Dreaming of a white Bolivia

Published: August 6th 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

After arriving back in La Paz from the jungle we spent a couple of days picking up supplies for the next part of our trip, namely cold weather gear as we’d been warned previously that it gets very cold on the salt flats, sadly that does now mean there are a couple of baby Alpacas shivering on the plains wishing they were still wearing our lovely new jumpers. We booked the tourist bus to our next destination, Uyuni at twice the cost of a local bus as we were starting to feel a little ill and wanted all the mod cons… like a toilet. As it turns out, no matter how much luxury the vehicle has, when it’s travelling on heavily rutted dirt tracks, namely typical Bolivian roads, it’s always going to be incredibly uncomfortable so we arrived early the next morning un-rested and booked into the cheapest hostel we could find and fell fast asleep.

We woke early in the afternoon and booked our selves on a 3 day tour of the Salar (salt flats) taking us all the way to San Pedro De Atacama in Chile, which is an easier way of getting into Argentina, than coming all the way back to Uyuni and then working our way out of Bolivia. We then walked 3km out of town down the railway tracks to the train cemetery, pretty much Uyuni’s only worthwhile sight. It’s normally covered on the return trip from the Salar but as we wouldn’t be returning we figured we’d visit it independently so we wouldn’t miss out. It turns out it’s exactly as you expect, rusting cars and engines, but mostly just random, unrecognisable train parts scattered all over the desert. It was quite interesting to scramble all over them exploring the nooks and crannies.

The next morning we got all our stuff together to be at the tour office for 10:30, stopping for some breakfast on the way. There were plenty of other people waiting at the office ready to start tours as well and as it turned out the other four people we’d be travelling with started a day early opting for a four day tour rather than three, so Faye and I were bundled into a Jeep with another group of six and told we’d meet our group at the lunch stop at ‘Fish Island’. As the maximum group size is six
Mounds of SaltMounds of SaltMounds of Salt

Not cocaine, Bolivia's other export.
it was a bit of a squeeze to get eight in the car, but we managed, glad that it wouldn’t be for long.

We soon got underway driving first to a few tourist traps, with the obligatory rubbish museum etc… and then onto the Salar. The Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flat covering 12,000 sq km, and it’s blindingly white. It’s the remnants of an ancient salt lake that covered most of this part of Bolivia which dried up leaving the salt flats. It was really amazing to only see perfectly flat white ground extending far off into the horizon, only occasionally punctuated by small dark islands. It was also too easy to believe that it was just snow, so you had to keep touching it to remind yourself that it wasn’t. We stopped at an area where they collect the salt to sell, forming it into small mounds where it can be easily picked up later and we also managed to speak to an old lady who was shovelling it. We found out that for each mound they only receive 2 Bolivianos and this lady had managed to create 28 over the last 2 days earning the grand total of 56 Bolivianos (£3.73), barely seems worth it!

We then stopped at the Isla de los Pescadores (Fish Island) a smallish island rising out of the brilliant white which is completely covered in huge cactus. This would be our lunch stop and where we’d meet up with our group. We were given some time to climb and explore the island, and although there is pretty much nothing else here, the cactus were amazing, especially with a backdrop of sheer white nothingness surrounding them. After a lunch of heavily salted alpaca meat and veggies, we moved our stuff to a new Jeep and met the group we’d actually be travelling with, a couple of Scots girls and a couple of Israeli guys. We were all bundled into the car for the long drive off the salt flats to the first stop where we’d be staying for the night, giving us the perfect opportunity to get to know our travelling companions a lot better. It turned out they were all nuts, and incredible fun, everyone had a nickname assigned to them and we had a tour mascot, a Salteňa (kind of like a spicy pasty) which was rapidly going off and disintegrating. I was given the moniker of Holey (pretty obvious) and Faye was Sis (Hebrew for nurse), the Israeli guys were Cherry (wore bright pink lip balm) and Goulash (not sure why), and the girls, Fluffy (gas problem) and Pinky (pink everything). Our driver Mario was also given the name Speedy, and his wife, Eva the cook, Chewy (she chewed a lot of Coca). Once we arrived at the hostel for the night we were given rooms and allowed to chill out for the evening before being served some awesome fried chicken and chips, it always amazes me what these people can rustle up with only a small portable gas stove to cook on.

