Salar De Uyuni
Trip Start Mar 09, 2009
46Trip End Aug 04, 2009
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The Salar De Uyuni was one of the hardest travel experiences I've had; cold by day, very very cold at night, dropping to -25, no showers, no lights, no electricity or running water, and we were constantly breaking down or stopping to help andother 4x4 who had. But it was totally worth it. The salt flats and desert with itīs frozen lakes were simply stunning.
On our first morning the 4x4s picked us up an hour late just the Bolivian way! And we headed to the train cemetery, again a random tourist site, which reminded me of the random unsustainable cemetery in Nazca. It also reminded me of somewhere in a random waste field in London where you wouldnīt even think to stop, let alone make a tourist site. There were bizarre rusting trains in the middle of the desert, scattered in and around with the locals rubbish, tin cans, plastic bottles (the flowers of Bolivia) and plastic bags (which when flying in the air are referred to as Boliviaīs birds)...thereīs no education here about the Environment and people are too oor to think about it, or for it to be enforced that they should. Next stop and we headed for the salt fats...well we treid too...15 minutes down the road and we got a flat tyre...the first of many. It was the flatest tire Iīve ever seen, I think the tyre must have blown so we were prett lucky. So out came our spare tyre, as bad as an old man. We rossed our fingers and hoped for the best. The rest of the road was a lot bumpier...but the views made me forget aout the ride becasue they were semthing else. Arriving at the beginning of the salt flats was something Iīd never imagined, being surrounded by a continusous whit e plane. An endless earth of white sand against a piercing blue sky, eventually you could see the distant mountains, but they came second to the glistening salt. It looked like compact snow, and half made snow men which were the piles of salt that had been collected by locals for pence intermittently scattered. A white, grey blue snow set against the distant grey, brown , black mountiain rocks sandwiched in between the blue sky. Teh salt flats are 12,000 sq kilometres. We drove on for ages. Eventually we stopped at an oasis type area with cactus thousands of years old stuck in the middle fo this salt. After playing with the perspective with cigarette packets and pringles tubes I hiked up the actus studded mni mountain and got some incredible 360 degree views of the stunning simmering salt.
Carrying on our journey we passed many solitary crosses in the salt sand wich I discovered were victims of the desert crossing. Apparently the white salt can be intoxicating for drivers in a halluconagenic sense who fall asleep at the wheel, causing the SUVs to flip over. Or in any casses the clouds of dust crated by the SUVs int eh desert part can blind oncoming traffic causing collisions. Once two SUVs collided and Juan our guide said he later passed the wreckage and it was horrific; thirteen were kiled in the blaze that ensued. What a way to go. RIP.
Driving on again we watched the sun set behidn the mountains. The white salt in the distance kept the reflection of the light going for hours after. At our salt hotel (more of a ramshackle building!) we could look out of the window and see several laters of colour on the horizon. Brown grass, followed by a layer of white salt, distinct brown mountain, thick blue grey sky and then reddy, yellow and grey sky. It was a rainbow of coour as he sun died for the night. I drunk a tea with scotch and agin felt how lucky I was to see this deepening red grey sky and to be having this experience.
THE NEXT morning we set off for the desert leaving the sublime salt planes behind. It was llaa season, so the planes were awash with llamas and their babies aong with Alpachas and pequenas. Pequenas althoguh plentiful in peru are endangered in Bolivia becasue the local antofagasta regiment which we passed on the crossing, keeps on shooting the pequenas in their thousands year after year and eating them! We stopped off in a village San Juan to get water As in Peru and argentina I again encountered the whole South America tradition of getting sweets for change instead of coins (a complete nuisance, because changes is always in short supply, but then as travellers we always seeking cambio of big notes).
Another ī'tradition' which has almost bankruted me on my travels is paying for the bloody baņo (toilet). Two bolivanos here and sometimes 5 bolivianos (50p!) there...itīs a constant draining of my precious change in sometiems extortionate amounts.
On top of this thereīs a group of panpipe singers in nearly every restaurant you go to (this was particualry in Peru) playing sometimes brilliant and soemtimes awful tunes and then youīre exected to pay...even though you neer asked.
