Posted by: robinson2000 | June 5, 2011

Taken With A Pinch Of Salt

1st – 4th June

 The Salar de Uyuni (The Salt Flats)

Crossing the Salar de Uyuni, the largest and highest salt lake in the world, is one of the great Bolivian trips. It turned out the be three of the greatest days that I have spent anywhere and will never be forgotten. Words or photos cannot describe the wide and diverse range of landscapes that we witnessed as we drove from Uyuni, through the salt flats to the Chilean border.

Day 1. Our 4×4 land cruiser picked the 6 of us up at 10.30am, along with our fantastic guide for the trip Gonzalez. Our first stop was a train graveyard that had become a dumping ground for unused trains dating back to the late 19th century. It supposedly contains the train robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid before they were hunted down by the local sheriffs and shot dead in a shootout. The cemetery was a fascinating place featuring 20-30 rusting carcases, which we were allowed to climb on, and the obligatory army of noisy Israeli tourists.

After stopping at a small village where they make ornaments from the salt, we drove out onto the salt crust. Driving across it is a fantastic experience, especially at this time of the year when the bright blue skies contrast with blinding white salt flats. The flats are vast and at times when the crust is wet they create a reflection with the sky giving the impression of an endless expanse of blue sky. At lunch time we stopped at the Isla del Pescado, (Island of fish) named because of its shape, which rises out of the salt flat. The island is made from coral and used to be part of the sea bed. The cacti covered island gave superb views of the white expanses of salt and also gave us the chance to take some funny photos (check out the slideshow). Our final stop of the day was at a Salt Hotel, which was made entirely from blocks of salt. We were given shared rooms, complete with salt made bed, and a 3 course meal to finish off the day. We played cards late into the evening along with consuming many bottles of vine, some of which we had to hide from another guide who had shown up drunk with his tour group. They had arrived 3 hours later than us after their alcoholic guide had got drunk at lunch time and had got them lost on the salt flats. Over the course of the next couple of days their menace of a guide was in a state of constant drunkenness, often cracking open a beer at 8am over breakfast. On the final day everyone had to be up at 5am but their guide was nowhere to be seen. He was found passed out in the boot of one of the jeeps and remained there for most of the morning.

Day 2. Our second day began at 6am with a terrific sunrise over the salt flats. From then on it was a visual feast for eyes that included towering smouldering volcanoes, multi-coloured lakes, weird rock formations and endless puna that make up some of the fabulous landscapes in South America. I’ve never seen such dramatic scenery in any part of the world, except for deep in the Himalayas, which took on such a vast array of colours that it ended up taking your breath away. I managed to spot and chase a sweet looking chinchilla at lunchtime, and see massive flocks of flamingos fishing in the lagoon Colorado. It was a tremendous day. After a day in the intense solar radiation, we spent the night in a very basic hostel that had the coldest dorm rooms I have ever slept in. The hostel was at an altitude of around 4500m and didn’t have any heating or hot water. After another evening of card games, red wine & tequila, everyone was so cold that by 9pm we had to retire to our dorm rooms where the only way to keep warm through the night was to sleep fully clothed in a sleeping bag under a mass of blankets. In truth it was a constant fight to stay warm over the 3 days. At one point I was wearing my thermal base layer with two t-shirts, two jumpers, a thick jacket with the hood up, neck warmer, hat, gloves and was still shivering. It was a pretty sleepless night as most people, including myself, were snoring loudly due to the dry air and we also had the psychotic drunk alcoholic guide running around causing pandemonium.

Day 3. There were many groans coming from the beds as we were awoken at 5am in the sub-zero temperatures. I think the thermometer showed -10 C as we bundled ourselves back into the jeep. The only silver lining to all this misery was the glittering night sky that greeted us as we exited the hostel. It had snowed that night, so as the sun rose we were able to see the most beautiful snow-capped peaks. Our first stop was at some thermal pools that were bubbling at the surface. The place resembled another planet and smelt of rotten eggs due to the sulphur content in the thermals. Some of the mud bubbling around the thermal was so hot that if you slipped and fell it would have given you third degree burns. This was in complete contrast to the surrounding area which was covered in a layer of snow. After the thermals we drove onto an area for breakfast and an opportunity to thaw out in a thermal pool. At first most people were hesitant about stripping in below freezing temperatures, but the thought of the hot water combined with the smell of our bodies from not showering for 3 days was enough to persuade everyone to jump in. It was great and the first time I had felt warm in a while. The getting out part was no so great, as the icy winds whipped up a frenzy around our naked bodies as we desperately grabbed for the nearest layer to throw on. After meeting 4 fellow touring bikers who had pedalled up from Patagonia, we bundled into the jeep for the last time and were driven to the Chilean border. The border crossing is marked by a ranger station outpost that sits atop a high ridge in the middle of nowhere. Once dropped off, we said our fond farewells to the rest of our group who were heading back to Uyuni and got our exit stamps for Bolivia. We then had to wait about 2 hours for a bus to come up from Chile and collect us. By this time we were numb through as the outpost was completely exposed to the elements and there was no shelter. A few of us sat huddled together, sitting on our backpacks as we played with a couple of mountain foxes who were out looking for scraps. Finally the bus picked us up and drove us down to San Pedro de Atacama. The drive down was particularly memorable for two reasons. First we dropped from near 5000m to 2400m in a matter of 40 kilometres, which meant the temperature rose considerably and secondly for the spectacular view over the Atacama Desert that stretched out beneath us.

Looking back over the photos it’s like you’re on another planet at times. A truly memorable trip with a very knowledgeable guide, excellent company and the most spectacular landscape I’ve ever witnessed. Highly recommended.

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  1. Ben – fantastic photos on what sounds like an exceptional excursion. What and experience – excellent (run out of words starting with “ex”)!!! A bit different to the Lake District – no rain, no mustard-stained sandwiches and no sisterly strops!!! Love Dad

  2. Ben – amazing, awesome, astounding and awfully cold! (looked up amazing in a thesaurus 🙂 You continue to see the most remarkable places on the planet.
    Here’s to Chile 😀
    Love, Colin & Carolyn.

    • Hi Colin & Carol, Thanks for reading, remember its only a plane ride away if you want to see these places. Hope your well and look forward to seeing you in a couple of months,
      Ben xx

  3. Hi Ben,
    Great photos and what a wonderful memory. The trains reminded us of the Hijaz Railway in Saudi. Desert and then you would come across 2 trains heaad to head with ‘blow -up rails either side. Keep the blogs coming . Enjoying your travels from our armchairs!!!!
    Take care,
    M & S xxxx

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