The Salt Flats ("Salar de Uyuni")

Trip Start Jan 04, 2008
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Trip End Dec 17, 2008


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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Saturday, September 20, 2008

Headed onwards on a very long and very bumpy bus ride from Potosi to Uyuni , the little town on the eastern edge of the "Salar de Uyuni" . Booked a three day tour here which visits the famous Salt Flats aswell as some volcanoes , lakes , tiny villages , thermal springs and other tourist attractions in the area. Uyuni the town itself is somewhat dull and uninspiring - really just a service town for the Salar de Uyuni ... itīs a tiny place yet someone told me there are actually 56 travel agencies offering the tours .... all of which makes it a little overwhelming deciding who to choose. In the end as they all seemed to offer much the same itinerary so I opted for one of the better known companies who are listed in the travel guidebooks. Wasnīt particularly looking forward to three days cramped in the back of a Landcruiser but had heard that the scenery and sights are supposed to more than make up for the cold and discomfort on the trip. The total trip is a long way - nearly 1000km driving  - and you go in groups of six travellers in a  4x4 , mostly Toyota Landcruisers  , which have three rows of seats.  The driver/mechanic/tour guide and the cook sit in the front and then there are two rows of three tourists ... it actually wasnt too bad , not as cramped as I was expecting , especially as I had a seat in the 2nd row next to the window ... did offer to swap a few times with the others but they were OK ... or just polite maybe :) We had three Poles , a French couple and myself in our group of six but we didnt pick up the French couple until the first lunchtime as they had booked a 4 day tour and were already at the Salt Flats overnight. First stop on the itinerary was the Uyuni "Train Cemetery"  , very close to the town itself and basically a graveyard for rusting old steam locomotives which date back to the turn of the last century and some of which were from England and France. Interesting in itīs own way but somewhat an eyesore rather than a great tourist attraction in my book ... nonetheless it seemed to amuse the many groups of tourists who enjoyed clambering all over the trains to get some snaps. After the train cemetery we went back into Uyuni town to pick up the cook from her house and some more supplies for the trip ... there was a fair bit of faffing about at the start of this trip to be honest , before we actually finally set off for the Salt Flats near to mid-day (I had been at the office at 10.30 am) ... I know , I know , itīs Bolivia - European style rules of punctuality and customer service dont apply. We drove to the edge of the actual "Salar de Uyuni" and stopped at a little puebla called Coquesa where we were supposed to visit the little stalls and "museums" which sold objects made of salt amongst other items for the passing tourists  ... but it was actually more interesting to wander away a little and see the village where the buildings are made of adobe and salt and you can see the little piles of salt around the place waiting to be put to use. After Coquesa we headed out onto the Salt Flats themselves , which are really quite an extraordinary feat of nature ... 4000 square miles of a giant prehistoric lake which has turned into 10 billion tons of salt & up to 7m deep in parts.The salt "miners" pile the salt into little mountains of salt which sit on the flats waiting to be collected and processed - turned into buildings , a range of "tourist products" and of course even the traditional use of putting it into bags ready for the dinner table to season your guinea-pig and chips. The contrast between the white salt as far as the eye can see and the deep shade of blue in the sky makes for quite stunning views and photographs. Next stop for us was the "Salt Hotel" , a building and contents made largely of salt ... you cant stay here any more itīs just a museum rather than a real hotel nowadays (we saw a couple of other new "salt hotels" which were under construction near the edge of the Salt Flats) ... there are various exhibits such as animal salt sculptures. Youīre supposed to buy something at the salt museum if you take pictures - so rather than a salt souvenir myself and the Polish guys grabbed a cheeky lunchtime beer. We drove across the Salar de Uyuni to reach a hostel sitting on the edge of the Flats , where the French couple had stayed overnight and where we were to stop for our lunch before we carried on in the afternoon . Right after lunch we had a tyre blow out  - actually turned into a great chance for more Salt photos whilst the driver actually very efficiently replaced it with a dodgy looking spare ... not much tread on there that I could see ... if we got another puncture we would be in a bit of bother without any other spares. We headed onwards for the "Isla del Pescado" (Fish Island) or aka "Inca Huasi" (Inca House) , a coral "island" on the salt flats lake which is covered in the most enormous cactii , certainly the biggest I have ever seen as some of them were 12m tall. We were a bit behind schedule so Fish Island was a bit of a rush to be honest as we didnt have much time to scramble up the walking trail to the top of the island for the fantastic photo opportunity. Then it was off to the first nightīs hostel at a tiny little puebla called Puerto Chupica , where we took a brief look around before enjoying our coffee & crackers . This place is literally in the middle of nowhere and I always find these sort of experiences on my trip a little bewildering ... for us travellers itīs really just a snapshot moment , somewhere where we are that we know is a temporary experience and almost somehow like a movie scene ... but these local people of course do actually live here , day in , day out - this is their lives ... aswell as the obvious lack of money and comfort it must simply be a mind-numbingly dull existence as there is really nothing to do ... again as with the mine in Potosi it just makes you think how fortunate you are ! Later a pretty decent dinner before retiring early to our hard stone beds as we had another early start planned for the morning . The second day was to turn into a bit of a drama ! Started off quiet enough as we were up bleary-eyed early at 5.30am for breakfast before loading up the Landcruiser and setting off along the edge of the Salt Flats . After about 45 minutes driving one of the Polish travellers , Anna , realised she had left her passport behind in the hostel .. so obviously we had no choice but to go back which meant at least an extra 90 minutes drive. Some of the group wanted to get out , stay there , take some photos and wait , but I opted rather to stay in the 4x4 and take the drive back ... we were kind of in the middle of nowhere and Iīd rather enjoy the scenery from the Landcruiser.  