3 Day Trip to Salt Flats - That Lasted 6 Days!
Feb 5, 2006
|The salt flats (Salar de Uyuni) are the world's largest sitting at 3653 metres above sea level. It used to be part of a prehistoric salt lake (Lago Minchin) until it dried up.
Met our fellow members for our 3.5 day trip to the salt flats, Rich (UK), Jo (UK), Rachel (USA), Ofri (Isreal) plus Victor our driver and Elizabeth our cook both Bolivian. Off we drove in the 4WD making a stop in Tupiza for Victor's coca leaves, which he started chewing immediately as we bumped along the Bolivian dirt track towards San Pablo. Stopped for lunch in a tiny gold mining village. We ate in the village store which was basically a 2 roomed house built from mud bricks. Tucked straight into the food only to find out later that we'd just eaten Llama. Mmmm nice?
The scenery as we continued driving was extremely dramatic, the cliffs were deep red with green foliage amongst them; there were even snow capped mountains in the distance. The road was narrow with sheer drops that were way too close for our liking. The car conked out on a steep incline so Victor ducked under the bonnet to clear the problem. It wasn't long until we were on our way again and it wasn't long until we had broken down again either. This time Victor took much longer to sort the problem out. We plonked ourselves on the side of a mountain until he uttered something in Quecha, which translated to "we are going back to the village where we had lunch to get some tools to fix the car".
So we returned to the mud house and watched in amazement as Victor made a tool out of a steel pipe to try and fix the car. We were assured that the car was "as good as new" as we rolled onwards, however, we still broke down a few more times before finally breaking down just before dusk and just before a deep river that we didn't fancy getting stuck in, so it was decided that we spend the night in the car. Victor worked under the bonnet until 10pm whilst we got tucked into our sleeping bags for a not so good nights sleep. It was too dark for Elizabeth to cook so we didn't even have any dinner. Not a good first day especially as we had failed to even reach our first nights accommodation.
We remained fairly jovial in the morning as we stretched our legs over a bread and coffee breakfast. Victor was now cleaning the spark plugs.
The engine started and instead of listening to our wishes to return to Tupiza and get a new car Victor ploughed onwards through the river. All was well for a couple of hours until we met a boggy river bed that Victor put his foot down to get through, possibly aiming for the soggiest part and we promptly got stuck in the mud. Out we all clambered to dig and push the heap of junk out. We watched as another car breezed through the riverbed - that driver had got out and planned his route beforehand!
Bumped along to another riverbed that Victor decided was too deep to cross, we stopped for lunch here while Victor cleaned the spark plugs again.
We were about to go to Uyuni (our final destination) to get the car fixed but Jo spotted a car taking a different route through the river so Victor decided to do the same. It was a hair-raising drive across the river and on the other side we met really boggy ground that we got stuck in. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening digging, pushing, and even lifting our way out of the deep mud! Victor also spent an inordinate amount of time cleaning his spark plugs?!? We managed to move about 4 metres through the mud.
Victor jacked the wheels up to put rocks underneath so the wheels could get some grip instead of just spinning around in the mud but to no avail we spent another night in the car with crackers for dinner - probably better than llama.
It was our turn to sleep in the back of the car where it was extremely cramped and not a good place to have a good night sleep. Needless to say we only slept for about 3 hours at the most that night.
We were up before the break of dawn. Victor had to walk across the river to another car that had got stuck in the river last night as he had wisely lent them our jack, which we still needed. After retrieving the jack and after we had breakfast (and Victor had cleaned his spark plugs again!!) the task of getting unstuck continued until 11am.
We pushed with all our might and the car was free! Only for Victor to choose the most ridiculous path out of the mud that went over huge bushes and the boggiest mud so yes we were stuck yet again. Elizabeth made lunch, which must have given us extra strength to get out of this bog as we departed for Uyuni (back the way we came yesterday afternoon) at 2pm.
We reached Uyuni at 8pm; Victor was obviously in a better mood, as he played his Andean music tape over and over again much to our delight - not. The accommodation was expecting our arrival as we were supposed to be staying there that night but it was supposed to be the last night of our trip! We showered and had dinner, both for the first time then it was time to fall deeply asleep in a bed.
