Thursday, 22 December 2011

#4 30b430 - Be wowed by Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat

That`s #4 ticked off.
When you travel a lot there are certain sights you get used to: beautiful beaches, ancient ruins and unspoilt countryside become the norm and, I admit it, it´s terrible but you get a bit spoilt and perhaps harder to impress. But every once in a while you see something so different to anything you´ve ever seen before that it takes your breath away. On our three-day tour of the salar in Bolivia, there were so many of those moments that I actually stopped counting.

On the first day of our trip we were picked up in the jeep we would be spending much of our time in by Lorenzo, who took multi-tasking to the extreme by taking on the roles of driver/cook/tour guide. Also on the tour with my friend Anna and I, was Anders, an Italian who controlled our sound system and quickly became known as Señor Fiesta [Mr Party], Sophie and Marion from France and Chris from Germany. We´d all heard a lot about the salt flats and were hoping they would live up to our expectations.

On arriving we realise we had nothing to worry about, as they really are spectacular. It`s hard to describe what they look like, aside from white, obviously. But white as far as the eye can see. So bright that it actually hurts your eyes to look at it without sunglasses and the complete lack of other objects in the area means that your perceptions are distorted, so someone standing far away looks like they are next to a person in the foreground. Having never seen anything like it in my life, my brain kept trying to compute it with something similar and I`d have moments when I felt like I was walking on snow, as the salt crushed beneath my feet and turned a sludgy grey where the jeeps had driven over it.

Enjoying the view.



We had lots of fun taking silly photos, before driving to an island in the middle of the salt flats which was covered in cacti. It was so strange to be standing on an island of green surrounded by a sea of white. It´s also hard to get your head around how something - anything - can grow in those conditions.


As it started to get darker we began to drive towards our accommodation for the night. When we`d booked the trip at the agents we`d been assured that the reason they charged a little more compared to other companies was because we would stay in nicer accommodation and eat better food. We`d already noticed that all the groups seemed to be eating the same (either the guides/cooks are freakishly psychic when it comes to preparing food or they all decide on the same menus in advance) and it quickly became apparent that accommodation was allocated on a first come, first served basis. And this was our problem. Due to the fact that Lorenzo was extremely laid back and, unlike some of the other guides, didn`t rush us, we were one of the last groups to arrive. This meant in the first village we went to all of the accommodation was full and the same in the second place we tried. The third time it happened we all started to laugh nervously and joke about having to sleep in the jeep and by the forth time that seemed like a distinct possibility.

Although Lorenzo, who has been doing the job for ten years, assured us it was normal, even he seemed a little stressed out and, as though to distract us from the fact that we may not have a bed for the night, he started manically pointing out anything he could see so we had a running commentary of "queñua", "llamas", "motorbike".

Eventually we stopped at the fifth place and although the owner`s daughter looked as though she wanted to do anything but put a roof over our heads, she agreed. Whether this was because Lorenzo sweet-talked her or whether it was because she saw the six of us with our noses pressed against the jeep´s windows, like something out of Oliver Twist, we´ll never know. We stepped out of the car and a dog dropped a severed goat`s leg at our feet in welcome.

The guest house, including all of its furniture, was entirely made out of blocks of salt. While definitely a novel way to spend the night, I did realise that the drawbacks were a) salt is very hard if you walk into it as I discovered after crashing into my bed and b) salt is very heavy, which meant that the chairs around the dinner table were impossible to move, so for a short person like me you are miles away from your food.


Sleeping on a bed of salt.
The next day was all about the lagoons, which were white, red, green or blue, depending on the minerals in the water. As well as being incredibly beautiful to look at, they are also home to thousands of flamingos and it was amazing to see the band of pink they added to the scene.


Some of the beautiful lagoons.
But the showpiece of the tour was saved for the final day when Lorenzo informed us we would need to be up at 4am. Moaning like schoolchildren, we clambered into the jeep wrapped up in every layer we owner, as it was freezing. But two hours later Lorenzo`s insistence paid off as we arrived at a spot where geysers, caused by a nearby volcano, were ejecting steam into the air. We watched the sunrise surrounded by pools that bubbled and burst around us, feeling as though we were on another planet. Truly amazing and the best start to the day I`ve had on my trip so far.


A perfect way to start the day.
We were then whisked straight off to a natural hot spring where we braced the freezing cold air and were rewarded by the equivalent of a hot bath. The rest of the day was spent visiting more lagoons before beginning the long journey back. Then it was our job to keep poor Lorenzo, who had been driving since 4am, awake. We did this by plying him with food and coca leaves and introducing him to the wonders of Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie. (Not sure how much our singing helped.)

All in all, another amazing trip and it would have been a fantastic way to end my visit to Bolivia. Instead I decided to go to Tupiza, where I was thrown off a crazy horse, but that`s another story...

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