Pacha mama (the worship of mother earth) is also a strong tradition in Bolivia. Every achievement, eaqch marriage, new car, new house, new baby, is celebrated with a rake of flowers aroudn the new thing in tribute to mother earth....in the desert oasis there was a shrine to mother earth.
Ok, so Iīm getting a bit sidetracked...on day two of the crossing we drove along a smooth, flat desert surface leavign the salt planes behind. We drove towards the Ollague volcane, smoking at its top and we stopped to watch. The rest of the day was full of visits to the pink flamincos in the various laggons, to the rock tree (created by th effects fo the bitter harsh winds on the terrain) and the blue, green lagoons with crusted salt mirroring the mighty, rocky, red, brown, black mountinas with their landscapes going on and on. At the lagoon with the flamincos we came close to a heard of llamas.....as we neared them on foot the shy creatres flinched and ran off.
Several times we stopped for problems with the 4x4s which were struggling in the arid climate and on the rocky terrain. One unfortunate 4x4 got its axle caughtgoing up one particulary bad strecth where we had all got off an walked up the hill instead, the other drivers tried to help but ti was too late and too much damage had been done. The car was truely f*****. Itīs five passengers had to double up into the co-car, with ten getting into one SUV and having to travel all the way back to their last camp in the hope that they coudl get a new car and carry on, or else it was the end of their desert crossing.
On the second night I was so cold, so so cold trying to get to sleep. I lay awake for several hours and was in and out of sleep the whole night with the cold, I thought I might get hypothermia, in spite of being fully dressed, with thermals, in a sleeping bag and under six blankets, and inside a sheltering brick house, it was impossible to get warm in the cruel climate....
ON the third day we woke at 4.30am in the pictch dark with the moon provding the only light. It was so cold. Earlier I had gone to the bathroom with just my socks on and no boots, I had forgotten my torch so couldnīt see and so got my feet saturated in the pee that the drivers had left all over the floor...yuk...so I had to revert to another pair of diry socks....
We set off in the cars along the dirt trackand after a short drive we arrived at the spurting Geysers, they were incredible. Stem jets were shooting 20 meters high out of their mouths. White puffs of steam were shooting up all across the horizon aid the black dark night. I put my hand in one of the geysers and it was so warm, it relieved my cold soul for a while. The Geysers stank of sulphur and we could see the base of some of the older ones bubbling away.
The cold made us head quickly on to the next lagoon. Here we found a hot spring with a handful of nutty tourists inside of it...how could they take off their clothes in this lung freezing cold? I was awe struck by the frozen ground leading to this hot steaming spring. The frozen ground was broken only by the channels of the hot water which streamed away from the hot spring along to the lagoon, letting off steam along its way. The grass around was frozen white, while prickles of steam surrounded it and rose up to the sky.
In the desert the moon is always in the background, threateningly imposing its shadwon, always wanting and waiting to descend for night-time and take itīs throne and it was this morning. But as we wited at the lake, it was the sunīs time to shine and slowly it rose up over the water proving itself the majestic King, and creating a spectacular scene that would always rival night for me.
After breakfast in a makeshift hall we headed to the next part of the desert which was red and rocky brown among a browny dirt. The whites, yellows and gold had left us behind for a while. On the flats below the red rocky moutnians there were in parts huge boulders after boulders scattered along. The landscape sat that pristine in all its ruggedness, lookignlike it hadnīt changed for years except with the windīs shaking of its sands.
The red then transformed into a yellowy, white chunky terrain before we arrived at Lagoon Verde to see the reflections of the mountains this time in the frozen solid water. As we moved further on the land became increasingly sandy yellow again with continously dotted shrubs, dried out by the intense sun and then we arrived at Villa del Mar. Here we saw several interesting birds, a plane wreckage (which had been dragged from elsewhere) and several mummies in the rocks which still had flesh eating maggots on their faces (pretty gross). After stopping several times gain to help broken down 4x4s we eventually arrived back in Uyuni, showered off the layers of dirt on us and headed out to gorge ourselves on some of SAīs finest pizza....