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Published: October 10th 2007
Somewhere in the south of Bolivia!
We arrived in Uyuni on the overnight bus to find the town is exactly as described; desolate, dull and completely pointless going to except as a stepping stone to the Salt Flats. Well that's alright seeing as that's what we were here to do.
We wandered around in the truly FREEZING weather (although we had been warned far worse was to come) looking at tours but ended up going with the first woman who approached us and who managed to talk us into the full three day tour which we had initially been put off of by a couple of English guys we met at the hostal in La Paz who claimed that the Salt Flats were 'pure punishment' and 'sheer torture'.
Sorry to say this guys but, having returned safe and sound from our tour, you are complete wimps! Yes, it was cold (-15 degrees celsius being our lowest point whilst sleeping in an outhouse with corrugated iron ceiling and door), yes, it could be uncomfortable (three days in the back of a jeep does not do your back any favours) but it's a truly amazing experience and well worth
Our tour began with a visit to a train graveyard, just outside Uyuni. A slightly bizarre beginning but actually very cool and who could turn down the opportunity to behave like a kid and climb all over the trains and tracks?!
We piled back into our jeeps (we were with another jeep and shared a cook between us, which actually worked out well as it meant one less person in our jeep so more room which was very much appreciated by the end of the trip!) and headed south. We met a man with his truck that had broken down who asked us for petrol but apparently our jeep was only carrying just enough for our three day round trip - slightly concerning thought if we got lost!)
Desert soon gave way to salt and we soon stopped to look at some salt processing works. The visited a hotel completely made of salt from the beds to the bricks and bought salt souvenirs (salt candlesticks, salt dice, salt coasters - you name it, they had it!) They even had made giant sculptures from salt bricks includng a seven foot high salt llama! You can tell
you're still fairly near civilisation when the locals are trying to palm off the tackiest souvenirs at the most extortionate prices imaginable.
Then on to the Salt Hotel (which we decided not to go into as you had to pay and we'd already seen one salt hotel at the salt processing) where we had photos with our respective flags (the English, German and Israeli flags looking particularly battered! - no points for guessing the nationalities of the majority of the tourists.)
Next we headed off into the salt plains stopping for photos briefly whilst the other driver (older and more experienced, it seems we got stuck with the sulky teenager) yelled at us not to waste time otherwise we would get stuck out for the night - not a pleasant thought - before continuing on to a cactus park where we would have lunch. We all piled out of the jeeps for the required perspective shots - really quite a bizarre sight to see a hundred or more tourists on a salt plain trying to do this!
Then lunch which was surprisingly good seeing as we'd been threatened with dry bread and rotton meat by people we
met in La Paz who had just done a tour. We had to leave fairly quickly to make it to the hostal (if it can be called that!) for the night.
Freezing rooms and the lights decided to go out halfway throuh the night so we had a four in the morning start with no light whatsoever - amazing we actually managed to get dressed let alone remember everything. Still, we were on the road (or rather on the flats as there are no roads) by half four and had promptly broken down with a flat tyre by 5.30am.
We all had to pile out of the jeep while it was changed (which admittedly was done very quickly) but certainly not quick enough for those of us standing in the middle of nowhere in sub-zero weather before dawn! Tried to get a picture of the sunrise which didn't work as I couldn't stop my hands shaking and got yelled at by the driver again for wandering off - not quite sure what would be out in the Bolivian desert that would be dangerous but not really tempted to find out!
We drove to a volcano where we
were supposed to stop for breakfast but as it was too misty to see much they decided we would carry on. The snow had got so bad by this point that we had to get out and walk for a bit as the jeeps couldn't manage the terrain with all of us in them! Those of us feeling spritely enough had a snow ball fight and tried not to think about what would happen if we broke down or went off a cliff.
Headed on to a lake where we stopped for breakfast as it was light by this point. Impressive amount of work actually had to go into clearing the snow in order to boil water but I wasn't complaining as it meant I could fill my hot water bottle and try and defrost my feet (yes, I brought a hot water bottle - always helps to be prepared! - not to mention the woolly tights and leg warmers that I bought in La Paz) Took photos of the flamingoes and managed to get wet in the process as the very solid-looking snow actually was somehow just floating on the edge of the lake!
Moved onto another
lake (the names of both will forever be a mystery to me as our driver could only give a non-commital shrug when we asked him!) and more flamingoes before heading south to within sight of the Chilean border. Visited the Arbol de la Piedra
(Tree of Stone) which was indeed a strange shaped rock in the middle of no-where! Actually was quite impressive to see especially as it's predicted it will snap and fall over fairly soon!
