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Getting down and salty and reaching new heights!

Uyuni, Salt flats tour and climbing volcano Licancabur

So from the lovely Sucre, we moved on to the distinctly less lovely Uyuni, the starting point for our 3 day Salar de Uyuni (Salt flats) tour which would finish in Chile. We had heard some pretty bad things about Uyuni (dead end town, shoddy accommodation, bad service...) so we were pretty excited to arrive(!) after an 8 hour bus ride and thrilled to see that it completely lived up to its reputation. All this was compounded by the fact that when we arrived at our hostel, we were told that they had given our room away to someone else, and there was no room left at the inn so to speak!

Happily we found somewhere else to stay fairly quickly, run by a grumpy and inhospitable Bolivian woman (something we are starting to consider pretty typical I'm afraid to say) who insisted we pay up front, would not let us see the room and sternly told us we were allowed one shower each in 24hours to last no more than 3 minutes! Let's just say we were pretty glad we only had to sleep there for one night!

On a happier note, we had been met off the bus by a representative for the tour company with whom we had booked our tour, who confirmed our places on the tour departing the following morning. Having read so many bad reviews about all the different tour companies who run the salt flats tours, we had been prepared for the worst, so to find everything was in order was a relief.

The following morning, we reported to the office and were assigned our jeep and driver (Miguel) for the tour. We also discovered that our jeep would be one of a convey of 4 jeeps, each carrying 6 passengers, so we would have 24 travelling companions - no bad thing for a tour departing on New Year's Eve!

Our first stop was at the 'famous' train cemetery just outside Uyuni. This is something that seemed to appear on the itineraries of all the tours we looked at and is basically a group of old trains rusting on the side of a disused railway line. As we got out of the car begrudgingly, we noticed that everyone else seemed to be having the same thoughts as us, mainly questioning why all the tours stop here and mumbling about what a waste of time it is. However we were all clearly equally fickle as, as soon as we were told you could climb on the trains, we were off - happily crawling around and striking various silly photo poses on top of and around them. Such children! Give Shaun something to climb on and he's gone...

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Our next stop was the salt flats themselves. The Bolivian salt flats are the world's largest salt flats, measuring 180km by 90km and were created when the Andes came into existence, land-locking a section of the ocean which subsequently dried up in the sun. The flats really are a sight to behold, the blinding white ground for as far as you can see contrasting with the blue sky and creating the impression of vehicles in the distance floating rather than driving away from you. Also, since we are in Bolivia during their rainy season, some rainwater had settled on certain parts of the flats, creating perfect mirrors. It really is quite incredible.

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the flats (including stopping at a huge coral island in the middle which is filled with giant cacti, many 20 feet or more high - they grow 1cm a year and the tallest is 9 metres!) and spending plenty of time taking lots of pictures, mostly silly ones! I'm sure most of you have seen them before but, for those who haven't, the lack of ability to gain perspective on the vast plains of the flats, reveals some bizarre and hilarious photo opportunities!

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I should mention that, while we were doing this, our guides/drivers all disappeared off to hunt a stranded llama that had been spotted wandering on the salt flats the week before for our dinner!

We finished the day watching the sunset over the flats, which despite there being a lot of cloud around, was pretty spectacular.

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As the sun went down, the weather came in and we set off to find our hotel in the pitch dark with rain lashing down on the windscreen. After driving for a while, we realised we seemed to have lost the other jeeps and our driver Miguel was looking increasingly vexed. Eventually he explained that we were lost and he had no idea where he was going, the darkness, rain and lack of horizon or landmark making every direction look the same! We tried not to get too worried, consoling ourselves by listing the snacks (and alcohol) we all had in the car and would see us through the night, but in truth none of us were relishing the prospect of spending New Year's Eve night in the car! Happily, after a while we spotted some lights in the distance and when we got closer we saw it was the other cars - great! Well, until we pulled up next to the them and it was clear they had no better idea where we were! After continuing to drive around for a further while longer, regularly making u-turns and driving back in the exact same direction from where we had just been, thankfully eventually it seemed the drivers had found the road and we were heading towards some lights hurrah!

We finally made it to our accommodation around 9pm and found it to be a cosy 'salt hotel', with the walls made from tightly packed salt bricks and the beds and tables made of salt! Pretty cool! As it was New Year's Eve, to kick off the party, the drivers brought in a complimentary bottle of Bolivia's finest (!) bubbly for each table, which came as a great surprise and got everyone in the party spirit. Shaun and I had also befriended a lovely Aussie couple and sharing our red wine and their bottle of champers, made for a great evening drinking and laughing. The countdown came and went and after many happy new year shouts and hugs, we all piled outside to see some fireworks that were going off in the local village. It all felt surprisingly new year-sy considering our remote location! More alcohol was consumed and we finally crawled into our salt bed at 3am, a mere 3 hours before our wake up call for day 2, ouch!!

Day 2 predictably brought a fair few hangovers so it was a good job we only had to sit in a car and be driven around, although it was a shame about the bumpy terrain! Today we would be heading away from the salt flats, towards Chile, through some pretty spectacular scenery - volcanos galore, volcanic lagoons home to hundreds of flamingos, driving across the Siloli desert and seeing enormous natural volcanic rock formations (more climbing opportunities for Shaun!) and finishing at Laguna Colorada (aka the red lagoon).

