March 8, 2006

Onwards to Uyuni

Getting to Uyuni
Another long uncomfortable bus journey to contend with from Potosi through the Bolivian desert to Uyuni. Shortly after leaving Potosi, the bus stopped outside a penetenciary, which aroused the interest of everyone on the bus. Tourists and locals alike gaped in amazement as six guards with guns boarded the bus. A prisoner was handcuffed to one of the guards, while the others carried another guy who had been drugged especially for the long journey. They all went to the back of the bus with everyone staring open-mouthed!! Only in South America would convicts be transported on a public bus!!
The journey was not hugely interesting as the landscape did not vary at all. When we finally came into sight of the Salar after hours of desert and cactii, it was like seeing the ocean. Uyuni is a very strange little town, very flat, but I sort of liked it and Im not sure why. Maybe it was because the carnival was finally over and we could actually walk around again without getting soaked!
Later that night, after successfully booking our tour of the Salar and the desert, we made our way to the Minuteman , a restaurant which is highly recommended in all the guide books. It is run by an American who is married to a Bolivian, and there I had some of the best pizza Ive ever had! We met a huge group of backpackers and it turned into a great night. We ended up ina little pavillion in the centre of the town listening to two of the guys playing guitar - one of the best nights out Ive had so far.
Salar de Uyuni
The next morning, two 4WD jeeps set off from Uyuni (way later than scheduled but no-one really minded. Things move at a snails pace here! You just have to accept it). Our first stop was the Salar and it is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen - A huge expanse of white salt which stretched for over 12,000km and can be seen from space. Everyone went kind of nuts taking all sorts of crazy pictures. For me, it seemed like a little piece of heaven after the gloom and hellishness of the Potosi mines. Our guides cooked lunch there and we ate a little tables set out on the white salt. The food throughout the tour was great - that day we had llama steaks (which taste like a cross between pork and lamb), salad, and quinua (which is a locak type of grain..not dissimilar to rice). We spent quite a long time at the Salt Hotel (yes, the hotel is constructed entirely from salt!) and stopped along the flats to take various photos. Unfortunately, we had to miss what is a regular part of the tour because at this time of the year huge holes form in the salt, making driving in certain parts of the salar dangerous. So, instead of visiting an island of interest on the salar, we drive back to Uyuni for a short time and some munchies, before heading off again into the desert altiplano to our hospedaje for the night. We also stopped at an abandoned train yard, and I was in heaven taking shots of all the weird defunct machinery - I love that stuff! We drove for hours off road, all of us bouncing around the jeep - I spent about 2 hrs mesmerized watching a lightning storm happening right beside us. Huge bolts of fork lightning hit the desert on the left of the jeep causing sand to rise into the air, and thunder boomed at us as we sped away from the storm. Spent that evening playing cards at the hospedaje and everyone got an early night as had an early start the next morning.
Desolation and Flamingos
The next morning, we rose to heat at 8:30 in the morning. We drove at a height of almost 5000m across the desert altiplano. This is one of the most desolate parts of the world I imagine and it felt as if you were thousands of miles from civilisation. Along the way, we stopped to see some amazing rock formations - the rocks have assumed the strangest shapes from constant battering by the high winds. Again, got some great photos. This day also involved hours of driving. At lunch, we stopped by a lagoon full of beautiful pink flamingos. We passed an active volcano, whose name I forget now, and we drove along a multicoloured lake...which goes red in the evening due to algae disturbance. The long hours in the jeep were punctuated with many stops to get out and just take in the beauty of it all. Our hospedaje for the second night was more basic, but by now everyone was used to roughing it and we thought it was the Ritz! Again, the food was outstanding and after more crazy card-playing everyone crashed early.
Geysers, Boiling Lava and Thermal Baths
On the third morning, we all froze the minute we got up out of bed. I havent experienced this kind of cold since Killington! Layers of clothes were donned and we all huddled together in the jeeps as we set off at 5am to the geysers. The minute we got there, however, it was easy to forget about the temperature. I cant do justice to the scene really, but Ill try. (The pictures say it all). As the sun rose over the horizon, we saw huge jets of steam gushing into the cold morning air. Getting a good shot was really difficult. A few yards further on, we came across huge craters full of boiling mud - it was actually boiling and gurgling and spurting right ther in front of us, and the heat coming from the holes was enough to keep us all there until the sun came up. When we´d been sufficiently amazed by that, we hopped back in the jeeps which took us to the nearby thermal baths. When everyone had soaked for about an hour in the 30 degree heat in the company of the flamingos, we had breakfast sitting by the lagoon. An amazing setting - something that will be hard to forget.
After breakfast, our guides drove us to the Bolivian/Chilean border where those of us heading to Chile boarded a minibus. We said goodbye to the rest of our group and to Bolivia. In the space of one hour we dropped from an altitude of 5000m to 2400m and from bone-chilling cold to the searing heat of the Atacama desert. The layers were quickly shed!!
A restless hour was passed in line at Chilean border control as we waited to have our packpacks searched. The Chileans are VERY strict and thorough, althoguh the officer who opened my backpack took one look at the chaos within and grinned at me. He did a cursory search and let me go with a big wink!

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