[EDIT April 27th, 2010 – I have updated and replaced many of the photos herein since I’ve had access to my proper computer kit. Ahhh, Lightroom….]
Come round my friends and listen to a tale of high adventure, comedy, awe-inspiring scenery, and sunburnt lips. Bear with me as I try to recall the sequence of events some days after the fact and in a different country.
As you will recall, the main players were myself, my old colleague Peter Hahndorf, and an older Australian horse trainer named Ken who I had first encountered in the Pampas in northern Bolivia. We had all made our way down to Uyuni on the ill-fated bus from Potosi, and we had entered Uyuni together, full of hope for the coming days.
Uyuni is not a place that inspires hope. It is a dusty, fly-blown, windy, barren, frontier town of the sort that makes you expect everyone to scurry indoors when the regular shootouts between the sherriff and the cowboys take place. In short, it is a shithole. And it is completely, utterly overrun by a daily tide of backpackers, who ooze through the streets, drifting from hotel to tour agency to restaurant, sitting in groups in every available outdoor space, playing guitars, drinking, and swapping stories.
So it was that we arrived, part of the great unwashed, and as per usual not having reserved either a hotel for the night or a tour for the next days. We had our hand forced on the hotel front by lack of availability, so we had to settle for a distinctly average place called the Hotel Mozon. Once settled in we went out in search of a tour to reserve. After some dicking about we settled on Oasis Tours as they had come highly recommended both in guidebooks and from fellow travellers. My dream of doing a 4-day tour was dashed on the shores of reality as a 4-day tour would have been greatly more expensive than the 3-day tour, and nobody was really up for it. Ah well. So we agreed to the 3-day tour and agreed to show up the next morning.
Day 1 – Train Cemetery, Salar de Uyuni, San Juan
And so the next morning came and the first little shock was that the hotel had no water. At all. In the taps, in the shower, nothing to fill the toilet tank, nada. Not exactly ideal when you are already facing a few days of ropey or nonexistent plumbing yet to come. I ended up washing face and hands with bottled water. Felt like Glastonbury. Had my next shock when I got to the tour office only to be told that my rucksack was too big and could I please bring a smaller one. Thanks for fucking telling me that now! I had to race up to the market, grab the cheapest day pack I could ($4.50) and start cramming stuff into it, trying not to forget anything along the way. Not what you need at the last minute.
But all news was not bad. To fill the other 3 seats in the Land Cruiser, the tour agency had helpfully recruited 3 20/21-year old Swiss girls (Anneux, Marie, and Virginie), who, if nothing else, would provide a youthful, feminine counterpart to our elderly, gruff and masculine presence. I am not sure how they felt with being lumbered with 3 guys who could have been their uncle, father, and grandfather. But we all seemed to get along so it worked out well in the end. Our guide was a Quechua with a lazy eye named Christian Castro (“soy el hijo de Fidel!” he joked) and we had a Quechuan whose name I never caught, who was our cook (and a fine one at that).
We finally got all our gear packed into the Land Cruiser and set off for our first stop just out of town – the Train Cemetery. This contains old rusting heaps of trains from the first era of train transportation in Bolivia, from the late 1800s. There we were allowed to clamber all over them (somewhat risky given all the sharp metal edges and rust) and I tried in vain to get some shots without other people in – which would become a recurring theme along this trip. As a lot of the 3-day trips followed roughly the same itinerary, at many points in this trip you would either arrive to find a dozen or more other Land Cruisers at the same spot, or they would be arriving imminently.
In any case it was back in the car and up the road for 20km or so, stopping to photograph a herd of llamas, and then onto the Salar de Uyuni itself. But hang on, first the obligatory stop at a town on the edge of the Salar to peruse the market there and visit the poxy salt museum therein. I think we were all fairly keen to get out onto the Salar itself and nobody was particularly in the mood to buy salt llamas, salt cholitas, or salt dioramas.
