So we are off to investigate what all the hype is about – the Uyuni salt flats. But first we need to hop across the border and cross the vast volcanic landscape between us and the almighty expanse of white. So it’s an early start for us, but our British promptness for the 7am pick up is given a South America slap back into reality; the minibus finally arrives outside our hostel at 7.45. Fortunately every cloud and all that, our late departure results in the unexpected gift of a two-headed dinosaur, donated by a fellow early riser, the perfect prop for that cliché salt flat silliness. Our cloud pours rain once again however, as our late pick up means we are placed solidly at the very back of the slowest immigration queue. Our final few hours in Chile provides us with a real patience test.
(In the coming months I will reflect on this as whole experience as being in fact rather timely. We will get to that when I finally regain a grasp of my previously excellent concentration span and catch up with my blogs. This trip has caused some serious mental regression, leading to an ability to be distracted by absolutely everything and anything. Well I say it’s this trip, it may actually be down to an lengthy and unregulated exposure to the mentally wandering force that is Stephen Beddows. I’m yet to decide.)
Finally passports stamped, we are on our way up into the hills to reach the Bolivian border control. There is a bitter rivalry between Chile and Bolivia (shockingly it’s bigger than football – basically some years ago Boliva got too big for it’s boots withheld shared resources, Chile and Perú went to war with them, Bolivia lost and they took Bolivia’s coast. This is a rough and somewhat biased version of events I have collaborated from various conversations with Chileans. Sorry for the lack of more detailed information, my brain is a sieve for facts and hey we can all Google (could be the Pacific war?!) Anyway we view this legacy first hand as a stout and heavily armed security guard shreds the immigration paper of our fellow Chilean tourist, chucks him out of the immigration shack (shack would actually be romanticising this tin lid on crumbling blocks) and orders him away. To where I don’t understand as we are quite in the middle of nowhere. It would appear though that this is a common phenomenon and our guides quickly settle the matter, tensions drop and he’s issued a second immigration paper. Compulsive viewing as we tuck into our giantic complimentary breakfast at over 3,500m (not the best idea at altitude, all blood to the stomach!)
Our bags are tucked up on the jeep and we are introduced to our driver the fabulous Fabian (yes I went there). When booking the tour we were informed our driver would speak basic English, but Fabián exceeded all expectations and continually surprises us with random bursts of complex English vocabulary. We drive off into the vast and imposing landscape to the unexpected tune of his trance Tomorrowland mixtape. Rave on.
Our first stop the national park. After paying our entrance fee (150 bolivianos – around £18 an unavoidable extra cost) we drive to beautiful lakes dancing with colours and wildlife, including that famous pink fella the flamingo. The weather for the first day quickly turns sullen and arriving at the hot springs there is a unanimous decision to skip the people soup and stay dry. Following a huge feast of lunch there are some serious nodding heads as we continued our drive by rave through to the Giezers.
Situated 5,000m above sea level, Coca leaves are chewed on mass to contain the affects of the altitude. Now for those who have never experienced pure Coca leaves it pretty much tastes like super strong and very bitter green tea. You have to leave a ball in your cheek until it is soft enough to chew and then once throughly masticated it is spat out. Completely legal within Perú and Bolivia (calm down Mum), the effects vary and for me I just felt like I had had a strong coffee with a numb tongue. Ste however looked like he had ingested a family pack of only blue smarties. Just what I needed trapped alongside him in the back of the 7 seater jeep.
The Giezers were impressive. Continual blasting steam, people took their chances to capture a shot of themselves surrounded by smoke. The powerful sulphuric odor and the fact the people stood in the steam were somewhat reminiscent of an 80s music video heavy on the dry ice, I decided to just document from a far and take in their natural awesomeness.
We then headed to our first hotel for the night. We ventured out into the tiny town to hunt some alcoholic treats and visited both of it’s two shops. These shops were essentially shelves in a bedroom and we were served by two painfully adorable little Bolivian Grandma’s, wearing traditional dress and who both gave me some serious feels. I think they could have charged me almost anything and I would have paid, so enamoured by the delicate simplicity of their existence. After a game of ‘Shithead’ – the universal card game of the traveller – it was time to sleep. This was my first experience of being truly bone-cold in South America and even Ste looked happy when, in the early hours, I squeezed in alongside him in his single bed. As someone who has serious nocturnal personal space issues – Ste regularly reports if he comes to bed after I’m asleep I spend a good 5 minutes growling at him to get away from me before he’s even fully entered the room. Categorically deny this; I’m asleep so there is no proof. This is a matter of survival and being 95% reptile I am the ultimate body heat thief.
After a solitary pancake for breakfast it’s back in the jeep and off to view rocks that are shaped like various random things. The football world-cup trophy, a camel, a face and a dragon. Those with the biggest balls climb to get the better views, while I linger down the bottom chasing small rodents to get blurry and mostly camouflaged photographs. Wildlife photographer of the year.
