Salar de Uyuni and the Bolivian Altiplano, South America
09.01.2011 - 14.01.2011 22 °C
Actual words from the tour itinery: We want to tell you ‘how it is’ and be clear and honest so there are no surprises. This is best so you know what to expect and can prepare accordingly. If you know what you are getting yourself into then you are happier and we don’t have complaints.
What I was letting myself in for was a three day 4WD jeep adventure across the Bolivian altiplano, high up in the Andes. Some of the most surreal and beautiful landscapes I have ever seen and surely one of my South America highlights. I had stopped for a couple of days previously in the capital city La Paz, which at 4,000 metres above sea level is the highest capital city in the world. You may think that this would be an interesting place to spend a birthday evening? Well, i guess so too, if you want to get blind drunk on two rum n’ cokes and then waste the whole of the next day in bed with a hangover, then yes. Bloody altitude. Well, due to my ‘excessive’ birthday drinking, I really didn’t see much of La Paz. I briefly took in some of the markets and street vendors around Plaza San Francisco. All kinds of weird stuff for sale, natural remedies for all kinds of ailments. Dried llama foetus WTF??!!
For me, Bolivia seemed to hold a new surprise around every corner. Expect the unexpected. The poorest and least developed of countries in South America, easily the cheapest I have visited so far, but balanced against poor infrastructure and very basic accommodation. Otherwise known as real adventure On the way over from Lake Titicaca we had to cross over a narrow inlet of the lake from the Copacabana peninsula to the ‘mainland’ around La Paz. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists and locals make this journey every day. However, rather than arrange a simple car ferry like in most other countries, oh no not the style in Bolivia, here it is necessary to queue for one hour to buy a boat ticket, then queue for another hour to get on a boat that takes around 10 people, then wait while your bus works its way to the front of its very own queue to board its very own boat!!! Yes, here it is one bus per boat! Not the most economical or efficient way of getting people and vehicles across this small stretch of water i wouldn’t have thought.. I could feel precious birthday tequila time slip away with every minute spent in the ridiculous queues.
Anyway, of course I made it to La Paz eventually and in time for some birthday drinks in the highest city of the world swiftly followed by the world’s worse hangover. Once fully recovered from the bleuggghhhhh it was straight onto an overnight bus bound for the town of Uyuni, where i was to join the jeep adventure. Totally lulled into a false sense of security on the night bus. There were ACTUAL ROADS, a bit on the bumpy sides but yes real roads, all the way down to the town of Oruro, about halfway to Uyuni. It was a nice comfy bus too, apparently the first fleet of ‘tourist standard’ buses in Bolivia, so I was just nodding off the sleep, the rocking motion doing it for me every time, ahhhhhhhh zzzzzzzzzzz, then it was WTF, WHAT IN THE HELL HAS HAPPENED? HAVE WE CRASHED? Rudely interrupted from my snooze by a humungus jolt, no we hadn’t crashed thankfully but we had gone off road. Why? Well because there are no roads! For the rest of the way to Uyuni, 5 hours or so, we off roaded it through the rocky desert, no chance of sleep when you are jostled around so violently, just hold on for dear life. YIKES!!!
Thankfully, there was a great group of travellers on the bus to talk to from the usual suspects of countries, Australians, Germans and fellow UKers. Only the Netherlands was missing this time.... We had a couple of hours to kill in the uninspiring dusty town of Uyuni so went for breakfast, unfortunately in a place that had run out of milk by 8am, but hey this is Bolivia, make do right... As I was also planning to go right through the Bolivian desert and cross the border into Northern Chile from the jeep tour, I needed to get my passport stamped out of Bolivia while in Uyuni, three whole days before i was actually leaving the country!! I was told that they were lacking ‘basic facilities’ at the Bolivia-Chile border. Yeah, like being able to get stamped out of the country at the border is a luxury right? Only in Bolivia. Did I tell you already how much I love Bolivia? Viva Bolivia.
The pre-trip blurb warning of basic conditions (even for Bolivian standards GULP! Yikes, OK then), also warned that none of the jeep drivers speak any English. I hit some luck here though as I must have landed with the only driver that did speak English, halleluiah! I was also extremely lucky with my jeep mates. Five beautiful, fun-loving, Brazilians. I quickly forgot about any worries over the sleeping arrangements, the insane altitude and the freezing conditions. Hey, you know what, this is going to be FUN! So it was straight into the salt desert for us, the largest in the world and a completely amazing, surreal sight. So much WHITE, as far as the eye can see into the horizon where white contrasts sharply to the bluest of skies. Sun reflected very strongly off the abundant white, making the eyes feel sore even wearing sunglasses. It looked like ice and felt weird to be driving along so fast through such a freaky landscape. Oh yes, mother nature had some surprises up her sleeve in the Bolivian desert that is for sure.
The first region of Salar de Uyuni we came to contained many small mounds of salt that had been dug out and left to dry in the sun. As we went further away from these outer regions though the landscape became more barren, all whites and blues, until we came to an entire hotel made of salt, where we had lunch sitting on chairs made of salt at a table made of salt! We then visited an Island in the middle of the salt desert, Isla Incahuasi. There were many jeep loads of tourists here doing the same tour. Many were taking some imaginative photos, taking advantage of the weird perspective that flat white ground gives. We did a shoot where I appear to be juggling Antonio and Bruno from my group! I trekked to the top of the island where there were some pretty awesome views. Huge, almost eerie, giant cacti covered the island and my photos from here just don’t look real.
