Traversing the Bolivian desert and salt flats day 3

The third morning of the trip was tough. Though we had gone to bed around 9pm to be ready for 3:30am breakfast and our 4am departure, the cold had kept me up all night. I barely slept a wink - I can't sleep if I am cold. It was freezing! We had a quick breakfast at 3:30 and left the hostel around 4am. The ride was dark and cold. I tried to sleep in the car, but again it was too cold to sleep. After driving for close to an hour, we stopped at the amazing steam geysers at "Sol de Manana (morning sun)." It was so cold outside, but I could not miss a chance to see them up close. I got out and the first thing that hit me was the overpowering stench of sulphur. It really smelled like some giant monster had farted - really badly. The view was amazing though.

We then hopped back into the car and continued to "Laguna verde" - The Green Lagoon. The lagoon gets its remarkable color fom the high levels of lead, sulphur and calcium carbonate....in short...don't try swimming or drinking water from this pretty lagoon. The best part of the trip was when we finally got to the natural hot baths. In the middle of the freezing desert, there were nice jacuzzis:-) All natural. It was the best feeling getting into that hot water. Everyone sighed with relief once they were in. At first we were the only people there given it was so early. 20 or so minutes later, lots of other tourists descended on us. This didn't change the magic of the moment though. I was sitting in this hot water looking all around me and I could see volcanic mountains in the desert and miles and miles of nothingness blurred by the steam rising out of the hot water. It was surreal. After half an hour in the hot baths, the driver said we needed to leave. Those of us who were going on to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile needed to catch our 10am bus. 

Leaving Bolivia was dramatic. We got to the bus at the border around 9am and thought we had lots of time. For some reason, the driver of the bus to San Pedro was hurrying us. None of us was amused. Such panic mode is what results in luggage being left behind....and we had a full hour. We never understood what the rush was about. At the border, we had to go to the Bolivian customs and get our documents stamped. The driver was still following us speaking in rapid Spanish. As I was waiting in line, an American couple approached me and asked if I could give them some Bolivianos for them to pay their entry into Bolivia, in exchange for dollars. I was a bit suspicious - wondering why they didn't change money before until they told me about the earthquake in Chile. I had no idea there had been an earthquake in Chile, when we were in the desert. He told me that they had left under such hurried circumstances and couldn't find any travel bureaus. I changed some money for him. The driver came again with his rapid fire Spanish and panic mode tendencies and I was really getting irritated. He was also harrasing one of the other girls I had been in the desert with. She had a traditional Bolivian mask and it had a bit of animal fur, and he was insisting she leaves it behind as she wouldn't be allowed to get through Chilean customs with it. She stood her ground and said she would keep it and declare it on entry into Chile.

In an hour we finally got to Chilean customs. It was a very serious process - thorough scrutiny of passports, all suitcases offloaded and scanned etc. When the customs official saw my passport, he called his colleague over to look at it. They said it was the first Kenyan passport they had seen. A few people in our bus had some bags of coca leaves and the rest of us had coca tea. We were allowed to declare and get into the country with our coca tea, but not the coca leaves. The girl with the mask was also allowed to get in with her mask. Five minutes after clearing with customs we were dropped off somewhere in the middle of the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. I had directions to my hostel from the main bus terminal, but had no idea where we had been dropped off. It was definitely not a bus terminal. 

I was eventually able to walk around with my backpack, find the main bus terminal, book my ticket out of San Pedro to Santiago that was depart in two days, and get to my hostel.I got to my hostel and it was a desert oasis. The name was Hostal Mamatierra, and it was just perfect! Beautiful, clean, had hot water 24 hours a day, wifi, really friendly staff, friendly travelers etc. My first course of action was to take a really really really long hot shower. It felt so good after not having been clean for a while. The next thing was to find out where I could do laundry. I took my laundry into a place in town - the town center was 10 minutes walk away. I am very liberal in my use of the word "town". It was a few streets with shops and restaurants, but after the desert this felt like New York. I then went to a restaurant that had a decent offer for a 3 course meal. I had salmon. I was quite pleased with it. Chile's strong economy has been credited a lot to its export of salmon, wine and berries. That salmon was amazing! I had my lunch with a really great beer from Patagonia that tasted like chocolate. 

The one thing I had done before leaving the hostel was to get on wifi and upload around 20-30 pictures from the salt flats and desert. That was my saving grace. As I was having my lunch, my phone crashed. It is a touch screen and the keypad stopped working. I couldn't unlock the screen. Within minutes, the phone started pressing its own buttons. This went on for half an hour then it went on VOK/KBC mode - those rainbow colored lines across the screen reminiscent of Kenyan TV circa 1980s. Then the screen went completely white - repeat. I think it has something to do with that dodgy solar connection from the desert. Thankfully I have a camera with me and a samsung tab (that I was able to hack whatsapp on....so life continues.)

I got back to the hostel and met my roommates. They were two friendly Californians who were in town for a friend's wedding. They invited me to join them and their friends for dinner/drinks. It was nice. We got back to the room, and were getting ready for bed when another earthquake happened. I had no idea what was going on.The room was shaking like a boat. I thought I had drank too much at dinner. Thankfully my roommates knew what to do. We all got out of the room and joined the other people in the hostel courtyard. After a few minutes, the world stopped rocking. I slept really well that night in my warm room with all the comforts I could ask for. 

