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Published: December 30th 2011
The tour through the Bolivian salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni was an experience like no other. In the three days it took us to go from Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile we saw volcanoes, lagoons, deserts, salt flats, cacti and flamingos. We saw some of the most surreal landscapes and were at some of the most extreme points in South America. We started off by going to the Train Graveyard, the site of the first train lines in Bolivia, a place littered with the rusting remains of the British made steam engines. This odd sight in the middle of a desert landscape is where the train scenes from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were filmed. From there we moved on to a small town which is founded on the gathering and processing of the salt found in the surrounding area. We only stopped briefly, and mainly only to look at the wares for sale and use the facilities, but did have a look at a very strange little museum. This museum had a bunch of statues carved out of salt, including of course, a llama. A short drive from this town took us to the region where the salt is currently being collected from. All of a sudden we went from being in the dusty desert to a white, salt covered plain which stretched out as far as the eye could see. There were small, 4'x4', pyramids of salt piled up to dry spread out before us. Our guide, Pablo, explained in Spanish, that this and also explained that the salt plains are actually growing each year due to the rainfall; every rainy season the water that lands on the salt plains helps to spread out the salt further and further, and helps to uncover more salt beneath the top layer. Another girl on our tour explained that the salt found in this area is partially from run off from Lake Titikaka. Titikaka and the Salar of Bolivia both used to be part of the ocean but over time were separated into lakes; Lake Titikaka was fed by rivers from glaciers, the salt was washed down stream to Bolivia and then the lake in Bolivia dried up and left the Salar. We continued on the salt flats and stopped for lunch and to take some of the coolest photos ever. Since the salt flats stretch out for so far, and as there is not much around for frame of reference, you scan take really cool photos where it looks like you are a giant holding someone, or holding a car, or balancing on someone's head. We had a blast with this for at least 30 minutes.After lunch we began a long drive to the Isla Pescado, Fish Island. On the way we had to stop and get out to get some photos because there was rain water on the honeycombed salt flats and it made the most fabulous mirror, reflecting the sky back upon itself. We finally reached the Isla and what a sight. There in the middle of the flats was an island made of petrified coral covered in cacti! We climbed to the top of the island and got a 360 of the surrounding flats and distant mountains and volcanoes. On the island itself some of the cacti were blooming and there was even one with a sign telling you it was 900 years old. The rest of the day was spent driving through what seemed like an endless plain of salt to get to our hostel. We reached the end of the salt flats and drove onto a little spit/bridge of dirt to get onto the desert island area where our hostel was found. We stopped right at the adage of the salt flats and got out again as there was so much rain water on the flats now it was actually lapping at the dirt bridge. Here we were in a landlocked country, standing in a salty ocean. Unbelievable!We finally arrived at our hostel, an Chev and I got the coolest room, with a salt pebbled floor. We had a hot shower, after some tea and cookies, and then ate an interesting but filling meal and called it a night. The next morning we set off after breakfast and had our first stop at a semi active volcano. We continued on and reached the first of many lagoons we were going to visit that day. There in front of us was this random lagoon, in the middle of desert mountains, with flamingos in it. After eating a fantastic lunch we continued on to the next lagoon and on the way saw a desert fox and this weird half rabbit, half squirrel, chinchilla type animal. At the second lagoon we were able to see the flamingos a lot more closely and learned from Pablo that there were on fact three different types of flamingos in this region: Andean, Chilean and Australian. You can tell the difference between them by their markings.The last stop of the day was Laguna Colorada. This lagoon looks like a landscape from another planet. The water colour of this lagoon is different in different places; some places it is green and others a deep red and then almost everything in between. The reason for the different colours is a combination of the composition of the bottom and the algae found in the water. We marveled at the view and then continued a bit further to our lodgings for the night. We had a lazy afternoon chatting and drinking tea. At dinner we learned, to our dismay, that we had to be up at 3:45 am so we could make it to the Bolivian border before it closed. That brought a quick end to our evening and we called it a night. We awoke in the dark to the freezing cold morning of a high altitude desert. We got dressed and piled into the car and began our drive to the border. At this point I was extremely cold and couldn't seem to get warm and had bad stomachache. We arrived at some geysers and warmed our hands in the smelly steam. We continued on to an active volcano were Pablo walked us around to look at the bubbling magma. We couldn't stay too long as the vapors from the volcano are toxic but what we did see was pretty amazing. We were right on the top of this volcano! At 5000m above sea level! Now I was having a hard time appreciating this as my health condition was deteriorating. The next stop was for breakfast at a set of natural hot springs. By this point I was quite sick either with something I had picked up earlier on our travels ( Chev had just taken some antibiotics as she had been sick before) or because of the altitude, although I had been taking pills for that. I couldn't eat breakfast and couldn't face being out in the cold air in only a bathing suit so didn't go in the hot springs so I spent the next hour laying on a bench, wrapped in a sleeping bag in my toque, socks, gloves, sweater, jacket, pants and hot water bottle. I was given some coca leaves to help with my nausea and started a course of antibiotics just in case. I started feeling a bit better and enjoyed the rest of the drive to the border through the highest desert in the world. We saw the desert and rocks that inspired some of Dali's art and had our last stop at Laguana Verde, a brilliant green watered lagoon which gets it's colour from the copper found in the region. Our tour ended with four of us being dropped at the Bolivian border. In the middle of this high mountain desert landscape was a tiny little border hut where we got our exit stamps and then waited for our bus to take us to San Pedro in Chile.After about an hour our bus came but that did not mean we were quickly on our way. The woman who owned the bus we were on disappeared into Bolivia for lunch, leaving the bus driver unable to leave, as she was suppose to get a ride back to San Pedro with us. An hour later she showed up! One passenger on the bus, a young Chilean man, jumped out his window and gave her an earful in Spanish as soon as he saw her. He yelled at her for leaving us to wait and then the border patrol yelled at her for leaving the country without permission. Everyone else on the bus was very pleased.We made it San Pedro through the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world, after an hour and then began the long, multi-step process of getting into Chile. Finally after crossing the border in Bolivia at 10am we were finally in San Pedro, Chile by 3pm. The first ing I had to do was get some food as it had nearly been 24 hours since I had eaten. The next two hours were spent scrambling to find bus tickets out of town and then it off to an internet cafe to send an update as to my whereabouts and the we were finally able to relax.
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