Tag Archives: Salar de Uyuni

Lakes, llamas and flamin’ flamingos

www.travelola.org

Exploring the lakes on the Uyuni tour in Bolivia

Imagine days chock-full of reds and greens and some of the highest lakes in the world. Throw in a few llama sightings to keep the cute factor high and some pale pink flamingos for the bird spotters. Drive between places through desolate desert landscapes. And there you have it. A tour for those who want to see loads of spectacular nature with minimum personal input required. Food and accommodation sorted. Pay your money, off you go. Enjoy the ride.

www.travelola.org

Curious roadside llamas

www.travelola.org

Anyone fancy a llama cuddle? Although, on second thoughts, she looks a little stern

No wonder my guide Gonzalo sometimes wished he could take a longer tour, say maybe ten days, to really allow time to soak up some of the beauty. But who would want to spend out on such a long tour when you can do the lot, get your pictures and move on for half the price? Ah, the pity and absurdity of our busy, self-inflicted schedules.

So on Day 2 of the tour south west of Uyuni in Bolivia we started off with a teaser of lesser lakes before we drove onwards towards the two most significant ones: Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde.

Laguna Colorada sits at 4,500m and even on this slightly dull day, she greeted us with a spectacular show of red tinted waters and shores freckled with flamingos and white borax deposits.

www.travelola.org

Laguna Colorada quite convincingly showing us her colours

www.travelola.org

Flamingos

No other humans were present. It was just us, thin air and some hungry birds chomping on colour altering algae. And a dusty surround with makeshift roads along which two other tour jeeps sped off into the distance, their bellies full of tourists in a rush.

www.travelola.org

Dust trails

‘Time to go!’ shouted Gonzalo. Quick, quick. Everyone back in the cars. Off we went.

Give me another lake!

Okay. Laguna Verde. Laguna Verde sits ‘at the base of the Lincancabor volcano’ at an estimated altitude of between 4,300 and 6,390m. I had no idea we were heading that high. No wonder the altitude got me. Overcast skies didn’t give us the copper green waters that one can expect to see on a sunny day so those hoping for a winning photo were a little disappointed. We did a group photo instead. One, two, three, jump.

www.travelola.org

Group shot at Laguna Verde (me third from the left)

I like to spend a few moments by myself to take in the stillness of lakes. Unlike my first love, the sea which feels alive with movement and constant change and turmoil, lakes instil that sense of deep calm that can occasionally spill over into eeriness. Not here though. Nothing to fear, no weird vibes, no danger alerts. Just lonesome lakes, visited every now and then by groups of creatures sporting compact cameras.

But on the morning of Day 3, I can’t say that I was overly excited about getting up early to visit yet MORE lakes. My preference would have been to go slower and enjoy the views of the early ones, stop for a picnic, that kind of thing.

The weather turned cold. Icy blasts whipped us as we jumped out of the jeeps to gather around the various lakesides. Lauguna Kata, Laguna Kachi, Laguna Churungkani. Pretty lakes. Lakes surrounded by grey, brown landscapes and snow-capped mountains and piles of rockiness. It’s difficult to know what else to say. I became a bit lake-blinded, lake-spoilt.

It started to snow and with hats and scarves we enjoyed the falling flakes before retreating to the warmth of the vehicles. The short stops soon became a blessing.

www.travelola.org

Grass tufts and cloud covered snow caps

www.travelola.org

Moodiness as the weather closes in

www.travelola.org

The crew just before the snow came down

www.travelola.org

A bit of cloud cover

1 Comment

Filed under activity & sport, bolivia, lakes, nature, south america, tours

Alright, geyser

www.travelola.org

Am I still on Earth?

The smell hits me, slaps me around the face. I’m in any case feeling queasy from high altitudes and now I’m back out of the jeep, wandering around gurgling mud pools at over 5,000m.

I’m in Bolivia and it’s Day 2 of my Uyuni tour where I’ve been cruising around in a jeep with five guys, a guide and a driver. There’s a second car in the group containing a far politer and better behaved bunch. Two blonde German girls and a minx of a Brit brunette are part of that mix and the boys in my car lightly tease each other about who has taken a fancy to whom.

