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Saturday, December 3rd, 2005

1 December 2005 (Thursday) – Salar de Uyuni to Laguna Colorado, Bolivia

Today, we woke up early, 5+am, to get ready for the long drive to Laguna Colorado, almost 10 – 12 hours’ away.

This time, we were driving through pure desert, with red mountains on either side. The scenery did change occasionally, as we also came suddenly upon an area where there were huge, crooked, crazily eroded rocks on either side of the road. The rocks did not appear to be eroded by wind. And they seemed to have fallen out of the sky and landed all over this area suddenly. Our guide explained that this used to be a lake with a lot of rocks underwater. So, these rocks were eroded by water! Now, of course, everything is dry.

Lots of curious-looking free-standing rocks that used to be underwater

When I say ‘road’, there is actually no road, just tracks from past jeeps. Sometimes, there are several tracks going in different directions, and even the jeeps on this same tour would take different tracks. I guess, as this place is so wide and flat, many of the tracks would lead to the same place. The jeeps use another track to avoid being behind another jeep and get a lot of dust on their faces.

Yes, little Jaillo took to the driving seat for some parts

Some of the tracks were up mountains full of rocks and boulders. This, we really had to be on 4-wheel drive as the jeep bobbed and bobbed around in agony. We got off at one point to walk to make the jeep lighter. At other tracks, we passed through small patchs of salt pan. Now, this was a breeze… nice and smooth as the jeep sped through.

Salt pans were easier for driving

Railway to the Pacific Ocean

Breathtaking surreal scenery all around us

We came upon our first little lagoon – Laguna Canapa. Wow, it really felt surreal here. The lake, the mountains all around, the green spongy moss we were stepping on, and the hundreds and thousands of flamingoes nonchalantly drinking in the lake. It was such a peaceful gorgeous sight, so quiet, so picture-perfect. I felt as if this place is just figment of my imagination. We could only smile at each other, dumb-founded.

Flamingoes drinking in the lake

Lake Canapa

We hopped back on and continued to the next lake for our lunch. Not long later, we saw an oncoming jeep, one that started its journey from San Pedro de Atacama. Our guide slowed down on the sandy path and we were travelling slightly lop-sided for a while as he wanted to make way in the track for the other jeep. To our horror, the jeep was speeding towards us, and it looked like it was out-of-control on the sand and was about to crash into us!!!

And just then, it swerved away but not quite in time, as our two sides hit one another just as it pulled away. We were stunned!! Our driver stopped his jeep and hopped out. We expected the other driver to do the same, as in fact, we did have a crash, although it was not a head-long, serious crash. But we turned around to see the jeep still driving at the devil speed, kicking up tonnes of sand, and disappearing from our sight!! What the?? Why didn’t he stop??

Our exasperated driver reversed the jeep and gave chase. Woah, what was going on?? It was quite difficult and dangerous speeding through sand. I was afraid we might overturn if we hit some rocks. I guess, since we had just left Laguna Canapa, and the other jeep might also be obliged to stop there for his tourists, our guide took the chance to give chase as only if the evil jeep stopped, would we have a chance to catch up.

We spotted a trail of flying sand in the distance and when we neared the lake, true enough, the jeep stopped. Our driver drove right up to it and soon, got into an argument with the other driver. We checked the damage. A huge dent and broken tail-light. The same for the other truck. We asked the tourists on the other jeep, why didn’t their driver stop? And why didn’t they make their driver stop?? They told us their driver was blaming our driver. What?? Come on, we slowed down and were driving perched lop-sided to give space. But their driver sped right through, despite knowing there was another jeep nearby and even lost control, crashed into us and swerved all over the sand!

The other driver was a young chap. One look at him, I know he was full of shit. The argument ensued for quite a while and our driver angrily took down his license plate, saying that he knows this guy, he was always drunk in Uyuni. We departed, no fist fight, thank goodness. But gosh, here we were on the largest expanse of flat land in the entire world and another jeep crashed into us! No one would believe us!

We arrived at the next lake, Laguna Redonda. Our driver still gently told us something about it, keeping his temper down. We appreciated him for it. There were more flamingoes here, and the lake had some green minerals or algae, giving it a greenish look. After lunch, again, the Norwegian girls and I hunted for a place for toilet. This was our third time needing to pee and we did not drink any water during the ride, just whatever for breakfast. We were perplexed at our bladders’ inability to hold.

