Had a bit of trouble checking out of Hotel Elim as the woman wanted exact change which I didn't have. Luckily her hubby turned up with breakfast bread and change before we had to leave for our bus. We walked our bags into town and claimed seats on the large mini-bus, as did a few others including a thin German woman. She paced on the bus, paced off the bus, paced on the bus and all the while audibly swearing and muttering to herself in English. "Fucking Irish, I hate the fuckers. Better not be any fucking English speakers here. Shit, they're always too fucking loud." She sit restlessly at the back and to no-one in particular, "Shut up! Just fucking shut up before I stick my fucking foot in your mouth!" She's crazy, we ignore her. The bus fills up and we move off. A no-nonsense Swede sits next to her, "Where are you from?" he asks. "Fuck you!" "Well, fuck you too!" At the Chilean immigration we all line up to get our exit stamp. All except the crazy woman who paces up, down and around the buildings muttering to herself. We observe a wanted poster for Juan Pablo! That's like the Latin American equivalent of John Smith!
It's a 20 minute off road ride to the a mud hit, sorry, Bolivian immigration. It's 1,500 Chilean pesos to get in - I use up my loose change, hurrah! Another 10 minutes and we're at the White Lagoon. Here we split up into groups of 5 or 6 as for the next few days we're in beat up Toyota Land Cruisers. Sean quickly grabs Kumi (a small Japanese girl) and Ana (a British Indian) so we don't get lumbered with the crazy woman. We are joined by Isabelle, a French woman. We're happy to have her aboard, she speaks fluent Spanish!
We cruise into the dessert and stop at the toxic copper Green Lagoon, through the Valley of Salvidor Dali and arrive at some mud geysers. They were brilliant, nay, fantastic! Steaming holes of bubbling mud. Air escaping out of one pit sounded like a jet engined aeroplane standing at an airport, it was so loud it left a ringing in your ear. The smokey vapour wreaked of a sulphur eggy smell. But it was so cool watching large lumps of technicoloured steaming mud bubble and spit. Only the video clips can even attempt to do it justice. Back on the jeep for more Bolivian Pan Pipe music courtesy of out driver - Arriba, arriba!
We stop at some hot springs for a soak, it was truly bath temperature. The crazy woman makes us all ill by proving she doesn't believe in shaving her legs. Urgh! Lunch followed but I didn't eat much because I felt queasy from too much sin (um, I mean sun), the hot soak and the altitude. I drank lots of Coke instead.
We stop at a small lodge overlooking the Red Lagoon for 16:30, we're to stay the night. 6 beds / 1 jeep per room. The beds were wooden slats with cardboard as the mattress / support. Soft they were not! We took a walk part ways around the mammoth Red Lagoon (containing the same pigment as carrots) to stalk some flamingos (a pun!), carefully avoiding the crazy woman. Veg soup, spaghetti with tomato & onion salsa for dinner. It's bed and lights out for 20:30. Everyone is fully clothed in sleeping bags under thick blankets. We expect it to get cold, some -8°C cold.
We pile into the jeep, tall Sean riding shotgun again as it has the most leg room. As we leave the lodge we're pulled over. We have a flat tyre. "Right, everyone off the Jeep!" The driver changes the wheel and we're off. Before long the jeep begins to make funny noises and the suspension seems to bottom out a lot. We stop and look, the rear right suspension is not just broken but it's sheared right off the axle! "Right, everyone off the Jeep!" Not to worry, the driver ties it back on with a big elastic band! (A bit of bungy cord previously used to tie our luggage to the roof.)
The first sight of the day is The Stone Tree, a wee rock formation that looks nothing like a tree, not even if you squint! But there were other large rocky mounds that gave us lads a chance to try out our hand at rock climbing and show the girls what they're missing out on!
We stop at a couple of viewpoints, lagoons and volcanoes before stopping at a tiny village for lunch. I talk to the crazy woman much to the amusement of others. Her sentences change topic midway through and don't make sense. Either she should be on medication or she's stopped taking it. She's crazy.
Another hours ride and we find the road blocked. It's blocked by a large pickup truck parked across the dirt track (between the hillside and a river) and some 20 men and women sat around it, staring into space. They were demanding money as a contribution for repairing the road. I look around, they have 3 shovels between them and are just sat there twiddling their thumbs. It is nothing short of daylight robbery. We're not playing. The female leader scoffs when we tell her we have no money. She isn't amused either when Sean asks if they take Visa Credit Card! The "workers" look menacing and they don't intend to budge so we turn around. Luckily there's another road through the valley so we quickly burn off before they have a chance to block that one too!
Further on, the middle of a desert plane, we slow for a "Stop" sign. Eh!? It looks very surreal, stood there in the middle of nothing. But it turns out to be a train track crossing.
We arrive at our Refugio just before dark, later than expected due to bonitos and jeep repairs. The place looks relatively new, tiled, clean and even boasts hot showers! Most of us take a shower and a quick walk around the village before dinner. It didn't take long, the village only consists of some 3 streets! The jeep had a small chat before lights out at 23:00. I pass out cold as usual and despite my bed being located next to the bathroom I don't hear any of the 18 night trips and slamming doors.
Not only do I leave the Refugio in the morning but I also leave my pack towel and pyjama bottoms. Doh! We drive out onto Salar de Atamama, the largest Salt Flat in the World! We motor at speed straight out onto it, this vast expanse of salt is flatter than Kate Moss's chest! Flat, white nothingness for as far as the eye can see. The venue of choice for land speed records! With such a perfect white background our driver introduces us to some crazy people perspective photos. So guess what we did for the next half hour!?
We speed on, apparently directionless towards a black dot on the white horizon. As we approach the black dot grows and manifests itself into Cactus Island. I bet you can't guess why? We pay something like 60p as an entrance fee and follow a trail around the island. From up high, on top you still can't see where the salt flat ends - it truly is huge!
We speed on across the faceless flat to the Salt Hotel. A small building built entirely from bricks of salt, even the tables, chairs and beds. As nice as it is Sean and I head outside instead to take more cool perspective photos.
A bit further on we observe mounds and mounds of salt being piled up by workers. This salt gets purified and ends up on your dining table!
We arrive at Uyuni and are given our first taste of a real Bolivian town. It's a dusty, desolate border town and is full of market stalls. Most (if not all) the women wear the traditional dresses and pinnies with long platted hair and a bowler hat (as stipulated by Spanish decree a few hundred years ago). We check into a hotel for the night, 70 Bs each (£5) for an en suite triple room. I change all my Chilean pesos into Bolivars and find an open cafe for dinner. I have me a beer, Llama Steak & chips. It was beautiful! We buy a bus ticket to Potosi for tomorrow morning, a 6 hour drive for 30 Bs (£2).
I receive some "interesting" news from home in an email which substantially wierds me out. I feel a need for lots of beer. As our jeep is still together we head out to Los Loco, a French bar! I loose a game of "Round the World" darts to Sean. I put it down to me drinking more than him. Then an American guy comes over and says "hello!" He knows me and I rack my brains to remember him... It's Blake, a geezer I met on my very first night in South America in the hotel in Caracas. We can't chat for too long as he has female company. He only has a couple more weeks to go before he flies home. Everyone leaves until it's only Ana and I left. We drink beer until the bar closes. We were hoping to find another late night bar for a couple more but it was not to be. Bed for 01:00.