Walking on air

Trip Start Oct 01, 2012
Trip End Oct 01, 2015

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Flag of Bolivia  , Potosi Department,
Saturday, February 9, 2013

We arrived in uyuni - a tiny desert town that no one visits unless they are embarking on a tour of the salt flats and the surrounding area. We were taking a tour and had booked and paid for it in la Paz, it all seemed fairly simple at the time- a lady would meet us of the bus, take us to the tour agency, we could store our bags for the next 3 hours until the tour started etc etc. We were however 4 hours late and 1 hour late for the tour. We got off the bus and surprise surprise no one was there and we had no idea of the tour agency we had booked with. We did then what we normally do in these situations - loitered in the hope someone will find us! Luckily for us they did and we were dragged through the town as a lady with no teeth shouted vamos! Rapido! At us everytime we lagged behind slightly. We eventually arrived at a parked land rover with 5 very bored people sat next to it! The tour had waited for us and we were finally on our way!
Tai was given the front seat and the rest of us squeezed into the back and then we were off. As soon as we left the town we were on dirt roads and our driver was making full use of the 4wd mode on the jeep. We bounced our way along the road over bumps and through the puddles and soon we saw on the horizon something which did not look real. It was though we were seeing a mirage - a huge expanse of white glistened and gleamed where the brown earth finished. We were dropped at a little market stool where souvenirs were sold and were told we would be picked up again in 20 minutes, the weather began to change, the sky changed from blue to grey and it started to rain. We willed our driver to hurry so we could get to the salt flats before the rain started, in typical south American fashion he took his time!
Finally we were on our way and heading towards the white mirage in the distance. We arrived around 30 minutes after and could not believe our eyes. The grey clouds had dispersed and a blue sky with fluffy white clouds welcomed us. We looked out across the salar de uyuni in awe - an expanse of salt flats which is the same size as holland - as its rainy season at the moment the salt flats are flooded and are therefore covered with a layer of water which reflects the sky so you couldn't tell where land finished and sky began. We stopped on the edge and ate lunch looking out of the glistening water. Next up was for our jeep to actually drive out onto the flats. When we arrived we then had 1.5 hours to do as we pleased, tai and I immediately walked out to an area free of people. Once we were there it was just surreal and felt as though we were in a dream, walking on air. We could see nothing all around us except sky and it's reflection, the sun was shining and the result was almost magical. We'd seen photos - numerous photos - and heard people rave about the salt flats but nothing compared to being there and seeing it for yourself.
By the time we got back in the jeep everyone was buzzing. A Bolivian guy in our group said he'd been before in the dry season but it was nothing compared to today! Next stop was a train graveyard. Apparently southern Bolivia used to be home to huge mining communities where they mined tin but when the value of tin dropped in the 1980's the towns ground to a halt and Bolivias economy fell apart, one result of this was all the trains and equipment they used to transport the materials were abandoned and left to rust and so now there is a train graveyard. It was quite eerie, but fun as you could climb up on top of the trains and run (unsteadily walk) along the roofs, climb into the carriages or engine rooms and generally be a kid for an hour or so and that's exactly what we did. Once we left here it was just a straight drive for a couple of hours to our hostel for the night. As we drove we saw huge forks of lightening in the distance which reached all the way down to land and we seemed to be driving directly for it. As we got closer the rain began and by the time we arrived at the village where we were staying the night it was pouring. The village was tiny and in the middle of nowhere with a spattering of one story buildings including our hostel. We ate dinner, drank tea and discussed the day then all headed to be bed excited of the unknown of tomorrow.
Me and tai tend not to do a great deal of research when we set out on these tours and were shocked to discover we were not just spending 3 whole days on the salt flats. The following day was incredible and packed full of beautiful landscapes and wildlife. Our first stop was valle de roca, (valley of the rocks) a huge valley filled with incredible rock formations which had come from the volcanos last eruption which loomed in the distance, it was quite scary to think that these huge rocks would have been balls of fire flying through the sky at some point. Again we embraced our inner child and went climbing on all the rocks, some were really high and as we stood at the top it made our legs feel wobbly! We messed around here for an hour or so and then set off to our next stop. The next few hours we drove through the Bolivian landscape, snow capped mountains and volcanos surrounded
us, condors soared through the air above us and we stopped every half an hour or so at the most incredible lagunas, each one home to flamingoes, each one surrounded by mountains and each one a different colour! One was bright blue, one white and one a milky turquoise colour- this is where we sat and had lunch that day - crouched down using boulders as shelter from the wind and eating mountains of pasta- it was heaven!
