Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama
09.02.2013 - 11.02.2013 7 °C
The pretty girl behind us in the line at La Paz's military airport asked us where we were going. Seamus' eyes lit up (she was very pretty) . We told here we were going to Uyuni. She told us she was going to dance at Carnival in Orouro. Seamus' eyes nearly popped out of his head! Orouro is the 2nd biggest carnival after Rio and many would say it's the best. Unfortunately we were flying past Orouro but we had fun imagining this girl in her sparkley bikini and headress with 100,000 similar dancers, and thats not including the punters.
We boarded our ex military plane where all the luggage was stored up front behind a curtain. We landed an hour and a half later saving us a 12 hr bus journey (which is supposedly very unsafe and terribly bouncy during the rainy season - December to February).
Uyuni (where we were hoping to book a tour into the great salt plains of Bolivia) was an old mining town which was deserted on our arrival. It wasn't helped by the torrential downpour that started as we touched down. We were dropped in the ´main area´of the town (Christ what a hole - I thought to myself). I went off to an internet cafe and Aine minded the bags under an awning of one of the many booked out hotels. As I tried to book an hotel Aine spoke to a dutch couple briefly, and they too were seeking accommodation. She directed them to a hotel across the street and off they went. I returned not having any luck and Aine said that we should try the hotel across the street where the Dutch couple went. As luck would have it the Dutch couple got the last double room - well done Aine! We settled for a twin room, very basic but as it was only for one night so we sucked it in and it only cost $5 each.
We went to scout the deserted town and all the tour companies were closed for lunch - so what could we do but have our lunch also washed down by a couple of beers. As we waited for the tour agents to open ( time meant very little to them as it appeared that opening/closing was when it suited them), another pretty young female stopped in front of me and we chatted briefly. She was french (Nathalie) and after some dialogue I asked her would she be interested in joining our group for the salt flats tour and she said she would. The dutch couple that Aine, so selflessly, gave 'our' room to, also were looking for a tour and we got talking and they too were interested in joining up to go on one of the tours. Our minds made up, we went with Quechua Tours and as we were 5, we were short one person to fill the jeep. They said that they would find a sixth person and so we left.
At 10.30 the next morning, the dutch couple, Jasper and Helena, Nathalie and us met at the tour guides office. We discovered that the 6th person was Leonardo, an Argentinian. Excited, but not expecting too much we set off in our Toyota Landcruiser 4 x 4. It seems every tour company uses this type jeep as it's preffered choice of transport (Cathal Ryan will be pleased!). First stop the salt plains, which is why we came to this lonely bleak spot in the first place. Dioni, our driver, was laid back and left the 6 of us to get to know each other a little better. By the end of the trip we would all be inviting the others to visit our respective countries with promises of free accommodation when ever they chose to visit. Aine and I are sorted for Amsterdam and Berlin (where Nathalie hopes to settle when she finishes her travels) and even Argentina should we choose to visit again in the future!
Try to imagine the salar as a sea of salt, or indeed a salt desert. It's like a blank page, a plain of possibility stretching white to the horizon which then blurs seamlessly into the sky. When you look into the distance you see purple and blue hills and islands that appear to float on colliding light. Of course this is the wet season so there was a layer of water covering the salt plains. It was like an Alice in Wonderland moment, driving in minature across a gigantic mirror, with sky above and sky below.
We arrived at the edge of the salar at 1pm and all 6 of us got out of the jeep and climbed onto the roof rack. It started with a "WOW" at the first sight of the vastness and mind bending landscape that stretched to what appeared to be infinity. We left the salar having watched the sun disappear over the horizon in kaloidiscopic transmutation, acompanied by the most spectacular display of both forked and sheet lightening as if playing a fanfare to bid us farewell. It had all 6 of us transfixed as our jeep floated to the edge of this magical world to lay our heads down in mutual thanksgiving for what the universe had bestowed upon us. Of course this was after 1 million more "WOW's". That night we stayed in a building made of 'Salt Blocks'. The beds were even made of salt blocks. Basic, but did the trick.
The second day, under strict orders from our guide, Dioni, we rose from our very basic sleeping arrangements at gray dawn and shivered as we nursed mugs of tea or Nescafe. Then we repacked ourselves into our Land Cruiser, and off we went.
Still grumpy from waking, I wondered what possibly could merit such an early morning now that the highlight of the trip, the unbeatable Salar, was over. My cynicism was checked, however, as sometime later we crested a rocky hill and descended towards brilliant blue water cradled beneath snow-tipped red mountains. Around the lake was a fringe of white, like ice, which made what was in the lake more surprising: for there in the midst of Bolivian moonscape, stood thousands of pink flamingos. Of course it was not ice but potassium and other minerals that created the environment for the microbes upon which the flamingos were feasting and from which they get their pink colour.
Days two and three followed suit with more wonders. The landscape was ever-changing and never expected: the water and the rocks, first were red, and then turquoise and green with minerals and microbes. We glimpsed wild guanacos and vicunas, and socialized with their domestic counterparts the alpacas and llamas
Over the course of our trip we wandered over lava-flow formations, the source still puffing benign wisps of smoke into the stunningly blue sky. We romped between wind-carved boulders, looming like dinosaurs or petrified giants in a sweep of nothing. We visited the surreal lakes - Laguna Colorada, Laguna Blanca, and Laguna Verde. We visited geysers puffing in pastel light at sunrise which appeared etheral and breakfasted with our feet dangling into thermal springs.
Eventually, our trip had to come to an end and having soaked our weary bones in the thermal baths we set off to the border between Bolivia and Chile, our eventual destination being San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. We arived at the border, which was in the middle of nowhere about 4,000 meters above sea level. We all said our goodbyes, wishing that the magical journey would not end there but alas our time in Bolivia had come to an end and we really felt like we got to know Jasper, Helena, Nathalie and Leonardo over the 3 days. It was with a feeling of loss that we said our farwell, but we know that our paths will cross again in the not so distant future.