Uyuni Salt Flats

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April 12th 2015
Published: April 12th 2015
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Sarah (Friday 10th April): Right now we're in the middle of absolutely nowhere, drinking hot coffee and munching on sweet biscuits and I am wearing a llama cardigan which is keeping me really warm and very happy!

Going back to Wednesday killing time in La Paz before our nightbus, we went back to the Dutch restaurant for lunch and had a good feed followed by a good hour or so of people watching from our upstairs window seat and reading, escaping the crazy streets. We may have also had to order some hot chocolates to keep us going... (Nick's was actually a delicious hot milk with a chocolate bar melted in and we may have picked up some Dutch sweet waffles on our way out... to keep us going on our 3 day salt flat tour, of course).

Feeling suitably rested we went down the llama markets. Lots of lovely old ladies were offering me 'alpaca, alpaca' and in the end I couldn't resist, although I do now look like a gap year student! Overheard on the streets of La Paz (in an Aussie accent): "if I had unlimited funds, I could buy, like, so much crap". My sentiments exactly, there are lots of jumpers, gloves, bags, earrings that I could go to town on if that was the idea of our trip. However, the one jumper has sated my appetite for now.

We had booked our bus to Uyuni (where the Salt Flat tours leave from) but had yet to book our tour, with a view to getting on one when we arrived on our night bus. Eventually, anxiety got the better of us so we ducked in to one of the tourist agencies who confirmed they had space on a 3 day tour starting the next day for a price less than we were expecting so we booked on that and anxieties were alleviated.

After a bite of pizza and a trip back to the hostel to collect our bags and brush our teeth we set off to the bus station. We were pleasantly surprised with our bus which seemed fine and left on time at 9pm, due in to Uyuni at 8am the following day. After they'd served some food, everyone assumed the reclining position and the seats in front of us came down like a rollercoaster safety bar, jamming us in for the next 10 hours. Not the best night's sleep we'll ever have, especially since about half of the road from La Paz to Uyuni is dirt track but hey ho, we made it!

Feeling a bit groggy from the bus journey, we were pleased that we had our tour all booked in and didn't have to make any decisions or deal with people. Once we'd checked in with the tour company we had a couple of hours to kill so we grabbed some coffee, a bite to eat and stocked up on water rations for the next 3 days. We met with our four fellow passengers on the tour and luckily, no-one seemed too weird or annoying (and of course Nick and I are ideal companions whom no-one can find any fault with!). Our guide, Edwin, fine-tuned (changed the battery) of the 4x4 which was to be our transport for the trip and off we went.

The tour started at the 'Cemetery of Trains'. We had opted not to pay the additional £100 for an English speaking guide so unfortunately I can't really elaborate on why the cemetery exists, but I do know that they were used to export goods and now are used for grown adults to climb all over like a children's playground. This part of the tour is very close to Uyuni and the first stop for all the jeeps leaving at the same time on that day. Therefore, it was a bit crowded and we felt like we were back in the 'sausage machine' of tourists. We'd been away from the tourist traps for a few weeks now and felt a bit strange being surrounded by selfie-sticks once more.

Anyway, after some photos we were back in the 4x4 and joining in the wackie-races-style drive to the salt flats as the 4x4s left the cemetery of trains at a similar time. We arrived at the first stop on the salt flats and were frankly a bit disappointed. They looked like a load of dirty snow and again all of the 4x4s and tourists lined up and piled out, respectively. We were both stood wondering what all the fuss was about and what was so amazing about the salt flats. Nevertheless, we got out the camera and started snapping away. I did the customary 'jumping' photo, which Nick then also was keen to do, for completeness. The accompanying photo can be seen with smiles of delight as he achieves the perfect star jump, however, at that exact same moment, his brain is registering the terrible ripping sound which is coming from the seam in the crotch of his trousers, which was to soon wipe the smile from his otherwise delighted face. On further inspection, there was indeed a three-way tear going a short way down each leg seam and up the front to meet with the zip. This all happened at approximately 12 noon on the first day of a 3 day trip with very basic accommodation and no local amenities. Although considered, a needle and thread did not make the cut when it came to packing. TOP TIP: if it's reeeeeally small and might be reeeeeally useful - PACK IT!

