Monday, December 26, 2005

Its "Salar de Uyuni" for us......

Heading off today for Uyuni, a 6hr bus ride from Potosi, and the gateway to the world`s largest salar (salt flats to those not in the know!). Funny note - at the bus terminal where we were buying our tickets, we heard a constant barrage of the most horrendous mix of Christmas carol-like (i use that term very loosely here!) music being blared at full blast, in conjunction with some local Andean flute and pipe tunes of the area - yes, a real joy after a night of imbibing one cerveza de Potosi too many! And this music was eminating from the strangest nativity scene I had seen - of course there were the usual suspects, Mary, Joseph, Jesus,(actually there were about 7 baby Jesus`) Miss Piggy, a few T-rex`s and of course Winnie the Pooh..hmm dont remember all those folks being in the original but hey, its Bolivia!!!

As we arrive in town (Uyuni has a population of 14,000 and at 3,675m quite high altitude - this place is literally in the middle of nowhere), we are met by a lovely lady asking "Are you Estefanie???" (Spanish version of my name!)...Hmmn, I thought this a little strange; how was it possible someone in this far, far flung place knew my name? Ahhh....all became quickly clear when the tour rep told us our pals, Kate and Lauren, (who I`m sure you will remember from the dreaded pampas/mosquito trip of death AKA Rurrenabaque fame) had arrived here earlier.. and given our names to the tour rep who popped over to show us to our hostel - how´s that for 5 star treatment, eh! Awfully good of them! So Hostel Cactus it was! Even better - we organized to be on the same Salar trip as them starting tomorrow morning - yeh! Had dinner at Minuteman Pizza, yes for all you Yankees out there, Tim is a true blue Minuteman from Amhurst, MA and has been in Bolivia for 8 years, and of course i have to mention the food - BBQ chicken pizza- fantastic! And he was a very nice guy! Married a girl from Uyuni who he met in Amhurst and hasnt looked back - loves Bolivia!!
So - it`s Dec 27th! We are ready to head of for our 3 day Uyuni trip! Have to get our Bolivian exit visas first tho´, as we are heading into Chile at the end of this tour.. then its into our 4 x 4 jeep with Kate, Lauren and 2 new friends, Sarah from Vienna and Veronica from Germany, both studying International Business at university in Santiago (brainy boffins but very nice too)! First stop is Cementerio de Trenes (the train graveyard), just outside of Uyuni, interesting place full of rusting old trains....then onto Colchana, a wee pueblo outside of Uyuni.Then we arrive at the salt flats themselves. It is hard to put into words how bizarre they are. Beautiful but really bizarre too!

Salar de Uyuni, the worlds largest salt flat, sits at a lofty 3,653m and covers an amazing 12,000sq km. basically everywhere you look, for literally miles and miles and miles, you see brilliant white, and because it had rained so much, the water sitting on top of the salt flats, makes a perfect reflection of everything around it.. my pics wont do it justice.. but have a look anyway.....In the height of summer (or at least when it hasn´t been raining, the salt flats resemble cracked pentagonal earth that looks even more bizarre, but we didnt see that as we had had rain recently.. still incredible tho! Also there is a salt hotel, with absolutely everything in it, being made out of salt! I licked the wall outside - just to make sure you know! - and indeed it is!! Incredible!
Yup that´s me ......Onwards we drive, for about 2 hours, in blinding white and blue, thats all there is to see around you, except for a few islands far, far away that dont seem to be getting any closer! Its hard to describe - you think it should be cold and icy and that the white stuff everywhere is indeed ice and snow, but its incredibly hot and its all salt, salt, salt!!
Eventually, we arrive at the island of Incahausi, again another mind bend as this island looks like it belongs in the middle of the Mexican desert, yet seems to be surrounded by a winter wonderland (have to give credit to Kate for this interesting description of what we were seeing!).

