A world of Salt

Trip Start Dec 07, 2005
Trip End Apr 10, 2007

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, May 7, 2006

We have been on the road non stop for the last 7 days or so: we spent three days in Macha at the Tinku festival, where 18 of us slept on straw mattresses in an empty 15´ x 40´ room for two nights. We had running water at a tap outside, but the toilet did not flush. The night that we got back to Potosi from Macha, our group split up: a bunch of people went to Sucre, a few hours down the road, and four of us got on a bus to Uyuni. When we rolled into town around 2:10 in the morning, we (Zach, Amy, Daniela, and I) had to walk around (in the cold) for more than an hour to find a hotel with a vacancy. Only the expensive hotels in Uyuni (in Bolivia, for that matter) have heat, and we´re on a budget. Luckily the hotel had plenty of blankets. There was even running water inside, and hot water starting at 7:30 am.

Uyuni is a step away from being a ghost town, but it is kept alive by all of the tour operators here. The town is on the edge of the Salaar de Uyuni, which is the largest salt flat in the world. We booked a three day, two night tour of the salt flats and nearby lakes and desert that took us from Uyuni to the northern border of Chile and back. It was an amazing three days, even though most of it was spent in our Toyota Land Cruiser. Our driver/mechanic, Benjamin, and his wife (our cook), Inez, were great at their jobs and really great people to travel with. One of the other tourists in our jeep was Zach, an American from San Francisco, who had also been to the Tinku festival with us. The rest of our tour group was: Lenin, from Mexico, and Ben and Charlotte from England (London and Leeds, respectively). Charlotte had broken 5 ribs, punctured a lung, and sprained her wrist mountain biking on (off) the World´s Most Dangerous Road 5 weeks before, and was still down for the trip. Ben and Lenin were easygoing guys, and we knew Zach from Macha, so we felt really good about our group. We also travelled alongside another jeepful of kids from the States (Seattle and more San Fran) and England (Reading) and got on very well with them. Amy, who had gone to the Tinku festival with us, had already taken the Salaar tour and caught a train to Tupiza.

The salt flats were surreal, white plains stretching as far as we could see in every direction. On the first day we stopped at an ´island´ populated by giant cactus and viscochas, which are related to chinchillas. Daniela and I saw a big guy taking a picture of one and he asked us what they were called. When neither of us could remember the name, he said, ¨well i call it cute¨. We had lunch at the island and took photos on the flats. Staying faithful to the theme we started in Macha, we stayed in bare-bones accomodations, but had a great time and lots of laughs chatting with our new friends. Ben (from England, not our driver) got very sick the first night, and was still sick in the morning when we were getting ready to go. We arranged to leave him at the hospedaje so that he wouldn´t have to endure a bumpy day of driving and being sick. The plan was to pick him up on our way back to Uyuni. So we left him some fruit, water, a book, and set off.

On the second day we saw the Lago Colorado (red lake) and hundreds of flamingos. The algae in the lake give the water an amazing coloring that ranges from rust to purplish red; the color is so intense that it looked fake as we approached. After we had lunch at the lake, we drove on and saw the arbol de piedra (tree of stone), lots of desert with mountains in the background, and ended up at an even more basic accomodation. Whoever designed this hospedaje was directly and profoundly inspired by ¨The Great Escape¨. Except they went with a smaller stove than in the movie-no tunneling out for us. The desert night was extremely cold, and we were the only set of rooms with a small wood stove, so other groups came over to share our fire and we had a night full of conversation that covered everything from flying at 10 feet above the panamerican highway (and scaring the life out of a bicyclist) to the british soap opera ´neighbors´ (a brother of one of the girls on our trip writes for the show--she became instantly popular).

The last day was trying: we woke up at 430 and braved the extreme cold (it gets down to -77 degrees f, but i think it was only a few below 0 when we were there) to see geysers and then have breakfast at natural hotsprings while the mountains stood silently all around us. i do not think i have ever been so cold in my entire life. The scenery somewhat made up for the cold, and somewhat just reminded us how cold we were. The hot springs were surrounded by snow-capped mountains and steam constantly rose off the surface of the springs into the cold air. We were a few kilometers from the Chilean border, which was only suggested by a cluster of what looked like toy buildings which we could just make out from where we stood. At this point we were a solid 13 hours of hard driving from Uyuni, and just over 30 hours from Santiago, Chile. We could have been in the middle of Tibet, though. We were surrounded by tall, snow-covered mountains and stood on the closest thing to tundra that my feet have ever (not) felt.

Most of our friends in the other jeep (they had a ¨Toyosa¨ Land Cruiser-you can find a bootleg version of pretty much anything down here) had opted to get out in Chile, continue to San Pedro de Aatcama, and continue travelling further into Chile or to Argentina. Since Lenin was going to Chile as well, he hopped in with them and Greg and Steve, who were also going back to Uyuni, hopped in with us. The plan was to bring Greg and Steve to the Lago Verde (green lake) where they would wait for their driver to come back for them. To everyone´s surprise, when we got to the lake, our driver told Greg and Steve that we were leaving, but that their driver should be by in a few minutes to pick them up. Greg really wasn´t keen on the idea, even after Benjamin put their jeep´s propane tank and a container of rice on the ground to keep them company. He half-jokingly told us to send a search party and write his mother if we didn´t see him back in Uyuni by nighttime. But we had to drive back and pick up sick Ben at our first night´s lodging. So we uneasily left Greg and Steve alone, a few kilometers from the Chilean border, surrounded by snow covered mountians, on the tundra.

Normally, the Salaar circuit goes to the border of Chile and the third day is a straight shot back to Uyuni. But we retraced our route to pick up Ben at the first hospedaje, so our return took a little longer than usual. But the real upside to this route was that we were able to watch the sun set over the Salaar as our Land Cruiser cut through the flooded salt plain. By the time we reached the hospedaje, Ben was past ready to get out of the small desert town, and we fueled up and hit the road. All told, we spent about 13 hours on bumpy roads, and we hit rush hour at around 530 pm: first an old GMC pickup with a dog on the roof of the cab, then a small flock of llamas. When we finally cleared the Salaar after the sunset, Inez told us that she was relieved, because ¨you can never trust the Salaar-even with the light of a full moon you can still get lost¨. We were glad she told us that after we could see the lights of Uyuni.

When we hit town, Daniela and I abandoned our plan to catch an 8 o´clock bus to La Paz and decided to stay the night in Uyuni to recover and get our laundry done the next day. So we found a 5 person room with our jeepmates and then headed to Minuteman Pizza for dinner. Minuteman is actually owned and operated by some guy from Amherst, Massachussetts, and is a backpacker´s mecca in Uyuni because of its pizzas (sundried tomatoes! Pesto!) and the fact that it has heating. Shortly after we sat down, Greg and Steve walked in and joined us. We were relieved that we wouldn´t have to write a letter to Greg´s mom.
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