Day 1 Leaving San Pedro
The driver that takes us in the minibus to the border is Oscar and he’s very jolly and as mad as a brush. Playing Johnny Cash and Ray Charles for us along the way as well as singing along. He’s 60 if he’s a day! Once we’ve all been through the Chilean border, we get back in the bus to head for the Bolivian entry point and the minibus keeps cutting out – good start!! It just didn’t like reverse it seems as when the minibus in front drives off we’re able to go forwards.
At the bolivian border which is some 40 mins away and a further 2000m higher (San Pedro being at ~2200m) we have a table brought out to our minibus for our 2nd part of brekkie (as we got in the minibus we got an orange juice and a packet of princess biscuits!!) which thankfully was a bit more substantial, cheese and ham rolls and tea/coffee.
Here we met Quintin, our 4×4 driver for the next three days. According to Oscar, the best! Oh did we forgot to mention our co passengers are Dan (who you know already, sky diver from Chicago), Alexi and Nick, an English couple touring South America and learning Spanish as part or for their degree back home, and lastly Mateus a geologist from Brazil doing the trip to learn more about the amazing landscapes as much as for vacation.
While at the border having brekkie and getting our passports stamped there’s a wrecked old bus lying nearby that serves as the toilets for us all. Very fresh too.
When we set off our 1st two stops are some amazing lakes (or are they lagoons?) Lagos blanco which Quintin tells us is mostly potassium and is iced on top, proven by the birds walking on top as we drive away; Lagos Verde which is green due to the copper oxide it contains.
On the way to the hot springs (Aquas Caliente) we briefly stop at the Dali Rocks, a bunch of weird looking pretty impressive rocks just jutting up out of the sand/gravel.
The hot springs were indeed hot and luckily we got there before the crowds starting arriving and were able to get in when there were only a few others there. Within say 30 mins at most it was heaving with all the others doing the trip with different companies and time to get out. Lunch was served in a building nearby and the quality was definitely dependent on which company you were with. But ours was edible and went down well. Luckily too we had no one ill with altitude sickness as yet so all was good.
That said as we got back in the wagon Quintin dished out coco leaves to everyone as we were about to go even higher.
Next stop was the geysers, Sol de Manaña – Sulphur springs which were pretty smelly and quite small really. It was a fun packed day for sure and as we drove from sight to sight the scenery was breathtaking. It was also very cold up here. We finished the day off with possibly the most spectacular – Lagos Colorada which is bright red and full of flamingoes. The red colour we hear is from the mineral gypsum. On top of the water there are lots of white deposits of borax. You had to be there we really don’t think the photo’s will do it justice. On the banks of this lake was our nights accommodation. Which Quintin seemed none to pleased with. It looked like it was 1st come 1st served and by the time we arrived the other tour companies had got the better option and we were left with the last cookie in the jar. That’ll teach us for taking so many photo’s all day long.
It’s very very basic, 7 bunks huddled closely into one very dilapidated room with a table squeezed in the centre. Our toilet was in an adjoining room, It was a toilet pan but no flush, we had to empty buckets of water in after use. Still we’d had a good day and there were at least plenty of blankets on each bed to keep us warm. They’d warned us temperatures would be as low as 4deg inside and as low as -25deg outside over night!
After emptying the wagon and depositing our gear into our adequate accommodation we went for a further walk along the side of the lake. Having said none of us were suffering from altitude sickness the walk took it’s toll.
We walked around bit of the lake and were all well out of breath and after dinner most of us had headaches to varying degrees.
Day 2 Rocky road to Alota
Quintin told us to be up and ready for 0730 so Huw set an alarm and we were all up dressed and packed for bang on 0730. But there was no sign of Quintin … In fact he didn’t show for at least another 40 mins, we thought he’d slept in and meanwhile we were all getting cold as the sun wasn’t up yet. It was nearly 0830 before brekkie arrived and going on 0845 before we left. To top that all the other wagons had gone well before we even got up, so we were wondering why the late start and why Quintin was so laid back about it… till we were on our way and it all became clear when he asked the time. Then told us the time!! We’d all forgotten we were now on Bolivian time it was an hour earlier than we thought. We’d got up and ready at 0630. Doh!
