Not sand, but salt

2013-03-31T17:14:00+00:00 March 31st, 2013|Bolivia, South America, Travel Diary|Comments Off on Not sand, but salt
It was a good decision to come to Uyuni. Thank God that, all those days ago in Quito, Ruth-from-Bradford suggested that the salt flats were the most important thing to see in Bolivia.

I arrived from Potosi with Dominic, one of the guys from the mines tour, and we decided it made sense to look for a tour together seeing as we were both wanting the same sort (3 days, ending in Uyuni). First we checked into a hostel (well, more of a hotel I suppose) along with a load of others who had got the same bus as us – three guys from Nottingham and a couple of people from Manchester – before splitting up to hunt for a deal; the others were wanting to end in Chile so it didn’t make sense to go with them. We actually all ended up getting the same price – 700Bs – which was very annoying considering it’s supposed to be more expensive to go to Chile, but I was pretty pleased with my bargaining skills anyway, getting the price down from 850.

That part done, we spent the rest of the evening together as a group; went out for a meal (this was pushing the boat out for me, I normally only do street food, not restaurants) in a place entirely filled with white people, followed by a trip to the “Extreme Fun Pub” of a similar demographic (no I did not label it that, that is genuinely the name of the pub). It did live up to its name in a way – there was a table football table, for example – but by the end of the night the music had deteriorated into miscellaneous electronic noises and the the “hilarity” of people drinking the speciality, ‘llama sperm,’ wore off, and I just felt a bit sorry for the weary waiter who had to keep clearing the tables of cups in the shape of penises. We did have a good night though, and the lovely guys did buy me a drink (a chouffle/chewflay/choofle(?)) leading me to discover once more how little tolerance for alcohol I have these days.

Side note: Chris and Thomas reminded me uncannily of Liam Ikavnieks and Jack Topham, for anyone whom that means anything to.

Anyway, we went home at about one, and woke up a very grumpy man to let us in (in our defence, we were never told a curfew), before going to bed dead excited about the next few days.

The next morning we went our separate ways, having different tour companies and different things to sort out (laundry, the buying of sunglasses etc). Dominic and I showed up bright and early outside the office – and naturally nobody else was there, the lights were off and the door locked. I ended up guarding the bags while he went to look for breakfast (eventually settling for fresh banana milkshake, and buying me one too – what a lovely fellow), and in the end everyone else did turn up, which was a bit of a relief.

So by maybe 11 we were off, the other spaces in our 4×4 filled by a young Colombian couple, Andreas and Catalina, and an older Bolivian couple, Patti and John. While this was a bit of a surprise, as we’d been told our companians would be two young Germans and two Brits, it definitely wasn’t a bad one, and we all got on really well and had a good three days together (thank God they all spoke really good English).

It was a strange change of pace, to be embarking upon a tour on which I wouldn’t have to do excessive amounts of walking, clamber up hills, or spend any real amount of time outside, but not an entirely an unpleasant one. It was nice to be chauffeured around to various different sights, and to be able to relax and watch the landscape out the window, or plod my way through Harry Potter in Spanish when there was little to see.

The first day was salt flats day, and I can honestly say I’ve never had a day like it. Until you’ve seen it, you can’t possibly conceive of an entire landscape comprised of salt (OK, well Google does a fairly good job), but that’s what my eyes were telling me, that’s what we were driving across. 12000 metres across, 100m deep – nothing but salt, in all its many forms (and who even knew that salt had many forms?!). To begin with, small cones of the stuff dotted about the planes interspersed with puddles, so designed by those who use the salt for commercial purposes. Then flat, unrelenting salt, more like a beach with no sea than anything else – I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t actually sand. Sometimes it was almost like pebbles; sometimes more like snow. It was definitely one of the strangest landscapes I’ve ever seen.

We stopped first at a little market place, where the vendors had a captive audience for their wares (if you need a sunhat, you need a sunhat), and I spent a lot of time fruitlessly trying to bargain for a hat which I ended up having to buy anyway (no more sunburnt scalp for me, thank you), and then promptly dropped in a salty puddle, along with my sunglasses. Lunch was a little bit later, at a place basically in the middle of nowhere: ideal for taking the famous salt flats perspective photos. We had limited success (I was totally way better at taking them than Dominic) but enjoyed ourselves nonetheless, and all got salt all over ourselves for our efforts. After that we visited the confusingly Isla del Pescado, which has no fish, only cactuses (cacti?) and paid 30Bs to walk around it. It was pretty amazing, but I later regretted paying because we were reunited with the Brits from the day before and they had opted not to pay and just to look, by far the more sensible option. Hey ho. The last stopping place was on a narrow strip of salt road cutting through a shallowly flooded plain, which gave the most incredible reflection of the sky (and made for more good pictures I hope).

