We got the bus to Salta the next morning, with a change in a place called Posadas, and the buses seemed surprisingly good, showing a variety of random films to keep mr fidget occupied for most of the way, but I hadn't bargained on sitting right by the roasting hot radiator all night, sticking to the leather seats and barely getting any sleep! We arrived in Salta early the next morning, checked straight into our hostel intending on getting some sleep and watching films all day, but ended up going out for an explore of the city. There wasn't really much to see after we had taken a few pictures of the San Francisco church, so we sat down in a little corner cafe and ordered the Argentinian speciality, Empanadas. They were amazing, and after three each, Snellers went up and ordered eight more, which probably made us the biggest spenders the place had ever had
! Back at the hostel we watched Ireland v Croatia in the "lounge" (a freezing patio with deckchairs) with an Irish guy from the hostel. After more football and a few beers, the Irish guy and a Canadian girl from our room had managed to convince us to catch the night bus to Tupiza with them at 12 that night. But by the time we had cooked and ate dinner I had fell asleep on the bottom bunk and Snellers had to go out and explain that we would be waiting until the next day!
Ideally we wanted to travel to Tupiza during the day so we didn't waste another day in Argentina when we wanted to get to Bolivia, however the England match obviously took precedence and by the time it had finished the next bus was the 12 midnight bus we missed the previous night. This meant we had to hang around in the cold tv room (we were kicked out of our room at lunchtime) for another 9 or so hours, watching a couple of rubbish films, chatting to some randoms and wishing the time away. Eventually it was time to leave, and we got on the very dodgy bus with another few backpackers heading to the salt flats as well. The bus had no leg room, broken seats and another ridiculously hot radiator right by my feet so again not the best night sleep. Arriving in the border town of la Quiaca, it was around 6a.m and very very cold. We didn't really have a plan from there to cross the border, so I sent Snellers off to chat to the other backpackers that were hanging about. They told us that the border didn't open until 8, so there was no point heading there yet, but after a bit of confusion, we learned it actually was open already and so tagged along with the other 4 guys in a taxi to the border control. Getting through was relatively quick, and we were crossing the bridge into Bolivia in no time, into the border town of Villazon. The difference when walking from Argentina into Bolivia was amazing, it was just immediately obvious how poor a country Bolivia is
. The streets were like rubble, buildings run down, women were everywhere opening up market stalls along the street wearing traditional Bolivian dress (lots of skirts, some sort of patterned llama wool jumper and hair in two really long plaits decorated with ribbons). Three of the guys had left us to find the train up to Uyuni, whereas Duncan, a Scottish guy meeting his brother in Tupiza, stayed with us so we could split a taxi rather than getting a rickety old bus. Duncan was lovely and could speak pretty good Spanish which was definitely an advantage to us. We changed our pesos for bolivianos and wandered up the street to look for a taxi. Halfway to the taxi rank we bumped into the other three guys, who had arrived at the train station to find it closed, and didn't take much persuading to change their plans and get a taxi to Tupiza with us.
