On top of the world

Trip Start Aug 17, 2003
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Trip End Jun 04, 2004


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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Leaving San Pedro at 8am, our bus headed off out towards the Bolivian border, and towards 3 days at extreme altitude (up to 5000m on day 1) and some of the most spectacular scenery I've ever seen! On the way up the road, we passed a herd of llamas, which were incredible. They all had coloured tufts of wool attached to them, which I assume is the equivalent of a brand, so it is obvious who they belong to. But it makes them look so fantastic!!!

About 40km out of San Pedro, we reached the turn off to the Bolivian border. And the difference was very marked - a sign of things to come for definite!!! Suddenly we went from a good quality tarmac road to dirt. And very very bumpy. I'd been warned that Bolivian roads aren't a great standard, but this really wasn't looking like a great start!!

After getting through all the usual border rigmarole, we continued on to the Laguna Blanca, where we stopped for breakfast and transferred all our gear into jeeps for the next 3 days (again, says a lot about the road conditions that you need jeeps!) The views here were just unbelievable, as the sun was still quite low and it was creating perfect reflections in the very shallow lake. And with flamingos dotted around as well, it was just mystical.

But it just kept on getting better from there. Once we'd got into our jeeps (I was with 3 British-Cypriot girls, and our driver Fili, who we soon realized was quite the local hunk) we headed off to the neighbouring lake, the Laguna Verde. Apparently at some times of the year, these two lakes are actually one, but as the water level recedes, they split off. The Laguna Blanca is white because of the chalk in it, and the Laguna Verde is green because of the copper deposits. The photo I've got really doesn't do it justice as it was an incredible colour.

From there it was off deeper into Bolivian territory, with a stop at some hot springs (again this area is full of volcanoes and geothermal activity) and a chance to chill out for a while. I decided to go for it and got the bikini out and it was really amazing. The scenery all around was just so fantastic and it was great to be lying in bath temperature water and looking out over this beautiful landscape.

Next was onto more geothermal activity, at the Sol de Mañana geysers. I have to say that I thought I was well and truly geysered out after NZ, but this was really quite incredible. The water temperature is 180C and the steam coming off was just incredible. It totally blocked out the landscape as it blew past!

Last stop for the day and our overnight accommodation was at the Laguna Colorada. This lake is an unbelievable red colour - you just can't believe the colour until you see it!!! As it's ringed with brilliant white salt deposits as well, it just stands out even more. Once we had dropped our stuff off in the rooms and had lunch, we were able to go out and have a wander. The other groups were warned not to go too close to the edge because it gets really wet, but Fili hadn't told us - we soon wished he had as we were covered in light grey sludge!!! One of the girls, Jo, was sketching as we went around, and she dropped some of the sketches - Zoe and I went running after them and ended up up to our ankles in mud! Not great!!

We'd been warned that the first night's accommodation was very basic, and that was certainly true, although to be honest, I was actually expecting worst - I thought it was better than the DOC huts in NZ!!! The main problem was the lack of running water, which meant no showers, and the toilets had to be manually flushed by pouring water into them from a bucket outside. Which meant the bathroom floor was covered in water permanently. Add to that the fact that you can't flush toilet paper in much of South America, instead you put it in a bin, which means that it starts to really smell.... And the whole toilet thing wasn't really a great experience.

But the most important thing was that we had beds to sleep in, great food, and a roof over our heads. Which when it started to get really cold in the middle of the night was definitely a good thing. I was very grateful for my thermals and my 3 season sleeping bag!!

The next morning we set off again for a long day of driving. There weren't quite so many spectacular sights on this day as on the first, but the whole landscape was just incredible, with lakes and mountains everywhere. We stopped first of all at a "forest" of rocks, which we think was actually lava from volcanic explosions - but none of us completely understood what the guide said (he only spoke Spanish, so sometimes it was quite an interesting experience!!) Wherever they came from, they were incredibly big, and quite random just out in the middle of the desert.

As we carried on there started to suddenly be some vegetation - we went past some rocks at one point which actually had plants growing on them - incredible considering how high up it is and how little rainfall there is. In the holes in these rocks live vizcachas, little animals kind of like a cross between a chinchilla and a rabbit. And as if it had been put there intentionally, there was one sitting sunning itself on a rock as we slowed down to have a look!! Perfect!

From there it was on past a number of beautiful lakes, again all with incredible reflections of the snowcapped mountains around. One was full of flamingos, so we stopped there for about 45 minutes to watch and take photos. Up close, the colours on them are amazing - some areas on their wings were more red than pink, the colour on them was so intense. It was great to just sit and watch them.

We then had a fairly long drive, by which time we were incredibly fed up with Fili's one tape of Bolivian music which he'd been playing all day. At first it seemed very fitting that we should have latin american music while we were there, but after the 7th play of the tape, by which time we were all singing along, it came very close to being thrown out of the window!!!

The next stop was in the village of San Juan, a small Bolivian village, with not really all that much going for it. But it was quite interesting to see where people live, and even to be honest that they manage to survive in such bleak surroundings!

Not much further on and we finally reached our overnight stop in Chuvica, a village on the very edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. Compared with last night, this place was a palace, with ensuite bathrooms etc etc. And amazing views out over the village and the salar. We had a wander around the village, which had a really pretty church.

The next morning, we had a late start, not going out until 10am. And we headed straight out onto the salar in our jeeps. Once we got out into the middle of it, it was just amazing. Everywhere, in every direction, as far as you could see, was nothing but white. It almost looked like snow. And where it had dried, there were cracks, making it look like some immense crazy paving. It was just amazing, and I don't think words can describe it.

We spent probably about 3 hours out on the salar, and at the Isla de Pescadores in the centre of it, which is covered in cactuses. The views in every direction were amazing, and we were taking advantage of the perfect white background to take all sorts of silly photos, playing with perspective and things. But it was also great to just sit and look out and contemplate the view. However, with not a cloud in the sky and the sun being reflected back off the salt below, it soon became all a little bit intense. I started to feel quite ill and think I got a little bit of sunstroke (especially as I'd burned the day before by forgetting to put sunscreen on!!!)

I was quite relieved when we then headed off and started to head towards Uyuni - but there were still quite a few stops to make yet. First was the salt hotel, made entirely of blocks of salt, with all the furniture inside made of blocks of well. It was pretty cool, although I was expecting it to be white, and so dirty brown was a bit of a disappointment. It was also a bit of a tourist trap, insisting that you buy something from their vastly overpriced shop before they would let you into the hotel to look around.

The next stop was at the commercial exploitation of the salt, where it is taken off the salar and sold. This was quite odd just because in every direction were little pyramids of salt lying around. But it really wasn't all that interesting, and by this stage I just wanted to get to Uyuni and be able to get out of the sun. When we then had to stop at the small village on the edge of the salar to also go to their souvenir shop I was starting to get annoyed!!!

But eventually we arrived in Uyuni and checked into our hotel and were able to relax. In the evening, the 9 of us who had been in the group all went out for dinner together, which was a great way to round off the trip. Unfortunately Jane and I got a bit carried away on the wine, and ended up spending a fortune over dinner (still only £7 though, but very expensive for Bolivia!!) Not to mention that getting up the next morning was then quite a struggle!!!
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