Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Bolivia... Mmmm... Salty!

The Salar de Uyuni or Bolivian Salt Flats was one of those big things that Ania and I were looking forward to on this entire trip. We had our ups and downs on the four-day tour, but ultimately it was fantastic! For me, it really is up there with the Great Barrier Reef, or our sky dive or the glacier trek in New Zealand, for just being so beautiful and so memorable.

We set off on a bright, sunny morning with our tour company, Tupiza Tours and after some messing around filling out paperwork with the authorities in Tupiza, we set off! We had two jeeps in our convoy: Ania and myself in one with our Spanish-speaking guide Miguel; Natalia, the cook for both cars; and a lovely Swedish couple called Johan and Natalie. In the other car were the Aussies, Rob and Kathleen; and a Polish couple; plus their English-speaking guide, Milton.

The thing that struck us quite quickly is that you spend SO much time in the jeep on this kind of trip, simply because of the sheer distances involved! On the first day we saw some fantastic scenery out of the windows. The group in our car was great, with everyone getting on brilliantly, despite the slight language barrier with Miguel and Natalia! We stopped for lunch in a huge field full of llamas and felt the first affects of altitude as we climbed an incredibly windy and steep hill called the Devil's Pass.

That night we made it to San Antonio de Lipez, where we made our camp for the night. The brochure promised 'basic accommodation' and it wasn't lying! We shared a basic room with Johan and Natalie on that first night. It was at this point that a problem started to emerge that would dominate the entire Salar de Uyuni experience: altitude sickness! Natalie was the first to feel ill, closely followed by Ania. I felt fine and was nursing Ania, then I got it too! Johan was the only one of us not to feel ill on the entire trip, the lucky git! Haha! I've never been at altitude before, but I can tell you it's no picnic if you start to feel bad. A third car of English and Irish guys were with our group through most of the tour, and one of them, Kate, saved our bacon with some altitude sickness pills on that first night. She was infinitely more helpful than the dopey guide, Milton, who told me that 'It's mainly psychological'! Exactly what you want to hear when you're throwing your guts up and your head feels like it's going to crack open along the middle! Ania, Natalie and I all went to sleep that night with no dinner and banging heads, hoping to feel better before the 4:30am start!

On a more positive note, another theme of the trip was llamas! We got very close to some of them, including this fella, who was hanging around near our jeeps on the first night. I managed to get a few snaps before I succumbed to the altitude. Nice ear-decorations, no?!

We got up before sunrise on the second day and headed to the ruins of a town called San Antonio. Local legend says the place is haunted. Twice now, different groups have tried to settle it as a mining town, but the harsh conditions and isolation have made that very difficult. It was pretty spooky! Much later we stopped for a break with more fields full of llamas. This cheeky one turned towards Ania at one point and she got this great photo!

Much of the landscape was so barren! Throughout our four days, the journey was freezing too, because of the high altitude!! We wore so many layers and invested in a wooly hat and a pair of gloves each. I wore all my clothes, gloves and hat included, in bed too! Here I am on one of our stops with nothing to be seen for miles, except a beautiful red-tipped mountain looming in the background.

That afternoon we all stripped down to our swim-things and leapt into these hot springs! It really was beautiful. The warm water and the freezing, dry air made quite a contrast! And of course, the views were spectacular! It wasn't fun getting out though! As one of the guides commented, 'Gringo soup!':

Next it was on to our highest point: 5000 metres above sea level, where we went to see some geysers. Ania says five hundred on the video, but she means five thousand. You´ll have to forgive us, at this point the altitude sickness was arguably at its worst! The geysers were impressive though, I'll let you see for yourself!

At our camp that evening, the four couples from our two cars were to share seven single beds in the same room (Natalie and Johan shared). I dosed up on altitude pills and painkillers and had a nap, waking up in time for an interesting dinner and a fun card game with the rest of the group! The meal was a delicious veggie soup and bread, followed by a Bolivian speciality for us meat-eaters: Pique de Macho. Basically, a pile of chips covered in beef, bacon, hot dog sausages, boiled eggs, onions, chillies and cheese! I think I would have loved it far more than I did if I hadn't felt so crap!

The next morning my sickness peaked and I started the day in the traditionally healthy and dignified way: by vomiting into a waste-paper basket in our shared bedroom! Thank God no one else was in the room! It was at this point I realised I wasn't just suffering from altitude sickness, but also had a stomach virus. Neat!

Our first stop that day was amazing, though (didn't I tell you this trip was full of ups and downs?!). We stopped at the Laguna Colorada (Lake Colorada), home to masses of beautiful flamingoes! I'm sure this video doesn't do them justice, but it really was a magical way to start the day!

We then crossed the Desert of Siloli to get to a group of unusual rock formations. The most famous of these is the 'Arbol de Piedra', the Stone Tree:

Our guide Miguel really was a legend, and he came through for me big-time when he took me to a hospital in a tiny village called San Juan. I really wasn't expecting much, but the doctor or pharmacist (or whatever he was!) was great and gave me some antibiotics, which worked almost instantly! Hurrah! Thanks, Miguel. If you, dear reader, ever go to Bolivia and do this tour, ask for him to be your guide, he´s fab!

After the hospital we were back on the road again, but not for long! Just outside of San Juan we got a puncture. We had the spare wheel and some tools but no jack. For some reason the jeeps share one jack and despite us being a convoy, Milton had driven off with his group (told you he was dopey). We had to wait for about twenty minutes in the middle of no-where until another random jeep came along and rescued us!

For our third and final night we stayed in the best place yet. Ania and I even got a private room! It was a salt hotel on the outskirts of the salt flats. The entire floor was covered in salt and we all splashed out ten Bolivianos (just over a pound) for a hot(ish) shower. We had another good meal and then Wayne, one of the guys from a separate group, taught us all a cool card game called 'Werewolf', which I can honestly say is unlike any other I've ever played! We loved it!

The 'living room' in our salty 'hotel':

Our fourth and final day was the best of the lot. We set off before sunrise again and almost immediately drove onto the salt. Miles and miles and miles of it, at 3650 metres above sea level! And yes, you can eat it! There was quite a bit of water on the surface and we drove through about a foot of it for ages. We took some great photos courtesy of the reflections:

Sunrise over the water-covered salt:

We saw a few of these incredible salt whirls:

Our first stop that morning was the 'Isla del Pescado', Fish Island! It's home to loads of huge cacti and gives you simply breathtaking views of the Salar de Uyuni. Here´s me looking out on the island. Look at all that white, as far as the eye can see!

Currently Fish Island's biggest cactus, at nine metres. They grow at about a centimetre a year, making this one roughly 900 years old! The previous biggest cactus on the island was just a few metres away from this one. At twelve metres and about 1200 years old, it looked pretty sorry for itself collapsed on the floor!

Our cook, Natalia, in traditional Bolivian national dress (complete with cool bowler hat!), serves us breakfast just outside Fish Island. That's Natalie and Johan on the left.

Having fun on the salt after breakfast:

After leaving Fish Island we stopped at the famous Salt Hotel on the Salar itself, saw more great scenery and had a quick lunch in Colchani, a town where they process the salt for our tables!

The tour finished with the bizarre train graveyard just outside of Uyuni. These were Bolivia´s first trains. They've been left to rust and rot on the old tracks, where people graffiti political slogans all over them. Strange, but I do like this photo:

We spent one night in Uyuni in a horrible, yet thankfully cheap hotel, before moving on. Frankly, Uyuni itself is a dump! But what about those Salt Flats, eh?! It really was beautiful!

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