As mentioned in the previous post, trips to the Salar de Uyuni – a 4WD excursion through the desert to the largest salt flat lake in the world – are to put it mildly, dodgy. All of the companies seem to have a bad reputation, and it is more down to luck rather than careful planning that will see you through the 2 night, 3 day trip in one piece. But this is one of the highlights of Sth America that we really didn’t want to miss.
There are only 4 companies that do the trip from Chile, as most people go in the opposite direction. Two of them were immediately written off by us because we had heard reports of drunk drivers and groups running out of food, we couldn’t find the third one, so that left us with Cordilleria Travel. We forked over our $150 each and hoped for the best.
Things got off to a bad start when they said they would pick us up from the hostel at 7.45am. At 8.00am Mike ran into their office 5 minutes down the road and they said no they weren’t picking us up, could we please come to their office. We loaded our bags into a minibus and met our trip mates for the next 3 days – 2 Americans, 2 Swiss, 2 Aussie girls, 3 Brazilian guys and us.
We drove back up the road towards the Jama pass and veered left towards the Bolivian border. Halfway up the hill we suddenly heard a series of small explosions. Looking around at one another we realized that the packets of chips some of us had bought to nibble on were exploding. The pressure from such a sudden rise in altitude was causing the chips to explode. Imagine what our poor brains were feeling like if this is what it was doing to a packet of chips. Incidentally, the altitude does the same thing to our toiletries. You have to be really careful when you arrive at high altitude and open up a moisturizer or conditioner bottle as it spurts everywhere due to the pressure!
The Bolivian border is basically a concrete shed in the middle of the desert. Poor buggers that have to man that post. We ticked all the NO boxes on the entry form to say that we hadn’t participated in genocide, and that we weren’t spies or terrorists (!) and luckily they believed us and gave us the entry stamp.
We met our vehicle for the next 3 days – a crapped out old Toyota Landcruiser with the bonnet up. Bolivian regulations forbid Chilean registered vehicles from going across the border, so the nice minibus that took us up the hill wasn’t actually going to take us across the desert. We met a guy who was coming the other way and finishing the tour, so we asked them how it was. “Great”, the guy said, “except last night was so cold my lips froze together”. Awesome.
We loaded our bags onto the roof of the Landcruiser, split the groups into the two jeeps (7 in ours) and took off. The first stop was the Laguna Blanca, a lake that had a white tinge because of the white volcanic rock at the bottom. This whole area is quite volcanic, so not only was there stunning lakes and desert, but massive volcanoes towering over the landscape. Stop two was the Laguna Verde or green lake. This lake was full of arsenic and lithium (naturally occurring), which gave it the green tinge.
Lunch was next to another lake, except this one had naturally occurring hot springs where you could have a swim. Just like home, except the outside temperature was freezing.
We headed towards our final stop of the day and our home for the night, Laguna Colarada. This lake was absolutely stunning – a kind of purpley/reddish tinge complete with flamingoes. We spent a couple of hours walking around the lake until it got to dusk when the temperature plummeted.
The accommodation that night was, lets say, hardly the Hilton. When we had booked the trip, the sales person had said it was ‘very basic’. For a Bolivian salesperson to admit that, you know you are in for a rough ride. It was basically a concrete shed with a tin roof that they had shoved beds into. With no heating. And it gets to –25 degrees at its coldest during the night.
We were sharing a dorm of 6 to a room, so we got out our sleeping bag and liner, 2 beanies, 4 layers of woollen and polypropylene clothing on top + gortex jacket, long johns, trousers, two pairs of woolen socks and gloves in preparation for a freezing night.
Dinner was actually really good – vege soup and spaghetti with tomato sauce. We felt really sorry for the group next to us eating a piece of spam and a boiled potato. One of them was a guy from Christchurch who said that they were sold a 4WD tour in a jeep that wasn’t actually a 4WD and got bogged down. They waited for 5 hours in the middle of the desert until luckily (randomly) an Israeli convoy passed by and helped dig them out. There is a story as well – not sure if it is true or just a story – but apparently last year 3 French tourists died when their 4WD broke down and they froze to death.
We went to bed about 8pm (nothing else to do and it was too cold, everyone was hanging out for their sleeping bag) after a trip to the bano (toilet). Boy oh boy did they reek. And it goes without saying there was no shower.
Day two dawned, none of us had frozen to death and we were all happy that we had coated our lips in chapstick to prevent lip freeze. And the 4WD started, despite one of the Brazilian guys telling us the bonnet had been up and they had been working on it all night.
First stop was another lake with flamingoes, and we got really close to them, check out Mike’s alter ego as a wildlife photographer below.
We then headed up to some geysers and boiling mud which was very much like Rotorua except it was 4,900 metres high (the highest point we will go on our trip) so was literally breathtaking. And of course there were no safety barriers – this is Bolivia, you can do what you want (as one guy we met cynically said to us “Bolivia – a country that has turned third world infrastructure into a tourist attraction”). One of the Aussie girls got a bit close and unfortunately copped a bit of boiling water on her leg that left a nasty blister.
We also visited some amazing rock formations in the middle of the desert that are called ‘rock trees’. They are caused by erosion from the harsh winds and apparently these ones would be completely gone in the next 4-5 years the erosion happens so rapidly (or our guide was bullshitting, who knows in this place?!)
Our guides then decided that driving through the desert in a clapped out old heap wasn’t dangerous enough – it was time for some real 4WD driving. Thank god they kicked us all out of the car to walk down this massive steep, giant rock strewn slope while they pretended to be super-4WD-heroes. Our guide – who told us he learnt to drive at 13 – seemed reasonably experienced and managed it ok, but the second jeep’s driver freaked out. So our poor driver had to climb all the way back up the cliff and do it for him. Meanwhile we were all standing around going ‘cool, all we need is one broken chassis and we are here for the night to freeze to death.’
Night number 2 was slightly more comfortable, we stayed on the edge of the salar (salt flat) in a salt hotel. It was pretty cool – everything was made from salt, the walls, chairs and tables, even the base of the bed was salt with a mattress on top of it. And yes, a hot shower! Still no heating though. Dinner that night was llama steak, which actually just tasted like tough old over cooked steak. Don’t think we will be ordering it again!