We moved further in to the Salt Flats and were served a pretty crap lunch of some tough old meat**, rice and veggies boiled to with an inch of their lives. On top of our lack of enthusiasm for the mornings sights, the trouser ripping incident and very little sleep, we were not very happy campers!

We tried to turn those frowns upside down by using the plastic dinosaur provided to do some 'perspective' shots where the dinosaur is held in close range and the subject stands further back so that it looks like the dinosaur is attacking the subject. Our attempt looked like someone holding a dinosaur in front of a camera with someone else in the distance. Not the desired affect!

We spoke to Edwin (our guide) about the trouser predicament and he made convincing sounds that he could acquire the necessary tools that evening to repair Nick's one and only pair of trousers. That increased happiness levels a few points and we were back in the car heading to the centre of the salt flats. Now was the time to be seriously impressed. The white salt stretched for miles and miles around us (it no longer had the muddy colour of the edge of the salt flats). It formed hexagonal patterns all around and in the distance the mountains were reflected off the salt. The other cars had all dispersed and so we were now alone in the middle of a salty desert. We parked up and marvelled at how vast and white and spectacular it was. Trousergate was forgotten and Edwin set up some dinosaur shots that didn't look like a plastic toy dangled in front of a camera!

As we were marvelling at the scenery, Edwin was breaking patches of the salt crust and dipping his arms in to the water below. He pulled out the most perfect looking salt crystals: perfect cubes merged in to one big crystal. They were really beautiful and unbelievable to think that nature could produce something so perfect (in the eyes of someone who likes order and neatness and regular patterns). We did a few more 'jumping' shots (no more star jumps for Nick, however) and once again climbed in the 4x4, heading for Incahuasi Island.

The island appears in the middle of the flats out of nowhere and you can see enormous cacti dotted all over it. The 4x4s had converged here again, but not as many as at the start of the day. There was a really good 45 minute walk up to the top of the island amongst the cacti from where you could take in a 360 degree view of the salt flats. That was really amazing, as was the size of the cacti. They were ENORMOUS! I also saw another viscacha rabbit thing, which must have been born and will die on this small island in the middle of the salt flats.

Sun-kissed and suitably impressed with the afternoons sights we drove off the salt flats to our first nights accommodation, passing fields of quinoa on the way. Bolivians apparently like quinoa in everything...chocolate, beer, as a breakfast cereal, and it's a good job given the amount that they grow out here! We arrived at our 'salt hotel' (all the inner walls, beds etc are made of salt blocks) and quickly confirmed that we had requested the 'matrimonial suite' while our companions were shown to a 4-bed dorm. It was a bit of a cell and the choice of sand flooring left a lot to be desired but it was a bed and we were tired! We booked early places in the one hot shower, tried to dress without sand contamination of the socks and joined our companions for some tea/coffee and biscuits.

On joining them, they informed us that Edwin had told them that the hot drinks and biscuits was dinner. With there being two Spanish speaking amongst them, we had no reason to think otherwise and everybody joined in with a good old moan about the quality of the lunch and then subsequent lack of dinner. There was also further disappointment when requesting a needle and thread from the ladies of the hostel who quite literally laughed me out of the kitchen. Hmmm.

In keeping with the ups and downs of the day, Edwin came over to us and confirmed that dinner would be served in 30 or so minutes and also appeared with a needle and thread for me to get to work! I suppose his previous message regarding dinner was lost in translation and I learned my lesson not to ask too much of grumpy Bolivian women (grumpy unless they have a gringo in need to laugh at!).

Our two course dinner of veggie soup and roast chicken and chips subsequently arrived, accompanied by some beers bought from said grumpy Bolivians. The dinner, beers, chat and sewing all came together to end the day on a high with trousers mended, bellies full and impressive sights seen. The next day was to be a 7am brekkie, followed by trips to various lakes and rocks, which I will leave to Nick to describe. We are now at the end of that day in our very basic accommodation (6-bed dorm for us tonight), Nick is outside playing boules with our French and Argentinian companions and some sort of dinner is on its way!

