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Salar de Uyuni - Salt Flat tour to Atacama, Chile

BOLIVIA | Thursday, 6 November 2008 | Views [4166]

So up we got the following morning for what has to be admitted as a rushed breakfast with the goal of not being late for the tour of the salt flats and Bolivian Altiplano. We had chosen a 2 night 3 day tour ending in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile as other people had said that the drive back is painful, and painfully boring so we reckoned one way was the way for us.
We got to the office at 10 on the button and met the group of people who would be with us. Or would they ... there should be only 6 in the 4x4 and there were 13 of us. Had we been had?
We found out after about an hour that the previous day was a national holiday, and that all the petrol stations were closed so they had to go miles away to fill up the tanks and spares. So we needn´t have rushed breakfast, but there was a bit of shuffling and juggling and we ended up with 6 punters in the landcruiser (Method of transport number 17), a driver (Luis) and the cook (Juanna) in our car.
Our fellow travellers were Fiona and Amanda, Aussie lawyer and anaesthetist respectively, and Maureen and Kristen, American vegetarian lobbyists from DC. All of whom were travellers who were spending months rather than weeks in S America.
Our first stop was a "train cemetery" just outside the town. I think we were all surprised to see just how quickly the desert started outside the town. No more than 2 blocks and we were off-road. A few snaps and on towards the Salar (Salt lake), passing by wild vicuña and llama.
The Salar de Uyuni is the largest amd highest salt flat in the world and it really is a surreal, incredible place. Its essentially a lake with an incredibly flat, solid, salt surface about 30cm thick. Our first stop was a tacky opportunity to buy tat at the "coast" and then on to a salt hotel, entirely made of salt (beds, grandfather clocks and suchlike). We moved on at pace through the blinding whiteness (it actually hurt to take your shades off!) to the Isla del Pescado, the fish island (although not a fish in sight) the largest of 36 in the salar, being originally formed of coral and now largely inhabited by thousand year old (!!) cactuses and lots of gringos and their Bolivian handlers, all overlooked by an imposing extinct volcano.
We had a late lunch of llama (V tasty) and then came the opportunity for "those" funny photos of big people holding smaller people in their hands and  suchlike. Lots of fun although I was a little disappointed not to have got a better one. Ah well.
Onwards and upwards, this time towards "Galaxias", a recent discovery just off the flats so named for its other worldly qualities. It´s essentially a cave found in 2003 with 250 million year old algal formations that look a bit like something from Aliens.
Just beside this were some pre-columbian tombs replete with skulls and offerings to pachamama.
We carried on to our destination for the evening, a salt hotel and actually a hell of a lot nicer than the one on the salar itself, which also has ecological/environmental questions about it too. We sat in the communal area the American girls taught us "Cacho" a Bolivian dice game very like Yahtzee but much better, all the while wondering who the new leader of the free world was, it being US election day. It is a slightly bizarre feeling (and much wierder for them I´m sure) being so completely isolated from everything modern and globalised so that most people either dont know or dont care whether McCain or Obama would win.
After a fabulous sunset and another excellent meal thanks to Juanna, we had some "entertainment" in the form of some of the local kids, again from 4 to 8 singing (or screaming) a few local trad songs while dressed up in ponchos and attempting to dance in time with each other, They were absolutely terrible, but hilarious especially when the most animated of the girls full on pushed one of the other ones over for getting a bit too close. It got a little but scary when the same feisty one practially accosted the Aussie girls for not dropping the expected coin in the hat.
Day 2
Up at 6am for what we had been warned was going to be a very long drive to ... well everything all day. I thought it would be better to make our own kinda music rather than subject ourselves to Luis´ panpipe medley so I think I surprised everyone when at precisely 07.12 after about 10 minutes of off road I busted out the portable speakers to put on "Hammer Time" by none other than the MC himself.
Thus the aural experience continued for the rest of the day, the Aussies and myself taking it in turns to DJ our way across the amazingly beautiful, often lunar and always bumpy landscape.
After about 2 hours we stopped at the "stone army", some bizzare structures formed originally of Coral thousands of years ago, but now dry as a bone and somehow obstinate, standing tall in the wilderness.
Next up we got a bit closer to an active volcano, which we could see smoking from a vent in its side, before having to get out and walk (as did all the other gringos in the convoy) to allow the 4x4 to get over the incredibly rough terrain.
On for another hour or so and we came across the most spectacular lake, with picture perfect reflections of the mountains and volcanoes in the background. It actually looks fake. A myriad of pink flamingos (pink due to some indigestible pigment in the shrimp larvae in their diet). Surrounded by some sort of white mineral called Vorax. It was all so beautiful, now that I have looked back at the photos and videos, it all looks fake, like a matte painting. Incredible place, and all at 4125m.
