After leaving Potosi we had a 5 hour bus journey to Uyuni where we would start our tour of the world's largest Salt Flat (aka Salar de Uyuni in Spanish). 5 hours is nothing in a country this size and we are all well used to longer journeys so we weren't too worried about the type of bus we got. Good job really as it wasn't the best, but then Bolivian buses never are!
A guy we had got talking to in the Koala Den Hostel in Potosi was also on our bus although we didn't know his name at this point. We knew he was from London though and he seemed like a nice guy.
The journey was uneventful although according to Adam I slept through the most spectacular scenery (canyons and gorges and stuff) which is unusual as it's normally him that sleeps the whole way. About an hour before we were due to arrive we drove over some high mountains - they didn't look very high but as the flat lands on either side (which go on and on for miles and miles) are anywhere between 3000 and 4000 meters, these little mountains are probably humongous! On the other side was another flat plain that stretched as far as you can see and in the distance was a little speck. The whole area was so enormous you could see huge lorry's like little ants in the distance creating massive dust clouds in their wake.
Anyway the speck I was talking about turned out to be the town of Uyuni, it looked like something from the Wild West, only much colder, I half expected to see tumbleweeds blowing down the high street.
Uyuni as a town has always been there, well, for a long time anyway, its main source of income has been extracting salt from the Salar. However, since being discovered by tourists the town has been forced to grow to accommodate us. Unfortunately, unlike most of the Bolivians we have met, these guys aren't grateful for our money, they just expect it! This means they are not the friendliest of people and even the children were pushing and shoving us out of the way - pleasant!
We had booked our hostel in advance which was…basic! But it was clean enough for a night and although the electric shower was directly over the toilet, it would do (we may have mentioned before that electric showers in this part of the world are not only useless but guaranteed to give you a strong electric shock!!!).
The Londoner bumped into another person he knew from travelling and ended up staying in their hostel but I don't think it was any better than where we were staying. There is only 1 nice place in town and it costs a fortune to stay there!
Our 3 day trip was already booked and paid for, as was our hostel when we returned (unfortunately the same one but again, it was only for one night) so all we had to do was arrange our train tickets to our next destination (we fancied a change from the bus and Bolivia is the cheapest place to travel by train). Once this was booked we headed to the nearest bar! A place called Extreme Fun Pub. The place was dead but the food was ok. From the photo's all around the walls it seems the place does get lively sometimes, just not when we were there!
The next morning our tour didn't start until 10am! Time for a lie in! We met at the Office and found out there would be 2 Norwegian girls on our trip as well. Once we had everything loaded all 6 of us piled into the Toyota Landcruiser waiting outside and met our Guide who, it turns out, doesn't understand a word of English! GREAT! Unfortunately we can't remember his name either - oops!
We drove out of town and after only a very short while stopped at our first destination, a train graveyard! Yep, it's a place where lots of old steam trains were dumped many years ago and left to rust. In the middle of all that nothingness, these huge, naked machines are quite intimidating, but also very impressive! Adam and Stuart had a great time climbing all over some of them.
To be a bit more precise with the facts the trains were originally used by miners but in the 1940's the mining industry collapsed and the trains were left abandoned, so they really are old!
Next we had to drive back through town and out the other side to get to the salt flats. It was amazing, one minute the ground was brown and dusty for as far as you could see and the next there was a white haze in the distance. Once we hit the edge there were regimental rows of little piles of salt everywhere. All I understood from our guide is that this forms part of the process of extracting the salt but I'm not sure why. Something to do with drying it I think. The piles were absolutely solid like concrete but there were little pools of water where the salt had been removed showing that there is still a lot of water underground and the area isn't completely dry.
For anyone who doesn't know, and for me as I'm likely to forget, I'll give a brief overview of what the Salar is and how it was created…
…The whole area was all part of a prehistoric lake (Lago Minchin) which once covered most of the southwest of Bolivia. When it dried up it left several salt pans including the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt pan that sits at 3653m above sea level and is 12,106 km² (25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in America). There are also other, smaller, salt pans in the area too as well as a few large seasonal "puddles".
