Uyuni: Wanna watch a road eat a bus?

Trip Start Aug 09, 2007
Trip End Jul 29, 2008

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

After meeting the friendliest border guard in history while crossing in to Bolivia, Nik and I enjoyed our first night in the border town of Villazon.  We didnīt do a whole lot except look all over for this elusive train station (we were hoping to mix up our transportation options a little and train our way to the Uyuni Salt Flats) and when we found this dive of a terminal, it was closed and not opening for another two days.  So we said `Screw it!! Weīll take the bus`, as good ol` faithful hasnīt let us down yet....Well, we shouldīve touched wood.  Anyways, we got up bright and early to a nice cold morning and made our way to the bus station where the policeman are literally dressed in full snowsuits to brave the overnight cold.  A run down jalopy bus pulls up - and while this bus wouldīve been great by Central American standards, it paled to our recent Argentinean experiences  - and I caught myself saying `Pleaaaaaaase donīt be our bus`, so of course, it was.  2 hours later we arrive at an intermediate city where we had the worst breakfast ever of dirty coffee (a surface slick of hair and dirt) and some oily pan fried bread...We returned to catch the next bus onwards to Uyuni, but just before the bus was ready to leave, we were kicked out of our seats and told to move to the jeeps...What jeeps??  Ohhhhhhh the jeeps they use when they oversell their bus...of course
We crammed 11 people into this Toyota Land Cruiser, all our luggage on top (a huuuuuuuge pile) and started very slowly down the dirt road following the mountainīs edge towards Uyuni.  We made a quick bathroom stop in this town along the way - when I asked the ladies cooking food where the bathroom was, they said there wasnīt one.  When I thought this meant that I wasnīt allowed to use the bathroom inside their house, I rephrased my question, looking for the *public* bathroom.  Obviously entertained by my innocence at this point, they laughed and said, `the river` which is a tiny and nearly stagnant trickle nearby...Gross!! No, not just gross, unhygienic!!  They pooed and peed directly into their water source.  I just found a grassy patch nearby instead.  Anyways, 4 hours later with our spines contorting to our cramped conditions and no longer able to feel my legs and back, we arrived to another intermediate point and changed - thank God - to an actual bus for the remainder of the way. 
The roads were incredible that we drove that day - we drove only about 100km but it took 4 hours and for 3 of those, we passed only two other vehicles on the road.  This dirt road we took was literally clinging to the side of a mountain and wound steeply up and up and up again to over 4000m of elevation along some path that seemed impossible to even exist.  It seemed just wide enough for our vehicle, so it was always a bit nerve-wracking when around the blind corner some giant bus would meet with us and we would have to reverse our way along the several thousand meter drop until we came to a spot nearly wide enough for both of us.  Along this road was nothing, and I mean nothing - no towns, only remnants of farmers houses, we saw maybe 4 people and all were llama herders - all you could see in any direction was mountains mountains and more mountains.  Desert was everywhere and the sun and dust were relentless.  It was a beautiful ride, extreme scenery in every direction, and though our driver was good, our tires were bald and the road was thin - an exciting journey to say the least.  By the time we arrived to Uyuni, my hair, our skin and our clothes were completely caked in dust, but all was made better over their famous spit-roasted chicken we found in the chicken district.
We decided to take the next tour leaving Uyuni and chose Blue Line tours.  The family who owned it was very nice, as were the two British ladies - a couple -  who were going to be in our jeep as well.  We were stoked!!  Going to see the salt flats!!  We departed at 10:30 the next morning and - to our surprise - found that we were the only ones in our jeep (of 6 tourists) that could speak Spanish and our Guide, Grover, spoke no English.  So, we became the official translators which actually was great practice for us and we learnt a lot more about the scenery we saw.  Our first stop was an old train cemetery where trains were either fixed or retired and were subsequently stripped to recycle the metals in any way possible (art or new materials) - a very original site for us, very cool.  We then started into the real deal and made our way to the Uyuni Salt Flats that are nearly 10,582km2 in area and originated due to the presence of a prehistoric lake, Lake Minchin, over 40,000 years ago.  When the lake disappeared due to the formation of the surrounding mountains (I believe), 10 billion tons of salt remained at an altitude of 3656m.  This salt is currently mined by a cooperative group in Colchani, a nearby town, and we were given a tour of this process.  They first shovel the salt from the flats into small pyramids to start the drying process, then they wheel-barrow it into the workshop area and shovel it onto a grill of sorts to let it dry.  After this, they grind it manually by turning a crank and feeding it through a sieve of sorts and finally scoop it into small plastic bags and burn one end on a torch to seal it.  They donīt add minerals to it as it is naturally high in iodine.  They then sell it within Bolivia for 8 Bolivianos per 50kg ($1USD/50kg) and this supports the entire community.  They also refine the salt into some neat shapes and sell it as candleholders or dice for extra money. 
We then drove on over the immensely flat and blazingly white salt flats until we could see up ahead a floating island of sorts.  Due to the extreme heat and lack of perspective, any image in the distance appears to be floating, very cool!  This island is actually an island made of dead coral that used to live within Lake Minchin.  Today, this coral supports the life of hundreds of cacti and offers incredible views of the salt flats when you climb to the top.  After this, we pursued our newfound passion of taking photos without perspective - seriously, you could do this all day every day, it is so much fun!! - and then joined our group for lunch.  Not quite sure what the meat was, I was wavering between pork and thin steak when Grover told us that we had just had our first llama...!! Actually, it was excellent, a red meat that was very lean like venison.  We continued on into an area of the flats that was covered with shallow water giving a mirror-like effect and also making great Toyota commercials as the Land Cruisers tore through this water against an amazing backdrop.  Due to the immense size and flatness of the salt flats, apparently they are used to calibrate the remote sensing instruments on orbiting satellites.
That night 4 of our party, us and two people from the Czech Republic, stayed in the Salt Hotel and then the two ladies from the UK stayed in a lower hotel that had a shower. The Salt Hotel was cool - obviously - the entire hotel structure including the insides (bed frames, tables, lampshades, flooring) was made of salt.  The salt was made into bricks for structures or kept loose for the flooring and it was really really cool.  After watching an incredible sunset over the immense salt flats right outside our door, we could hardly wait to see the sunrise the next morning!  The colours from the sun and vastness of the flats were amazing. 

