This blog and I have quite some catching up to do. Let’s blame my absence on Christmas and New Year, and start where I left off… After leaving La Paz, I travelled through Sucre onto Uyuni. I’d seen plenty of pictures of people being chased by giant plastic dinosaurs across vast expanses of white, and I wanted in. Also, desert, lakes, nature, wildlife, blah.
So off I went to Uyuni, the Bolivian town where my adventure would begin. I signed myself up for the three day tour from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama, crossing salt flats, deserts and the Bolivia-Chile border. A merry group of six of us, plus Raimundo our guide, clambered into a jeep and set off. Our first stop was the Train Cemetery. Lines of long-disused trains were strewn across the dusty landscape, their rusting silhouettes stark against the desert. We were let out of the jeep and allowed to climb all over them like children on a large tetanus playground.
Back in the jeep and all accounted for, Raimundo accelerated off into the vast expanse. The ashy dust beneath us slowly morphed into the pure white of the salt flats. “Take off your sunglasses for a second.” And as I did, the brilliance of the desert sun beaming off the limitless plains of white made me screw my eyes shut instantly.
We were allowed some time to set up our photo shoot, consummate professionals that we are. A rubber floor mat stripped from the jeep served as our studio and we set up various poses using that poor dinosaur that who never did anything to deserve the regular and sustained abuse he receives from obnoxious gringos.
We slept that night in a hostel made entirely of salt. The walls were salt. The floor was salt. The furniture was salt. I know this because I am still picking those grains of salt out of my backpack, my shoes and my hair several weeks later. It was lovely and warm inside. We ate well and, as a bizarre consequence of a lack of wi-fi or any other form of entertainment, we talked to each other. Quite nice really.
Day two. Lagoon day. The jeep carried us onwards. We rumbled up rocky paths and veered round sharp bends. The scenery morphed constantly around us. As we rose over a particularly steep peak, we squealed with glee as we saw what lay beneath us. An azure lagoon alive with pastel pink flamingos poised serenely on the surface. We sat by the lagoon side watching them as they dipped their beaks and stretched their wings. It was my first time seeing flamingos in the wild and I couldn’t look away.
Later that day, we saw another flock sunning themselves in the red lagoon – their plush pink feathers contrasting harshly against the rusty red water that appeared to ooze from another age.
The evening brought us to a small hostel in a tiny cluster of buildings on the edge of the desert. With no roads and only a smattering of houses, the isolation that we felt was real. We ate dinner and then wandered across to a long, thin outhouse. Inside we were able to buy a couple of bottles of Bolivian wine and huddle around a small stereo playing music whilst a group of local teenagers peered at us with raised eyebrows. When we finally left around midnight it was bitterly cold, but we dawdled slowly our necks craned back and our mouths open in awe. The darkness above us was pierced with a thousand pinpricks of light, the night sky cluttered and vivid with stars. If we hadn’t been chased inside by a vicious dog, we may have stayed out all night to stare at it.
On the third and final day, we awoke at the brutal hour of 3am and breakfasted through bleary eyes. We were meant to set off around half an hour later to watch the sunrise over the geysers. As we took our bags out to the jeep, it was still painfully cold. Our breath came out in clouds and our numb hands fumbled with the zips on our bag. We were keen to get moving, but the engine had other ideas and refused to start. Raimundo advised that we would have to push it to help it along. So we began to push, and push, and push.
We watched the others groups depart one by one until we were alone. We shivered. Our teeth chattered. We continued to urge the jeep onwards. An hour of false starts later, we had begun to lose all hope. My friend turned to me, rigid with the cold: “I have accepted death now,” he said and turned back, morosely, to give the jeep another futile shove.
Perhaps two hours after we were due to depart, some mechanical miracle occurred and the engine slowly groaned into life. We cheered ecstatically, piled in, and set off as quickly as we could, willing the engine to hold out until we were at the end.
We missed sunrise at the geysers, but that didn’t dull the visual spectacle of seeing immense clouds of steam hiss violently between large pools of smooth, grey mud, bubbling and popping with heat. Our guide demonstrated the force of the geysers by placing a water bottle in the midst of the steam. It hovered in place, spinning and tumbling.
Apparently inspired by this, one of our group took it upon himself to leap headfirst into the column of steam. All I can think is that he was trying to imitate the same gravity-defying stunt as the bottle. Unfortunately, and I type this with all the benefit of hindsight, he is rather different to an empty plastic bottle in several fundamental ways. He did not float, suspended in the column of steam like a ghostly apparition. He tumbled headfirst onto a pile of rocks, lay stunned for a few seconds and then sloped off gingerly for a little sit down. Around ten minutes later, as our group had forgotten all about the incident and were enjoying taking more photos, he ambled over to me, a grimace across his face: “Er, can you just take a look at my shoulder…?” And as a peered at what I thought may have just been a scrape or a bruise, something rather large and sinister appeared to poke the skin upwards around where his collarbone should be.
And that is where I’m going to leave this post, because fundamentally, that’s where the tour of the Bolivian salt flats ended, and the search for a Chilean hospital began. The lines are blurred, but now seems a good time. NEXT TIME ON BLOG… Adventures in the Atacama. More sand. Less salt. Same amount of sun. Much of a muchness really.