During the rainy season the Salar is dangerous and inaccessible which is lucky really as we didn't know that and could quite easily have turned up at the wrong time. As it was we arrived at the very beginning of the rainy season (surely it was too cold to rain!?!) and therefore there were a few puddles of water around which often gave the impression that the distant mountains were floating in the haze. It's a bit like those images of Oasis' you see in deserts.
Once we had had our fill of little mounds of salt we jumped back in the truck and drove on for a further 45 minutes to the Playa Blana salt hotel. Like many of the buildings in the area this one is built almost entirely from blocks of salt, right down to the tables and chairs. However, it is actually illegal to build on the salt flats and tourists are strongly discouraged from staying here, not least because they dump all their waste on the flats!!! Needless to say the place appeared deserted. It's strange though because the fact the place is there illegally surely gives the local authority the right to close it down? Apparently not!
We quickly moved on and drove for another hour across blindingly white salt. If it wasn't for the distant mountains mapping out a kind of path it would be very easy to get lost here as there really is nothing for as far as you can see in any direction. Luckily out guide seemed to know where he was going as, unusually for me, I had lost all sense of direction.
Next stop was the Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) which is literally in the middle of nowhere. It's a rocky, hilly outpost covered in the Trichoreus Cactus. That's the one that's very tall and has ridges that allow it to expand to massive proportions when it rains, you may have heard of it, or at least seen some suggestive photos! The salt in this area is supposed to be a "white sea of hexagonal tiles" of the sort I've seen in photographs but unfortunately I didn't see any. It was just white and very flat.
After a quick lunch break, quick because the food really wasn't that great, we had about 4 hours to mess about taking silly photos! A ridiculously long time I hear you cry…well, apparently not as taking photos like the ones you may have seen on TV, etc is near on impossible! I won't bore you with the details but getting everything in focus and allowing for the blinding white light is very difficult.
In the end we discovered that the best photos were coming from Stuart and Charlene's basic point and shoot camera so we stuck to that one, don't expect anything amazing when you see the album though! We had fun though and after about 3 hours were sick of the salt, amazingly burnt considering the cold and dying for dinner so we drove on.
And on….and on….for another hour or so, this place really is like a big white desert! At some point we did see the hexagonal tiles we should have seen before but we didn't stop. When we arrived at the edge of the Salar there was a very small village, just a handful of properties, and our small hostel made entirely from blocks of salt. The bricks were salt, the pillars were salt, the floor was loose rock salt type stuff and the tables and chairs were big slabs of salt. Luckily the chairs/stools had cushions on them to make them more comfortable. Even the beds were big slabs of salt with a mattress on top. It's a bit like one of those ice hotels only a bit more salty!
It was lucky we had thought to stock up on baby wipes as we decided against using the showers! They weren't made of salt though! Just not very appealing.
The dinner was very…salty! The Bolivian's add far too much salt to their food as it is but this was something else. The Norwegian girls weren't complaining though, they would have added more salt if they could…
We had a reasonable night's sleep, tucked up in sleeping bags under our duvets due to the intense cold, a very salty plate of scrambled eggs for breakfast that I couldn't eat and then we headed off once more in the truck. Today would be the day of the lagoons…
Firstly we drove for what felt like at least 2 hours through miles and miles of nothing, in fact it reminded me very much of my time in the Karoo in South Africa. There was a bit of basic scrub around and at times it was a little hilly, but other times it was completely flat like the Salar only there was no longer any salt. The distant mountains never seemed to get any closer no matter how fast we drove.
Sometimes we would see large patches of white but apparently these weren't salt flats, the white was caused by large deposits of Borax which are also extracted for detergents and the like. It wasn't until we returned that we found this out though as our guides explanations were in a different language, weirdly!
