Dinosaurs, Flamingos and a Load O' Salt

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
Trip End Mar 30, 2006

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The Salt Hotel

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Once the strikers allowed Bolivia's highways to reopen, we took an overnight bus from La Paz to Bolivia's second capital - Sucre. Sucre is a pretty colonial city at a lower altitude than La Paz, and thus has a little more enjoyable climate. We spent a day walking around and sitting in parks, and then the next day visited one of its more famous tourist sites. Sometime in the last 10 years or so, a huge sheet of limestone containing lots of dinosaur tracks was found in a gravel pit just outside of the city. The cement company that operates the pit still mines there, but the dinosaur area is off limits for the bulldozers. We weren't sure what to expect, especially when we first arrived, as the first stop on the tour is a man-made puddle with plastic toy dinosaurs around it. But after the general introduction to the types of dinosaurs that lived in the area and how the site came to be, we found the tracks themselves to be very interesting. They are on a sheet of rock that is now almost vertical due to tectonic movements, giving the appearance that the dinosaurs had scaled a huge cliff. The tracks were left in layers of ash following one or more volcanic eruptions and new sets of tracks keep appearing as old layers erode in the rain and wind (one area just appeared three weeks before we visited...) There are several types of tracks - some look like they came from a brontosaurus or brachiosaurus and in other areas you can see the claws of carnivores running after their prey. Some tracks stretch for hundreds of feet. Although the site required a little use of imagination, it was impressive. How often do you get to see dinosaur tracks??

From Sucre we headed to the mining town of Potosi for a night, which was a decent colonial-era town, but we didn't really do anything worth mentioning (except avoiding the obviously fake "tourist police" that approached us as we were looking for a place to stay - nice try, buddy, but that unlaminated ID card didn't convince us...). The next day we took a seemingly endless bus ride from Potosi to the little high altitude town of Uyuni, which doesn't merit a visit except as a starting point for trips into the wilderness in southwestern Bolivia (well, the town also has an incredibly good pizza place run by a guy from Boston). The evening we arrived was spent checking out various tour agencies. We picked one and at 11 o'clock the next morning we were in a Toyota 4x4 with three Dutch women and our Bolivian driver/guide/cook to take on one of Bolivia's biggest attractions.

Our trip lasted three days. The first day was primarily dedicated to the tour's main attraction - the Salar de Uyuni, one of the largest (or maybe it is the largest?) salt flats in the world. It is immense and blindingly white. It looks like Lake Michigan frozen in the winter with a perfectly flat crusty layer of snow on top. But it is all salt - in some parts 8 meters deep (so says our guide Javier). Strangely, there is a sort of island in the middle covered in gigantic cacti, known as La Isla de Pescado, because it is shaped like a fish when you look from the air. We got to explore this oasis, had lunch and then walked around the salt flat for awhile. After this we continued our driving tour of the Salar and then headed to our accomodation for the night - "The Salt Hotel." As the name suggests, everything from the walls, to the floors, to the beds (well, not the mattress), to the tables and chairs was made from bricks of salt cut from the Salar. Sort of surprisingly, it was put together in classy way that gave the place the appearance of an old castle (except that it only had one story).

There was a full moon the night we stayed at the Salt Hotel - it was already unnaturally huge and bright at sunset, which was pretty spectacular itself, and was still standing out in the sky during the bright sunrise the next morning. This contributed to the overall effect during the trip that we were possibly on another planet (and then add to it that our driver turned on The Dark Side of the Moon for part of our ride...)

The second day we drove away from the salt flat and into a high altitude desert, complete with weird rock formations, volcanoes and several unusual lakes. Due to the altitude, it was very cold, even in the bright sun. Several of the lakes had ice around the edges, but contained larged populations of bright pink flamingos (!?!). And here we thought flamingos only lived in warm places (maybe the result of Florida tourism marketing and lawn ornaments?). They were pretty amazing, standing in incredibly cold water with ice around their legs and the wind ripping through their feathers. The lake settings were pretty unimaginable, too. In addition to many of them having flamingos, several lakes had volcanoes in the background, one had chocolate brown water, another had a stretch of bright red going through the middle and one had hot springs flowing into it. The landscapes are hard to imagine without seeing them in person and photos barely do them justice (but we posted some in an attempt to convey what we saw...)

That night we stayed in a very rustic spot in the middle of nowhere, at a very high altitude. It was cold when we arrived around 3 p.m. and by dark it was below freezing. The thermometer on our alarm clock became a sort of novelty item among the groups staying at the same place we were - we put the clock out on our window sill for people to see and by morning it was only 11 degrees F. Unbelievable. And, of course, there was no heat at the place we stayed. We were in sleeping bags and had four wool blankets on top of us - not bad until you had to get out of bed.

The next day we got up early, piled back in the jeep and headed off to see the last attractions of the tour. First we drove to a spot in the desert where all sorts of geysers/vents have popped out of the Earth's crust. We spent 30 or 40 minutes walking around in awe. They aren't exactly geysers in the sense most of us think of (no water suddenly shooting straight out of the ground) - more like bubbling, steaming mud pits. But lots of them, and they were really big. Some were relatively quiet and others were spitting hot mud all over the place. Steam was everywhere, sometimes ominously escaping out of little holes in the ground that hadn't become huge gaping pits yet. While Yellowstone has wooden walkways to keep you safely in the right spots, here, visitors get to take responsibility for their own safety (survival of the fittest?).

After leaving the center of the Earth we headed to some hot springs where we thawed our feet for a few minutes and then took off for the last lakes on the tour. One is called Laguna Blanca - shock - because it is white (some combination of ice and whatever minerals are in that area), while the lake right next to it is called Laguna Verde. Usually it is bright green, but because it was largely iced over at the time, it wasn't very green the morning we visited. But it was still beautiful, as a perfectly shaped extinct volcano was right on its edge and perfectly reflected in the unfrozen section of the lake.

Before leaving on our tour from Uyuni, we were given the choice of either returning to Uyuni as part of a 4th day, or continuing into Chile after Laguna Verde, which is basically on the border. We had originally wanted to go back to Uyuni to see a little more of Bolivia, and had never planned to go to Chile, but because strikes started again all over the country the day we left Uyuni, shutting down most major highways and railways, we opted to get out while we had the chance. As we write this, protests are still going on and it sounds like the situation in the country is sadly getting worse (If you want to know more...). So, we were brought from Laguna Verde to the border where we got stamped out of Bolivia and then smooshed ourselves into a van with several other travellers and headed to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
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