One of the main attractions that I wished to visit on my trip to South America was Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia – which at a staggering 10,600 sq km is the largest Salt Flat in the world. The best way to visit Salar de Uyuni is by taking a 4×4 jeep tour from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia. This 3 day tour (or 4 if you intend to return to San Pedro) will take you across the Bolivian desert, taking in other incredible geological features such as coloured lagoons, multi-coloured mountains, volcanoes, lakes dotted with flamingoes, rock formations, hot springs and geysers. The trip runs either from Chile to Bolivia or from Bolivia to Chile. Those leaving from Chile will pay higher prices for the tour but will enjoy more privacy at each stop as the number of tours leaving is significantly fewer. My next few posts will document my trip from charming Chile into beautiful Bolivia.
Day One: Coloured Lagoons, Altitude Sickness and Ricky Gervais
We booked our trip through Cordillera Travel, a company recommended by Lonely Planet so we had high expectations of service and provision. The tour operator picked us up from our hotel at 7.45 am – exactly the time they had promised to when we booked the tour – and we were taken to the office to change money and buy water, which would not be provided by the tour. We estimated that 20 litres of water would be sufficient for two of us in the desert for three days and bought four 5 litre bottles. A minibus then transported 12 of us to the Bolivian border an hour away. The border process was quick and surprisingly easy, our bags were loaded onto the roof of 2 jeeps as we waited for our documents to be processed, and a breakfast of cheese and ham rolls was provided along with coffee and hot chocolate. As we waited we met our new travel companions; the first jeep was a mixed bunch of Irish, Aussie, Danish, Spanish and German nationalities, our jeep was a less varied team comprising of 3 Brits and 3 Swedes. These would be the people that I would spend the next three days with – jammed in a crammed jeep, sharing a dorm and eating meals together. Little did I know then that we would also suffer altitude sickness together, jump maniacally around in the desert together, laugh together and witness some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet together.
Our driver, Reuben, spoke no English. Nobody in our jeep spoke Spanish (although 4 in the other jeep did), other than very basic phrasebook lingo. This would lead to a number of funny occasions over the next few days – such as on the Salt Flat when Kirsty confidently translated that the driver was going to thrill us by spinning the jeep on the flat salt surface. After 5 minutes of us all clutching tightly to the hand-holds while the Reuben drove in an arrow-straight line, shooting us bemused looks through the rear-view mirror, we decided that maybe he had said something else instead.
Within an hour of leaving the border we were climbing to altitudes close to 5000m, and the tell-tale signs of altitude sickness began to affect the group. A few complained of headaches, tingling in the hands and feet, shortness of breath and nausea. For me it was a thundering headache that could not be alleviated even with the help of strong painkillers, my breathing seemed fine but I was beginning to feel sick. As it turned out, I was to be the member of the group that the altitude hit the hardest when the nausea turned to faintness, dizziness and the overwhelming urge to vomit. This is not an ideal situation to be in when bouncing along bumpy tracks in the middle of the desert, sitting in the back of a jeep with 4 people you have only just met and I was paralysed with fear that I would be sick in the car. Fortunately it held off long enough for me to enjoy the first few lagoons, the Laguna Blanca and the Laguna Verde, as well as the hot springs. But by the time we reached the Geysers the acrid smell of sulphur did nothing to help my sickness. Determined not to be defeated I wandered amongst the geysers, looking down at the pools of thick grey, red and blue clay that bubbled and steamed violently. If you’ve ever seen The Labyrinth then the Bog of Eternal Stench should give you a good idea of this area. One slip here would be fatal, a fact we were constantly reminded of as we slipped on the loose shale around the pools.
Unfortunately for me the sickness did not ease off, in fact it only got stronger and stronger and so it was with some relief that we arrived at our accommodation for the night, a low brick building on the edge of the Laguna Colorada (Coloured Lagoon). Here we would share a large 6 person dormitory with limited electricity and no hot water. I collapsed into my bed with relief – still battling the altitude sickness – and promptly fell asleep, missing both lunch and the afternoon trip to the shores of the lagoon. When I awoke I felt much better and joined the others in the dining area where we were provided with hot water and tea or coffee. Heeding advice from various travellers and guide books I made myself a mug of Coca Tea: tea made from the coca leaf – a plant more famous for producing cocaine but used in the Andean plains to make a herbal tea that alleviates sickness. Incidentally it is the coca plant that gives Coca-Cola the first part of its name as Coke was originally made containing cocaine. Coca-Cola is still made using extracts from the coca plant. It does not produce any kind of high or stimulant effect and it works wonders on altitude sickness.
Dinner was a hot vegetable soup – which we welcomed as the evening temperature began to drop – and pasta with tomato sauce. We even had cheese to sprinkle on top and we ate as if at a gourmet restaurant. Dinner was followed by tinned peaches. After that there was pretty much nothing else to do – the hotel had no showers and the electricity supply was to finish at 10pm. My laptop was fully charged, Nicklas had his Bluetooth speakers and Sam had a hard-drive full of movies. Wrapped up in blankets, we all huddled up in one dormitory and watched Ricky Gervais movie ‘The Art of Lying’, before settling down to a chilly night’s sleep.