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Archive for the ‘Uyuni’ Category

Bleary early start
Dark – pack backpacks
Sleepy jeep creeping
Brittle river ice
Mares’ tails – black
Morning star punctuates
Serpentine headlight procession
Dust trails drifting
Geyser – jet roar
Dawn blaze hills
Sulphur cauldrons blurping
Smoulder earth
Boulder earth
Colder earth
Turner mist-light
Thawing finger-ice
Dirt track luge
Inexorable sun rise
Dazzle lake steaming
Barefoot frozen tiptoe
Hot spring sting
Cosy enrobing flow

While the Haiku is perhaps the Canon SLR of word-pictures, I have opted for a quick Instamatic point-and-shoot approach; phrases jotted as we jolted.

Thus began our last morning in Bolivia; up at a painful 4.30am after a (literally) freezing night. Indeed, this was the sort of night we feared would be frequent at altitude in South America, and had escaped until now.

Dawn blaze.
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Sol de Manana geyser.
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Geothermal area.
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And by 8am we were having breakfast beside our Toyota. I was the only one of our group of six to try the pool; the girls shivered in the car much of the time, Zenning. I feared the transition from warm pool to chill air, but nothing to fear in the end.

Landcruiser showroom.
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Hot springs

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We continued through a Dali desert (the rocks supposedly owed something to him, but I wasn’t convinced)
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and our last stop was the Laguna Verde; coloured thus by copper. (That red lake is down to the micro-organisms which give the flamingoes their hue; I asked.)
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Then it was but a short hop to the Chilean border. We got there a bit early (target time 10am), but we were immediately swept away to a waiting minibus (Cordillera Traveller for real this time) to take us down to San Pedro and immigration. Just time for a quick group photo,
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and then we were filling in our name, passport number, etc., three times over (why?) on a bumpy bus – though the road soon improved on the Chilean side. Quite extraordinary to drive straight downhill at 50 – 60 mph for about 40 minutes, seeing the Atacama plain spread out down below – like a plane coming in to land.

We disgorged at the frontier post; passports carefully checked against faces and stamps issued, then all bags through the X-ray machine. Severe warnings about not importing any vegetable of animal products. Where do they draw the line? Chocolate bars? Peanuts in chocolate bars? Souvenir reed boats from the floating islands? And customs staff brandished latex gloves to put the wind up would-be smugglers.

Anyway, we all got through without the need for thorough baggage or body searches, so back on the bus and a short way on to the office of Cordillera Traveller, where we were to be met and taken to the B&B.

Of course, no-one was there to meet us. We waited a little, I went off to find an ATM, then Kirsten phoned up. No problem; they’d send a car to arrive in ten minutes.

Forty minutes later, Kirsten called back (we were all hot and tired by now). We were told that the car was there waiting for us – where were we? So Kirsten explored all the surrounding streets and at last found a lady waiting on the opposite side of the block to our left. There are two ‘Cordillera’ offices, but she hadn’t thought to check the other one, the one where arriving passengers have the temerity to be deposited.

So some time after noon we were shown to our room; crammed with two bunk beds and a single with a pull-out mattress. Right next to the communal kitchen, for better or for worse. One drawback; there is no wireless or wired internet connection available, but there is internet access. How can this be? Guests share one laptop which has a 3G mobile connection (slow), and thus we can’t use our machine at all.

We were given a lift much of the way into town and we walked the main street looking for somewhere to eat. We settled on the Adobe Cafe, and this turned out to be a good if pricy choice. We ordered a ham and cheese sandwich (for me, this time), an Italian salad for Kirsten and two tomatoes filled with tuna mayonnaise for the girls. But these were far more than you might imagine; the giant tomatoes were on a bed of lettuce with grated carrot, sliced knobbly cucumber and an olive on top, and my sandwich came with ample chips. A good start to our Chilean food experience.
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But the fresh fruit juices were frighteningly expensive; £3 for a glass whereas we have paid 30-50p in Bolivia for the same. This is a tourist town, but we opted out and shared a Coke.

We then found a very small market and bought a pineapple, half a watermelon, four bananas (of humbling length) and a grapefruit; the market is open on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays only.

For supper we stocked up with two slices of fresh quiche from a cafe (plus a carton of cherry juice); I guessed 5000 Pesos and I was only out by 100 Pesos (still getting a feel for the new currency and prices; I think 1000 Pesos is a bit over £1, but I’m not sure what percentage more).

