Salar de Uyuni Tour
The train had arrived at 2 am in the morning, and in the pitch darkness, we found a taxi who drove us the few desolate blocks to the hostel that had been reserved for us. A sleepy woman opened the door for us, explained there was no water until morning and showed us to our basic but clean room. We had 5 hours to sleep, which we did.
Upon waking, we had time to re-pack and eat breakfast before heading to the tour office that would connect us with our tour mates, jeep and driver. We bought a few snacks for the road, wandered the public market and met the other characters with whom we would enjoy the next 3 days: Oscar (Madrid), Kim (a peace corps volunteer from Chicago), Josh and his friend whose name we have forgotten (the Wookies from Tazmania), and Olga (Barcelona). There was a second Jeep that would travel along with us, with a German couple and a brother-sister duo from the Netherlands.
There was little explanation of the days stops – we learned quickly that we had drivers, not guides. It became clear that we were happy to have a “great driver” over a good guide, since the amount of time spent in the jeep and the strenuous terrain we encountered required someone with endurance and skill.
Stop 1: Train graveyard – interesting but totally random
Stop 2: Salt processing plant, with one little hut and a tour of the process
Stop 3: The Salt Flats
Stop 4: Old Salt Hotel
Stop 5: Lunch at Isla de Pesce – hike, cacti and majestic view of miles and miles of salt
Stop 6: Salt Hotel in which we would sleep – beds, walls and stools made completely of salt
We got settled in to our rooms, which were eerily quite and warm. Before the sunset, we had time to hike to a set of caves that housed mummies of the indigenous peoples of this land. The brittle bones and decaying body was tucked into the rock, as if it was using the earth to hold itself together. No protective glass or fancy lighting, just a mummy in a cave.
When we returned the hotel, the light was fading and candles and lanterns would light the rest of the night. Dinner was by candlelight, which made it difficult to discern the lama steaks that were served. Tastes like chicken? The sturdy earthenware bowls, plates and chalices were coarse to the touch, but charming. The food and its containers felt hearty and from the earth. Our drivers spoke no English, but had no problem telling us that tomorrow’s wake up would be at 5am, so after dinner, we delighted in hot showers with fantastic water pressure and then a great nights sleep on a bed made of salt.
Salar de Uyuni Tour - Day 2
Two stuck Jeeps
There was supposed to be a knock on the door this morning at 5 am. Our eyes opened on there own at 6am and we had this bad feeling that we had missed breakfast and all were waiting for us. But as I peered outside, all was quite, except the clanking and quite murmuring coming from the kitchen. No drivers, no breakfast, no other travelers frantic. Something was awry.
We woke each other, had breakfast and patiently waited for the drivers to return. Still after an hour, no none. Someone spotted a speck on the horizon through their camera’s lens, that could have been a jeep. Patrick began to walk towards the salt flat and slowly we followed. Two women stayed behind to watch the luggage, though that was probably unnecessary. We walked, perhaps 2 3 km and as we approached you could see the trouble- jeep #1 was stuck so badly, there was nothing to be done and jeep 2 was stuck 500m farther out. Hoping we could help there, we walked to the second jeep. Perplexing, how did this happen? We asked, but our questions were answered with blank stares. When Oscar arrived, his ability to be confrontational in Spanish provided little more information – though at one time the younger driver blamed the older driver. Curiously, the beer bottles were in his car and it was his breath that smelled faintly of stale alcohol. The story was mounting.
Concerned more with how to get he jeeps out, we banded together and with sheer strength and mental determination to get the hell on our way, the 9 of pushed the 2nd jeep and on the 2nd try it sputtered out of its misery and lurched out of the mud. Pleased with ourselves, we walked back to other jeep to see how we could be of help.
This jeep was just so stuck…we had to wait for a man with a truck to arrive, who seemed quite familiar with the predicament. I think he had done this before. He had planks and other devices to stick under the tires to give them a solid base to rest on. Try after try finally brought success. Both jeeps were out. Overjoyed we were about to return to our luggage, when we realized that the old man’s truck had died. Car number three stuck. Our drivers wanted to leave him, we were already so late. But we could not.
So again we pushed, again and again, trying to jump start this rickety piece of shit. It wasn’t until we reversed hooked into the jeep, and jump started it in reverse. Satisfied we had helped thw man who helped us, we walked back to the hotel.