Day 2 of the excursion started with a wicked breakfast, in which the 6 of us watched the sun rise over the salt flats.  We packed all of our stuff up and then chucked it on top of the Land Cruiser.  Then we proceeded to descend the mini-hill to where the other 2 ladies were.  One thing that was common to all the trips of the Salt Flats was that it was guaranteed your car would have problems.  Our car had an alternator problem, where the battery would not charge, so many times along the trip our driver would position the car down a hill for a rolling start or get his passengers to push.  This however was minor to some cars that we saw.  So naturally we had a bit of trouble going down with the car not starting and such, after that we were off to a place called San Juan.  
When we arrived to San Juan we pulled up to one of our drivers buddies.  Since breakdown is a big problem in this part of Bolivia and also the fact that it is in the middle of f-ing no where (no seriously, salt plains, deserts, high mountains, no service or gas stations and only 2 tiny towns along the journey) the drivers stick together in groups of 2 or 3 cars.  The cars are not related to the same tour agency, but, it is like a travelling caravan with each of the drivers helping the other out if there are mechanical problems with their cars.  Naturally the car we pulled up to had one of these problems, so the 2 other drivers (of functioning cars) tried to help out the broken down driver.  We stuck around San Juan for about 2hrs, which was not planned but we got to see an ancient tomb site (Necropolis) of indigenous people.  Sarah and I wandered through these dome shaped concrete like structures for about 45 minutes.  All were interesting and some still had the remains of the people in them.  We headed back to town, found out that the LC of our drivers friend would be up and running in about 20 more minutes, so we headed off.
We were driving through some pretty surreal landscapes; we headed over a very flat desert strip, until we hit a badlands type area.  Here we could see a smoking volcano and other Land Cruisers that made for a wicked Toyota commercial.  We ate lunch in the area taking in the 6,000 plus meter peaks, and then headed for 2 sulfurous lakes.  One thing to mention was that we carried all of our food, diesel, supplies and luggage on top of the car.  So when we stop to have lunch of driver would climb on top of the car throw off a propane tank and stove and then the cook (yes, also our driver) would serve us up a meal.  In general the meals were really good, all consisted of pasta or rice and then a meat product (llama, chicken and tuna) and then there would be desert as well.  After lunch we packed it in and headed to the two lakes. 
The lakes were incredible, they were green and blue with hints of red and made mirror like reflections of the mountains that surrounded them.  The other oddity was that there was about 150 flamingos in each lake (I thought that flamingos only like really hot climates) and the lakes reeked of rotten eggs (sulphur).  I am not sure I would drink the water, but, it didnīt affect the flamingos who drank and fed from the lakes.
We then headed to what was called the Ļstone treeĻ. This was a volcanic stone that had been deposited by one of the volcanoes in the area and over time the sand and wind had eroded it into the shape of a tree.  Really quite incredible, some of the pictures on this trip just do not do the area justice. 
Last stop for the long day was a lake called Laguna Colorado (Lake of the colour red).  This place was phenomenal; we arrived 2 hrs later than expected because of the earlier breakdown, but, just in time before the sun left (about 6pm).  The colour of the lake was this crimson-blood like colour and at 10am and 4pm the colour is the most vibrant.  The colour of the lake comes from single celled organisms that according to our driver were one of the first life forms on earth. Not surprising since we are at 4300m above sea level, the area is not really touched by man and there is a stink load of minerals in the volcanoes and hills.  The Laguna also has about 400 flamingos feeding from it and they are specifically eating these ĻredĻ single cell organisms, this is one of the sources of the flamingos pinkish colours.  We took off from the lake; at this point I was sitting in the front seat and could see a red battery light in the dash as well could our driver, whose eyes instantly widened.  I guess nothing too serious; we ended up at another hostel that night after paying our park entrance to the Flamingo sanctuary.  The hostels surprised me, they are in the middle of nowhere but they are full every night because of the salt flat tour.  By about 7pm we arrived at the hostel in the desert and the temperature must have been close to 10 degrees C, over night the temperature can drop to as low as -20 because of the altitude and clear skies.  That night we had a good dinner and then hit the sack for an early 5am start.            

