Alison: After Sucre we headed off on an 8 hour bus to Uyuni which is the town closest to not only the worlds largest salt flats but also what many consider to be the most unique and spectacular scenery in Bolivia. The salt flats are called Salar de Uyuni and are 12106 sq km and sit at 3653m above sea level. The most popular way to see the area is on a guided tour either starting and finishing in Uyuni or starting in Uyuni and finishing in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile (we did the latter). Most of the tours follow roughly the same itinerary and have 6-7people crammed into a 4x4 but we had teamed up with our friends Kim and Alisha and were able to organise a private tour for just the 4 of us. We managed to get a pretty good price as we didn't pay the premium for an English speaking guide. Although we don't speak Spanish, Kim and Alisha are very good so they were our own personal translators...thanks guys :)
The first day of the tour didn't get off to a good start as we were supposed to start at 9.30am but at 10am we were still stood at the office waiting for our driver (who was also our guide and chef). Apparently it is quite common for the tanks to be empty at the local petrol station as there are so many 4x4s taking tourists on tours so our driver was stuck in a queue waiting for the tanks to be filled up. To pass some time, they offered to take us to another local attraction....Cemeterio de Trenes or the train cemetery. We weren't blown away by the prospect of looking at old trains but we had nothing else to do so off we went! The cemetery wasn't as boring as it sounded though. There are lots of rusty old trains covered in graffiti which you can climb in and take fun pictures! They had also put swings on some of the trains. Adults playground!
When the driver eventually managed to fill up with petrol we hit the road.....and then stopped again to pick up our bags but then we hit the road again......and then stopped again to pick up some sleeping bags......and then hit the road again! Finally we were off! At first when we left the town the landscape looked very sandy and then the ground started to glisten more and more with salt until eventually we were driving on near enough pure salt. The salt is very condensed and although there is water underneath, it is rock solid so it is safe to drive on - that's what they told us anyway! Apparently it is over 10m thick in the centre.
Our first stop (not including the earlier false starts) was to look at the Cochani salt extraction area where salt has been extracted and piled up into little mounds. We were told that it is piled up like this to dry it out in preparation for processing it into salt that is in a more useful format. The piles were hard enough to stand on so it was going to be awhile before it was dry enough to put on your fish and chips!
Next stop was a hotel made entirely of salt. The hotel was a pretty impressive construction. Literally everything was made of salt so it was lovely and bright inside. The hotel now contains several seating areas, a shop and some toilets but is no longer functioning as a hotel. I read that the reason for this is due to pollution. I don't know too much about the effects that the hotel had on the surroundings but I think the toilets which we used would have been enough to warrant closing the place......I've smelt some bad toilets on my travels but these were up there in my top 5!
After a surprisingly tasty meal served out of the boot of the car, we were on our way again. Initially the salt was quite an off white colour but we were heading further out onto the flats and the sun was getting brighter so the salt was starting to look amazingly white. The next few stops happened in quick succession. The first was to look for crystals under the surface of the salt. Although the salt is pretty solid, there are some parts close to a volcano that contain small holes from volcanic gases that have built up under the surface and the pressure has eventually blown through the salt layer. In the holes you can see water and if you put your hand in you can feel around under the salt. We were all searching for crystals and after much digging around, we did eventually find some (poor you Mum - something else to add to the various stones and shells I have palmed off on you over the years!) Unfortunately, it was only after we had immersed our whole arm in the water that we realised the water contained sulphur from the volcano so we all smelt a bit funky after that ;) The second stop was to take the fun photos that the salt flats are well known for. As the ground is so flat and white and the sky is so blue, it is possible to take amazing pictures by one person/prop being close to the camera and another person standing further away....its kind of difficult to explain so maybe just take a look at the photos! We had a lot of laughs doing these! Our final stop of the day was at Isla del Pescado which is a big hill covered in cacti. It's a bit of a trek to get to the top in the heat but it was worth it to see the views over the salt flats.
