Monday, 27 July 2015

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

29/06 -  01/07


We arrived in a freezing Uyuni at about 4 am.  It looked like an abandoned ghost town with just the taxi drivers and tour guides trying to tout for business. We knew that the town was not that big and had flagged a few backpackers that we had in mind to stay at so we resisted the taxis and went out into the darkness in search of a warm bed. Uyuni is unfortunately not well sign posted and even worse than that, there are packs of street dogs that roam the streets. To add to that, other foreigners have obviously in the past taken pity upon these dogs and fed them.  So now they associate any foreigner with food and come running! We had avoided the painful tet shot injections before coming to South America and lockjaw is not something either of us wanted to experience, so once again we turned to the tazers to serve as a detergent. Sadly,  just as in the Amazon jungle, our tazers failed to help defend us against the nature.  We quickly gathered our wits and put all our focus into finding our accommodation (Rox grabbed a few stones for good measure - our only defence should the hungry dogs decide to pounce).  Eventually after only taking one wrong turn and Joy only getting mild frostbite in her fingers, we reached the place and thankfully they had cozy beds available for us. They even had heaters in the dorm rooms. Without any further words we hopped into bed for a few hours' sleep.  

At a decent hour we arose from our slumber.  Since we had only arrived that day we assumed that breakfast would only be included from tomorrow onwards.  Also, another girl that we met, Bailey from Canada, who had also arrived that morning had said that the manager had told her that if she wants breakfast she would have to pay the ridiculous price of B$15.  Instead we went with our trusty 'hobo biscuits.'  After a much needed shower we headed into town with Bailey to have some lunch at a tourist pizza place (cheating!) and check out all the tour agencies to book our excursions into the salt flats.  We literally walked the town flat comparing prices and companies. We had heard horror stories about the many deaths of tourists on the salt flats due to drunk 4x4 drivers.  Our strategy was to ask if we could pay half the price before the tour and half afterwards when we arrived back safely. Even though most people didn't agree to this term, it was a useful way of seeing how the different operators reacted to the issue of drunken driving. Those who got defensive we knew not to trust and those who had faith in their drivers instilled more faith in us and in their companies. 

After a long day we eventually decided to do an extended one day trip with a company called Oasis (B$180) and a sunrise tour with a Japanese company called Hodaka (B$160).  Most people visiting the salt flats go on a three day excursion, but we had read reviews of people that said that the second and third days of this tour are mostly spent in the vehicles driving and that you get more value for money out of the one day trips. The only major things we would be missing out on was the red lake (but it was dry season so it was apparently not much has to see)  and the hotsprings. However the main reason people go to the salt flats is to actually see the flats so we decided that these extras,  although beautiful, we're not essential to see.  Plus, our Taiwanese friend,  Annabelle, had been to the salt flats two weeks prior to us and had recommended the sunrise tour.  Not many tourists know that this tour even exists and only three companies in Uyuni offer this package.  Hodaka is the most reasonable one (B$ 800 per car with a maximum of 7 people in a car)  and is the only one that even though it is dry season at the moment, guarantees to find water on the flats so that you can take the much desired reflection photographs. We were so lucky to have had Annabelle as our insider informant, as it looked like only Asian people knew of and used this company (all their customer reviews were in Chinese). 

It had been a long day of negotiation so we decided to treat ourselves with two for one cocktails.  After drinks it was off to bed for a good night's sleep before our adventures on the one day tour the next day. 


We awoke early the next morning for our first included breakfast at the backpackers.  We still had space in the car for the sunrise tour for the next day and the more people join, the cheaper for everyone.  So we set about telling our backpackers about this amazing and unique tour.  We seemed to ignite quite a bit of interest amongst people in the medical line - Kristen a med student from Canada and Mayu a Doctor from England. At least we would have some medical assistance should our driver turn out to be one of the bad ones. They said they would check it out that morning and get back to us by the evening. They seemed like really cool people who would be keen to take crazy reflection pics with us so we really hoped that they would join the tour. 

After breakfast we headed to Oasis. We jumped into the Jeep and were off to our first Stop - the train cemetery.  All the guides in Uyuni speak Spanish, except if you pay double for an English speaking guide at the more arrogant companies. Luckily in our group there were some Brazilian boys, l who could speak a bit of Spanish and three Spaniards who could also translate into English for us, so we were sorted. 

First stop - Cemeterio de Treneglos (The train cemetery) 

The rail road to nowhere. This rail was once used to transport minerals from nearby to the coast of Peru where they were shipped for export. 

Playing around the dead trains 

Anyone need a lift? 

Noooo it's falling on Joy! 

Train graveyard

Posing at the Jeep 

Second stop -  the salt museum 

Joy with Christina from Spain who had become our principle interpreter

The museum only had a few pieces of salt 'art' and then of course the majority of the space was filled with a curio shop with all sorts of tourist souvenirs.  Unfortunately for them it was enough for us to just take pics of the items. 

