Uyuni and the Salar d Uyuni

Published: July 30th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

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The road wound its way through a couple of dusty, sleepy towns and round a small mountain range onto the flat expanse that surrounds Uyuni. Rattling along the bumpy route we drew near to the town, the initial glimpse of the salt flats we had previously experienced from the mountain top having disappeared as we descended leaving only vast open spaces broken only when we reached the walled church graveyard on the outskirts of town. Uyuni is described as 'climatically challenged' which is a nice way of saying that its in the middle of a desert with nothing green for miles around.

On arrival we found quickly where we were on the map and made our way through the dusty streets to a cheap hostel. There seemed to be no electricity and asked the owner why this was, which was slightly pointless as we couldn't understand the long sentence that he reeled off. It wasn't until the next day that we found out that pylons had blown down and the local strike action meant that they weren't going to be repaired any time soon. At least the showers were gas heated...

The next morning we hunted around for tours of the salt flats only to find that the blockades and strikes meant that petrol tankers weren't getting through so few companies had enough petrol to run tours. Apparently transport strikes are common in this area as unhappy workers blockaded the road and cause general disruption. We spoke to one group of travellers who'd tried to get to Uyuni on the tourist bus from La Paz only to be turned back by the farmer's blockade somewhere near Potosi. Its no wonder that Bolivia is such a poor country if this happens all the time; at least in Nepal when the Maoist force a transport strike the tourists are less effected since tourist vehicles are allowed to pass.

We hunted around for 4 day tours ending in Tupiza but most companies weren't running them due to the gasoline shortage. We were lucky to find a three day tour which would return to Uyuni afterwards but were hesitant because three of the six places where filled by Germans and we've had issues with arrogant loud mouthed Germans on more than one occasion. Thankfully, this wasn't an issue and they were very friendly people. As well as ourselves, the last person to make up the group of six was a Polish lady who worked as a tour guide for Polish holiday makers in Peru. She was fluent in both Spanish and English so could translate what the driver Garcia and the cook Silvia would tell us during the tour.

And so it was we set off towards the salt flat with our bags piled on top of the Land Cruiser, an unlikely combination of two Brits, three Germans and a Polish lady. We had a brief stop at the train graveyard on the outskirts of town where dozens of old locomotives that used to run through the desert to Chile sat around decaying as a reminder of better days. As we were late departing, (nearly and hour and a half so) we opted to skip the scheduled stop at a crafts market and go straight to where the salt was being mined. Workers would dig up the salt into piles of about one tonne before shovelling it into the back of a pick up truck to be taken for processing where the valuable lithium would be extracted and the salt would be made ready for the dinner table.

Further in, we stopped at a hotel made of salt blocks for lunch. It was at this point we really grasped the size of the Salar de Uyuni, which is the largest salt flat in the world and stretches in an endless expanse of white landscape for miles. Thankfully we plastered on some sun screen as the sun shone brilliantly from the perfect white surface which resulted in sun burns for some of the group.

After lunch we drove over the flats to reach 'fish island', a strange rocky outcrop in the middle of the Salar d Uyuni which was covered in ancient cacti. These cacti seemed to be the only things to live in this otherwise inhospitable environment, growing only one cm per year, with some of them living to be over 1000 years old! We hung around there for a bit taking photos in the almost gale force winds and just as we were about to leave, a small plane that was flying over decided to dive towards us as if it was about to crash. It came really low and close before pulling up, causing us to run in panic before we realised that the bored pilots were just having a laugh...funny!

We continued drive across the salt flats and stopped at the edge for the night, staying in a hotel made of salt. The salt bricks were carved out of the desert and bound together using moist salt. The tables and bed-bases were made of salt and even the floor was covered in what was essentially rock salt shingles making it sort of like a carpet. There was a petrol generator that stayed on until about 9pm giving us time to sit around an chat before it got too cold and we went to bed ready for our 5am breakfast.

Early in the morning we awoke and went out expecting to find breakfast waiting for us but there was no one to be seen. We waited and waited until realising that no one was coming so went outside and started shouting 'hola' until someone emerged. Silvia came and garbled something in Spanish which no one understood except Dorothea who responded in a fast, angry stream of Spanish. We knew something was up...

After Silvia disappeared, Dorothea translated that we'd set off without enough fuel to complete the trip and that someone was supposed to come along in the night with petrol and bread for breakfast but they hadn't turned up. Bugger. We were in the middle of nowhere without enough food or fuel for rest of the trip (by the way, the tour is run by Ripley Tours- very responsible guys with the lives of 6 foreigners in your hands!)

As it was 5am, we weren't too hungry anyway so the lack of breakfast wasn't an issue but the fuel situation was. Dorothea translated that we would drive down to the small town of San Juan, call the company and also try to buy some petrol. With the bags on top, we climbed into the landcruiser out of the freezing wind and left the salt hotel as the sun began to rise. Reaching San Juan, Garcia the driver asked about fuel but there was none to be found. He then phoned the tour company although didn't enlighten us as to what was said so we headed off blindly further into the desert with only half a tank of fuel and only hope & prayer that some would materialise somewhere along the way.

