Now that I look back on it, the way our trip to the salt flats in Bolivia began is actually quite funny. It was the last day of carnival and all of us had settled in on the bus for a 14 hour overnight journey to Uyuni where the tour of the salt flats begins. After half an hour or so of waiting we were informed that our driver would not be arriving as he was too intoxicated to walk, let alone drive a bus and that our trip may be canceled. We didn't have all that much time to spare so I was suitably irritated by this stage. In Bolivia bus companies must have two drivers for all long-distance trips so they can share the workload. The police check that this is being adhered too, but in our case, I think they turned a blind eye and hoped to god nothing went wrong.
There had been a fair amount of rain and the journey was set to take 14 hours rather than the usual 10-12 due to the state of the roads. We rattled over unsealed roads all night and as the sun rose I peaked out the window. We had stopped and I heard shouting from outside the bus. There were 3 or 4 buses that were close to tipping over, so badly bogged in the wet sand of the high desert. Our driver was discussing how to prevent us getting stuck too with other drivers who had run aground. Some great driving and hard revving eventually got us through the danger spot and over several creeks which had turned into rivers overnight.
Uyuni is an outpost town that has flourished due to its proximity to the salt flats. We found a breakfast of pancakes and coffee and dreamed of a hot shower, before jumping into our Landcruiser for what promised to be a spectacular adventure.
First stop was the train graveyard, a spot where old steam-trains came to die. There were about 20 of them and they were slowly crumbling in the salty soil. I was exceedingly glad that I had had my tetanus shot before I left! It wasn't long after this that we were gliding across bright white salt flats, with the brilliant midday sun reflecting off the hard surface. It is so bright that it is impossible to see without sunglasses and makes your eyes water in an instant. Gliding across the salt is a very surreal experience as often you will look around, unable to find the horizon. In parts, a thin layer of water sits on top of the salt and creates a reflection so perfect that your brain in unable to distinguish what is reflection and what is real. We stopped the driver at one stage and splashed out, barefoot onto the salt flat. The water is about an inch thick and had been warmed by the hot midday sun. It was so peaceful... all I could think of was that heaven must look like this. If I believed in heaven and I were to drive into it in a Landcruiser it would for sure be like this!
Fish Island eventually rose up on the horizon; a large craggy outcrop in the middle of the virgin white salt. It was covered in giant cacti that stood as much as 3 or so stories high. It was an other-worldly landscape and quite unlike anything I had ever seen before. Emu-like birds roamed around looking for scraps of food from tourists. It is difficult to believe that any form of life could exist in this barren and harsh environment.
Our accommodation for the night was in a small village, built entirely from adobe bricks. As soon as the sun disappeared over the horizon, we fell into bed, sunburnt and exhausted. We woke to another stunning day and set off in search of Flamingos that spent their days dredging through high, sulfurous lakes. About half an hour into our journey, our driver made a bad decision and we ended up, nearly on our side, bogged in a huge puddle of water. We all scrambled out of the car and surveyed the damage... it didn't look good. If it hadn't of been for the fact that we had wildly signalled for the other FWD groups to come and help us, we would probably still be there! After much heated talking and an attempt to pull the car out with manpower (!!) the car was finally towed out to safety. When we opened the doors, water poured out but at least we had escaped spending the night out in the desert.
The lakes did not disappoint. There were hundreds of Flamingos, lazily wading around the shallow lakes. The scenery was spectacular and the wind whistled through the high passes. The Laguna Colorada glowed red in the fading light of the afternoon and we eventually reached our next sleeping place. This was even more isolated and temperatures there have been known to drop as low at -40 degrees later in the year. A local lady was bottle-feeding a baby alpaca, which wandered in an out of our rooms and snuggled into passing tourists for warmth. It was amazing to see where people manage to make a life for themselves. This was about as isolated as it get, bitterly cold and situated at about 4300 meters above sea level.
We rose at 4am the next day on the promise of some hot springs as the sun rose. There is a great deal of volcanic activity in the area and geysers puff steam into the cold mountain air. The warmth of the hot spring was bliss and I wondered if I would ever again sit in warm water, watching the sun rise with Flamingos wandering through the hazy morning light.
There is so much more to day about this incredible experience in a country that is still very raw and fairly intouched by tourism. It is challenging but incredibly rewarding for those brave enough to tackle the altitude (Bolivia lays claim to the highest everything), the harsh climate and the testing way of life. After the salt flats you can cross into Chile from an outpost border crossing and lay in a hammock to recover for a few days in the charming town of San Pedro De Atacama. This really is an experience not to be missed!
We are now in Buenos Aires, having missed the quake in Santiago by 4 hours. Excited about heading down to Patagonia, with our new and fantastic Intrepid group! They really are a great and fun group of people.
We will be in touch.
Em and Stu xoxo