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Cold in the Desert

Uyuni, Bolivia


Uyuni is surrounded by some of the most spectacular and surreal scenery in Bolivia so, like every other gringo who visits the tumbleweed town, we hopped in a jeep for a tour of the nearby salt flats and National Park. We set off on a cloudy Sunday, our first stop was to pay our respects at the train “cemetery” which lies on the outskirts of town. Rows of rusty old trains create an amazing spectacle – abandoned in the baron wasteland, the tired brown relics lean passively, resigned to the slow erosion of the desert. We took photos and climbed all over them before being ferried off to the salt flats.

Both salty and flat, the salt flats were everything I was expecting. The endless white desert was fascinating and, above all, provided the opportunity to take vaguely amusing photos of us treading on each other and swinging on Josh’s beard. Josh’s beard really does deserve a mention. Cultivated since our departure and affectionately known as “The Wedge”, it has received praise and extended stares the world over. It has become a tourist attraction in itself. Now, after almost four months, Josh’s meticulous beauty regime has been extended to include a daily combing of The Wedge, which is habitually twisted and tangled in times of reflection.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, in the middle of a salty nowhere getting back into our jeep. The roads were thin smudges across the landscape and we gazed out of the windows at the blankness until we reached our lunch stop, the Isla Inchahuasi. An island upon the salt covered in cacti, Inchahuasis claim to fame seemed to be the fact that it is so spectacularly out of place. Nevertheless, it is a good place to climb up for a view of the flats and the distant mountains. After lunch and some more time dedicated to the perfect photographic illusion (it’s actually really hard to do if your camera is clever enough to have auto focus) we headed towards these mountains.

Our hotel was located on the edge of the salt flat where the terrain suddenly turned brown and rough. It was fairly comfortable, with hot water and a dining area from which we could see the colourful beams of the sun setting behind the mountains. Its most notable feature however was that it was constructed almost entirely out of salt! The walls, the tables, the chairs, even the beds were carved out of the stuff! If your chips were a bit bland you could simply scratch a bit of table onto them! It was a beautiful looking building, with salt crystal chandeliers illuminating the white uniformity of the rooms. In one corner they had a huge pile of salt and a stack of salt blocks – I like to think they just make anything they find lacking: “No, sorry we don´t have a bar but if you just give me a few minutes…” etc.

That night we got to know the other half of our group, a trio of flatulent Frenchmen who had a mysterious collection of cuts and bruises. They told us that they had just come from La Paz they had been robbed on two separate occasions, once by a fake taxi driver and then again at the hands of some Bolivians they had befriended who had drugged their drinks and beaten them before taking (what was left of) their valuables. To add injury to insult, one of them had also fallen off his bike on the Death Road. It was fair to say that these were an unlucky bunch but it did make me realise how fortunate we were to get out of that place unscathed – particularly considering the risky nature of our adventures. Anyway, we played some poker, drank some palpably cheap wine and retired to our salty beds for a good nights sleep. The pillows, mattresses and sheets were made of more familiar materials.

We set off as the sun came up the next morning. Our first stop, after an hour or so, was unplanned. Our jeep suddenly went quiet and we found ourselves watching hopefully as our driver tinkered with the engine. His toolkit consisted of a screwdriver and a knife, it wasn´t very convincing, but after a helping hand from the driver of another jeep (there were loads, breaking down in this desert was not as dramatic as you may imagine) we continued on our way to see Volcano Ollague, an active volcano which I had heard smokes like a Feltham housewife.

Due to the somewhat dangerous nature of active volcanoes we viewed this one from a distance – the “mirador” an interesting set of rock formations which I found almost as impressive as the distant smoke-tipped spectacle. The rest of the day was spent driving between picturesque lakes where the high mineral content means not only a welcome collection of flamingos but also spectacular variations in colour from deep reds to rich greens and streaks of yellow. Around the edges the lakes were framed with thick ice, this and the icy wind gave us a taste of the freezing night which we had been frequently warned to prepare for. We also visited the surreal and other-worldly landscape known as Salvador Dali Desert because the strange rocks are set to have inspired Dali when he visited the region.

