Salar de Uyuni and The Wild West
Nov 15, 2005
|In case you were worried, we survived the return plane trip from Rurrenbaque. We all noticed the lack of oxygen as we gained altitude (we all got sleepy) and the 6000m+ peak that was higher than the right wing when we crossed back over the Andes was a little unsettling!
Back in La Paz it was all hands on deck to arrange our next sojourn - the wild territory of Bolivia's south west altiplano. Transport was always going to be a challenge; Plan A was a three hour bus ride to Oruro to catch a twice weekly 7 hour train service to Uyuni, the gateway to the south west.
Plan A went out the window when, 2 hours into our bus journey, we encountered our first road block. Why, we are not certain, but it could have something to do with the 4 Bolivianos each that was demanded before we went off road for an hour through a small village and a farmer's paddock to get back on the road - 1km further down. We had been warned that the train from Oruro to Uyuni may not be running due to a strike. Good news, the train was running. Bad news, we missed it due to the road block! Plan B - an overnight, 8 hour, 'local' bus ride to Uyuni...
Not happy, with hours to kill and empty stomachs, we headed for the 'Splurge' recommendation in our trusty Lonely Planet guide book - Restaurant Nayjama. We have never seen lamb served quite like it! A whole front leg served on a plate with potatoes, quinoa (local grain) and vegetables - the photo will explain the magnitude of the serving!
Restaurant owner, Don Roberto, equalled the portions of his food with his eccentricity and personality. A chef to the stars, he has lived in over 70 countries and worked as private chef to the likes of Ronald Regan, John F Kennedy, Hugh Hefner (with photo to prove it - you can guess!), The Blues Brothers, Princess Stephanie of Monaco and more. His stories, hand reading and hospitality kept us entertained all afternoon - at this stage we thought the road block was a blessing in disguise (we hadn't boarded the bus yet)!
The indigenous Indian women in Peru & Bolivia wear layers of skirts. This is not all for show - when nature calls, they squat under these skirts using the inner layers to clean up afterwards. Needless to say a bus crammed full of locals, some sleeping in the aisles, did not make for a pleasant journey.
We made it to Uyuni alive and in need of a shower at 3am. US$5 each bought us 3 hours sleep and a shower in the morning before commencing a 4 day expedition. Our tour consisted of a driver/guide, his wife the chef and the lovely Stina and Martin, from Sweden, who were travelling on their gap year.
Our base for 4 days was an old, cramped but very reliable Landcruiser that took us from one extreme to the other. We drove through the remains of a prehistoric salt lake spanning 12,000 square kilometres at 3650m above sea level; the Salar de Uyuni, stopping to take freaky perspective photos on the vast white background. We climbed an amazing coral island rising from the salt pan, Isla Pescado, inhabited with stunning cactus, one aged over 1000 years and a marooned colony of vizcachas (long tailed rodents). Our guide took us past many high altitude lakes, spectacular scenery in vibrant greens (Launa Verde), rusty reds (Laguna Colorada) and foamy whites surrounded by volcanoes and inhabited with thousands of pink flamingos. On the third morning, we departed camp at 5am and visited a geyser basin with boiling mud pots and sulfurous fumaroles in all shapes and sizes, after which we defrosted by taking a much needed dip in a volcanic hot spring, Termas de Polques, a very comforable 30C at 4200m.
The temperature ranged from below freezing and windy, to intensely hot with clear blue skies. Accommodation consisted of basic dorms and some strong contenders for the worst shower on tour (on the nights we had showers) and the standard of food declined as the days went on.
The Bolivian countryside is barely touched and truly spectacular, although according to many locals, the country will never successfully 'cash in' on its prime tourist destinations due to corruption and lack of infrastructure. In some ways, a true shame, though on the other hand it is refreshing to experience such natural wonders in such a primitive way.
We've now got a couple of days to chill out in the chaotic Bolivian capital of La Paz before catching a flight to Santiago and commencing the Chile/Argentina leg of our journey.