Uyuni: The most spectacular scenery to date

Trip Start Jun 12, 2008
Trip End Nov 20, 2008

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Where I stayed
Kutimuy and some freezing hostels on the Salar (Colque Tours)

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Saturday, August 30, 2008

Once Dom was well enough to travel we left Potosí and headed to Uyuni (pronounced ee-uni). We travelled along the bumpiest road in Bolivia, but once again were lucky enough to have great scenery to keep us occupied. The journey was supposed to take 6 hours but ended up taking 7 because we were delayed by the road actually being built in front of us! (Only in Bolivia...oh, and major routes into Oxford city centre!). All along the route people were getting on and off the bus, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, I have no idea where they were going. When we arrived in Uyuni at 5pm 50 people got off our 25 seater bus!!!
Uyuni is a small town in the middle of desert in the middle of nowhere. Itīs flat, dusty and full of single story buildings in a grid like structure. It felt like a dirty film set in many ways. There is not much there except tour companies to take you on the trip we were to go on, and a train station to take you out of Uyuni. We checked into a hotel and found out that there was no electricity in the whole town and there hadnīt been for more than 24 hours! They had no idea when the electricity would come back on and the woman at the hotel seemed to imply that this was entirely normal. We dumped our stuff and immediately went to the tour operator to book our trip on the salt flats. Weīd heard awful things about these trips, you spend a lot of time in a jeep and there are no regulations in Bolivia about starting up a tour company so anyone can do it. We had heard stories of accidents, broken down vehicles, drunk drivers and terrible guides. I had 2 questions for the company, does our guide/driver/cook/man responsible for our lives speak English and does the jeep have seatbelts. The answer to both was "no", realising it would probably be the same everywhere and having been recommended this company by some friends we decided to sign up anyway.
We then went to the train station to book our onward ticket, we didnīt want to stay in Uyuni any longer than we had to! On the way we passed the market and I nearly stepped on the skinned head of a bull, still complete with horns and eyes, just on the pavement outside the market. This is my lasting memory of Uyuni!
We sorted stuff out at the station and then headed to the famous Minuteman Pizza which had been recommended to us by everyone in South America. We werenīt disappointed and shared a huge pizza and enjoyed some beers by candlelight. It was quite exciting to walk back to the hotel with our torches (taking care to avoid the dogs sleeping on the pavement) and then play some cards in our room with candles as our only light.
Next morning we discovered that the electricity still wasnīt back on and guess what, we had an electric shower! Dom was brave enough to have a cold shower but I decided to settle for a wash because we had been told there was hot water at the place we were staying on the first night of the trip.
At 11am we met up for the tour and the scruffy and slightly toothless Pedro, our guide/driver/cook/man responsible for our lives, loaded everything onto the jeep. We were a group of 6 (plus Pedro) 2 Swiss med students, us, and a French couple who refused to speak anything other than French. Although the swiss guys were nice it wasn't quite the same experience (people-wise) as we had had on the Inca Trail and in the jungle. Our jeep was in pretty good condition, the only things wrong with it were a broken speedo and fuel gauge, no rear view mirror, no number plates and my window didnīt work; but other than that we were good to go!
Right, at this point I should say that the trip was amazing, the most incredible and spectacular we have seen to date.  It was the ultimate geography field trip and most of the time I couldnīt believe what I was seeing. It is going to be hard to describe everything we saw so I am hoping that my pictures will go some way to helping you see what I saw.
The first stop was a train cemetery, Uyuniīs one and only tourist attraction. Uyuni used to have a thriving railway system but now lots of steam trains (many of them built in England) have been left to rust in the desert just outside town. I was surpised at how much fun you can have climbing on rusting old trains. They looked very sad out there in desert but also very beautiful and good for photos.
Then we drove out of Uyuni and through the desert gazing at the mountains in the distance and past llamas to the salt mining village of Colchani. We had a quick stop there and could see the village men shovelling salt into trucks that would eventually end up in Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The women meanwhile tried to sell us endless amounts of salt themed tat.

Then it was off to the salt flats. Very quickly all you could see was blinding white salt all around. It looked perfect against the blue sky and in the distance we could see the mountains. We took some photos and I tasted the ground and can assure you it was salt! We also saw a small lake where the water was bubbling because of the lithum under the salt. Bolivia has the largest reserve of lithium in the world. The salt flat is 11,000 sq km (12,000 in the wet season) and was formed millions of years ago when the mountains caused the area to become landlocked and the sea dried up leaving all the salt.

