Trains, Salt and Cacti.

We are now in Tupiza (about 200km due south of Potosi) parked in a large walled taxi park in the centre of town (S 21.445348 W 65.717767) on Ave. Chuquisaca. Once again, the hostel (Mitru) we had intended to park at could not accommodate vehicles as tall as Mog and Kolob. However, since the hostel wanted $12USA per night, and our taxi park only wants $2USA (and is only 100 meters away) we are quite happy.

Today is a "rest" day. Rest days are of course, hard work. We each fix the problems that have developed over the last few weeks. Mick and Mo now have a new local gas cylinder and regulator to supplement their fixed gas tank. We have not been able to fill our LPG tanks in Bolivia. Any garage that does sell "gas" has CNG (compressed natural gas) not LPG (liquefied petroleum gas). Clive has put his microwave and some of his cupboards back in place. Stephen is fixing a drawer that has jammed, requiring re-packing the under-bed area. Mike is looking for somebody to weld his secondary aluminium fuel tank that is leaking. Truly a day of rest.

Since leaving Potosi we have traveled 430km in our own vehicles over fairly poor dirt roads, many of them badly corrugated. But the scenery has been magnificent! We have also travelled about 260km in two Toyota 4x4s mostly over very flat salt!

Our route from Potosi took us thru the small town of Pulacayo en-route to our main objective; the Salar de Uyuni.

Pulacayo (S20.392417 W66.701157) is a very unattractive dump of a town that would not be worth stopping at except for a collection of old steam engines. (Not to be confused with the much larger, but newer "train cemetery" near Uyuni).

The train above (one of the newer ones at Pulacayo) is reputedly the one held up by Butch Casidy and the Sundance Kid (the pair met their end at the hands of the Bolivian army not far from here.)

The Salar de Uyuni, the highest and largest salt lake in the world, is one of Bolivia's tourist highlights. There are only two reasons to visit the town of Uyuni (or three if you count the sculptures on the high street) and these are the nearby Salar de Uyuni and Minuteman Pizza.

We parked in the main street outside Minuteman Pizza, next to the military base without problems (apart from the cold -6°C) at S20.464917 W66.824510).

Chris, the owner of Minuteman, is a genial American (USA) who can supply water, hot showers and lots of travel advice, as well the best pizza we have had in South America. Recommended.

There are literally dozens of tour operators in Uyuni who will organise tours of the region. We were warned to be very specific when selecting a tour operator. Were the vehicles new(ish)? Did they carry a spare tyre? Did they have radios? Did the driver speak any English? We finally selected a tour agent on the basis of the manager's good English, the many testimonials on the walls, and the correct answers to all our searching questions.

The good English was genuine, the testimonials probably forged and the answers to our questions mostly lies.

Our drivers were late. The vehicles were old (ours had an 8-Track tape player!). Our carefully selected and agreed itinerary was ignored in favor of the "standard" tour. However after an hour spent collecting a spare wheel (with no tread) and a couple of working radios, we persuaded our drivers to follow the agreed route. In spite of these initial problems, the day was magnificent!

Our route (above in blue) took us to a small "red" lake to the north of Uyuni (more a brownish colour close up). Then to the desolate town of Colchani (where salt is harvested commercially and tasteful salt souvenirs can be bought by the salt toilets).

In case you were wondering, it would have been possible for us to drive our vans on the lake, however we saw only one "large" vehicle on the lake (a local bus). Everything else was a small SUV (Toyota Landcruiser) and it would have been necessary to clean all the salt off our vehicles afterwards. At the edges of the lake there are areas of water which makes getting onto and off the salt difficult. Once on the salt, the illusion that you are on very white ice is almost irresistible.

Our first destination was the village of Tahua, set in front of an inactive volcano, on the northern shore of the lake. The 85km drive across the lake was fast and very smooth. Around the shore of the lake there were flamingos and herds of llama. We ate lunch, prepared by our drivers, at the hostel on the lake shore. The state of the rooms at the hostel and the comments of the inmates ("are you getting meat!?") made us glad we had not opted for one of the three or four day trips on offer.

The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly a visit to the Isla Pescado in the middle of the lake. This small outcrop of rock supports thousands of cacti some over a 1200 years old.

Our last stop (to watch the sun set over the salt) was to the Salt Hotel. The hotel itself was primitive, very cold and not at all inviting. However, what was very interesting was a 600mm unmarked hole in the salt beside where we parked. Thru this hole you could measure the thickness of the salt skin we were driving on (only about 500mm!) and the depth of water under the salt (about 4 metres!).

The prospect of breaking thru the salt skin in one of our own vehicles was not inviting. We were glad to be in a relatively light vehicle with a driver who knew, or at least claimed to know, where the thin areas of salt were.

Stephen Stewart.

Home - This page last changed on 2006-07-26
This page contains the latitude and longitude (from GPS using WGS84 Datum) of places of interest.