Uyuni Salt Flats Tour – 3 days
Company: Andrea Tours
Cost: 800 Bolivianos per person (not including entrance fees: 200 Bs)
|10:20-10:50||Train Cemetery||(30 minutes)|
|11:55-12:40||Original Salt Hotel||(45 minutes)|
|13:15-15:15||Isla Pescado / Lunch / Photos||(3 hours)|
|17:45||Arrive at Salt Hotel – San Juan|
Total time in the car: 4:05 hours.
|08:30||Leave Salt Hotel|
|09:15-09:25||Stop at train tracks||(10 minutes)|
|10:15-11:00||Chuguana rock formations||(45 minutes)|
|11:30-12:50||1st Laguna / Lunch||(1 hour, 20 minutes)|
|13:15-13:50||2nd Laguna||(35 minutes)|
|15:00-15:30||Siloli rock formation||(30 minutes)|
|15:50-16:20||3rd Laguna (Colorada)||(30 minutes)|
|16:45||Arrive at Hostel|
Total time in the car: 4:25 hours.
|05:15||Wake up (to watch the sunrise)|
|08:00-09:00||Hot springs||(1 hour)|
|09:20-09:40||4th Laguna (Verde)||(20 minutes)|
|10:00-10:15||Dali desert||(15 minutes)|
|14:30-15:00||Rock formations||(30 minutes)|
|17:00||Arrive in Uyuni|
Total time in the car: 6:55 hours.
In the main square, opposite the curious circular café that sits in the middle, is Andrea Tours. Like every other tourist in Uyuni we had heard stories of broken-down jeeps in the salt flats, the passengers slowly melting in the sun, or drunk drivers careering into flamingos. As such, we thought it prudent to do some research, the result of which was the sense that we should have gone to Tupiza instead of Uyuni.
After walking around several tour agencies we eventually decided to go with Andrea Tours, mainly because the person at the desk was nice, and because she told us that we were doing a special executive tour, because we were already a group of 6 (a full jeep), which sounded jolly convincing…
Despite the haggling of our friend Juan (who has of course been trained in haggling from birth – he’s Argentine), we could only get the price down to 800 Bolivianos (about $115 US). Still, not bad for a 3-day trip. Our driver/guide/chef was Freddy, a local who’d done the trip hundreds of times and sometimes appeared a bit bored by it. He wasn’t the talkative type, but after slow persistent prodding we managed to get him to open up a bit, to the extent that on the second night he ate dinner with us instead of the other tour guides. A small achievement on our part.
The first stop was the train cemetery. Everywhere steam trains, a colander of holes where the boiling rods used to run. Others grounding themselves slanting into the tracks, wheels buckled and iron buckled and bent. Old nails hold steadfast, stuck through rust. The trains built by British engineers in bowler hats.
The railway used to carry minerals through the Andes down to the Pacific port at Antofagasta, which was still part of Bolivia when the rail was begun in 1873 but was lost to Chile ten years later after the War of the Pacific, fought over the rich nitrate deposits in this arid land. As always, Britain was there in the background, like the dick in the classroom pushing others to do naughty things without ever doing them himself. “Go on, just do it,” Britain says. “Don’t be a dick, just do it.” So Chile went to war and in victory gave Britain significant power over the nitrate industry there. Victory also landlocked Bolivia, something for which Bolivia has never forgiven Chile. Recently Evo Morales, in a speech to the U.N, demanded that Chile “give Bolivia back its coast”.
I sometimes have the impression that the lack of a coast is blamed for many of the problems that have befallen Bolivia since that demoralising defeat. If only we had a coast, all would be well! It has taken on the national significance of the Malvinas for the Argentines. Although the Bolivians stop short of changing fact: Bolivian children are taught that they must reclaim the sea; Argentine children are taught that those grim islands off their coast just are Argentine, as a point in fact they are called Las Malvinas and not The Falklands.
The trains haven’t run for sixty years. Forgotten by all but the tour agencies. Later, much later, we pass a group of buildings that once relied on that rail. It is lost now, nothing but a kiosko for tourists and the eternal wind.
The salt flats themselves are huge (10,582 km2), the biggest in the world and almost the size of Jamaica. But you can always see the mountains like thin waves in the distance. We drove to the ‘island’ covered in giant cacti, Incahuasi (or Isla Pescado). Out of the cacti grow white-petalled flowers with yellow creeping stamen threading out from amongst the spines. We walk up and get burnt red raw.
We lunch at a bench and table on the border between the salt flats and the island. Meat and veg. Then up amongst the cacti until the top. The salty beaches sit stagnant for the sea that died millennia ago. This summit was once the frothing peak of a volcano, its vast body now hidden below the white expanse. We went down and took the obligatory photos of small people with little people. Unfortunately we weren’t very good at doing them, and Freddy was far too busy sleeping to give us any kind of direction, so we spent far too long in the sun-drenched salinas, my pale skin quickly moving from pink to red to violent red to screaming red to burn.
SALT HOTEL – SAN JUAN
The Salt Hotel ends up being one of the accommodation highlights of the whole trip to Bolivia. This claim should be viewed in the light of our less than extravagant budget, in which any place offering less than 6 beds in a room is considered luxurious. If the place avoids being very, very cold at night then it is even more luxurious. And if there’s a pool…
Well, the salt hotel gave us a two-person room, a shower that worked and, most strangely, the place stayed relatively warm during the night. An altogether pleasant place. Up on the hill behind the hotel we watched the sun’s glow die slowly. Then we lay in the cold and contemplated the stars reaching from horizon to horizon. We saw a shooting star and the Southern Cross twinkling excitedly, like a child with a shiny thing.