On this tour we’ve already visited the train graveyard, we’ve let our imaginations run wild on the salt flats and we’ve spent our first night in a primitive and cold (yet mostly comfortable) hostel in Villa Mar.

And now, here, we’re drifting dreamily in a pitted landscape of strangeness and smells, sulphery smells that compete with my early impressions of Rotorua in New Zealand. Maybe they’re even stronger. I feel a bit dizzy and sick.

It’s a matter of timing my run along ledges between geysers spurting boiling sludge. They don’t shoot as high as I expect, but I’ll take my guide’s advice on the temperature. Third degree burns? Nah, it’s not something I want to add to my ailment list.

www.travelola.org

Beautifully bizarre and alien

www.travelola.org

Geysers and geezers

www.travelola.org

Gurgling, popping, cooking

www.travelola.org

Hubble bubble and wait for the spurt

Leave a comment

Filed under bolivia, natural wonders, nature, south america

How do you know that you’re altitude sick?

Whilst doing the Uyuni tour, Dan, 18 from Scotland puked every day of the four day trip. His head pounded, he struggled to see straight and he missed some pretty special moments on the journey from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile over to Uyuni in Bolivia whilst he lay in the dark wishing that his breathing was less panicky so that he could sleep.

It is pretty much the worst I’ve ever felt’, he said, ‘back home I’m never unwell really, but this was killer’.

Of course it wasn’t a killer, although altitude and its effects shouldn’t be taken too lightly. People can and do die from acute mountain sickness but for most of us who get a good shooing by high altitudes, we just feel nauseous and may actually vomit, the pressure in our heads builds to unbearable levels, our breathing gets shallow and we can struggle to focus.

On Day 2 of my Uyuni tour I started to feel rough. The visit to the Train Graveyard and the salar on Day 1 had been fine, but today we were visiting some geysers and gurgling mud pools.  And it wasn’t the smell that sent me into a spin, it was the 5,200m altitude that did it.

We drove over to a little place for food and I just about managed to force some down my gullet. The rest of my group lounged around in hot pools, laughing, flirting, toasting the landscape with a bit of beer or wine or whatever they had. I, quite frankly, couldn’t muster up the energy to care what they were drinking or doing. I wished that I was well enough to be with them but instead I was curled up in the back of our jeep. Any movement was a bad idea. My head pounded and my lunch threatened to throw up.

The rest of my crew hang out in the hot pool whilst I curl up across the backseat of the jeep

By the evening I was even less sociable and in quite a mess. Sick and tears and what felt like a fever were confining me to my bed or the bathroom. Every last bit of goodness exited my body, leaving me a miserable, retching wreck. A friend held my hair whilst I chucked. Oh, the small blessings in life.

You’re meant to care for me, not kill me! (in all seriousness, thanks so much Nathalie and Carl)

You must tell me if you have chest pain’, said my guide Gonzalo after he’d brought a bucket and a mug of hot, sugary chacuma and coca leaf tea to my bedside. He wasn’t worried about my perpetual puking, and he didn’t seem particularly sympathetic to the cold concrete toilet floor that had become a close up familiarity as I paid my dues to the altitude demons. But chest pains? Different story.

Drink this. All of it’, he instructed. I sipped at it. It was sickly sweet. My stomach cramped. I wondered what if I’ve just been trying to ignore the signs and I’m actually one of the few people that gets seriously ill and dies from high altitude? I wonder if my travel insurance covers me to this altitude? I hope my family and friends know how much I love them.

Okay, I’m overdramatising somewhat, but I was zoning out into a world of temperature and delirium. Gonzalo seemed pretty unfazed by what felt like my bodies last attempt to demonstrate to me how crap it could be. He’d seen this so many times before, I guess. But why me? Why Dan?

I’d spent three weeks in Sucre at 2,750m, and then one night in Uyuni, which sits at 3,669m. Surely it was time enough to acclimatise? I even passed through Potosi – the highest city in the world at 4,070m – and felt nothing other than a slight daze. But because I was finishing yet another dose of antibiotics and codeine and whatever else, there is a small chance the medication enhanced my natural sensitivity to the altitude. Or maybe, altitude and me just aren’t a good partnership.