All in all a pretty incredible day. Boiling hot of course, and therefore fraught with sunburn worry contrasted with outfit regret (should have worn shorts…), but I struggled through nonetheless. It was wonderful to get to the hotel at the end of the day, all tired out from the sun and from all that travelling (not that it had required any real exertion on our part), and even more wonderful to discover that, miracle of miracles, it was a hotel constructed entirely out of salt – bricks, tables, chairs, beds (thankfully not mattresses) and all. Incredible. And never before have I had to brush salt out of my bed covers.

It was a cosy little place, and tea and biscuits awaited us (always a plus) on tables covered by one of the ubiquitous cheery Peruvian (or I suppose now Bolivian) tablecloths. I was sorted for the evening. Things perked up even more at dinner; we had something delicious called Piquemacho, which consists of all good foods chopped up into bitesize chunks: sausages and meat and chips and fried vegetables and hard boiled eggs. I am definitely bringing this back to England.

We pretty much all went straight to bed after dinner, mentally preparing ourselves for the 6am start the next day, which actually went surprisingly smoothly all things considered. We had breakfast at 6.30 (and I got two helpings of fruit salad as John doesn’t eat fruit or vegetables, result!) and left by about half 7, all prepared for a long day of driving with many many things to see.

The terrain of day two was dramatically different from the first day (the salt didn’t go on forever, despite the fact that it felt like it was going to): it changed gradually from blinding white to dusty beige and rocks and desert, and all the cars were kicking up clouds as they trundled along, and by the end of the day everything was obscured with a thin coat of dust.

Day two’s attractions included 4 lagoons, a red lake, a “rock tree” and some more rocks. All much more interesting than I have just made them sound. I’ve got a lot more (hopefully) amazing pictures, coaxing a bit more battery life out of my poor neglected camera, and generally had a very good day despite my daft decision to wear shorts (trying and failing to learn from my mistakes). As the day wore on we spent less and less time at each sight, favouring the warmth of the car over the chill of the wind whipping through the high altitudes we were travelling at, and stopping just long enough to take photos. I did, however, spend an inordinately long amount of time attempting to take close ups of flamingos (flamingos are SO COOL) and largely failing: curse you limited zoom lens!

We were in a bit of a race, it turned out, to get to the accomodation on time – apparently nobody ever books it, so it’s a case of whoever gets there first gets the best rooms. We didn’t arrive first, so our rooms were on the outside. I wasn’t too bothered by it myself; a room is a room is a room. I shared with Patti and John and it was all very pleasant (though we did spend as much time as possible in the inside living room area with the fire, admittedly).

The trouble with having to arrive so early was the sheer volume of spare time we ended up having to fill. I didn’t want to pay for another shower so we mostly just sat around chatting and playing cards (a strange variation of gin). It was probably actually a good thing too, what with our 4.30 start the next day looming, and I had a really nice time getting to know Patti and John (they’ve lived in Australia for the last 30 years and Patti is full of wisdom, such as the use of egg white to cure sunburn, and vaseline on the end of a tissue to stop a nosebleed more quickly). Tea and biscuits time came around none too soon, and was quickly enough followed by dinner – more disappointing than the previous day: I had a dead fly in my soup (mmm, extra protein) and the cook had been a bit heavy-handed with the onions in the spag bol. On the plus side, as it was the last night of the trip (and also only the second, weird) we were treated to a bottle of red wine, then complemented by the much larger bottle, also of red wine, that Andreas and Catalina had bought. There was a lot of red wine. Of course we all drank, thinking it might keep us warm at those freezing heights, and of course I was red in the face and more clumsy than usual by the time we went to bed.

