We have a sleep in, a hot shower, pack our gear and head to our tour office for our jeep at 10.30am. We wait and wait, and watch others from the same agency get into their jeeps as they arrive. We keep being told ours will be along shortly. It eventuates that we are not joining two Dutch people in our jeep, but are instead picking up 4 other people from another tour office. Our jeep turns up, we jump in and head off to another tour office, trying to figure out if we have been sold to another tour, or if the other 4 people have been sold to our tour.
At the offices of Red Planet we pick up a British couple, Amy and Dave and a Kiwi couple, Fleur and Surya. We also acquire an English speaking guide, Oscar. So it would seem we are the ones who have been sold. Not to mind, it doesn’t take long to see that we have sold up as having an English speaking guide is quite fabulous, highly recommend it. And it’s not that much more expensive, as the Red Planet tour has cost our jeep mates 650 each.
We tear out of town, bouncing over sandy tracks to the Cementerio de Trenes (literally cemetery of trains). We clamber over rusting locomotives taking photos of these forgotten engines and freight carriages.
Our next stop is in Colchani, a salt extracting town on the eastern shore of the salt flats. The people of Colchani are the only ones allowed to continue harvesting salt from the salt flats which are a National Park as they’ve been given a special dispensation to continue to do so, given it is their only way of providing a livelihood and one which they undertook before the area was designated as a National Park. So in Colchani we are shown a salt factory and have the process explained to us. The last step in the process is to bag up the salt into 1kg plastic bags. A small boy, maybe around 10 years old was scooping the salt into the plastic bags and then sealing the bag with a gas flame. The child was surrounded by a mound of bags of salt, and is able to fill and seal up to 1000 bags per day. Incredibly all this salt is consumed within Bolivia. None is exported and is unable to be, given the primitive standards of the factory and the slow manual production process. It is in Colchani that I strike what I think is my first squatter in South America.
We are told that lithium has been discovered in vast quantities beneath the salt flats and the Japanese and American’s have caught wind of this and despite the Salar being a National Park, mining of lithium looks set to take place in the future. So now is as good as time as any to see the Salar whilst it is still relatively untouched and pristine.
From Colchani we headed out onto the flats themselves to see the harvesting of the salt and the mounds of salt which are drying and draining whilst they await transportation to the salt factory. We also see several bubbling puddles on the salt flats where minerals from below are making their way to the surface, copper and iron among them.
Playa Blanca salt hotel was next. Lonely Planet notes that it is illegal to construct buildings on the salar itself and that the salt hotel is therefore illegal. The salt hotel is shut when we pull up, but our guide convinces them to open (it emerges later – Oscar tells us, that he convinced them to open by telling them that we would make purchases there). Oscar tells us that the salt hotel was shut due to it being illegal on the salar, but that recently it has fixed problems with its sewage system which was polluting the salt pan and is going to be allowed to re-open. So we are not sure who to believe. We are shown through the hostel, with its salt walls, beds, tables and chairs. We feel obliged to buy something, but have carefully worked out how much Bolivian money we’ll need for the salar entry fees and have turned the rest of our money back into US dollars to change into Chilean pesos when we cross the border. With money tight all we can afford is a big bottle of Fanta. However the small store in the hotel is typically short on change so we have to rustle up the right change amongst us to buy it!
We are also starting to realise that the tours should advise bringing some small change (but plenty of it) for toilet money. The toilets in Colchani were 2 Bolivano’s and the toilets in the salt hotel are 5!
We have lunch outside the salt hotel, llama steak, salad, rice and a bottle of coke. All in all a pretty decent lunch really.
Then comes the fun we’ve all been waiting for, we drive onto the Salar de Uyuni proper, and have some fun taking photos playing with the perspective. Our guide is great at capturing these shots for us and is full of ideas. This done we head off to Isla del Pescado, a hilly outpost covered in cactus in the heart of the Salar, surrounded by a flat white sea of hexagonal salt tiles. The cactus, it transpires, grows at a ridiculously slow rate, and those we see are therefore around several hundred years old. Luckily here the toilets are free.
As the sun starts to set we park up and watch it go down. It disappears surprisingly quickly, but we have enough time to marvel at the ridiculous length of our shadows and take some nice photos of us walking off into the sunset before some cool group photos.
From our sunset spot it’s a short drive to the edge of the Salar to our salt hostel outside the Salar for the night. With the sun gone it quickly gets chilly, but we warm ourselves with hot drinks, conversation and laughter while we wait for dinner. Around 9pm dinner eventuates – vegetable soup, and a rather bizarre all-in-one dish of chunks of meat, maybe more llama steaks, chicken, diced sausage, fries and a substantial amount of onion. I head for a stinging hot shower and the others head out to enjoy the night sky before we bed down in a 6 bed dorm for the night. The all-in-one-dish has unfortunately had a pretty immediate effect on Ryan.