Piece of crystallised salt 

Bailey had decided to go with a three day tour of the flats but since the first day is basically the same as the one day tour, we ended up bumping into each other at a few of the stops. 

Third stop -  The Colchani salt extraction area

Siting on a strip of raw, unmined salt

Pile of mined salt

Brazilian boys Helden and Kalleo 

Fourth stop - the little geysers 

The water wasn't warm but when it dried, it left a layer of salt on our hands

Christina our interpreter relaying the info on the geysers to us. Apparently they are supposed to be good for old people (maybe we should plan a 100s club tournament to the salt flats...?) 

What a desolate landscape

Fifth stop -  the Isla Incahuasi 

This island is a hill covered with Trichoreus cacti and surrounded by white hexagonal salt tiles. These tiles form because of the thaw-evaporation cycle which turns the salt into these perfect shapes. 

Isa Incahuasi translated means the Inca's house.  The Island is also nicknamed fish island because it is apparently shaped like a fish but it is also what is left of an ancient volcano that was under a vast lake. It is for this reason that there are coral like structures on the Island and fossils. 

Glad to see that other South Africans have marked their visit to the Island.  We were proud to fly the SA flag on behalf of the country. 

Our group settling down for lunch at the foot of the Island

And on the menu today...llama (it actually was a really tastes piece of meat) 

Never seen orange and tangerine flavour fanta before 

Map of the Island 

We were told that we would have an hour to venture around the Island after lunch.  Nobody else in our group was keen to pay the B$30 to climb the Island so it was just us that faced the high altitude and steep path. 

That bird has some skills balancing on that spiky cactus 

The Museo de Ritual and the bathrooms at the Base of the Island

Door made out of an unknown but fascinating material

Nooo Joy don't prick your finger on the needles

Sea of cacti

A picture out of a Wild West movie

Can you spot the little Jeep way down there? 

Interestingly shaped cacti

Joy and Roxy next to what we thought at the time were Inca ruins but we later found out that it's a travellers' tradition to pile stones high and make a wish. 

The same unknown material was used to make this sign -  perhaps it is made out of dried out cacti

Joy's new profile picture

Fish Island selfie 

Coral like structure left from a time when the Island was submerged under water

Into the coral cave 

Ant people below 

Rox rebelling against the sign -  who would think that you would need a sign in the first place to tell people not to touch a sharp spike! 

Cacti shinning in the sun

On the way down we went into what was supposed to be an interesting museum on the rituals and culture of the inhabitants, but it turned out to be one little room with maybe two sign boards with information in Spanish -  not at all impressive. 

Sum total of the museum display

When we reached the group we heard that they had spent their time taking cool optical illusion pictures on the salt flats. We were only supposed to be at the site for an hour which had already past but since we couldn't find our guide anywhere we decided to use the time to take some of our own pics. We had brought a few props along and some of our group joined in. 

Brazilian boys battling

South African Zam-Buk tin making an appearance 

South African playing cards

Rox looking even shorter than normal

We had been told by our guide that we would go to an even better spot to take optical illusion pics (where there were presumably no mountains in the background) but our guide took forever to come back after lunch and even when he did we were apparently waiting for another person to join our already filled to capacity vehicle. So after two and a half hours at the Island we finally found the guide who told us that we now only had time to go to the volcano (and not climb up it to the mummies as we were promised) and not be able to go to another photo spot if we wanted to see the salt hotel and get to the water in time for the sunrise. 

Sixth stop -  the volcano near the village of Chuvica 

Village where the two day tours stay overnight 


Seventh stop -  A Salt hotel 

Apparently this desolate salt hotel is only really used by cyclists who can't make it all the way to the village. Otherwise it is just a tourist attraction. 

The entire hotel is made out of salt, even the walls and floors

Joy admiring the loose salt outside the hotel

Even all the furniture was made out of salt

Don't worry there were mattresses on the salt bed bases

Even the decor was made out of salt 

Joy looking very at home behind the salt bar -  wonder if you could just lick the bar when taking tequila shots 

Last stop -  the water on the salt flats -  just in time for sunset 

Despite failing to take us to the proper spots to take all the pictures we wanted, our vehicle was one of only four to take their passengers to find water to view the sunset over. 

We were very lucky to find water in the dry season

The full moon reflected in the water 

Sun setting 

Holding the moon in our hands

Salt flat selfie

Thank goodness the company provided us with these handy gumboots (although Rox didn't particularly love her leopard print ones

Let our gumboots combine

What incredible colours! 

 After a jam packed day on the salt flats we headed home to Uyuni.  We quickly sorted out our sunrise tour for the next day.  And to our delight Mayu and Kristen had been convinced by our sales pitch and had decided to join the trip:) However they had been put into another group but after a little negotiation we managed to get them moved into our group with the other two girls from Hong Kong. It promised to be a fun trip... After that we headed back to the hostel, had Pringles for supper and Argentinian coffee that a man in the hostel brewed for us.  Then it was shower time to get rid of the masses of salt that had accumulated on us throughout the day, especially after the jumping pics on the salt water.  We watched a little bit of the semi finals of the soccer (Copa America) before heading to bed to try and squeeze in as much sleep as we could. We would have a 2.30am wake up before meeting at the agency at 3.30am.

