Day 1 - Salar de Uyuni - The Great Salt flats
Oct 5, 2009
|Shortly after arriving at Uyuni at 5.30 am, the sun began to rise. The air was still cold and the town extremely sleepy. However, there was already a few hard working tour agent busy selling salt flat tours to passenger who has just got off the bus. With hindsight, we guessed that it was perfectly possible to organise a tour leaving the same day to the Salt flats but from what we overheard, the price we paid in La Paz was pretty much in line with the prices charged by these agents in Uyuni.
After we told them that we have already booked a tour with Salt Expedition when we were approached, one of the lady agent kindly point us to where their office is, so that we can wait in the office instead of in the cold street. The town wasn’t very big and within 5 minutes, we are at the other end of the town where the office is located.
The staff in the office let us leave the bags there and pointed out that there was already one café opened that serves touristy breakfast and hot drinks. Within minutes, we are sitting in this pizzeria trying to order breakfast while the restaurant staff was opening up the place.
To our surprise, one of the item on the menu was ‘Donkey’… (what??!?!?!? A whole donkey or just a piece of it???) and as we turned over to the other side of the menu where the food was listed in Spanish, we realized that they meant Burrito. Phewwww…
We have ordered their house breakfast because English breakfast wasn’t available and we had some nice fried egg with ham and cheese with bread, some lovely freshly squeezed orange juice and some hot drinks. Marcus was getting rather addicted to the music video playing at the background (we believed to have date back to at least the early 90s) and he has proudly pointed out that a lot of the tracks where from his beloved motherland Sweden…
After breakfast, we found the agent again and was a bit annoyed to find out that the tour actually departs at 10.30am instead of 9am we were told by the tour agent girl in La Paz. Seeing it was only 7.30am at the time, we decided to go on one of the internet cafes near the tour office. Internet is fairly cheap in Bolivia (compare to the crazy prices in Japan). One hour of surfing in Uyuni cost 50p and it was already 3 times more expensive than the market price in La Paz, which was 20p. However, because we have got our laptop and have been able to tap into the free wifi available in most of the hostels we have stayed in, we have been luckily spoiled with free internet on this trip. We still cannot express how pleased we are that we have bought this lovely beautiful useful laptop!!! There hasn’t been a single day we didn’t use the laptop.
The tour started shortly after 10.30am when seven of us (including the driver) jumped into the jeep. The group was actually 18 people and people are divided into 3 jeeps. We are very lucky that there was an English speaker guide on the tour, shared by everyone. When we are in La Paz, we were told that if we want to have an English speaking guide we have to pay a fortune for it. So we are pretty pleased that we have got him for free. And to our surprise, despite he has only spent 3 years learning English, his English was perfect. One of the best we have seen on this trip so far1
The first stop of the trip was to visit the train cemetery where a few derelict trains was abandoned in the middle of a dessert. Given that Marcus was so fond of trains, of course he was very excited to see the corpse of some old trains. However, to me, they are just some scrap metals that seems to shape like trains.
After the train cemetery, we headed back to Uyuni as the salt flat was in a different direction. After about 30 minutes drive through the unforgiving dessert, we have arrived to a dusty new town where the ‘salt factory’ was meant to be and some ‘salt museums’. There are a few tourist stands selling pretty much the same fare - ethnic gloves, scarves, bags, little souvenir etc. The salt museums are not really museums, but touristy stores which happened to have a few salt sculpture sitting in it.
We have given a quick tour round the salt factory. It was a pretty basic cottage industry style house where the wet salt from the salt flats are taken to dry before packaging them in plastic containers. It wasn’t anything too interesting.
After the salt factory, we headed towards the salt flats finally. The salt flats are actually dried salt lakes. The surface of the lake forms shapes of hexagon and looks pretty interesting.
This is what wikipedia says about the salt flats - xxxxx
In a way, the salt flat just looks like a big frozen lake with snow. However, the surrounding mountains are not snow capped and that it was really warm when we were there during the middle of the day. The tour guide cracked the surface of the salt flat and to our surprised, the sold salt was only about 10cm thick and beneath that, it was salt water. There was also salt crystal to be found in the water and we took one as souvenir.
We spent the rest of the day pretty much driving on the salt flats and admiring this very amazing yet strange scenery. Lunch was served in an ‘oasis’ which is pretty much an ‘island’ made of rock and full of cactuses. These cactuses are apparently very old. They only grow one meter a year and some of these cactuses have been 100+ years old. Very impressive. From there, you can imagine how the salt flat was once a lake and these oasis was once islands. On the ‘shore’ of the island, you can always see evidence of gentle salt lake waves heating the island shores. The lunch itself was amazingly good - we had fired alpaca steak with salad and drinks. The food so far is by far much better than those served on our trip up Machu Picchu!
We stopped at various places for picture stop before heading to the hotel at around 4pm. Originally some people in our group wanted to stay behind till sunset, but the idea of waiting in the baking heat in a dessert for 2 hours waiting for the sunset just simply do not appeal to us, we decided to head back to the hotel instead.
The hotel was actually pretty impressive and was much more luxurious then we expect. The building was mainly made of salt bricks and was bright and airy and nicely decorated. Our room consists of two single bed also made of salt and the floor was a mixture of salt and sand. The owner turned on the generator at 6pm and we had electricity until 9pm. We were quite surprised that this task of looking after the generator was entrusted to a child of around 8 year old. He also manned the bar!
We had a quick shower before tea - to be fair we weren’t particularly lucky with the shower as it was sometimes too hot and sometimes too cold. But we were glad to be able to wash finally after our overnight bus.
We had tea in the main room and various hot drinks and biscuits was served. This is also a great opportunity to get to know our ‘jeep-mate’ better. We were very lucky to be sharing our jeep with some amazing people. Among the six of us, there were this British guy (from Poole!) who is a music composer in Malaysia, a Australian guy who is a mathematician for gambling companies, a German couple whom the wife was a doctor and the husband a civil engineer. We had a very pleasant evening talking about various topic and this is the first time in our trip that we felt a fantastic connection with our travel mates. The fact that a bottle of Bolivian wine was included in the meal may also have helped.
On the topic of Bolivian wine, we are very surprised to find out that the bottle that was served was indeed very nice. We have never heard that Bolivia produce wine before but I guess being the neighbour of a great wine producers, Argentina and Chile, this kind of make sense. However, as we found out from the guide, that Bolivia doesn’t produce that much wine due to the fact that the hilly land bordering Chile wasn’t particularly fertile.
At 9pm, the lights was off and the hotel was lit by candles. It was actually very atmospheric and we chatted a bit in bed with the candle light before snoozing off at around 10pm. The wake up time was the next morning was 7am so we had plenty of time to be very well rested, a chance to also recover from the overnight bus the night before.