Again, apologies for lack of posts…
Where I left off last time, I had just boarded a bus to Uyuni, a 10 hour or so overnight journey on quite possibly one of the worst roads in South America. I hadn’t really realized this, so I was happily chatting to the guy next to me, a French guy who was also meeting someone in Uyuni to leave the next day. About an hour in, after I’d finished my dinner of banana sandwiches, a wave of sickness hit me, and I had to go to the toilet for the first time that night. Those feeling squeamish can skip the rest of the paragraph if they’d like. To my horror, when I got to the toilet I found it was for number ones only, and so there was no flush function, and the sink was blocked… But at least there was a toilet. After that first bout I returned to my seat, but 10 minutes later decided to relocate my bags to the 2 seats right at the back of the bus, next to the toilet for easy access. I can’t quite fully remember the next 8 hours or so, but effectively I was a flush being pulled every thirty minutes, from both ends. By light the next day, having scared off everyone else who had tried to go that night, I went in and saw carnage. I won’t describe it… But it was carnage.
And that was my bus journey to Uyuni. It may have been down to bumps every few meters that propelled you 30cm out of your seat, it may have been the fact I was sitting at the back of the bus, and it may have been the bananas or bread I’d eaten that evening (somehow), but it was the worst experience of my life, quite comfortably.
Needless to say, I didn’t go on my tour the next day, and instead booked into a nice hotel in Uyuni and slept/threw up that Saturday. On the Sunday, having recovered sufficiently, I took a last minute jeep to Tupiza, 5 hours south of Uyuni, where I’d heard the tours were better. Tupiza is infinitely better than Uyuni, which is completely dead on account of having little actual tourist activity (they get there, get a tour, and get out). Tupiza is a town in and of itself, so feels a lot more alive, and in a way, because it’s in a desert of sorts, feels kind of like a sleepy wild west town. To fit in, I decided to become a cowboy and went on a horse tour of the surrounding area the next day. It was a 3 hour tour with my young guide, a pretty quiet guy (the people in Southern Bolivia all seem pretty soft spoken and polite) where we toured the incredible scenery surrounding Tupiza. It did feel very like the American West, i.e shrubs and cacti on light brown, sunbaked rock, with large hills and interesting rock formations dotting the landscape.
But the primary purpose of my visit was to get a high quality, if a little expensive, tour to the salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni, possibly Bolivia’s most stunning natural phenomenon, and probably in the top 3 in all of South America. The Salar (salt flat in Spanish) is about 10.5 thousand square km or 4 thousand square miles, and, to put it simply, is effectively a completely flat desert made of salt. As in the sort of salt you can eat. It’s also so flat and large that it is used for calibrating the altimeters of orbiting satellites. However before reaching the flats there are 3 days of driving. On the map below you can see the route.
So on the Tuesday, at 8 am those of us taking our tour (from La Torre Tours, would highly recommend this company) all congregated outside the three jeeps that would be departing that morning. Although the people in our jeep would be who we’d be spending most of our time with, we would also see the other two groups at every stop we made and while we were travelling. In my group there was a French couple in their early thirties- Jerome and Benedicte, a 24 year old Dutch woman- Kelly and a 65 year old English woman from Twickenham- Carol. By strange coincidence, the guy I’d played pool with in La Paz, Kristian, was in one of the other jeeps, with 3 French girls. The final two members of the jeep were our driver, Frau (don’t know the spelling, or even how to pronounce it properly), and our cook Marta, both of them no more than thirty and again, soft and slow speaking, helpful traits when driving through the scenery we were going to be seeing.
This is a pretty small map of the route, but hopefully it gives an idea of where it is in Bolivia, in relation to Argentina, Chile and La Paz.
The first day was the longest, a 12 hour drive with relatively regular stops for use of the toilet, views of the landscape and lunch. But 12 hours in Bolivia means it’s hard to fall asleep. The reason I love the country so much is it seems to have everything: snow capped mountains and strange rock formations, modern cities, old cities, huge cities and crumbling ones. Tiny, remote villages, and 32 different indigenous cultures. The Andes and the Amazon, Lake Titicaca, the Salar, llamas, alpacas, and flamingos. One trip is never enough.
The first stop we made looked over a vast canyon, quite similar to the Grand Canyon in Nevada actually, whereas the second was a prairie, inhabited by a herd of llamas and donkeys. As we were driving we were also getting higher and higher in altitude, and as such it was getting progressively colder, and the air thinner. I think the altitude is something that, as always, will affect some people more than others, but it’s definitely worth acclimatising for a few days somewhere in the Andes, whether it’s in La Paz or elsewhere, beforehand, as it really helps.
