Monday, 23 January 2012

The amazing sights of Salar de Uyuni

We had chosen to do the 4 day/3 night tour from Tupiza to Uyuni as it took in the best parts of southern Bolivia including many lagoons, flamingos, as well as the thermal pools and finishing on the final morning with the famous Salt Flats.  Most ‘normal’ tours run from Uyuni, but this means seeing the best part (the Salt Flats) on the afternoon of the first day and finishing on less of a high… Since we were working our way North anyway, we decided that beginning our tour in Tupiza was a better option even though it was more expensive.

Day 1:
View over the Cigar Formation
We left early in the morning with the ‘crew’ which consisted of us (naturally), the Shatzies, our driver Santos (who was also the business owner), and our cook – Augustina.  The scenery leaving Tupiza is beautiful with very colourful rock formations and cacti in every direction.  It was a steep climb as soon as we left and our first stop was at a ‘mirador’ (lookout) overlooking the canyon and a group of rock formations known as the ‘Cigars’ due to their shape (obviously  long, thin and circular).  

One of the many beautiful lagoons
A bit further on, we stopped for our first meal of the adventure, a delicious lunch of chicken, pasta, salad and apotatoes (there are hundreds of types of potatoes in Bolivia – I think we managed to sample a good number by the time we left!).  After being a little concerned about what food we may be eating on the trip due to the limited cooking facilities and supplies, we were all relieved after that first meal, and we decided that the food was going to be great and plentiful!

We continued driving up, reaching altitudes of above 4000m, so we were all busily chewing coca leaves and spitting the mushy remains sporadically out the windows.  We stopped frequently to view lagoons and beautifully coloured mountains that were so surreal they reminded us of fake backdrops in old Western movies.

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The 4X4
We passed through a small town called San Antonio de Lipez where we had the option to stay the night, but we decided to drive on to the next place as this meant we didn’t have to be up so early on the following morning.  On they way to our pit-stop we jumped out at the ruins of an old town that were more than 1000 years old (built before the Spaniards arrived), but surprisingly well preserved. The town had been continually abandoned and re-inhabited due to the local mining resources, but the endeavors usually ended in bloodshed or in the case of the ‘lowlanders’ - who were usually African slaves - they suffered severe altitude sickness (it was at 4600m!) and were forced to leave.

After a few more lagoons, such as ‘Laguna Morejon’, we stopped near the town of Chico for the night at 7.30pm.  It had been a long day driving, about 12 hours all up, so we were all glad to unfold ourselves out of the 4x4.  After expecting the worst (we’d read some very negative reviews…) the accommodation was quite good considering where we were! We had toilets, running water and comfortable beds with loads of blankets which was great as we were also a bit worried about the extreme temperature drops that occur during the night.

We had tea and biscuits to fill the gap before dinner was ready and we took out the UNO cards and challenged the Schatzies to what would be the first of many games of UNO. Meanwhile the local kids brought out their pipe flutes with great encouragement from the table of French people next to us… but about half way through the performance the French left us alone with the enthusiastic, but tone deaf, children and their screeching pipes.
Some of the many flamingos

Surviving with some hearing intact, dinner finally arrived at 9pm and we were so hungry anything would’ve tasted good! Thankfully the soup was delicious, but the meat and potatoes that followed were very salty – However, Fernando devised a good way of eating it and that was to add the beef and potatoes to the nice soup, so we all did this to try and get some iron into our systems. 

After dinner we crawled into bed (there was no shower available) but even though we were toasty warm with our sleeping bags and blankets; none of us slept particularly well – which is a common side effect of being at such high altitudes, sleeping at 4300m is not easy!

Day 2:
6.45 am breakfast – after everyone had a restless night of headaches and strange dreams, we thought it would be difficult to get up in time but the sun rose early and brightened the room through our flimsy curtains just enough that it would be impossible to get back to sleep.  It’s always a bit hard to stomach breakfast at such an early hour, but Dave found a great way to make it easier….. add Dulce de Leche to everything….. including in the coffee.  Everyone shortly became addicted to this morning sugar hit!  For those who don’t know - Dulce de Leche (Manjar for our Chilean friends) is essentially caramelized condensed milk, and it tastes fantastic in drinks, on cakes, in icecream… or just on a spoon.