We didn't get much sleep in our noisy dorm and even though one of us is not a particularly good morning person, we were excited to get the day started.  We dressed up in all our warm clothes,  even the slightly salty ones from the previous day. Roxy even wore two pairs of socks, four pairs of pants,  five layers on top, our heavy duty snow gloves and a hat. We ate biscuits and bananas for breakfast and then we were as prepared as we could be to face the frigid air of the salt flats. 

On our way to the agency, we had to ward off some off the street dogs at that dark hour -  but even though we had made sure that our tazers were fully charged this time, one hardcore dog didn't even blink an eyelid when we let the tazers off.  We met up with the group and our tour guide, Ricardo.  Even though he couldn't speak English and none of us could speak Spanish, he seemed sweet and we seemed to communicate well enough. We thought we were prepared for the cold but Kristen from Canada had pants lined with fleece to protect her from the cold and Violet had these hand and feet warming patches that warned up when taken out of their packaging and exposed to oxygen. We definitely didn't have such heavy duty, high tech stuff back in Africa. 

Our guide managed to find us a decent amount of water, all in the pitch dark. We arrived at about 4.30 and the sun would only rise at 7.00am so we had a bit of time to kill in the interim and take cool pics. 

We were lucky enough to be on the salt flats over full moon so there was a perfect reflection of the moon on the water 

The full moon setting 

First light

Which way is up and which way is down -  nobody knows...

The company also provided us with these cool multi-coloured torches. Violet had a really fancy camera and a tripod (which we covered in plastic packets to protect the metal again the corrosive salt water) so we could take really cool light pics with her long exposure shutter. 

Our friend Annabelle had showed us her really cool light pics from two weeks before.  Unfortunately,  as beautiful as the full moon was and we were happy to be on the salt flats at that time, the brightness of the moon kind of ruined the visibility of our light pics. So even though we learnt how to write the SA letters upside down so that they would be reflected the right side up in the reflection, it didn't really come out like we had planned.  It was also about minus ten degrees Celsius (as estimated by Kristen -  which we took as truth- Canadians know their cold!)  so we didn't spend too much time trying to take pics in the dark.  Instead we all huddled in the heated van until first light appeared. 

First Light foties...

 Reflection off the truck 

 Sun bursting through the sky

 Wow! That truck´s spotlights are bright. 

Distorted jumping photo 

Sunrise on the salt flats 

Once the sun had risen and we started to feel our feet again, we were way more energetic to take some fun reflection pics. Our guide was also super helpful and was a great photographer and gave us all sorts of crazy ideas to try out. 

The evolution of man

The Egyptian arm move 

Can you see the word 'Uyuni' in the reflection? 

Jumping pics 

Mayu shooting us with his Dragon Ball Z powers 

Roxanne getting revenge for the girls and shooting Mayu back with the power of the sun

We had told the company that we hadn't quite gotten all the optical illusion pics that we had wanted on our day trip the day before and after the sunrise our guide had graciously obliged our request to take us to a dry patch of salt to take some pics.  

Pic demonstrating how we lean on our Lonely Planet book

Doctors devouring doctors -  it's a dog-eat-dog world our there

The guide had so many children he didn't know what to do

Mayu's travel mascot, Dexter, the centre of attention as per usual

Rox and Yen scaling the salt flat wall 

Everyone loving our SA playing cards... 

Kristen and Mayu 

Yen and Violet

After a fantastic tour, and the tour guide being so patient with us, we were eventually dropped back in Uyuni around 9am (a whole hour longer than the tour was supposed to last).  We were truly impressed by the customer service that we had received from Hodaka and would highly recommend them to anyone. We are sure that Mayu and Kristen were also happy that we had accosted them the day before, because when we went back to the hostel for breakfast they were bragging to the other people who didn't decide to come along,  like Colin (the French guy that we keep running into on our trip), how amazing the tour was.  

We had another much needed shower,  packed up and checked out.  However to our shock and horror, the backpackers wanted to charge us for three nights instead of two, because we arrived before 7am in the morning.  The guy at the desk had never told us this fact, otherwise we would have just waited an extra two or so hours to check in. We had even especially not eaten breakfast that day and now we find out we could have. No matter how we tried to defend ourselves, the manager would have none of it.  So we definitely wouldn't recommend staying at Piedra Blanca Backpackers Hostel. On top of that they also only had one shower that worked for the entire hostel.  They also wouldn't let anybody stay in the hostel to wait for their buses once they had checked out. 

We had booked a night bus to La Paz at 7pm and since we weren't welcome at the hostel anymore, we went out to an extended lunch with Violet and Yen and then hit an Internet Cafe to load our awesome pics onto the cloud before departing on the bus to La Paz.