Post writing clarification:

** on further discussion with our Spanish speaking companion, he told us that this meat was in fact llama. This made me sad but he also clarified that my jumper is alpaca, not llama (the main difference between the two being their destiny: meat (llama) or alpaca (jumpers for tourists))

Nick: After all of the adventures of the previous day, we both slept well enough in our basic but comfortable accommodation in the 'salt hotel'. Seven a.m. came around quickly enough, but with a good nights sleep in the bank, a cup of coffee down the hatch, a fully-functional pair of trousers to hand, we were ready for another day in remotest Bolivia. Less could be said of two of our colleagues, the Englishman and his Portuguese wife, who had reportedly been up all night on the toilet...we took pity on them and donated our remaining supplies of rehydration sachets and most of our Imodium, leftovers from my tummy bug in Brazil. They managed to soldier on, although only really participated minimally in the rest of the day's activities.

Whilst the trip to the salt flat was clearly the main selling point of the tour, there was much more still to be seen. I had been truly gobsmacked at the sheer vastness of the salt flat the previous day - following our entertaining photoshop in the centre, with nothing but an expanse of gleaming white plain in every direction, we had continued driving over to the other side, which had taken us a good half an hour or so, at a decent enough speed. It truly is immense. On leaving the salt flat, it had been another two hours of driving to reach our accommodation, through truly remote landscape which I have since seen described as 'cold desert': brown sand, rocks, and little else (aside from the fields of quinoa plants mentioned above, which must be hardy things indeed to survive in this harsh landscape). All said and done, we were starting our second day of the tour in a very remote region.

The day turned out to be just as busy as the previous one. Setting off at around in our 4x4 with our tour group, we soon found ourself at the first attraction, an area of craggy red rocks, volcanic I think (as Sarah describes above, the quick-fire Spanish of our guide was not easy to follow when it came to describing what we were seeing, although our new Argentinean friend, Facundo, with whom we were getting along very well, did a sterling job of translating as well as he could into English). We spent twenty minutes wandering around and clambering over the rocks before getting back into our trusty(ish) vehicle and moving on. In what would turn out to be a consistent feature of the trip, our guide Edwin insisted on playing music at all times that we were driving, which was sullied only by the fact that he liked to crank the volume (and the bass) up to the maximum, and that he liked to listen to the opening ten seconds or so before skipping to the next song! A shortlist of Spanish songs made the cut and were played in their entirety...the upshot of this approach being that we got to enjoy listening to the five or so of Edwin's favourites so many times that by the end of the trip we were all very familiar with them! This became a bit of a running joke amongst the group, and the singular attempt to request a change in the music simply managed to increase the pan-pipe content. Well, when in Rome...

The next stop of the day was a mountain lake, the name of which eludes me. The first thing we saw was a pair of hawk-like birds trying to get hold of a pair of gull-like chicks, presumably for a spot of brekkie...thankfully Mum and Dad Gull had other ideas and angrily chased away the birds of prey, despite the considerable size difference. There were also a handful of flamingos paddling around the (slightly fetid smelling) shallows, and we duly took a few snaps before heading on to the next location, an 'Eco Hotel' located at a different lake. Here, too, we got to see a number of flamingos, a few more this time. At the risk of sounding snobby, we weren't too convinced about the credentials of the so-called Eco Hotel: it was more of a ramshackle few half-built buildings, and given the very remote location I don't think anyone would ever actually stay there. Rather, it served as a focal point for the many different tour groups to stop for lunch, which was served out of the back of the vehicle. Today's fare was much improved our previous lunch, consisting of some cold fried chicken escalope-type bits, some pasta, and the obligatory mixed veggies, boiled to within an inch of their lives (something we were glad about to a degree, given the prevalence of gastric bugs we were hearing about). Mindful of previous incidents, we were also careful to the point of paranoia about not handling anything remotely close to our infected colleagues! After lunch, we ambled by the lakeside and watched the flamingos slurping up algae and whatever else from the water.

