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Bolivia Part 3 - Salt Flats tour and an epic battle to La Paz

BOLIVIA | Saturday, 21 April 2012 | Views [1627]

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

South America had thus far proven to be a land of awe inspiring sights and experiences and we were starting to think that it couldn’t possible top what we had already seen. How wrong we were. The Bolivian Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni) are a remarkable phenomenon, but anyone who visits this area is really missing out if the Salar is all they see. A three or four day tour will take you to not only the Salar, but also deep into the National Park, way off the paved road (or even gravel road for that matter) to explore what else this amazing region has to offer.

We had opted for the three day tour which started with an unusually late start; 10am at the tour office. It was a pleasant change from other tours we had been on which usually involved a wake up time of about 5am or earlier. The previous night the four of us (us and our two new Welsh friends Clare and Judy) had been discussing whether we would be lucky enough to have an entire jeep to ourselves or whether the tour company would throw more people in with us to maximise profits (max of 6 per jeep). As it turned out we were lucky, but not because we could have had the jeep to ourselves, it was because we were teamed up with two more awesome people; Yoav and Liron from Israel.

Next it was time to meet Eddie. ‘Sexy’ Eddie, as he was known throughout the tour companies and hostels, (due to his tallness, deep voice and ‘creamy’ skin as Ingrid would put it) was our driver and tour guide for the next three days, and quickly had the girls swooning J. He didn’t speak a word of English but made up for it in attitude, he was totally chilled and always seemed to be having a good time – even having a bit of a driver dance to some Adam Cousens when I plugged my mp3 player in to the car stereo. Luckily Liron spoke enough Spanish to help with translations for the rest of us (when she hadn’t fallen asleep in the Jeep, hehe). While Eddie was great quality to have with us, his Land Cruiser was another story. I noticed as soon as we started driving that his steering wheel was turned to about 5 o’clock in order to keep the Jeep going straight, which was confirmed once I saw the alignment of the front wheels – a bit like Charlie Chaplin’s feet if you know what I mean. However, we didn’t really have many issues with it over the tour, just a brief hilarious stalling moment which I’ll get to later.

Day 1 of the tour:

Once we set off towards the Salar, our first stop was in a small nearby village where the locals refine, package and sell the salt wholesale in order to make ends meet. It looked like an arduous process and didn’t really reap much reward – the locals would only earn approximately 18 Bolivianos (about $2.50AUD) per 50kg of refined salt which would probably take the equivalent of 4 man hours to produce. It was a bit humbling seeing how hard these families worked for not much income, so to show our appreciation we tipped them and bought some funky Beanies that they were selling.

Next it was straight on to the Salar. Oh my god, what a sight. This vast, white plain stretches on to the horizon in nearly every direction. The heat created mirages mirroring the mountains in the distance making them look like giant floating diamond shaped rocks spinning on the earth’s surface. In parts the Salar was covered in a shallow layer of water and so it appeared that people and jeeps were floating.
We drove for about 15 minutes out onto the Salar until we reached what is known as Hotel de Sal, or the Salt Hotel. Every part of this hotel bar the iron roof has been carved out of Salt taken from the Salar, even the Tables and chairs inside. Here, we stopped for a quick lunch prepared by Sexy Eddie before we all succumbed to the temptation of acting like typical tourists and creating all kinds of crazy photos using the Salars unique depth perception quality. We created some pretty cool looking photos I must say; Yoav eating Liron, Ingrid and a mini-me fighting on top of cups we turned upside-down, and everyone propped up on, leaning against and peering over the top of my guitar (my personal favourite). With all the fun though, there was a slight downer, our clothes ended up absolutely saturated with salty water. See, the Salar is quite wet. It only dries for 3 months of the year, the rest of the time it is drenched with water. We later learnt what happens to clothes that have been drenched with high salt levels and dry, they solidify. I could hold my shirt up in nearly perfect shape holding only one sleeve, crazy.

After all the photo fun we headed out of the Salar (due to the amount of water on the flats at this time of year this would actually be the only time we would visit the Salt flats during the whole tour). We headed down the highway and pulled into an old train yard. As we got closer I realised that all the locomotives and carriages were red with rust, Eddie explained that this was El Cemetario los tren – The Train Cemetery. It was kind of eerie exploring all the trains once used to transport Salt as well as Silver and Zinc from Potosi out to the Pacific, now nothing but aged, red relics disintegrating in the harsh Uyuni conditions.

Our guesthouse for the night was pretty cosy, all six of us in a little room. But dinner was tasty and the town was wonderfully rustic, as we walked around ruins of farm stables and houses and chased a heard of Llamas trying to get some good pics.

Day 2:

A reasonably early rise saw us hit the track for a 3 hour drive deeper into the National park. The drive was by no means tedious. We had plenty to keep us entertained; spotting Llamas, Vicunas (a smaller, slenderer Llama-like animal), Road Runners and even Ostriches! Oh, and as mentioned before, the Jeep decided to stall in the middle of a 3 foot deep pond crossing. Sexy Eddie was forced to scale the outside of the Jeep to get under the bonnet and make adjustments. He did well to make it both ways and fix the Jeep without so much as getting his feet wet!

First (scheduled) stop was Laguna Colorada (red lagoon), known for its red colour and a popular feeding ground for thousands of Pink Flamingos. They were seriously cool, but unfortunately a bit timid and it was near impossible to get a close picture. The red colour of the Laguna is a result of red sediments and pigmentation of some algae, and with the snow capped peaks behind it, it kind of looked like we were on the road to Mordor (a Lord of the Rings reference for all the non-nerds out there).

