Sunday, May 31, 2009

Here comes the Sun!

this'll be a long one... but with lots of pictures!

At about 6:30 this morning I arrived in the city of Oruro, altitude 3,700m above sea level, as the Lonely Planet was all too happy to inform me. I arrived there via an overnight train from Uyuni, where I had paid my $15 for the executive class seat, which, among other things, meant there car was to have heating. It may have had other things, but no heating, so facing the bright, crisp, cold, early morning in Oruro, I had to reconsider my plans to spend a day in Oruro. Reconsider I did, and by 7:30 I was on a bus heading for the city of Cochabamba, which may not have any particulalry striking attractions, but is located a lot closer to sea level than Oruro. The issue, really, was that we had just finished a four day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats, which served as an appropriately cold conclusion to the prior two months, spent primarily at altitudes of over 2,000m. Watching the weather get progressively colder as the Southern hemisphere's winter approached.

But now that I'm back in my travel comfort zone of shorts and sandals here in Cochabamba, we can safely focus on the real reason to go to the Salt Flats - the uniquely spectactacular scenery! So, off backwards in time to Tupiza, Bolivia five days ago:

Tuesday: Day -1
I had arrived in Tupiza the day before (on yet another freezing cold overnight bus) and had immediately gone off to investigate the Salt Flats tours. The tours start in Tupiza (among other places) and finish in Uyuni. Uyuni, however, has repeatedly been described to me as, well, a place to avoid spending any time in. The more colorful descriptions might make the blog sound offensive. I also wanted to take the train out of Tupiza instead of putting up with yet another overnight bus, so after a bit of research I had myself booked onto a tour leaving Wednesday morning, arriving in Uyuni Saturday afternoon, and onto a train for Oruro later Saturday night. This left me with a free day Monday - not to fear, the reason to do the tours out of Tupiza instead of Uyuni is that Tupiza is actually a pleasant town and there are things one can do do keep themselves entertained here. I decided to go horse-back riding for a day. A full day.

My noble steed and I

The scenery did not disappoint!

The first half of the day, we all tried to learn how to tell the horses to go faster. Then came lunch. And the horses apparently quite enjoyed their meal of grass - we spent the second half of the day learning how to get the horses to slow down. Around five o'clock, we were back, all rather exhausted after seven hours on horse back.

Wednesday: Day 1
Waking up at 7:30, I had two things to contemplate:
- my back still hurt after yesterday's horse ride
- and I was about to spend the next four days in the very relative comforts of a jeep crossing the Salt Flats

The second thought made me feel somewhat better about the first... So after what would be my last shower for the next four days, I was all packed and set to go at 8:30, meeting my companions for the next few days: Ronald, the driver, Carmen, the amazing cook, and Dominic, Alex, Peter, and Esther, the other tourists. Peter and Esther happened to show up at the very last second, but we were happy to take them along as there was plenty of room in the jeep, the bigger group made the trip cheaper for us, and you might as well have a couple more people to talk to over the next four days! So, off we went.

Now, in reality, the four day Salt Flats tour only spends one day in the actual Salt Flats. The other three days are spent looking at various other exotic scenery in this part of Bolivia, and one of the advantages of starting in Tupiza instead of Uyuni is that you build up to the Salt Flats, which you see on the fourth day. So, on day one, we had exotic scenery:

Such as these very jagged mountains

And this bolding cactus, which we tried to make look as fashionable as possible. Somewhere, I knew, Lott was cringing...

That night, we had the first of Carmen's amazing dinners (which also had to accomodate the two vegetarians, who showed up at the very last second) and then got our first introduction to the cold, as we were spending the night in an unheated building at an elevation of 4,300m. In late May. It actually wasn't that bad - sleeping bag and lots of blankets can apparently overcome quite a bit!

Thursday: Day 2
Up at a relatively reasonable 7:30 in the morning (we'd later meet another group who had had to get up at the astoundingly early, and cold, hour of 4:30), we were back on the road before 9. All of a sudden I started to realize that the one thing the lunar landscape was reminding me of was the drive across Western Mongolia - hundreds of miles of rock-strewn, unpaved roads, imposing mountain ranges all around, lots of river crossings, and very cold nights. Just replace the camels with llamas, and the mental image is complete!

