Monday, 5 May 2014

Salt Flats Tour from San Pedro

And with this weekend passed, I have ticked off the major sights of South America I came here to see. And what a sight it was.

But I'll start from the beginning. 

I booked my tour with Cordillera, which is generally considered to be the best of a bad bunch of tour operators that do the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni salt flats) trip. I needed the three-night option that brings you back to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. You can start in either San Pedro or Uyuni, Bolivia, and finish at either city. It cost me 116,000 Chilean pesos for the tour, including accommodation and food, and even wine on the second night. 

So on the first day, Friday, I was picked up from my hostel at 8am in a big minibus that took us to the Bolivian border, 50km into the mountains. We stopped at the Chilean border control first, which was the slowest border I've been to. But while we were waiting it gave us all a chance to chat and get to know each other. There were two jeeps' worth of people (12 in total), and it was a really interesting mix of South American and European. We were separated into our jeeps by people who were returning to Chile and people who were finishing in Uyuni. And by a stroke of luck I was with the people I'd be speaking to most - a charming Danish couple, a French-Colombian couple living in Santiago, and a Brazilian architect on holiday. And three of them spoke fluent Spanish! This is really luck of the draw, because chances are the driver won't speak a word of English. 

At the Bolivian border, which consisted of a shack, a small office and a 'baño natural' (aka a wall), we got our entry stamps. They didn't ask to see my yellow fever certificate though, which I'd read was a requirement to enter the country. Maybe that's only if you arrive somewhere like an airport, rather than through a dusty mountain pass. 

After an al fresco breakfast of bread, ham, cheese and hot drinks, we were off into Bolivia. And the road quickly transformed into a dirt track, and it stayed like that until we returned to Chile four days later. We chatted a bit to the driver, Felix, who was amiable but silent for the most part. He was the seventh member of our group, travelling in the cramped jeep with our luggage strapped to the top. If you're tall like me, you might need to do some serious stretching each evening. But in general we stopped quite often so there were plenty of opportunities for standing and walking around. 

We got to the entrance to the national park and paid our 30 Bolivianos each. And then we started to see some sights. The first two days could be renamed 'The Lagoon Tour', because the actual salt flats aren't until the third day. But the lagoons are pretty fabulous in their own right. We stopped at Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde first. Both were bookended by incredible mountain scenery. The desert colours in San Pedro are remarkable. In Bolivia they are incredible. 

The next lagoon of note was Laguna Colorada, a stretch of water covered with red algae, watched over by stoic llamas and flocks of pink flamingos. That was a great sight. We were there until just before sunset, when we returned to our hotel, just ten minutes' drive away. 

The hotel for the first night is at 4,900 metres above sea level, so it is cold. And the risk of altitude sickness is high. No one in our group suffered, thankfully, but it might be worth investing in some altitude sickness pills or coca products. 

My jeep were all in the same room for this night, but that probably kept us warmer in the end. There's no heating and no hot showers here, so none of us showered. If you're going to smell, you may as well smell together, right? 

We had a good dinner of mashed potato, sausages and vegetables. Bangers and mash! They knew I was coming. And the food over the whole trip was very good - good portions (always important) and hot and generally tasty. We did sometimes spot other companies with a much more lavish spread than ours though, so we got a bit of food envy at times. 

That night it got to -25 Celsius outside, and around 0 in our room. You can rent sleeping bags for 50 Bolivianos from each hotel, but I slept in a t-shirt, fleece, Long Johns and thick socks and I was okay with the blankets they gave us. 

Day two was the dullest of the three days of sightseeing (the fourth morning was simply driving back to San Pedro). Breakfast was at 7am and then it was off for more lagoons. Be still my beating heart. The highlight was probably el árbol de piedra (the tree of rock), but that didn't exactly bowl me over. 

Late that afternoon we arrived at our accommodation for the night - a salt hotel. I'd heard of this before the tour, but couldn't imagine it. It's a hotel made of blocks of salt, and the floor is powdered salt, and the furniture and beds are all made of blocks of salt. There's a lot of salt. 

Unfortunately one of the five litre bottles of water strapped to the roof of the jeep had had a little accident, and my bag was very wet, but thankfully only on the outside. But what better to absorb water than... salt. 

Here we were put in twin rooms, so I shared with my Brazilian jeep-mate. The rooms were warmer than the previous night, but still basic. And the showers were freezing. Warm would be an overstatement punishable by death, but they were barable enough to have a wash. This was followed by a good dinner, with wine, which was very welcome. And then I went to bed, at something ridiculous like 8pm. But we had to be up at 4.30am to see the sunrise over the salt flats, so it was a wise decision. 