The taxi was a bit of a tight squeeze for 6, but at 2 pounds each for an hour journey was such a bargain, especially not being used to the cheapness of Bolivia at this stage. Our new friends introduced themselves as Ab and Martin ("Tinos") from Holland, and Jan from Switzerland. Ab and Jan had met at Spanish classes in Buenos Aires and had been joined by Tinos who was Ab's friend from home. Handily they spoke to each other in english as it was their best common language, and their spanish was also really good, leaving me and Snellers as the two losers that couldn't understand anything the locals said
. Before long we were all napping in the car, waking up in Tupiza having been dropped right outside our hostel. We had a room booked, and the others decided to join and booked in for the night. Duncan's brother Robbie was to arrive in Tupiza early the next day, so we arranged to join up with those two to do the salt flat tour as a four. The other guys had originally planned to do the tour the following day, but after some money disasters in the town with no working cash points, decided to come with us as well making us a 7. Later that day me and Snellers went to a small corner shop and purchased 40 pounds worth of alpaca clothing, i.e gloves, hats, scarves and brightly coloured wooly jumpers to try and combat the cold we had been warned about at the salt flats! That evening, we all went out for a pizza and I broached the idea of horse trekking the next day to fill in the day before the tour, which wasn't immediately popular but by the end of the night everyone had been talked around and we all booked a trip for 3 the next afternoon, after Holland had played Germany in the euros (all three europeans were massive football fans and spent hours chatting about players past and present with Snellers as he ripped them for holland losing to Denmark the previous week). Next morning however they were less than enthusiastic after discovering that holland actually played at 3pm, but we all headed out on the tour anyway (which I'm not sure would've happened had it been England we were missing!). Duncan's brother Robbie had arrived in Tupiza early that morning and joined us on the tour. He was a hilarious scotsman with an ever so slightly intimidating CV (having taken a year off from his medical degree to study for another science degree!). Waiting for us at the stables were a variety of small calm horses, plus two big boys pacing around angrily and chewing at everything in sight. Three guesses which horse I was put on being the shortest person, the only girl and the one that wasn't a massive fan of horses
! My horse was a good head taller horse everyone else's, which they all found hilarious, especially when he took off trotting first, having to be at the front of the queue right behind the guide. Before long Ab had caught me up on his donkey, and we went pretty far ahead while the others all dawdled at the back with Snellers and his lazy beast bringing up the rear. Being bolivia, we were just plonked on the animals without being told how to control them, despite telling the guide we were all novices, which was a bit scary! We trotted in a line along a railway line before turning into a country track, which led up to some of the most amazing scenery, with big canyons of red rocks, blue sky and the odd cactus. It was genuinely like being in some sort of wild west movie, we felt like real gauchos! The trek was to last three hours, and after about an hour it definitely started to get a bit uncomfortable! We eventually got off the horses at the bottom of a big canyon and had a break, although I think my horse was more in need of a drink than me after heaving me around for the last hour and a half. All too soon it was time to get back in the saddle and head back the way we came. My horse was not a fan of getting taken over by others, which was a shame as the boys were getting bored of sitting and trotting, and were all urging their horses on to try and beat each other to the front of the line. Every time someone went past me, the horse started trying to run to out do them before I pulled the reins back to stop him, definitely not a fan of the running - it felt like you were going to fall off every step, and me being on the stallion it was a lot higher to fall from! The whole way back he kept trying to jog and I was having none of it (he could barely walk without tripping over stones never mind run!) By the time we were almost back at the stables we were going through rivers and all sorts, and the horses obviously knew they were nearly back home and all started running. With nothing I could do to stop him, i just had to cling on with one hand to the reins and the other to the saddle to stop myself sliding off, genuinely one of the most terrifying experiences so far
. Naturally the boys all thought it was hilarious. Definitely not horse riding again in the near future thats for sure.
That night we all went out again for a really cheap meal (steak and a beer for 3 pounds!) before getting an early night before getting up early for the tour the following morning.
The Salar de Uyuni tour
And so began possibly out best four days of the trip so far!
We left the hostel by 8a.m, split into two jeeps, the five boys in one, with me and Snellers put in the other jeep with a nerdy Slovenian couple which we thought could be just as much fun, but in hindsight couldn't have been more wrong, as they were only really interested in speaking amongst themselves, otherwise sitting in silence dressed up in their matching North Face gear taking photos of everything we passed with a very professional looking camera! Our guide seemed quiet too, he didn't speak English but even so did not make much of an effort even in Spanish, and we also had Maria the cook in the front, nicknamed Maria the feeder as she continuously passed back Oreos, Lollies and crackers for us all. The one saving grace of being in tne boring car
