Salty in Uyuni

Trip Start Jun 23, 2011
Trip End Aug 30, 2011

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Salar de Uyuni: Day 1
The first day of our Salar tour we met at Alexandro Adventure Travel (Logo: a horseshoe with a checkmark inside it. We never figured out why. Maybe it meant, Caused one of our guests to fall off her horse? Check!) Our compatriots from the previous day were packed into a Nissan truck, and we were put into a Toyota Land Cruiser with two other girls who would be joining the tour, our driver, and our cook. The other girls were Hannah, from Germany, and Ester from France. They were 18 and 20 years old, spoke great French and German and passable Spanish and English. We loaded everyone's bags on the roof of the truck, along with cooking utensils, food for the three days, a full propane tank, our sleeping bags, a huge spare tank of gasoline, and a spare tire. It was all tied down tight and we were off.

The first stop did not inspire confidence; it was the repair shop. However, we figured out that it was just a check-up before we headed out. You don’t want to have your jeep breakdown in the middle of the Salar. After that we headed out on the road to Uyuni. Roads in Bolivia are not like anywhere else. The road was all dirt, very bumpy, winding through the mountains. The scenery was incredible, although we were a little desensitized to it by now. Things that we would have stopped and taken 20 pictures of just two days earlier now elicited little more than a yawn.

After about two and half hours of driving we stopped for lunch at a scenic spot in the middle of the mountains. Lunch was a delicious chicken stew with onions and potatoes, as well as vegetables and rice. Our meals on the trip were consistently tasty and filling.

After lunch we were on the road again. The road from Tupiza to Uyuni is an interesting one – winding around and over mountains, through desert, by tiny little settlements that can’t house more than a family or two out in the middle of nowhere. It was interesting.

Our diver’s answer to any obstacle was to honk the horn. Cows in the road? Honk the horn. Herd of llamas crossing? Honk the horn. Slow bus or truck ahead of us that he wants to pass (even though the road is barely wide enough for two cars)? Honk the horn. Little boy herding goats across the road? Honk the horn. Approaching a blind curve while driving in the middle of that road that was maybe 8 inches wider than two cars side by side? Honk the horn. The last one isn’t as dangerous as it sounds, as we passed maybe 15 vehicles the entire 5 hour drive going the opposite direction as us.

The entire way is through the high desert. Most of it is covered in scrub brush type plants, however, some sections looked just like we picture desert looking with fine sand blown into dunes all around, and virtually no plants of any kind. In one such section, drifts of sand had begun crossing the road. Our truck had no trouble powering through the one to two feet deep drifts, however, we did come across a tourist couple in a small car who were stuck and were trying to dig themselves out with scoops cut from water bottles. We stopped and I thought we were going to help them, but our driver had a short conversation with the guy in Spanish that I didn’t understand and we continued on. Hopefully they made it out ok.

We arrived to Uyuni and visited the train graveyard. This is a really cool place where two parallel train tracks that lead nowhere are full of old locomotives and other train cars that have been brought there to die. Since it’s not the US, but Bolivia, there are no signs or fences or anything, and you can clamber and climb all over the rusted hulks. We were climbing on and through the giant steam boilers, into the cockpit (or whatever the part where you drive from is called on a train) and pretending to drive, jumping and hanging off the sides of the cars. It was a pretty cool looking place.

After that we headed into Uyuni for our jeepmates to get some additional warm weather gear and then headed out to our hostel for the night. It was right on the edge of the salt flat, about 25km outside of Uyuni. This hostel was really cool. The entire thing was made out of blocks of salt – even the beds, the chairs, and the tables. K-money tasted it to make sure it wasn’t some cleverly fabricated salt look-alike substance. She confirmed that it was indeed salty. I confirmed that she would probably get hepatitis from being the approximately 7,000th person to lick the wall right there.

There was one large hall and several private rooms. The private rooms, however, were quite sparse and felt a little like prison cells, so we made the group decision to sleep all of us in a row in beds in the great hall. After we settled in and upacked the food and cooking supplies, we left the cooks to prepare dinner and packed back into the jeeps to see the sunset over the Salar.

The sunset was one of the most breathtaking things we have ever witnessed. We were on the eastern edge of the salt flat, so looking west over it to the mountains beyond and the setting sun. This section of the salt flat was covered in a thin layer of water that was as smooth as glass, and this reflected all of the clouds and purples and reds from the sunset perfectly. The guides put out tea and coffee, as it got cold as soon as the sun went behind the horizon, but the colors kept getting more and more amazing. We went a little picture crazy until our camera’s battery died, and then we just stared in awe at our amazing surroundings. After it was over and truly dark, we headed back to the hostel for dinner.

