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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Salar de Uyuni Part 1: Lookin' For Some Hot Stuff

Welcome to Bolivia.

This land-locked country was suppose to be our fourth destination in South America. We had intended to cross the border from Peru at Lake Titicaca and make our way to La Paz, and spend about a month exploring the other Bolivian cities like Potosi and Sucre.

However, with summer approaching in the Southern Hemisphere, we decided to catch Chile and Argentina - reputed to be the more expensive destinations to visit in South America - before the peak tourist season arrived, starting in November and lasting all the way to February.

Plus, after spending a week in Cusco at 3,395m above sea level, the thought of inching our way even higher to an elevation of almost 4,000m in La Paz didn't seem very attractive. Sure, earning bragging rights to having visited the world's highest capital city would have been nice, but we had had quite enough of being cold and breathless at high altitude, and were quite willing to give it a miss.

However, we had heard much good stuff about the beautiful Salar de Uyuni and decided to hop onto a 4-day tour of Bolivia's salt plains from the Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama. After all, we already had a Bolivian visa and needed to make our efforts in obtaining the coveted stamp in our passports worth it! The tour to Salar de Uyuni is also a popular route for travelers crossing from Chile into Bolivia and vice versa. The latter takes 3 days, instead of 4.

Travel agencies offering the Salar de Uyuni tour are rampant in Bolivia, many of which have a bad reputation for delivering poor quality tours. While only a handful of tour operators offer the same tour in San Pedro, prices can differ greatly, along with the quality of the tour and what's included in the tour price. We made enquiries at 2 agencies: the never-heard-of-before Tierra Mistica and oft-quoted-in-Lonely-Planet Colque Tours.

Julio, the roly poly good-natured receptionist at Tierra Mistica gave us a detailed explanation (in Spanglish) of the tour route and answered every question we had to the T. His tour price of 80,000 Chilean pesos (approx USD150) included the basics (transport, accommodation, food and guide/driver), as well as admission fees to the national parks and a much-appreciated 5 litres of drinking water per person.

Colque Tours, on the other hand, provided only a sketchy overview of the tour. It was only after lots of prodding on our part that we discovered that the 'cheaper' price of 75,000 pesos didn't include admission fees and any water for drinking. FAIL.

So even though Julio refused to back down from his price of 80,000, and even though we were slightly miffed when his roar of laughter almost brought the roof down at our seemingly-inane "Is there WiFi in the hostels on this tour?", we were impressed by his good customer service and signed up for the tour with Tierra Mistica. It's hard to put into words, but we had some good vibes about Julio and had the gut feel that he would deliver all that was promised.

The border crossing was unlike any that we had experienced in South America. We were driven to the Chilean immigration office in 3 minutes (we could even have walked) to get our exit stamps. Then it was an hour's drive through no-man's land to the Bolivian outpost out in the desert, where we got our entrance stamps into Bolivia. The Bolivian immigration office was literally an outpost in the middle of wind-swept Nowhere. The Chileans were damn smart to station their office in San Pedro instead. But the Bolivian immigration officers were the nicest that we've met in South America, and very neat passport-stampers too.

Hola Bolivia!

Destination No.5 in South America

Besides visiting the acclaimed salt plain in Uyuni, we weren't quite sure what else there was to see out in the harsh environments of the Bolivian desert. Since we had already set foot on a salt plain in Lake Grace, Australia, there had better be other things to see/do out here!

All we knew about the desert was that it's home to some cacti...

This is what happens when you don't moisturise your legs

... there doesn't seem to be much wildlife that can survive in such an environment...

Wildlife is a rare sight in the desert

... and that it's really, really, really dry.

The remains of people who didn't bring enough water for last week's trip

So along with 3 new friends from France, we loaded our bags onto the roof of our hardy little white (for now) Toyota jeep and trundled off into the desert.

Jeeps kicking up clouds of dust as they zipped away in all directions

Now, take note that from here onwards, this series of 3 entries on the Salar de Uyuni tour is not documented in chronological order. Reason being, most people who have never been to Bolivia would be quite clueless about the locations of the places that I'm describing (unless you are reading this with a map of Bolivia in your hands.) Also, narrating the details of our daily itinerary step-by-step is going to be pretty boring - not just for our readers, but also for me as the writer. So I've grouped them into 3 main sightseeing categories instead: (i) volcanic features; (ii) high altitude lagoons; (iii) the salt plains.

