Bolivia Chile South America

Salt

There was no electricidad again.

This time we were in the tiny dusty nothing town of Uyuni, ready to set off on our 4WD tour of the amazing Bolivian salt flats. We’d left La Paz the day before on the bus, travelling to a forgettable town called Oruro up on the top deck at the front. Our seats were panoramico, apparently, according to the woman who sold me the tickets. And we certainly had a full and unobstructed view of just how crazy the drivers are in these parts, including our own driver of course–if I’ve got a full panoramico view of the road ahead and I can’t see around that blind corner up ahead, then I’m pretty sure he shouldn’t be overtaking. That was enough Bolivian buses for us, so in Oruro we jumped on one of the few remaining passenger trains in these parts, the Expresso del Sur, which wound its way down the country through some impressive scenery to deposit us later that night in a chilly Uyuni.

27th June 2008: View from the Train

This time a lack of electricidad didn’t mean that we had no water, just that the water was exclusively cold. Our shower, like most Bolivian showers we encountered, heated the water through an electric element in the shower head. But Uyuni was cold. So having no hot water was effectively the same as having no water at all.

As an indication of just how cold it was in Uyuni, we’d been woken from our sleep by the pleasant morning call of the lesser spotter backpacker, as one of our fellow hotel guests was being violently sick into one of the communal sinks in the courtyard just outside our room (these would be the sinks described by the Lonely Planet in its review of the hotel as being “great for laundry”). I wouldn’t have been volunteering to do any of my laundry in them that day, though, as when we left the hotel to find some breakfast we could see that his sick had frozen solid in the bottom of the sink into a sort of piece of abstract art. (And when we came back later to pick up our bags, the poor ladies from the hotel were pouring boiling water over it from a kettle and poking it with a stick to try to dislodge it. Rather them than me…)

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The salt flats are every bit as stunning as we expected them to be, and there’s not much I can add that the photos don’t already show.

Salar de Uyuni

With such stunning scenery, it’s almost impossible to take a bad photo there. And it also seems to bring out the urge in everyone to mess around with trick photography–we went flying, as we’d seen someone else’s version of that shot back in Cusco, but other groups were taking it to another level. There were people there with props, playing with perspective to shoot themselves climbing into giant Pringles packets, pushing over giant footballs, standing on each others hands, and doing stuff like this.

After we’d spent the day hanging around on the salt, and visiting the spectacular cactus-filled island, Isla Incahuasi, we left the salar to spend the night in a hotel made of salt, in a small town called San Juan.

[I should point out that the salt hotel we stayed in wasn’t the salt hotel. There used to be at least two of these on the salar itself, but they’ve been closed down for environmental reasons. As the Lonely Planet colourfully puts it, they didn’t properly manage the waste, “essentially channelling it back into the same salty crust that you’ve come to admire…” We stopped at one of these hotels while we were on salar and saw that it has been renamed “a museum” (albeit a museum that sells drinks and has beds you can sleep in…)]

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The second day of the tour took us to some more spectacular landscapes, but we were lucky to have got out to see it at all, as our morning had begun with the not so reassuring sound of a cold jeep refusing to start. It was eventually talked into cooperating (after a small nudge from the tour group), and apart from us subsequently pulling up in the middle of nowhere to let it cool down (“un pocito problema” according to the driver, who then jumped out and started throwing bottled water at the tyres) we made it through the rest of the trip, visiting funny shaped rocks, flamingos, and lagoons along the way.

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The final night of our salt tour was not only the coldest of our trip so far, but also a timely reminder of why we haven’t been staying in dorms. As we slept in our sleeping bags, under the covers, and wearing all our clothes, listening to the cacophony of snores, grunts and moans coming at us in stereo from the other people on our tour in the dorm beds around us, we vowed to stick to the private rooms again from now on.

We also vowed that perhaps we should head for somewhere at a slightly lower altitude that might be a bit warmer, but as luck would have it, the start of the third day of the tour passed within spitting distance of the Chilean border, and so rather than head all the way back to Uyuni (which only offered more Bolivian buses, more freezing altitude, and no doubt more electricity-free hotels), we opted to jump off the trip and cross over to San Pedro de Atacama, a tiny tourist town just over the other side of the border down in Chile.

In fact, we’d technically left Bolivia two days earlier, when we’d got our exit stamps in our passports in Uyuni before the tour, although we wouldn’t enter Chile until we’d not only left the tour at the Bolivian border but also travelled a further 40 or so kilometres down to San Pedro. This confuses the hell out of me, by the way: where were we between stamping out of Bolivia and entering Chile, for starters. But then as someone who spent his formative years living on an island, I always find land borders a bit weird…

Bolivian Border...