We then set off for the long drive to Fish Island where we would have our lunch. You could see how accidents happen on the salt flats, there are long straight tracks with the occasional kink. Itīs very easy to fall asleep because the salt and sky is somehow hypnotic. I tried really hard not to fall asleep because the scenery was so beautiful but I couldnīt stop myself!

At Fish Island we had a lovely lunch of unidentifiable meat (I hope it wasnīt bull head!?!?) and pasta salad. We then went for a walk across the island. It was gorgeous, hot sun and amazing scenery; it was hard to imagine what the area would have looked like when there was sea and this was coral under the sea. Now the coral is dry rock and the island is covered in cacti, some of which are 900 years old!

We then had a short drive to a part of the salt flat where , in one direction, you could see nothing but salt and blue sky. This was the perfect spot for silly photos!   We spent considerable time with the Swiss guys in fits of laughter over some of the photos you could take (the French couple stayed in the jeep).
Then there was a long drive all the way across the salt flat to our hostel. We were told that the place on the first night had hot water, electricity, a private bathroom and was really comfortable. Iīm not sure I would go that far! The electricity came on from 6.30 to 10pm, there was a private bathroom but they neglected to say that all 6 of us were in the same room with a private bathroom (and the French guy snored). There was no hot water to speak of, after dinner a german girl in another group had a big strop that there was no hot water and then we found out that there had been hot water....for the hour we had been eating!!! Travellers - we went with Colque Tours and, overall, I would recommend them. However donīt go with them if you really want to stay in a salt hotel because you donīt. But you will be warmer and a more responsible tourist if you stay away from the salt hotels!
The hostel was in a tiny hamlet (only 10 families live there) called Chuvica and we went for a sunset wander. It was quite high up and in the distance we could see the salt flat and the changing colours of the sunset...definitely our most spectacular sunset on the trip. Had an outrageously early night because it was a bit chilly and there wasnīt anything else to do but had a surprisingly good night of sleep.

Day 2 - we were on the road by 7.30am. In the early morning light the salt flat looked like a huge beach! According to Dom, who was sat in the front, Pedro crossed himself as he started to drive...Iīm glad I didnīt see this! We sped along a dirt track past quinoa fields and were in a valley of 10 inactive volcanoes which looked magnificent in the early morning light. After an hour we stopped in the village of San Juan for 10 minutes. A little boy of about 5 came out of one of the houses clutching his football and it wasnīt long before he and Dom were having a kickabout. The boy was clearly proud of his back heel and Dom was a show-off and showed him some tricks!
Then there was a long drive along dirt tracks to the railway line, I think the drive was about 2 hours but it was hard to tell because the scenery was so amazing you didnīt notice the time. At the railway line, which goes to Chile, we had to get out so Pedro could haul the jeep up and over the railway line. In the distance we could see mountains and volcanoes in Chile. Then it was back in the jeep and speeding off again, we soon started to go uphill and in the jeep the climb was quick. The terrain changed to more sandy, scrublike land. After a while we arrived at a place where there were loads of rocks which were dried up lava. They were very strange, very light and rough, like pumice. It was there that we saw one of the most exciting the distance we could see an actual smoking volcano!!! I could hardly contain myself, I have come to South America and seen a smoking volcano...mission accomplished! I could have quite happily sat there all day and watched the volcano but, unsurprisingly, we had to get back in the jeep and move on. The next stage was real off road stuff, we had to use a whole extra gear stick! We were going right up and over the mountain, there was hardly a track, just rocks, boulders and shrubs everywhere. We had to hold on tight but Pedro was excellent and soon we were speeding down the sandy track, past a huge sand pit to the first lake.

The lake was gorgeous, deep blue with an mountains in the background and all round the edge was a white mineral called borax (which is used to make sulphuric acid) so it looks like it is surrounded by snow and ice. In the middle of the lake were flamingoes! It was unreal, like another world. We wandered round the lake and then headed to the second lake where we would have lunch. We couldnīt believe it but this lake was even more beautiful! Crystal clear water and lots of borax made it seem white, there was a perfect mountain in the background, bright blue sky and hundreds of pink flamingoes. I donīt think Iīve ever had lunch in such an amazing setting. 

After lunch we sped off towards the red desert past more amazing lakes. We had Queen blaring out on the stereo (we had found an iPod cable in the car so were able to listen to something other than the Argentinian love songs!), Iīm not sure what the rest of the group made of our music choice but Dom had a great, if slightly surreal, experience with that music choice! We drove for about 3 hours across the desert but you didnīt notice the time as there was so much to look at. We saw the Volcanoes of Seven Colours, which ranged from cream to beige to red to brown and could see more mountains in Chile. We had a quick stop at the stone forest, where the wind and sand have eroded the stones into amazing shapes, one looks exactly like a tree!