The final day of our tour, we all packed into the Jeep well before the sun was even considering coming out and we found our driver to be in a crusty mood as he was having problems with the Jeep the night before...Something to do with the alternator, but that just meant for us that we had to do our ascent to 5000m without lights and with Grover the Grouch.  Just as the sun was starting to appear, we made it to these sulfurous geysers that boiled and bubbled and smoked and hissed and literally looked like hell. They were pretty amazing.  Afterwards we went to the nearby hotsprings but due to lack of planning, we were towel-less and it was still absolutely freezing at 5000m at 8am, so we bypassed those and instead gorged ourselves on the dulce de leche offered for breakfast.  We then continued on past the Salvador Dali desert, so named for the desertīs resemblance to Daliīs `The Persistence of Memory` painting.  The desert itself was beautiful - vast and bright with unbelievable colours splashed across the mountains that were in the background and all around were big rocks, just randomly placed inside this desert.  We then visited Lago Blanco which was full of magnesium, Lago Verde which was full of arsenic, copper and zinc and was incredibly toxic (sitting next to an active volcano would do it I suppose) and then after dropping our UK friends off at the Chilean border, we made our way back to Lago Colorado to have lunch among hundreds of flamingos and take in the amazing view.  Our route back to Uyuni was long from here, but without too many attractions save for the many many alpaca we saw all along the roadside with cute tassels hanging from their ears (domesticated) and for the Land Cruiser that crossed the lake a little too far downstream and got stuck with water up over the doors.  While this would spell doom for any other car, this Toyota was out in about 5 minutes.  Seriously, you wouldnīt want to do this trip in anything but a Toyota Land Cruiser. 
Upon return to Uyuni, we of course ran into our Belgium friends (Puerto Madryn, Iguazu Falls, Cafayate and now Uyuni) staying at our same hotel, had some delicious chicken with them, took some well deserved showers and crashed.  We spent the next day taking care of some really dirty laundry and shopping around a bit, and then departed the following morning (Easter Sunday) for `The Highest City in The World`, Potosi at 4090m. 
Hope everyone is well and had a wonderful Easter!! 
Niko y Sarita xoxo
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