After a great night’s sleep (well for me at least, as I was the only one with the smarts (or should that be the only one woosie enough?) to use a sleeping bag and blankets on the bed and was well snug, whilst by all accounts everyone was else was a little chilly) we are up at 7am for breakfast. Which is a continuation of the last couple of months – rock hard stale bread, jam and hot drinks, though this time with some cold scrambled eggs thrown in for good measure. Ryan is dealing wih another dose of bum sickness.
We head off through the southwest of Bolivia, through a surreal landscape. We pass the railway line that runs from Uyuni down into Chile and which used to be landlocked Bolivia’s gateway to the coast. We travel through an avenue of volcanoes and stop at a viewpoint to clamber about some rocks and admire a smoking volcano in the distance.
Our next stop is a lakeside one for lunch and to photograph the herd (?) of flamingo feeding there. The lake is filled with pink tinged Flamingos, ringed with tussocks and surrounded by volcanoes in the distance. It is providing a wonderful reflection of its surrounding landscape. Our lunch is delicious – chicken Milanese, potatoes, pastas, vegetables and coke, marred only by the persistent and large flies which seemed to hang about the lake. Their presence is down to one of two things, either the presence of the flamingos and their poop perhaps or disgustingly, but entirely plausible given the amount of toilet paper we saw about the place where the jeeps pull up for lunch, perhaps because of the presence of us, our lunch and our toilet needs. We didn’t see what happened to our lunch remains or any rubbish, but here’s hoping it came with us to be disposed of somewhere appropriate. It was also apparent that people are less than careful about where they relieve themselves and leaving their toilet paper behind. Hence the flies I guess.
Anyway we headed off and soon came to a second lake with even more flamingos where we enjoyed another pleasant stroll. At this second lake there were toilet facilities, the first for the day, which induced a guessing game as to how much the charge would be. Five Bolivian pesos. Almost out of money none of us used it. My one piece of advice to fellow travellers would be, take “toilet money”. Seriously. I guess it’s not as much of a problem for those who are returning to Uyuni after the trip as you wouldn’t have off-loaded all your Bolivian cash! But for us Chilean bound travellers it was an issue.
Then we were off, through the desert now, more volcanoes in the distance. We pulled up to stop for the ‘rock tree’, a rock formation formed by a combination of harsh winds and sand whittling away at the rocks. Our final stop for the day was Laguna Colorada, a bright adobe-red lake fringed with cake-white minerals. We’ve climbed to a height of 4600m at the lake and you can feel it getting quickly short of breath when walking.
We drop to a height of 4300m for the night, the highest altitude we’ve slept at and pull into our ‘refuge’, another building with several dorm rooms, a couple of toilets and a few tables for dinner. Again we are given crackers and hot drinks to tide us over until dinner time. Dinner tonight is more vegetable soup, spaghetti bolognaise and a bottle of red wine. Not too shabby.
After dinner a second bottle of red wine is consumed in an attempt to keep warm. An intense discussion on the future of the world and the progression of the human race ensues. Tonight we all make use of our sleeping bags and clamber in with various layers of clothing on to keep warm. Though I must admit, it’s not as cold as I expected.
We are up early, painfully so, at 5.30am and it’s definitely chilly. Oscar tells us it was around minus ten degrees last night. We have pancakes for breakfast and are off by 6am, driving through the early dawn light for an hour to an active volcano’s crater at 5000m above sea level. Oscar jumps through a steamy geyser’s spout and then we take a cautious walk through a mine of bubbling mud and spouts of steam in the Sol de Manana geyser basin. We can’t help but think “you’d never do this in New Zealand this is crazy, is this safe?”
Our next stop is at the 35 degree Termas de Polques hot springs for a relaxing morning dip at 4200m. There is a shed for changing in, but there’s a charge and we are now out of Bolivian’s. Not being very good at Houdini acts to get from my togs to my clothes without exposing myself indecently, I make do with sitting on the edge of the pool and dangling my legs into the hot waters. It’s bliss for cold feet though. Ryan makes a late decision to get in; enjoys the warmth and then quickly pulls on his clothes when he gets out.
Warm and toasty from the pool our last stop for the tour is the Laguna Verde, an aquamarine lake, though because we are there so early in the morning the sun angle isn’t high enough to colour the lake to its fullest.
At the border outpost we farewell Oscar (who has been a fantastic guide - thanks Red Planet!) and our driver and Fleur and Surya who are returning to Uyuni and climb aboard a bus bound for San Pedro with Amy and Dave...