Salar de Uyuni...lots of salt and lakes

Published: November 15th 2012
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Arriving in to the border town of Villazion was an experience as half the town played host to a carnival of some sort. There were hundreds of kids wearing a variety of colourful outfits and dancing to an off-key brass band. The plaza was a no-go area, but nonetheless Ellie and I found ourselves there trying to reach the town's only cash point. The locals tried to be helpful, by directing us, but they seemed to overlook the carnival and the temporary stands as notable obstacles to our progression! Eventually we passed through the masses, got our cash and then hot footed it to the station. We were told it was 7 blocks from the border, this was a lie of epic proportions, we battled on for what seemed like an age, the altitude adding about 50kg to our bags. I sought out directions in a store and the shopkeep directed us" a todo derecho, cuarto de kilometer." That seemed further than 7 blocks, and we'd walked 15 already. We pushed on to the suburbs and realised that we'd misheard the directions and asked an octogenarian lady to correct us. One flagged cab later and we were at the station, 100
Bolivian CarnivalBolivian CarnivalBolivian Carnival

Carnival Atmosphere in Villazion
metres from where it picked us up and opposite the store! What ever had followed "todo derecho" clearly didn't equate to 250 metres!

Getting the train made me feel like a child again, when train travel hadn't been ruined by Thatcherism, and for 7 pounds were bought executive class tickets to Tupiza. There really is little to keep you in Villazion any longer than it takes to get the hell out of there. The train journey was very slow, it crawled through the afternoon sunshine and varying Bolivian countryside. We got to watch a Sandra Bullock film about a true story of an American Footballer, it was okay (I forget the name of the film) but it was made much more entertaining by the really dodgy subtitle translations (they'd dubbed Sandra and co into Spanish), someone clearly skimped on the DVD production budget and put the whole script through Google Translate. The countryside was desert-like but dotted with little hamlets that appeared to exist on farming little plots of land. It seemed backbreaking work and the poverty of Bolivia was physicay evident here. Apparently, even though education is compulsory and free from 7-14, 40% of kids don't
Gates of HellGates of HellGates of Hell

Puerto de Diablo in Tupiza
attend school which is frightening. After 3 hours and a very happy ending to the film we arrived into Tupiza station and were immediately beseiged by agencies trying to sell us Salar tours. We beat the crowds, grabbed our bags and made our escape to the hotel. Thankfully the hotel was quiet and had a pool! Such luxury! We had a nice room, although the beige walls were "artistically" sprayed with crimson, but the effect was more Resevoir Dogs or Fray Bentos Abatoir than boutique hotel.

To acclimatize we spent a day horse riding to the Gates of Hell (a sheer piece of red sandstone, 30m high, 1m wide and longer than I could judge, with a gateway in the middle, randomly protruding from the desert) and the Inca Canyon. My mount, Orcono (definitely not managed to spell this correctly), was a bit tempremental at times, deciding to canter or run without instruction, but more than likely bored by the conservative pace I insisted upon keeping. I've never been horse riding before and the guide asked after our experience, seemed surprised that is was "none" but then gave us no instruction! It was still fun even if I was
Kids PlayKids PlayKids Play

Making your own fun with a taxidermied skunk!
convinced Orcono would unhorse me whenever he felt like he'd had enough of the equine-illiterate gringo! But he didn't, he was very tolerant. He even stopped of his own accord a few times, checked behind him to make sure everyone else was still coming and then marched on. I thought he was coming round to my commands, but it was really just a case of me saying "whoa" so many times that occassionally it corresponded with his desire to stop. It was unreasonably hot, but I made light of it by imagining myself in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, or one of the Wyatt Earp/Jesse James/Billy the Kid films. Very childish, but it was all very spagetti western, except the accents, shootouts or any sign of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne or Sergio Leone. As an aside, apparently Butch and Sundance were killed in a mining town near here (you know the ending of the movie ended with a freeeze frame? Well about 5 seconds after that the Bolivian Army riddled them with bullets, not so glorious an ending) but their corpses were never identified and I think the graves were never marked, hence all the rumour and conjecture about
Rolling LandscapeRolling LandscapeRolling Landscape

Day 1 of the tour
their fates. Similar legends occurred with Billy the Kid. Pat Garrett and the Bolivian Army should have taken a leaf out of Robert Ford's book (he killed Jesse James) and left the body for a photo! At least the Bolivian's got that bit right with Che Guevara...

