Salar de Uyuni (or the Salt Flats as we like to call them) are world famous for being very flat and very salty. During our 3 days in this area we were extremely fortunate to see rare animals, join in with a llama-burning ceremony and play football with local Bolivian children who made us look as if our lungs had been forcibly removed prior to kick-off.
Day 1 – Football, Zumba, Lagoons, Lagoons and Lagoons
It all started at the Chilean / Bolivian border where we got our first taste of altitude (4900m) (as well as a long queue at border-control in a freezing wasteland with only a small hut for a toilet. We were unsure whether you were supposed to urinate in it or behind it). Leaving behind “real roads” we were transferred into 3 Toyota Landcruiser’s and headed off into the unknown.
What you need to know about this part of southern Bolivia is that there are many lagoons. Quite possibly 10 or more. We were treated to maybe 4 or 5 by the time we were done and we were pretty much lagoon’d out by that point. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very nice to look at – there’s simply loads of them!
Our first day consisted of a few of these lagoons (white lagoon & green lagoon) and a trip to a thermal pool with lunch. The thermal pool was quite nice, it was clean at least and approximately 30-35 degrees celsius which got a little too hot after 15 minutes or so of floating around.
San Pedro de Atacama may be one of the driest places on earth, the area to the south of Salar de Uyuni is probably one of the remotest. We drove for what felt like hours and saw not another soul – not a great place to break down. Naturally the vehicle Sarah and I were travelling in blew both back tyres. A landcruiser only carries a single spare.
Thankfully, we were driving in a trio of vehicles – and the others helped out (while bursting out laughing – I took this as a sign that blowing both rear tyres at the same time was a rare occurrence).
Our first night was spent in a small village south of Salar de Uyuni consisting of only 60 families. It did however, feature an olympic-style football (soccer) pitch – better than any I have seen in my part of the UK in fact (I later learned from a bus driver that this was part of the policy of the current elected president – sports stadiums in every village!). When we arrived there were a few local Bolivian children playing football. A few of us decided to challenge them to a game – this was our first mistake.
When you’re not used to altitude, walking for 50 meters typically makes you feel like your throat has been cut – air just does’t seem to reach your lungs at all. Challenging locals (no matter how old they are) to a game of football just isn’t a smart move. This quickly told as they started to run rings around us (bear in mind these kids were between 8 and 13 years old).
I am happy to say though that Sarah managed to get a decent clip of me absolutely ‘skinning’ some kid! I’ll embed it here to show future generations (and the England national team) just how it’s done.
Our second mistake was trying to learn Zumba from Alex, our resident certified Zumba instructor from Australia (who was part of our group). Let’s just say I tried one song (absolutely smashed the moves – naturally) but then had to bail due to not being able to breathe and/or see anything. The small group you see behind our dancers were quite possibly French. I don’t think they enjoyed our dancing as much as we did.
Afterwards, we had lunch and were treated to a sing-along from the local kids (most of whom I’m pretty sure I ‘skinned’ earlier in the day playing football), they charged us for the pleasure and I had to bite-back my retort about charging them for my football skills.
Day 2 – Torture, Rocks, Caves, Volcanoes and (you guessed it) lagoons
Sleeping at altitude, when you’re not used to it – is torture. I had a bastard of a cold that I had picked up in Salta back in Argentina and it was pretty much at it’s peak bastard-ness when I “slept” for the first time at an altitude of nearly 2 and a half miles.
I can’t quite explain what it feels like, but if you try to imagine a thousand cheese-graters being pulled end-over-end out of your throat like some sort of perverted magic trick, while at the same time realising that you haven’t had a sip of water for over sixteen years and have somehow been blasted off into deep space without a spacesuit (so that your tiny brain is trying to force itself out of your nostrils followed by your lungs and liver and other vital organs). If you can imagine this – then you’re pretty close to knowing what I felt like that morning.
We left our small village where we’d had such an awesome time and journeyed up, up and away closer to the real Salar de Uyuni. On the way, we learned from our guide that the village we had just left sits next to a dormant super-volcano. A volcano that (according to the experts) is due to erupt at any moment. When questioned about what the villagers thought about this, the reply was – “they don’t know about it”. I’m not sure how I felt about that. Still don’t really.
We drove to another Lagoon (obviously), this one was called “red” lagoon. There were plenty of flamingoes in this lagoon, they feed on the red algae-stuff and generally stand around looking bored.
Before we ended up mimicking the Flamingoes, we were driven off to a very strange place – a place that resembled the wild-west but could easily have been a scene from the book/movie “The Martian”. Wind-hewn rocks shaped like trees stood in the desert. We climbed a few of them obviously and stacked a few rocks of our own (as you do).