I wonder how many people have stood around this lagoon waiting for the flamingos to walk into shot. Looking through the viewfinder, I am waiting for the flamingo to line up with the volcano and take its head up from the lagoon and extend it up like a saxophone. Come on you bloody flamingo. What’s so interesting down there? Look up. Look up. He pointedly refuses to lift his neck, and the composition’s falling apart, so I crabstep along the clumps of grassy mounds until he is standing in front of the volcano again. He lifts his damn neck. I snap, I look; not as good as I’d hoped. I turn and snap another part of the lake where the white cuts suddenly into the brown and red of the volcano’s slopes. It in turn dies suddenly into fragile blue, no clouds.
Although the white stuff on the edge of the laguna looks harmless and inviting, it is advisable not to step in it. Ian did so and spent the next two days trying to rake the gungy tar off his boots.
CROSSING THE DESERT
For a long time we bumped across unrelenting orange desert. Car tracks scarred the sand and giant slopes fell and then rose up like a deep sigh until the slope disappeared and the browns and oranges finally gave way to blue. We sat in silence. Freddy focused: shades covering tired eyes, apparently choosing whichever track he so desired. For all we know he could have been completely lost and just driving for the sake of driving. His face didn’t give anything away. We watched the other lanes peel off and looked to Freddy for some kind of reassurance but none was forthcoming. At one point I doubted whether he was even awake.
ROCK STACK – SILOLI DESERT
In the middle of the desert we came across an outcrop of rocks sculpted into weird forms by the wind. The famous one is called ‘el arbol de piedra’ (the tree of stone). Like a lone tree from the Savannah silhouetted against the burning horizon. Thrown by the wind so that it’s top pulls out sideways. I took the obligatory photo then moved on to the grander blocks of sculpted granite. On top were pyres stacked high. Vestiges of conquest. I imagine the Australian tourist in flip-flops and wife-beater who raced up to the top, clumped a couple of rocks together and then bellowed out loud and triumphantly, so that all could hear him and even the desert awoke from its perpetual slumber. What a horrible image.
I chose a stack which looked relatively unspoilt. It had steep sides and was surrounded by sandbanks that threatened to bury it grain by grain. I climbed up, the only difficult move coming at the end, to reach the top. It looked loose, a pancake resting stone, so I pulled a groove and expected movement. It held still so I pulled until my foot could reach a pocket in the rock, then a heave and up into the unforgiving wind threatening to throw me from the stack to the sand far below, as calm as the ocean.
Red waves are pulled by the wind into lapping peaks and troughs. Flamingos step out deliberately and then raise up their webbed foot, goose-stepping, then place it carefully back into the rusting pool until it finds the squelching tarry mulch and feels its way in.
I move out gingerly beyond the grey sludge, hopping from stone to stone, each one covered in dry grey sulphurous deposit, until I was surrounded by the opaque brown-red. I imagined it bubbling and swirling like a volcanic lake, burning to the touch. I take pictures. We all take pictures.
The colour is due to sediment and certain types of algae. Sometimes the wind or the temperature changes and it loses its redness.
HOSTEL (2nd night)
Tonight a few voices remain at the tables. An English guy speaking with a foreigner with a thick accent. An English girl who uses a translator to talk to her Bolivian driver. She makes noises to help with the translation and occasionally breaks into Spanish – the kind that lilts up at the end of every sentence as if each statement were a question. It is quite irritating.
In the dorm most of the mattresses are formed from the rock. Mine isn’t. It’s a creaking metal torture instrument that tilts sharply one way, rendering any attempt to sleep all but futile. At one point I have to go to the loo and try to maneuver my way out of the bed without waking up everyone in the building. Then there’s a walk down the passageway that seems to stretch forever. It’s so cold I half expect to see stalactites glowing by the light of my headtorch. On getting back into bed I wake up the whole room.
At a bit past 5am I try and rouse the troops to come and watch the sunrise. It’s bitterly cold and after 5 minutes of waiting the complaints start. I say that it’ll be out in 10 minutes, but really I have no idea. And I stay there grim-faced as the light climbs down the mountain behind me but still holds off in reaching me. I know the sun is there, just behind the mountain ridge, probably laughing at me with the Moon. The others are all inside now, wrapped up in their jackets and bed sheets. At exactly 6 o’clock the sun breaks cover and the first rays stretch out over the plain. The others run out in a shambolic rush to feel the sun’s warmth, but the moment was gone.
The geysers are up there with the Laguna Colorada and the Salt Flats as the highlights of the trip. Plumes of smoke as high as Church spires reach out from pools of bubbling gloop. We dance between the pools, breathing in the sulphur-tainted air and taking photos of our silhouettes.
HOT SRPINGS / DALI DESERT / ROCK STACKS
Then the hot springs, where you can rest your arms on the side and contemplate the grand horizon. At the Dalí desert you can only sit and take photos, there is no possibility of touching or climbing on the strange rocks that give the place its name. But my thirst for physical activity was quenched after lunch by a set of rock stacks up which I scrambled and then pretended to be a monkey. Then the long drive back to Uyuni and on a bus to La Paz.