With lunch dispatched, it was back in the 4x4 for another hour or so of cross country driving. By this point, the 'road' had all but disappeared completely and things were getting decidedly bumpy, but our vehicle seems to handle it fine, whilst Edwin was evidently a capable driver and used to the conditions. Shortly after setting out, we saw a desert fox and stopped to take some pictures. He (she?) was clearly used to the vehicles and people, however, and when our driver got our to throw it the remainders of our fried chicken, it was clear why! Not exactly contingent with the principles of Eco-tourism, but I suspect the fox didn't mind! Shortly after, we spotted another fox, and with all the chicken now gone this one ended up with the remainder of our pasta, with which it seemed decidedly unimpressed...

During the afternoon we passed through a desert region, stopping to take a few photos. It is tricky to articulate all of the remote landscapes we were passing through, suffice to say that they were truly barren, daunting and impressive. Another drive, and another stop, this time at some more volcanic rocks - again, it sounds unimpressive when written as such, but the towering structures, despite half of them being covered in clambering tourists, were imposing to say the least and more so in the context of the surrounding desert. The final stop of the day, though, was by far the most impressive: 'Lago Colorado', a large lake which was bright red in colour and populated by hundreds of flamingos. Whilst we had seen a handful of these birds at the previous lakes, this was on a different scale altogether, and mightily impressive. The weather, whilst not quite the glorious sunshine of the previous day, had been pretty good so far but was not starting to set in a bit, with a strong, cold breeze developing, but we stuck around to get a good look at the lakes do the birds through our handy binoculars (avid readers will recall that these were picked up previously in El Calafate). Amongst the vast scattering of birds, we we able to see a 'crèche' area with all of the juvenile flamingos, grey in colour, being looked after by a few adults. The red colour of the lake was due to the type of algae growing in it, and it was consumption of this that gave the flamingos their pink colour, apparently.

By this time, we were getting into the late afternoon and with one last look at the spectacular red lake we were driven off to our accommodation for the evening, located nearby. It was basic indeed but more than enough for our needs, and this time we would be hunkering down in a dorm with the rest of our group. With a few hours to relax, Sarah set about writing her above blog entry, whilst I played a game of 'boules' using the ample supply of stones and a bottle cap as the jack. My opponents were Facundo, the Argentinean, and Nicolas, a very genial bloke from France. No prizes for guessing who won by a comfortable margin! I did, however, come out on top against Facundo and henceforth retained a modicum of national pride! Halfway through, an Italian tv crew turned up and piled into the same accommodation block in which we were staying; they instantly unpacked a mountain of editing gear and spent the remainder of the evening working on a documentary about Bolivia (it turned out). Given that I'd seen their cameraman filming the three of us playing our ad-hoc game of boules, you never know, I may be famous in Italy by the time you read this!

The game finished as the dark was setting in, and our hands were numb - with a desert climate, the nights were very cold indeed. Happily, we were soon served up a hot bowl of soup and a plate of veggie spaghetti bolognese which soon restored us to normal temperature. Even better, our guide Edwin appeared with a bottle of red wine which, added to the one we'd acquired earlier from a convenient campsite shop, made for a good rest of the evening chatting with our new friends. With the electricity disappearing shortly after dinner, the last couple of hours were by torchlight, which made things all the more cosier. At ten o' clock, tired from another full day and with a very early morning on the cards (four-thirty in the morning - urgh), we all went to bed.

The alarm rang all too soon, and with the electricity still out we blearily got dressed in the dark and by torchlight. Breakfast was some cold pancakes with (of course) dulce de leche, a bit hardcore on the stomach at that time of day, even for someone with a sweet-tooth such as me. With no showers available, it was a splash of cold water on the face, a quick brush of the teeth, and out the door for our final day. The many hours of travelling and lack of sleep was beginning to tell on people and the mood in the car was a bit subdued, as might be expected at that time - of course, this didn't prevent Edwin from blasting out his Latin music at top volume, which I suppose did at least serve to wake everyone up! The car was being driven with particular gusto this morning, and we took the ups, downs and corners with some speed; as a result, following the sickly sweet brekkie, my stomach was doing some impressive manoeuvres of its own! Fortunately, our next stop was to be, for me, one of the most impressive of the trip. We pulled up next to what appeared to be a thick bank of fog, but getting out of the car the first thing we heard was a roaring, gushing sound, and it turned out we were stood next to a collection of geysers. As ever, the photos that we took cannot do it justice, but it was simply amazing. As we ambled around, we were able to walk right up to the unprotected edge of these huge holes in the ground which were belching out thick plumes of smoke. Inside, it was possible to see the bubbling clay-like liquid, spitting out. Apparently the geysers result from the interconnected subterranean system between two local volcanoes. We couldn't believe that people were allowed to stand right next to the open geysers, which were easily large and deep enough for someone to be in serious bother if they fell in...still, it made for impressive viewing and no-one did fall in! We all agreed that the geysers had been a real highlight of the trip, although it was good to leave behind the overpowering stench of sulphur!