We quickly arrived at two more Lagunas; first Laguna Blanca (white lagoon), known for its white colour due to high amounts of minerals in the water, then Laguna Verde (green lagoon), known for its (you guessed it) green colour due to sediments containing copper minerals. Laguna Verde was definitely the most spectacular. Situated at the base of Licancabur, a volcano on the Chilean border, and enclosed by surrounding natural walls, along with its tropical beach turquoise colour made it look like a spa for the gods. The wind here however was super crazy so we couldn’t stay too long, but we did hang around long enough so that a couple of the girls could make the 500 meter or so hike to a big enough rock to squat behind. Much easier being a guy sometimes J.

We continued on, and began to climb even further up. We had already been hovering around the 4300m.a.s.l. (meters above sea level) mark while visiting the lagunas, but now we were steadily approaching the illustrious 5000. After arriving at the site of many natural Geysers venting steam from the Earths underbelly Sexy Eddie explained that we were now at 5010masl – the highest I have ever been! He further explained that some of the Geysers are man-made and used to power many of the nearby villages (green energy = ‘tick’). Then we descended once again down to the shores of another Laguna, this one with a natural hot spring on its banks – it was amazing. Bath temp water and just us, lazing around watching the Flamingos do their thing – a great end to Day 2.

Day 3:

After a rude early wake up in the morning by a screaming hoard of silly Korean tourists scrambling for the bathroom sinks,  we set off headed for the ‘arbol de piedra’ (petrified tree). This area was the site of an ancient volcanic eruption which not only petrified this particular tree but also created some amazing rock formations. By the time we arrived hundreds of tourists were already turning the formations into their adult-sized tree club cubby houses.

Day three definitely had the most ‘off the beaten track’ driving of the tour. We would make our way through caverns in the desert, across vast expanses of volcanic rock and eventually into the Valles de Rocas (Valley of Rocks); again the amazing result of an ancient volcanic eruption. A quick lunch down and we drove back to the dust hole that is Uyuni. We spent the rest of the afternoon sinking beers and chatting with our new friends before it was time to head back to La Paz on the overnight train. Yoav and Liron left us late in the afternoon to catch their bus to La Paz, so the four of us chilled out for the evening.

The epic journey to La Paz:

Little did the four of us know when we boarded the surprisingly comfortable 2nd class carriage of the overnight train bound for Oruro, that we would be beginning one of the craziest ordeals we’ve had getting from one town to the next.

There were no problems with the train. In fact it was one of the best overnight travels we’ve had, and a very pleasant break from travelling on buses. However once we arrived in Oruro (which is where the train line finishes) we needed to catch a bus to La Paz. We caught a taxi over to the other side of town to the bus terminal only to find out that there were no buses running to La Paz! Apparently there was some kind of strike on. So after chatting to an American traveller in the same predicament we decided to try our luck on the street and see if we could find some transport. It was surprisingly easy. There was a mini-van ready to go so we all jumped on board and headed for La Paz.

One and a half hours later I was woken up by the loud horn of a truck we were parked next to. Looking around I could see nothing but dust, parked vehicles littered all over the road and a steady stream of people walking toward La Paz. Our driver explained that this was as far as he could go and we all needed to walk now. We had no clue as to how far we were, we couldn’t even see houses, but we had no choice and off we set, bags and all. Over the next hour the line of parked vehicles never stopped. We passed homemade barricades and flaming tyres on the road restricting traffic and even people setting up make do tent-style shelters next to their trucks. Eventually we found some kids who told us that they could carry our bags in their wheelbarrow up the road to where the taxi’s were. We jumped at the opportunity, but 20mins later the kids seemed to just stop in the middle of nowhere. They said that this dirt track on the side of the road would have taxis on it in no time. Needless to say we thought they were BS’ing us, but some nearby ladies confirmed it and so we waited. About 30mins passed and finally a car with a little taxi sign started coming towards us. As soon as it appeared, so did a group of Bolivian chicks quickly running past us to get the taxi before us (clearly ignoring any taxi line etiquette). This simply would not do, so I ran to the taxi as quickly as I could, passing the girls with a smirk and held the taxi for us. The taxi driver (and what appeared to be his wife and kid along for the ride) seemed to say that he could take us to La Paz, so off we went. Road after road littered with debris restricting cars caused us to backstreet bash it for the next 45 mins before suddenly the taxi stopped and the driver said we needed to walk again! Unbelievable! So we were on foot again. Another hour passed which involved main roads as well as backstreets, and a close encounter for Judy with a pack of stray dogs. Then we arrived at a car with a man saying he could drive us to La Paz. We were over it all, so we just agreed and jumped in. Twenty mins later he too stopped and we were forced to get out and walk – he however sincerely looked annoyed and said that earlier in the day he could get through, but not now.

We walked through what we discovered was finally the last barricade and hopped onto a local bus which was able to take us into La Paz Centro! So one train, two minivans, two taxis, one random guy with a car, two hours of walking and about 280Bolivianos later we eventually arrived at our hostel to meet up again with Yoav and Liron who had made the wise decision to arrive in La Paz very early in the morning. We had been blocked about 40kms outside of La Paz, and we learnt that the reason for the blockades was no union action, but a public uprising! Apparently the public transport prices had dramatically increased by so much recently that the local people could no long afford it. So in protest they were frequently blockading all roads into the city. Good on them I say J.

We were only in La Paz for a couple more days. We spent more time with Yoav, Liron, Clare and Judy before we hugged them all goodbye with promises to visit both Wales and Israel, and boarded a bus bound for Cusco, Lima. Another annoyance, just as we cleared the Bolivian boarder – there was no power on the Peruvian side, so the border control office could not clear anyone through. We waited outside in line for about 3 hours in the heat before it was finally up and running. However, this delay was nothing compared to what we had just gone through trying to get into La Paz, so for us it was a breeze J.

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