We got picked up first the next morning and on time by a lovely local man who didn't speak a word of English and came to some mad conclusion that I was fluent in Spanish. I became his confident, he shared jokes with me, asked me to explain to others what was going on and gave me a running commentary on the hold ups at border control. I understood little of what he said but smiles and a laugh every now and then seemed to be all he needed.
Once at the Bolivian border we were met by two 4X4s. We were to be split up. The lovely driver hopped out and declared we would team up with the German couple and two Swedish girls and the Irish/American couple and the 4 French would be in the other jeep. Our group were quick to bond. We had clearly all read the reviews and within seconds of being grouped together we agreed a rotation programme for the back two seats in the jeep (very important!) and that if we saw our driver drinking we wouldn't put up with it!
The Bolivian border crossing
Some jeep bonding
Agreement one went as planned. We took a day per pair in the back. Agreement two went out the window when our driver was spotted drinking at stop two. Seriously?! Stop 2?! They couldn't get further than that point before having a beer or two. Well, I was hacked off, as was everyone else but we agreed to leave it go on the first occasion and wait for it to happen again. Miraculously it didn't. I don't know if it was our talking loudly about our dissatisfaction with drink driving or if it honestly was a one off or of course they may have just become very good at hiding it! But it wasn't a problem again for the rest of the tour. Our driver, as sullen and moody as he was at times, drove incredibly well. We felt 100% safe throughout the 3 days.
Once in the car and on the road the 6 of us chatted non-stop about absolutely everything imaginable! We didn't shut up. We had 4 different cultures to compare after all. It felt like we weren't in the car all that much on the first day. The stops were frequent and every 30 minutes we were hopping out to photograph this and that.
Hot Springs of Polques in the desert. It was freezing out but the rewards for braving it were worth it. Or so I was told.
Geysers Sol de Manana, the smell and the fumes were toxic. It reminded me of the volcano. We didn't hang around long
It was late afternoon when we arrived at our hostel for the night. It was literally in the middle of nowhere! Mountains and desert and then this long thin building with a tin roof being held on with bricks. We were ushered in and shown to the first door which the driver announced was our dormitory for the night. Everyone and I honestly mean everyone in our group let out a chorus of 'wow, this is so much better than we thought'. And all I could think was, seriously, where have you slept before?! It was a concrete room with 7 beds. 7 platforms of concrete with a mattress on top of each and a couple of blankets. Except for the 7th bed because we were only 6. The 7th bed was stripped bear and only had a thin, well worn mattress on concrete and it reminded me of a drug den from the movies. So as everyone gushed over the comfort of the room, I tried to block the images of Trainspotting from my mind.
Our little house for the night
The dining room
After dropping our bags off we climbed back into the car for the last stop of the day. The Red lagoon filled with flamingos. Beautiful. I have never seen so many flamingos so close up in my life. We stood watching and photographing them for about an hour before the cold got the better of us and we retreated to the car.
Once back at the shelter, a late lunch was served. I had claimed to be vegetarian for the 3 days because I wanted to do everything to avoid stomach problems and had read that all the food was carted around in the back of the jeep each day only to be cooked up that night. Zarius had also decided to go veggie. But as soon as a dish of the most unappetising hotdog sausages was placed on our table, Zarius fell apart. Within seconds, he had 4 on his plate and one in his mouth wolfing them down. I stuck to the peeled slices of tomato and cucumber instead.
That night we all sat around wearing every item of clothing we owned. It's cold in the desert! We were staying at 4,300 metres so everyone was tired, a bit breathless and busy trying not to think about altitude sickness. The electricity went out early so we sat with a torch and a candle and continued our conversations. Annabelle, the German girl gave me some tips on coping with sleeping in the cold. Basically I was to go to bed with as much clothes on as possible including my puffy jacket and a wooly hat. I could take off my outer trousers but leave leggings on and the next morning just get up and put the trousers on over the leggings. It all sounded extreme but as the evening wore on and the cold set in I could understand the logic. It was a sleepless night. It was absolutely freezing, minus 10 and just two blankets over us. If you lay really still you could warm your spot up but if even a toe moved out of place it undid all the good work and sent shivers up your whole body. Zarius didn't sleep for a different reason. Altitude. He was wide awake and inside his silk liner he was like a caged animal. He spent the night thrashing about, any time I fell asleep he woke me with his tossing and turning. So in the silence of the night all you could hear every 30 minutes or so was me in a loud angry whisper saying 'ZARIUS, SHHHH!'. We were all wrecked the next day except for the Germans who are in South America to climb mountains and have absolutely every piece of gear imaginable. They had their own super duper sleeping bags and didn't need their blankets. They slept soundly.
