they had over half a meter of snow during the previous night. The hotel was made from blocks of salt with lose grains of salt as the floor. We had been looking forward to a promised hot shower but we all took one look at the size and state of the bathroom and decided to pass for another night! But at least this hostal had a generator and we were able to charge our camera batteries. I ventured outside to take a photo of cactus plants covered in snow and ended up slipping over in the slush - my jacket got covered in sticky mud so for the next few days I cut a very glamorous figure as I couldn’t part from my jacket long enough to get it washed. Dinner that night was a lasagne - made with chopped onion as the principal ingredient - not a recipe I suggest you try at home.
Next morning we were woken up very early and given a few minutes to load our gear into the jeep as we were going to watch the sun rise over the salt flats. Due to the bad weather the previous few days we weren’t expecting to see this happen because of expected cloud cover so were all very pleased when we were woken up. It was a magical experience! Due to the rain the slat flats were under a couple of inches of water so all the colours of the sunrise were reflected in the water covering the white salt crystals. As was everything else … Poor Nicko had another flat tyre half an hour after we left the hostal so he spent the dawn hour lying in the water repairing it whilst we enjoyed the splendour around us. It felt very weird - as the sky lightened and the clouds were reflected in the surface of the salt flats we almost had the impression that we were in a plane as we were surrounded by clouds. As the sun rose higher in the sky the salt flats were covered in a fog and we couldn’t see anything but a misty white - white ground and white sky - the horizon wasn’t visible at all. Another jeep had a GPS and all the other jeeps ended up following him as he took us to Island of the Fish for breakfast. This island is close to the centre of the salt flats and is covered in hundreds of cactus. And they were all covered in snow that morning. We enjoyed a welcome breakfast before climbing to the top of the island up slippery snowy paths. Afterwards Jerry enjoyed a snow fight with all the other young men on the island - all the tour companies seem to breakfast there as well.
Everybody had fun taking all manner of interesting photos - the perspective was really odd because of all the white. As we crossed over large piles of salt were lying everywhere in rows - the locals harvest and sell the salt after piling it to help dry it out. We left the salt flats heading towards Uyuni -the road was unsealed and very boggy. We ate our last lunch in a very depressing little village where they process salt before driving to Uyuni. And Uyuni was equally as depressing - it had snowed heavily the evening before as well but it had all turned into a muddy slush by mid afternoon though and some of the footpaths were still covered in a film of ice. After fare welling Sylvia and Nicko and rewarding them with a sizeable tip - we were very shocked to find out how much they both actually earned for the time they were with us - US$ 20 was all Nicko earned for long days of tough travelling and late nights fixing punctured tyres. They were both returning to Tupiza immediately - a 10 hour trip on rough and wet roads.
We had been told that it is hard to find accommodation there because tour companies book them all out on a permanent basis. This proved to be true and it took a long time to find a room. Though we were really looking forward to a hot shower the hotel manager would not turn the hot water on until 6pm that evening!
We went back to the bus station to book tickets out the next day to Potosi and then found a café with a gas heater and stayed there till 6pm. And so ended what was the best four days of this trip so far…..
We realised our lucky we were to have changed our plans on the spur of the moment in Oruro and decide to go direct to Tupiza and not to Sucre as we were the last group of tourists
to cross that area due to increasingly bad weather. And six weeks later as I write this the area has still not opened up to tour groups still because of heavy snow cover. The region has experienced the heaviest snow falls they've had in thirty years. We've spoken to many dissappointed people who have not been able to visit the glorious scenery of that part of Bolivia.


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19th August 2011

MMMM
Loved the photos...informative...my daughter will be in that area in a couple of months...mmmm...amazing landscapes...gracias

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