Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Salt Flats, Tupiza to Uyuni, 8-11 September 2009

Oh, the Salt Flats! 4 days of absolute brilliance. 4 days of sub zero temperatures. 4 days of giggles and laughter. 4 days of incredible and diverse landscapes. 4 days of planning Salt Flat photos. 4 days wihout a shower. 4 fantastic days.

The itinerary
(courtesy of Tupiza Tours)

1st Day: The tour visits; Quebrada de Palala with spectavular red formations that resemble needles reaching 4200m high. El SIllar or VAlley of the Moon, where, as a product of erosion, landscape presents shapes like a moon landscape showing peaks and craters. Going up we arrive at Nazarenito, a gold mining village and Chilcobja, the deepest anitmony mine of the world. Landscape in this area is dry where you can usually see Condors flying. We spend the first night in San Antonio de Lipez 4269m above sea level. 250 inhabitants.

2nd Day: It´s the longest day (Almost 10 hours). LEaving early we visit the old colonial and abandoned town of San Antonio distinguished for Gold Exploitation. THe Torreon, an erroded area with volcanic rocks. Small towns as Quetena Chico and Quetena Grande, Kollpa Laguna where you can take a bath in Rio Amargo (hot springs), and Sala de Chalviri up to >Laguna Verde. HEre you can see two slopes of water separated only by a very narrow channel, the surface is 17km2. The strange colour of this lagoon is for the high content of arsenic and magnesium, near the lagoon is locaetd the majestic Volcan Licancabur (5818m). THe trip continues to Desierto de Dali showing a fantastic landscape, forsets of stone formations of ignimbritas and lava.
Towards the North we go to a geothermic land called Sol de Manana with an approxiamte extension of 1km2 and 5000m of height, this place represents an area of intense volcanic activity with craters of lava and mud in constant boiling. Many geysers are a formidable attraction too. Very near we can appreciate the Laguna COlorado, whihc is located in the foot of a black mountain. The lagoon is slightly deep, but it has interior islands of ice and borax. This one presents a brilliant red colour due to pigments of algae clorofitas and this sediments deposited at the bottom of the lagoon. THere we can find many kinds of flamingos.

3rd Day: LEaving towards Desierto de Siloli with lava formations where you can see the famous ´stone tree´ we continue to the North wehre a seies of small lagoons gradually appear. The most important are Laguna Hedionda, Chiarcota, Ramaditas, Honda and Canapa. Then we continre to the small Salar de Chiguana. Most of these rests of salt pleistocenicos lagoons are located in the small depressions. ANother fantastic attraction is Ollague VOlcano.

4th Day:The last day we cross he biggest salt flat of the world: Salar de Uyuni (10,500km2). Here Tunupa volcano hangs over impressively. The Salt Flat is considered the biggest in the world. It is formed by 11 layers with a thickness that ranges from 2 to 20m. It is the biggest reserve of energetic minerals in the world as lithium, magnesium, potasium, nitorgen, phosphorus, borax and others. It has 14 small islands. the main one is Fish island, (1km2) formed by calcerous rocks, rest of corals and marine shells. You can see the amaxing Ojos de Agua they are spring sources which could be considered as the pores of the exterior coat. Finally leaving the Salt Flat we visit Colchani, the village where they run the process of salt., Fianly we arrive at Uyuni, the most imprtant railway center in the last years, the ´train cemetry´is located there.

The characters

Amy, English, professional backpacker and writer (well, blogger of sorts)
Tim, English, commercial property developer
Laura, Irish, newly qualified accountant
Ciara, Irish, primary school teacher
Marco, Bolivian, driver (or personal chauffeur as I prefer)
Sonia, Bolivian, cook (oh yes, personal cook!)

Day 1

Wow this is beautiful. We can´t be more than 2km from Tupiza and already we are seeing stunning landspace. Red rock pinnacles weathered by the wind and rain. Wow.

