South America trip, days 19-21
Uyuni looks like the perfect setting for a modern day Western. We’d arrived at 10pm the night before, so we’d not had a chance to look at the town or form much of an impression other than it being bloody cold at night. We went out the next morning to hit the local market, to stock up ahead of our four-wheel-drive trip.
Uyuni is a small town, about 2000 people in the region, so the main street is full of older, low-rise buildings, some with Spanish touches. The wide main street looks ready for a high noon showdown, and the small bell tower looked about ready to chime it in. The Market was set up in the main street, and was selling all types of goods including toys (grabbed a toy dinosaur for 2 bolivianos, I’ll tell you why in a minute), electrical stuff, tourist stuff and clothing. Knowing that where we were going had a distinct possibility of being cold, I bought some warm gloves and a Columbia jacket (99% sure it’s a knockoff, but it’s a good knockoff) for 215 bolivianos (about $30) as well as some water and Pringles (also relevant later).
Having stocked up and drawn out some emergency cash just in case, we returned to the hotel to begin our sojourn. We were using several local drivers on our trip, so we loaded our gear onto the roof rack and piled in, Karlee and I travelling with the older couple on our tour for this leg. Before we could hit the salt flat, we had one place to visit: the train graveyard.
Story goes that Uyuni was once a rail centre, receiving the trains coming from Chile, and there were still a couple going through when we were there. Back in the early 20th century, a number of railways had steam engines based there. When the transition to diesel trains occurred in the 20s or 30s, the rail companies decided not to bother driving the steam trains back to a major city, so took them a little bit outside of town and left them there. 80 years later, the steam train graveyard is a rusty but not totally ruined collection of old engines, some of which have been stripped but mostly intact.
We visited the site and clambered over the engines, taking pictures and pushing around old train wheels. Some of the husks have had swings put in by the locals, so we of course had to have a go.
In my Uyuni western, this is where the final showdown would be.
We left the graveyard and drove along to a small town called Colchani, where they process salt from the flat for sale. The salt is piled into pyramids on the flat (we visited them after) by hand before being loaded onto a truck. The salt is then placed 150kg at a time (by hand) onto an oven, which removes the moisture and burns out some contaminants. The salt is then iodised, powdered and hand-bagged for sale as table salt all over Bolivia.
Driving out on the flat, we wondered how the drivers navigate. The Salt flat is a 12,000 square kilometre white, featureless landscape, with only the distant mountains as navigational aids. I figure one of the drivers had a compass.
We stopped for lunch in the middle (might not have been the exact middle, but it was far from anything else) of the flat, which gave us an opportunity to use the landscape to take some fun pictures. Because it’s so flat and white, you can take forced-perspective photographs that look really cool. We’ve got a couple of people standing in other’s hands, walking into Pringles cans, the whole group being terrorised by a giant dinosaur (in reality about 8cm high) and one great one of a bunch of us being apparently poured out of a paper bag.
After lunch (we’d brought a cook, Gregoriah, with us, as we were far away from civilisation) we piled back into our four wheel drives to drive to Incahuasi.
Incahuasi (basically “Inca house”) is an island, for want of a better word, in the middle of the salt flat. The island had acted as a stopover for native travellers before the Spanish arrived, and the Inca had conquered the area st one point as well. What the Island is really notable for, other than the views of the area, is its cacti. The native cactus to the area is a giant variety that grows about a centimetre a year, thick and spiky. Some of the cacti on the island are over 9 metres tall, so if you do the sums there they are over 900 years old. We climbed to the top of the island, took the obligatory hug going a cactus photo, and continued on our way
After one more photo stop, we left the flat to go to our lodging for the night. A small village in the middle of nowhere, it hosted a hostel made from salt bricks (moisture proofed and coated, otherwise it’d just erode). The accommodation was basic, with only a couple hours of electricity, and we were sharing with another G-Adventures group. Still, Gregoriah did very well in the rudimentary kitchen, and we played cards and had a few drinks until the lights went out. I also took the opportunity of the clear night and the distance from civilisation to go outside and take some pictures of stars.
We took off the next morning at around 8, hoping to visit some lagoons and a lake with flamingos. Our car had started to have a problem with the clutch, but the drivers fixed it (or so we thought). We arrived at a small town called San Juan de Rosario (I was amazed to later find it on a map) to stock up on snacks, and we were to lead the convoy out of the town.
We broke down about 1 block around the corner.
Our driver, Alex, was swearing in Spanish, as the clutch had finally gone. The other cars had left us, so we were resigned to waiting in San Juan until Alex could fix it.
Here’s the thing: if you’re going to break down, a town is the best place. Even though there was no mechanic local, we were close to a shop, could shelter from the elements, and more importantly we had the cook with us so we could be well fed. Karlee and I realised this pretty quickly, so we sat and caught up on our journals, wrote postcards and read patiently. The older couple we were with didn’t take it as well, complaining about the state of the four wheel drives, the fact the other drivers had left, that the tour company should have done this, that or the other, etcetera etcetera.