The passport was in a money belt along with a bank card and 140 dollars in cash which Anna had left under her pillow and forgotten to take in the morning. But when we got back to the hostel there was no sign of the money belt. Several locals including the hostel owners family were standing around outside the hostel guzzling cans of lager and there were more cans thrown all over the floor  ... two of guys looked half-cut already ... this is 8.30am on a Monday morning ! Kind of gave an impression that they were celebrating a little windfall and it was really hard to believe that someone could have walked in off the street and looked under the pillow so we were fairly convinced it was an inside job. Anna was understandably pretty distressed , tearful and more than a little angry ... primarily about the passport rather than the other items as the three Polish travellers were all due to be going home from Santiago in a few days time. There really was not a lot we could do in this situation ... thereīs no local police to call - this is a really tiny collection of houses and the tourist police are hundreds of kilometres back in Uyuni. None of us had particularly good Spanish and the guide and cook couldnt speak much English ... meanwhile the hostel owners continued to guzzle cervezas and deny all knowledge of the money belt , despite having changed the beds since we had left. So we had to just leave and press on , after searching the Landcruiser , the hostel and all our rucksacks thoroughly even though Anna was certain it was left under the pillow. Two hours behind schedule made the rest of the day a little more rushed but we felt sorry for Anna whose trip (and indeed the rest of her holiday) was ruined ... hard to enjoy the rest of the tour when you are worried how on earth you are going to be able to get home. Anyways , back to the tour - whilst the first day had been all about seeing the Salt Flats , the second day was all about the lakes & volcanoes. We drove past an active volcano , Volcan Ollague , which is nearly 6000m high , before heading onwards to enjoy the scenery around a series of five relatively small lakes , "Las Cinco Lagunas" - Canapa , Hedionda , Chiar Khota , Honda and Ramaditas. We stopped for our lunch by the first lake , Canapa , in a very scenic spot - lots of flamengos feeding in the lake , gulls surrounding our makeshift table trying to scrounge some food and even a solitary fox nearby hoping to get in on the act. After the five lakes we headed onwards to see the "Arbol de Piedra" , a rock formation remarkably in the shape of tree and surrounded by a number of other large rock formations. The final stop of the day was undoubtedly the most spectacular - the "Laguna Colorada" (Red Lagoon) , a large red ,white and blue lake in the Eduardo Avaroa national park. The red colour of the lake comes from sediments and algae pigmentation , then there is the blue of the water and the white of salt flats ... add in lots of pink flamengos milling around and feeding in the water and it made for a magnificent landscape. It was really bitterly cold here though and made us wonder how cold the night would be at the nearby hostel ... which indeed lived up to chilly expectations. We had coffee & crackers as a snack followed by a pasta dinner , glass of red wine as a treat and a very early night as the following day we were asked to get up at 4am.  Reason we were up so early on the final day was to go and see the geyser and fumaroles ... which are best viewed when they are most active very early in the morning. The geyser was extraordinary , hissing out steam to a great height , and with nearby bubbling steaming fumaroles it was quite a sight - worth the early start and the really cold temperatures in the 4x4 which didnt seem to have any heating that worked. Next stop was then the "Aguas Thermales" (hot springs) where notionally we were supposed to be going in for a dip ... it was so bitterly cold , however ,even in loads of heavy layers that no-one in our group was in any rush to strip down to their swimwear. Some people rolled up trousers and dipped their legs in ... personally call me a wuss but I was so cold I wasnt convinced at all so I went to look for the warmth of an early breakfast from the cook & enjoyed the scenery ... the little thermal pool was in a very picturesque spot right by yet another lake with the by now ubiquitous collection of flamengos. After breakfast we drove through the "Dali" desert , with little rock formations and more volcanos on view before coming to the final stop for the whole group which was the Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon). This lake is coloured by sediments and copper and has the backdrop of a superb conical volcano which reflects in the water. From here the Polish people were heading on to the Chilean border and the town of San Pedro de Atacama whilst myself and the French couple were heading back to Uyuni .We drove to the border to drop them off , where they let Anna through the Bolivian exit side on a photocopy of her passport (which luckily and with great foresight she was carrying in her rucksack) but said she would likely have more problems at the Chilean entry side near to San Pedro (Iīll be emailing them to find out how they got on). For the rest of us the third day was a bit of a chore to be honest  ... its a long long way back to Uyuni and we had 8 hours sitting in the 4x4 with only a couple of stops along the way , one for lunch and one for the "Valle de las Rocas" (large rock formations). We went back a different way to the way we came and a lot of the scenery was quite barren and samey so we slept for at least part of the way. Was very glad when we finally made it back to Uyuni town but I only had a few hours to recuperate with some food , coffee and internet before I then had to embark on my long journey down to Salta in Argentina in the evening. Feeling pretty tired at this point due to a lot of travelling in recent days , not just the tour which was a lot of driving (nearly 1000 km in the Landcruiser) , but also moving around every couple of days in Bolivia . Itīs a continual paradox of travelling that you really want to see everything possible in the time , which means pushing yourself to be always moving on , yet you also simultaneously feel the need to just relax , stay put and enjoy somewhere for an extended period ... no easy answer but not complaining -  this travelling life continues to be a truly fantastic experience.
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