We began the next day with yet another predawn start. The stars were still bright and hard, the air was freezing cold and we were once again numb from sleep. Pepe drove deeper and into Uyuni wilderness, towards Sol de Manana until the altitude was nearly 5000 meters above sea level. Literally meaning Morning Sun in Spanish, it is a large geothermal field which is characterized by intense volcanic activity and has sulphur springs, mud lakes and steam pools with boiling mud.
There are also several natural holes which emit pressurized steam rising up to 50 meters and they are most active in the morning. In that pre dawn darkness we woke up with a start when steam rose eerily like ghosts all around us. Although Pepe encouraged us to explore around, we did not cherish the idea of stumbling into a boiling mud lake in the dark and were too sleepy and cold to step out of the warm car.
So we snuggled inside the car huddling into a tight group as Pepe drove on. The trail was filled with caravans of tour cars and their headlights shone feebly through morning fog. Finally somewhere on the Bolivian Antiplano (Highlands), the sun rose like a sleepy child and filled the sky shyly with soft, fuzzy light. It peeped slowly among the stars and soon faded them out. The sky changed colours and from a lovely silver, quickly ripened into a light golden hue. Pepe screeched to a stop at Termas de Polques hot springs and dragged his lazy bunch out of the car. We followed him to the rusty cabins, attended our “morning” business in disgusting hole in floor toilets, stripped and made mad dashes over powdery frost. Unprepared for a swim we were nearly naked on that freezing morning, as we jumped into the hot springs and luxuriated in the delicious hot-cold experience. The sun rose youthfully around us, spreading the rising steam and scattering birds in flocks and we watched it rise from our hot spring natural tub.
It was the most awesome and refreshing experience and we felt clean and energized after the dip. The freezing cold combined deliciously with the hot steam and after the initial electric jolt like shock, the most amazing sensation filled us to our cores. We swam, lazed and gossiped till the young sun disappeared into blinding light. Breakfast was waiting for us at the cabin when we came out of the pool and our morning madness made us ravenous. We ate till we burst, chatted with other travelers who arrived in jeep loads and enjoyed our time by the spring. An impatient Pepe however soon bundled us back into the car and once again raced over strange moon land of Bolivia.
The landscape became drier as we neared Chile border and the famous Arbol de Piedra (4412m) blossomed like a mirage in the middle of the endless desert. Energetic and awake after our morning swim we delightfully trudged over the rippling sand and trooped out for photos. The stone tree stood beautiful, curvaceous and nearly alive due to its magnificent shape. Carved out by howling, sandy winds it was strangely top heavy and naturally ringed by a wall of boulders. We needed to go to toilet again badly but strangely following distinctly marked WC signs scattered us at different spots in the desert.
Chile came soon with burnt out buses, doves and a lonesome immigration office. We waited for Pepe to drop our French companions there and wished them luck as they went over towards Santiago de Chile. The rest of us headed back towards Bolivia and crossed the beautiful Salvador Dali desert. Strangely dotted with fantastic rock formations the desert looked as beautifully quirky as the great master’s creations and we watched his lovely namesake pass by in slow motion.
Our Uyuni trip came to an end soon and in spite of the grueling routine, we found it mildly heart breaking to leave the incredible beauty behind. That day a road block disrupted traffic in Uyuni (a very common Bolivian phenomenon) and in spite of Pepe’s expert driving, it took us extra tedious 3 hours to reach the little dusty town again. Bolivian wilderness soon got merged into endless rocky mountains, streams and gorges as we raced on until finally Uyuni came in sight. We tipped and thanked Pepe profusely and trooped back to Gringo Plaza together, a very raggedy but extremely happy bunch. Although dust caked, dirty and bone exhausted another night at Hostal Avenida seemed totally unpalatable, so Claudia and I immediately boarded the first bus to La Paz.
The capital city was only 10 hours away and the thought of city sights, comfortable hotel and hot shower made us take one of the most foolish travel decisions ever.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE