Never so High...

Trip Start Oct 16, 2010
Trip End Aug 01, 2011

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Flag of Bolivia  , Potosí,
Thursday, March 31, 2011

The adventure across the salt flats and other southern Bolivian sites is one not to be missed by world travellers. Every turn led us through another mesmerizing visual revelation from 20,000 foot mountains to red algae lagoons.

Our choice to select Expediciones Estrella del Sur for the $90 three-day adventure seemed like the best selection but probably was not, mostly because of the driver. It is really impossible to know, however, because I am sure all of the drivers are independent contractors working for whichever tour group has people ready to go. That being said, the fact that he snuck his wife onboard, threw a tire on our luggage and was generally a stick in the mud lessened the potential experience (but only slightly). Given that almost every tour is basically the same (as we found out because you roll along with the same group of trucks and stay in the same accommodations) we would suggest not using this company.

Fortunately we were lucky enough to be put with a good group of travelers (as usual). Jeroen and Denise were veteran travellers on a one month expedition from Holland. They live in a small city outside of Amsterdam, and Emma and Matt were a couple of younger travellers covering southeast Asia and South America. Everyone was very cordial and gelled nicely over the three day expedition.

Salt Flats Day 1

After meeting our driver, Privo, and loading up the truck we set off only about an hour after our expected departure time – very good for Bolivian standards! Our first stop was the train cemetery. As advised by our driver, the trains in this little strip of desert have been there for about 90 years and are more or less trash to the Bolivians, however because tourists like to see them and take pictures they remain. It was a spectacle of metal carnage to behold but 10 minutes was plenty. Lessening our confidence slightly, our truck failed to start after a couple attempts. We knew that we were going to be deep into the wilderness, but Privo fiddled under the hood and the truck eventually was on its way again.

After another twenty minute drive we stopped at some tiny pueblo that must kick back to all the drivers so that we could make sure we got our fill of Bolivian artensal purchases. There were a couple neat items such as dice made out of salt but all and all not much of a stopover.

Then to the good part, travelling into the salt flats. Because all of South America has been getting a substantial overabundance of rain, the layer of water covering the flat land was still about a foot deep as the area should be going into their dry season. In fact it was too deep for the trucks to go all the way across the plane so during this time we only able to go about a half hour in towards the salt hotel. There are actually three salt hotels in the area. The first one is closed due to environmental concerns but can still be seen in the glassy horizon. The second one that we went to was a really run down overused structure with a few little rooms, large dining areas and a funny little museum. It does not really resemble much more than a beat up hostel amongst the plane but every tour stops there for lunch and pictures. The third was very recently built but is actually located just off the salt flat and offers multiple star accommodations such as spa services but I can't imagine paying a couple hundred dollars for a Bolivian room, even one made entirely from salt.

As we treaded through the deep water in our 4x4, the glassy landscapes were mesmerizing. It was a white reflective sheet only broken up by salt trucks and the cone piles of salt being built through back breaking shoveling by local salt miners. The picture taking was endless while cruising and the couple of times we stopped to try to capture portraits with the extraordinary surrealistic surroundings that take advantage of the trippy point of view. Unfortunately the conditions were not perfect for capturing such shots (too much water) but we still managed to get a few keepers.

Upon arriving at the Hotel de Sal, with its really small bathroom (for a cost of 5 Bolivianos) it came to our attention that this is where we would be having our first meal. While we were off playing in the vast salt and water, our driver Privo popped open the back of the truck and set up a little spread that included llama steaks and quiñoa. A wonderful meal to get started. We were one truck amongst twenty sitting outside the structure with basically the same spread (as stated earlier, these tours are all the same).

After lunch, we loaded up and because the water was too deep to cross all the way through the flat, we turned back towards Uyuni. When in the city we were all confused about the next course of action as our driver met up with his wife and daughter. In the vehicle’s combined broken Spanish we determined he was going to get a shot from his doctor for a neck/respiratory illness. He then pointed to a toilet in the market that we could use for 1 Boliviano. It was probably the grossest toilet we have been in, filthy with that nice quarter inch of whatever across the entire floor. After we all returned to the car and sat in our previous configuration, the little cholo woman (Privo’s wife) walked up the passenger door and told Deinse to get in the back;" he’s my husband”. So she did some shuffling and suddenly our experience just became less comfortable. Privo kept telling us "she is the cook” but now we will be cramped for the next couple of days. There was really nothing we could do about it. It is probably his standard operating procedure to stick her on after you are already committed and this is why we would suggest avoiding this company when selecting a tour.

