Flat and salty

Trip Start Nov 17, 2010
Trip End Feb 27, 2011

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, January 5, 2011

05/01/2011 - Tuesday
1am: I am jolted awake in a sitting up position.  My seat is shaking like crazy - was it an earthquake? No, it's only a combination of sitting in the back row of a bus with crappy suspension, an unpaved road with a thousand potholes and going at 120km/h.

The bumpiness of the bus was crazy, peoples' belongings were flying out of the storage sections and I was becoming airborn every 2 seconds.  It evetually died down to a more dull bumpiness, and I did get a few more hours of sleep, although it was never more than 30 minutes at a time.

For the last hour of the trip I didn't sleep, since it was light anyway.  We pulled into the dusty town of Uyuni at 7 in the morning, and after helping people locate lost shoes and other things that had flown around the bus we got off to find a tour for the next three days.

We were joined with two girls from the same bus, an American who had been travelling and working in Wild Rover for a few weeks, and a French girl.  There were many tour companies opening up as we walked around, although many were trying to charge us overpriced tours because of the recent petrol price change. 

Eventually we ended up booking a three day, two night tour with a company that was recommended to us back in La Paz.  We also booked our return trip to La Paz for the day we were returning, since it seemed like a better option than staying an extra night in Uyuni.

The rest of our tour group was made up of mostly Brazilians and a few Bolivians, from Santa Cruz.  Our transport would be two 4WDs, and we were allowed to store our backpacks inside the tour agency for the three days, taking only essentials and a change of clothes.

First stop on the tour was El Cementerio de Trenes, the Train Cemetery located just outside the town of Uyuni.  Uyuni used to be a large transport hub for minerals, but in the 1940s the mining trade collapsed and so many trains were abandoned there.  Most lay rusting now in the train graveyard, and is now one of the major tourist attractions in Uyuni.  The place was absolutely crawling with tourists, and I had to wait for a while to try get some photos without anyone climbing on a train or being in the background.

The next stop was a salt producing 'factory', which was basically a house where piles of salt are put onto a stove and heated, then shovelled into the next room and filtered, then put into plastic bags ready for distribution.  The explanation of the process was in spanish so I might have missed some small details...

Outside the whole street was lined with stalls and stores selling salt related souvenirs - I bought a small container carved out of salt.

Driving further out of town, we eventually arrived at the edge of the salt flats.  Even with sunglasses on, the colour is blindingly white, stretching on into the horizon.  We stopped near some small squares pools of water with many small metre high piles of salt sitting in them.  The guide explained to us that the salt is dug up from the surface, then left in piles to dry.  This is then taken to be processed.

Driving on the salt flats was very smooth, coupled with the 4WD's suspension you could hardly feel anything and it was just like tarmac.  We stopped briefly at the first "salt hotel", where the walls, furniture, and everything else was made entirely out of slabs of salt dug out of the ground.  I had imagined it would be like table salt, and that everything would fall apart with the slightest knock, but it was actually quite solid.  I guess it has been compacted in the ground and what not.

The final stop before lunch was "Isla del Pescado" - Fish Island.  From a distance, it does indeed look like an island, sticking out of the flat expanse of salt.  The whole area was once covered by water, so it's more of an ex-underwater-island, to be precise.  The island was made up of dark coloured rocks, with gigantic cacti covering most of the island, many of them over 6 metres tall.  The guide told us that they only grow 1 cm per year, so the tallest 12 metre tall cacti were actually 1200 years old.  There is a trail that you can follow which makes a circuit around the island, which takes 30 minutes to walk around.  At the top you can take fantastic 360 degree photos, and there is also some kind of shrine to Pachamama.

By the time we arrived back at the start, lunch was prepared for us.  After eating we had fun taking photos of us in different poses and with all kinds of props - pretty much half of the photos you see from the salt flats.

At the end of the first day we drove for an hour until we reached our accommodation, a much larger and spacious salt hotel, where even the bed bases were made from salt.  The lights went out after 9pm, so we went outside to sit around and talk.  I think it was a combination of being at high altitudes, and little to no pollution in the atmosphere, but the night sky that night was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.  If only I had some super expensive astronomy photography equipment so I could capture the moment! The Milky Way was so big and bright in the sky, I can only imagine this was how it appeared to the Greeks thousands of years ago.

06/01/2011 - Thursday
I was woken up in the middle of the night, apparently I was snoring loudly... oops. 

Most of the day was spent driving around to different lagoons of varying colour and smells.  Flamingos live around these lagoons, and it is a bizarre sight to see flocks of pink birds sitting in such an environment.  We also got to see the Arbol de Piedra - Stone Tree, which was a fancy rock formation eroded into the shape of a tree. (See pictures)

Before we reached Laguna Colorada, the second 4WD broke down, and we waited for 20 minutes until it could be fixed again.  By then I was feeling a little bit unwell, although I wasn't sure if it was the food we had eaten or just the altitude.

As we just settled in the rooms, the French girl came around asking if anyone had seen her camera.  After an hour of searching we all came up empty handed.  It was agreed that the most likely thing that happened was in the few minutes we were away from the 4WD, one of the drivers from another tour had gotten into our car and taken her camera which was just on the back seat. 

The accommodation for the second night was much worse than the first, and much more basic.  She was obviously quite upset, but there was little we could do about it.  There were no showers either, which we knew about beforehand.  After having some lasagne for dinner, half of us began to feel sick, and we spent half the night running to the only bathroom in the place. Gastro-stop didn't seem to help.

07/01/2011 - Friday
The guide came around at 4:30 to wake us up, as we had to make it to the geysers before sunrise.  Oliver, the American girl Jess and I were all feeling under the weather, so we slept most of the way there.  Oliver didn't even bother getting out, and we just hopped out quickly to get a photo then jumped back into the 4WD.

We felt a bit better as the day progressed, the Brazilians gave us some medicine too which helped (I think).  We also drank a lot of coca-leaf tea, which was supposed to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness.  In the afternoon as we were driving back towards Uyuni, we stopped for lunch in a small village.  Nearby there was a herd of alpacas grazing, but instead of grass it was some really spiky plant... unfortuantely Oliver didn't find out until he sat down on it.

There was still a few hours until our evening bus back to La Paz departed, so I went in search of a shower with Jess, which resulted in us asking about 10 different hostels and hotels before we were finally allowed to use one for a high fee.  Apparently the town's water supply was really low, and only hotel customers who were staying the night were allowed to use showers.

I used the spare time I had to check emails and found out that earlier in the day Roy Hodgson had been sacked by Liverpool FC.  Amazing times.  We bought some pizzas and ate them lining up for the bus, but only after everyone was on board and ready to go did I realise I had left my only hoodie in the travel agency... however it was too late to go and I'm just glad a Bolivian person is now a bit warmer wearing my hoodie.  Didn't have much trouble getting to sleep, in preparation for the bumpy ride back to La Paz.
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