After a very bumpy, rocky, no-legroom bus journey, Uyuni greeted us with unfriendly people and lots of full hostels. After an hour or two of searching we eventually found somewhere, which left a lot to be desired, but at the same time, it had beds and toilets so it would suffice for the night. I’m not the fussiest of folk when it comes somewhere to sleep but travelling in a larger group means being a little more considerate and I’ve also spent a few months discovering that Ed is one of the leading experts in the bed bug field.
After the hostel had passed the rigorous tests, the remainder of the day was spent shopping around for a tour which we would be on for the next three days. We also coincidentally bumped into Adam, Patrick and Colleen again, although this time, it really was for the last time (at least on this continent). After finishing our tour negotiations we found ourselves a decent deal and celebrated with drinks at the ‘Extreme Fun Pub’. It was indeed fun to the extreme and the night culminated with the best pizza I’d had in South America, let alone in Bolivia.
For the tour, as well as the five of us (Katrin, Kate, Andy, Ed and I) we were joined by Erica from Argentina and Rodolpho from Brazil. It was nice to get a bit more Spanish practice in although after hearing Portuguese for more or less the first time, it hit home that it wasn’t actually that similar to Spanish, at least not similar enough for us to understand it anyway. They were both good people though and the only person that let us down on the trip was our tour guide who had clearly had a charisma bypass. From the moment we started, he was continuously in a hurry, he quickly earned the nickname ‘Vamos’, which means ‘we go’ and I don’t think it was a coincidence that the only English he knew was ‘Come on’. Still, it would take more than a miserable git to ruin this tour.
First stop in the jeep was a train ‘graveyard’. Lots of abandoned trains which was interesting but I think the amount of enjoyment you get from this is proportional to how much you like trains. Ed had a lot of fun…Next stop was a brief one in an old village which was really more of a rundown town with lots of market stalls selling tourist items. We didn’t stop here long (one of the occasions we were happy to be ushered back into the jeep by good old Vamos) and we soon made our way out on to the salt flats. Like so many of the places I’ve visited over the last few months it was pretty much indescribable. All I can really say is this was the most unique place I’ve visited on the trip. Miles and miles of whiteness, hexagonal shaped salt patterns on the ground, water randomly bubbling up through the salty floor in areas which seemed desperately dry and other cars in the distance appearing to float as the reflecting light played tricks on our eyes. As we stopped for lunch we attempted the obligatory photos of making small things seem big, big things seem small etc. Unfortunately none of us were particularly good at setting it up and Vamos was nowhere to be seen when it came to lending a helping hand. It rubbed salt in the wound (no pun intended) when another group later that night recalled how their guide was running around trying to get the perfect photo for them.
After a lunch prepared with love by Vamos we continued to Incahuasi Island. Impossibly, this was perhaps more surreal than our destination for lunch, an oasis like ‘island’ which appeared out of nowhere on the sand. There were cacti galore and instead of rocks, it was actually coral which looked just like that you would find at the bottom of an ocean. I’m told, by Andy, who gave us far more information than our guide, that Lake Titicaca used to be many times bigger and when the shores of the lake retreated, the salt flats were left behind. After we had been set our time limit we took off to explore the island which gave us more incredible views. The altitude was very noticeable up here with even walking up a small hill really taking it out of us all. Vamos later told us that we were at 4,800 metres though the credibility of this was questionable as we spent the majority of the following day ascending only to be given the answer that we were now at 4,800 metres.
The final pit stop before arriving at our salt hotel for the night was beautiful, an area where there was a thin layer of water above the salt. It was shallow enough to walk on and gave crystal clear reflections for as far as we could see. Pit stop would be the best way to describe this though as within minutes we were being herded back into the car with a time Sebastian Vettel would have been pleased with. The reason for this was apparently that we didn’t have a reservation for the night and needed to beat all the other tours to the hotels! Fortunately, there was room in the inn for us that night and we stayed in a building which was indeed made from salt.
After a less than hearty breakfast the next morning we left the salt flats and passed through fields of quinoa before entering a more desert like landscape. We were on our way into the Atacama Desert which I had no idea was included in the tour. It was and probably still is on my to-do list for Chile but to be in this moonscape, barren environment was amazing. We witnessed a vent on a volcano with steam billowing out, frolicked on big rocks and saw countless wild llamas and a few ostriches along the way. As we approached lunchtime we passed the first of the lakes we were to see, complete with many flamingos, another animal I can’t recall seeing before. In the foreground we had the dry red desert, followed by crystal clear lakes with some remarkable wildlife and towering mountains in the background. In fairness to Vamos, he chose a great location for lunch, I’m not sure if it was because it was away from everybody else, he clearly didn’t like people, but we had the best and most peaceful view and were joined by more friendly wildlife.
