The Salt Flats

Trip Start Jan 09, 2007
Trip End Jul 18, 2007

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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Took a day bus from Potosi to Uyuni. There were four of us, myself, Danielle (NZ), Joel (US) and Alex (Brazil): Ricketty old bus on a very ordinary road but some interesting sights. South West Bolivia makes Australia look positively fertile. It doesn't look far on the map from Potosi to Uyuni but it takes 7 hours on the bus. The rough road winds in and out of gullies, over mountains and through some interesting outback settlements. There seem to be numerous deserted mud brick settlements along the way although it can be very difficult to distinguish between deserted and inhabited here. Uyuni itself is a little nicer than I was expecting, with a mall and a few facilities. By far the most noticeable feature is all the tour agencies, dozens of them, women line the streets trying to lure you into thier agency, competition is fierce. We put a lot of effort into booking a 4 day tour of the salt flats and South West Circuit. Playing agencies off against each other for the best deal. It's not quite high season yet, so if you can get your own group of 6 together you have a lot of bargaining power. We met up with an American woman, Allysa, so had a group of 5, it takes 6 to fill a landcruiser. I won't go into detail about the bargaining, it's too painful, but we ended up with a four day tour for $us90 each leaving at 10.30am the next morning. (I just want it noting here that I was in favour of a different agency). Spent the evening in a restaurant watching Brazil play Mexico in the Copa America. Alex was somewhat depleted after Mexico won 2-0.
Uyuni is a very cold place, I got up early to stand out in the sun but it did no good. The temperature falls well below zero and there's no getting warm. Rushed breakfast to be ready for 10.30 but nothing happened. By now we had a a 6th member, Martin a French/swiss guy. Finally set off at 11.30 with a seventh person, Sara from England. The deal was, up to 6 people with a cook and a guide. We only had a driver. Sara was getting dropped off at luinchtime. We went out to a small town on the edge of the salt flats where the salt is processed. As with most things in Bolivia it is a very small, manual operation, one bloke with a shovel and 20 women selling stuff to tourists. Bought a little bowl carved from salt. Most of the buildings are made from salt and some very impressive furniture and statues are carved from the salt. The driver said 15 minutes but disappeared with his mates for half an hour. We drove onto the salt flats, the biggest in the world, just a perfectly flat plain of salt going for miles. It's possible to do trick photography here and I got some interesting photos. There's a salt hotel out on the flats, miles from anywhere. The whole building is made from salt as is all the furniture, an incredible place. We had lunch here, the first indication of Rafaels cooking ability and a taste of what was to come for the vegetarians, nothing.
We left Sara at the salt hotel with another British girl who'd been dumped there. Day 1 for them had lasted 2 hours and they were stuck in the middle of a salt flat with nothing to do but drink. I met up with them later and that's exactly what they did do, drink. We were supposed to have gone to a train cemetry before heading out onto the salt flats but that bit of the tour had been missed, after a bit of arguing we got Rafael to take us back.- Loads of rusting trains.
Our accommodation was to be right at the other side of the flats at the base of a volcano. The town of Jirra is just a small mud brick settlement with salt in front and a volcano behind, there are more Llamas than people. A strange place to build a town. Dinner was the expected chaos and Rafael ended up getting a local woman to do the cooking. We were supposed to get a guide to take us up the volcano but again confusion reigned supreme. The townsfolk had gone to a fiesta some hours drive away and there was just some young lad willing to take us to a mirador. I'd been given the impression in Uyuni that climbing the volcano was a simple 'before breakfast' job and there was a cave on the way up with some mummies in it. It turns out that the volcano is over 5000m high and much more than a mornings walk, the mummies are at the other side and require a different trip all together. The mirador could be reached in 2 hours and it was decided to go there early to see the sunrise and climb higher if people wished. Not exactly the best organised tour I'd been on. As fate would have it, I was sick during the night and decided that I'd climbed enough hills to see the sunrise so stayed in bed. The others got up at 4.30am to find mayhem in the kitchen. Rafael and his mates had a party after we went to bed, drank our wine and left food all over the place. Breakfast wasn't possible.
I waited until daylight and wandered around the village taking pictures and helped some old bloke chase Llamas from the town square. I followed the groups tracks up the hill and sat on some rocks, feeling a little better but far from perfect. We were supposed to have lunch at some island on the salt but because people were back late from the volcano we had lunch where we were. For the vegetarians this was little squares of potato and some corn. We retired for a group discussion. Martin thought everything was fine and wanted to continue, I thought everything was shit but wanted to continue and the others were up in arms and wanted to return. Eventually a woma from the agency turned up and all hell broke loose. The outcome was that we'd return to Uyuni and get half of our money back.
We spent the afternoon at Isla del Pescadores, an osland in the salt covered in ancient cacti, one of them over 1200 years old. (How did they know it was 1200 years old? A rat told them.) Martin got in with another group and continued the tour, the rest of us returned to Uyuni. Alex got a night bus to La Paz, Danielle, Joel and Allysa organised another tour for the next day and I took a bus the next morning for Sucre. I didn't fancy going through the whole thing again. Danielle and Joel were going to Chile so it made sense for them to go all the way back but I headed for warmer climes.
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