On to another, larger lake, with even more flamingos and vicuña at the lakeside, where we stopped for the coldest, windiest al fresco lunch I have ever had. Poor Fiona got coke spilt on her twice due to the wind picking up the glasses and chucking it all over her. Again, amazing place but incredibly inhospitable for humans - hard to believe anything lives up there.
After lunch Luis took out his sack of Coca leaves to help with the monotony and tiredness and I could see him falling asleep at the wheel on a number of occasions (but to be fair there wasnt anything to crash into with a million miles so not much risk). I decided to crank up the tunes and put something a bit livelier on in order to keep him awake. "Like a virgin" and "Thriller" didnt even do it! We made our way to the next stop, a sort of mini Ayers rock with cute little mountain rabbits and a view point.
Very soon afterwards we head and expletive from Luis and we discovered that we had a flat. We all piled out and tried to give him a hand and then .... OH-O ... discovered the spare was flat too. Not great, stuck a long way from anything at all apart from rabbits and rocks that heat too 150 degrees C in the sun.
We decided it was time to dip into the emergency stock of rum and coke and had a bit of a laugh keeping our spirits up while we waited for another landcruiser (they´re all the same model for a reason) to turn up so we could swap a flat (bald) tyre for a (bald) inflated one. Luis and Juanna must have thought we were nuts, probably expecting us to be annoyed or something but we just had more fun as we went on.
The drinks lasted just the right time, and another 4x4 soon showed up and we were on our way again. Now the scenery continued to be fabulous but it does all get a bit samey after 2 days so we, all having great craic with the random tunes and requests for 80s favourites in the back decided to have a front seat versus back seat dance off to disco music (as you do). The rum and cokes probably helped a little to be honest. The front seat pipped us at the post.
Next up, the "arbol de piedra", or petrified tree, a strange top heavy stone caused by erosion due to the very string prevailing winds on the plateau. Some spanish gringo muppets had decided to climb the 20m structure and ruin it for anyone else so we decided to move on very shortly. If you look closely at the photo you will be able to see 2 muppet feet at the top of the stone. Another incentive to go quick was the risk of not having accommodation at the next place - first come first served irrespective of the tour company and demand always outstrips supply.
Another few hours and we came to our resting point for the second evening of the tour - La Laguna Colorada, or Red Lake. You would think its just a name but it is literally, bright red, caused by the iron oxides in the surrounding hills. We were one of the first there so no worries about having a bed for the night. The lake was absolutely enchanting ... a once in a lifetime sight ... hopefully a few of the pictures convey this.
The hostel was pretty basic, no running water 6 to a room and lots of punters having a good time with their groups Although we discovered that the other group who we nearly went with had silence for the whole trip apart from an opinionated american who wouldnt shut up. What a contrast! We had a very late night and the little ship in the hostel sold out of rum and even the local grape based grog. I dont think most of the hostel guests were too impressed with us as we played Fizz Buzz (thanks Colm!) and Drink while you think with a few of the other sociable ones into the wee hours.
Day 3
Up at 4am (ouch!) for a bizarre ride in the 4x4 through the dark, into dawn and to a geothermic park with lots of geysers and steam poring out of holes in the ground. The geysers hit 180 degrees although it felt like minus that outside so we took the obligatory snaps and moved on quickly. As a result we were thankfully the first group at the next attraction, a thermally heated pool next to a picturesque lake.
It was so nice to be the first to dip the toe in before 7am and bathe after a few days without showers. However before long the other groups turned up and it turned into Gringo Soup.
Pancake breakfast and then on the green lake, green due to its high toxicity and bubbling with bizarre foam instead of ripples at its lakeside. Off again, to another lake, this one "white", but more kind of light aquamarine. Not so toxic this one but it was so cold outside that it was all we could do to manage one stolen photo before getting back into the jeep.
Another long drive to the border and our drop off point, this time entertaining ourselves with renditions of our respective national anthems (even Luis was joining in at this stage).
By the time we reached the barren completely inhospitable border the american girls had decided to come to Chile with the rest of the group so we arranged for transport and then had the sudden news (probably 2 days later than  most other people on the planet) that Obama had won the election. I strongly contemplated breaking into a rendition of the star spangled banner on my own, but resisted.
We had to wave goodbye to Luis and to Bolivia, a strikingly beautiful country. On to a pitstop in Chile, country number 4.

Tags: 4x4, desert, geyser, hot spring, rum, salt flats, volcano


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