The Salar

Posted at 20:1:50, 5/11/2004

Tuesday 2nd November 2004, 9:30pm, On the Oruro-Uyuni train

This train from Oruro to Uyuni is fantastic. The 7-hour journey in "Salon Class" (much nicer than standard class at home) only costs three pounds, they show films and the dining car is cheap and excellent - two pounds for a great steak! Railtrack could learn something from Bolivian railways! They even have seats that turn completely round, so that you can face the direction of travel.

Dinner last night was in a superb Lebanese restaurant, lots of little dishes to try. This morning we got the bus from La Paz to Oruro, had lunch in a really crap restaurant and got on the train. I get off in about an hour, whereas Lorna goes onto Villazon and into Argentina.

Its the US elections today, by the time I type this up, hopefully we'll know the result, although given last year's fiasco I wouldn't be suprised if its a couple of weeks! Its amazing how much damage one person can do in four years, I don't think even Kerry can fix all the damage done by Bush, but at least he won't make things worse.

Wednesday 3rd November 2004, 5:30pm, San Pedro, near the Salar

What a stunning place the salt flats are! We were lucky enough to get onto a tour last night in Uyuni (we being the Australian couple I met in Rurrenabaque: Clara and Rowan, plus Janet from Sweden and an older couple from Holland). We drove into the Salar de Uyuni this morning. Its a huge expanse of white, flat salt with amazing variety across it.

At first you get to neat piles of salt surrounded by shallow water, the piles are collected, dried and refined to sell for cooking. Nearby were small bubbling pools, not hot as you might expect, but bubbling from a reaction between the salt water and the fresh water below. We stopped at a hotel built entirely out of salt, here the Salar has neat hexagonal patterns on it.

We drove onto an "island" in the salt flats: out of the flat white expanse a green and brown island, filled with huge, ancient cacti, rises. From on the island it really feels like you could be surrounded by a strange whte sea. We also stopped at a strange cave, only discovered last year, with weird, almost organic rock formations. Another cave was used by a pre-Columbian tribe to store the mummies of their dead. There are no mummies as they were hidden by the tribe when the Spanish arrived, but the empty, rectangular holes that remain are very spooky.

I should say that, for the majority of the day, we were accompanied by at least ten other 4x4s, each with 6 tourists in them. We're now an hour or so off the main route at a small hostel with no other gringos. Its a shame that you have to "share" the trip with so many others, but the people are so dwarfed by the Salar that it doesn't matter.

I almost forgot the first visit of the day, which was the train cemetary. Old steam locomotives, abandoned over 45 years ago, stand pushed together in the desert rusting away. Its really does feel like the graveyard of some ancient, fantastic race of beasts that have just chugged into the desert to die... or possibly just something out of a Mad Max film!

Thursday 4th November 2004, 5:15pm, Laguna Colorado, Bolivia

Another stunning day, although very different scenery and considerably more driving than yesterday. We saw lots of cool rock features, which provided the opportunity for a little bit of bouldering! On a rolling plane that used to be the bottom of a lake there were several miles of coral-like rocks. We passed many small lagoons with loads of pink flamingoes. Our lunch of cold llama, salad and watermelon was by one of these lagoons.

After lunch we stopped by stange outcrop of rounded orange rock inhabited by an even stranger animal - it looked like a cross between a large hare and a squirrel! We also stopped by what we were told were pretrified trees: huge (10m) rock formations blasted into weird and wonderful shapes by the incessant wind.

We're now in a basic but clean hostel by the Laguna Colorado - a huge read and white lagoon filled with "James' Flamingoes"! The red is from a type of algae in the water and the white is the huge mounds of salt that look like icebergs.

Friday 5th November, 4pm, Central Plaza, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

A day of ups and downs! We got up at the ungodly hour of 4:30pm in order to get to some geysers for sunrise. Huge steam vents roared and belched sulphurous steam while big "vats" of mud bubbles and splashed. We headed next for some natural, geothermic baths on the shore of a lake. The temperature outside was still below freezing (there was still ice forming on the side of the jeep) so it felt good to warm by toes, fingers and everything else in the water. I met Charlie and Jenny there again and the three of us were almost the only ones in the water!

We drove to the Laguna Verde. It changes colour, from a clear grey-green to a bright cloudy cyan every morning. Our driver told us that there was no time to see the colour change because he had to drive us to the Chilean border to catch a bus. He then spent about three hours stripping down the front wheel to fix the brakes, so we saw saw the colours anyway! We had missed the bus, so he drove like a maniac to catch another and now we're in San Pedro. Clara and Rowan are off to Argentina and Janet is going to north, eventually to Equador.

I booked a bus to Santiago for 14:15 and only realised at 14:45 that Chile is on daylight saving time... doh! I'm now booked on a 23 hour bus direct to Santiago at 19:30.

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