The days sights started with Arbol de Piedra – or rock tree. This was an area of rocks standing tall in the sand, and one in particular that looked a bit tree like….time for some silly climbing photos 🙂
Next was a series of lakes of different colours. Lagoon Honda or blue lake which was only 1/2 m deep, and again contained mineral deposits of potassium & borax. Lagoon Hedionda or black lake, containing potassium and sulphur. We got great reflection photos from this one. A random lunch spot was thrown in, where we spotted some viscachas, crazy rabbit/kangaroo looking animals before moving onto Lagoon Cañapa, the green lake, containing sulphur and potassium (it seemed like the same minerals were present in most of the lakes but in different quantities).
Our last spot for the day was the valley of the rocks. Again really hard to do this justice with words, if you can imagine miles and miles, as far as the eye can see, huge rocks just standing in the sand. Some with holes in, some resembling shapes of animals or people … they just appeared out of no where and stopped just abruptly. It was like a huge unfinished sculpture park where the sculptor had got bored on one piece, left it and moved on to the next.
As we left here Quintin suddenly stopped the wagon and got out to talk to what appeared to be a family sitting about 20m off the road. He came back with two cooked potatoes, he’d bought four, ate two and gave us the others to try. They were very random and also very tasty.
Further on down the road the landscape continually changing, we stop for some photos of a herd of llamas by the side of the road. They are very funny looking animals.
Finally we stop at Alota for the night, not San Cristobal as we were expecting and in fact we have no idea where Alota is in relation to San Cristobal. The hostel is called Hospedaje Los Andes, it’s nice with separate twin rooms and hot shower oh and toilets that flush! We take a walk through village supposedly to a river but we can’t find it and are surprisingly tired from having sat still most of the day, the altitude can’t be under estimated. The village is cute and described as authentic, there are lots of llamas roaming free and we find a map along the central road so we are able to orientate ourselves. One thing is for sure, we are going to have to get used to ducking in doorways pretty quickly in Bolivia. It’s certainly quieter here as all of the other tour operators have gone somewhere else for the night!
Day 3 Salar de Uyuni
As instructed and after synchronising watches we all make it to brekkie at 7.15 and are on the road just after 8am. We’d discovered from the map yesterday that San Cristobal was the 2nd village further along the road and we stop briefly there on our way through to look around and take photo’s. It’s bigger than Alota and not quiet as nice.
Then it was onto Uyuni where we stop at the Atacama Mistica office to fill out forms and leave big bags before heading onto the Salar.
On the way we stop at an artesanal market where Mateus sees his friends again and finds out that a jeep was in an accident yesterday on the road we were on and the driver and 2 tourists died 🙁
The Salar is absolutely amazing, an expanse of over 12,000km salt, white as far as the eye can see. We drive through the water for a bit and stop at first to take some photo’s where they are harvesting the salt, piling it high for collection, and then drive a bit further on to the original salt hotel (there’s quite a few replicas now) where we take more photos and have lunch. If you turn up later in the year the tour stops overnight at a salt hotel like this one but it needs rebuilding / not accessible following the rainy season.
Another brilliant day had by all and as we leave Dan copies everyones photo’s so we all have a copy of group ones taken along the trip as we head back into town for our final stop – the train cemetery – the idea that 20 or 30 trains have just been left here to rot since the mid fifties is pretty astounding. Mostly old steam trains too, enthusiasts in the UK would throw a track, quite literally!!! A sad but fascinating sight.
Back at Uyuni the girl in the Atacama Mistica office books the bus to Potosi tomorrow for us all, Mateus is going on to Sucre but she’s managed to get us all on the same bus.
The next job is finding accommodation for tonight, the journey to Potosi is about 6 hours so there is no point trying to do it today as we’d arrive there at midnight with no hostel to go to. Plus it’s doubtful there’s even a bus now. So tomorrow it is with a stopover here in Uyuni. Nick and Alexi have a room booked so we check their hostel out first (well Bernice does while the boys have a beer). There’s only one bed available but the guy is able to recommend another. Better that than doing a pot luck door to door job.
Bernice checks this out and the owner, Gustavo, offers us a private two man room (each with 4 beds in) and kitchen and bathroom. For oh a meat £4 each the night.
Reporting back to the boys and having forgot to ask about wifi we agree to check the two places opposite out too. They’re much more expensive and still no wifi so we go back to Gustavo.
Meeting the guys later for pizza finishes the day off nicely. We could have looked for local food but every other shop is a pizza house. Worryingly we’re paying ~£1.40 a litre of beer which on the face of it is a bargain. But when you compare it to £3.50 for the bus to go 6 hours across country you can’t help thinking you’re being swindled somehow!!!