Andrea: Six hours after leaving freezing cold Potosi on a bus we arrived in freezing cold Uyuni. On the bus the book had told us about the incredibly cold wind that whipped through the streets of Uyuni and we were a bit scared because it had said nothing like that about Potosi, a city where we never actually got warm. Uyuni is the jumping off point for the famous Salar de Uyuni (largest salt flats in the world) and the best thing about the town itself is that it's small enough to walk from the bus station to your hotel--no cab necessary. That is the highlight. Since there is nothing to do there, we just checked into our hotel, checked in for our salt flat tour the next day, ate burgers from a street vendor and watched The Wire in our hostel TV room.
The next morning we woke up early stressing because Vern wasn't feeling well and we were starting our 2 day tour, which involved many many hours squeezed in a 4x4 with 5 other tourists. We had been bragging to everyone about how lucky we had been although we had taken a lot of risks: brushing our teeth with tap water, eating uncooked veggies and salads from hole-in-the-wall restaurants and basically ignoring all warnings and common sense regarding eating in developing countries. Well, it finally caught up with Vern and he had had tummy trouble for the few days leading up to the tour. I think it's Sod's law of travelling: if you have a tour booked, you will get sick. We scoured the market for food that wouldn't make Vern sick (this ended up being an apple, which did indeed make him sick), and then set off for the tour.
There were 12 of us piled in two 4x4s driving to our first stop: the train graveyard. Uyuni, although it's a very tiny town, has the largest train station in Bolivia. When the city was replacing its steam trains with electric trains it built extra tracks into the middle of nowhere (3km away from Uyuni) to give them a proper resting place. This was before scrap metal was worth anything. Later, when someone finally realised the value of dead trains, the town of Uyuni stepped in to stop them from being removed, scrapped and sold because it knew the train graveyard was Uyuni's only tourist attraction. It was a pretty amazing site--countless old, rusting steam trains in the middle of a windy desert. Some were graffitied, which also looked pretty cool. All the tours stop here so there were a lot of other people climbing on top of the carriages taking photos. I imagined it would be a great place for a modelling photoshoot, with models in brightly colored gowns standing next to a rusty old train. So that's how we treated it; we put on our best pout faces and got to work! We clambered up the rusted ladders and carefully stepped over obstacles on the roofs of the carriages. Luckily, we had had the pleasure of watching Denzel Washington and Chris Pine in director Tony Scott's classic film, 'Unstoppable' (about a train that simply would not stop!), about 5 times on various buses so we were well versed in how to walk on the top of a train. I had trouble getting down from the high parts (that wasn't covered in the movie!), but we managed to jump around from train to train taking lots of interesting photos of dead trains. After about 20 minutes we were herded into the jeeps again and we were off to the salt flats.
Our next stop was a town about 5km away from the salt flats. We stopped so we could go to the bathroom and buy candle holders and boxes made out of salt. We successfully skipped buying KGs of salt and I just went to use the loo, or hole in the ground. When I came out the lady tried to charge me for using it. Instead of explaining the futility of charging retroactively for using the bathroom, I told her I had no money and scurried away to hide in the jeep.
The first sight of the salt flats were covered in water so it almost looked like ice since we could see the snow-capped mountains in double as they reflected off the wet salt. It was beautiful. The salt flat is the biggest in the world at 12,000 square-kilometers so it seems to go on in all directions forever. The area we were in was where they mined the salt so there were a few trucks dotted around the vast white plains and tiny pyramids of salt reflected on one another everywhere. Although this is the biggest salt flat in the world in the poorest country in South America, we learned that they still import 20% of their salt! Apparently, word started to spread that salt from the Uyuni salt flats wasn't as good as sea salt so they have to import to keep some particularly fussy people happy. Not the most logical choice. We jumped out of the van and there were puddles everywhere that turned out to be way deeper than they looked (I'd say about ankle-deep. Don't ask how I know that!). It was such a surreal experience being on the salt flats. Most people describe it as "other worldly", but to me it almost felt like the world's biggest ice skating rink that wasn't slippery! Definitely strange, though. The horizons were out of sight, yet the reflections of the mountains made them appear closer than they actually were. We took lots of photos and watched the workers drive around with water flying from the wheels to over the windshield.
Our next stop was "Isla Pescado" (Fish Island), named for the island's resemblance to a fish. It is covered in cacti that grow 1cm per year. There were plenty of 9000 year old cactuses on the island. It was a surreal island in the middle of a very surreal salt flat. After we reached the island we had a lunch of llama steaks, quinoa and salad while sitting at tables made of salt in chairs made of salt. The llama steaks were just like beef steaks but with less meat and more chewy. Not my favorite meat. Plus they're way cuter than cows so obviously harder to eat. Our guide showed us around the island for about an hour as we enjoyed the views from high up on the island. Not only were there bizarre looking cacti everywhere, but looking down on the area where the salt reached the sandy island it looked like a beach where the tide had gone out. On the other side of the island mountain refelections mirrored each other all along the almost invisible horizon. After spending 10 minutes taking the group photo with 10 different cameras, we jumped in the jeep and took off to the moment everyone was waiting for...perspective photos!