The next morning wasn’t too much of an early start as we were told to have breakfast and be ready by 8. We piled all our stuff back on the roof of the Jeep and got going heading off into the barren desert. This is when we contemplated changing the driver’s nickname as we were constantly being overtaken by other groups in their Jeeps, but it was decided that it would stick; we’d just claim we were being Ironic. We drove for a few hours with the occasional stop to take pictures of volcanoes in the distance and rock formations. We eventually stopped at a small lagoon for lunch which had a few flamingos wading in it. This area is home to 3 species of Flamingos, one of them the rare James Flamingo, but I really didn’t know the difference, they all look good on camera! We then jumped back into the Jeep for more driving, once jumping out and being told to walk up a hill because it was too rocky and dangerous to stay in the car, only for a much nicer Jeep to go trundling past with it’s occupants looking all warm and smug… Grrrrr. We stopped a few more times at some lagoons and at a rock formation dubbed the ‘rock tree’ (It bears a vague resemblance if you close your eyes and imagine real hard) before stopping for the evening at Laguna Colorada, a lake with a bright red tinge bordered by mineral deposits. On the shores of the lake was a military style camp, which is where we’d be staying for the night. Once parked Speedy told us we had to hurry in to grab a room as it’s often overbooked and we might not get a room for the night. We walked in to find Eva (aka Chewy, the cook) in a proper fist fight with a cook from another group over the room we’d be staying in, we quickly threw all our stuff in the room at which point it all backed down and the other cook walked away. Mental note: Do not piss off the cook, for a little lady she can certainly put up a fight.

We would all be sleeping in one room, so we all quickly grabbed a bed. My bed turned out to have a mattress barely microns thick and so, as we’d been warned that it can get as cold as -20ºC at night here, Faye and I decided we’d try and sleep together in the same bed, it’s just a shame that Faye managed to bag herself a child size bed… still at least it was soft. After dinner was served we spent the rest of the evening drinking wine and rum and playing card games.

The following day we were told to be up at 4 am to see the geysers, as they’re apparently better in the morning. We all reluctantly crawled out of our warm beds into the freezing cold night fighting tiredness and sickness (Cherry really wasn’t feeling well), quickly collected together our things and jumped in the Jeep. We then drove for about an hour and a half to an area which had steam shooting out the ground and bubbling mud pools, the only problem was that it was still quite dark so they were difficult to see and as it was still so cold you couldn’t stay out of the jeep very long until you were freezing and fighting your way back in. Still, what you could see was pretty impressive, boiling mud pouring out of cracks and crevices in the ground and loads of steam pouring across the terrain.

After jumping in the car we drove on for a little while past some thermal pools where people were bathing enjoying some warmth, but Speedy claimed he knew where a better spring was and hopefully by then the sun would be up and it would be much warmer. We drove for a further 45 minutes to a small deserted pool which fronted a huge lagoon covered with ice. By this point my feet had all but died so I whipped off my kit and got right in, only Goulash joined me, while everyone else dipped their feet in worried about the getting out part, especially as the air temperature was still freezing. The water wasn’t particularly hot, but just warm enough to take the chill off and it was really pretty cool to sit in a pool of warm crystal clear water looking out over a frozen barren landscape. As it turns out everyone was right to worry about the getting out part as there was still some wind and it cut right through you, but with some record breaking towelling and dressing I was soon dressed and warmed up and ready for the pancakes which Eva was serving out the back of the car.

From the springs we were driven a short distance to the Bolivian border where us and the girls were dropped off, as they, like us were heading into Chile while the boys had a (very) long drive back to Uyuni. We said our goodbyes, and gave our tour mascot back to Pachamama (mother earth; we buried it) and then boarded a bus bound for San Pedro de Atacama. The first thing you notice as you enter Chile is you leave dirt roads behind, and drive straight onto smooth tarmac. The difference in economies is quite startling, especially as you go from paying £5 a night for a double room (with private bathroom) to £15 (with shared bathroom).

A question I ask myself is, would I recommend this tour to people I meet? I’m not sure… for us it was an extremely easy way of tying in what we wanted to see as well as a way of heading south towards Argentina. The Salar de Uyuni is to put it simply, beyond spectacular and I’m quite sure I will never see anything like it again, I couldn’t recommend seeing it enough but sadly our 3 day tour only factored it in for half a day, the four day tour that the rest of our group took had a whole day and night on the salar so maybe that’s a better option. For the second day of our tour we really just sat in a Jeep… the landscapes were really good and the rock formations, although interesting didn’t really take my breath away. The highlight of this day for me was when a Desert Fox chased the jeep down the road. The third day if you stay on the tour consists of a very long drive back to Uyuni arriving late at night, but for us we were in Chile by midday so we had some time to see what it had to offer. Thankfully we really never have any expectations, so we really enjoyed it. It also helped having a fantastic group of travelling companions so even though we were cooped up in a car for very long stretches, spirits were kept high and the laughter kept coming.

Enjoy the photos, especially that fox… he was so damn cute!

Additional photos below
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20th June 2007

Awesome photos!
I'm dreaming of trekking Bolivia and Sudamerica.
20th June 2007

Its all white now
Mick, what a story! it was an excellent read, so full of things for other travellers to see and do! Good pictures too. Take care see you on Skype sometime. Dad!
20th June 2007

The best so far
Hey guys, these are the best pictures so far. The one of you in that pool is amazing - I take it Faye took the picture - good photography girl! I also love the one of you 'holding' Faye in the palm of your hand - so cool. Lots of love xx
20th June 2007

Makes me wish...
I wish I was young enuf 2 do it now. Great pictures, great storytelling. Almost as good as being with you there. Keep it coming dudes.

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