26.03.2010 - 28.03.2010 15 °C
We awake on my birthday a little sore after 2 days of desert bike
riding. I had to remind Seth over breakfast that he could say 'happy
birthday', he claims he didn´t forget - he was just busy getting ready
for our tour to Bolivia!
So we set off in our minibus at 8am and headed to the Chilean customs,
which are actually in San Pedro about 5 minutes away so it was a
pretty easy task. After we signed out of Chile we started to climb and
climb and climb. We went from 2500m to 4100m at the Bolivian border,
where you can feel the headaches starting. We changed from our minibus
into Landcruisers for the tour (Bolivia doesn´t let Chilean tour buses
into the country, so we swapped). We ended up with a Danish and Swiss
couple, and all 4 of them could speak better Spanish than us (and
perfect English) - the tour guide didn´t speak any English, so our
multi-lingual co-passengers did a lot of the translating for us.
Bolivian Spanish is so much easier to understand than the hyper-fast
Chilean Spanish, I managed to grasp a few of the tour guide's
instructions, but we were very grateful for our translators.
We entered the Bolivian National Park pretty quickly, with great views
over the Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca (Green and White lakes). The
green was from the algae (although it wasn´t too green as it is
greener in the afternoon, after a few hours of sun).
The whole time we drove around this part of the park, we were under
the shadow of the Volcano Licancabur, which was the same volcano we
had seen the previous days from Chile. It is 5900m high with a 60m
crater at the top, and in there one of the highest lakes in the world.
We then headed into a thermal pool for a bit of relaxation, which was
nice as we got to meet the others - there were 3 Landcruisers in our
tour group, people of all nationalities - a lot of French!
Driving through the desert was pretty cool, I have no idea how the
drivers knew where they were going as there we thousands of tyre marks
and little roads zigzagging the desert. We drove through a section of
desert that was called the Dali Rock Desert as it had some strange
rocks standing in the sand, they were naturally occuring and very
Our last stop before heading to our hostel for lunch was to see some
geysers, they wer e just steam/gas ones, so not too impressive, but
there is obviously a lot of action in the area, and they have started
to build some electricity generators to use the power produced by the
thermal underground activity, but like quite a few things in Bolivia,
it hadn´t quite been finished!
By time we arrived at our stop for the night (and lunch) it was about
4pm, it was lucky we had a few little snacks to keep Seth going! We
drove up to a collection of stone buildings, each with a different
hostel name on the outside. We presumed the hostel was owned by the
tour company, but seemingly we weren´t even booked into any of them! The first landcruiser had to go to several little hostels to find one that could accommodate 17 of us. Not sure what would have been done if
they were all full.
The hostel was at 4500m altitude, the highest we have ever been, and
a bit of a shock to the system, it was basic, with no showers and
limited toilet facilities. We were in rooms of about 4-6 and got
settled in. It all seemed clean (in fact like it had just been hosed
out!). The beds were concrete slabs with matresses on top, a bit too
hard to move, as our room-mates found out.
After lunch we headed out to view the Laguna Colorada, which is a red
lake and there were posters around the hostel encouraging people to
vote for this lake as one of the 'new wonders of the world'. The red
of the lake was again the algae in the lake, which is eaten by the
flamingoes, and that it what gives them their beautiful pink colour.
The lake was very impressive, as were the number of flamingoes, we
spent quite a bit of time trying to get a good picture of the
flamingoes, which was quite hard as they kept sticking their heads
into the water to eat and standing on 2 legs! When a group of them
flew away together it was cool, they look so strange with their long
necks and pretty pink colour.
On return to our hostel we had hot drinks and crackers, followed quite
soon by dinner, which meant that we had about 3 meals in about 4
hours, but there wasn´t much else to do apart from eat! After dinner
the group sang happy birthday to me and Seth borrowed 2 candles off
the tour guide. One of the French tourists gave me a Chicken keyring,
which prompted quite a long conversation about the different language
equivalents of 'cockadoodledo' (every other country decided the
English version was the stupidist!)
It got pretty cold at night, and most people got rugged up and headed
to bed pretty early. Due to the altitude and the dryness it was
possibly the worst nights sleep ever! The shortness of breath made you
feel quite claustrophobic. I felt like I was the only one who couldn´t
sleep, but in the morning most people hadn´t slept too well, it did
mean that we were all up for the sunrise over the mountains!
Day 2 saw a breakfast of pancakes and involved a lot of driving across
the desert and was quite bumpy as we made our way up towards the salt
flats. First stop was at the Arbol de Piedra, which means stone tree,
again a weird collection of rocks sticking up in the sand. The actual
stone tree was fenced off, but there were plenty other rocks to wander
around and for Seth to climb. He made it to the top quite easily, but
struggled a little bit getting down, some rock-climbing/scrambling
We then drove past a few highland lakes, which were very picturesque,
Lagunas Honda, Chiarkota and Hedionda for lunch, just as the cold
weather, rainy drizzle and sandstorm set in, so lunch was a bit of a
After lunch, the terrain got a little rougher and the afternoon’s
driving was a little hard going, there was also quite a distance to
cover, so there weren’t too many stops, we just sat back and listened
to the driver’s Bolivian music, he loved playing about 10 secs of each
song and then flicking through to the next one.