Although we were a little miffed about the situation, our new passenger did entertain us a bit. For example she never stopped rambling some slangy Spanish for which Privo constantly nodded. Her strangest quirk was she would hold the windshield every time a vehicle passed by. Not sure what the point was, but we do know that the windshield didn’t break. Forgot to thank her for that one.

Our next stop was San Cristobol, an American town! The city was built over the past decade by an American company for workers in a local mine (the company is now owned by a Japanese company) and has an exact replica of a beautiful church from San Cristobol, Spain. You could see the contrast from Bolivian towns immediately. It was clean, well laid out and pleasant to be in. Apparently, although they have a nice place to live, the miners work 12 hour shifts from 7am to 7pm continuously for three months with not one day off and is then entitled to 2 weeks leave for about $300 a month (over three times the minimum wage but crazy).

Our first evening, we stopped at Pueblo Alota, what appears to be a nuclear village – a couple roads of tan structures and the random person, with nothing to look at except the amazing mountains in the distance and the incredibly bright starry nights. We checked in to a dingy little building, Alojamiento Urkupiña, that had rooms with 4 to 5 beds and commons areas for our dinner and evening comraderie. The conditions were actually pretty decent yet very basic. There was a fairly clean bathroom with a shower (hot water for about $1.50). Mrs. Privo worked hard in the kitchen while we sipped on hot drinks awaiting her service of dinner. And all the anticipation certainly lived up to the final unveiling of, , , , get it , , , gourmet Salchipapas! It was a big pot filled with meat bits, wiener pieces, eggs, and french fries – a stew of madness really. Fortunately we had a good soup previously so we did not need to fill up on this filth.

After dinner we laughed around our table, talked to a couple people from other trucks and checked out the amazing night sky. Off to bed for an early rise tomorrow.

Salt Flats Day 2

The breakfast came early enough at 7am with typical Bolivian fare and instant coffee. Not much to write home about. After packing up our belongings we took a little walk about the town to observe its mind numbing plainness against that spectacular backdrop of colorful mountains and volcanoes. We also enjoyed the random llama crossing the road and a battle as the littlest dog chased a pack of about 20 llamas around for a bit. That’s entertainment!

Our first stop after an hour of driving through wondrously deserty, high planes was the Valle de Las Rocas. Amongst the vast openness lies all kinds of random spectacles such as bizarre earth formations and rocks in many colors of the rainbow. In this valley there are random piles of huge boulders that present a brilliant spectacle and are extremely fun and easy to climb. They make everyone reconsider selecting mountain goat for their next reincarnation. We were also fortunate enough to observe a semi-active volcano with steam spewing near the top.

After our climbing adventure as we started elevating to about 14,000 feet we came across a really cute fox or Zorro. The animal was apparently used to visitors travelling past because Privo stopped and threw it pieces of bread. The fox happily accepted the food and came within 10 feet of our vehicle.

For lunch we stopped at one of the most beautiful lagoons on earth, Laguna Hedionda (13,533 feet). It was home to flocks of pink flamingos and perfectly situated between numerous snow-capped mountains. Privo asked us if we wanted to have lunch in a less windy location, but we definitely did not want to leave this spot. Lunch was a very nice spread of chicken and all the fixing’s. Good job Mrs. Privo.

After lunch we headed up the bumpy dirt road to over 16,000 feet. The temperature, fairly warm with incredibly brisk winds, was as strange as the accompanying landscapes - vast plains, moon rocks, large rock foundations, and occasional oases. There was also some wildlife (llamas, vicunas, alpacas, birds) living in these odd conditions as not much can live at these elevations. We then stopped at the Piedra de Arbol that was kind of neat but not really that much more spectacular than all of the other surrounding rock formations.

