Days 31-33 – Un-Bolivia-ble

In the guide book to South America a visit to the Salar de Uyuni is in the Top 15 “Things to see” in the entire continent.  I have been to Bolivia before but did not travel far enough south to get there, so this time I was keen to make amends and Niki (being a geography geek) was also up for it.

Researching the options for travelling the salt flats indicated you could arrange to do a day trip from Uyuni, but the more preferable option is to do a 3 day tour of what is known as the South West Circuit and as we have the time…

Still there are options.

Tours run from either San Pedro (Chile) to Uyuni (Bolivia) or vice versa, and there is the choice of group or private options. According to the guide books the group options can be challenging and of variable quality (stories of drink driving, old vehicles breaking down, freezing cold hotels with no hot water etc).  I am getting on a bit, and also at 6ft, the thought of being cramped in the “rear rear” seat of a Land Cruiser for 7 hours a day over rough terrain does not appeal.

You will have guessed we went for the more expensive private option whereby you get a car to yourself with a driver and a tour guide separately (the group tours the driver is also your guide and cook).

We are collected from the hostel in San Pedro and taken first to Chilean customs (that is at the end of the town a way from the actual border) where we bump in to Philipp, our friend from Valparaiso, who is also doing the trip as part of  group. Onwards to the Chile / Bolvian border which is in the middle of nowhere we are due to transfer to a 4×4 for the rest of the trip.

The border is full of tourists on the tour route as people approach from both sides and cross the border and exchange vehicles.  It makes a great advert for Toyota with Land Cruisers everywhere with the odd ‘posh Toyota’ (Lexus) making up almost the entire fleet seen in the deserts.

I’ll admit to be slightly sceptical when our ‘ride’ arrived.  Whilst it was a relatively new Land Cruiser it was when the guide got out wearing a Darth Vader mask that we both looked at each other quizzically.

We are introduced to Nelson (our guide) and Theo (our driver), get our passports stamped at the Bolvian border and we are off.
The next three days are absolutely amazing – if felt like we were driving through a physical geography A-level syllabus.  Words will struggle to describe the things we saw, and therefore I’d just sit back and look through the photos and captions for a feel of the extraordinary things we saw.

The trip really takes to the middle of nowhere, with the majority of the driving off road across deserts over sand, rocks and of course salt (tyres last less than 3 months!).  We feel very safe with Theo the entire and often it looked as if we were off-piste snowboarding rather than driving as there were just tracks of other vehicles in the sand that we either crossed or drove in for a while.

Whilst Theo’s driving was great less positive things could be said about his choice of music which swings between dance tunes and what I assume is the Bolvian Ricky Martin.

Due a slight ‘lost in translation’ moment we both get a chance to drive!  Niki along the Salt Falts at 100km/h and me on a rocky dessert section dropping us from 4800m to 4200m.  Great fun.

Ah yes.  The altitude.

The only drawback of the whole trip was that we both suffered from altitude sickness at times (though from talking to others on the different trips we were not alone).  San Pedro was at about 2400m, and some of the trips we had out took us to around 3000m I’d guess.  On day one of the trip we hit 5000m, and stayed at 4700m at the night.

The impact of altitude is one that takes no notice of physical fitness.  And the impacts are a general feeling of breathlessness, a splitting headache and nausea. Anyone doing this trip should either be prepared or try to acclimatise better.

The accommodation and food during the trip were great given the absolute isolation of the locations – power was only available from 6pm to 10pm and warm water for about 2 hours.  One hotel was all built out of stone, including Flintstones style beds and furniture, and the second the same but from salt!

There is an annual festival to celebrate the salt flats and we are lucky it falls during our trip and we stop there for lunch on the second day.  Bonkers! The most famous band in Bolivia are playing (Norte de Potosi) who look like the pan pipe people from the Fast Show, food stalls (I have llama omelette and a local fermented maize drink called Chicha) and lots of celebrations about the fact in 2014 the Dakar rally is coming to Bolivia (and Chile and Argentina).  All in the middle of the largest salt flats in the world.

The flats themselves are un-Bolivia-ble (a phrase Nelson is fond of).  The size of Greater London, up to 140m thick, and just flat hard salt.  It means there is no perspective and we stop for photos with Nelson and his “bag of tricks” (the Vadar mask is explained) to demonstrate this. A funny experience that he enjoys at least as much as we do.

Last stop before we finish is the unofficial Uyuni (pronounced ooh-uni) train cemetery.  A rusting collection of railway engines that fell into disrepair because the populous were not educated enough to maintain them after the colonials left.  Very sad as a decent railway system on this continent would be extremely beneficial.  Also the “scrap” metal value here would have been cut up and flogged to the scrapyards in a matter of days in the UK, it’s hard to understand why this metal apparently has no value in Bolivia.

We don’t stop long in Uyuni as it’s not a town with a lot going for it, but grab a drink and some food with a group we saw on the flats over the last 3 days and then bump into Nicole (from San Pedro) who joins us.

An evening bus journey to Potosi sees us end the day. We note that at 33 days this is now the longest “holiday” either of us has have ever had.

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