Tupiza, didn't have much to offer a tourist, it is just a base for lauching a trip into the Salar. We got lucky with our trip. Only 3 of us were in the Jeep due to some idiotic French person booking two trips with two different companies! Not that I was complaining as I had the whole back seat to myself, to just chill out on. Joining us was Joelle, a Flemish-speaking Belgian, who had a good grasp of languages (including Spanish). We hadn't paid for an English-speaking guide, which was great as we had to speak Spanish everyday and learnt a fair chunk! Also, Ellie had downloaded all the wikipedia information on the Salar onto our tablet! Three Irish lads were in another jeep, and we had some craic and beers with them most evenings when we stopped for the night. Coming from Tupiza meant that we were going against traffic,
Llamas with EaringsLlamas with EaringsLlamas with Earings

Pink Earings...even the males.
as most trips come from Uyuni (where we would finish), and as a consquence we mostly saw other tourists at night or in passing, but not at the sights of interest. Splendid. The other positive of coming from Tupiza was that the tours are not oversubcribed; we saw 7 tourists get out of Land Cruisers (don't forget the driver and cook need a seat too) in some instances, which would just be uncomfortable and frustrating. Considering the costs between companies varies so little it seems ludicrous to settle for being treated like battery hens.

Day one was supposed to start early, but nothing happens on time in Bolivia we're told so it wasn't a surprise when we left an hour later than planned...and then stopped after 10 minutes to wait for the French tourist who was "definitely coming". Except he wasn't and we continued with our trip. We climbed up a winding road, which at times straddled ridges just about wide enough to find the 4x4. The views were, however, stunning. The lightning storm in the distance and the huge packs of llamas (pink earrings to boot; identity tags for the shepards) added colour and movement to the landscapes.

Hot water...don't fall in.
Tupiza is at 3000m or thereabouts above sea level and the climb reduced oxygen levels further. You don't notice altitude until you need to do anything even slightly strenuous, but some people get altitude sickness. We were lucky, suffering a couple of minor heaches which cocoa leaves sort out; they also give you a bit of a buzz, but then they are the basis of cocaine!

Day 1 took us to a peak of 4800m and some staggering views of mountains, volcanoes and lakes. We also met Felix our driver and picked up Lidia our cook from her home village. We had lunch there and I attempted to play football with some of the kids but the altitude sucked the strength out of me and I gave up after 20 minutes. The coolest thing on the trip I thought was the abandoned mining town. Apparently the gold was mined by slaves from around 1600 onwards, but the place was abandoned in the 1800s after people went missing, blind or mad. The other theory is the slaves decided they'd had enough and killed their overlords, and good for them I say. Supposedly it's cursed as an attempt to
Flight of the FlamingoesFlight of the FlamingoesFlight of the Flamingoes

This is a regular occurance.
resettle in the 1970s failed (they established a new village down the road) but the ruins are cool; hundreds of stone buildings in the shadow of a volcano with the town hall and church prominent amongst the rubble and ghosts. At our lodgings we endured some local kids singing out of tune for money (but they're enterprising) and met a crazy Canadian guy and his French friend who were biking the trail. The "roads" are appalling and their motorbikes constantly fall over or get least they aren't cycling, that would be a long, slow, if somewhat beautifully framed, death!

Day two consisted of many colourful lakes interspered with some of the craziest landscape on the planet. We headed off early, Felix seemingly wanting to keep up a race with the other jeep driver, to the Lago Verde. It's a dead lake due to all the arsenic in it and would probably kill you if you paddled in it, or something...I didn't quite get the information from Felix as my Spanish wasn't quite proficient enough. I did understand, "don't go in" though. NASA do tests here for Mars missions I'm told. Sadly I didn't see anyone in

Crazy Landscape
a space suit or a billion dollar experimental space probe anywhere. The white lake is literally next to the green one, I don't know if they ever mix, the fact that some flamingoes were on the white lake suggests not. I can't remember (or be bothered to look up) the chemical compound in the white lake, but there's a lot of it on the moon...perhaps the moonlanding was a hoax and they filmed it here...check the footage of Armstrong and Aldrin again for flamingoes and bemused Bolivians! Due to all the volcanic activity in the area it's unsurprising to find both geothermal pools (warm, makes you dizzy, could be improved with a cool beer in hand), geysers and boiling mud puddles here. The geysers and mud puddles are at 5000m which means the air is very thin and we were only supposed to stay there for 5 minutes. Ellie prevented us from leaving by partaking in a photofrenzy, and I can't blame her as it was freakish landscape; it looked kind of how I imagine Mars would look (based on the spacerover pictures and movies obviously). I tried to see how many pressups I could do, as an experiment for
Red LakeRed LakeRed Lake

