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Excerpt from the Journal of Olds – Day 368-370 – Bolivia – Salt Flats Tour

After breakfast we wandered out to join the coordinated chaos and hop in the obligatory Toyota Landcruiser – our chariot for the coming days. We met fellow tourists Pierre (Pedro) and Agathe from Paris and hit it off immediately down in no small part to our shared love of great music. Our driver and effectively our tour guide was a Bolivian chap by the name of Elvis and our ride-along cook was his mother Nancy. We departed at the same time as Brittany, Morgan, Nathan, Megan, Sebastian, & Stephanie as well as Emily & David who we’d briefly met in Sucre though they were with Tupiza tours rather than our provider La Torre.

Our photos will tell the story far better than any journal entries but over the first day we saw a mix of ever photogenic llamas, wild rock formations & abandoned ruins before pulling in to a compound with ample blankets, reasonable beds and facilities to sleep off the first day’s journey – all this fuelled by consistently awesome food from Nancy our Bolivian mother. It is worth pointing out that I was truly in my element throughout – the landscape is unlike anything I’ve seen before or since and everything just felt epic.

A 6am start for a quick breakfast and clean-up preceded a 7:30 hitting of the road where it was on to a llama farm with the cutest puppies you’ve ever seen and lots of posing llamas.

Llama quota complete. Actually that’s a foolish thing to say – you can never have too many llamas.

The next few stops saw us visiting a number of beautiful lakes, flamingo snapping from a distance, and just prior to lunch we were stripping down to our minimal’s despite the sub-zero locale only to drop into a naturally hot pool. Nancy whipped us up an awesome lunch in what was a crowded rest stop for tours heading in both directions before we hit the road again. It was on to an area of geo-thermal bubbling mud-pools and steam vents that made the New Zealand’ “Craters of the Moon” look even more pathetic than it already did. Something about the contrasting colours of ultra-deep blue sky and the reds, yellows, greys and greens of the landscape just seemed to make every view out of this world.

In a bid to secure good digs for the evening we made for an early check-in at another outpost before making a short jaunt over to the amazing Laguna Colorada.

Recipe:

–          Take one Blue Sky

–          Add a healthy portion of moon / Mars-like landscape

–          Take one [large] can of Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup and pour all over

–          Sprinkle with yellow moss, pink flamingos, green grass and an impending storm to taste.

That’s Laguna Colorada, though I assure you that you’ve got to see it to believe it. We snapped like crazy before ducking back to our digs before the storm.

As an aside, it appears that Bolivians are convinced that afternoon tea is an essential staple in the daily diet of the tourist. This works for me as a nice hot cup of tea mid afternoon every day no matter what you’re up to is a great diversion – it’s just a little bit of an odd custom to find in the middle of South America.

We pottered about and dined before hitting the sack in preparation for another early start the next day where it was up at 5:30 and out at 7 over to a petrified tree and lots of rock formations. The sky on the morning of the third day was vying for the deepest blue I’ve ever seen; truly jaw-dropping and anything set against it immediately looked amazing.

We maintained our daily flamingo intake across a series of lakes – these of a more traditional colour to the reds and greens of previous days. We were pressed for time but stopped for lunch at an impressive petrified lava field that was banked on all four sides by volcanoes. Thanks to the Olds-&-Fi-gonna-keep-taking-photos-till-you-drag-em-away promise we had a lot of driving to do to reach the much-vaunted Salt Hotel. This resulted in us having to push the van out of a minor ditch when a sharp corner went a little wrong (the slightest of nudges got the job done) but we made it in time to book in before the place filled up.

A lazy afternoon followed including a welcome shower along with cervezas [!] and wine before I found myself having to stay up later than everyone else to clear enough memory card space to be able to take pictures of Salar De Uyuni – our ultimate destination and the reason for a 4:30 am start the next day. I wandered outside to take a look at the stars over the Salt Flats before bed and was suitably impressed if too tired to pay attention for too long.

4:30am is a ridiculous hour to wake up but wake up we did and we were on the road around 5. Our first stop was for sunrise and we pulled over onto the flats and took snaps as light returned to this corner of the world. A ridiculous o’clock jump photo followed with our heroic partners in crime Pierre and Agathe.