After lunch that day our next stop was the rock tree. We arrived and was met not only by this cool shaped rock but also numerous other huge rocks which we got to climb again , as we stood on top of some of the tallest ones and took in our surrounding we couldnt believe how lucky we were to be experiencing this awesome scenery! The final stop of the day and where we would spend the night was laguna colorada, a huge lake who's water was a vibrant red colour, apparently the colour is all to do with the wind direction and sun and just before the sun set it turned to white. The laguna was home to hundreds of flamingoes. We sat in our hostel for a little bit chatting as a group whilst the Bolivian guy told us hilarious stories of Bolivia - an example is that recently Bolivia sent in 3 soldiers to chile without permission to film a video which would be put on the defence website- it showed them crossing the border, firing there guns and otherwise just generally messing around, the video was then finished with the words "chile watch out!" across the screen. Within 24hours of it being uploaded it was taken off the Internet and the soldiers were arrested and put in jail where they still are today. It all stems from the unsettled relationship chile has with both Peru and Bolivia after the war between then around 100 years ago.
Apparently Bolivia is so weak that chile could invade and take control within 19 minutes!
After our little chat we headed out to explore the lake, retreating to the warmth of the hostel shortly after as it was getting freezing.
There was a little shop next to our hostel with just so happened to sell beer and wine. We decided to all buy some as it was our last night and I took this as my opportunity to talk to the jeep driver about Tai's birthday the following. Lucky for me carnaval is being celebrated across south America at the moment and in the la paz there were lots of stalls which sold balloons and streamers and I'd bought some. So armed with 2 Spanish speakers - the Bolivian and 1 of the Spanish couple we tracked down the driver who I think was having a few drinks himself and gave him the decorations and asked if he'd decorate the jeep for the following morning, then to disguise the fact we'd left the group we bought some wine for us all to share! Our driver gave us another bottle that night and we ate pasta and drank wine. Before we all went to bed we decided to head out to look at the stars. We were deep in the southern parts of south Bolivia, there were no towns nearby which meant no light pollution. It was absolutely stunning, there were so many stars it seemed as though they were curving down and touching the floor beside us, you could even see the milky way! It was awesome and we were really excited to get to chile which has star gazing tours you can do.
The following morning we had to get up at 4am!! It was the beginning of the longest waking birthday ever! groggy eyed we struggled to get ready- I was being super helpful -" no tai don't worry I'll take the bags to the jeep you stay in bed!" so eventually tai was the last one to the car - "happy birthday!" everyone shouted - "stand there for a photo" I said - but I don't understand whats happening was his reply- it was only when I showed him the photo he noticed all the balloons and streamers everywhere!
Our first stop was some geysers about half an hour away, apparently the temperature between the cold night and the hot geysers make the gases more prominent which is why it's better to go at this time in the morning. As we arrived, there was a really bad smell and I thought someone had rudely let off a little pop in the jeep but then we rounded the corner and saw these huge geysers, some had steam coming out with an incredible force and I realised the smell was from them- that was Tai's excuse anyway! We jumped out the jeep taking streamers and balloons with us and headed over to inspect the geysers- being careful of where we stood as there were also lots of mini ones dotted around too. As we were watching the steam go up and into the night sky the wind changed and all of a sudden you couldn't see anything but cloud! We blindly made our way back to the jeep and headed off to our next stop- breakfast at the edge of some natural pools at sunrise. It was beautiful- the sun came up over the horizons and the rays on the steam rising from the pools made it look as though it was on fire! We had breakfast , pancakes and cake - which tai obviously got to cut and was able to make a wish. Then we had an hour to so to relax in the thermal pools. The run from the changing area to the pool was freezing but once you were in it was lovely- it was so hot it made your toes tingle like it does when you get into a hot shower on a cold day. There was so much steam rising from the pools it was hard to see even the person next to you. At 7.25 we begrudgingly got out as our driver wanted to leave at 7.30 to get us to our final stop before we reached the Chilean border- laguna verde. Although definitely not green it was stunning nonetheless as the water was so calm it mirrored the volcano which was behind it. The volcano is shared between chile and Bolivia and after driving around it we were on the Bolivian border. The tiniest immigration office wed ever been to- it was in the middle of nowhere, there was snow on the ground and the immigration official had decided there was a charge to leave Bolivia at this border!
When we booked our trip we were told there would be many buses which would take us to the closest town in chile - San pedro de atacama, our driver also told us the same before unloading our bags and leaving us there. There wasn't lots of buses and the ones that did come were fully booked by people who had pre paid! The Spanish couple (brother and sister- not boyfriend and girlfriend) tried there hardest to get us onto their bus only to be outdone by another driver who hadn't left his group! We were starting to get worried, 2 more buses came and filled up with people from other tours as the bus drivers just shouted no, full! at us! Then another bus turned up, I ran over and said "bolleto para San pedro?" "no tengo bolleto?" was the response "no tengo" I said with my best pleading face - "ok- vamos rapido!" the driver shouted - I waved tai over, we chucked our bags on and the driver left before the van was even full! And with that we were heading down the road into chile, passing some Chilean policeman posing with tourists on route!
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