More flamingoes at Laguna Redonda

Mountains of all colours!

During the drive since morning, we had asked for some pee-breaks. Nowhere to hide. Just squat behind the jeep and pray no others come. We also had some breaks to take photos. At those places, as the other jeeps were there, we had to walk a little further to the bushes and er… shamelessly relieved ourselves. It was not just us, every other person from the other jeeps was also jumping off his or her jeep and hurrying off in various directions desperately.

A smoking Volcano Ollague

We stopped by two other scenic spots – one where we could see the active Volcan Ollague. Yes, it was sinisterly smoking away. The surrounding areas here had really beautiful red rocky outcrops with lots of holes. Enchanting. And yes, the Norwegians and I giggled as we tried to find suitable spots, away from everyone’s eyes. No such luck, there were jeeps everywhere. We could only hope those guys in the distance looked another way.

Another scenic viewpoint of Volcan Ollague

Up close...

The other photo spot was a huge red boulder (a smaller and less impressive verson of the Ayers Rock in Australia) that was just there out of nowhere. Our guide said we could see vizcachas here. I spotted one and beckoned everyone to come over to look. This is an animal that has long ears, looks like a rabbit and has a long tail. People around me asked me what it was. Vizcacha, I told them. But Simon kept insisting it was a rabbit. Gosh, I was a little pissed. Just because he had not heard of vizcachas before, and it is obviously not an English name, he refused to learn it and simply concluded it was a rabbit. I later found a spot and asked Simon to take a picture of me. When I got there to pose, I realised I was standing amongst toilet paper and even, a used sanitary napkin. Gross!

Huge red boulder standing in the middle of nowhere

Finally, the last stop of today before our hostel – Piedra de Arbol (Stone of Tree). We drove through more moonscape to come upon white rocky formations eroded by wind. As one of them looked like a tree – it had a wide top and a narrow base, like a tree trunk, this place was named as such. More photos and more peeing. Throughout this time, we were amazed that Josie had NOT gone once.

Piedra de Arbol (Stone of Tree)

More stunning rock formations

We reached Laguna Colorado at around 4pm after nearly 10 hours’ of driving. Wow, this was a massive lake, with red algae, giving it a very red colour in the far distance. Absolutely beautiful beautiful beautiful. We settled down in our very basic hostel. There was no running water. We had to use a scoop-thingie to take water from a huge bucket to flush down the toilet or wash up. Josie took a long, long, long time before deciding she would go ahead and use the toilet. Ah, finally!

We were now at 4,278m above sea level. Wow, this is once again a new record for me – the highest place I have ever stayed overnight at. As the wind was crazy, I put on my fleece and jacket, scarf, hat and gloves, and walked with Simon and Josie to the mirador to view the lake. I could not believe it. I was in 3 layers and still freezing cold, but Josie later took off her fleece and started walking in her spaghetti-straped top!!

Very difficult to climb at this altitude but we made it. While today had been a very long and at times boring day of driving, interspersed by scenic and peeing spots, this was truly the most fantastic view of today. The red colour glistened all around the massive lake, there were thousands and thousands of flamingoes everywhere, and huge glacier-like mounds of salt on the opposite side of the lake and lovely distant mountains, some perfectly conical like volcanoes.

We finally reached the viewing point

... and were astounded by the stunning view

... of the red Laguna Colorado

When we went down, we met the 3 Arctic explorers lumbering towards us, bundled up in the best technology Norway has to offer in protection from the cold. They too gasped at the sight of Josie who had just casually decided to put her thin flappy fleece jacket back on. We persuaded them it was really worth it to climb to the mirador and so, somewhat reluctantly, brrrr… they plodded on. People from cold countries seemed to be the ones who complain the most about the cold.

The English siblings and I decided to be brave and walk out to the red lake. Some of the ground was dry and hard. But some were soft mud. Tourists before us had left deep footprints as they struggled with the mud, but when we came upon this same mud, it was now nice and hard. At other times, we thought this was okay mud, but our boots sank right it. Very deceptive indeed. On the mud were also millions of flamingo footprints. There were round depressions all over, surrounded by white and yellow colours, remnants of different minerals. We considered and experimented and finally reached the lake and were able to observe the red ripples caused by the strong wind up close. When we left, we struggled some more through the horrid mud. We were walking like flamingoes at times, as we tried to quicken our footsteps before each step sank deeper into the soft mud. Yep, now we know exactly why the flamingoes walk like that.