We stopped for lunch in a small canyon where we were treated to a few rare animal encounters. First of all, a long-tailed rabbit seemed to come out of nowhere and share our lunch – it was especially interested in the boiled carrots. A few of us then spotted some mice scuttling between the boulders and then later, as we walked through the canyon while the crew packed away our stuff, we spotted a desert fox high up on the canyon wall (or rather the desert fox spotted us). We were told by our guide that it is very rare to see a fox on our tour and we were amazed as it just casually strolled away from our group over the lip of the canyon (probably to sniff out the rabbit we had seen earlier).
On the way to our next evening stop-off we managed to get a glimpse of the active volcano – steam venting menacingly from it’s side. I couldn’t help but stand there and think of that small village where we had played football with those young Bolivian kids.
Just before our final stop there is a cave-system that was recently discovered in the rock. A small family had set up a business raising money from tourists visiting these caves. The money they earn is spent and shared within the small community nearby.
The caves are called the “Galaxy Caves” and closely resemble swiss-cheese crossed with the effect you get when you tear semi-molten mozzarella (if we’re sticking to cheese-based descriptions). Thea and Ingrid, our resident Norwegian geologists (part of out group again – I know right?) couldn’t be pulled away from the place. Their best guess was that it was an under-water cave that had preserved all the plant life in the fossilised rock, they didn’t know for certain but one thing they did agree on was that they won’t be there for much longer – so visit if you get the chance.
Our resting point for the night was a small village consisting of huts made entirely out of salt-blocks (a salt-hotel if you will). We had supper then settled in for a relax and early night in our extremely comfy lodges. Little did we know that in the morning we’d be woken to one of the most extraordinary things we have ever, or will ever experience again.
Day 3 – Burning a llama Fetus, Beer, Salar de Uyuni and Tango
You might have read that heading and thought “WTF?”. You’d be 100% right to, we didn’t expect it either.
At around 8am, just as we were finishing packing our bags after another dry-throated night of torture (sleeping at altitude is horrific), Maribel our guide (or CEO) knocked on all the doors and told us to hurry “the hell” up as the villagers were just about to burn a llama fetus. For those of us still rubbing sleep out of our eyes, this was a pretty surreal wake-up call.
Outside and true to her word, Maribel showed us the village square where all the locals were dressed up in their full colours and were preparing a ceremony that involved huge amounts of alcohol, a llama fetus, fire and lots and lots of dancing (oh and more alcohol).
Our group gathered around in a small arc around the fire and watched in awe as the village elders prepared the “altar” on a small hand-woven blanket on the ground. On this cloth, they placed coca leaves, money and around 15 bottles of strong lager as an offering to the spirits (quite possibly Pacha-Mama).
One of the elders walked towards us with a strong alcoholic substance resembling vodka. Handing one to each of us, we were told to follow their lead, this involved casually walking around the altar, sipping and tipping the drink on the ground to honour the spirits and asking for luck in the days to come (we learned from the villagers that they were performing this ceremony for good fortune. They had just received a new project from the state, something to do with agriculture and were very grateful for the opportunity).
After tipping our drinks, we all gathered back into our awkward semi-circle and watched the fire being lit and listened in awe to the elders blessing the spirits of the land.
It was approximately 2 minutes later that shit got messy.
Little did we know, but these ceremonies are not just stoic religious affairs but are in fact, massive booze-fuelled celebrations! What followed the burning of the llama fetus was around an hour and a half of music, dancing and more beer-guzzling than I’d typically do on New Years Eve (bear in mind this was 8:15 in the morning on a random Friday in September – in a small village in rural Bolivia).
Alcohol at altitude is typically twice as potent. Let’s just say we were pretty smashed by the time we stumbled into the landcruisers once more and set off towards Salar de Uyuni (the salt flats at last!) approximately 20 minutes to the north.
Salar de Uyuni is impressive, more than that it’s gigantic and enormous and striking and hot and salty and awesome. Firstly we visited a cave where, just outside, a group of guide-less French people has somehow got themselves stuck in the salty, muddy ground and were pretty much doomed to die a very hot and salty death.
I can’t say if this is typical of French travellers (getting themselves in these precarious situations) but a few of our drivers did roll their eyes knowingly before engaging in conversation and offering a solution (which involved a 40-minute drive by one of our cars back to the village for the necessary equipment). Compensation was asked for by our drivers and declined by the French tourists. I have no idea why, but our drivers did eventually go off and help them out.
I’m trying not to sound too anti-french here, I’ve met many nice French people on our travels but coincidentally, not too far in the future a similar precarious situation would arise within the Maragua crater deeper into Bolivia and yes, this would also involve French tourists.
While one of our drivers was off rescuing the French tourists, the rest of us were doing that “tourist-thang” on the Salar de Uyuni flats. Like a newly married couple we tried many positions, some as a group, others as simple a couple until we found what worked. Below lay the fruits of our labour.
After the Salar de Uyuni we reached Uyuni itself, a pretty ramshackle town but home to an impressive train graveyard. We shot a few pics then hit the hay ready for our next leg of the journey. One that would nearly bury us alive.