A herd of goats just passed us by. First animals on the wildlife hunt! Booyah!

We drive further and chat between ourselves getting to know each other.

LLAMAS!!!! Wooo! I know I´ve seen lots of Llamas before but there are hundreds here! They are soooo cool. They all have their necks down grazing. ´Please put your heads up for a nice photo llamas, por favor!´ I bleat. No such luck. We carry on.

Wow, valley of the moon. Incredible. We demand that Marco stop so we can take pictures. Marco obliges. We travel a further 500m and Marco stops and encourages to take more photos from the better viewpoint. Marco knows the good spots!

Note to self, i have already used the word ´Wow´ several times. It´s going to be one of those posts!

Lunch. AVACADO! YUM! Sandwiches, and Talmes, and Pop! Love it!

Pass an old abandoned Gold Mine. My goodness life must have been bleak up here. We have been travelling for 5 hours and this is our first sight of any human activity. It´s not too cold up here, but it is chilly with the wind. It´s roasting in the car. Tim and I are in the main part of the car and Ciara and Laura are cramped in the back two seats. We all keep stripping on and off as we get out and in the car. There´s no air con in the car. Dammit. We can only have a little bit of the window open as we dont want to be suffocated by sand and dust.

The journey is not too bumpy. The 4 wheel drive doesnt seem to be working. There are some bumps in the road - can i even call it a road? But it´s all good. We´ve been given Lollipops with bubblegum in the middle (no one wants to have a bubble blowing competition with me - wish you were here Miss Wells!)

Marco and Sonia only speak Spanish, but we are doing very well at understanding what they tell us. We juut past a mountain that is a great resource for Tin. You can even see the minerals sparkling on the outside.

I´ve just slapped myself. The scenery that we continue to drive through is stunning, but i´m already starting to get blase! Dammit. I´m forcing myself to absorb as much of it as possible, but it really is mountain, after mountain, after mountian. It is stunning though. It is so dry up here, there are just scrubby bushes and cacti. Apparently in the wet season this area is lush with greenery. Hmm, sounds nice but I would rather be dry and see the golden and red barreness that I can see now, than be wet and seeing a few green bushes.

Interesting selection of tunes on the CD player ´Hey Mickey, your so fine, your so fine you blow my mind Hey Mickey.´ Shudder, these are going to be a long 4 days!

Stuck! Oh yes, we´ve got stuck in the sand. All out. All push. Oh that was hell. The wheels were spinning all the sand up into our faces as we pushed with all our might. SO we were pushing with all our might with eyes closed and holding our breath tightly. After a few failed attempts we finally free the 4x4. Go team!

We pass through some tiny towns. They are so basic. There is no suggestion that there are any shops in the town. Each town has a church though. Very rustic. There are hardly any signs of life. But Marco tells us people live here. I guess they are out in the wild shepherding the llamas. ´Imagine if we end up sleeping in a town like this tonight´ i joke. Everyone laughs ´Imagine´.

We arrive at San Antoni de Lipez and laugh. It is maybe a tiny bit bigger than the towns we had passed through earlier, and just as basic.

We pull into a hostel. No room at the inn. Marco looks as though everything is under control. ´SUrely we have reservations?´ ponder the 4 gringos.

Into what we assume is another hostel. No answer. Marco looks worried.

´We could try the church´ suggests Laura half joking, half serious. We discuss who would have the altar and who would be left on the pews. At least we could have a wash in the font.

We approachj a third buliding. Is this a hostel? Apparently so, and it has room for us.

We are all spitting feathers! How could we not have had a reservation? Surely there are agreements in place even if they can´t make telephone communication to make official reservations. It has become apparent that accomodation is on a first come, first serve basis. Fastest driver equals best hostel.

