Salar deUyuni

Trip Start Sep 2005
Trip End Sep 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, October 17, 2005

05-10-17 -
Yesterday, I packed my whole world into my rucksack and ventured out into the jungle that is La Paz bust station. Supposedly one of the most dangerous bus stations in Latin America. I wanted to catch the overnight bus to Uyuni. For $25 you were promised the ultimate experience in luxury coach travel Bolivian-style. It was a 9 hour trip with secure luggage storage, food, reclining seats, and most importantly a toilet. Supposedly, the tricky bit is getting to the ticket office with all your luggage intact. That worked out fine. By the way the alternative to this is to take the local bus which is a $7 ride on a beatup bus with no toilet for 14 hours. You can guess why I decided to pamper myself.

The first 3 hours of the trip were great and in no time at all I was stretched out in my bed/seat snoring away. Then the concrete road finished and the dirt-track began. From that point onwards it was like trying to sleep on top of a washing machine which had a few bricks inside and was set to full spin cycle for 7 hours. Iīve had better nights sleep. We eventually got dropped off in sub-zero Uyuni at 7am to go and find our tour guides.

Uyuni is the place where all the tours of South-western Bolivia begin, and Iīd booked a 4 day tour of the Salar de Uyuni. Itīs basically 4 days off-roading it in a jeep in some of Bolivias most famous scenery with 6 other tourists, a driver come guide, and a cook. The 6 other tourists were grand:- 1 dutch guy, 1 british guy, 1 ozzy chick, and 3 nubile french college graduates. I was happy enough with the mix. They all spoke English so we got on really well together, and the crack was good.

Uyuni is quite a pretty little town dumped on the edge of a semi-desert. There's something about the place which is surreal. I donīt know if it was the ridiculously wide streets that started and finished in the desert, or the kid who dropped his trousers and took a crap in the middle of a busy market. Thereīs just a really strange feel to the place.

On day 1 of the tour you see some pretty amazing scenery. The Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest Salt flat, and basically stretches from one end of the horizon to the other as a blindingly white carpet. The altitude is so high and the sun so merciless that there are all sorts of optical illusions going on. You wouldnīt dare get out of the jeep without your sunglasses and factor 15. We visited a hotel made entirely of salt. Everything, tables, chairs, bar, beds. Even the bogs I guess. We stopped off for lunch at an island which was filled with giant cacti. This made the whole scenic effect even stranger, if that is possible. Eventually, we kipped down for the night in a "hostal" beside an ancient inca burial site. Because the climate is so cold and dry the bodies were really well preserved. Basically the cemetery is a maze of little beehive-shaped mounds in which the bodies of the dead were placed with bits and pieces that would be useful in the afterlife. Pots, pans, jewelry, that sort of thing. Because the bodies were so well preserved the place was really eerie. Some of them still had their hair after 1500 years (I was jealous). There were some children still sitting up in their burial clothes with their little hands still folded. It was creepy, but much nicer than Milltown cemetry.

The īhostalī was basic, but it had a shower, toilets and most importantly a bar. It maybe fell short in the electrical department. Our room, mine and the heterosexual dutch guys, had no electric switch for the light. The builders had done a bit of a temporary fix, so the wires were just twisted together and covered with tape. It was easy enough "switching" the light off , you just took the tape off and pulled the wires apart. It was a bit trickier putting the light back on if you needed a pee in the middle of the night!

Day 2 of the tour was fairly busy but we were allowed a sleep in till 7am. First we went to a smoking volcano, and then we visited several lakes filled with pink ducks (which I think were flamingos) and then we saw the stone-trees. The lakes were amazing. They are all different colours because of the minerals and insect life in them. Some are blue, some white, some red. With a stretch of the imagination you could also claim that they were green, white, and orange. Finally we went to see the īstone-treesī. Because of the high altitudes the sky was incredibly blue. Every photograph was a postcard with amazing colours. Itīs also really dry, cold and windy which is how the stone trees were formed. They are rocks that have been weather beaten into really strange shapes, some of which look like trees.

The hostal for the second night is famously basic round these parts. I wouldnīt recommend Paul staying there. Thereīs no showers, no flushing toilets, in fact no running water at all. So after you go the loo everyone just dips their hands into a big ice-cold drum of water. We just had a finger buffet that night for dinner and a bottle of cheap wine. You needed the wine to knock you out as the temperature in shared dorm dropped to below -10. Itīs at 5000m and itīs late winter-early spring. I can safely say that my sleeping bag is a cracker. While everyone else woke up complaining of the cold I had the opposite problem, and even had to remove a few layers of clothing during the night.

Day 3 was a 4.30am start because we had to see some geezers at dawn. The geysers were worth the early start. At sunrise the light catches the geysers in a special way and they really looked fantastic. We stopped off for breakfast at a thermal spa. You're at 5000m surrounded by snowcapped peaks and temperature well below zero. I had to get in for the photographs. Actually it was worth it just to feel warm. There was only myself and 2 hairy-chested germans brave enough to strip off and jump in, but it was well worth it. It was a great feeling sitting back in the roasting water taking in the view, smelling the breakfast being cooked, and watching every one else shivering. After that we went to see another postcard lake and dropped the others off at the Chilean border. Myself and the dutchman smooth-talked the driver into taking us back to Uyuni early, as we'd seen all the sights and both just wanted to move on. And have a shower - not together.

We got back in time for me to catch the 8 oclock overnight local bus to La Paz. This was the aforementioned $7 local bus. Alright, itīs 14 hours, thereīs no toilets, and itīs cold and bumpy but it definitely seemed better than staying in Uyuni for the night. I knew it was a cheapo but I mean how much worse could it be than the so-called luxury bus?

For starters it left 2 hours late. When the bus arrived it was a complete cattle market where the most macho wins. So 6 of us, all backpackers, stuck together. We were 2 Norwegian girls, an English girl, a Singapore girl, a Kiwi guy and myself. You had to fight to get your rucksack in the luggage compartment. You then had to fight to get your seat. The bus was baltic. I was lucky enough to have a window seat, which meant I had a fresh supply of ice all night long. I scrounged a bit of sleeping bag from the kiwi backpacker beside me, but my feet were solid blocks of ice. Some old mad woman kept shouting at the kiwi and kicking his seat all night. And that was just the first leg. Iīm not sure if I actually slept or if I was cryogenically frozen. Either way I didn't feel to fresh when we had to change buses in Oruro.

Two of the girls got their rucksacks nicked when they went to the toilet in the station. Unfortunately for the Singapose girl, she lost everything, passport, money, tickets, the works. I felt really bad for her because she was such a nice girl, really chatty and jokey.

Theyīd left their small backpacks up above their seats and gone off for a pee in Oruro station before the bus took off. Some Bolivian guy who was hiding at the back, got off the bus with the girls rucksacks. The annoying thing was that the two Norwegian girls were on the bus the whole time. Sitting beside the bags the whole time. Still it was foolish to get off the bus without your backpack in Bolivia. A bit of a wake up call. Iīm amazed that the driver and the ticket sellers that surrounded the bus saw nothing. Needless to say the police did absolutely nothing too.

When we got to La Paz the road blocks had gotten more serious. It was funny to watch. Only the lane into town was blocked. So the locals got out and dismantled the barrier in the middle of the dual carriageway, while the police just watched. I jumped a minibus that travelled down the wrong side of the carriageway, straight into the oncoming traffic. It really is a crazy south american city. Actually the whole protesting thing seems to be getting worse, so Iīll try to get out of La Paz before next weekend.
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