Salar De Uyuni
23.07.2016 - 25.07.2016 -18 °C
The border cross from San Pedro into Bolivia is very straightforward. Before you leave San Pedro you get brought to an immigration office where you have your passport stamped and they take your immigration card from you. I saw one guy who had left his card in Santiago cos he hadn't been told he needed it. It was no hassle, he just had to fill in a visa form or something like that.
An American family had to pay $160 for a Visa into Bolivia, something they weren't aware of.
When you scroll through the dozens of tour operators that offer the various tours to Uyuni it can be a maze of information, of claims and counter claims. There are numerous stories that Drivers regularly turn up drunk and that the Jeeps break down. We can only speak for our own experience but our drivers couldn't have been more hospitable and professional. We saw no evidence of untoward behaviour at all.
When using an Agency, in our case Kanoo Tours, they themselves use another Travel company, in our case, Cordillera Tours. As they are based in San Pedro Chile, there is often a discrepancy between what they tell you is on offer and what you actually get. For example, we were told Sleeping bags were free on the first night but the girl refused to hand them over unless we paid for them. That kind of thing happens all the time but don't let it spoil your experience.
Uyuni is claimed to be a one horse town with nothing to do when waiting for your connection. I have to disagree, the main strip is full of Commercial shops and restaurants alright but a stroll away from this area can reveal an interesting and vibrant town.
We used Todo Turismo for our connecting Bus to La Paz. Can't speak highly enough about them. Very efficient and comfortable. The Semi-Cama option is wonderful with great leg room for anyone over 6ft. There's on board entertainment, American movie with Spanish subtitles, and they provide a small dinner and breakfast. Well worth the €80 for two.
We set off from San Pedro at 8.30 and reached the border at around 9.30. I can't imagine there are many border crossings in the world that are quite as dramatic or as high.
Border Crossing between Chile & Bolivia
We had breakfast while the bags were transferred from our mini-bus to the 4x4 and then proceeded to get our passports stamped. Mad to see about 50 or 60 people in the middle of nowhere queueing to fall in one by one into a small concrete hut. It was also quite cold too, a couple of degrees below freezing. 10 minutes later we entered the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avoroa or the National Park to you or me. Immediately we were treated to some breathtaking scenery within this region of extinct volcanoes, open plains and river basins. The first pit stop was Laguna Blanco.
Don't know if thats our nickname for it or whether that's it's actual name but it was a frozen lake with views towards the imposing Licancabur Volcano in the distance. We have actually navigated our way around this monster having taken snaps of it from the other side too when we were up at the Geysers.
We ploughed on, literally, rather than figuratively, along the mass of carved out tracks to the next lake called Laguna Verde. The sulphuric acid and arsenic give the lake it's green hue but it's a very inhospitable place, which is hardly surprising really. One thing that stood out as you can probably see from the photographs is the amount of snow up here. It's a dry place but cold so the snow could have fallen as long as three weeks ago.
Laguna Verde & Licancarbur Volcano
We made a brief stop at the Thermal Baths which I thought were a bit more commercialised than the one we, sorry, I used on Thursday! It was a lot warmer here maybe reaching a balmy 4 or 5 degrees. We strayed towards the edge of the lake and I discovered walking on the sand was fine, walking on the ice was ok too but walking in between was a definite no-no, sadly to my cost I discovered this valuable bit of info too late to stop myself sliding uncontrollably onto my arse. I was thus covered in what appeared to be a builders mix and fully expected to dry out with my trousers in a permenantly upright position! Fortunately I was able to brush it all off and now I look like an intrepid traveler or possibly just some idiot that fell in the mud.
By this stage we had climbed to nearly 4500m and it was really having an effect. Thankfully Yvonne's diligent packing of all things medical before we left meant we had all the necessary pills to help deal with altitude sickness but just to make sure we chomped on some Cocoa leaves kindly provided by Edgar our driver.
I've said it before but the diversity in this region really is something to behold. They told us to bring our iPods on this trip so we were fully expecting to see mile upon mile of barren non-descript wilderness but it's anything but. You really couldn't take your eyes off the road for a second for fear of missing the Llama's grazing, the Mountain top that had the colouring of a just cooked Crab or the what appeared to be a sloping sea complete with jagged rocks. Trying to see all the beauty & wonder of this place isn't the challenge, trying to describe it most certainly is.
We drove on and eventually arrived at our accommodation for the night. Yes it was basic but it's limitations were forgotten against a backdrop of such scenery.
We disembarked and had a spot of lunch. Sadly despite meticulous planning on my part and reconfirming Yvonne's dietary needs there was nothing bar a salad of Tomato and cucumber for her to eat. After a little protestation by an American lady who was also on the 'vegetarian option' she got a fried egg too!
We clambered back into our 4x4's, there were 2 of them on our tour, 8 people in total which was a nice number to share the experience with. Three Americans, a Dutchman, 2 French and us.
We set off for the last highlight of the day which was Laguna Roja. Anyone care to venture a guess what colour it was?!! Once again some perculiar algae gave this lake a reddish colour but the frozen parts broke up the monotony and made it a sight for sore eyes. We climbed down the dune to the edge of the lake and were witness again to plenty of Flamingo's and one estranged Llama, who didn't seem as remotely interested in us as we were in him.