After brief photo ops at the old train track and some rock formations, our next destination was a set of four colourful lagoons in close proximity. As we were entering a volcanic region, the lagoons had been coloured various shades of reds and greens from the residual chemicals left on the landscape. As it is winter here, the relentless freezing wind had frozen much of the lagoons but we were still able to see some of the coloured water and best of all, there were several flamingos still living in the area. I'd always thought of flamingos as more tropical birds so to see them living in such a hostile environment where the night consistently dropped below -20 was a bit of a surprise.

At the third lagoon Garcia managed to persuade one of the other tour drivers to sell him a gallon of fuel from the two reserve barrels on top of his Jeep which was very fortunate as when we eventually arrived at our stop for the second night, the petrol warning light was on. The accommodation for the second night was a lot more basic with all six of us sharing the same room. There were half a dozen other dormitories for other tour groups that drifted in throughout the day, filling the small hostal to the brim. This place was situated at an altitude of 4500m and as such was very cold.

There wasn't much to do in the area and although the lagoon was nearby, the freezing gale-force winds put us off from going too far from the hostel (although the Germans gave it a go, albeit with cans of beer) so we spent most of the afternoon sitting around reading and generally trying to keep from freezing as the temperature began to drop. There was one small fire in the place, fueled by dried moss, that gave out a little heat - but not enough for the size of the place.

Our spirits were lifted when Garcia came in and announced that we would have fuel for the next day (although we remained understandably sceptical) followed shortly by Silvia serving up a big platter of chicken and chips accompanied by a bottle of wine. Since it was so cold we were all in bed before 8pm with Stacey and I curled up in our rented sleeping bags under several layers of blankets ready for another 5am start.

As we awoke and switched on our head torches, receiving a few groans from the Germans who obviously didn't appreciate the early mornings, I looked outside and saw that our landcruiser now also had two barrels of fuel roped on top. Apparently a Jeep or two had been dispatched from Uyuni to drive up to Potosi filled to the brim with empty fuel barrels in order to bring them back to Uyuni for the tour companies, which where subsequently driven out into the desert to rendezvous with us - very coordinated by Bolivian standards!

We were the second group to set off with our spirits lifted, heading for the river crossing to find that the first group had driven onto the frozen river. They got about half way before they fell a few feet through the ice and were stuck. Being second on the scene, we had to help pull them out with a thin tow rope, eventually managing to jerk them free of the river before backtracking ourselves and taking the long way around.

Safely on the other side of Laguna Colorado, we stopped at a set of 'geysers' which were in fact not geysers but huge steam vents shooting scalding hot steam into the freezing night and were ferociously impressive. We carried on down past another Laguna which had a set of hot springs flowing into it, and right down to Laguna Verde near the Chilean border, close to San Pedro de Atacama. The sun had risen just above the horizon, shining brightly on the colourful mountains making in a photographers dream. The drive was absolutely stunning and well worth any of the hassles that we'd been dealing with over the previous days.

After several photographs of the landscape, we went back to the hot springs for a dip. It was a daunting prospect getting undressed in the freezing cold and running out into the even more freezing wind but as soon as we got into the hot pool, it became more that worth it! The water temperature was supposed to be around 30 degrees and made us the warmest we'd felt in several days. It was fantastic until it was time to leave and we had to get out, soaking wet into the freezing cold. Stacey's head band that had gotten wet and was put on the side of the pool was already frozen solid but it was very motivating to get dried and dressed in perhaps record time.

We retraced our steps as far as Laguna Colorado and left the volcanic national park for the long ride back to Uyuni. The drive back was less interesting with perhaps the exception of crossing a frozen river that was already broken in places. There are no roads (or road signs) in this region, only rutted dirt tracks, so was no other way back except through the river. We got out and waited, watching as Garcia stuck the landcruiser into 4wd and drove through, managing to not get stranded in the process. The Landcrusiers that are used for these tours are really in their element in this desolate part of the world and just manage to go places that would kill a normal car or shake it to pieces.

There was a brief stop for lunch in a little town and and another set of impressive volcanic rocks that had been shaped by the wind. Reaching Uyuni after a very long, bumpy and dusty ride, we said goodbye to Garcia and Silvia. The power had just come back on in Uyuni and the petrol was flowing again, with lines of cars trailing around the block, reminiscent of when Britain is rumoured to have a fuel shortage. We had the option of taking a night bus to Tupiza but given how cold we'd found the desert to be at night, decided to stay in Uyuni for one more night and head off the next day, enjoying such delights as hot showers and electric lighting. Uyuni seemed like a metropolis the second time around compared with the dusty little villages we'd been travelling through on the tour, so we made the most of it, exploring the street market and dining on hot pizza ready for the long trip to Tupiza the next day.

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