Arriving in Uyuni with no proper plans we decided to walk to the plaza and find a place for breakfast and to regroup. We positioned ourselves in the only place open, with painfully slow service and decided that there was no way we could commence a Salt Flat tour today and would instead check in to a hotel. After that we went and booked a tour with the only feasible company that had been recommended to us, and I put myself back to bed while Alex went to discover that there is absolutely nothing to see in this town.
At lunchtime she returned and we went for lunch - I had plain grilled chicken and plain rice... isn´t travelling glamorous! Then back to bed where we spent the afternoon / evening watching Friends and eating almond snickers. Alex also went and got me a cup of tea, which was nice.
Day 120 - Well it was about time we did something more interesting than sitting around unwell, so that I had something else to write in my blog - today we departed for our tour of the Salt Flats. We arrived at the Red Planet tour office at 10:30am and met our guide Rolando who was very sweet and had clothes that fit his little person´s body. We also met the rest of the group... we were put in the homosexual car with Mo and Sue who are married from South Africa / England, and Stephen, a submarine driver from Hawaii. In the other car there were 3 girls and 2 guys all from England. Our driver - Señor Santiago, was an excellent driver and quite sweet despite the battle we had with him for the full 3 days for air... he wouldn´t turn the air con on because it overheated the engine, but when we tried to open the windows he would shut them and lock them to prevent air from entering his jeep. Eventually we struck a deal that he would let us open the windows, but we´d shut them everytime a car came the other way in a cloud of dust and open them again after. If we forgot to shut them he would do it, and teach us a lesson by locking them for another half hour until we begged for them to open again.
First stop was the train cemetary just out of Uyuni, where we got to climb all over the rusting, old locomotives. Unfortunately we seemed to time it along with all the other jeep tours, although once we left we hardly saw them again all day. We popped back to the office to collect an apple pie and then headed off towards the Salar de Uyuni, to a small town called Colchani. Rolando talked us through the methods the local people used to dry and purify the salt for local consumption and then we had lunch in a curious building made of salt, with 7 beds (for seven dwarfs?!). Lunch was really good, and the star of the show was the apple pie.
After lunch we headed into the centre of the Salt Flats and stopped to observe the local people collecting the piles of salt from the ground to then transport it into their ´factories`. Then further into the middle of nowhere to stop and take photos playing with scale - the ones that everyone does when they come here. Alex and I had really high hopes for this moment - we enjoy playing with scale at the best of times. Imagine our disappointment when we discovered that everyone else was absolutely rubbish at taking photos. We came away deflated.
We got back in the jeep and drove on to Isla Incahuasi, which is a former volcano in the middle of the flat expanse, covered in cacti and coral (well, actually it´s a type of algae). The landscape of day 1 was enormous and beautiful, but it was also as I had expected. We drove across the flats from the island to a hotel in the middle of nowhere, made entirely of salt. It was actually really comfortable and even had a hot shower for an extra pound. When allocating rooms Rolando suggested Alex, myself and Stephen could share, until we all pointed out that perhaps it would be more appropriate for him to share with the boys. Dinner was at 8pm, followed by an agonising wait as the Bolivian dish ´salchipapas´ (chips, sausages, meat, onions and boiled eggs) made it´s way slowly down the table... we´d sat at the wrong end this time. Luckily the pot was left well positioned for me to have seconds.
Day 121 - 5:30am start after a good nights sleep (finally) and a day spent feeling much better than the last two. Today we headed south and away from the Salar de Uyuni and it wasn´t long before we were emerged in a stunning landscape of wide valleys surrounded by huge volcanoes and sneaky peaks on the horizon. This was the best day of the tour, because not only was it amongst the best scenery we´d seen in South America, we didn´t really expect it.
First stop was to a small town to use the loo and stock up on water. Then we drove across the Salar de Chiguana, where we saw a train carrying freight to Chile - a rare sight apparently. As the jeeps needed to cross the lines we all got out and waited for the train to pass, which was really cool although I would argue that some people lack any understanding of how lethal a moving train is, and so standing right in front with it only metres behind you is probably an unwise move.