And Dan? I’ve heard from guides and other travellers that the route from San Pedro to Uyuni is tougher on the body, accelerating in altitude much quicker meaning there is little chance to adjust and higher chance of suffering the negative effects. In Dan’s group of ten people, three people felt terrible and went down the puking route. On my tour, I was the only one out of twelve of us that really had a bad time. Another girl struggled on and off with a bad head but seemed able to shake it off in between.

Statistics show that its highly unlikely you’ll actually die from altitude sickness but many backpackers I’ve talked to in Bolivia at least feel the effect of the lack of oxygen. Climbing stairs in Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, for example, leaves even the young fitties huffing and wheezing like ex-smoker OAPs.

But there is something undeniably cruel about being in such a beautiful place in the world and not being able to feel alive enough to run around and kiss the earth and shout at the sky. Or get in the hot springs with new friends.

That second night where we stayed at 4,200m, Gonzalo let me get on with emptying my stomach whilst being nursed by two wonderful beings. I finally fell into a drug induced sleep and awoke the following day to a calmer response; less intense symptoms. I could continue. No dramas.

Luxury accommodation in the guise of a simple stone building

The stuff I gave you works’, said Gonzalo, ‘every time’. Local knowledge and local herbs rule. Who knows what I really took. I’ve stopped asking when travelling. Take it and shut up and hope you get better. When you’re feverish and shaking and hurt to hell, you just want out. Quickly.

So you’re pretty used to dealing with this stuff then?’ I asked Gonzalo as I hungrily ate a pancake breakfast. ‘Yep. I knew you’d be okay. People are often ill.’  ‘Every trip?’ I asked him. ‘Pretty much’, he said.

So enjoy Uyuni, enjoy Bolivia but beware the altitude demons are waiting for someone. And maybe, for the first time in your life, you probably don’t want it could be you* to ring true.

————————————————————————————————————————-

*It could be you is the UK National Lottery’s tagline

5 Comments

Filed under activity & sport, bolivia, health, south america, tours

Being silly on the salar

Check out the hexagons on the salar… amazing

I’d heard briefly about the salt flats – Salar de Uyuni – in Bolivia but had done no research into what they were really about. I wanted to go there and have an experience without expectation. It was, at least, a good pretext for lack of planning.

After the trip to the Train Graveyard, me and my fun lovin’ tour buddies jumped back in our jeep and headed onwards towards the infamous, eerie beauty of the salt flats.We stopped off at a little village a few kilometres shy of the actual salar. ‘You can buy hats and scarves here’, said Gonzalo, ‘or some salt’. Tables covered in woollens and salt crystals and touristy trinkets lured in the shoppers. Big bed socks? Absolutely. A cosy cardigan? If you don’t already have one, yes, it is recommended.

Carl sports a fox hat, one of the few non-woollen warmers on offer

Salt crystals on sale

In a series of little rooms and back alleys, we observed the process of salt refining from the cutting out of bricks through to the packaging up of smooth salt, ready for the market and the table. We had a go at lifting a heavy pick axe, the tool used in bygone times to hack up the salar into manageable chunks, replaced now in most instances by circular saws.

And we learnt about the solar evaporation system and the use of solar energy to extract lithium and uranium from the 120m deep flats (unsurprisingly, it’s not a Bolivian company that is funding this project and one can only hope that since President Morales announced measures to ensure Bolivia’s natural wealth wasn’t sold for pennies to other countries who would reap the profits, Bolivia actually benefits from this arrangement).

Gonzalo gives a demonstration of salt extraction stage 1

Sifted and packaged and sealed, Uyuni salt

And then we got back in the car and finally, finally, there she was: 12,000km2 of white, salty landscape stretching off to a flat horizon, Volcan Thunupa to the side. The driver sped on into the whiteness. ‘You using GPS?’ I asked Gonzalo. ‘No, we’re just using the distant landmarks’, he said, ‘the driver knows where to go’. I didn’t doubt it but it was still a little difficult to understand just how he knew where to go as we left behind any recognisable geography. Regardless, over the next few days I realised that salt flats or desert dust, drivers have it figured.

