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Published: July 16th 2008
Bolivia - land of extremes, a country we have both been looking forward to so much. Leaving San Pedro de Atacama in Chile was no real hardship, as ever we really enjoyed our stay but the future weeks to come in Bolivia were just so tantilising, our first stop was Uyuni and the famous salt flats. You may remember the bone shuddering discriptions of Ruta 40 on which we travelled for hour upon hour in Argentina oh so long ago it seems, well we can safely say that Ruta 40 is an absolute breeze when compared to the arduous trip which now unfolded before us.
We will pick up our adventure at the border crossing from Chile into Bolivia at the villages of Ollague and Avaroa respectively. These two sentinals in the desert are little more than 1km from each other in the shadow of the formidable active Volcan Ollague just under 6,000m high. We could see clouds of smoke billowing in the wind high above us. Its a strange place, all old crumbling hovels and decrepid railway tracks with rusting freight trains everywhere. After much faffing around and stamping of passports we alighted from our bus in the middle
of the desert between the two villages, here we would wait for another bus from Bolivia to pick us up and continue our journey to Uyuni. The buses are not allowed to cross the border which is marked by a raised platform with the respective nation's flags fluttering in the dry wind. Behind this is the strange and humerous scene of a football pitch which has its half way line exactly on the border between the two nations! One can only assume that the villages play against each other or perhaps more dangerously the military border staff compete in what must be a big grudge match.
Chile and Boliva are certainly no friends, while international relations have recently improved the two nations still exist with an uneasy history to contend with. In 1879 Chile anexed a huge portion of Bolivia cutting the nation off from the sea creating the only landlocked country in South America, politics, big business and of course money were major factors. Although this happened long ago, the scars run deep and the Bolivians still do not accept their landlocked status. Reading about the tumultuous history of Bolivia we cannot help but draw comparisons with our
beloved Scotland and the historical problems with our bigger more powerful neighbour.
Anyhoo, where were we, yes we had finally arrived in Bolivia! The bus which we now took after yet more passport stamping was in poor condition, the windows rattled almost as much as our bones letting in huge dust couds to choke us as we made painfully slow progress through the stifflingly hot desert. The road, was not a road, it was simply an area which a buldozer had cleared some of the stones and sand away to allow easier passage, and that was only on the better portions! It is difficult to describe this journey, but you probably get the idea, to sum up we only got lost twice, having to double back and follow different tracks through the sand, we only broke down once and only got stuck in the sand once... so it was not that bad... But we did finally arrive in Uyuni.
Uyuni is the highest we have been so far, 3,669m high. And we could feel this altitude almost immediately, short walks proved tiring and left us breathless. We found a reasonable hostel and the next day we started the
daunting prospect of trying to find a reliable and trustworthy tour agency to visit the Salar de Uyuni. After much research we settled for Estrella del Sur, an agency with several online recommendations from fellow travellers and we can now add our own.
We opted for a 3 day 2 night tour, it offers good value for money and visits all the main sights. The Salar is the world's largest salt flat covering some 12,106 sq km. The salt flats formed some 40,000 to 25,000 years ago when the massive inland sea called Minchin evaporated leaving the vast white salt desert which at some points is 7m deep. As you can imagine such a massive source of natural salt is extracted and processed producing a huge annual output of 20,000 tons of salt.
We boarded our bright red 4x4 along with 3 nice young chaps from England, and a 7ft tall Austrailian guy who we had actually met way back in Bariloche, Argentina! It is a small world is it not. Our tour guide, cook, and driver was Sammy, a friendly Bolivian. The first stop was the train graveyard not far out of town, here there are hundreds
The workers excavate the salt into piles ready for exportation
of old rusty trains from different periods of history. They sit eerily by the disused railway line exposed to the elements, while talk of creating a more organised museum to protect them continues. Until then they make for an interesting stop. Perhaps just as interesting is the fields of plastic bags which are strewn for miles around the area creating a terrible eye sore. Its a huge problem in South America and indeed the world over, we hope that plastic bags will be consigned to history where they belong, we don't need them and they damage our environment massively, as we could now see at first hand.
Next up was the big one, the salt flats themselves. The Salar appears on the horizon in front of us, a growing line of bright white stretching as far as the eye can see, and soon we were envoloped in that dazzling, mysterious and flat landscape completely with nothing but sparkling salt in every direction. There have been many strange and wonderful landscapes we have visited on our travels, and this was no different. Surreal, magical, peaceful and desolate, the superlatives are once again endless.
We reached an excavation area which
was punctuated by hundreds of little mounds of salt gathered up by the workers who carried on oblivious to our presence, loading the salt onto large trucks for exportation. Conditions for these people is unfortunately very tough, the sun and salt combine to make this environment very harsh indeed, boiling hot and blindingly bright, damaging their eyes. Sadly, many of the workers cannot afford proper eye protection.
Smack bang in the middle of the Salar is Isla Incahuasi, a rocky, green outcrop which juts up as if simply placed there from above. It is only when you think about the fact you are standing on meters of salt that you understand this was an island like any other long ago, only now there was no longer water surrounding it. The island is covered in massive cacti, the big ones reaching as high as 12m. We stopped here for a short hike to the top, providing stunning views of the dead sea around us. We had a fantastic picnic lunch on the edge of the island which provided our first taste of Llama, its a tough but tasty meat, like a cross between beef and veal...yummy!