We had a flurry of snow but luckily not much as we were warned this would slow us up. We arrived at the second hostal mid afternoon only to find it was even more basic that the previous one and we were in fact staying in the outbuildings due to overbooking. This meant a concrete hut with a piece of corrugated iron propped up to serve as a door! Off to visit another lake before returning to the hostal for dinner and a very cold night at minus 15 degrees celsius! I have never been so grateful for a hot water bottle in my life!
Started the next morning dark and early at four and the other jeep promptly broke down
about 100m from the hostal. To rescue it, our drivers had the slightly worrying idea of lightling a fire underneath the engine until the flames came out under the bonnet. They seemed to know what they were doing but I certainly wouldn't have been happy sittin in the jeep while they were doing that! Still, managed to reach the hotsprings by six whereupon we had to wait for almost an hour for the other jeep that we had lost along the way.
Turned out they had gone to visit the geysers that our driver had forgotton we were supposed to visit! He, once again, couldn't care less and simply told us we should have gone into the hot springs to warm up (despite having been ignoring our pleas to do just that by saying we had to wait for the others.) Nevermind, I got to soak in the hot bubbly goodness which just about thawed us out. Having to strip down to a bikini whilst standing on ice is certainly not fun but the thermal springs were so worth it! I could actually feel my feet again by the time we got out!
Next, on to Laguna Verde
which wasn't actually green at this time as it was completely frozen over so we decided to go skating on it instead! Infinitely more fun although we had to move pretty quickly when it started to crack. Then we faced the very long journey all the way back up to Uyuni stopping at yet another lake covered with flamingoes for lunch.
This one had loads of dead flamingoes lying at the edge and when we asked the guide we were told that when it gets so cold, their legs literally freeze and break off and they die. Don't actually think he was lying sadly. We managed the trip back to Uyuni, only breaking down once more on the way, just in time to catch the overnight bus back to La Paz, literally by a few minutes.
Writing this warm, dry and full of food I can happily say the Salar de Uyuni was an absolutely incredible experience and worth any discomfort to see - whether I would have said that whilst I was there I don't know!
Back to La Paz
We arrived in La Paz early morning and went back to Loki Hostel just
Me and Lou
in time to meet Tamsin checking out. It's really weird how often you bump into people you know here! Jack was apparently here as well, just sleeping so Lou and I made use of the internet and free breakfast before being given a room. More shopping was in order until the resy of the gang (ie. Matt and the Sophies) joined us from Puno so we left Jack to his own devices and hit the markets.
We managed to do pretty much all of our present shopping along with a healthy amount of stuff for ourselves to cheer ourselves up after the Salt Flats (any excuse really!) The others arrived that afternoon and we took them to Sol y Luna for food.
The next day we decided we should actually do something in La Paz other than shop so we all went to Museo del Coca. Surprisingly interesting (especially that the UK is the largest legal consumer of cocaine in the world after the USA) and we thought we should go as everyone here seems to be constantly chewing coca anyway.
Not a pleasant sight when you are forever dodging people hacking up globules of green pleghm
onto the road! We tried the leaves (and ended up buying a bag) and I have to admit that the Bolivians are right!
We were totally awake and full of energy the whole day (and the whole night for Lou who wouldn't stop chewing them!) Amazingly, coca is still an ingredient in Coca-Cola (something I would have thought would have been changed over the years) - so it is'nt just the caffeine in it that works as an energy-booster! Taking coca (which admittedly isn't actually cocaine) is a perfectly normal thing here - in Cusco we were offered coca tea to help us adjust to the altitude.
And seeing as traces of coca have been found in mummies dating back to 2500BC, it seems to be something that really does work and has done for quite some time!I think the idea of taking coca here can be best summed up by this extract from Bolivian writer Antonio Diaz Villemal, writing about an old Quechua legend:
I shall give you a gift for your brothers
Climb up to that mountain
Where you shall find a small plant
One with much strength
Guard the leaves with much care
And when you feel the sting of pain in your heart
Hunger in your body
And darkness in your mind.
Take them in your mouth
And softly draw up its spirit
Which is part of mine
You will find love for your pain,
Food for your body
And light for your mind.
Furthermore, watch the leaves dance with the wind
And you will find answers to your queries
But if your torturer, who comes from the north,
The white conquerer, the gold seeker should touch it
He will find in it only poison for his body
And madness for his mind,
For his heart so callous as his steel and iron garment
And when the coca, which is how you will call it,
Attempts to soften his feelings,
It will only shatter him as ice crystals
Born in the clouds, crack the rocks
and demolish mountains
Jack and Sophie were leaving us that evening as they were flying back to Quito for their flights home so the Cuenca Crew were finally split
up after six months. Matt was staying on a bit in La Paz before continuing south and Soph, Lou and I were travelling back (mostly) by land through Peru and back to Cuenca heading for warmer climates!!
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