Salt piles, Salar de Uyuni

And then we stopped and got silly on the salar. Devoid of any natural life, we, like many tourists before us, brought the idiocy of humanity to the salt flats.

Team briefing and history lesson before the games start

Toys came out of their boxes and we played; with dinosaur dummies and cocktail umbrellas, with beer bottles and banana skins, with our imaginations.

Playing games at the Salar de Uyuni

Carl stamps down on Blair

I survived… don’t worry

Kicking back to soak up the sunshine

Jumping out of a banana skin because… erm… someone thought it up

A mistimed jump over the car

The search for reflections begins

On the way headed out of the salar, we stopped off at the Salt Hotel where some of the guys had been raving a day or two earlier. One tall, dreadlocked Swede was still hanging around and the boys went over for a comrade catch-up.

The Salt Hotel a few days after the rave

Salt Hotel, Salar de Uyuni

The ground around the hotel was yellowed and dirty. ‘Some locals don’t like these parties’, commented Gonzalo, and I totally got it. Predominantly put on for the tourists and accepted by the police as something to turn a blind eye to, a rave gathering in such a beauty spot could only ever lead to a bit of spoilage. But I also saw it from the other side. To be able to party in this place: wow.

What, I wondered, was driving the decision to run the parties out here, though? Was the money raised sufficient enough for locals not to cause too much opposition? Did any of it feed back into their communities? How was the salar being maintained and looked after subsequent to the partying?

Contemplative thoughts in amongst further merriment on board the jeep as we headed towards our first night’s destination of Villa Mar.

Heading away from the flats and on towards rocks, deserts and lagunas

8 Comments

Filed under activity & sport, bolivia, natural wonders, nature, south america, tours

Is this the most bizarre tourist attraction in the world?

www.travelola.org

It sounded like the most boring place to visit. When another traveller had told me a few weeks back that they really hoped to visit the train graveyard in Uyuni, I looked at them as though they were crazy.

“Really?” I asked, “You’re not joking?” They weren’t joking. What strange times we live in.

So why the enthusiasm? Didn’t they have better things to do, places to see? And what the hell was a train graveyard in any case?

The tour I’d booked the day before through Andes Salt Expeditions started with a morning trip out to Cementerio de Trenes, the train cemetery or train graveyard.

I stepped out of the jeep after a 2km drive and gathered around with my new tour buddies. It was quiet, a little awkward; people were in ‘I’ve-just-met-you-friendly’ mode, polite but a little standoffish. I stuck with my friend Carl.

It was fresh and clear. Little fluffy clouds dotted a sunny blue sky and a slight, chilly breeze whispered to me: Keep an open your mind! Go and enjoy this strange place!

www.travelola.org

The Train Graveyard, Nr. Uyuni, Bolivia

Our guide, Gonzalo, gave a brief overview and history of the place. While Uyuni had been a central hub in transporting goods between South American countries from the 1880s onwards, things started to slow down – a result of the closure of a number of mines? – and the railway was decommissioned. Everything just stopped. Like that.

Now the trains stand there gradually decomposing. Why not, then, make the place into a spectacle?! As one report suggests, this is ‘a trainspotter’s sick dream’. I’d have probably chosen a different word in there, but you get the gist.

Post-history lesson we went and played. If nothing else, the Cementerio de Trenes was a big playground with swings and seesaws and things to climb on and not a hint of health and safety in place to spoil the fun.

We jumped and ran about. Creativity and big kid syndrome kicked in. Oh happy, carefree day.

www.travelola.org

Schwiiiiiiiiiiiiiing….! Playtime at the Train Graveyard

What can I do next?!

What can I do next?! Carl on a mission

www.travelola.org

Erm… improvisation

www.travelola.org

See-saw fun

www.travelola.org

Chill out time

www.travelola.org

What is everyone else doing?

Some other guys playing train-top chase

Within an hour we were back in the car, had picked up our bags from the agency and were headed for the salt flats themselves. Some of the others had partied at the rave a few days earlier so were less enthusiastic about seeing the place, but me, well, this was the whole point of being here, right?

I was excited.