Closer inspection of Laguna Colorado

Flamingo footprints on the soft coloured mud

That evening, as we played cards and considered our border-crossing tomorrow to Chile, I warned them not to bring any fruits. Then, Cathrine said she heard that even tea-bags were not allowed. Whoops. I had bought coca tea-bags. I know coca leaves, for sure, are not allowed. But I was hoping I could bring the coca tea-bags home. Now, if even tea-bags were not allowed, (much less coca tea-bags!) I would have to discard them before I leave tomorrow. Sheesh, I do not want to do that. I know I can buy coca tea-bags in San Pedro de Atacama as I had seen them there 3 years ago. But I did not want to throw these away and then, buy them in Chile at 3 times the price. For a challenge, I decided to smuggle them. I put them inside my sleeping bag. Hopefully tomorrow, I can keep a straight face and there are no dogs to sniff for the presence of coca tea-bags.

Wow, tonight, although there was no wind at all, I felt rather cold and put on my alpaca sweater (yes, it finally proved useful!) before going to sleep. However, the high altitude was not agreeing with me. Lots of rumbling in my tummy. Argh, this is NOT a good place to visit the toilet frequently.

Salar de Uyuni

Saturday, December 3rd, 2005

30 November 2005 (Wednesday) – Uyuni to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

There had been 3 other tourists on my tour when I signed up for the Salar de Uyuni trip, but none of them were there at the tourist office at the agreed time. I waited more than half an hour. I thought for a moment there had been some mix-up and I had been left out from the jeep. But, I was soon picked up by a jeep and driven to another tour agency and in packed 3 Norwegian girls and a English brother-and-sister team. I was the only one signed up from another travel agency. Hmmm… I figured all or most of the agencies got together at the end of yesterday and kinda reshuffled everyone around to form groups of 6 or 7.

The Norwegians were Cathrine, Martha and Ingunn, the siblings Simon and Josie. We were driven to the Cementerio de Trenes (Cemetery of Trains) and there, I ran into several other tourists whom I had shared the bus here to Uyuni. I guess we would keep running into one another for the next few days all the way to San Pedro de Atacama.

Cemetery of Trains

Cemetery of Trains

After this, our driver went to pick up his wife who would be our cook, and along with her, came her little 3-year-old son, whom we would adore to death. Little Jaillo (I am guessing the spelling) is the most smiley and adorable little boy we had seen in a long while. He was always turning around and giving us very mischievous little giggles. Absolutely adorable.

Cochani was our next stop where we took the chance to use the toilet and browse the salt souvenirs before heading onto the largest salt flat in the world – Salar de Uyuni. The salt was so white, and at this altitude of 3,600m above sea level, one really needs sunglasses in order not to be blinded by the reflection from the noon sun. We were fascinated by the huge expanse of pure white, it was absolutely incredible. In fact, there seemed a lot of optical illusions in the far distance where objects seemed to be floating in the air, or seemed to cast a reflection of its shape against the white mirror ground. With nothing else to be used as perspective, it was very difficult to judge distances. Truly, one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen!

Mining salt

Salar de Uyuni, so white it hurts the eyes!

Little Jaillo

Clockwise - Simon, Josie, Cathrine, Martha, Ingunn, Jaillo and I

We were to stop at Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) for lunch. This is an ‘island’ of volcanic rock right smack in the middle of Salar de Uyuni. When we were very far off, I had already seen a dark shape that looks like a fish. Hence, the name. As we neared it, the surreal ‘island’ became bigger and bigger. When we parked right under it, I could not believe my eyes. Spotted all over the ‘island’ were gigantic cacti, thousands of them. How did they get grown here, when this ‘island’ was surrounded by miles and miles of salt? As Señora had to prepare lunch, the guide told us to take a little walk around the island to the top where we could see both sides. Gosh, the view was truly breathtaking! We really felt like being on an island in the middle of a lake of white.

Isla del Pescado, right smack in the middle of the 'salar'

Look how TALL the cactus is!