! So, we set off in the jeep across the bumpy bolivian roads, driving for around two hours before arriving at our first stop. This was a lookout point, with an Incredible view over canyons lined with red rocks and cacti. The landscape was very dry as we got back in the jeep and continued climbing higher and higher, with not a tree in sight other than cacti and lots of rocky hills not to mention narrow roads with sheer drops to the side. Having heard dodgy things about a lot of the salt tour companies we had gone towards the top end of the price scale, even so it only cost us 100 pounds for four days three nights everything included. This was well worth doing after reading and hearing horror stories about some of the drivers, falling asleep at the wheel, drink driving and picking up random Bolivian hitchhikers! Both our guides were really professional, seeming to easily navigate the horrible tracks as we all banged around in the back. Next we stopped at a tiny run down village for lunch ( an incredible buffet a la Maria) full of falling down brick houses and barely a person in sight, and then on to a gorgeous landscape of frozen rivers twisting around grass banks, with Bolivia's only active volcano in the background making for some amazing photos. We hopped back in the car and drove to completely abandoned old town, with remains of brick houses and churches. There we wandered around for a bit, passing lots of little squirrel like animals but not much else, quite creepy really. This was the first point I really felt the altitude, as we had been warned of altitude sickness due to travelling to heights up to 5000m above sea level. Although we had acclimatised slightly in Tupiza, still a high town, here we could feel the shortness of breath, and I was getting a slight headache already. The locals combat this by chewing on coca leaves, which is the plant used to make cocaine! The leaves taste slightly bitter, and you have to keep them in the side of your cheek rather than swallowing them
. Back in the car, me and Snellers took an altitude tablet and a handful of the leaves, which I found horrendous but Snellers actually enjoyed, chomping through almost half a bagful before the trip was over!! We drove for another few hours (most of this first day was driving to get a lot out of the way!), past some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen, red deserts, llamas, snow capped mountains, clear blue skies. It rivalled New Zealand for beauty already, I think due to the pure isolation, it was as if we were the only 7 people there which was an amazing feeling. That night we stayed in a tiny village hostel, which consisted of a couple of dorm rooms, and a common area with one table and chairs. As night fell the temperature dropped from pretty cold, to absolutely freezing. As we sat around playing cards in around three layers of jumpers waiting for dinner, we sipped on whiskey purchased jointly in Tupiza to keep warm, which did the trick to an extent, but getting into bed we really felt the cold. I think I wore around four layers, two pairs of socks and slept in two sleeping bags under three blankets, but still shivered until eventually getting to sleep.
We were awoken at 6.30, all of us bleary eyed after a cold, uncomfortable nights sleep, and after breakfast went outside to load all our bags into the jeep again. Outside in the morning air the cold really hit us, everything was frozen over and we couldn't wait to get inside the car for a little bit of warmth
! First stop was the "Laguna Verde" or green lake, which was a gorgeous emerald colour set against the bluest sky I've ever seen, with a big snow capped mountain in the background. We got out of the car for photos, but it was genuinely so cold that we could only run out, get a few shots and get back in the car. I've never felt cold like it, you couldn't be outside in it for more than a few minutes, and that was with layers of our new purchases on! After the lake we drove for a good while before stopping at the thermal pools, where we had a swim/paddle before lunch at a rest stop full of other jeep tours. Then, it was on to the hot springs, where big pools of mud bubbled and spat alongside plumes of steam spouting from the ground, with that horrible eggy sulphur smell! It was fascinating to see all this caused naturally by the heat of the earth, and the steam warmed us up a bit as well! It was a lot different to the thermals in NZ, as there is no health and safety to ruin everyone's fun in Bolivia, so we were able to go as close as we wanted to the mud and steam and get pictures, I even got mud splats all over my leggings! Last stop of the day was at the Laguna Colorada, or red lake. Our hostel was just off the shore of the lake so we went to put our stuff there first, claim our beds, and then headed back down to explore the lake. The colour was something else, a deep orangey red which looked completely unnatural. It is apparently caused by the algae in the lake. We took a wander round the lake, seeing flamingos feeding in the shallows and joining the dutch in skimming a few stones in the water. That evening we played some more card games, during which I had a lot of flukey wins leading everyone to call me a cheater and saying they would not play cards with me again! The boys we were with were great fun, the Europeans particularly amused us with their English as everything was either "niiiice" or "shitty", nothing was ever average haha. We had a laugh playing games and drinking whiskey with them, although the main topic of conversation was obviously football
! That night, since we had climbed another few hundred feet during the day, the altitude was getting to a few of us, with me and Jan having headaches and Duncan feeling pretty ill as well. The night was colder than ever, even with double the covers and pushing our beds together for body heat, it was still tough to get to sleep.