Our guide had asked us if we had any props to use for perspective photos. We definitely did not because we didn't actually know much about them. We stopped the jeep in the middle of nowhere and got out with the wind almost whipping us off our feet. The people in our group were nice enough to let us borrow some of their props for photos. We borrowed a can of Pringles and I took off the lid to make it look like it was open for the photos. Without thinking, I set the lid on the ground next to the rest of the props. The lid rolled on its side and just spun away from me into the vast nothingness. I started sprinting after it to grab the runaway garbage, but it just seemed to be gaining speed and it wouldn't fall over on its side and stop! Vern saw the commotion and started running after it too so it was both of us sprinting across the world's largest salt flat into the great white abyss...chasing a Pringles lid. Vern finally caught up with it and stamped the life out of it. Victory was ours! We then stood there huffing and puffing for the next 5 minutes and then commenced the hilarious photo taking. We experimented with many kinds of perspective photos--I stood on top of a giant cookie, Vern jumped out of a Pringles can, each of us in a giant shoe, me sitting in Vern's hand, both of us running from a dinosaur, Vern standing on my shoulder, some failed experiments with an apple and me dangling off the end of a wine bottle. It was funny to watch everyone trying to line up perfectly for the perspective shot with rows of people holding out hands or standing on their heads to get the perfect novelty photo. About an hour later we were all out if ideas and frozen to the bone so people started piling into the jeep. Vern and I snapped one normal one and jumped in for the ride to the salt hotel.
I don't know if it was just being in a car or the endless white landscape repeated over and over again, but everyone in the car was asleep within 20 minutes. We arrived at our hotel that was made completely from salt (at least they're using it for something if they're not eating it!). Our guide lit a fire and we all cozied up at the dinner table for tea and cookies. After about an hour of good conversation and before the cookies had a chance to digest, it was dinner time! Dinner time was great and we got to know our tour group even better as we chatted and chatted. After dinner we played a game called "Mafia", which is similar to Clue in that you have to guess who the bad guy is, etc. The beauty of the game is you get to know each other really well and you don't need any supplies to play the game. In the first game, I was one of the mafia (bad guys) and my team ended up winning the game (killing off all the townspeople). Everyone loved the game and we played it many times with people screaming, "No, SHE'S the mafia" or "Well, maybe you're guilty", etc. At about 11:00 we got yelled at to keep the noise down but defiantly we played 2 more rounds and reluctantly called it a night. Our room had 2 twin beds, but it was so cold that the blankets weren't enough: we needed body heat! We stripped the second bed of its blankets and cuddled in one tiny bed all night with our 10 blankets on top of us and were finally warm.
Breakfast was at 7:15 the next morning and all we could talk about was "Mafia" from the night before. In the jeep at 8:00 and off to our first stop: a town to use the bathroom or buy something to eat. After that thrilling stop we stopped at a park full of natural graves full of mummies. Allow me to explain. There were these interesting rock formations that had formed from lava and created a cave inside. People noticed these and used these as graves. There weren't so much mummies inside as bones wrapped in cloth, but it was still interesting to see all the skeletons up very close and personal! Maybe they also took out the remains to party with the dead people every year (reference Samaipata blog to get what that's about!). We wandered around the natural tombs for about 30 minutes and then off to a lagoon. The scenery here was just stunning. There were 360 degree views of sand-colored mountains and a dark blue lagoon smack in the middle. Giant boulders framed the lagoon and all areas around it. We all looked around in awe and felt like we were in the middle of the Andes (we obviously were, but we really felt it at this moment!). We perched high on boulders snapping panaromic photos, one after the other, and ate our lunch of chicken and rice from the rocks and looking down onto the lagoon. After lunch we took another 10 minute long group photo and then moved on. The surroundings were such a contrast from the salt flats, and that is one reason the area was so spectacular.
That was enough of nature and we were headed back to Uyuni. Our jeep got a flat tire on the way (very common on this tour) and the driver and our cook fixed it in about seven minutes and we were off again! The town of San Cristobel was having a massive celebration that had been going on since the day before and we popped in to gawk at an entire town...drunk. We stood in the plaza that had a three-way battle of the bands going. There was a band warming up on stage (called "International Scorpion", according to their sign), a group of guys beating bass drums and then a flock of old men playing pan flutes and other wind instruments. The band on stage with the speakers was winning the battle, but the old men with pan flutes were winning the war. They might not have been the loudest but they were getting all the chicks. Both the men and women were swaying slowly to the music while chugging down tiny glass after tiny glass of beer. The entire town defintely looked as if they had been going for at least 36 hours, possibly 2 weeks. We watched the shenanigans unfold for a few minutes before our attention shifted elsewhere. We focused on a couple pulling a bookcase across the plaza. Then we looked around and noticed that there were was a whole house worth of furniture in the main square! Dressers, armoires, bookcases, dining tables, anything wood and belonging indoors was put on the plaza. We're not sure how things had come to this but presume it started with a boozy conversation something like this:
"Dude, do you know what this party needs right now?"
"No. My grandmother's armoire!"
And so we witnessed people who had been drinking for at least 36 hours straight dragging an armoire through a town plaza (past the old men playing pan flutes). Yes, San Cristobel knows how to party! The band on stage was eventually ready and 6 guys in matching silver trackpants came out and the 3 singers sang and danced with choreographed dance moves. We enjoyed the first song, especially with one of the singers with his hand to his ear the whole time, while trying not to laugh. Unfortunately, after only one song we had to leave to go back to Uyuni, very boring by comparison.
Back in Uyuni, the tour group went out for one last supper together. We didn't have time for more rounds of "Mafia" (to everyone's disappointment), but it was a great night of swapping travel stories and then contact info when it was time to leave. We said goodbye to most of the group at the train station and returned to our new hotel room, with no heating.
Our bus out of Uyuni didn't leave until 2 days later so we passed the time by reading and mainly just trying to stay warm (and buying bags of imported salt). The day and a half went by quickly and we were soon on a bus on our way to Chile.