And then yesterday was what we'd all been waiting for. The Salar de Uyuni. 

It was an hour and a half drive to the salt flats, and we got there in time to see a spectacular sunrise. There were spots of mirages on the horizon, reflecting the orange of the sky. I had Circle of Life in my head for hours. 

The rising sun revealed the bizarre moonscape that the salt flats encompass, and that we were standing in the middle of. The flat white salt glowed violet, while the mountains in the distance shone with an eerie purple light. The ridges in the ground caught the sun's rays first and created a giant chessboard of shining white borders on lilac squares. 

We watched the sun until it was above the horizon, giving us great photo opportunities. 

Then we made our way to Isla Incahuasi, a small rise in the middle of the otherwise completely flat landscape. We walked among the ridges and giant cacti that seem to be the only life for hundreds of miles, before having breakfast. 

I should add that it was well below zero degrees. And windy, with nothing to block it. I'm glad we saw the sunrise, but I'm also glad for layers. 

We headed off further into the Salar to take some of those obligatory perception-defying photos. The flatness makes it the perfect place to hold your friends in the palm of your hand, or gather a group in your shoe. But the photos are not easy to take! You need a clear vision of what you want, and you also need someone to lie on the salt (which hurts!) to take it. 

But we had a fun hour and a half taking all the photos we wanted. And to be there, when I'd seen so many photos of the unique place, was fantastic. It wasn't wet season though, so I wasn't expecting any water to be on the ground, which is what gives the Salar its mirror quality. The best time to see it like that is December to March, but if there's too much water then the jeeps won't take you there because the salt water destroys the engine. So you need luck on your side to see that mind blowing sight. 

With a camera full of photos, and red cheeks (wear strong sunscreen!), we climbed back into our jeep and headed to Uyuni. We stopped at a salt museum, which was nothing more than one room with some sculptures made from salt. But there was a collection of world flags blowing in the wind, which made for a nice view with the colours against the pure white of the background. 

There were mirages galore around here, and it's easy to see how people are drawn to them thinking there's a huge lake in the distance. You seriously would not want to be lost anywhere around here. The Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat, stretching over 10,000km of Bolivian altiplano. 

Our final stop was Uyuni's train cemetery, an atmospheric relic of Bolivia's steam train system. 

But the problem was that it was in Uyuni. Which is not a pleasant place. There were two nice streets in the centre, but apart from that it was a dusty town, roads lined with inhabited yet unfinished, windowless houses. This really highlighted Bolivia's poverty to me. It really is a very poor country. Many people are dirty, children no older than six charge you as you use public toilets you need to pour water into to flush, and there is very little wealth evident. I'd seen areas like this in Peru, but it felt deeper in Bolivia. It made me think: this could be me. It was absolute luck that I was born British, into a white middle-class family. The life of the Bolivians I saw on the streets could easily have been mine, or yours. Maybe this is the beginning of me 'finding myself'. Travelling is making me think! 

The tour part of the trip finished in Uyuni, and the four of us who were returning to San Pedro had to wait an hour for the next jeep with a new driver. We said goodbye to the Danish couple, and the others from the other jeep, and then we were off. It was three and a half hours' drive to Villa Mar, where we stopped in another fleece-in-bed hotel, where you could pay ten Bolivianos for a hot shower. 

The next morning we were up to leave at 6am and headed back to the Bolivian border and its baño natural. We met the people who were just starting their tour, a few of whom had been at my hostel before I left, and passed on some pearls of wisdom. I think my red face gave them one strong hint at least. 

And that brings me to this afternoon. I can already tell I will never forget being in those salt flats. And I'll probably never experience anything like it again. Unless I come back. Who knows what the future holds? 

While I really enjoyed the tour, and met some amazing people who I hope to keep in touch with, I feel like if you're in Uyuni and don't need to use the tour to get to San Pedro, just do a one-day trip into the Salar. It's very close and would do the best bit of the three or four days. That is unless you're a big lagoon fan, in which case you'll love the other days. 

And this leaves me with eight days left in South America, which is kind of boggling my mind right now. Tomorrow I've got a 24 hour bus journey (vom) down to Valparaíso, and then I'll spend my last few days in Santiago before flying to New Zealand. The next stage of my adventure! Can't wait. 

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