In the morning, tired again, we piled back in the jeeps to head towards the rock formations. They were set in a desert surrounding, and we were the only ones there which was pretty cool. There was one famous rock called Piedra de Arbol, shaped a bit like a tree. Other than this there were lots of other massive boulders which we had fun climbing up (again, no rules in Bolivia) and getting some incredible photos up on the tops with the desert and mountains in the background. The altitude makes everything so much more tiring though, as you get out of breath doing the smallest amount of exertion (even more so than usual for me!). After we had finished being big kids at the rocks, we stopped at another lake.. This one was a beautiful pale blue colour with the most incredible landscape of mountains and snow in the background. Again, it was freezing cold so time spent out of the car was minimal! As we walked around the edge of the lake to meet the jeep, we passed a massive flock (or whatever the collective word is) of flamingos, making an impressive amount of noise. Some were right up close to the lake edge, feeding on god knows what from inside the lake. We got some amazing photos of the birds with the backdrop of the lake and mountains. The Dutch found a sign that seemed to be a flying flamingo with a red line through, so much hilarity followed as they stood pointing and shouting at any flamingo that looked as if it was about to take off, "hey hey hey, no flying man, that's a 30 boliviano fine!". After laughing at flamingoes for a good half hour, we drove for a little longer, stopping for another great lunch at a viewing point for another massive volcano
. We sheltered from the wind in little rock caves, ate, and were on the move again, this time to the first salt flat, much smaller and nowhere near as impressive as the Salar, being quite brown rather than pure white. However there was an old abandoned railway line which provided us simple souls with lots of entertainment as we lay on the tracks pretending to commit suicide, and got a great group photo of us all poking our heads up onto the tracks from underneath! Before long, johnny the guide was shouting "vamos chicos!" and we were back on the road again, this time to the Hotel de Sal where we would be staying our final night.
We drove past the salt flats as arrived, making us all really excited for tomorrows escapades. Pulling up at the hotel, it looked just like a normal brick hotel, and I was like "what a rip off, it's not even salt. I want my money back!" but was eating my words when we went inside with our bags and the whole place was just white, the floor was all salt crystals, the walls were salt bricks (taste tested to be sure) and even the tables and chairs were salt! It was absolutely amazing! We dumped our stuff in our room (we had been sharing with the Slovenians the whole three nights, which was obviously a barrel laughs. Honestly they acted more like mid 50s than mid 20s, each night they actually went to bed at 8pm, leaving us feeling guilty when we stumbled in at 10 - 11ish after one too many rounds of Barnitzka, a card game Jan had learnt in the Swiss military!)
. There were showers available at the cost of 10 Bs/£1 which were gratefully received after three days of not changing our base layer of clothes due to the cold! That evening after dinner of lasagne and red wine (Maria saved the best till last, although the lasagne did follow the recurring theme of onions which we ate pretty much every meal while we were out there) and then the cards came out again. We played for hours, not even deterred when the generator was turned off at 9.30 and we had to play by the light of head torches, enjoying our last in great company before we went back to being a two again the following day! During the evening, Robbie and Snellers came out with some great quotes during a conversation about Scottish comedians, which is where the title comes from in case anyone was wondering!
