Saturday, November 25, 2006

Salar de Uyuni trip

I've had an interesting time on a 4-day tour of the south-west of Bolivia, climaxing with the reaching of the 'Salar de Uyuni', the famous salt lake which is supposed to be one of the highlights of travelling in South America. Along the way we encountered beautiful alien landscapes, amazing scenery, altitude sickness, drunk tour guides and coca leaves...

THE TOUR does not get off to a good start. I had no money in the tiny town of Tupiza and the only way of getting cash was to get a Mastercard advance, involving commisions and interest. Fine, except the swipey stripe on my Mastercard wasn't working, so for the entire trip I was in debt to everyone for Bolivianos. I actually had a tab with Lynn.

So we got off to a late start on Monday, setting out into the nothingness at about 10am. Ours was a group of four, consisting of myself, Lynn, a Canadian stockbroker called Clive and an Italian called Michele. We also had our driver/guide Carlos and our cook, Margarete. There were two other groups leaving from Tupiza earlier that day, but we soon caught up with them as Carlos is one of the best drivers I've ever seen, which is a good thing as at some points we were driving along gravel mountain roads with no barriers or anything. I have to admit that despite the amazing scenery I felt quite nervous.

That first day we mainly drove around the mountains and stopped at some tiny little towns where they have only recently got a couple of cars to drive the 3 or 4 hours to Tupiza for supples instead of making the week-long journey on llamas. Apparently on Sundays a preist comes from Tupiza in a 4x4 truck to do services across the area.

In these small towns you really wonder what the hell these 150 or so people do, hours from anywhere in a car (and that's in the dry season when the roads are passable). I was told there is a bus. Once a week.

Llama farming seems to be a popular job. Carlos told us about a man up in the mountains with no wife, no family, just a few hundred llamas. What does he do most of the time?

When we stopped that first night I started to feel the altitude. We were at about 3,500 metres and walking around was literally a breathtaking experience. Our cook Margarete, a lovely woman, made us dinner. She served us breakfast, lunch and dinner each day, with some pretty decent food for the Bolivian desert.

The next day we awoke at 5.30am to get started. There was a huge amount of driving that day, as we didn't finish untill about 6pm that evening. During the second day we realised the Bolivian/Peruvian mix tapes that Carlos used were insufficient for our long drives, resulting in the repitition of many songs that drove me to the point of madness. One of the songs was about some people celebrating because the village cow was fat and nearly ready to eat. They were going to have a party. Because of the cow, you see.

It was around this time that it was explained to me that Coca leaves are helpful for altitude sickness. So we all started chewing and though they tasted disgusting, they did the trick. Apparently it's all to do with opening up blood vessels to allow more oxegen to get through the blood stream to the brain. Coca leaves are totally legal to buy and everyone chews them at altitude here in Bolivia. Well, not everyone, but you know what I mean. You can have them in tea, a popular drink being Coca Maté. Cool. It's nice. Quite stimulating, so I don't recommend it before bedtime.

I was quite sick that second morning, what with the motion of the truck as well as the altitude. It got better later in the day, but that was a bad few hours.

During the day we saw a cool ghost town. I don't know what it's called but back in the 1600s this town mined for silver and became so rich they went a bit mad. The story goes that the devil came to the town and soon people were building houses with wheat instead of proper cement mixture stuff, some people got married 3 times in one day and the women used llama meat to sew things instead of your typical sewing stuff like string and thread.

Then a plague came and killed them all off. And that was that. Interesting, eh?

We stopped at a hot spring for lunch and later that day we travelled up to see some geisers at 5,000 metres! It was insane. Nothing was growing up there. The geisers were impressive. I heard a story of some tourists who were JUMPING OVER the geisers as some kind of dare-based situation and a Frenchman fell in one. Stupid boy. He was burnt all up to his waist. Nasty. Some people have to learn the hard way.

The landscapes we were seeing during this trip were quite out of this world. Desolate and unforgiving terrain was crossed over many hours. I wouldn`t have liked to break down out there.

The sleeping arrangements were basic. Very basic in fact, but not horrible. I mean we didn't have showers at the first two places we stayed but still it was fine, what with the hotsprings and all. Quite refreshing.