We also saw a few vicuña along the way, although they were all too far in the distance to get a photograph. The vicuña is a distant relative of the llama and alpaca and is the national animal of Peru although they can be found all over the Andes.
Eventually we stopped and our guide showed us 2 distant mountains. He told us the one on right is in Chile and the one on the left is in Bolivia and is an active volcano. Being on the Pacific Ring of Fire there are a lot of active volcanoes around here!
Once over some small mountains we came upon a really strange landscape where our guide pulled over to let us explore. The rocks were all strange shapes and went on for miles, I'd never seen anything like it. Then we discovered that the area is actually an ancient lava field. We were climbing over lava! I can't explain why the lava was the way it was, I expect it to just flow and solidify but these rocks were huge and full of gaps and crevasses. You could have the most epic game of hide and seek…if you wanted…
In fact we did loose Stuart and Charlene for a while but they showed up again eventually. Unfortunately our guide was getting very impatient though as he has told us we only had 20 minutes and they had been gone for nearly 40! It turns out he didn't want to miss the flamingo's…ah!
By this time there were a number of land cruisers around and we all sped off in a race to be the first to get to the lagoon! It might have been quite a scary drive if it hadn't been so obvious how well this guy knew his vehicle! He's clearly done this before…
Eventually we came to our first lagoon, Laguna Cañapa (where you see ñ its pronounced "ny"), there we saw a couple of dozen flamingos in the water. We all piled out of the truck to take photos but our guide was quite adamant we only had 10 minutes. He then demanded we all get back into the truck after only 5! Looking around we realised all the other groups were on the move too and he was anxious not to get left behind.
About 15 minutes later, over the next hill we came across our second, much larger lagoon! This one was teeming with flamingos, some light pink, some dark pink and some white, the youngsters apparently. Our guide wanted to get there early as they have been known to fly off when too many tourists show up. This didn't look likely today though as all the birds were very relaxed and no one strayed too close.
According to the map supplied by the tour company this lagoon is called Laguna Hedionda and the next one is Laguna Honda but our guide, who is a born and bred local, told us the names the other way around. I'm guessing he was right and the map was wrong.
We spent some time taking photos and enjoying the view before our guide said we could either stop for lunch here or at the next lagoon, another 15 minute drive. It was really cold and windy on the edge of the water so we opted to drive on a stop next time instead.
The third lagoon, Hedionda according to our guide, was peaceful and very scenic. We were dropped off when we got there and told to walk around to the other side, by which time lunch would be ready. The guide who I'm going to call Bob because I don't like referring to him as "the guide" had driven on ahead.
Bob had made a table and chairs from big lumps of slate from the side of the lagoon and laid out a feast of cold chicken, pasta, rice and salad. It was much more sheltered from the wind and we were glad we had made the right decision. All the other groups had lunch at the previous lagoon so we only saw one other vehicle in the distance whilst we were there. Otherwise we had a peaceful lagoon to ourselves but no flamingos on this one.
After lunch we drove to Laguna Charcota (I don't really remember this one so it can't have been very interesting) and then across the Siloli desert. It was literally just that, a big desert of high sand dunes with spectacular views of the Andes in the distance. After what felt like an hour but may have been much less we came across the Arbol de Piedra or "Stone Tree". This was another much smaller lava field an on the edge is a rock that has been shaped by the wind and sand to resemble a tree. Sort of. It was interesting but not as amazing as I had hoped.
We then drove on for quite some time to our final destination for the day and the location of our second hostel, the Laguna Colorada or "Red Lagoon". This is a shallow salt lake that is literally blood red caused by sediments and the pigment of some algae. There are also patches of white borax around the edge which makes an interesting contrast. There were also many flamingos dotted around adding a haze of pink to all the red and white. It's very strange and otherworldly!
We dumped our bags in our hostel (more of a shed really) and went for a walk along the shore to a viewpoint on a small hill to take a few more photo's. Because everything is so big you tend to loose sense of perspective and the walk took much longer than we had realised, the little hill was further away than we expected. It was quite pleasant though and involved crossing a shallow river by stepping stones. This hill also appeared to be made of some kind of volcanic rock although it was black unlike the other rock we had seen.