It felt extremely hot doing the climb up to the top, with very little shelter from the intense sun. I guess at this altitude we were pretty close to the sun! I was more or less rocking with the altitude issues now though. Having felt quite sick in Quito, at a measly 3,200 metres, here I was having no trouble at up to 5,000 metres. The way that the body acclimatises, for example carrying oxygen more efficiently around the body, is pretty impressive. It is a shame that my laptop wasn’t as clever as the human body. Oh boy was this thing suffering ‘Problem with cooling system detected, please turn off your machine immediately and seek technical assistance’. Basically, there was just not enough air up here to keep the laptop cool. Must admit, I was still taking coca tea whenever it was offered and after doing some treks around Cusco and Lake Titicaca felt that I had nailed it. Oh, apart from some scary moments during the night that is. I think that at altitude your body adjusts also by breathing more deeply to extract maximum oxygen from the air but breathing can revert back to normal during sleep. A number of times i would wake up in the night feeling like i was suffocating and gasping for breath.. Put it this way, however much i felt my body had adapted, i was looking forward to getting to the lower altitudes in Northern Chile..
Anyway, it was time to rest for the night and to finally find out how ‘basic’ these conditions were going to be. At night time up in the desert temperatures can drop to below zero so I had prepared myself, bringing plenty of warm clothing (god bless good ‘ol Peruvian baby alpaca!) and a sleeping bag. The Brazilian guys that I shared a room with had bought wine along for the same purpose of keeping warm. I actually loved the night spent at this tiny village in the Andes! We slept on beds made of salt, in a room made of salt, complete with gravelly salt floor. Contrary to what i was expecting from the ‘basic conditions’ warning, we even had a shower! Albeit, a freezing cold ‘friooooooooooo’ one but at least we got to wash! Antonio and Bruno were fantastic roomies. The three of us shared the wine under an impressively starlit night sky, and they toasted to my birthday, awwwwwwwwwww..... They also quickly discovered the amusement to be had from my inability to roll my R’s and speak proper Spanish rather than Spanglish, Spanish with a British accent! Every time I said ‘frio’, Spanish for cold, they repeated it with a british accent and laughed at me!! So I gave them many opportunities to laugh as it was rather friooooooo up there at night, but I thankfully managed a decent nights sleep. Bonus.
Next morning, into the jeep and up and at ‘em, the scenery changed dramatically today. Very little vegetation at this altitude, just mountains, volcanoes, arid lands, and a hell of a lot of DUST. We spotted llamas and alpacas which later gave way to vicunas, better adapted to the higher altitudes. After a couple of hours driving through this barren landscape we turned a corner and WOW!! We had arrived at a lagoon filled with beautiful pink flamingos feeding off algae. Stunning place. As we left in the jeep we sadly saw a fox dragging a flamingo out of the lagoon and killing it. We then visited several amazing lagoons as well as a weird plain full of dead coral, giving it a moon-like appearance. This whole area used to be under the sea thousands of years ago. It dried out to leave the salt flats, that also contain over half of the world’s source of lithium, and a heck of a lot of dead coral. Anyway, the final lagoon of the day was maybe the most surreal of all, Laguna Colorado, the waters being bright red in colour from the algae growing there. This was weirdly contrasted with the whiteness of chalk deposits around the lagoon and the pinkness of the flamingos feeding from it. To add to the other-worldy feeling about this place, the winds here were extremely strong, howling and gusty. This blew up a lot of white dust, which we were completely covered in. Bloody amazing place, never seen anything quite like this before and I don’t think I ever will again unless I become a space tourist!.
Time again to settle for the night and well OK then this is what they meant when they warned us of basic conditions! That first night had been relative luxury and lulled us into a false sense of security. Rather than for toasting my birthday under the desert stars, the wine on this night served the important purpose of attempting to forget the dust, the grime, the cold, no showers, using the toilet facilities with only a head torch for light, 2 toilets between four dorms, for 24 people. Oh feck it, give us the wine, even if it is disgusting Bolivian wine who cares? We had some fun chatting to a couple of New Zealanders and Brits. It was also a rather funny evening as Carolina, one of the girls from my jeep that had been very quiet I thought, started speaking, a lot! Turns out that she is not so confident speaking in English but after a few wines at 4,300 metres altitude lost all her inhibitions and spoke the Queen’s English after all!! Pretty fun night after all and I even managed some sleep!
5am start on the final day, getting dressed and bags packed in darkness, just a headtorch for light. The reason for the early start was to reach some nearby steam shooting geysers and bubbling mud pools at sunrise, to see the place in its full glory before the heat of the sun disperses the steam. In the cold light of dawn, at 5,000 metres altitude, they were a spectacular sight, as well as providing some very welcome heat as it was mucho mucho friooooooo. Our breakfast stop was at some natural hot springs which was also blissfully warming. Ahhhhhhh almost toasty now However, I was surprisingly the only one from my jeep to take a dip in the springs, too cold for them to undress here apparently, come on guys!! Once in the hot water it was hugely pleasurable, with the steam bubbling up all around and with views over the mountains, lagoons and colonies of flamingos. Real treat.
Our final stop was at Laguna Verde for more surreal and impressive landscapes, before having to say my goodbyes to team Brazil and our driver. I was being thrown out in the middle of the desert at the border with Chile whereas the others were going back to Uyuni. The Bolivian side of the border crossing, basically a shack at over 4,000 metres in the Andes, in the middle of dry baking desert surrounded by mountains, was easily the most bizarre border crossing of my trip!