set off on our three day Salar de Uyuni trip with some trepidation, having been warned of various mishaps that inevitably happen in the desert (eg: broken down jeeps, lost drivers, acute altitude sickness etc). Our tour company (Pamela Tours) drove us to the Bolivian border, half an hour outside of San Pedro de Atacama. It was along a bumpy dusty road and when we arrived, it was to see a tiny hut in the middle of nowhere with one Bolivian flag fluttering proudly in the wind. Here we also met our driver, a Bolivian man called Hicorbez who would also be our guide, car mechanic and cook for the entire tour.
Having met the rest of our group, (a couple and two University students from Holland who thankfully all spoke perfect English), we piled into the jeep and headed off for three coloured lagoons. Each of these was a different colour due to various minerals found in the water
but the most impressive by far was the last lagoon, Lagoon Colorada which had bright red streaks across it. This was also the location of our first night's accomodation - a basic refugio with pretty much no running water and only one working toilet for about twenty people. We spent the afternoon walking to the nearby mirador and watching the colourful flamingos and then headed back for some dinner. This meal was very welcome as by now the temperature was plummeting and we were rapidly adding layers. By the the time, we got into bed Julia was wearing four jumpers, gloves, hat and was cocooned in a sleeping bag with three blankets but at least she was warm enough to fall asleep (or be smothered in the process!)
The next morning was an earlyish start and we all bundled into the jeep hoping to catch some more sleep.
A couple of us were starting to feel the effects of being so high up and so some heavy dose aspirins were quickly handed around. Unfortunately, an hour into our journey and the road became incredibly bumpy and sometimes non-existent. Our driver (who was not the chattiest person) became quite focused on the road which was good but meant that we were all forced to listen to his one ten minute tape on repeat. This tape was soon to become the bane of our lives as it appeared to only contain one (dodgy recording) of one Bolivian song, which our guide assured us was a popular Bolivian hit. Perhaps fearing awkward conversation, our guide refused to turn the tape off for the rest of the trip (even during lunch) so by the end of tour all of us had heard the song at least 200 times!
By now we had reached the dusty desert section of the trip and got to see various huge stones which had been eroded by the wind into weird shapes. The landscape got progressively wilder and eventually we were driving along the edge of a stone ridge with only a few spare inches to the left of this. This was also the time we came across another jeep driving along the ridge and coming in the opposite direction.
With a bit of tricky manoeuvering the two drivers managed to get the jeeps to pass but it was quite scary looking down and seeing how close we were to the edge. In the early afternoon, we reached our second nights accomodation, a hotel completely made from salt! This was fascinating to see, as all the light fittings and furntiture were made of heavy salt bricks even the beds! The electricity was a bit tempremental but dinner was a fun experience with a lot of 'Pass the salt' jokes going around We all headed to bed early though, partly because the electricity went off at 8.30pm and also because our guide planned for us to leave by 5am so we could make for sunrise on the Isla de Pesce.
Promptly at 4am, we were awoken to bangs on our doors and groggily gulped down our breakfasts.
Ominously, our guide had been fiddling about with our jeep for the last hour and so we were all a bit concerned by the bangs and creaks we had heard but luckily the jeep started after a few attempts and we were off! The island was right in the middle of the Uyuni Salt Plains (the highlight of the trip) but for much of the early morning drive all we could see was darkness. Finally, at 6.30pm, we arrived and immediately all tried to race to the top of the island to see the sun rise. This was incredibly tough as the altitude is so high and the path is very steep but eventually we all made it and got to watch the salt plains come into sight - an awesome experience!
After a couple of hours,
our guide said he would drive us right into the middle of the salar so we could see how vast the plains were (they are in fact approximately the size of Belgium!) This was a fun experience as the landscape felt so surreal and we managed to take a couple of funny photos. By now, it was time to start heading to Uyuni, our final destination but on the way, we had one more stop to visit the Train Cemetary. This is basically a dumping ground just outside Uyuni, where the government has abandoned about thirty old trains.
We managed to take a couple more pics and then seeing that our driver was eager to head off, we made the final trip into Uyuni centre. Just as we were reaching the main street, the jeep started spluttering and slowly ground to a halt and refused to start again! We all got out, thankful that we had made it this far and after a quick farewell and one last rendition of the Bolivian hit song, we all headed over to our hotels for a well deserved shower and rest!