Surviving the Salar de Uyuni

Trip Start Mar 19, 2006
Trip End Jul 06, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Or, "Speeding Across the Uyuni Salt Flats With the One-Eyed, Ex-Special Forces, Bolivian Rally Car Driver"

OK, so I made the Special Forces part up, but Lucas, our driver for 3 days, was in the Bolivian military, did only have one eye, and did seem fancy himself a rally car driver as he sped across the salt flats, thru the desert, and over 5000 meter (16,250 ft.) potholed passes you would have a difficult time navigating with a horse. Our LandCruiser survived masterfully, having been red-lined up washboard dirt roads (there's no pavement here) in order to pass other vehicles so that they might eat our dust, literally; by the end of the trip, we were completely covered in dust anyways, as it permeates even the most solidly secured vehicle.

The salt flat itself is the highlight, with some small areas still under 2 inches of water from rains two months ago; the effect is incredible, a virtual mirror of anything on the salt flats, or the mountains beyond. It is also quite cold, with nighttime temps dropping well below freezing. The town of Uyuni is at 3700m, but we spent one night at 4700, and crossed a pass of 5000m. The altitude, especially at the higher elevations, definitely gets to you: simple things becoming a little more tedious or difficult (like, say, packing up your pack); sleep is very difficult your first night at around 4000m, and doesn't get any better the higher you go; and breathing, always taken for granted, sometimes just jumps out at you, makes you gasp for air, kind of funny actually. Fortunately my digestive system has held out ok, but the altitude does give you a strange malaise, with small headaches, stomach discomfort, etc. The sights are definitely worth it.

The similarities to the Tibetan plateau are numerous, beyond the scenery alone: locals trying to make a go of it in the unbelievably inhospitable environment herd llamas (instead of yaks; our driver told us there were no "wild" llamas), live in mud-bricked homes (tho not decorated with handprints like their Tibetan counterparts, and not heated with yak dung), and still dress the way they have for centuries, the women at least (it is also just as common to see a blanket secured over the shoulder of most women, containing a large lump that is a sleeping baby). The bathrooms here are definitely on the right path tho, and bear little resemblance to the Asian ones, tho they too leave a lot to be desired.

Really cool stuff, and tons of interesting photos, tho the desert does get a little dry after a few days. I will have to wait to upload photos tho, at Uyuni Internet connex run below 1997 levels.

I was going to head to Potosi today, the famous mining town east of here, but was simply too tired and dirty to go, so forewent my $3.75 bus ticket (it's a 6 hour ride) for another one tomorrow.
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