Salt Flat Tour

Trip Start Sep 20, 2010
Trip End Dec 18, 2011

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Salt Hotel

Flag of Bolivia  , Potosí,
Thursday, October 13, 2011

Day 1

The first day of the tour started at the more than respectable time of 11am.  This gave us the chance to have breakfast and buy supplies before heading to the Red Planet office.  When we got there 2 English guys, Jake and Charlie, were already there.  They had come on the night bus from La Paz and filled us in on their interesting journey - at around 3am the bus was stopped due to strikes and they had to get all their things and walk for 2 hours through the picket lines to get to another bus.  We had done the same route the night before and once again felt quite lucky/boring that this stuff never happens to us!  By 11am everyone was there and loaded up so off we went.

Our first stop was the train cemetry just outside of Uyuni, a rather depressing version of going to see the Thomas the Tank Engine trains.  It was an area of old rusting unused English steam trains that can no longer be used because of the lack of wood in this area of Bolivia.  We started to feel the benefit of our slightly more expensive tour when our English speaking guide Oscar gave us a full history of the railroad to Chile and Argentina.

After this we headed to a small village called Colchani, where the locals mine an area of the salt flats in order to produce table salt.  We went to the 'factory' and saw their simple process for drying the salt and adding iodine so it can be consumed,  They sell it for next to nothing and are still quite poor.  They will start lithium mining in an area of the flats next year which should bring the locals more jobs.  After lunch in a fancy salt hotel (reminiscent of the ice hotels you see in Lapland) on the outskirts of the salar, we finally headed into the salt flats themselves.  First we went to see the area mined by the villagers in Colchani so we could see how they do it and then we went to the Playa Blanca hotel - the first and only salt hotel inside the flats.  To be honest it's pretty rundown and unattractive compared to our lunchtime stop but I guess it has the history.

We all got back into the car with excited anticipation as we knew what was next...silly photos on the salt flats!! We stopped in a vast flat deserted area and spent at least 30 minutes taking photos  - sitting on a wine bottle, standing on hands, eating each other....and even one human poo.  This ticked off our next stop was Isla Incahuasi (or Isla de Pescado), the largest island in the middle of the salar which is covered in huge cacti.  It's called Inca Island because they found evidence that the Incas had been there, probably to hide from the Spanish.  We did the short walk to the top of the island and got amazing views across the flats.  Once back at the jeeps we drove towards our nights accommodation but stopped one more time to take some silly photos in the setting sun.  All in all it was a really cool day finished with the novelty of sleeping in a fancy salt hotel and having a nice chat over dinner with everyone.  

Day 2

After a suprisingly warm nights sleep (we'd been warned about the cold) and a good breakfast we were all back in the jeeps on the the road again. We'd left the salt flat now and the next two days would be spent touring the are to the south which would include coloured lakes, strange rock formations, flamingos, volcanoes and lots of sand. We had a bit more room in our jeep as Oscar had gone to sit with the other guys so Damien moved up front so me and Liz now had a window seat each. The scenery outside was an endless sea of sand with a ring of perfect snow capped cone volcanoes in every direction.

THe hours of driving were broken up at reasonable intervals by short stops to jump out, stretch the legs, take a few snaps, listen to Oscar and then jump back in the jeeps again. Our lunch stop was at the first of the lakes we would see that day and since Oscar had promised "thousand" and "loads" of flamingos we were a bit disappointed with the mere handful that were hanging around. "More to come" he said, "loads". Lunch was good and from talking to other people on tours it did seem like the extra money we had paid to go with Red Planet was worth it. We were not only the only ones with an english speaking guide but we were also being allowed to stay as long as we liked at each stop and not rushed on by our drivers.

The rest of the day was spent driving and stopping, driving and stopping at strange rock formations like the rock tree and a number of lakes. The last stop was the Lago Colorado which was full of flamingos. Thousand of them. Loads. It was pretty cold so we didn't stay long but it was amazing to see so many birds at such an altitude and how cold it was.

That nights accommodation was a big step down from last night. More of a shack than a hostel. The ten of us were in two dorms so we split the rooms boys and girls. Me and Liz both realised in the moening that this was the first night of the trip we had not slept in the same room/bus/tent! :-( Me and the boys also spent the night with a few beers putting the world to rights. We covered racism, homophobia, accents, and how to spit a taxi cost (;-)) Good nights work! 

Day 3

The final day started early!  We were up at 4.30am and off by 5.30, sin breakfast.  This wasn't a good thing as dinner the night before was rubbish and tiny and I was hungry when I woke up.  As Kevin said, this was the first night we'd not spent together, and for me in the freezing 4,200m un-insulated room this meant I couldn't steal Kevin's heat and couldn't sleep.  Despite my internal complaints I couldn't help but be excited at our first stop of the day - sunrise over the most powerful geyser I've seen at the Sol de Manana geyser basin.  After seeing, touching and jumping through the high pressure geyser we went for a walk through the active area of smelly bubbly mud pools.  I have to say we were a little nervous as our only experience around thermal activity was in New Zealand and they are far too safety conscious to allow people to wander around those areas without the proper safety measures.  

After the geysers we drove to Termes de Polques.  As crazy as it sounds we all stripped down to our swimmers at 7am in minus degrees to get into the hot pools.  It was amazing though!  Our group was the only one who kept their silly woolly hats on and although we looked a bit silly I think we were the sensible, and more importantly, warmest ones.  Having relaxed ourselves in the pools we finally got breakfast and then set off to our final location - Laguna Verde.  This lake was stunning, with Volan Licancabur set behind it.  A shame it was so cold because none of us wanted to spend too much time outside the car, but it was long enough to appreciate how beautiful the lake is.  

This was really the end of the tour though it took another 4 hours to get back Uyuni.  First our car headed to the Chilean border to drop off Sara who was going to San Pedro.  At about midday we were passing Laguna Colorado again and at this time the red colour of the lake was amazing.  We had a close call when we stopped for petrol and the town didn't have any, but the drivers found some on the local black market and then we were on our way again!

That evening those of us who were left in Uyuni went out for the amazing pizza again and chatted about our upcoming travel plans and how much we enjoyed the tour - a definite must on anyone's South America trip.     

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