It was another early start, for a three-day trip overland through the Salt Flats to Uyuni in Bolivia. This time it was us who weren't ready - I had misunderstood the instructions at the tour company and thought that we were being picked up at 7.30 in order for us to have breakfast first. So we were in the dining room just about to start breakfast when the van turned up. We grabbed as much food as was practicable and made a frantic and harried dash for the door. Then at 7.30, once we'd picked up all the other passengers, we pulled into a breakfast spot. Oops, I'm clearly missing some of the finer points of the Spanish language! So we had a more leisurely second breakfast with our new fellow travellers.
There were 12 of us in total, divided into two four-wheel drives. In our van were the Londoners: Christy and Matt, and Tim; and Keavan from Dublin. The other vehicle had four Dutch girls, who had just finished a research trip in the South of Chile as part of their university studies, and a father and daughter from Brazil, where in a happy coincidence, the father was originally
from Holland. Apart from the Brazilian/ Dutch father, Rod and I were the golden oldies on tour!
We had an amazing few days, lots of fun with our fellow travellers and we were treated to some of the most amazing and stunning scenery imaginable. Our driver for the next few days was Nelson, solely a Spanish speaker, and while Keaven and Christy understood a little bit of Spanish, I was the main translator. Luckily the scenery spoke for itself!
On the first day our first little adventure was leaving Chile and entering into Bolivia. We had mountains of forms to fill in, however when we reached the Bolivian border the immigration and customs office was really just a shack in the middle of the desert and the whole thing felt very casual. When he saw my passport, the official just said, "Hello New Zealand!", stamped my passport and waved me out.
For most of the trip we were in the National Park. The scenery is out of this world with the most amazing colours - endless azure blue sky, crisp snow-capped mountains and the desert itself with colours and vegetation ranging from brown to green to purple.
It was all incredibly dramatic. We visited a number of lakes - Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde, and it was interesting that although it was incredibly cold, while some of the lakes were frozen, others didn't freeze at all because of the sulphur levels and these are where we found the flamingos. What an amazing sight, the endless view of hundreds of pink flamingos at Laguna Colorado. We also visited the Piedras de Arboles, tree forest, made famous by a painting by Salvador Dali, and went to nearly 5,000 metres to see bubbling mud geysers. Not surprisingly I felt quite light headed at that height, but chewed my coca candies which really did seem to help with the altitude.
We also stopped at some hot pools which were around 35 degrees, so like a hot bath. I only put my hand in, I couldn't imagine taking off my clothes in that weather, but I admit I was pretty tempted with such a gorgeous outlook.
Our first night was spent at a very rustic lodge not far from the Laguna Colorado. Actually "rustic" is giving it a few airs and graces it definitely didn't have - it was very basic.
All six of us slept in a simple dorm-room, which to our amusement had princess blankets more suited to a six-year old girl, however all of us in one room certainly helped with some heating. We had been warned it would get to -15 degrees and to be prepared. It was definitely cold, however I was actually quite warm in the night. Then again I slept in long johns, pyjama bottoms, two pairs of socks, a thermal top, a wool t-shirt, a long-sleeved top, a fleece hat, and a woollen cardigan inside my silk sleeping bag liner, in a rented sleeping bag with three blankets.
Despite feeling like we were in the middle of absolutely nowhere there were a number of these rustic hotels around, and three little shops selling spirits and red wine and candy. We bought a very cheap bottle of red wine for 36 Bolivianos, about $AU6, which wasn’t actually too bad. Nelson also gave us a bottle of wine which we drank on our second night, unfortunately not quite as tasty, unless you like your wine to taste like perfume.
The second day was a lot more driving. We drove through tiny little villages
seemingly in the middle of nowhere, all the houses made with stone. We saw plenty of llamas and a few vicunas too. Llamas have a lot more wool and apparently have owners while vicunas are a type of llama-like animal with a lot less hair and don’t have owners according to Nelson. Lunch was in a little village called Alto and included a mystery meat which tasted a little bit like beef, but wasn't, although I thought it was quite tasty. We later discovered it was llama meat.
On our second night we stayed at a Salt Hotel next to the Uyuni Salt Flats. The entire hotel was made from Salt bricks and even the dining room had chairs and tables made from salt. It was quite warm, and definitely a step up from the previous night’s accommodation. Once again we were all six in the dorm room, but no princess blankets this time round. My only complaint was that for a hostel that could sleep around 60 or 70 people there were only 2 toilets and 1 shower.
On our last day we visited "Fish Island" in the middle of the famous Salt Flats. I have no
idea why it is called fish island, it was a rocky mini-mountain covered with cacti. Apparently they only grow one centimetre per year, and given many of them were two or three metres high, they must've been hundreds of years old.
The Salt Flats themselves were really quite incredible, for starters it's huge. It takes about 2 hours to drive from one side to the other, so as far as the eye can see there is bright white salt and brilliant blue sky, with the occasional four-wheel drive flying by in the distance. I couldn't resist tasting the ground, and it was unsurprisingly very salty! We had lots of fun taking photos in the salt. Nelson was in his element, obviously having done this many times before, and acted as art director and photographer for us. We are visiting in the winter, which is the dry season, however apparently in the summer when it rains the plains are completely flooded. We drove out to where a small part of the plains are still flooded and it was gorgeous, the mountains mirrored in the water.
Our three days whizzed past, and all too soon we were being dropped off
in Uyuni, a dusty and cold little town on the edge of the Salar. It didn't seem to have much going for it, but then Rod and I found a delicious little pizza restaurant which was toasty warm and had some really nice red wine. It was the perfect end to a fantastic experience.
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