Here’s the thing: we’re in a developing country. Cars break. Not everything can be predicted. No matter how much other tour members may go on about how this would never happen in the US, the fact is we weren’t in the US and radios and phone reception weren’t a given. For me, the only real problem we had was boredom: if the worst came to pass and the car couldn’t be fixed, we could stay in San Juan until it was or a replacement car could be sent. Some of these ideas fell on deaf ears.
After 5 hours, Alex finally got the car into a working condition (even though it needed a push-start). We headed out after the others, onto another great flat plain and through an abandoned military training camp, searching for the group. We finally reunited after about an hour at the base of a mountain, in the middle of a wind-blasted salty waste. They were pretty happy to see us.
Turns out, they’d got to the first rendezvous point and noticed our absence. Leaving everyone there with little warning, the drivers had take one of the 4WDs and left the other essentially join the middle of nowhere, unwittingly taking the food, water, and more seriously someone’s insulin with them. Lucky they only searched for an hour before coming back. When we met up with them, they were hungry, as we had the food and cook, so she quickly got out and served lunch. Now well behind schedule and getting late in the day, we decided to push forward to the night’s accommodation.
We headed on a four wheel drive track higher up into the mountains as it got dark. We want past one lagoon where we could see some flamingos, but it was too dark to take pictures. We had planned to drive to where the other G-Adventures group was staying, but the dark and cold was making the drivers nervous- Snow driving past night not being something they really wanted to attempt. We fame across an eco-hotel in the middle of we thought nowhere, and with some quick talking and an extra twenty bolivianos each we stayed there for the night.
Not really being set up for groups like us, we had to sleep three to a room, and the amenities were basic. Still, they have us full run of the kitchen and we had a couple of bottles of wine and a bottle of Singani, so we were pretty happy. The dining room of the hotel had a wood stove, so we were nice and warm. Maruja devised a plan where we would travel south in the morning to rendezvous with he other group, but the original place where we were to cross the border was closed because of the snow. Instead, we’d travel in convoy north to an open crossing. To do all this we’d have to leave at 6am, but we still had a chance to see Laguna Colorada, a flamingo nesting place.
6am, we loaded up the four wheel drives in the dark and got on our way. It had snowed during the night, so we were driving up icy hills as the dawn broke, over a white-covered landscape. We reached a place called “stone tree,” a series of freestanding rocks that were covered in snow, and had breakfast. The snow had a certain novelty value for us Australians, but some of the tour members from colder climes were less enthusiastic. The other G-Adventures group arrived, and we went back the way we came
The night before, I had wondered about the name of the hotel that we’d stayed at: Los Flamencos. As it had been dark when we arrived and when we left, it wasn’t easy to figure out where it was built- I’d kinda figure out it was on a lagoon, but got not much further.
Turns out it was on the shore of a lagoon that was a nesting ground for hundreds of flamingos. When we arrived back at 9-10 o’clock there were hundreds of the birds, all over the water. They weren’t particularly scared of is, so we were able to get quite close for photos, and the size of the flock meant we could get photos of them in flight or doing pretty much everything a flamingo does. After taking a lot of pictures, we hopped back into our cars to do the border crossing.
After driving back along the 4WD track and reaching a major road, we drove a further hour and a half or so to our border crossing at Avaroa, which is the point on the Bolivian side. Though we had to wait a bit for the border guard to get there, we passed through without many hassles. We drove into the kilometre or so of No-Man’s-Land between Bolivia and Chile, then unloaded our gear from the vehicles. After doing a quick check to make sure that we had no open food or other customs-violating objects, we got onto a waiting bus and drove to the Chilean immigration control point.
It was here we hit a snag, or at least the other G-Adventures group hit a snag that affected us. Because of the way it’s set up, the tour leaders for G-Adventures should really be allowed in on a tourist visa-they use local guides and basically pay everything that a regular tourist does in these countries. The countries should just wave them through, but immigration can consider them in the countries as workers, which would require a work visa. When we got into Bolivia, we just pretended not to know Maruja and she came through as a tourist, which worked fine. We did the same thing at the Chilean border, and even though they asked her a few pointed questions they eventually let her through. The tour leader for the other group, a Bolivian national, wasn’t so lucky and was refused entry to Chile. This meant that Maruja was in charge of two tour groups on slightly different tours with less than a half hour’s notice.
After going through customs we boarded our bus for San Pedro de Atacama, eager to see what else Chile would have in store for us. Goodbye Bolivia – you were fun, and you threw up some crazy issues!
– Water: South American water isn’t safe to drink for those of us with delicate western stomachs, so we’ve been relying on purchasing agua sin gas (non-carbonated water) everywhere.
– The salt flat lends itself to many lame jokes. Memorable: eating lunch, someone asking for salt for their meal. Someone else asking when we’d get to the pepper flats. Me, after sitting on the hard ground, claiming I’d been As-salt-ed.
– Singani: Singani is a Bolivian spirit distilled from white grapes. It’s very easy to drink, even though it’s got an alcohol content of 40%. We bought a bottle off a lady in the tiny village we stopped in the first night for 50 bolivianos (about $7) and got through most of it. As you can’t take it across the Chilean border if it’s open, I gave the remnants to one of our drivers with a “Feliz navidad”
Next: Deserts! Ugly pants! Another lunar landscape!