The clock tower in Uyuni town
The bus journey from Potosi to Uyuni (Bs 30/£3/$5) was horrendous - 7 hours of hell. To start with (as is typical of Bolivia) they have the most ridiculous timetables for buses - after doing the mines tour, the next bus for Uyuni was at 6.30pm, which meant it would arrive at approximately 2am in the morning.....errrmmm, yeah, that's really sensible guys. As it turned out, it was gone 7.00 by the time we left. I had turned up and taken the last seat, which wasn't a great one, in the back row meaning my seat didn't recline. I was stuck next to a smelly old woman who seemed to have all her wordly possessions with her.
The group! Paul, Aideen, Helmut, me, Emma and Heather
About 10 minutes outside of Potosi, the road turned to dirt and it was like that the whole way to Uyuni, and as bumpy as you could possibly imagine. How the locals manage to sleep on these buses is beyond me, everytime I thought I might get off to sleep, along came a huge boulder in the road which the driver took pleasure at going full speed over sending me 3 foot upwards towards to the ceiling. So I was relieved when we finally pulled into Uyuni at 2am. I hadn't prebooked anywhere as there weren't any good reviews on the internet, but luckily the lady from Hotel Avenida was waiting for the bus, and I was so tired, I was in no state to look anywhere else. It turned out to be a decent place to stay and I was glad to put my head down that night I can tell you!
I spent Saturday chilling out (well actually, getting very warm as Uyuni during the day was a hell of a lot hotter than I had expected, given that it was at 3,670m) and looking round the miriad of tour companies offering trips out to the Salt Flats.
There is literally nothing else to do here. I bumped into an Irish couple,Paul and Aideen, and in the end we plumped to go with Sumaj Jallpha, who we bargained down to Bs535 (£50/$78) for the 3-day trip, to end in San Pedro, Chile. Satisfied with our afternoon's work, we then sat in the pub and watched Ireland lose 1-0 to France in the Euro footy play-off, much to Paul and Aideen's disappointment. we took the Lonely Planet's recommendation for dinner and went to Minuteman Pizza, and for once they were spot on - probably the best pizza I've had on this trip so far, so its well worth searching out.
SALT FLATS TOUR
It was 11.30am before we left Uyuni for our tour, but as it was to transpire the first day is not on a tight schedule.
First night's 'hotel'...made of salt
Our group was 6, along with Paul, Aideen and myself were Helmut (Austria), Emma and Heather (Canada). We first stopped at the Train Cemetary (a bit pointless in my opinion) for some pictures of rusting trains - ummm, great. 25 km from Uyuni is a little town called Colchani where we stopped for an artesan's market, full of the usual Andean handicrafts and clothes, and some stuff made out of salt. I glad that we only had to spend 10 minutes there, no really my idea of seeing the salt flats. 10 minutes further on and we hit the Salar de Uyuni
, the world's largest salt flats at 12,000 square metres. Its a bizarre sight - just miles and miles of white nothing (well a bit brown in places as it was dry), with only the mountains in the background to break up the horizon.
We took a few pictures of the out-of-use salt hotel (now a museum) before heading onto Isla Pescado (Fish Island) for a lunch break and the chance to climb the rock (its a rock island in the middle of the salt flats!) for views over the salt flats - pretty spectacular and worth the Bs15 entry fee they make you pay. Its also a great place to plan and take those classic optical illusion photos that everyone just has to do when out on the Salar. After finding a space way from the hoards (there were literally 20 or 30 other 4x4s at the same place) we used the implements we could muster - a bottle of water, a sheep (courtesy of Paul & Aideen) and a Pringles can that was lent to us. Some groups spent hours doing their photos, but we were happy with ours after half an hour and decided to get Hector (our driver) to take us onto our lodgings for the night, a salt 'hotel' just outside the boundary of the national park in Colcha K.
We had some time to kill, so Paul taught us an Irish card game, '25', which is another one to add to my repertoir! Dinner was milanesa de pollo
and we played some more cards afterwards before we were unceremoniously dumped into darkness at the owner turned off the generator without any notice - cheers! We pleaded for half an hour extra (it was only 9pm!) so we could get changed and washed. Despite the agency's promises, a hot shower was definitely out of the equation.
