San Pedro to Uyuni - the salt flats adventure! (28.11.12 - 30.11.12)

Published: December 2nd 2012
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The decision to go to Bolivia was pretty last minute. As in until 1 week ago, we were not going there! However after chatting to various people and researching further into what we were going to do in South America, we decided to go for it! As we mentioned before, there are mixed stories about people's experiences of the tours of the salt flats, so with everything crossed, we booked the best reviewed company we could find and hoped for the best!

We were picked up in a bus in the morning with 12 people on board, this meant that because it was 6 to a jeep, we were looking at full jeeps for the rest of the ride. Because we were crossing desert and salt flats, four wheel drive is basically the only way to do it. We were then driven about 5 minutes down the road to a shack by the side of the road, which turned out to be Chilean immigration. So after a long queue with all the other bus groups to use the one open window, we were officially in no mans land. We were then on the road for about 40 minutes, steadily climbing on some barely there roads, surrounded by llamas. When we arrived at the Bolivian border, we were greeted by lots of 4x4's. This meeting point was at 4500m, some serious altitude, and to be honest we hadn't realised we had climbed so high! We were given breakfast here and some more coca tea (a herbal tea, made from coca leaves which a chewed or drank by locals to help with the altitude). Then we went to a falling down shack which turned out to be Bolivian immigration. This was a very quick process, just a guy behind a desk. Before we hit the road we asked if there were toilets, the answer? Behind that burnt out bus over there, we are definitely roughing it now! This is when we first started to notice the altitude, being quite short of breath and also a bit dizzy, the good news was we were going up to 5000m before the end of the day, good times!
Our group of twelve was split to fit into the two jeeps. We were put with a couple from Geneva and two young girls from Canada. Everyone across the two groups was really nice, just unfortunately for us all the other 4 spoke French as their first language, so we were a bit in the dark a lot of the time. The great thing being 3 of them spoke Spanish, always helpful when your driver speaks no English. So there became a complicated translation system of Spanish to French to English. Or driver Nacho, seemed nice and told us plenty of interesting information about the places, well we think he did, it didn't always get translated.
The first day involved constant climbing across the desert. First we visited Laguna Verde and Blanca, which were beautiful lagoons complete with flamingos (initially really exciting before we realised they were everywhere!). Laguna Verde wasn't actually green like the name would suggest, they weren't sure why but over the winter the lagoon stopped being green. We stopped lots of times to take pictures of the stunning colourful mountains. We continued climbing to the Aguas Termales, thermal hot springs where there was a pool at around 35*c, so we got in for a nice hot dip. After this we climbed to our highest point of 5000m. Between these 2 points, James took a nose dive in terms of altitude sickness. He was dizzy and sickly and pretty short of breath, I was also struggling a bit with shortness of breath and being lightheaded. So when we were dropped off to look at the geysers, pretty awesome collection of geysers spurting steam into the air, we only managed a quick couple of pictures and back to the car. After this we dropped back down to 4200m to our first nights accommodation. As soon as we dropped altitude we both felt much better, strange really. We were told the accommodation was very basic, and that it was. Calling it a hostel was pretty kind, it was a camping barn. It housed rooms of 6 beds, with concrete bases, a mattress and a couple of blankets, and each car had a room to themselves. There was a bathroom with 2 toilets and no showers between the 3 rooms in the block, some tables in the corridor outside for eating and only electricity for about 3 hours. We were given lunch here, mash potato and hot dogs....brilliant. After lunch it was back in the car and up to the nearby lagoon, which was fantastic. It was a huge acidic orange lake with patches of white salt, surrounded by beautiful mountains and complete with the flamingos. It involved climbing down a bit of a hill to get some pictures, which at that moment pretty tough and made us short of breath and made our heads pound, and as James was still struggling, he stayed at he top while I made the climb. After this it was back to the hostel for coffee, and a sleep for James! The rest of the evening was spent in our group of 12, having tea and then off for an early night (the power was off by 9!) to sleep off the altitude problems!
The next day we had a 6.00 wake up call, pancakes for breakfast and then on the road. We were driving through the stunning desert landscape again today. It really is fantastic when you are surrounded by mineral rich multicoloured scenery, with no one else in view, driving across vague sand tracks. In the morning we stopped in the middle of the desert to take some photos around the beautiful red mountains. We then headed to an area of rock formations, created by erosion by the wind these included the Arbol de Piedra, which now resembles a tree. The we drove through a really narrow, rock filled canyon, looking for an animal called the Pescacha, which resembles a rabbit/kangaroo! This was true off roading, and required some precise driving from Nacho, but it was fun and we managed to spot one of these animals, who posed perfectly on the rock next to the car! Next up we visited a series of four lagoons. The first was by far the most stunning, Laguna Honda. This was a salt lake in the valley, surrounded by beautiful colourful mountains and full of flamingos. We spent a good bit of time walking around and taking photos and by this point the head pounding was back. Unfortunately for those of us suffering with the altitude, we were going back up to 4900m, before dropping down for the night. After this we went to Laguna Chiarcota, which although pretty was nowhere near as dramatically beautiful as the last one, and when spoilt for beautiful views you can afford to be picky! Next