There are six beds in our room. Every bed has a differen flouro blanket. It´s tasteful. It´´s not too cold yet, but the walls are bare brick, and you can guarantee that it is going to get cold soon. We all ´rug up´ with thermals, jumpers, hats and gloves in anticipation of the cold. Tim burns a cd from his lap top so we can have music in the car tomoorrow. No one liked ´Hey Mickey´. I guess it was a good job I didn´t start singing outloud to it.

Tea time. TEA! Hot tea! Hot! (it´s getting colder). Soup! Veg soup! Sonia we love you. Meat, is it beef? is it llama? I don´t care what it is it tastes good. We think about the cute little llamas running around. Oh well, if i am eating llama it tastes good!

Marco meets us after dinner and tells us there is a problem with the car. He is going to drive it somewhere tonight to try and fix it, but just in case a new car and new driver will be arriving in the morning in case our jeep is rendered useless. As an after note he mentions we will be woken at 5am tomorrow. 5am! Our faces must have been a picture!

Anyone for cards? A lesson in the rules of Shithead begins. The tournament commences. It is hard to play cards whilst wearing gloves.

After an hour or so we head to bed. We walk from the dining area to the bedroom. BRRRRR!

I decide to sleep on the premise that if you wear ALL your clothes to bed you defeat the purpose f a sleeping bag. So lying in my thermals I shiver myself to sleep. My toes are like ice. And take ages to wake up.

I don´t sleep very well. Cold and altitude. I am glad at 5am when we are woken up. Please let there be a cuppa tea on offer for brekkie!

Day 2

I have never been so cold. It is still pitch black. Tea. Bread. DULCE DE LECHE! Made.

There is no jeep inside. If we have got up at 5am and we have no Jeep we are not going to be happy. We discover that Marco and the dodgy Jeep are outside the walls of the hostel. Oh, panic over. We jump in the jeep and drive off as the sun starts to rise.

There can´t be a better time in the world to explore a ghost town than now. WIth the sun creeping up steadily the light is eerie. It´s also very cold so I spend just a little time exploring and photographing. Back in the car. Tim and i are in the back seats today.

My toes are cold. Really cold.

We put on our new cd. Tim´s music taste is pretty good. we have soem good music on the go. Marco and SOnia hate it already. We all like it though. The morning continues. ´Who sings this one Tim?´ and Tim recounts the musical history of each artist on the mix tape.

My toes are so cold.

We stop several times at several stunning vistas. It is beautiufl, but it is bloody cold. Much colder than yesterday. In fact the sheer intensity of the cold is apparent when we reach an river.

There are three other jeeps on the same itinerary as us. We didn´t really see much of them yesterday, but we are all pretty much together today. The two jeeps stop ahead of us, indicating that Marco takes the lead. Then we see it, the river we have to cross through, a frozen river. Did i mention our 4 wheel drive was dead? We are forced to go first. Marco drives through. And we hit ice. (Titanic flash backs!) We can´t budge the ice. Marco pushes and pushes against the ice. Our faces are filled with terror. The river is deep, it must be at least up to the car door handles. There is no way I am getting out to push. The other jeeps take photos from the track. I want to stick my fingers up at them. Marco keeps revving. Surely the engine is going to get flooded. Laura and Ciara gather up their bags. Water is coming in. My toes are still freezing and the prospect of froxzen river water is not a warming one. Marco keeps revving and we keep moving inches at a time. We stop and take pictures from the middle of the frozzen river. Quite nice picture actually. I really need a wee. Push, push, push. Everyone on the track are laughing. Err excuse me, you lot were all too chicken to break the ice! A few more revs and some how we are through the ice berg and we blast through on to the banking. Stop i need a wee. No trees so i create privacy by opening car doors and demanding htat nobody looks. No one does look, they all watch the other jeeps cross the river. A feat which is much easier now that the path has been made by Marco.

Pass by a gorgous lake and enjoy the stunning views. Watchign the world go by through the window of a car has never been so stunning.

Hot Springs. But, it´s bloody freezing. The wind is bitter. Bitter. There is no way í´m stripping down to a bikini, imagine how cod it would be when you hvae to get out. I sit with my feet in though and after 30 minutes my toes finally warm through.

