The salt flats trip didn't get off to the best start. After getting picked up and driven to the San Pedro crossing to have our passports stamped (thanks to our 2011 trip I'm starting to run out of pages!), we ended up in a car park where we need to transfer to the 4x4 which would be our transport for the next three days. It was here that we were told the salt flats were flooded, we wouldn't be able to drive on them (only go to the edge), and we wouldn't be staying in the salt hotel on the second night, but instead would be going to Uyuni. This was obviously a huge disappointment, but not anything we could do anything about - it was rainy season in Bolivia after all. To be honest, I'd already written off the entire tour as something to be endured with the possibility of taking a few pictures - a more picturesque transfer into Bolivia. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of pressure on travellers to enjoy the salt flats and take incredible photos; I preferred to take the alternate view, namely assume the journey would be horrific and then be pleasantly surprised if there were nice bits.
We had breakfast of tea, bread, cheese and cake, and were introduced to our driver, Orlando, who was 23 and spoke not a jot of English. Fortunately our fellow travelers (Tanja and Jacqueline from Switzerland and Barbara from Germany) were a little more educated in Spanish than us, and Barbara in particular was able to translate which helped. The first stop on our trip was Laguna Blanco which had a mirror-like surface, reflecting the nearby volcanoes. Shortly after was Laguna Verde, although in truth it should have been called Laguna Azul as it was definitely more blue than green. Here I stacked some rocks, not because I wanted the gods' favour, but because I'm a fan of putting things on top of each other. Still, if someone wants to help me hit the jackpot on my premium bonds, I won't complain too much.
A big draw of the salt flats is the ability to take perspective photos, where you can make yourself look huge or tiny in comparison to other people and objects. Since we were unlikely to be able to do that thanks to the flooding, Orlando stopped at Salvador Dali desert (so named because the landscapes apparently represent scenes from his paintings) and we had a go at doing something similar, with mixed results. The thermal baths at the next stop turned out to be a crap spa with an en suite cesspool in the form of a toilet shack. It wasn't a surprise since we'd been prepared for the state of bathrooms in Bolivia, but the so-called tourist attraction of the bath was a joke. We decided to skip a dip. More interesting were the Geysers Sol de Mañana which, unlike the Geysers del Tatio, had a multitude of bubbling mud pods in addition to the steam vents. A couple of tourists died after falling in here not long ago; you get the impression that Bolivia's safety laws are somewhat more lax than its neighbours'. The president has decided to try and harness some of this underground energy and sell power on to Chile - how he plans to ensure the stability of the pipeline is another matter.
Less than an hour later we pulled into the dirt car park of what proved to be our lodgings for the day. We had mattresses (surprisingly comfortable) and blankets on top of stone beds, but there was no sign of our promised sleeping bags. Even better, during the journey Jacqueline's six litre container of water on top of the van managed to get a hole, leaking roughly three quarters of the contents out on the journey. It was probably just as well we were going to Uyuni the next day so she could buy some more. A lunch of strange looking sausage, lukewarm mash, mozzarella, cucumber, tomato and bananas appeared, and filled a gaping hole (although we had to ignore the fact that Orlando was cleaning the cutlery with his bare hands, and wasn't known for washing them after using the bathroom). At this point the weather took a turn for the worse, the sky turned dark grey and the heavens opened. Of course, this is when Orlando told us we were going out to visit Laguna Colorada. After a rough ride over the plains, we ended up at a lake that would no doubt have looked fantastic in the sunshine, but in the existing climate served only to get our cameras wet as we took a few miserable snaps. Five minutes were more than enough, so we came all the way back to the refugio, had some tea and biscuits, played some Uno, and caught up with our reading. Dinner was soup (which Gilly enjoyed my bowl of) followed by vegetable spaghetti and one peach from a tin. Not gourmet, but better than we were expecting. The temperature dropped significantly by the late evening, and we had to start layering up our hoodies and fleeces. When we asked for our promised sleeping bags, we were met with a blank look by Orlando. After the production of our voucher and some firm words, he reluctantly went into a room and brought back five bags for us, whilst wearing a face like thunder. No idea what pissed him off so much; perhaps he was planning on making a blanket fort.