Next stop was the laguna cañapa, which was extremely picturesque and plastered with flamingoes. We have lunch there, sat on a small rock in the wind - a dish of at least 3 carbohydrates! Then to the ´stinky lagoon´ with more flamingoes and expensive ecotoilets. Later we saw the mountain of 7 colours, although never really ascertained which seven the colours were and then to some cool rock formations in the middle of the desert created by the wind. Again we were allowed to climb all over them because this is Bolivia. We inclined further to the red lagoon, which is red because it´s full of phytoplankton (which is what gives flamingoes their pink colour) and then crossed in to Eduardo Avaroa National Park.
At the park office we went to pay our entrance fee and use the loo and as I was doing so I heard a sound as though I dropped something. I didn´t understand - I wasn´t holding anything... and then I remembered that I had taken my camera battery out of the camera to conserve it by putting it next to my skin... in my leggings. The floor was clear, but my worst fears were realised when I saw a little panasonic battery nestled at the bottom of the toilet! I had to make a quick decision, and so I retrieved it. Later I rinsed it, dried it and heavily sterilised my hands. Damn.
Back in the jeep we made our way to the highest point of the trip - 4,950m - and to an area of gesyers and bubbling mud that looked like the moon. When we arrived I decided to give my camera and try, and guess what? It worked!!!! We continued south and declined to 4,400m to our basic lodging next to a beautiful lagoon surrounded by mountains and llamas... and with it´s very own, natural hot spring. There we shared a room with the rest of our car, but aside from that it seems as comfortable as the night before (that is, better than a lot of hostels we´ve stayed in). The only exception is that it doesn´t have any water.
Dinner was a meatless lasagne (so just cheese and pasta) and a glass of complementary Bolivian wine, which tasted almost as awful as Brazilian wine. After dinner we braved it outside to the hot spring, which was amazing - really warm and clear and surrounded by so many stars. As Alex and I rested our arms on the edge and looked out to identify the constellations that we identified on the Amazon boat (as well as little plough and Orions belt), some commotion occured behind us, and the rest of the group ended up squashed up in our corner, squealing, as some drunk, naked border officer had appeared on the other side of the spa. After a while our guides appeared and removed him and as we resumed our conversations, our attention was soon drawn towards the little hut as someone had turned on a torch. As we watched we happened to be confronted by the silhouette of the naked man, naked. To get dressed he bent to put the torch on the floor, and the silhouette changed from profile to a from behind, bent down angle. Once he was taken home we stayed for a while as the new(ish) moon came up and then dashed back to the hotel to get in our faux-fur lined sleeping bags and blankets.
As I went to bed I developed a migraine like the one I had on the nightbus to Uyuni and took the last paracetemol I had easy access to. It did nothing.
Day 122 - My headache lasted the entire of the last day of our tour, regardless of how many more painkillers I took. This morning we continued south towards the Chilean border, stopping on the way to see a desert landscape identical to one painted by Salvador Dali (coincidence?) and then to the white and green lagoons (the latter made green by the presence of copper). This is where we said goodbye to Sue and Mo, who were continuing on to Chile. We gave Mo a homemade birthday card before she left.
We returned back north to the red lagoon, and Rolando gave me some more painkillers and a miscellaneous orange pill for altitude sickness as my headache continued. For lunch we had some tinned sardines (despite everyone else claiming it was tuna, which vexed Alex), rice and salad, and continued our way back to Uyuni. The views on the way back were different to the last 2 days, but still striking - huge expanses of arid plateau and volcanoes, and masses of llamas grazing on the fertile, wetter areas. Apparently Red Planet are the only company that take that dirt road back, as all the other companies take the quicker paved road. They are also the only company that stay and use the hot springs at night, and we were relieved about that when we saw the hoards of jeeps arriving this morning.
We arrived at Uyuni around 4pm and I felt no better despite declining by 1,000 metres. As I waited Alex to get her bag Rolando asked me to fill in the recommendations book, but it was badly-judged timing as I could barely stand I felt so unwell. Instead, we returned to Hotel Julia and as I put myself to bed, Alex went and took care of all the chores (provisions, including ibuprofen, and takeout pizza for dinner). We ended up watching Two and a Half Men and eating our personal pizzas in bed, similar to the last time we were in Uyuni!