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Traversing the Bolivian salt flats and desert - day 1

I got into the town of Uyuni around 11pm on a Sunday evening, and was off for a desert expedition early the next morning. I left my hostel around 9:45am and walked to the place where we would be departing from. We were to leave at 10:30am but by 11:30am there was still no progress. In La Paz, I had been told that the trip would be in a 4*4 and that we would be 6 in total (excluding the driver.) I eventually met the other travelers as we waited for our transportation to arrive. There were 2 German girls (one who was more Australian than German given she had a really strong Aussie accent, and had lived there a long time), one German guy, one Uruguayan guy, one French girl, the Bolivian driver and myself. By the time we departed, there was a long line of jeeps leaving the town for the salt flats and the desert. I am a tourist, but I must confess that I feel a bit upset when I realize that I am not unique.....all a thousand plus of us heading off to see the same sites:-) Our driver was really great so pretty soon we were able to lose the long lines of jeep.....vroooooooom.....Eat our dust:-)

Our first stop was the train cemetery. Construction of the rail was completed in 1892, and the trains were mostly used by mining companies. In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed and many trains were abandoned here.  It was such a beautiful sight. All these abandoned trains in the desolate space. It looked like something from an old Western film. It was beautiful. After this we drove for hours and all we could see around us was salt. We passed some little salt hills in the beginning, but after that the landscape was all flat. It was amazing - as far as your eyes could see, the ground was all white. I have never seen anything like this - except for snow - and even with snow, there was always buildings or cars to break the landscape. In the car, one of the other travelers began talking about all the really creative pictures one can take given the never-changing background. I was about to eat a banana I had in my bag when she mentioned that it would be a great prop for pictures. It is the fascinating little beat up specimen you will see in pictures below. When we got out at the spot where people mostly take such pictures, I was amazed. The ground was solid salt and we were told that it extends even more than 9m deep into the ground. It was solidified salt. We had a fun time taking crazy pictures here before sitting down to enjoy our lunch - a little picnic on our salt carpet. Brilliant! During lunch hour the Uruguayan guy and I ironed out some differences.....Suarez is the devil for what he did to our Ghanaian brother - Asamoah Gyan, but I don't blame all your countrymen.... just him.... and malipo ni hapa duniani (payback is on earth:-)

The Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni) is the world's largest salt flat at over 10,000 square km, and an elevation of more than 3600m (~12,000 feet above sea level.) It was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. The salt is extremely rich in lithium. 50-70% of the world's lithium reserves are found at Salar de Uyuni. 

After this we drove for half an hour and arrived at the Incahuasi Island that was full of giant cacti. This was where I learnt for the first time that I had been doing it all wrong in South America. For a while I had wondered why in many washrooms, water pressure was too low to flush toilet paper. Many times I had waited for cisterns to fill 2-3 times before finally being able to get rid of all toilet paper. In the loo in the island, there was a sign that read, "Do not flush your toilet paper. Put it in the waste basket." I asked one of my fellow travelers about it, and she said, "Yeah, you should never flush toilet paper down the loo in most places in Central and South America." I was clearly confused, but I have taken it as it is......though I must say a latrine would be a much better option than having a pretend toilet that doesn't flush toilet paper.....who wants to have a bucket of crap in a loo......literally...

Enough about random crap. That island was amazing! Just imagine being in the middle of hundreds of miles of salt flats, and suddenly seeing an island with giant cacti in the horizon. I think Uyuni salt flats and the desert are an amazing site for sci-fi movies. I have never ever seen anything like it. The island was a hill, and in the beginning I had no intentions of going all the way to the top, but I somehow climbed up the whole hill. Every few meters I went up, I would look down and see the most stunning views of the island and the salt flats - I just had to keep going till I reached the summit. I sat at the top for a few minutes and marveled about nature. When one finds such beauty, you just want to save those images in your mind (and in your camera) forever!

Other amazing sites we saw were Devil's cave - a pre-Incan cemetery from about 500 - 800 AD. 

Again we drove for hundreds more miles in this amazing landscape and finally got to the Salt Hotel around 7pm. True to it's name, most of the hotel was made of salt. Our beds, were pillars of salt. The ground was granules of salt. The benches were pillars of salt. Something had been bothering me for the better part of the day. Within minutes of leaving Uyuni (around noon), my phone network had gone off, and had not come back since. I had enquired about it and someone told me "duh. We are in the middle of nowhere.....of course there is no phone network." I panicked and wondered "Oh gosh. Does this mean we also won't have wifi where we are staying?"  She added "In fact we probably won't have any electricity for the next few days." Now, I really panicked. I had been using my phone as my camera,and the battery was almost done by the time we got to the Salt Hotel. There were no sockets in the room. Thankfully a kind lady in the kitchen agreed to charge my phone for me for a few hours. 

I slept moderately well that night as the salt in the room made the temperatures bearable. 

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