To the Salt Lakes of Bolivia

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Thursday, April 6, 2006

As mentioned in the previous entry, Rachel and I have booked up on a three day tour (for 45,000 Pesos or GBP45.00 each), with a company called Estrella del Sur, that starts in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, and finishes on the edge of an expansive salt flat in Uyuni, Bolivia.

Day 1 Bolivian Border to Lago Colorado
We are picked up bright and early at our hostel and meet some of our fellow passengers: one South African girl called Bev McKenzie (definite Scottish connection there), a 45 year old Japanese man who has retired early, three German girls (including one called Susan who knows more about Scotland than I do), a chatty Australian girl called Kate, and a Canadian boy who goes by the name of Lord Byron.

After getting a Chilean exit stamp on the edge of San Pedro de Atacama we drive up a further 2000m in altitude on to the altiplano (about 4500m altitude). In less than an hour we arrive at a lonely Bolivian border post, where there is a pointless road barrier (pointless since there are an infinite number of ways to drive around it) and a small adobe immigration shack with the Bolivian flag flying.

We get out of the minibus and realise immediately that we are not properly clothed, because despite the bright sunshine, its absolutley freezing in the strong wind. We huddle into the small shack to hand over 15 Bolivianos (about GBP1.20) to get our passports stamped by a friendly but lonely official.

The group splits into two Toyota Landcruisers. We end up with 4 passengers in ours, and we say hello to weatherbeaten Bolivian driver Claudio and his enthusuisatic cook/assistant Carmelo.

Its immediately apparent that Bolivia is a much poorer country than Chile because of the rough state of the road. Indeed the road does not seem to exist at all as we drive through wide desolate valleys following no particular track. Around us we see brown gravel, rising into the peaks of extinct volcanoes where a light dusting of snow covers the ground above 5000m. Vegetation is extremely sparse, but we still spot Vicuñas grazing on what little they can find.

At a small park office we buy tickets for 30 Bolivianos (about GBP2.50) for Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. We will be travelloing through this park for the rest of the day.

Bouncing along in the landcruisers in this big open landscape reminds us strongly of driving through the Tibetan plateau, especially the route up to Everest Base Camp (see entry for July 12, 2005, Shigatse). The sun-blackened faces of the locals, the use of colourful woolen textiles, and the high arid landscape, are strong connections with Tibet.

Our first stop of the day is at Laguna Blanca, so called because of the still milky white water which reflects the jagged mountains behind it. A short stop further on we get to Laguna Verde, where copper salts have imbued the water with an emerald green tinge. Water does not flow out of this lake and as the sun evaporates the water, so the copper salts are concentrated in it. I pick up a bright green glassy stone out of the gravel and put it in my pocket.

Despite the altitude, everyone is feeling great because of the rapidly warming day, the bright sunshine, and the fantastic views. We drive through Decierto de Rocas de Dali, an empty plantless desert where there are bulbous rocky outcrops in the barren land that obviously reminded someone of a Dali painting. While we take photos of the distant forms and shapes, Carmelo and Claudio try to refit the popped-out windscreen to the Landcruiser.

Before lunch we stop at Laguna Polques where there are some natural hot springs which have been crudely dammed with stones to form little bathing pools. Within no time Rachel is in her bathing suit and is lolling around in the tepid water. The view out over the sparkling blue lake, and the bright green and red water weeds in the adjacent stream makes it a memorable soak. We eat lunch on the side of the lake enjoying the views for a while longer. During lunch, Rachel´s bathing suit dries completely in the low humidity air and strong sunshine.

In the afternoon we pass Geyser Sol de Mañana where there are some bubbling mud pools and steam hissing out of the ground. The vapour coming out of the ground reeks of sulphur and it feels like a dangerous and forlorn place.

Our last stop of the day is at Laguna Colorado where the water is stained red from iron salts in sweeping crimson ribbons across the lake. There are over 20,000 pink flamingoes living on this expansive salt lake. We walk down to the edge trying to photograph some of them close up. As soon as we approach they move away shyly, maintaining a distance of at least 20 metres. Its one of those situations where lugging around a big zoom camera would really pay off. At the lakeside there is some rough grass on which a few woolly llamas are grazing. As the sun dips, it catches the black, white, and pink underbellies of a group of flamingoes whirling down to land in a far off spot on the lake.