The girls chose chocolate cereal, vanilla yogurts and cereal bars. We were in need of an ice cream (this is the desert where it hasn’t rained for 400 years) and my guess of 7000 Pesos was wildly out; four lollies (including a Magnum) came to just under 1300 Pesos. So at least frozen treats are cheap…

We walked back in the heat of the afternoon; quite a long way with no shade, and we were all in need of a chunk of watermelon when we got back. We flopped after our early start but the girls seemed to have plenty of energy to spare. We borrowed the ‘house laptop’, checked emails and put some entries on the blog, but the connection is too feeble to put any photos yet.

Supper and then an early night for the girls. We are a bit concerned about noise next to our room – tonight the girls are tired enough to sleep through anything, but we can’t expect everyone else to keep quiet in the kitchen. For now it is occupied by the owner’s family who have been quietly baking bread for tomorrow’s breakfast (and it smells good…) but other guests may not be so considerate. There are four other rooms off this kitchen area as well as a toilet/shower room. We shall soon see if this B&B will suit us for the entire week or if we need to start looking elsewhere (noise and lack of internet are the main concerns).

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Salt flat tyre

We slept soundly in our salt hotel after the previous night’s wine (by the way, what do you do if you spill red wine on a salt table?). But I woke early, well before the 7am call, and there was a clearer view of San Juan from the window – yesterday’s dust storm had passed.
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Breakfast consisted of slightly stale rolls with jam or dulce de leche spread. We then packed our bags, loaded the Toyota and went on our way. First stop was a pre-Inca chullpa site where some of the coral funerary towers still contained skeletons. Our guide claimed that this 1500-year-old race averaged a height of only one metre, but the remains didn’t look that small.
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Then some rock formations to clamber over, and a view of a semi-active volcano (we saw the fumarole issuing steam) – apparently it last erupted in 2001.

Kirsten’s stone tower.
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Desert plants.
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A series of lagunas (Canapa, Hedionda and Honda – hang on, it’s the Renault Laguna, not the Honda Laguna…) populated with flamingoes; lots of scope for panoramic views here. The Andean flamingo has a black tail, but the majority were James flamingoes.
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Today’s road was far bumpier than yesterday’s; we were off the flat salt plains and going cross-country where the way was hardly marked at all (the guides navigate using the hills as landmarks).

We stopped for lunch at the second laguna, which was clearly set up for the task; each jeep parked next to a permanent picnic table. Chicken Milanesa with potatoes, beans, carrots and twirly pasta, then a banana for dessert. Not Inca Trail standard, but it filled us up nicely.
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Much of the afternoon was spent driving through a barren wilderness; miles and miles of stony soil with scarcely a plant maintaining a foothold at this altitude. We passed a lone cyclist pushing his bike for miles in the cold, dusty wind beneath intense sunlight. A mile further on we got a puncture, and during the twenty minutes needed for the repair the cyclist took the lead again.

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Further on we came to the mountain of seven colours (no, not quite a rainbow, but various earth tones of rock), and then to one of the most famous landmarks of this trip, the Arbol de Piedra (the stone tree). This is a Dali-esque rock apparently defying gravity, ridiculously top-heavy like those elephants on stilts.
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A little way on to our final site of the day, the Laguna Colorada. It has extensive red patches, but our guide wasn’t forthcoming about what causes the colour. A lot of the time it’s just ‘here it is – you have ten minutes to take your photos’.
Laguna Colorada

After this we paid 30 Bs each for entrance to a Reserve (the girls were free again) and soon were at our hotel. Well, it’s a dorm room sleeping up to seven, so we are sharing with Manuela and Enrico, our German co-travellers. One toilet/basin for three groups, no shower, and the usual tables (one per group) for tea, supper and breakfast. As I look out of the window I can see two chunks of meat hung up to dry on a washing line. Is that our supper?

Our table was set up for tea/coffee and biscuits and as we were enjoying those the room was getting colder and colder and we were all slowly putting on extra layers of clothing.  Soon it was 7pm and time for supper, or so we thought.  The other two tables were laid out and served a starter and main course *before* we even got our plates.  In the end I went to ask whether we were given some supper and soon a lady came in with plates and cutlery.  Then another long wait before we were served our soup.  At last, we could start to warm up, as the little stove was hardly burning. 

We had half a bottle of wine left over from yesterday, and again I had to go and ask for glasses.  We felt pretty let down by the lady looking after our table.  After the delicious soup we were offered pasta with freshly made tomato sauce (no meat), but the food cooled off pretty quickly.

