Stunning salt flats and a stroppy teenager

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
Trip End Apr 16, 2011

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Monday, April 11, 2011

After our adventures on the mountain there was no rest for the wicked as we had just one day in La Paz to sleep in and recover and then that night we were heading on a night bus to Uyuni in order to start the next step of our adventure: a tour of the Salar de Uyuni salt flat and the mountains of southern Bolivia.

The advice we had been given for travelling by nightbus in Bolivia was the following: spend as much as you can on each ticket. The thing is that generally the standard of the buses in Bolivia is pretty bad but the cost of them quite cheap. So the more you spend, the more chance you have of getting a bus that isn't utterly filthy and run down inside, doesn’t break down, has some suspension, has all its windows intact (quite important on night buses at over 4000m) and has a toilet that is open and works. Therefore, after shopping around a bit for the most expensive bus we were quite pleased to find the bus was large, roomy and quite comfy. However, no matter how nice the bus was the journey was never going to be that comfortable after leaving the paved roads a couple of hours outside La Paz and the rest of the night was spent bouncing around, banging heads on the roof when particularly big bumps were hit and having projectiles flung from the luggage racks and smack you on the head at regular intervals. Although there was a toilet, standing up to go to it was a risky proposition involving being flung onto the laps of several passengers on the way.  We won’t even go into what happens whilst trying to pee in such circumstances (for boys think one of those spinning garden sprinklers).

Of course, we hadn’t really expected the tour agency we had booked with to actually show up and pick us up as they were supposed to, but when we made our own way to the office we found it deserted - interesting. Eventually, a woman showed up and said that we should wait and after about 3 hours of not very much happening, a rugged looking jeep showed up with a scowling young man at the wheel. This turned out to be our guide, Silvio, who was one of the stroppiest guides (if not people) we have ever encountered. He started by informing us that we were not going to take the route the agency had explained to us but a completely different one. We insisted. He got stroppy. Good start.  Then, at our first stop on the Salar de Uyuni salt flat itself, and for us the main reason for the tour, he got very angry and starting talking about cancelling the tour because we were 5 minutes late for lunch having been exploring and then refused to drive us further out into the flats than a dirty salt hotel teaming with tourists, even though we could see other jeeps going out a bit further just to get away from all the people. Eventually he agreed to take us but dumped us unceremoniously out on the flats and drove off for 30 minutes (we thought he had abandoned us for a while) before coming back but pointedly parking up 200m away to force us to walk back to him. We mean, really. Is he a 12 year old from a Californian soap opera?

Anyway, the six of us (we were joined by James and Atsuko – an Australian-Japanese couple) decided that the only way to deal with this was to laugh at it and ignore his extreme churlishness and get on with enjoying the scenery which was incredible. We later learnt that we had got away with it lightly as we heard terrible stories from others of broken 4x4’s, days spent stuck in sand & mud and various other horrible goings on.  We were lucky that all we had to put up with was a grumpy driver.

The salt flat itself was worth the stroppiness though and was incredible.  Once we’d got away from the hordes and mud at the salt hotel it is just sparkling white ground and blue sky as far as the eye can see.  The scale of the place is hard to get your head around – it’s almost 11,000km2 which is equivalent to half the size of Wales but completely flat and devoid of any features.  At this time of year it was covered by a couple of inches of (very very cold) water which also reflects everything above it and we spent a long time taking photos that got increasingly complex and silly. Synchronised jump photos of 4 people in 2 inches of freezing cold, highly salty water over razor sharp ice crystals in flip-fops is harder than it sounds. At least that’s our excuse.

That night we then drove on to a salt hotel in the middle of nowhere where we spent the night. Literally everything was made of salt: floor, walls, tables, chairs, beds, the lot. Ironically, the chicken and chips they served us needed was underseasoned and when we asked for some salt they didn’t have any (nor did they see the irony of this when we laughed). There then followed 2 days of driving through incredibly scenery (we forget the order) of mountains, deserts, rock formations, volcanoes, lakes of various colours (red, green, white, yellow) and hot springs.  It was absolutely stunning. We will let the photos of these places speak for themselves! The only annoyance was Silvio’s music (awful panpipe-ing/coconut knocking/wailing stuff) and the fact that we had to plead with him and endure the grumpiness every time we wanted to stop for a photo or a walk-around.

The 2nd night we stayed in quite possibly the grimmest hostel of the trip so far by one of these coloured lakes and were greeted by cold, damp, absolutely filthy beds. There was a bit of wind and we decided this was clearly the time to get Richards’s 3 kite from Tesco out. We were failing dismally to get it in the air for more than about 10 seconds and were attracting a crowd of little Bolivian kids to watch. Eventually Gordon & Richard gave in to their pleading eyes and handed them the reins, trying to hold on to it to give a little bit of a lesson. The 1st kid (he can’t have been more than 7) shrugged Gordon off and proceeded to get the kite up in the air on the first attempt and keep it there for about 10 minutes. Hmmmm. Richard eventually decided to donate it to the kids making it very clear they had to share it, and we left them arguing over what this meant. The youngest was saying "We should have one day each" to which the oldest replied “Okay, as long as I get it the first day”. After our competency as kite flyers was exposed we decided that there was nothing for it apart from going to the tiny little kiosk and buying a bottle of rum with our remaining bolivars and drink enough (over a game of monopoly deal) to stave off the biting cold in the “dining area” (read hole-ridden plastic shed tacked onto the building that was as cold as outside) so that we could stomach the dinner we anticipated would be grim (we were right, it was) and go to bed without noticing how filthy it all was.

The final morning we got up at around 5am to visit some bubbling mud pools (one of which James managed to slip into and both burn himself and lose his flip-flop, ouch and damn), swim in some beautiful hot pools on the edge of the lake to warm up before driving past some more stunning scenery and being dumped unceremoniously on the border with Chile by Silvio who didn’t stick around to see if we would give him a tip (he knew he was getting nothing and presumably never does) and instead drove stroppily off, tires spinning, in a massive dust cloud.

After a short hop into San Pedro de Atacama, a dusty little oasis town in the desert at the foot of the Andes that nevertheless felt like civilisation, we settled in for our first proper meal in sometime in the nicest restaurant we could find. We were headed for Mendoza where we were meeting both Gordon & Sarah’s parents who were both arriving for a holiday. Unfortunately, we had quite a journey ahead of us: a bus to the nearest airport in Calama, a late flight to Santiago arriving at 2am, a bus into Santiago and a 7 hour bus across the Argentine border to Mendoza.  We also realised that it was exactly a year to the day since we left the UK and it seemed apt that having spent our first night of the trip in a stationary train in Gare d’Austerlitz station that we should spent the night in Santiago airport killing time before the buses into town started.  We were especially pleased with ourselves when on arrival at 2am we managed to collect our bags, then sneak back from the baggage reclaim area to the gates where we found some benches to sleep on for 4 hours – or it would have been 4 hours if we hadn’t woken up 2 hours later to find that there was a flight leaving from the gate we’d chosen and it was now full of people wanting to sit on our benches.  Once again, the glamours of international travelling amaze us.
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Marion on

Oh this brings back memories..... my musical memory of our Uyuni guide/driver with his tape of Abba songs in Spanish. "Dame, dame amor esta noche!" was certainly the highlight! xx

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