So let's start with Part 1: Lookin' For Some Hot Stuff

One thing I didn't expect to see in the desert were volcanoes. I often associate volcanoes with lush, fertile grounds - the result of tectonic activity, which cause volcanic eruptions, which in turn spew ash and lava onto the surrounding land. Think Hawaii, Iceland, Tonga, Indonesia - yups, lush, green, islands. So I was pretty surprised to see the cone-lined horizon, the result of once-violent eruptions millions of years ago.

Adding some soft undulating curves to the harsh desert landscape

Even though the volcanoes are now extinct, the surrounding lands are far from being old, dry and wrinkled. The rumblings of volcanic activity are still present in the form of hot springs, mud pools and geysers. The desert is far from being dead and silent - it's very much still alive.

Jumping beans on the hot desert ground. No, it wasn't really hot. Jumping to block the sign that tells us not to jump around near the hot stuff.

Boiling mud pools. You SO do not want to stick your face in here for a mud pack.

The first time I've ever seen a live volcano puffing away. We had lunch out of the back of our jeep here.

Towards the end of our first day, we enjoyed a soak in the termas or hot springs before checking into our hostel for the night. That night was the coldest of our 3 nights in the desert. In fact, it was the coldest night that we've experienced in our 6 months on the road. The hostel was not equipped with showers (much less hot water), so we took the chance to rid ourselves of the first day's worth of desert dust in the hot springs. It was absolutely surreal having our bodies submerged in hot water while the chilly desert wind blew against our cheeks. It was an experience of opposites: hot and cold, wet and dry, dusty and clean. In a distance, we could make out the skinny shadows of flamingos bathing in the very same water body that we were soaking in. Incredible. Talk about being one with nature.

The so-called 'bleak' desert landscape is actually full of colour

We had a second chance to visit the same hot springs again on the last day of the tour, en route back to Chile. The early morning scene was even more enchanting. The meeting of dawn's icy air with the steaming pools created a cloud-like stage setting. Misty curtains rose to reveal flamingos strutting daintily against the dreamy is-it-really-there mountain backdrop, silhouettes softly illuminated by 'stage lights' in the form of long golden sun rays.

Act 1, Scene 1 opens with the lead performer going in search of breakfast

The chorus girls

Eyes still bleary with sleep (we had set off at 5am that day), we were content with just milling around the hot springs and watching other tourists gingerly peeling off their clothes, slipping themselves into the pools (some literally slipped on the mossy rocks and made an unglamourous splashy entry) and heaving a long blissful sigh. Aaaaahhhh......

Lone bather braving the morning cold and stripping down for a soak

So pretty how the water sparkles

We had started the tour not knowing what to expect other than sand, dust, salt crusts and rocks. Instead, we stumbled upon some really cool hot stuff!

What will you find at the end of this steaming path?


Tracy Su said...

If there were 6 of you - you, Dan, 3 French friends and the guide - and there're 6 people in the hot spring picture, who took the photo?

Dannie said...

Haha... actually, that pic was taken on our way back to San Pedro. Why strip down and jump into the spring when a hot shower in our hostel is only an hour away? :)

But great counting skills! I'm impressed! :p

Tracy Su said...

Whart? Does that mean it's a fake photo?? I can't follow the logistics of your movements lar...too complicated. Sometimes the posts are out of sequence too, right? Lagi confusing.

Thanks, I'm sad and obsessive like that.

Yi Lin said...

Nope, it's a real photo that I took on the last morning of the tour. We passed by the hot springs again en route back into Chile, but we didn't soak this time.

Okie okie, I added a note somewhere in the middle of the post to highlight that this series is not written in chronological order. And that I themed them according to 3 main sightseeing categories instead. Hopefully that helps ppl follow the thread.

Zen said...

The photos taken and the landscapes' really unbelieveable!

You've really got quite a collection there!

Yi Lin said...

Thanks Zen! My fav scenic moment was at the hot springs in the early morning. Seeing the outlines of the flamingos behind the mist curtains was really something.

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