Monday, August 1, 2011

Bolivia – Uyuni, salt is all we got

The Salar the Uyuni is inarguably the most famous tourist attraction in Bolivia.If it wasn't for this gigantic salt flat, there would be no single reason on earth to ever come to Uyuni.
We initially planed to take a 4 day jeep tour from Tupiza to the salt flats (entirely avoiding having to stay in Uyuni). But unusual amounts of snow and ice shut down most of the national park and the Tupiza tour agencies were offering a rather underwhelming alternative 4 day program instead of cutting the trip down to 2 or 3 days. We bite the bullet and go to Uyuni as it's not worth taking again a freezing night bus to Tupiza just to join a tour that isn't what we really want. At this point one of our primary goals is to get out of Bolivia as quickly as possible. We feel that we've overstayed our welcome and are ready to leave.

For once a fairly comfortable bus ride
in Bolivia
Our five hour trip from Potosi to Uyuni is very scenic and although this vehicle has no heating either, we are not too cold – it's a daytime bus, for a change... yeah!  We notice that the blue sky is increasingly giving way to a layer of clouds...not good.

We arrive in Uyuni and are positively surprised. We expected hell on earth from what we heard and read about this town: Uyuni is indeed ugly, freezing and most locals are unfriendly, but we expected worse (hard to believe, I know).

Monster of Uyuni,
or welcoming committee?

Uyuni has a bad reputation for tour agencies that don't honor their promises, and jeep drivers that are so drunk that they need to drive because they can hardly walk anymore. This is not just from an occasional bad review on TripAdvisor or travel blogs. Three out of the 6 fellow travelers on our Pampas Tour had problems with very drunk drivers. One group even "stole" their jeep and drove it back as their driver partied all night and was passed out all morning. He would have to hitch-hike his way back from the hotel but at least they arrived back safely.

We check into a room at the Hostal Avenida, which was very basic but acceptable for the 60 Bolivianos; we expected worse accommodation standards. So far Uyuni is really not all that bad.

Can we go travel by train instead
of a crowded bus?
We book a daytrip to the Salar for the next morning then head to a restaurant that has heating – by now the temperature has dropped below freezing. The food joint is fully living up to Uyuni's reputation: way overpriced, bad tasting food, unfriendly service. They didn't even want to give us chilly sauce to add some flavor to the otherwise tasteless dishes. What can you expect from a restaurant called la casa de touriste?
We head to bed early to stay warm (under 4 thick woolen blankets). Probably the only other alternative to reduce the miserable coldness would be to join the jeep drivers in a local bar and get drunk.

At 10:30am, we punctually arrive at our agency "Esmeralda". There are only two other people waiting. After 45 minutes, we are finally shown to a jeep, but then the four of us are split up to two different jeeps... Ahh, they mix and mash customers from different agencies to fill up the jeeps.

The salt museum in Colchani
is closed today (Sunday)
We are joined into a group with a couple from Colombia, a chap from Slovenia and two girls from Hong Kong. 7 customers from 4 different agencies – The Uyuni agencies are fully living up to their reputation. Our driver/guide "Efrain" is a man in his 50's, speaks only Spanish, but appears to be sober – this is a rare streak of good luck. :-)

But our luck doesn't apply to the weather. The salt desert that has 300+ sunny days a year today is completely overcast plus there is a strong, ice cold, wind blowing. We feel that the Salar the Uyuni has constantly been throwing roadblocks in our way ever since we got to Tupiza two weeks ago. But we are here now and make the best out of a day that didn't start all too well.

No, no,  the table and us two are not
made of salt
at the Luna Salada Hotel
Our first stop is not the scheduled "Train Cemetery" but the township of Colchani, where they refine the salt and make some salt based souvenirs. Our driver gives us 10 minutes to explore, no explanations about the salt refining process, no explanations why the museum (the main reason for this stop) is closed...turns out that it's closed on Sundays.

Our second stop is not on the official schedule. We pick up two girls from Hong Kong at their salt hotel: Luna Salada... Actually the brief look inside the hotel was much more interesting than the stop at Colchani. It's a beautiful and unusual setting since it's primarily all made from salt!