And then the chaos started to unleash as the boys each cracked open a can of beer and switched Gonzalo’s music for their own, cranking up the volume.

Did I get lucky or unlucky, bunched in with five guys, Gonzalo and the driver? The other car drove along in silence: four well-mannered girls, one guy and the driver.

www.travelola.org

Party boys. Party car.

Back in our jeep, Gonzalo nodded along to the tunes and we all threw in a few restricted dance moves and adopted alter egos. While the Social Club Co-Ordinator set to work, the Rock Star put on a pair of shades, and some collaborative whoops were thrown into the music mix.

The party reputation of our car started to build. I would either grow to love or hate these boys, I realised.

8 Comments

Filed under activity & sport, bolivia, culture, south america

Uyuni is kinda okay, really

Salar de Uyuni map (image from www.2wonders.com)

I’VE HEARD DEPRESSING ACCOUNTS OF Uyuni from a fair few travellers, things that could easily put you off ever visiting the place. ‘Get there and book a tour straight away’, one girl told me, ‘don’t stop. There’s nothing to do, it’s dusty and cold and boring’. Harsh.

I did, however, want to visit the town for the same reason most backpackers head there: to access the unusual landscape of the salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni, something so intriguing and alien to a small town British girl like me.

Nine hours after leaving Sucre I arrived into Uyuni having passed through Potosi, the highest city in the world. Altitude was being kind to me on this day. After wandering through the town for a few minutes, I bumped into a friend from Sucre at a juice stall. He was trying to rejuvenate after the rave on the salt flats. ‘Our hostel is great, but full’, he said.

Plan B. I hunted down another friend and checked into a big, empty hostel on the outskirts of the town before heading out to book a tour of the salar and the surrounding lagunas, mountains and rock trees, an overall experience that Lonely Planet states as ‘must-do’ (LP haters, don’t let their endorsement put you off).

With so many tour operators in town, who to book with? Red Alert had been suggested to me, but they were expensive, nearly double that of others. ‘Worth it, though’, a backpacker had told me in Sucre, ‘great food, attention to detail and they really look after you.’ I couldn’t justify the cost.

It turned out that, having left things until late in the day, we didn’t have as broad a choice in any case. Out of those remaining open, Andes Salt Expeditions came highly recommended.

We checked the list of people already booked on to the tour. Similar ages, a predominantly English speaking mix. We got a run-down of the itinerary and costs. We would have a guide (one that spoke English), a well-maintained vehicle and a sober driver. I paid up my 700Bs. (£62.99/$101.30) for the three day, two night tour that would set off the following morning. A quick, easy arrangement.

Following the example of the person who’d written Rock Star as their profession on the details sheet, I went for Explorer, my friend chose Social Club Co-ordinator. I hope that the Rock Star wasn’t really a rock star. It could otherwise all get a bit embarrassing.

We were just about set. Time to repack bags, stock up on snacks and get a good night’s sleep.

—————————————————————————————————————————-

Included with Andes Salt Expeditions packages is daily jeep transport, an English speaking tour guide, three meals per day (not breakfast on first day or supper on last), basic accommodation and optional drop-off to cross the border over to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

Although you do make a stop at a small village near the salar where you can stock up with warm woollens at pretty standard prices, for the rest of the trip it’s difficult to buy what you want, crave or need. I’d suggest bringing: warm clothes (including hat and gloves, and if like me you’re cold hearted or blooded, fat woolly socks); 150Bs. (£/US$) for National Park entry; snacks (and smokes, if you need); water; coca leaves and coca catalyst. The other guys also brought beer and wine for evenings sat around chatting in isolated hostels (I was on antibiotics, none of that for me). Hot showers cost an additional 10Bs. (£0.90/US$1.45).

I also hired a sleeping bag from the tour operator for 40Bs. (£3.60/US$5.80), which was the best decision I made. The hostels are BASIC and COLD, particularly on the second night at over 4,000m in elevation.

And the problem of drunk drivers needs to be taken seriously, something that has been highlighted by many doing the tour out of Uyuni. The best advice is to talk to other travellers before you book, and get their recommendations for a tour operator.

9 Comments

Filed under bolivia, natural wonders, nature, south america