Salar de Uyuni Tour

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Feb 01, 2005

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, August 8, 2004

Time to freeze during my 4 day tour of the Salar de Uyuni and various lagunas.

Tanja Again!
Emily and I arrived after our train trip (take the train, just take the train!) from Oruro and found Tanja and her boyfriend waiting for us in the foyer of the hotel. They had managed to wangle a room even though the place was full. The fact that their bed was just a sleeping bag on the ground didn`t seem to worry them!

We had just put our bags in our room and were talking to Tanja and Robert when we got upgraded to a room with a private bathroom. As there were three beds in the room, Tanja and Robert took the other one! They also arranged to be on the same Salar tour as us, as did Amanda and Jez who we had met in Rurrenabaque and were supposed to go to the jungle with.

Day 1: Salar
There were six of us in the jeep, and we all knew each other from somewhere (Tanja met Amanda and Jez in Honduras). The jeep finally left at about 11:30am with our driver Romer, whose name I thought was Roca. We drove towards the Salar and I think the point when our driver became grumpy was when we didn`t contribute any money for the parties on 6 August. From that point onwards, he was a nasty, grumpy bastard who didn`t like waiting to take pictures. We saw little mounds of salt being swept up, and then the eyes of the Salar, where water bubbles up under the layers of salt.

We then zipped across the smooth white expanse towards the Isla de Pescadores, or Fish Island. As we neared it, I asked what was possibly a silly question (but without my glasses on I wasn`t seeing things too clearly) as to whether Fish Island (which I hadn`t yet realised what it was) was rock or land. The grumpy driver didn`t even bother to answer my question.

As it turned out, it was Fish Island, infested with massive cacti of up to 8m tall!! We were given 45 minutes to wander the island before lunch and whilst in the process of having my picture taken with a cactus, I managed to pull my camera out of Emily`s hands and have it drop to the rocks. Horrified I was unable to get the bastard to work and was extremely annoyed at myself for breaking my pride and joy on Day 1 of a 4 day tour. So in my little grump I wasn`t interested at looking at the fantastic scenery and just wanted to eat lunch.

It took me awhile to find our jeep. Not only were all the jeeps virtually identical, but our driver had deliberately parked in an out the way spot behind a rock to irritate us and hopefully lose us in the process.

Realising that we would be leaving the Salar that afternoon and that it was now or never for those "perching on the hands of another" shots we spent ages forming the shots (my toy King Kong was too small to really look like it was stealing me). Our driver, getting grumpier by the second drove over to us and beeped at us to hurry up. So we piled in again and as we were driving off towards the edge of the Salar, Amanda and Jez were trying to find their water and realised that they`d left it at the lunch table and that the driver had failed to bring it with him when he chased us across the salt flat. So Amanda eventually got him to turn around and go back for it, but fumed at his grumpy arrogance.

That night we stayed in the salt hotel on the edge of the Salar. I passed up the opportunity to go and see the mummies (I`ve seen a lot of mummies on this trip and didn`t feel like seeing anymore) and sat in readiness with Tanja to watch the disappointing sunset.

The Salt Hotel is completely made of salt bricks cut from the salar. They have streaks of colour through them and they weren`t crumbly like I had expected, but rock hard. Emily and the others licked the walls, but I wasn`t keen on swapping salty spit with countless other strangers.... or should I say I`d rather do it directly with them!

Day 2: Flamingos
We left before the sun came up and got to witness a beautiful orange and pale blue sunrise. I was mesmerised and it definitely made up for a dismal sunset.

We got stuck behind a dusty, rattly bus headed cross the Salar to Uyuni and I whooped out loud when we finally got past it. The driver still in a grumpy mood, did not respond in the positive manner like he had the day before when I said "10 puntos!" or 10 points for passing the bus.