Our third day we saw loads of lagoons with strange colours and amazing reflections and flamingoes. But more impressive were the strange rock formations we walked around a few hours later. Apparently there are little or no formations like this in the world. The famous bit is the 'rock tree' but all of it was strange and somewhat magical. Spiritual almost. These crazy rock shapes set in some kind of quasi-Marsian landscape.

There was a lot of driving that day too. Some roads that didn't even qualify as roads. Carlos did a superb job not only keeping us on the road, but keeping us ahead of the other groups, which is more important I think. In fact we lost one group, Tupiza tours, and never saw them again. I'm sure they're ok.

Our last night proved most interesting. We stayed at a lodge type place with beds and floors made from salt. We hiked for an hour up the nearby hill where we had a superb view of the salt lake and the nothingness beyond. The hill was covered with cactai. Very strange. At the top of this hill was the quietist silence I've ever heard. No wind or anything. Then I said aloud, "this is the quietist silence I've ever heard," and a great crack of thunder answered back that it was time to go. It was really surreal, like a cliche in a film. Bizarre.

At this point I feel I should explain more about the 'salt lakes'. Basically they were real pre-histric lakes that one day just dried up. Well, not one day, but it happened, ok? Anyway, left behind was this salt terrain landscape that looks completely alien. Like desert, but more bizare. Lifeless, endless, and, er, salty. Very salty in fact. I tasted it. People mine the lake for salt and refine it.

Apparently a few years ago a truck of tourists just disappeared in the slat lake. The theory being that an earthquake opened the ground and swallowed the truck then sealed up behind them. Fascinating, but chilling!

Now the really interesting bit of that last night. Drivers in Bolivia are notoriously known for being drunk. Our guy, Carlos, was completely fine. Untill that last night. We had an excellent dinner of soup, chicken, potatoes and salad prepared by Margarete. We were drinking some beer and wine and Carlos and Margarete joined us for drinks. It soon dawned on us - Carlos was wasted! We were his brothers, fathers and friends. Lynn was a potential lover untill she was downgraded to a sister. It was a deep, touching session. Carlos went on and on about how this was a great group, and I was 'muy tranquilo' (very relaxed and calm), probably because I couldn't unserstand much of what Carlos was saying. He spoke no English you see. He does speak two other indigenous languages, but that doesn't help because my Quechua is pretty rusty.

The lights stayed on past the alotted time of 10pm because Carlos claimed people knew him and were fearful of him (he is about 5'6).

Now, we all went to bed soon after as we were getting up early to see the sun rise over the salt flats. Well, not all of us. When we got up at 5am, it was apparent that Carlos had not gone to bed and had stayed up partying and drinking with some others at the complex! He was a happy camper, and we had the hilarious and strange experience of driving around this alien landscape under the rising sun, at 6am, in Bolivia, with a drunk driver who was having a party with us in his truck.

Now you might think this was somewhat irresponsible of our Carlos, but the truth is that on this salt lake there is literally nothing to hit. Someone with no arms could drive the lake. Carlos proved this by driving with his thighs for ten minutes.

At the centre of the lake is a bizarre island inhabited by more cactai which offers an amazing 360 view of the salt lake. You can see some mountains from the top but apart from that it's salt, salt, everywhere.

One of the cactai (spelling?) was 1200 years old. That's what the sign said. It was old. And really big.

So we drove around the flats as Carlos sobered up and we took loads of pictures and did that perspective photo thing where it looks like you're holding the truck in the palm of your hand. Michele took lots of those photos. In fact he took loads of pictures generally during those few days. He said he took 300 pictures over the trip time and I believe him. Everywhere we went he wanted to "make a picture." We made lots of pictures.

After a couple of other stops we were finished our trip. The last day was bitter-sweet. It was the climax to our trip but I had to say goodbye to all the guys. In Uyuni, where the trip finished, we managed to find an international ATM and I settled all my debts before boarding a rickety and bumby bus to Sucre. Clive went to La Paz with Michele and Lynn went to Buenos Aires where she has an exam sometime soon. Carlos had to drive back to Tupiza, where I imagine he went to sleep pretty fast.

