Salar de Uyuni

Trip Start Jul 31, 2005
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Trip End Feb 18, 2007


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Thursday, November 9, 2006

Endless Salt at Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni, at an amazing 10,582 square kilometres in area, is the world's largest salt lake. It is one of the must see tourist sights in Bolivia and our very last stop before we cross over into Chile.

After walking around the town of Uyuni searching for tours, we soon realise that everything we find is frighteningly cheap. For 65 US dollars, you get a three day tour around the salt plains, the desert and various other sights in a 7 seater jeep, and a transfer to San Pedro in Chile. This price includes accommodation, non alcoholic drinks and three meals a day. The prices are so cheap that in fact we spent ages walking around the agencies in town trying to find something more expensive, worried that in this case, you really will get what you pay for. Unfortunately, all the agencies compete on price and nobody has thought about offering a more "comfortable" tour. So, with the knowledge that the accommodation and food would be extremely basic, we settled on a excursion with Juliet Tours.

We set off at around 11am, and meet our guide Ruben, his wife, who'll be our cook for the next few days, and the rest of the group. It's not long before we've reached the vast white mass which is the salt plain. Our first stop, a salt hotel in the middle of the plain, enabled us to get out and gasp at the size and emptiness of the plain. Here we practice the trick photography that this vast white space enables. One classic shot involves one person walking a fair distance behind the other, which enables you to take a photo which looks like one large person is holding up a midget, so funny.

After this we head off across the vast plain to explore some of the amazing scenery which can be found at and around these salt plains. The Jeep takes off across these huge expanses with incredible ease, there are no fixed tracks, you can go off in any direction you want. I think these are the best Bolivian roads that we've been on so far:-)

The Semi-salt Hotel 

That night we arrive in our accommodation, where the beds and floors are made out of salt. We've heard that it can get really cold around here at night. Tonight we're sleeping at some 3600 metres above sea level, but luckily it's near the end of the Bolivian spring, and our guide tells us that tonight it shouldn't drop below 5 degrees, where as in winter it can drop well below freezing. We sleep quite well, and the next day head off from the salt plain to the desert to view some more of the famous scenery that the area is famous for.

Night in a Freezer 

Later that evening, we arrive at what will be our accommodation for the night. We're now some 4,500 metres above sea level and as soon as the sun went down, the temperature plummeted. The group shared a very basic 6 bed dorm and there was only one extremely basic outside bathroom to share between us and two other groups. Despite the freezing temperatures, we decide to wash our teeth outside in the yard rather than join the long queue for the only bathroom.

As soon as the electricity generator stopped at around 10pm, we went to bed. We were told by our guide that he'd wake us up at around 4am. The room was freezing, and despite covering up with several thick blankets which must have weighed a tonne, we spent a fairly restless night. This wasn't helped by the wafer thin mattress on a wooden plank bed, and what sounded like a load of drunk people arguing outside at around 2am, a disturbance which went on for at least half an hour. When the alarm went off we had hardly slept at all, but were glad to get out of our fairly cold bed and dress up in our warm layers. Apparently the outside temperature was minus 2, but it felt so cold inside the poorly insulated building that I honestly don't know how people can visit here in winter, when nighttime temperatures can get down to minus 20.  

Where's the Guide?

Anyway, about 4:30am we were all dressed and ready to leave, but our guide hadn't appeared. We waited another 20 minutes and decided to try and find out what room he was in and wake him. We tracked down all of the guides and they were all out for the count, totally drunk. It seemed like they had a party the night before, something which would explain the noise at 2am.

This really annoyed us, as we were all up and ready to go, and later this morning we needed to connect with the bus to Chile, so it was important to leave on time. Patty and the other Spanish guy in the group start to have a go at the guides, who eventually force themselves up. Our guide then quickly dresses and jumps up on to the top of the jeep to start to load the rucksacks. It's then that we realise that he can barely stand up or talk, so there's no way he's in a fit state to drive.

Time for the Passengers to Take Control

As our guide revs up the engine and swerves around the yard with our poorly tied down rucksacks nearly falling off the roof, the English guy from our group runs over, turns off the engine and takes the key out of the ignition, worried that he may take off with our rucksacks and without us. There is some discussion amongst our group, and we agree that there is no way we are getting in a car with our drunk guide driving. So we tell him that either he can let the English Guy drive until he sobers up, or we are not going anywhere. Bolivia men are the typical macho type, so as you can imagine this didn't go down well. If it weren't for the fact we were stuck in the middle of nowhere with no public transport connections, I think we would have left the tour there and then. Unfortunately, our options were extremely limited and we had a bus connection to Chile to make. So we decided to try and calm the guide down, and with a bit of great diplomacy from the Spanish guy in our group, we convinced him to let the English guy drive. After that, on the way to our first stop that morning, we had to put up with a continuous rant from a still very drunk guide, about how us gringos have insulted him and his nation by taking his car, and how he isn't going to give us the tickets for the bus to Chile to get his revenge.

The Spanish are not a nation who are known for their diplomacy, but Kiko, the Spanish guy in our group, completely broke that stereotype and did a fantastic job of calming down our guide. Eventually, when our guide had sobered up a bit more, we agreed he could drive the last bit down to the thermal springs, our first stop that morning, so that the other tour guides wouldn't laugh at him if he showed up with a Gringo driving.

The rest of that day there was still a lot of tension in the air, but we got through the morning, saw the rest of the sights, including a stop at a road pass at over 5000 metres, the highest we've ever been in our lives, and made our bus to Chile. Despite us thinking our guide was a complete idiot for what he had done, we thought his wife was lovely, and did her best to cook us great food with very limited ingredients. We also couldn't have wished for a better group, we all got on great, important when you're going to spend three days together, and especially important if you get a problem like the one we experienced.

Crossing back over to Civilization

The Bolivian border post was just a hut in a mountain pass in the middle of nowhere, very different to the usual chaotic borders which we're used to crossing. So as we say bye to Bolivia, we board a nice modern comfortable Chilean bus. As we zoom down the mountain side, on the best road we've been on for months, and the temperature starts to rise considerably, the excitement hits us that we're about to finally arrive back in civilization.

A Summary of our Bolivian Adventures

We have not enjoyed Bolivia as much as we were hoping. We've come across more than our fair share of  unfriendly and unhelpful people. The buses have been the most uncomfortable since Nicaragua. The altitude and the cold temperatures at night, along with a lack of heated accommodation, makes getting a good night's sleep difficult. Getting food poisoning and the incident with our drunk guide in Salar de Uyuni just about finished us off.
 
However, not to leave Bolivia on a totally negative note, it's the country with the highest indigenous population in South America, which makes it more culturally interesting than other places. It's also one of the cheapest countries we've been to, and is home to the stunning scenery at and around Salar de Uyuni. If it could work on it's faults, it could be a much better place to visit.
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