Pass the salt

Published: June 9th 2005
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- FOOD: An abundance of salt, fantastic and varied cooking by the wonderful cook Braulia. Such a variety of dishes using eggs! And every type of corn going (including quinoa).

- AREA: Depressing cold Uyuni; train cemetry; salt processing village; the huge, white, flat expanse of Salar de Uyuni, including a hotel made from salt and a cactus island; stone trees; 5 lakes including the bright red Laguna Colorada and the not so bright green Laguna Verde; active volcano, plenty of llama and vicuña, flamingoes; geyser and hot springs; tiny villages.

- PEOPLE: The excellent driver Jubenal and cook Braulia from Tupiza tours (well recommended); my new friends; very shy children who live in the tiny villages; all the people on the other tours!

- WEATHER: SOOOOOOOO cold (never will I moan about Britain's winter temperatures). 10 layers, 4 blankets, sleeping bag etc to cope with the night temperatures of -25 to -40. But sunny in the day!

Wed 25th May: I had pangs of missing Sucre this morning when they showed 'Sucre Day' on the news. How sad I am that I missed it. But Potosì was fascinating and now onto Uyuni to the salt lakes.

We weren't actually sure at all we'd get of Potosì as the strikes and blockades have started up again and the road appeared to be blocked off. The bus got out in time though although it was the same deal with lots of locals all packed onto it and standing up.

The journey was 6 hours - not pleasant to be standing so as I was at the front and therefore had more leg room, I let a little boy sit on my bag and tried to get his cute baby brother to sit on my lap but he was having none of it. Probably a good thing as the bus wasn't the most comfortable, we hardly had any room as it was and I started to feel ill halfway along the journey (although I wasn't bothered as NOTHING can be as bad as that bl**dy journey in Egypt when I started feeling ill).

We had our first of many 'natural' baño breaks and then drove through stunning mountain scenery. We'd chosen to do the bus trip during the day on purpose as we'd heard about the unmissable scenery. We booked ourselves into a 'luxury' hotel that was full of those Toucan tour people and every other tourist but even splashing out we didn't have heating in the room. Fleece sheets though so not too bad.

Thur 26th: Uyuni is a depressing cold town with no ATM's and it's only attraction is a market to stock up on crisps and sweets before the 4 day trip to the Salar de Uyuni (largest salt lake in the world). It's a shame as the only reason people come here is for a stop off point before the tour.

I was still feeling a bit ill and the strong smell of air freshener in the office where we booked the tour was not helping. I was starting to wonder how I'd get through 4 days of being in a bumpy jeep (anyone who has had me as a passenger in their car on bumpy/windy journeys will understand). Luckily, the others had managed to book a 'private' tour which meant just us 4 (Ciaran, Billy, Joke and me) and not 7 packed into the jeep.

We'd heard rumours that a lot of these tour drivers are drunk, that the jeeps break down constantly and that the food's shit. But on our luxury tour, Jubenal the driver was very skilled and totally sober and Braulia the cook was the best.

The first stop was at a train cemetry from the 18th century which was filled with rusty trains and part of trains. It was also filled with rubbish and graffitti which was such a shame.

The second stop was at a small village called Colchani where they process salt (and have taught the children how to beg well - they probably get more money doing that than from selling the gifts which are all so tacky!) and then we went to the salt lakes themselves. AMAZING.

A huge expanse of flat blinding whiteness with little salt mounds dotted everywhere and a few puddles of water where the reflections are perfect (it's supposed to be even better in the wet season). There are some hexagon and circle type patterns on some parts of the lake which are formed from the salt expanding.

We visited a hotel in the middle of it made from salt, even the furniture (very nice but it would be SO cold to stay there). The next stop was at cactus island (Isla de Pescado) which is a strange site - an island FULL of cacti stuck in the middle of the salt lake! Some cacti are hundreds of years old and certainly too big to have in a little pot on the kitchen windowsill. The views of the lake were spectacular from the top of the island.

We'd already been given home made crisps for a snack and then we had a lunch of chicken with rice and papaya for afters. All served on a little table with even a cloth. What a fab cook.

