Salty Crew

Trip Start Sep 26, 2010
Trip End Jun 10, 2011

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Flag of Bolivia  , Potosí,
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

From Puno, we headed south into Bolivia with the intention of visiting the salt flats outside of Uyuni.  Of course after talking with fellow travelers we learned that while Bolivia is purportedly crime-ridden, it has much more to offer than just crime and miles and miles of salt.  Shame on us for not doing more research, but the landlocked country of Bolivia has the world's most dangerous road, numerous lively jungles, splendid mountain trekking, and acres of wine country.  Basically, much more than we had realized.  After obtaining a visa and paying an exorbitant reciprocity fee (Thanks Uncle Sam) we passed through Cococabana on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca and grabbed some lunch before heading to La Paz by bus.  There a lesson learned in Peru was again reinforced.  If you want to eat out in South America, plan on it taking 2-3 times longer than you would expect in the States.  Either we typcially scarf down food and run onto our busy lives or we have lost the fine art of dining and slow meals.  For example in this fine country, it takes about 20 minutes to place your order, which comes out as it is cooked 30-40 minutes later and then it takes 20 or so minutes to get your bill.  It is nice that you need to ask for the bill, "La cuenta por favor" rather than being forced to pay and leave right away.  This will probably be one of those reverse culture shock things that will hit us back in the States.  Now that we have adjusted, taking an hour or two for lunch or breakfast is almost normal.

We arrived in La Paz in the afternoon, early enough to appreciate the crazy overcrowding, air and ground pollution (Adar gasped as we passed a drain pipe spewing bright purple Barney colored liquid), and high altitude (13,000' - La Paz is considered the highest administrative capital city in the world).   Not knowing much about the city and slightly hesitant to leave the bus station (Yes, La Paz is that crazy on first encounter), we booked a night bus to Potosi, a mere 10 hours away in hopes of finding a smaller town.  We learned later that La Paz did have some gems but were glad to arrive in Potosi, the highest city in the world (13,300 - apparently there are higher towns, villages, etc. but this is the highest city).  Potosi is at the base of Cerro Rico, a large mountain of silver and zinc that provided Spain which much of its current precious metals and is still an active silver mine.  After traveling near nonstop since Costa Rica we really needed a "down day" and enjoyed the day doing laundry, lying in bed watching bad American television, making phone calls, and writing in our journals.  We contemplated several outings but all we got around to was dinner out and viewing the front end of a beauty contest in which some of the entrants were males in drag (we think). 

Since our apparent love of buses was not yet satiated, we jumped on another multi hour bus ride to Uyuni to get to our primary destination.  Uyuni is an old rail town, with wide dusty streets perched on the edge of the world's largest salt deposit.  This is impressive in itself, but the high altitude (12,000') makes the surrounding landscape all the more bizarre.  The salar is so large and so flat (with less than 3' deviation in height over its 4000+ square miles) that it is used to calibrate earth observing satellites.  Interesting as well it that the salty meter thick crust holds about 60% of the world's lithium.  When researching the salt tours online, all the threads mentioned that none of the 80+ tour companies that have sprung up to attend to the increased tourism was worth its weight in salt and the most important aspect was the group of people you tour with as you would be confined 5-6 to a jeep for three days.  Again, the motif that people make the world go round popped its little head

We ended up finding an amiable British / Australian couple, Gareth and Kylie, that we walked around town with in an attempt to find a tour company.  A short while later we booked with Oasis Odyssey and had six to our car.  Our group ended up being Adar and I, Gareth and Kylie (a chemist and teacher), Stephen (a good humored and endlessly entertaining world traveling Brit), and James (a student) another Brit who had such a strong resemblance to Ronald Weasely that we almost slipped a few times and called him Ron.  We could not have asked for a better group and the next three days were extremely fun.  I don't even know where to start with the stories.  There were near constant jokes between Stephen and I, hilarious accounts from Gareth and Kylie about their volunteer experience in the Bolivian jungle, and travel anecdotes from all of us.  The soundtrack for the first two days was a single six song tape of japanese style pop with a Bolvian twist that played incessantly.  After the 10th time, we began to cringe when we heard the title track.  After the 30th time, the first track would cause maniacal laughter to spread through the jeep.  In the end, we were not sure if it was in our heads or actually still playing.  If we heard the song again, I am sure we would be instantly transported back to the salar.

The scenery was otherworldly with the first day being a train graveyard with huge rusting engines followed white salt expanses as far as the eye could see, dotted with small islands that appeared to float because of the mirage effect.  There was even a salt hotel constructed entirely from salt with the walls, benches, chairs, bed frames, desks, and counters all cut from the crust of the salar.  The sky was a clear vibrant blue above us, but dark rainstorms surrounded the flats in all directions making for dramatic pictures.  With the sun out in full force, the salt was blinding white.  This allowed us to take some creative and fun pictures as the large white expanse allowed one to play with perspective.  Adar finally found her pocket sized Jeremy. The second day took us past colorful lakes dotted with flamingos, beneath towering peaks and across near barren landscapes that would be reminiscent of the planet Mars.  Our driver remained sober (drunk drivers are a frighteningly common occurrence) and our land cruiser in good repair for the length of the trip (although we had to loan our spare tire to another group) and the food by our very own cook was plentiful and delicious every meal.  The weather/wind/temperature was appropriate for the high altitude but not excessive.  All in all it was a very memorable, entertaining, and surreal trip and we were very happy to cross paths with such a great group of people in such a bizarre place.
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