The nights were actually quite a bit colder, so some of our river crossings also includes some snow and ice

And the other vehicles on the road weren't all Russian-made. Also, I discovered the joys of sepia!

We had soon arrived at the Koolpa Laguna, covered with a thin sheet of ice

For lunch, everyone got a chance to warm up in the hot springs. And I do mean everyone - the pool was packed.

In the afternoon, we crossed the highest point on the journey (5,020m - my 3rd time over 5,000m in two months... chew them coca leaves!) and came to visit a field of exotically colored geysers. The extreme winds up here cut the geyser trip rather short...

The day ended with a brief, and still very windy, visit to the multi-colored Laguna Colorada, home of many, many flamingos, but more on them on Day 3. For the night, we were once again sleeping in an unheated building at almost 4,400m above sea level. A bit chilly. This one did have a stove where we could make a fire, however, the wood quickly ran out and our repeated pleas for more were met with a standard Bolivian response of 'yes, yes,' followed by a disappearance. An hour later, and with our fire dead, we finally learned that they just wanted money for the firewood, since it is a scarce commodity up here, well above the tree line... We were more than happy to pay. In fact, I would've been willing to pay more if they could've just told us what they wanted right at the start!

Friday: Day 3
The day started with another visit to Laguan Colorada, which was looking even more spectacular in the morning's bright sunshine. The wildlife was out in full force to enjoy the rays of sun too, mostly oblivious to our presence:

I snuck in close enough to get some good shots of the flamingos

But when you get too close, they get away - a flamingo taking flight

Also grazing around the laguna, llamas. With funny red tags on their ears. Also completely unbothered by our presence.

After a break for lunch, we were out among the lunar landscapes again, and now the winds came in earnest, effectively putting us in the middle of a sand storm. Very Dune or Return of the Jedi... The sand storm made for some trepidation for the performance of the jeep (but Ronald got us through completely unscathed) and made for some unusual shots of the rock formations along the way, like Arbol de Piedra, here.

And on the third night, we were finally on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni - the salt flat itself. Only appropriate that we were staying at a salt hotel - the entire structure, including the beds is made out of salt blocks.

Saturday: Day 4
This time, we were up early: 5:30, in time to see the sunrise over the salar. And the morning sights surely didn't disappoint.

The sun coming up over the eerily-flat salt lake

Our jeep standing strong among the elements. The fact that we didn't have a single break down over the course of the trip is fairly amazing, considering the road conditions.

Now, fortunately, the winds from the day before had mostly died down, however, as you can imagine, the temperatures at sunrise were pretty, uhmm, invigorating. We were each wearing every piece of clothing available. Once the sun did come up in earnest though, the conditions improved a bit, and it was time to do what everyone comes to the salt fats for (apparently): funny perspective pictures in the extremely flat environment

mmm, Bolivian beer...

We all have such good balance!

The dinosaurs are attacking! The dinosaurs are attacking! And yes, mom, if you look real close, you'll discover that I now have red highlights in my hair - I was kind of bored the first day in Tupiza...

And on this, definitely high, note, our tour came to an end - we had one more lunch, expertly prepared by Carmen, and half an hour later, were dropped off in Uyuni, which lived up to its reputation as a thoroughly unattractive place. The jeep promptly took off for Tupiza (it's only three hours when you take the direct route), and we were left with half a day to spend entertaining ourselves in Uyuni... So, we headed off for the only attraction that the town has to offer - a train cemetery:

Now, there's a also a train cemetery in Chile - the admission is likewise free there, but it's actually set up as a museum, and the locomotives are all well preserved.

In Bolivia? No museums here - this is just the place where locomotives and wagons get dumped when they can no longer be used

Sometimes it's just bits of the train. Bonus points if you can spot the motorcycle in this picture - it really added to the Mad Max atmosphere

Light shining through bits of a former engine

And at this point, we were officially done. All was left was another six hours sitting around a variety of restuarants/pubs in Uyuni playing cards and drinking over-priced beer until the midnight hour arrived, we boarded our train, and headed off towards Oruro, which is where this post started, all that time ago...

1 comment:

Cat said...

I've just read your salt flats blog post - it sounds like you had a great time! I'm currently working on a salt flats tour provider ranking website. I'd really appreciate it if you could spare 2 minutes to fill in our review form for the salt flats tour you did so that other people booking can easily choose a tour company that's what they want. You'll find the form at .
Thank you!