After lunch we head off, with Juan our brilliant driver and guide, looking like he is driving directly into the middle of a lake! Seriously, we are going across miles and miles of a shallow lake, completely covering the salt flats with 4-6 inches of salt water. The front windscreen is impossible to see through, Juan looks out of his side window instead; his face becomes covered in a white film, again its the salt at work! It is interesting to see the very technical measures taken here to make sure the jeeps dont just STOP as they drive through the salar; you assume all this salt just eats through the cars! So Floriana, our lovely chef and assistant rally driver!!, puts gorse bushes she picked earlier from the side of the road, and uses them to cover the engine and keep the salt water off of it, while Juan ties blue plastic sheeting to the front of the car!!!And it seems to work, as we keep on going... although there are definitely some interesting sounds at certain points in the trip! We make it to camp the first night (the travel agency lets you know accomodation is very basic on this trip,, hmmn slight understatement here but no problem!).
Next day we say hello to a few llamas, have breakfast around 6am, then its off again! Tons to see today... again miles and miles of barren landscape, with nothing living in or on it,no birds, animals, vegetation, people, nothing! Kind of wierd with that lunar landscape feel again, but still very beautiful! Stop to take in the muy tranqillo mountain landscape. The scenery, although barren, is very beautiful... i love the little stone alters people build (asked Juan cos i thought they were a lovely tradition of the indigenous people; nah, daft tourists do it but hey, i like them so built one myself!).
Next stop, one of the many lagunas that we pass, this one is Laguna Canapa, filled with flamingoes! There are three types of flamingoes that come here to rest, and breed - James, Andino and Chilean varieties, and up to 26,000 of these birds arrive in February to lay their eggs, especially in the Laguna Colorada, an incredible red lake, which gets its interesting color from the red phosphorus that lies on top of the water and its the algea in this lake that the flamingoes love to eat!!
After lunch, its more driving (be prepared for a numb bum if you ever take this trip; incredible and very different things to see, but alotta lotta driving (nearly 500 kilometres in 3 days!)
One of the big draws in this crazy Desierto de Siloli (sand desert?) is the Arbol de Piedra (the tree of stone!) which some folks liken to the work of Salvador Dali - these stones/trees are all completely natural, but do have quite a funky feel to them! Lots of big rocks to climb.... as you can see, so had a bit of a stretch of the old legs before we head off again!

Next morning, (after a very interesting night in the most rustic/basic place we have stayed so far - no water (except from a barrel!, and lights out at 9pm when the generator goes off!) its up at 4am (well, not exactly as Juan and Floriana slept in a bit so woke all 6 of us up at 4;30am and wanted us ready to go at hmmn, 4;45am! Obviously didnt happen, but we did get on the road pretty quickly! The reason for the mad dash - to watch the sun rise from the geysers... i know i keep talking about lunar landscapes but i really cant think of a better description....the geysers were absolutely incredible and like nothing i had ever seen. There were tons of them, all spewing hot gases, the smell of sulphur was quite strong at times, and everywhere you walked (and its Bolivia, so you could walk all through the geyser field) you could see bubbling holes of hot mud just ready to explode! At times, the mist/geyser gases completely enveloped you so you couldnt see the person standing right next to you! Mad! and brilliant! As the sun rose through these clouds, ir really was beautiful to see.... and so cold, that my camera froze a few times! After the sunrise, we headed out to the agua caliente hot thermal springs, where some dafties actually got into the pool (remember, its still pretty darn cold out!) so us girlies felt that getting our feet wet was more than enough!!!
After breakfast, we took a team shot.....
then it was off to the Laguna Verde...Yet another beautiful laguna, this time the water was a crystal aquamarine color, apparantly brought about by the high arsenic content, so not so many flamingoes hanging out here!And then, suddenly, it was upon us! The last stop on our Bolivia tour! Time to say our fond farewells to the country, the people, especially Juan and Floriana, and to say hello to Chile! I loved Bolivia, it was an incredible experience and the people definitely made it well worth the trip! Everyone should go!!!


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