Where all good locos come to die quietly in sun.
Pretty much everyone who comes to Bolivia comes to Uyuni. This desolate, isolated town that is quite literally a hundred miles from anywhere and slap bang in the middle of a dusty desert plain is far from appealing. Why then do so many tourists come here? Step forward the Salar de Uyuni or salt plains.
Back in La Paz, we had been so pleased with our jungle trip with Inca Land Tours that we booked our trip to the salt plains through them too. They in turn booked us with a company called Sol de Manana and our first impressions were good. Located just next to the Hotel Avenida, where we stayed during our brief time in Uyuni, the staff seemed friendly, well organised and above all didn't take certain nationalities with them (we have an intense dislike for a certain group of travellers but I won´t invite hatemail by naming them here). The hotel was cheap and clean and had plenty of hot water but the bed was really hard and all rooms opened straight onto the outdoors allowing the cold to creep in through the wide gaps in the door and window frames. For 80 Bs a
Full Steam Ahead
When I grow up, I want to be a train driver!
night with private bathroom (about £5.50), it was a means to an end.
We thought we would spend a day in Uyuni before doing the tour as we had endured a bumpy 14 hour bus ride down from Sucre. As it turned out, this decision led to some serious health consequences. Uyuni is really cold and when the wind blows, it's soul-destroying. How anyone could want to live there is beyond me and we regretted not leaving as soon as we could. On our second evening, you see, we ate at the highly touted Minuteman Pizza parlour (it had been closed the night before) and with it being owned by an American guy, we figured the food would be safe. Well, as good as the pizza may have tasted, the following morning when we were due to depart on our 3-day adventure into the outback, my stomach was lurching in a bad way. Glynn wasn't feeling any ill-effects at the time so we thought it was probably just down to the veggies that I had eaten. I had no desire to stay in Uyuni any longer than I had to so I made the bold and ultimately bad decision
Even the sky looks awesome when you get out of Uyuni.
to go ahead with the trip. It wasn't until we were well underway that Glynn started manifesting the same stomach symptoms as I had but by then it was too late to turn back.
We were picked up around 10.30am by our driver, Hiradio (I think that's how you spell it), a mere babe-in-arms at just 21 years old. He was to be not only our driver but also our guide and chef! Tagging along in our jeep was a clutch of four fellow Brits: a Scottish couple that were about our age, Dougal and Katie, plus a couple of young gap year students called Stephaie and Katrina. We heaved our bags and big bottles of water onto the roof (you have to bring your own water by the way) and settled in to the nice big 4x4 wheel-drive to begin our adventure.
The first stop of the day happened rather sooner than expected at the train cemetary just outside of Uyuni. We had been in the jeep no more than about 15 minutes when we pulled over and were instructed in Spanish that we had exactly 8 minutes to look around. None of the group was impressed
Me and My Llama
with the tight time schedule as the train graveyard looked really interesting and was begging to be explored. Ordinarily, Glynn and I would take at least 30 minutes to check out somewhere so unusual but with so little time, we picked a rusty old locomotive and made a beeline for it. The graveyard lies just off the rail track and quite clearly hasn't seen much action other than passing tourists for a long time. Many of the locomotives have been rusting away there for years and we were surprised to find that someone had made a temporary home in the belly of one locomotive's furnace. Littered around the decaying steam engines were piles of oxidised old springs and cables and the skeletons of freight carriages that were evidently past their usefulness, even by Bolivian standards ;-)
Thundering across the desert again, we next passed through a village selling all manner of souvenirs crafted from the nearby salt plains. There was also a museum full of salt-based curiosities but we weren't interested enough to pay the 5 Bs entrance fee. Back in the jeep, we next hit the main attraction: the famous Salar de Uyuni or salt flats. It's impossible
On the Salar
Driving across the salt plains. Awesome.
to describe just how vast this sea of pure whiteness extends but I once overheard someone say it was roughly a third of the size of Wales. Does that help? Driving along on the crunchy salt was dreamlike with a blanket of white beneath us and the most turquoise of skies stretching out above. Alas by the time we came to a stop, Glynn and I were both feeling really ill and it was only the fact that this was a one-off photo opportunity that persuaded us to get out of the car at all. The white canvas of the dried up salt lake lends a unique perspective to photos insomuch that you can't really judge distances, so with a little imagination you can take some very amusing pictures. If only we'd had the energy...
Next stop was at a salt hotel where virtually everything from the walls to the beds was made from the stuff. It was pricy to buy anything inside but it was the only way to get permission to take photos. Ah well. Our final big stop of the day was at lunchtime at the Isla de Pescado, so called because it is apparently shaped
Jish and Jude are in there somewhere!
like a fish although it's too big to see this from ground level. By now, Glynn and I were really suffering and had no interest in paying 10 Bs to climb the cactus-strewn 'island'. We wandered off to find a bit of shade but didn't make it far before I began to be sick. We were utterly exhausted and couldn't muster the energy to do more than wave at some of the enormous upright cacti that looked like they had stepped right out of the Wild West. We dragged ourselves back to the jeep and flopped down while the rest of the group tucked into some lunch without us.
We drove across the desert for a few hours after this, taking in some superb scenery along the way. Glynn and I were both feeling miserable but at least everyone else in the car was the caring, considerate type and we felt like we couldn't have been with a nicer bunch of people. As 5pm came, we pulled up in a tiny village and the guide popped into to a house in search of our accommodation for the night. Naively, we had all been under the impression this would have
Jude finds that Jish suddenly isn´t quite so small and cute any more.
been booked in advance but as it transpired, it's a bit of a race between all the many jeeps to see who will stay where for the night. The first place was all booked up but we got lucky at the second one which turned out to be a little salt hostel of our very own. Well, that was until about 3 other groups arrived!
Being too ill to socialise or even partake in any dinner, we unrolled our sleeping bags and were asleep well before darkness even fell. It's mightily cold on the salar at night so we simply slept with everything on including two pairs of socks and the woolly hats we bought in Peru. The beds weren't the most comfortable in the world but we were that exhausted from our illness that it was 5am before either of us stirred except for the constant visits to the toilet. Not quite how we imagined our first day to be!
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