Towards the end of the afteroon we crossed over a train line (the
Uyuni to La Paz and into Chile train line) and then got onto more
normal roads, which things a little easier. We stopped in a small
village called San Juan and bought the most expensive Snickers bar in
A couple of hours later we arrived a hostel number 2 – it was a Salt
Hostel, everything (except the bathroom, for obvious reasons) was
made of salt blocks. It was pretty cool. The walls were made of slat
blocks held together with a salt-type paste, and yes, we licked the
walls, just to check!
The hostel was on the edge of the Salt flats and down a bit in
altitude, at about 3800m. Everyone was quite excited about the fact we
had showers, electricity for charging cameras, some red wine with
dinner and the prospect of a good nights’ sleep in lower altitude.
Day 3 saw another good sunrise and Seth walked up the small hill
behind the hostel to get 'sunrise with cactus' photos, I stayed in
bed enjoying the good sleep.
We set off into the Salt flats, again driving across the flats on no real roads or marked paths - there were millions of 4x4 tyre marks zig-zagging across the salt. The drivers use the mountains on the horizon as guiding markers although I am not sure how they can be very accurate, as the salt area is huge... about 22,000km2.
We stopped with the other two 4x4s and spent an hour or so making silly photos with the never ending salt view. Ours weren't very good, as the screen on our camera isn't very clear (got a bit messed up in Antarctica) and it was hard to tell what was in focus. Some people got some really great shots.
The salt was weird to stand on, I thought it would be like ice, but it wasn't. The salt was obvisouly coarse and very blindingly white, with hexagonal shapes on it (not sure how or why it was formed like that). It was a very awesome sight, salt as far as the eye could see (apart from the mountains on the horizon, of course).
After messing around for a while and trying to get sillier and sillier photos we headed off across the salt to a strange island in the middle, called Isla Pescado or Incahausi (not sure why it had 2 names, and we didn't really get a good explanation, except that it seemingly looked like a fish from above).
This island was quite amazing, it was covered with Cacti. Cacti grow at a rate of 1cm per year, and some of these were over 8m tall (that's 800 years for those slow at maths), there was one cactus plant that had died, but was 12m tall at it's peak. The views from this island were great, we just sat up there watching the little ant-like 4x4s drive across the salt.
After watching a overly friendly ostrich get very close to peoples' lunch we headed to the 'Salt Museum', which is an old Salt hotel on the salt flats, seemingly you can still stay there for $20 per night, but the police then come during the night, tell you can't stay there and charge you $200. But there looked to be people staying there when we were there. The 'museum' has some salt sculptures, but apart from that it was very similar to where we had stayed the night before.
We had lunch of chicken milanesa, which was cooked at the hostel before we left in the morning and was still warm, we thought nothing of it at the time, but since then we have bumped into about half the group and most suffered badly from it! oh dear.
We headed across the salt once more and to the edge, where there are still salt 'mines', we were thinking underground caves, digging up salt, but these were actually small piles of salt - about 1m diameter, which had been scraped off the surface and was being left to dry. it was obviously a very manual process and once dry was scooped up into the truck and off it went for processing, where it was dried further, a few bits added to enhance the taste and then bagged up. All the salt is kept in Bolivia and none exported.
This marked the end of our Salt-travel and it was back on 'normal' roads towards to Uyuni. We arrived into the outskirts of Uyuni, which after 3 days of wilderness was a bit of shock, there was so much rubbish flying around the land, every little tree had a plastic bag attached to it, seemingly the government tries to clean it up, but people don't care and it gets bad again. Weird.
Our last stop on the tour is to the Railway Cemetery, again a little weird. It is a collection of all old, rusting trains and engines, that were collected in order to make a museum, but it never happened, so they are just sitting there. Seemingly the first Bolivian train was there, but not sure which one it was!
Uyuni, itself wasn't very exciting, and involved everyone from the tour trying to get on buses and booked into hosels in Potosi. We sorted ourselves out and headed for a recommended pizza place with half the tour group, it was good pizza, but wasn't really Bolivian. The owner was from the UK and was quite happy to charge UK prices too! Our bellies full, we headed onto our first Bolivin Bus - eek!
We boarded to first find out we were on the back row, then that someone was in it and then that there was no toilet on board (Seth needed to go). The moment the clock ticked over to 7.30pm the bus pulled away, even with people still trying to get on board. It was crazy there were people standing all the way down the aisle (for 6 hours!). The road was the bumpiest ever... the back seat and Seth's toilet-needing, making it the worst bus ride so far! Seth was saying he wasn't getting the bus to La Paz and we started thinking about taking a short bus to Sucre in order to fly to La Paz, rather than the 10 hour bus ride from Potosi. It was that bad.
We arrived into Potosi at about 1.30am (the ride got a litte more comfy after a quick toilet stop), and we caught a taxi to the hostel that had been booked for us. Sleeeep.