Salt Flats, Flamingoes & Snow – Days 183 to 185

Fri 3rd – Sun 5th Aug

After finally falling asleep, at just gone 0400 my bus buddy wakes me – Shelle llegamos! I pull all my stuff together and step into a freezing cold dark Uyuni. There is a woman there greeting people off the bus to go to her café – she’s done this before! It’s one I’ve read about and willingly follow her as nothing else around appears to be open! It’s very welcome – plug point, heaters and more importantly tea!!! I while away 2 or so hours here until my lovely friend V texts to say she’s in another café so I head there. I met V on the Salkantay trek and it’s great to see her again. After breakfast we have to go sign up for the Salt Flats Tour at the agency. We use Red Planet as that is who many people I’d spoken to had advised.

After buying a few snacks, sorting our bags and being assigned to our car and driver we set off around 1100.

Within minutes we’re at our first destination of the Train Cemetery.

Back in the 19th century, Uyuni was an important hub for trains up until the mid 20th century when mining trade started to decline. These great automotives, built by British engineers, were just left on the outskirts of Uyuni, looking like toy trains just dropped by children. Due to the near by salt flats, they have eroded over the years. This now forms part of the Salt Flats tour. Our guide is Luis who tries to give us some info but it quickly becomes apparent that we have a driver rather than a guide. Limited English and nigh on impossible to answer questions – he speaks but expertly avoids answering like he’s been trained by the best politicians!

From here we stop at Colchani and witness how the salt is processed. Here is also our lunch stop which is pretty good considering it was prepared.

Next it’s on the the salt flats themselves where we see where the salt has been laced in mounds ready to be transported, the original Playa Blanca salt hotel which is sadly no longer used for guests.

Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flats at 10500 square kms and at an elevation if 3656m asl. Salar de Uyuni is part of the Altiplano of Bolivia in South America. The Altiplano is a high plateau, which was formed during uplift of the Andes mountains. The geological history of the Salar is associated with a sequential transformation between several vast lakes. Some 30,000 to 42,000 years ago, the area was part of a giant prehistoric lake called Lake Minchin. When I’m bus lake dried up, it left behind 2 smaller lakes and 2 salts – the larger of which I’m currently at. The area is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness (an average elevation variation of just 1m over the entire area of the Salar). The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium and makes up 50-70% of the worlds lithium reserves. It is estimated to contain 10 billion tonnes of salt of which less than 25000 tonnes is extracted annually.

After a few pics

a look around the hotel and me doing a salt angel, we zoom across the plains to get our version of the famous abstract photos! We only had the dinosaur and a Pringle tube and worked with them and got some group shots.

Then it was our time to have a go…V and I had a right giggle playing about in the salt fit our pics.

Our guide could have been a bit more useful here rather than chatting to his colleagues but we got a few. We didn’t however expect the salt to be wet and end up soaking and turning white once dried!

Next stop is Inca Huasi Island to see the giant cacti

This place is the top of the remains of an ancient volcano, which was submerged when the area was part of a giant prehistoric lake, roughly 40,000 years ago.

This is one of the places where there is an additional charge – 30b to enter and take a walk around. We are told it’s the only part in the flats with any firm of life. We walk to the top with stunning views across the flats and where V and I make an offering to Pachamama with her collection of goods from Cusco.

A few more photos and me partying around by the Union Jack flag (there wasn’t a Wales one)!

On our way to the hotel, we stop to watch the sunset.

The colours were pretty awesome but the best were still to come but our driver ignored V’s pleas and drove off as soon as the sun set and we only saw the gorgeous pinks from the back of the car. V and I sing our heads off in the back of the car and it reminds us of the same in the Salkantay. The other 4 in our group aren’t so jolly thou!

Our accommodation tonight wasn’t too bad. We were greeted by cups of tea and patio heaters on inside. The guys in our group aren’t the most exciting so I manage to blag us a room on our own without having to share – result! They have a way of ensuring everyone goes to bed early – the hot water is only on for a but after dinner. V jumps in first and following a few shrieks from the Ba’ath room can tell the hot water didn’t last long! Oh well…I’ll just wait until I get to San Pedro!

We awake early for breakfast and to be in the road to head further south through the Chuguana desert where we see a few dormant volcanoes and the active Ollague. We stop here and are meant to see smoke plumes from it but low level cloud prevents this. A welcome toilet stop none the less and a much needed cuppa – it’s bloody freezing!

Next we arrive at the first of 3 lagoons. Luis our driver stops as if we are about to get out. We’re all quite excited about seeing the flamingos but he starts meaning that if we stop, the lunch place will be full and we’ll have to sit outside. Why stop in the first place if this is the case! Reluctantly, like a child throwing its toys out of the pram, we’re allowed out to take some photos.

He negated to say that the lunch stop was a bigger lake with more flamingoes with a great volcanic backdrop! The second lake is amazing and in contrast to the tour I did in Paracas, you’re right up close to these bright pink birds. Watching them walk, run and skim across the water is fab.

Lunch is indeed outside but we’re shielded from the cold well by the positioning of the car. A few more photos

and we’re off to the desert of Silo to see the Tree of Rock. This rock is shaped like a stunted tree about 7m high. It’s shape is due to strong winds and eroding away the rock.

It’s then on to the third lake of the day….the one I was desperate to see….Laguna Colorada – a beautiful pink coloured lake which is caused by some sediment and algae. It is said that flamingoes are pink from eating this algae….! These lakes are home to the Andean, James and Chilean flamingoes.

