Unbelievable Uyuni!

Trip Start Apr 02, 2011
Trip End Sep 04, 2011

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, July 8, 2011

In order to get to Uyuni, we had to take a 10 hour overnight bus from La Paz. After our experience on the bus to Copacabana, we arrived with sleeping bags, jackets, beanies, gloves & thermals, as we did not think we could survive a freezing cold bus ride. Unfortunately for us, this bus was the exact opposite to what we had anticipated and had industrial size hair dryers that blew boiling hot air on you. It got to the point where you would try and plaster yourself against the freezing cold window just to cool down. The bus ticket included a light dinner and breakfast, hot beverages and a latest release movie. The movie was hilarious! It was about a firefighter 'finding' himself. It was probably filmed in two days and had some of the worst acting and cheesiest drama we have ever seen. Funnily enough we couldn’t tear ourselves away from it but we got a lot of dirty looks when at the most serious parts of the movie the two of us were roaring with laughter.

The plan for the next three days was to spend 3 days and 2 nights exploring the Salar de Uyuni and surrounds. On the first day we planned to visit the famous salt flats (Salar de Uyuni) which used to be a 12,000 square kilometre inland sea that has dried up. The second day we would leave the Salar and drive into the mountains next to the Atacama desert and visit the Lagoons and famous Stone Tree (a rock that has been eroded by wind to look exactly like a tree). The last day we would see the geysers, swim in the mud baths and see the famous green lagoon (which borders Argentina) before making our way back to Uyuni town. We did quite a bit of investigation into the tour in La Paz and finally decided to spend a little bit extra and get a private vehicle. Most companies use Toyota Landcruisers, into which they pile a driver, cook and six tourists. It is apparently not the most comfortable experience especially if you are stuck with six other people, in a very confined space, for three full days. We knew that the accommodation was going to be rustic but at least we had our own vehicle to spread out in and we couldn’t wait!

On arriving in Uyuni we were greeted by a very strange sight…. snow! It apparently never snows in Uyuni and it should currently be experiencing its dry season but the snow obviously followed us from La Paz and Copacabana. We didn’t think too much of it until our tour operator explained that we would be able to see next to nothing. Luckily, as we were on a private tour, we were able to postpone our departure by a day and got to spend a day in the town of Uyuni – the bustling metropolis of absolutely nothing. Why people decided to build a town there, no-one knows. It is situated in the middle of the most barren area, with one of the harshest climates in Bolivia. The snow made the town even more unpleasant but it was rather festive as the town was filled to the brim with stranded tourists as no buses could leave Uyuni. In Uyuni there are only two types of restaurants: Pizzerias and Italian. Luckily with only one night there it was quite fun to explore this tiny town although it was absolutely freezing.

The following day we awoke to clear blue skies and headed off on our tour. Our first stop was the train mausoleum. All different engines and train carriages have been abandoned here. Our second stop was a salt factory on the edge of the salt flats. Here we were shown how they collect, clean, grind and package the salt. Finally we were able to hit the Salar. We had not known what to expect but what we saw was beyond our wildest dreams. We were driving through the snow and all of a sudden the snow stopped and we drove for about 1 km on dirt before hitting the whitest sand you have ever seen. The Salar is perfectly flat, to the point that you can actually see the curvature of the earth and is edged by a large mountain range. Over a foot of snow fell across the region and the snow was a blessing because as it melted, 6 inches of water remained across the entire Salt Flat. This only ever happens in the wet season and people travel there specifically to see this phenomenon as the white salt flat underlying the water allows a perfect reflection of the sky and mountains and even in the wet season there are very few days that you are to see this. We managed to get to see this miracle – in the dry season. It was a sight unlike any other we have ever seen and it seems like the entire floor is a mirror. It felt like we were driving over the top of an ocean. It was absolutely incredible. At other times it was actually quite scary as you almost got vertigo and felt like you going to fall off the end of the world. The water completely messed with your mind but it was without doubt one of the most incredible things we have ever seen. While in the Salar we got to visit Fish Island. We were not so sure why it was called this until we looked at the rocks and understood that the island used to be a coral reef. It is now covered with massive cactuses that can reach up to 12m in height. We hiked to the top and got to see across the entire Salar. It was breath-taking to see the reflection off the water from such a high vantage point. We also got to experience complete and utter silence. There was not a bird, breath of wind or anything. Amazing!