Lunch time! Pasta and veg ! Yum! We all love Sonia.

We travel onwards and meet the stunning Desert of Dali. It is stunning ad just like that painitng with the melted clocks, excpet there are no melting clocks here. Stunning. We practice for the Salar with some star jump photos. Practice was needed!

Pass by the Grrn and White Lakes. Stunning, stunning stunning.

Reach the geysers, but it is freezingly cold so we jump straight back in the car and admire through the windows.

We reach our little hostel which is much nicer than the previous nights. Ciara realises that there are only 2 blankets on the beds. She liberates blankets from an empty room so that we all have the 3 blankets that we paid for. There is a wood burner in this place. We demand that it be lit and we sit around it to get warm. Thankfully there is no one else in the hostel so we are greedy and have it to ourselves. We eat and play shit head again. We dont have to be up till 6.30 the next day, it feels like such a lie in. We enquire after the health of the car which Marco assures us is ok. Really? How comes? It was drowned today, surely it must be suffering in some way. Apparently not.

It doesnt feel quite so cold tonight, although i did abandon the idead of just wearing thermals in the sleeping bag. I add a hoodie, pj bottoms, socks and gloves. My feet are not quite so cold, but I still don´t sleep soundly.

day 3

Drive to Laguna Colorado, the red lake, we would have preferred to have seen it the evening before, the light was better as we drove past it at dusk, it´s a bit brown at dawn. Saw a few flamingoes, and I curse my inadequate zoom and then curse the flamingos for perching themselves so far away. I leave the lake disappointed. I love flamingoes and this was not up to par. Marco assures the disheartened Flamingo lover that we will see more later. Hmmmm.. we better or you get no tip matey.

We drive on to the first of five lakes. Wow. Pretty. (I promise that photos will rise to the surface at some point).

Between the second and third lake we have a problem... We grind to a halt. Marco looks to Sonia. Marco climbs out, walks around the jeep and then goes to collect a rock. I lean out my window.

Flat tire.

To be helpful i pull out my camera and take some piccies! Tim gets out and acts manly and stands and supervises the wheel change. Lots of Jeeps pass us by and none f them stop to help. This makes us all a bit cross, but the crossness doesn´t last for long.

Laura, Ciara and I laugh lots. The track playing at the time of puncture was BEth Rowley´s ´Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground´. Laura and I change the words, ´Tyre driving too close to the Ground´. After rewording the entire song to our amusement about having a flat tyre (i´m sure if Marco had understood English he wouldn´t have appreciated it) We flicked through our mix tape CD and play track 1, Ray Le Montagne´s Trouble! Oh yes, perfect. ´Trouble, trouble, trouble´. This should be our anthem we thought. If only we knew what lay ahead!

With the tyre fixed we carried on and by the 4th lake all of our flamingo dreams were satisfied.

I love flamingos. Purely because I used to think that Flamingo Land Theme Park was the best place in the world. My love of Flamingoes extended to me spending 20th Birthday birthday money on a pink neon light in the shape of a Flamingo from HyperValue. I cried when I knocked it off my shelf and smashed it into a million pieces last year.

But none of this mattered now. Here i was stood before a million trillion pink flamingoes. I walked along the edge of the lake and was in almost touching distance with these beautiful birds. The cold didn´t matter any more. Watching them take off into flight was incredible, as was watching them land. Like the llamas they all had their heads down as they picked for food in the lake. But one or two obliged when I asked them politely to raise their heads for the camera. i was in my element. I was surrounded by hte flamingoes. I just couldnt cope with the excitement. Then the time came when we had to move on. I was upset, but when I saw the next stop, another lake, with even more flamingoes I was excited again. I love flamingoes. With the blue sky, blue lake, yellow and red mountains, and pink flamingoes this was the most incredible place in the world. Forget Flamingo Land, this was my paradise. We ate lunch in the car (it was windy outside, god only knows how the flamingoes don´t get blown over!) and it was one of those perfect picnic spots that i have loved in South America. I think I will have to make a top ten of the best picnic spots in South America at some point. this spot would be a high one.