Eating dinner wearing everything we owned!
Another clear night sky
The next day the car was quiet. It was Zarius and my turn to take the reject seats in the back. First stop was the rock formations. Then 3 lakes in a row. All quite spaced out so we were stuck in the back a lot. By the third lake we were a little bit over it. The highlight of that day was the rock formations in the morning and then we had another 10 hours in the back. The Irish/American couple (Dan and Suzanne) in the other jeep were on day 2 in the back, rotation being ignored in their car. So by the time we all got to our next hostel for the night they were well hacked off!! Luckily we had stopped for wine and Dan had brought his guitar and the Swedish girls could sing so cue an international singalong! We were spending the second night on the edge of the salt flats in a hostel that not only had private rooms, but the option to take a 5 minute hot shower for 10 Bolivianos (85p). Sold. Divine. The water is piped in from 7km away and the sun heats it on it's journey. It was roasting and plentiful for all those who opted in. The room was still cold but we had FOUR blankets and that accompanied by a glass or two of vino and the sheer exhaustion from the night before made for a sound nights sleep.
Sunrise outside our hostel. We couldn't wait to get up!
Packing up the jeeps for day two on the road.
Desierto de Siloli rock formations
It's basically a big playground for adults. Everywhere you looked there were people scrambling, climbing and hanging!
Some great signs along the way
They knew how to get us where it hurts
Zarius gritting his teeth after 10 hours in the back with his knees at his chin
And then we arrived at a place called San Juan. The first town in two days!
We all celebrated with a nice cold beer, much to the amusement of the shop keeper who looked like she had never seen so many gringos before!
Our salt hostel. Everything was made of salt, including the beds!
My alarm woke us at 5.15 the next morning to pack up and watch the sun rise over the slat flats. The sunrise was a big thing for all of us. And you had to vote on who wanted to get up for it and who wanted to stay in bed and skip it. All 12 of us wanted to get up. It was a stressful morning. Our driver dilly dallied and then disappeared and we could see the sunlight starting to line the horizon. When we finally reappeared one of the girls hurried him on which caused him to throw a huge strop and he decided to move in slow motion to get his dissatisfaction across. But we made it for the sunrise in the end and although very pretty, we all felt that we may have built it up a little too much!
The salt flats is the highlight of the 3 days. What we had been waiting for and it is extraordinary. The expanse. It's hard to take it. We visited a cactus island (officially named Fish Island because of it's shape) first which was home to thousands of different sized cacti, and I realised I had never really been up close to such ginormous plants. They are very impressive and beautiful too.
La Isla del Pescado/Fish Island
Breakfast al fresco
And then it was photo time. The moment we had all been waiting for...perspective shots. What no one had told us was, it's so hard! Zarius and I were useless at it. Really bad. We spent a good hour at it and didn't end up with any really perfect ones. The Germans were naturals. And the Swedes did a good job too. I don't know what went wrong with us!
A llama built from blocks of salt
Haha, this one turned out surprisingly well!
A museum in the old salt hotel
Lunch in the last town of our trip, Colchani, on the edge of the Salt Flats and close to our final destination, Uyuni.
Our last team lunch
Which didn't stop Zarius from sampling some llama being cooked on the side of the street.
This toilet made me laugh. Notice how it doesn't have any connecting pipes! Good effort though
And this is a sad seen that is far too common. Places are being destroyed with rubbish
And then we started to wind down to the end of the trip. We'd had fun, seen a lot of natural wonders and nature at its best. But we were ready to finish. It was a lot of driving in a very cramped space. Would we do it again knowing what we now know? I'm not sure. We would probably do a one day trip into the salt flats. It's the highlight after all. That said, we don't regret it at all and the memories will be with us forever.