This is where we enter the Eduardo Avaroa National Park and have to pay the 150b entrance fee.

It’s on leaving here the weather takes a turn for the worse. We’re at the highest point, the highest desert in the world at 5000m asl and it’s covered in snow.

The sky is thick with cloud and screaming out for a snow storm. This is not good news…the border into San Pedro, Chile and the one further north were both closed last week. As they had reopened after a few days, we decided to continue with the trip. This weather now poses a big risk. As we drive on we come across a van facing completely the wrong direction, stuck in the snow. 4 tourists without a guide attempting this journey on their own, in bad weather, in winter! One girl rather panicked and upset gets in our car whilst the guides from our company dig their car out. They have been stuck there for over an hour in the middle of a snowy desert! Good deed done and about to pull off, one of our drivers tells ours we have a flat tyre!!! Wtf!!! I’m not getting out in this weather!

My best friend Jen had told me about her experience her some 13 years ago where their van broke down and it was -35! Luckily they manage to inflate it and away we go. The weather is bad and track conditions awful….we watch one jeep skid in front. Luis isn’t the best at answering questions but we demand to know what we’re doing. With sunset on the horizon, we’d all just rather get safely to tonight’s accommodation. We’re told the next stop is en route anyway and 5 mins in, the tyre has deflated again. We arrive at Sol de Mañana geysers, and traipse out of the car, freezing our arses off in the cold, snowy and blustery weather. Whilst we walk around to see the bubbling mud pools and steam jets, Luis changes the tyre.

He may not be the best guide and so far not worth the 210$ we’ve paid but he is an excellent driver and they are prepared and equipped for severe turns in the weather.

Now we’ve had enough, it’s cold dark and horrible and we just want to get to our hostel. We arrive and I think it’s the worst place I’ve stayed in to date. Basic is an understatement! The staff and guides are yelling at each other over something, it’s chaos being assigned a room. It’s been a long day and it’s freezing on a whole new level. Camping on Chanchani was nothing compared to this! Luckily we again manage to get our own room. Wine is the order of the evening and we tuck into another meal. It seems some people (the guides) have beaten me to it and a few of them are already inebriated. Some people from another car are less than impressed…I guess because of where we are, the conditions and weather and those in control are pissed as farts! One guy in particular is completely away with the fairies!

There’s the opportunity after dinner to go to the neighbouring thermal pools but it’s minus god knows what outside…there’s not a cat in hells chance of me getting down to my swimmers in this! The majority of people are on my wavelength and only about 6 go. V and I instead head outside to make another offering to Pachamama armed with coca leaves, a cigarette, agua de Florida and palo santo.

V sings a few songs she’s learned then frozen to the core, we call it a night.

Breakfast comes, along with news about the border crossing. It has snowed overnight but doesn’t look too bad here. However, the situation further down is not the same and the San Pedro border is closed. Bollocks! This is only an hour from here. We now have to await news on if the one at Ollague is open. Just before we set off at 0745, we receive news it is so we’ll be dropped off there instead of having to return to Uyuni. This is great news but does mean one hell of a journey in store…starting with 7 hours to the town of Alota. Due to the weather, the itinerary has changed even for those not going to Chile and they can’t get to the places they were meant to see due to the route being shut. Therefore, to break up the journey, and add somethings into today’s route, we stop at and walk around a lake which is also our lunch stop.

We make another brief stop at a canyon

before finally reaching Alota at 1430.

The bus is due at 1530 but doesn’t arrive until 1630! We’re then delayed a bit more whilst they tape up the missing window! It’s about 2 hours to the Bolivia border at Ollague and we pass quickly and without fuss. Then onto and into Chile. This is a completely different border to any I’ve passed before. It’s like an old police compound. There are no money exchange, no bienvenido signs and no vendors selling anything. We queue to get our stamp then have to collect our bags and line them in a row in the floor whilst we take a seat – outside – in the cold, and wait. And wait some more…and some more. In total we sit in the cold at night for nearly 2 hours whilst the officials make a thorough search of our bus. They find some illegal contraband – a lot of yogurts, a bag of oranges and 2 bag of coca leaves. When V comes back from the loo, she sees them unscrewing the air vents! A very thorough check! We are finally told to collect our bags, not to get back on the bus but to have them checked. I watch the officials pull stuff out and route through peoples bags but mine in meticulously packed and really can’t be arsed with having to put it all back in. As I’m told to open my bag I tell the guy to be careful as there’s dirty pants and socks near the top! He routes no further and I’m done both giggling as I do my bag back up! More laughter ensues as he sees the could of metal in V’s bags (she makes jewellery)!!!

Finally we’re back on the bus but we’re not off yet. 2 men have not been let through and we are told a bag of white powder has been found….!!! I’m not sure if this is true but they are finally allowed out and back in the bus after a good 40 mins or more. 3 hours later, we’re finally in Chile and en route to San Pedro.

Arriving at 0100 its time to find somewhere to stay. 6 of us walk the streets knocking on hostel doors. Most are shut but one is open but no one is gone. We do however use their WiFi. On to the next street and with some persistent knocking from V, one finally answers. It’s a horrific price but beggars can’t be choosers and along with a German girl, the 3 of us take the only room available and will look for something cheaper in the morning!

The tour fell slightly short of expectations and the group didn’t excite me at all. I was just extremely thankful to have my good and crazy friend V with me or the whole thing wd have been quite miserable.

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