Not for long though, we awoke at 4am so that we could go to the salt flats to see the sun rise. All of us were up except for Victor and Elizabeth; we practically woke the entire hostel trying to find them. We eventually found them fast asleep in the car!! We drove to the salt flats missing the first peek of the sunrise because we had wasted an hour; the clouds were too heavy anyway so it wasn't the best sunrise. The salt flats are huge 12,000 sq miles. We had breakfast outside one of the hotels that are on the salt flats and are made from blocks of salt. There was a layer of water on the salt flats, which provided a mirror image of the sky and mountains.
We returned to Uyuni so that the car could be fixed properly. Funnily enough the problem wasn't the spark plugs!
After lunch we set off for the parts of the trip that we should have seen on the first and second days with the same Andean music playing in the jeep. We stopped at another mining town for lunch, were the toilet was very au natural! A stinking hole in the ground where the entire population of the village did their business.
We later stopped for a break at a more modern mining town, San Cristobal it was more modern because North American companies owned it. We reached some accommodation at Valle Mar, still only having seen one item on the itinerary and now into the 4th day. The accommodation was set amongst the hills and as it had been pouring with rain, the scenery was spectacular with a rainbow just in front of the window - no pot of gold though. Dinner was by candlelight not to be romantic but because there was no electricity in the building.
Elizabeth made the worst spaghetti bolognese that we have ever tasted and despite being hungry most of us ate the minimal. Elizabeth's cooking had been wonderful until then - especially her soups. Off to bed only to discover that my bed and Jo's were sodden so some of us had to double up.
Up even earlier on the next morning at 3.30am so that we could make it to the sights we were supposed to see on our second day. We arrived at the geysers at 8am, which were very active. Despite warning signs saying not to drive near them and that there was a danger of death Victor pulled up along side them. The steam rising up was very hot and the mud in the holes was bubbling away at 4950 metres above sea level.
The next stop was to take a dip in the thermal pools (4200 m) before breakfast was served. The thermal pools were relaxing at 30oC after what we had endured so far. Onwards to Lake Verde (5000 m), a green lake amidst the red mountains and the Volcano Licancabur rising next to it.
Returned to the thermal pools for lunch then moved on. Our whirlwind tour then took us to Lake Colarado where the lake looks pink because of the mountains; it is also a nature reserve for the many flamingo's that were wading in the lake.
It was here that Victor told us that we didn't have enough petrol to get us back and that there was non available here! We hung around for a while and miraculously some petrol appeared - think he was trying to get us to say that we'd offer some money for the petrol but we didn't.
Finally we visited the 'rock tree', which wasn't very impressive.
We headed back to Uyuni again for the final time. All was well we were cheerful playing word games in the back seat of the car when the ground became very bumpy. Victor slowed down and we stepped out of the car to find we had a flat tyre! Great!
Where we had broken down was like the Jeep graveyard as there were 2 other cars that had broken down. We chatted to their occupants who recognised from other people's description that we were the group that had set off from Tupiza 5 days ago - we were legends already.
They managed to get their motors going and promptly left, leaving us alone! Stuck without a spare tyre only the inner tubes that looked as if they had been repaired far too many times before. The spare inner tubes didn't have any valves where the air goes in, so once pumped up the air would just leak out!
It was freezing as we were in the middle of snow-capped mountains. Helen's hands turned blue so she dived into the car even though it was jacked up to try and get warm again.
Victor managed a botch job on the wheel, by cutting off the valve on the pump and attaching it with wire to the point where the air goes into the tyre. We'd be lucky if it stayed on.
Off we went, it was dark by now and we were miles away from our destination. Still Victor - or Don Victor as we had now named him, ploughed on, we were all nodding off in the car. Why he didn't stop at some accommodation before midnight we'll never know. There was nowhere open at midnight when we pulled into a village nowhere near where we were supposed to be. We had to move on to another village but it was the same story. Victor drove through the early hours of the morning very slowly thankfully - it would have been better if he had actually stopped!
He did stop one hour away from Uyuni to catch a bit of sleep. We were aching in the back of the car from not being able to stretch our legs out. At dawn he rolled on to Uyuni and at 8am we finally made it. Our epic journey was finally over. We checked into a hostel and went swiftly to sleep, glad that this nightmare was finally over.