So we were cruising across an incredibly vast altiplano at about 15,000 feet in our 4x4 when suddenly our driver, Privo, sees a tire and wheel on the side of the trail. This is literally in the middle of nowhere. (In fact we had previously considered if you were training to be a seal and were dropped in this location with nothing but basic supplies, none of us would have any idea which direction to head or how to survive.) He and Mrs. Privo decided they should collect it for whatever stupid reason their Bolivian minds work (I think later he tried to tell us he would give the bald tire to his cousins friend, or whatever.). So the two hall it to the top of the truck and throw it on top of our bags that were strapped to the roof. Needless to say, they had to strap the forty pound tire down so that it crushed our laptop, either on initial impact or on the shaky and bouncy trails. Wonderful.The Laptop Story

I digress . . .

At this point we drove into the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. The entrance into the park is $40 per person, which is acceptable for the beauty (and of course is the passage out of Bolivia). We soon came up to Laguna Colorado, aka. The Red Lagoon, aka. La Laguna Roja. It is called this because the water in the volcanic crater actually appears bright red due to the algae and it’s nicely contrasted with white borax (sodium borate) which can be used for all kinds of consumables from detergents to fiberglass. The red lagoon is also beautifully contrasted with flocks of pink flamingos that live in the area half of the year. Our altitude and location on the west side of the Andes finally caught up with us as the gusts of wind became frigid. Nonetheless, an amazing experience. 

Just a mile or so into the park we came across a plane with a group of plain brown buildings that, besides being our accommodations for the evening, apparently have some historical significance. It is one of the few lodges that pioneers and miners of the area would use when crossing the Andes. It was a plain, cold and odd experience. The accommodations were similar to the previous night but really in the middle of nowhere. Upon our arrival I asked where the tienda was so that I could buy a bottle of wine. I was told to walk down to the end of the building and knock on the door, so Bee, Jeroen and I took a walk. A little man opened the store but said he had no alcohol . . . . except one bottle of wine. I was excited but hesitant. It ended up being a rancid Bolivian wine. I was very upset after finally getting it open (with the help of a charming Bernese (Swiss) girl. She loved to salsa so we told her about the Cuban bar in her own town). The good news, however, was that a couple Australian guys at another table told us of a further tienda a couple buildings down, so we headed out for another mission. The air was frigid, and the 5 minute walk was not as pleasant as the amazing landscapes indicate in the pictures. We met a funny cholo woman in her tienda (no pictures allowed) and selected the only nice bottle of wine she had (and of course paid the price - $11). Jeroen purchased a bottle of beer for which he could get back a $.50 deposit but we decided it was not worth the frigid walk.

After a decent spaghetti dinner and some wine we had some laughs with fellow travelers and of course went outside to see the absolutely amazing stars. We have never seen so many stars twinkle so brightly in the unpolluted night sky. Definitely the best astronomical show we have ever seen.

Salt flats day 3

Arrrrggghhhhhhhh, a 4 am rise from bed. No gustamos! We were forced to wake in the dark for the day’s festivities. We loaded up the dark without missing or forgetting anything somehow and made our way to the geysers. It was dark so we stayed in the truck while others went out to take bad pictures. But the real reason we had to get up early was so that after another half an hour drive we were able to sit in the thermal waters and watch the sun rise. It was definitely an amazing (almost spiritual) experience. The water was a perfect warm temperature to complement the chilly frigid air and light peeking over the mountains. That being said, I think we could have enjoyed the experience just as much at noon. After breakfast we made one last stop at the Laguna Verde but today it was not very green because it requires a lot of wind to mix up the algae to create the visual effect. Still, absolutely beautiful landscapes that would be the highlight of anyone’s memories had we not just seen two days of breathtaking spectacles.

Now the best part of the day, Chile!!!!!!!!!!!!! We drove down to the border where we were dropped off at a little roadside stop to be picked up by a van to take us to San Pedro de Atacama. The rest of our group was headed back to Uyuni so we said our goodbyes to our new friends and loaded ourselves up into a very nice van to reintroduce us to civilization. I cannot explain in words how exciting it was to cross the border and meet well paved roads, nice traffic signage and civilization, but we certainly will try in the next blog.

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