Kel: I remember a few years ago someone showing me pictures of salt flats in Bolivia and I didn't even know where Bolivia was. They were amazing pics though, really amazing. This part of our trip has been on the cards from day one and something I was really looking forward to.
The only problem was (for me anyway) that you couldn't book it in advance, or read about trip details on the internet. It's very much a turn up and sign up kind of thing. And the reviews everywhere are really bad. Watch out for bad (even drunk!) drivers, watch out for jeeps in poor conditions, take loads of food, they might not feed you, take drugs for altitude sickness if you get it (too late .. we were au naturel) You get the idea. We got a tip off from a girl we met in Australia, and the general advice was to head for tourist info and read latest reviews from other travellers, which we did. We settled on what we thought seemed like the best company of the bunch and went for it.
There were six of us in the jeep. Another British couple, from Essex, and a French couple from just outside Paris. Our driver, Jose, couldn't speak English, so we had an interesting few days. It's amazing how much you start to pick up though. We were pretty good at it after a while so I don't think we missed out on much. Having been in South America for 3 weeks definitely helped.
We had a jam packed three days planned to take us from the desert in San Pedro to Uyuni, the main Bolivian town closest to the salt flats.
Day 1 took us up, quickly. We went from 2.5km to 5.5km(!!!!) in the morning and visited some beautiful sights along the way. Standing in vast desert feeling like you are the only people in the world is an amazing start, bright orange sand and rocks and such a deep blue sky... gorgeous. We visited desert rocks which were Salvador Dali's inspiration, we visited hot water pools (some were getting their kit off and jumping in, we went half way... hat, gloves, layers on top, and paddling in hot water on the bottom.... v surreal. It's sunny but freezing... kind of like when you go skiing but in the desert. One girl even fainted. Must have been the extremes and the high altitude)
Turns out they did feed us... really well. Andes highland food is generally based around potatoes (over 400 varieties apparently), sausage, cheese and egg. So we were filled up, before we headed north again up to geysers at 5.5km. Can you imagine that! Bubbling mud pools galore, we were allowed to get up close. No health and safety, but sometimes that just makes it a bit more fun.
From there we headed downhill to 4.4km where we stopped for the night. We went to visit the nearby lagoon where hundreds of flamingoes were feasting on the micro organisms inside it. Never seen them before. Apparently at night they huddle together to stay warm in a big circle. Well we probably would have been better off with them. We went back to our 'building'. There were rooms of about 8 beds together, loads of blankets but no duvets. The whole building was made out of stone (I just didn't understand that) and it started getting colder and colder. Also from the descent, we started getting pounding headaches and I was feeling really nauseous. We had dinner and it was so so cold. We had our hats and gloves on while we were eating. I thought I was going to faint at one point but thankfully they eventually put a fire on and I started to perk up pretty quickly (teeth stopped chattering etc) We had a laboured sleep. Every time you turned you felt totally out of breath, and would regularly wake up just gasping for air. It was the most surreal feeling.
We couldn't wait to get out of there the next day, but with a bit of food and a coca tea we were feeling a bit better. Coca leaves are one of the ingredients for cocaine (along with lots of really nasty chemicals) but they are integral to life in the Andes. They actually have loads of nutritious properties, and are chewed or made into a tea. It gives you a wee buzz, like a good coffee, and locals say it gives you more energy and focus to work longer (spaniards were going to ban it until they realised they could get more out of their slaves with it) It tastes like herbal tea, like nettle tea, really grassy. We loved it.
Anyway back to the jeep and we spent our second day mostly visiting different beautiful lagoons, a massive rock the shape of a tree in the middle of the desert, watching an active volcano from a far (just smoking away) and heading up to our second stay of the trip, at about 4km. A bit easier. Headaches started to ease a bit too so we definitely aclimatised. We saw loads more flamingoes too, which was... awesome : )
Second night we scored. Not literally. We didn't take our clothes off for 3 days!! Thermals and everything. No we were the only two who didn't have sleeping bags so we were allowed the only double bed (we had hired bags the night before) so we could cuddle up and keep warm. That evening, we met up with another jeep, had good chats and a nice dinner before heading to bed for 9pm. Crazy times.
We were up at 4.30am the next day to head to the salt flats and watch the sun rise.
Apparently when Neil Armstrong was on the moon, he saw a big mirror like space and asked, what's that, and it turned out to be the Uyuni salt flats, which he vowed to visit when he got back. When he was there he visited a valley which he told locals looked like the moon and to this day is known as Valle de la Luna... cool eh!
Anyway, the salt flats are the size of Wales. They are absolutely massive. Here's my dodgy explanation of them. Back in the days when the Andes were formed when two plates collided, there were existing lakes that were pushed upwards too, to an much higher altitude. The lakes evaporated and left the salt beds, which still exist today.
Anyway, they are beautiful. Like the desert, it's like it's just you and the salt for miles and miles.... with a beautiful blue sky and massive hexagonal like salt shapes at your feet. It's hard not powdery and looks like packed in snow. We watched the sunrise while listening to some disco beats from the jeep (Jose's weird 70s collection) Music was good though, cause you needed to dance to keep warm so you looked like a tiny bit less of a duffus when there was music in the background.
Then we headed to an island in the middle of the flats (I know this is starting to sound like a weird dream but it's true) The island was absolutely full of massive cacti. They are like trees and live for hundreds of years, and leave a weird hollow wood like skelaton when they die, which locals use for furniture. We wandered around the island, took some fantastic pics, had our brekkie, and then took off again for some more salt. We took some really funny shots because you lose all perspective when you have a massive white background. Anyway, we'll load them up as soon as we get back to Scotland.
We visited a local village who must have such a hard life living up there. They farm the salt. Make powdered bags for consumption and made bricks for construction. Some of their own houses were made of salt and they have a couple of salt hotels in the area too. They aren't safe though (salt absorbs EVERYTHING if you know what I mean) so we were advised to stay well clear. They were pretty weird looking anyway.
Afterwards, we headed toward the weird little town of Uyuni, had lunch with Jose's family, went to visit the remains of an old locamotive they used to transport silver from Potosi through to Chile, and then before we knew it we were saying our goodbyes to everyone.
So it turned out that we had a fantastic trip, with a great driver, were well fed and look after.... no worries after all. I think of all our travelling to date, this has been the toughest trip we've taken so far, but right up there as one of the most rewarding.
We decided we liked not having showers and living in our dirty clothes that much that we would then get an overnight bus up to La Paz, the highest city in the world and largest city in Bolivia (although their capital is Sucre). It was a 12 hour journey and half of it was on unpaved roads. I thought my teeth were going to fall out and M thought he was going to poo himself. It was quite funny. Either we are seasoned travellers now or were absolutely knackered... either way, we both slept on the rocky road to La Paz.