Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Friday, September 30, 2005

48. 4WDriving (Uyuni, Bolivia)

map of bolivia
Map stolen from

After the horse-riding and the river visiting in Tupiza we managed to get our Lakes and Salt Flat tour organised. The standard trip is 4 days, from Uyuni, to the Salar de Uyuni (the world's largest salt flat at 12,000 square km), South to Laguna Colorada (Coloured Lake) and Laguna Verde (Green Lake), then back to Uyuni. For many this is a highlight of their trip to Bolivia, and it would be taking up a big chunk of Mariángeles' ten day holiday.
I'd received a tip from the lonely planet thorntree that you could do the same trip from Tupiza, saving a 7 hour trip to Uyuni. The tip also recommended doing a 5 day trip instead of 4 days, and to go with the Estrella del Sur tour company as they offer 5 days for the same price. We met with the driver and the owner of the company and the driver really sold us on the 5 day trip, saying that you get to spend so much more time at each site and see more things and don't have to spend so long in the Toyota Landcruiser each day.
So we finally got the thing organised and would pay US$95 each which included US$5 for a night's accomodation in the Salt Hotel, a hotel made entirely of salt. Picture that if you will.
The next morning they picked us up from the hotel and I paid for my tour. Our group introduced themselves - 2 Australian girls, 2 English girls, Mariángeles from Argentina and me. 5 girls and me! Also on board were our 2 drivers/guides/cooks. It didn't take long to realise they'd been a few discrepencies with what each of us had been told we were paying for. Four of us paid US$95 and two US$90. Two were told the guides spoke English (they didn't) while the other two got shown my name on the list of passengers and were told not to worry, I spoke Spanish and could translate(!). But worst of all, 2 thought we were doing a 5 day trip (Mariángeles and me) and the others a 4 day! Consultation with the driver revealed that they couldn't find enough people to do a 5 day trip, so we were on a 4 dayer - thanks for telling me before you'd taken my money! Talk about an unprofessional start! Once we'd stopped for lunch on a llama farm I complained to the driver and he didn't even give an apology, just shrugged his shoulders and looked at the ground.

Salar Trip - 01 - Rocks
Rock formations

First day: lots of rocks and mountains and tussock and desert. Similar to what I'd already seen in Northern Argentina and around Tupiza, no surprises there. 6 or 7 hours in the jeep. We stayed in a hostel in the tiny town of San Antonio del Lipez, with cold showers and no heating and solar powered electricity for a few hours in the evening, so it was no showers and early nights all around.

Salar Trip - 06 - Church sunset
Sunset behind the church bell, Day 1

Second day: 6am start, yawn. Bread and tea for breakfast which most of us skipped while waiting for the rice concoction the drivers were cooking up roadside. We waited about an hour, only to be told that that was the lunch they were cooking, for later. Same old scenery, with a stop to see some ancient Incan cave paintings and Laguna Amarilla (Yellow Lake, because of sulphur) and Laguna Celeste (Light-Blue Lake, because of manganese or magnesium). We stopped for lunch at a small village where I was introduced to a couple of local kids who'd killed a huge condor by throwing stones. The condor was seen attacking their flock of goats so they'd come to the rescue. The kids were only 5 or 6 years old and the bird seemed bigger than them! 8 hours in the jeep.

Salar Trip - 21 - Tussock
Desert scenery, Day 2

Salar Trip - 22 - Condor Kids
Two brothers with their trophy, a condor

So far the trip was OK, but we were all sick of being in the jeep so much. The Australians actually thought the trip was 4 days around the salt flats so were pretty disappointed to be cruising around the desert. The rest of us were pretty bored too. We spent the night in Quetena Chico, another tiny town in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and no electricity nor hot showers.

Salar Trip - 26 - Laguna Celeste
Laguna Celeste

Day 3 promised to be a good one. A morning dip in the hot springs, followed by Laguna Verde and Laguna Colorado, followed by geysers and boiling mud, a rock formation shaped like a tree, before arriving at the Salt Hotel to stay the night. If only it went to plan. A 4:45am wakeup call (in the dark with no electricity) followed by a 3 hour drive to the hot springs. The drivers had forgotten to buy bread so it was crackers for breakfast. Meanwhile it was snowing and the wind was blowing cold and hard, so we didn't even want to get out of the car let alone sit in the hot springs! The drivers boiled some water for tea with their gas stove in the shelter of the hot springs changing shed, while the rest of us pondered why the hell didn't they have a thermos of hot water.

Salar Trip - 30 - Aguas termales
Our drivers outside the hot springs changing shed

After the cracker breakfast we drove to Laguna Verde before backtracking an hour and a half to the park entrance. Only to be told by the park ranger that the route was snowed in so we'd miss the geysers and everything and have to return to Quetena Chico and then proceed directly to the town of Uyuni.