Nobody slept particularly well that night; it was probably the altitude (and maybe the wine), and I was pretty chilly despite sleeping in my clothes and a fleece, not having been able to face changing in the cold, and it barely felt like I’d even laid down before 4.30 rolled around and we had to be up again. I hate being in bed when I can’t sleep, so I practically leapt up when my alarm went off – I also couldn’t wait to put more warm clothes on, I think. Unfortunately I was the only person who felt this way, so while I was at breakfast 10 minutes before the allotted time, everyone else sort of drifted in 5 minutes before we had to leave. All the more pancakes/coffee/hot chocolate for me!

Before we left I did something that would have made mum very proud: I made makeshift ‘sandwiches’ out of all the leftover pancakes to take along for the ride. Oh yes, I am turning into my mother. Still, they were excellent pancakes, and turned out to serve as dinner for me that night and breakfast the next day – there’s economising for you. Anyway, sandwiches made, all the 4x4s headed out into the still-darkness for the first sight of the day: the geysers.

It was admittedly worth the early start; it was an amazing sight: clouds of steam drifting up from the ground, kind of as though there had recently been a large fire that had just burnt itself out. It was also a pretty amazing (read: awful) smell too, all sulfur and bad eggs and cat food. You could smell it from about 10 minutes away; at first I sort of thought it was one of the other passengers, and when it didn’t go away I thought it must be the smell of a terrible lunch to come. Luckily I was wrong on both counts. We were able to go right up amongst the geysers and see the ominous pools of bubbling grey ooze from which the steam was being emitted. It was all pretty fascinating stuff, as was the explanation as to why we had to arrive there so early – apparently the geysers disappear with the morning sun, a phenomenon which I never did get a satisfactory explanation for (somebody Google it?).

Once we had all had our fill of looking and taking pictures – Dominic as usual taking bloody ages, “Oh but the light on this is really good” – we went on to the next, slightly less interesting attraction: some rocks that apparently appear in a Salvador Dali painting. It was made slightly more interesting by the fact that he never himself visited the place, only saw it in a dream, but nonetheless we were looking at some nondescript rocks and not even up close, it was a bit of an anticlimax, especially in a country with the highest volume of interestingly-shaped rocks that I have ever seen. However, it therefore served to make the next place possibly even better (is it possible to improve on perfection?): the hot springs.

It was still pretty early in the day and therefore brain-achingly cold outside; it definitely didn’t seem natural to be taking clothes off rather than putting more on, but by God as soon as I set foot in that pool I forgot what it even meant to complain. It was almost painfully hot at first, and very difficult to navigate your way in gracefully over the slippery rocks in place, especially with a camera held aloft in one hand (only the disposable one, don’t panic mum), but once you were in it was absolute heaven.

Having been to the hot springs in BaƱos and been slightly disappointed by the slight resemblance to a swimming pool complex; having missed the hot springs at Aguas Calientes after Machu Picchu, this was the absolute perfect way to end the tour. We took a few group photos and generally let ourselves enjoy being out of the car for an extended period of time. Total bliss. I could have sat around there all day, but no, we had to move on and head back to Uyuni – worse luck. It wasn’t actually too bad of a journey in the end, all things considered: there were more stops looking at interesting rocks to break up the journey, for example, and we also stopped to fill up some time in a little market town with no market, what with it being Easter Sunday. Johnny, our driver, told us why – we basically couldn’t be back before 5.30 or he’d be told off, so we had to take it slowly and enjoy ourselves.

Our last stop was the ‘train graveyard,’ something which I really hadn’t been particularly excited to see, but which certainly overstepped my expectations. I actually thought we’d skipped it altogether, as usually its at the beginning of the tour, but I guess we’d saved it til last in order to fill up some time. It was actually really cool: dozens of rusted-out shells of old steam trains collected together in one place, made much better by the fact that you could climb in and on them and pretty much do whatever you liked. Dad would have absolutely thought he’d died and gone to heaven.

We spent a good half hour there before heading back at last, and I have to say it was nice not to have the prospect of spending hours of the day boxed into a car any more (though of course I was soon to be boxed into another bus, but we’ll talk about that later). It was sad to be saying goodbye to everyone: I’d had a really lovely 3 days and as ever, having to move on was annoying. This side of the tour feels so much closer to going home, and while I am excited I am also definitely not ready to leave this country or this continent just yet.

Altogether it was an amazing trip within an amazing trip, and definitely worth the money – though I have now reached the end of my toilet roll, developed a cold, nearly run out of suncream and am heading towards the ends of my money as well. Only 4 days left until I come home. Oh, help.