The Salar De Uyuni

Trip Start Jan 03, 2012
Trip End May 02, 2013

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Flag of Bolivia  , Potosí,
Tuesday, August 28, 2012

We met up with Mat and Meg from London, Ontario in the morning and made our way over to the Empexsa office. After obtaining our passport exit stamps we were ready to go.  Unfortunately the company was running on Bolivia standard time so we stood on the sidewalk waiting for 45 minutes after our scheduled departure time.

Eventually our weathered-looking guide showed up and they loaded up the Lexus 4x4.  Teo introduced himself and it was clear that he didn't speak much English.

Our first stop was the train cemetery.  Decommissioned trains had been left to rust in the middle of nowhere.  We took a few pictures but we knew there were much better things to come so we moved on pretty quickly.

Next was a rudimentary salt plant surrounded by souvenir shops.  The local expert explained the drying and packaging process in Spanish and asked for a contribution.  We obliged.

From there we sped off into the vast whiteness that is the Salar De Uyuni.  It seemed like we could see forever and the Earth truly was flat.  It was so incredibly bright that full sun protection was essential.

Left behind by evaporation of a giant lake, the salt is harvested for human and animal consumption. At over 12,000 square kilometres, there is plenty to go around.

We stopped at the Eyes of the Salar, bubbling pools of cold salt water.  Then Teo found a perfect location for us to enjoy a hearty lunch on a blanket in the middle of nowhere with no one else around.  We added some of the ground salt to our dishes for a little extra local flavour.

In some areas water evaporation had formed geometric tile patterns in the salt.  Teo found holes in the surface and dug salt crystals out of the frigid water for us to admire.

We arrived in Coqueza in the late afternoon.  After checking into our first salt hostel, we walked down to the waterfront for more unique photos.  Pastel pink flamingos waded in the icy water.  We shared a bottle of red wine over dinner that night.  The meal started with hot soup, of course, and hot dogs made an appearance on our plates for the first time in years, but not the last time on that tour.

It felt quite cold overnight as the temperature dropped to eight degrees in our room.  Despite being promised a double room for the first two nights, we shared one twin bed to stay warm in the three bed room.

On day two we set out early to watch the sunrise over the Salar.  It was bitterly cold but worth it for the experience of seeing our shadows shorten as El Sol creeped over the horizon.  It also illuminated the innards of the Thunupa volcano we would partially ascend a short while later.

We returned to the salt hostel for breakfast which included the dulce de leche spread Mat and Meg had been raving about.  It was a good start to the day.

We drove part way up the mountain and looked out over the Salar while waiting for something.  An elder man walked up and led us off the road to a small canyon with caves on both sides.  He unlocked a tiny door in the cliffs and we all ducked to enter.  There were several skeletons inside, including children and older adults.  He told a chilling tale of how these people had fled to the area from their violent foes and lived in the caves before succumbing to the elements 800 years ago.  It was very much an up close and personal 'museum' experience.

The door closed behind us and, with Teo leading the way, we began to ascend Vulcan Thunupa.  We climbed as far as the lookout at 4,600 metres which provided spectacular views of the red and white crater to the north and the Salar to the south.  On the way down Jason used his usual rapid steps to reach the truck first.

After another solid lunch atop the salt flats we shot a short video of us running out of a Pringle's can with blue and white nothingness in the background.  Then we drove off into toward a few dark blips on the horizon.

We parked alongside a few other 4x4's at Isla Incahuasi (aka Isla de Pescado).  Thousands of tall cacti grew out of the rocky island in the middle of the Salar.  We followed the marked path up and over the acme and around the other side.

On returning to our starting point, Teo announced that two more travellers were going to join us for the rest of the trip.  That's when the trouble began.

We vehemenently objected, stating that we had an agreement with the tour company for a four person tour.  There was some debate over the issue but we soon continued on our journey.

Then, as we were taking more photos, our driver magically had cell phone reception in the middle of the salt flats.  Either he called the office or they called him and his obligation was to pick up the other two travellers since the other company had left them behind.  We argued a while longer but had no options but to go back.  When we arrived at the cactus island for the second time, the other truck was still there and the other two tourists were still under the impression that they were staying in the same truck they'd left Uyuni in.  The bottom line was that the agencies and guides were all in cahoots to try and maximize their profits.  Since the scene was getting more heated, we ceased pleading our case for the safety of all travellers and got on board as a group of six.  The two new recruits were from Elio from Venezuela and Totsuo from Japan, the former a valuable asset due to his fluent Spanish.

At the end of day two we said goodbye to the Salar.  The second salt hostel was slightly nicer and slightly warmer.

During afternoon tea we decided it was in everyone's best interest to make amends with our guide.  We expressed our opinions one last time and he relayed the difficult position he was put in by the owner of the agency.  It came to tears on both sides but in the end we all agreed that we would move forward with hopes of nothing but positive experiences over the next couple of days.

Dinner was accompanied by beer and wine that night.  We lingered around the table for a while after, chatting about international cultural nuances.
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