12000 square km of salt, salt and more salt

Trip Start Aug 26, 2005
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Trip End May 26, 2008


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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Atacama Desert around the salt plains of Bolivia and Northern Chile is the driest place on Planet Earth. This is where NASA sent the Mars Rovers to search for water, as a test mission for the real thing. They failed miserably. There is less water here than on Mars. I took a tour across the desert and salt plains and saw toxic salt lakes and hot springs, crowded with flamingos. There were llamas and we even saw a few Condors, which are apparently pretty rare. Armadillos popped up every now and then and even a few Kiwis. We saw the Dali desert, where he painted that famous scene of rocks, with the tree and melting clock.

Salt plain / Desert Tour - Day 1

We were off to a bad start. One of the French girls on our tour was chronically ill and passed out only minutes before getting into the car. She stupidly decided that she still wanted to come with us and after a doctor's assessment she was allowed to join us.

Two hours late, we set off towards the super dry South West of Bolivia. Bordering the Atacama Desert in Chile it is officially the driest place on Earth.

There were 6 of us in the 4WD, being led by our Driver/Guide and his Wife/Cook. The group was made up of me, Tim - another Aussie and some kind of AFL super star, apparently best mates with Barry Hall (Aussie AFL legend). Then there was Chris, a Mad Swedish guy, who loved to swear, then Jason, from Vancouver, who was a very kool guy and then to make up the 6 were the dreadful French Sisters who said no more than 11 words over the entire 4 days. It just goes to backup my theory of the useless French.

So with our group assembled, we were on our way. Waiting for us were 3 cold, high altitude nights and 4 long days and some amazing scenery. Actually saying amazing scenery does nothing to emphasize exactly how amazing it was. Through the course of the first day, we crossed a super dry desert with nothing but a horizon of dull brown as far as you can see. We knew the salt was coming and entertained ourselves with a few silly car games until we arrived at our hostel, had dinner and crashed early.

Day 2

After a super cold breathless night at around 3500 meters, we reached the highest point of the 4 days after a torturous drive. We arrived at the Geysers at an altitude of 4970 meters. We were ruined. Just getting out of the car was an effort as we all fought pounding migraines and breathlessness. Altitude sickness is a nightmare. The symptoms resemble a bad hangover but, worse. I fought a battle for a few hours trying not to throw up. Others however weren’t so successful. Even chewing on copious amounts of coca leaves and drinking coca tea didn’t relieve the pain and suffering. All they seemed to do was give us a sleepless night and frightening dreams.

After the stinking sulfurous geysers we descended a little, to 4200 metres, where our pounding heads were only slightly relieved at the thermal springs. We stripped off and sat in the warm water and relaxed in the desert sun. We had our 4WD of 6 tourists, throughout the tour, we followed two other cars, each with their 6 tourists. At each stop, we mingled and compared car stories. It seemed they were all as bored as us. We entertained them with stories of the horrid Frenchies in our car and I even managed to swap cars for a few hours and ride with the others.

Day 3

We crossed salt, lagoons, salt lagoons, mountains, desert, cactus, desert, and more desert and stampeding vicunas (a type of llama).
Pulling up as the sun was setting, we arrived at our salt hotel. On the edge of the salt plains, the hotel is built with mud walls, but inside, are salt beds, salt floors, and salt tables. The floor is lined with salt and the crystals get everywhere. Just don’t spill any water on the floor. We had dinner with the two other groups and ran outside as the sun was just about to go down for the night and played with our shadows that stretched to the horizon. I guess it’s very rare to see the sunset exactly on the horizon, dead straight in front of you. I hadn’t realized this before but I have never seen such a long shadow.

Day 4

We rose from our salt beds, in our salt rooms, from our hotel made of salt at 4am and felt a little parched. We had a quick breakfast of pancakes and hit the road, headed for the middle of Salar de Uyuni for what was to be a spectacular sunrise, and at this early stage, I’m brave enough to say, the greatest sunrise I will ever see.

We drove through a shallow salt lake for an hour. It had formed by the rains over the last few days and there was an inch of water on the ground. A brilliant glow of twilight to our right and the twinkling but fading stars reflected off the thin layer of water over the salt flats. It was so cold outside that the water that splashed onto the widescreen froze instantly.

We drove towards the centre of the salt plains until we could see nothing but a salt horizon. Arriving at the centre of the salt plains at 6am, we were overcome with a variety of feelings and emotions. It was amazing to be in such a remote place. All we could see, for 360 degrees was flat white salt. We all had a moment to take it in.

As the sun slowly rose, we snapped a million photos between the 6 of us and witnessed the most amazing sunrise. Which I can’t even begin to explain. At 7:30 when the sun was high in the sky and the temperature started to soar, we headed to our next stop, Isla de los Pescadores or Fisherman’s Island.

Somehow, there is an island of dirt and rock in the middle of the salt flats, covered in cactus, the highest being 12 metres tall. Hiking to the top we had an amazing view towards the city of Uyuni way off in the distance.

Back in the car we traveled a few hours across the salt, arriving in the town of Uyuni. A few of us that had been hanging out over the past few days checked into a hostel together, leaving the Frenchies behind we didn’t waste any time before the next adventure which was a tour of 'The train Graveyard’. A few k’s outside of Uyuni is the end of the line for about 50 old train engines. They are dumped at this graveyard and left to rust in the salt. There were all kinds of old engines and we had a great time climbing through them.

Uyuni is possibly one of the most uneventful towns I have ever been in. I lasted all of 3 minutes before I booked my one way ticket out of there, which happened to be 7 hours North to Potosi and the biggest open cut mine in the world.

I sense Dynamite ahead.
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