On our final day of the tour we woke up at 5.30 to get to the salt flat to watch the sun rise. However difficult the wake up, this was 100% worth it, as we all stood shivering on the salt waiting for the sun to come up (Tinos: "even the sun in south America is slow!"), even in the dark the view was unbelievable. Salt as far as you could see, with the sun finally coming up and turning everything bright white. As soon as the sun had risen we were called back into the car and we drove to the "island" for breakfast. The island was a big rock in the middle of all the salt, completely covered in cacti
. We all went for a walk/climb to the topmost point of the island, which gave us fantastic views of the salt flats and gave some perspective of just how big they actually are! (over 10 000 sq km). On the walk back down we checked out the ex-tallest, now dead carcass of a cactus at 12m, and the new reigning champ at 9m! Back at the cars we ate cake for breakfast (!) then me and the boys wandered over to a big clearing ready for picture time, with the jeeps to follow us over. Around an hour, and a few hilarious perspective pictures later, the jeeps, and more importantly our props, still hadn't arrived. When they finally pulled up it transpired that the Slovenians had gone missing on the cactus island (of course) and were responsible for the massive delay, ha. Eventually, we were able to drive to a clearer area, and, armed with toy dinosaurs and whiskey bottle, we got out to get some more photos. The pictures are actually harder than they look, as the person furthest from the camera has to get their position really accurate in order to look realistic, and the photo taker also has to lie on the freezing cold salt for ages, moving the camera and barking out orders: "a bit more left.. No MY left!". Finally we had enough acceptable shots both individual and group, to get back in the car ready for our final couple of stops. First we arrived at a little village, where there were lots of little artisan stalls selling alpaca jumpers, hats, little salt figurines etc. sadly we had no money as we only brought enough for the tour, but they were lovely to wander around and have a look
. One shop promised "the biggest llama you have ever seen" which was clearly a ploy as no such llama existed! While we waited for lunch, the boys played football with some of the local children, using a little knitted llama wool ball. After some really weird fried tuna cakes, we set off for the last stop, which was the very edge of the salt flats where various local men were working digging up salt and sorting it into piles, the "salt mountains" - the lithium below the surface makes up over half the worlds supply and is used in computer and phone batteries. After this, we had a short drive to the town of Uyuni, where the tour would end. When we arrived at the bus station, we were disappointed that the other jeep was nowhere in sight, as it was driving the guys straight back to Tupiza. We thought we hadn't got chance to say bye which was pretty annoying, but eventually they pulled up at the station and were able to exchange emails etc before they went off to head south to Argentina. We were also disappointed that the tour hadn't included the trip to the famous Train Cemetery, which we had thought was part of all the tours. After discovering the bus to La Paz wasn't till 8 that night and so we had 6hours to kill, we got a taxi ourselves to the cemetery for a quick look, which was definitely worth doing. There were so many old rusted trains, covered in graffiti, and of course you were able to climb and sit on them as much as you wanted! After ten minutes we got back in the taxi, a bit nervous about him driving off with our stuff while we were out there after hearing lots of bad things about Bolivian taxis
. Safely back at the bus station, we booked our tickets on what looked like the nicest bus available, and went for a walk around Uyuni to kill some time. What we have noticed about bolivians is that they go from looking really young i.e a toddler, to being completely wrinkled and haggard, I don't think we saw one teenager! So we found it hilarious to pass old-looking locals on the street and make comments such as "she's just on her way to high school" or "they've just done their GCSEs" haha. Very easily amused. We ended up in an internet cafe for the best part of two hours, and then a pub called the Extreme Fun Bar, which was a strange little place with all sorts of drinking challenges such as fastest to do 20 shots, and drinking beer out of nipple mugs. After some extreme persuasion to Snellers not to take up the challenge to get his name on the wall, we ordered pizza and beers and chilled out there until it was time to get the bus. After four days spent constantly freezing cold the last thing I expected was a bright red sunburnt head, but much to Snellers amusement my face was tight and red as a tomato! Embarrassing.
Eventually it was time to get on the bus, and although we weren't exactly expecting great things from Bolivian buses, we hadn't bargained on being sat right at the back, next to a large Bolivian lady with an even larger whiny kid. The seats barely reclined which on a 12 hr overnight bus is pretty essential, it was freezing cold, and as soon as we got going it was apparent the roads between cities were little more than dirt tracks. Snellers managed to wangle us the seats in front of where we were sitting by offering to swap with the two kids in front whose mother was sat by us, successfully managing to disguise a selfish request for a kind, selfless act. These seats were a marginal improvement but still not a whole lot better, and we had the feeling we were in for the worst, potentially deadly bus journey in our 5 months travelling!
By way of a spoiler, we made it to La Paz in one piece, and are currently in the hostel celebrating England's win and waiting to dominate the hostel pub quiz. Having rambled so much about the amazingness of the salt flats, I'm going to save the rest of Bolivia until after we have done the north and are on the way to Peru!
Hopefully people enjoyed reading about the salt flats and Bolivia so far as much as we have enjoyed experiencing it. Already probably the most impressive country we have been to, and hopefully more to come with lake titicaca! Obviously would have been nowhere near as good without the incredible friends we made along the way, who all made the Salar tour our favourite four days so far, and will hopefully keep in touch through the rest of their travels!
Next bolivia update soon,