Finally we reached the edge of the Salar and drove onto its shimmering white surface. Thin pools of water here and there betrayed the start of the rainy season. But my fears from weeks ago, that my visit would be too late and that we would be forced to skirt round the edges of the salt lakes as they would have filled in by now, were totally unfounded. The Salar was still totally navigable in mid January, happily.
As we drove out onto the blinding salt, we saw a few campesinos here and there harvesting salt from the surface and piling it up for later collection.
We stopped the car and got out to take pictures of these salt mounds floating eerily above millimetre-thin pools of water. Instantly I knew the tour was already worth it for me.
We carried on into the Salar, and as we got further into it, we made the obligatory stop at the salt hotel, built out of (you guessed it) blocks of salt. All the furnishings, tables, beds etc were made from blocks of salt. Well I imagine they were, anyway, as you had to pay to go in and look, and that was a ripoff too far for me. I was happy to stay outside and marvel at the signs on every exterior wall reading “please don’t piss here” – I suppose for reasons of structural integrity.
We remounted the jeep and sallied forth deep into the Salar. Soon we were far enough away from all reference points that distance became relative and all horizons became mirages, reflecting the faraway islands and mountains in mirror images.
Soon we came to the Isla Pescado, which in the proper wet season is an actual island, but in the dry season is a hill jutting abruptly out of the salt bed. Covered with cactii and their attendant bird life, it is a marvellous little interruption in the otherworldly journey through the salt.
While we clambered, breathless at altitude, to the top of the hill, our guide and cook set up a lunch table in proper style (table cloths and proper plates and cups) and we chowed down with smug smiles on our face.
Later we wandered out onto the salt lake for our obligatory “crazy photos” using the forced-perspective possibilities offered by an unbroken white surface stretching for miles in every direction. Much fun was to be had photographing people fighting with toy lizards 1/10th their size, or appearing to spring out of Pringles cans, or standing on each others’ heads. What nobody told us beforehand though was that the surface of the salt was not exactly bone-dry, and a recent rain meant that sitting or lying on the surface left a healthy coating of damp salt on every affected body part.
Soon it was time to remount the jeep and head off South again, exiting the Salar, but not before a fun interlude at the southern edge where we sailed through millimetre-thin water, giving us a small taste of what it would have been like in the proper wet season. I wasted no time sticking my head up through the sunroof.
We left the Salar and joined one of the dirt roads running along the periphery of the lake, occasionally having to dodge trucks or other jeeps coming the other way. After a while we left the Salar entirely and headed south into the foothills, finally coming to a small village called San Juan, where we were to overnight in a very basic alojamiento (basic bed, one light bulb on a wire, 5 Bolivianos to have a shower in a concrete square). It is a testament to our era that the first thing many people did upon entering is enquire after electrical sockets to charge camera batteries and iPhones. I had charged all my gear and spare batteries before leaving, so I was OK for the duration of the trip.
While the cook was preparing our dinner, Snr Castro suggested we go and have a look at “the caverns”, saying something about Inca ruins, and vaguely pointed out the direction for us to walk, pointing at some faraway hills. He neglected to join us, and so of course we set off in a slightly wonky direction, walking through a large herd of llamas and generally getting a bit lost. We did find a big rock, but nothing suggesting caverns. We turned back at a tangent and eventually came across a rock wall surrounding some oddly shaped volcanic rock formations, almost like eggs standing upright. We climbed over the wall, increasingly sure this had something to do with the “caverns” and the Incas. We were also reasonably sure that this looked like something we should be paying to enter. But we were feeling adventurous and cheeky. And also slightly cynical. The “eggs” were meant to be Inca burial chambers, but the bones inside could not have been more than 50 years old. Inca, my arse. One of the skulls was wearing a hat, for Christ’s sake.
Ken was so nonplussed by this that he climbed inside one of the crypts and held up one of the thigh bones for a photo, which everyone else thought was a bit much. But he expunged his guilt, and a possible Inca curse, by being the only one to pay the entry fee on the way out. The rest of us just strode out, unwilling to pay 10 Bolivianos for something which was so clearly a tourist rip-off put into place simply due to San Juan being a stop-off point for the Salar tours.
All was well though, because there was a spectacular sunset to be had on the way back.
