Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (day 16)

Trip Start Dec 26, 2009
Trip End Jan 17, 2010

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Random hostel in the Salar de Uyuni

Flag of Bolivia  , Potosí,
Sunday, January 10, 2010

At 5am alarms started going off. We all groaned and slowly within the next 15 minutes everyone who had been sleeping in the room rolled out of their salt beds and tried to get ready in the darkness. We all had desayuno on the salt tables, and then we helped Andrés load up the jeeps. We still got a late start, but that seems to be the Bolivian way though; schedules are more like guidelines. After riding/sleeping in the jeep for an hour, we took a break at a tiny town on the Salar called San Juan. Only 1,000 people live there, and it has several volcanic rock tombs and burial chullpas. John, Emma, and Jo went around to explore and found a group of llamas, and they got pictures of this adorable baby one. I was still half asleep at this point, and I was shocked that the Brazilian girls who were up partying all night were so lively and energetic at that point. I started talking with one girl who I learned had studied abroad in Indiana for a year- wow, small world! We then departed there out onto the desert-like land known as the Salar de Chiguana, which continued endlessly into the horizon.

After some considerably bumpy and jostling hours in the jeep, we passed through more amazing landscape until we arrived at an isolated area full of rocks that had a perfect overlook towards a giant volcano looming in the background. It is called the Volcan Ollagüe, and it is straddles the Bolivian-Chilean border. It is still active, and when we were there, it was emitting smoke. It was an amazing sight, if not somewhat foreboding!

Our caravan of jeeps continued on until we reached our next amazing destination- Laguna Hedionda. The laguna was very colorful and had the surrounding mountains and volcanoes as its backdrop. The still waters of the lake were full of flamingos, and they were very photogenic. As I got closer to the water though, I noticed its bad rotting egg smell. It's due to the algae and sulfur in the lake. I didn't realize until later though that the word hedionda actually translates to mean fetid or stinking, haha. Despite that though, it was a beautiful view. Back at the jeep, Andrés had prepared lunch for us. We sat on some stone walls and enjoyed it. Then us girls noticed there were no bathrooms around. However, visitors had developed their own makeshift ones behind this stone wall. We walked over to it, but were too disgusted to bother. I guess that simply adds to the smelly name of the Laguna?

After that, the real driving began. We went very fast through rough, rocky, bouncy terrain. I was amazed at how the drivers even knew where we were going as there are no trails or markings anywhere. All of us in the jeep had taken turns playing our iPod songs, and it was then my turn. Whenever I listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers music now, I will always think of that jerky drive through the Salar! We passed through more of the unique, harsh landscape and saw some of the local animals known as vicuñas. We also passed the locally famous "Seven Colored Mountain" which makes the border between Bolivia and Argentina. Finally, we reached our next destination, and it was a relief to get out and stretch.

This stop is another popular site for most Salar tour groups, and it's called El Arbol de Piedra, or the stone tree. Its name explains itself if you check out the rock's form. All the rocks surrounding it were also very unique and odd shapes. They were carved into these shapes slowly over time by the strong, whipping winds in the area. It felt a bit surreal to be out there in the middle of the Siloli desert. It was so isolated and beautiful; the strong winds were ripping around and throwing sand everywhere. We were also at the highest altitude we had yet experienced on the trip, so John decided to go for a run to test out his lung capacity. He ran for about 20 seconds and was out of breath. After taking pictures of the Arbol, some of our group decided to climb the surrounding rock formations. Being high up on the rock ledges made for some great viewpoints.

After that we headed towards the entry into a National Park sanctioned off in the Salar known as Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. We had to show our visas to the officers and pay a fee. On this portion of the drive our jeep was behind the others and the trail of dust and sand was huge, we could barely see! We also looked out the windows and saw "sand tornadoes" a few times! They were actually a decent size. We stopped and changed the tires several times during the day, but this stretch of the Salar required the most. Luckily today I was sitting in the middle row seats of the car, because yesterday I was in the very cramped back! We then arrived at yet another amazing destination called Laguna Colorada. The water was a myriad of colors, and some of it was a dark reddish tint. We found out this color is caused by a high amount of borax in the water. These sediments attach to the algae, and this is what attracts all the flamingoes. There were tons of flamencos feeding on the laguna, which is a salt lake, and with a volcano in the background it made for one of the most beautiful sights I have seen in my entire life. I found out it's a candidate to be the next of the 7 wonders of the natural world. With the strong winds and high altitudes, it literally took my breath away! After this visit we were done with our tour for the day, and began the long drive to our hostel.

We arrived at a gathering of several small buildings, and after getting out of the car to check with people, Andrés told us it was full. We were mad and confused because when we booked our tour we paid for our hostels already, and so assumed we had a reserved room. That is not the case. These Bolivian tour companies apparently just like to wing it, and so since the first place was full we drove to a second. Not good news there either. We heard rumors from the other group about having to camp out for the night, and us girls were getting a tad worried. Finally, Andrés figured something out. He said there were 4 open beds in a room at the one building, and 3 in the other. He said we would split boys and girls. We didn't like this idea and yelled at him, and so he ended up putting the 3 Brazilians in one place and John, Emma, Jo and I at another. I liked the idea of having a guy in the room since we were in a strange place, and they probably did too. From the outside, this "hostel" looked a little rough around the edges. It was made out of caked mud bricks, and the roof was tin and had rocks stacked on top of it. Not what I was expecting, but we were in the middle of nowhere after all!

After unpacking, Andrés said he would bring us tea in 20 minutes and that dinner would be at 6:30. That time passed- no tea, no Andrés. An hour later we weren't sure where he was, where the Brazilian guys were, when we'd get dinner, etc. Very disorganized. We shrugged it off with the catchphrase of the trip, "it's Bolivia", and then hung out and wrote in our journals. I checked out our little room and I noticed my bed had a mysterious stain on the blanket, and also the pillow had several strands of hair on it. This led me to believe it wasn't washed since the last person who used it. I took the case off the pillow, and thanked God I packed a sleeping bag so I could sleep on top of the sketchy blanket. We still couldn't find our guide, and finally we cornered him. He forgot about tea, and said "dinner will now be at 7:30... or 8". Which one? Let's guess 8. We finally reunited with the Brazilians and sat down at a little table and waited for dinner. At around 8:30, the food was served. It was really gross, but our hunger overrode that. It was a good time though, everyone chatting. I have always had a strong love obsession with England and British culture for some reason, so talking to Emma and Jo was a real treat for me. I learned that Emma had met Ron from Harry Potter, and then Jo and I discussed the differences between Universities in England/US and I tried to explain sororities to her- (They are a weird thing if you really think about it).

John then left with the guys for a while, so us ladies had some girl talk. We talked about books and I was excited to find fellow Twilight fans- haha. We then went outside and realized that the sky was so clear in this unpolluted highland environment that we could see thousands of stars, and even the milky way! It was amazing! The night wound down with John and I joining all the Brazilian students in this room to play a card game that reminds me of the American game "Mafia". We learned some more Portuguese words, and it was a really fun time. I went to bed a little scared of the pillow hair, but it was all okay. I was the furthest south I have ever been in my life, and we were near the Argentinean border. This was all so awesome, I couldn't really complain!
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