Our accomodation that night is a basic hostel built of mud bricks. It has a handful of rooms each with six beds, enough to handle the human contents of one landcruiser per room. As the sun goes down it feels bitterly cold, and there is no heating whatsoever. Unfortunately the toilets have no flush facilty and some less experienced travellers don't understand what the barrel of water and the bucket next to it are for.

Our guides cook up a tasty meal of vegetable soup followed by spaghetti with tomato sauce. Its not too bad considering the primitive cooking facilities they have in the house next door.

That night we sleep badly. Rachel and I share a bed because we reckon it will be warmer that way. Unfortunately, despite stealing the blankets off the two free beds in the room we are still freezing and find breathing difficult at 4600m altitude.

Day 2 Lago Colorado to Salt Hotel
We get up before sunrise and eat a simple breakfast of bread, jam, and hot coffee. As we put our rucksacks on to the roof of the Landcruiser, the sun rises, washing the hillsides behind the hostel in a red-orange fire. I see a single building not far from the hostel and realise its a traditional tiny thatched house. Its minimal proportions make me realise what a harsh place it is to live, up here on the altiplano.

We stop in Decierto Siloli to see the Arbol de Piedra, or ´tree of stone´. A combination of wind and water erosion has created a strange outcrop whose slender stem and bulky top resemble a tree. Nearby there are lots of other strangely formed rocks that are tempting to clamber over.

We then pass through an area of highland lakes where we spy more flamingo, viscuña, and domesticated llama. The first lake that day is called Honda much to the surprise of our fellow Japanese traveller. Later on we pass Lagunas Chearcota, Hedionda, and Cañapa.

As we drive on, so the road seems to deteriorate more. For over half an hour we drive in first gear over a rocky hill and down the other side. We are surprised to meet a lone cyclist breathlessly pushing his bike up the steep incline, barely able to lift his hand to wave at us as we pass.

We stop for lunch beside a wildly eroded lava flow where the small hillocks look like waves in a sea of stone. Behind the lava flow is the active volcano Ollague, which is half in Bolivia and half in Chile. A plume of smoke from its summit reminds us that its still active.

In the afternoon we drive on to the flat expanse of Salar de Chiguana, and for the first time our journey achieve top gear in the Landcruiser. After a while we crawl carefully over a railway which is built on a stone embankment that stretches as far as the eye can see. Claudio manages to stall the Landcruiser halfway across, but initial alarm fades quickly when I remind Rachel there´s only one lonely train per week running between Bolivia and Chile on this line and it is due shortly. We drive down the other side of the embankment and tumble out of the car to pose for unimaginitive photos of our bodies lying across the railway line.

Past the salt lake, the road winds through several little adobe villages which seem to be completely dead. We stop in one, but we can´t find any shops open to sell us refreshments. As we stand in the dusty streets accompanied by a couple of stray dogs I think about what limited opportunities you might have if born in a place like this.

Soon the reason for the lack of people in the village streets becomes apparent when we see bicycles and ancient rusting vehicles parked beside rough patchy fields where buck wheat is being grown. Harvest of this staple is in full swing. People are cutting the reddish brown stalks by hand with primitive sickles under the intense glare of the sun. The women wear top hats, their colourful skirts swing on some of the fullest hips you can imagine for such diminutuive ladies. The peoples faces are like brown leather and they seem to work hard without any signs of fatigue.

We arrive at the Villa Martin, the ´salt hotel´, for our second night. It is completely constructed of rock salt blocks cut from the nearby Salar de Uyuni. We walk down a corridor where the floor is made of loose salt powder, and we are shown to our double room which has a white tiled floor and a large double bed. The common areas have tables constructed of sizeble salt slabs and the stools comprise three salt blocks piled on top of each other topped with colourful Bolivian fabric.

Our guides cook dinner for us - soup followed by chicken and buck wheat. A troup of local 10 year olds armed with pan pipes and drums play several songs for us, while a girl of the same age dances with a hat to collect money. Their grubby faces are set with determination and concentration as they play for us. Further entertainment is provided by watching two of the German girls compete for the amorous attention from Lord Byron. We enjoy some evening banter, but decide not to stay up to late since our guides recommend at 4.30am start the next morning.