It was now 11am and it was time to go. Still no answers, only mounting suspicions.
Most of us just wanted the truth while others were more perturbed by the inconvenience. We heard that one car had gotten stuck and then the other went out to help, getting stuck itself. But where were they going and why were both jeeps facing away from the hotel and towards the Isla de Pesce? No one knew. Speculation and frustration were the topics of conversation until the one jeep got a flat tire, and then things just seemed to be amusing. After 20 minutes, we were on our way again, on the “drive by” tour of the day:
· Lunch while viewing the active volcano
· Military checkpoint with coca leaves as “payment”
· Laguna ___ (pink flamingoes at 40000m)
· Rock formations from Mars
· Small herds of vicunas grazing the planes
· Laguna _____ (changing colors)
We barely glimpsed the changing colors of the final lagoon, because of our late departure. What was more troublesome was the fact that the first set of sleeping spaces was full. Again and again our driver returned, each time his face looking a bit more distressed. We would have to drive another 20-30 minutes, which as we had learned really meant 40 minutes. And after having spent nearly 8 hours in a jeep on roads that should not have been travelled by car, another 30 minutes seemed almost too much to take. But we endured. And then it happened.
The other jeep had gone ahead of us and as we approached, it was evident it was stopped. Gas tank = empty. We had stopped so often during the day, we wondered why the young driver had not noticed his tank was low and been proactive in his approach, but now that was irrelevant. Our driver, the obviously more experienced one, jumped out while the younger guy climbed onto the roof and untied the spare jug of gasoline we had been carrying with us. With funnel and siphon, the duo quickly refueled. We could only laugh.
At the next “lodge”, we found accommodations: 10 beds in a room, with basic toilets and rickety tables and chairs. Beer and Pringles were like champagne and caviar and our celebratory pleasure began. Dinner was spaghetti Bolognese, with parmesan cheese, an unexpected joy. During our merriment, the young driver shyly walked by and under his breath, in very shy Spanish, apologized for his actions this morning and promised that tonight there would be no party. The truth always comes out.
Salar de Uyuni Tour - Day 3
Bolivia to Chile - From one world to another
So today's 5:45am wake up went without a flaw. We left the Laguna Rojo camp and as the sun rose, we climbed the day's highest peak and found a landscape of bubbling heat and geysers. At 4700m, it is the highest geothermal area and all this earthly movement could only be witnessed this early in the morning. It was certainly worth it...
Breakfast was served at the second landmark...an overcrowded yet quite delightful natural hotspring. And some of us soaked, others waited for that first cup of coffee that was served out the back of our raggety little jeep. Our last bolivia bread, jam and butter somehow tasted incredible.
After breakfast, the drive towards Chile took us through the Salvador Dali desert..though we are not sure if the artist was inspired by this landscape or if some educated tourist had remarked on the similarity and then this name was adopted. Either way, the resemblance was indeed uncanny.
The day's final landmark was the Laguna Verde, so aptly named because of the high copper content of the lagoon. The remainder of the trip was simply getting to the Bolivian border, where we would wait to be transferred to a bus. After an hour wait at the saddest boarding crossing we have ever seen, the bus departed and within 10 minutes everything changed.
After 4 days of bumpy, unpaved road, suddenly pavement appeared and the sound in the bus echoed the joy! Highway signage, emergency brake pullouts, road barriors...we had entered a whole new world. At the border, we were instructed to sanitise our shoes and the efficient, rule heavy entry into Chile was complete.
And then the shock hit us. We had arrived in the most expensive town in Chile...San Pedro de Atacama. The ATM's were broken, the exchange rates were terrible, it was hot and the prices reflected those of San Francisco...without the guarantee.
Somehow we managed to book a 4pm tour of the Valle de la Luna, in order to watch the reknown sunset. Though the landscape was interesting, the best part of the trip was Claudio, our guide, whose english was impeccable, passion for his country endearing and pants a perfect fit for Patrick.
Yes, that night, Patrick gained the travel pants he was looking for. In simply asking where he might get himself a pair, Claudio suggested he could just have his. If of course they fit. So, we planned a rendendez vous later that night. And around 11pm, in the bar bathroom, Patrick learned that they were just right. There are people you meet, with whom you share a few momoments and maybe a beer or two, and some how that is enough. The pants have remained with us and perhaps we can repay Claudio when he comes to visit San Francisco...