Getting closer to the Chilean border, we had to register at an army checkpoint. The army base was a group of round concrete buildings that looked like a cluster of water tanks. They were also frigidly cold inside and as soon as my passport had been looked at, I was out of there. The Commandant of the base came and introduced himself, with a big grin on his face and greeted Mr Grumpy like an old friend. The Commandant was so friendly that we almost keeled over in shock of seeing a friendly face after looking at Mr Grumpy for the past 36 hours.

Then we passed a number of lakes populated with white and pink flamingoes who were standing in the freezing cold, mineral filled water. Their reflections in the water were driving me crazy that I had broken my camera!

We continued on, to check out a volcano that straddled the Chile/Bolivia border and then drove through more undulating hills of very dry brown until we came to a big rock, kind of like a mini, grey version of Uluru. It was covered with a hard, green, sappy lichen and on closer inspection bilby-like creatures. These rabbit lookalikes were called viscocha and live in the desert. The ones that lived on this rock were the most tourist friendly and least camera shy of the species.

Pointing out a distant formation that looked a bit like a ghost town, I queried Mr Grumpy. My very helpful reply was "Piedras" or "Rocks". So he was still in a mood was he. We stopped briefly to take a picture of the rock that has been shaped like a tree from the expert hedge trimmer called "Viento" and then it was further into the desert.

We stopped for the second night at Laguna Colorada. Here the lake takes on a red sheen, but it definitely isn`t pink. Do not make the same mistake as Emily did when she asked why the lake was pink. Obviously offended at the suggestion that the lake could be such a girlie colour, the driver responded "It`s not pink, it`s red" and that was the only explanation.

Flamingos abounded and as I was jumping small streams I managed to get my shoe muddy with the white borax mud that clings to your shoe like staticky hair to a balloon. I then proceeded to borax-skate around the lake edge. On closer inspection the water was actually red, not just a figment of the sky or reflection or other.

Before the sun went down, I put on all my clothes, in preparation for the famously frigid night that you spend in little more than a hut. Thankfully my mother`s advice came rushing back to me from childhood. "Run in your bed, run in your bed" was her oft repeated response to "Mum, I`m cold, I can`t sleep because it`s too cold". It certainly came in handy and I had all 6 of us running in our bed before a bit of shut-eye.

Day 3: Fartfield of the Earth
We were up bright and early again, woken by the sounds of the jeeps revving their tits off trying to warm up the cold, slumbering engines. We passed the hot springs, which our driver told us that we weren`t going to visit. An executive decision made by Mr Grumpy himself.

He did manage to stop at the Sol de Maņana, or as I would rather call it, the Earth`s Fartfield. Here he even told us that we could put our hands over this particular sulphur steam spurt, but not the bigger ones further down the hill which were 200 degrees celcius. My initial excitement at warming my hands over the geyser wore off quickly when my hands got wet and smelled like rotten eggs.

Emily and I moseyed on down to the big craters were massive steam clouds were coming out of the earth. Bending over the craters we also got to see bubbling mud, of varying colours, red, yellow and grey and of varying strengths. Some craters were bubbling at 10 mile to the dozen, and others were a lazy plop every now and then. Others were contesting for the gold medal in Olympic high jump and others were content to just ripple their muddy surface.

After marvelling the Earth`s Fartfield (and wishing again that I had my camera to take a video of it) we got back in the jeep and continued on our way. We cranked up the music on Jez`s iPOD to get our final piece of revenge on Mr Grumpy before Jez, Amanda and Emily got their connection to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

It wasn`t long before we stopped where there was a thermal bath. I took advantage of the warm water to thaw my frozen toes. This was where I was going to have to farewell Emily. All too quickly, Jez, Amanda and Emily`s bags were swapped with 3 other bags of people heading back to Uyuni. It was then time to say Chau to my very good amiga that I have had so much fun with and seen so many fabulous sights with. We travelled together for 2 months and in that time we became great buddies. We planned to keep in touch and hopefully cross paths in Argentina, and if not, then in the UK when she finally gets back there. I thought I would cry, but it wasn`t the right time of the month, so with a big smile on my face and a big hug, we parted company.

