‘Don’t stay in Uyuni!,’ everyone told me. ‘It has no charm, there is nothing to do, people only visit to get a tour across the salt flats.’ So, to avoid being stuck overnight in this apparently uninspiring Bolivian town, I decided to catch a three day tour across the border to Bolivia ending in Uyuni.
My first days in Bolivia was simply breathtaking. At the border, we piled into dusty jeep with broken seat belts and sped off, manoeuvring around rocks, clouds of dust billowing behind us and Chilean tunes vibrating the grimy windows. Periodically, the heart pounding journey was abruptly halted and we were piled out to snap selfies in front of various natural wonders. At night, we were fed mountains of pasta and left to shower in cold water and sleep in coffin-like beds. The tour may have been extreme, but the stunning array of natural landscapes that we saw more than mitigated it. In only a few days, we passed deserts, volcanoes, geysers, lagoons, salt flats, valleys of strange rock formations, mountains of cacti, dusty villages and ancient Inca communities.
I leant so many wondrous things so here are a just few highlights;
– Bolivia has a vastly different standard of health and safety to the UK. Although our driver, Flávio, was very careful, we were at times pushing 120kmph along dirt tracks. I was also able to climb all over rocky outcrops that would have been designated a 5 metre rope cordon in the UK. Not that I’m complaining.
– Crystals from the Salar de Uyuni do taste like dirty salt.
– The contrast of ancient Quechua communities that also have advanced solar panels on their thatched roof huts is delightful. It makes you question your assumptions about Bolivian poverty.
– A lot of Spanish.
– People in South America genuinely smile.
– Bolivia is a country of colours. The sky is bright and the reddish gravel crunches underfoot. Much of the ground is covered with yellow flowers that light up the mountains. The jeeps have blue tarps and orange flags flap at the border. Traditional clothes are woven from bright pinks, orange and blues.
– Lagoons can appear red, blue, green, even white depending on the type of algae and minerals of the area.
– Altitude sickness is not pleasant.
– Coca leaves really help with the altitude.
– So many alpacas are domesticated and the farmers mark their animals with colourful ear tassels.
– Bolivians are slightly more inventive than Chileans with their naming. Although most places were just called Valle Del Rocas (the Valley of Rocks), we were introduced to one particularly surreal looking landscape as the Desierto de Dali.
– Coca Cola dominates all. Even in tiny villages, decorators use bottles as paint pots. (Later, I saw plastic coke bottles drifting beside the remote floating islands on Lake Titicaca.)
– People are so incredibly resourceful. They even build houses into sheer cliff faces.
– The sun rises so fast close to the equator. Less than an hour after the shivering sunrise, it was already burning our necks. On the salt flats, this means it is possible to create stunning tricks of perspective.
– The salt flats seem to be put together in giant hexagons of salt with little raised ridges at the borders. Crystals glint magnificently in the sun and crunch underfoot like snow. Long dark trails stretch into the distance where too many cars have destroyed its pristine white surface.
– The skeletal, rusting forms of some trains abandoned in the 1930s can be seen just outside Uyuni.