That night we stayed in another salt hotel. It was really nice although very basic. In fitting with the basic surroundings we were served basic food as a snack....dry crackers. Despite struggling to swallow them and a couple of hairy moments when the crackers were stuck in no mans land somewhere between our mouths and our stomachs, we managed to polish off a full basket between the 4 of us.....desperate times! The rest of the night was spent playing cards....well trying to play cards as none of us knew the same games so we never got past the trial game with any of the games we played! Who needs a TV eh?!
Nigel: After a good nights sleep followed by a hearty breakfast of bread which tasted like cardboard, and jam that tasted like plastic, we set off. First we drove to the next little settlement along and stocked up with snacks at the shop. It was absolutely heaving with tourists buying chocolate and crisps. We were glad that we weren't staying here as it has a bit of a reputation for the drivers all meeting up after the first day of driving and getting drunk, and then driving whilst still drunk the next day. There are a lot of stories of accidents and even deaths whilst touring the salt flats because of drink driving. When reading the reviews of the tour companies, there was a surprising number of cases where drivers have turned up blind drunk and the tourists have refused to allow them to get behind the wheel and have had to drive themselves! Our driver seemed quite sensible but we did spot him drinking something that looked like beer so we asked him what it was and thankfully it was a non-alcoholic malt drink - we decided to let him drive.
Our first stop of the day was at a collection of giant red rocks which you could either walk amongst or climb up on. The rocks were good for taking pictures and there was also a volcano not too far away which made for even better pictures. Next we visited a couple of lakes containing flamingoes. We have never seen flamingoes in the wild before so it was nice to see them in their natural habitat, despite the hoards of other tourists there taking photos. We were surprised to see that none of the flamingoes were stood on one leg as we had expected but it was very windy so it might have been a bit of a tall order. Although the flamingoes stole the show, the lakes themselves were also pretty impressive as they were a really deep blue and had bright white areas that we hoped were to do with the salt or possibly the volcanoes and not sewage!
After lunch we drove through a flat sandy desert area and stopped at a couple of things. The first was a big hill where 100s of viscachas live. These animals are a cross between a rabbit and a chinchilla. Although it wasn't the right time of day, we did manage to see one sunbathing on a rock but it soon scarpered when it saw us. Next we went to Arbol due Piedra which is a large stone that has been naturally worn down by the wind and sand and looks like a tree. There are many famous pictures of the rock. After a few quick snaps of the tree we were on our way again to Laguna Colorada which is a lake coloured red by the algae that live in it. The lake is a shallow salt lake and it is quite a spectacle to see as it is very large and is a mixture of very bright pink and white areas. The pink flamingoes and llamas finish the scene nicely.
After a long day, we arrived at our hostel. We had been warned it was basic but it didn't even have running water! The whole settlement is located at altitude (around 4500m) and apparently our hostel was highest up on the hill so it is last in line to receive water being pumped up from below. Everybody kicked up a bit of a fuss and the water magically came back on! That evening we were treated to a bottle of wine between 4 and we also had a whiskey stash of our own - the living conditions seemed to become a lot nicer by the end of the night.
On our final day we were up very early so that we could leave by 6.30 to see sunrise at the Solar de Manaña geysers basin which is situated at 4850m. Unfortunately we didn't quite make it for sunrise but the geysers were amazing all the same. If not freezing and a little unsafe. Any western country would have fencing around them and viewing would be from a distance......not here. How no one fell in was beyond me. You could get right up to the edge of them with the sulphur pools bubbling at your feet. Following the geysers we headed to the hot springs but none of us was game enough to strip off and get in for the such amount of time we were given. Next up was the Laguna Verde which is usually an emerald green lake but the conditions weren't quite right so it wasn't particularly green when we were there.
It had been an amazing few days in the salt flats but it was a relief to be heading to the warmer climates of Chile. On arriving at the Bolivian border, it was just a case of getting on a minibus and bypassing customs since we were able to be stamped out already at immigration in Uyuni. The drive to the Chilean border took about an hour downhill and we dropped around 2000m into a very hot and sunny San Pedro de Atacama. Good job we were dressed in our warmest thermal gear!
We some camera problems at this stage so some of the pictures are a blurry but still viewable.