Cold Hotels, Salt And Deja Vu

Arriving in Uyuni was quite a surreal experience. Exhausted by the epic bus journey and at high altitude, I felt as if I was drunk as we staggered through the dusty streets of the isolated town looking for a hostel for the night. We found a cheap place quite soon and laid down to rest for a while in order to get our senses back.

Our room was sunny and warm at first but, as the sun went down, the temperature dropped and by the time we went out it was extremely cold. After wandering around for a while we decided that the freezing nights on the Bolivian altiplano merited some investment in some warmer clothing so we bought gloves and a traditional woolly hat, made from wool and alpaca. Looking like an idiot, I donned my (reversible – green on one side, brown on the other!) hat and we set out to find a tour company who could help us with a visit to the salt flats in the morning.

All booked and ready to go, we ate a fairly ordinary dinner and went to bed in our freezing room which had no heating and gaps in the window. I wore my hat all night but I was still extremely cold and our shower in the morning, in luke-warm water, was a frightening start to the day.

The town of Uyuni exists solely because of the salt flats – the Salar de Uyuni – which are the largest in the world at around 12,000 square kilometres so all the tour companies offer the same itinerary. It started with the 7 of us being taken to the train cemetery nearby in a land cruiser driven by our local Bolivian guide who, as it turned out, didn’t speak English and, perhaps more surprisingly for a tour guide, had a stutter! The railway from here to the coast at Antofagasta was built by the British to take mined materials to be shipped around the world but it has been abandoned for around 40 years (we think) and they left a few engines and carriages just outside town to rot which has now become a sort of museum. It was vaguely interesting but once we’d taken a few pictures we were keen to get moving and maybe steal the march on the many other tours that surrounded us.

A quick visit to the local village which mines the salt in small amounts and then we sped out onto the salt flats themselves. First, we stopped at the salt pyramids, which are simply the little piles of salt that the locals had piled up ready to be shipped out. We met a Danish girl on the tour who had done the trip before but had decided to do it again as the weather had not been good and she convinced us to stand on one of the piles for photos. The salt cascaded down the pyramid as we clambered up though, causing a grumpy local with a shovel to come running over to castigate us for wasting his days work. Whoops. Fair point. We got back in the Jeep and drove off.

Next was a quick stop at a hotel on the plains which was made entirely of salt but had been closed down in 2002 due to sanitary problems. We didn’t bother to get out – it didn’t look very interesting and we wanted to get ahead of the others. The driver then had to drive along ‘roads’ across the salt for around an hour – a task so dull and unchallenging that you couldn’t blame him for feeling a little sleepy so the Chilean guy sat in the front constantly engaged him in conversation in order to prevent him from nodding off.

The drive was worth it. The salt looked like snow and went on for ever it seemed – we were always heading towards an island in the centre but never seemed to get any closer to it. Eventually we did make it there and this part turned out to be the highlight of the day. The island is the top of an ancient, extinct volcano and is now just a rocky lump, covered in huge cactuses, some around 9 metres high and more than 1500 years old. We clambered around for an hour taking photos and then had some lunch with the others. It turns out that the huge expanses of brilliant white salt lends itself very well to constructing silly photos which make people look small and other objects look big by using perspective so, once we’d eaten, everyone set about coming up with ideas in small groups. We joined forces with our new Danish friend and a Canadian guy and spent half an hour using shoes, a banana and a Pringles packet to amuse ourselves.

The rest of the day was spent driving around looking at a nearby volcano, a lagoon where flamingoes eat and an area where gas bubbles up from the brine lakes below into small lakes. The whole place was unlike anything we’d ever seen and the epic trip to get there was definitely worth it.

We changed hotel for the night to get some warmth and took a bus the next morning to Potosi. The road was another rutted nightmare but this time included more winding turns as it wound its way over the spectacular mountains so the 250km journey took more than 8 hours.

Potosi is the highest city in the world – at more than 4000m and it gets pretty cold at night so we’d booked a nice hotel on someone’s recommendation. However, the place was way overpriced for what it was so we spent an hour trudging around at altitude looking for somewhere else to stay. To say we were exhausted when we finally laid down would be an understatement.

When we awoke the next morning, Annika was convinced she recognised the voices of the people next door. In the small world of the travelling folk, it turned out that the couple from London that we’d met in Cafayate around 10 days ago had caught up with us, having taken a completely different route to us and moved in next door after we’d gone out for our unremarkable meal the night before! Bizarre.

Potosi was much nicer than we’d imagined this mining town would be. The town exists due to the discovery of rich silver deposits in the nearby mountains many years ago and dynamite explosions are still heard in the mornings as the miners try and blast their way to a meagre existence from tin – the silver has all but gone. The miners’ life expectancy is around 35 years as they work for 14 hours a day in cramped, dangerous conditions, many of them dying from respiratory diseases caused by various poisonous gases.

We didn’t actually do much in town apart from a visit to Bolivia’s former coinage mint which was led by the most miserable tour guide on the planet. A few beers with our new London pals and the next day we all shared a maniac taxi to the provincial capital of Bolivia, Sucre.

Sucre is one of the nicest places we’ve been to in South America and our hotel is one of the best of the entire trip so far! We’re hoping to stay here for a few days and maybe do some hiking nearby but, after one too many beers last night, today is a rest day. Hoorah for that.