Fred's world tour
Week 7 – Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
10th until the 16th of November 2012
Cross the Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia.
Stay in a hostel built entirely out of salt.
Be amazed by the landscapes, fauna and altiplanic lagoons of south west Bolivia.
Walk around a Geyser field in the early hours.
Dip in a natural thermal bath at 4,000metres
Learn about the night skies with an astronomer and use the £30,000 telescopes.
Suffer for two nights while hundreds of bedbugs feast on me!
Crawl through the salt caves of “Valle de la luna” created by water thousands of years ago.
Attempt to summit my first ever 6,000 metre mountain but instead end up by pushing a stranded car for hours and treating our mountain guide for altitude sickness.
This week starts with a leisurely 6hour bus from Potosi through the vast expanse landscapes of south west Bolivia en route to Uyuni. With beautiful deserts, mountains, rock formations and wild vicunias (the more graceful type of llama) I'm glad I did this journey during the day. Uyuni is the starting point for most 4x4 car tours of the surrounding salt flats, mountains, lagoons and geysers. On arrival I had the mission of finding a three day tour starting tomorrow. With over 500 agencies selling apparently the same route but with varying levels of quality I had my work cut out. On my first stop I bumped into Chris, also a lone traveller from England, looking for the same thing. Then after talking to the first operator together I turned round to find Miriam and Eric the two Dutch couple on an eight month honeymoon trip that I got to know on the death road bike ride in La Paz. They were also looking for the same trip! What a coincidence. In the end we all found one operator that we liked the sound of but of course you never know with these things. Most of the time they just say things you want to hear and later once the tour has started you find out the little fibs they were telling. For only £75 we were all set to go on a 4x4 Toyota Land cruiser three day, two night tour of Bolivia's desolate south west. The morning of the tour we were joined by two girls from London, Julia and Dawn. Our first stop was the train graveyard. A place were mainly steam locomotives were sent to die. Due to the low humidity levels here the steel is really well preserved and some had even been converted into swings to form an eerie playground.
With cameras at the ready we headed off to the edge of the Uyuni salt flat to where they mine or collect salt. Just below the surface there is 'wet' salt so they scrape away the top layer into a pile and allow it to dry fully before collecting it in big trucks for processing.
From there we drove straight into the middle of the flat on what looked like an endless trail into the white distance. Half way to the centre of the flat we stopped to walk around the pristine white salt flat. The first thing you notice is the salt is shaped into hexagonal 'tiles' measuring around half a metre across. They form after crystallising in this way during the evaporation of surface water. Each made with incredible precision only mother nature could create such a spectacle.
Naturally this iconic landscape called for us to take some silly pictures. Some worked better than others. :-) you wouldn't thing it was that hard to co-ordinate 6 people to jump at the same time to take a mid-air picture.... well let me tell you, its pretty hard. Then came lunch. It was the most amazing lunch comprising of a thin T-bone stake, quinoa and boiled vegetables. It was really unexpected and was a perfect compliment to the amazing backdrop.
The next stop was 'Osla del pescador' also known as 'Isla Incahuasi' an island in the middle of the salt plain with huge Tritroreous cactus dominating the mound of rock. It looks so out of place that again, only mother nature could have conjured this up. What was also strange is that despite the strong beating sun, the arid air, the desert vegetation and the fact that its mid-day, the temperature is surprisingly mild due to the altitude. Which is actually quite nice.
From there we went due south to the salt hotel where everything from the tables and chairs to the chandeliers were made out of salt. I've never stayed in a salt hostel before. The floor was simply large granules of salt like a sandy beach indoors, brilliant! As we were just a short drive back onto to the salt flat we ventured back out again just in time for sunset. With more moisture the salt flat here has a different texture to the flat hexagons. Very knobbly and actually sounds like broken glass every time you take a step. Dinner was again surprisingly great and after a long day we hit the salt early (get it??). Its tiring having so much fun with great people! :-)
The next morning was an early start to make it across the vast expanses of desert terrain, winding round active volcanoes and stopping at idyllic altiplanic lagoons. Each lagoon different in colour due to the algae and minerals. Flocks of flamingoes... well... flock to feast on the salty water delicacies. We also stopped at the world famous 'arbol de la piedra' which is a rock that looks like a tree and that's it... however its strangely very appealing. It was also in an area full of rock formations that just called to be climbed. Like children in a playground we did just that. The end of the day finished next to 'La laguna colorada' where we would spend the night in a dingy hostel. With a 5am departure we didn't stay up to late. The reason for the early start was to catch the geysers during sunrise when the cool air would amplify the sulphurous steam coming out of the ground providing a marvellous spectacle. The geyser field was shaped by boiling mud-pools and sulphurous fumaroles. The lonely planet warned about not getting to close to these because the slippery mud and slope could result in you falling into the geysers. I thought to myself that no-one would be so stupid to do that and lo and behold a Korean chap wanted to get an up-close photo and started slipping into a fumarole! Luckily he managed to get some grip and get himself out of trouble.
