Salty adventures

Uyuni does I’m pleased to say have one redeeming feature. It is the gateway town to the Salar de Uyuni, otherwise known as the Bolivian salt flats. In pretty much any guidebook you read, a trip across the Salt Flats from Bolivia into Chile is a must do – and so we did.

We booked our trip with a well reviewed company called Red Planet and once again crossed our fingers that we’d get a good group – especially important given you’re crammed into a 4×4 for 3 days and stay in shared accommodation with no showers. Once again, we got lucky. Ian and Jen (Ohio, US) along with Erik and Frederica (Denmark) were awesome company throughout (plus other bonuses like no snoring and sound personal hygiene in the absence of showers).

Day 1 of our trip involved a somewhat random but interesting visit to a train graveyard. Passenger train travel in Bolivia is pretty limited and the scale of their industrial operation has diminished a bit but tracks do still take minerals from the area into Bolivia and Argentina. The now defunct trains are old and rusting but have some amazing graffiti on them and look a real spectacle just stuck out in the middle of the desert.

Our second stop was the real deal – the salt flats themselves. The Salar is approx 10,000 square kms, making it the biggest salt flat in the world. It can even be seen from space. The salt crust is a few metres thick and beneath it is a layer of brine which contains 50-70% of the world’s lithium supplies (source: Wikipedia :-)). Aside from the amazing natural chemistry, this place is just ridiculously beautiful. The surrounding sky and mountains are reflected in the shallow pools of water on top of the salt and it makes for something that looks out of this world – and given it is currently the rainy season we got v lucky with the weather. Everyone spends a great deal of time trying to capture the perfect shot of themselves doing something acrobatic – our efforts are below for your amusement….

The next 2 days of the tour involved driving a few hundred kms from the salt flats to the Chilean border. On the way we were treated to lunar like landscapes (NASA do the training for their moon vehicles in this area), different coloured lagoons, a flamboyance of flamingoes (had to look that up), some steaming geysers (insert bottom joke here) and some incredible mountain peaks (we ate lunch one day at 4,900m above sea level).

On our last night we also got to sample a natural hot spring. Sitting in this pool at night, with the stars shining down was a real treat. Perhaps minus the other 30 people there, add a few beers and some pretzels and it really would have been the ultimate experience 🙂

We arrived at the Chilean border with our spines a little altered and started yet another crazy border crossing process. It was then a short journey into Chile to reach the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama.

Final verdict on the salt flats trip as follows: definitely worth it for the salt flats alone. A lot of driving, some very basic or non-existent facilities and perhaps a bit of landscape fatigue but amazing nonetheless.

7.5 out of 10 from us.

From Chile with love.

R&J xxxx

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Monica the witch and Edwin the saviour…

It was always going to happen. You can’t expect to travel for several months without a bad journey. But after our chilled out stay in Copacabana, we were unprepared…!

On arrival in Copa, we’d diligently booked our onward bus to Uyuni via La Paz, two days ahead so we could reserve a seat. We’d researched the companies and chosen Todo Turismo because from the reviews they sounded as if they got to their destination without the wheels falling off. We’d even picked the most professional looking agent on the small high street. Her name was Monica, and when we turned up to board the bus, she waved and smiled like we were old friends. However, that was very soon not the case. “Full, full, full!” she shouted at us as we dumped our bags down. Apparently there were no seats on the Todo Turismo bus – despite her selling us the tickets two days previously. We would have to go on the poorly-reviewed Omar Bus.

After a few cross words, with useless Monica doing her level best to annoy us further, we boarded our first bus to La Paz. This turned out to be quite an unusual journey. After a couple of hours, we came to a wide river (on the edge of Lake Titikaka) with no bridge. We all got off and got into a smoky little speedboat. We then watched the coach (with all our bags) drive onto a raft, only marginally bigger than the bus itself and sail across! It was bizarre.

Arriving in La Paz late, the bus was then caught in horrendous traffic (we found out later it was something to do with a demonstration and a broken street light). With about 10 minutes to go before our connecting bus to Uyuni left, we were at a standstill with no idea where the second bus was going to depart from. Just when we’d resigned ourself to a night in La Paz, a guy called Edwin stopped the bus and shouted; “Robert and Jessica!” We ran off, not knowing who he was or how he knew who we were. It turns out he worked for the same agency as annoying Monica (but the more helpful branch) and he realised we were going to miss our connection and so he came and found us! We all sped back through the crazy traffic in a taxi, before he sorted out our tickets and put us on the bus. He wouldn’t even take a tip. Definitely one of the nicest people we’ve met.