Day 3 Salt Hotel to Uyuni
We struggle out of bed and leave the Salt Hotel by 5am in the morning. In the dark we are amazed that Claudio can navigate effectively because the road is indistinct. The headlights of three other Landcruisers follow ours; probably because only Claudio knows where he is going.

Soon we are aware that the road is on a causeway across a vast lake of water. Without warning we suddenly leave the causeway and drive into the shallow water. We are now on the Salar de Uyuni and at this time of year, after the summer rains, large areas are covered in a layer of water. It could probably qualify as the largest puddle in the world.

In the still pre-dawn glow, the flood water reflects the changing pastel shades of the sky. We can´t make out where the horizon is, and sitting in the back of the Landcruiser it feels as though we are flying through heaven.

We stop in an area where the water is about 2cm deep and step out to take photos of the sunrise. Standing in the middle of this vast lake with mountains on one side and an indistinct horizon on the other is a surreal experience, and I feel an excited tug at the heart that signals we are in a very special place.

We drive across the salt lake passing through dry and wet areas until we reach Isla de los Pescadores (fishermans island). Most tours of the Salar stop here to admire the views, and see the world´s largest cactii that cover the tiny islet. We pay 10 Bolivianos (about GBP0.80) for our tickets to walk on the island and use the ´baños´.

Rachel and I hike up to the highest point and enjoy the expansive views of the white Salar all around. Some of the Cactii that cover the island are over 12 metres tall, and 1000 years old. The strange phallic cactii and the surreal landscape make it a memorable place.

After walking round the island, the boys prepare breakfast for us. Rachel and I gobble it up quicky and run back out on to the Salar to experiment taking photos with reflections in the mirror of the flooded white landscape.

We set off across the Salar again taking a bearing on some distant hills over 2 hours drive away. We stop from time to time to take more photos. In one area the water has dried off and the the surface is covered in large tesselated hexagonal crystals.

We are cruising comfortably about an hour from the edge of the Salar when we grind to a sudden halt; we´ve run out of fuel. Carmelo jumps up on to the roof of the Landcruiser and hands down a large blue barrel - which only has two litres left in it. We signal to another driver who pulls over and gives Claudio a further three.

Soon we come to another stop when the fuel runs out again. Claudio suspects a blockage somewhere in the fuel line and drains the remains of the petrol tank into a 5 litre water bottle. He sites this temporary tank inside the engine bay and puts the feed tubes from the injector pump into it. Soon we are cruising once again thanks to his ingenuity.

On the edge of the Salar, there is a ramshackle settlement which is a centre for edible salt production. We take a tour of one modest facility where a young girl gives us a quick overview. The salt is gathered up in pyramidal cones from the Salar and unloaded adjacent to a dryer. Fires are lit and the salt is shovelled on top of a large ´hot plate´ to be dried. It is then ground up into a finer powder using a mechanical grinder before being bagged and sealed by hand in 1kg packs. Its a very simple process not requiring much equipment or skill, not to mention the raw ingredient is free. It is surprising though that 50kg of finished product only commands 7 Bolivianos (about GBP0.60) ex factory. I give the girl 10 Bolivianos (about GBP0.80) for the tour and Rachel points out that I could have bought a lifetime´s supply of salt for the same amount.

We eat a lunch of fried llama and pasta in a local restaurant and then head in to Uyuni. Claudio drives beyond the town and takes us to El Cemeterio de Trenes - the train cemetry. In 1959, with the purchase of diesel trains, Bolivia finally retired its fleet of steam locomotives and dumped them on this out-of-the way siding to quietly rust away. We wander round facinated by how well preserved the giant American-looking steam locomotives are. I can´t believe how much iron is used in their construction.

Claudio drives us into town and drops us off outside our hostel. We say our goodbyes and tip him and Carmelo 10% of the cost of the tour. They tell us that they work continuously, never taking a day´s holiday and as usual their next tour starts tomorrow.

After Chile, Uyuni is a little bit of a culture shock. People are dressed in traditional clothes, and the town, although pleasant, seems run-down and impoverished. Our hotel, Hostel Avenida, costs 20 Bolivianos (about GBP1.60) per person which is significantly less than we ever paid in Chile.

We realise that we have to make some mental adjustments as we continue our travels. However if Bolivia keeps dishing up scenery as we have seen in the last three days it should be well worth the effort.
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