The hostel was cool, because we were the only ones there. (The only not-that-cool thing was the squatter toilets, but we made due with that. It made it feel like we were really in the middle of nowhere, which we were.) We broke out some beers that we had bought earlier in Uyuni and set up two tables (made of salt) and chairs (also made of salt) for dinner. The cooks brought in soup and other good food for dinner. We paid the woman who owned the place to start a fire for us in the wood burning stove in the center of the hall, as it was starting to get cold (turns out salt isn’t that great of an insulator). After dinner we all huddled around the stove, bought some more beers from the woman, and taught each other drinking games from our home countries. We were playing tunes on the card speaker (RIP, as it was later lost in La Paz, which was very upsetting), and it was a really fun night. We were to be on the road again at 6 the next morning to get out on the salt flat and see the sunrise, so we all bundled up for bed, got into our sleeping bags underneath the sheet and two woolen blankets they provided for us, and turned in.

Day 2
We awoke the next morning bright and early, packed up and stumbled to our jeeps to see the sunset. We drove out about a half hour onto the Salar to the original salt hotel, built on the salt flat. This is now illegal, and our book encourages you to boycott this hotel for polluting the salt flat with its sewage, which we did, by not buying anything there, although we stayed there for sunrise and our cooks prepared breakfast for us there. The sunrise was quite beautiful as well, and we had fun talking pictures of it, though we all agreed that sunset was better. Waiting for this sunrise was also the coldest we’ve been on the trip – it was probably around 15 degrees, and we weren’t inside under our sleeping bags and woolen blankets but outside on a wind-swept salt plain. It was cold.

After breakfast we headed to the north of the salt flat where there was volcano we were going to climb. It’s impossible to judge distances on the salt flat; the volcano was obvious. Its snow-covered peak was looming over us as we watched the sunrise. When we got in the car and started driving towards it, I thought it might be a 30 minute drive. Fast forward almost three hours and we are still driving towards it, it’s now looming over us more imposingly than ever, but we’re still not there. When the only things in the landscape are so immense (salt flat, mountains, etc.) it’s very hard to get a proper perspective on how far away something is. We went through parts of the salt flat that were dry and parts that were covered in two to three inches of water. The parts with the water looked the coolest. The water would reflect the surrounding mountains and the sky perfectly. When you looked in direction where there were no mountains, the perfect reflection of the sky on the water made it appear as if there was no horizon and you were floating in the middle of the sky. It was surreal and amazing.

We stopped at the edge of the salt flat and foot of the mountain and took some photos of flamingos that were grazing there.  Yes, flamingos that we associate with tropical places also live here in a very harsh climate. Apparently, they are uniquely able to digest the water here with its high mineral and alkali content. They were pretty cool.

After that we went to the next hostel and had lunch, which was good. After lunch we got in the jeeps and drove up to the first mirador (lookout) on the volcano. From there, we started hiking straight up. We all started out clothed in fairly warm gear. It was a bright sunny day, but we were at 3,600 meters, so the temperature couldn’t have been much more than 50-55. By the time we had hiked up for 15 minutes, everyone was stripping down. It was hot work to walk up this mountain.

Our guide gave us coca leaves to chew on, which everyone here does all day to help cope with the altitude. According to our book, coca leaves "act as a mild stimulant and suppress hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue." They also make you less sensitive to temperature changes. I’m not sure if I felt any of that, but the side of my mouth where I was holding it did get a little numb, and it did seem a little easier to climb. This could all be psychosomatic, but it was still interesting. There is coca everything here – coca candy, coca gum, coca tea, and plain coca leaves. There are a lot of steps to go from coca leaf to cocaine the drug, so the effects are nothing alike, but I read that you could still test positive in a drug test due to the trace amounts of it in the leaf. Scary.

Anyway, we continued the hike and members of our party kept dropping out as the altitude, sun, and exhaustion got to them. Our guides, one of whom was still wearing a full body snowsuit like one you might go snowmobiling in, started racing to the top and beat us all by a good five minutes. It was a good feeling to make it to the second mirador.

We weren’t climbing all the way to the top – we weren’t equipped for that, but we climbed to the top of the green ridge in front of the volcano, about 4,500 meters (14,700 feet) above sea level. The top of the volcano was over 5,400 meters. Our view was incredible. Looking out you could see the immense salt flat, occasionally interspersed with “islands”, which we would visit the next day. Like I said before, it wsa very hard to get a sense of scale until you would spot a tiny little black dot moving across the white expanse that you could not recognize, but you knew it was a truck just like ours. Seeing how small it was out there really put the size of the salt flat into perspective.

Looking the other way, we were looking directly into the caldera, or bowl at the top of the volcano where the eruption had taken place. The caldera was lopsided, much lower on the side facing the salt flat and us, which gave us incredible views. We took a lot of pictures and enjoyed the feeling of being on top the of world up there for a while, then we hiked down.

