● For full details on our route, transport info, hotel details, etc, look at our Google Maps page

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Salar de Uyuni

28th - 31st May 2008

The six hour bus ride between Potosi and Uyuni was really quite breathtaking and showed the Bolivian landscape at it´s very best. We would recommend anyone that can visit Bolivia to do so, if just to experience the views we saw on this journey.

Uyuni lies near the Eastern edge of the Salar de Uyuni (the highest and largest salt lake in the world)
And is one of the jumping-off points for trips to the salt flats, volcanoes and multi-colored lakes of southwest Bolivia.

We arrived in Uyuni late afternoon and we instantly accosted by agents from tour operators, trying to sell us their trips across the salt flats. Feeling a little worse for worse (the old Bolivia belly had struck again!) we fought off the masses and headed to the nearest hostel around, the very lovely Residencial Sucre. Clearly our standards have been slipping since we left home, the room on offer was little more than a cell. However at a bargainous price of just 38 Bolivianos (£2.71!) for the room, how could we refuse!

After spending a very chilly hour checking out the various agencies for tours of the salt flats, we agreed on Lipez tours. The guy had chased after us from down the street and initially we were sceptical, but upon seeing our friends names (an Irish couple) booked onto the tour for the next day we relented. The guy confirmed he could chuck in some thick sleeping bags and a couple of hot waterbottles and suddenly it seemed like a good deal!

The night time temperatures on the Uyuni flats and surrounding lakes were known to drop as low as -25C. With only very basic accommodation (in Bolivia this means no central heating and often doors and windows that don’t close) provided on both nights it was time to sort out some warm clothing. Check out our matching alpaca jumpers in the photo on Picasa…don’t we look fab!!

The day of our departure we arrived on time at the office, only to discover that some of our group had been delayed by the overnight train from Argentina. There was also the minor detail of a missing 4x4. One was parked outside, a fairly new looking Toyota Landcruiser, however with only seats for 6, and by this time we were 8. Unfortunately we drew the short straw (in more ways than one, but that’s another story…) and were chosen to make a second group with the four delayed Irish girls. Time ticked by and it was looking less like we would leave Uyuni at all that day. By midday and after much calming one another down, our guy Elios arrived with the second 4x4.

He introduced himself as our driver, guide and cook for the next three days. The Irish girls had also materialised and finally we were set. Just one minor problem…it seemed that our guide spoke not a word of English, and our Irish friends not a word in Spanish! We were in for a fun few days, the two of us acting as translators with our only basic grasp of the language!

Within a very short time of leaving town we arrived at Colchani where the "terraplen" (the ramp) for the lake is situated. There were a number of artisan stalls here selling crafts made entirely of salt and a small salt museum displaying huge salt sculptures. We stopped here only briefly but managed to catch the other group who had just arrived from the Railway Cemetery. Driving onto the lake itself was an awesome experience. In contrast to the bright blue sky on this sunny day the white salt crust was just dazzling. We stopped a short distance into the flat to look at and climb all over the salt mountains that were being prepared for shipping to Cochani. Lots of people take funny pictures here but we’re both just too cool for this…! Next stop was the original salt hotel, now no longer in use for lodgings due to environmental reasons (though many others now exist off the salt flat itself) but still open to the public for viewing. Everything is made of salt blocks, even the furniture!

"Isla del Pescado" (Fish Island) and called as such because of it’s shape, was a real highlight to the first day. The island of coral rises mightily from the bed of the ocean, now the salt lake and is covered in it’s entirety in massive cacti. Being on the salt lake itself was a pretty bizarre experience, a sea of whiteness in every direction. Now here was this strange island and it’s larger than life vegetation! Whilst our driver/guide/cook prepared lunch we explored the island, a little breathlessly due to the altitude. Much of the afternoon was spent taking more silly pictures on the salt. Ady decided to sunbathe topless whilst Sam performed cartwheels in a bid for the most original photo on the lake!
The first night was spent in s salt hotel just off the side of the lake. Like the hotel we had visited earlier this was made entirely of salt, with salt blocks for the beds, tables and chairs. Fortunately soft furnishings were provided for our comfort, but other than these, only the bathroom and glass windows were made of anything else!

