94 – Crossing to Uyuni

April 22 – 24

Day 1

They say that one should avoid alcohol in the high altitude. I am sure they have good reasons to say so. Thanks to a lama/guanaco/wine dinner with Pete on the night prior to my departure, I am nursing a spectacular hangover on the way to Bolivian border. Light-headed already in 2400 m, I have no idea how much is the altitude actually affecting me, but in doubt I try to avoid breathing at the custom officer’s direction too much. The border crossing is a joke. The route is only used by tourists, and while the chilean office at least looks respectable (though the two policemen make it rather obvious that they could do without driving to the freezing 4000 m every morning), the Bolivian border control is a mud hut in the middle of nowhere, whose equipment counts a giant poster of Evo Morales dressed up to the nines (or the indigenous version of it), but no computers, all registration is done manually. They ask me if I am Swedish, to which I reply that my passport clearly says where I am from, and the officer’s reaction makes it clear that this is no place for irony, though I wonder what would have happened if I agreed I was Swedish. I have to fill in a register (a manually lined notebook), where they ask, among other things, about my occupation. I don’t lie here, but as this exercise gets repeated in every hotel in the country, I soon start taking the piss. By the end of the month I will have travelled Bolivia as Juventus football player, professional bodybuilder, rock star, concert violinist and escort. No one seems to care. Supposedly the hand-written registers are taken to the police for archiving once a month, where they are probably used as fuel.

White Lagoon, border of Bolivia and Chile

Also, yellow fever vaccination is obligatory to enter Bolivia, but no one cares about this either. The only people who get asked about it are a couple of South Africans.

We are a group of 18 people, a bus takes us to the border, where we are divided into 3 four-by-fours. In my car there is Caroline with her daughter Lauren (the smartest and funniest kid I’ve ever seen), and three Irish friends Guy, Seb and Connor. The guide’s name is Pablo, he is supposedly the english-speaking one, but his guiding consists of “ok, so, here is (insert name) lagoon/volcano/whatever”, time indication of how much time we are staying and an occasional sarcastic remark.

Pablo, Caroline, Lauren, Connor, Guy, Seb, me

Sights on day 1:

Laguna Verde & View of Licancabur volcano (5960m, can be climbed from the Bolivian side, it is mined – as most of the border – from the Chilean side. Chile, given its military history and geographic disposition is a little bit paranoid about Bolivia wanting to reclaim access to the sea by other than diplomatic means). The lagoon only appears green when it’s windy, we have it white.

Solar de Manana geysers: a basin full of sulphur pools. Again, the geysers are not very tall and are mostly gurgling mud. Still, more impressive than Tatio, and more smelly.

Termas de Polque/Salar de Chalviri: Hot springs adjacent to Chalviri lagoon, and the only chance on something resembling personal hygiene we got today. That is, if bathing in warm human soup can be considered hygienic. But I’ve seen much worse in the past year.

We stop for the night in a very basic hostel by Laguna Colorada, with pink to violet water and thousands of flamingos. The birds eat exclusively some kind of mini-shrimp from the lagoon, that turns their feathers pink. So the brightest flamingos are the greediest ones. The hostel’s main attraction is a very dirty orphaned baby lama, probably the family’s pet. Each time their little daughter comes out, the lama runs to her and starts kissing her all over. One way to boost immunity system, I guess.

Sights on day 2:

A very long drive through the Andes, we stop to see Arbol de piedra (a rock formation eroded into tree-like shape), then a local version of multi colored rainbow mountains, more lagoons whose name I forgot, and we stop for lunch at Laguna Hedionda, white with bohrium and pink with more flamingos. In the afternoon we stop in a small canyon full of viscachas, fluffy animals that look like a lovechild of a rabbit and a chinchilla. They are rather tame, because everyone feeds them. Next stop is in Stone Valley, a 40 km long strip of rock formation. Later, as we are passing through a beautiful green valley, Pablo stops the car and sentences with a weird smile: “Llama time!”, which means we are to take a walk through the pastures and bother the llamas. I wonder if the local farmers are happy about their animals being molested by tourists 10 times a day. I also wonder if south american tourists stop on european meadows to chase around sheep and cows. Probably not.

One of the other two cars breaks, something wrong with the driving shaft, which the driver tries to repair with a hammer. After a series of “mierda” he decides the problem is not all that urgent and risks it to the next village, which is not far. The place looks like Wild West settlement. A (long-abandoned) train station, some relics of mining industry, and a bar which sells quinoa and coca beer to tourist – thus representing, along with a public toilet, the only stable income for the villagers.

It’s sunset by the time we reach the border of the salt flat, we are staying in a nice hostel entirely built from blocs of salt (comes in handy, they don’t seem to use salt for cooking at all, so you just scratch some off the wall if you need to season your meal).

sunset at salar

Sights on day 3:

5 am start to see the sunrise at the wet part of the salar (for reflections). Wear either flip-flops (or best, wellies if you have them), or waterproof hiking boots. Mines are not waterproof anymore, but no wonder given where I have taken them in the last year, so I went barefoot. It’s cold and the crystals are sharp. Although I wasn’t able to distinguish the pain from the cold. Just be smarter than I was.

Breakfast stop at Isla Incahuasi, an “island” in the middle of the flats covered with cactus and then we get about an hour to shoot stupid perspective pictures. Best part of the tour. Salar de Uyuni is breathtaking, 12.000 square km, the biggest salt flat in the world. Also, the worlds biggest deposit of lithium, once US mining concession, but most foreign (western) investments were expelled from Bolivia after Morales took power. However he had the bright idea of giving a huge mining contract to the Chinese, who may be paying bigger royalties to the country (maybe), but while the americans employed locals in the mines, the chinese brought over their own workforce. Look like a win-win situation to me.

My travelling mission comes to a conclusion at the next stop, a monument to when Rally Dakar passed through the salt flats a few years back. This used to be the location of the hostels when the salt flats tours first started, but the accommodation was later closed on account of polluting (surprise surprise, if you build a hotel in the middle of a lake, guess where the sewage goes), however, the public toilets still operate here, so I am not sure how this works. There is a place where people leave flags of their countries. My friend Kristina visited Uyuni a year ago and was gutted that there was no Slovak flag. So she gave me one to tie it next to ours. Here we go, mission accomplished: Czechoslovakia, next to each other again.

We reach Uyuni by lunchtime, with last stop at the train graveyard. Uyuni used to be a big railway crossing, where all the trains from mines in the mountains and Potosi passed through, but with the abandonment of the mines, all the beautiful trains were left to rot in Uyuni. The spot is surreal. My first plan was to stay a couple of day in Uyuni, but the town is incredibly ugly and boring. My birthday is coming up and although I think that getting a bottle of champagne and get pissed alone at the train cemetery would be an epic party, finding decent bubbles in this place may be too big a task even for my booze-related talents. Therefore, I shoot off to Sucre first chance I get.

Viscachas & Foxes (I miss Siegmund!): wildlife del salar (other than flamingos)

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