We carry on our drive thourhg lots of Volcanoes and through the vast area barren wilderness. It was stunning. Marco took off our CD and plugged in his mp3 player (sadly the car stereo was incompatible with ipods) and we endured panpipes. Laura and I moaned. It just went on and on. SO after 25 very long panpipe tracks we requested a different CD. Marco obliged on the condition that it was one of his CDs. Ok, we conceded. He inserted a new CD and pressed play. The opening notes sounded and Laura and I looked to eah other with pained expressions. More Panpipes!!! And then, before we could demand a change of CD again the voice of Nelly Furtado began and we were saved from a death by panpipes with the Whoa Nelly album. We cross a small Salt Flat and are very disappointed, this is rubbish and grey. Knowing that we would be seeing a bigger and better salt flat tomorrow we all restrained from takng photos.

About 40 minutes from our bed for the night Marco stops again. He turns to Sonia and Sonia gets out. She places her head in her hands and walks off to get a stone. Laura leans out of her door. Another flat!

We are all cursing and wandering what happens next. We had already used our spare. Some other jeep better stop for us this time, but moments later another jeep sped past. rahhh! Tim gets out of the car again and does the manly thing of watching and we girls listen to the tunes that play out again. At the moment of the second puncture the song playing out was ´Good times, we, all, have, Good times´ (no idea who sings this, but it was probably on a Harvester advert once upon a time). We laughed at the irony and contemplated putting on a bit of Ray Le Montagne again to increase the irony. But when the next track fired up as ´Girls just wanna have fun´ we decided to sing along at the top of our voices. Obviously we were very good at easing the situation. As we sung Marco did his magic and produced a new inner tube for the tyre which would apparently be sufficient to fix the second flat. i had a momment of terror as i was flicking through tracks on the cd player. every time i pressed the skip button the engine revved. I scremed. I was only touching the cdplayer, how could i be operating the engine. it tunrs out that the new inner tube was being reinflated from the engine which Marco was somehow reviing.

Ten minutes later and we were back on the road. and soon enough we arrived at our final salt flat hostel. this time a real salt hotel.

Built on the same principle as an igloo, this hotel made of blocks of salt was toasty, even without a woodburner. We fell in love with the hostel immediately. The walls were filled with gorgeous weavings and stuffed ducks. The floor was made up of salt bits, thus making shoes invaluable.

We had to delay the shit head tournament final this evening as we had more urgent matters to attend to. Salt Flat photos. I was so ecstatic when I met Laura and Ciara and they told me that they too had brought props for Salt FLat photos. I had bought an orange dinosaur and had several other things lurking in the depths of my bag that would be useful for the photo opportunity which we were now very close to.

We designated a plastic bag as a props bag and filled it with all our goodies. Tim watched on with pained expressions as we grew more and more excited. With the prop bag full we began to write a list of the photos we would take on the Salt Flats. Tim was in total dispair. The list went as follows;
Star jumps
Walking a la the Beatles on Abbey Road
Queen´s CHair
Human Pyramid
Pringles, Push Pop, Percy Pig and Fried Egg sweet
Sppon, knife, fork manouvers
Camera button
Car, pushing, and dinosaur cartoon sketch
Straws, people being sucked up through straws
Lonely Planet
Amy Knitting
Nail Varnish
Matches - wind dependent
cup - climbing out of
Cards - each of us with a card relating to the results of the shithead tournament

Epic! To those of you confused by the prospect of all this let me explain. The slat flats are flat, very falt and very open, and as such make a perfect spot for taking photos and playing with perspective, thus making a toy dinosaur appear bigger that real life human people. I will promise to put photos on faceboko soon, so that it is less of a bewilderment.