A distraught llama
Shortly after we’d folded ourselves back into the 4x4, we unfolded again to check out a pen of llamas who were all looking a little perplexed while making strange and eerie wailing sounds.  Santoz explained to us that they were actually crying because they’d been locked up for too long and they were hungry and wanting to get out.  We were tempted to let them run free….  especially since there were two ‘free’ llamas parading around outside the pen looking quite proud of themselves for being on the other side of the fence! The Bolivians generally use their llamas for meat and trade, sometimes leading caravans of between 30 to 300 animals, with the most experienced males leading as to avoid stampedes when they see predators or threats.

We continued on past small salt and borax lakes, where they collect and sell huge mounds of white borax, until we reached the ‘Laguna Verte’.  We were meant to arrive early enough to see the colour change from white to green. This phenomenon is meant to occur around lunch time when the wind picks up which whips up the water causing the minerals to turn the water an emerald colour.  Unfortunately we arrived a bit late and the lagoon was already green, but it didn’t matter too much as it was impressive enough as it was. 

Emerald Lagoon
Near the edge of the lagoon the mud formed a crust that looked quite solid until stepped on.  Sarah almost lost a shoe, but managed to jump back into solid ground quickly enough but Fernando wasn’t as lucky and he got both feet completely buried in the mud.. his shoes were quickly tossed on the roof by Santos, who was no doubt protecting the car!  Luckily our next stop was the thermal pools so he could wash off the remaining mud. When we arrived, the enterprising Bolivians had just starting to charge for the use of the change rooms (previous it had been free), so we hid behind various buildings and got changed.  

The water smelt slightly of sulfur and was full of locals either in their full clothing or bras/undies.  The water was constantly flowing into the lagoon keeping it clean and clear and no bathing with soap was allowed.  For us it was a much needed bath since there had been no showering for about 54 hours now!  We all soaked in the warm water for the maximum recommended time of 20 minutes while lunch was prepared. 

After lunch we continued onto the geysers, hot mud bubbling out of the ground,  Santoz guided us through the maze of steam and oozing mud (he didn’t want a repeat of Fernando sinking in again, since here the ground is almost at boiling point!). The pits of mud spitting, gurgling and boiling were quite impressive, made even more so by the brilliant colors of green, purple, grey and various shades of red/brown.

Laguna Colorada
Our last stop of the day was at the ‘Laguna Colorada’ which is a red lagoon due to the algae that lives in the water.  We walked around the edge of it for about 30 minutes before continuing onto our accommodation for the night. 
We arrived around 4pm and it was nice to have time to relax out of the 4x4. It cost extra to have a hot shower and since the afternoon was quite warm we all decided to brave a cold one. Probably not the best idea in the middle of a 4000m high altoplano where the water had time to cool down to near freezing temperatures, the shower was literally like liquid ice!  So it was a quick, but very invigorating shower that involving quite a bit of squealing, even from the guys We passed the afternoon with more tea, cookies and UNO until it was dinner time. 

As soon as the sun set the temperature plummeted and we were very thankful when the fire was lit, except for the lighting part – where the lady who was in charge of the task poured on enough petrol to fill a small container before throwing a match on – the resulting fireball engulfed the corner of the table with David/Fernando having a few burnt hairs off their faces.
Another sleepless night followed as again we were at 4300m and our bodies still hadn’t acclimatised properly.  At least the coffee in the morning was strong…

Day 3:
We were up at 6am again, this time not so much a result of the sun but from the delicious smell of roasting chicken that was to be our lunch.  We emerged very sleepily from our room to discover pancakes for breakfast – a welcome change from the bread and jam which had been the breakfast standard since arriving in South America. 
Arbol de Piedra
The morning involved numerous stops at more lagoons, many filled with the 3 different types of South American flamingoes that are found in the region.  We also visited the famous ‘Arbol de Piedra’ (Stone Tree) which is a huge piece of stone that is much larger at the top than the bottom due the strong winds that whip across the desert. We stopped for lunch shortly after in a massive, obviously solidified, lava lake from which we could see the still active volcano that has steam rising from a section at the top.