Onwards we sped,
continuously transfixed by our surroundings, finally reaching our first night's accomodation in a tiny village called Candelaria on the edge of the Salar, where we stayed in a hotel made entirely of salt! The floor, tables, chairs, walls and beds, it was all made from salt and was beautiful to live in. It was only after another fine meal that we realised why Sammy had kept the pace so fast, he had wanted to reach this village, his home village, in time for a small gathering of the towns folk so that we could experience a small taste of life here and interact with the villagers. This proved to be one of the most rewarding and enlightening experiences of our entire trip to date. Girls played basketball with their school teacher on the concrete court, which was also a five a side football pitch. As we wathced the girls play the boys were engaged in band practice. They marched around the court with another teacher banging drums, playing pan pipes and blowing trumpets, with broad grins and smiles as they repeatedly passed us by. The other villagers gathered to watch, familes and old folks. We had no idea if this
Girls playing basketball
was especially for our benefit or a regular village gathering, either way it was a joy to see and listen to.
The basketball came to an end and saddly so did the band's music. A cheeky lad who called himself Ronaldo asked the guys from our tour if we fancied a spot of 5 a side football against him and his friends. And so the teams formed up, on one side a gringo union of 3 English lads, an Ozzie and a Scot (Tony). On the other 4 bolivian teenagers ranging from about 14 (Ronaldo) to 18 years old were captained by Sammy our guide and we were off, with the villagers gathered around as an audience. Karen was kept busy as match photographer, however soon she was surrounded by children interested in seeing the pictures she was taking. The children were really excited by seeing their friends on the digital camera so Karen decided to film them. They absolutely loved it, it was as if they had never seen themselves on film before. It felt like all the children in the village were crowding round her all wanting their turn to be caught on camera. Unfortunately the memory
card was soon full and Karen had captured little of the match! It was really good fun to play and chat to the children, they seemed just as interested in us as we were of them.
We did mention that Uyuni is at 3,669m and the Salar is no different, as you may imagine if walking at this height is tiring, playing football requires almost super human effort! We exaggerate of course but it was hard going and the Bolivians took advantage, taking a 2-0 lead early on. Tony rallied the gringos and urged them on as we pulled a goal back. Over the course of the next hour we exchanged goals and even took the lead at one point. Slowly the villagers went back to their homes as this epic football match drew to a conclusion with the light fading fast, the teams were all level. A young Bolivian boy who could have been no more than 5 years old asked if he could join the gringos united team and we of course accepted his offer. The next 5-10 minutes were spent frantically trying to get the young lad to score while desperately trying not to concede any
more either, it was next goal the winner. Finally with a superb pass through the crowded pitch Tony picked out the little fellow who met the through ball first time sending the ball into the onion bag with great skill, we held him aloft celebrating and cheering our victory, his smiles and laughter were worth the trip to South America alone. The whole day, particularly this intimate interaction with the villagers was in many ways what both of us had pictured in our minds when we decided to visit South America, we will both remember these short few hours for the rest of our lives with the fondest of memories.
The next day we left behind the Salar de Uyuni and headed back into the desert, visiting various gorgeous lakes of different colours Laguna Colorado, Laguna Verde, Laguna Celest, stained by the different mineral contents. We passed Alpaca and Llama, both relatives of the camel and both widespread on the high altiplano, domesticated and used by the indigenous people for meat, wool, and milk for centuries, if not thousands of years. Perhaps the most memorable sight was the Arbol de Piedra (tree of stone), which juts out of the
desert along with many other strange rock formations. We arrived at the more sparten accomodation for our second night tired but happy. The temperature quickly dropped to below freezing, we were now at 4,400m high. During the night the water in our bottles froze, along with the water in the toilet! It was -15ºC, brrrrrrr!
We rose well before dawn in order to reach the Sol de Mañana Geysers while they were still active in the morning. We climbed higher and higher to amost 5,000m. Thankfully during all this time we had not fallen foul of dreaded altitude sickness. Perhaps it was the coca leaves Sammy had provided, used by the people here for thousands of years to ward off the effects of altitude. The geysers were beautiful and eerie, shooting and spurting hot steam into the air while bubbling mud boiled in and around them. The sun rose through the steam and before we knew it it was time to move on to the Termas de Polques, a small hot spring pool which can chase away the cold if you dare to strip off and enter, we did not, choosing instead to huddle up in our 4x4 while
our guide Sammy showed us all how it was done! Before you accuse us of being scaredy cats, upon leaving the pools the water froze on your skin and hair, it was still very cold indeed.
The remainder of the day was spent travelling back to Uyuni but we first visited yet more stunning lakes in the shadow of towering mountains. We drove through the aptly named Desierto de Dali, so named because it resembles the surreal desert scenes of the artist's pirctures. Beautiful shades of red, orange and yellow combine with the earthy, sandy colours of the desert and the mountains making for some wonderful scenery.
We also stopped off in the majestic Valle de Piedras, or valley of rocks. This is a landscape of broken rocks and bolders, huge and windswept into strange and interesting shapes, they sweep down into the valley from the mountains forming yet another wonder to greet our eyes. We also managed to see a lovely wee desert rabbit type thingy jumping among the rocks, a great way to end the day.
We headed back to Uyuni tired and exhausted, we had seen so many wonderful sights, experienced the beauty of
Valles de Rocas
Tony peeps through a strange rock formation
not only the earth but of the people on it as well. We shall look back on our tour and always remember the village of Candelaria and its people. Our first taste of Bolivia was everything we had hoped for and so much more. Bring on more of Bolivia!
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