Could be blood...
Lacrosse Scotland, and managed 50, but couldn't breath properly for a good 5-10 minutes afterwards and gave myself a headache. Stupid really, no good was ever going to have come of it. We also added the Red Lake (there's a Black Lake too, but it's "rubbish", to quote our guide, and no one ever visits it) to our rainbow lake collection. It kind of looks like a whole bunch of flamingoes took Roman Baths as the red is very much a blood-red colour. It's pretty, but feels sinister and a bit evil at the same time; I could well imagine a Bond Villaness having a secret base here.

We saw a lot of lakes on day 3. Almost the entire day seemed to be spent looking at different lakes, although we did go to a place that had lots of rocks that had been carved into interesting shapeds by the wind, the famous one supposedly looks like a tree (Arbor de Piedra), but I wasn't convinced, it's just a bit thin at the bottom and a bit fat at the top. Anyway, it'll fall down soon so they don't like you climbing it. We also got to have lunch
Rock TreeRock TreeRock Tree

Doesn't, in my opinion, look like a tree...
on a very old lava field next to an active volcano, Bolivia's most active. It's probably the most dangerous lunch I've ever had, and that includes the kebab I had once when I was very hungover. We got to spend the night in a salt hotel, which was kind of cool, except that there was no risk of it dissolving if it rained and it didn't taste like salt (I tried a brick when no one was looking). But it was pretty cool and Felix and Lidia gave us a bottle of wine with our dinner...and then told us we had to be up at 4am as Felix wanted to take us to see the sunrise from the Cactus Island in the middle of the Salar. It was painful getting up at that hour, Felix slept in too, but we thundered across the Salar (there is literally nothing to hit, apart from the cactus island and we could see that coming from miles away!) to make it in time. The climb up the island (fossilised coral) was anaerobically challenging due to the altitude but the view was pretty spectacular when the sun made it's grand enterance. The island itself had
Lavafield and VolcanoLavafield and VolcanoLavafield and Volcano

Ellie wasn't aware of this photo...
these wierd rabbit-like creatures with kangaroo tails which were just wierd and obviously plenty of cacti. The Cacti grow exactly 1cm a year apparently so you know exactly how old they are; one was 1203 years old!

My one gripe for this entry is that the Bolivian people are short arses. This may not seem like something I should concern myself with, but the consequence of this is that the doors are very small everywhere. I really need to pay attention when entering or exiting a room. I sort of forgot on one occassion and managed to split my head open...which was not much fun, pretty painful and drew blood! Oddly, they love basketball here...

The Salar is massive, I forget exactlyy how big, and it used to be an ancient ocean, hence all the salt (10m deep). Every tourist who comes to the Salar use it as an excuse to take humourous photos since it's vast flatness means there is no sense of persepctive. The three of us messed around with this for a while, but not as long as some groups; I'd heard of people spending 2-3hours doing it...surely there are only so many times you
Lakes and ReflectionsLakes and ReflectionsLakes and Reflections

There were lots of these lakes!
can look tiny next to a Hasbro toy before it becomes tedious? But the whole experience in the Salar and the rest of the national parks in this part of Bolivia was amazing, I'd be surprised if any other place on the planet, except the Galapagos Islands, could cram so much wierdness and unique experiences in to one area! Uyuni, the town at the end of the trip is a dump and smells of stale urine (really) which is a bit of a come down after the 4 previous days, and you have to say goodbye to everyone. We did, however, get some pretty tasty "Mexican" food and acquire diazepam over the counter to make the overnight bus trip to La Paz bearable. Result...cocaine (well...) and valium in the same week...Rock. And. Roll.

Additional photos below
Photos: 15, Displayed: 15


Sunrise over the SalarSunrise over the Salar
Sunrise over the Salar

Huge, 1000 year old cactus.
Jeep on the SalarJeep on the Salar
Jeep on the Salar

It is just endless it seems...the Salar, not theJjeep....

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