Snowblind

From San Salvador de Jujuy, our last stop in Argentina, we took a crappy bus to the border city of La Quiaca, and then walked to Villazón (Bolivian side). I never saw such a relaxed immigration office; you could have just walked straight through Bolivia without anyone checking your papers! We even asked them for an extended visa (Canadians only get 30 days usually) and they gave it to us on the spot, for free.

Now, entering Villazón was like stepping into another world… first of all, the altitude was way higher than anything we’ve experienced (about 3500 meters over sea level) and there was tons of street food and ladies wearing colourful skirts and funny hats. I wish I had photos of them, but most don’t want you to take them in photo – native people think that having their photo taken is like stealing their soul!

The altitude was quite hard to get used to at first. Altitude sickness is called soroche around here; it happens when the body does not obtain enough oxygen, as there is less in high altitude. Usually, problems start happening around 3000 meters and more over sea level. We had trouble breathing (the air is dryer), we were dehydrated (need more saliva to keep the mouth humid when breathing more), had some digestive trouble and we were totally out of breath most of the time. The locals told us to chew on coca leaves (they are everywhere here), which we tried – and it helped a bit to get used to the altitude! I asked a lady how to do it, and reproduced it here for you guys:

Anyway, the next day we caught the train Expresso Del Sur, the most comfortable of all rides in Bolivia, to the city of Uyuni.

The front of Expresso Del Sur

Populated with 16 000 people, and located at an altitude of 3700 mts, Uyuni serves mostly as a touristic platform for tours to the Salar of Uyuni  (Uyuni salt flats) and the coloured lagoons. We read that it was quite an ugly town, but we liked it! It was really, really cold (we slept with our clothes on), but the colourful market made it a nice experience. There was a long street full of vendors, selling everything from used snow pants to toilet paper, underwear, cooking gear and food. I saw some lady selling a weird fruit that looked like a cross between bananas and peas, so I had to buy one in order to try it. They called it “pacay” (Inga Feuillei):

The lady’s “stand”

The pacay

Inside the pacay! Everything was compartmented into fluffy bite sized lychee-tasting parts. In every parts there were a weird extra-terrestrial-like seed... I should have taken a picture of that too, but I didn’t want to bore you guys too much haha

As our stomachs were not doing so well, we decided to eat at a “gringo” (non-native) restaurant for a change. I had read about Minuteman pizza being some of the best pizza around, so we went and ordered some. The pizza itself was absolutely amazing; best pizza I’ve had in a long time, even in Canada! The wood-oven baked crust was perfect, and the toppings (llama meat, olives and tomatoes) went very well together. Apparently, the owner, a Boston-native, gets his cheese flown from Buenos Aires, and his basil/oregano delivered fresh to his door every two days. It was quite costly (16$ for a huge pizza) but damn was it satisfying! And our stomachs approved, so we were even happier!

Llama pizza at Minuteman, Uyuni

The next day, we left at 10:30 AM with Andes Salt Expeditions for a 3-day tour of the Uyuni salt flats and the mystifying desolate lands surrounding it. We were in a Jeep with 4 British people and a driver/guide/cook that only spoke Spanish. Our first stop was a really primitive salt factory in Colchani, a small town close to the salt flats. They shovel the salty rocks out of the salt flats, put it in piles, burn a fire under it to remove the water, grind them finely, add iodine and then put them in small packages for human consumption:

The salt lady preparing a package. The fire coming from the propane tank is to seal the bag.

Then we went driving to the Uyuni salt flats, the most famous touristic attraction in Bolivia – and you guys will see why:

A part of the Uyuni salt flats, under a bit of water – creating a mirror image

The piles of salt ready to be shovelled to the salt factory

The salt flats used to be old lakes up to 40 000 years old which dried out. It’s also the bigger desert of salt in the world! It really screwed up our mind, it seemed like it was snow, but it was just salt! (Although it was really cold outside).

The perspective was really strange, and just jumping a little seemed like flying!

You can see here the separation between the salt and the water on top of it

Another jeep driving around the salt flats

For lunch, we went to a hotel which was constructed out of salt blocks:

The hotel on the left, and on the right, our jeep

The hotel dining room! Notice the chairs and tables made out of salt!

Afterwards, we went back to the town of Uyuni to visit the train cemetery… but the jeep lost a wheel, and we were stranded on the side of the road for more than an hour. Luckily, the company came and switched jeeps and driver!

Our wheel-less Jeep! That was a bit scary. Haha.

We then went quickly to the train cemetery in Uyuni, which consisted of rotting carcasses of ancient trains:

All aboard the VOIVOD train!

We then drove about 4 hours to some cold hostel in the middle of nowhere. It was so cold at night. So cold! We had to sleep with tons of blankets because there was no heating inside. On top of that, the air was really dry so I slept with my mouth opened most of the night… haha. Although it was definitely worth it, as the next day we visited some really really out-of-this-world places.

Some llamas we saw along the way. Some of them had cute colourful pompons on their heads. We even saw some mating hahaha, too bad I couldn’t take photos because it was a really funny sight!

 

Some volcano with really cool half frozen salt eyes. From another angle, the frozen mud looked like waves.

A lunch we had on the side of the road. Pasta, veggie croquettes and veggies.

A beautiful colourful lagoon with a sleeping volcano in the background. Arsenic gives the water its beautiful green color.

The jeep in one of the many deserts..

The most famous of all stone formations in this area, the stone tree!

And after this, we went again to a crappy hostel in the middle of nowhere for our well-deserved sleep. This one was powered by the sun, and is located in an altitude of around 4300 mts:

Hostal San Marcelo. At least the beds were comfortable!

The next day, we left the hostel at 5:30 in the morning to visit some other things. Check out the view we had upon waking up:

So many stars

We then visited some geysers (altitude: 5000 mts), which smelled like a thousand farts. Located on the top of an active volcano, the cracks are 30 meters deep and can get up to a temperature of 100 Celcius. Apparently, when the big Japan earthquake happened, the geysers were shaken up and vomited lava…

The cracks

One of the cracks

Some mud boiling in the middle of the cracks

After this, our guide drove us to some really nice hot springs, surrounded by mountains and wildlife. They were so much better than the ones in Jujuy, and was a nice break from all this cold!!

The sun rising on ancient steaming lands

Some frost on grass around the hot springs

François in the hot springs

Another nice scenery!

Did I mention that at this altitude, I really felt like I was a 90-year-old grand-mother? Taking only 10 steps felt like walking 100.

Dead tired and cold

But what was next to be seen was the nicest of all places… The coloured lagoon!!

Yes, the water is actually red! This color is obtained by some weird algae. You can also see some flamingos in really small... there are 3 or 4 different types, and they meet here to breed. Who would have thought flamingos were turned on by cold?

After this, we spent about 5 or 6 hours getting back to Uyuni in our Jeep. The ride was long, but thankfully I was able to put some good music on the stereo… listening to stuff like Motörhead, AC/DC, Uriah Heep, Holocaust, Ulver and Girlschool in those sceneries was totally unreal.

We drove beside some Quinoa plantations also. Our guide told us the quinoa plants like high and dry places, so there was plenty on the way back home. Here are the plants for white quinoa:

Quinoa plants!

We returned to Uyuni dead tired, but really satisfied. The whole tour was absolutely amazing, and was absolutely worth it!!! We then took the 1:30 AM train to Oruro, arrived at 9:00, took the 10:00 bus to La Paz, and finally arrived in the early afternoon to the world’s highest capital – where we are right now. More about it later…

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