Monday, August 15, 2011

Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats of Uyuni) - Bolivia

We took the decision to make the six hour bus ride North West to Uyuni towards the Salar (salt flats) where we would have the opportunity to visit the lagoons and other sights closer to the Chilean border.  We were in awe of the picturesque scenery throughout the journey.  Stopping at a remote town in the hills for a comfort break, some passengers disembarked and were replaced by others including a woman with a parrot.  The stone built houses appeared stacked upon each other like Duplo bricks and the shape of the town dictated by the contours of the mountain which served as an impressive backdrop.  We had a quick walk around the perimeter of the town and looked for a toilet of which there was none.  Instead the done thing was to disappear behind a bank of rubble and relieve yourself amongst heaps upon heaps of rubbish and the accumulated waste of the village and other passers through.  It was unpleasant and unhygienic to say the least yet there were children and animals playing and rummaging nearby.  Continuing the journey we marvelled again at the sights whizzing past our bus window and marvelled just as much at the old man who appeared to be able to sleep standing up for the short time he hitched a ride.   

A roadside village on our route

Parrot on the bus

The view of the town where we stopped off

A boy and his dog amongst some rubbish

The town of Uyuni wasn’t too different from Tupiza, small but with lots of tourist heavy Italian restaurants along with a couple that were more authentic.  Most of the activity was congregated around the town’s bus station from where tours were booked, departed from and returned to.  The hostel we stayed in was the lovely ‘Hotel Kory Wasy’ which had the friendliest staff and more care had gone into the decor than anywhere we had to encountered in Bolivia to date.  The town was cold and the hotel was no exception but they had a log fire downstairs to warm the cockles, comfortable bedding and they allowed us to use the kitchen to make hot water bottles. 

We bought some llama wool socks and Kate bought a gregariously coloured jacket in order to keep the cold off for when we embarked on our tour the next morning.  Along with four others we would be sharing a jeep for a three day and two night tour of the surrounding area that came in at eight hundred bolivianos per head or about seventy five pound each for the guide, car, food, drink and accommodation.  It would have been preferential to do more shopping around but we really needed to depart the next day and this company had good reviews from a person just returning and apparently all the sights should be able to be viewed as the weather was just about holding up.

Our hostel in Uyuni

We set out relatively late at 10:30 am with our group of six in a jeep driven by our non-English speaking guide.  The first stop was a ‘Train Cemetery’, not precisely what we had come for but a site of some interest none the less.  This was a plot of land where trains had literally been dumped to rust and locals had tagged and sprayed messages all over the wrecks.  It was busy with many other tourists beginning their tours and we were all treating the old trains like a playground, clambering on top and messing around in attempts to get good photographs and impress newly assigned group members.  It wasn’t long until we were all sat back in the jeep making our way towards the salt flat and getting to know our compatriots for the next few days a little better.  Our group consisted of a Swiss, an Argentinean, two French, Kate and myself.  We all got on really well from the start and without going into too much detail it seemed to be due to the fact that we all shared a similar sense of humour and had a lot in common.  For some reason the first stop was on the edge of the Salar (the salt flat) at a village that appeared to be integrated with the salt.  There were men shovelling salt into piles and many of the buildings were made from the stuff.  There were also people selling artefacts and souvenirs made of salt amongst some of the other usual touristy knick knacks you tend to see quite a lot here.  I think the only purchase that our group made was Chiro’s set of dice made of salt which he had plans for later.

Messing around at the train cemetery

Working with the salt

Mario our driver took the jeep over the dodgy, dusty roads until the dirt turned into salt in a sudden transition.  We drove miles over a totally white arid landscape which could have been snow until we reached a hotel on the flat (not so ethically sound as waste from the staff and guests pollutes the area) which was okay but of no real significance other than that it was made in the most part from salt, as would our own building that evening.  Following this we drove until we found a place to stop away from civilisation where the salt literally went on as far as the eye could see in all directions.  Amongst the flat white icing there were salt mountainettes which had been dug in order to dry it out before they could use it as building materials.  The never ending salt flat made a great opportunity for some funny perspective photographs and Mario took a couple of great photographs of us all in a jump shot and making a star on the ground.  It was great hanging out in this completely alien landscape and fun messing around with everyone.  We couldn’t stay forever though and dotting the horizon was our next stop of Isla de Pesca, so named for resembling a fish belly.  It was here that we had our llama meat lunch which was totally delicious if a little disconcerting as we were being overlooked by llamas whilst we ate it.  It was possible to walk around the island which was home to hundreds of cacti of all shapes and sizes, not all of them comical.  It was quite a steep climb to the top, we were still at quite some altitude but the views were worth it.