At 5pm we made it to our basic refuge, we drove over a hill and saw before us a huge red lake, the Laguna Colorada. It was stunning, yellow algae and red micro-organisms are blown together by the wind to create an amazing red lake....complete with pink flamingoes and borax. We took a walk around the lake and walked back just as the sun was setting. The whole thing was just magical and we couldnīt get over how lucky we were to be in the middle of nowhere at such a magnificent place.

That night it got very, very cold, down to about -10; the stars were incredible though. We were grateful for some soup and pasta and then another very early night. I was in my sleeping bag under 3 doubled over blankets and wearing lots of layers but was still a little chilly. We were up again at 4.30 and on the road by 5am for what will go down in history as the best Monday morning ever!

It was freezing cold and the jeep had no heating, we also had to keep stopping because the brake fluid kept freezing! We drove for an hour in the dark and just as the sun was starting to come up we arrived at the Geisers de Sol de Maņana. The geysers are at their best at this time, once the sun is fully up they stop working, hence the need for the outrageously early start. I think Iīve decided that the geysers were probably my favourite part of the whole trip. We were standing on volcanic land and could see gases spurting out of small holes in the ground. It was really noisey and quite creepy. Pedro ignored the "Danger! Do not cross this point!" sign and beckoned us to follow him. We walked right up to the edges of craters and peered over and saw bubbling lava/mud! It was amazing, unfortunately our cameras had frozen so no pictures where coming out but I think the video may have worked.

It was then back in the jeep, at this point I was so cold I couldnīt feel my toes, after lots of wiggling the feeling came back but they were so painful! We drove past scenery that could have been from the Star Wars set, if the moon landings were a fake they were probably filmed here! We then sped down a hill and arrived at the hot springs. We were the first jeep to arrive which meant we had the pool all to ourselves for a bit. Although it was freezing we werenīt going to come all this way not to go in. The changing rooms were locked so we got into our swimsuits in record breaking time. The 4 of us (the french couple stayed in the jeep!) shrieked as we got into the water, going from -7 or whatever it was to 36š made it really painful to get in! However once weīd got over the pain barrier it was the best bath ever...and the first wash in 4 days!! After about 10 mins the other jeeps arrived so we got out and got dressed very quickly. Domīs hair froze within 5 mins!!

Weīre nearly there now! We then drove across the stunning Salvador Dali desert, which looks like one of this paintings although he never went there. Golden sand, golden mountains, brilliant blue sky and random rocks in one part. Not long after we arrived at the Laguna Verde. A beautiful lake (containing arsenic!) but not as green as normal because the wind wasnīt blowing. Stopped there for a few photos and then it was off to another refuge for breakfast. We then had to drive to the Chilean border to drop off the Swiss guys, so we sped to the border with the Superman theme on the stereo (Pedro liked that one!). It was strange to go to a border and not go across...but itīs not time for Chile yet!

We then had to start our 7 hour drive back to Uyuni. Pedro drove much quicker on the way back, Iīm sure the journey is supposed to take 10 hours! We sped back to the hot springs and had a quick break. It was about 10.30am and I could not believe my eyes when I saw Pedro crack open a beer! So we carried on, speeding, Pedro with one hand on the wheel and the other with a beer in hand! Just what you need when youīre an hour into a 7 hour journey! We decided to let him have one, but then didnīt let him out of our sight for the rest of the day to check he didnīt have any more!

After a few hours we reached a downhill section that Pedro clearly loves. All the other jeeps stopped to let us through and then Pedro really went for it. I now know what itīs like to be a rally driverīs navigator! I have never experienced driving like it, to give him his due Pedro was very good and even though it was scary I felt (relatively!) safe. All downhill, on a dirt track with twists and turns everywhere. The other jeeps where nowhere to be seen!

We stopped for lunch in a village in the middle of nowhere and had fried eggs and rice! The afternoon stretch was a long straight road all the way back to Uyuni, Pedro did very well to stay awake with a combination of his love songs and Fanta. He said goodbye to us like old friends, lots of hugs and kisses! 

We then had over 24 hours to kill in Uyuni before our train to Tupiza, quite a task! Lots of frustratingly slow internet and long meals and the odd sighting of a skinned bull head. All in all though, an incredible and unforgettable few days.
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