We spent the first night in a salt hotel. As the name indicates, the entire hotel is made from salt: the walls, tables, chairs, beds etc...  We were given a very nice room and spent most of the evening playing cards and then at the very late hour of 8pm we all crawled into bed. Not because we were exhausted but due to the fact that it was below freezing and we were all on the brink of hyperthermia. Salt may be a great way to build a hotel but it definitely does not have ANY insulation!

The snow we had experienced on our Uyuni trip was not only a blessing but it was also a curse. Firstly, it made the entire area absolutely freezing and secondly the snow in the mountains had still not melted. The second day began with us trying to climb the mountains in order to reach the lagoons and stone tree. Unfortunately the snow was very thick and most of the drivers decided to drive in convoy for safety. We were the second car and watched the lead car try to decipher where the road was hidden below the snow. On a couple of occasions he misjudged where the road was supposed to be and the convoy would have to stop in order to dig him out. At one point we had to climb a steep hill with a ditch on the one side and a cliff on the other. The occupants of all seven vehicles got out to clear the road. We realised how incredibly dangerous driving in the snow was as on numerous occasions our vehicle would be driving straight and in an instant later the back of the vehicle would kick out, spinning us off the road. If this had happened on that steep road, we would have been finished. It was all rather terrifying and we even made a pact that we were allowed to eat each other if we got stranded. Georgie even started rationing Midge’s water intake in case there was a shortage. One thing that is indisputable is that the Toyota Landcruiser is the best 4x4 around. Other vehicles would probably not have gotten half way. Midge always has been a Landcruiser fan but is now fully converted and sworn that he will be purchasing one as soon as we get back to SA! After numerous attempts the drivers deemed the road to the lagoons to be unsafe and turned us back to the lower lying areas. We unfortunately had to miss out on most of the lagoons, geysers, and mud baths but on the positive side we got to see the Salar looking incredible and see other parts of Bolivia that not many tourists get to see.  

The convoy headed to a nearby town in order to spend the night. We were all so energetic and lively as we all felt like we had escaped death! We headed out to explore the town, which was about 200m by 200m. After a full tour of every avenue and corner of the town we returned, a full 5 min later. It is at this point that we would like to describe the food we ate on the tour. We were told to take this specific company as the food was the best. We were therefore surprised when the very first meal we were served was grilled llama meat. We were a little shocked and when we asked we were told that all food we will be served is strictly Bolivian. We managed to just stomach the llama meat but whenever red meat was served thereafter, we chose not to know. One the second night we were given a typical Bolivian dish that consists of meat, sausage, tomatoes and sausage. Georgie thought it was delicious but the meat seemed a little suspect (read llamaish) and was left untouched. Midge tucked in and as a result spent the entire night regretting it! Unfortunately for Midge we had over 7 hours in the car ahead of us on the third day but with the help of Imodium and Rehydrate he was able to survive. Please note that all jokes about Georgie’s medical aid kit have since ceased!

On our last day we were taken to a place with the most incredible rock formations. The wind and climate are so incredibly harsh here that the rocks have been sandblasted into the most incredible shapes. We also got to visit a couple of lagoons and an awesome canyon that cuts through the mountains. We then headed back to Uyuni town when Midge happily climbed into bed to sleep off the last of his ‘llama poisoning’.

We were very sad to have missed out on large parts of our Uyuni tour but our main objective had been to see the salt flats and we got to see them at their absolute best. It was a fantastic experience, except for the fact we almost had to become cannibals! Out next stop is Potosi, the highest city in the world. Let’s hope Midge can handle the six hour bus ride we have ahead of us!
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Margie on

Hi guys! What amazing and different experiences and incredible photo's. Move over National Geographic!
Georgie, I see you have finally managed to cut Midge down to size - well done!
You are both looking well lean and well. Mark, glad to hear that you recovered from from your bout of lamaritis.Back to eating fish?!!
Misssing you and looking forward to your next news. Margs and Don xx

Murray White on

Hi Folks,that looks spectacular. I hope you picked up a copy of that great DVD for memory sakes. Sounds like a cracker. Those pictures are truly are amazing.

Otherwise hope all is well , George you should get some reinbursement for First aid kit comments. Take Care - Muzzletov

Don on

How about buying a Land Cruiser whilst in South America at a fraction of the price you will get one back home (unless you can convince Brian to part with his - it's far too big to park at the Inandas - the Honda will be right for him and a fair swap!!
Your photos are amazing and show to what lengths people have to go to to make a living. In biblical times salt was a powerful currency and was one of the biggest commodities traded throughout the Med and Sahara Desert. That all changed when the climate changed and whole civilizations collapsed - I guess that happened in Bolivia too!

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