It was 6am alarm call and breakfast was already sitting there waiting for us when we had got ourselves up - it was actually quite nice, fruit salad and pancakes, which everyone agreed was pretty damn filling. After we waited for Hector to turn up (he had no doubt been entertaining a lady in the village overnight!), we eventually set off at 7.
Flamingo around Laguna Hedoinda
30am. We passed through San Juan, a village which seemed to be ruled by llamas
(they were everywhere on the streets). Our first proper stop was Laguna Canapa
, a beautiful lake full of flamingos. I haad missed out on seeing flamingos in Galapagos, so was pretty pleased to have finally spotted a few...well, actually there were hundreds here, sqwarking a funny noise the whole time we were there. Our lunch stop was at Laguna Hedoinda
, which had a green and white colouring due to the algae and mix of salt deposits - the weather was boiling, but it was a great place to stop for a couple of hours while Hector laid out the chicken & pasta. after lunch, we moved onto Laguna Honda
(not sure if it has been sponsored by the Japanese car maker?! Ha ha), which again had stunning views.
The vas plains and multi coloured hills in the background
The scenery then changed pretty dramatically as we headed into what seemed like desert - vast plains with pretty much nothing around. You could stunning mountains and hills in the distance, with the most amazing mix of colours reflecting in the bright sunlight. I was starting to appreciate why people love this trip so much - the variety in the scenery in the space of a few kilometres is truly amazing! I actually found this section through the desert and hills more spectacular than the salt flats themselves. By mid-afternoon we had stopped at Arbor del Piedra (the stone tree), which literally is a tree made out of stone - how it was formed I don't know, but it looks like someone has spent time chiselling away to form a tree in the middle of the desert! It was then onto our second's night stop, the refuge at Laguna Colorada (entrance Bs30), a lake tinged with red and white due to the mineral and algae content.
Arbor del Piedra
There was a great little 30 minute walk to a lookout where we could see the flamingos again in their hundreds. We had been warned about the cold for this night as it didn't let us down - it was bloody freezing - we all slept in full clothes under about 3 blankets - fecking uncomfortable and I got pretty no sleep - thankfully we were going to be up at 4am, so I lay there counting the minutes down...
Hector had told us to be up at 4am, ready to leave at 4.30am. So it was much to mine and everyone else's annoyance that he didn't show up til 4.50, only after been shouted to get up by one of the other drivers. It meant we didn't leave til gone 5am, and we missed the sunrise whilst driving towards to the Minchina Geysers - I was livid - the lazy b*stard had cost us probably the best moment of the whole tour.
Laguna Colorada, with its red hue
We eventually got there, to find all the other tour groups already enjoying the amazing sight - the geysers were still amazing, plumes of smoke spurting up out of the ground, surrounded by bubbling pools of mud - a truly amazing sight. We then had a short drive to the thermal pools, which I had been looking forward to. unfortunately, it was still bloody freezing and there was nowhere to get changed, so I laughed it off, with only Paul from our group braving getting in. We were all looking forward to the fruit salad and pancake breakfast we had been promised by the agency - yet again, we were disappointed - all the other tour groups were inside the refuge building have a great spread while we had to make do with scrambled eggs and bread off the back of the truck - why can't anyone in South America just keep to what they say they are going to do???
Final stop of the tour for us was Laguna Verde, a picture perfect lake with Volcan Licancabur in the background - a great way to finish.
Minchina Geysers! It was bloody hot steam!
Helmut got out at the refuge here as he was planning on climbing the 5,916m beast - silly man, what was he thinking?! Hector dropped us off shortly after at the Bolivian border post where we waited for half an hour or so for our pick up to take us to Chile. Our driver was Mr Slow and it took about an hour to do the 45km downhill journey to San Pedro de Atacama - perhaps we was being kind as we were descending from 4,200m to 2,400 and he wanted to stop us all getting headaches....hmmm, I don't think so! Because we took so long, we had to wait ages at the San Pedro border entry post and it was an hour before we were officially stamped into Chile - they make an absolute meal of checking everyone's bags (pretty half-heartedly really, which made it totally pointless), so we sat around waiting in the scorching heat - I just wanted to get to a hostel and relax.
Laguna Verde, stunning
...please to god, let there be a good one!