So with the list down we tried to work out how far apart we would need to pace ourselves to get the perspective to work. We gave up quite quickly thinking that Marco would be in the know and that he could help us tomorrow. It looks easy in photos we had all already seen, so we wouldn´t have any problems.

The final of shithead took place. And in reverse order the results were as follow, Ciara, Amy, Laura and Tim. We were all a bit gutted that Tim had won, we had spent pretty much the whole tournament trying to get him to lose. With jest of course!

We climbed into bed and it was far from cold. Salt bricks really kept the warmth in. We tucked up early ready to get up for sunrise on the salt flats the next morning.

Day 4

There was a little bit of tension getting ready this morning. Of course we all wanted to make the sunrise on the salt flat, but Laura and Ciara were keen that, ahead of the impending photoshoot, make up was called for. Tensions rose and we bombed acorss the salt flats trying to race the sun. To be honest, the salt flat looked the same everywhere, so i suggested we stop anywhere in an attempt to decrease the rising tension. MArco didn´t want to stop, he pushed the pedal to the floor and we added to the tyre tracks that are deep set on the Salt Flat. All of a sudden Marco stoopped at his spot and we got out the car just in time.


Simply Spectacular.

All tensions dissolved as we all stood together in awe of the rising sun, the white never ending salt flat, and the surrounding mountains. WOW!

Once the sun was up we were all in a better mood, and headed to Fish Island. The Island was full of Cacti and was so incredibly photogenic that i not only killed my battery but i maxed out my memory card too. Thank god for spares!

We wandered round and fell inlove wihth this island made from coral, the only living thing in the vast salt plain.

After brekkie which was served at fish island we made our way to a perfect spot for salt flat photos. We grabbed the bag of props and the list and started our way through the list.

We got the easy human pyramids, beatle walking and star jump shots. ALthough the star jump shots were unexpectedly tricky given Laura´s inability to jump on the count of 3. Then we came to the perspective piccies. Oh dear. Marco hadn´t proffered any help and a cold Tim had got back in the car as two Irish girls and I tried to fathom the tricksy concept of perspective. We tried all the different props. SOme were too small, but we soldiered on through the list to the best we could. All i can say, thank goodness for digital! After an hour TIm came over to tell us that Marco wanted to move on. But we´ve only been going an hour and we´ve still got more to do we whined. We begged Tim to help us, ´if we had your help we would be quicker´. Tim helped for abit and we scored some perfect dino shots. Then Marco came to help and we realised he was completely incompetent at this type of photography - not that we could talk! After 90 minutes we figured it was time to pack it in. Thankfully it wasn´t too cold on the flat. Or maybe we were just too excited that we didn´t feel the cold. In the car we examined the photos. After all the faffing, and all the photos we did actually have some good ones. We girls were happy.

The car drove on trhough a salt mining factory and we eventually arrived at Uyuni. After a lunch by the train cemetry where we took some cool piccies our trip was over. Laura and Ciara were heading back to Tupiza so Tim and i said farewell to the girls and were left abandoned in Uyuni. A joyous wonderous place. not.

So that was that, the salt flats. WoW!

It was an incredible experience. I just can´t impress how beautiful the 4 days were. it was such a unique experience. I have sinced found out that the salt flats will soon be closing to tourists, under the flats is a significant amount of Lithium which could seriosuly improve Bolivia´s economy by mining the lithium for use in batteries. An industry that will be more profitable than tourism. So, if what you´ve read makes you want to check it out for yourself, you better get a wriggle on and get yourself out here.

Sorry, this was an epicly long post and it did actually take over two hours to write!

here is a link to Tim´s blog which is complete with some STUNNING photos (but none of the Dinosaur or any other silly pics)

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic trip Amy.
    The salt hostel sounds interesting.
    Can't wait to see your photo's.
    Will have a little look at Tims photo's.
    Take care & have fun in the Amazon.X