On the way down, we took a slightly different route to see a burial place of some mummies that were buried by an ancient culture here. That was an interesting site. When we got back to the jeep, one of the members of our party – Petr, who hadn’t been feeling well for a few days and had turned back midway up the mountain – was nowhere to be found. Our guides assumed that he already came back and hiked down himself, so we headed down to the hostel. When we got there, he was not there. This caused considerable worry, especially for his girlfriend, and our guides set off on foot to find him. After another half hour or so, they came walking back down with him. He had fallen asleep on the side of the original path, and we hadn’t seen him since we took the different route down. We were glad that we wasn’t going to be spending the night on the side of cold volcano.

After that we had dinner. This hostel was bigger and not as interesting as the first one. There were several groups there, so after we finished dinner we had to vacate the table to allow someone else to eat. We bought some beers and repaired to our room where we talked about our lives at home and our stories. It was a fun night of connecting with the other people on our trip. After that we bundled up for another cold night. Although the nights were incredibly cold, and the buildings we were staying in had little insulation and no heat, we weren’t really cold when we slept due to the incredible number of blankets we piled on top of us and the and clothes we wore. All in all, sleeping on the trip wasn’t too bad.

Day 3
Woke up next morning, had breakfast and packed up the jeeps one last time. We headed to “fish island”, although I’m sure why it’s called that. It was really cool looking. It’s a big “island” that juts up out of the otherwise perfectly flat salt floor. It’s covered in cacti. We wandered all around it, saw some cacti that were over 1,000 years old, took a lot of photos, then left.

We stopped in the middle of the flat for lunch and took some perspective photos. Due to the flat white surface all around you, there is no perspective in the photos, so you can take some really fun ones. We were pretty plain vanilla, as you can see in the ones we took with the help of our guide. It was a little difficult because the two other girls in our jeep were not interested in taking these photos at all, and our guide didn’t speak much English. To make the photos look good, precision is important, and there’s a lot of directions required to get it right, so the language and enthusiasm gap were both obstacles. We didn’t stop with the other jeep, which had people who were very enthusiastic about the photos and could have helped us. When we got back to Uyuni, we saw a lot of photos up in bars and restaurants that were really cool and creative (and used a lot of props, such as guitars, pints of beer, and plastic dinosaurs). We immediately wished we could go back out there and take some more photos, armed with the ideas we had seen in Uyuni. But, oh, well. We got some cool ones.

After that we were dropped off in Uyuni and bought a bus ticket for the overnight bus to La Paz. This is the “deluxe” bus recommended by the book, that has heat, and reclining seats. It is supposedly miles better than the normal Bolivian bus on this cold and mountainous route. While we were passing the afternoon waiting for the bus ride, we ran into Jake and Karen from the other jeep, and we all decided to have a drink at “Extreme Fun Pub”, mainly because we liked the name.

We sat down and looked at a menu and ordered drinks based mainly on the names. (The Extreme Fun Pub was thought up by marketing geniuses.) I had a Spicy Pepper Kiss of the Llama and K-money had a Sexy Llama Bitch. What we did not know is that, we were in for a surprise (and extreme fun).

The waiter brought out the drinks and, smiling like he knew a secret that we didn’t, put mine in front of me. It was in a clay cup shaped to look like it had a breast on the side of it, and not a llama breast, but a human woman’s breast. Even more, the nipple had a hole in it, and this is how you were intended to drink it. The Extreme Fun Pub had thought even one step ahead and, in order to prevent you from turning the cup around and drinking out of the side without a boob on it like a normal cup, punched holes around the top of the rim of the cup, so you couldn’t drink from anywhere expect the nipple without spilling all over yourself.

Clearly, the whole table got a kick out of this. K-money especially was laughing so hard she could hardly breathe. That’s when the waiter, who had impeccable comedic timing, set down her drink in front of her. Hers also came in a anatomically shaped cup. Unfortunately, decency doesn’t allow me to describe it in this public forum (even using poorly formulated code names), as this is after all a family blog. Let me just say that it was a whole level more inappropriate than mine, and I have several pictures that I can share with you offline, if you’d like to see.

After the extreme fun of Extreme Fun Pub we went to Minuteman Pizza, owned by a guy from Boston who makes delicious pizzas that taste like home. They even have real pepperoni, which nowhere else in all of South America seems to have. We enjoyed it immensely.  I do not know how one comes from Boston to own a pizza shop in literally the middle of nowhere Bolivia, but I’m glad that this guy did. It almost made us feel human again after three days with no showers (and one more night coming up) and hardly changing our clothes, because it was too cold to get undressed.

After that we headed off for the bus to La Paz.
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Bob Massey on

Come on Jefe -- If you are show the boob you can surely show the whatchamacallit.

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