Thankfully all the blankets and the bag meant we were toasty in the night, and after getting to sleep at 10pm we felt bright and breezy the next morning. A couple of pancakes and some tea saw us back on the road at just after 8am. This time we offered to swap with Jacqueline and Tanya who'd enjoyed a rough ride in the back seat the previous day. Note: if an agency tells you there are definitely seatbelts in the back seat, they are lying through their teeth. At this stage we also got Orlando to play our music rather than the god-awful electronica he was blasting out. It seems that both Bolivian and Chilean music involves the same beat using the same instruments whilst some bloke screams out the names of cities in whatever country he's from. We had no idea where we were going since the entire itinerary had been thrown out of the window, so we were on some sort of mystery tour. An hour later we pulled up at the Stone Tree. As the name suggests, this is a rock formation resembling a tree (if you squint a bit). After my obligatory "jumping whilst stood on a high rock" photo we were on the move again, this time to a desert with snow. The road throughout couldn't really be called that - Orlando was basically following indentations in the rocky path. Even in a land cruiser the jolting was awful; this was not a tour for people who suffer from travel sickness.
A meagre lunch of tinned tuna, tinned sweetcorn, a couple of tomatoes, barely warm rice and unripe oranges soon had me reaching for our bag of snacks (it's definitely worth investing in crisps and biscuits since you never know when the next meal will be). The afternoon was spent visiting more lakes, the valley of the rocks and a quinoa plantation, before stopping at San Cristóbal for an ice cream and to snap the church made entirely out of rocks. Then it was on to Uyuni, a dirty, smelly, backwater hell hole with absolutely zero to recommend it. This was where we'd stay for the evening, in a huge hostel where our room was surprisingly comfortable. Sadly, that's the only positive I can mention about our time there. A hot shower was only available if you paid for it - contrary to what the tour agency promised - and the food was a mass of cold beef, cold sausage and cold tomatoes piled on top of a heap of cold chips. A bottle of red materialised from somewhere which was appreciated but did little for the hunger. One group were so pissed off with the food that they left it and took a taxi into town to find a restaurant with something a bit more edible. We were also lucky to arrive in Uyuni when we did since after we stopped at the office we found that World White Travel had not booked our tickets to Sucre as promised. I had a feeling this might be the case given their utter lack of organisation in every other part of the trip. Orlando dropped us off at a ticket office so we could buy them ourselves. It's lucky we did, since I looked at the itinerary for that night and saw it was sold out. If we'd relied on World White Travel to book them, we might not only have had to stay in Uyuni for another night, but we'd have paid for a night's accommodation in Sucre pointlessly. Shambolic doesn't begin to cover it.
For our last day we were up at 4:30am in order to drive to Salar de Uyuni for sunrise, as we had been told that the salt flats were now accessible. Given the amount of water, the flats weren't going to be the blinding white you see in many photos, but would instead have a reflective quality which is just as spectacular. We tried out some perspective photos, as well as other daft shots which I think came out pretty well. The surface was very chilly at that time of morning and our shoes got caked in salt pretty quickly. However, the entire trip had been leading up to this point, and it was absolutely worth the visit. Orlando naturally didn't help out with our photos other than to take a couple of us on top of the van, so we were left to our own imagination.
We had breakfast at a salt hotel which consisted of sugary cereal, sugary yoghurt and sugary drinks, before heading to Colchani at 2mph. The crazily slow speed was due to the salt water - much faster and there was a risk of splashing the underside of the land cruiser and possibly corroding the metal with the salt water. Eventually we made it to the town where we saw the world's biggest salt llama (not particularly huge!) in a two-roomed "museum" and then to the train cemetery to see a load of abandoned trains. Neither were particularly exciting - especially after the high of the salt flats.
That was our last leg of the tour, and we were very much ready to finish. The salt flats were spectacular, but as you may surmise from our time on the tour, it's probably the only thing worth visiting. A 3 day tour is simply not worth it - you spend the majority of your time in a fairly uncomfortable jeep and if your guide isn't willing to engage it can be a frustrating experience. My advice: take a much shorter tour, ideally one that will just drive you to the salt flats for sunrise. Fortunately we had a good group of people otherwise it would have been a hellish few days. The fun didn't end there though - we had to wait until around until 8pm to get a bus to Sucre, and our final meal back in Uyuni was a thin milanese, cold chips and a rotten apple each (this is no exaggeration) so we had around 6 hours to kill and we were starving. After trawling the town to find a bar with Wi-Fi, we managed to waste a couple of hours with some beers and slow internet before heading to the food highlight of the last few days - Minuteman Pizza. Even better than the pizza we had in San Pedro, and their beer, cakes and cookies were equally good.
It was good to end on a highlight, and we were very much looking forward to spending a week in Sucre to relax and learn some Spanish.