Once back at the "hostel" we put on every piece of clothing we had brought with us, which included poncho's bought for the occasion in Uyuni, and prepared to get cold. We also had alpaca hats and gloves but still had to sit on our hands.
Tea and biscuits were served a short while later which was nice and we devoured the bottle of wine Bob had given us the night before whilst playing cards and liars dice. There were several other groups staying in the same location and the body heat was much needed.
We managed to understand that the wood burners would not be lit until after 9pm and when they were there were only 4 logs per wood burner. That was it for the night! At about 10pm we had all had enough, the fire was cold, there was barely any window's let alone double glazing, we hadn't seen any locals for ages and we turned in for the night thankful that we had hired thick sleeping bags once again.
The following morning we were woken up at 4.30am and had to be ready to leave at 5.00am. Bob was outside loading up the truck and getting the heating running for us. We noticed that the night before he had, once again, scrupulously cleaned his truck removing all signs of salt and dirt. He does this every day at the end of the trek because the vehicle is his life and he wouldn't be able to work without it. It also explains why none of the vehicles had rusted due to the salt.
Once in the truck we discovered it was -15 degrees Celsius!
We set off once again racing all the other tour groups heading to our first stop of the morning, the Sol de Mañana geyser. In the middle of the high desert is a small geyser field complete with bubbling mud holes. We were there for sunrise and the steam and low sun cast some interesting shadows from the people wandering about. None of the area was fenced off and it was quite dangerous avoiding boiling mud splashes. The smell of sulphur although reminded me of Rotorua in New Zealand. One of the geysers has been fed through a pipe creating a permanent stream of hot steam shooting straight up into the sky. I think this is the one they call the Sol de Mañana (Morning Sun).
Next stop was yet another lagoon but this one has a natural hot pool at the edge. It was still very early and the sun was very low in the sky. It was very beautiful, but it was still freezing cold and only one of the Norwegian girls attempted a dip in the hot waters. It was one of the most beautiful spots I've seen though and certainly the nicest hot pool. If we had arrived a couple of hours later I would definitely have enjoyed a relaxing soak. We also didn't have long!
Half an hour later we were back on the road, or track, heading to the Laguna Verde. This is the green lagoon, coloured by sediments containing copper minerals. It was beautiful but, in my opinion, not worth the extra long drive in the wrong direction. Having said that we later found out that our friendly Londoner had gone on a tour with a different company that took him to Laguna Verde for 5.00am for breakfast, when it was completely deserted of all other people, and then back to the hot pools for a dip whilst everyone else was heading in the other direction. We obviously picked the wrong tour company!
After the final lagoon we started on the long drive (8 hours) back to Uyuni.
About half way we stopped for lunch at a local village. It was starting to warm up by this time and we had a nice time down by the river in the sun shine. The food was good too.
An hour or so later we stopped at yet another lava field. We had been driving past this one for quite some time before we stopped and it was miles and miles and miles long. Some of the formations must have been a hundred feet high and it was very impressive. The area where we stopped was right on the edge and is called the Rocks Valley (how original). It was basically just a huge adult playground and Adam and Stuart had great fun climbing rocks and peering through holes. If you imagine a small child when they get to a playground, they see the climbing frames and swings and slides, etc, they get excited and then go sprinting off to see what they can do first, this was Adam and Stuart! Just like children! Actually I had fun too!
We then drove for about another 4 hours straight back to Uyuni and a night in the grim hostel. Although it was positively luxurious after the previous two nights' accommodation so we were quite happy.
The next day we wandered around the town and enjoyed dinner in a Pizzeria (owned by a guy from Boston) which not only made the best pizza's I've ever tasted but had also imported PG Tips!!! Our train was at about 10pm and we were due to arrive in our next destination, the final one in Bolivia, at about 4am…Tupiza!!!