The next stop was a natural hot springs of Polques supplied by a constant flow of 30 degree water oozing from the ground. Although it was the stop where every single tourist stopped and got it. After two days of not showering we didn't care too much and soaked in this thermal hot-tub at 4,200 metres above sea level. The shimmering reflection of the morning sun on the lake next to it made it hard to imagine being anywhere else in the world right at that moment. As the water fed straight into the lake it was completely forbidden to use soaps, detergents etc... which is why to my surprise I saw three of the tour drivers taking a dip in a different thermal pool using shower gels and shampoo. I chatted to them asking them why rules were different for them than for tourists and why they didn't really care about the fauna or flora of the area that actually form their livelihood. Their reply was simply that I should 'F*** off gringo, we can do what we want in our country'. Charming chaps really!
Once back in the Jeeps we headed to some altiplanic lagoons including the 'laguna verde' (green lagoon) that is not so verde because the change in the algae this year! This didn't detract from anything as it still gave a glistening reflection of the volvan Licancabur 5,930m. This was also the last stop and made for a perfect goodbye to Bolivia as we approached the Bolivian-Chile boarder en route to San Pedro de Atacama.
Chris, Miriam, Eric and I had got to know each other well for the last three days so we all went to the same cheap hostel and then signed up to the stargazing tour together. This took place at a French astronomer’s property who moved here a long time ago due to the perfect stargazing climate of dry air, barely any clouds year-round and the low light pollution. On the tour, we spent an hour learning about the southern hemisphere's glorious night sky, the constellations and some history behind the names. For the second hour we got the chance to look through some very expensive £30,000 telescopes at different stars, planets and galaxies. We also got to see plenty of shooting stars. The average here is ten per hour but I saw almost twenty. Did you know that a fragment the size of a grain of rice can cause a shooting star effect?!
The next morning proved to be the low point of my holiday so far... I realised I hadn't had the best night sleep what I didn't know was why until I looked at my arms and in the mirror. I was covered in bed bug bites!! I showed the hostel owner and he said that it could not have been from the beds because its been recently fumigated and its more likely to be mosquitoes from the stargazing. I didn't feel any mosquitoes bite me last night but I gave him the benefit of the doubt nevertheless. After a fairly relaxing day recovering from the Uyuni tour we got an early night. That's were it all went wrong. It gave the bed bugs plenty of time to attack again despite me being in a different bed. I couldn't sleep because of the itching. It was simply horrible. In the morning I was 100x times worse. The cleaner looked under the mattresses and found hundred of 'chinches', as they call them, with plenty more eggs waiting to hatch after the mothers feasted on me! Suffice to say I decided to change hostels, put all my clothes in plastic bags and take them to the laundry to be washed at high temperature. The owner of the hostel had the cheek of offering me mosquito repellent to spray on me for the following night. “No thanks” I said and off I went to a different hostel.
The bedbug bites sure did itch but I wasn't about to let that dampen my spirits so I booked myself on to a tour of the valle de la muerte (death valley) and Valle de la Luna (moon valley) which included a walk through the salt caves. It was pretty cool to walk round the desolate landscapes with unusual geology and we also got to hike through the salt caves which were tunnels in the salt mountains carved by underwater rivers thousands of years ago. The group was really cool too and what better way to finish the day than by watching the sunset from the overhanging 'piedra del coyote' (coyote rock).
For the next day I had booked myself on to a one day trek of the nearest 6,006 metre peak, Sairecabur. With a 5:30 am start, well 6am because the guide was late, I was raring to go. We stopped to watch the sunrise and the continued up the road right up to the point when the guide started to read a text on his phone, he took the bend to sharply and ended up by hitting a rock on his front tire and swerving off the road until the van was stuck straddling a sand bank on the side of the road. Seeing as the sand was soft, the van was not a 4x4 and the fact that the tires had no tread left on them we were not going anywhere! It took lots of pushing, sand in the face and stones under the tires to finally get the van free after two hours. Which of course meant we were two hours late starting our ascent. This was until the van got stuck again 10km away and 650m below the starting point! After multiple failed attempts to get the car free the guide decided we should still head off and try and make summit. Little did we know how far away we actually were and realistically stood no chance in making the summit in one day! Climbing over boulders, slipping on scree and getting breathless from the altitude Sedric, the other tourist, and I were doing surprisingly well. The guide on the other-hand was going very slowly and keen to get lots of breaks along the way. It didn't take long for us to realise that he was suffering from altitude sickness! He was adamant it was his viral illness so we continues up to 5,500m when, at 3:30pm, he fainted and could not go on! As it was getting late and the rescue car was coming at 5pm we nursed him down back to the van that was still stuck and had no rescue car insight. Worried about the impending darkness and cold temperatures Sedric and I persevered to get the van free from the soft sand. Once we succeeded that's when we noticed that both front wheels weren't pointing the same way! It must've been damaged in this morning's incident which meant we not only had a two wheel drive van with no tread on the tires but we also had reduced steering capabilities! Perfect for a cliff hugging dirt track back to town! Luckily we arrived safely to town at 9:30 pm. Unfortunately because I was told we'd be back by 3pm it meant I also missed my bus out of town that cost me 17,000 Chilean pesos. All in all it seems I'm not having much luck in this town.
Handstand at our unintentional end-point at 5,555metres
Next week I see if I can get my hands on a refund for the trek or at least part of it and I also aim to head south towards Santiago. Lets hope my bad luck changes!