Oooooo la la...

Trip Start Oct 05, 2012
Trip End Apr 01, 2013

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Flag of Bolivia  , Potosi Department,
Saturday, January 5, 2013 of the favourite phrases used by my tour guide of the SW Bolivia area, and a very appropriate and simple way of describing the incredible landscapes which it included. But, never one to miss an opportunity to over-explain and include lengthy descriptions, here is a full account of my 3-day trip through this area :-)

I arrived into Uyuni at 6.15am after a fairly rough night bus journey. Most of the 12 hour journey had been on unpaved roads, the bus was probably as old as me with none of the sophistications I had enjoyed in Perú, and my neighbour was a woman who sat with her 4 year old son on her lap (and mine) the whole way. The copious amounts of paracetamol I had taken to help me sleep through the misery of my 'woman-flu' had however done there trick, and I felt relatively OK which helped me make my decision to seek out a 3 day tour starting that morning to visit the Salar de Uyuni - the Salt Flats of Uyuni.

A quick breakfast and I was on my way to trawl the agencies who started opening around 7am. Given there are around 70 of them (Footprints guidebook figure, I didn't count them...) and many warnings about the unscrupulous nature of these, I had spent most of the previous afternoon trying to find some name recommendations on line. I had a list of about 5 which were reviewed reasonably on Trip Advisor, and walked into the first one I saw - Quechua Connections - and asked in my best Spanish whether it was possible to join a 3 day tour that day. Luckily for me, it was as there was a group of 5 already going, leaving the 6th space for yours truly. Super excited, I spent the time until 10.30am sorting my rucksack out (nicely done on a park bench!!) and doing a spot of last minute shopping before heading back to the office to meet the group. Our driver/guide was Agustin, the father of the business as it is family-owned and operated. And the others on the tour were Dan and Rhian from the UK, Carly and Alastair from Australia, and Marieke from Holland. And so the tour started...

Day 1
Our first stop was 'el cementerio de los trenes'. Only a short drive from the town, we appeared to be one of the last of the vehicles to get there judging by the 100s of landrovers already parked up...nice to feel you are only a handful of tourists making an impact!! The rusting trains used to transport minerals and are now just lying in the middle of the desert, covered in graffiti and actually quite stunning when seen against the landscape.

We then headed off to what is considered the highlight of the trip - the Salar de Uyuni. You can see this a long way before you actually arrive at it as the surrounding mountains start to look like they are floating on the horizon. It is the world's largest salt flat and is an enormous expanse of white crusted landscape melting into the sky. Most of the pictures you see will be of the most amazing contrast between the beautiful white salt flats and clear blue sky. Even though it is right now the wet season (you wouldn't have thought so!!) we were still lucky enough to have uninterrupted sunshine for the whole of our day on the salt flats. Lots of suncream was required, and sunglasses an absolute must not to be blinded. Travelling through this landscape was really weird as you could make out a lot of vehicles moving to either side of you, but they all appeared to be missing wheels and floating along in a sea of white. Rather like some sort of space craft just hovering above the surface of the earth...

Our programmed lunchstop was at the Hotel de Sal. This used to be a fully functioning hotel but was closed down for environmental reasons, although it does still seem possible to stay there if you arrange as part of your tour. We were just there for lunch, and definitely had the best of all the tour groups. We even got a proper home-cooked apple pie with crumble topping - now that's something I haven't had in the last 3 months!!

One of the most well known things to do when in the Salar is to take advantage of the lack of perspective and compose many weird and wonderful photos using objects such as bananas, wine bottles and eggs. We spent a considerable amount of time doing this, ending up with our clothes covered in white crusty salt stains but atleast some very amusing photos. It remains to be seen whether the stains will actually come out of our clothes though...!! But who cares - I have a great new profile picture :-)

Isla Incahuasi is a very strange coral island that just sits in the middle of the salar, covered in giant phallic cactuses. These only grow at a rate of 1cm per year, which made some of the largest apx.900 years old - quite incredible!! It's only a short walk to the top of the island but still difficult because of the altitude, and definitely not helped when you have a chest like you have smoked 60 a day for the last 20 years. The view was worth it, and I only wish I had some good shots to prove it. Unfortunately I had accidentally put my camera on incandescent white balance, couldn't really tell the difference with the strong sun and the reflection and so all my photos appear either ghoulishly white or icily blue. I am SUCH an idiot at times. Anyway, take it from me that the views from the island into the Salar were quite spectacular...

It wasn't too long a drive to our accommodation, a room for all 6 of us in the group in a hostel made from salt. Even the beds were salt bases - mine had a definite slope to it so I spent most of the night hanging of the edge of the bed. To be honest, the company were very honest about it being basic accommodation so it was no real shock to find no showers, and only 1 toilet shared between the 3 groups who were there. It was HORRID by the morning though, again to be expected because Bolivia is renowned for being the country you are most likely to contract something nasty in, which clearly a few of those on the tours had done...

Our activities for the day weren't over upon arrival at our accommodation. First up was the quite spectacular 'puesta del sol' over the Salar. This has to be the best sunset I have seen in the whole time I have been travelling, the colours were just stunning and kept on changing until the sun finally disappeared. It was accompanied by a picnic of tea and biscuits, and also provided another opportunity for some crazy group photos. The 'evolution' shot is definitely my favourite, although I ended up being the knuckle-dragging monkey at the very start of the process!!