We continued on to the ‘Mummy Cemetery’ which is a very interesting burial site dating back to before the Inca’s, where the indigenous people buried their dead in caves built from the volcanic rock in the region.  The dead were buried in a fetal position to represent rebirth along with possessions and provisions for the journey into the afterlife.  There are still many skeletons to be seen in the graves which were so close you could pick up a skull if you wanted to (hopefully no idiot does!).

Salt Hotel
We arrived again around 4pm at our hotel which was on the very edge of the salt flats, with views to nothingness in the distance.  Tonight’s accommodation was in one of the famous ‘salt hotels’ and we weren’t sure what to expect.  It was incredible, the entire building was built out of massive salt bricks, but what was most impressive was that the floor was covered in couple of inches of huge salt crystals so the entire interior looked to be snow white.  Our beds were mattresses on top of salt bases and the tables and chairs were all constructed from salt as well. 

Since we arrived early and we were literally the only ones in the salt hostel, so we decided to have a look around ‘town’. It turns out there are many, many salt hostels with dozens of other groups staying at the other hotels! We didn’t particularly mind that we didn’t have company as we had the entire, beautiful, hotel to ourselves (until some Swiss-Germans arrived late in the evening).

We battled out UNO again, with Fernando claiming the title of ‘Ultimate Loser’ and then enjoyed lasagna and a bottle of Bolivian wine for dinner.  We slept better for once, but we weren’t sure if it was thanks to the wine or because we had descended to 3700m….

Day 4:
Dave Jumping

It was a painfully early morning, up at 4.30am so we could be in the salt flats for the sunrise. The morning light was spectacular over the flats and the early morning was well worth the effort and the cold.  The hexagonal salt pieces were very cool and extended as far as the eye could see.  

We cruised over it till we reached the ‘Isla Incahuasi’ which is an ‘island’ in the middle of the salt flats made from volcanic rock over 2000 years ago. Climbing around the island, we could see a 360 view over the spectacularly white salt flat while walking through the various cactii which covered the island that are over 1000 years old, the oldest was dated around 1200 years but it died in 2007 and has been left there to naturally decay.
A wholesome breakfast
We had breakfast after exploring the island, which was our best one yet as Augustina had baked a fresh cake that morning (we seriously think she doesn’t sleep).  After a walk around the island on the actual salt flat, we headed further into the flats to take some ‘loco’ photos.  Santoz was full of good ideas for our crazy pics and we took some great ones like David eating Sarah off a spoon and of Sarah flicking Dave off her hand.  

We continued to drive until the salt mining operation, which appeared to be still a very manual task of piling up huge mounds of salt so it can dry out before collection and purification… and with that, we left the salt flats behind! It was really beautiful but we think that you couldn’t spend longer than a few hours there without getting too bored (after all, it is a giant flat expanse of salt).

After a quick stop in the llama museum we arrived in Uyuni and checked into Hotel Avenida before continuing the tour and visiting the Train Cemetery which was actually pretty cool.  Loads of old rusty steam engines that Bolivia used to use when they exported a lot minerals to other parts of South America. 
Sarah trainsurfing
We had a final meal back at our hotel and said goodbye to Santoz and Augustina.  They had been fantastic and really made it a memorable tour.  

We actually found out that Santoz had managed to raise the money for starting his hostel and tour company by travelling to Brazil and buying buses then bringing them into Bolivia and reselling them for at three times the cost price.   He said there was only a 3 year window in which this was a profitable venture and he was entrepreneurial enough to catch the wave.

We spent the evening in Uyuni (there’s not much of note in the actual town) sampling the local quinoa beer and llama steak and buying our bus tickets to Potosi for the following day.

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