This salt will be enough
for me to cook for the next
200 years

Now we are a total of 8 people in the Jeep – it's a very tight fit. We are just at the edge of the salt basin and there are funny 2-3 ft conical mounds of salt drying amidst some watery puddles where they were formed. They are drying and will be collected later.

 The welcoming committee
at Isla Incahuasi
We continue to drive along the salt flats. The sight is amazing: a completely flat endless field of white. We can't really see where the grey sky meets the white salt; it’s kind of disconcerting to drive into endless white. This sight must be incredible on a sunny day.

After taking some of the usual goofy pictures playing with the lack of a relative perspective we drive to the Isla Incahuasi. This island is amazing. In the middle of the endless white appears an oasis, a big rock formation covered with cactus. Some of the cacti are over a thousand years old.
Time for lunch at freezing
cold temperatures
We pay our 15B ($2) entrance fee and have lunch served from the back of the Jeep – tailgating Bolivian style. Too bad that it's so freezing cold that we can't really enjoy the tasty food: breaded chicken milanesa with the native grain quinoa.

This cactus is nearly
1000 years old

Incredible cacti among a desert of salt

Would anybody like some tea?

We have a good hour to explore the island and take more goofy pictures (difficult among the 3 dozen other jeeps) and then head back to the original (ie. last remaining) salt hotel.
It is a windy day!
outside the original salt hotel
This is actually the only salt hotel built on the Salar, and subject to criticism for the environmental impact is has. The entrance fee is a mandatory purchase of a drink or snack (at 50% more than the usual price). The hotel is no longer in operation and has been turned into a museum (with rather disappointing and lame salt sculptures amidst the dining room area). It's nowhere nearly as nice as the Luna Salada hotel. Thankfully our detour to pick up the Hong Kong ladies, offered us the chance to view inside the Luna Salada.

Where are the "eyes"?
Finally, we visit the "salt eyes" which is a few puddles of water that have some bubbles emerging from it. The water is ice cold and very salty... We don't quite understand why this is so special, but the brief Spanish explanation from our driver is something about air emerging from an underlying volcano.

After we drop the girls at their hotel, we head back to Uyuni. Efrain asks if we want to stop at the "cementerio de tren". It's just before sunset; and, we can tell that he's not too excited to go there. But this was supposed to be our first stop on the tour and it certainly wasn't our fault that we left 45 minutes late... So Yes! We want to stop at the train cemetery.

The cementerio de tren is an interesting collection of old locomotives (many steam types) that are now being left to the mercy of the elements. Probably a little paradise for a train enthusiast, but today it's just too cold for us. The wind is so strong today, that sometimes it feels like we are going to be knocked over. We walk around and take some pictures for 5 minutes – which is the maximum time that we can handle the ice cold wind. Anyway the sun has disappeared over the horizon.

A train enthusiast's playground
All aboard! this train is leaving for Chile

We arrive back in Uyuni just in time to grab some warm food and head to the bus station... Another overnight bus journey awaits us. The bus company Omar (recommended) promises functional heating and provided thick blankets. This time the bus is indeed heated, too much actually: Julane uses her blanket to block the heat vent under her seat – Bolivia the land of extremes.
Our prayers were answered....
finally, a worm and comfortable
night bus. Thank you Jesus!
We both get some sleep (after 5 hours of extreme rattling), when we finally hit a paved road. The rest of the ride to La Paz is smooth and we are awoken by the sunrise that reveals a layer of ice on the inside of the window (this is proof that night bus rides without heating are indeed torture).

As we are heading back to Peru now, we need to backtrack a bit...but we are looking forward to spend one more day in La Paz.

Our Uyuni summary:
Visiting the Salar is definitely worth the trouble. A one day trip (350B) is sufficient to see the salt flats. The 3-4 day jeep tours include visits to hot springs, colorful lakes and various interesting landscapes. Although Uyuni is not as bad as its reputation, it is not worth spending any extra time in this town.