Laguna Roja & an Uninterested Llama
After around 40minutes or so we made our way back to the Ritz-Carlton and set about getting ready for dinner. Thankfully, they had a vegetarian bolognese so at least Yvonne could eat something wholesome. We haggled with the giggling Bolivian cooks about some wine and got a bottle for the table which went down very well. We finished dinner at 7 then sat looking at each other as if to say what do we do now. The sun had gone down, and with it the temperature too, -18 and everyone looked at their beds with a sense of longing. Despite being promised free sleeping bags they never materialised, so, as the place was virtually empty apart from us we stole extra blankets from beds in other rooms and layered them ten high. There was to be no moving or turning in these beds tonight but sleep we did....from 7.30pm until 6 in the morning!
Yvonne showed no signs of Altitude Sickness and I was lucky too, only getting a headache late last night. We were up and at em early, although it was difficult to leave our cocoon....not because it was cold but because the several layers of blankets had us pinned down! We set off in a bit of a daze but Edgar had Chris De Burgh blasting out Lady in Red so that certainly shook off any early morning cobwebs.
Our first port of call was Arbol de Piedra. This was a series of rock formations that had formed from Lava in the most surreal shapes and sizes you can imagine. If you looked hard enough you could make out just about anything from the array on offer. We also stopped briefly at the mountain of the seven colours, which needs no explanation.
The road took a turn for the worse and the 4x4's came into their own. It's amazing how they survive the severe punishment they are put through on a daily basis but maybe this is their calling rather than driving commuters through Dublins streets at rush hour.
We stopped for lunch in the very aptly named Los Flamingos Eco Hotel where WiFi and Toilets were for sale. We spent a penny or should I say we spent a boliviano and gave the wifi a miss. As we ventured to each Laguna, it became apparent that each one played host to more and more Flamingo's. I was finally able to get close enough without doing a torville & dean impression to take what I hope will prove to be some quality shots. Majestic creatures. I'm glad to report that Yvonne was finally able to line her stomach with a solid lunch.
After a few more miles on the dodgy road we suddenly hit a bit of main road but we'd been led into a false sense of security before leaving said road just a few miles further on. In fairness Edgar did bring us to the base of a live volcano so we couldn't complain. In the process of taking the latest selfie I got Yvonne to sit on this luscious plant that is only found in this part of the world. Some kind of succulent. Looks innocent enough till Yvonne checked her palms and found some unspeakable goo. Still it's a nice photo.
After another long drive where the landscape changed for the umpteenth time, we realised we had reached the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. Destination Anywhere it is not. It's already got us excited for tomorrow our last day here. We arrived at our hostel for the evening and had a great time chatting with our fellow travellers. Having had a very welcome hot shower I hung out the towels to dry and got attacked by an angry cockerel who thought I was on his turf. Hopefully the only time I get hen pecked on this trip. Anyway it turns out a few of the guys are doing a similar route to ourselves so there's a good chance our paths may cross again.
It's up again at 4.30 to catch the sunrise at the Salar and then we get to Uyuni at 1.
The last day of this wonderfully fulfilling trip began with a smash as the bottle of wine we'd bought for the journey to La Paz fell off the stool and broke. I'd hate to suggest this is the reason they have a 2inch layer of salt on the floor but it certainly helped the clean up.
We set off to the Isla Incahuasi which is right in the heart of the Salar Di Uyuni. Just before we reached the Island, Edgar pulled up and allowed us to catch the magnificent sunrise. He honed his photography skills to get us to pose in all manner of positions, Yvonne's Pilates classes proved useful, my years of throwing kegs around, however, did not. Despite my misgivings we got some great images or memories captured forever. He told us he does two of these tours every week, which is tough but it's no wonder he knew exactly how to set it up.
Salar de Uyuni (Bolivian Salt Flats)
Once the Sun was fully up we took off for the Island. Breakfast was a simple affair and we had an hour to explore the Island.
It's the home of an Inca community whose very existence has been dwarfed by the commercial nature of these tours. Despite that they live in relative peace. A climb up to the top of the cacti covered island revealed the salt flats in all their glory. They are remarkable and so vast. This part of the country is so flat that they just seem to keep going on forever. Apparently they were formed after an earthquake hit the region 50,000 years ago and the area was flooded by the sea. When the water evaporated it left this bed of salt that stretches for hundreds of kilometers. It's a phenomenon that has to be seen to be believed. I've literally run out of superlatives for this trip already so here's a few snaps which I hope will convey some of the magic of this quite special place.
Salar de Uyuni & Isla Incahuasi
After a brief stop in probably the most unspoilt section of the flats we clambered out of the 4x4 and Edgar really put his creative juices to good use. I know they do this for every tour they do but he was able to raise howls of laughter as we tried to negotiate what proved to be a very hard and jagged surface
We set off again and with the couple of hours that remained till we were dropped off at our location in Uyuni were filled with a couple of stocking fillers. A run down and seemingly disused Salt hotel (dismantled for Eco reasons) and then perhaps in stark contrast to what we've experienced in the last two days, a Train graveyard. Bizarre!
We arrived in Uyuni at 1 and have 7 hours to kill till our overnight Bus leaves for La Paz. We killed it with a few drinks in the main strip saying our goodbyes to the Europeans who were all heading back to San Pedro. We strolled around and despite people saying there's nothing here in Uyuni, we thoroughly enjoyed mingling with all the locals. Once you stray away from the Main Street, you get to see the local Bolivians going about their daily business.
Anyway, next time you hear from us will be once our couple of days in La Paz has finished. As wonderful as this has been and believe me when I say it's been the trip of a lifetime, it's still going to be nice to enjoy the comforts of a nice warm hotel room....We hope!