At 7.45am we carried our backpacks from our hostel to the office of Paloma Tours 200m down the road. Everything is within easy walking distance in San Pedro, everything is also easy going, so the office was still closed. That gave us time to get to know our travel companions for the next three days. Roberto, a 25 year old Brazilian, was the first to arrive. Most of the year he works in an Irish Pub on the Balearic island of Menorca, the remainder of the year he travels. Shortly after we met Ranghild and Hanna, two students from Norway who would spend a semester at Valparaiso and La Paz respectively. So in total we would be five tourists on the trip, a very comfortable number, considering that the tour agencies sometimes squeeze six or even seven people into one four by four.
By then the minibus, that would take us to the Bolivian border had arrived. First I was shocked, because I had expected a land cruiser. The jeep would meet us at the Bolivian border, where the proper road basically ends. We immediately had to go through Chilean border formalities on the outskirts of San Pedro. It took a while, as Ranghild was travelling with a Chilean student visa, which is not really allowed. They let her out on the condition, that she returned to Chile within three days.
The drive to the border was easy, but not without attraction. We could constantly see volcano Licancabur, 5196m high and with a slight dusting of snow. The road constantly gained height and by the time we reached the border post, we had reached 4000m. It would get worse though, today's highest point would be at just over 5000m. You know what altitude sickness is? We would find out!
Border formalities were easy and fast, some touts tried to get our Euros by offering us seven Bolivianos per Euro. Luckily we did not change, later we found out that one Euro is worth 10 Bolivianos. That was a typical border scam though, in general Bolivians are very laid back, easy going and honest people. At the border we also found our jeep and the driver-guide-cook Claudio, a typical cowboy who would only talk when asked or the situation required communication.
Now the journey began in earnest. The landscape had changed a lot, it was not as dry as in the Atacama desert, but because of the altitude, there were only a few plants and bushes and no trees that withstood the harsh weather. We got to see the Laguna Blanca that is white because of borax deposits and also Laguna Verde, which gets its green colour from copper in the water. Before the road climbed even higher, Claudio dumped us at a thermal bath, where about 20 tourists were relaxing for 20 minutes in hot water. Coca chewing Claudio did not join us, he just had a shower in a little hut off to the side. This was to become his theme, whenever we got out to see or do something, he would keep away.
The next stop was at the staggering altitude of 4950m. Lilian was beginning to feel the effects of the altitude, she started to get a headache and felt a little sick, when we reached Sol de Manana, a field of escaping gas and hot mud pots. I had never seen this before, so I walked around, threw stones in pools and held my hand over escaping gas. What a playground! There is also a geothermal project that is trying to generate energy from the geysers. It is on hold now, basically because there are no consumers nearby that want to use the cheap energy. Come and live on 4950m!
The road climbs a little higher and reaches 5000m, Lilian's personal altitude record. Luckily for all of us, we then descended to Laguna Colorada, which sits at 4200m and where we spent the first night in a basic accommodation. The beds were to short and it was freezing cold. Because of the altitude, I couldn't sleep all night and in the morning, when Lilian finally felt better, I started to feel sick. Roberto was sick too, only the Norwegian girls felt fine.
Guide Claudio was easy on us and let us sleep a little longer. Usually groups get up at 6am, but he probably had a party as well at night, so he was happy about the delay. Our first stop was an area, where wind, sand and rain had formed rocks into amazing sculptures, one of them was called arbol de piedra (rock tree) and looked like it. I still felt sick though so Lilian had to do the picture taking.
Things got better around lunchtime, Lilian had given me some drops and pills and I could finally eat again and appreciate the active volcano Ollague. At 3pm we reached the Hotel de Sal (Salt Hotel), which is built out of salt blocks from the Salar de Uyuni. Only the roof was a mix of cactus wood and plastic sheets. One of the nicest and weirdest places we had stayed in so far. The salt hotels used to be in the middle of the Salar, because of environmental concerns however, they were forced to move to its edge. The hotel charged extra for a hot shower and switched off electricity at 10pm, which only added to the atmosphere as the tables of the common area as well as the rooms were equipped with candles.
On the third day we finally entered the largest salt pan in the world. 12000 square kilometres of blindingly white nothing. We stopped and immediately started to experiment with our camera. As it is not possible to estimate distances on this white flatness, the eye is easily fooled. It is also a dangerous place, every year people die in the Salar, mostly because they wander around and get lost. Because of the reflections of the salt, one can be out of sight of a vehicle very quickly. Last year was particularly dangerous as it had rained a lot and parts of the Salar were covered with water. Cars got stuck and when they tried to wade to the shore to ask for help, they got lost and drowned or dehydrated, when they had stayed with the car.
The Salar also has real islands, the most visited of them is Isla del Pescado, named so because of its fish like shape. In the middle of the soundless whiteness the island is an oasis with hundreds of cacti. A beautiful place. Guide Claudio who before was trying to make it to Uyuni by 1pm, changed his plans and walked around the island armed with a long stick hunting for cactus fruit which he then shared with us.
After a last lunch in the middle of the Salar he drove us to Uyuni. On seeing that bleak and smelly place, we decided to leave the same day for La Paz. We had just enough time to send some emails and have a last beer with our group, before we entered a bus from the Bolivian version of hell, but that is another story.
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