On top of this we hadn’t seen our guide since tea time and we needed to know the plan for tomorrow.  Eventually he turned up and apologised for not being there for us – apparently he had been repairing the flat tyre! 

We have a 4.30am start tomorrow morning, so must try and get some sleep…

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Salty Towers

A quietish night in our two rooms, and awake around 7am to sort out bags – what we’ll need during our salt flat tour, and what can be safely packed away until Chile. We had a quick look round the local breakfast establishments, but when none of them inspired us, we returned to Minuteman for six pancakes (with maple syrup or with cinnamon, apple and banana). Once again, really delicious food. The boss is from Boston, and he pointed us in the direction of a gallery of trick shots taken on the salt flats. Our favourites were people crawling into a Pringles tube, a salt shaker pouring out a metre-high pile of the stuff, little people balancing on various body parts of big people… (Our own efforts will follow later.)

We asked to go to ‘Migracion’ around 10am to get signed out of Bolivia (for the arbitrary sum of 21 Bolivianos each), then we fetched our bags and found our jeep (Toyota Landcruiser). We discovered that we were sharing with a German couple, so a full vehicle and a bit of a squash because we only put our large rucksacks on the roof to begin with (we rectified this at lunchtime).
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The wide Uyuni streets.
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A bit before 11am we started our trip, pausing first at the train graveyard (all the tour companies do the same itinerary, I think). Formulae by Einstein and Newton adorned a couple of rusty old engines.
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Then on to a small settlement with stalls selling salt artefacts (dice, turtles, llamas, etc.) and a salt museum – a big llama the girls could sit on, a clock tower, a quirquincho (I think).
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This was the gateway to the Salar itself, and soon we were driving over a dazzling expanse of white; sunglasses essential. Early on we stopped for photos at the Ojos del Salar – cold salt water bubbling up from underground springs.
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A 360 degree panorama of the salt flats.
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On to the world’s first salt hotel (only twenty years old), but now disused because it would pollute the salt flats. Salt walls, chairs, tables, bed bases (but not mattresses).
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Onwards over a section of the salar with a marked hexagonal pattern (similar to dried, cracked mud) where we tried our hand at some trick photos. Hard to get the correct alignment, but here are some of our efforts.
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Okay, here’s a five-sided hexagon…
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We also had lunch here; quinoa, rolls, tomato, cucumber and llama meat – for dessert, watermelon.
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Next stop – one of the ‘islands’ in the salar. initially it seems bizarre to talk of islands, but when you reach them they do indeed appear as rocky outcrops surrounded by a sea of salt, as if the ocean were frozen. we stopped at Isla Incahuasi (rather than the more famous Isla del Pescado), paid our 15 Bs admission and walked up towards the viewpoint. Huge cacti everywhere, some over 10 metres tall and over 1000 years old, apparently. (How do they tell? Count the rings?)
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When we bought our tickets, we had to fill in the usual name, profession, age, etc. But one peculiarity was that our guide completed the ‘tour operator’ column with ‘Kantuta’ rather than ‘Cordillera Traveller’. When I queried this, he said ‘it’s not important’. But this sounded suspiciously as if we had been sold on to a different agency, one whose reputation we don’t know (we chose Cordillera precisely because of its good reviews).

We also discovered that the two Germans had booked with Kantuta, but had paid the same as us (600 Bs). We then spoke to the Cordillera customers in the other jeep, and they had had a flat tyre earlier on – so perhaps we shouldn’t be too ready to complain.

We drove on further and soon approached the far edge of the Salar. A little before we stopped at a spot where they cut out bricks for construction purposes, and this was also our final chance for salt flat photos.
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From here onwards we were back onto gravel tracks, a slightly rougher ride than the smoothness of the salt roads. The terrain became increasingly dusty, and we had to stop a few times when visibility fell to zero. After a couple of hours we reached the community of San Juan where we found our hotel for the night; yes, made of salt.

We were offered a triple room (as had been hinted before our departure), but we held out for two doubles in adjacent rooms. Other jeeps arrived later and the occupants were usually unhappy at the available choice of a triple or a six-bed dorm – so many wanted doubles.

We were offered tea, coffee and coconut biscuits (some other groups got only dry crackers for cheese) as a stopgap before supper. The latter (when it arrived) consisted of a tasty vegetable soup followed by chicken portions with fried potato slices. With some prompting we got a bottle of red Chilean wine; we were given the option of having it either tonight or tomorrow night; in the end we got through half the bottle so we’ll have the remainder tomorrow night.