Salar Trip - 31 - Laguna Verde
Laguna Verde. Couldn't see the whole thing

So another 3 hours of driving and we were back where we'd started that morning: tired, weary, and grumpy. I had to change my socks as I'd accidentally gotten ankle deep in mud taking the hot springs photo, and when I was given the suitcaseonwheels one of the zippers was now broken so I could no longer lock it. Another thing to add to the list, I told the drivers, who again offered nothing more than a shoulder shrug.
Fortunately everyone's spirits for the afternoon drive were livened up with a decent spliff, first one of the trip, and whoo we were wasted. Me and one of the other girls especially. Made the trip bearable, with group giggling sessions etc. We finally arrived in Uyuni after 7pm, I think it was about 14 hours in the jeep. Because of the detour we didn't stay in the Salt Hotel.

Salar Trip - 35 - Flamingos
Pink flamingos on Day 3

By Day 4 no one could be bothered getting up to watch the Sunrise over the Salar so we agreed to leave for the Salar (Salt Flats) at 8:30am. Inexplicably the drivers showed up late so we weren't on the road until closer to 10am. Finally we arrived, what we'd travelled 4 days to see. Yeah, it's a lot of salt all right. But I couldn't help but feel a tinge of disappointment, given the shit trip we'd been through to get there. I certainly wasn't the only one moaning, in fact I hardly moaned at all until I'd reached breaking point after about 12 hours in the jeep on Day 3. Worst trip ever, one of the girls said. Also, although it is huge I thought the Salar would be bigger. I thought it would be salt as far as the eye could see in all directions - a huge dry white desert - which it kind of was, except you could always see mountains on the horizon on three sides so you knew where it ended. Nevertheless our spirits were lifted and we stopped a couple of times to take silly salt photos.

Salar Trip - 41 - Matt jump salt
Me doing a salty Trent-jump

Salar Trip - 43 - Matt handstand
Salty hand-walking

Salar Trip - 44 - Star formation
Salty skydiving star formation

The surface itself was quite hard and rocky, and varied in depth from 2 inches to about 2 metres. Underneath the salt is a river system.
We stopped for lunch at Isla Pescados (Fish Island) which was a rocky outcrop in the centre of the Salar covered in cactuses. We walked the short trail around that, taking more silly photos, while the drivers prepared a tasty lunch.

Salar Trip - 47 - Matt cactus cock

We enjoyed Fish Island a lot, the weather was warm and for the first time in 4 days an icy wind wasn't blowing in our faces. The cactuses were amazing, I've never seen them growing so close together anywhere. I'm fascinated by cactuses - they take so long to grow that the 3m ones are hundreds of years old. A sign in front of a 12m cactus said it was 1200 years old!

Salar Trip - 49 - Matt 12m cactus 1200 years old
Me and the 12m tall (1200 years old) cactus

After lunch we visited a Salt Hotel, it wasn't the Salt Hotel we were supposed to stay in but the original one which is now closed to guests because of environmental contamination from the toilets and showers.

Salar Trip - 54a - Salt Hotel
The Salt Hotel

It was pretty cool, the walls were made of bricks cut from the salt, and the tables and chairs inside were all salt too (with pillows). The salt in this form is just like a white rock - very hard and very heavy, so rearranging the furniture was out of the question.

Salar Trip - 54b - Salt hotel lounge
A lounge inside the Salt Hotel

Salar Trip - 51 - Salt driving
Leaving the Salar

Finally, we visited the train cemetary near Uyuni. Dozens of old English and German locomotives from the silver mining days are parked end to in a grass area just out of town. I enjoyed it, but the girls stayed in the car sheltered from the unyielding wind.

Salar Trip - 58 - Matt train
Toot toot

So, that was the tour over with. 3 of the group left town that night while 3 of us stayed. I was in no mood for getting into a bus so I stayed in town. I'd also left my keys behind in Quetana Chico when we'd returned to the hotel and I'd changed my wet socks on Day 3, so I had to somehow get them back. The keys aren't too important and are replaceable but the keyring is a tiny Leatherman pocketknife thingee given to me before I went on my SE Asia trip in 2002 (thanks Mikey!). Those of you who read my trip journal from that trip may recall I made a six hour return trip involving paying a guy on a motorbike and riding atop a truck local-style to retrieve the Leatherman when I'd left it behind in a hotel on Flores Island in Indonesia. Trouble is, this time I'm not 100% sure I left it in the hotel and its more like a 14 hour return trip. So here I am stuck in the town of Uyuni 3 days now, trying to get hold of the hotel owners by CB radio and asking them if they've found my keys and if they can send them here.

Uyuni - 03 - Clock tower
A policeman in front of Uyuni's Clock Tower

Uyuni is pretty boring, it's also full of backpackers coming to see the Salar. So I've had plenty of time to catch up on the blog. Food and internet are my two major expenses here and they're both twice the price they were in Tupiza. I've got an appointment booked with the CB radio at 8am tomorrow morning so hopefully I'll know whether they've found them, in which case I'll wait for them to send them here, or whether I can move on.
Update: at 8am they told me they'd found my keys and keyring and would be sending them on the next tour bus. That was yesterday, so they should be arriving today, in which case I can get out of here tomorrow. If they arrive!


  • Hi! I'm on a quest to leave 100 comments in the blogosphere and you're #22!!

    Lovely pictures here!

    By Blogger JaG, at 7:54 AM  

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