We then drove to an island covered in cacti and took in the vastness of Salar De Uyuni from atop the climb. I think this is often considered to be a highlight of the whole tour but it really didn’t take me. After trotting around it for a while we returned to where all the tour Landcruisers were parked in a line and took breakfast – Nancy out did herself adding cake to the mix along with some cereal that would have Tony the Tiger on the phone to his lawyers.

A few rogue llamas provided a brief distraction before we were back on the road to a pristine area of the flats where we could take the crazy perspective photos that prove so popular out here. The basic premise is that with a white floor and a blue sky the ability to judge distances in 3 dimensions is severely hampered and can thus make for some entertaining image-tomfoolery. It would be very easy to write it off as cliché but it’s best just to get into the spirit and take more serious snaps alongside. We arsed about for ages trying all manner of different things a few of which worked and a lot that didn’t. We soon exhausted our ideas and did a jump photo with Elvis before hitting the road again.

Before I go on it’s worth pointing out that the Salar De Uyuni is one of if not the most otherworldly place I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. It’s hard to describe how it feels to be there but it’s mind-blowing. It’s a photographers dream and I hope I got the snaps to show just a little of its magic.

Nothing could top it and that meant that to all intents and purposes the tour was over. We stopped a little down to road to view a few Eyes of the Salar – holes in the salt exposing the high-concentration salt water underneath. Being crap at Spanish I hadn’t picked up on the high concentration bit and proceeded to dunk my face in the water for a photo that took an age to be taken.

What needs to be understood here is that I’d been out on a white surface for somewhere in the region of 3 to 4 hours now on a clear day with a blistering sun and no sun cream on. And I’d dunked my freshly roasted face in a pool of salt water that would make the average sea look like Evian Mineral Water.

It hurt.

A lot.

10 minutes later I had a white face as the residue dried on. Don’t try that at home kids.

We then rolled by a shop converted from an old salt hostel with the worst museum ever attached to it which you had to buy something in the shop to enter. As you can tell we did and we were out in under a minute. We passed a salt excavation site where we could have stopped but it looked pretty poor and nothing like as white as the earlier experience deep in the Salar so instead rolled over to a nearby village off the Salar to browse a market and eat our lunch  – the final meal of our tour. It was good as they all had been and we were joined by a cute puppy who actually looked like he could do with a feed. Before long we were back in the jeep and on our way the short distance to Uyuni. Elvis kindly [cough, cough…commission much?] swung us up to a place where we could buy tickets for La Paz. We duly did and then said our goodbyes to Nancy and Elvis whom we’d very much enjoyed our tour with.

After some complimentary tea we took off for a walk to see the train cemetery which is possibly the only thing of note to do in Uyuni. The fifteen minutes walk quoted in the Rough Guide was as much of a lie as the times quoted in said books always are – if they put 45 minute walk no-one would go. 45 minutes later we realised that no-one went anyway – we had the whole place to ourselves. It’s not a tourist attraction per say as much as a scrap metal dumping ground of old steam trains and damaged carriages. Stick that in the desert under an azure blue sky and you have photo heaven – it was post-apocalyptic wasteland under paradise sky.

After over an hour we realised we were out of water and should probably head back to town. Fi was starting to feel unwell too and so we hit the railroad back into Uyuni. We grabbed water at the first opportunity and sat on a bench in the shade outside a police station when the illness took hold of Fi and her lunch departed her, bound for the road side where a passing dog briefly considered the offering but thought better of it.

From there on in the afternoon went from bad to worse for Fi while we wandered Uyuni chatting to others from other tour groups that we’d met along the way and deciding eventually to visit the Extreme Fun Pub which was…quiet. Agathe, Pierre and I ordered food while Fi visited the bathroom time and again. The food was stunning and the beer was on happy hour so I enjoyed a splash.

It soon became clear that Fi and I would not be travelling to La Paz that evening and we nipped down the road to book in to a nice enough hotel for the night where I left Fi and returned to Pierre and Agathe. We went over to the ticket office and with their help got our two tickets changed for the following night for a small fee before they loaded me up with medicines for Fi and Pierre helped me back to the hotel with our entire luggage.

It was a wonderful combined journey cut short by cruel circumstance but if things went well we knew we could see them again on the trip. I returned to the hotel and set up to work on the photos for the evening while Fi went through hell.