We were pretty elated to have got the overnight bus to Uyuni. But our elation was short lived as we realised the bad reviews about Omar Bus had been right. It broke down several times in the night and there was a lot of revving, before we’d start moving again (I assume minus a wheel or some such vital piece of machinery). Then at 7.30am, the bus came to another halt. We were literally in the middle of nowhere with no food and hardly any water. Rob & I had only eaten some crackers and a snickers for dinner and we were now starving. The bus driver lay under the coach for a couple of hours, hitting different things with a hammer, which didn’t seem to make a great deal of difference. Just when we’d given up hope, it started! We eventually trundled into Uyuni 5 hours late.

As pleased as we were to finally get off the bus, Uyuni is definitely not the most inspiring place in the world and we won’t be going back! It’s on a huge plain in the middle of nowhere. The streets are permanently dusty and many of the people are rude and unhelpful. The one saving grace is La Tonito Hotel and its awesome pizza restaurant. The food is cooked by an American called Chris, who’s lived in Bolivia for 20 years. The pizzas were fantastic and the next morning he made us some delicious pancakes, so we felt a bit better 🙂

J & R xxx

At the Copa, Copacabana….

So, our time in Peru was sadly up. Jess and I loved it – amazing scenery, a rich and proud history and lovely people. But the time had come to move on and next on the list was Bolivia.

Our first stop was only 40km or so over the border. Crossing said border was an experience in itself. Bolivian customs officials take their jobs very seriously and the information we were asked to provide was ‘thorough’ to say the least. 3 pages of the most minute details about our lives, spending habits and political views that the officials could never possibly check, let alone have the time to read. Anyway, we made it across the border and descended into the beautiful coastal town of Copacabana.

Copa is a nice town with a quaint harbour, a fantastic fruit and veg market, a beautiful cathedral and a lively tourist scene. It is also the port from which you can access the Isla del Sol, another of Lake Titicaca’s amazing islands (about 40% of Lake Titicaca is in Bolivia, the other 60% in Peru).

We had found a ‘warmly recommended’ hotel in our guidebook called Las Olas which apparently had great lakeside views and individually styled suites. The description in the book in no way captures the brilliance of the place. It is perched on the hill overlooking Copa and is probably one of the most unique places we have ever stayed. Our suite was more like a little bungalow – including a small kitchen, two hammocks, a wood burner, a huge bed, two showers and lovely decorations throughout (there was wood and stone integrated into the walls). We immediately felt so at home and couldn’t wait to cook for ourselves for a few days.

After settling in we went down to the harbour to book our Isla del Sol trip for the following day and buy some provisions for our first ‘home’ cooked meal in weeks. Eating vege pasta with a beer in hand overlooking Copa was glorious and a welcome change from tourist filled restaurants.

The following morning we boarded our boat to Isla del Sol as the rain lashed it down. Jess and I looked pretty special clad head to toe in waterproofs. The Bolivian kids around the harbour eyed us with a mix of fear and laughter. The boat ride was bumpy and lumpy but made a great deal better by our fellow passengers. We met Vero and Nadja from Switzerland (more on these two brilliant people later) who in fact were staying at Las Olas. We also met a couple from Argentina who were lovely and gave us some useful tips for our onward journey. And finally we were sat opposite a v friendly Bolivian family (parents, kids and grandparents) who were full of smiles and hugs when they found out Jess and I were on honeymoon. The grandfather pointed out a small island en route called Isla de Amour. Not sure what he thought was going to happen there….. crafty old devil.

Isla del Sol was spectacular. Despite the torrential rain, the sun came out to play as soon as we arrived. We walked 45 mins up to some Inca ruins (Isla del Sol is said to be one of the birthplaces of the Inca civilisation) that provided amazing views of the island and back towards Peru. We then set off on the trail that heads to the southernmost point of the island – a 3 hour hike which peaks at 4,200m and is just incredible from start to finish. We passed local people, quaint villages, lush forests, cute pigs, loud donkeys, beautiful flowers and spectacular vistas – all in the bright sunshine. And to top it all off, the boat back to Copa was smooth and drenched in a Bolivian sunset. Magic.

That night we had organised to meet up with Vero and Nadja (our boat companions) for drinks. These two awesome people came over armed with booze, snacks and another awesome Swiss gentleman named Urs. We had such a nice night with these guys. We ended up all cooking together, enjoying some local brew, exchanging travelling stories and enjoying the amazing views from Las Olas. Again it was another nice change of pace for us and we very much hope to see Vero, Nadja and Urs one day in Switzerland. They also have an open invite to Bristol where we have promised them a city tour and a curry night.

The following day started with a team Switzerland/Bristol breakfast and saw Jess and I start our very long journey to our next destination – Uyuni. I’ll leave Jess to chronicle this particular journey. Let’s just say it was very long and we were very fortunate to actually reach our final destination (don’t worry families, we were never in danger :)) Until next time,
R&J xxx