The afternoon involved passing more lakes and amazing rock formations. I’m really not doing the trip justice, it was incredible, but writing about it a day after would be difficult, a month down the line it’s more or less impossible. As we arrived at our destination for the night, we were around 5000m above sea level and had another lake view. This time, it was a red one, there was salt blowing through the air, the ground was a combination of whites, greens and blues and once again this place surpassed anywhere else as the most surreal environment I have ever been to. As night fell, we retreated to relative warmth, drank, played cards and enjoyed the incredible night sky. A lesson learnt for this South America trip is that I should have brought a tripod for my camera, no matter how steady my hand is, or whatever contraption I manage to build, I always seem to finish with blurry photos of the starry skies. I think everybody had a difficult night’s sleep, maybe it was the altitude, or something else, who knows, but our 4am wake up was a challenging one.
Despite the restless night of sleep Vamos had us up and in the jeep before dawn next morning as we were off to witness some geysers. We were told sunrise was the best time to see them and as other tour groups had been told the same, we trusted that our guide wasn’t just hoping to get home for an early dinner. Either way, I’m glad we left when we did as these things were incredible. Jets of hot steam shooting into the sky, the noise, smell and view were once again all new experiences and despite Vamos’ cooking taking a very negative effect on me, I enjoyed it all immensely. From there we were driven to a hot thermal bath, at 5000m the temperature was amazing and it was especially great after nearly three days of desert without any of us washing. I was too ill/lazy to take any photos at this point unfortunately. A dodgy stomach at high altitude definitely seemed worse than low altitude dodgy stomach… The majority of the day was spent in the jeep as we returned back to Uyuni. We stopped at Laguna Verde (Green Lake) which wasn’t green at the time. Still, it was one of the finest views I’ve ever had while using nature’s toilet so it wasn’t a complete fail.
Again, Vamos outdid himself with our lunch location and even seemed slightly more cheerful on the final day, at one point he even offered to bring me a drink of coke. The cynic in me thought it was because it was the day where any tip would be given. I spent the day in the jeep feeling sorry for myself and after being subjected to Vamos’ food for the last three days, I was only going to blame him. You may be surprised to hear, he didn’t earn much of a tip at the end of the tour. I honestly don’t understand how anybody could be so miserable when their job is driving a fun group of people around in a jeep in one of the most amazing places on the planet. Despite the guide and my dodgy stomach it was an absolutely incredible trip and some of the views there, I hope to never forget. As the tour ended we said our goodbye’s to Erica and Rodolpho and also to another member of the wolf pack. This time Katrin was leaving us to return to La Paz. For a German, she wasn’t the most organised and had managed to lose her passport as well as some other items over the last few days. She had to return to get a new one from the German embassy and although our paths may cross further down the line, it might well be the last time we see her.
Ed and I, along with Kate and Andy took buses to Potosi, a city only a few hours away and infamous for its mines. It was good to have a non-salty and comfortable hostel and we enjoyed returning to relative civilisation. As we recovered from illnesses we did manage to drag ourselves out of bed, firstly to watch England destroy the Italian’s on the last day of the Six Nations and secondly to take a tour of the mines. They were originally silver mines here although now it is tin that is the main output. Unbelievably, there are over 15,000 workers in the mines and as we witnessed the conditions, despite hearing stories before from others, it was particularly shocking at how things worked.
Although it was a Saturday, there were some workers of a similar age to me, most who had been at it for 5 years at least. We were close for a particular explosion which was supposed to be 8 pieces of dynamite. There were very clearly six separate explosions and the workers confirmed this, telling us where would be two more. To our horror, after less than a minute of waiting for the final two with no success, they went to investigate. I couldn’t believe this, especially as most of the miners know people who have died or been seriously injured down here. At some point I will load a video of this episode (mind the language) to give you a better idea.
The mine tour was eye opening, shocking but actually very interesting. It was also completely unsafe and although I would recommend it to most, it definitely wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. People are killed working in the mines regularly and although, to this date, no tourists have died, I think it’s only a matter of time until something happens, our tour guide actually agreed with us on this. I really hope we’re wrong. We didn’t have a huge amount of time left in Bolivia as we only had a thirty day visa so it was time to move on although we could have stayed longer relaxing in comfort at our hostel in Potosi. Instead, we caught another reasonably short bus along with Kate and Andy to Sucre, the capital, the old capital, the political capital…I’ll explain in the next post.