Our salt dining room.
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At the end of the meal, a desultory performance of three songs by a group of unsmiling local children, one of whom then circulated and refused to leave a table without a suitable tip.

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Braving Bolivian buses

We woke up early after a better night’s sleep to do our final packing, and we were so efficient that we were done by 8.20, leaving us one and a half hours to start typing yesterday’s blog (which Kirsten wrote out in longhand yesterday).

Breakfast was an improvement on previous days; there are more guests staying (i.e. we aren’t the only ones) so they set out a buffet selection including cereal, small pastries and fruit salad.

Not so sure about this hotel. Apart from the obvious security concerns, the apartment was only half-provided with the necessities – no washing-up liquid or tea towels, insufficient crockery and cutlery for four of us, only two large towels provided, less-than-inspiring breakfast which twice failed to reach the promised ‘americano’ standard. We’re surprised it has four stars, given that our La Paz hotel was three star and offered so much more.

Just after 10am we checked out and walked with our bags down to the Uyuni bus terminal (no, the hotel didn’t even offer to call us a taxi). There we joined the waiting group of (mainly) tourists and shortly afterwards a 20-seater ‘Diana Tours’ bus pulled up. We stood there, expecting to be allowed on board, but the driver locked the door and disappeared for a while. The departure time (11 o’clock) came and went, and still no joy.

Not our coach…
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A while later the driver returned, unlocked the door – and drove off into the distance! We heard some rumour that they had gone to look for the driver (so who was driving the bus?) and even the local police came over and gave the office staff a hard time over the delay. Kirsten went over to a rival company’s office (whose bus left at noon) but all the seats were taken.

Eventually, a bigger ‘Diana’ coach appeared and we started loading up straightaway. Our reserved seats placed us in the front row once again – legroom! – but curtains drawn across in front of us eliminated any forward view we might have had.

We set off around 11.45am and for the first 45 minutes we had a good tarmac road. But this was too good to last and the rest of the trip was on a gravel track. We were told that the journey would take between 6 and 7 hours (so make that 7 or 8 hours), and we were concerned about getting our hotel rooms and our salt flat tour booking because of the late start.

The changing views during the journey are quite striking; extensive flood plains, barren scrubland populated by llamas and the occasional group of vicunas (don’t know where they find water to drink), cactus-spiked hillsides, rocky outcrops with a vivid contrast between the red stone, the green hillside and the clear blue sky – Nature’s RGB.
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We stopped occasionally to deposit or collect local passengers, and by the end of the trip the aisle was packed with standees, plus a TV set wrapped in a cloth right at the front between our four seats, blocking the way.

After five hours we asked how much longer the trip would take; the astonishing answer was ‘cinco minutos’! Somehow we had made up the lost time and were due to arrive around 5pm – indeed, it turned out that we arrived only just after a bus that departed a whole hour earlier. There were no loo stops, but fortunately we all managed to hang on…

At the terminal, a lady from Cordillera Traveller met us, and we walked three blocks or so to the office along with six other travellers from our bus and the preceding one (didn’t expect so many people to have chosen the same company). Before she started explaining about the trip, I popped along the road to check in at our hotel. A few scary moments when they appeared not to have our reservation, but eventually it turned up and I got the keys (not next-door rooms but one directly over the other).

Back to the tour company office and a quick run-through of the schedule. Off at 11am tomorrow (later than we expected), but be there half an hour earlier for Peruvian ‘migracion’. See the salt flats. First night in a nice hotel (might be an illegal salt one), second night more basic – dorms. Up at 5.30am on the final day, coloured lakes, thermal pool, then to the Chilean border and down to San Pedro de Atacama for mid-day.

We paid our wadge of 100 Boliviano notes, returned to our rooms and soon ventured out for supper. I had heard good reports of Minuteman Pizza so we tried to find it. It’s at the back of a hotel and not advertised outside, but we located it eventually. And it is as good as the books say; Kirsten and I shared a ‘salad’ pizza with spinach, tomatoes, olives, peppers, etc., and it’s the best pizza we’ve had for a long time. The place is run by an American (from Boston? there’s a Minuteman memorial there, I think). The girls finished their shared sandwich, thereby entitling them to an ice-cream dessert (one scoop of vanilla or coconut).

On the way back we stocked up on drinks and nibbles for the next three days and were taken aback when this came to more than our supper (but Snickers and Twix bars are pricy over here). To our rooms – which we didn’t expect to have ensuite showers/toilets – and then a good rest (we hope).

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