There were still six of us in the jeep going back to Uyuni, Tanja, Robert, Kat from Northern Ireland and Andrea and Barbara from Slovenia. We drove through rough but amazingly beautiful terrain. We had already seen the Earth`s Fartfield and we passed the Earth`s Colour Palette. In one vista there was yellow grass in the foreground, green grass behind it, reddish brown mountains, pink turning to purple mountains and the bright blue sky with just a small skid of clouds.

Mr Grumpy seemed to have regained his spirits a bit when we entered a small town for lunch. I was busting to go to the loo (thanks to the bumpy road) and was crestfallen when the public dunnies were shut due to it being Bolivia`s Independence Day. I then had to scout for a secluded squat. It was the first time I`d had to squat on the trip, managing to hold on until a toilet all the previous times. Of course my Nervous Pee Syndrome kicked in and I struggled to release even a little pressure on my bladder.

Mr Grumpy turned Suddenly Nicer, and told us to go and check out the festival for Independence Day. This turned out to be just a few drunk guys playing some instruments and proceeding to get even drunker. A few women peeped around their doors but otherwise it was just men. In the jeep on the way back I commented to the driver that the festival was just for the men to get drunk and he laughed and laughed out loud.

We arrived at another village where we were to spend the night, and I spent the rest of the afternoon resting. The guide tried to get us to go out and check out the festival, but on the others` reports of it being just some drunk guys, I gave it a miss. That night I had to sleep with my earplugs in to drown out the locals getting drunk and partying in the next room.

Day 4: The Drunken Driver
We didn`t leave until 11am the next day and I sat in the front next to the driver. It took me a little while to realise why we were slowing down and unable to keep a straight line in a deep rutted road. I looked across at the driver and saw him falling asleep. I slapped his arm and said in Spanish "Wake up!" At which he opened his eyes, looked at me and smiled. We were all then on tenterhooks as I had turned around told all the others what was going on. We watched him carefully and when this continued, I asked him if he needed to stop for a break. He eventually agreed and we stopped and he sat on the side of the road for awhile chewing the coca that the Slovenian girls had given him. Out of the car we saw exactly how drunk he was. Before getting back in the jeep he went to the toilet (Bolivian style on the side of the road where he was standing) but (like lots of other South Americans) neglected to do his fly up.

Back in the jeep he continued struggling along and we were all watching him like hawks and telling him to wake up when we saw his eyes close. We made it to the village for lunch and hoped that he would have a bit of time to sober up. Unfortunately we caught him opening another bottle of beer (after we had already said no more beer). Just outside of the village we couldn`t take it anymore and Andrea said that she would drive. Surprisingly he let her, but when she wouldn`t change into third gear when he told her, he leaned over, switched the jeep off and took the keys from her. He then drove a bit more before miraculously letting her take over the wheel until the train cemetery just outside Uyuni. We felt so much safer with her behind the wheel!

The train cemetery was much more impressive in pictures than in real life, and was just an area beside the train track where skeletons of locomotives sat and rusted, covered in grafitti and missing pieces that people had claimed.

We were dropped off at our hotel and Kat and I went to the agency to make a complaint against the driver. The woman was shocked and said that they didn`t appreciate such irresponsibility and could we write what happened in a note for the owner. I don`t think he will be driving for them again!

Chau Tanja and Robert
Tanja, Robert and I shared a room and the next morning, they left for Tupiza and I left for Potosė. We parted ways hoping to meet up in Paraguay or Venezuela further down the track.

Things I Learned
* Guides in Uyuni don`t care about their jobs. They also generally don`t speak English.
* The Salar is a fabulous expanse of white, and you don`t need to take your own salt shaker (unless you want to refill it)
* My camera isn`t invincible.
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