I understand that this whole drunk driver thing seems a bit alarming. But Carlos was genuinely a nice guy and I think he probably got wasted at that point quite often, as he knew he could handle the drive across the salt flats. If he was drunk on those mountain roads it would, er, be quite a different story. In fact one group complained to their agency because their driver was drunk quite a bit. Obviously this is unacceptable. In fact we had a good tour company. It's an insane business these 3 or 4 day salt flat tours. We paid a bit over the odds (130 US Dollars) as there was only 4 of us in our car on the trip. Other people paid about half what we did in Uyuni, the characterless town where most tours go from. However, I think it was worth it as our tour was along a better route, we were alone more often and not in a herd of 10 or 15 cars from Uyuni and our tour was 4 days whereas some people paid 65 US Dollars for 3 days. I've heard of some bad stories from Uyuni tour groups - Drunk drivers, fallings out with drivers, only one cook per 18 people, 7 folks being squeezed into a 6 person max truck.

Sometimes it's better to pay a bit more for a trip you really belive is going to be good. I would recommend anyone going from Tupiza on this trip rather than Uyuni and going with Salar or Valle Hermoso (our group). It was a great trip and I was really happy with my group.

So now I am in Sucre, at Backpackers Sucre on Colon and Loa. It's a nice place, with nice courtyard type stuff. I have a comfy, private room with cable TV for about 2.80 pounds a night. There's another bed but even if it gets taken there'll still be loads of space. It's like being in a hotel, which is bad for socialising but great for relaxing and having some privacy.

I've been having a poorly stomach these past few days but there are far worse places to relax and take it easy after the crazy trip up to Bolivia and the following tour. Last night I watched Silence of the Lambs and Roxanne. Today I watched Shakespeare in Love. Cable is great. I've gone from watching no TV for ages to indulging completely. I've watched quite a lot of comedy shows too.

But I'm not bedridden! I've been out and about and I'll be in Sucre for a week or so as I've signed up for some Spanish lessons. Four hours a day for five days. Hopwfully I'll get some basic syntax understanding about sentence forming rather than my broken attempts like, "Hola, que tal? Quisiero, er, medicine para, er, malo, um, stomach," where I mix up English and Spanish for good measure.

This is an epic entry, and I think I'll probably add more to it later. Hopefully I should have loads of pictures up tomorrow. That's my sole thing to do tomorrow - upload pictures! Ahh, it's a hard life.

Another positive of the last couple of days is that the lovely tax people have paid me over a thousand pounds, so although I was getting a bit concerned about money I should be able to finsih my intended trip and not come home early. So it should be sometime in March I come home. That's a good 6 months away. I don't think I'd want to away to much longer on my own. It's great meeting, tripping and travelling with people but I think I'll be ready for home around March!

This salt trip has been fantastic. Good folks, good experiences, photos, stories, everything. My journey though Bolivia continues. After here I'll head to Peru for Christmas and new year, then down through Chile then flying to Sydney 20 January-ish, then after my short Australian stoppover, onto South Africa where I hope to visit a couple of old friends and meet Laura and do some travelling with her.

It's all very crazy and exciting. Suddenly time looks shorter. Days slightly more important. But I've still got a month-ish left in Bolivia, then 3-ish weeks in Peru, then, er, a bit in Chile. Then my stoppover in Oz, then Africa.

I now realise that this has not value of interest to read at all, I'm just sorting things in my head but out loud effectively.

Well, it's nice to have a bit of a plan.

I'm meeting English and French girls later, possibly for dinner, then an early night and possibly more cable! And, yes I am getting into the culture. Most of the channels are in Spanish, so you see it's all research.

Just for good measure, here's a picture of me sitting on furniture made entirely from salt.

Drop me an e-mail. Chao for now.


James said...

Hi Andy
Bolivia salt flat tour sounded good- may well use your recommendation when I make it there in around a month- just got back from Antarctica, so need to get up through southern Chile first though...

Lynn said...

Hey Andy! Como estas? Sabes algo de espanol ahora?? ;)

Happy Boxing Day to you!! And merry belated Christmas!

Its nice to be home, but I miss the cheap food. I also miss your entertaining commentaries..I laughed a lot while reading your blog thus causing my boyfriend much concern. Alas, I am still traveling, only in country this time. Today was 11hrs in my car and tomorrow is the same or MORE. EEEK.

My favorite picture is that of Carlos and Maragrete.

Good Luck and enjoy Peru!