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That night we stayed at a VERY basic hostel near the lagoon, which was run by another group of inhospitable Bolivians, who frowned and shouted at us in Spanish when we dared ask what time dinner was and generally looked at us with disdain every time they walked past. The evening was saved again though by the great company of our jeep companions, the Aussie couple and a Canadian couple, and topped off by a fabulous bit of after dinner star gazing - well this was until our kind Bolivian hosts decided to lock us outside! We finally got in, after much banging, only to be shouted at in Spanish for banging on the door (quite what else we were supposed to do who knows?!). Gotta love those Bolivians!

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The third and final day of the tour brought an early (5am) start, a welcome trip to some natural hot springs (the cleanest we have felt in a few days!) and more fantastic scenery including natural geysers, more desert driving amongst beautifully colourful volcanic mountains and topped off by our final stop, Laguna Verde. Laguna Verde is so called because of its bright green colour caused by the minerals and arsenic (yes, arsenic!) present in the water and sits directly in front of the perfectly conical Volcano Licancabur, which was to be mine and Shaun's next challenge - we had arranged to stay two further nights in Bolivia and, with a local guide, attempt to climb the volcano the following day. At a height of 5960m, and with incredibly steep sides, it was certainly going to be a challenge!

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We sadly said goodbye to our great group at the border and our driver took us to the Refugio which would be our home for the next two nights as we attempted the volcano climb. We arranged the guide for the following day and were told that it would be a 3am start(!) since we had to make the summit by around 10am, before the wind gets up.

So the next morning, or should I say, in the middle of the night(!) we were up and at 3.30 we were off, in the pitch dark to start our ascent. Probably a good thing as we couldn't see how steep it was again and chicken out!

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For the first couple of hours we walked in the dark, headtorches on, until the sun came up around 6am, revealing a gorgeous clear sunny day - perfect weather for the climb.

Unfortunately, pretty early on into the climb I started to suffer pretty badly with altitude sickness, feeling nauseous and dizzy (we started our ascent at 4400m and it wasn't long before we were over 5000m) so we had to take it pretty slow and take regular breaks. We continued in this way for a couple of hours until, at around 8.15, the guide decided I was too sick to make it to the summit before our turnaround time, so suggested I wait in a sunny spot while he and Shaun went ahead and then came back for me a couple of hours later. I happily agreed, anything to get rid of the nausea.

That said, being the stubborn person I am, It didn't take long for me to start to feel frustrated that I had come so far but was to be stuck sitting on the mountainside for the next few hours. So, when about 10 minutes later, I was found by a hilarious Brazilian guy and his wife, that we had met earlier, who insisted I continue walking with them and that they would get me to the top ("taking small steps and big breaths"), which they said I was only 30 minutes away from, I had to continue.

Meanwhile, Shaun and our guide headed off and picked up the pace considerably, making it to the summit at around 9.45 after a gruelling last 300m, which pretty much involved rock climbing, rather than walking. I'm told the views from the top looked pretty amazing, given that it is possible to see Chile, Bolivia and Argentina and a huge lake in the crater of the volcano, making it all worthwhile.

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They didn't linger up there though, keen to get back to me. Only to find me, much to their surprise, trudging up towards them with a couple of Brazilians (and, I quote, "a green face"!) less than 200m from the summit (I should note here that the 30minute time estimate of the Brazilian guy was pretty conservative, given we had now been walking for over 1.5hours and were still not there!)

Unfortunately, despite being so close to the summit (I had made it to 5787m, the summit being at 5960m), and despite the Brazilians' insistence that I could still make the summit ("just another 30 minutes!"), the guide was keen that we head down in case the weather worsened and, for safety (and my stomach and head)'s sake, I obliged, feeling a little frustrated but still pretty proud.

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The downhill was another experience as, in the interests on time, and saving our fast failing legs, we followed the guide away from the path we had taken up to a fairly sheer section of sand and rocks, and watched as he started to slide down the mountain using a sort of sideways skiing motion! At first it was pretty fun, but soon our thighs started to burn and the falls onto our bums became more and more regular. Anyway, after what felt like an age, we finally made it down to the guides jeep (it was still only about 12.30pm!) only to be told that he couldn't get it started and we would have to push it to jump start it!! Literally the last thing we needed!!

Anyway, we both made it back in one piece and feeling absolutely exhausted but pretty proud of ourselves. Unfortunately, we have limited photos of the climb as we focussed on taking great GoPro footage, all of which has subsequently got lost :-( so you´ll just have to take our word for how awesome it was!

Next stop, Chile for a few days before crossing into Argentina and making our way to Mendoza for a well deserved rest and a big glass (or several!) of wine!

Watch this space..!

Posted by shaunandhan 09:58 Archived in Bolivia

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Comments

Well done Hannah for getting so close to the summit. I felt like I was reading Into Thin Air there for a minute - just like climbing Everest.

I just love those photos on the Salt Flats. I LOL every time I see them.

by Alastair McKenzie

Ha ha thanks Al! Xxx

by shaunandhan

Ps Shaun says it was a lot less scary than Into thin air. I'm not so sure...!

by shaunandhan

Looks like a great trip! Which tour company did you go with and would you recommend them?

by bbcakes

bbcakes - we booked our salt flats tour with Quechua Connections. Having conducted loads of research into different companies which proved mostly futile, we opted for them because they had less bad reviews than everyone else.

Have to say, we had no problems with them whatsoever and would recommend them as a tour provider. Many Bolivians are not the most hospitable folk when it comes to tourists but the driver and guide were great and very helpful.

by shaunandhan

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