salar de uyuni - the salt plains

  • getting warm clothes
  • bolivian border
  • mountain reflection
  • our little alter
  • desert fox
  • almost falling into the thermals
  • making it a little warmer
  • bubbling mud
  • they geysers
  • more bubbles
  • me and jochen by geysers
  • open flame to defrost radiator
  • 3 lamas in steaming water
  • pink flamingos
  • laguna blanca
  • shadow shot
  • walking to laguna colorada
  • our jeep and volcano
  • pink flamingos on laguna colorada
  • frozen lagoon
  • heavy!!!
  • not so heavy
  • not sure what we tried here
  • crazy israelis dancing in desert
  • coloured mountains
  • racing jeeps
  • oooooooo aaaaaaa
  • active volvano
  • go on, hit me
  • the salt hotel - white stuff on walls and floor is salt
  • the drummer
  • my 1 handed hand stand
  • jochen hanging
  • hanging
  • 1, 2, 3 jump!
  • island in desert
  • sitting in camera bag

At 8am on Sunday I met up with the other people that would be on the 3 day excursion through to the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt plains). The group consisted of Jochen and Heike, a German dude and German girl I met in Cafayate, and Harriette, Tanya and Jane, 3 Irish girls from Dublin. None of us had really spent much time together before and now we were going to spend the next 3 days in a Toyota 4WD and sleep in the same dorm room. A bit daunting, but we all got on real well.
Our first day consisted of crossing the border out of Chile, and then a few kilometers later, crossing the boarder into Bolivia. A bit strange that the borders are so far apart, but I guess because it's just desert in between, there's no real worry. When we got out at the Bolivian border, which also happened to be where we'd have breakfast, I realised wearing shorts and a t-shirt was a bad idea. It was about 10am and absolutely freezing! You wouldn't think it'd be cold in a deseet, but when it's about 3000 meters above sea level it start making sense. Everybody got stuck into their rucksacks to get jumpers and jackets out.
The border crossing was pretty hassle free, and after a while we had reached the thermal baths. I think the thermal baths were at a slightly lower level because it was quite a bit warmer. Got into my board shorts and hit the water, which I think must have been a warm 40 degrees celsius. It felt excellent especially considering for the past 3 days I had to have cold showers in that dodgy hostel (La Florida) I stayed in in San Pedro. Only problem is that up here the air is already quite a bit thinner - that combined with the hot steam and water made me feel pretty crap when I got out. The same thing happened to Jochen. It was the biggest head rush I've ever had - it's like you could feel the blood in your body going down to your legs and back up to your head.
After the thermals the 4x4 continued to climb, and I think at one point we at 4400m above sea level. At this point, pretty much everybody in the car was feeling out of breath. Every time the driver stopped for us to get out for some photo opportunities and we'd walk a couple of meters, we'd be breathing really heavily. Walking slowly up a small hill felt like you'd sprinted up the same hill at sea level.
After another hour or so of driving we reached the geysers. I'm told these aren't as impressive as the ones you could see at San Pedro, but for somebody who's never seen anything like it I was pretty amazed. It's a series of hot sulphuric mud pools and geysers at about 4000m above sea level. The steam in the photos had such a pungent sulphuric smell, that at times I felt like I was going to be sick - I think the thin air wasn't helping much either. This area makes you feel like you're in a different world and also makes you realise how much volvanic activity is in these areas.
We got to our "hostal" at about 3 in the afternoon and realised what the tour operator meant by basic - no showers, no form of heating whatsoever, bed bases maded of rock and salt. Still, it was a really clean place, which is better than mod cons. But......the place was absolutely freezing. We were now at 4700m and by 5pm when the sun started setting, I think the temperature may have already dropped below zero. The food we had that night was really good - vegetarian soup and a vegetarian bolognaise. After dinner there wasn't much to do - stargazing was amazing, but difficult because by about 8 the temperature was definitely well below 0, so everybody just went to bed. I slept in thermal underwear, a thermal vest, a t-shirt, my hooded jumper and my beanie. I terms of bedding, I used my sleeping bag liner and my sleeping bag, and slipped these under the 2 blankets the ostel provided. Everybody else did pretty much the same and whilst being comfortable I wouldn't say I was warm. In the middle of the night the altitude kicked in. I felt like somebody was kneelign on my chest and started feeling clostrophobic. I think everybody in the room felt similar cause at one point when I woke up everybody in the room was breathing as if they were really struggling to get air in their lungs.
The next morning we woke to iced up windows and the smell of toast. After breakfast we packed all the bags back onto the 4x4 and started on what is meant to be the longest day of the trip. About 10 minutes into driving, our car started steaming - the water in the radiator had frozen somewhere along the pipework so the remainder started poaring out the overflow. We stopped the car and to everybody's shock, the driver Noel, got a cloth and stick out the boot, poured petrol on the cloth, put it on the stick, lit it, and then put the open flame under the car engine (while people were stil in it). Health and safety in Europe would die if they saw this. But, in his defense, it worked like a charm and before long we were off....without the steaming engine.
This day consisted mostly of visiting what they call lagunas alltiplanicas, which I think just means high altitude lagoons. Most of them have large pink flamingo populations, and also most of them freeze over completely in winter. Even at this time of the year some of them already had a relatively thick layer of ice on them. It was interesting but after a while I got a little bored of seeing lagoons. In the late afternoon we crossed over the railway track that runs through the salt plains. Everybody got out and took photos liying on the tracks etc. Pretty safe considering the line is so straight, you'd se the train coming from miles away, and I think there's only one train that runs per day.
That night, we slept in a salt hotel. The "carpeting" throughout, is simply a layer of course salt, and the walls are made of solid salt, and some brick. All the furniture in the dining area as well as the bed bases are made of solid salt. Dinner that night was even better - soup, steak, roast potatoes. After dinner we were entertained by some local kids playing indiginous music. They were pretty funny because while 2 of them seemed to know what they were doing, the rest hadn't a clue. One of them kept picking salt off the walls and eating it. We also managed to buy 3 bottles of wine between 6 of us, with all the remaining change we had in our wallets - note for self....drinking wine at high altitudes kicks in a lot quicker. This place was also a lot warmer and nobody needed as many layer when going to bed.
The next morning we headed into the fullon Salar de Uyuni. Entering the Salar we all got out and attempted the perspective photos that everybody does here. Some of them came out pretty well, but I wish we had had a few more props to play with. Driving through the Salar feels like you're on a boat in the middle of a white ocean. The horizon is made up of the silhoutes of tens or hundreds of small islands. The guide told ys that this area once used to be a lake much like Titkaka, but eventually dried up. One of the islands we stopped at had massive areas of fossilised coral, so this was definitely a sea once upon a time. Also, in the rainy season this island in the middle of the salt again becomes more of a traditional island because the surrounding salt plains keep a thin layer of water above them during this season.
By 3pm we exited the Salar and entered the town of Uyuni where the Irish girls got onto a bus to La Paz and the Germans and I slept the night in a cosy hostel, before either heading to Potosi or La Paz.