A short time later, we found ourselves at a hot spring, and people were invited to jump into their swimming gear and take a dip in the hot water. Sarah duly obliged and had a good half an hour splashing around and warming up; I elected to give it a miss, and ambled round the area chatting with Facundo, although given the cold weather and lack of a shower over the previous 36 hours or so, I felt a bit jealous afterwards when Sarah got back in the car looking cleaner and warmer than I felt!

For our final day, that was pretty much it. We stopped by one more lake, which was reportedly meant to be coloured green due to the high concentration of copper, but apparently this phenomenon was more evident during the afternoon when the water had warmed up; for us, this would be too late as we had a very long drive ahead of us to get back to Uyuni. Indeed, we spent the next seven hours on the bone-juddering roads making our way back, with the omnipresent thumping music for company, stopping only for a brief lunch (it was pretty grim, frankly) and for one last sight of some volcanic rocks - impressive as they are, it was fair to say by this point we'd had our fill of rocks! It was a long drive after the early morning, and the efforts of the previous day's were beginning to show on our poor guide, who was starting to act a bit, well, flaky. It's worth remembering that we were all pretty done in ourselves, and whilst we had spent some time in the evenings eating and relaxing, he had been prepping food, maintaining the vehicle and so on. Furthermore, Facundo had disclosed to us earlier that our guide had mentioned that, despite the many hours of driving, he would be straight out on another three day tour the very next day. In short, no work means no pay and he can't afford to take a break (although there were also some hints that he had been up late with the other drivers over the previous evenings, which, if so, won't have helped...). As the long drive progressed, he started to drive more and more slowly - probably a good thing on balance - and he kept stopping to pour water over his head, and stuffing more and more coca leaves into his cheek to pep himself up. At one point he even asked Facundo if he would drive, an offer he quite correctly politely refused. All in all, it made for a slightly tense atmosphere over the last couple of hours of the drive back. Eventually, however, we rolled into Uyuni.

We had a couple of hours to kill before our night us picked us up, so, along with Facundo and Nicolas, we grabbed a well earned pizza and a couple of well-earned beers, before making our way to the bus company's office. The night bus back to La Paz was decidedly more comfortable than the previous one, and after the very long day both of us slept as soundly as might be expected. When we woke up, it was Sunday morning and we were pulling into the city. It was a short walk to our hostel, the very same at which we'd stayed before our trip to the desert, and checking into our room, compared it the conditions of the last few days, it felt like we were staying in the Hilton!

Phew - what a long blog entry, which I think goes to show how much we have crammed into the last few days! Now, we are both enjoying having a lazy day in our hostel room, relaxing and recovering. As I write this, there is a brass band racket coming in through the open window, and looking out we can see the very same parade that welcomed us to La Paz a week or so ago; a very apt symmetry, perhaps, on what is to be our last full day here. Tomorrow morning will be up early once more, to get to the airport and fly to our final country in South America, Peru. We've both enjoyed Bolivia very much, although it can can be an exhausting place and I suspect we are both ready to move on to pastures new. We will need to spend the next couple of days getting our energies back, however, because on Wednesday we will be heading into the Amazon Rainforest!

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12th April 2015
Pleased as punch with her new llama top!

Loving the gorgeous cardigan Sarah. Looks too posh to be callefd cardi!!XX
12th April 2015
Pleased as punch with her new llama top!

Lovely and warm!
Thanks Jean - the llama woollies are very good at keeping cold-blooded people like us very warm! Wish I could send you back a suitcase full! Lots of love, Sarah xxx

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