For lunch that day we stopped off in a small local village and wandered around, pretty much just stretching our legs and admiring the scenery. Eventually we were called into a small dining area, and we all sat around a small table as both a meat and vegetarian lunch were brought in front of us by Marta, the cook, along with coke, water, rice and salad. The food was incredible, and set the tone for really some of the best food I’ve had in South America, apart from maybe some really good restaurants. How she did that just from her equipment and ingredients in the jeep is beyond me. Once we arrived at our accommodation for the night, a rather basic hostel set up especially for our groups, we again gathered round the table as dinner was being prepared. Tensions began to rise due to a delay in the arrival of dinner, as no information had been given as to whether it would be provided (although I was one of those assuring others it was coming) and so for about 2 hours we made do with biscuits, coca tea and dulce de leche. The dulce de leche, if you haven’t had it before, is basically caramelised milk, what you use in banofee pie. Here though, it was a tub of it, and so for each breakfast and before dinner we would guzzle it down, trying to enjoy it without ruining our appetite. Eventually dinner did arrive, always in the form of a quinua soup first, then the main, generally for the meat eaters, a piece of chicken or beef, rice and salad. When I said the food was some of the best I’d eat over here, I meant that some of the food was. Some was just food that you appreciated but didn’t make you weak at the knees or anything.
That night we were fully prepared for the cold, and cold it does get, often down to below freezing. We had been given sleeping bags, and 3 layers of duvets, and I also slept in a jumper, so it was no surprise that I woke up at 3 in the morning covered in sweat and having to shed some layers.
Over the next two days we became a really tight-knit group. Kelly was interesting because of how naive and innocent she was about everything. Everything you told her she believed, even if it was a joke or sarcasm, but it was endearing. The French couple, Jerome and Benedicte, were both incredibly nice people who became the group’s photographers, as for some stupid reason I left my camera battery charger in La Paz, and have agreed to UPS everyone a DVD with all their photos on them. Carol was a very unique woman. Divorced some years ago, she now travels to India and Bolivia and Columbia every year; India because her daughter runs a hotel in Mumbai, and Bolivia and Columbia because she loves the countries. She does have some incredible stories of her intrepid travels deep in FARC territory in Columbia, coming across villages and beaches untouched by Western eyes, travelling by boat, bus, bike and military plane to the site of Che Guevara’ś death, and living with indigenous groups deep in the Amazon. For a single woman in her sixties I was impressed.
So it was with this group that I was couped up in a 4×4 with until the Salt flats, arriving at some incredible scenery, including both green and red lakes, flocks of flamingos, steaming sulfer geysers, hot springs, volcanoes, moon like rock formations and never ending rolling hills. Unfortunately all the photos are at my house in a DVD, but the ones I took on my phone are on Facebook! They’re in my album ‘Bolivia’. As soon as I have access to the ones on the DVD I will upload them here, as I’m sure there’s some amazing photos there.
For the last night we stayed in the most modern hostel of the tour, one whose novelty was that it was made of salt. The walls, floor, tables, bar, beds, duvets, everything was made of salt. Ok fine the duvets weren’t, but that would be ridiculous. It also had the first shower of the trip, and so the group took it in turns to have our 8 minutes under the beautifully hot water before dinner. Dinner was also a nice surprise. After our dulce (sweet) appetiser, we were served an amazing vegetarian lasagne, one which the vegetarians in our group declared was the best they’d ever had. We also had some wine and beer, and played pool afterwards, a game of terrible quality where Kristian (my partner in La Paz) and I, barely beat two novices, taking over an hour to do it. We blamed it on the altitude.
The next day was an early start, waking at 5:30 and leaving at 6 for the sunrise on the flats. As we boarded our jeep the excitement grew, and by the time we hit the salt, we’d completely forgotten the time and were just staring in wonderment at the first rays of sunlight reflecting off the pure white salt crystals. Eventually we stopped and we let out onto it for the first time. Kelly immediately began planning the photos while the rest of us watched the sunrise over the distant mountains. After about 20 minutes we loaded back into the jeep and headed to the isla del pescado (fish island), an actual island in the middle of the Salar, covered in giant cacti, which can be up to a hundred years old and over 12m high. We never actually found out why it was named that, and there’s no chance any fish could be found anywhere near it, but I guess it’s there for the imagination to think up.
From here we were allowed to climb it and then take some photos, as its elevation makes it the perfect way to survey the entire area. After we returned we found a tablecloths laid on some more salt tables, and Marta laying out a sponge cake, cereal, and more dulce de leche for our breakfast! This was one of the best surprises of the trip for me (I love cake), and I can now tell you that dulce de leche and sponge cake go really well together (there’s a photo of Kelly really happy about this on Facebook).
After this came the photos. We drove for about 15 minutes further into the salar, mostly to escape all the other jeeps that were there, and then the car was stopped and we were told we’d have an hour and a half for photos. Frau switched off the engine, pulled his cap over his face, and fell asleep. He’d evidently seen this too many times.
One of the coolest things about the flats is it reduces your sense of perspective, making it easy to create cool photos. It’s kind of hard to describe, so here’s an example:
Jerome is the big guy. From Left: Kelly, me, Carol
I’m sure there are plenty more on the DVD, so that ones just a taster of some of the cool stuff that can be done, although creating the photos can be pretty funny yet frustrating at times.
Anyway, that’s probably enough words. Here are some photos that I’ve taken off the French couple’s facebooks!
Our group. From left: Marta, Carol, Kelly, Frau, me, Jerome, Benedikt.
Isla del Pescado
Among the geysers
Breakfast on the final day
The Salar de Uyuni, at sunrise. The shapes in the salt are from when the water evaporates. Water covers it for about a month every year when it rains. Purely spectacular.