The Salt Flats and the cold!

Trip Start Jun 09, 2009
Trip End Jun 22, 2009

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

With the only routes to Uyuni through Potosi, thatīs the way we went.  Normally happy to take a night bus for long journeys, that too was not an option for this trip.  An early start and an uneventful ride to Potosi saw us arrive about 10am with a 2 hour wait (for the same bus company) for the connection to Uyuni.  We decided to spend our time sending a postcard or two (hope you lot appreciate the effort we went to to send a Bolivian card!) in the town centre - a taxi ride from the bus office.  We got directions, to and from town, and information when the bus leaves from the office girl working for the bus company... with the destinations marked on the map and times written down, and our Spanish getting a little better each day, how could anything go wrong...? Well the stupid girl doesnīt know where she works or what times her buses leave!  Luckily we caught a friendly and helpful taxi who eventually found the bus office (the other side ot town to where the girl had marked) and caught the bus at 12pm (half an hour before the time the girl had written down) - useless has reached a new level!!
That aside, the route to Uyuni was a spectacular one, if not a little rough (altthough that has become the accepted norm here).  We crossed several mountain passes, had wheels dangling over the edges of cliffs, could see for miles upon miles over open plains and finally rolled into a chilly and dusty Uyuni in the early evening.  Our brave spanish phone call a few days earlier paid off as indeed we had managed to reserve a room (with bathroom and heating) but had little energy left to argue the price we had to pay - twice what we were quoted and the most expensive room we have stayed in in all of our travels!  That said, they did serve the worlds largest pizzas and brought us a hotwater bottle during the night.  A reasonable nights sleep, trying to adjust to the extreme cold they have here and we were ready to face the markets, buy some extra gloves (Aliīs third pair!), an alpaca blanket, rent a couple of sleeping bags and book our trip through the south-west circuit of Bolivia.
We met our group for the tour at 10am (ready to leave for 10.30, but this being Bolivian time we set off at about12...) and set out for the Salar de Uyuni, or to you and me, the salt flats.  The route through a train grave yard gave us a flat tyre within half an hour of setting off, but with a little effort we finally made it to what is described as one of the world most perfect deserts.  This place recieves so little rain, but being between 3-4000m it remains pretty damn cold throughout the year, not quite the blistering heat of Death Valley!  A series of standard silly photos, made all the more stupid when you see what people look like trying to set up the perfect perspective photo.  Day one finished with a drive to the edge of the flats and a night in brick outhouses.  Dinner was, well the less said about any of the meals the better - as seems normal for these tours we were promised 5 tourists, a driver and a cook; what we got was the cook canned in place of an extra tourist, leaving our driver to cook...
Day two was a cold start and a drive over some of the most rugged terrain, over several moutains, through rivers and down canyons to a series of hot sulphur lagunes, even home to some pink flamingos!  With a handful of stops, some more spectacularly rugged scenery and following a mountain range denoting the Chilian/Bolivian border we made our way to night number two.  The place we stayed was even more basic, mud walls, canvas roof, no running water and although dinner this night came with a frozen bottle of red wine, the generator lights were turned off at 8pm leaving some of the group stranded in the dark in an outhouse style toilet, some half undressed in the dorm room and others searching for their beds.  Night number two also saw the temperature drop to between -17 and -20oC; weighing about 12 kg Ali managed to stave off a little of the cold by hybernating under 7 blankets, a make-shift hot water bottle and a sleeping bag, oh and wearing just about every item of clothing she owned.  All this was made better by the 4am start the next day!  A drive in complete darkness through an area of active volcanoes led us to the hot springs, geysers and a view of the sunrise over the mountains - and no, with the outside temperature still being in the minus double figures, we did not get in the hot springs!
This day we also said goodbye to the rest of our group as they joined separate 4x4s to head back to Uyuni while we continued on for an extra night and on to Tupiza.  Our time with Antonio (the driver and suedo cook) was actaully really good fun when we were on our own.  In a group of 6 (Bryn and Rosie, and Marijn and Sarah, and us) where very little Spanish is spoken by either one of us, the conversations tended to remain between us tourists and neglected Antonio.  When we were on our own with him we constantly tried to have conversations with him and he in turn told us more and more about the areas we were visiting.  We exchanged stories about our families and home life and we found him to be a fun, kind hearted and informative guide - plus all credit to him as he was always up at least half an hour before us preparing food and mending the truck and preparing for the day, despite his shivering in the balticīly cold weather.  While we mention the truck we should list the problems with it - an despite them it was all good fun: flat tyres, cracking windscreen, rear door freezing shut, electric windows gave up, constantly leaking radiator, heating breaking and on the final day as we decended 1500m the breaks failed!  But safe and sound in the end, on our final day we traversed pretty much every type of terrain available, forded frozen rivers and bounced over sand dunes towards the red rock mountains of Tupiza.
Throughout the trip we had no accomodation booked - we simply turned up in tiny, remote  villages and Antonio drove around asking locals if we could stay.  This was the same for places to eat, although we had some of our own food, he would knock on doors and ask if he could use their house to cook some dinner.  A little worried at first about the apparent lack of organisation, we soon began to trust Antonios judgement and met some interesting people along the way.  However, turning up in Tupiza where the temperature was in plus figures, checking into a hotel with a hot shower (4 days without washing and not seeing you feet is long enough!), eating a colosal hot dinner, downing a litre of beer each and getting some washing done was a set of simple pleasures one really, really learns to appreciate!
Today has been a slow day, we have wandered the small streets of Tupiza, bought our bus ticket to the border, ate a 3 course meal for 4 pounds and then charged the same to withdraw money from the bank (ATMs are not seen in these parts).  Tomorrow we intend to trek a little of the mountains and canyons in the area and get a little of the Butch Casidy and Sundance Kid atmosphere (it was around here that they saw their final robbery and final moments at the hands of the chasing soldiers).  After that we head to the border and, hopefully, into Argentina.
Just a little extra... last night we were invited to stand on the street with the owners of the hotel. It was all for a celebration of San Juan, the coldest night in Bolivia and believe us, it was very cold.  But a little fire, a few fireworks and firecrackers and plenty of their own made cocktails saw through the evening.  The following day we headed out for a walk through El Canyon (a dry red rock river bed).  Unfortunately we found ourselves a little off the track, despite assurances it was impossible to get lost!  We managed about 4 hours in the right direction, scrambling over dry waterfalls and admiring the extensive views, and even managed a little siesta after some lunch.  After that it all went horribly wrong.  We headed toward what looked like a track and turned out to be one of the scariest moments yet; we found ourselves stuck at a  20m drop and no way of return.  We traversed around and found ourselves clinging to falling rocks and slipping ever nearer a canyon ravine.  A few life before your eyes moments, some tears and a lot of stress but we managed to clamber up and out with a few scratches, bruises and some torn clothing.  Never ever again.
But, that said, we survived and what way do you celebrate that...?  A litre of beer each please!  One good thing - a pizza, a pasta dish and 2 litres of beer for 7 pounds!
In the mean time itīs goodbye Bolivia.
An extra note... one of our photo cards has picked up a virus somewhere in Bolivia, it has a snotty cold and runny nose.  What this means is that although we can view our photos on the camera we cannot put them on the internet, and no-one here seems sure enough that if we delete the virus we wont delete all our photos!  What can you do??  In the mean time you lot will have to wait a little longer and we can run through the 800 or so we have of just the Salt Flats when we get home!!
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