Afterwards we had our dinner (lasagna, pretty decent except for the everpresent foul Bolivian cheese) and Peter, myself, and the Swiss girls decided to walk into the village as we were convinced we had seen a bar on the way in. However, the town was in utter pitch black darkness, we could quite easily have gotten very lost, and there was nary a person, dog, or bar to be seen anywhere. We found the one open grocery store, bought some beer, and headed back. We were the last ones up at 9:30PM.
Day 2 – The Lagunas
It was up earlyish (7AM) to get a head start on visiting the Lagunas, but first off was a quick stop to get a view of the volcano Ollague, looming in the horizon. The volcanoes and rock formations were to dominate the rest of the trip, and every time we turned a corner a new otherworldly scene would take our breath away.
We headed ever south, visiting the Laguna Cañapa, Laguna Hedionda, Laguna Chiarcota, and the Laguna Honda. Each lake had a slightly different setting, but all were surrounded by lush mountain scenery, and all contained a unique brew of volcanic minerals that gave each a certain sheen or colour, and attracted all manner of birdlife and other fauna, with thousands of flamengos feeding and frolicking on each lake, and llamas surrounding a couple of the lakes. I took advantage of my waterproof boots and was able to get up close and personal with some of the flamengos, though I am not sure they were that happy about it. This was a spectacular day, and every time we got out of the car there was a fresh intake of breath.
After lunch at one of the lakes (Honda, I think), we set off into the Desierto de Siloli, where we stopped momentarily to admire the Wolf’s Mouth, a rock formation in the surrounding foothills. We continued on to another cluster of volcanic rocks jutting out of the desert floor, amongst them the famous Arbol de Piedra, or Rock Tree. This is a free standing rock formation with a tiny base and a large top. My guidebook says it is in danger of imminent collapse and should not be touched, let alone climbed upon. However, some prick Argentinean teenagers were doing just that, attempting to climb on it, throwing reasonable sized stones at it, and generally hanging about and spoiling other peoples photos. So I told them to piss off, and felt very smug. The old problem of dozens of jeeps showing up at the same time reared its head again though, and it was very difficult trying to get a shot of the thing without people in the way. I ended up spending more time wandering off by myself in the other rocks. We continued south, through ever more impressive scenery.
Our last lake of the day was the biggest and in some ways the most famous – the Laguna Colorado, or Coloured Lake. But before we got there we had to face down the rangers at the park entrance, who were in danger of being overrun by an angry mob of gringos and tour guides, incensed at the recent price hike for the park entrance. Prior to January 1st it had been 30 Bolivianos. However the new year saw a new price – a 5x increase to 150 Bolivianos. There was a tense standoff, when everyone was ejected from the park office while the rangers went into closed conference. A half hour later the chief emerged and said that he had been on the radio with La Paz and that he was authorised – for one day only – to charge 30 Bolivianos again. Applause all round.
We finally got to the lake shore and I must admit to a bit of lake fatigue, as I didn’t find it all that impressive. However there was much fun to be had down on the proper shore, as there were several families of llama grazing, and some young or newborn llamas were cavorting around, generally being cute. Of course, that was until the same dickhead Argentinean teenagers showed up and started hurling rocks in the vicinity of the llamas, scaring them. Once again, I told them to piss off, and once again, I felt smug.
Well, I felt smug until we headed up to our lodging for the night, an alojamiento complex even more basic than the last, with apparently no running water, non-functional toilets, and a big six-bed room for all of us. Fantastic. Ken was in a bad way too, as a wobbly dental bridge was coming loose in his mouth, and he opted out of the rest of the evening. We were sharing our building with one other tour group from Oasis, and then a large, maybe 15-person Japanese tour group down the hall. The Japanese were not holding up well in the altitude (we were generally between 4000m-4500m all day) and several of them looked distinctly ropey. We wondered if they had flown in directly and not had time to acclimatize. We had a dinner of pique macho and 3 bottles of red wine between 5, not to mention the surprise addition of mulled wine from the cook as a little bit of a last night treat. While we were winding down our evening, the Japanese were not getting any better, with one little teenage boy in a really bad way, being massaged by their group medic. I offered them some of my Sorojchi altitude pills (they are bloody life savers) and suggested to the medic that the boy really ought to be taken down to a lower altitude. But the medic simply replied, “No, he has to go up tomorrow”. I must admit this was a surprising response from someone in charge of the group’s health.