was Laguna Hedionda which was a flamingo sanctuary, so there were literally hundreds of the beautiful animals. Now we like flamingos as much as the next person but really you would think there would be a limit of how many pictures you could take of them, apparently not! After everyone had finally finished snapping, we went to the fourth lagoon. Laguna Canapas, which again as pretty but lacking the brightly coloured mountains of some of the others. Here we stopped for lunch, some rice and tuna out the back of the van. Next up was Volcanic Ollague, a huge still smoking volcano, surrounded by lava formations. By this point however we both had pounding headaches and were more than happy to just sit on a rock and look at the volcano, rather than explore any further, and we were definitely not the only ones feeling like that. After this we drove across some big salt flats to end up at a random railway line in the middle of no where, which apparently linked the town of Uyuni to Chile and Argentina. The we were on to our last official stop of the day,a small town called. San Juan, home to only about 80 families who all make their livings farming llama and growing quinoa. We had a quick stop, mostly to be pushed into a shop. Then we were back on the road, this time through farmland to get to our hostel in the middle of nowhere. The next hostel was right on the edge of the salt flats and was better than the last in a few ways. Firstly it was only at 3500m altitude, we had our own twin room and there was not only showers, but they were good and hot (although we did have to pay about a £1 for the privilege). It as also made entirely of salt, which was interesting! On the evening during dinner we were actually given a bottle of wine, which was nice and quickly broke our no alcohol till we acclimatise rule, it was only one glass though! After dinner the full group was given a choice, up at 4 to see the sunrise on the salt flats, or up at 7.30. We wanted sleep but were out voted!
At 4.20ish, the latest we could get up for breakfast before leaving, we dragged ourselves up and into lots of layers. We bundled into the car and were driven out into the middle of the Salar de Uyuni. Our two cars were the only life we could see as we watched the sunrise over the endless salt planes. Today was spent on the salar, so after about an hour we were back in the car and on to our next destination. We were taken to an island in the middle of the salar, covered in cactus. From the top of this hill there was a stunning panoramic view of the salar sprawling in all directions, perfectly flat. We waited here quite along time as there were some serious photographers in our group. We then drove about 15 minutes across the salt to a position in the middle of nowhere with nobody else about but our 2 cars. Here we spent a good hour taking daft photos on the salt. The flat endless white salt providing the perfect backdrop for optical illusions! Then we drove on along the salar to the salt hotel, another building made of salt entirely, this time set out as a museum, with some salt sculptures inside. Then we drove on to the edge of the salar, where people were mining the salt. Apparently the mining the salt will never cause it to disappear as it regenerates at fairly high speed. This was the end of our time on the salar, it's an incredible place nothing quite prepares you for the sheer size of the salt flat,and the dazzling brightness of the salt Itself!
After leaving the salar, we were taken to colchani, where there was a craft market set up, and a room for us to have our lunch. Then we were driving onto Uyuni where the tour finished. In arriving in Uyuni, we were driven round the outskirts to reach an area called the train cemetery. The approach to here was crazy, that part of Uyuni was a mess, rubbish everywhere, falling down buildings, dirt track roads. Bolivia is a very poor place and this was a rude awakening! The train cemetery itself was as you would expect, an area outside town full of abandoned half dismantled trains. The surprising things were that these were fantastic old steam trains, left to ruin, and they had been converted into a playground for kids, complete with swings and seesaw. As well as glass, sharp metal, a railway line next door, safe as houses!
When we went into the centre of Uyuni to end the tour, we discovered it really is a bit of a mess, and we we pretty glad we only had to spend the afternoon there before jumping on the bus to La Paz. We said goodbye to all our group and exchanged details with some of the keen photographers so we could pinch some of their pictures, then went to find a way to entertain ourselves. There is really not much to do in Uyuni. We sat and had a drink, then we did some shopping and computer time and had some tea, exciting day! We were catching the overnight bus to la Paz, and had researched the best we could, as Bolivian roads and drivers are notoriously dodgy! So with everything crossed we boarded our bus. It felt like we didn't drive on a sealed road all night,and definitely that the bus had no suspension! But we got there safe and sound at 6.30am, having had a very small amount of sleep, due to how bumpy the roads were, we were physically off the seats more than once! I guess it shows how bad the buses were in South East Asia when this one wouldn't come close to making it into the worst 5 bus journeys we've had.
Our salt flats experience was brilliant, the scenery of the whole trip was stunning and we feel like we got a lot out of crossing into Bolivia this way. We were also pretty lucky with the driver it seems, all the research we did suggested that it didn't really matter which company you booked with, it was luck of the draw with the driver, and ours was good. We were also pretty lucky to have some Spanish speakers in the car, it meant we knew what was going on and we think it kept the driver from taking the mick! The other car in he group were not so lucky as their driver looked pretty constantly hungover, and actually fell asleep at the wheel at one point, luckily they woke him up and nothing bad happened to them. We are glad we changed our plans to visit Bolivia, but now we have to move quickly, as we start the Inca Trail In Peru on the 5th! At least while we are here we are getting acclimatised, but as we still get headaches when we walk for long, we are slightly dreading the walking part!

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