Next we head to a big canyon caused by the lava flows. The views are somewhat epic and I try not to get sympathtic vertigo as some of the others jostel for that life on the edge Instagram shot. Lunch is llama filled affair, basically a shepherds pie and but instead made with llama. I hate to say llama is quite tasty, somewhere between chicken and lamb, and I greedily pig out as the sensitive types refrain. And to think I used to be a vegetarian.
We all head off on a very nessecary post lunch ramble, to a lake – I think it was called the black lake (Laguna Negra), but the sieve brain strikes again so don’t quote me on it – filled with birds and surrounded by the fuzziest llamas.
We then finally head out to the Salt Hotel. A hotel made of – yeah you guessed it – salt. It’s a strange and somewhat crunchy experience as I try my hardest not to lick the table during our dinner of yet more llama. Wine + altitude leads me to monetarily forget my British politeness and accidentally berate one of those delicate flowers who had spent most of the trip drinking only Coca Cola due to their misplaced morals about eating llama. Catching myself before I went into a full rant (it’s hard as an ex-veggie not to seriously condemn selective meat eaters, I now find myself very much in the all or nothing category), I am pleasantly surprised when the particular couple in question take a portion and try the llama. Not to their taste but I openly congratulate them on their gesture and remind myself this is not how you win friends and influence people. I feel that travel makes the shy more extroverted but makes the extroverted bigger assholes. Your experiences simultaneously open and narrow your viewpoints and the footfall of people you meet gives you a solid ‘you win some, you-lose-some’ attitude, leading to me have a lower threshold for bullshit. I probably need to work on that.
The pre-dawn alarm clock is torturous and we battle heavy eyes out to the jeep where Fabián is positively buzzing as he packs the jeep and raring to go. I remain in awe of his boundless enegery until Matt who rode shotgun the previous day informs me he pretty much chain-chews Coca leaves. We drive out onto the vast waterlogged plain. The whole scene has a deep greyish-blue tint as the water reflects the lingering cloud, absorbing the creeping suggestions of the sun’s arrival. We capture our first few photos, overawed at the sheer natural beauty of the mirrored sunrise through the lessening cloud. I whole heartedly believe that a scattering of cloud can make for the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The added dimension of the cloud gives the light more dynamism and can produce breathtaking murals of colour. A demonstration of how truest beauty can only be observed when combined with an uncontrollable element of imperfection. Philosophical much.
We are soon to become spoilt. As the sun rises, the reflectivity of the water increases and it is impossible not to capture shot after shot of insane images. Fabian rounds up our group plus our sister jeep to make some clever reflection shots including spelling Uyuni and a trippy 360° walking video. Other tour groups weren’t treated to this so we counted our lucky stars once again for our fabulous Fabian.
Back in the jeep we headed from the waterlogged to dry salt and across to the island. The salt flats exist because thousands of years ago, the area was in fact a salt water lake which evaporated. I’m thinking something like the future of the Dead Sea. This island remains as an island surrounded now by salt rather than salt water. After a cake filled breakfast at a salt table we explore the cactus filled island (entrance 30 Bolivianos – around £4) before heading back to the jeep and out into the salt. It was time for those cliché shots.
With two-headed dinosaurs, Pringles tubes and wine bottles, we play around with perception, taking shot after shot of silliness. Fabián then records one final video of our two groups dancing in and out of a Pringle tube to the sound of Kaomas ‘Lambada’.
After the flats we head to a little Bolivian town for lunch. We browse the market and Carina is pounced on by the two cutest Bolivian children. Ste who has never really acknowledged any human below the age of ten is transfixed. Their chubby cheeks, sparkling eyes and widest smiles make them probably some of the most adorable children in the world. Ste with almost no hint of a joke asks me how he gets one and I announce he’s just going to have to get a Bolívan wife. (I happily run along with this – I’ve heard rumours of Colombian men and I am playing the long game).
We finally head to the train cemetery. Years ago the British government built railways across South America. However their success was not the economic rush they had hoped for and now a handful of old trains lay in Uyuni, abandoned, derelict and heavily graffitied. Though I know it isn’t, the whole thing feels slightly staged. Like we have rocked up to an album shoot for a hipster indie band called Rage Against the Organic Machines or some other oxymoronic, eco-friendly word-play, the brain child of someone who only smokes clove cigarettes. I feel like I should be wearing 1990s clothing, but ironically, and I’m almost certain Fabian informed us Sam Smith or someone like that shot a music video there. Case in point.
After a fabulously fun, Fabián-filled three days with our wonderful Anglo-Deutsche group, we bid farewell to the lovely Carina, Yannick, Max and Matt and head to buy our onward ticket. It’s off to the highest capital city in the world. La Paz.