Day 3 – Hot springs, Salvador Dali, Chilean border, and return to Uyuni
Day 3 started dark and early at 4AM. I had had a bad sleep and was awake anyway, so I was out in the freezing dark helping the cook and the guide stow the gear on the jeep while the others packed and dressed. We were on the road by 4:40 or so and I marvelled at the guide’s ability to pick the right dirt track out of dozens as we crested sand dune after sand dune and made seemingly random turns in the middle of the desert, in pitch darkness.
We came to a set of volcanic steam vents and geysers, and, still in darkness, ventured into the cold to muck around with the geysers a bit. I had seen pictures in the brochure, so I walked right up to the main geyser and stuck my hand into it, which elicited a shock from the Swiss girls, who didn’t know better and were expecting me to come away with a stump where my hand had been.
As dawn approached, we made our way to the Aguas Termales, where we were offered the chance to bathe in a hot spring and watch the sun come up. To be brutally honest, the little pool they had set up by the edge of the lake did not look that inviting, and I much preferred to keep shooting pictures of the fumes and gases coming off the lake proper as the sun rose. I had a grand time walking out into the lake, but I broke through the mineral crust into the chemical ooze a couple of times and I am sure that at some point in the future my boots will actually just up and disintegrate. Soon enough the jeep invasion arrived and the hot spring pool was full of cavorting South Americans, some of whom didn’t look terribly bad in bikinis. A quick breakfast in the lodge and then it was back in the jeep and South again, towards the Chilean border.
First off though was a ride through the Desierto Salvador Dali, so named for the strange rock formations found in its valley, then on to the final lake of the trip, the Laguna Verde, where we hopped out for a final photo opp. Once again, there was otherworldly grandeur in every direction, though to a degree we were suffering from awe fatigue.
The time had come for one of us to part ways – Peter was continuing on to Chile via the border crossing at Hito Cajones. This is a pretty amusing little frontier crossing, it being two buildings and two bar gates smack in the middle of a desert pass, with miles of open ground on either side. Not exactly lock tight security, but I guess it would be hard to sneak by without somebody noticing. We left Peter to wait for the bus that would take him into Chile.
We started heading North again, and covered a lot of the same ground, until veering to the East towards the Valle de Rocas, another random volcanic rock formation sprouting out of the desert floor.
It was off then through some mountain passes (encountering a lost motorcyclist along the way) to the Villa Alota for lunch, where we were able to wander off for a bit through the valley-floor oasis of a stream with peat bog around it, upon which yet more llamas were grazing. Randomly, on a rock outcropping above the town was a tail section of a small Bolivian Air Force plane.
From lunch onwards was a relatively uneventful trek back through the desert back to Uyuni. The weather was kicking up a bit, and we saw many dust devils, as well as one mini-tornado (a funnel actually coming from the cloud above).
We stopped at a little shithole town called San Cristobal, I think just so Snr Castro could take a break from driving, and the only positive I got from it was this photo of a little kid who was actually riding along in one of the other tour groups’ jeep.
The last stretch of road before Uyuni took a bit longer than it should have, mostly due to the gigantic dust storm and mini-tornado we had to dodge along the way. We were going to drive right into it, but it got a bit hairy, as you can see from this video.
Once the worst of it passed, we headed back to Uyuni through the choking dust, and emerged out of the other side to see the leading edge of the storm pointed straight at Uyuni.
Once back in town, we tipped the guide and the cook, collected our stuff, and Ken and I said goodbye to the girls. Then it was off to catch the bus to La Paz.
I was truly blown away by everything we saw on this trip – it was an out-of-this-world experience and I cannot recommend a tour of southwest Bolivia highly enough.