After dinner we were all told to put on as many layers as possible before Agustin took us out again, this time to go stargazing in the Salar. I haven't seen many stars since arriving in South America, but the visibility was incredible here as there was absolutely no cloud cover. The Milky Way was in full view, as were many of the stars such as the plough, scorpion etc - I just wish I knew more about the stars off the top of my head, and wasn't so reliant on the app on my iPad... Oh, and the layers were absolutely necessary - it was freezing!!

Day 2
Another early start, around 6.00am for breakfast. Poor Marieke, one of the girls in the group had had some sort of sickness bug which left her vomiting for most of the night and was only stopped when Rhian (luckily a Doctor) gave her an injection. What a place to be ill - makes my sniffles and coughs totally pale in comparison...

There was a lot of driving on the second day taking us far away from the salt flats and deep into Bolivia's desert reserve. Agustin was very good at letting us stop though, whenever we wanted to take photos or use the 'bano naturale'. Our first programmed stop took us to the Chuaguana desert and the semi-active Volcán Ollagúe, right on the Chilean border and a volcano which hasn't erupted for thousands of years, but which has a stream of smoke constantly coming out of the top of it... This was the start of a lot of oohing and aahing from all of us as the colours and drama of the landscape just seemed to get better and better as we drove further into the desert. We also quickly learnt Agustin's trade mark phrases - oooooo la la and ohhh myyyyy godddddd - which provoked many a giggle for all of us as we started to use them as well.

Next up was an early lunch stop at Laguna Cañapa, our first siting of the many flamingos who breed throughout the region. Agustin promised us there would be even more flamingos at the next Laguna, and he wasn't wrong. Both Andean and Chilean species were there in abundance, and kept us all occupied trying to capture them either taking off or flying. I failed miserably, but did get some shots of them doing what they do best - slurping the algae from the water and mud.

Onwards, we crossed the Sioli Desert for what seemed like miles before arriving at 'el arbol de piedra' or the stone tree, one of many weird and wonderful rock formations in the middle of the desert.

A lot more desert later and we reached our final destination of the day, Laguna Colorada or the Red Lagoon. More flamingos and a lot more photos later, we drove the 5 mins or so to our accommodation which was overlooking the Laguna.

We had a very short rest before we were off again - again layered up as sunset was approaching - to visit the Geysers. These are normally done on Day 3, but Agustin quite rightly assumed that we would prefer not to get up at 4am!! The geysers turned out to be huge holes in the ground with steaming smoke coming from the bubbling 100-200 degree mud located below. It was very lunar like and the contrasting colours were really pretty as we were led safely through by Agustin. It was quite a contrast between standing in the hot steam and then stepping away and into the freezing cold wind!! Probably didn't do my cold any good but was fun at the time, especially jumping for the pictures...

I think in total we spent maybe 10 hours or so driving in very rough conditions, but saw some of the most spectacular landscapes I have ever been lucky enough to see so really can't complain about this. One bad thing though for me was the altitude. We had gradually been climbing all day and eventually reached 4300m, where we had to sleep for the night. I had struggled at 3800m, and although more acclimatised because of the last few weeks in Cusco and La Paz, my cold completely cancelled this out and I spent most of the night gasping for breath as I tried to get some sleep. A big lesson learnt - best to avoid such high altitudes when ill!!

Day 3
Another early rise under strict instructions from Agustin that we would be leaving at 6.30am exactly, because we had a lot of driving to do to reach the Chilean border again. The usual tour route would have taken us further south to visit the Laguna Verde before connecting with the border, but for some reason this area is currently out of bounds to tour groups. We instead headed back north, eventually passing by Volcán Ollagúe again and reaching the Bolivia-Chile border. Rhian and Dan were leaving us here and crossing into Chile - to be honest it was a very panicky moment for them as we were approaching border control with only 5 mins until there bus left. Luckily, good old South American time meant that we actually got there with a lot of time to spare as the bus turned up 20 mins late and allowed us time to have our lunch and also take some illegal photos using the Bolivia-Chile signs on the railway.

Our route back to Uyuni was a lot more direct then the previous days. And we only stopped a couple of times at some weird and wonderful rock formations. I think we were all exhausted as it's a full-on 3 day tour!!

Our arrival back in Uyuni earlier allowed me enough time to buy myself a hot shower (my first in 3 days - gross, I know!!) and do some last minute shopping ahead of the overnight bus journey to the Bolivia-Argentina border.

I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, and it was made even better by the great group which I found myself part of. You basically sit on top of each other for 3 days, so getting along well with the others on your tour could easily make or break it for you. I was very lucky to have such nice people, and we were all lucky to have found ourselves part of a Quechua Connections tour. I'd highly recommend this company to anyone thinking of going - really well organised, the best food we saw out of all the other groups, great guiding and much patience with our photo taking and toilet stops!!
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Pigwig on

Looks beautiful Fooft - stunning. Glad you had a nice group, makes it so much easier ; )

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