It was an indescribable day of sights and I am well aware that my descriptive language fails to deliver the necessary images – even my photos don’t do the places justice – but to attempt to describe the constant, often baffling, changes in landscape would probably mean me dedicating the remainder of the trip to sitting hunched in various internet cafés across Argentina and Brazil. Thankfully, the hotel we were staying in requires very little description. It was basic and cold. We huddled around a small iron oven for warmth, played cards and the Frenchmen attempted to play the Beverly Hills Cop theme tune on panpipes (their Ipods had, after all, been robbed) – eventually the bitter cold of the night began to set in and we retreated to the warmth of our beds wearing as much as possible. It was the kind of night where you wake up to find an arm has fallen out of your sleeping bag and started collecting icicles but I slept well and, at 5am when we had to get up, was even fairly chirpy.

We set off in darkness, with stars scattered generously across the sky and our bodies still clinging to the warmth of our beds. I joked that breaking down now would be the worst thing ever. Then we did. Our driver tried to restart it but the engine gave nothing but a pained groan and a clangy rattle. We shivered patiently in the back. He tried the screwdriver, then the knife but nothing seemed to work! We tried to roll back to the hotel but we had driven too far and down too many hills – eventually the driver told us to wait while he walked back and got another jeep. By the time we watched the sun rise from the icy windows of our jeep, my chirpy mood had frozen over. We had been sitting in the cold for an hour and my feet were so cold they hurt. Our driver returned in a new and improved jeep and, happily abandoning the frozen corpse of that which had taken us so far, we continued on to the steaming land of the geysers.

Pools of thick, muddy water bubbled furiously and everywhere cracks in the ground shot streams of warm mist which drifted over us and filled our nostrils with its horrifically pungent sulphuric odour. I was amazed at how active the geysers were – there was a constant hissing and bubbling – and we were told that this was the case 24 hours a day. In an attempt to thaw my frozen feet, I stood nonchalantly on one of the smaller holes and immediately hopped off as the scolding steam burnt through my thin shoe! My feet half numb and half burnt, I got back into the jeep. I wasn´t particularly enjoying our last day.

We had breakfast at the nearby hot springs where we were also able to revive our feet. While Josh and I sat on the edge watching our toes come back to life, Niall and the Frenchmen braved partial nudity and went in fully. I was tempted, the water was nice and hot, until I considered that one has also to get out of the springs at some point. I decided to devote all my energy to eating as much breakfast as possible.

Fully defrosted and revitalized, the mornings mishaps were actively repressed and we proceeded to our final stop, Laguna Verde. This was a huge, deserted lake surrounded by red rocky mountains where the sulphur content repels flamingos but demands photography with its brilliant green water. Our driver said something in Spanish about the landscape being similar to Mars and that it is used by NASA for training purposes. That is at least what I decided he was saying – it could have been anything really. I have to confess that despite a tenfold increase in my vocabulary I probably only know about ten words of Spanish and most of them are only of any use when bargaining for alpaca jumpers or looking for a train station which is on the right hand side (I don’t know the word for left).

Anyway, so began our epic drive back to civilisation. It really was epic too; once we had bounced over the surface of Mars we crossed vast stretches of sand, slate, rubble and rock, splashed our way through icy frozen streams which trickled down through the valley from frosted mountaintops and eventually watched the sky changing colour as we roared across the flat, limitless landscapes before Uyuni.


permalink written by  steve_stamp on July 31, 2009 from Uyuni, Bolivia
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Desert, Photos, Lakes, Ice, Salt, Flamingos, Cold, Springs, Jeep, Breakdowns, Geyzers and Epic

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Have you seen Llamas orgle yet?!

permalink written by  Vicky d on August 3, 2009


left is izquierda. Thats why you cant remember it. I also find the directions hard to follow when they involve " a la derecha"-to the right
and "siga derecho"-carry straight on.


permalink written by  sue stamp on August 3, 2009

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