Uyuni- Mars, volcanoes and stars

It feels like quite a while since I was last with Kim, it was only three weeks but they were really busy and long. The anticipation builds on my train ride to Uyuni and meeting up in the hostel late that evening is quite a big moment. We don’t have much chance to catch up though as a young American girl sits with us and chats about her everything for a while. She offered us to stay at her parents cabin in Montana after about five minutes.

Uyuni is another cold, ugly, dusty, but unusually​ expensive (relative to Bolivian standards) town on the Altiplano. It came into existence as a train depot for the region’s mineral exports and a military base. Yet there are more tourists here than anywhere else in Bolivia because it’s the launch point of ‘the big one’, tours to the Salar de Uyuni. So what’s that? You’ve probably seen one of your gap yah friends post a perspective shot from it. Roughly speaking it’s Mars, I’ll let the many pictures (Mostly Kims, apart from the cycling and volcano walk) do the talking.

This guy convinced us to go with Quechua Connections. Genuinely, we were in the agency playing with him for so long we felt obliged.

A train graveyard is the first stop

We acted out an Indiana Jones style chase and fight scene, it was pretty epic.

After an unnecessary stop at a market, we’re on salt!

The bike ride was good fun, the brakes were shot from the salt but it didn’t matter as there’s nothing but space to run into.

Buff up, trousers into socks. Yippee-ki-yay!!

All the flags at the salt hotel

Representing #escocia

Stretches to each horizon

The Paris-Dakar rally was relocated to South America since 2009 amid security concerns in Mauritania. It seems to have become quite a source of pride in Bolivia, the logo is everywhere. The rough and varied terrain seems ideal for the country but our guide Enrique has mixed feelings. On the plus it’s good entertainment for the community and brings in money but on the other hand the presence of unruly crowds is damaging to the fragile environment. All I know is it made me nostalgic for my old PS2 game of it, driving buses over sand dunes is good fun.

I was pretty unenthused about spending my brief time in one of the most stark and stunning environments I’ve been too posing for other people’s jump shots, but having spent good time appreciating the salt on the bikes and in the car, I was ready to oblige and it was largely good fun. The driver’s are experts in the various illusions and make it their mission to get you in as many as possible. Good to a point, the results are fun though.

Deep into the flats is Isla Incahuasi, a conspicuous hill covered in cacti.

They grow up to 12m

Even out here we could find a dog friend.

Fascinatingly, and quite visibly, the island is covered with clumps of fossilized coral. These are remnants of a distant past where the Altiplano was at the bottom of the sea, rather than hundreds of miles from it and 4000m above it. This arch is coral.

A stunning sunset that our cameras couldn’t quite capture.

Day two, the Coral Army

Into Sud Lipez, red martian deserts and huge volcanoes. The only giveaways that we’re still on earth is the snow at the top and the occasional clump of dried grass.

Never not sexy

Volcan Ollague (5868m), it’s​ active and smokes visibly. You can drive about 400m from the summit apparently if you want an easy peak.

Our first of three beautiful lagoons.

Andean Fox

Laguna number two, the stinky lake (sulphur, so rotten egg smell), looked nice though!

One gangster flamingo in contravention of the ‘no fly’ sign.

Laguna Colorado, it turns red when the wind whips up it’s algae. It was real windy.

The flamingos seemed to like it.

Bubbling sulphur springs at 5000m.

Our second night was at a natural hot pool (agua caliente, I’m learning!), which was quite divine, especially after my experience in Sajama. Kim and I shared a bottle of red while we enjoyed the warmth and quite possibly the most stunning starry sky I’ve ever witnessed. The cloudless, lightless, high altitude vantage point is perfect for it. We saw multiple shooting stars, bright and thrilling and an Aussie acquaintance gave me rum. Perfect. Until the next tour group joined us… They were somehow already smashed and shouting, shrieking and jumping about in our calm waters. They left a light on shining over the water which reduces the visibility of the stars and despite sustained heckling they wouldn’t/ couldn’t turn it off. Worse, one of them dropped and smashed a wine bottle by the girls changing room so the girls had a barefoot gauntlet over broken glass to get dry. Sigh, bloody gringos. Another issue was the below freezing temperatures outside, exacerbated by a strong wind that blew handfuls of dust into the back of our hair which would instantly freeze into horrid clumps wherever the water had splashed. It would be another three days before we could wash that mess out. Yet even this and the lightning fast, frozen run to get changed wasn’t quite enough to ruin the magical atmosphere.

One of the rocks looks like a sitting woman. They call these the Dalí rocks.

Our operator (Quechua Connections) were great. The food was really nice, particularly that first lunch of fresh tomato, avocado, quinoa (best I’ve had yet) and llamma steaks.* The English speaking guide was good, making sincere efforts to ensure our enjoyment, although he had an irritating habit of starting his explanations when the first person got out of the car so if you were last crawling out you’d have missed half. The 4x4s were nice and the driver’s safe and friendly, at our second lunch they convinced us we were eating flamingo which got us excited until we realised the windup. The places you stay are pretty darn cold (almost as much as Sajama) and didn’t have the promised warm shower but were nice enough otherwise.

After the tour we get dropped at a hostel by the Chilean border for a couple of nights. Really the middle of nowhere, higher and colder. We’re here to climb Licancabur (5960m), an imposing stratavolcano flanked by Bolivian lagoons on one side and the Atacama in Chile on the other.  Start climbing at 4am with freezing fingers and slowly slog up in the dark. Our guide (always required in a national park) is a quiet young fellow called Will.I.Am, we have good banter such as.

William: Es freo, tienes freo? (It’s cold, are you cold?)

Me: Sí, et tu? (Yeah, you?)

William: No (No)

Classic William!

By the time the sun peers over we’re almost halfway. Unfortunately the altitude hits Kim hard and it becomes clear quickly we need to turn back as she’s feeling physically sick. This abates thankfully by the time we’re back down.

I force Kim to pose before we return like a good concerned boyfriend.

Back at the hostel we decide to try and get over to sunny San Pedro in Chile rather  than have another freezing night with nothing to do. This proves quite the challenge. About sixty jeeps pass through taking tours between 8:30-9:30am and we’ve just missed these. Apart from this the border point has basically no traffic, we try to hitch on the occasional jeep that does come but have the added problem that Bolivian vehicles can’t generally go into Chile.* So a transfer on the other side is required and it’s pretty much a lottery when you get to the actual border if there’ll be one or any space in it. It’s about 6-7 hours of back and forth and heckling vehicles when the last two jeeps of the day pull up and we manage to sneak on their transfer. Bolivian transport is tricky but for a few days, a thing of the past. It’s Chile time!

*Fun fact: Llamma steaks taste good, pretty much like beef but are infinitely more environmentally friendly as they can survive off meager resources and don’t fart ozone shrivelling methane into the atmosphere on a grand scale.

*Fun fact: Bolivia and Chile do not get on. There was a war in the late 19th century where Bolivia lost it’s coastal territories to Chile. This is locally considered to be a major cause of the countries economic struggles and subsequent treaties to mediate seem to have been unsatisfactory to both sides.

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