There were distant jeeps and people walking on the salt pans. Everything looked miniscule. I was thorougly fascinated with the cacti, many of which were flowering now, some of them, a little dead, exposing its beautiful ‘carcass’.

Distant jeep and miniscule people on the salt pans

We had our lunch of tuna and salad and headed off again. The guide kept telling us we had a lot to see today, but by around 3pm, we had already left the salt flat and had reached our Salt Hotel Atulcha. All of us were given a nice little room, entirely made of salt. The hotel, the beds, the bed-side table, the dining table and chairs outside… all salt. Yes, I licked the wall, just to check.

The hotel entirely made from salt

I took a little walk around the hotel, climbing up a little hill in the distance. At the top, I was surprised to find someone had constructed walls of rocks, and for the entrance, a tiny little door. Not sure what this was. But the view was quite enchanting with the distant ‘islands’ on the salt pan, reflecting its shape on the white.

Reflection of islands against the salt pans

Curious donkeys checking me out as I explored near their territories

The shower cost extra but the hotel warned us that our next stop had no shower, so we were obliged to pay to wash off all the salt and sand that had gotten into every orifices on the ride here. No, dear, of course, the showers and toilets are NOT made of salt.

We had delicious llama meat for dinner, got chatting to know one another. The Viking blondes had been working in volunteer jobs in Sucre for 3 months. They were pleasant, friendly but frequently kept to themselves, chatting in their own language. Simon and Josie were rather nice as well, Simon is quite chatty and enthusiastic about what he had done so far in his trip, Josie kept an unsmiling face most of the time as if she did not enjoy the scenery all around, but yet, she would suddenly comment on how beautiful the mountains look, so she had indeed been enjoying the views. Overall, I was okay with them, although I did not feel I could really connect with them. Soon, we retired to our very comfortable rooms. I had bought my alpaca sweater in La Paz, expecting extremely cold temperature but I did not need it at all. It was warm and cozy in the room.

Ocean of Bolivia

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005
29 November 2005 (Tuesday) - Potosi to Uyuni, Bolivia Once again, I was surprised at the number of sacks of goods at the bus office for the bus going to Uyuni. Can we really pack all these on top of the ... [Continue reading this entry]

Looking For A Silver Lining

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005
28 November 2005 (Monday) - Potosi, Bolivia It turned out being cold was the least of my problem. I spent the whole night unable to sleep due to the combination of 2 problems. First, creaky squeaky wooden floorboards. I never really felt ... [Continue reading this entry]


Monday, November 28th, 2005
27 November 2005 (Sunday) - Sucre to Potosi, Bolivia Tarabuco is a tiny town, about 1.5 hours away from Sucre. Now, with quite a handful of tourist buses departing to visit its Sunday market, it has unfortunately been transformed a ... [Continue reading this entry]

In Exchange For A Ham Sandwich…

Sunday, November 27th, 2005
26 November 2005 (Saturday) - Sucre, Bolivia Not only I got my bus ticket changed, the lady at the bus company persuaded me to buy another ticket to Tarabuco tomorrow. Well, Tarabuco, which is the town with the exquisite weavings that ... [Continue reading this entry]

Top – Bottom – Centre

Saturday, November 26th, 2005
25 November 2005 (Friday) - Sucre, Bolivia When I peeped out of the window and saw blue skies, I hurriedly showered and got dressed. I started my day by climbing up to the top of Sucre - La Recoleta viewing point, ... [Continue reading this entry]

How To Make An Andean Weaving

Friday, November 25th, 2005
24 November 2005 (Thursday) - Sucre, Bolivia The day started out pretty cloudy so I figured my time was best spent in a museum. The one that came highly recommended was the Museo de Arte Textil Indigena (organised by an association ... [Continue reading this entry]

Bloqueos Bloqueos

Thursday, November 24th, 2005
23 November 2005 (Wednesday) - Sucre, Bolivia Gosh, the viejo señor (old man) next to me is one of those who flip and flop around the seat in his sleep and conveniently, take up more than 1/4 of your own personal ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Real ‘Falso’

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2005
22 November 2005 (Tuesday) - Santa Cruz to Sucre, Bolivia While Bolivians whom I met on the streets are certainly quite friendly, I could not say the same for the services here. Now that I was seriously looking to buy ... [Continue reading this entry]