As we'd been bumping into the other tour groups (including Toucan tours!!) all day at the stops, we thought we'd be sharing accommodation with them too and had images of a shed with a long bench where 20 people sleep side by side (we'd heard horror stories about how cold and horrible the accommodation is on this tour).
So I was pleasantly surprised to find we were staying with a family with only us there and 2 rooms with separate beds (with blankets too!). It was the most basic accommodation though and after eating (not much of) the llama and quinoa dinner and jumping around trying to keep warm, we went to bed early as there is only electricity for a few hours until 10pm.
Sleeping in a vest, t-shirt, long sleeved top, jumper, 2 fleeces, leggings, socks, thick walking socks tucked into a sleeping bag with liner and with 2 blankets on top I was hot in the night!

Fri 27th: Our excitement of having a hot shower in the morning (the last one for a few days) faded when the water tank had frozen up. But we had a tortilla thing for breakfast that kept us happy.

Day 2 was flamingo and laguna day. We stopped at 5 different lakes along the way - a white one and a red one included (the white one is coloured by a mineral used for washing powder and the red by a different mineral).
The Laguna Colorada (red lake) was the most amazing - such a bright colour and the biggest of the lakes. We didn't see many flamingoes as unlike us, they sensibly fly to warmer climates in the winter.
All around the lakes, stones had been piled up. These little towers are for good luck from Pachamama and if you add one to the top you can make a wish. Not quite sure what happens if the tower falls down in the process!

We also stopped at the Pampa Siloli where the strong desert winds have sand blasted the rocks into the weirdest shapes. Very surreal, especially Arbol de Piedra (stone tree) which has a very thin stem.

In the distance all day was the active Ollagüe volcano where smoke was coming out of the top. The day was also full of tunes - thank god Jubenal had a variety of tapes (2) so after we'd been Bolivian pan-piped out (there's even a pan pipe version of the lambada), he put on 80's classics - me and Joke enjoyed dancing around in the back to 'I love to love' which stayed on our minds for the whole trip but don't think the boys were impressed!

The food all day had been great and different from yesterday so we were sure that THIS would be the night where 20 sleep side by side. But no, we had a room to ourselves again with spare beds that we pinched the blankets from (wore the same layers as last night plus tights but with 4 blankets - felt like a mummy and it was difficult to move in bed!). The temperatures here can drop to -40 as it's at such a high altitude (5,000 metres) so no wonder we were freezing!

We realised what luxury last night's accommodation had been as this one didn't even have any running water yet alone promises of hot water. We had to use a bucket to flush the loo, wash with etc. A baby was crying (a baby is actually living in these conditions?). Amazingly we had electricity but the 'party' we threw that night (one beer each) stopped at 9.30 when the lights went out!

Sat 28th: We somehow all slept well (although nearly suffocated by being smothered in layers and blankets) but had to get moving by 5am.
Oh my god, HOW cold - we had the sleeping bags in the back of the jeep with us but still sat there like lumps of ice. I felt miserable and still ill and craved my nice warm bed back home but it was worth it.

The geyser we saw was very high and powerful and we visited a place with many hot springs just as the sun was rising. After plucking up the courage to expose part of our skin to the air, we nearly burnt our feet off in the springs - SO hot. The others were very brave and went fully into the water where they had their bath of the week. I didn't pack my bathers and possibly wouldn't have gone in anyway. It was strange having boiling springs next to frozen lakes. Breakfast was cooked here (convenient hot water) - yummy scrambled eggs.

We visited another lake (Laguna Verde) which is supposed to be bright green from the algae but it was the wrong conditions for it so it wasn't that amazing but in a very peaceful setting.

The rest of the day was spent driving and there wasn't too much else to see - we passed a few llama and vicuña but that was about it. Lovely tuna pasta lunch but dinner was a bit strange with this very salty fried cheese and a vegetable dish that we thought was coca leaves with potato.

I was STILL feeling ill despite constant mate de coca's and acustraps to stop nausea. The room we stayed in looked like a prison and wasn't any warmer (we were still at 4,500 metres). At least there was running water even though the 'hot' shower I thought I'd be getting didn't happen.


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