Shimmering Salt And Fancy Flamingos.

Trip Start Feb 01, 2005
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Trip End Dec 31, 2018


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Flag of Bolivia  , Potosí,
Wednesday, December 22, 2010

With excitement but also a touch of trepidation, we view the old dusty Toyota Land cruiser that will be our transport for the next three days between San Pedro Atacama in Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia. There are 12 of us and two vehicles meaning seven, plus the driver in each vehicle. I just know with my short legs I will be in the "back back" as our kids used to call the extra two seats in the back of 4WD's. Our fellow travellers are a mixed bunch of independent travellers and all of course MUCH younger than ourselves!

The Lonely Planet says of this trip:

"High altitude lagoons tinged crimson and turquoise, simmering geysers, flamingo's in flight and Uyuni's blinding salt flats are a dreamy and extreme three day 4WD journey in wild uncharted terrain. The success of the trip depends on a plucky positive attitude and a good driver"
but also
"at least 16 people,including 13 tourists have been killed in jeep accidents on the Salar de Uyuni salt plains since May 2008."

We climb into our vehicle with a discussion that seats will be rotated during the trip. In front with the driver of our vehicle is Andrea from Switzerland, back seat is Avan, Patrick from Holland, then James from UK. In the "back back" with me is Megan (James and Megan are new weds leaving UK to live in Oz). Travelling companions for three days with a driver who speaks only Spanish. We soon ascertain though that most of the others in our vehicle have enough Spanish to get by and they will be able to interpret for us. The other vehicle travelling in tandem with us has two Japanese girls, two Japanese boys, a Brazilian boy and a German girl. The Japanese girls are not travelling with the boys.  

OK let the adventure begin!

Our first stop is a gorgeous lake with Flamingos and a backdrop of mountains so stunning that even without their perfect reflections in the lake, we would have been astounded. We are all in high spirits knowing that we have three days of stunning scenery ahead of us. Our day continues with more stops including geysers and a thermal pool. At the pool we meet up with Fi and her Kumuka group again! They too are travelling the three day circuit in 4WD's. Fi tells us she has left two of the group back in San Pedro Atacama, who were too unwell to undertake this trip. We are all affected by the high altitude in some way and more acclimatisation time is really advisable than we have all had.

We pull into our lodgings for the night around 2 pm and a lovely hot lunch is served immediately. Our sleeping arrangement is two bare cement rooms with six single beds each and a toilet and cold shower (only for who ever was game, in near freezing temperatures!)  We spend the afternoon literally catching our breath, lying on our beds. Then, stupidly, some of us undertake a 4 km walk, in a howling gale to see a nearby lake, which turns out not to be nearby and we do not make it to the lake and barely make it back to camp. Coco leaf tea is served late afternoon to help with altitude sickness. One of the Japanese boys is very sick and can't even keep his coco leaf tea down. (the illness also convinces him to quit smoking)

As the sun sets a deep penetrating cold sets in and we all rug up in thermals and coats. There is a wood heater in the communal eating area and James organizers to have it lit (but gets glared at by the Bolivians for using too much scarce wood). A hot dinner is served, then the children of the women running this outpost of accommodation, put on a delightful impromptu concert for us. Most of us are exhausted and after a warm up by the fire head to bed to snuggle under the pile of llama blankets supplied, leaving our thermals on. Some stay up playing cards and, amusingly, use a bottle of altitude sickness pills for gambling chips.

A new day sees us travelling long distances through stunning scenery on bumpy and unforgiving terrain. Seating positions have been rotated except for Megan and I in the back back. The Japanese guy in the other vehicle is alarmingly sick, but soldiers on as best he can and most of us are swallowing panodol for the altitude headaches. 

We end the day right on the edge of the massive Salar de Uyuni and our lodging is in a hostel made entirely from -  salt! We have a "matrimonial" bed too. Even the floor is loose salt much like beach sand to walk on. We pay to have a hot shower ($10 bol each) and enjoy a tasty evening meal of chicken, vegetables and rice and are surprised when bottles of Bolivian wine are also put on the table. Again an early night is the only order of the day because (a) the generator goes off at 9pm and (b) we have to be up at 4.00 am so we can catch the sunrise on the salt plains.  

The sky is beginning to lighten as our land cruiser glides smoothly over the salt and water sprays up. There is a surreal feeling that we are in a boat. To the East the first pink glow begins and the Land cruisers stop. We get out to take millions (well close) of photos. The Japanese boy is feeling better and even joins in the fun of group photos. It is freezing cold so it seems that rather than being on salt we are on ice.

We move on, the salt beneath us now is hard and cracked into hexagonal shapes. Once again we bizarrely feel like our land cruiser is a boat as we pull into Isla de Pescado, an island rising up out of the salt flats. This island is peppered with prehistoric looking cacti, many over 12 metres in size and over 100 years old.

Back in our Land cruiser (Boat?) we head off again speeding across the now brilliantly sunlit salt plain that goes as far as the eye can see. Our next stop is all about funny photos. It has become the tradition to do on the salt flats, to take pictures using the illusion of distance and perspective. Some of our fellow travellers had even brought some props to assist. For instance a pringle tube and the resultant photo has people walking out of the tube. We experiment a bit but do not really make a success of it. See photos of Avan waking out of the Lonely Planet book and me sitting in Avan's hat. It is a lot harder to achieve than it would seem and takes a lot of set up.

We enjoy traversing the salt at high speed, a smooth ride after the two days of 4 wheel driving, until we reach the edge and now know that our adventure is almost over. One more lunch then a visit to a railway and train cemetery on the outskirts of Uyuni. As we are entering Uyuni a near tragedy occurs. A truck with a driver on the phone, pulls out between the two 4wds and just misses our rear end and forces our companion vehicle to swerve into the gutter, fortunately managing to stay on his wheels while avoiding a sure disaster collision. However all are safe but shaken and before we know it we are unloading our packs from the roof of the land cruiser for the last time. Goodbyes are said and most of our companions head for buses out of Uyuni, we head off to the ATM then the Tonito Hotel where we run straight into Fi and her Kumuka tour again!

It is Christmas Eve and we have wonderful pizzas, us and Fi's tour together, reveling in the tales of our last three days and looking forward to spending Christmas as a group.  
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