Uyuni, Bolivia

ihana.com - big trip - diary - bolivia - april 2003

Consulting the map...

...but theres no real road...

...just salt

Thursday 24 - Friday 25 April

A kilometre or so past the Chilean aduana there is a tiny village (population - 8) with a train station and an army bloke doing the customs for entering Bolivia. We had our passports stamped but nothing to do for the car as there is no facilities for that, do it later in Uyuni. After consulting the map with half the people in the village we set forth towards Chiguana where we would make a left to San Juan, a likely place to spend the night before the reaching the salt flats proper. Rocks were sticking through the salt and it was bad going even at 40kph.

Approaching Chiguana we could make out a few abandoned and roofless adobe houses and, as we got closer, four army boys running towards us, one very mad looking one clutching a puppy. We stopped beside the dog lover and asked what was going on. It turned out that we had overshot the military check point and had to turn back and drive through the abandoned village where there was a strange fort thing with round buildings behind the castellated walls.

The army boys were a bit wired and not particularly friendly. None of them seemed to have a gun or any other weapon and one of them who appeared over 20, he had managed to grow a moustache, was the captain. We had to show our passports and landy registration document and the most wierd guy wrote it all down on a scap of A4 paper. We noticed on his desk that there were printed out lists of tourists from jeep tours so maybe things were ok. We got the documents back and then they started the inevitable demands for paying a 'multa' (fine) for passing the checkpoint even though the vehicle tracks we were following went straight by it. We got in the landy and told them to open the gate and stop being silly. No luck but T managed to sweet talk the captain by saying what a terrible welcome this is into Bolivia, blah, blah. It worked, just one sad try by the boss asking for a souvenir English coin (sorry, all stolen in Nicaragua) and the lad on the gate asking for a beer (haha) and we were off!

Sr. Choque

Stuck truck

Village

On the 'road' across the salt flats...

...for a couple of kms then head north...

...over virgin salt

Following the army's directions we made it across smoother salt in the growing dusk, around a hill and into San Juan by dark. We stopped at the one shop that had a light on outside and asked the owner if it was no worries to camp outside the village. He told us we could camp in his yard for nothing, which was lucky as we dont have any Bolivian money yet. Turned out that he has one of the few hostels here and we were welcome to use the bog too. He was very interested in the landy, being the owner of a Toyota Landcruiser who can blame him. We got a useful tip from him to wrap our badly worn steering shaft universal joint with inner tube rubber to reduce the play and give it a bit more life. We perused our map together and he informed us that its a doddle to find the Isla de Pescado tourist attraction and Salt Hotel as there's plenty of wheel tracks to follow on the salt.

In the morning we dawdled off in the direction of the big white nothing. We soon came upon a lorry full of sulphur which had got stuck on the soft lake shore two days ago while it was dark. They had been digging all the previous day before giving up and one of them going to fetch another lorry to help. After our lack of success towing heavy lorries in Honduras, we left him to it. Soon we came across the raised road bit which gives access to the flats. Near the edge its too soft to drive on so we rattled along on the corrugations for a bit before setting course northwards across the white expanse for the Isla de Pescado (Fish Island, so called beacause its shaped like a fish, apparently).

Plenty of tourists...

...at the Isla Pescado...

...and cacti...

...and cool views

The sensation of driving on the salt is pretty cool, almost like being in a ship. We messed about making some 'drive by' vids of the landy appearing and disappearing into the distance, then happened upon some strange piles of salt dotted about. We thought they were dug up by someone but while taking a few pics a tour group in a Toyota turned up, the guide explaining that its a natural phenomenon. Little ridges get pushed upwards then the wind blows more slivers of salt which stick to them and form these piles, but it only seems to occur in a few places on the massive flat expanse.

Confirming with the guide which lump on the horizon is the Isla de Pescado we set course, arriving just in time for lunch. Unfortunately it was lunch prepared for the teeming throngs of tour groups assembled on the island shore and not for the landy based travellers. Nevertheless everyone gave maximum to the lads as usual. Admission to have a walk about on the cactus covered island is paid at a little hut. We told the guy we didn't have any cash and although he said everyone had to pay no one stopped us as we ascended the hill to take in the wicked view.

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