A 6.30am (!) start was in order the next day. Needless to say, nobody had slept very well – the floor was covered in salt and each time somebody walked to the loo the floor crunched loudly under their feet!

We continued south, towards the furthest southwest of Bolivia, the Lipez region and home to the ¨Reserva Nacional Eduardo Avaroa¨. Roads to and across the puna are unmarked, rugged dirt tracks. We could see now the 4x4 was a real necessity, as would be our driver's skills! We stopped at some really cool rock formations, eroded by the fierce wind sweeping the plains before driving some distance towards the Volcan de Ollague. There are a series of five lagunas here, I can´t remember the names and don't have web access to look them up but each were really stunning and some were home to pink flamingos.

We stopped for lunch on the shores of one and were joined by a number of foxes. Check out our pictures…so cute!!

A ride across the Siloli desert to the Arbol de Piedra to see more strange rock formations and the weirdest, hugest bunny rabbits ever!

Laguna Colorado, at 4270m, 346km south of Uyuni is one of the highlights of the reserve and home to our hostel for the night. The lake waters are coloured flaming red from the presence of algae, in contrast to the shallows and shoreline, bright white from the salt and borax. Here again are flamingos, but a rare ¨James¨ breed of flamingo exists here alongside the more common birds found in other lakes.

The second night is the one reputed amongst travellers as the most difficult, where night time temperatures drop to -25C and everyone gets frostbite. Lets just say that Sam was a little concerned about her ability to survive the night! Thankfully our rather nice guide had brought a small amount of firewood which he chucked on the stove, along with a whole load of petrol! Fantastic! We´d heard later how other groups in other parts of the hostel were given wine, but personally I think a hot stove and 10 layers of clothing (all at once) are the way to go!!!

Our final day of the tour was due to start at 5.15am. Well, that was the time our guide had instructed us to be ready for. We gathered that he and the other guides must have hit the bottle the night before as he turned up very bleary eyed at 5.45, to find us fully clothed and back in bed. The morning temperature was now -10C, and even with the heaters in the car going full blast we couldn´t warm up!

We passed over the Cuesta del Pabellon, 4,850m to the Sol de Manana Geysers, very cool…blasts of thermal sulphurous air being expelled from craters and crevices in the ground into the freezing morning air. By 8am we arrived at Laguna Blanco. Whilst our cook prepared breakfast, we, or rather Ady alone, prepared himself for the natural thermal pool found there. The water was blissfully warm (apparently…) but the bitter wind and still chilly air temperatures proved too much for Sam and the four girls to think about undressing and instead locked themselves in the heated car.

The nearby Laguna Verde was the next stop, and the final laguna of the tour. The lake was sparkling green, made so by the heavy concentration of arsenic, and as such devoid of any life forms. The wind was so fierce we didn´t stick around long, and thoughts of the long journey home were hanging over.

The ride back to Uyuni was pretty amazing however, the scenery was so magnificent. We travelled through mountain passes, streams, hill and dale, in our opinion what we saw way surpassed anything we´d seen back home and of all places Bolivia was where we least expected it. I think the real highlight for Ady however must have been the 90 minutes Elios let him loose behind the wheel, giving over full responsibility of this ton of a vehicle and it´s heavily loaded cargo. Secretly, I think Elios was suffering from the night before and wanted to catch a kip!
Due to our slow start to the tour, we had missed out on the first attraction that all the groups stop at – the Railway cemetery – a hulk of rusting trains from decades gone by. Everybody was really tired by this point for we had driven for most of the day. A certain somebody (no names mentioned!) really wanted to take a look, and some pictures…maybe some numbers…! Anyway, we´ll let the pictures tell the rest!

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