Kate enjoying more than her RDA of salt

The not so ethical salt hotel

The gang on the salt flat

A cool star effect on the salt

The friendly llama on Isla de Pesca

With some of the cacti on Isla de Pesca

The building slept in that night was a basic house broken into dorms where the beds and brickwork were made from the surrounding materials i.e. salt.  The salar was a cold place, especially so after dark and the building’s insulation was poor.  Fortunately the staff were able to heat some water up for the blessed hot water bottles that evening!  Before bed we were served tea and a dinner of soup, chicken and potatoes, before and after which we played some games with Chiro the Argentine’s salty dice followed by a card game that was new to us along with our contribution of mafia versus civilians.  It was what life must have been like before television and even radio and it was brilliant to find new games from around the world to keep each other entertained.  We were in bed at a reasonable hour in order to be ready for our early start at around six the next morning. 
Round the salty table for tea and games

Joined by a staff member's son for card games

Sunrise over the salar was spectacular, the sun reflected off the ground as though it were a lake and we were soon immersed in daylight and loading up the jeep.  We set off a little later than planned as our guide Mario had spent the early hours of the morning rescuing tourists whose jeep had broken down and had been left stranded in the salt desert from four pm until two in the morning which can’t have been much fun for them.  Off on some form of road again we left the salar and passed llama after llama, stopping at a shop to buy some supplies for the afternoon and evening (including some cheap rum to warm the cockles).  From the dusty village where we stocked up it was possible to walk to a pre-Inca burial site where mummified remains lay within mounds of rock.  It was eerie peering into these small caverns not really knowing what assembly of bones lay strewn within and with what artefacts.  A lunch stop in another remote village was followed by more driving until we reached the ‘Valley of Rocks’, an oasis of upright stone structures in an otherwise featureless desert landscape like a kind of ghost town, long forgotten.  It also served as one of nature’s playgrounds; we explored and climbed up and around the rocks all the while getting pounded by torrents of wind.  It was tough going being outside in this weather, after all it had been generations of this wind and the grit it carried which had mangled and mutated these stone giants into their current forms.

Sunrise over the Salar

Thomas kicking his salty bed

Back in the jeep

Charles, Kate and Gaëlle on the jeep

The mummified pre-Inca remains

The burial site, many of the stones containing remains

Lunch stop

Yours truly on top of the world in the Valley of Rocks

The view from the top of the rocks

We were then on the receiving end of some bad news.  As was always the risk, the weather had taken a turn for the worst and the journey to the hostel that we had originally been scheduled to stay at that evening was deemed too much of a risk to attempt with the onset of ice and snow in the region and driving back in the dark would have been a bad idea should there be any issues requiring us to turn aroun.  Instead there was a backup plan to stay at a hostel nearby, yet we all made a pact to arise at the ungodly hour of four thirty am the next day in order to squeeze in all the activities we had originally planned should the weather let up.  The hostel that evening was again very basic but made for some more great bonding opportunities.  The weather was more of a problem for those on this tour who had been planning to finish by crossing the border to Chile, flights had been booked and their plans were now requiring a rewrite.

The hostel that evening

After another chilly night we were all fed and ready to go by four thirty in various states of consciousness.  Mario let us stick our own music on in the car which was a great uplift, yet the news wasn’t any better.  The lagoons closest to the Chilean border, Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) and the Laguna Cinco Colores (five colour lagoon) were definitely out of bounds having been perfectly accessible three days prior, testament to the fickle conditions of the region.  There was nothing more we could do, Mario explained the risks and the reasoning and we had to swallow the pill.  It was however still possible to visit the Laguna Colorada, a scenic reserve yet as a reserve it would have been necessary to pay an additional sum which wasn’t something any of us were particularly keen to do.  We were able to take photos from a distance and had timed it as such that we were at the lagoon in time for sunrise.  My toes were freezing by the time I had finished taking photographs and having had my photograph taken as the sun lit up the landscape.  As a consolation we then headed to an area where it was sometimes possible to view flamingos.  The success of this was again in the lap of the gods and again they were against us.  Yet whilst there wasn’t a flamingo in sight we were able to enjoy the landscape again which appeared to be a mass of flamingo poo and frozen water surrounding a lake.

Sunrise at Laguna Colorada

Kate jump shot at the Lagoon

The beautiful flamingo poo lake

Alas, we had arrived back in the town of Uyuni with the only remaining sightseeing option being a geothermal heated swimming pool that we would have had to pay extra for, no thanks.  We ate our lunch near the tour group office and had a group photo in front of the jeep before heading our separate ways.  Luck had it that we didn’t get to see all the additional things that we had hoped to see by taking the trip from Uyuni and start at the salt flats rather than taking the trip from Tupiza and finish at them.  Although the trips limitations were extremely frustrating I wouldn’t change a thing owing to the quality of the company we had kept over the three days.  There were some great times with the gang and hopefully many of us will stay in touch or even have an opportunity to meet up later in our trips at some point.  Our new French friend Gaelle would also be travelling to Potosi, officially the highest inhabited town in the world at over four thousand meters above sea level so we booked our bus tickets out for the next day and Kate and I went back to our familiar territory of the Hotel Kory Wasy where it was possible to have our first well needed shower in three days.

The gang

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